Lualhati Bautista’s DESAPARECIDOS, Bonifacio, & the Politics of Time–E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

[UP VISAYAS TALK Feb 4, 2014]

by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

1. Any process of reflection on the situation of Filipinos and Philippine society today, post-9/11 and in the midst of intense U.S. surveillance of the world as part of its global war on extremist terrorism, requires sustained historical consciousness. This involves critical self-reflection if we want to intervene in changing our social situation and our everyday lives.

“Historical” implies the passage of time through events from one mode of social relations to another, the past undergoing transformation to produce the next stage of social development, the future.   “Consciousness” implies not just individual self-reflection but a grasp of the milieu and its collective self-awareness, the mentality of the epoch, as well as its manifold determinations.

2. The Yolanda catastrophe disclosed the stage we are in: an entrenchment of the neocolonial formation begun in 1946. We witnessed again not only endemic corruption and ineptitude, but more starkly the intervention of foreign actors, in particular, the United States navy and airforce, which offered a pretext for allowing large-scale, more permanent deployment of US forces throughout the country. This in addition to the drone/Special Forces operations already going on in Mindanao, Sulu, and other regions. The protest over pork-barrel thievery is a symptom of growing popular discontent–not enough, however, to spark nationwide insurrection.

3. Part of the symptom of increased deterioration of the neocolonial setup is the impact of the public exposure–on top of other local protests in various regions. esp those affected by mining, demolition of homes,etc.  Everyone knows that this has been going on since the US colonial administration parcelled out the bureaucracy and the ideological state apparatus–courts, legislature, military–to the local elite with landlord and comprador roots. This was part of the pacification campaign from 1899 to the Cold War period.

Bourgeois sociologists call this the client-patron relationship, part of the old structures of interdependency. The US cultivated this and institutionalized it in the Quezon Commonwealth regime; it worsened during the Cold War era, systematized by the Marcos dictatorship, and vulgarized in the Estrada and Arroyo regimes.

4. Except for a few stories and novels in the vernacular, literary artists have not thoroughly diagnosed the corruption endemic to a neocolonial, dependent system. One outstanding example is Stevan Javellana’s WITHOUT SEEING THE DAWN. Of course, the classic works of Lope K Santos, Arguilla, Amado V. Hernandez may be cited as allegorical and realist testimonies to the historical contradictions of the period from the early years of US colonial rule to the fifties.

Aside from state censorship and persecution of subversive writers, the use of English and the class-affiliation of the intelligentsia served to reinforce the ideological hegemony of the imperial power in the sphere of culture. Even the most popular vernacular poet of the twenties and thirties of the last century, Jose Corazon de Jesus, who wrote in accessible Tagalog and attacked racist Americans, could not fully escape the individualist conformism of his vocation. He was more effective as a journalistic recorder of folk beliefs and hypnotic entertainer of the plebeian crowd.

5. Our literature in English remains confined to clever imitations and at best genteel parodies of the latest vogue celebrated by US taste-makers and fashion arbiters. The major writer who dared to wrestle with the crises of the collective psyche, more precisely the ordeals of activists, during the Marcos dictatorship and after is Lualhati Bautista, also famous for the films DEKADA 70 & BATA BATA PAANO KA GINAWA? Bautista is a self-declared feminist writer in Filipino who tries  to cater to the taste of the bakya crowd and the high-brow aficionados of the Filipino commercial cinema. But her virtuosity seems not to have registered deeply to make her name instantly recognizable as that of Manny Pacquiao or Nora Aunor, star of the recent film THY WOMB.

6.  Before I offer a few comments on Bautista’s latest novel, DESAPARECIDOS, I want to say something about the 150th anniversary of Andres Bonifacio’s birth celebrated last year.

7. After World War II, I was seven years old and entered the Andres Bonifacio Elementary School near Blumentritt, Sta Cruz, Manila. I knew more about the 13 martyrs of Cavite than about the Supremo because I acted in a skit about one of them. Later I knew more about Jose Abad Santos when I entered a school named after him.

During grade school and high school, I had only rudimentary notions of Bonifacio’s role in the 1896 revolution. Only in college, after being exposed to Agoncillo’s Revolt of the Masses, did I acquire a fuller understanding of Bonifacio’s importance, albeit a somewhat distorted version due to the prejudiced optic of such commentators as Agoncillo himself, Zaide, Nick Joaquin, etc. It is only through the brave efforts of our kasamas in the national-democratic movement that we can now appreciate Bonifacio’s decisive intervention in that epic of revolt against Spanish colonial domination, an ongoing narrative beginning from Soliman and Dagohoy up to Silang, Apolinario de la Cruz, Burgos, to Rizal, Jaena, Del Pilar, and the Katipunan.

8.  From a historical-materialist perspective, Bonifacio is less an individual than an embodiment of collective forces
that were stirred up by the Propagandists, mainly by Rizal’s novels and his failed Liga. The Katipunan is not just a collection of disgruntled individuals but an organized assemblage of conscious minds mobilized for directed, planned action. It laid the ground for constructing the counterhegemonic vision of future national-democratic struggles: the Sakdalista, Huk, NPA/NDF, etc.

9. Unlike the hero-worshipping habits imposed by aristocratic Spain and the utilitarian U.S., the ideology of the Katipunan emphasized cooperation, mutual aid, and the welfare of the community. National solidarity, not individualism. The revolution initiated by Bonifacio’s Katipunan contradicted the cacique mentality of the Aguinaldo circle, petty holding proprietors, titled ilustrados, the Westernized intelligentsia.  While Bonifacio and his circle were themselves products of the European Enlightenment, specifically the radical philosophes, they also functioned as organic intellectuals of the workers and peasants. Not the pasyon but the habitus of Indyo artisans and urban workers (Manila then was a collection of neighborhoods) shaped their everyday conduct, a life-form whose virtue inhered in spontaneous feelings, rituals of sharing, emotive gestures and clandestine agitation rather than detached inquiry.

10.  All the writings of Bonifacio, as well as the documents of the Katipunan, testify to a massive endeavor to educate workers and peasants in order to raise their political consciousness, not to enhance their talent to promote their individual status or family fortunes. This applied also to the writings of Rizal, Mabini, and others. But Bonifacio used the vernacular and appealed to the organic sensibility of people engaged in daily work and collective struggle against a violent predatory system.

In sum, the narrative of Philippine modernity based on the rational autonomy of each individual talent harnessed for the common good begins with Bonifacio and the Katipunan. Incredulity toward this master-narrative can only sustain the abuses of dynastic warlord families, proprietors of semi-feudal estates, as well as their comprador-bureaucratic networks in government. Consumerist individualism and lumpen criminality are morbid byproducts of this interregnum between the old dying system and the new one still convulsed by birth pangs.

11.  We have not yet achieved full sovereign autonomy, given our dependence on US dictates (military, economic, etc.) and IMF/WB and WTO mandates. With over ten million OFWs, the economy depends vitally on the unstable global market hiring migrant labor. Call centers and outsourcing businesses immediately suffer any slight adjustment in global stock exchanges.

Lacking any master-plan for industrialization, food sufficiency, ecological health and sustainable development, our country remains an immiserated appendage of global finance-capital. And if it were not for the remittance of billions of dollars to pay the foreign debt and support the consumerist lifestyles of both the rich and the families of OFWs, we would be like Haiti, a virtual US colony. But an economy based on commodification and export of millions of brown bodies is precariously mortgaged on the cycles of global capitalism, afflicted with periodic calamities and ongoing wars and worsening destruction of the planet’s ecosystem.

12.  Bonifacio’s dream of national autonomy, popular sovereignty, and prosperity remains suspended in the sporadic struggles of numerous groups around the country–farmers, indigenous Lumad communities, women, students, OFWs abroad, etc. The moment of systemic breakdown depends on the convergence of all these separate insurrections, movements variably contingent on or affected by the international alignment of blocs of regional forces.

Bonifacio’s execution by the Aguinaldo clique reminds us that unless class divisions, and their attendant  ideology of narrow class or familial interests (both of which are maintained by US hegemony) are overcome, we cannot progress as an independent nation and a people with dignity and singular identity. This unity is something to be theorized in consonance with practical organized movements.

13. Bonifacio is being resurrected everyday in the numerous efforts of our countrymen to oppose imperialist diktat and the subserviency to their imperialist patrons of our politicians, compradors, and landlords–the oligarchic elite– whose lives have been molded to maintain a violent system whose grant of “impunity” for torturers and killers is a clear sign of its moral and political bankruptcy.

14. This climate of “impunity” for those responsible for atrocities and barbaric excesses during the long night of the Marcos dictatorship is the theme of Bautista’s novel DESAPARECIDOS. The title itself, derived from the Latin American nightmare of repression of insurgents by military dictators supported by the CIA (as in Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina, Chile, etc.), betokens the continuing repression of civil liberties and the fascist violence used to impose it. It also symbolizes the vanished, erased or extinguished parts of our memory and consciousness without which we cannot claim responsibility for our actions, or freedom to create our own destiny.

15. Foremost among the disappeared in Panay are Luisa Dominado and Nilo Arado. They were followed by Jonas Burgos, Sherley Cadapan, Karen Empeno, and dozens more. What happened? Can a body just disappear in a society whose laws, whose constitution, presumably seek to guarantee the life and liberty of everyone? Who are the agents of making bodies disappear as if by magic or uncanny and bizarre means? And when bodies surface as corpses, cadavers with stigmata of State coercion (euphemistically called “extra-economic compulsions”), are there risks for anyone who can identify them?

16.  Bautista’s novel is both an expressive and communicative act. Expression becomes possible only when communication succeeds (always in contentious or conflicted degrees), enabling the reader to translate ideas/feelings into action. To ask what the novel communicates is to ask how the individual reader is interpellated to become a subject capable of action premised on a certain view of life, a configuration of lived experience, and sense of an intelligible future.  We also want to interrogate whether the project of interpellation–making readers not only conscious of their historical situation but also aware of their potential in transforming their world–successful or not. If not, why not?

17.  I propose three theses for exploration and discussion: First, this novel attempts to make sense of the terrible disruption of lives, of institutions and traditional beliefs, inflicted by the Marcos dictatorship through the ordeals of two families–three if we include the parents of Jingki, the assasinated traitor to the NPA. Were all those sacrifices worth the cause? Was that period of emergency meaningful, valuable, or necessary?

Second, the attempt to make whole broken bodies, destroyed lives, employs the plight of a mother searching for her lost child, exposing in the process the conflict between political commitment and personal (maternal) need, and the disjunction between devotion to a future-oriented revolutionary ideal and the imperative of immediate or punctual satisfaction of family togetherness and organic harmony among blood kins. Is the conflict resolved, thus allowing for the invention of a different or alternative future? What notion of the future is produced by a reading of this novel?

Third, the argument for revolutionary justice–the revenge of the deaths of others by the sacrifice of Jingki–appears as a wager that a future life free from such raw justice can arise. Absent a providential or transcendent law/god, can humans with their natural vulnerabilities and resources establish a regime honoring each individual member? Again, can the future be born from a spoiled damaged past and guilt-ridden present? Are possibilities offered by the plot of restored child and confessed deed?

18. The plot unfolds the interaction of multiple times. The themes of separation and reunion, distance and intimacy, unravel in the interplay among three zones or layers of experienced temporality: a) time lost/frozen (for Anna fixated on finding her daughter consigned to a lost comrade Karla), b) time present (Roy remembering the burning of his family in front of an NGO group trying to reconstitute the historic truth/authenticity of what happened, and finally confessing his role as party agent of revenge), and (c) time future (duration as continuity), personified by the two daughters: Karla who wants to know/learn about her past, her mother’s homeland; and Lorena whose everyday recording of what is occurring to her parents, etc., registers the symptoms of rupture and displacements, the asynchrony between past and present, thus rendering the future problematic, at best, and amenable to speculative extrapolation.

19. The novel resolves the fixations of Ana and Roy with the return of Karla from Canada, and the confession of Malaya to Ana about her origin. Moved by Ana’s obsession, Karla (whose spatial removal and marriage fills up the lost time wasted during the Marcos years) renounces her claim to Malaya. Malaya in turn reaffirms the biological mother Ana, though she does not reject Karla. Roy finally confesses that he killed Jingki, Karla’s husband, on orders of the party, thus partly purging himself of guilt. One can speculate that revenge on a former comrade Jingki compensates for Roy’s fury and sense of futility or helplessness in leaning of the killing of his parents and sister.

But it can be argued that the reunion of mother and daughter does not fully provide an answer to the lost meaning or import of the anti-imperialist struggle in the lives of these protagonists. The summary of chronological history in between the 9th and 10th chapter, entitled “Once upon a fairy tale…” attests to the problem broached by the politics of time and the disaggregation of space in an unevenly developed, ideologically conjunctural formation.

20. Surely the return of the lost daughter and the vindication of Ana’s persistent effort to find Karla, as well as the retribution inflicted on Jinky for betraying his comrades, do not appease our uneasiness. The narrative voice indicates as much, asking: Was all that enormous sacrifice worth it when the ghost of the past reappears in Arroyo’s Marcos-like authoritarianism?

We assert the proposition that biology, nature as found/received condition, is no answer to the failure of individuals to honor their personal responsibilities, much less their political commitments. We are not absolutely determined by our environment or our heritages which are all subject to contingencies and mutability. But to whom is the individual responsible?

21. Karla’s role is exemplary: she sacrifices her own daughter in order to protect and save her comrade’s child, thus valorizing community over biology. She also proves that though the struggle separates bodies and destroys families, they also open up the space for new forms of belonging, solidarity, and fellowship opposed to alienation and capitalist reification.

