a blog-tribute by a.a.



Hindsight by F. Sionil Jose
Philstar May 16, 2011

I have this dubious distinction now of being “the old man of Philippine letters.” I am 86; most of my contemporaries the first post-war generation of writers have gone and I am the last to bear witness to what transpired historically and culturally in the last century and on to this new and uncertain age.

The other year, I spoke before literature teachers also here in Santo Tomas as again, invited by Professor Ferdinand Lopez. We honored then the late Paz Latorena who was my favorite teacher here when I was a student in 1946 to 1949. Mila Tanlayco whom we are honoring now was not my teacher I am much older than her. Mila also taught a couple of generations in this university imparting to her brood her vast knowledge of modern and classical literature. Her scholarship was impeccable as was her dedication to her profession. She inherited the mantle which Ms. Latorena had so devotedly worn.

I apologize for sounding so patronizing as I will now define what you should do, impressed as I was with Ms. Latorena in the past and in more recent times, with Mila Tanlayco. Bear in mind, too, that I have taught in this university and elsewhere, that I have written criticism but now I am just an old, tired hack.

First, don’t make literature difficult. Do not torture your students with too much mind-bending tests. Make literature interesting; enjoyable. Do not overload your students with literary theory, obtuse explications indicating superior academic honing. In the first place, in a high school or undergraduate class of 60 you will be lucky if you will be able to develop five teachers, critics or writers. Impress upon them that only literature teaches ethics, that with it, we get to understand ourselves and society better and in the process we develop into better members of a community and therefore of a nation. Be highly selective in the novels, stories, poems and plays you assign. And avoid boring verbose writers such as those endorsed by American academe, the likes of Henry James, and E. M. Forster. Do not be uppity and ignore crime and science fiction they will reveal to your students the most important element in writing: the narrative technique. Stories are moved forward by their plots not always, but plots hook readers and make them hang on to a book to the very last page.

Literary theory is important if you are also a critic but a teacher does not need to be an expert on it unless you are teaching a Ph.D. or M.A. class on the very subject of theory itself.

Know then our own literary traditions, aesthetics, but not to specialize in them unless, like I said, you are teaching a postgraduate class. Personally, I don’t bother at all with theory; I rarely attend to critics unless they are writing about my work. Then I read them in the hope that I’ll get a wee bit something that might help me. I don’t need critics because I am my own severest critic. You should be, too.

The craftsman

Craft is knowing the writing tools and using them well. The teacher who can teach craft is a better teacher. Literature workshops are useful when they teach craft and shortcuts to good writing identity, the mistakes young writers should avoid. I never really believed in workshops. The really good that they do is not in the official sessions, but outside it when workshops get writers together and develop in them a sense of communality. And of course, writers and teachers who never earn enough get financial and emotional aid from workshops.

The critic

Agood writer is both a teacher and a critic. With apologies to Ms. Venus Raj, I borrowed her phrase, “major, major” to categorize writers. These are the categories Major Major, Major Minor, Minor Major, Minor Minor. The Major Majors are at the top; the best, they are all dead. The Major Minors are the next in line they are still living. The Minor Majors are the best of the second raters and the least appreciated are the Minor Minors. This ranking is, of course, personal it is my word as against all others but then, I have the authority of age, of experience. My ranking may be arbitrary and I may change my mind because some of the writers are still very much alive. But for those who have passed away, my rating stands. Practice using these.

There is a caveat to this system of rating. No matter how learned or solid his reputation the critic is not the final judge of literary quality. Not even the public which is fickle, whose taste changes as easily as the seasons. Time is the ultimate judge. If after a mere hundred years, or a thousand years, a literary work is still appreciated, then it is truly great it is classic.

For this reason, teachers, critics and writers must have a solid grounding in the classics so that they will be anchored on the great canons and will know in their very marrow what is also mediocre. In the Philippines, the absence of a strong critical tradition enables bogus reputations to flourish, awards to be given to counterfeits.

