Friday, June 28, 2013

Jonathan’s mystical flight
(With apologies to Jimbo)

By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

The book, whose title carries the name of its main character, Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, relates the adventurous flights of a bird. It opens with a scene in which Jonathan is high up in the sky, all alone by himself, practicing low-speed and high-speed flights. Jonathan comes from a society of seagulls called the Breakfast Flock which is governed by a board of leaders called the Council Flock. In this brotherhood, only Jonathan is seized by an obsession to soar to heights where no one of his kind has ever dared to fly before, for he alone has come to the knowledge that there is more to life than just eating as it is for most seagulls. To him flying is what really matters.

Jonathan’s parents though are dismayed about the flying experiments which engage him whole days. His mother urges him to be like the rest of the flock, leave the flying business to pelicans or the albatross, and eat better (“Why don’t you eat? Son, you’re bone and feathers!) Similarly, his father tells him to be more down to earth: “If you must study, then study food, and how to get it…you can’t eat a glide….Don’t you forget the reason you fly is to eat.”

For the next few days he obeys his parents’ biddings. But soon after, he finds himself busy again with high-speed flight and aerobatics in the course of which he realizes to his dismay that his flying ability is severely limited by his being a seagull, that to fly at high speed, he should have the falcon’s short wings. It thus dawns on him that in plunging down at high speed, all he needs is to fold his forewings to his body, and fly on the wingtips. With this discovery, he dives straight down at the terminal velocity of two hundred fourteen miles per hour! With this breakthrough, he also discovers the loop, the slow roll, the point roll, the inverted spin, the gull bunt, the pinwheel. He returns to the flock on the beach at night, thinking aloud his great discovery: “How much more there is now to living! Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there’s a reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!"

As Jonathan lands, the gulls are flocked into the Council Gathering. He is asked to stand to Center for Shame by the Elder “…for his reckless irresponsibility…violating the dignity and tradition of the Gull Family….” To be centered for shame means outright banishment from the gull society. He answers: “Irresponsibility? My brothers! Who is more responsible than a gull who finds and follows a meaning, a higher purpose for life? For three thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads, but now we have a reason to live—to learn, to discover, to be free! Give me one chance, let me show you what I've found….” The flock refuses to listen and casts him out. Thus, Jonathan is banished to a solitary life way out beyond the Far Cliffs. Yet he goes on learning new things each day like sleeping in the air, riding the high winds and flying through heavy sea-fogs. Eventually, two radiant gulls appear, taking him to some never-never land, a Shangri-La of sorts. So this is heaven, he thinks.

In that empyrean, Jonathan pursues his quest for perfect flight. He meets gulls named Sullivan and Chiang the Elder, his instructors. From the latter, he learns to fly from one place to another at the speed of thought—by simply thinking of it! And Chiang tells him there is no such thing as heaven. Heaven is not spatial. Nor should it be understood in the category of time. Heaven is being perfect. And for gulls, perfect speed is being there. Thus, death is not the final end. To die is merely to be transformed—into different and higher states of being or levels of consciousness. When Jonathan asks why very few gulls attain this level of perfection, Sullivan explains that for the flock of gulls, the end-all and be-all of existence is eating or other such trivialities. What they cannot see—because they refuse to learn—is that the purpose of living is to achieve perfection. “Learn nothing,” Sullivan says, “and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome.” That is why “the gull sees furthest who flies highest.”

But what is the use of salvation if only one is saved while the many are damned? That would amount to elitism, pure and simple. Armed with the wisdom of his experience and without rancor in his heart Jonathan goes back on Earth despite the Law of the Flock to the contrary. He decides to help them see the truth he had seen, the truth that will save them, the truth that will make them free.

Soon he acquires flying disciples like Fletcher Lynd Seagull after making him swear to forgive and love and go back to the flock one day to help them understand. By the end of three months he has six other students, Outcasts all. Kirk Maynard Gull with a crippled wing comes along. Jonathan urges him:

“Maynard Gull, you have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way. It is the Law of the Great Gull, the Law that Is.”
            “Are you saying I can fly?” asks Maynard.
            “I say you are free,” says Jonathan. And indeed right then and there, Maynard flies.

Meanwhile the Flock is in the grip of wonder. They go as far as to suspect Jonathan to be the Son of the Great Gull Himself—or the Devil? At this, he sighs in distress, knowing that the trick, if they but realize, is not at all beyond their native power to do. He wonders why it is so hard to convince a bird of his own freedom, of his infinite possibilities for self-perfection. Then he feels it is high time that he should go. He bids his disciple Fletcher to go back and love the Flock enough to help it learn. Jonathan becomes transfigured, goes transparent and vanishes into the thin air.

That, in a nutshell, is the story line of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. There is nothing so peculiar about the surface narrative which unfolds in a swift, straightforward fashion. One might even suppose that it is no more than a run-of-the-mill mythical fantasy not unlike those found in children’s literature. Some stocks-in-trade common to fairy tales or fables are found in it such as the attribution of human qualities to animals and using them as characters, mystical transubstantiation, and a simple narrative thread. One might thus dismiss the book as kid stuff. But to do so would be to overlook its real worth. For all its fantastic elements which are in fact taken for granted in fiction, the story rises above the mere tale in the urgency of its appeal as well as in the artistry of its literary execution. It is told in a cut-to-the-bone prose and presents a fresh, original vision—the grand metaphor of a bird’s flight deftly employed to convey the philosophy of heroism, freedom and perfection. While ostensibly recounting to us a seagull’s adventure, the story tells us of something else which the author in a more explicit manner said: “Find out what you love to do, and do your darndest to make it happen.” This sounds like the credo of the Emersonian rugged individualist who does his own thing—to use a mod lingo—at all costs, or the injunction of Joseph Campbell who urged us to “follow your own bliss.” The book in fact exalts the individual self and its unlimited possibilities until near the end of Part Two.

The expulsion of Jonathan from the Breakfast Flock is a fate common to all those stubborn nonconformists who would not toe the line prescribed by the group. It is the price one pays in refusing to be bound by the deadening shackles of tradition and popular standards. The only way open for the fullest possible development of one’s potentials is nonconformity, that is, the rejection of anything that turns a person into a stereotype of mass society, the defiance of social, political or religious conventions which cripple an individual’s creative initiative and make him just like the rest, just one among the many, a mere cipher, nameless and unknown. This, in point of fact, is the protest of modern French existentialism. Man is lost in the crowd, the herd, the human antheap. He needs to fight for his freedom, the freedom to be himself. In most contemporary Western countries where technological and industrial progress has created what is called as “culture lag,” the new mass-man becomes hopelessly alienated. Little wonder that in the USA alone the book became a cult reading and sold from 5,000 copies a week to 60,000 a day in 1972, breaking all paperback sales records. The secret of the book’s success? It broadcasts the clarion call to greatness, to insist on oneself, to live not according to the wishes of others but according to the inner law of one’s own being.

