Every literary work bears the mark of the society that produced it, carrying within it cultural themes that owe their presence to:
(1) the historical realities in society,
(2) the literary tradition incarnate in the language employed,
(3) the sensibility and history of the man who authored it, and
(4) the audience for which the work was originally intended. Depending on which of the four categories predominates, the literary work yields evidence of the valuation of particular problems or issues of the times. These are viewed from the writer's angle of vision, who bears within himself the values contracted of a participant in the history and institutions of his society. This suggests that literature as material for values education has the ability to shed light through situations which illustrate ideas, concepts and insights we then perceive as values. To be able to benefit from such illustration, however, it is necessary to see how history, language, authorship and audience interact among themselves in molding the context against which values may be interpreted.
This paper is an attempt to demonstrate, through the employment of two literary texts, how each of the categories named above functions in bringing to the fore values embodied in the literary work. For our purposes here, "value" is to be understood as anything perceived as worthwhile and desirable in relation to a social or individual need. Both literary works have appeared in separate textbooks for high school students. One is in English, written during the period of American colonialism, and has been accorded honors as a superior literary piece by critics here and abroad. This is "Midsummer" by Manuel E. Arguilla, published in 1933 in the most reputable outlet for English fiction by Filipinos before the Pacific War, and subsequently reprinted in The Best American Short Stories of 1936.
The other story is "Impeng Negro" by Rogelio R. Sicat, written in Tagalog in 1962 and published by Liwayway, a most durable popular magazine for fiction in Tagalog since 1922, which singled it out as the best story of the year. In the same year, it won for Sikat second prize in the 1962 Palanca Memorial Awards contest, a distinction which was to lace the young author among the outstanding new writers of the decade.
"Midsummer" is about an encounter between a peasant boy and a peasant girl at an isolated village well. At noontime on a burning day in summer, a young man carrying his cart towards the well sees a young woman whose looks and bearing strike his fancy. At first the girl makes it seem that she has not noticed him, and he is hesitant to speak to her. Finally, they strike up a conversation. Before they part, the girl asks him to stop by her house. The story closes with the young man following the girl in the direction of her house where there is shade and relief from the oppressive heat of the day.
As a story produced in 1933, "Midsummer" is fashionably "modern" in the spareness of its plot, creating a problem for one who would extract values from the text. The story might be read as an illustration of the simplicity and candor of the lifeways of rural folk. On second thought, when we reflect on the deliberately artful contrast between the youth and vibrancy of the couple and the arid and deathly barrenness of the landscape, we understand that the author is dramatizing the stirring of the life-urge as this is communicated in the frankly sexual tenor of the couple's regard for each other.
Anyone who has studied some paintings of Fernando Amorsolo, who was gaining attention and prestige as a local colorist at the time "Midsummer" appeared, cannot fail to observe a parallel between Arguilla's literary rendition of an amorous encounter in a rural setting and Amorsolo's favorite image of dalagas and binatas against the sun-splashed country landscapes. Both are evocative of a countryside one has visited but never lived in--the literary situation and the painted scene are both exquisitely evoked, but when one dwells on the images one begins to detect a certain amount of counterfeiting. Of course, Arguilla had not intended any profundity by his story, and we are charmed enough by its simple and uncomplicated presentation of a casual meeting that will possibly lead to a wedding and, eventually, to children who will make the barren earth yield life.
Nevertheless, when the story is read in the light of the social and political eruptions in the 1930s, one cannot help but feel cheated that Arguilla's peasants are here made to respond only to sexual titillation instead of to the life-and-death issues the Colorums of Tayug confronted when they revolted in 1931. Also, when we find out that the author came from a poor peasant family in the barrio of Nagrebcan, Bauang, La Union, we are vaguely disappointed that the writer seemed to have glossed over the dire poverty that drove farmers in many places in Luzon into the folds of a variety of messianic cults which against oppressors could only provide promises of a heavenly kingdom on earth and amulets powerless against bullets. The idyllic world of "Midsummer" blotted out the struggles of peasants who lived such desperate lives that they were willing to entrust their future to the poet Benigno Ramos, who recruited them into the Sakdal movement, which promised deliverance for peasants not in the next life but in this world.
