The Other Other: Towards a Postcolonial Poetics by Isagani R. Cruz

An Anti-Western West-Style Introduction, or What I Said at Cardiff

Recent interest in colonial discourse, precipitated by Edward Said’s critique of orientalism, has brought home the ethnocentricity of much of Western thought. Western literary theory, in particular, still has to break free of the prison house of Western languages and literatures. Almost all Western theorists today depend exclusively on insights developed by other Western theorists like themselves. At most, American or British critics will look beyond their shores to France or Germany or Russia for “foreign” theories, preferring familiar European to “strange” non-Western ideas. Literary texts used to generate or to illustrate modern Western literary theories tend to have been written in Western languages, classical or modern. As a result, much of Western literary theory can be said to be problematic, because it is based on an extremely limited corpus of literary texts.

This eurocentricity has been exported through colonialism to non-European societies. Through Western hegemony, eurocentricity perpetuates itself by insuring that non-Western theorists, by thinking like Western theorists, are alienated from their own indigenous (often older) critical traditions. 

The situation of Filipino literary theory can be taken as a case study. Although contemporary Filipino theories presumably work in decolonized space Philippine literature (pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial) is still heavily under-theorized. At first glance, this under theorization appears due to either the decentering of literary theory within the Philippine literary community or to the marginalization of literary orientalism within Anglo-American academic discourse. Upon closer examination, however, this under theorization may be shown to stem from the internalization of a hegemonic universalization of culturally imperialistic, pre-or anti-theoretical, quasi-formalistic, mechanically reflectionist, white patriarchy.

In short, Philippine literary theory today derives from unproblematized dominant western critical discourse, the same discourse that is the subject of deconstruction by marginalized emergent Western critics themselves. Marginalization, in this sense, may be said to be not completely a function of geography, but also a function of intellectual and institutional power.

Filipino critics have read Aristotle and Jacques Derrida, but British critics have not read Jose Rizal nor Bienvenido Lumbera. Filipino critics have read everything American critics have read, but American critics have not read half of what Filipino critics have read. The imbalance in theoretical trade is worse than C.P. Snow’s famous example of scientists reading William Shakespeare but critics not knowing the second law of thermodynamics. 

If a literary theory is only as good as the literary texts that give rise to it, how can theories take into account only half of the world’s literature be taken seriously? Most pre-modern, modern, and even some postmodern Western theories derive from readings of Western literary or cultural texts, but they completely ignore Balagtas and the two Bautistas (Cirilo and Lualhati), not to mention the vast reservoir of literary texts in China, Japan, and other non-European countries. In contrast, Filipino theories attempt to explain T. S. Eliot as well as Amado V. Hernandez. Yet no one in the West would argue that Virgilio Almario is a much more comprehensive critic than Stanley Fish.

Developments in contemporary Asian criticism are often provoked by discoveries or rediscoveries of British, American, and European ideas. Developments in British and American criticism are often provoked by discoveries or rediscoveries of continental European ideas, but never of Asian ideas. Yet, literary theory started in China has had a much longer history there than in the West. Although histories of literary criticism still invariably begin with Plato and Aristotle, ignoring much earlier Chinese critics, many Western ideas can be said merely to repeat arguments first expounded by Chinese critics. A coherent history of international literary thought, in fact, could be drawn using Chinese criticism as bare and Western theories as corollaries.

I submit that the inequitable distribution of critical wealth can be traced to, among other things, colonialism, orientalism, and hegemony.

I submit that two very interesting things are going on here: (I) Western literary thought is impoverished because of its ignorance of half the world’s literary texts and theories, and (2) Philippine literary thought (and probably literary thought in other non-European countries ), through colonialist hegemony, now unconsciously shares this poverty.

Philippine literary theory, in other words, has become the other Other of Western literary theory. 

Now, A Word from One of Our Sponsors

Literary theory may not exactly be a parasite (nor, a conversely, the ecriture) of literature, but there is no doubt that theory must follow, rather precede, literature. This is a diachronic truism, and even a synchronic one, if we will just bracket hubris for a moment. Our sponsors as critics are literary texts in the unproblematized, old-fashioned definition of the term, namely, texts of poetry, fiction and drama: I shall, in this essay, deal only with poetry, though my greater project, as I have taken pains to indicate, deals with all canonical genres and some emergent forms.

Hence, some short words from one of our sponsors. Here is a poem from A Stun of Jewels (1963) by Carlos A. Angeles (b. 1921), a Filipino poet writing in English. The book is considered canonical by most critics.

By Carlos A. Angeles

The battering restlessness of the sea
Insists a tidal fury upon the beach
At Gabu, and its pure consistency
Havocs the wasteland hard within its reach.