It might be mistakenly supposed that the book celebrates the cult of irresponsible individualism. But at the end of Part Two and in Part Three, Jonathan comes to believe that he should not claim the truth he sees all for himself. What good is the salvation of one? At this point, the story takes on a social dimension. After all, he is his brother’s keeper. So he plays the messiah to them, preaching at the cost of being misunderstood the gospel of ambition, perfection and freedom. He tells his disciples: “Each of us is in truth an idea of the Great Gull, an unlimited idea of freedom…and precision flying is a step toward expressing our real nature. Everything that limits us we have to put aside…. Your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip…is nothing more than your thought itself, in a form you can see. Break the chains of your thought, and you break the chains of your body, too….”

It should be all too evident that Jonathan the reformer does not at all endorse an anti-social creed. The liberation he champions positively is the liberation from the bondage of one’s natural limitations, the cruel determinism from within and not so much the mere physical, artificial constraints imposed from without. Only when the chains of the mind and body are transcended, only then does the release necessary to achieve one’s infinite possibilities for perfection become really possible. Once the self which is a copy of the Eternal Self overcomes its imperfections, it attains the highest state of beatific bliss which involves union with the Eternal. Thus, Chiang the wisest Elder moves beyond this world by being transfigured, becoming radiantly bright as he suddenly disappears. The same thing happens to Jonathan. They have not really been reduced to nothingness but have evolved into the realm of being often referred to as heaven. As Chiang tells Jonathan, “You will begin to touch heaven…in the moment that you touch perfect speed. And that isn’t flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit and perfection doesn’t have limits. Perfect speed, my son, is being there.” Physical theory (relativity) tells us that the speed of light is the terminal velocity for all objects with mass. Any particle traveling at the ultimate speed limit must have a proper mass of zero like light itself. Hence, unlimited perfect speed, if it is thinkable, amounts to a transformation into the Absolute Light itself. So the disappearance of the gulls in the story that have attained perfection is not after all a far-fetched science fiction fantasy. They have become one with the Infinite, the ultimate salvation and immortality of the Self.

One might disparagingly say that Jonathan’s story is nothing but a mélange of Plato, the Bhagavad Gita, Einstein or what have you. True enough. But Richard Bach had succeeded in crafting it into a coherent, artistic whole in which content and form blend in a beautiful harmony.   

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The scums of Philippine society

By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

Most of Alberto S. Florentino’s plays, starting with “The World Is an Apple” (1954) are concerned with the perennial social problem of unmitigated poverty and the nadir of dehumanization to which its victims sink down. His plays are by no means a departure from the early tradition of dramas of “social consciousness” written by Filipino playwrights with strong nationalist and socialistic leanings. Florentino’s plays pursue the same concerns, presenting scenarios of the “scums” of the Philippine society who are driven to the lowest forms of human degradation by sheer economic necessity. The main characters are drawn inexorably deeper and deeper into the maelstrom of certain destruction; and more often than not, society, that vast impersonal collectivity, is the culprit.

In rare instances, an institution in the establishment with social commitments like the Church plays through its representatives or functionaries the role of the “fairy godmother” thereby bringing about a live-happily-ever-after denouement. But the dominant strain of Florentino’s dramas is the inevitability of tragic suffering. He seems to be saying in effect, “Well, that’s how it is, or at least, how I see it all.” He seldom, if at all, proffers a solution. He just shows the social malady the way it is but does not give prescription. And indeed, he should not be faulted for this, for he must have seen rightly that the role of the literary artist is not so much to prophesy as to present a vision, not so much to propound the answer as to raise the question. Or else the playwright might as well become a thorough-going propagandist or a sociologist or even a social worker.

“Lungsod” (1971) dramatizes the tragic frustration of hopes of golden opportunities that most folks in the provinces dream of finding in the city. But these hopes are in fact based on a quicksand. When the brutal reality catches up with hollow illusions, frustration and tragedy ensue. Or one may prefer to hug the false sense of respectability of being an urban dweller, far removed from the shameful reality of a former home in the countryside with all its drab poverty. The case of Clara is truly regrettable. It is clear that Clara is beyond redemption, caught as she is in the net of prostitution. She no longer belongs to the home from which she has cut herself off, from the people whom she lives for, not because she is no longer welcome but because to go back to live with them means, first of all, shedding off her blinders, the sham existence she leads in the city (symbolized by her wig—artificial hair—and the dark glasses she wears even at nighttime). That is why in spite of her brother Ben’s pleading with her that she should stay, she rushes out of the house to go back to the city, the dark and lonely refuge of those creatures of the night who would rather live in the cold comfort of sin than suffer the dazzling light of truth that saves and sets free.

“Marianna” (1971) also takes place in the city, but mainly in the squatter area where people like Rene subsist on loot, stolen money, etc. But these folks, as exemplified by Rene and his gang, do not really mean doing harm to people or killing them in cold blood like hardened criminals. They are well-intentioned in the sense that if ever they rob, they do it all for survival. Rene, for instance, did not intend to kill the old guard in the factory which they ransacked. He aimed to shoot him only in the feet, but accidentally hit him in the head instead. At heart, therefore, he is not a criminal. Perhaps he is a “technical” criminal but not an abominable criminal morally culpable for his acts. This is a fact that only his friend, Marianna, understands so well, and which those cops do not. For these lost souls it is an amoral question of either robbing or surviving. Society denies them any middle course, when it is a matter of giving these people a chance. That is why the play ends up with Marianna furiously shouting at the policemen (who killed Rene in the showdown and who represent the establishment) as criminals and murderers while she cradles the inert body of Rene on her lap.

“Kaharian sa Lupa” (1973) portrays the squalid poverty of Silverio and his daughter Alma. He peddles old newspapers and used bottles for a living. But from their destitution they were delivered by a young priest named Valerio. Thus, unlike in the two foregoing plays, the social problem finds here a solution. It is Padre Valerio who as it were brings heaven (langit) on earth (lupa). In fact, he steals the show in the drama with his unusual concern for the poor, unusual compared to the callous indifference of the old priest, Padre Medina, who has just died, and who, shamelessly known for his love of ease and luxury, did not have the former’s dynamism. Padre Valerio exemplifies in his person the main tenets of the so-called liberation theology, the new socially-oriented thrust of the Church in the wake of Vatican II. This new theology of social commitment calls out to the clergy to step down from the pulpit and work and live with the people they profess to serve. Not that the power of prayer is minimized but that the hour demands the deliverance of the poor weighed down for ages by the chains of unmitigated poverty and oppression. Alma’s faith in the saving grace of God is here answered. Faith here triumphs. But not those of Marianna or of Gloria (in the “World Is an Apple”) whose clinging to moral and spiritual values is to no avail as the dark forces of evil prevail.

