The unrecognized enemy

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose () - May 3, 2010 - 12:00am

I think it was that old Bolshevik, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who said that “all art is political, and all art is propaganda.”

He was right if politics is to mean power relations for this is what human relationships are — in the end, they are based not so much on affection or its opposite, but on power. And all art is propaganda, if by propaganda we mean the act of imparting information or knowledge.

I would disagree on both counts, and more so on the assumption that “all art is propaganda” because all of us know that not all propaganda is art. But even if all art is neither political nor propaganda, literature as art has firm and real connection with the subject of this seminar. We creative writers work in the realm of the imagination but our work is also based on the reality of our lives, our environment, all of which our art must then reflect.

The theme of this conference — it is so awesome but so appropriate for our age — is, in fact, appropriate for any epoch and particularly for those of us writers who are most concerned with freedom. I say this for the simple reason that imperialism/colonialism will always be with us if we equate imperialism with the domination of a people or a nation by another nation, a domination which is sometimes acceptable — even welcomed by those who are dominated.

For instance, some of my countrymen desire the return of the Americans — their actual and physical rule of my country — as a result of the creeping metastasis in the Philippines today. This American variety of imperialism is subtle and seductive — its chains are very real, but they are not shackles of rusting iron; they are made of soft velvet.

There is one very important aspect of imperialism/colonialism we must never, never forget. The imperial power willfully plunders the wealth, the resources of its colony or colonies then sends this loot to the home country. Imperialism impoverishes the native people, condemns them into being “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” The logic of imperialism is exploitation and, therefore, it is immoral.

To dominate, to control, to colonize and oppress, alas, are in our very nature — Asian, Caucasian, even in those so-called primitives still in jungles — they are imbued with this immutable human trait. It is in the character of nations as well that when they are weak, they contract and look for markets, and when they are strong, they expand and look for raw materials and, of course, more markets. Which is why even our host country, Korea, is in the heady process of becoming an imperial power, and the praetorian vanguard of its outward thrust — if we look closely — are those ubiquitous Korean restaurants, Samsung and, culturally, the addictive Korean telenovelas.

But let us go back to human nature, to the venerable ancients who were no different in so many ways from us today and the new imperialists who beguile the weak with their siren call.

Ancient Greece, Rome, Byzantium, and men of destiny — Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great — all the way to South America — the Incas, the Aztecs, the Mayas, and in Southeast Asia, Majapahit, the Khmers — all expanded, and almost always with savagery. Then Charles the First, Napoleon, Queen Victoria, the American robber barons, the Zaibatsus, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin — so what else is new?

At a conference I attended in Bellagio, Italy decades ago, an African writer related how the European missionaries came to Africa and told the people to close their eyes and pray; and, as this writer put it, “We closed our eyes and prayed and when we opened them our lands were gone.”

And so it was with us Filipinos — the Spanish friars told us to go to church and be converted to Catholicism. And when we went out of the churches, we became bonded tenants. Later on, the Americans came and told us to go to school and get educated, and we did; and when we went out of school, we found we had lost our souls. Of course, it was never this simple, but this is how colonialism often works.

In its modern and relentless rampage, colonialism does not invade the weaker nations and their benighted people with the explicit force of “black battleships” and massed cavalry. It now seduces with glib mantras like globalism, free trade and all that dulcet spiel that precedes foreign aid.

Since the implacable logic of trade is for the strong to take advantage of the weak, it is those nations with superior goods — new, cheaper and better — who are the neo-imperialists. And those who control these mammoth producers of goods, the leaders of these giant multinational corporations and banks, they are now the new colonizers who do not openly admit or recognize their tyrannies so blatant in the way they manipulate prices, in the way they despoil the environment, and cause new human ailments brought about by the new technologies and the toxic chemicals which enable them to produce the myriad and shiny articles of commerce.

Almost 10 years ago, we witnessed on television the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York City and with them, the deaths of thousands. Listen, that was not an attack on the American people although that is perhaps the inevitable conclusion. It was an attack on American foreign policy compelled by imperialism to pillage the world under the saccharine rubric of “national interest, making the world safe for democracy, human rights.”

The last messiah of that policy was George Bush II and the American military-industrial complex. President Barack Obama, who is liked by so many including myself, cannot reverse that policy, although he may try. America — for all the affection I have for Americans — is the unrecognized enemy. To this wanton cabal belong Western Europe, Japan, and now China, Russia, Brazil and India. They are the major despoilers of the environment as well.

And where are the writers who really understand why war demeans the world? Why peace is so elusive?

Colonization is an imperative, then — a process that must be opposed with robust determination by the colonized and those who want and pray for universal peace. But its strongest defenders are sometimes the ex-colonials themselves. Often powerless to destroy the tenacious vestiges of colonialism, they despair and hearken back to the days when their countries had a semblance of social order as imposed by their foreign rulers.