Her absence from the scene of carnage and torture allows the passage of time to nourish the seeds of past time (Malaya) and the potential for a new beginning in the conjunction of the two sisters. Her exiled body functions as the positive side to the negativity of disappeared and mutilated bodies, thus allowing the opening for new action, for a future of a new form of society to emerge.

It is in this horizon of expectation that this narration of negation, disavowals and disappeareds produces the realm of possibilities for collective intervention, and therefore the realization of social agency for the victims, all those denied recognition, the disappeared and violated and dispossessed.

22.  Fragments of the historical totality of twenty years (comprising the martial law years plus the early disappointing years of the Cory Aquino regime) remain suspended in a narrative replete with moments of intense dramatic confrontations. Lived existential time generates a pressure that prevents clear judgment and discourages any fair evaluation of each person’s role in the events of torture, abduction, and killing. But historical or spatial distance (between Malaya and Lorena, for instance) does not guarantee justice and elucidation of moral or ethical ambiguities, either.

23. So the final question we face is: what does the novel’s interpellation seek to elicit from us? Validating the harmonious reconciliation of Karla and Ana, of Karla and Roy, and the resolution of contradictions between the party and its members who are critical and deviant? Can the recovered daughter Malaya symbolize the future for the split psyche of the mother being healed by their embrace? Consider this: “Nang ibaba ni Ana ang kamay niya ay hindi para yakapin si Malaya kundi para yakapin ang sarili… Hanggang sa si Malaya ang yumakap sa kanya, niyakap siya nang mahigpit, buong higpit, na parang sa yakap na iyon ay sinisikap ibalik ang dalawampu’t isang taon” (p. 220).

24. In Hegel’s philosophy, the dialectic of lord and slave climaxes the process of drawing the lessons of the struggle for recognition. The lesson is the knowledge of historical time, the investigated logic of the process of history. Here the dialectic of time past and time present culminates in mother-daughter embrace, a fusion of blood-streams: nature overcomes history, dissolves memory and the narrative of differential moments into a cosmological continuum. The almost mythical rhythm of maternal/biological annuls the question about the future and with it the possibility of historical agency.

25. The question of agency (faced by Roy in the chapter before the last) involves speculations or anticipations of the future. This is tied also to the theme of violence against women, specifically targeting the body, sexuality (rape, mutilation of genitals, etc.) Ultimately, the chief task of this narrative and other structural projects of plotting (by Filipino writers) is to answer what is the meaning or sense of human actions in history. Put more concretely, what is the purpose or import of Filipino intervention in history, particularly the shaping of the present/future of the nation?

26. Resolving the problem of agency, as well as the meaning of revolutionary action, via affirmation of nature (by identifying the lost child, though Nonong’s cadaver is never publicly identified, despite the father’s torture and sacrifice of his life) is a false and misleading solution. Or it postpones the moment of choice, letting traditional authorities and conventions make the decisions.

Despite the melodramatic reunion of mother and dauther, as well as the bonding between Malaya and Lorie (an allegorical linkage of past and future by the existential present), Bautista suggests an ironical ending in the final two pages about Arroyo’s Proclamation 1017 evoking memories of Marcos’ martial-law declaration. There is a double irony here because the return of the past, even in mock or pantomime version, mimics the return of biology and blood-kinship, Nature.

27. The invocation of Nature returns us to the archaic and feudal stages of the pasyon and mythic rituals. A future shaped by human agency disappears. With it history either vanishes, or becomes the existential present, where “everything solid melts into air.”
We plunge into the narcosis of commodity-fetishism, the deceptive flux and changeability of fashion–the paradisal mirage of global capitalism and its consumerist hallucinations which have seduced us, so ubiquitous in gigantic malls that proliferate in MetroManila, Iloilo, and everywhere. The instant of pleasure or excitement becomes paramount, consumption of ideas or sensations becomes the means for the realization of utopian bliss. The narrative of events and experiences becomes superfluous.

28.  Bautista’s novel reminds us that our bodies can be “disappeared” not just by fascist violence, courtesy of the neocolonial state and US panopticon, but also by the inertia of quasi-feudal habits, by the subterranean reflexes of our physical constitutions. If we allow these forces to operate, the “disappeared” will haunt us forever, as they did for our protagonists Ana and Roy, as well as for Karla, Malaya, Lorie and all the victims and victors of this oppressive and brutal system.

The choice is ours: the owl of Minerva (the critical genius) will not fly out into this night of terror unless the vampires and ghouls of the past are challenged and the survivors with their memories intact assert their presence in time and at all times. This is the time of appearance, not disappearance, for Filipinos

29. Finally, this narrative of loss and recovery, inflected with ironic undertones and allegorical resonance, affords a moment for grasping the totality of the Philippine formation at a conjunctural moment: the neocolonial crisis of the Marcos dictatorship. Totalization enables the synthesis of past sacrifices to link present ordeals with visions of the future, expectations of new life-forms.

We as readers might be able to respond to the interpellation of ourselves as potential agents who can identify murdered activists, assassinated traitors, lost or disappeared citizens, who are all part of our own larger selves, vestiges of our own childhood and symbolic tokens of what we desire to become.

As Bautista herself declared after the Feb 1986 revolt: “Panahon na na lumikha ng alternatibong papel ng babae bilang isang tauhan, lala na’t kasama rin naman ang babae sa pagsusulong ng lipunan…sa tunay at ganap na kalayaan” (“Ang Manunulat bilang Babae at ang Babae bilang Manunulat,”  Tinig-Titik 2, 2nd issue, 1986-87, p. 6).

Various possibilities are open. If we want, a reflexive understanding of this novel can help us disentangle the barbaric from the civilized elements in the intricate, complex web of our national history–from the aborted insurrection of the Katipunan to the aborted uprisings of the Sakdalistas and Huks to the failed People Power Revolt of 1986, and so on. It can help us understand the ironies of political movements and the tragedies of the past as necessary turning-points in our emergence as a people/nation with its rightful place in the nultifaceted, dissonant, messy evolution of world-history.–2/1/2014

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KAFKA & TORTURE: Re-visiting “In the Penal Colony”–metacommentary by E. San Juan, Jr.

KAFKA  &  TORTURE:  Deconstructing the Writing Apparatus of

“In the Penal Colony”

--by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

Copan, Honduras

Capitalism is a system of dependencies, which run from within to without, from without to within, from above to below, from below to above.  All is dependent, all stands in chains.  Capitalism is a condition of the soul and of the world.

–Franz Kafka (Janouch 1968, 206)


Long a prime staple of jurisprudence and psychopathology, torture of human bodies as a form of interrogation and subjection has now become a ubiquitous preoccupation. Every Facebook/Internet client has something to say about it. Even before Foucault, Lacan, Butler, and other postmodernist gurus have pontificated on body/corporeal politics, torture in the form of slavery, lynching, and “third degree interrogation” techniques used in domestic policing and military lgistics of acquiring secret information (for example, “water cure” or water-boarding during the Philippine-American War, Vietnam, Iraq) have precipitated endless philosophical controversies. Is torture justified under any circumstances?

In this epoch of post-9/11 terrorist wars, USA Patriot Act, sophisticated CIA counterinsurgency manuals, and drone killings (see Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars), torture has become so banal as “original sin” for repeat offenders.  What World Court dare pronounce the last word on the moral calculus of torture? It took Naomi Klein’s scrutiny of “the Shock Doctrine” to restore the gravitas of inflicted pain and injury on whole populations in the context of the rancorous debates on foreign policy and corporate globalization in international forums and urban mass demonstrations (see “Torture and the United States” entry in Wikipedia). Systematic torture of groups and collectives, not just of individuals, becomes the chief bone of contention.

The thematic scope of torture as sociopolitical-ideological policy of States and political parties surely demands space—–time far beyond the limits of a cultural critique. In this context, however, I confine myself to one text which presciently foregrounds the body, albeit the fanatical body, as the arena of ascertaining truth (fidelity to reality) by using torture as demonstration. Validating torture becomes a method to persuade others of its efficacy as an instrument of justice. Convincing the victim of State authority literally translates into conviction (in this case, the officer’s death gruesomely depicted).

Kafka’s classic fable dramatizing corporeal hermeneutics might be salutary both to the victims and practitioners of torture (as Lundberg recently suggested [2013]), a heuristic baedeker to the ecology of a planet where prisons/penal institutions function as model internal colonies of which the Guantanamo Bay maximum-security cells comprise but one obsessive mirror-image. More instructive, the chief protagonist of Kafka’s story, the explorer or traveller, is symptomatic of the vacillating if self-righteous mind-set of liberals (should we say neoliberals?) whose weapon of methodological individualism becomes an apology for Abu-Ghraib outrage, philanthropic rescue of veiled women, and mass drone killings.  But let us first inquire into the contentious status of Kafka as the unrivalled icon of twentieth-century existentialist, apocalyptic modernism as well as fragmented, aleatory  postmodernism.

Kafkaesque: Vortex of Antagonisms
One of the most bold if exorbitant claims about Kafka’s greatness as the exemplary modern literary artist was made by George Steiner, and previously by W.H. Auden and Albert Camus (1991). Steiner praised the first sentence of The Trial as “the most graphic moment of clairvoyance, of prophetic imaginings, in twentieth century literature” (Bradbury 1988, 258). And this quote, endorsed by the novelist Malcolm Bradbury, is meant to enlarge the image of Kafka as one “both of the humanity and the fragility of the modern writer in the face of power and of the spirit of anxiety” of our times (1988, 257). Clairvoyance, prophetic imaginings, humanity and fragility in the face of power, anxiety–all these terms distill the commonplace and somewhat now hackneyed consensus that the epithet “Kafkaesque” sums up the tenor, Zeitgeist, temper or frame of mind of the last century of wars, crises and revolutions.
But what exactly does “Kafkaesque” mean? With just two unfinished novels, The Trial and The Castle, and short fables or exempla such as “The Metamorphosis,” “The Judgment,” “In the Penal Colony,” “The Hunger Artist,” and “The Burrow,” Kafka has dominated the field of late-capitalist literary studies primarily due to the ambiguity and enigmatic resonance of his “clear hard prose of reality”–to quote Bradbury again  “at once profoundly imaginary and strangely surreal.” What was at stake beyond formalist standards or ideals?

Kafka’s worldwide fame as the exemplary artist of the absurd and cosmopolitan anguish began with tributes made by Camus,  Auden, Thomas Mann, Theodore Adorno, and others. In the two decades after World War II, Kafka took center-stage in the ideological Cold War. The leading Marxist critic Georg Lukacs attacked Kafka’s “blind and panic-stricken angst” delivered with “passionate sincerity,” without recourse to “formalistic experimentation” (1975, 380). The source of this profound anxiety, “the diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism,” centers on the world of the Hapsburg Monarchy.  But, for Lukacs, Kafka’s quasi-mimetic art embodied in “cryptic symbols of an unfathomable realism” fares poorly compared to the critical realism of Thomas Mann.  Kafka’s “decadent modernism,” lacking a dynamic historical perspective, is thus condemned. A more polemical argument is made by the Soviet critic Boris Suchkov who charges Kafka for depriving “the concept of justice of sense, makes it relative, doubtful, ambiguous, and debatable,” allowing evil paramount sway (1981, 151). For the American Marxist Harry Slochower, Kafka’s avoidance of tragic catharsis inhibits revolutionary action (Solomon 1973, 359; for other Marxist critiques, see Hughes 1981).

The struggle over Kafka in Czechoslovakia has been documented by Eduard Goldstucker who played the leading role in rehabilitating or “demilitarizing”  Kafka at the Liblice International Conference in May 1963 where East German, Soviet, and European intellectuals clashed. Goldstucker noted that Kafka then “had become a central point in the battle for breaking the isolation caused by years of Stalinism and the cold war” (1973, 283). For those living behind the “Iron Curtain,” Kafka symbolized not modernist despair but the freedom to inquire, explore and criticize. In an exchange on the problem of using the loaded term “decadence” as a criterion in judging literary and other art-works (by authors such as Joyce, Beckett, Proust) in general, Goldstucker concurred with Jean-Paul Sartre’s conviction that “decadence” as a concept is not only useless but counter-productive, even corrupting, in a serious dialogue on the task of interpreting the value of art in society. Sartre himself argued that “if one read [Kafka's fiction] in depth one discovers that totality which a modern new novel must always aspire to attain” (1973, 257).

Storming the Institution, Smashing Everything

The orthodox Marxist view that Kafka’s message is historically circumscribed is echoed by maverick critic Edmund Wilson who reject the novelist’s “abject heroes as parables of the human condition” (1962, 94). But this historicist objection cancels itself: Kafka’s heroes are typical because they are actualized particulars. As Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg remark on the nature of narrative in general, “Typically, life is particular and it is inarticulate and irrational,” so that the writer’s originality of vision depends on the “creation of new types of actuality” (1966, 155-56). Hence, Kafka’s authenticity proceeds from the essentially ambiguous engagement with actuality. This engagement consists of “a commitment to the world” and a common language, combined simultaneously with “a reservation, a doubt, a fear before the letter of the signs the world proposes” (Barthes  1972, 136). Kafka’s forte, his virtue, inheres in the production of “negative affirmation” (Hubben 1947, 1173).

Accepting the historical situation with reservations, Kafka responds to his immediate situation with a “yes, but….,” coalescing in one act the realistic project and the ethical project. In other words, While Kafka registers life in the modern world as estrangement, a catastrophic form of exile, he also inscribes in it a utopian hope, with the iconoclastic ironies merging with the melancholy affirmations of Josephine the Singer, and the promise of free distant spaces hinted at in the last chapter of Amerika, the “Nature Theatre of Oklahoma” (1946, 272-298).