In conclusion, it may be said that Florentino’s dramas powerfully delineate the most urgent social problem of the time—poverty and the offshoots of crime, immorality, etc. He is almost Rousseauean in his faith in the natural goodness of man as well as in his distrust of the debasing influence of society. His dialogues are short and they ring true. Even when they speak of large truths, they do not indulge in ranting rhetoric. And the fact that Florentino shifted his medium from English to Pilipino in the writing of his plays no doubt proves that he realized that the effectiveness of artistic communication especially of the drama as a genre and a social force hinges on the language of the very people to whom his plays are seriously addressed. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

The compassion of the Bodhisattwa

By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

Tales and fables are one of the important vehicles which convey a people’s way of looking at things. They are unfailing sources of information concerning their view of life as it is or as it ought to be. Ancient folklore in India has been regarded as one of the most original branches of literature containing some of the authentic revelations of India’s attitude to life and the Indian consciousness. Not the least of these is the Jatakas, a collection of tales the earliest of which are deemed to date back to the third century B.C. These are stories ostensibly recounting the previous existences of the Buddha.

For the modern reader with not even a smattering of Buddhism or its religious theories, there are certain constraints that may stand in the way of comprehending the surface action of the narratives. The overcoming of these constraints, though not the end-all and be-all of reading, is yet necessary as a precondition for a fuller appreciation of these tales. First, there are the fantastic elements. Of course, in fiction, these things are taken for granted. But oftentimes, it is not enough to “suspend disbelief.” One would have to breathe the atmosphere of the story, or really feel its ambience, know its internal laws operative within its own frame of reference. Then, he must understand that the Jatakas tales are told for a definitely didactic purpose, that is, to put across certain principles representing the Buddhist religious ideals. Hence, the moral tag at the end of some of these stories need not cause offense nor leave a bad taste in the mouth. And what should not be forgotten is the fact that the Jatakas is first of all a literary work of the imagination lending itself as a handmaiden of religion. In India, between art and religion, there is not much, if any divorce. As a matter of fact, literature, philosophy and religion are so integrated that one cannot speak of one without drawing in the other.

Different tales from the Jatakas are chosen here to give a representative sampling of the spectrum of motifs that run through the collection.

There is, for instance, the story of the Bodhisattwa who was born as Brahmaddata. He was so upright a ruler that no one could find fault with him. But he was obsessed with the idea of finding someone who would reveal to him his defects. For this purpose, he travelled far and wide. Then along a narrow road he came across the king of Kosala, Mallika by name, who was also wandering about for exactly the same purpose. Their respective drivers asked each other to make way, citing their Master’s virtues as ground for the other’s giving way.  King Mallika’s driver recited: “Great King Mallika is rough to the rough,/But to the gentle he returns gentleness,/And badness bestows on those that are bad….” King Brahmaddata’s driver exclaimed: “By mildness alone he conquers anger,/By goodness he repays the bad./By lavish gifts he vanquishes misers,/And falsehood he overcomes with truth….” King Mallika and his driver were convinced of the superior nobility of the king of Banares that they made way for the latter. They went back to their respective kingdoms, spent their lives in deeds of goodness till they attained to Heaven.

Then, too, there is the story of the Bodhisattwa born as Sivi, king of Aritthapura. He was of a generous nature so that he even felt the acts of charity which he did to be not enough. He then conceived of literally giving a part of himself, of his very own physical body. Indra, the king of the Gods, on reading his thoughts, decided to put to the test his resolution. Disguised as a blind beggar, he stretched out his hands to Sivi and asked for one of his eyes. But Sivi, a good man that he was, was only too willing to part not just with one but with his two eyes. For this purpose he called for the service of his surgeon. Afterwards, Sivi retired to a hermitage. Now blind, he wished for nothing but death. Indra came to see him but said he cannot grant his death-wish but that by the very fruit of Sivi’s gift shall his eyes be restored. King Sivi’s eyes grew again in their sockets, the eyes of the Attainment of Truth. Returning back to his kingdom, he preached: “Let no one deny anything that is asked of him. In all mortal beings the finest treasure is self-sacrifice. I sacrificed perishable eyes, and received the Eye of Knowledge in return. Be generous, my people. Never eat a meal without giving away something; let others have a share.”

Another story is that of the Bodhisattwa born as the son of an elephant king. In time he himself became the King of Banares. His name was Chhaddanta. He was noble and justly ruled his subjects of eight thousand elephants. He passed his days in the company of his two queens, Cullasubhadda and Mahasubhadda. Cullasubhadda got jealous of Mahasubhadda, for it seemed to her that the King gave the latter preferential treatment. She then harbored a grudge against Chhaddanta. She went on hunger strike causing her death. But she was reborn as a daughter of the royal family of Maddla. Her name now is Subhada. The king and queen married her to the King of Banares. Remembering all the events of her previous life, Queen Subhada thought of revenging herself against Chhaddanta. She then hired a hunter with instructions to look for a six-tusked elephant (Chhaddanta) and kill him by depriving him of his tusks. King Chhaddanta soon afterwards fell into the trap prepared by the hunter who attacked him with a poisoned shaft. But the King bore his pain and bitterness and anger. From the hunter he understood that all this was the work of Cullasubhadda. He accordingly asked the hunter to saw off his tusks and actually helped him do it. He died shortly afterwards after saying: “Friend hunter, I give away my tusks not because I have no fondness for them but because the tusks of Omniscience are a thousand times dearer to me. May this act of mine lead me to knowledge.” Meanwhile, the queen Subhadda received the tusks together with the news that the elephant king was dead. The tusks emitted six glorious rays of different colors. Then, thinking of him who had been her dear Lord, she was seized with sorrow. Her heart was shattered with grief and she died.

Evidently, the foregoing stories deal with the deepest concerns of the Buddhist faith, the Mahayana ideal of love and compassion, of sacrifice and forgiveness, and of regard for the well-being of others. It is worth recalling that a Bodhisattwa is one who, after earning his right to entering Nirvana, postpones his own entry to it in order to help his fellowmen toward Enlightenment.

Thus, in the tales just related, the reincarnated Bodhisattwa, whether as King Brahmaddata or King Sivi or as the elephant-king Chhaddanta, never attains to Enlightenment for his own sake or for his own self-centered weal. The self-abnegation, or better yet, the self-sacrifice done by making the gift of eyes or by having one’s tusks sawed off to one’s death may appear excessive or even absurd to the modern man’s temper. But these facts of the tales should not be viewed in the light of the Western golden mean. Rather, they should be taken on their own terms as expressions of selflessness, the highest form of love and one of the roads that lead to the Buddhist goal of transcendental wisdom.

In the preceding stories, it can be seen that those who came into personal contact or have direct dealings with the reincarnated Bodhisattwa did not get away untransformed in their moral sense or spiritual outlook. King Malika and his driver learned the superior nobility of returning love for hatred, good for evil, truth for falsehood, and accordingly renounced their more retributive ethic of lex taliones. And it may be said that Queen Subhhada did not die of grief over King Chhanddanta whose death she herself had designed without the inner realization of her heinous deed and the corresponding change of heart.

