More than a century of Lope K. Santos’ Banaag at Sikat

By Elmer Ordoñez

As a columnist in English I cannot ignore intellectual trends in Filipino, which has been the preferred language of many professors in their fields (notably Ateneo, UP, La Salle, all elite schools) – which is only just and necessary in a country whose discourses are dominated by English.

Maria Luisa Torres Reyes’ Banaag at Sikat: Metakritisismo at Antolohiya (NCCA, 2011) is one of numerous examples of scholarship in Filipino. This belies the hoary claim of the elite in English that Filipino does not have the vocabulary for intellectual discourse. An Ateneo professor of English, Torres Reyes edits KritikaKultura, a bilingual e-journalon linguistic studies, literature and culture.

Her book is metacriticism, the study of criticism or reception of Lope K. Santos’ Banaag at Sikat since 1907. Santos’ novel (along with its criticism in Filipino) established early enough the capability of Tagalog for handling ideas like socialism.

As editor of Muling Pagsilang, the Tagalog version of El Renacimiento, Santos published in his weekly journal excerpts of his novel Banaag at Sikat for almost two years – read by the intelligentsia and the workers involved in struggle in the first decade of American Occupation. The novel was issued in book form (1906).

Lope K. Santos took over the labor movement, together with Crisanto Evangelista, Herminigildo Cruz, and others when Isabelo de los Reyes and DominadorGomez were arrested for leading mass actions of workers in 1902 and 1903 respectively. Both leaders of the Union Obrero Democratico de Filipinas were “balikbayan” ilustrados who brought with them books on socialism which circulated among nationalists and labor leaders. Santos peppered his novel with discursive passages – uttered by progressive characters like Delfin and Felipe and in exchanges like those between Delfin and lawyer Madlang Layon — alluding to socialist thinkers like Marx and Engels, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Proudhon and Malatesta.

Santos was 25 years of age when he wrote Banaag at Sikat in the thick of labor organizing and demonstrations. (Rizal was 23 when he wrote Noli Me Tangere). Anarcho-syndicalism was the dominant ideology at the time. Crisanto Evangelista persevered in the labor movement (ultimately becoming a Marxist-Leninist when he founded the Partido Komunistang Pilipinas) while Santos (heavily indebted because of his novel) was elected to represent labor in the First Philippine Assembly in 1907, and later to the Senate. He also became governor of Rizal and director of the Institute of National Language (Surian ng Wikang Pambansa).

The critical reception of Banaag at Sikat began right after its publication with an introduction by Santos’ colleague Gabriel Beato Francisco who felt that while the novel was meritorious it was too early (“hindi pa panahon”) for socialism. This was countered by Godofredo Herrera in a three-part essay, followed by Manuel Francisco in a two-part essay, agreeing with Gabriel Francisco. Herrera had a rejoinder in two parts, and so did Francisco also in two parts.

No reviews came out in the 20s. There was renewed interest in the 30s when Teodoro Agoncillo commented that the novel was a “socialist tract” implying it was propaganda and not “literary.” The ‘formal’’ weaknesses (e.g. the didacticism) of the novel were echoed in Juan C. Laya’s review in 1947, and those of Romeo Virtusio and Vedasto Suarez in the 60s, and Rogelio G. Mangahas in 1970. Epifanio San Juan, Jr. using the Marxist approach wrote that contrary to what critics had said about the long speeches, the latter were integral to the thrust of the socialist novel. Comments in passing or as parts of critical essays of other writers (Macario Adriatico, ResilMojares, Soledad Reyes, Virgilio Almario, Inigo Regalado, and others) are cited in Torres Reyes’ assessment.

In 1980 Gregorio C. Borlaza tried to connect the novel to the aims of the “Bagong Filipinas” of the Marcos regime. His essay appropriates the novel to suit the purposes of the New Society – like what was done to a progressive film “Juan Makabayan” where at the end was the claim that agrarian reform was already being carried out.

Torres Reyes noted that formalist or normative criticism runs through the essays and notes except for that of San Juan.Jr., and that there is consistent “dichotomizing” of the dualisms “form and theme,” “intrinsic v. extrinsic,” and “text and context.” The prevailing aesthetics during the turn of the century could only be what was taught in Ateneo or UST which surely included Aristotlean notions of plot, character, conflict/resolution and themes carried over to the University of the Philippines where Agoncillo imbibed the craft of fiction in the 30s. New Criticism, Marxist, Freudian and archetypal approaches may have informed the criticism produced during the 50s through the 70s—.followed by structuralism/post structuralism and post-modernism. Subjective or impressionistic criticism plays a role in judging literary works.

Torres Reyes’ metacriticism is one of its kind. While there may have been studies of the history of criticism in the country, Torres Reyes’ focus on a particular book generates interest in the contexts of the novel and the author, his times or milieu, influences, his literary contemporaries (like Valeriano Hernandez Pena, Modesto Santiago, Francisco Lacsamana, Faustino Aguilar and the “seditious” zarzuelistas) at a crucial period – whence took place the beginnings of the workers movement and its repression, the staging of nationalist plays, the ban on the Filipino flag and the hanging of patriot Macario Sakay as a “bandit,” parliamentary struggle for independence, proletarian or social realist literature in what some call the “golden age” of the Tagalog novel.

After more than a century Banaag at Sikat, for all its “esthetic” shortcomings, has a secure place in the literary canon as the first proletarian novel in the country.