ON NICK JOAQUIN: Demystifying the Past, Unfetishizing the Present, Reinventing the Future
By E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
[Concluding chapter of SUBVERSIONS OF DESIRE: A PROLEGOMENA TO NICK JOAQUIN by E. SAN JUAN, Jr., Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1988]
The Golden Age, which blind tradition has placed in the past, is in the future.
The real genesis is not at the beginning, but at the end.
Soyez realiste, demandez limpossible!
—Communal demand, Paris, May 1968
IN HIS FAMOUS DISCOURSE “What Is an Author?” Michel Foucault argues that in order to limit “the cancerous and dangerous proliferation of significations” and polysemous meanings, post-Cartesian scholarship in the human sciences has prioritized the author as the “principle of thrift.” Frightened by the glut of meanings, Western culture invented this ideological figure of the author, this disciplinary agency of the author, in accord with the sanctity of private property and the authorizing power of the individual entrepreneur in the “free” market. Bourgeois norms dictate that if someone could own and transgress, he could also be punished, fined, imprisoned, etc. Foucault observes further that “the author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction.”63
One way of circumventing this logocentric strategy of postulating the author as creator of autotelic art is to invoke the mediation of personal testimony and the criteria of the empirical inventory.
Seizing the temporary absence in Manila of his brother-in-law (then visiting Spain where he met “those dark-eyed senoritas from romantic La Palma de Mallorca”) as an opportunity to respond to persistent requests, Sarah K. Joaquin wrote a rare “profile” of Nick Joaquin for This Week, issue of 13 March 1955, presumably solicited by the editors. Her account renders in a series of recollections not so much the psychology of the author as his “death” in the figural sense that Roland Barthes gives it in his essay, “The Death of the Author,” and in the process captures via montage and spatial mapping the writerly ambience which gives the lie to the myth of the artist’s self-identical, autochthonous genius.
Nicomedes, Onching, Nick, the playwright of “Portrait,” the ad hoc composer of the Far Eastern University (FEU) hymn, etc.-the putative integral self disappears, even the masks disintegrate, dispersed over the scene of writing constituted by those oscillating instants where presence and absence meet. Where is the original self or psyche of which the public personae are mere reflections? We get a premonition of this effect in Sarah’s initial warning: “For Nick has a special hatred for pictures-his pictures.” Indeed, what can a photographic image reveal? As she insightfully puts it, it was print that produced Nick, separated “Onching” from the author, and then distributed the remaining fragments to a discontinuous, aleatory series in which three items may be selected as heuristic “spots of time”: first, the dialogical quest for the father, a reconciling gesture addressed to the vanished patriarchal ethos—“When he did not have anything to read he would get his father’s law books, which were in Spanish”; second, the break with formal schooling (school should be considered here as the prime institution of U.S. colonialism to guarantee cooptative bourgeois hegemony) and its replacement by churches as the alternative if not oppositional site where the games of time may unfold; and third, the return of the repressed when Sarah finds herself “six years later … cast in the very play which I thought was impossible to stage.” This return of the “play” of language and writing, destroying the author’s monadic identity or its illusion, finally assumes a collective presence at one moment of “emergency” when Nick’s lyrics become the memorized FEU hymn sung by generations of students and thus explodes the idiosyncratic, unrepeatable subjectivity of “Onching/Nick” into anonymous bits and fragments-voices interpreting signs whose origin and metaphysical genealogy have been irretrievably lost. But Sarah, after manipulating the device of the family testimony and the deposition of peer and colleague, escapes the ghost of the paternal surrogate: “I am trying to get this written and published before he comes because I know he would never have allowed me to do this if he were here.”