In the ‘70s, the brilliant Singapore scholar and writer Wong Linken (he became Singapore’s ambassador to the United States) was working on a thesis that Southeast Asian countries were better off in so many aspects when they were colonies.

Indeed, as imperial writers have insisted, we, the colonized, were the “white man’s burden.” The colonialists jolted us indigenous peoples from our pristine lethargy, forced us to assert ourselves, our identities. They gave our inchoate geographies our boundaries and ushered and stirred within our deepest consciousness our sense of nation at last.

But colonialism also transformed us to what we are, “the wretched of the earth” as Frantz Fanon so aptly described us.

At home, when the poet Emmanuel Lacaba was killed in Davao in the early ‘70s, when the critic-playwright Bienvenido Lumbera and other writers were imprisoned at the same time, when the novelist and teacher Jun Cruz Reyes was harassed the other year — these writers were considered enemies of the state — and of the status quo — but to my mind, they were decolonizers, writers living and affirming their vocation.

 The answer to colonialism is modernization and the ultimate modernizer is not the reformer but the revolutionary.

Roland Greene, Stanford University’s astute professor of comparative literature, identified our national hero, Jose Rizal, as the first post-colonial writer with his novels Noli MeTangere (1887) and its sequel El Felibusterismo (1891). Our revolution against Spain in 1896, after all, was the first Asian armed rebellion against Western imperialism — and that epochal action was partly inspired by Rizal’s novels.

It is not just the novels that perpetuate Rizal’s name; the poem Mi Ultimo Adios (My Last Farewell), which he wrote on the eve of his execution by the Spaniards on Dec. 30, 1896, is in so many anthologies all over the world; it assured Rizal of his place in world literature, and ours.

Rizal belonged to the affluent class of Filipinos, called the principalia; like those in his social rank, he had an excellent education in the Philippines and in Europe where he joined the first Western educated Filipinos called the Ilustrados, or the enlightened. He influenced many Asians; to this day some Indonesians have Rizal as their first name.

Rizal had been compared to India’s Rabindranath Tagore and his closest equivalent in Asia, according to his biographer Austin Coates, is China’s Sun Yat Sen. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called him the “Tagalog Christ.” He kept abreast with developments in anthropology and philosophy, read Cervantes, the Greek and Latin classics, mastered Spanish and in his writing he was always contextual. To nurture his roots, he attempted a novel in Tagalog but couldn’t finish it. He could have stayed abroad but in the end, he returned to be in the land of his birth and his people.

As a writer and as a Filipino, Rizal has been my greatest inspiration.

Rizal’s generation of intellectuals was thoroughly Europeanized just like so many Filipinos today have been Americanized — their aim was to be equal to the Spaniards. They mastered the language, demanded equality with the rulers, and aspired to be members of the Spanish ----parliament.

And so it is today that Filipino writers in English feel superior to Filipino vernacular writers and much of their writing. Conditioned by transient American trends, particularly those in academe, they may be easily recognized by their lack of contextuality, their pandering to what they think are the most modern trends in the United States.

As a consequence of this craven attitude, many Filipino writers don’t consider themselves anointed until their work is published in the United States.

This then is one of the greatest obstructions in the building of a nation — the colonized mind engendered by the absence of pride in an individuals’ nationality. How often I have said that great art always bears the imprimatur of nation.

And this servility is accepted, in fact encouraged by our major bookshops. Their front windows display foreign titles and bestsellers — not our books, as is done in all other countries.

Our world-class writers in English — Nick Joaquin, Kerima Polotan, Gilda Cordero Fernando, Gregorio Brillantes, Charlson Ong, the poets Cirilo Bautista, Krip Yuson, Ricky de Ungria — have a miniscule readership in the Philippines, and no international following, least of all regionally.

Neither are the best English Singaporean writers like Christine Suchen Lim and Edwin Thumboo as widely read as, for instance, John Updike, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Philip Roth — these Western writers who wallow in the arid trivia of suburbia, who do not really say anything of much importance to us. Nobility, heroism, forbearance are absent in the work of most writers in the Imperial West today. Sure, sex abounds in them. John Updike, for instance was described as “a penis with a thesaurus,” and this about sums up some of the literary ejaculations of such authors who we read with so much attention.

But there are Western writers and Western writers. When I visited the United States for the first time in 1955 I met the poet Robert Frost at his cottage in Ripton, Vermont. He was then in his 80s but still very much at work. He had opposed the American invasion of my country in 1898; he said it was hypocritical for the United States to champion revolution and freedom then annex a country that was, itself, seeking liberty. He said many Americans shared his belief, among them Mark Twain.

The Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere which ground so much of Asia under the Japanese boot in the ‘30s to the ‘40s of the last century was opposed in Japan. The novelist Hirabayashi Taiko recounted to me how she, her husband and other Japanese writers were imprisoned by the Tojo government for their contrary views.

Such examples of heroism by writers of the colonial powers confirm their compassion, their humanity and we the colonized are grateful to them.        

Some 10 years ago or so, shortly after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the American political scientist, Samuel Huntington postulated that the next conflict would be between civilizations. The emergence of the Jihadists and radical Islam seems to confirm what he said, but in a deeper sense, what has happened is not a war between Christianity and Islam, or even civilizations as such, for to look at this conflict in this manner is to deny Islamic civilization.

What has not entered the minds of many people and even those astute intellectuals of the West is that this primeval conflict really has always been the conflict between the oppressed and the oppressor, between those who want themselves to be free and those who want to subjugate them.

Complementing Huntington is another American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, who theorized that the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union signified the end of history. Of course, this should not be taken literally for history — which is time — does not end merely because a political system collapsed. What Fukuyama meant was that historical determinism as the communist core belief was disproved. In this, like Samuel Huntington, he was wrong if we are to consider communism merely as a political movement.

Beyond such ideology and so many other ideologies that approximate it — they are sometimes called religions — is a deeper pith, the meaning of meaning, our ageless challenge to the finitude of our existence, and with it, our transcendent striving for perfection, for utopia even. As artists we instinctively understand all these. Belief, faith — these are what guide and sustain us and they cannot be quantified or subjected to scientific analysis.

Colonialism/imperialism will not go away from our planet for as long as we are compelled by the instinct to excel and compete. As I stated in the beginning of this presentation, throughout history, men as conquerors laid waste so many lands, massacred whole populations. And they were honored, paid obeisance in this ceaseless cycle.

What great nation has not been colonized? Britain by the Romans, Spain by Napoleon, the United States by Britain, China by nine countries and of late, Japan by America. The list is long, except that now imperialism has changed its face.

But there is one form of colonialism far more despicable than what is ordinarily perceived as such, and this colonialism/imperialism is that which tyrannizes a people with their consent when they are mesmerized by the anodyne of errant nationalism and their own ignorance.

Colonialism also persists because in the former colonies, the acolytes the colonialists left behind have successfully co-opted the ideas, the slogans of revolution and the fraudulent claim to nationalism of these acolytes is not unmasked. They then colonize their own people.

In these times when consumerist dystopia is overwhelming the world, let it not be said that those of us who want peace have come to accept the alternative necessity of rejecting progress to become “noble savages,” or that we have been converted by the call of jihad which is just as abhorrent, but whose ideological and moral underpinnings we must understand.

Those old verities which condemn greed are what must be embedded now in the minds of leaders in the industrial West. For them, the limits to growth must be realized and imposed. Consumerism and its concomitant rapacity must be curbed, simpler lives must be lived.

Let me conclude by egotistically quoting from Antonio Samson, the anti-hero in my own novel, The Pretenders. He had railed against the ilustrados of 1896 — they who pleaded for reform from our Spanish rulers. Antonio Samson asked if the ilustrados wanted only equality with their colonizers, not freedom from them. “Did they ask, too, for dignity, not only for themselves but for all Indios (meaning the Filipinos)? Did they want only entry into the restricted enclaves of the rulers?”

I ask my countrymen today, and all those who champion the colonized, the same questions, for only in answering these questions honestly, and positively, then acting on the basis of our answers, can writers validate their calling as artists and as human beings. Listen — in the end, it is man’s inhumanity to man that is our most formidable foe.

Too, let us not for once beguile ourselves into believing that old panegyric that the pen is mightier than the sword. Never, and it will never be. Always it is the sword that has triumphed and prevailed. Why, then, must we write at all? Why, then, must we persevere with words?

Because we are driven by ego, by our dreams, by hoping to achieve some form of timeless legacy; because we are lured compulsively by art just as the moth is drawn to a flame. That art is the flame within us, and with this flame, we must work not only with devotion but with care for it is with the same flame that we could burn our house down.

For those of us who suffer our vocation, what the historian Arnold Toynbee said should comfort us: “The works of artists and writers live longer than the deeds of soldiers, statesmen and businessmen. Poets and philosophers go further than historians.”

But then, Toynbee concludes, “saints and prophets are worth more than the rest put together.”

So there: even art does not suffice until the artist has transformed himself into a saint and prophet.

Who among us aspires to be this most holy and most human of humans?

* * *

(Note: In Seoul last week, I attended a writer’s conference with this most awesome theme: “Imperialism, Modernity, Decolonization.” Before speaking, however, I said my voice is a solitary cry in the wilderness, but must be heard just the same.)

  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with