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Letters to Jose Maria Sison





Petronilo Bn. Daroy

As this is being written, confrontations between the students and the military continue in the streets of Manila. Meetings among professionals and workers are conducted in closed halls, while the reigning dictatorship, in an effort to divide the ranks of the opposition, issues warnings against "radicals" and "subversives," The nation is going through a revolutionary situation, with the NPA, the military arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines, intensifying guerrilla war in the countryside, raiding military outposts, and expanding its membership. Six years ago, Sison was arrested by the military on charges of being the Chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Today, Sison is in solitary confinement at a military stockade. If the military is to be believed, Sison continues to influence events in absentia.

Perhaps no contemporary writer has been credited by the State itself to have exerted such a pervasive influence on thought and national events. The last time a similar phenomenon occurred was in the 19th century, in the instance of Rizal. Recto, who worked within the canons of the 19th century intellectuals, never succeeded in achieving such an immediately large influence.

Coming after Recto, Sison continues within the 19th century intellectual tradition. The essential aspect of this tradition measures a writer's stature not so much by the volume of his works as by his capacity to assume public responsibility. The writer's concern for literature, for art and aesthetic, becomes continuous with his concern to recreate society, to establish institutions, and to elevate the quality of life of a people. The aesthetic concern finds its issues not only in art but in revolutionizing culture and society.

Such are the concerns that underlie Sison's writings. Strangely, it was this concern that seemed to have alienated him from the literary mainstream of the Fifties.

In the Fifties, the quality of arts and letters reflected the fears and vacillations generated by the McCarthyist witchhunt and the policy of containment of the United States. The investigations of writers and academicians by Congress in the United States promoted either a chauvinistic or an apolitical Liberalism. Writers who formerly flirted with Marxist ideas either took a firmly nationalist anti-Communist stance, or wrote those "confessions" which purported to expose the devastating effect of ideology on art. The examples of George Orwell, Stephen Spender, Andre Gide, and Ignazio Silone were held up by the promoters of apolitical liberalism as the testimony of the subtly dire effects of ideology on the creativity and freedom of the artist.

This was the climate which we imbibed in the Fifties, when academicians and intellectuals were being hounded by the Committee on Un-Filipino Activities, (CUFA), later the Committee on Anti-Filipino Activities, (CAFA). Even the reading of Rizal's writings became the subject of a long congressional debate. In place of politically committed literature, the cultural scene was deluged with abstract modernist art, the writings of Freud, Jung, and Kierkegaard; and the novels of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Henry Miller.

It was at this time that I came to know Jose Ma. Sison. He had acted in bit parts in some productions of Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero in his undergraduate years. One summer, after he had finished his AB in English, cum laude, he came to see me at the dorm with the manuscript of a novel.

Although at the time we prided ourselves in being alive to the issues of the day -- that period being the intensification of the McCarthyist witchhunt, resulting in the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus -- Sison's novel somehow failed to elicit from us an immediate response. The novel had something to do with the agrarian problem in Luzon, involving sugarcane workers. The central character, confronted with the fact of a decaying feudalism, was too involved in specific social and historical details -- scenes and incidents of an agrarian community which was beyond our ken of appreciation.

That was the first time I had met Sison. The CAFA witchhunt had absorbed our attention, but, looking back, we had reacted to it in a very abstract way. We had regarded the McCarthyist investigations -- with their manufactured evidence; their irresponsible smear campaign against dissenters and their blacklist of non-conformists -- we had regarded all this as either a form of political perversion or a simple case of stupidity. We therefore were not inclined to take the congressional investigations seriously -- confident that we could hold on to our "civilized values" against the obviously backward and Philistine impulses of some illiterate sectors of society.

We were too na´ve. It took us a decade to realize that the politics of McCarthyism was a mask, that it concealed the concrete reality of a repression being systematically unleashed against farmers and workers who were fighting for a decent form of survival. The facts and the concrete details became real to us later. But in the Fifties in Manila, and particularly in the academe, we reacted to the congressional investigations in a very abstract way, on the level of political principles. Hence our writings failed to come to grips with the social reality that underlie what seemed merely to be the personal aberration of some laymen and politicians. It would appear that Sison -- who comes from Ilocos -- had grasped the truth of the situation and, in his novel, made an effort to put political principles in their social and historical context -- the way Marx perceived historical materialism within the Hegelian dialectics. But it was because of his too concrete a sense of the political problems at the time that I failed to respond to his novel. There was none in it of the threatened emasculation of a Jake Barnes or the sense of lostness of Jay Gatsby.

