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November 03, 2003
Future Perfect: The Work of Literature
Gemino H. Abad
Articles

Going over almost 100 years of our poetry in English, I find that it was simply inevitable that, with facility in English and mastery of its poetic forms, our writers would discover new ways of forging the work called poem and so establish a poetic tradition. I use “forging” in its triple sense—to fashion, to feign, and to forge ahead or move forward—because poetry is always a matter of reinventing the language and seeing anew our historical reality that the language is used to express or evoke.

In the 1970s, it was as though the poet needed to free himself from New Criticism—not from the discipline of craftmanship, but from obsession with rhetoric and its figures (irony, paradox, tension, ambiguity), and from the ideology of the poem as autonomous.

In the 1970s also, as an effect of political activism, it had again become urgent for the poet to connect with his social reality without neglecting the formal requirements of his art. We see this move in, say, Alfrredo Navarro Salanga and Gelacio Guillermo, but it only stresses that from the very beginning—from Ponciano Reyes’s “The Flood” in 1905, through Carlos Bulosan and Rafael Zulueta y da Costa, to the very present—our poets in English, despite the trance of the English poetic and critical sensibility, stood upon their own native ground.

Our writers began to be aware in the 1980s of new critical theories which seem to affect their poetry—the structuralists who fostered an extreme type of formalism and, almost in the same breath, the post-structuralists who ravish still the voids in language. But our poets are not academics when they write their poems. Working with language as their medium, they make their own discoveries about poetry which later the academic critic finds conformable with some artistic value or criterion which, of course, the poet had first established by following his own artistic impulses.

Our poetry in the 1980s to the present is marked by a more heightened sense for language in the way it creates its own reality—what we may now also call “virtual reality”; it is also characterized by a deep sense of the poem as artifice and a kind of double forgery—a forgery from language, which itself is already a fiction of reality, and a forgery in one’s own consciousness from the reality outside language. Moreover, I suspect, in science and in art, we have a deep troubling sense that we are bounded by mystery—the mystery of our own human psyche and the mystery of the universe, the concrete reality, that we inhabit. So, more and more, I think, in our poems—and not only in English—we shall find, as Alfred Yuson puts it, a solitary “personal voice whose treatment of experience and insight is couched in hard-edged or tender understatement… The quiet image, the ironic engagement, the subtle verbal gesture” seem to be the “favored contemporary devices for lyric or cerebral celebration.”

One other remarkable thing about our poetry today is the number of women writers who carve from language a reality that is truer to their “inner promptings,” as Edith Tiempo would say.

Our poetic course in English from 1905 to the present has been a long and creative struggle with both the language and the subject that it treats. But so it is to the present with any literature in any language: when the struggle ceases, its literature fossilizes. By the subject that the language is made to serve, I do not mean any specific theme or topic, but the writer’s insight into his own humanity and the hybrid culture which nurtures and sustains it.

Mastery of his medium, his language, must be assumed for any serious writer in any language. It is the writer’s own choice which language he feels he is most competent to write in, but the choice also entails a serious responsibility to the language. Whether English or Tagalog or some other native language, it is always the poet’s task to reinvent the language and give it new life. A poem isn’t given by language; rather, a language is transformed through insight, a new way of looking, which is of the essence of poetry.

The poet must in fact constantly liberate himself from both his language and his subject: that is to say, he must constantly rediscover his language and constantly see his world anew; both he must do to forge ahead.

Now I wish to address what Bienvenido Lumbera says directly and indirectly in “The Babel Unified,” an interview with Bien as reported/written up by Lito B. Zulueta in Sunday Inquirer Magazine (October 1, 2000: 10-11). It helped me to clear many things in my own mind as I looked into the future of our literature. I also thought that the work of literature may sometimes be served by restating and stressing what others may think are too obvious. (Not Bien, but some critics have become too clever, too fond of “problematizing,” or too enthralled with jargon, they miss what may be more basic as more elementary.)

1

We now speak, when we aspire, of a national literature. Bien speaks of it as “multilingual and multicultural” (B)—“one seamless continuity without artificial divisions of tongue and polish” (Z). [This is rather awkward, but B indicates a direct quote from Bien, and Z, presumably Bien’s statement as reworded/understood by Zulueta. Sometimes, a single statement that I quote from “The Babel Unified” consists of B and Z!] How truly wonderful that future of a national literature is, but also, how truly uncertain if we consider our economy and our politics.

