Sunday Lifestyle

The moral obligation of writers

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

First, the good news, particularly to all of you who teach literature courses. The retired Fil-Am academic, Dylan Dizon who is now working pro bono in the Philippine educational system, handed me this information only last week about a scientific study in the United States which has just been concluded. It showed that reading novels “expands the capacity of the brain, stimulates it for creative thinking” and equips novel readers with higher “emotional quotient” (EQ) thus enabling them to have better social relations and understanding of the human condition.

The study does not mention what kind of novels should be read; with this information, I hope there will be more readers of my novels.

I have, of course, already spoken at length on the importance of literature. It helps us in the building of a community, a nation, by strengthening our memory, by bonding us together, and helping us to remember.

Literature also rescues us from the quagmire of ignorance and shallowness — a condition that convinced so many of us to elect nincompoop movie stars as our leaders.

Given these shortcomings, we can easily deduce that writers as propagandists and keepers of the word have tremendous moral obligations. Let me now illustrate what these are.

I emphasize the word “obligation” for some writers believe so much in themselves, and are so full of themselves they think they are above all conventions, that they deserve and demand special treatment, their faults glossed over, their eccentricities accepted. Indeed, as I have often said — literature is the noblest of the arts but writers are not always noble; in fact, some can be very obnoxious.

The first responsibility of the writer is to his craft, and to his audience. This means he should always be careful with the demands of craftsmanship. He must know grammar, the precise meaning of words, how to create tension in what he writes. He should have rhythm, music, and most of all, real solid thinking.

He should be able to write a clean, honest sentence, a clean, honest paragraph, a clean and honest story — and then, perhaps, if he perseveres, a clean and honest novel.

Then, with imagination, creativity and originality — these he cannot get in workshops — he becomes an artist.

After this responsibility to the craft and audience, the writer must be aware of his responsibility to his family, his clan, his people. This responsibility helps create his indelible identity.

This identity is articulated not so much by his statements of belief but by his very work, though expressed in a borrowed language. This is true particularly of ex-colonials like so many of us who write in the language of the colonizer. It is also true of those who, by force of history and necessity, have become inadequate in their own languages and have adopted the language of the colonizer. For instance, many of the native languages in South America are still very much alive but the lingua franca of the former Spanish colonies is Spanish.

How then can a native be totally loyal to the land of his birth when he expresses himself in the language of his colonizer; not in the national language? I have been asked this question and, of course, I have a ready answer: Was Rizal less Filipino because he wrote in Spanish? And one thing more: I am not Tagalog and as an Ilokano, I consider my language far superior to Tagalog. For one, the validity of a language usually starts with its epic; the Ilokanos have one — the Tagalogs do not.

Is nationality an absolute necessity? Not really, but most works of art — and that includes literature — bear a distinct nationality. The fiction of Manuel Arguilla, for instance, is characterized by its vivid descriptions of the Ilokos region and the Ilokanos. Such identify the author’s roots, but more than roots, identity also demonstrates the author’s deeply felt sense of nation.

But there are writers who don’t identify themselves with any locale; their roots are not in the soil or clime of a particular niche in geography; they could be ideals, faith, truths, beliefs that are just as real as the soil itself.

In their commitment to such truths, writers often depict with callous clarity the ugliness that they perceive in their country. They present their homeland in a most despicable light not just to themselves, but to the world at large. There is a problem here — they denigrate their own country and profit from such denigration. I find this beyond contempt.

Jessica Hagedorn’s The Dog Eaters is such a book. And there is hardly any dog-eating in it. Published in the United States, where eating dogs is taboo, the book ridicules Filipinos. Surely the author knows this but just the same, she used the title obviously to attract readers.

There is a trend among young moviemakers to portray the bizarre and the dirt in our country. Such movies portray us in such a manner that evokes disgust. Truth again, how then may the artist justify such portrayal?

This is my own and personal answer to this question. I have also created images of truth that are not pleasing to the eye but I do this consciously within the framework of art and more than this discipline, I portray in the same frame atonement, redemption, justification.