The Bodhisattwa’s overriding commitment to the redemption of others stems from his deep sense of oneness with all that lives. He knows the law that everything is related to everything else, and with that knowledge salvation for him means nothing if there yet remains a single being still immersed in the ocean of Samsara. One cannot but be reminded here of familiar Dostoevskean statements like: “All is responsible for all,” or “What good is salvation if only one is saved?” Indeed, for the Bodhisattwa, the universal salvation of all beings is the supreme good; and the real task at hand is the attainment of spiritual perfection by first seeking the salvation of others. As a poet puts it, “He findeth not who seeks his own;/The soul is lost that’s saved alone.” Thus, while the Theravadin’s search for Nirvana could easily become a selfish goal of individual liberation, the Mahayana ideal has a social or universal dimension. This explains the apparent extravagance of the Bodhisattwa’s generosity or the seeming nonsensicality of his actions in the tales. And it is within this Mahayana Buddhist universe of discourse that the stories take on their true significance.

A corollary of the Mahayana ideal of spiritual communion of all living beings is the doctrine of abstention from the taking of life. This is the principle of ahimsa, which the Bodhisattwa exemplified in the story of the “Sacrificial Goat.”  A goat was to be sacrificed by a Brahmin in a feast for his ancestors. While being dressed for the purpose, the goat recalled that on that very day he would be liberated. This made him laugh loudly even as the sad fate in store for him moved the Brahmin to tears. Asked to explain himself, the goat said, “In one of my past existences, I, too, was a Brahmin. By killing a goat at a feast for the dead, I had my head cut off four hundred and ninety-nine times. This is my five-hundredth birth, and it is the last. As soon as you kill me, I shall be liberated forever. That’s why I laughed. But I cried, too, because the penalty for killing a goat is the same for you as it was for me. I pity you because by taking my life you are condemning yourself to have your head cut off five hundred times. The Brahmin then said he would not kill him and even guard him all the time. But the goat said, ”Weak is your protection, and strong is the force of my deeds.” And, indeed, as the goat was browsing in a bush, a thunderbolt killed him. At this point, while a crowd gathered around the goat, the Bodhisattwa, born as a tree-divinity, seated himself in mid-air and proclaimed: “If only men know that existence is pain,/Living beings would cease from taking life./Beware, beware! Stern is the slayer’s doom.”

What is explicit, too, in the above story is the all too often forgotten truth that man is the decreer of his own fate, the maker of his own happiness or gloom. For the Buddhist, as for the Hindu, this is the law of karma, the inexorable law of universal equilibrium, of cause and effect, of action and reaction, not only in the physical sphere but also in the moral, spiritual or transcendent plane. No one gets away from this since how can one escape from himself? If one has disturbed the universal balance by the taking of life, one is bound to restore order by paying for it in the same measure, if not in this life, then in another. This is the meaning of what in our story the goat meant by saying, “Strong is the force of my deeds.”

The Bodhisattwa also plays other roles in the less serious tales dealing with common problems of life. At one time, we find him as an arbitrator, settling disputes wisely as in the case of the tiger and the lion. The former averred that it was the dark half of the month that was cold, whereas the latter maintained that it was the moonlit half of the month. This Bodhisattwa said, thus: “Be it the moonlit half or be it the dark,/How will it affect the cold, oh foolish ones?/You must know that the cold is caused by the wind,/And so I decided that both of you are right.”

We find the Bodhisattwa, too, as an adviser to a king, warning him against talkativeness. Or we find him as a lion, or a bird. In all these, the words coming off his mouth never ring false or platitudinous. This is so because his statements spring from a deep moral ground and spiritual insight.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The aesthetics of protest in two
American subcultures

By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

The Third World, spanning as it does both the non-aligned nations in Africa and Asia and the underdeveloped countries of the world, is in fact not so much a place with a distinctive geography as a particular state of consciousness, the social consciousness of that sector of the body politic reeling under the brunt of various forms of oppression and exploitation by another sector that arrogates to itself the power to exercise dominion over the less fortunate underdogs.

The subcultures in the United States are characteristically Third World in their outlook and aspirations. Already, the Negro ferment in America has been penetrated by Afro-Cuban influence. Indeed, it is from the Black Power movement that other c.p.’s and ethnic groups in America, notably the Asian-Americans, derive their inspiration and rallying symbol in the on-going struggle against racism.

It is not difficult to know that the whole premise of Western civilization rests upon the myth of the white man’s superiority, a white-created anomaly that emboldened the top dogs to subject the American Negro to more than three centuries of chattel slavery and reduced the latter to the level of the beast of burden. The same racial prejudice that so ruthlessly lacerates the black man in the flesh and in spirit likewise spares no one tinted with other shades of color in his skin pigmentation, the brown man not excluded.

One can therefore see that the compulsive violence of the Negro stems from an outraged humanity asserting its own danger potential. It is the rage of man driven against the wall and at last found the strength to break out and smash the prison that for so long has held him in chains. The mood of violent radicalism in America which reached climactic pitch in race riots threatening to tear apart the fabric of the so-called Great Society has inevitably filtered out and has been caught on by other cultural minorities in a sort of entrainment or sympathetic infection.

Violence has become for the Negro a sort of alchemical force which is thought to bring into resolution the anomalous disunity, the yawning contradiction between what the white man professes and what he does, between his words and deeds, between the empty rhetoric and hard facts. For while the white man espouses liberty and builds imposing monuments to it and inscribes it on parchments or bronze, he practices barbarous acts of cruelty which gives the lie to his avowals. A couplet from Some Changes by Jane Jordan, a modern Black poetess, aptly expresses this unmitigated notoriety: “George Washington he think he big/he trade my father for a pig.” It escapes understanding why the white man can talk of love and at the same time kill his brother man. Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth (Penguin Books, 1967) exhorts his fellow Negroes, thus: “Leave this Europe (or America) where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them….”

The gory violence, the fiery anger with which Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas dismembers the murdered white woman was meant to jolt the white man back to his senses, since it all represents by extension the dismembering by the black man of the shibboleths of submission and passivity thrust upon him by a social arrangement not of his own making. The twisted spirit of Bigger Thomas reflects the nadir of degradation to which he has been relegated in the hands of the white oppressors.

These accents of wrath against the callousness and dire cruelty of a closed society reverberates even through the works of many modern black writers. At one time LeRoi Jones has pictured America as one vast inferno in which the devil is a white man with the Negroes as his victims. He describes his life as a kind of Dantesque descent into such hell in which the obscene mess and the filth are thrown at the face of the intended white oppressor to protest his intolerable condition. At another, he lashes virulently at the white enemy in the strongest terms and in no-nonsense pursuit of rage in “Black Dada Nihilismus”: “Poems are bullshit unless they are/teeth or trees or lemons piled/on a step. Or black ladies dying/of men leaving nickel hearts/beating them down. Fuck poems/and they are useful…/…We want poems like fists beating niggers out of Jocks/or dagger poems in the slimy bellies/of the owner-Jews….”

