Poetic Pathologies, 1



A. Solver Agcaoili



The big question relative to Ilokano writing in general, and Ilokano literature in particular, is this: what is wrong with it?


This question gains currency when some tests come along, as is the case with what is happening to one of the many publics of Ilokano poetics we call simply ‘the Ilokano writers’. 


Ilokano poetics, of course, as understood in this essay, is a generic concept that means the principle and form of ‘Ilokano literary art’.


This artistic form—also understood popularly as ‘Ilokano literature’, is not a monolithic concept as it reveals complex practices both in its production and consumption, therefore summoning a variety of critical approaches to its understanding.


In general terms, Ilokano literature easily falls under the rubric of what is called popular culture or pop culture—a kind of culture mediated by capital and the logic of industry that goes with that capital. In short, it is a game played between the business people whose interest is in the marketing of culture and its derivatives, and the consumers of that culture, that is, the readers.


This kind of a culture, of course, can be distinguished from a more ideologically critical form of culture called mass art or the art of the masses—a kind of cultural production and consumption in which critical consciousness and its evolution is its aim.


Ilokano literature has traces in both: as popular culture or as mass art, this last one specifically called the literature of the masses. While the distinction is analytical, it is possible that a certain poetic practice, while produced and consumed by a cultural structure mediated by capital and industry, may contain a critical perspective of the life of the community and the aim of that life for the pursuit of genuine freedom, and thus, that literary practice might eventually fall under the rubric of mass literature.


When we therefore speak of the pathologies of Ilokano poetics, we refer to that which ails this form of artistic practice, and the kind of dynamic that goes with the production and consumption of works produced out of that artistic practice.


Here is the verdict: a large chunk of Ilokano literature being practiced is a useless body of pulp, with no sense of critical consciousness but only investing upon this body of pulp sentimentalism, with no liberating view of the terrors and surprises of how sentiments can be summoned to humanize the everyday documentation of life.


A good literary work can summon the energies that attend to the meditative recognition of the redeeming power of human sentiments; the falling into the trap of sentimentalism is what renders a seemingly good work as pulp that is good only for the trash bin.


Many of the short stories that Ilokano literature have produced follow this trap of sentimentalism, an endless trap—this trap relentless in its production and reproduction of ‘idealized’ Ilokano women, for instance, women who kowtow to the wishes of Ilokano men, of Ilokano women vowing to love even the most stupid of their Ilokano husbands or lovers. Or children abused—domestically violated by their fathers and mothers—in order for these children to be taught the hard lessons of life. 


No, we cannot allow literature to become an instrument of the continuing dehumanization of women and children—and men—as well.


If Ilokano literature fails to respond to the fundamental issue of human liberation, then it will be forever useless, as it will continue to inflict upon us harm with its promise of ‘dolce’ plain and pure, with no responsibility for ‘utile’.


Dolce, of course, is sweetness, or as one Ilokano writer would have it: “makaay-ayo iti agbasbasa”. This is crap, when this is the only criterion for the production of Ilokano literature, whether popular or mass. While sweetness is an obligation to our readers, we have an obligation as well to cultivate their sense of what is right, of what is meaningful, of what makes sense, indeed, in life. 

This leads us to utile.

Utile is that commitment any Ilokano literary practice ought to have, its function of becoming an agent for the cultivation of mind and thought, and thus, life.


We must insist on this thesis: dolce alone does not suffice—and neither is utile too.


An honest Ilokano work of literature, honest because it is true to its aim, would have to navigate the demands of both dolce and utile, and the artistic ability of the writer is to be able to have virtue in his work. Otherwise, the writer is a pretender: pretending to please his or her audiences, and then in the end, really pleasing them, but making them dumb as well. That is, if the writer himself or herself is not also dumb, made dumb by his or her pretenses to his or her art or craft. 


To illustrate:


We have the “Wedding Dance” and its thesis of love and suffering and sacrifices restated over and over again, with no hope for redemption. We juxtapose this against another narrative, in a dramatic form, "Bukel ti Rengngat."


What we need, for instance, is to unravel this pathology by invoking the kind of courage Pelagio Alcantara exhibited when he recast that anti-woman Amador Daguio story into something redemptive and redeeming, with his Ilokano story, “Bukel ti Rengngat”. 


In Alcantara’s bold reworking of a classic of Philippine literature in English—one whose lines and scenes every educated university student almost memorized in his or her general education years--we have before us the unfurling of a misreading of the human and the social condition, and the rendering of that misreading as ‘the’ right one without asking the bigger questions of human life. 