The languages will of course remain different, because each one may be a different way of perceiving our world, but not one will be divided from the other because no one will think that one is superior to the other. That is one sense of division overcome.

But we are speaking of literature, which isn’t given by any language but is rather wrought from it. We are hoping therefore that new works will be produced in our various native languages; we cannot live in the past. Bearing in mind that a language like Waray is mainly oral, that its works are mainly products of an oral culture, it is improbable—unless our education is radically overhauled and a political will persists in sustaining literatures in those languages—that a multilingual, multicultural national literature is now in the offing. The offing is the deep sea as seen from the shore. If oral culture is our deep sea, it must yet break upon the shore of paper, print, and book where literature is wrought.

There is another hindrance to multilingual, multicultural national literature. To cross each language’s natural divide in the way it looks at reality, one must either understand all those languages, or works in those languages have been translated into the language one is at home with/in. Apart of course from one’s own native tongue in one’s own region, the language one is at home with/in is, for most people now, either English or Tagalog-Filipino or both because of mass media, education, and the social and political support.

The work of translation then is another hurdle. That translation must be excellent, or one gets the impression that the original must also be flawed. The work of translation is what dissolves the natural division between languages, but only if the translation is deeply aware that literature is what the writer does to language to move us, or what through language the writer makes happen in the reader’s mind. That is to say, as with every art, good literature always transforms its medium. It isn’t how we use the language for the everyday purposes of simple communication.

As to the division of literatures by polish, if by polish we mean quality, then the division can be artificial only if we impose on one literary tradition the values and standards of another literary tradition.

Quality implies standards and values; in literature and art, standards and values are created by the best writers, the best artists. Therefore, the literary or critical tradition is never static: it follows and serves those standards and values which the best works have created, and it will change as new works are produced.

2

There may be a growing trend for literature today to go back to the oral, that is to say, to move from the text to its performance, to poetry recited and intoned, or story read aloud, with the appropriate tone of voice and gesture and action. And this, owing to “the changing habits of people, reading less and listening and looking more” (B); owing also to “the experiential impetus that wants literature to be tactile and virtual” (Z). But this cannot mean the end of the alphabet, print, font, and book.

What has happened, and is still happening?

Language as words may no longer be the chief medium of thought and feeling, at least for the younger generation; images or pictures and sounds or music may be the new or current language of expression among young people. The movies, MTV, texting, the Internet emoticons (so I am told).

So now, literature as language as words, abstract and rational, must compete with the new language, language as audio-visual, concrete language, emotive and perhaps drawing its own kind of logic from the unconscious and dream. It is the kind of competition that enriches and deepens the power of literature as verbal construct.

Yet, at their core, the value of either language or medium is the same: in one, literature says in words the unsayable; in the other, “virtual” literature expresses in image and music and action or gesture the inexpressible.

The unsayable or the inexpressible is the limit for either language, which each constantly seeks to transcend in ceaseless reinvention.

3

There can be no doubt that “vernacular writings have strengths of their own” (Z). But personally, I refuse the word “vernacular” because, by its own etymology, the vernacular is condemned to remain the same “slave born in his master’s house.” Verna in Latin is that kind of slave.

It is true that the “strengths” of our different native literatures cannot always be “measured or evaluated by Western canons of taste” (Z). True, but we must make ourselves aware of what we are saying. It is also true that writings in medieval English cannot be measured or evaluated by Western canons of taste today. It is also true, as Rizal was well aware, that the novel, for example, is a Western genre. The chief point then is, we must know the indigenous tradition to which the native writings belong. It may happen that the indigenous tradition is mainly oral, and that the writing, in the past and today, only veils its oral nature. Here is an important yet obvious distinction, that between oral and literate cultures (and no negative determinations implied!), which most recently National Artist Nick Joaquin stressed in “Tomorrow & Letters” (in his column, “Small Beer,” in Philippine Graphic, 17 July 2000). Here, truly, is more work for our “national literature”—work of scholarship and theory, drawing from what we already have and drawing from the world through English.

