The literary Lopez
PENMAN - Butch Dalisay () - January 30, 2012 - 12:00am

Last year marked the birth centennial of another formidable Filipino man of letters — writer, diplomat, and University of the Philippines President Salvador P. Lopez. Among his fellow writers, “SP,” as many would call him, was best known for two things — his running debate with poet Jose Garcia Villa over the artist’s social responsibility, and his essays espousing precisely that idea. He was a complex person caught in difficult times.

Last week, UP paid homage to SP’s memory by holding a day-long symposium covering every important aspect of Lopez’s work and concerns, from academic governance and foreign affairs to human rights and, of course, literature. I was asked to respond to a paper presented by National Artist Bien Lumbera on Lopez’s literary legacy, and what follows is drawn from my notes.

I spoke that afternoon as one of those noisy undergraduates who gave President Lopez a hard time at the barricades during the Diliman Commune of February 1971. I was newly 17 then, and he was a few months short of 60. I’ve just turned 58, and having spent some time myself in university administration, I can now better appreciate the quandary of the classic liberal caught between two opposing tides.

While he may have been something of a firebrand in his own time, particularly with the publication of his seminal essay on literature and society in 1940 when he was 29, you could say that by the time of the First Quarter Storm in the early 1970s, he was seen to be no longer Left enough — which, to be fair, could have been said of many others, including the old Left. The “proletarian literature” he espoused would be superseded by the more exacting standards of social realism as contemplated by the cultural ideologues of the new Party.

There’s an excellent paper on S. P. Lopez’s position as a so-called secular critic, written by Rafael Acuña and published in Ateneo’s Kritika Kultura, that discusses the many Lopezes, if you will, in S. P. Lopez, from the champion of proletarian literature he has been widely hailed as, to the “American bootlicker” that one critic made him out to be.

The literary Lopez was also a man of seeming contradictions. His famous run-ins with Villa tended to paint them as irreconcilable antagonists, and yet he, at one point, had high praise for Villa’s artistry. According to Villa himself, it was Villa’s refusal to consciously mix art and politics that Lopez couldn’t take. Few can remember Lopez’s poetry, but his prose was sharp and supple — and clearly influential, despite the opinions of such as Nick Joaquin to the effect that Lopez’s influence was overblown.

That influence certainly extended to my generation, and it was profound, up to a point. His essay on literature and society — like the writings of Renato Constantino and Hernando Abaya — was what you might call a basic pre-Marxist text for the young cultural activist, although I’m sure many of its literary references would have been lost on us. Later, we would “outgrow” Lopez and move on to Mao and his Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, tossing aside Lopez’s terminal admonition to distinguish between art and propaganda. For us, art was propaganda. By 1971, we were impatient to move beyond Lopez.

Since then, of course, many if not most of those FQS writers that I refer to have moved closer back to Lopez than to Mao — particularly the Lopez who was once quoted to have said that there were really only two things worth writing about: love and politics. Many writers of my generation will agree that everything is political, but that politics isn’t or is no longer everything, and that politics can mean something other than the class struggle. Call it a retreat into cautious individualism, but at least for me it’s a reasonable and workable, even liberative, compromise.

But does S. P. Lopez still have something to say to and even about Philippine literature today? He most certainly does. To return to that famous essay, S. P. Lopez envisages the writer as the avatar of progress, and writing itself as “an endeavor of hope.” He himself is optimistic, and cautions against what he calls “indifferentism” or apathy, an “amorphous idealism,” and a “precocious cynicism.”

These, sad to say, are back in vogue, perhaps even more ironically at a time when young writers have all the means to say what they want to whoever, on the Internet. Too much of the new writing I come across today is marked by a troubling cultural and political illiteracy, an absence of engagement with social reality, even on a new generation’s own terms.

The “precocious cynicism” that Lopez bemoaned is all over the Internet, the beguiling anonymity of which has encouraged slash-and-burn ranting, a kind of generalized complaint about the state of everything without the slightest acknowledgment of complicity, culpability, or responsibility. Instead of engagement, we find a sense of entitlement, a puerile demand to be bathed and fed without any personal investment in the messy processes of growth and change.

This, of course, goes beyond literature. But speaking of literature, I have more than once expressed my concern over what I perceive to be the denial or erasure of a sense of nation in the work of some of our writers enamored of what they may imagine to be supranational fantasy, but which on closer inspection is merely another import from elsewhere, particularly the West. We dream of a borderless world and delude ourselves into thinking that the Internet has created precisely that, forgetting that the terms of discourse on the Internet, literary or otherwise, are still largely established in and by the West.

On a more hopeful note, the best of our new writing reflects a maturity of form and content that Lopez would have appreciated—not only in English but in other languages as well. Whether the work be realist, fantastic, or anything in between, our best writers are producing stories and novels demonstrating a firm grasp of our social and political realities and their complex nuances, dealing with such contemporary topics as the diaspora, the digital age, corruption, gender issues, the environment, and the fantastic as a means by which to apprehend the real.

Salvador P. Lopez’s urgings for writers to be grounded in the society that provides them there material and their sustenance cannot be lost on us teachers of literature and writing, who are in a position to remind our students that, aside from artistic expression, writers serve a goal “none more worthy than the improvement of the condition of man and the defense of his freedom.”

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E-mail me at and check out my blog at

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