Without Seeing the Dawn
It was only a few months ago that I finished reading JaveHana’s now classic novel published in 1947, a year after the inauguration of the Second Philippine Republic. My not having read it all these years testifies to either an individual failure on my part to seize the opportunity for this pleasure-charged learning experience (since I actually intended to lecture on Lazaro Francisco’s novel when I was invited last year), or a failure of the educational-cultural apparatuses to enlighten Filipinos like me about their society and history—nay, their own identities as Filipinos—which up to now is in the process of being constructed by the ongoing practices and what Raymond Williams calls “structures of feelings” of everyday life.
For, indeed, Javellana’s novel is virtually the parabolic rendering in fictional form of about half-a-century of our existence as a people, but not yet as a nation, as I will argue in a moment. Had this novel not been reissued by Alemar’s in the ’70s, I would assume—and maybe this is not altogether a wild surmise—that there is a continuing conspiracy to silence this novel, ignore it, hide it, suppress and make it a “disappeared’ object or event, not by force of military or legal censorship, but rather by the mere accumulation of commodities and other cultural goods produced by print/media industry, not the least of which are those financed by the Toyota Foundation and assorted Japanese-patronized businesses among which one should not forget the flourishing hospitality sector in Cebu, Manila, and elsewhere. It seems that we don’t need to read Renato Constantino to be assured of the persisting success of the Second Japanese invasion of the Philippines, a fact which makes suspect the collective silence over Javellana’s epic of Filipino resistance against Japanese barbarism in World War II
Now while all these may signal the need to read, or even re-read this novel, I would be the first to caution you not to anxiously read it as a simple historical document of the years before and during the Japanese occupation—goodness knows how many countless M.A. and Ph.D. dissertations have reduced this work to a guerilla account of dated, antiquarian value and therefore of no urgent significance to contemporary readers. Of course no one is forbidden to read it that way, but I suggest that we can more profitably use a strategy of reading the text to unlock and harness its emancipatory potential in hitherto unsuspected ways, to mobilize its power of making us critically aware or conscienticized about the network of social relations and discourses that constitute our identity. The strategy I am proposing derives from the lesson of structuralist and post-structuralist criticism evoked by the names of such thinkers as Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Althusser, Lacan, and Foucault, which should be familiar to Filipino scholars, or at least the more enterprising ones.
I might begin by foregoing any superfluous theoretical review of the principles of post-modern criticism by quoting a passage in Book One, Chapter 8, since I think it is pedagogically wiser not to frighten away the audience with French and German terminology. At this point of the narrative, Carding—our fortuitously named protagonist Ricardo Suerte—has returned to Lucing, his wife, after attacking the landlord’s son, Luis Castro, whom he has caught while running away naked from his wife’s embrace. Carding uses force, not language, to “settle our differences,” as the schoolteacher Manong Marcelo says, and adds: ‘The civilized way … makes men effeminate.’ Carding himself is satisfied by Lucing’s lie which he wanted to hear, a self-deception that is also wish-fulfillment. Carding affirms the power of speech 3ver the uselessness of unarticulated thoughts, a distinction that spells moral and political difference in the novel: “‘That is all I wish to know,’ [Carding] said. There was happiness in his voice like that of a man of whose faith has been vindicated by his God” (p. 79). But that night, despite his attempt to reinstate the comforting routine of the past, the repressed returns. I quote the text of his dream:
That night, sleeping beside his wife, he had a horrible nightmare. He dreamed that he was plowing the riceland when he felt an earthquake so violent that even the sturdy Bag-o stumbled and he himself fell forward upon his plow, and when he turned his head he saw Don Diego rolling up the land from under his feet just as if it were a piece of paper. When he had finished rolling up the land the rich man stuffed it into his pocket and walked away. Tlen, with the startling reality of dreams, he dreamed that he was being arrested by two policemen in khaki uniforms, and when he tried to struggle, the policemen merely laughed at him because he was so thin and weak, as though there were a famine in the land and he had not eaten for a week. He asked them why they were arresting him and they replied, “Don’t you know? Because you have killed Luis Castro.” He was about to go peacefully with the policemen but he heard somebody shouting for help and he saw his wife, who was as thin as he, crying because she could not get away from the embrace of a naked man who was trying to abuse her, and the man had the face of Luis Castro who the policemen said was dead. (p. 80)1