In fact, writers in the indigenous languages must have a critical understanding of their own native oral and literary tradition, before Spain perhaps and throughout our Spanish colonial period, before they can critically draw from it, to reinvigorate it, to give it new life attuned to new historical circumstances. To give new life to one’s own literary tradition also means to renew the indigenous language, to endow it with a fresh power to evoke the contemporary living reality. I believe that in this regard the Filipino writer today draws perforce from English and from other works and literary traditions of the world which he accesses through translation into English. No writer in the world today is an island. In literature, nationality is one more fiction.

There is another important point: that there are universal standards of literary excellence. (It is presently the intellectual fashion to lay siege to the idea of “the universal”—perhaps, that is one factor which has today made all standards and values pretty unstable.) For example: that the language be new, fresh, original; that is to say, that the writer enable the language, which in fact keeps changing, to carry fresh insights into contemporary reality. Literature is after all conquest of cliché—in word, in thought, in feeling. For another example: that, to the contemporary reader, the work be interesting, that it move the reader. In a word, the writer must endow his work with power to move and persuade his reader; what Aristotle of long ago called dynamis or power still holds to the present as a literary criterion. “May atay,” the Tagalog writer says of any remarkable or distinctive literary work; “malakas o kakaiba ang dating.”

4

Unfortunately, I must take exception to what Bien says about writings in English.

4.1 Bien says: “despite the palpable deterioration of the quality of English of Filipinos in general (Z)… the really good writers will continue to be there” (B). What needs to be stressed is that, in literature, to continue is to change. Most writers who are serious about writing continue to change. All our writings date and age, but they must try and continue to speak to the new generation. Literature is conquest of the future; it changes because that is the human condition, restless, never still. To adopt a line of verse from Ricardo de Ungria: I write “against all that failed to hold me still.”

Is there in general a palpable deterioration of the quality of English of Filipinos? Yes, as any Department of English will tell you. But that is not peculiar to the English of Filipinos, it also afflicts the English of Americans, and it also applies to Filipino or any other language. It is a world-wide phenomenon: the deterioration of the sense for language. Language as words, in the world today, is suffering a crisis as to its capacity to evoke, especially for the young generation, our present reality. This seems to be at the heart of deconstruction. As we lose our grasp on words and their order, we lose our sense of reality, or rather, we are overwhelmed by its unfathomable mystery. But literature, in whatever new form it has discovered, is conquest of the unsayable.

4.2 Bien also says: “the weight [of writings in English by Filipinos] appears to have shifted to Fil-American writers who (Z) will be there to influence the locals” (B). Why? Because, “despite the yawning space separating them from their homeland (Z),” the Fil-Americans are “distinctive in that they allude to the situation in the Philippines… and are constantly in touch with what’s current in the country” (B). In fact, continues Bien, “if literature in English could be considered in a crisis of sorts, then relief or salvation would lie in the United States.” (Z)

That “crisis of sorts” of which Bien speaks is merely hypothetical, as if local writings in English need to be saved by an outside force. But that the weight or value of Fil-Am writings lies in the fact that they allude to the Philippine situation seems to indicate a stubborn will to deny that our local writings in English even allude to our contemporary situation! But if we must see things right, English (the language and its literatures) does not need to be saved anywhere because it is the world’s language and the language of power; the proper response to English is to master it. Where it took root, it has flourished, like Spanish in Latin America. What needs rather to be saved is Filipino and Tagalog and our other indigenous languages. But there is no saving, no relief, if our writers do not produce great works.

The chief point, however, is this: it is vain and counter-productive to pit English against Filipino or Tagalog; that is old hat; it is more to our profit to cherish what we have, to value what we have achieved, not to rest on what we can acclaim, but to move forward with new works in English, in Filipino, in all our other languages. Any work by any Filipino belongs to Philippine national literature.

4.3 Bien also says: “More writers in English would probably want to go to the US, like Eric Gamalinda” (B). Having assumed that probability, Bien then gives advice: “If you want to continue writing in English, you should do so [leave your country] and compete, so to speak, in the belly of the beast” (B). Then Bien also offers a possible prize: “Fil-American writers may yet gain the international acclaim that has eluded Filipino writers, but which has been showered generously on the Latin Americans, the Chinese and the Indians” (Z).