The chorus of fury is joined by other voices fraught with revolutionary fervor. Mae Jackson virtually makes a clarion call to arms in the lines: “the time has come/to kill/white women and children/for Emmitt Till/and the children of Birmingham.” Don L. Lee re-echoes Le Roi Jones as he writes: “I ain’t seen no stanzas brake/a honkies’ head…/& until my similes can protect me/from a night stick/i guess i’ll keep my razor/& buy me some more bullets.”

In these tirades against tyranny and internal colonialism, the black poets who have finally found their voices are often garrulous yet undaunted. These poets have come to see their role not only in interpreting their need but in judging what for them is human or humane. In poetry they see a powerful weapon in furthering the ends of revolution, in totally dismantling the cultural patterns or socio-political structures which only serve the selfish interests of the power-hungry dominant race. Thus, in their hands literature becomes the handmaiden of praxis, of confrontation with the most central problem facing society, i.e., the howling human misery, the poverty, the sufferings borne by the common, underprivileged man to make secure the pleasure and convenience of the ruling majority.

And because of the black writer’s sense of mission outside himself, of commitment to his cause, the literary forms by which the liberal humanists or aesthetes express themselves fail to gain his adherence. The Third World crusaders for freedom who wield the pen take liberties with the accepted canons of literary art and come up with their own to depict with great emotional intensity what man has done to man. Art, then, in their view, must give birth to the tidal wave of change and wash away the status quo and its abominations, and this it can achieve only by stressing the priority of its content over its form.

“The question for the black critic today,” says Addison Gayle Jr. in Black Aesthetics (Doubleday & Company, 1972), “is not how beautiful is a melody, a play, a poem, or a novel, but how much more meaningful has the poem, melody, play, or novel made the life of a single black man?” In other words, a critical theory that does not contribute to the betterment of black people, or improve the brutalized existence of the cultural minorities for that matter, has neither meaning nor relevance whatsoever. Roy Kanenga, in his “Black Cultural Nationalism,” puts it more succinctly: “Black art…must respond positively to the reality of the revolution. It must become and remain a part of revolutionary machinery that moves us to change quickly and creatively. Black art must expose the enemy, praise the people and support the revolution.” This statement on black aesthetics echoes and bears in no uncertain terms the influence of Marxist-Leninist critical methodology that inveighs against bourgeois formalism as insipid if not downright spurious.

At any rate, any critical theory is a convention, a man-made body of principles informing a given piece of literature. There is thus nothing sacrosanct about a literary precept that it should be adhered to even if it has no relevance to the particular temper of the time and experiences in which a writer finds himself. The predominant or prevailing critical assumptions that writers are often expected to follow (like for instance formalism) are those essentially fashioned in the West by the Anglo-Saxon bourgeoisie. It therefore obviously devolves upon the writer whose sensibilities are dulled if not totally denigrated by the constraints of a theory of literature steeped in bourgeois and middle class values to hammer out and embrace one that enables him to do justice to and freely give expression to the texture of experience which a man in his circumstances goes through.

Socialist realism in its broad sweep rather than in its narrowly utilitarian application as the official Soviet aesthetic doctrine reflects the dialectical movement of the social process, the contradictions spawned by the internal forces of class conflict. In its view, literary art more than merely portrays the manifold complexities of life. It must also be, as Zhadanov put it, “instrumental in the ideological remolding of the toiling people in the spirit of socialism.” In other words, art, unlike religion, is no opiate to deaden the consciousness of the masses to the harsh realities of their socio-political predicament but instead confronts them with the spectacle of themselves trapped in a world which they must wrest back for themselves from the clutches of the powers that be. With their eyes at last opened by the writer’s superior light, they now ought to realize that for them, with the ineffectual outcome of such campaigns like bi-racial civil rights movement, etc., there is no alternative, no substitute for revolt.

The black writers’ angry rhetoric, though admittedly incendiary at some points, has in no small measure spurred the Asian-Americans into new heights of ethnic awareness. For the black man’s problems are no less those of the yellow man’s also, even if Yellow or Brown Power may not be as explosive as the black catchword. Asian-Americans of the pre-war and postwar generations found a common cause with the blacks although the former express themselves in more restrained accents in decrying racial injustice. Thus, in both temper and principle, these two American subcultures are of the Third World movement which is ever unrelenting in their demand for justice and freedom.

In more sophisticated lines, most of the Asian-American poets, like the Chinese or Japanese, explore the cultural conflicts they contend against, the bizarre feeling of living under a double identity and, as a way out, reaffirm their ancestral roots or their ethnic heritage thereby exploding the myth of the melting pot as nothing short of phoney nonsense. The strident note of militant defiance is somewhat toned down in their language presumably because racism in some quarters of contemporary America must have taken on more subtle forms and make it less brutal to put up with. Yet, however deft the sugar-coating is, the bitter pill of racial discrimination and injustice remains. And though discriminatory legislations by the U.S. government such as the anti-Oriental acts of exclusion were relaxed if not totally repealed in later times, prejudice, that green-eyed monster, cannot be legislated away.

Historical accounts reveal, for instance, that in California and Washington, between the 1920’s and 1930’s, incidents of raw violence directed against Orientals particularly the Pinoys were on the rise. It fell into the lot of a Filipino writer like Carlos Bulosan to chronicle this ignominious page in the annals of American cannibalism. Carey Williams, in penning the introduction to Bulosan’s autobiographical novel, says: “Filipinos were victimized by the same anti-Oriental stereotype….As immigrants they encountered a previously erected wall of discrimination….” In the same vein, Bulosan was quoted by H. Brett Melendy in Racism in America (1972) thus: “The terrible truth in America shatters the Filipinos’ dream of fraternity. I was completely disillusioned when I came to know this American attitude…the horrible impact of white chauvinism.” For Bulosan, like so many of his immigrant brothers, was not given the treatment proper to a human being. He was even, if one is to give credence to his accounts in America Is in the Heart (University of Washington, 1973), subjected to indignities, heartless exploitation as a laborer, and brutalities. At one time, after a most barbarous beating, the white bully still not contented, hurled obscenities at him and called him a brown monkey, for that is what he is in the former’s eyes. In fact, to try to live like a man or assert one’s own humanity in the country of the white man is already to be guilty of a crime—the crime of daring to be human. One can take Bulosan’s word for it. Some of the details of Bulosan’s narrative may not have been literally true or verifiable, but the distilled essence of his hurt gets through.

In thus exposing in his writings the enemy in his true light and in taking the side of the small, working man, Bulosan achieved a realism that has close affinities with the black populist aesthetics which stresses, among other things, the people as the proper source from which art draws its substance and sustenance; and therefore, it is at their service that art must be legitimately put. Bulosan’s historic sense is evident in his works and his feeling for the inexorable forces of the social dialectical process puts his writings in the tradition of socialist realism in its more extended sense, that is, minus the thick-headed parochialism of an official dogma. In his own words” “What impelled me to write? The answer is: my grand dream of equality among men and freedom for all. To give a literate voice to the voiceless…Filipinos in the United States, Hawaii, the desires and aspirations of the whole Filipino people in the Philippines and abroad in terms relevant to contemporary history.”