What has been ignored or obscured in the ideological war is Kafka’s socialist politics. In 1970, Lee Baxandall documented Kafka’s radical orientation, his affiliation with the revolutionary Youth Club of Prague sympathetic to Marxist thinkers, his early reading of Belinsky, Bakunin, Herzen, and Kropotkin, and the communitarian vision enunciated in the plan he drafted for a propertyless workers’ community. One reads in it this extraordinary statement as one of the “Rights”: “Working life as a transaction of conscience and of faith in one’s fellow man” (Baxandall 1970, 78). How can we be blind to this evidence of profound commitment to working-class solidarity? Let us not forget the confession he made to this friend Max Brod about workers seeking help from the office of the Workers Accident Insurance Institute where Kafka worked: “How modest these people are! They come to us and plead. Instead of storming this institution and smashing everything to bits, they come to us and plead” (Baxandall 1970, 74).

Dialectics versus Casuistry

Kafka offered a problem to Cold War protagonists locked each in one-dimensional optics. Writing about decadent features in capitalist society does not equal approving or justifying them; frames of mind, contexts, need to be factored into the larger picture. In truth, the situation is more complicated since all writers living in a bourgeois society dominated by alienation but also resistance, however minor, may be aware of such contradictions and have to adapt to them as best they can. Among orthodox communists, Roger Garaudy and Ernst Fischer distinguished themselves as rejecting, to some extent, the ethico-political use of “decadent” to downgrade Kafka. They would accept the reading of Kafka’s texts as realist descriptions of alienation, even satirical and critical to some extent.

In 1965, the Culture Theory Panel of the Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party issued a statement “Of Socialist Realism.” It criticized severely Lukacs’ one-sided valorization of bourgeois critical realism to the neglect of socialist realism. In the process, it also attacked Fischer, Goldstucker, Garaudy, Sartre and others who found Kafka’s work useful as a “cognitive mapping” (to use Fredric Jameson’s [2000] phrase) of the milieu at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth-century.  The Hungarian Party asserted that Kafka’s works may have aesthetic value, but its overall worth is nil because it “made alienation absolute,” metaphysical and totalizing; and even if one discerns protest, it is filled with “fear, pessimism without the essentials of tragedy…” It is decadent because it subordinates everything “to the atmosphere of imperialism,” unable to analyze causality in the recognition of relationships which remain mysterious” (1972, 254). In hindsight, every proposition in that indictment is questionable, dubious, ultimately untenable, given the substantial inquiries into Kafka’s complex ethico-political stance in the last forty years.

The enigma of Kafka’s equivocal style has been provocative and catalyzing ever since. The debate over Kafka’s realism grew central and prepossessing to the extent that his persisting aura grew out of the gap between writing and lived experience, between form and content (the prehended materials in the medium). This latter tension and its ethico-political consequences highlighted in the encounter between Sartre and orthodox Marxists was already rehearsed in the pre-WWII debates between Lukacs, Bertolt Brecht, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno, and other “Western Marxists” before World War II (see Taylor, 1977). With the verdict permanently postponed, Kafka continues to haunt the inner sanctum of partisan hermeneutics.

Brecht’s Intervention

Brecht’s position on the debate is historically nuanced and calibrated. Responding to Lukacs’ condemnation of expressionism, Brecht contended that a dogmatic Marxist criterion that rejects techniques such as the interior monologue in Joyce’s Ulysses was guilty of empty formalism.The traditional canon of the bourgeois Enlightenment cannot solely be the guarantee of the progressive nature of realism. Actualities change and, along with them, organic visions and social mores.

For Brecht, “literature cannot be forbidden to employ skills newly acquired by contemporary man, such as the capacity for simultaneous registration, bold abstraction, and swift combination” (1977, 75). He urged critics to proceed methodically and scientifically in judging what is popular and realistic, matters which exceed questions of aesthetic form. Brecht insisted that time flows on, “methods become exhausted; stimuli no longer work.  New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change” (1977, 82). Kafka responded strategically to those changes in history.

For his part, the philosopher Bloch advanced analogous objections to Lukacs’ “closed objectivist conception of reality.” He objected to the one-sided concept of seamless totality that Lukacs deploys, blind to discontinuities and disruptions. For Bloch, Lukacs’ mistake lies in ignoring the avant-garde artists’  attempt to shatter the capitalist image of life as they “exploit the real fissures in surface inter-relations and to discover the new in their crevices” (1977, 22). In short, one needs a dialectical optic to ascertain what is decadent and what is progressive especially in transitional genres and experiments. Bloch connected Kafka’s milieu to surrealist landscapes, alluding to “Kafka’s  dense yet quiet echo, coming from another world to this one,….a reflection of the groundwater of dreams leaking into the destruction” of bourgeois power, capitalist hegemony (1998, 105).

The outcome of this episode in cultural history epitomizes the still disputed canonization of Kafka as the inventor of a singular mode of writing, “an expenditure of a certain energy without return.” As a subtle “geometrician of metaphor,” according to Henry Sussman, Kafka performed arabesques of equivocation and duplicity similar to those of Hieronymus Bosch (1979, 181). Describing a nihilistic world without ideals, ends or causality, John Lechte remarks, Kafka produced a world of enigmas. It was a bizarre cosmos without rational protocols. It rendered a distinctive “writing of sacrifice” which is no longer a product of sociohistorical conditions but is constitutive of those conditions (1994, 244). Devoid of transcendence, expunging all boundaries, Kafka inhabited the extraterritorial realm of the exile, the nihilist, the Nietzschean nomad without origins–the portrait of Kafka drawn by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their epochal study of Kafka’s aesthetics (more later). At any rate, the Kafka dossier is still in the process of investigation, his reputation linked closely to the vicissitudes of controversies over aesthetic standards and literary tastes (since Kant) in the global marketplace of disposable values and fungible norms.

Inventory of the Archive

In a survey of Kafka criticism from 1944 to 1955, H. S. Reiss observed the persisting fixation of commentaries on metaphysical/religious themes, as well as on psychoanalytic leitmotifs tied to biography and milieu (Udoff 1987; Murray 2004).  He bewails the fact that his own emphasis on the literary or writerly dimension had not successfully integrated content and form. He hopes that a comparative method would repair its inadequacies. Substance should give way to form, content (prehended medium) to structure. Deconstruction of Kafka is now welcome.

In a collection of critical essays published in 1962, Ronald Gray lamented the plethora of arbitrary interpretations. He called for a focus on Kafka’s writing which, as the translator Edwin Muir testifies, embodies sufficient justification for a formalist, autotelic approach. Kafka’s language was “exquisitely just,” exhibiting “absolute precision,” “complete honesty and candidness,” “scrupulous case,” “an almost scientific lucidity” (1962, 1) so much so that it has induced, or coaxed, the most disparate, heterogeneous and incommensurable readings–a supreme irony that has not escaped the most astute exegetes.  Kafkas’s cunning opacity continues to elude scholastic ingenuity.

One of the shrewdest commentators is the celebrated New Left theorist Theodor Adorno.  In his “Notes on Kafka,” Adorno likewise discerned the literalness of Kafka’s sentences: “everything is hard, defined and distinct as possible.” Lacking the “aura of the infinite idea,” Kafka’s prose constructs “a parabolic system the key to which has been stolen,” but there is a chosen rationale for this method: “Without the principle of literalness as criterion, the ambiguities of Kafka would dissolve into indifferent equivalence” (1967, 246, 248).  So then the indeterminacy is sustained precisely by a textual literalism that multiplies the ambiguous, uncertain, inaccessible; thus monotony results. Allegory exists with the imagistic or representational vehicles, but the conceptual tenors are absent, as if the whole work is a parody of the allegorical technique. In short, a surfeit of the Kafkaesque results in boredom, intolerable sameness.

Negating the Negations

Adorno pursues an analogical argument based on the Marxist dichotomy of use-value and exchange-value. He tries to establish the sociohistorical matrix of this style in “the cryptogram of capitalism’s highly polished, glittering late phase” nullified in the text: “Kafka unmasks monopolism by focusing on the waste-products of the liberal era that it liquidates. This historical moment, not anything allegedly metatemporal illuminating history from above, is the crystallizing of his metaphysics: there is no eternity for him other than that of the endlessly repeated sacrifice, which culminates in the image of the last one….The last sacrifice is always yesterday’s” (1967, 257). In the penal colony, however, the sacrifice proves to be the terminal one with the breakdown of the immolating machine. The ritual of sacrifice vindicating the old system of justice deconstructs itself, in effect dismantling hollow rhetoric and self-serving pieties that once legitimized the penal colony’s existence.

Adorno points out that Kafka freezes history into the moment of the damned, the fate of peasants and artisans as well as merchants and bureaucrats–everything historical is condemned. But in Kafka’s adaptation of the expressionist style and ethos, history congeals into myth. Adorno’s analysis of how Kafka deployed expressionism reveals the logic of Kafka’s objectivity, his detachment, the perspicuous lucidity of his gaze:  “The more the I of expresionism is thrown back upon itself, the more like the excluded world of things it becomes.” Parody and irony are Kafka’s deconstructive instruments to subvert the Establishment cultural tradition and its ideological apparatuses.

By virtue of this similarity, Kafka forces expressionism–“the chimerical aspect of which he, more than any of his friends, must have sensed, and to which he nevertheless remained faithful–into the form of a torturous epic; pure subjectivity, being of necessity estranged from itself as well and having become a thing, assumes the dimensions of objectivity which expresses itself through its own estrangement. The boundary between what is human and the world of things becomes blurred….It is precisely this as it were external determination of persons existing inwardly which gives Kafka’s prose the inscrutable semblance of somber objectivity” (1967, 262-63). Paraphased simply, the hermetically sealed inwardness of the artist functions as the condition of possibility for the reification of his characters and their fictional world. That precious inviolate world of “objectless inwardness” thus allowed the scattered enigmatic fragments of his imagined characters and milieu to exist, “a closed complex of immanence” and its antinomian mysticism legitimized by “the hermetic principle ….of completely estranged subjectivity” (1967, 261). As to the reasons for the “sealed inwardness” or “estranged subjectivity” of Kafka, Adorno is silent.

Poetics  of  Intractable Recalcitrance

Adorno’s scrutiny applies a dialectical optic into Kafka’s expressionist style in order to grasp the ideological themes in the work. Synoptic and comprehensive, it does not radically depart from the thematic preoccupation of the majority of the critiques already mentioned, except in its concentration on the expressionist, subjectivist metaphysics of the artist. It is parallel to Lukacs’ censure of Kafka’s world-view as infected by bourgeois alienation and the pathos of reification. But Adorno is more appreciative, less polemical, of Kafka’s strategy of combatting bourgeois decadence by confronting it with its own morbid mirror-image, its mutilation and mythical decay, to no avail. Is Adorno subtly apologizing for Kafka’s simultaneously opaque and transparent style, a paradoxical brew for Derridean decoders?

In his oddly positivist metacommentary, Adorno mentions Walter Benjamin’s appraisal of Kafka’s parabolic tendency which collapses aesthetic distance. This leads Adorno to uncover a submerged flow of regression in the animal parables and in the “technification” of the deja vu: “Kafka’s hermetic memoranda contain the social genesis of schizophrenia” (1967, 277). On the schizophrenic aspects in Kafka, none is more obsessed than the duo Deleuze and Guattari whose formidable brief demonstrates the way philosophy both illuminates and exploits the art-work.

The montage of  deja vu in Kafka may now be summed up. In Kafka criticism, we are confronted with the cosmos of the existentialist angst distilled in a fantasmatic realm of presences alienated from each other and from the world of fetishized objects, commodities circulating in the cash-nexus. This cliche of the Kafka archive is formulated by the mainstream scholar Erich Heller in his 1974 treatise on Kafka, a doxa that Adorno tried somehow to complicate: “The Law without a lawgiver, original sin without a god to sin against: this is the essence of the negative theology that pervades Kafka’s stories” (1974, 22). Guilt and sin flourish because there is no god, no lawgiver; not action but mere existence triggers the existential nausea for which there is no antidote or panacea. That vulgate axiom found a more concrete articulation in Stanley Corngold’s view that Kafka really diagnosed and depicted an extreme form of estrangement now called “political terror” (1972, xxi). The timely example is “In the Penal Colony” written in October 1914 in response to the carnage and brutality of the war.

Dialogism pervades the colloquy. In a review of Sander Gilman’s book  Kafka: The Jewish Patient, Marshall Berman reflected on the canonical readings all centered on religious and metaphysical themes. Repetition of the allegorical/didactic message has made Kafka otiose and trivialized.  For Deleuze and Guattari, those moralizing critics only succeed in reducing Kafka’s complexly fabricated oeuvre into a monolithic Signifier or hermeneutic master code that would wrap it all up in a neat package of truisms and platitudes. If Deleuze and Guattari claim not to be interested in meaning, what do they have to offer the readers of the twenty-first millennium?

Immanence versus Transcendence

Short of summarizing their book, I would like to quote key passages to give a taste of Deleuze and Guattari’s highly provocative inquiry into the Kafkaesque syndrome.  They disavow the search for structure or significance. They seek instead to  rely on “tests of experience,” not the search for archetypes or generic topoi to define Kafka’s imaginary. They insist that “our method works only where a rupturing and heterogeneous line appears,” trying to grasp “where  the system is coming from and going to, how it becomes, and what element is going to play the role of heterogeneity, a saturating body that makes the whole assembly flow away and that breaks the symbolic structure, no less than it breaks hermeneutic interpretation, the ordinary association of ideas, and the imaginary archetype” (1986, 7). In effect, they focus on fragments that may function as intimators or indices of transformations, metamorphoses, mutations of all kinds.

