“The Book, the True, and the Beautiful”

18 September 2008

missed the bookfair this year but, thanks to rayvi sunico, not the keynote speech for the gintong aklat awards 2008 delivered bypoet professor ricky de ungria, which indeed “goes beyond the usual platitudes and actually talks about what’s going on now and relates this to the book industry we have today. no punches pulled.”

The Book, the True, and the Beautiful

by Ricardo M. de Ungria

Recent events in our history, specifically in the past twenty years or so, have more than less convinced me that ours is a culture not of ideas and intellection but of emotions, hints, and suspicions. Our predilection is for the unsaid or the merely implied, the shadowy and adumbrated, the peripheral and the underground as appropriate instruments to counter what has been perceived as the given brutality of power and force exercised by the few oligarchs and pseudo-monarchs in appropriate political positions. The dynamics in our culture is such that there seems to be always an agon between the outer and the inner, between the overt and the secret, the official and the unofficial, mainstream and underground-with the outer and overt and official conceived of as tyrannically powerful and repressive, and the inner and secret and unofficial wielded as a submissive and abiding force whose time will eventually come. The complexity of the interplay between these two “forces” has remained inexhaustible and a source of inspiration for our inventiveness that has spanned the gamut from the ludicrous to the ludic.

Our basic stance is subversive of any established order, and the reality of our daily life is rooted in infringements of various kinds tolerated and even elevated to the level of norms-from blatant disobedience of simple traffic signs and rules, to secret deals and agreements at the highest levels of the echelon that explode in the faces of the players when exposed to the public. Witness the aborted Memorandum of Agreement between the government panel and the MILF, which has plunged the peace process in Mindanao into a crisis and cost deaths to civilians and soldiers alike and displacements of hundreds of thousands of families in central Mindanao. “If you were the MILF,” Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao had remarked, expressing the sentiment of many Mindanaons, “after a gestation of five years, talking laboriously for five years, tapos sabihin na, ‘Oh no, the MOA-AD is just a piece of paper,’ and as a matter of fact, ‘they [that is, members of the government panel] were not given the authority to sign.’ If you were the MILF, would you be happy to hear that?”

Little wonder that given the kind of governance that this sad republic of ours has, who wouldn’t want to break away from it? Our memories are full of treacheries and betrayals, and our ideal is martyrdom for a cause that should not have been put on the pedestal of grievance had our civil life been shaped and ruled by simple observance of basic laws and rules of public conduct. But we prefer to move with stealth, duplicity, and cunning, and make a show of conservatism and righteousness to make up for our deep lack of a strong moral center. Of course, the majority of us have their religion to fall back on, but even in that realm we know how to play the gods.

All these may appear to be bad sociology simplified for dummies by a poet, but this poet thinks we’ve allowed ourselves to be played with as such for as long as he can remember. And at no time in our history had we been placed in such a moral quandary-or muck, or nadir-and at such tragic scale of helplessness and inaction than the one we are in at the present time. There is certainly no lack of imagination on our part to cope with this kind of predicament, but in our present case, we seem to be facing a blank wall-and making the best of the cracks and fissures we see on it.

I mention these things here because I want to locate the publishing industry to which you belong within such dismal state of affairs as I see it.

One can go over statistics in your sector-which, by the way, is just beginning to appreciate the importance of data and data gathering in your field (which is something we should all be thankful for)-and see its continued though slow flourishing or progress in terms of revenue, gradual increase in number of stakeholders or new publishers, and in the number of books published by the year. This is all heartening to note, especially for an academician like myself. But the fact remains that, for all the increasing richness and variety of publications you have made available to us the reading public through the years, we still have to see an intellectual culture forming before our very minds-one fueled by discussions and debates not only in the academic world but also in the realm of newspapers and magazines-and helping sustain a healthy public opinion and pointing at directions in the rational formulation of principles and policies for governance. For isn’t a rational life and an intellectual culture in the service of truth and the common good among the basic end products of books and literary? But one can think of many reasons for this abysmal lack.

Outside of Manila, the culture remains mostly oral and informal, lending itself immediately available to blogs and egroup discussions that appear to have improved on barbershop or streetcorner disputations of yore. In Mindanao, egroup discussions on the present situation-fervid and informed and varied-have overtaken the news and are well on the way to developing a dialogue among intellectuals and other stakeholders in the island. (Whether the discourses will turn towards a plan of action remains, however, to be seen.) The wealth of such informal discourses is simply staggering, and media and the book industry would probably do well to address this new source of information and knowledge as viable contributions to the knowledge economy.

While a number of good local books have been made increasingly available to the public, the public, including the underpaid academic, has not found them affordable enough to spend enough on them. This is embarrassing but true, given the difficult, unkind, and unequal economic opportunities in the country. But the money, or lack of, is not all there is to it. The more shameful thing is that given a degree of purchasing power, most people will opt to buy foreign books than local ones. Not only is there glamour and sophistication in being up-to-date with bestsellers in the American market, there is really no interest at all in matters Filipiniana, which have never really been a part of our breeding in our formative years. Having been the first among our Asian neighbors to grow up globally in Americana, most of us have really very little choice but to sustain such global interests above the local ones. It is hoped that the present cultural mapping project at the NCCA should lay soon enough the groundwork for a cultural literacy program from elementary to college that will help instill a sense of pride in the Filipino student for the achievements in his own varied culture and in the exploits of his culture bearers.