Brutal the daylong bashing of its heart
Against the seascape where, for miles around,
Farther than sight itself, the rock-stones part
And drop into the elemental wound.

The waste of centuries is grey and dead
And neutral where the sea has beached its brine,

Where the split salt of its heart lies spread
Among the dark habiliments of Time.

The vital splendor misses. For here, here
At Gabu where the ageless tide recurs
All things forfeited are most loved and dear.
It is the sea pursues a habit of shores.

Falling All Over Ourselves

Three Philippine critics, senior today by any standard, fell all over themselves trying to read “Gabu” while they were still in the early stages of their respective careers, while their necks were still tightly inside the noose of American New Criticism or Chicago-style Neo-Aristotelianism–collectively referred to in post-Japanese as Formalism or more oxymoronically, Internationalism.

Here is Ricaredo Demetillo in 1962:

… As [Allen] Tate would say, it is not the symbolic imagination that is at work here [in another poem by Angeles] but the angelic; hence, the objective correlatives are largely absent or vague.

The same might be said for “Gabu.” The play of opposites without which there is no tension is missing in the poem. There is only the violent movement of waves, the bashing of the sea’s heart, during which “the rock-stones part/And drop into the elemental wounds.”

But where are the correlatives for the “vital splendor” that misses? Where, the “loved and dear” objects forfeited? Hence, the last line, for all its striking beauty, seems unearned.

Clearly, the young Demetillo did not like the poem. Looking for things the Southern New Critic Allen Tate looked for in pre-Pacific War United States, Demetillo could not but miss what Angeles never did mean to include in his poetry. The poem is pronounced bad by a critic who used a yardstick not suited to the poem.

The inappropriateness of the yardstick cannot be made more apparent than by citing the reading done by the young Ophelia Alcantara Dimalanta in 1976. Using exactly the same norms as the young Demetillo, the young Dimalanta arrived at diametrically opposite conclusion about “Gabu”:

Here again, we have the juxtaposing of two distinct major ideas, temporality and eternity. Consequently, the major images therefore became either symbol or of correlative to these two major concepts which form the thematic core, the rest of the subsidiary images branching off from this center, the poet working centrifugally from this given center, his pattern proliferating minor images being thus guided.

The sea is a battering restlessness, yet, in its restlessness, a pure consistently that havocs the beach at Gabu. Sea and shore. Restlessness and consistency. The rockstones parting and dropping “into the elemental wound.”

Timelessness and permanence on one hand; consciousness of time passing, wastes of time breached and brined. For all its restlessness, the sea is ageless. Here, in the major image of the sea lashing at the shore, permanence and temporality converge. A sense of loss over time’s passing provides the evocative line, the emotional thread that links one’s image to the other, whether contrastive or parallel; it is the sea pursues a habit of shores. At the final fusion of contrasting images (restless sea, the stability of shores) has by now earned the readers’ imaginative assent before effectively it is prepared for through a consistent imagistic ordering. His sense of truth is seen; felt, experienced, and accepted. Man’s habit of shores, a Pascalian sense of man’s restless hankering for a firm resting place, a fixed and final base. Wilde’s neat allusion to these strainings for immortality in man. Claudel’s reference to finite man’s infinite yearnings.

Aside from this projecting of a sense of truth through the poetic imagination, it is this recapturing vividly of a momentary experience through imagistic-impressionistic details the poet excels in.

Though sympathetic, Dimalanta’s early reading cannot be said to be definitive. The poem is placed in an intertextual mode, but that mode is defined by Pascal, Wilde, and Claudel. The sea might be situated historically at Gabu, but the imagined sea is nowhere near Philippine shores. Instead, in almost Platonic manner, the sea drifts in a Western consciousness that knows only Dover beach with its cliffs or California with its surf. Incidentally, Dimalanta and I stood together critic who used a yardstick not suited to the poem at the beach in Aparri some months ago, near Gabu, and saw the same sea. Both of us thought of the battering restlessness of the sea, which at Aparri in post-Angeles times actually destroyed a concrete wall and tore down a whole schoolhouse. Nothing in Pascual, Wilde, or Claudel has such a tidal fury. Clearly, a reading of “Gabu” that puts the poem only within Arnold’s, Eliot’s, or Leavis’ Western tradition does not get at the heart of the poem nor of the Philippine sea. 

The young Gemino H. Abad did not write about “Gabu” in particular; instead, he concentrated in 1972 on “From the Rooftop” and “The Summer Trees,” two other poems in A Stun of Jewels. Nevertheless, the young Abad had many things to say about the other poems in Angeles’ collection, things that presumably apply to “Gabu.” Here is one such comment:

Most of the lyric poems in Carlos A. Angeles’ A Stun of Jewels [sic] belong to the same general class, i.e., serious lyric poetry in the dramatic mode, imitating a mental action or experience of a single character in a single closed situation, through a verbal medium more or less remote from ordinary diction and construction. For the sake of convenience, I shall call this kind of lyric poem a reflective lyric.