Here is the rebus of Carding’s psyche, as well as those of millions in his position. If we read this text of the dream-work via a psychoanalytic hermeneutic as an elaborate allegory of a collective wish-fulfillment, we can see the operation of two modes by which the unconscious (as well as the narrative apparatus) produces the text, and these are none other than those of metonymy and metaphor. The first part of the dream-work expresses the pattern of metonymic linkage by proximity: land, plow and work-animal are all conflated with the owner whose property-right is vested in a torrens title, a piece of paper which is substituted for the means of production. By a metaphoric twist, the land-paper equation shifts to land-money which the owner can stuff in his pocket: a portable commodity. Here, I would propose, is the symbolic reading of the vast economic and political changes occurring in the first 40 years of our history encapsulated in the ongoing conversion of land from use-value to exchange-value. I am thinking here of the phenomenon of landlord absenteeism (exemplified in Chapter IX, “The Letter,” an apt rubric) together with share-tenancy. These realities should be familiar to all Filipinos, especially in the light of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Plan (CARP) and controversies surrounding all government attempts at land reform since President Manuel L. Quezon’s time.
What I would emphasize here is the power of the landlord as invested not so much in the inherited title to the land as in the right/power to convert his ownership of the means of production to cash, or money, an abstract right to wrest and dispose of the surplus-value (unpaid labor) of the peasant tiller, for his own use, chiefly for preserving his political ascendancy. We can connect this with the disclosure of a cultural-moral truth which eludes the censor, the Cartesian ego of the narrative, and which transpires here in the metaphoric displacement of the earthquake by the landlord’s presence or advent. Note that the force of the earthquake shakes man and animal down; supine, Carding witnesses Don Diego’s gesture of snatching away his land, clearly a foreshadowing of the next episode. The moment of discovery “when he turned his head,” however, doesn’t trigger a shock of recognition—in a dream, we know that everything appears natural and moral, precisely what the concept of “ideology” signifies in that ideology is a psychic and social practice in which all contradictions are smoothed and hidden, or reconciled by mechanisms of displacement and substitution—such modes of normalizing and naturalizing are what we are describing here.
Now consider here how the earthquake, a natural event, is displaced by the sudden intrusion of the landlord so that what is natural becomes a catastrophe: the producer’s deprivation of his means of production, his livelihood. This process of condensation reveals the nature of the peasant mentality, an entire world-view and lifestyle which explains the persisting hegemonic rule of the landlords. By “hegemonic rule” I mean (in Gramsci’s sense) domination by the active, willing consent of the subaltern groups, not by coercion. As for the peasant problematic of life, I am referring to the system of beliefs and feelings and practices, a heterogeneous mixture of various contradictory elements, that conceive of private ownership of land (arable or agricultural land) as natural, legitimate, sacred, and therefore unquestionable and unalterable. As long as this belief and assumption prevails, as it does today in general, any attempt at agrarian reform by reformist law is doomed without an accompanying radical transformation of consciousness and practices. Thus, my reading of the double processes of metonymy (displacement) and metaphor (condensation) as constitutive of a structure which provides social-cultural identity to the dreamer, to characters in the narrative, is intended to unfold the class code or discourse structuring the text. This class code or discourse manifests itself not directly but always and chiefly in combination with another code or discourse, that of gender, and much more obliquely, that of race.