And finally, and most importantly, literature teaches us ethics. You can be in a seminary or monastery studying cosmology, philosophy for years and years — but you will not be taught ethics to live and act it. Only literature with its depiction of abject human dilemmas, with its appeal to the heart and mind, strengthens our conscience and imbues us with ethics.

The first and most important responsibility of the writer then is to himself and his art — a heavy burden for any individual to shoulder simply because life is not a simple matter of black and white, of right and wrong. In between is a huge gray area — a limbo, an uncharted territory wherein we live. All of us are burdened with internal contradictions that we have to live with if we cannot resolve them. The conflict, for instance, is not between right and wrong but between belief and action.

And then, there are those of us who cannot recognize this internal contradiction for what it is, or if we do, we ignore it completely for the urgencies of the hour, for the old habits of living (and lying) which have already been deeply alloyed with us.

In my novel The Pretenders, I illustrate one such contradiction; the main character, Tony Somson, berates his journalist friend, Godo, for accepting a P2,000 bribe from his industrialist father-in-law. Godo tells Tony in sorrow and anger that the money went to the cure for his wife who has terminal cancer; then he goes on to say he was just getting back so little of what the industrialist had stolen from government, from underpaying his workers.

This incident affirms my statement that integrity cannot buy breakfast, that we cannot be self-righteous, that we must understand.

So then, the ultimate question: Is art — literature, all the arts — is it moral? The ancients asked this question, too, the way we are asking it now. The larger question is, of course, is man moral? Art as such has no virtue; it does not act and morality is characterized most of all by action or inaction. It is the impact, the influence, the emotional feelings which art evokes that may be judged.

The ancients answered this question with their architecture — their temples and in more recent times with their cathedrals. Note, however, that the Iglesia Ni Cristo’s cathedral is its mammoth arena! The Greek plays of old were staged to celebrate their gods, and, yes, let us not forget that the Bible is beautiful and enduring literature. The ethics which literature teaches us — if we pursue it to its very core — is in man’s belief in that Deity, that Almighty, wherein, wherefrom it resides. We are surrounded by the majesty of miracles, the mystery of life — we don’t cerebrate them anymore.

I am often asked to write my own autobiography, or a novel with a happy ending unlike what I have already written, novels with unhappy endings. Writers write from their very lives. The epilogue of my novel Ermita is the reverie of the history professor Rolando Cruz, who, on a subway train in Tokyo, is overwhelmed by memories of home. He cries. That was me, as I wrote it in my journal. I was lost in that giant Tokyo station, Shinjuku. I finally saw my train, got into it then thoughts of home came — the profligacy of the Marcoses, the poverty, the killings, and remembering all these, I had wept.

Are there very good reasons now for me to rejoice? My little bookshop in Padre Faura is now surrounded by skyscrapers. Fat and glossy cars jostle each other in my neighborhood, and all over Manila are new and tony restaurants, and shops bursting with quality goods. The economic index shows that our growth rate is one of the highest in Asia and our political system is functioning very well with three senators in jail.

But this seeming, shining prosperity is an illusion, masking that so many of our very poor have become desperate and that many Filipinos now, more than before, are eating only once a day.

With all these clearly imaged in my mind, I know only too well that my generation has failed, that art — literature particularly — has not served our people well.

I will be 90 very soon — an old man by any standard, with so much hindsight — which is the lowest form of wisdom, to understand why we continue to be poor, why there’s so much injustice ravaging this nation, and why wealth is coveted by so few. And more than ever, I cling to this belief that our redemption is not in the hands of our very rich, but in our very poor — that it is in their power to banish these inequities, if they can band together and realize that in their hunger, they command.

But they need the very young — you — to help them and lead them as did those young leaders — Bonifacio, Mabini, del Pilar in 1896. And most of all, that greatest of Filipino writers, Jose Rizal.

* * *

This is what the author told the teachers at the closing of the two-day conference on the teaching of literature at the SMX Convention Center last week. University of the Philippines professors Mila Laurel and Adel Lucero asked him to give the closing address.
















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