Reading some of the new writing in English by the young, I am impressed by their command of the language, their innovative gimmicks, so much so that I lose the narrative thread and I have to go back to pick it up. Reading them brings back my own youth when I was so enamored with the prolix prose of William Faulkner and, at the same time, conscious of the simplicity of William Saroyan. There were no literary workshops in the ’40s but we were being introduced to the New Criticism in vogue in the United States.

In my teens, I was weaned on the English classics; in grade school, I was introduced to the basics of American literature, the poetry of Longfellow, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, the essays of Tom Paine, of Lincoln, and to top them all, the novels of Rizal.

In hindsight, I am glad that this was my background for I was to shape my craft with what is aptly defined perhaps as Western technology, while rooted in the mores of my own village.

I say this as an oblique comment on our young writers. They have been attending too many workshops and are too bewitched by techniques and neglecting the most important technique of all which is how to tell a story. They have so much love for words but not enough for thought. If they try to be thoughtful as all writers hope to do, the attempt at profundity is drowned in the diarrhea of words.

Sometime ago, I was with a young writer who asked why, even if writing does not pay, I have persisted to this decrepit old age. I have never wondered about myself and all the others who wrote to the very last day of their lives. NVM Gonzalez, Bienvenido Santos, and of course, Nick Joaquin, and closer to my time, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil; in her late eighties, she had written three books, a two-volume autobiography, and a historical essay.

Going back, there is Jose Garcia Villa, who produced nothing after he was 50 although he created the myth that he had something in the works. In my own old circle, I recall so many who were brilliant but who dropped by the wayside even before middle age.

Then there is Yasunari Kawabata of Japan, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow in the United States they also persevered to the very end.

In the ’60s the painter Vicente Manansala and I were talking about longevity in art. He recalled that famous story attributed to Rizal, how the turtle and the monkey fought over the possession of a banana plant. They decided to halve it the monkey chose the upper part because it already had fruit and the turtle chose the lower part. Both planted their choices; soon enough the monkey’s upper portion died while the turtle’s choice lived.

Roots our truest, biggest, is Rizal himself they explain why some plants, like men and particularly the artist, endure. Look at the trees some have very short roots and come a strong typhoon, they are soon bowled over. But those whose roots have sunk deep and wide into the earth are not easily uprooted they may be broken, but they survive not just the typhoon but the drought as well.

And what strength! We see some cemented sidewalks broken by the sheer power of roots that make the tree grow. Rocks, inhospitable ground these are not obstructions to the upward surge of trees or of the artistic spirit.

How does an artist acquire such formidable roots? They adapt the mangrove to the salt of the sea, the cactus to the waterless desert, the orchid to God’s sweet air and, of course to the dead bark which anchors it.

And the weeds that die in the dry season, they grow again when the rains start their seeds left on the soil.

This is the miracle of life, and of art itself.

In history, we see the triumph of the hu-man spirit Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova who shone through the gloom of Stalinist tyranny. These writers’ roots were buried deeply in the sacred soil of their native land.

But there are also writers welded to no particular niche in the earth, to a country, or to a place in time. They are the exiles of memory from some trauma of the soul, political persecution; they are tenacious refugees or castaways. Their sustenance and passion whorl from that cosmos called ideal, ideology, religion, faith, whatever that enlivens and perpetuates.

The writer’s own life is now his richest material; he must study himself, shed all sense of pride and be naked to his own creative eye. He knows if he is his own critic that art is the most tyrannical and demanding mistress he has to serve with unblemished constancy.