This is bizarre—both the matter of probability (that the writer in English would want to go to the US) and the matter of a writer’s motive for going (international acclaim). But what is gratuitously assumed can also be gratuitously denied. The matter of competition, however, even if it were not foremost in the writer’s mind, is simply fact. The writer must first compete with himself, and the reality that he must deal with is the reality of his own historical circumstances: not the reality of America, but the reality of the Filipino, wherever he is.

4.4 Bien also says that “the Filipino writer in English has to go to the West because (Z) his biggest problem is that he has no readers here” (B).

We must immediately ask: Who, what language, has readers here? Do writers in Filipino fare better with readers here than writers in English? And what kind of reading fare? we must also ask. Our local bookstores may have the answer.

But the real problem, it seems to me, is readership—whatever the language. It matters greatly what the medium of instruction is in our schools. It matters greatly what the quality of education is in our schools. It matters greatly what sort of teaching takes place—the teaching of Filipino, the teaching of English; and is there teaching of Waray and Sugbuanon and Hiligaynon and Iloko at the same level, with the same support? The teacher of Filipino today had better take a hard look at what happened to Spanish: perhaps its legislation into an academic requirement was resented by the youth? perhaps its teaching was in the main uninspiring? perhaps, above all, there were no new exciting works in Spanish by Filipinos themselves?

It is in the school where the sense for language as words is sharpened and cultivated.

4.5 But Bien posits a reason why the Filipino writer in English has no readers here.

Literature in English is produced by “literary writers,” that is, for Bien, “pure aesthetes” (B). “Their style—their ‘fine art’—is not familiar to the broader audience” (B). “’Literariness’ is not part of the tradition of the readers” (B)—presumably, the readers of Filipino or the readers among the masa.

Bien thinks of F. Sionil Jose as “an Ilocano who writes in English” but “who will continue to be regarded as an outsider by writers in English” (Z) because, so Bien implies, Jose lacks the quality of “fine art” or “literariness.” Jose, according to Bien, “will be better appreciated by readers of Filipino” (B)—assuming of course that such readers also read English; “better appreciated” is Jose because, according to Bien, Jose “belongs really to the critical tradition of the Filipino vernacular, where works are charged with a searing social consciousness” (Z).

First of all, the quality of “literariness” or “fine art” is simply intrinsic to any literature in any language. Why, is there no “fine art” or “literariness” in Florante at Laura? in other writers in Tagalog? To call it “pure aestheticism” in English, but not in Tagalog, simply begs the question. Is Arguilla’s “Caps and Lower Case” or Polotan’s “Hand of the Enemy” pure aestheticism, nil on social consciousness?

I think the problem for writers and critics is to discover and define literariness or fine art in the literary tradition of each one’s language—a tradition, we must bear in mind, that is never static if it must survive, a tradition of standards and values that keeps changing, or must keep moving forward, attuned to the contemporary reality, and vigorous because there are new works, new discoveries, which set new standards of fine art or literariness.

As to “searing social consciousness,” I don’t think any body of writings in any language has that monopoly.

4.6 Bien also says that “perhaps, with a well-formed social consciousness, the writer in English may make (Z) a concrete effort to relate to a broader audience rather than an elite” (B). But, says Bien, “The problem is that the critical tradition to which [writers in English] belong will always bury them back. Their fears that what they are writing for a popular audience is really vulgar would eat into their art” (B).

Again, it is gratuitously claimed that it is not certain or inevitable that the writer in English, even “with a well-formed social consciousness” (from whatever ideological standpoint) will make the effort to relate to a broader audience. This is just loading the dice. Almost like Erap desperately pitting the ilustrados against the masa.

But the facts show that the elite for our literatures in our languages is really only the readership: that is to say, they are few for any language, and perhaps, even dwindling with the young generation liberated from texts or too distracted by or engrossed with other, more interesting media.

As to the critical tradition that will bury back the Filipino writer in English, that is precisely the challenge for any writing in any literary tradition. If that tradition is not given new life by new works, it is doomed to the grave of its past.