We conducted discussions and symposia on freedom and civil liberties, but our interest in freedom was precisely ineffectual because it was rooted in our non-conformism rather than in concrete social and political interests.

The same apolitical sense made me miss the very compelling quality of the poems in Brothers when I wrote the Introduction to the book in 1960.

It would appear that in the writing of the poems in Brothers, Sison was employing a revolutionary aesthetics. The poems are inspired, not by the conventions of literature, but by the need to relate facts in Philippine social life. Contrary to the formal conventions of the decade, Sison at times would invent no metaphor but speak directly.

In that central part of the country
The helpless corpse
Received rifle butts on the stomach pit.

The lines themselves behave as correlate objects, functioning both as a medium and message simultaneously. They behave as significations, not of ideas, but of social actuality.

No book of poems written or published during this period achieved a similar documentation of the reality that was the root of the social and political unrest that confronted our generation. The ensuing issues were to be analyzed more deeply in the next decades, and Sison himself participated in a central way in the analysis and clarification of those political and social questions.

But even as early as the late Fifties, he seems to have grasped the roots of our political problems.

Brothers, then, is significant in its comprehensive statement of what was later to be Sison's preoccupation, namely, to present the contradictions in the national reality concretely, to identify the various components of the contradictions, and to hold up revolution as the logical resolution of the national problem. It is possible to say that the poems in Brothers serve as preparatory statements of Sison's revolutionary articulation on the Philippine situation. "The Imperial Game" (1960), "Last Sunday" (1958), "Carnival" (1959), "Across the Sun-Drenched Square" (1958) anticipated the national perception of Philippine social problems to which the Filipino writer would respond only in the late Sixties and Seventies, while "One Nazarite Rebel" shows the direction through which liberation from the prevailing social condition could be achieved.

What is significant about "One Nazarite Rebel" is that in 1959 the idea of the oppressed being able to break the bonds of their oppression was not in the public mind. The Communist Party of the Philippines, under the leadership of the Lavas, had been decimated; by the 1960's it was considered a "nuisance" or merely a convenient reference to increase the military budget. The legal opposition among the political parties, on the other hand, could not assume the role of national leadership. The Nationalista and the Liberal Party reflected more the constant maneuvers of the oligarchs to capture temporary political power in order to advance the economic interests of the sector which they represented or which financed their political campaigns. Rebellion or revolution, in its positive liberating function, was not in the popular imagination.

In 1967, Sison published a collection of essays entitled, Struggle for National Democracy. The book collates a number of speeches delivered on various occasions dealing with specific issues and problems of Philippine society. The essays may be considered as rendering in prose and in analytical terms the essential problems that the poems in Brothers deal with. With Struggle for National Democracy Sison had eventually identified three main sources of the national problem: (1) American imperialism (2) the semi-feudal economy and social relations prevailing in the country; and (3) the role of the bureaucrat in both abetting and compounding the problems.

In 1971, a book entitled Philippine Society and Revolution (PSR) by one Amado Guerrero was published. The military claims that "Amado Guerrero" was the pseudonym of Jose Ma. Sison. If this is true, then Sison in 1970, was the most influential Filipino writer after Rizal.

PSR was immediately translated into Tagalog and into several languages. Pirated editions were distributed abroad. In Manila, the book immediately enjoyed a brisk sale and until the declaration of martial law, when it became dangerous to be found possessing a copy of it, PSR was virtually the Red Book among the youth.

I do not want to exaggerate. PSR did not create the First Quarter Storm. It did not inspire the upsurge of protest and mass action that Marcos called "the national state of rebellion" which he said compelled him to declare martial law. The economic and social conditions of the country were at the root of the organized protests in the first years of the seventies, and when PSR appeared on the scene, the First Quarter Storm had already, so to speak, erupted. But PSR contributed so much to the analysis of contemporary Philippine problems. Academics reacted to what they called "over-simplifications" in the analysis of Philippine problems in PSR. If PSR reduced Philippine problems into simple terms, it is also allowed what indeed was a complex situation to be comprehended.

The colonial question in the Philippines had indeed spawned a school of confusion. It had diversified into a complex of specific issues, so overwhelming in their cumulative impact that the Filipino people, as a whole, could not only react to the petty details that directly affected them.

