National Literature and Its Social Dimensions

The designation of a national literature is, at best, a problematic one. Does it refer to literary texts that were written by Filipino authors? Does it describe a variety of literature that is, in some measure, “nationalistic”? Is national literature definable only in contrast to regional literature? Are there literary works that fall short of the standards that it assumes? In his essay “Harnessing Regional Literature for National Literature,” national artist and critic Bienvenido Lumbera offers an account of the term in relation to its changing political value. Lumbera observes that if “national” is a particular Filipino consciousness or sentiment, then, following historian Teodoro Agoncillo’s lead, one may trace its emergence to the Cavite Mutiny in 1872. By 1898, however, after the ratification of the Malolos Constitution, the national consciousness thus identified as “Filipino” which took shape was conditioned by the native landed elite, members of the ilustrado class who benefited from the educational policies introduced by the Americans. In fact most of the writers who gave vent to the Propaganda Movement hailed from the same group of ilustrados as Rizal, and thus shared his enthusiasm for the ideals of the European Enlightenment as a social solution to colonial oppression.

Critic and historian Reynaldo Ileto makes a similar claim in his landmark analysis of the revolutionary consciousness of the masses. In Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-.1910, Ileto addresses Philippine history that, he argues, is a consequence of its privileging the perspective and the initiatives of the educated elite in its narrative of the Philippine revolution. The conventional account, which plots in a chronology the writings of Rizal, the birth of the Katipunan and the Propaganda Movement, Rizal’s execution, the Spanish-American war, and the founding of the Malolos Republic is, for Ileto, reductive because it excludes the masses’ experience and perception of the revolution and the expressions and forms they took. Ileto holds that peasant religious beliefs, which found an outlet in the pasyon, manifest an appropriation of the story of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection as a possible expression not of docility and resignation but of the possibility of conflict and revolt against the status quo. Although the pasyon was initially a means for the friars to explain the Christian doctrines of piety, sacrifice, and the afterlife and thus further the loyalty of the indio to Spanish rule, Ileto points out that lowland Filipinos read it instead as a story that projects a transition from one existence to another (from darkness to light, death to life) that promises deliverance from a present oppressive state at the end of time.” The images and the language could not but draw a meaningful resonance for the indio who noted relevant parallels between the world of the pasyon and their own. Moreover, lowland Filipinos saw in Christ an alternative figure of leadership in that he himself was poor and he questioned the significance of wealth and education while criticizing the powerful and influential Pharisee, whose high social status is incommensurate to his sense of morality and justice.

So, on the one hand, the Noli, and on the other, the Rayon Pilapil: two literary texts that could not be more differint and yet were cogent vehicles for Filipino revolutionary consciousness. How does this refine our idea of national literature? If Filipino national consciousness is het-erogeneous and driven by the interests of a specific class, how does a work then attain the status of national literature?

The ongoing discourse on national literature was given ample elaboration by two political events. One is the Republic Act No.1425 or the Rizal Bill, which was passed in 1956 amid controversy, and the National Artist Awards, which was established in 1972. The Rizal Bill, which was part of the Philippine state’s drive to decolonize Philippine culture, mandated the teaching of Rizal and his works in public and private high schools and universities. Although the idea that literature is a significant tool in the formation of national consciousness was nothing new the directive lent an official imprimatur to literature’s role in defining Filipinoness, which is premised on an understanding of our history. Moreover, apart from making Rizal a subject that deserves academic study, the bill is an interesting commentary on the relationship between literature and history. Implied in its articulation of this relationship is the idea that our literary works not only illuminate our history, but also intervenes in the process of history-making.

The National Artist Award confers the rank or title of National Artist to Filipino citizens who have made distinct significant contributions in the field of arts and letters namely, music, dance, theater, visual arts, literature, film, broadcast arts, and architecture. The award is said to represent the nation’s highest ideals in humanism and aesthetic expression. Its criteria are:

  • Living artists who are Filipino citizens at the time of nomination, as well as those who died after the establishment of the award in 1972 but were Filipino citizens at the time of their death;
  • Artists who, through the content and form of their works, have contributed in building a Filipino sense of nationhood;
  • Artists who have pioneered in a mode of creative expression or style, thus earning distinction and making an impact on succeeding generations of artists;
  • Artists who have created a substantial and significant body of work/or consistently displayed excellence in the practice of their art form thus enriching artistic expression or style; and
  • Artists who enjoy broad acceptance through
    • Prestigious national and/or international recognition, such as the Gawad CCP Para sa Sining, CCP Thirteen Artists Award, and NCCA Alab ng flaraya;
    • Critical acclaim and reviews of their work;
    • Respect and esteem from their peers.

By its nature as a form of entitlement, which seeks to enlist and constitute cultural practices and norms as a matter of national interest and necessity, the National Artist Award renews and galvanizes, this time more formally, the relationship between nationalism and literary production.

Along with the notion of national literature, the selection of national artists derives from a particular value judgment about literature, namely that literature can serve as a mediation in imagining a politico-cultural collective known as the nation. One thus may establish a continuity between Rizal’s two novels and the works of our national artists for literature.

Nick Joaquin (1917-2004) was named National Artist for literature in 1976. Another awardee in the same category is N.V.M. Gonzalez (1915-1999) who received the title in 1997 Read Joaquin’s “The Summer Solstice” and N.V.M Gonzalez’s “Bread of Salt,” both published in 1963. Soft copies of both are available online. The analyses and questions that follow will enable us to consider how these two writers in their stories foreground different dimensions of the national imagination.