So “Nick Joaquin” appears in and through his absence, a trace whose tenor is perpetually deferred. Desacralized, emptied of any positive referent, the scriptor of our texts now becomes a subject-position, an intertextual score ready to be performed and enunciated by us (readers here, now). Let us explore further the problematic of biography and its implications to elucidate the crisis of the author-function from another perspective. It may be appropriate to transcribe here a few facts: Born in Paco, Manila, in 1917, Joaquin studied in the public schools. After his father’s death—his father was a colonel in the revolutionary struggle against Spain—Joaquin is said to have lived with his sister-in-law and, after the Japanese occupation, worked as stage manager for her acting troupe, the Filipiniana Troupe. After submitting his essay “La Naval de Manila” (October 1943) to a contest sponsored by the Dominicans, he was awarded a scholarship to St. Albert’s College in Hong Kong in 1947 to study for the priesthood. But he left in 1950 with a knowledge of Latin and a rich experience in the seminary. His story “Guardia de Honor,” which won the Free Press short story contest in 1949, together with the publication of Prose and Poems in 1952, placed him in the first rank of Philippine writers. His first cited story, “Shooting Stars,” was published in 1943 in Graphic. From 1950 on he was a staff member of the now defunct Philippines Free Press. He has won several awards: Rockefeller grant, journalist of the Year, and finally National Artist of the Philippines.64
When the Free Press asked him for his biography, Joaquin’s reply took the form of a telegraphic communique:
I was born in Paco, where I spent an extremely happy childhood … I have no hobbies, no degrees; belong to no party, club or association; and I like long walks; any kind of guinataan; Dickens and Booth Tarkington; the old Garbo pictures; anything with Fred Astaire… the Opus Dei according to the Dominican rite…Jimmy Durante and Cole Porter tunes…Marx brothers; The Brothers Karamazov; Carmen Miranda; Paul’s Epistles and Mark’s Gospel; Piedmont cigarettes…my mother’s cooking…playing tres-siete, praying the Rosary and the Officium Parvum…I don’t like fish, sports, and having to dress up…65
In this piece of apparent veridical testimony, we confront the epitome of Joaquin’s modernizing sensibility: spatial ordering, comic montage, a decentering intertextuality. The juxtaposition of the Marx Brothers with Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, of the Gospel with Carmen Miranda and Piedmont cigarettes, etc. is of course not intended to be naive parody, systematic burlesque, or satiric undercutting. This method inheres in what I have pointed out earlier as the subliminal drive of the discourse to effect an imaginary unity of self out of a hypothetical or assumed coherence in culture and society.
In Understanding Media, one of Joaquin’s scriptural sources for his scientistic reductionism, Marshall McLuhan notes how modernist art—from Baudetaire and Flaubert to Joyce’s Ulysses, symbolism and surrealism—appropriated the structural mode of the newspaper “to evoke an inclusive awareness” and “effect a complex many-leveled function of group-awareness and participation such as the book has never been able to perform. “66 McLuhan’s “progressivism,” however, confesses its regressive, dehumanized kernel when he comments on the Vietnam War: “As a crash program of Westernization and education, the war consists of initiating the East in the mechanical technology of the industrial age.” In any case, the ethos and design of the newspaper serves as one influential model for the erstwhile journalist-editor in which to graft the analogical mentality of a former novice learned in patristic hermeneutics with the serializing and at the same time homogenizing dynamics of the electronic media today.
The preceding chapters may be taken as an extended meditation on the feminine mythos as figure and discursive principle in Joaquin’s art. I may add here that the pagan correspondence of the Virgin with the Demeter-Kore (Persephone) mythologeme which lies at the heart of the Greek Eleusinian mystery rites—the authentic model of the tatarin feast—indicates how, again, Joaquin sublimates the urge to return (the apocatastasis) to the miraculous origin or beginning in an acceptable orthodox form. This resembles the hierophant’s experience of “being in death” as he celebrates the showing forth of the sprouting of seed into blossom and fruit; in this context, the artist assumes the hierophantic persona.