As to fears about writing for a popular audience—granted there is such a broad audience clamoring for new texts to read—the fear that addressing such an audience is really vulgar and would ruin one’s art—Bien confesses to that fear, in his past, but he cannot then conveniently transfer that fear to writers in the present (and limit it especially to writers in English).

What is clear and necessary is that the writers in whatever language must search out from the literary tradition of his chosen language what new forms in writing, what new dimensions of literariness or fine art, are possible by which new insights into contemporary reality are conveyed. The possibilities for any literary tradition, for any language, should be infinite, since the possibilities for the human imagination are infinite.

4.7 Finally, writing for Bien is “a political decision, a political commitment” (B). And so it is, and always has been—but for me, it is never doctrinnaire, because freedom is the absolute condition for art. Bien’s parting shot, as it were, is: “If you don’t care for the masses, then you will not write something that they will care for.” True; but you might also try, in fact you must try, to make them care for what presently they have no care for. After all, the masses or a majority of them elected Erap President.

By way of concluding, I see in the future an unprejudiced acceptance of literary works by Filipinos (anywhere, in whatever language) as living substance of Philippine national literature. Because of thoughtful scholarship and literary criticism, unencumbered by intellectual fashion and academic jargon. Because of excellent translations into English and Filipino. Because of better-quality education at all levels. Aware that all predictions of the future are unstable, I choose to take the optimistic view, although not without present ground to stand on.

English will remain dominant. It is crucial to our nation’s life. And politicians will continue to pay lip service to Filipino as the evolving national language. As always, it’s up to the writers to produce new works.

There will be very fine works in English because our writers have mastered that medium and its literary tradition that we have ourselves established over the last century, and because our writers are open to the world and its literatures through English and will continually change.

There will be very fine works too in Filipino and in Tagalog, drawing their strength and inspiration both from their own oral and literary traditions and from the world’s literatures through English. That world, needless to say, includes both East and West, and works in our other Philippine languages in English and Filipino translation.

I have no doubt that there will be very fine works also in Sugbuanon, Iloko, Hiligaynon, and a few other indigenous languages, again drawing strength and inspiration both from a critical understanding of their own oral and literary traditions and from the world’s great writings through their English translation.

There will be more women writers and gay writers, and I think they will bring what is generally called “creative non-fiction” to a very high level.

The novel is, and will be, the great test and challenge for all writers. It is also what our country needs most from our literature because the novel-form has the breadth by which to re-imagine the way we live and deal with one another as a people.

In all these literatures—in English, Filipino, Tagalog, Sugbuanon, etc.—our writers will surely discover new forms of the imagination and establish new criteria for those forms.

Criticism and literary theory will also flourish, fed by scholarship on our languages and their oral and literary traditions and deepened by familiarity with the world’s critical and intellectual heritage. Criticism—which our writers shall no longer take as personal affront—and literary theory without obfuscation are quite crucial not only in creating a wider and more discriminating readership but also in sharpening our writers’ artistic craftmanship and challenging them to produce new and better works.

I say all these from what I see today and sometimes judge, using “Western criteria,” in the national Palanca literary competitions, in our national magazines, school publications, books, and special issues, in our writers’ workshops—U.P., Silliman, University of San Carlos, Iligan, Ateneo, La Salle, U.S.T.—as well as those writers’ workshops by GUMIL, say, or LIRA, or those other small writers’ workshops in the regions such as those conducted by Merlie Alunan in Waray and Leoncio Deriada in Hiligaynon and Kiniray-a.

Our future is first shaped by our words in all those languages that our writers have enabled to speak us and interpret us to ourselves.

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Reference/s:
*From Bulawan 1, a publication of The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (2001).
About the Author:
Gemino H. Abad is a University Professor of English at the University of the Philippines and has several works of poetry, fiction, and literary criticism, among which are Orion’s Belt (1996), Father and Daughter (1996), A Makeshift Sun (2001), and A Habit of Shores (1999), the last sequel to Man of Earth (1989) and A Native Clearing (1993). He has won various awards, among them the Palanca and Free Press, the UP Most Outstanding Faculty Award, the Manila Critics Circle, and the Alagad ni Balagtas and has served as Secretary of the University, Vice-President for Academic Affairs, and Director of the UP Creative Writing Center.
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