Still and all, even if we do dip into local publications and scholarship, we appear clueless as to what to do with ideas we’ve read. We are at this point still very good consumers of ideas but very poor developers and producers of these. Perhaps this is due to the lack of and respect for criticism and the critical outlook that should help guide us in the choice, evaluation, validation, and furtherance of ideas.

Specifically in the field of the arts in this country, everyone wants to be an artist or a writer and no one wants to become a critic. A proper appreciation and understanding of criticism remains a heavy psychic baggage of our culture. As it is, our criteria for merit and excellence remain ambiguous, fluid, and undefined-all the better for a culture that sits in darkness and moves sideways on haunches and hunches. Even in the choice of our National Artists, we have to defer to politics and executive prerogatives, so we end up with legitimate and illegitimate kinds, so to speak, of National Artists. If it’s not negotiable, it may not be true at all.

Varied and many, indeed, are the strange ways we have devised to avoid facing up to truths we don’t want. Without hard truths to stare us down, we are freest and most contented; with truths hard by, we become murderous. Where, pray tell, is truth in all these new books that come out every year?

As disseminators of culture, knowledge, and information, you may find all these things bitter pills hard to swallow. But these issues may be beyond your control at all. Or these may be among the many contradictions inherent in your business in this special country of ours and which you may perhaps have learned to cope and live with, in your own special way. The lucrative textbook industry, for instance, helps educate future professionals who will leave the country immediately after graduation to work elsewhere in the globe. The advocacy for intellectual property and copyright remain as a voice in the wilderness where photocopied textbooks and texts in the classroom and pirated movies and computer programs and games in the living rooms have found a niche and established themselves as the norm.

How can truth hold up to these? The truth may be simple enough, but it is not cheap.

Again, to be truly a national industry, your growth must involve publishing in the regions where there remains a pressing need to recover, develop, and sustain local knowledge that should help locate the missing pieces in the uncompletable puzzle that is this nation. Your distribution system should also be far-ranging than what it is today-even if you can never be sure if only six people would buy your books. That, in any case, would be a good start, especially in areas that SM will never find worthy enough to erect a mall in.

These are dark and trying times, indeed-literally and metaphorically-and it’s easy to fall into despair and cynicism in the face of work thatremains to be done. But the comforting thought, ladies and gentlemen, is that-despite the virtual lack of a critical thinking, and not merely a reading, public-the attempt to create a meaningful sense of ourselves and of our history out of the shards of our lost traditions and indigenous knowledge continues in the work you are doing in this business. The unearthing and gathering and examination of narratives and poetries that define the range and limits of our imagination and creativity as a people remain a worthy and priceless task in a country that has still to find the correct balance among contending truths and between the push and pull of reason and emotion. The matter of money might have been there initially, however little the returns may be in this business.

But eventually, I imagine and I hope, you must have broken through the great wall of emptiness and absurdity that attend and threaten any worthy human endeavor-the better to give it shape and character-and settled down with the hope that somehow the threads of all these texts produced every year will be picked up and find themselves woven into a tapestry where discourses of all kinds can be discerned as fitting triumphs of the Filipino imagination.

Artistic and intellectual creations entail long and laborious processes whose purposes are not any more edifying and ambitious as the sheer and simple satisfaction of its artist-producer. I like to think that you, producers of artistic and intellectual products, are like artists in this regard who are of this time and yet not of this time, having gone ahead to a time when everything shall have been prepared for and the ripeness is just there for the plucking.

For instance, this Gintong Aklat award that you have initiated and nourished for many years now. In this country where publication is highly selective and competitive and a published book is already an achievement of a kind-however smudgy and full of errata or misalignments it may be-honoring the book not merely as an intellectual and artistic creation but as an intellectual and artistic creation embedded in the physicality and materiality of paper and colors and ink already involves a next and sophisticated level of relationship with and valorization of the printed page. The book as book, with a specific weight and size and binding and texture and color of paper and a cover and the pages within so designed as to have an artistic value by and in themselves.

Very few are conscious of the well-designed book as book, and very few actually care for it. But for the few who do care and are in the know about book design and the well-made book, this award is a moment of grace and reprieve from the drudginess of politics and life around us. It took foresight and inspiration to conceive of this award-for like art and all crafted things, the making of books must always be pushed to its edge of beauty and pleasure. In this regard, I salute you and your association for this added dimension in the appreciation of books-a dimension that is valuable yet invisible, unappreciated yet intrinsic and necessary in elevating the business of publishing books to the level of art.

This award is just a small corner in the entire universe of books and book production, but it helps restore to our jaded spirits the power of art to surprise and delight with details where god is supposed to reside. In a country where there is little respect for honor and truth, the fact that some people did care enough to get something done right in so insignificant a thing as a book is testament enough that human passion for the beautiful object remains a truth in itself that gives off light, bravely and briefly as it may be.

Congratulations to the winners of the Gintong Aklat this year!”

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