Another notable Filipino writer was to assume, and resume after Bulosan, the task of recording the Filipino experience in America. Unlike his precursor, he came not as a laborer but a government scholar, and under better circumstances to boot—the new immigration laws being generous to Filipinos and the lifting or modification of discriminatory legislations against the Pinoy in the wake of Bataan and Corregidor. Bienvenido N. Santos was thus spared the physical violence inflicted upon Carlos Bulosan who can only respond with the most natural human reaction of anger. But Santos was not spared the hurt which, though not springing from bodily pain, proves even more excruciating than the merely physical kind. It is the hurt of deracination, of the blasting of illusions about America as a dreamland of joy, of milk and honey, into an arid land as it were partitioned by walls upon walls of discrimination. And while Santos’s vision of humanity is not governed by the inexorability of dialectical materialism as Bulosan’s, he penetrates deeply into the dark regions of the heart—the actual hidden source of the outwardly visible scheme of dehumanization in society.

Santos’ writings, though not consciously socialist in concerns, nevertheless capture in depth the problems of racial conflicts, and this, if nothing else, places him on a level with the Third World humanists. He tells of the tragedy of the broken man, of the Filipino trapped in racial relations that often wind up in unhappiness, in insanity or death. There is, for instance, the story of a Pinoy otherwise happily married with an American wife. But the neighbors, his wife’s American friends, drive her to insanity by talking down to her for giving birth to what they derisively called as monkey children. She drowns the kids in a fit of lunacy. There is, too, the Filipino husband who feels excruciatingly helpless on seeing his American wife disowned by her family for the "crime" of marrying him. But that is not all. There is Delfin who, mystified by an American widow’s white complexion, married her. She proves to be a whore and she would shut him out as she consummates sex with one strange man after another. Afterwards, she lets him in. No words said. No explanations.

In an editorial on Santos, I said in the Nueva Caceres Review (March 1981) apropos the last story: “Is this perhaps a tragic fable of the Filipino [wayfarer] who, dazzled by the romantic vision of America as a land of promise, would pay any price for it? America even at the expense of pride, integrity, honor?” Whatever America stands for the Filipino immigrant, the Filipino remains what he has always been to America—an outsider. He is, in the words of Mark Twain, the “person who sits in darkness” even if he actually sits right on its doorstep. The rub of it all is that even right back in his own country, he continues to be victimized by American neocolonialism on the pretext of “extending to him the blessings of civilization.”

With this cursory glance at the literature and major literary figures of two cultural minorities in the United States, it becomes increasingly clear that in terms of content, committed literature depicts the central contradiction of society so that form merely complements the content. Without the confrontation afforded by this kind of literature, there is reason to doubt if freedom could be possible at all. It follows that without the precondition of freedom, no change in the quality of life of the common people could ever take place.

Literary theory should thus carry forward the process of human history by serving as a factor in generating the forces that will change traditional social structures on the revolutionary level. This critical concept, in its modified or full implications, has gained the acceptance, consciously or unconsciously, of most American ethnic writers whom we have thus far considered. And to what extent they have succeeded, armed as they are with the ideals of a new humanism, in shaking the foundations of the existing value system of the socio-political body remains an open question. But to judge from the wave of ferment sweeping through the Third World, it is safe to guess that they are not way behind in carrying forward their cause. For, they cannot afford to fail in their campaign for survival. Frantz Fanon, near the end of his book, which has come to be regarded as the manifesto of the Third World, states the messianic role the oppressed people is to play in the destiny of mankind:

It is a question of the third World starting a new history of Man, a history which will have regard to the sometimes prodigious theses which Europe has put forward, but which will also not forget Europe’s crimes, of which the most horrible was committed in the heart of man, and consisted of the pathological tearing apart of his unity. And in the framework of the collectivity there were differentiations, the stratifications, and the bloodthirsty tensions fed by classes; and finally, on the immense scale of humanity, there were racial hatreds, slavery, exploitation and above all the bloodless genocide which consisted in the setting aside of 15 thousand millions of men.

The committed writers in the American subcultures, whether black, yellow, brown, or shades of gray, on the evidence of the literary temper they have shown in the works here considered, have not paid lip service to that grand vision.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The theological dimension
in Nick Joaquin’s fiction

By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

One of the fundamental problems of human existence is the age-old question of man’s relation to God. Man is ceaselessly torn between the antithesis of matter and spirit, of the temporal and the supernal. Exemplifying this elemental contradiction of humanity, Goethe’s Faust exclaimed: “Two souls, alas! Are lodg’d within my breast,/which struggle there for undivided reign….” One is earthbound, but “Above the mist, the other doth aspire,/With sacred vehemence to purer spheres.” Indeed, even while man is rooted to terra firma, he reaches out beyond the here and now. He so tugs at himself in two opposite directions that the tension in maintaining equilibrium becomes his source of creativity. If literature, then, is to render a truly comprehensive vision of life, it should not gloss over the essential dimension inherent in the human condition, that is, the spiritual.

T. S. Eliot must have had this consideration in mind when he remarked that “modern literature…is simply unaware of, simply cannot understand the meaning of, the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life: of something I assume to be our primary concern.”

In a similar vein, Fr. Miguel A. Bernad, in his article “The Future of Philippine Literature” included in Brown Heritage: Essays on Philippine Cultural Tradition and Literature, edited by Antonio G. Manuud (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1967) drew attention to the lack of theological dimension in much of Philippine writing in English during the past four decades despite the Christian culture of Filipinos. Not that a work of literature is necessarily of paramount importance simply because it happens to be theological or about God. In fact, art that is predominantly didactic is tantamount to moral propaganda. The point is that a literary work invested with theological interests widens, as it were, the breadth of its range to include what is truly central to the reality of man and existence—the transcendent aspect. The essence of the Filipino reality is undoubtedly one that is at once secular and religious. Yet, as Father Bernad maintained, much of our writing is secularist in outlook or suffers from a kind of temporal provincialism that cannot see beyond the corporeal order. Nick Joaquin’s writings were singled out by Father Bernad to be among the few exceptions. It is the intention of this essay to probe the theological aspects of Nick Joaquin’s fiction, in particular his novel, three of his early stories and three of his later stories in which theological concerns are evident.

In bringing out the theological ideas in his fiction, specifically in The Woman Who Had Two Navels, “Dona Jeronima,” “Candido’s Apocalypse” and “The Order of Melkizedek,” Nick Joaquin has made extensive use of the dialogue as a means of discussing and putting across ideas not only among the characters themselves but also to the reader. Nick Joaquin also employs the method of making the story serve as a metaphor or parable of the theological idea or ideas as in the case of “The Mass of St. Sylvestre,” “The Legend of the Virgin’s Jewel” and “The Legend of the Dying Wanton.” Symbols are among Joaquin’s principal tools in giving artistic expression to his spiritual imagination. The use of images, metaphor, and myth also enables him to avoid stale abstractions in stating his thoughts on religion.