Pursuing our hermeneutic labor of deciphering the dream-work, we encounter the next sequence which foregrounds power relations. Carding is being arrested by two policemen in khaki uniforms. Obviously the police represent the law, the coercive agency of the status quo in favor of landlords, and by extension the military (civilians, like Carding, recruited to defend the existing order against alien invaders). The subject is now twice reduced to an object, first by the landlord and here by the representatives of the state. Where earlier Carding was plowing the land, here he has become “thin and weak,” the effect of alienated labor and dispossession. The earthquake-landlord metaphor is subsequently displaced by the two personifications of patriarchal law whose laughter mocks the pathetic and feeble resistance of the peasant’s body. Note the explanation for his weakness: by metonymic conjunction, his hunger is not just an individual hardship but an index of the general scarcity afflicting the community. Here we confront a premonition of that other “natural” catastrophe, the flood of Chapter XVIII which wreaks havoc on whole towns, a “natural” event that acquires meaning as a disaster of the social system—insofar as it attests to the inadequacy, or indifference, of the government of the elite to protect all citizens. The famine can be tied to Don Diego’s confiscation of land; but now he has been displaced by his son, the mythical Prince Charming of Lucing, whose death is attributed to Carding. The discourse of this dream then identifies Carding as killer/destroyer, but what is the motive given? We are told that Carding is about to submit “peacefully” but something interrupts: his wife’s shouting. Carding notes, first, that she is also thin, a mark of the solidarity of peasant-victims; and, second, she is trapped by “the embrace of a naked man” abusing her, his body bearing the face of Luis Castro, who, though dead, is still very much alive. Now here is a rich and manifold complex of numerous connotations which condenses the thematic issues of the novel. Suffice it here for me to point to only one thread: the ambiguous figure of the landlord’s son, who, though claimed by the authorities to be dead, still exercises a malevolent force—a power of appropriating the wife of the tenant (the wife is a metonymic extension of the husband). Part of the dreamer’s psychic energy supports this seduction, the other part undermines it.
In this scene of seduction or near-rape, if you want, it appears that the sanctity of the private sphere of home/family is not spared by the landlord’s greed or lust. Economic wealth translates into sexual power. But interwoven with this is the peasant’s desire to destroy the absentee proprietor of land/body in his accepting the accusation; and second, the capacity of landlord power to return from the dead—a foreshadowing of the agrarian unrest (the Huk uprising) that surrounds the composition of this novel and contextualizes it. So we behold the ghost of the past (the dead landlord’s son) return to rape Lucing (the body)—a metaphoric displacement of land—even as we recall that in the preceding chapter we saw Lucing surrendering, yielding herself to a promise of bliss and liberation from her plight. But in this dream she is resisting, an example of metonymy evolving into metaphor, giving the illusion of resolving tensions. The wife’s resistance expresses the husband’s revolt against a condition of rape. What cuts off this play of the unconscious, the fulfillment of submerged impulses and wishes prohibited in waking life, namely the wife’s intervention, may be taken as an emblematic figure of what will interrupt the male fantasy, the patriarchal fantasy of conquest and self-validating possession, as evidenced in Carding’s refusal to live permanently with Rosing the prostitute, and his attempt to strangle the “third son” in opposition to Lucing’s will to assert her own reproductive right even in a context of war where brute force prevails. Just like the first son, the third embodies the stillborn hopes for emancipation from social necessity.
Before this episode where husband and wife are reunited, the narrative unfolded scenes and events where sexuality and gender relations were established within a patriarchal system of power, a system where class contradictions were muted or inflected until the Guest, Luis Castro, entered the scene. In this milieu, sexuality obeys customary and traditional rituals: courtship, marriage ceremonies, etc. The law of the peasant patriarch, which is effectively limited by the precariousness of his livelihood, is soon undermined by, first, Carding’s individualistic defiance of custom in building his house at the wrong time; and second, the stillborn monkey-child considered as punishment for the first; and third, the usurpation of Carding’s dominance at home by the Guest. All these up to Chapter IX, “The Letter,” demonstrate the futility of a decent humane existence in the semi-feudal set-up of the Philippine countryside during the Commonwealth period, the virtual emasculation of the male peasant by class subordination, and the oppression of women by male supremacy and landlord privilege.