Ideals also chain a writer to reality. These ideals are different from ideas although it is very possible that ideas may strengthen or at the same time erode such ideals. They may be so lofty as to be unreachable the perfectibility of man, for instance, or equality and justice for all. Such goals are avidly sought; sometimes those who seek to achieve them give up their property, their very lives. The search for a moral order and social justice is difficult if not impossible. In the context of our own society; writing, articulating the ideal, no matter how eloquently and constantly, is never enough. It is in pursuing such an ideal that many writers are often trapped in that most troubling of dilemmas; the rigid requirements of art are just as stringent as the demands of the ideals artists cling to. Art squeezes so much from the sensibility, the mastery of the craft, as against the need for propaganda, for the political inertia which the ideal compels. In espousing social justice, Rizal was a consummate artist; Jose Maria Sison, in espousing the same, was not he used words crudely to advance his cause. This difference should be ingested by those who write and teach.

This year, we mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of our National Hero. His monument is in every town plaza, all the main streets of our towns are named after him. It is to be expected then that even after a century and a half, his novels are still read, his influence pervasive and wide.

It should not be just the ideas, or the work of writers that should be embedded in our consciousness and woven with our genes. Indeed, if Homer, Goethe, Cervantes, Shakespeare if these anointed writers shaped the granite foundations of their countries, so did Rizal for what is Filipinas without him?

All too often, writers are exalted because of what they wrote. It is not just Rizal’s work alone that inspires. It is his life. He conversed with the highest Spanish officials, the Spanish governor general, the Archbishop; if he was not so highly stationed and was of the common clod, he would have been executed sooner. Remember he belonged to the privileged principalia, well educated, socially groomed. But such attributes did not prevent him from serving his people not just as a writer but as a teacher, a medical doctor, a builder.

His class origins did not narrow his perspectives or limit his roots from sinking farther, deeper into the earth. In his novels, he had “two eternal heroes” who suffered, who will always live in memory Sisa in the Noli, and Cabesang Tales in the El Filibusterismo both from the lower classes. I recreated them in my novels, Sisa as Tia Nena the mother of Victor and Luis in My Brother, My Executioner and Cabesang Tales as Ba-ac, the old patriarch in Po-on.

We are seldom aware of our own roots, how fathomless and far they cling, until we unravel and identify with them. Beyond this simple identification, we can then belong to the community such roots nourish. Our fealty develops, our commitment deepens and we then learn to love not just the emblems of this community but most important, its Sisas and Cabesang Taleses as well. Thus Rizal instructed us with the literature he wrote. Jose Maria Sison produced propaganda. After a hundred years Rizal’s novels are still read because art endures. Jose Maria Sison’s writings are soon forgotten except by his acolytes because they are propaganda.

Rizal epitomized the logic of love sacrifice.

Today, the truest heirs of Rizal are not the arty farty poets, not the wayward dreamers who crave awards, or those wishy-washy campus upstarts blindly imitating the bestsellers in the West and imbibing in their innards the transient vagaries of literary fashions. Nor those writers who divorced themselves from their environment. Rizal scorned them.

Rizal’s truest heirs are writers like Manuel Arguilla, Eman Lacaba, the engagee in our vernaculars who are the staunchest critics of society, those who tapped into the roots of our native culture like Nick Joaquin, all of them committed to this land so loved and yet so willfully betrayed.

In the twilight of Spanish domination, from among the Spanish rulers themselves, there were those who thought that killing Rizal was a grievous mistake. But from the perspective of those who held absolute power, they were correct in doing so. Rizal had attacked them mortally with the most powerful instrument that man has in his handsa weapon which we often do not recognize. This is truth the shining and noble truth that can only be best molded by the artist affectionately rooted in the reality of that truth itself. This truth touches, graces the deepest sensibility of man, his mind, his heart where all emotions start. This truth which art adorns and bears high is made even stouter and permanent precisely because it is the purest quintessence of our humanity.

Now, I ask: can this truth be acquired in the classroom by a generation which has ignored Rizal, but is now besieged by the same corruption, decay and apathy which he battled in his time?

I am not too sure, but at the very least, those of us who teach and write can try. We must if only to prove that we are.

* * *

F. Sionil Jose delivered this speech at the recent national conference of teachers of literature at the University of Santo Tomas.
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