The principal part of the reflectively lyric is the activity of thought or reflection, whatever else is its more specific nature or character as someone’s action. But the other parts of the object of imitation are, in the order for their importance, the lyric character, his situation, his thought and emotion, and his own idiom or diction. Character, thought and emotion, and sometimes a more or less specific situation, are the causes of the lyric speaker’s activity.

The young Abad eventually devised a system of discriminating among various forms of lyric poetry, depending on variants in object, manner, effect, and means of imitation. His whole early system imitates that of his mentors, the Neo-Aristotelians of the University of Chicago, where he did his postgraduate work on Wallace Stevens. The Chicago School, as we know from our history of modern criticism, in turn, imitated Aristotle or, more precisely, the imagined Aristotle of the modernist period. I have no quarrel to pick with the Chicago School critics, except perhaps along the general post-Saussurean attack on their naïve assumption that meaning adheres in the text itself and not in the reader. What I want to be difficult about is the lack of applicability of Neo-Aristotelian formalism on “Gabu.” By alienating the poet from the poem through the introduction of an idealized “lyric speaker,” the young Abad effectively dissociates the poem (by inference, since he was actually talking of two other poems) from its Philippine context. There is nothing that the young Abad’s formalist theory will reveal that cannot be said of poems about the sea in other geographical sites. In other words, the specificity of the poems to Gabu is lost in formalist analysis.

Finally, a Ray of Hope

Fortunately, our triumvirate of venerable critics quickly left behind them all this Formalist nonsense. In other words, they grew up. Soon enough, because of the general nationalistic Zeitgeist that was becoming more and more difficult to ignore, these same critics recalibrated their critical instruments according to less American standards. The result, as post-colonial theorists seem to have discovered elsewhere in our emergent world, was a potentially new reading and appreciation of Philippine literature.

The mature Demetillo of the late eighties is a far cry from the 1962 Demetillo who was, incidentally, my classroom teacher in Literary Criticism at exactly the time of publication of The Authentic Voice of Poetry. In his recent critical work, Demetillo has been moving slowly away from the apolitical stance he adopted in his youth. He has even embarked, for instance, on explicitly moral and political criticism (1987). Of interest should be his recent (1987). Of interest should be his recent (1987) assessment of F. Sionil Jose: “Alone among the Filipino fictionists, F. Sionil Jose has written terse, truthful words about our beleaguered society in extremis; he has spoken the awful truths and grappled with the fearful realities that centrally confront all of us, not in just one novel but at length in four or five books, which taken together, are the most impressive legacy of any writer to Philippine culture.” When he faults Philippine poetry today (1986), he does not invoke the fallen gods of New Criticism, but something quite unformalistic: “What is an obvious fault of much local poetry is that language. symbols and experiences seem secondhand and not an authentic encounter with the native muse. This creates a phony literary product, wholly inauthentic. How much of this is a result of colonial-mindedness we are not going to discuss here, reserving it for another occasion.”

Authenticity no longer derives from formal qualities, but from “colonial-mindedness,” a Philippine English term for hegemony. The latter Demetillo’s concerns are clear form the last sentence of the very next paragraph: “Let us do away with the outworn clichés of American and European symbols and insist on the native; for the native is what we know first-hand and the first-hand is what is poetically effective.” The theoretical shirt from the work itself to other poles of the literary experience, a shift from structure to expression or even mimesis, may perhaps be traced to the critic-poet’s own experience of working primarily with indigenous Philippine material for poetry and drama.

To my knowledge, the later Demetillo has not yet tried his hand at rereading “Gabu.” He might very well, if I may be allowed a postmodern quantum leap into his psyche, find that the poem exhibits opposites quite different from what Tate and company would have led us to expect. The tension comes from the play of local specificities—the quality of the sea and shore at Gabu–against the imported tradition of the English lyric. In more familiar theoretical language, the description subverts the formalist tradition precisely by refusing to follow the Coleridgean model of binary oppositions. In Demetillean terms, the “violent movement of waves, the bashing of the sea’s heart” are the correlatives for the vital splendor that misses.” Contrary to the young Demetillo, the mature Demetillo might very well say that “the last line, with all its striking beauty, seems not at all unearned.

Even the young Dimalanta’s sympathetic reading can stand more improvement in the light of the mature Dimalanta’s recent shift to a more indigenous criticism. Her 1985 manifesto is clear: “Philippine literature is rich. It is not written in English alone.” The broadening of the linguistic context effectively creates a new horizon of expectations or a new set of conventions of reading for the post-colonial reader. “The Filipino writer,” the older Dimalanta concludes (excuse her sexist language), “like any other writer, being responsive to the times, writes with the milieu in his blood, a product of his immediate social environment, even as he has his own private woes and joys to tell.” 