It’s an intriguing experiment in unlocking concealed textual energies. Looking for Kafka’s politics that is neither imaginary nor symbolic, Deleuze and Guattari ‘believe only in one or more Kafka machines that are neither structure nor phantasm….,” an experimental machine that will indicate the flow of desire as a polymorphous and perverse movement of energy, a kind of ramifying or rhizomatic life force that destroys hierarchical ensembles and allows creative power to transform “territories” or fields of the social space undergoing an endless process of dismantling and reconstruction. Their concern privileges the phenomenon of process, the Bergsonian flux, infinite changes in form and direction of any vital movement.

Not A Lacerating but Desiring Machine

For Deleuze and Guattari, the key to deciphering the Kafka problematic is its strategy of overcoming the reductive Oedipal triangle of the Freudian theater of the unconscious. To release power caught in the paranoid hierarchy of institutions and practices valorized by psychoanalysis, the condition of schizophrenia materializes in the expression of desiring machines along the surface of a “body without organs,” the boundless space of freedom and creativity. Where is this space found in Kafka? In the interstices between the objective reality of Kafka’s life and the discursive universe of his prose, that is, between the writer and the world.  What Deleuze and Guattari are endeavoring to theorize in their singular anti-psychoanalytic argument may be discerned in this passage:

A Kafka-machine is thus constituted by contents and expressions that have been formalized to diverse degrees by unformed materials that enter into it, and leave by passing through all possible states.  To enter or leave the machine, to be in the machine, to walk around it, to approach it–these are all still components of the machine itself: these are states of desire, free of all interpretation. The line of escape is part of the machine. Inside or outside, the animal is part of the burrow-machine. The problem is not that of being free but of finding a way out, or even a way in, another side, a hallway, an adjacency.  Maybe there are several factors that we must take into account: the purely superficial unity of the machine, the way in which men are themselves pieces of the machine, the position of desire (man or animal) in relation to the machine.  In the “Penal Colony,” the machine seems to have a strong degree of unity and the man enters completely into it.  Maybe this is what leads to the final explosion and the crumbling of the machine….Desire evidently passes through these positions and states or, rather, through all these lines. Desire is not form, but a procedure, a process” (1986, 7-8).

In all of Kafka’s corpus of texts, Deleuze and Guattari strive to trace the machines or assemblages through which the characters pass, their movements themselves considered as lines of flight away from fixed positions or states–the flight of desire or energies that cannot be frozen, repressed or captured; thus Kafka does not negate but affirms, so they conclude. But what exactly does he affirm?  We are not sure what, for Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka affirms except the dynamics of process, contingency, metamorphoses of all kinds.

Why does Deleuze and Guattari resort to a naive gesture of locating the value of Kafka’s work in the space between text and life, between the imaginary and the empirical? Reda Bensmaia’s explanation may be summarized here. Deleuze and Guattari reject the orthodox modes of interpretation by genres, types, stylistic modes of allegory, symbolism, parables of negative theology, and so on, associated with “Literature” by inventing a category for Kafka’s texts, “minor literature,” which supposedly overturns the norm: “[I]nstead of Kafka’s work being related to some preexistent category or literary genre, it will henceforth serve as a rallying point or model for certain texts and ‘bi-lingual’ writing practices that, until now, had to pass through a long purgatory before even being read, much less recognized” (Bensmaia xiv).  Which means, in effect, we have to pass through the detour of a history of reading practices applied to Kafka, from the time of their editing by Max Brod up to the last critical exegesis, in order to really appreciate his originality and force.

Declarations of intent are fine, but what about the concrete analysis of the texts and their elucidation in a coherent and cogent manner? While Bensmaia alludes to the geopolitical and sociohistorical contexts that serve as the condition of possibility for Kafka’s unique sensibility and way of writing–Einstein’s relativity, twelve-tone music, expressionist drama and cinema, the Prague linguistic circle, and Freud’s Copernican revolution–none of these factors is really utilized by Deleuze and Guattari whose concept of desiring-machines, rhizome, etc. are the theoretical mediators of their interpretive project. Their polemical agenda has been aptly judged by Ronald Bogue as an attempt to ascribe a postmodern avantgarde politics to Kafka’s “creative subversion of social representations” (1989, 122). Ultimately, it is an attempt to impose the grid of Nietschean power-triumphalism on Kafka which transforms a unique strategy of writing into a nominally revolutionary practice. This is transvaluation of Kafka with a vengeance, a treacherous utilitarian alibi.

In any case, let us give the benefit of the doubt to this schizoid reading. We are tempted to conclude that Deleuze and Guattari have not demonstrated what the concrete relations are between language, signs, and the material forces of “desiring production,” given their concentration on superimposing their schizoanalytic approach to culture at the expense of illuminating the specific dynamics of reading/understanding Kafka’s texts against the grain. In contrast, a short essay by Regine Robin (1989) entitled “Kafka’s Place in the Literary Field” has much more novel insight to offer about Kafka’s language-practice and his fictive repertoire of interpellating individuals into subjects than all of Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadic speculations.

Charting the Site of the Execution

It appears that the methodical doubt applied on Kafka’s critics leads only t an impasse. Erwin Steinberg (1976) has exhaustively summarized previous explications focusing on the religious and aesthetic dimensions. After catagloguing the personal and historical factors (such as the influence of Judaism, Christianity, Kierkegaard, etc.) surrounding the composition of the story, Steinberg concludes that the story is flawed aesthetically and intellectually. Among other reasons adduced for the failure is Kafka’s neglect of fully delineating the antithesis between the Old Commandant and the New, as well as his vexed portrayal of the explorer. Rigorously identifying exact correspondences between image and idea, character and moral position, seems a fruitless if wrongheaded interpretive strategy.

Assuming indeed that Kafka’s work marks the conjuncture of specific sociohistorical contradictions that could not be resolved, it is only logical to confront a discursive aporia engendering diverse interpretations. This aporia manifests itself in fragmentation, inconclusive or deliberately incomplete texts, reified character-types, and other allegorical/parabolic schemes of dramatizing polarities, oppositions, disparities. Clearly one wonders at the variety of responses elicited by Kafka’s seemingly lucid, empirically contoured sentences.

But this should be a felicitous turn of events instead of being a predicament. The semiotician Floyd Merrell invokes Alfred North Whitehead’s view that paradoxes and aporias are “windows opening out to new horizons,” enablers conducing to ” heightened learnability, accountability and knowability… Paradoxes and their attendant praxis involve the conditionality and the conjecturability implied by the pragmatic maxim” (1997, 317), the principle of semiosis enunciated by Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of pragmaticism (cf. De Waal 2013; Merrell 2000; Robin 1998). Since this pragmaticist maxim has been distorted or perverted to the effect that meaning is what is useful or narrowly instrumental, it might be useful to quote Peirce himself.

First of all, pragmaticist interpretation concerns the meaning of an intellectual conception as connected with “what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception” whereby the sum of those consequences will constitute its entire meaning (Peirce 1931-35, 5.9). Ethical and aesthetic norms are involved when we consider what “conceivably practical bearings” or consequences a belief in a conception would have, bearings that “would go to determine how we should deliberately act, and how we should act in a practical way and not merely how we should act as affirming or denying the conception to be cleared up” (Peirce 1998, 145).

In sum, belief in the truth/meaning of a commentary–an interpretation of signs–entails judgment and action (ethics/politics). The end-result of any critical inquiry (in this case, a literary judgment) is not a true or false proposition but, rather, a pattern of conduct. The question then is what behavioral consequence might be inferred from our reading Kafka’s story as (for most critics) a rejection of old traditional ways of punishment (indexed by the torture apparatus and the dogmatic, authoritarian habits instituted by the Old Commandant’s regime) and an acceptance of humanist, more enlightened penal codes (presumably represented by the explorer). In other words, what actions are entailed or implied by our modes of reading Kafka’s narrative?

Everyone of course expects literary discourse to be polysemous, the denotative and referential functions of language articulated with their connotative or emotive functions, to use the common terminology. Hence the reading experience cannot be reduced to a table of truth-functions. What might be useful for us is to employ Peirce’s semiotics, more exactly his triadic theory of signs and the role of the interpretant, to clarify the differences in the readers’ understanding of the “message” (intention, motivation, purpose) of “In the Penal Colony” (Kafka 1948, 191-230).

For Peirce, the literary work is composed of signs that are triadic in nature. A sign is constituted by the representamen (often labeled the signifier), the object (signified), and the interpretant, the mediation between the object and the signifier. Without going into the complex schema of the categories Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness, suffice it to sum up Peirce’s concept of the literary work as “a sign of qualitative possibility,” “a representamen of possibility experienced as Rhematic Symbol” (Sheriff 1989, 78).  Rhemes are qualities, feelings, signs of immediate consciousness that acquire symbolic mediation in the art-work; thus, the interpretant, the nodal point in the process of formulating meaning, expresses the qualities evoked by the literary artifice. Peirce states that “the idea of a quality is the idea of a phenomenon….considered as a monad, without reference to its parts or components and without reference to anything else….An element separated from everything else and in no world but itself, may be be merely potential” (1.424). The experience of a literary text subsists in this realm of possibility, a realm capable of being described in the discourse of critical analysis and evaluation.

Incarnation and Recognition

In Peirce’s semiotics, the interpretant serves to provide the premises of belief and the inferred effects of these beliefs.  As James Hoopes paraphrases the pragmaticist maxim, “A sign receives its meaning by being interpreted by a subsequent thought or action” (1991, 7). Without further elaboration, let us consider what interpretant situated in what realm of possibility is triggered by this crucial passage in Kafka’s story. This is the moment when the torture machine (here called the Designer) has begun operating on the officer who volunteered to vindicate the “justness” of the machine as an instrument of justice. But signs of breakdown had been initially noticed by the soldier and the condemned man (negative specimens of colonial degradation), with the explorer unable to be indifferent. The character of the “explorer” designates a European dignitary and visitor; the German term “Forschungsreisender” includes the senses of traveler, researcher, and voyager, whose selected physical movements and inquisitiveness or curiosity are registered here:

The explorer, on the other hand, felt greatly troubled; the machine was obviously going to pieces; its silent working was a delusion; he had a feeling that he must now stand by the officer, since the officer was no longer able to look after himself. But while the tumjbling cogwheels absorbed his whole attention he had forgotten to keep an eye on the rest of the machine; now that the last cogwheel had left the Designer, however, he bent over the Harrow and had a new and still more unpleasant surprise. The Harrow was not writing, it was only jabbing, and the bed was not turning the body over but only bringing it up quivering against the needles. The explorer wanted to do something, if possible, to bring the whole machine to a standstill, for this was no exquisite torture such as the officer desired, this was plain murder.  He stretched out his hands. But at that moment the Harrow rose with the body spitted on it and moved to the side, as it usually did only when the twelfth hour had come. Blood was flowing in a hundred streams, not mingled with water, the water jets too had failed to function. And now the last action failed to fulfill itself, the body did not drop off the long needles, streaming with blood it went on hanging over the pit without falling into it. The Harrow tried to move back to its old position, but as if it had itself noticed that it had not yet got rid of its burden it stuck after all where it was, over the pit. “Come and help!” cried the explorer to the other two, and himself seized the officer’s feet. He wanted to push against the feet while the others seized the head from the opposite side and so the officer might be slowly eased off the needles. But the other two could not make up their minds to come; the condemned man actually turned again; the explorer had to go over to them and force them into position at the officer’s head. And here, almost against his will, he had to look at the face of the corpse. It was as it had been in life; no sign was visible of the promised redemption; what the others had found in the machine the officer had not found; the lips were firmly pressed together, the eyes were open, with the same expression as in life, the look was calm and convinced, through the forehead went the point of the great iron spike. (1948, 223-25).

After this scene, the concluding episode describes the explorer’s visit to the teahouse where the previous Commandant was buried since the priest refused his internment in the churchyard, about which the officer was ashamed. Earlier the explorer could not read the script offered by the officer, simply accepting the officer’s word in trust; now, however, the explorer struggled to decipher the very small letters of the inscription on the stone marking the old Commandant’s grave. This sections strikes us as a parody of the Messiah’s second coming, given the failure of the torture/justice apparatus to deliver justice and the promised deliverance. The “Designer” betrayed its creator, the Commandant himself:

Here rests the old Commandant. His adherents, who now must be nameless, have dug this grave and set up this stone. There is a prophecy that after a certain number of years the Commandant will rise again and lead his adherents from this house to recover the colony. Have faith and wait! (1948, 126).

After paying his respects, as it were, to the relics of the old order/tradition, the explorer boards his ferry for the steamer, driving away the soldier and the condemned man who were eager to depart with him: “…but the explorer lifted a heavy knotted rope from the floor boards, threatened them with it and so kept them from attempting the leap” (1948, 127). The explorer thus decides that the specimens of the colonized, oppressed victims are not worth saving; the penal colony, in short, is unsalvageable for the benefit of civilized mankind.

Translating Stigmata

One psychoanalytic critic, Paul Goodman, finds in the explorer a mixed sadistic-masochistic posture so that the ending proves limited by the “reactions of the Explorer, who washes his hands of the problem: that is, the dreamer will not take the responsibility for the dream” (1947, 257). Goodman’s reductive gloss omits the ironic and parodic nuances discernible in the way the representamens (signifiers) are joined to the semiotic objects (the whole theater of torture, etc.). Together, those elements yield an interpretant both typical and singular, a concrete universal of dialectically fused detachment and involvement. In that context, Goodman’s inference is clearly untenable. More faithful to Kafka’s creative trajectory is Philip Rahv’s view that the story is a transitional one in which the violent patriarchal figures of “The Judgment” and of the old Commandant become “mythicized in the manner of images of authority projected” in The Trial and The Castle (1970, 195).