Nick Joaquin’s theological stance as reflected in the selected early stories is orthodox Catholic in orientation. In “The Legend of the Virgin’s Jewel” Brother Fernando’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin signifies the Catholic piety of the faithful who accord her the honor as Theotokos, the Mother of God. The prominent place she is made to occupy in the story (rare in Philippine fiction in English) implies nothing less than Nick Joaquin’s hyperdulia of the Virgin of the Rosary. Similarly, the spiritual vision projected in “The Legend of the Dying Wanton” is one steeped in a religious consciousness that is fundamentally Christian in its sympathy for the sinner. Salvation in the story, as taught by Catholicism, is all-embracing, i.e., open to everyone (no matter how wayward) for whom Christ shed His blood on Golgotha. The key moment of Currito Lopez’s beatific vision reveals the heart of Christian faith: the human person has a share in the divine life which is attained not so much through his own natural capacity as through the sanctifying grace God gratuitously infuses in his soul. “The Mass of St. Sylvestre” likewise expresses the theological principle that access to the eschatological reality of the immortality of the body is not acquired by means of black magic but through the divinely revealed way of Christ. The dire fate that befell the pagan magus, Mateo the Maestro, tells by implication what happens when one seeks the gift of eternal life out of vanity and self-love along avenues other than those made known by Christ.

In the latter stories, however, as in his first novel, Nick Joaquin’s theological thought assumes a revolutionary, unorthodox aspect, that is, the intense religious fervor evident in his early stories has become more anguished and cerebral in the later stories written in the sixties. The kernel of Nick Joaquin’s theological reflections in the later stories and his novel may be said to be contained in his reaction against what the Church traditionally abhors as “the world, the flesh and the devil.” Rather than regard these anathemas as sources of temptation to be shunned, Nick Joaquin points out that these are the very means by which Christians can find their way to God.

One of the central theological themes of The Woman Who Had Two Navels (Regal Publishing Company., 1961; Solidaridad Publishing House, 1975) is the theme of affirmation of the world despite all its corruptions. Connie Escobar is given to understand by the elder priest—in her imaginary dialogue with the latter—that she has done wrong in fleeing from the world and retreating into a phantom world of her own making because it will not do to try to reach the Civitas Dei by bypassing the City of Man. Only in and through the terrestrial can the Christian find the road to the celestial city, for it is by the agency of the natural that the supernatural works. The Christian ought not to be a Platonic dreamer, looking upon the world as an imperfect illusion while cherishing an otherworldly Absolute. In more explicit terms, as in his article, “The World, the Flesh, and the Devil—and the Death of God” (Philippines Free Press, March 25, 1967), Nick Joaquin writes of the Christian vocation as he perceives it: “The living God must be sought in the very realm that godly people once…abominated as ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’. If God is not there, he is not anywhere.” The search for God need not turn Christians into schizoids—like Connie Escobar—out of touch with the world and humanity. Christians should not reject the world in favor of heaven. To be for man and the world is to be for God who so loved the world that He gave it His only son. Thus, what in fact is done in the interest of man is done for Him who said: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:40)

The later stories, “Dona Jeronima” and “Candido’s Apocalypse,” take up the question of the flesh heretofore considered in traditional Catholicism as one of the pitfalls of temptation. In both stories, Nick Joaquin makes a case for man’s body not as something filthy, degrading or sinful but as a reality to be accepted and prized.

The Archbishop’s search for the heart of stillness in ‘Dona Jeronima” brings him to a rediscovery of the flesh not as the only reality, but as one reality that cannot simply be ignored nor dismissed as unreal. The flesh and the heats of the flesh are the bush that burns unconsumed, to use a Biblical metaphor. In other words, the flesh is an integral part of one and the same Divine Reality, the ultimate reality of God who found, as revealed in Genesis, that everything He had made was good. Thus, the human body is not just a thing to possess in point of time, but a being to love in the light of eternity. The human body is that precious; and, hence, to try to possess it as a mere instrument to promote one’s selfishness is to prostitute that which is holy. This is the crime that Dona Jeronima atones for by living as a recluse in the cave. She did not really love the Archbishop (as she herself confessed) as a person and for his own sake but tried to possess him as an object to gratify her own vanity.

Even more forceful is Nick Joaquin’s apologia for the corporeal in “Candido’s Apocalypse.” The whole point of Candido’s mirage is that the body is of paramount importance not only to man’s social nature but also to his individual identity as a unique human person. The body individualizes the human being, invests him with a separate and distinct character so that without it, he becomes a nameless automaton, indistinguishable like an X-ray photograph. Thus, for Joaquin, soul is flesh and flesh is soul. A corollary of this theory of the soul is his anthropomorphic conception of God in the story. It dawns on Candido that God has effaced the faces of the people around him so that he may see the ultimate face—the face of God Himself. So Candido strives after God who keeps on eluding him until finally he sees that God has the face of Pompoy Morel, his avowed enemy. Candido’s ultimate discovery shows that God may be encountered, if at all, in our fellowmen like Pompoy Morel who bears the indelible imprint of the Creator who made man in his own image.

The problem of the Devil, the last of the three anathemas traditionally decried by the Church, recurs in many of Nick Joaquin’s stories, both the early and the more recent ones. Is Nick Joaquin, then, evil-intoxicated? Nothing could be further from the truth. In the three legends analyzed in this essay, the Evil One is hard put to assert his wickedness in the face of the sovereign power of God. Brother Fernando symbolically hacks the jeweled serpent into shreds; Currito Lopez’s inherent goodness ultimately gets the better of the dark side of his nature, and the pagan magus is punished for daring to force God’s hand to confer on him what is actually reserved for the Last Day. All this points to the author’s highly moral or religious consciousness.

In The Woman Who Had Two Navels, however, the mystery of iniquity is given an altogether different treatment. The facts of evil and sin are recognized for what they are. But he gives the devil his due when he says (speaking through Father Tony) that even evil can be a way to God, that in the scheme of redemption, even sin is necessary insofar as without it, there can be no repentance or spiritual progress. This amounts to saying that nothing evil can exist of itself, for it is somehow bound up with something good—a concept favored by some “new” theologians. Thus, Father Tony gives Rita Lopez to understand that Connie Escobar’s running away with Paco Texeira might eventually lead her to the path of righteousness.