We now come to the pivotal chapter, “The Letter,” which indicates the power of literacy, education and knowledge to control all those deprived of the resources and opportunities to participate fully in the life of modern society. If the countryside is cursed by predators of all kinds, can the city offer a better prospect, a viable alternative? The next episode is a testing of such an alternative. When the landlord repossesses his father’s land, Carding and Lucing move to Iloilo City, where the peasant-landlord contradiction is displaced by the worker-union contradiction, which in turn is temporarily resolved when Carding becomes the lover/bodyguard of the cabaret entertainer/prostitute. When Carding discovers the corruption among the union bureaucrats and recoils at the atmosphere of anomie and reification, eventually abandoning his worker-position, he enters the magic circle of romance. The discourse of prostitution identifies him as the mythical knight of the Lady, his subjectivity approximating Luis in the eyes of Lucing. Rosing substitutes for Lucing but only to make Carding only one station in her endless procession of partners, so that we can see Carding become literally absorbed into the circulation of goods in a commodity system where the mediation of pleasure is performed by the availability of the woman’s body to anyone with the means of exchange-value. But Carding’s male strength is restored: “He wound his strong, hard arms around her slim waist vengefully and pressed her body close to his, and she was soft and yielding in his fierce embrace” (p. 123). Carding, product of a milieu of use-values, is exposed to the drastic reduction of everything to quantifiable counters (money) and all the mystifying fetishism that surrounds the urban market and the symbols of power. Because his peasant soul resists, he returns to his wife and what she represents: the ascendancy of the physically strong male which Rosing’s position paradoxically questions. Although the city experience liberates the peasant from the taboos of tradition and custom, it does not fulfill the need of self-affirmation and solidarity that Carding wants to gratify.
When the contradiction between the market-cash economy (in which Rosing is an epitomizing figure) and the macho individualism of Carding could not be flattened out or occluded, its elision occurs in the next sequence (from Chapter XV to Chapter Y.X). The textual will to displace contradictions now takes the form of a migrating or nomadic line: the journey from Santa Barbara to Calinog. The contradiction is now dialectically resolved in the birth of the second son, proof of the protagonist’s fertility. This compensates for the unredressed grievances of the past until “The Flood” reminds the community of its vulnerable status and reinforces an oscillating skeptical, fatalistic trend. A move to Mindanao is contemplated, a plan which captures all the Commonwealth and postwar schemes of the government to defuse agrarian tensions by a simple bodily transplantation of peasants, not the elimination of age-old practices and laws of exploitation. This move is foiled by the outbreak of the inter-imperialist war, a larger conflict of competing imperialisms which subsumes the antagonism between colonized natives and colonizing West. But the future is foreclosed when the promise of the homesteader Isaac Celes, a vision of utopian peasant fulfillment, evaporates in the smoke of World War II.
What happens in Part II is a protracted ordeal where the peasantry and women undergo division and splitting, but this time the narrative polarity is not between classes or genders but between the life-destroying Japanese hordes and the race of the sensitive, courageous and suffering Filipinos. It is in this site of combat that the racial and national inscription of identity takes place. Part 11 also witnesses the transformation of Carding Suerte from a passionate lusty demon or animal drawn in earlier chapters to a selfless patriot hero—a veteran of Bataan, the Death March, and imprisonment. A bandit hero, symptom of wartime anarchy and personification of one strand of Carding’s ethos, threatens the village; Carding joins with others to kill Morata, the bandit chief.