The other mythologeme which supplements and complements the Virgin is the Santo Nino child cult which, like the Kore (Demeter/Persephone), evokes the cosmogonic deity of archaic religion as hermaphrodite. Carl Jung and K. Kerenyi have investigated thoroughly the archaeological background and psychological significance of both the Kore and the Primordial Child in their book Essays on a Science of Mythology. Jung has observed how, parallel to Christ’s androgyny in Catholic mysticism, the divine child (Santo Nino) is the archetypal symbol for the creative union of opposites, the coniuncto of male and female, the conscious and unconscious, thus a primordial image of hierogamy (the marriage of female and male deities). The divine child symbolizes the wholeness of primordial being; in gnosticism and other metaphysical practices, this anthropomorphic archetype—also imaged in the funerary child icon as sepulchral phallus—functions as a unifying and healing emblem, connecting for example the preconscious (the child before coming to reason) and the postconscious (rebirth after death) phases of existence.68 In his essay, “The Santo Nino in Philippine History,” Joaquin interprets the image of the divine child, which is now conflated with the Virgin in the androgynous Nenita Coogan, the absent-present protagonist of Cave and Shadows, as our rightful national emblem, this image being inherently “revolutionary”: “The Santo Nino represents the new, the novel, the revolution we underwent with the coming of Christianity, and the national culture we now proudly call Filipino. He is the pagan in us, and he is also the Christian; he is our past, and he is also our present, he is the old, and he is also the new; he is the conservator, and he is also the revolution.”69
As against the segmental bureaucratic procedures of the twentieth-century technopolis and the capitalist chronotope theorized by Poulantzas, Joaquin contraposes the emblem of the Santo Nino, the bridge or transitional liaison between past, present and future. If anything, the modernist impulse in Joaquin moves him to orchestrate experimental decreations, the elliptical avant-garde style of stream-of-consciousness and plural perceptions, witty reflexive texture, T.S. Eliot’s luminous symbol outside time, and fugal arrangements, with a compulsive predilection for an art of the hieroglyph, rebus, and charade. Such emblematic art, suturing the image, motto and explanation together (as in the Almanac), is programmed to produce silent parables and portentous talismanic signs that distort surfaces to unveil forever deferred origins. This may explain Joaquin’s obsessive quest for beginnings, as in tracing the mass to “the oldest and most primitive of human rites-the eating of a chieftain’s flesh and the drinking of his blood-to Christ’s adaptation of it in the sacrament of the Last Supper. “70
We are always tempted to repeat what previous critics have said about Joaquin’s seemingly incurable fixation on the Catholic Spanish past, as for instance Armando Marialo’s opinion that in Joaquin’s stories “the past exist as a standard, a norm, with which to compare and against which to judge the imperfect present.”” On the other hand, if the present is so degraded, what point is there in closely monitoring and recording it? In his introduction to Jose Lacaba’s book Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage, Joaquin valorizes that most ephemeral accounting of the quotidian, testimony and reportage: “Because literature today—when involved, engaged, committed, militant—itself becomes a ‘hurrying of history.”72
Consequently I would suggest that there is no such thing as the timeless past, the fetishized primal scene, in Joaquin which is not invaded, recaptured, and assimilated by a present that is hostage to the future. One can hazard the proposition that, faced with the now stereotyped crisis of representation whereby realist, ego-centered conventions no longer seem adequate to express history defined as a “process without subject,” Joaquin is forced to adjust his metaphysical-idealist Weltanschauung with empirical notations (McLuhan), or explode the presumed unity of the transcendental ego, the post-Cartesian rational psyche, with the enigmas of the body, the “polymorphous perverse” drives once invested in archaic rituals and myth-laden memory. The subject (ego-centered consciousness) is thus put on trial when sexual difference, the reproduction of gendered subjects, power and meaning through sacrifice of one kind or another to establish the socio-symbolic contract, occupy the focal concern of the narrative. With the notion of a fixed identity exploded and temporality pluralized, the texts begin to constitute a fluid and heterogeneous subjectivity or subject-position that questions phallocratic power and class oppression.