With a dramatic twisting and turning of the plot of the original narrative, Alcantara commences the unfurling of social injustice as lived in the personal with the renaming of the characters in the Daguio original and making these characters act, with their new names, in accord with the issues of basic justice, with Damiyao not anymore simply a foot soldier of a fossilized, almost inhuman, view of a living culture, and Linnaay and Nimnay able to discourse the text of their lives, their loves included. 

The Daguio piece gives you Awiyao the lover whose only option was to submit to the power of the tribe and to have no courage to fight for the big love of his life. 

With that failure by Awiyao to discourse love and commit to it--his love in the context of both his person and his community--we have a Lumnay, a failed human being, caressing her Cordillera ‘sitao’, her failure co-authored by her very own beloved who has that cowardly act of declaring his undying love while the drums of the tribe, in that dong-dong-dong of frenzied beatings, constantly call him to his new wedding with someone else.   


With this bold stroke, we have a model, as we have a model in the various poems of Juan S.P. Hidalgo.


I remember one of his poems that to this day continues to haunt me: it is the story of brothers, one a guerilla, another a soldier, and the setting, as we can see in the painting that I saw in his house a long time ago in graduate school when I first egged him on for an interview, is possibly in Vintar or Piddig, the hometown of my ancestors. Either of the places, of course, is a symbol, and it can be anywhere in the rural areas where the mountains still call the rebels and the soldiers still pursue them, in that endless hide-and-seek of murder and mayhem in the name of our people, in the name of democracy for the elites, in the name of freedom for the elect.


Given these two as examples, the elders of Ilokano poetics have left us something to think about and hold onto and believe that something good is still—still—happening in Ilokano literature. But this something that is good is tentative, is temporal, is, in fact, fragile, as the pathological in Ilokano poetics is getting more and more delicate and serious, grave and cancerous. 


When we see the rising critical consciousness of the current crop of younger writers, we see the daring veins of these works of committed writing by Alcantara, at least with the “Bukel ti Rengngat” play and by the many poems of Hidalgo.


But this we must say now: Alcantara was informed by a more universal view of literature, and that spirit he caught from his readings and meditations he used in his works.


Hidalgo had the same exposure to other works and other aesthetic and poetic practices other than the incestuous works of Ilokano writers, with one Ilokano writer reading only another Ilokano writer and thus forming a partnership that might as well be called a mutual admiration club: “I pat your back, bro, you pat my back, bro.”


This kind of an attitude gives rise to the almost impossible practice of criticism in Ilokano literature as a popular form.


What we have thus is another incestuous criticism--a rather narrow form of criticism that makes use of all those impossible jargon and register from the academe that only those intellectual braggarts and wannabes could understand. 

This criticism in and from the academe, when not returned in a to-and-fro relationship with the community of writers of this poetics, breeds only high-brow, unreadable critics among those in that culture industry of the universities and colleges. 

What we have thus is an academic critic talking to an academic critic, with each other as the audience as well. 

That situation does not lead to a broader conversation but to a conversation among the elite who can afford not to take part in the mutual stroking of Ilokano writers, and perhaps their division into camps that can afford to throw muck at each other, their throwing before the public that is almost always caught off-guard. If this is not intellectual incest, I do not know of any other name for this.


In both practices, Ilokano poetics is at the losing end.


So what is pathologic with Ilokano poetics?


It is that incestuous relationship between its production and consumption, with Ilokano writers the number one agent in that disease I call, borrowing some terms in bioethical inquiry, as “iatrogenesis pandemic”: a disease that begins with the Ilokano writer and ends with the Ilokano writer.


Sadly, one of the proofs of this iatrogenesis pandemic in Ilokano poetics is the giving of awards to writers and/or pretenders who cannot even show a mature—and thus a quality—body of work to prove their claim to greatness in the eyes of their peers. 

Such a body of work ought to have resonance, and failing to have that, these awards are not of merit but of dubious gifts of flattery, its ground ad populum and its dubious glorious mysteries something that we all have to stop reciting in that angelus of self-deception and more so, delusion of grandeur. 


If we are going to ask for an accounting of those who have been awarded by the GUMIL Filipinas with the Leona Florentino for the greatest of the Ilokano women writers and the Pedro Bukaneg for the greatest of the Ilokano men, I wonder if we have the courage to come up with a blatant move to recall some of them. 

Really now: are all of them deserving precisely because they can prove that their body of works--presuming they have--are wellspring for the cultivation of our life as a people?

Failing to account these awards is the continuing commission of this pathologic poetic incest that is happening. 

The good poet--the one who is bold and daring--needs to speak up and be honest with the honor accorded to him or her by his or her peers. If she or he does not deserve it, she or he should return it to the irresponsible committee of one or few that gave her or him that award. 


It is pathological, this practice, and we need to have the courage to reflect and criticize our selves. This is called reflexivity, and good Ilokano poetics must have to have this.

Hon, HI/Dec 29/08





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