Recto exposed the situation of continued dependence of the country after it was supposed to have acquired its independence, but concentrated his analysis on the issue of international relations and foreign policy. The intelligentsia, on the other hand, concerned itself with the cultural superstructure, depicting the effects of colonialism on Filipino attitudes, habits, and memories. Public opinion, acting on what was obvious and directly touching individual lives, alternately attacked graft and corruption in government; bad roads; uncollected garbage; police abuses; the rise of criminality, etc.

It is this quality of thought, this obsession with revolution if you will, that constitutes the unity of these poems. This quality informs the poems written as early as the late Fifties and those composed inside Sison's detention cell.

Sometime in the late 1960's, in a message to PAKSA, Sison disavowed some of his earlier poetic productions. He said some of the poems in Brothers relate to different period and, therefore, may be wanting in political and revolutionary relevance. I find this judgement unsatisfactory. All the poems in these volume show us the way of welding the creative process to revolutionary practice, of fulfilling the demands of art and the requirements of politics.

The proper relationship between literature and politics has always been a problematic one in our times, although it was never so for those writers who had openly used social and political issues as central subject of their writings or to whom the political question was an overriding concern in their literary aesthetics. Certainly, the question was not a problematic one for Dante in the writing of the Divine Comedy or, in the modern period, for such writers as Wordsworth, Byron and, in the contemporary period, for Silone, Sartre or Malraux. Nonetheless, it has become a crucial problem for contemporary literature.

The divide between art and political concern was part of the main point of the American Formalists -- the very liberal group that, frightened by McCarthyism, sought to discredit socialist writing as a category of literature.

In the Philippines, the issue of politics and art has been debated since those scoundrel times of CAFA days and has even more been intensely discussed since the upsurge of the First Quarter Storm. It was reflective of the vacillations of some writers that, after martial law, the debate appeared to have been resolved by them in favor of an effete aesthetics. It was part of their pretense to say that their partial engagement with politics had inevitably led them to the conclusion that a writer must serve the claims of literary aesthetics alone. The avowals of those writers cease to be convincing when considered against the haste with which they sought to finish their manuscript for the deadlines of contests sponsored by the fascist regime.

It is possible to say that PSR lent the popular anger during the First Quarter Storm a sense of direction. It invited us to review the history of the country and the course which Philippine society had taken as a result of the history of colonialism.

No single book in the Post-War era had exposed more fully the nature of Philippine feudal conditions, the reinforcement it received from imperialist interest and how the conditions generated by feudalism and imperialism found issue in our behavior, attitudes, morals and manners. No other book, to my knowledge, provides us the key to the understanding of Philippine society.

It was this simple exposition of Philippine reality, with its explicit faith in the capability of the people to change the course of history and, by implication, their individual destinies, that made PSR the guiding spirit of the First Quarter Storm and, if the military is to be believed, of the revolutionary movement as a whole.

In reading the poetry of Jose Ma. Sison, then, we must go beyond their literary qualities. This is not to say that they are remiss in literary values. Rather, the literary significance of these poems derive from the unique quality of thought or consciousness that informs each poem or which organizes each of them. Most poems written in prison seldom go beyond being a personal testimony of the author. This is so of Balagtas" "Kay Selya" or of Rizal's "Mi Ultimo Adios." The poems written in prison in this volume contain some elements of personal testimony, of course. But even in the more confessional poems, where the author relates in seemingly veiled terms (through the metaphor of a nightmare) his incarceration, the sense of terror is detached from self. The recital of the horror of torture becomes a form of affirming the capacity of man in withstanding torture and humiliation in favor of comrades and principles and the revolution.

A critic once observed that the poetry of Teresa of Avila is suffused with God. In an analogous way, the poetry of Sison is suffused with the idea of revolution. Even the purely descriptive poems, or those which appear to be simply exercises in wit and metaphor, nature or objects or situations inevitably relate themselves to certain aspects of the revolutionary struggle. In that now famous single piece, "The Guerrilla Is Like a Poet" even the techniques and tactics of the creative process is turned into possibilities and postures of revolutionary armed struggle.

The courage of Jose Ma. Sison in standing for a revolutionary aesthetics even behind the walls of his solitary confinement and, seemingly, against the sanctions of prevailing aesthetic tastes forms part of my continuing admiration for him. He, together with such contemporaries as E. San Juan, Emmanuel Lacaba, Edel Garcellano, and Gelacio Guillermo have persevered on the idea that it takes courage to live the literary life as it does to make a stand on political questions. It takes integrity to become a writer.

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