Taking all these into account, I submit that the pragmaticist key to the narrative function of the passage quoted earlier is condensed in the explorer’s plea to the other two spectators, “Come and help!” In contrast to the other precepts or exhortatory speech-acts–“Honor thy Superiors!”  “Be Just” and “Have faith and wait!”, the explorer’s call is fully synchronized to the demands of immediate actuality. It epitomizes the situation where a hypothesis, calculated from the signs (icons and images) of the actual environment, is tested if it meets the purposes of the moment. It is also a test of the reader’s sensibility, judgment and ethical intelligence, ultimately a signal for initiating a scheme of conduct, a program of action (already hinted at by the injunctions, “Be just,” “Have faith and wait!”), translating descriptive statements into hypothetical imperatives and commands.

Meanwhile, let us consider alternative readings. Roy Pascal resolves the seeming inconsistency of narrative perspective which distances the reader from the explorer but also compels us to identify with him and his dilemma (as in his calling the torture-machine an instrument of murder). From this angle, the explorer stands for “the modern enlightened man…whose distinctions it is to have detached himself from action and material interests, from the ranks of the death-dealers, and whose calamity it is, too. For if reflexion rescues him from the partisanship of action, it also enfeebles dedication and spontaneity” (1982, 88-89).

It is not exactly accurate to accuse the explorer of refraining from action–his skepticism about the inscription/torture machine becomes a death-sentence for the officer, and he drives away the colonized soldier and prisoner–or being paralyzed by thought; he enacts judgments and decisions inferrable from his actions. Clayton Koelb remarks that the explorer eludes the reading/writing system in which texts really “wound and stab us” (2010, 120). Meanwhile, the reading operation conflicts with the writing/killing operation, opening up wounds that induce understanding of the gap between the promised deliverance of the imperatives, “Be just” and “Have faith and wait,” and the sordid realities around.
The torture machine writes on the body to facilitate reading the fatality of the difference between what is promised and what is actual.

Taming the Logocentric Leviathan

Kafka is obviously playing with the ambiguities of meaning generated by the process of semiosis pivoting around the Peircean interpretant. Symbols of authority and tradition, both in their permanence and fragility, abound in the narrative. The most highly charged sign is obviously the torture machine, the instrument of justice manifest in the successful or failed transfiguration of the victim. The body and its motions stand out as the most visible iconic sign which also function as an index of the effects of power. From the linkage of icon and index, the symbolization of power as weak, unstable or precarious becomes evident. From the explorer’s point of view, the penal colony is in danger of disintegration. But he seems amused, indifferent, removed from any serious concern, driving away possible refugees, concerned only with his comfort and safety.

We can proceed to unfold layers of meanings without stopping, especially if we are academics paid to recycle old stuff and transmute them into new ones. But, as John Sheriff (1989) suggests, the experience of the literary work is not equivalent to any number of propositions or arguments which can be multiplied ad infinitum.  If the art-work is a Rhematic Symbol, the proper interpretant is an ethical move: a pattern of decisions leading to purposeful conduct.The interpretant emerges from our conception of practical consequences entailed by the explorer’s over-all attitude to the officer and his gratuitous sacrifice to vindicate the old order, as well as his stance toward the soldier and condemned man–unattractive victims of the colonial regime. This interpretant equals our understanding of how the explorer, despite his presumed humanity, either concurs with the decadent or moribund state of the penal colony, or dismisses the whole affair as something trivial, inconsequential, insignificant.

Peircean hermeneutics locates the effect of the artistic experience in the realm of qualitative possibility. This implies that what we conceive to be possible in the sphere of action (with the attendant feelings/emotions) is accompanied by changes in qualities, resonances, affects–the practical bearings or entailments Peirce emphasized as the ultimate goal of inquiry (1992, 132). Certainly the experience of horror at the brutality of the justice-machine, the mechanical absolutism of the ritual, and the almost animal if not mechanical behavior of the soldier and condemned man as representatives of the colonized subjects, induce traumatic moments and sets us adrift, marooned, discombobulated. This accords with a peculiar generic feature of modern short stories which one scholar described concisely as “the debunking rhythm characterized by conceptually unresolved antitheses” (Leitch 1989, 146).

As for the question of Kafka’s politics that we initially broached, it may be sufficient to refer again to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of Kafka’s usage of “minor” language as collective, political, and deterritorializing.  In Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s assessment, this minoritarian practice challenges the unicity of language understood as a system divorced from history and pedagogical praxis (as in Chomskyan linguistics). This practice is directly political because “it aims to grasp the state of the linguistic class struggle within a linguistic formation; it helps to define the moment of the linguistic conjuncture; it makes it possible to separate the emergent from the old. In short, it facilitates not only a description of the conjuncture, but also the intervention that it calls for” (2009, 213).

Within this frame of analysis, this essay can be taken as a deliberate intervention in criticism, particularly in semiotic (Peircean) theory as a rational mode of interpellating individuals to become subjects of a radical or transformative ethical/political program. Not only to come and help in a collective project of ultimately overthrowing global capitalism, but also (in the meantime) to make literary and cultural inquiry intransigently ethical and political at all times if the opportunities/contingencies permit.

Shadowing a Prophetic Horizon

It is premature to say that a reading of Kafka’s story will make the reader
loathe and condemn all forms of torture. In fact, the opposite—doubt, cynicism, or hedonistic playfulness–may result. Everything depends on the reader’s circumstances, inflected by the social milieu and the state of the global crisis. But so powerful is Kafka’s story that we wager that no reader can be wholly indifferent to the implications and inferences she can draw from the spectacle of the body written by the unrelenting claws of justice. In his diagnosis of Kafka’s illnesses, Gilman described how Kafka put his body on trial and pronounced harsh judgment on it (Berman 1995, 604). But, to be sure, this did not signal a postmodernist body politics separate from the historical and sociopolitical contexts in which bodies, collective relations, and the political economy of goods exist, so that Berman opines that Kafkaesque experiences–“what happen to people who claim their human rights and are referred to departments that can’t be found” (1995, 608), multitudes of bodies tortured to death being the paramount evidence–have become universal, ubiquitous, a fact of everyday life (see also Lingis 1994).

In the end, what Kafka’s text signifies is not any specific agenda for improving the justice system or reforming the penal institution.  Rather, the text explores the potential range of qualities and feelings of the immediate–the sense of tension, incompatibilities, discrepancies, in short, the complex network of contradictions invested in the images, characters and scenes constituting the narrative. This is the most precise hypothesis we can formulate in line with Peirce’s own theory of art as the means by which we experience the “possible successive awarenesses and interpretations of signs” (Sheriff 1989, 84). The most serviceable explanation of the logic and rationale of Kafka’s art is Walter Benjamin’s thesis that Kafka’s world is “world theater” already alluded to in the Oklahoma Nature Theater: “For him, man is in and of himself on stage” (2009, 209). Benjamin’s notion was borrowed from Brecht who rejected Kafka’s fear of the ant-colony state, a nightmare from which he could not wake up. Brecht believed Kafka’s “parable is in conflict with vision…As a visionary, Kafka saw what was to come without seeing what is….The images are good. But the rest is obscurantism” (Benjamin 1979, 205, 207).

Benjamin was not turned off by Kafka’s “obscurantism” which he grasped as an elaborate defensive pose, a repertoire of theatrical stances and maneuvers. This is in line with Benjamin’s theory of baroque allegory (1978; Buck-Morrs 1989). Less baroque and more cubistic, Kafka’s picture of the world as a stage converts everything into stylized moves according to a code not exactly equivalent to that of Deleuze and Guattari but one which is missing, like the code for photographs. Everything becomes conventional or stereotypical. But unlike the medieval or renaissance masquerade, the images and impressions (of Firstness; stream-of-consciousness) have not yet fully crystallized into conflicting indices (the realm of Secondness; experience), eventually to become symbols (Thirdness; laws and norms). Kafka’s theater is germinal, still trying out its performance cues and acting repertoire. Consequently, on stage, the most important is gesture, each one “constituting a process, one might almost say a drama, of its own… He robs human gesture of its traditional props and then possesses, in it, an object prompting unending reflections” (2009, 205-06); hence the officer’s gesture of voluntary sacrifice, the explorer’s reaction, etc.

With some qualifications, I submit that this is the key to unravelling the mystifying and enigmatic complexity of “In the Penal Colony.”  We cannot forget the gesture of the explorer performing his mock neutrality, equivocation, sham humanitarianism. We marvel at his facilty in playing roles in a world where “god is dead” (to use the old Nietzschean aphorism), but the human is only being born (this time echoing Gramsci). Kafka valorized the infantile situation (as Bataille argued) and thus made his texts of sovereign “nothingness” (1957, 141) fit for burning. The bonfire awaits the Kafkaesque Messiah. Before it, the torture machine, this exemplary Ideological State Apparatus, symbolizes the interregnum between old and new regimes, a stage filled with morbid symptoms, with old paradigms unable to clarify new phenomena–the stage of Kafka’s penal colony–with our view of its torturers and victims changing at every historical conjuncture.


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EL ULTIMO ADIOS ni Rizal, kurasyon ni E San Juan, Jr.



(Siniping tinig nina Andres Bonifacio,  Jose Sevilla,  Pedro Gatmaitan, Julian Cruz Balmaseda, Jose Corazon de Jesus, Albino Dimayuga, Guillermo Tolentino at Ildefonso Santos, kurasyon ni E. San Juan, Jr.)

Pinipintuho kong Bayan ay paalam
lupang iniirog ng sikat ng araw
mutyang mahalaga sa dagat Silangan
kaluwalhatiang sa ami’y pumanaw.

Sa iyó’y handóg ko ng̃ ganap na tuwâ
Malung̃kót kong̃ buhay na lantá at abâ
Naging̃ dakilà man, boóng̃ pagnanasang̃
Ihahandóg ko rin sa iyóng̃ paglayà.

Ako’y mamamatay ngayong minamalas
Ang kulay ng langit na nanganganinag,
Ibinababalang araw ay sisikat
Sa kabila niyong mapanglaw na ulap.

Ang aking pangarap nang babahagya pang isip ko’y mabuksan
At ang hinagap ko nang magbinata na’t may lakas nang taglay
At ang balang-araw’y makita ka, Hiyas ng Dagat-Silangan,
Na tuyo sa luha ang itim mong mata’t ang noo mo’y buhay
At wala ni kunot, at munting gulubhi’t bahid-kahihiyan.

Ipagdasal mo rin yaong nangamatay sa paglaban,
Pati lahat ng nagtiis ng maraming kahirapan
Sa kawawa nating inang nanaghoy sa kasawian,
Sa ulila’t mga balo, sa bilanggo sa piitan,
Ipagdasal mo rin upang makamtan ang katubusan.

Kung ang libingan ko’y hindi mapansi’t limot na ng lahat
Wala kahit kurus at batong tanda man na magbigay ulat,
Ay bayaan mong dukalin ng tao, durugi’t ikalat
Upang ang abo ko ay bago mabalik sa wala at sukat
Ang mag alabok na tatapakan mo’y pawang mapalatag.

At sa gayo’t di na ako kailangang gunitain,
Ang hangin mo, ang lawak mo, ang libis mo’y babagtasin;
Sa dinig mo ay magiging tinig akong naglalambing,
Halimuyak at liwanag, kulay, higing, awit, daing,
Ubod niring paniwala’y muli’t muling sasambitin.

Sintang Pilipinas, sakit ng sakit ko, sa wakas, paalam!
Hayan, iiwanko ang lahat ng aking minahal sa buhay;
Ako’y patutungo sa walang alipin ni punong gahaman,
Walang mapanlipol na paniniwala, walang tampalasan,
Doo’y walang hari liban kay Bathalang makapangyarihan.

Paalam, magulang at kapatid, bahagi ng aking kaluluwa,
Kaibigan ng aking kamusmusang idinaos sa lunang naglaho,
Ialay ang pasasalamat at makapagpahinga sa dusa’t pagod,
Paalam, dayuhang aliw na kay tamis, aking sinta aking ligaya!
Paalam, mga minamahal. Pumanaw, magpahingalay.


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On Benjamin Appel’s novel on the Philippines, FORTRESS IN THE RICE (1951)


by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

Benjamin Appel (1907-1977) may be the most neglected or forgotten radical-democratic novelist of mid-century United States. While his first Depression-era novel Brain Guy (1934) was re-published in 2005 together with Plunder (1952), a racially calibrated expose of underworld racketeering in war-torn Philippines, Appel still remains unknown to most critics and cultural historians. The last significant, incisive commentary on Appel appeared in Alan Wald’s Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Anti-Fascist Crusade (2007) which focused on The Dark Stain (1943), the last of the trilogy beginning with Brain Guy and The Power House (1939). The trilogy became the basis for Appel’s reputation as a novelist specializing in detective and crime fiction set in a milieu of poverty, prostitution, criminal corruption, and murder where “the morass of racial prejudice devours even those of good intentions” (University of Oregon Library 1977).
Periodicals such as the New York Times and The New Yorker praised Appel as the authentic voice of the streets of urban America. Apropos of The Dark Stain, Wald emphasized Appel’s unqualified support for President Roosevelt’s anti-fascist crusade as part of 1930’s Popular Front politics. Its message was conveyed through the trappings of a hardboiled detective novel appropriate for the conspiratorial atmosphere of a protofascist environment, Wald adds, with Dickens and Tolstoy’s psychodrama coalescing with Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser’s stylized naturalism (2007, 143). Five years after this chronicle of race war in the “internal colony,” Appel was addressing “the misery and despair of Asia–a misery and despair shared by nearly all the nonwhite people of the world” (1951, 424)–symbolized by the struggle for the “bowl of rice” that signifies the common humanity founded on material existence.  From 1945 to 1948 when the Cold War flared up, Appel’s sympathy for the underdog widened and deepened to embrace the brutalized peasants of colonial Philippines in his account of their struggle against Japanese colonialism and American racism/chauvinism in Fortress in the Rice (1951). How did this reconfiguration of the writer’s empathic sensibility happen?
The itinerary of the novelist’s imagination evinces a familiar route. From 1935 to 1941, Appel was an active member of the left-wing League of American Writers whose black members included Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and many others. Apart from multiethnic constituencies, the League provided opportunities for delegates from other countries to participate in its meetings. Appel might have encountered the left-wing Filipino delegates to the Third Congress in June 1939 where anti-imperialist speeches inspired the visitors and the committed audience. Franklin Folsom describes Appel’s stance as “independent, creative, and humorous” (1994, 254).
Appel signed the League’s “Call to the Writers Win-the-War Congress” in November 3, 1942 to “articulate the will and desires of the people,” to remember and avenge the victims of Pearl Harbor, Lidice and Stalingrad. The writers would urge the opening of a second front in Europe to defeat “the fascist enslavers and murderers of mankind.” One of the aims of using “words as weapons”  was for “the democratic integration in this people’s war of the total energies of the Negro people, by fighting with them against discrimination in any form whether in civil life or in the armed forces” (Folsom 1994, 348). Appel’s radical-democratic stance is rooted in his conviction that the people as a whole (rather than the sectarian proletarian class-in-itself) prefigures the transitional vehicle in the passage from a class-divided polity into a larger, inclusive, egalitarian order, an outlook he shares with Kenneth Burke (1997), a fellow member of the League and a distinguished theoretician of the arts. Because of this view, Appel easily identified with the Huks as an organic popular ensemble uniting all and everyone under the banner of grass-roots democracy, popular justice, and socialist-internationalist solidarity.

