Not quite goodbye to all that

29 December 2012

By Elmer Ordonez

Eight years is not a particularly long time for a columnist but having started late (2004) I feel a need to take a leave to attend to unfinished matters in my other writing.

Rony Diaz, the Manila Times editor-in-chief who started me out in column writing, himself felt that need and took time off. Hence he was able to finish three novels under the title Canticles for Three Women.

December 2012 has been both a sad and gratifying month. For one typhoon Pablo wreaked havoc in Mindanao particularly the Compostela Valley, with 1500 dead, hundreds of thousands rendered homeless, and countless millions lost in destroyed crops and property.

On the other, long delayed laws were passed: the RH, the sin tax and the anti-enforced disappearance bills. The victory of Donato Donaire over Jorge Arce of Mexico, redeeming somewhat lost national honor with the humiliating defeat of Pacquiao.

Closer to home, Philippine PEN held a “feel good” annual conference in Manila on the theme “The Writer as Public Intellectual,” all in all. UP Dean Luis Teodoro as keynote speaker reasserted what he and fellow writers in the late 50s had believed in all along that “the philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.”

Anyone who visits the London High Gate cemetery would see the author himself memorialized in an imposing granite bust and his famous lines etched in stone. Luis paraphrased Marx’s quotation by stating “every writer/public intellectual . . . can contribute, in these times of crisis, to the realization of that human need for coherence and understanding that can arm men and women with the consciousness and will to change the world. To interpret the world is to begin to transform it.”

In the panel on “Filipino intellectual tradition” John Nery, author of a book on the national hero, brought out Rizal’s concept, in condensed form, of an intellectual tradition: Write it down, pass it on. Rizal had learned from fellow exile Mariano Ponce that an old Filipino priest and theologian, Fr. Vicente Garcia, at the Manila Cathedral, had defended the Noli from the attacks of Augustinian friar, Jose Rodriguez. No direct quotes cited by Ponce, but Rizal was moved by Fr. Garcia’s defense whom he saw as telling him to continue with his writing.

Indeed, revolutionary writers like Rizal first write about the human condition in a specific time and place and may live or not to see the consequences of their writing. Incendiary is the word to describe the effects of what Rizal, del Pilar, Lopez Jaena, Bonifacio, Jacinto, and Aguinaldo wrote at the turn of the century. As Rizal presciently said through Elias in his first novel, I die without seeing the dawn. He was shot in Bagumbayan facing the west, as history tells us.

Rony Diaz brought in the literary tradition (e.g. the debates between social consciousness and art for art’s sake in writing) giving the panel a literary justification and a more contemporary dimension. Filipino writers in English who came of age during the 30s have been primarily the ones preoccupied with the aesthetics of writing.

The other panels were participated in by writers/public intellectuals/academics who made the conference a very lively one. Philippine PEN, the oldest existing writers group, is notable not only for keeping the discourse on literature (in all its aspects (craft, technique, form and context) alive but also in sustaining the intellectual and cultural life of the nation, with public intellectuals Salvador Lopez, Alfredo Morales, Alejandro Roces, F. Sionil Jose, and Bienvenido Lumbera, chairs in the span of fifty years—whom Frankie himself described as the “parade horses” of Philippine PEN. The “workhorses” of PEN are the national secretaries with Frankie serving for about forty years, followed by Isagani Cruz, Elmer Ordonez, and Lito Zulueta (incumbent).

I enjoyed helping organize PEN conferences around a theme, forming panels, and inviting speakers. The Rizal lecture is a regular feature of the PEN annual conference, and we look forward to the PEN anthology of Rizal lectures.

Writing this column has enabled me to pursue an alternative outlook, the “other view” first used as a title of a book on writing and culture. (1989) After five years of this column, I have put two volumes through the University of the Philippines Press, the first book on literature, culture and society, the second on academe, politics and memory. The last three years of writing (2010-2012)—the third volume is in my bucket list.

Among my readers who have encouraged me in writing this column are readers who send comments like the following from Connecticut-based Prof Sonny San Juan about my piece on Edward Said:

“I wonder how many Diliman colleagues and counterparts in Ateneo and La Salle still quote Said. He did play an important role in the criticism of Zionism but his criticism is a throw back to an abstract, safe, Eurocentric version idolizing Gramsci and French intellectuals. He rejected the PLO later on for the Oslo accords. Not very many Palestinian militants quote Said nowadays.

Academic fashions here are rapid in adjusting to market demands. No one pays attention to Jameson or any American Marxists here. Eagleton is still active in the UK in his reviews of books. Unionism is on the defensive.

“The last spark of mass activism was the OCCUPY movement which is mutating or sublimating into many other organizations and campaigns but humanism is not their slogan; it is 99 percent versus 1 percent, real material inequality more down than to earth than Said’s pebble-throwing gesture.”

With reminders from Rizal and Marx (thanks to John and Luis) how can one turn his back on writing? As the song goes, we’ll meet again some sunny day.

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