Arguilla's version of life among peasants situated love and courtship in a timeless setting of drying streams and oppressive heat until the Filipino-ness of the characters became inconsequential and only their universality as lover-figures mattered. In this regard, Arguilla had been insulated from the disturbing realities outside Manila by the conveniences made available to city residents by the booming colonial economy. All around were signs of growing progress and prosperity--elegant new residential areas were being developed, the number of motor vehicles clogging Manila streets was rapidly increasing, more schools were being opened, and young and old alike seemed to have agreed that "modernizing" Filipinos ought to dress more and more like Americans.
But it was not the trappings of progress alone that sealed Arguilla's fiction off from the realities of the countryside. People were constantly being treated to the spectacle of politicians contending with one another for publicity and power. That year, it was the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law which provided the bone of contention. It had come from Washington and promised independence after a ten-year transition period. But some politicians found it unacceptable for reasons of their own, which started a bitter debate between the "antis" and the "pros".
More immediately significant in the production of literature, however, was the language Arguilla was using to write his stories.
When he entered the University of the Philippines and became part of the U.P. Writer's Club, Arguilla joined a company that had been cut off from the literary tradition that had taken shape when the filipinos fought Spain in the closing years of the nineteenth century. That tradition, of which Rizal, Balagtas, del Pilar and Bonifacio had been the exemplars, was shut out of the university classroom by the medium of instruction. In its place a link with Western writing had been installed through the agency of literature courses that fed literary minds with ideas and sentiments of writers from England and the U.S. By the time Arguilla had successfully installed himself as a leading figure in campus writing, he had imbibed the essentials of literary theory that extolled indirection and ambiguity as desirable virtues in any literary work claiming to be artistic. "Midsummer" was to be prime display piece for the same theory that had earned for Jose Garcia Villa's stories and poems their reputation as fine works of art, literary works that, in abstaining from direct references to the passing issues of contemporary society, aspired to universality and timelessness.
The magazine which published "Midsummer" was the most prestigious outlet that any aspiring writer would want to break into. Edited by A.V. Hartendorp, a discriminating American patron of Philippine writing in English, Philippine Magazine was originally a publication for public schoolteachers started in 1904. In 1929, Hartendorp assumed editorship and by 1930 the magazine had dedicated itself to "full recording of all phases of the present cultural development of the Philippines--to the Philippine Renaissance." Hartendorp was catering to an urban-based audience of educated elites consisting of schoolteachers, government employees, professionals and, of course, university intellectuals.
This highly literate and articulate minority had only the slightest awareness of a literary tradition outside of that which they had absorbed in college, and therefore had no regrets about their severance from the tradition operating in the vernacular literatures of the period, convinced as they were that English had put them in touch with a greater and far richer artistic heritage embodied by such fashionable contemporary masters as Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway. It was this audience that every young writer hoped to satisfy when he wrote an English piece. For such readers only the most sophisticated treatment could redeem so commonplace a subject as love in the countryside. The silence in the text of "Midsummer" on particulars of love, customs, tradition and history had made the story capable, according to the standards of the day, of universality and richness of implication.
The foregoing discussion has sought to demonstrate the forces at work on Arguilla's story and why it can yield at best only the most generalized cultural themes about life in the Philippine countryside. By the author's temper and design, "Midsummer" moved away from the historical realities of the early 1930s. In our own time, we may read the dead and barren landscape of the story as the author's unconscious substitute reality for the Filipino peasant's entrapment in a harsh and deprived milieu, in the midst of which the promise of sex offers itself as a pleasurable safety valve.
Significantly enough, a few years later, with the ascendance of an
alternative literary theory that challenged the dominant theory of "art for
art's sake", Manuel E. Arguilla was to produce short stories revealing the
Philippine countryside as a battleground where the oppressor and the
oppressed are locked in struggle. The local colorist of "Midsummer" was to
vindicate himself in the socially-conscious pieces "The Socialists,"
"Epilogue to Revolt," and "Rice."