Trajectory of the Partisan Intelligence

Given his humanist-populist sympathies, Appel eagerly joined this mobilization of writers for victory against global fascism and militarism. But what brought him to the only U.S. colony in Asia occurred after his 7-month stint in 1945 at the Office of War Mobilization and Conversion in Washington, DC. Appointed a special assistant to the U.S. High Commissioner to the Philippines from November 1945 to March 1946, Appel arrived in the Philippines engaged in field investigations of the social, political and cultural conditions of the islands, including personalities and specific incidents, prior to the grant of formal independence. The result was the rich, data-filled compendium of letters to his family entitled “Manila Diary,” the raw material (still unpublished) of his two novels, Fortress and Plunder. I believe this 200-page plus manuscript is one of the most valuable eyewitness testimonies by an American “insider” concerning that momentous transitional stage in which the issues of wartime collaboration, agrarian conflict, military insubordination, shady diplomatic chicanery, and political opportunism dominated the headlines. It was the fateful interregnum that would decide future United States’ policies toward the Philippines after the grant of formal independence in July 1946, a precarious conjuncture coinciding with the beginning of the Cold War.
In several letters to prospective publishers, Appel delineated the background to the genesis of Fortress. He calls attention repeatedly to the “theme of the Asiatic peasant’s struggle for rice and land, anxiously emphasizing that “my hero in this novel are the billion Asiatics, the common man across the Pacific who for all his differences is not too dissimilar from the common man of the big American cities” (Appel 1977). Appel considered the vexed American-Philippines entanglement as a microcosm of all Asia. The time he spent in the Philippines “was a turning point in American policy in the Orient”:

After meeting Sergio Osmena [then president of the Philippine Commonwealth] and Manuel Roxas [elected first president of the Philippine Republic; exonerated by Gen, MacArthur for his collaboration with the Japanese govt.] etc., I became interested in the history of the dominant Nacionalista Party over half a century. After attending the trials of General Yamashita, I became interested in the Japanese policy during the occupation, particularly in its propaganda against the West. After meeting the guerilla leaders, both American and Filipino, I became interested in unraveling the feud between the Hukbalahaps [the Communist-led guerilla army against the Japanese forces; hereafter, Huks] and the American-led guerillas. I discovered that there was one common cord binding together such historical phenomena as the Nacionalista Party with its drive for independence from the United States, the Japanese occupation, the bitter feud between the guerillla groups: who should own the land. Landlord or peasant? Today, the land-rice revolt is continuing not only in the Philippines but throughout all Asia. In my opinion, it is the greatest historical fact of our times, involving the fate of half the world’s population  (Appel 1977).

At a crucial juncture in the relations between the United States and its only colony in Asia, the Philippines, Appel found himself an informed, eager participant in, and witness to, the portentous  transition of the Philippines from subservient “Commonwealth” status to a nominally sovereign republic. As already mentioned, Appel was appointed an official historian of the Paul McNutt Commission in 1945-46. This unusual vantage point enabled Appel to scrutinize firsthand those crucial months of negotiations immediately after the liberation of the country from the Japanese occupation, painful weeks and months of restoring normalcy to a society wracked with centuries of peonage, violent pauperization of millions, rampant injustice, and ferocious class antagonisms. Those deep-rooted social maladies constitute a legacy of 300 years of Spanish domination, four years of ruthless Japanese oppression, and forty years of predatory U.S. colonial rule.
Based on his intense social investigation and wide-ranging analysis of the historical archives, Appel produced two novels about Philippine society and the role of American soldiers, politicians and assorted adventurers. While Plunder (1952) stages an interethnic drama involving American soldiers engaged in corrupt collusion with Filipinos. Chinese and other groups enriching themselves from wartime piracy, the longer novel Fortress in the Rice (1951) charts the vicissitudes of the Huk peasant rebellion in the fifties. Although the second novel has been reviewed favorably, it has not been given the serious reading and appraisal that it deserves as one of the most trenchant mapping and critique of racialized colonial ideology operating in the psyches of both masters and subalterns, with subtle discrimination of its effects in a broad spectrum of characters representing different cultural traditions, group habits, and social histories.

Caught Between Two Worlds

The difficulty of a just estimate of Appel’s achievement springs no doubt from the US public’s ignorance of, or indifference to, the half-a-century of U.S. colonial rule in the Philippines. One example is Robert Lowry’s review of Appel’s book. Lowry claims to appreciate through the flat journalistic prose, cliches and overwiting the novelist’s “interested eye roving over the whole social scene of occupied Manila and the guerilla country beyond” which yields “a good documentary” about the “plight of the Philippine masses and the reason for their revolutionary ferment” (1951, 16, 36). Counterpointing this is Harry Slochower’s estimate that Appel’s artifice belongs to “world literature” in the same class as Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Malraux’s Man’s Fate. Slowocher argues that Appel shows “greater sensitivity to the complexities of human emotions under the terrible stressess of war, loneliness and hunger” (xxx, 70). What endows the novel with permanent stature is “the story of particular human destinies,” one which “encompasses the making or unmaking of the world-wide fraternity and freedom. It shows that behind the revolution for a bowl of rice, there is the craving for dignity and love” (1951, 70). Without a doubt, the indifference of one reviewer and the enthusiasm of the other may be read as symptomatic of the confused American understanding of the complex situation of the Philippines and its people ever since the US annexed the territory in 1898.
Knowledge of the Philippines as the only direct Southeast Asian colony of the United States has been obtuse and sparse. The entry in The Reader’s Companion to American History, for example, cites the problem of violent annexation in conjunction with the defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898-99: “Anti-imperialists opposed to taking over a foreign people without their consent and holding them in a colonial condition objected bitterly” after which the US poured aid. In 1946, the US “granted the Philippines their independence, though still maintaining bases and political influence there” (1991, 836).
In contrast, historians such as Howard Zinn (1980), Stuart Creighton Miller (1982), and Gabriel Kolko (1984), elaborated on the unconscionable violence and savage suppression of Filipino insurgents from 1899 through the pacification campaigns in the first three decades of the last century. Neocolonial methods were hatched in the Commonwealth period up to the defeat and surrender in Bataan and Corregidor. Conversion of the territory into a neocolony was mainly effected by the Bell Trade Act and the Military Bases Agreement of 1947, plus other agreements enforcing economic, political and mlitary conditions that perpetuated dependency and preserved the feudal landlord structures and client-patron nexus on which oligarchic power has rested for over three hundred years of Spanish, Japanese and American colonial subjugation.
Clearly, World War II caused a rupture in the system of unequal relations between colonized subalterns and imperial masters together with their native overseers. It released popular energies catalyzed by the stubborn resistance to Japanese brutality. While Filipino opposition to US colonialism never stopped despite 1.4 million casualties during the Filipino-American War of 1898-1913, concessions were granted by the US to win over the vacillating middle strata and pettybourgeois intelligentsia (San Juan 2007). However, the majority of citizens, over 80% of the toiling masses comprised largely of peasants and workers chained to peonage in the fields, mines, etc., was subjected to degrading conditions. They continued the revolutionary tradition begun in the 1896 insurrection against Spain up to the twenties and thirties, finally organizing and mobilizing themselves against the Japanese occupation. The group that led this fight was the Hukbalahap composed of socialists, communists, and other nationalist forces whose Popular Front policies supported US anti-Japanese guerillas called USAFFE (United States Armed Forces in the Far East). They were not only fighting the Japanese invaders but also their Filipino collaborators—the puppet government and its constabulary police and soldiers—defending landlord property and oligarchic entitlements, the iniquitous status quo before the war. It was ultimately what Appel calls “a battle for the land,” for the radical transformation of the economic and political structures that entrenched a privileged minority backed by the US government that has been oppressing Filipinos (Constantino 1978; Miranda 1988; Pomeroy 1992).
`    Half a century of US tutelage had resulted in pauperization of the peasantry and immiseration of the working class and indigenous or ethnic communities due chiefly to the polarization of land ownership.  Historian Jonathan Fast found that “in 1903 an estimated 81 per cent of all land holdings were worked on directly by their owners; by 1938 this figure had fallen to 49 per cent and in the post-war decade the rate of polarization increased further. By the 1950s an estimated two thirds of all the rural population were landless and of these the great majority were sharecroppers working the fields for a small percentage of the crop” (1973, 76; for updates, see Putzel 1992). On the eve of the Pacific War, with the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, the increasing rate of land tenancy, heavy rural indebtedness and massive pauperization, militant peasant unions demanded reforms for land redistribution and the end of landlord control over the courts and the bureaucratic apparatus. This is essentially what Appel, in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, referred to as the “tidal wave” whose heart is “the bowl of rice.” The image distills the centuries-long quest of oppressed people of color for freedom, justice and equality.
Private landlord armies and vigilante groups controlled by the elite suppressed any agitation, however peaceful and legal. The war changed the situation. For example, the elite mestizo Narciso Ferrer (the typical Filipino politician of President Manuel Quezon’s generation symptomatic of comprador opportunism) abandoned his hacienda for refuge in Manila and urged the Japanese-backed Philippine Constabulary (under General Mabanta) to protect his rice-fields, to no avail. Ater establishing local governments, the armed peasantry organized by the Huks implemented land redistribution, uncompromising punishment of collaborators, and the denial of rice harvests to the Japanese occupiers, the strategic maneuver called “rice struggles.”
When the US administators returned in 1944, the Huks welcomed the Americans as fellow comrades in the anti-fascist struggle and carried out an initial voluntary demobilization in their regional and local guerilla infrastructures.  But instead of being recognized for their contribution to the destruction of Japanese forces in the major provinces of Luzon (the largest island), the Huks were disarmed, arrested, and whole squadrons of fighters massacred. The Huk leaders were hounded and persecuted.  In effect, American liberation of the islands spelled the return of the old order of mestizo elite exploitation of the majority of peasants and workers. A Filipino journalist, Hernando Abaya, summed up this period of collaboration and MacArthur’s subversion of President Roosevelt’s policies in his 1947 commentary Betrayal in the Philippines (a condensed version may be found in chapters 3-5 of his 1984 autobiography The Making of a Subversive.) For Appel, that treachery was shocking. It was a profound tragic mistake of moral blindness to the past and a sabotage of the US government’s proclaimed commitment to the affirmation of nation’s self-determination, human rights, and the ideals of democratic liberties–shibboleths of the Allied countries’ wartime propaganda .

Epiphany and  Intervention

In that fortuitous assignment to the Philippine theater of class and racial antagonisms, Appel felt he was “living at the center of a typhoon,…a year of momentous decisions when all Asia held its breath, waiting for the United States, the world’s supreme power to point the way to the future…And weren’t the 1950s and the 1960s decades of wars and civil wars in Asia? And wasn’t the United States itself torn apart by violent dissenssion?”  He assumed a self-conscious, transnational perspective:  “…No sensitive person could have been in the Far East in 1945-46 without being aware that the American alternatives in Asia were limited. It was a choice between the mailed fist, a restoration of the pre-war status quo, or a recognition of the ‘rice bowl” revolution. And my novel reflected what was to come…” (Appel 1977). Appel’s vocation as historian-educator thus sprang from pedagogical and hermeneutic motivations. The thematic burden of acquiring a mature vision, a knowledge of the multidimensional sociohistorical totality, may be discerned in the effort to extract a glimpse of the future from the judicious recording of surface events. The artist was both a witness and protagonist of the unfolding drama of the Filipino people’s revolution.
We can formulate the writer’s task as a kind of cunning ventriloquist.  Appel needs to solve the dilemma of staying as an objective, faithful observer aligned with the colonizer while functioning as a conscientious partisan of the masses. But as the novel’s central intelligence, he had no choice but to exercise narrative authority and calculate the relative worth of his characters, their actions and possible consequences. It was a matter of balancing hypotheses and inferences in ironic, often ambiguous lived experiences and situations.
Georg Lukacs once theorized that “the novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God…The novel tells of the adventure of interiority, the content of the novel is the story of the soul that goes to find itself, that seeks adventures in order to be proved and tested by them, and, by proving itself, to find its own essence” (1971, 88-89). By “essence” here, Lukacs designates the character’s destiny, the ethos and signature of her position in a specific historical process. To concretize this hypothetical adventure of interiority, Appel fabricates the narrative of the helpless MacVey, typifying the white American pettybourgeois individual, buffeted by the forces of racist prejudice, sexist brutality and violence in the arena of wartime Philippines. The dynamics of his survival equals his experience of learning the discrepancies between his consciousness and reality, parallel to Appel’s belief that objectivity is a mask for compromise with the status quo. The only alternative is a courageous method of realism leavened with ironic distance and humor. MacVey as anti-hero learns the disparity between illusory conceptions of life and the brute contingency of his actual environment, finally deciding to translate his new knowledge into practice–the practice of speaking truth to power, the practice of writing as an instrument of people’s emancipation and empowerment.