In many stories whose theme has been formulated as the conflict between Christian freedom and pagan fatalism (“Three Generations” or “Guardia de Honor,” for instance), we see time transformed from chronos to kairos. We perceive a demystification of present circumstance as a fall, a corrupted web of false appearances prefiguring an eventual redemptive exposure and discovery, a trial to be enjoyed and suffered; an affirmation of the present as the truthful fulfillment of the past, a working out of grace by violence, guilt-exorcising actions, revenge and repentance; and a witnessing to the truth of how the present cannot be saved, understood and mastered unless the unconscious/the body as psychosexual process and historical construct takes center stage and overrides the hubris of Western reason, the discourse of phallocentric metaphysics, the sexism of capital.
In the process of trying to recuperate the libidinal potency of the past, Joaquin is caught in the trap of what Lacan calls the “mirror phase of infancy,” the Imaginary state where the scopic drive or perceptual passion predominates: every other is seen as the same as the subject. In this stage, exclusion and difference do not exist. It resembles the life of the bourgeois individual who operates on a spontaneous natural code (ideology), unable to envisage the other as different. In negotiating a break from this impasse, Joaquin may have learned from Rizal’s distantiating technique, his defamiliarizing mode as shown for example in chapter 3 of El Filibusterismo where Fr. Florentino’s recounting of the tale of “Dona Jeronima” is framed within the conflicting perspectives of his listeners, “the others,” who constitute the specular truth of the narrative.
Is it believable that, as the title of one of Joaquin’s discourses says, “The Past Always Returns?” In what sense should we take this “return”?73
Postulating that the artist “creates the cultural community,” begets his kind of audience, and that art “is a wedding, the result of intercourse between artist and audience “—a dialectical conception removed from the elitism of Pound’s belief that artists are “the antennae of the race”—Joaquin goes on to describe instead the dependence of artists like Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson on the material infrastructure and cultural milieu in which they find themselves. He contends that “because there was an audience for ‘proletarian’ literature, ‘proletarian’ literature was produced—and its finest works will survive as universal literature because, again, the artist and his audience both felt the need to express at a particular time the specific circumstances then of the human condition.” So then art endures, instructing and delighting because it transcribes, discriminates, and renders judgment on the contemporary and urgent problems of the time.
Joaquin goes on to confess that when he wrote about what was then familiar to him in the immediate prewar days, his readers considered him strange, “baroque” with an “outlandish theology and…barbaric style and language.” He explains this asymmetrical relation as due to the fact that the American Occupation had so alienated Filipinos from their past that they could no longer even see what of the past will have survived in those days.” But times have changed, the alienation has somehow been purged, and Joaquin insists that his function after A has been to make explicit what was hidden and that he merely expressed a subterranean impulse in his audience who in secret was preparing to acknowledge him as their spokesman in the collaborative forging of the historical conscience of the nation. This populist self-assessment (circa 1977) of Joaquin’s writings vis-a-vis an audience whose problematic identity lapses into the Imaginary, is rare and deserves to be quoted at length:
Any minute now I expect some breathless critic to discover that the outlandish extravagant barbaric style of Nick Joaquin is no more and no less than the style of, say, the Morong Church, or the jeepney, or the Ati-Atihan, or the embroidery on the barong tagalog.
In short, I had found an audience; and maybe I had created that audience or had helped to create the climate for such an audience. A Nick Joaquin story no longer looks outlandish in the era of santos as artifacts and of processions as culture … I repeat my initial dictum: the artist is the audience. I think there was bound to be a reaction against the Americanization of Filipino culture during the American era. The past we rejected was bound to come back because, after all, it had been our culture for some 400 years.
I think it was this reaction, this obscure yearning or nostalgia for what we had set aside in favor of Hollywood and Manhattan, that was bound to break out sooner or later. I just happened to be around when it was bound to happen.
The audience was there, waiting to be expressed—though I might have thought at first there was no audience. But it seems now that I was expressing a more or less general impulse. We were all wanting to be reminded that the Filipino has a grandfather, that the Filipino didn’t begin with Dewey’s Battle of Manila Bay.
