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.