Exploring Dangerous Terrain

It was a new historical and geographical venue for the novelist but his instincts easily furnished the coordinates of aesthetic judgment. It was a new setting but an old game of tactical options and moral choices. Given the sophisticated realism of his earlier novels and his proletarian or plebeian bias, Appel cannot but adopt the viewpoint of the common people, the Filipino tao. The essence he is in search of is the validating quality of collective humane relations in a world devoid of cosmic moral norms or universal communal standards. This is carried out by the invention of typical characters representing social categories, such as MacVey, Narciso Ferrer, Careo, etc.  Apart from the fidelity to multifaceted actuality, the novel’s realism is complicated by a need to profit from the hazardous journey of discovering the truth behind illusions both official and psychological. The sublimation of romantic ideals embedded in tradition and social conventions proceeds through scenes of love, fantasies and experiences of disappointment, anger, joy, longing. What results is the ironic revelation of the limits of metaphysical hopes and idealist promises vis-a-vis the unyielding facticity of real life.
We confront the classic burden of  the education plot syncopated with social satire and lyrical episodes of transcendence. Appel’s hindsight-become-foresight informs the novel’s prophetic charge, somehow a performance of the novelist’s responsiblity to render in dramatic scenes what he calls the “timeless” truths of compassion, pity and love. This is condensed in the closing paragraph of the novel. After surveying the corpse of his erstwhile comrades, in particular the Huk leader Major Careo, Dave MacVey, the central protagonist, is seized with “a paroxysm of grief and rage.” After the death of Col. Ryker, Careo served as MacVey’s father figure, an epitome of resourceful compassion and solidarity between Filipinos and Americans. After prying open the knotted fist of Careo to recover palay (unhusked rice grains) symbolic of the noble ideals of the peasant resistance, MacVey shouts at Major Ortala, the opportunist officer who carried out the execution to please the reactionary landlord-oligarchs:

“You’re not getting away with it! I’ll tell what I know!  Here! Back home!  I’ll tell the whole world the truth!” He spun around, looking down at the major who was a corpse. “Manuel, nobody’ll stop me. Manuel, I swear in God’s name, Manuel!” And he turned from Manuel, the first in the row of Hukbalahaps, as if even now in death he were leading them, toward Major Ortala and the sergeant and sentry.  “You killed him! Killed all of them for the hacenderos!  For the hacendero collaborators!  You killed them, but they’ll hang you!” And with the motion used in tossing a hand grenade, he drew back his arm, his fist opening, and into their faces he flung the rest of the palay. (1951, 423).

At this point Appel was not inventing a scandalous episode. The actual historical incidents Appel translated into fiction occurred on Febuary 5, 1945, when Huk squadron 77 was waylaid by a Filipino colonel, Adonais Maclang, who then killed 130 unarmed Huk guerillas with the knowledge of the US Military Police. At that time USAFFE guerillas accused the Huks of all kinds of crimes; they persuaded the US Counter-Intelligence Corps to arrest well-known leaders such as Luis Taruc, Casto Alejandrino, Silvestre Liwanag. Only one American official, Air Corps Col. Gwen Atkinson, protested the outrage. Further substantiation of the veracity of this historic conjuncture may be found in the Huk leader Luis Taruc’s autobiography, Born of the People (1953), which came out two years after the publication of Fortress (see also Abaya 1947).
Under the Roxas administration, Huk leader Juan Feleo and labor militant Jose Joven were kidnapped and liquidated by landlord-controlled military police who were supposed to be protecting them, testifying to the dominance of landlord-reactionary politicians and military chiefs (Agoncillo and Alfonso 1967, 533-536). This was one of the unforgettable horrible developments that outraged Appel, compelling him to write his two Philippine novels.

Between Romance and Realism

To be sure, Appel then had no intention of achieving a kind of documentary pastiche that one associates today with Capote’s In Cold Blood or with the raw if now banal naturalism of Zola and Norris. He disclaimed being a political reporter or foreign correspondent. In a letter to the editor of Macmillan, Appel confessed that  the novel is the “story of one American’s education in the Far East—an education begun so long ago in an American schoolroom—and what he learned of the new colonialism so ominous for all the peoples of the world. It is the story of sixty days, a moment of history, that lost all Asia” (Appel 1977).  One may describe this cognitive episode as a successful learning experience in understanding the failure of the promised emancipatory mission of the victorious Allied forces, which then becomes the lesson to be taught to others willing or ready to be disenchanted.
Drawing from the facts of his personal involvement in the historic  convergences of the time as an interested observer, and as a fabulist, we can define Appel’s project as both wrestling with ethico-political and aesthetic problems. It is clear that he had been deeply moved by the epic struggle of the Filipino masses for genuine democracy and equality, encapsulated in his phrase, “the rice bowl revolution of landless peasants,” an epic struggle to which American “leadership at all levels is pathetically blind… All colonialism is doomed but our leadership remains blind” (Appel 1977).  Appel’s urgent task is to awaken not only the leaders but the broad audience of his work about this ethico-political blindness, this wilful ignorance, bred from a long history of colonial hauteur. His advantage over previous historians is that he happened to be a witness-participant at “a turning point” when the main contradiction between Japanese fascism and the Allied cause of free-enterprise democracy clashed head-on with the revolutionary tide in the Philippines. “To know, to understand and to act in the democratic tradition” was Appel’s ethico-political motive, a duty as witness to testify to the truth and an obligation to incite the audience to action in order to prevent what was to come—the disasters and misfortunes of humanity–born from the reality of the unexamined benighted past.
On the other hand, as a socially responsible artist, Appel conceived his task as the traditional one of rendering into concrete dramatic scenes the meaning of what he witnessed, investing acts of misery and despair with pity, compassion and love. The burden of artistic representation centers on constructing a narrative that would flesh out the manifold contradictions of that historic conjuncture in a specific milieu in which the conflicts of classes, races and nations would assume what Appel calls “an imaginative unity” that would attain timelessness in and through the timely, ephemeral circumstances of the media headlines. His prime novelistic strategy prompted maneuvering in the Philippine geopolitical milieu a contrived plot of one young American’s education about the deceptive nature of “the new colonialism.” This “personal-history scaffolding,” for Appel, would give the work “a certain timeliness” enough to appeal to his contemporaries.
Time functions as the main framework for the accumulation of experience and the discovery of the truth behind the seeming façade of normal life. The mapping of space follows the contours of the war-torn Philippines, with Manila being the focus of hypocritical masquerades while the countryside (Lawang Kupang, the Huk fortress; or the USAFEE hideouts) embraces the contested areas of fighting, the liberated zones as well as the vast wilderness and the idyllic Dingalan Bay oceanfront which provides a reprieve for MacVey before his final lesson.
We are introduced into a complex social panorama of class/national conflicts into which the adventuring hero, MacVey, is plunged to work out his own salvation. The spatial horizon is fixed, more or less, but the process of existential engagements has no limit—except death. Three blocs of character-types articulate this narrative of learning and discovery, an apprenticeship for the witness/testimony bearer, which the fabulist narrator uses to establish the ironic unfolding of history. First, the Filipino hacenderos and oligarchs (personified by Narciso Ferrer, the minister of justice in the Japanese puppet setup, General Mabanta, etc.) with whom American business is tied. Diverse Japanese officials interact with the Filipino collaborators to demonstrate their astute manipulation of their new subordinates. Our American hero, MacVey, associates himself with this native mestizo elite through Ferrer’s aristocratic daughter, Teresita, after which he becomes involved with Sisa, an outlaw mistress, shared with his devil-may-care compatriot Joe Trent.
The second group are the American USAFFE officials such as Ryker, Peterson, and Ackroyd; and the villainous Joe Trent who functions as MacVey’s diabolic shadow-emanation. The third group consists of the Filipino Huk guerillas represented chiefly by Major Manuel Careo. In between them and the Japanese are the outlaw group of Sisa and Atong; and the opportunist USAFFE band of Major Ortala, supported by landlords and fascist elements, who summarily executes Major Carreo and his companions. The first and second groups represent the forces of colonial domination and conservatism while the Huks and their peasant-middle class followers represent the partisans of “the rice bowl revolution” which, for Appel, signifies the protracted, long-range collective endeavor to fashion an emancipated, just and democratic future. This repertoire of character-types acquires significance only in their roles of advancing, complicating or subverting the plot of education replete with ironic twists and suspense-filled rhetorical closures.

Reprise and Extrapolation

At the outset, we encounter the young naive MacVey marooned in the Philippines at the advent of the Pacific War, isolated in the abandoned hacienda of Narciso Ferrer.   Panicked at first, he is comforted by the landlord’s overseer Jacinto. The first lesson MacVey learns is the peasant’s revenge against centuries-old humiliation: the slaying of Jacinto is witnessed by the helpless American. With psychological acuity, Apel renders the impact of the oppressed’s newly-found power on the anguished white man whose only refuge is to assert his national/racial identity—even though he has already rejected his mother’s white supremacist  arrogance:

In this room become a slaughter pen Dave looked from the killers to the killed. On the overseer’s hand—the hand that had an arm—he recognized his wrist watch and glimpsed his own murdered self, as if bound, indeed, to the Filipino. Jabbering, the killers walked to him, and although he shouted, “Don’t kill me! I’m an American! Amigo!  Americano!” there was a part of him that seemed as utterly dead as the overseer (1951, 45)

Before the close of this first time-segment of the novel, the last thirty days of 1943 comprising the first part (consisting of Chapters 1 to 18), MacVey’s encounter with Joe Trent offers the second lesson of self-discrimination in Chapter 10. After Trent raped a helpless native woman, MacVey vows to bear witness to this epitome of colonial/racial/sexist terrorism: “He could have wept for her and for himself. He could have wept for this evil thing Joe had done to her and to all Americans. But what was the use? In this hut who would care or understand? “Joe,” he said, “when we get to Lawang Kupang I’m turning you in, Joe. I’m telling Careo” (1951, 105). MacVey fulfills his promise, but their enrollment in Col. Ryker’s USAFFE group submerges Trent’s guilt. However, despite the frustratiion, his role as testimony-bearer and witness has been convincingly set up, anticipating the challenges of what’s to come.
Meanwhile, Teresita Ferrer has joined the Huks after her father’s patriarchal blow finally severed the tie between them—never to be healed even as she succumbs to the courtship of a self-serving USAFEE opportunist, Casiano Bunag. Before that twist in her life, Teresita and MacVey are joined in a rapturous experience in Lawang Kupang, the Huk fortress, after which they are married by Major Carreo. In this section, Appel is accused by critics of indulging in some purple prose (see pages 193 and 195) when he registers the interior monologue of both lovers, although he doesn’t fully shift to a stream-of-consciousness mode which is vulnerable to further sentimentalist abuse. Neither erotic nor sentimental, these lyrical passages celebrate the loss of that narrow ego-centered psyche or mentality underlying class, racial and national divisions among humans, a loss harmonized with the border-cutting, cosmic rhythm of nature:
Before them a dark slope lifted, and they listened to the mountain stream gurgling and tumbling over unseen pebbles. If the mountain slept, its voice was always babbling—of lovers’ farewells and the passing of love, and of death. Down, down to the hills, the stream sang, down to the uplands, love passes, down into the green and golden rice, down to the plain, love passes and death awaits….He kissed her gently on the lips, his eyes closing, and in the silence the stream still sang of love and death. “You’re here, and I’m here!” he whispered. “The biggest fluke.”

The last phrase is symptomatic of Apel’s ironic tactic to curb romanesque impulses from distracting us from the larger perspective, a gesture one would expect from a veteran story-teller of tough-guy escapades and stoic self-disavowals.