The older Dimalanta’s disillusionment with her early New Critical faith is explicit in her recent focus on the political role of the Philippine poet, as well as in her discussion of imagism, the metaphysical poets, impressionism, symbolism, and New Criticism (1985): “The influence of these four schools on the local poet writing specifically during the 60s and up to the 70s and even up to today in several instances, resulted in too much preoccupation with or attention to form, the consistent image, the right symbols. While still unable to reject outright the substructure of formalism, in an almost the same way that Demetillo himself often reverts back to his younger self, Dimalanta nevertheless has set out to deconstruct her own undertheorized adherence to Western norms, particularly formalist norms. She is much more aware today, for example, of the need to assess the role of place in fiction (1989). Again, in postmodern fashion, I could project a mature Dimalantan reading of “Gabu” in this way: Angeles’ projecting of a sense of truth through the poetic imagination draws its power from this recapturing vividly of a momentary experience through imagistic- impressionistic details” that as imposed by history and geography on the poet. Gabu is not merely a place-name for any shore, but a specific place that names all shores. What is being described, in other words, is not universal experience through the particular in Aristotelian terms—but a particular experience that makes sense only when placed in a universal context. The young Dimalantan buzz words, then, “temporality and eternity,” can be seen as special cases—in Einsteinian sense of “special” —of what is really the general mode of existence of all poems, namely, the particular. 

The mature Abad is the least difficult to deal with, primarily because he has, in the past few years, self-consciously and unequivocally himself deconstructed his own earlier formalist position. In 1985, he introduced his variant of post-Saussurean, even post-structuralist position. At the risk of oversimplifying, I can summarize his position by using the phrase he has coined for Philippine poetry in English: “poetry from English.” He no longer believes that the key to poetry is the language or form in which it first finds its being; he now believes that language finds its being in poetry. He no longer believes in English or even—though he seems to still not to be aware of the distinction in English, but he believes that English is subverted by poetry by Filipinos.

The mature Abad, then, comes closest to a post-colonial poetics in the Philippine context. He has promised to include Angeles in his next book after Man of Earth, and shall, therefore, not anticipate him. It should be sufficient, however, to point to a possible later Abadian reading: instead of analyzing or breaking down the poem or any poem into object, manner, effect, and means of imitation, instead of positing a lyric speaker quite apart from the historical poet, instead of virtually ignoring the Philippine milieu which breeds the Philippine poet, the later Abad is likely to focus on the elements in the poem which are least likely to be found in Anglo-American poems. In more conventional critical language, the interstices of the poems will tend to occur precisely in decolonized spaces.

A Conclusion That Does Not Conclude

What, if anything, am I saying? Simply, that three of the best literary critics of the Philippines had problems when they tried to apply a dominant Western mode of criticism—American formalism in the form of Southern New Criticism and Chicago Neo-Aristotelianism —to a fairly simple poem by a canonical Philippine poet. When, however, these same critics, having grown wiser with age and increased nationalism, started to do away with this dominant Western mode and began to experiment with a more indigenous, more polemical, more marginalized mode of criticism, they had more success reading not exactly the same poem, but literary texts of the same kind. I have been trying to show by historical example, therefore, what I tried to establish at the outset on a purely theoretical level, namely, that Philippine literary theory and criticism must reject its Eurocentric roots and explore post-colonial dimensions of thought.

This essay being already much too long, other thoughts must find their way into the larger book from which and into which this flows. Let me just briefly sketch out the general directions that a post-colonial Philippine poetics might take.

The key term is subversion. The language of a poem written in English by a Filipino must always be suspected of subverting the English language. Readings along this line abound in post-colonial theories around the world, and I am, therefore not suggesting anything new, particularly after Bill Ashcroft and company. By analogy with comparative literature, however, we might want to apply these inter-cultural dynamics to intra-cultural readings. In other words, we might want to show that subversion also occurs in Philippine works in Philippine languages. Just as translation works within British English, for instance, as in the case of 20th-century English schoolchildren reading Shakespeare, post-coloniality might be a feature of all literary texts produced within the imagined community that is called “Philippines.” Tensions might be found not only along geographic and racial faults, but perhaps on more aesthetic seismic undergrounds, such as gender and politics.

“It is the sea pursues a habit of shores,” writes one of our sponsors, but it might not only be the deliberate rejection of the relative pronoun that should interest us, but also the binary opposition of sea and shore, as well as the violent breaking up of this opposition at Gabu, where the rockstones part / And drop into the elemental wound.”