Now the individual becomes defender/protector of the collective interest, not a single body charged with erotic possibilities. Nonetheless Carding still refuses to join the guerillas until the Japanese ravage the village and brutalize the peasant residents. The suicide of the castrated Lucio underscores the fusion of sexuality and social status in this milieu. Lucing finally reveals the past to Carding; the past returns, and historical memory is born and ushers in the peripeteia for Carding: “He wished that some terrible catastrophe, like an earthquake, would happen, that the earth would open up and swallow all of them.” Upon hearing his wife’s confession of despair and cowardice in not being able to kill herself, Carding Suerte cries for the first time since his house was carried away by the flood (p. 245). It is this personal injury to his honor and desecration of his home that drives Carding to his final suerte: he becomes the revenging figure who mutilates the enemy, disrupts kinship prohibitions by killing the collaborators: the repatriate Uncle Jaime, Lucing’s uncle, and Polo, his cousin. (See Chapter VIII, Chapter IX, Part Two). Carding emerges with an ugly cut from his forehead to his left cheek, the stigmata of the agent of justice, but also of the violator of kinship laws.
We may ask next what provokes Carding to plan killing “the third son”? At first glance, this son displaces Luis Castro in the role of usurper/intruder, whereby Carding metamorphoses from dishonored husband/peasant to avenger of national pride, racial dignity, and independence. Employing another perspective, we can use this reflection from the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci on the physiognomy of the peasant psyche which may elucidate Carding’s ressentiment, his impulse to strike on his own, repay an eye for an eye, the ambivalent mix of violent initiative cunning and fatalist resignation:
What does a poor peasant obtain by invading an uncultivated or badly cultivated piece of land? Without machines, without a house at his place of work, without credit to wait for the time of harvest, without cooperative institutions which will acquire the crop itself…and save him from the claws of the usurers—what can a poor peasant expect from seizing the land?
It satisfies for the first moment his primitive greed for land; but at the next moment when he realizes that his own arms are not enough to break up the soil which only dynamite can break up, when he realizesthatsee4ds are needed and fertilizers and tools, and thinks of the future series of days and nights to be spent on a piece of land without a house, without water, with malaria, the peasant realizes his impotence, his isolation, his desperate condition and becomes a brigand and not a revolutionary, becomes an assassin of the ‘gentry,’ not a fighter for workers’ and peasants’ communism.2
In that momentous scene when Carding is about to strangle “the third son” (why male?) as a retaliatory blow against the national/racial enemy, a blow also against his past impotence and the female’s escape from his control, Carding experiences a conversion as he beholds “the little black baby” reminiscent of his first stillborn child:
He stood beside the bed in deep thought, unable to understand the miracle of the birth of the infant whom God had touched with the small finger of death before birth. He looked down at his hands and he knew that they were never meant to murder an infant, whatever other sins they might be stained with. Strangely, he did not feel very glad and his fear and hatred of the child were gone. Instead he felt clean and whole inside him. And when he looked down upon his wife, who was sleeping after her travail, she too seemed clean and perfect once more. It seemed that she had been cleansed by the miracle of the stillborn child.
But Carding’s catharsis is short-lived since his wife penetrates his reticence and ferrets out his original murderous intent, her accusation driving him out of the house. Before his martyrdom for the national cause in the final chapter, when he leads a suicide contingent against the Japanese camp, Carding is captured by the Japanese military police (Chapter XIV, “The Kempei”). This is the moment of anagnorisis or recognition of the totality, when Carding becomes a witness to a father being decapitated. It is a scene emblematic of the collective future destroyed and hope aborted, a moment of discovery registered in the psyche:
That night Carding dreamed that Tio Ramon was standing beside him, babbling eternally, “He is innocent … he is innocent … he is innocent,” and pointing to him, talking with dead lips, “Here is one whose soul is black with sins. Why don’t you kill him?” Then he dreamed that Antonio, headless, was walking around inside the cell and that the blood in the courtyard rose higher and higher even like a flood inside the prison, and drowned all that were in it. (p. 339)
Analogous to the dream with which I started this lecture, this one signifies Carding’s acceptance of his new identity—this time from a father/victim. The dead returns to life in the person of the headless Antonio, symbolically castrated, with the deluge of blood flooding the prison and drowning everything, a flood that revalorizes or redeems the earlier flood and endows the sacrifice of the innocents with a purificatory charisma. A motif in folklore and myth, the dead returning to life serves to articulate the boundless energy of the body politic, the immortal life of the nation and its collective memory compensating for every personal sacrifice and loss.