Reconnaisance and Denouement

We know the eventual resolution of the Pacific War in broad strokes, but not the particulars. In the next half of the book comprising the first thirty days of 1946, Appel intended (as he told the Macmillan editor) to describe the restoration of the feudal landlords to power, the renewed war against the Huks; and the accompanying ideological psycho-warfare—the device of independence is one means that would solve the problem of oligarch-landlord collaboration with the Japanese, requiring the betrayal of the Huks and other nationalist forces that facilitated MacArthur’s return. The last phase of MacVey’s education occurs after his desperate escape from the Constabulary prison through the sacrifice of Andy Peterson, the antithesis of Trent and the only person caring and decent enough to allow MacVey to save himself.
Well before that event, in Lawang Kupang, Macvey had already absorbed the wisdom of Major Careo who drives home the cathartic value of the process of self-examination: “You are ashamed of the prejudice. That is the first step, my friend. To admit your life as it has been, to understand your own past. Only then can a man begin to understand the lives of others different from himself. Once we understand, we will have no use for prejudice.” Complementing this self-enlightenment is a view that the past is not immutable, proof of which is the wedding of two persons representing opposites, disparities, incommensurables : “You will open other doors, all the doors of your past, this prison that holds us and keeps us from being brothers” (1951, 197).
That memorable exhortation converts the act of binding people into a trope of liberation. In the concluding chapter entitled “The First Liberation,” we are confronted with the morality of decision, sharply enunciated as the antithesis of what is and what ought to be, a choice between resignation to the static actuality of everyday life and defiance in attempting to change the drift of things: ”The way things are, Dave thought…But what about the way things ought to be? Lifting against the chorus of the way things are, he seemed to hear voice after voice,….for always there came a time of decision. Alwas a man has to raise his own voice or be still against the steady, repeated everlasting chorus of the way things are” (1951, 409-410). This classic philosophical contradiction between is and ought, what is dead (the past) and what ought to be vibrant (the future as present), axiomatically expresses the theme of the novel.
Clearly MacVey’s internal ruptures can no longer be suppressed. Earlier, when he joins the outlaw band of Sisa and Atong, we reach a critical point in his education for witnessing—his experience of release from family, nation, and the relentless compulsion of sexuality. It is a moment of liberation from self-centered concerns, even an anarchistic moment of self-dissolution. After being assured that he has equal claims to Sisa in competition with Trent, MacVey begins to admire Sisa as a free agent, even “a perverted female Robin Hood, loyal to her wine-stealing, raping bunch of tulisans.” Even “Caveman Joe Trent” has been redeemed for MacVey: “Zambales was ‘under the bridge’ for Joe, with the damn war and Cavite and the America that had given him birth. But what about MacVey himself? Whom was he loyal to? Whom was the little idealist, the little speechmaker loyal to? Masters back on Zambales, HIS COUNTRY in caps, HIS WIFE, in caps? Better not to think, better not to remember” (1951, 348).
A disturbing tone of irony and cynicism punctuates this meditation. MacVey recovers immediately, repelled at the thought that he was metamorphosing into that vicious persona he had fought tooth and nail, his Trent double. Finally he resolves his doubts: “Manuel Careo was right, a thousand times right, Man made himself. Man made or could unmake his conscience—and in the making, the doing, man freed what was best in his soul, or freed what was worst” (1951, 349). We overhear the voice of the historian’s conscience in this instructive judgment. But is that statement of principle a conclusion or a point of departure?
We can interpret MacVey’s decision to make the long perilous trek back to USAFFEE headquarters as proof of his graduation into becoming a reliable full-fledged witness. This function is analogous to the artist’s vocation. But before he fully assumes that role, he confides the truth of Trent killing Atong to Sisa in order to find out her reaction; but he is surprised to find out that “she didn’t care…. Abruptly as he had taken Sisa, abruptly he left her.  Of all the emotions surging through him—sexual release and drunken shame and guilt and the knowledge that Atong and Joe and he himself were all one tool of gratification to Sisa—he was tormented most by the feeling that he was Joe” (1951, 355).  With the moral schism appeased, the psychic split dissolved, MacVey proceeds to become the truth-bearer of America’s treachery against the Huks (who valued the promise of American democracy) as demonstrated by the exoneration of collaborators and its grant of phony independence to the Philippines. Acknowledging his Trent-double, MacVey thus accepts responsibility for America’s failures and hypocrisies.
There is more at stake. What ultimately the narrative accomplishes here is the legitimation of MacVey’s testimony as a mode of overcoming alienation based on private property. We have at the outset seen his patriarchal-patronizing mentality in his attitude to peasants and women in general, reducing him to conformity with the code of white supremacy and masculine superiority. His ego depends on the seduction of women (see the passages in Chapter 10 where he relishes his sexual conquests (pp. 92-93). While knowing the facts, he wrongheadedly fantasizes that Teresita is Spanish, not Filipino, so that he is uneasy about being the father of a “brown kid,” a fatality “too remote for him to grasp” (1951, 248-49).
MacVey is puzzled by so many discrepancies between ideas and real situations. Later on, when he is told that Teresita is married to somebody else, he resigns himself to what he believes is given fact, with a cynical rationalization: “Well, that’s the way things were. Amen and hallelujah.,, [Teresita] was the way she was. She was the way he was. The flesh was weak stuff or strong stuff, depending on how you looked at it.  You had ideals, faith, but you also had a body greedy for its own life…. His pregnant wife, made pregnant by some other bastard. Maybe he ought to go back to America without seeing her…—who could blame her? Life went on, and the living still needed what the dead could no longer give. He reviews the persons he had invested in, including the whore Serafina and Sisa the tulisan, finally resolving the antinomy: …“let the past keep the past…” (1951, 417). MacVey finds himself dispossessed, no longer claiming rights of ownership over Teresita and over comrades he respected, especially Careo. He reaches a stage when “need and enjoyment have lost their egoistic nature”(as Marx once envisaged), when  the complete emancipation of all the human senses and attributes occurs with “the superssession of private property” (Marx 1975, 352).

Dialectics Unbound

One can invoke the penultimate chapter of the book, entitled “A Look Into the Future,” as the realization of MacVey’’s mission or purpose in the universe of the novel. At this point, the narrative voice declares the truths of the present and its fearful consequences for the future. Its concluding affirmation, however, belies its desired effect. Appel’s focus on “democracy” is undercut by the concluding chapter in which Major Ortala (representing the USAFFE, General MacArthur, Commonwealth officials, and Paul McNutt himself as the High Commissioner standing for the Roosevelt administration) destroys the finest tribunes and defenders of the people.
Appel’s metaphoric index of the hungry masses is meant to overshadow MacVey’s bitter disenchantment at the end, with its dreadful aura of futility. The imagery and rhythm of this passage exemplifies  Appel’s finely controlled rhetoric. His prose style here is neither overly optimistic nor cautiously genteel. The narrator inventories the polarized forces confronting each other and speculates on what may reconcile them as he anticipates boldly a utopian future that clearly escapes being captured by the rubric of “American democracy,” a future the historical specifics of which defies elucidation:

(The design will be blood-red, and its words will spell out Law and Order. The smoke of burning Hukbalahap barrios will spell out Law and Order, a Law and Order of the hacienderos…Mailed fists and rebellious land-hungry peoples on the march.  Who will help them? They will help themselves. Who will hear their ancient cry for land and rice? They will hear themselves. America, great land, land of the free, will you help, will you hear?  Will you undersand that the revolution of Asia is a revolution of hunger and that the hungry are reaching for more than a bowl of rice? Reaching for the land that has never belonged to them, and for more  than the land. Reaching for their own manhood, for dignity, for love. Yes, for love, as the revolution kills and burns in its march toward power. For the marching peasant soldier is the father who sold his daughter to keep the family from starvation; the marching peasant soldier is the son who watched the police torture his mother; the marching peasant soldier is the brother whom nobody called brother but the organizers and leaders of the revolution. America, you must understand that if the mailed fist is strong, American democracy is stronger, and only American democracy can win friends in Asia. Only democracy.) (1951, 395).

At best, the two concluding chapters are meant to produce a mixed feeling of subdued hope, vigilance, and anger. It is the conflict between the romance-oriented alazon of masculine bravado and the deflationary eiron, the detached, shrewd observer of human folly, oscillating in MacVey’s character-role. The twin spirits of narrative genre seem forever locked in tense combat, energizing both its prophetic and memorializing reserves for deployment by future practitioners.
Despite ambiguities and ironies in the narrative flow, Appel’s ethico-political objective of articulating the emergence of American necolonial hegemony in the Philippines and in Asia fuses with his artistic goal of synthesizing the complex motives of humans caught in a turbulent crisis of a system—monopoly-capitalism in its highest stage, imperialism—that is inevitably dying, while the egalitarian future nourished in the womb, like the palay grains in the bloodied ground, is still struggling to be born. This is the universal message of Fortress in the Rice, a powerful artistic creation by the forgotten American chronicler of the Filipino revolution in the twentieth century, Benjamin Appel.

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Slochower, Harry.  “Review of Fortress in the Rice by Benjamin Appel.” The Chicago Jewish Forum (1951): 70.
University of Oregon Library. 2012. “Appel, Benjamin, 1907-NWDA.”  Retried from SNAC: The Social Network and Archival Context Project, 2 August. <;
Wald, Alan.  2007.  Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Anti-Fascist Crusade.  Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press.
Zinn, Howard.  1980.  A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper.

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ni E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

“….Iniluwa ko na ang galit sa pusong nagpupuyos
Nang putulin ang aking binti, ngunit di pa rin nakaligtas
Sa sumpa ng marahas na kalagayan– O Yolanda!  Yolanda!

Walang kailangan, elastiko’t “resilient” daw ako
Mapagbigay, pigil ang luha’t tiis ang gutom–sino sila?
Sina Gabriela Silang, Gregoria de Jesus, Lorena Barros kaya iyon?

Di ko malilimutan, O Yolanda!  malanding Yolanda!
Ang kasakiman at kalupitan, di ko mapapahintulutang
Di sumpain ang walang katarungang rehimen ng mga oligarko–

Nawa’y di yumuko’t umindayog lamang sa turista
Ang anak ko, tumigas siya tulad ng molabe’t lawan sa gubat
Di makuhang ipaghampasan ng dayuhan–  O Haiyan!  O Haiyan!

Ayaw kong lumuhod sa Bibliya tulad ni Manny Pacquiao
Habang dumarating ang mga kasamang armado mula sa dagat–
Ayaw kong ipagpaumanhin ang walang-hiyang panginoon,

“Pork-barrel” tulisang busog sa ‘ting dalamhati’t pagluluksa–
Tigil na ang pagpapabaya, bumabangon ang sambayanan–
Haiyan, O Haiyan, walang-hiyang sigwa ng himagsikan….”

(Iyan ang iniluwang galit ng bangkay–O Yolanda! O Haiyan!–
na dating ari ni Richard Pulga, 27 anyos, taga-Tacloban, Leyte.)

[Namatay si Richard Pulga, 27 taon, sa Tacloban, Leyte, dahil
sa kakapusan ng tulong ng mediko; New York Times, 11/15/2013]

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ANG DAMOT-NENENG KO: Makabagong Talingdaw ni E. San Juan, Jr.

Picasso-Les Demoiselles d'AvignonANG DAMOT-NENENG KO: Makabago’t Matipid na Talingdaw sa Panahon ng Iskandalo ng Pork-Barrel Raket sa Krisis ng Neokolonyang Estado

ni E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

Ang Damot-neneng ko’y lumuha sa bundok
Kasabay ang singaw ng korupsiyong himutok
Luha’y naging baha, polusyong sumasalpok,
Mga kawatang trapo’y sa Kongreso napalaot.

Ako namang ito’y umarkila ng demo-daong
At kumakabang tumugpa sa alon
Natagpu-tagpuan: suba, daya, bisyo,
“Matuwid na da”-rling kung saan nataboy.

Hala, gaod tayo, baho ay tiisin
Ang lahat ng propaganda pag-aralang bathin,
Palayo-layo man ang tama, kung ating bakahin
Daig ang status-quo na ayaw lakbayin.

Suhol dito, dahas doon, humampas ang hangin
Dini sa budhi ko na nahihilahil
Kaya pala ulol, mataray na giliw
Nasa aking pusod doon humihilik.

Hayo, ‘nak ng tupa, ako’y tulungan
Sa dagat itawid ang bayang binusabos
Kung tayo’y palaring ibagsak ang mali,
Ordeng anak-pawis ating kalangitan.

Hala, gaod tayo, di na dapat tiisin
Kabuktutan ng Estado’y huwag palagpasin
Palayu-layo man ang katarungan kung ating suriin
Daig ang paraisong ayaw lakbayin. Demo


KUNDIMAN SA GITNA NG KARIMLAN–New book of poems by E.San Juan, Jr., from the University of the Philippines Press

  • New book of poems in Filipino by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.,
  • to be published by the University of the Philippines Press

Kilalang kritiko at manlilikha sa larangang internasyonal, si E. SAN JUAN, Jr. kamakailan ay fellow ng Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas; at ng W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University. Tubong Maynila at lalawigang Rizal, siya ay nag-aral sa Jose Abad Santos High School, Unibersidad ng Pilipinas, at Harvard University.  Emeritus professor ng English, Comparative Literature at Ethnic Studies, siya ay nakapagturo sa maraming pamantasan, kabilang na ang University of the Philippines (Diliman), Ateneo de Manila University, Leuven University (Belgium), Tamkang University (Taiwan), University of Trento (Italy), University of Connecticut, Washington State University at Wesleyan University.

Namuno sa U.P. Writers Club at lumahok sa pagbangon ng makabayang kilusang ibinandila nina Claro Recto at Lorenzo Tanada noong dekada 50-60, si San Juan ay naging katulong ni Amado V. Hernandez (sa Ang Masa) at ni Alejandro G. Abadilla (sa Panitikan) kung saan nailunsad ang modernistang diskurso’t panitikan kaagapay ng rebolusyong kultural sa buong mundo. Kabilang sa mga unang aklat niya ang Maliwalu, 1 Mayo at iba pang tula, Pagbabalikwas, at Kung Ikaw ay Inaapi, na nilagom sa koleksyong Alay sa Paglikha ng Bukang-Liwayway. Sumunod ang Himagsik: Tungo sa Mapagpalayang Kultura, Sapagkat Iniibig Kita, Salud Algabre at iba pang tula, Sutrang Kayumanggi, Bukas Luwalhating Kay Ganda, at Ulikba. Sa kasalukuyang kalipunan matatagpuan ang pinakaunang pagsubok sa tulang konseptuwal sa wikang Filipino.

Bukod sa From Globalization to National Liberation, inilathala rin ng U.P. Press ang naunang mga libro niya: Carlos Bulosan and the Imagination of the Class Struggle, Toward a People’s Literature, Writing and National Liberation, Allegories of Resistance, at (kasalukuyang inihahanda) Between Empire and Insurgency: The Philippines in the New Millennium. NewCover

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