"Impeng Negro" held a topical interest in the early 1960s, the period when the black struggle in the U.S. was an international media event.
Impen is not quite sixteen, the son of an impoverished washerwoman by a black serviceman who deserted his mother before the boy was born. He has three younger brothers and a younger sister, each one fair-skinned. In the urban poor neighborhood where the family lived, he earns a small income from fetching and delivering water to various households. Because of his color, Impen has been at the receiving end of derisive jokes about his color. One day, at the public faucet, Impen refuses to be drawn into a fight even as Ogor and his friends taunt him about his blackness. When Ogor orders him to yield his place in the line, Impen shows feeble signs of resistance. Ogor trips him; he falls on his watercan and suffers a cut on his cheek. Impen does not fight back, but, subjected to repeated kicks, he grabs Ogor's leg and grapples with him on the ground. All the humiliation and indignities he had endured well up. He rains blow after blow on his tormentor until Ogor admits defeat. Impen gets up, savoring the taste of victory and glorying in the awe of those who witnessed his triumph.
The destructive release of pent-up rage in Sikat's story makes it truly reflective of the temper of the seething 1960s. Sikat, like Arguilla, chooses to situate the climax of his story at noontime, under a burning sun, the fight between Impen and Ogor dramatizing a conflict that brings out a number of themes centering on resistance and struggle. On one level, the story is an indictment of the consequences of colonial oppression, which used color as a weapon of oppression against the indio. Even among victims, color separates man from man, keeping them from uniting against those who victimize them. The story also says something about brutalization by conditions that deprive the urban poor of dignity and deny them release of their unfocused resentments. "Impeng Negro" may also be read as an account of a victim's initial taste of power, which is presumed to lead eventually to a transformation of his consciousness from submission to assertion.
The closing years of the 1950s in the Philippines witnessed the stirrings of nationalist awareness accompanied by a consciousness of power that can be wielded to change the establishment. The campaign to elect Ramon Magsaysay to the presidency had harnessed the enthusiasm of students through the Magsaysay for President Movement, organizing them as volunteers who would safeguard the elections from the manipulations of the established political elite. While the recognition of the students' potential as a power base imbued with political idealism was not followed up with actual empowerment, the gesture gave the youth a sense of power that needed only to be activated by a worthy cause. That sense of power was further encouraged by the example of youths in other countries who had revolted against their elders for rights and freedom.
Locally, the controversy over the Noli-Fili Bill had revived interest in the intellectual legacy of the Propaganda Movement and the Revolution of 1896. The bill was finally approved in 1956. Since 1953, the question of sovereignty over territory occupied by U.S. bases had been raised in the halls of Congress and in the media, with the eloquent Senator Recto in the forefront of the struggle for national dignity. Finally in 1956, the U.S. government acknowledged Philippine sovereignty over the questioned territory, and in 1959, Olongapo City where the Subic Station was based was turned over to the Philippine government.
After serving as Magsaysay's successor to the presidency, Carlos P. Garcia had gotten himself elected to a four-year term in 1958. Upon coming to power, he declared a "Filipino First" policy as the keystone of economic development. "Filipino First" turned out to be no more than an empty slogan, but nationalist ideals were beginning to catch on in the universities and colleges. Diosdado Macapagal, who billed himself as "the poor boy from Lubao," followed Garcia in the presidency. "Simple living" was the shibboleth on which he coasted along on the wave of nationalism that was gaining momentum in the campuses. The year Liwayway published "Impeng Negro," Macapagal moved the date of Philippine Independence Day from July 4 to June 12, the day Aguinaldo proclaimed independence at Kawit, Cavite in 1896.
Rogelio R. Sikat at this time had come to Manila from his native barrio of Alua in San Isidro, Nueva Ecija, and was enrolled at the University of Santo Tomas for a degree in journalism. As a campus writer, Sikat edited the literary page of The Varsitarian, and in this capacity associated with members of the organization of Tagalog campus writers that went by the name of KADIPAN.
