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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Human Freedom: Beyond Literature

By Bonifacio P. Ilagan

(Paper delivered for the conference “The Ethics of
Writing” in the panel “Literature and Human Freedom”
of the Philippine Center for International Pen; 25
November 2006, St. Thomas Aquinas Research Center,
University of Sto. Tomas, Manila.)

Our gathering today brings back a memory.

As the historic decade of 1970 was ending, I caught
the tail-end of the polemics about literature and
society that pitted Jose Garcia Villa against S.P.
Lopez. With some understanding of what the writers
were debating, I felt inclined to be on the side of
the S.P. Lopez school of thought, although a couple of
years later, enraged by the fatal shooting of the
University of the Philippines student Pastor Mesina, I
would lead a mob that stormed his office by the
Oblation, cursing him and throwing sticks and stones,
one of which found its mark right on his chest. That
ushered in the so-called Diliman Commune in 1971.

Such was the turmoil swirling during the decade. One
found little time to wade in the angst of aestheticism
and existentialism of the generation that went before.
When I started writing, a line had already been drawn
that separated writers, with one camp laying down, in
caps and bold, a code for writing that conjoined
literature and society. “Committed” was how it was

Committed literature wielded freedom in a sense that
shocked hardcore aestheticians and transformed
existentialists. If one had to write, so the ethics of
committed writers went, one had to be partisan, and
his or her writing ought to serve the people in ways
that addressed not merely, as my prison mate Jose
“Pete” Lacaba once said, “the dandruff on my scalp or
the private aching in my heart.”

If writing were to express human freedom, it must be
able to say what was precisely forbidden by the
power-wielders. Literature must be unhampered by such
restrictions as the Presidential Proclamation 1017 or
any manifestation of the so-called “calibrated
preemptive response.”

In citing these indications of repression, I am
already talking circa 2006. In fact, here we are,
allotting a session in this conference to discuss
“Literature and Human Freedom” --almost four decades
since the connection started charting a life for the
generations of writers whom poet Emmanuel Lacaba
addressed in this wise:

You want to know, companions of my youth,
How much has changed the wild but shy poet
Forever writing last poem after last poem;
You hear he's dark as earth, barefoot,
A turban round his head, a bolo at his side,
His ball pen blown up to a long-barreled gun:
Deeper still the struggling change inside.
Like husks of coconuts he tears away
The billion layers of his selfishness.
Or learns to cage his longing like the bird
Of legend, fire, and a song within his chest.

(From “Open Letter to Filipino Artists”)

Becoming an activist sometime in the 1970s, poet Eman
Lacaba immersed himself in the workers' movement in
Manila-Rizal. Martial law found him joining the New
People’s Army in Mindanao, where he was captured and
summarily executed by elements of the government armed
forces on March 18, 1976.

In the 36 years that passed since 1970, writers like
Eman more than defined literature and human freedom,
did more than compose poetry and short stories and
plays in the service of the masa. They lived – and
died -- as they wrote.

Then there is poet Axel Pinpin, who had been
originally included as a panelist in this conference.
When I saw his name in the first program that was sent
to me, I asked, has Axel been released? No, he still
languishes in jail in Camp Vicente Lim in Laguna,
having been abducted by the military in Tagaytay City
last April 8.

Axel Pinpin, together with five farmers, were tortured
and forced to admit being communist guerillas, which
they are not, and so they did not. Collectively called
the Tagaytay 5, they are members of the Kalipunan ng
mga Magbubukid sa Kabite. Even in prison, Axel upholds
human freedom in his poetry:

Ang binubulok dito’y hindi malamig na katawang lupa
kundi mga pangarap at alab na hangad ng paglaya.
Ang inaagnas dito’y hindi buto, buhok at ngipin
kundi mga karanasan ng paglaban ng kauring alipin.

(Mula sa “Pagdalaw sa Libingan ng mga Patay”)

(What is being decomposed here is not the cold body
but the dream and the passion to be free.
What are being corroded here are not the bones, the
hair and the teeth
but the experiences of struggle of my co-slaves.

From “Visiting the Tomb of the Living”)

Axel Pinpin went beyond writing. Had he not meddled in
peasant organizing, would he have still reaped the ire
of the military? I think so, sooner or later. Because
he combined social writing with social practice -- a
potet fusion sustaining human freedom, the state had
to find a convenient way to pin him down.

In the case of Eman, well, he, too, did not remain
satisfied with waxing poetic about human freedom:

Now of consequence is his anemia
From lack of sleep: no longer for Bohemia,
The lumpen culturati, but for the people, yes.
He mixes metaphors but values more
A holographic and geometric memory
For mountains: not because they are there
But because the masses are there where
Routes are jigsaw puzzles he must piece together.
Though he has been called a brown Rimbaud,
He is not a bandit but a people's warrior.

(From “Open Letter to Filipino Artists”)

Eman had to be that people’s warrior.

Fully committing their writing to society, Eman
Lacaba, Axel Pinpin and the rest of their tribe
wielded human freedom by exercising it. In the realm
of the imagination, however, the creative thought,
although liberating, remained just an idea, unable to
change society. Perhaps they realized that it could
only do so, when, grasped by the people, the people
turn it into a material force.

I have absolutely no doubt that they did.

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