I merely brought back that grandfather. Of course, whenhe first appeared in my early stories, nobody could make head or tail of him in the same way that nobody could see a Picasso until Picasso had trained the eyes of an audience to see a Picasso. This may sound immodest—but it’s the standard process in art.
You couldn’t see me either when I first started writing, nor could 1, alas, see you—but in this era of La Plaza and La Azotea and what have you, in all the chi-chi hotels and art galleries, we realize that you and I were wanting to express what had to be expressed-if Filipino culture is to achieve a reintegration. If we are to rediscover our grandfather: you and I, driven by the same impulse.74
What comes out here are two contradictory positions: the first, postulating that a turnabout in thinking and taste has occurred in which the artist may have participated (his role is hypothetical) so that now the writer’s style and themes are fully appreciated; and the second, a self-aggrandizement of the artist’s vatic and combined Orphic/Apollonian role as the tribune of the “general impulses” of the nation, the agent of “reintegration” mediating what the society unconsciously felt and what the writer consciously wanted. Less inconsistency or equivocation, this ambivalent stance is symptomatic of the tension in Joaquin between the passive (the female register) and the active personal—Jack Henson, Chitong Monzon, Connie Vidal, etc.—but it does not confirm the thesis that “The past always returns” unless this past is nothing but the unconscious that demands to be heard—what I denominate as the “subversions of Desire.” Can a revival of antiquated forms and outmoded mentalities release the repressed?
In “Popcorn and Gaslight,” Joaquin bewailed the endemic “social amnesia” which he felt afflicted his compatriots, “our apathy to and even contempt for our own past”; and because the native stage traditions depended on the continuity of Spanish culture, when that culture declined in the twenties, the native theater also died. 11 By association, then, to revive Filipino theater must one revive the zarzuela and the moro-moro? Formalism need no more eloquent exponent than Joaquin here. So what happens to the ceaselessly mutable “general impulse” in society that artists should apprehend and flesh out in appropriate practices? And what of the artist’s creative and innovative function in shaping tastes, criteria of judgment and aesthetic values?
It is remarkable how Joaquin’s vehement antiecumenical hostility against Moro culture and Moro claims to independence and integrity can only be matched by his equally intolerant animus toward the vernacular, specifically Tagalog writing, as shown in “What Price Our Writing in English?”76 Here the argument displays the same hedging and equivocations as in “The past always returns” when Joaquin seeks to explain that Jose Garcia Villa, although a writer in English, was also produced by “400 years of a particular kind of historical process and cultural development” as the Spanish intellectuals. But this same history somehow excludes the vernacular writers whose oral style, unaffected by the superior visual tradition of Spanish and English writing, possesses no “sense of history,” lacks detail and irony, prompting him to hand down the verdict: “For good or ill, our literature in English is the standard against which our literature in the vernacular will have to measure itself.” Paradoxically, when he begins to describe the complex harmonies in English fiction, his metaphors—”quiet of tone,” “noisy,” “louder,” “very noisy,” “very garrulous” which ascribe positive virtues to writing in English—are all aural, the dire stigmata of the oral culture of the vernacular bards and storytellers. No longer are we concerned with the audience nor with “general impulses”; this self-appointed Devil’s Advocate in an aristocratic peremptory gesture now subordinates language, art and literature to the paramount business of “living,” “life itself.”
This is, I think, the moment to note that Joaquin’s crusade to defend and eulogize an irrevocably dead Hispanic culture encounters the more preponderant secular code of acquisitive individualism enforced by the State which, in the era of monopoly capitalism, is the only force that can establish a viable relation between history and territory, individualizing the people-nation within a segmented, serial, divided time-space matrix. The material organization of capitalist historicity for the Filipino people is inescapably the nation-state; whether we like it or not, territorial-national traditions can be concretized only within the confines of the Nation-State on the face of imperialist ethnocentrism and chauvinism whose spurious claim to catholicity is backed by arms, dollars, and the weight of self-reproducing tradition and habits.
