Literature, criticism, and nation

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - December 15, 2018 - 12:00am

Literature is important, not so much because it is entertainment but because it brightens our humdrum lives. Journalism – what we read or see every day in the news, or sometimes the narration of events on Facebook – is history in a hurry. But literature, by its very nature, by exciting the mind, is history that is lived.

It is, of course, much more than text that makes history come alive. Literature is a great teacher with its artful rendition of so many prosaic lives, with its elucidation of life itself, the resolution of human dilemmas. It is through literature that we learn ethics, a most important component in living, which we cannot get even if we spent years in a seminary studying cosmology and theology. 

And the people who write, who tell us stories, and bring us poetry and dramas – even if they may not be very good at their craft – they perform a very important function. They are the staunch keepers of memory. Without this memory, there is no nation. We see then how important literature is. Through literature we will know our history, and eventually, we will have a deeper understanding of human nature, of our very selves. And this knowledge of ourselves is the most important knowledge of all. Just one caveat here – knowledge is not wisdom. How we use knowledge is wisdom.

We have a very strong tradition in political criticism, most of it personal in nature, seldom substantive or ideological because of the very personal nature of our politics. Our politicians attack one another and yet, they can remain personal friends for their kind of criticism is superficial and insincere.

We have very little cultural criticism, maybe because cultural criticism requires thinking and analysis, as well as very good background on culture and the arts. Let me put it this way, folk criticism has great validity in the sense that the folk themselves are involved in folk culture. Go to an Ifugao community in the Cordilleras and ask anyone there who is the best weaver, the best woodcarver, and the whole village knows because all the villagers are engaged in the crafts native to the village. Modern art, including literature, has become anarchical. It requires more astute understanding and criticism, after all the function of criticism is to identify excellence and separate it from the mediocre.

When you read a novel or a short story, ask this simple question. Is it art? Then you must be able to define art – its originality, its creativity and, most of all, its beauty. Is it boring? If so, find out why. It is an artist’s job to be interesting and not to be boring at all. Is the prose literary? The syntax, the grammar, are they all in place? Is there logic to the plot? Are the characters believable? What is the meaning of the story, the novel? Does it teach us anything? And, yes, you may also ask, is the story moral. And when you ask this question, you begin in earnest to criticize for you give value to art itself. In the end you may even ask, if God is the ultimate artist, is God moral?

I now come to a very important observation, the relevance of the New Criticism which was a literary fad in the United States shortly after World War II. It influenced the Filipino writer-teachers who went to the United States during that period – NVM Gonzalez, the Tiempos of Silliman, Franz Arcellana, and the whole generation of student writers they influenced and who are now teachers repeating the tired clichés and teaching those workshops. I advise you not to attend workshops. I never did. They should be replaced by lectures on philosophy, anthropology, sociology, politics and history, even revolution – all the major themes that make for good literature. And let us not forget that the Bible is great literature. 

There is a term in technology transfer which refers particularly to this critical fad: inappropriate technology. What did the New Criticism teach? Focus on the leaves and not on the whole tree itself. Technique was paramount, and irony was a virtue that every good fiction must have.

In time, within a few short years, this literary fad disappeared from the American campus, but not in the Philippines, where its tenets persist to this very day, preached by the teachers who were weaned in it. The result is emphasis on form rather than substance, and this has produced fiction that is arid and dull primarily because these writers ignored the verities that make for good literature – the conflicts, the tensions of everyday living, and the harsh truths of human frailty and of society itself.

It is time then to abandon this outmoded fad, this crippling American influence on our literature, and to echo Emerson, that great American sage who advised American writers to abandon European romanticism and celebrate America instead.

So, then we too must celebrate the Philippines, bring out the Filipino genius, and get our artists truly rooted in native soil.

But art, literature, is never enough. Beyond our puny lives and our puny aspirations is something much, much bigger than ourselves. This is no other than our community, our nation, without which we are nothing but chaff that can be wafted away by the slightest breeze.

Literature and nation – with our literature, we define ourselves, our nation, its cultural boundaries, its spirit most of all, for it is a nation’s literature which expresses its soul.

We celebrate the land, and in turn celebrate ourselves, give meaning to our very lives, which otherwise is meaningless because it is lived only for ourselves. This is the essence of nationality, of nationhood, that sometimes escapes us, concerned as we are only with our own ambitions. By transcending the self, we reach out and are firmly welded into something bigger than us, inchoate and unrecognized because the imagination has yet to define it.

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