The irrationality of evil being locked up with good is perceptively portrayed in “The Order of Melkizedek.” In this story, there is the parallel theme of paganism and Christianity. Whereas in “The Legend of the Virgin’s Jewel” evil and paganism were vanquished for good by a Christian champion, Melkizedek, the pagan high priest presented in the story as le Diable, makes a vow to return after the failure of his underground movement to restore paganism via Christianity. It is worth noting that God involves Father Lao with Melkizedek’s gang to make him an instrument in the destruction of the forces of evil. But as it turns out, Melkizedek himself emerges unharmed. Does this place the author on the side of Satan? In the context of the story the problem of evil is shown as something absurd in that evil may take on the trappings of good; and conversely, good may assume the guise of evil. Thus, the tragedy of Guia is that she is hoodwinked by the new Christian image worshiped by the prophet’s group in a Black Mass. There is nothing wrong with the image of a naked Christ with the fig leaf taken off. In fact, it is an interesting image, small wonder Guia is drawn to it. But Melkizedek uses this unorthodox Christian image to serve an evil purpose unknown to Guia: the establishment of heathendom upon the very grounds of Christendom. It is not actually the Christian Mass that Melkizedek celebrates in Salem House but a parody, if not an outright mockery of it. What is worshiped is not Christ but an idol, a statue of a naked Christ which is but a step to devil worship or idolatry. Hence, the story demonstrates, the author himself stated in a personal interview granted in 1971, how Christianity may regress to “paganism which in a sense paved the way for Christianity.” The two are bound up with each other in Nick Joaquin’s fiction in the same manner as good with evil.

Are Nick Joaquin’s later theological views on the whole radical? Yes, they are from the standpoint of the traditional Church that spurned the “world, the flesh and the devil.” But they are not from the point of view of post-Vatican II Catholicism.

Nick Joaquin’s theology of involvement with the world is not really a new, isolated voice in the wilderness. The call to commitment with the world was sounded as far back as ancient times. The Lord, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, sternly spoke of the true fast which is not the irresponsible pursuit of one’s pleasure but the spirited participation in temporal activities like freeing the oppressed, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and building up the world for the betterment of man. Christ Himself prayed to the Father not that men should be taken out of the world but that they be kept from evil. The Apostle Paul rebuked the Thessalonians for their idleness; and they were commanded in the name of Christ to engage in labor because “if any one will not work, let him not eat.” (2Thess 3:10) In our time, Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter Mater et Magistra (1961) underscored among other things the need for Christians to attain spiritual perfection through the building up of their earthly abode. The Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes, promulagated on December 7, 1965, stressed the development of the world. And so did Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (1967).

What about Nick Joaquin’s plea for the flesh? Actually, the concept of the flesh as sin, which Joaquin would dispute, is Manichaean rather than Christian. Manichaean dualism holds that nature is essentially evil and that the human body is the product of Evil but the soul springs from the realm of Light governed by God. Thus, man becomes the bone of contention between God and the Devil. Now, it is a fundamental doctrine of Christianity that the spiritual operates through the machinery of matter. God assumed and sanctified the flesh of man in the person of Christ; and “He will raise up the flesh of the just on the Last Day.” To harbor loathing for the flesh, therefore, simply because it is flesh is not Christian but spiritual snobbery, pure and simple.

Man is not a disembodied spirit. As created by God, he is body and soul forming a single substantial unit. Why do some pious Christians then mortify their flesh and dream of living in the realm of pure spirit like the angels? Is not the chasm between matter and spirit, body and soul bridged in man? There is no point at all in drawing an imaginary conflict between what was heretofore considered as irreconcilable opposites: flesh and spirit. To insist on doing so would be downright Manichaeanism. At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that Christ Himself suffered and shared the human condition; His very humanity was to be the instrument of our salvation.

“Though this has been a basic Christian image from the beginning, institutional Christianity has so obscured it that, when restated, as in the Dutch Catechism, it shocks,” writes Joaquin in his Free Press article, “The world, the flesh, the Devil—and the Birth of God.” (December 14, 1968). “The more familiar image developed by the Church is of God apart from, and hostile to the temporal process it condemns as the World, the Flesh and the Devil. How could God be at one with that? The meaning of the Incarnation was thus perverted. God came into the world and took on flesh—but the imitation of Christ was to leave the world and doff the flesh!”

It was presumably to counteract this negative, Manichaean attitude towards the flesh and an overly “spiritualized,” otherworldly Christ-image fashioned by traditional Roman Catholicism that the Second Vatican Council decreed in the first chapter of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (December 7, 1965) that “though made of body and soul, man is one….For this reason man is not allowed to despise his bodily life. Rather, he is obliged to regard his body as good and honorable since God has created it….” Joaquin, then, must be credited for his affirmation in his prose works of the dignity and value of the human body which is regarded in our time, in the words of Graham Greene, as “expendable material to be eliminated by the atom bomb, a kind of anonymous carrion.” The Christian Filipino, who happens to fear or abhor the “sinful” flesh will do well to pay heed to Joaquin’s summons to a true appreciation of the human body. Thanks to his call to a return to the world of down-to-earth reality, the Christian Filipino dreamer of otherworldliness may be jolted into his this-worldly responsibility to develop the City of Man.

Joaquin’s affirmation of the world may nevertheless run the risk of being too uncritical. Acceptance of the world does not mean acceptance of evil in the world. This matter is a bit obscured by his approval of the world and by his sin mysticism which in effect holds that the graver the sin, the more heroic the saint. While it is true that sin can lead to spiritual growth, it is preposterous to say that one must first commit a grave sin in order to ascend the heights of moral perfection. If one knowingly commits sin because one can just be sorry for it afterwards, may not a person sin and repent alternately until repentance becomes an excuse for remaining in the vicious circle of evil? And yes, evil is his later stories, specifically in “The Order of Melkizedek,” is closely bound up with good. That good and evil all too often coexist cannot be denied. But to assign equal category or rank to both good and evil (or paganism and Christianity) amounts to ascribing to the Devil a power as primordial as God’s. Christ’s triumph in the wilderness gives the lie to Satan’s power. It devolves upon the Christian to struggle along with God against the Devil by not conforming to the evil ways of the world.

Nick Joaquin’s celebration of the flesh, too, may invite mindless idolization of the flesh. This can readily lead to sensuality for which gratification of the senses is the highest good to the utter disregard of the things of the spirit. When Joaquin says that flesh is soul and soul is flesh, he is of course restating in the context of his celebration of the flesh the Aristotelian doctrine of the soul which maintains that the soul and body are together one inseparable substance. But just as Aristotle formulated his theory of the soul in reaction to his teacher’s idealism, so Joaquin presumably swings to the opposite of the traditional Church’s extreme spiritualism in rebellion against it. The truth remains, however, that Joaquin, for all his impassioned defense of the flesh at the risk of sounding flesh-obsessed, does not blot out the reality of God in his fictional world. To be for the flesh is not to be against God, who the Christian faith teaches, became man and dwelt among us.

It may be said that Joaquin is a Christian humanist in his own right. His fictional works as a whole dramatize in their own way the elemental dialectic of the human situation—good and evil, flesh and soul, Christianity and idolatry. To the extent that he succeeded in delineating the Christian aspects of the Filipino reality and his own reflections on Catholic Christianity, to that extent is Fr. Bernad and like-minded critics justified in citing Joaquin’s literary works as exemplars of Philippine writing in English with a theological dimension.