Because the Philippines is still struggling to construct its identity as a sovereign nation-state, the socius still remains fluid, the object of competing and antagonistic interpellations one of which is Joaquin’s, the other the powerful U.S. technocratic consumer rationality, and the last the popular revolutionary culture developing in the midst of concrete struggles. Schematically viewed, Joaquin is the residual; the U.S., the hegemonic or dominant; and the popular discourses, the emergent culture; the present conjuncture may be grasped as a complex heteroglotic interpenetration of all three. Because Joaquin’s discourse is a heady mixture of the ilustrado aristocratic and the popular, he suffers a division signalled by his adoption of a mask: “Quijano de Manila.” This is not a quixotic double or alter ego, a legal ruse or parodic evasion; it resembles a Yeatsian mask which, following the tradition of Diderot and Hobbes, enables us to objectify ourselves, to become “actors of ourselves” and imitate the life which, according to Hobbes, we “create first in dreams.”77 Such impersonation, artificial and counterfeit for the puritanical ethos and for romantic sensibilities like Rousseau, is required by the fragmented and mutilated condition of modern urban existence. The Dostoevskyian double and Baudelaire’s schizoid flaneur, like Quijano de Manila, mirror the volatile antinomies and fluctuating dissonances of the modern crisis; but unlike Quijano de Manila, their metier of producing a mask of persona in the public sphere does not require the desideratum of fetishizing the past. On the contrary.
I have discussed in the introduction Joaquin’s project of reinventing a public sphere in which the private, interior self can be allowed free play; a sphere where the Aristotelian division of nous (mind) and psyche (emotions) can be bridged, where the Augustinian antithetical cities can intersect and at least conduct a dialogue. His discursive strategy is to outline a genealogy
of the city, Manila, by invoking the Spenglerian Faustian hero which inaugurates urban anomie and capitalist reification. In an article celebrating Manila, “400 Years a City,” Joaquin contemns Islamic culture and lauds Western ingenuity: “Where a Magian maze had been, a cluster of arabesques, Legazpi implanted Faustian geometry.78 It is here that Joaquin explicitly defines his conception of history as “the self-consciousness that recognizes events . . .” which are recorded “in proper chronology and specific detail”; such self-consciousness, coeval with “a literate culture,” of course can be identified, as he does in “History as Culture,” with the minority elite, the ilustrado or principalia, which now become founding culture heroes. A shrewd strategic move. This now explains why Joaquin has deliberately fetishized 1521 and 1565 as the origin of “Filipinoness” in that the diachronic sequence traced by Joaquin, following McLuhan and Spengler, punctuates the rise of the ilustrado, the propertied and educated elite, as the hegemonic class. This version of history can be clearly seen actualized in A Question of heroes, The Aquinos of Tarlac, and practically all the journalistic “historical” pieces that in general describe the cultural and psychic metamorphoses of the petty bourgeois, middle strata. In the synchronic organizing of single instants or vertical cross-sections of time patterned on the newspaper, as I have noted earlier, the tour de force performances are the Almanac and also the The Aquinos of Tarlac with its homologizing morphology. In both “an eschatological framework helps conservative politics masquerade as ethics in an ostensibly aesthetic enterprise.”79
The individualistic Faustian model that displaces the virgin and occludes the Santo Nino in Joaquin’s discursive grammatology may be deemed a function of the baroque sensibility sensitized to a decaying social structure brought about by the capitalist division of labor, alienated work, and insidious commodification of everything including the psyche. Joaquin’s vision of history may be termed “baroque” in that it denotes simply a chronicle of recurrent events, a relentless turning of fortune’s wheel, where people are motivated chiefly by perverse discontent and other humours. In A Question of Heroes and The Aquinos of Tarlac “history” unfolds as the conspiratorial maneuverings of villains and heroes, mere succession without development, an architectonic frieze. Concealing the concrete ground, the infrastructure of socioeconomic processes, and transcribing only the surface dance of passions, reflexes, wills, joaquin’s “history” strikes us more as a baroque funeral pageant adorned with all the mesmerizing finery of a Renaissance triumphal procession.