This essay will not dwell on the meaning of the switch between Alicia and Rosing in the last part of the novel, on Rosing’s patriotic collusion with Carding to blow up the ammunition dump and her vindication as a free moral agent, on the function of Gondoy’s wound and the mutilation of Flora and Lucio. With Rosing’s martyrdom, it seems that her exploitation and the curse of gender inequality are purged from the narrative.
It seems also that in this text, the punishment inflicted on bodies, especially on the genitals, may induce some readers to interpret this as punishment for the sins of the community, an exorcism of the wayward, primitive instincts. One American critic, in a gesture of blanket condemnation, ascribes inhumanity both to Japanese and Filipinos, completely unmindful of the power-relations during the Occupation and heedless of the pain and suffering of the Filipino masses. Everyone will, I am sure, be moved by the pathos of the parting between Carding and Lucing, with Carding identifying himself as “one of God’s monsters” who have brought nothing but “misery and grief” to Lucing. Mute and stoic, Lucing as always typifies the culture of silence; but the narrator reveals her inarticulate thought of mutual forgiveness. She remains enigmatic, escaping the power of this male-centered realistic text to suppress the unconscious and Woman’s Desire glimpsed earlier in her relations with Luis Castro. The final image of Carding intimates the peasant’s desire for possession of what his labor and sufferings have produced: “he walked on alone, tall and proud, like a man who was going to his inheritance” (p. 358).
What this “inheritance” is, is not quite clear. Readers looking for a “happy ending” typical of mass consumer romances will surely be frustrated here when they reach the closure: a processional sacrifice of to the Minotaur, the Leviathan of the Imperial State, the military behemoth. Such a sacrifice both repudiates the narrative foregrounding, even fetishism, of Carding’s animal strength, valorized first as the peasant producer, then as handsome guardian of the compromised Eros (Rosing) and then as the patriot/national hero. This last role in fact projects a reconstitution of identities in the novel beyond kinship and tribal/folk affiliations, toward a unity opposed to the inhuman barbarism of the Japanese nation/race. But in the same breath, the text sublimates the anti-U.S. colonial impulse in the figure of Uncle Jaime, the expatriate from the U.S., who is punished for collaborating with the enemy. Attempting to resolve the contradictions in a dialectic of substitutions and displacements, the text invents a closure that generates more paradoxes and antinomies prefiguring the complex class re-alignments of the decades of the Huk rebellion and the Magsaysay/Cold war period.
In a short story, “The Hidden Sea,” Javellana counterposes an incipient gnosticism which seems to compensate for the futility of the female body’s resistance to male violence. The pregnant Marcela, who is compared to 44 a landed fish” in her appearance, protests against her captivity: “As long as my spirit is inviolate I am unconquered even if he has my body.” This is a familiar rationalization of those possessed by ressentiment. Virtually a prisoner of the bandit chief Rustico, Marcela is more a prisoner of an ensemble of practices which we can designate as patriarchal ideology, practices which allow her to accept what is happening to her as normal and natural. She has thought of suicide but lacks the courage to renounce life, “however hard.” As they flee the forces of law and rationalized/legitimate violence, Rustico’s band strives to escape from their physical vulnerability toward a realm of freedom.