Sikat could have chosen to write in English when he came to U.S.T. By electing to write in Filipino, he aligned himself with the more outspoken young writers who spoke out against the "commercialism" of the earlier generation of writers who had entrenched themselves in weeklies like Liwayway as staff members and regular contributors. "Commercial" writers, in the eyes of the campus poets and fictionists, had betrayed their art by yielding to the monetary temptation of producing what the weeklies decreed as writing responsive to the taste of the masses.
Away from U.S.T., Sikat found kindred spirits in other young campus writers who were later to be identified with the 1965 anthology Mga Agos sa Disyerto. This group had read widely and deeply not only the authors that Arguilla and his contemporaries had read, but also various European modernist fictionists. Above all, as artists using Filipino, they were familiar with the socially-conscious works of the giants of popular writing of the day, such as Lazaro Francisco (Maganda Pa ang Daigdig, 1956; Daluyong, 1962) and Amado V. Hernandez (Bayang Malaya, 1959; Isang Dipang Langit, 1961; Luha ng Buwaya, 1962). Together, Sikat and his friends had resolved that, unlike their elders who had "sold out" to the commercial weeklies, they would "write only about what is real and true" ("susulat kami ng totoo"). In 1965, Mga Agos sa Disyerto was published. It was to become a landmark in the history of Philippine fiction because of its links with the tradition of social consciousness of the Rizal novels and its departures in method and temper from the writing of earlier generations.
It was in the much-maligned commercial weekly popular magazine Liwayway that "Impeng Negro" saw print. It was also this publication which honored the story at year's end as the best that had appeared throughout 1962. Liwayway was originally Photonews, but in 1922 it was converted into a weekly magazine specializing in popular fiction. At the time of Manuel E. Arguilla, Liwayway was to reach a popularity level that destined it as a major factor in the development of 20th century Tagalog literature, particularly fiction. Time and time again, young writers would excoriate the conservatism of the editorial policies of Liwayway, but in the 1960s it was beginning to show signs of opening itself to new writing from the young. Nevertheless, Sikat, looking back in the 1970s, found reason to deplore what he says were unwritten rules about content at the time he was actively contributing to the publication. Sikat listed five forbidden topics: (1) radical politics, (2) striking unions and organized labor, (3) attacks on religious belief, (4) sex, and (5) grim or violent subject matter.
Given the language he was using and the outlet open to him, Sikat addressed his stories to an audience radically different from the audience of contemporaries writing in English. The audience consisted mainly of readers from the lower middle and the lower classes, from both Manila and Tagalog-speaking provinces. The educational level of the bulk of Liwayway readers was elementary at the lowest, and high school at the highest. This meant that writers schooled in fiction coming from the West had to discard technical and stylistic borrowings with which Liwayway readers could not be expected to be familiar. The simplicity, even starkness, of Sikat's writing in "Impeng Negro" derived from such recognition of the limitations of the Liwayway audience. But more important, it was Sikat's intimacy with and affection for the Liwayway audience which gave his writing its peculiar ability to articulate and project the hurts and hopes of the poor and the abandoned. "Impeng Negro," in a time of nationalist unrest and activist fury, was a text encoding a fragmented society's anger and desperation and the isolated individual's vision of anarchy and violence as a way out of oppression.
Two stories, one in English published in 1933, the other in Tagalog published in 1962, have been situated within their cultural matrix. Discussion of "Midsummer" has shown that when the literary tradition of the author's language and the writer's sensibilities shaped by colonial education have assumed dominance, the story is likely to yield mainly aesthetic values, rather than insights into society or its culture. However, some texts succeed in articulating for ourselves values that might otherwise be overlooked due to the inchoate character of individual experience. "Impeng Negro" is one of these. Historical realities, the active interrogation of the literary tradition, the author's sensibility and immersion in the times, and the dynamic presence of a mass audience--all this resulted in a text that captures the concerns and judgment of the times and confronts us with realities that we might otherwise decide to escape.
University of the Philippines