By a supreme irony, Joaquin’s history translates into mythical thinking when we realize that the Faustian culture heroes function as allegorical devices, allegory being defined as the will to reconcile spirit and objects in contrast to symbolism which can be grasped as the confirmed reconciliation of consciousness and the world. In the modern urban, postindustrial world where things have been separated from meanings, from spirit, from authentic life, allegory becomes the dominant and privileged mode of expression. We decipher the import of every moment, painfully endeavoring to restore some organic continuity to the chaotic series of instants that were once fused in a highly cathected, single moment in the symbol. The Virgin, Santo Nino, Faust, the three kings in “The Order of Melkizedek,’ etc.—these are all emblems or scripts in Joaquin’s discourse which, in a world grown lunatic, empty, a veritable wasteland of ruins, corpses, demonic instinctual forces, remain the surviving key to some still unprofaned realm of truth, community, plenitude—the long awaited apocalypse of freedom, justice, equality, jouissance. Against the ruins of Intramuros and the dupticitous carnival of treachery and violence in The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Cave and Shadows, Joaquin, the disenchanted chronicler of paraliturgical practices, rituals and other telltale symptoms of the unconscious, stages the allegorical drama of our national existence. The power of this art is perspicuously elucidated by Walter Benjamin:
Allegories are in the realm of thoughts what ruins are in the realm of things….Where the symbol as it fades shows the face of Nature in the light of salvation, in allegory it is the facies hippocratica of history that lies like a frozen landscape before the eye of the beholder. History in everything that it has of the unseasonable, painful, abortive, expresses itself in that face—nay, rather in that death’s-head. And while it may be true that such an allegorical mode is utterly lacking in any “symbolic” freedom of expression, in any classical harmony of feature, in anything human-what is expressed here portentously in the form of a riddle is not only the nature of human life in general, but also the biographical historicity of the individual in its most natural and organically corrupted form. This—the baroque, earthbound exposition of history as the story of the world’s suffering—is the very essence of allegorical perception; history takes on meaning only in the stations of its agony and decay…. The amount of meaning is in exact proportion to the presence of death and the power of decay, since death is that which traces the jagged line between Physis and meaning.80
If Joaquin is our allegorist par excellence, his amateur, ad hoc theorizing can now be linked to “theory” in its Greek sense of “theater,” and to “theorist” as referring to: envoy sent to visit the oracle in search of divine communication and interpretation of the god’s message; state ambassador delegated by one polis to attend another’s sacred festivals and games; spectator at games and foreign exotic places.81 The theorist then described and appraised oracles, festivals, and games that comprised performances revealing the truth (aletheia = unhiddenness) in an attitude of wonder, puzzlement and canny susceptibility. Such performances constitute the drama
whose signifiers an audience (theofia) can read and interpret for the shrouded truths (aletheia) they incarnate. In all these senses, Joaquin’s art may be assayed as a profound theorizing of our spiritual predicament, our collective destiny, as a people in which the theorist, like this critic and everyone else, is as fatefully and urgently implicated.
In “The Virgin and the Dynamo,” W.H. Auden distinguished the “Natural World of the Dynamo” where “freedom is the consciousness of Necessity” from the “Historical World of the Virgin” where “Necessity is the consciousness of Freedom.”82 One can sum up Joaquin’s writing as an intensely haunting dialogical play of the imagination with such differences, a dialectic of theory (in the Greek sense) struggling to celebrate the dreamed-for and much prophesied wedding of nature and history. –###
E. SAN JUAN, Jr. is currently Spring 2008 Fellow of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University. His forthcoming books are BEYOND TRANSNATIONAL GLOBALIZATION: FOR FILIPINO SELF-DETERMINATION (SUNY Press, 2009) and CRITIQUE AND SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION (Mellen Press, 2010). He is a member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism & AMERICAN PEN CENTER.