The outlaw band journeys toward “Tinagong Dagat,” a refuge and haven discovered during the Japanese Occupation by the guerillas. It is a mythical site “inhabited by ferocious wild razor-backs with sharp tusks who charged at men, big pythons whose deadly coil could crush the life out of man,’ by noble savages. Rustico would be at home there. The text prepares Marcela for arrival when it imputes to her a superstitious resignation to the fatality of patriarchal power: “he should be rough in anger and in passion, he should ford streams with her on his shoulder, just like this. This was being man, this was being woman” (p. 122).3
Javellana’s sexual politics surfaces here as well as at the denouement where an attempt to resolve the gender-contradiction informs the foregrounding of Marcela’s moment of dying. Earlier, in her agony, Marcela looks forward to this “mountaintop sea,’ already suggestive of a reconciliation of opposites and antinomies. “Who knows what strange creatures inhabit” the depths of the “hidden, secret sea?” Marcela apprehends the “awful meaning’ of that sea: “The hidden sea … it is within…” But before she can impart this vision to Rustico, the group is ambushed and Rustico is killed by bullets hurled by the wilderness.
In the end, the “hidden sea” assumes the dimension of a cosmic ocean, analogous to the amniotic fluid surrounding the foetus: the dying Marcela is freed from “a great weight,” and she dissolves (like Wordsworth’s Lucy) into “stone and tree and sky.” nis almost pantheistic dissolution into nature is underlined by the concluding statement: “She felt like a river flowing toward a secret, hidden sea.” The text offers this as the only escape from male power even though here, the outlaw challenges the society of property and tradition, of exchange-value. Rustico resembles the Carding Suerte of the second part of the novel, but his patriarchal efficacity is foiled by the revenge of the jungle (the law of property invades the wilderness). Javellana dispossesses the male in the deprivation of his son/heir in the female womb. This journey then functions as the site of the ordeal of male privilege where force prevails; the trial renders a verdict of guilt by symbolic castration. Inscribed on this same textual site of male dominance is the prohibited, tabooed and dangerous identification of death with pleasure, with the woman’s body, as Marcela ceases to be a subordinate mother/wife to become ultimately a principle of simultaneous immanence and transcendence. It is at best an ambiguous settling of accounts.
I submit, finally, that this novel is a text of a national allegory that dramatizes how class contradictions are posed only to be sublimated into other oppositions-rural vs. urban, prostitutes vs. errant wife, worker vs. union-until the war offers the occasion to reposition and resolve the historic class conflicts in the nation’s struggle for survival and independence. But all the signifieds we have addressed, located in a synchronic and paradigmatic mapping of the text which is what I have essentially performed here, somehow all slide under the one signifier which may account for the peculiar, and quite unconventional, diachronic and syntagmatic configuration of this text, and this one signifier is what I would call Woman’s Desire. And what tries to stop and even suppress this sliding of all our thematic categories on which the proverbial Cartesian ego bases its claim to authority is nothing but the ubiquitous if unspoken law of Patriarchy which sustains the other hierarchies of class, race, ethnicity, etc. However, this effort at suppression or censorship, as we have seen in the dream I analyzed at the beginning, only postpones the continuing project of the popular movement to confront the gender problematic Which completely escapes both the liberal humanist ideology of which we are all captives, and the kind of orthodox socialist theorizing which tends to reduce everything to class. It is most likely that even when Carding’s body is returned to Lucing, she will still not pronounce aloud her wordless, uncompromising verdict of forgiveness.
Reflecting on this semiotic reading of Javellana’s novel after the December 1989 coup attempt, and meditating in particular on its peculiar resolution to the problem of individual agency in our national life, I am led to compare this with a brief comment I wrote in the niid-’70s on an analogous topic: the problem of portraying heroic protagonists. The occasion then was a review of Domingo Landicho’s play on Andres Bonifacio. Obviously I was working within the quasi-Hegelian perspective exemplified by Georg Lukacs The Historical Novel.
Historical changes between then and now have stressed the lesson of Brecht’s epic theater in mediating thought and action, consciousness and praxis. Whilelwasnotyet familiar then with Althusser’s problematic-the concept of overdetermination, complex stratified structure, etc.-and specifically the value of symptomatic reading, I would like to re-issue that review here because it pursues this same problem and explores the dialectic between the individual and the social totality, an exploration which may give some clue to the kind of materialist hermeneutics I tried to deploy in. my later work, in particular Subversions of Desire, written in the years immediately before and after Aquino’s assassination in 1983. Here is the raw material that has now been transformed by the cathartic and transformative passage of events in our struggle for national liberation:
On The Problem of Portraying Heroic Protagonists
In 1956 1 wrote a short story entitled “Blood and Fire” (printed in the Philippine Collegian) in which I attempted to describe the exploits of Macario Sakay, one of the last Katipuneros who resisted U.S. colonization, little realizing that I was confronting a classic aesthetic-philosophical problem: how to express a concept or theory (e.g., nationalist resistance) through a sequence of images and sensuous details. This theoretical impasse, I later discovered, has been a persistent problematique for Western thought, from Durkheim and Hegel to post-structuralist reflection—an impasse otherwise known as “the crisis of the subject.”
Domingo Landicho’s project in his play on Andres Bonifacio of rendering into dramatic form episodes in the life of the Katipunan founder, though rhetorically appealing in texture, reveals an innocence and naivete symptomatic of the dominance of Philippine culture by empiricist/humanist ideology. Innocence because, as Lukacs has pointed out, the meaning of any historical event cannot be captured by a traditional realistic exhibition of protagonists/agents since this technique obscures the underlying tendencies and trends outside individual consciousness. Naivete because, given the cult of the hero-not classes but great males make history—it precludes the use of Brechtian epic devices and other post-modernist techniques (e.g., Artaud, Grotowski, Boal’s joker theory, etc.) that would abolish the illusionistic phantasm of hegemonic theatrical practice in order to advance the cause Landicho himself espouses: popular, national democracy.
Such deficiencies can only indicate the current low level of development of the collective sensibility among theater practitioners (with some exceptions) in the Philippines. On the other hand, the strength of Landicho’s linear mimetic reproduction of the historical narrative (derived from Agoncillo’s text) may be grasped in the use of folk idiom, the deployment of proverbs, riddles, choric humor-what Bahktin would call the carnivalesque and utopian dimension-which somehow redeems the tired sentimentality of the first part and the formulaic, anticlimactic posturing in the second and third parts of the trilogy.
Landicho tried to personalize Bonifacio, but in so doing the text creates a myth of the ideal “Leader” who sacrifices Desire (the name for the semiotic dynamics) for the abstract idea. Ilis metaphysics and politics of transcendence, which also informs the Marcos regime’s apologetics, wreaks havoc on the representation of women (Gregoria de Jesus, Tandang Sora, etc.) in that sexual identity is repressed by the (at best) formalist glorification of women as “equal” to men, and in general by subsuming/abolishing the gender contradiction with the triumph of the patriarchal Identity (Aguinaldo and male authority). This resolution is ironically manifest in Gregoria’s last utterance prophesying her husband’s vindication in the future, our present.
Was Landicho’s audience moved and revolutionized, as he wished? This is an empirical question we cannot verify in this short notice. In the ’50s Adrian Cristobal, now Marcos’ speech-writer, virtually transposed the documents of Bonifacio’s trial into a quasi-theatrical text, a self-reflexive nationalist gesture at that time, in which the play of the signifiers was promptly swallowed up by the State-hallowed Signified. But this time, we should have learned the danger of this practice of dramatizing heroes whose limits are those of liberal individualist thought. Otherwise, the lessons of the First Quarter Storm and the last ten years of resistance would just be pitifully wasted.
(The original version of this may was a lecture given to the faculty of the English Department, Ateneo de Manila University, in March 1988.)
1. All quotes are from the Little, Brown Edition of Javellana’s novel, reprinted by Alemar’s in 1976.
2. L’Ordine Nuova, 3 January 1920.
3. See Philippine Writing, ed. T.D. Agcaoili (Manila, 1953), pp. 122-23.