May 30, 2014

Writing from memory

Speaking of national memory, Virgilio S. Almario's Seven Mountains of the Imagination (2011), translated by Marne L. Kilates and had something thoughtful to say on the subject:

Your language of poetry is the language of your pure and native memory. Your most intimate memories of your life are the purest and sweetest. Your behavior, habits, and experience speak a native language. But there is a great possibility that your pure memory might not be native to the national memory—the traditions or customs and history in the national memory. You may aspire to rhyme, but even the hair-like interval is like a whole region of lacuna where a thousand and one agencies of mediation distort, constrict, and twist the language of your pure and native memory about the native memory of the nation. It is your bounden duty, therefore and if truly you so desire, to merge the language of your poetry to the deepest, most intense, and noblest memory of the nation. Only in this manner the most intense and broadest internal unity takes place—the full and entire merging of the pure and native memory of the poet and the pure and native memory of the nation in the language of poetry. Unless all you want is to deceive and because you only want to assert the possibility of creating poetry from the pure memory of the nation by way of your foreign language. You might in fact succeed in such a traitorous undertaking. There are in fact many traitorous advocacies in the world. But only to curtail creative and artistic freedom. Only to imprison the language of poetry within the boundaries of your purest and most native autobiography. [author's emphasis]

The words "pure" and "native" occurred eight times each in that paragraph. Almario is a nationalist writer, probably the foremost Filipino poet in the native language. The argument here assumed a collective, national memory, which Susan Sontag, strictly speaking, would have none of. National memory is of course a useful and convenient fiction, the very same ideal that defined the canon of Philippine literature: the collective work of Filipino writers declared as National Artists. (The problem with this citation was its limitation of the subject matter of literature that is deemed "worthy". One of the criteria for the award is an artist's contribution, through the content and form of her work, "in building a Filipino sense of nationhood". This was a lofty enough criterion, since declaring certain pieces of work as literature of nation building (itself a kind of exercise of genre-building) was always a positive propaganda. But there will come a time when certain brilliant works will appear and they will resist or leave out politico-historical ideas of nationalism and post-colonialism. The tendency to label and lump significant literary works under the rubric of nationalism could curtail the critical imagination.)

Going back to the passage, Almario's romanticization of the "pure and native language" and its correlative in the "national memory" reflected his general prejudice against certain Filipino writers writing in English, specifically American English. 

Modern poetry cannot be liberating if it is under the sway of and unable to free itself from the powerful influence and allure of Americanization. "Writing from English" is therefore merely wordplay, if ever; an aspiration and attempt within the limited freedom that writing in English allows. Limited, because it can only do so much and because it is impossible for an international language to make room for the fully creative freedom of naturalization. Instead, an international language will impose subservience to anyone desirous of its advantages and allure. It has been stated before, and must be admitted, that there are many meaningful elements of the native sensibility and experience that will never have a place in the English language. Cultural and political naturalization has its limits. It is only allowed by the receiving culture up to a point where the naturalized cannot dominate the whole of the native body of culture. On the other hand, "writing from English" might simply be an excuse to absorb English to make it a "native" language, which in fact has always been the intention of literature in English in the Philippines. It is part of the opportunities in reserve for the Americanized Filipino. [author's emphasis]

This form of argumentation can already be considered obsolete if we think of writers like Nick Joaquín, N.V.M. Gonzalez, Carlos Bulosan, and Edith L. Tiempo. All of them very fine writers in English language who were able to beautifully communicate their literary greatness and mastery, naturalization or whatnot. In the end, the measure of nationalism and literary greatness was clearly independent of language. Nationalism was an important subject matter of literature but the latter must not be confined to the straitjacket of labels.

The standard of greatness, moreover, could not be generally attributed to the language a writer uses, be it in poetry or prose. Reading these passages in translation, I suppose, only highlighted the need to look at the "international language" from a broader perspective. An alternative mountain of ideas—on Filipinos and Filipino-Americans' deployment of native feelings in English—could be gleaned from another thoughtful book of literary criticism, Work on the Mountain (1995) by N.V.M. Gonzalez.

Almario's nationalist and post-colonialist stance had its merits. But I tend to agree with Benedict Anderson.

Nothing suggests that Ghanaian nationalism is any less real than Indonesian simply because its national language is English rather than Ashanti. It is always a mistake to treat languages in the way that certain nationalist ideologues treat them – as emblems of nation-ness, like flags, costumes, folk-dances, and the rest. Much the most important thing about language is its capacity for generating imagined communities, building in effect particular solidarities. After all, imperial languages are still vernaculars, and thus particular vernaculars among many. If radical Mozambique speaks Portuguese, the significance of this is that Portuguese is the medium through which Mozambique is imagined (and at the same time limits its stretch into Tanzania and Zambia). Seen from this perspective the use of Portuguese in Mozambique (or English in India) is basically no different than the use of English in Australia or Portuguese in Brazil. Language is not an instrument of exclusion: in principle, anyone can learn any language. On the contrary, it is fundamentally inclusive, limited only by the fatality of Babel: no one lives long enough to learn all languages. Print-language is what invents nationalism, not a particular language per se. [author's emphases]

Traditions and customs and history may be part of national memory. But in the end, we only allowed them to be so as part of the construct of national memory. National imagination may be the mechanism or agency of national memory but it does not or should not favor any language to express its nationalist sentiment. The sense of belonging to a community and how nations come into being—both may be triggered by the call for native resistance against colonizers. At this juncture in history where multiculturalism dissolves barriers and promotes understanding, poetic sensibilities must be free to transact in its own terms and words. No language should be privileged enough to be the modern prescriptive, or to be the rightful conduit of literary imagination and the creative act of becoming. A nation, a person.

May 26, 2014

Sontag, memory

Certain reviews I've read of Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag pointed out that Sontag stated the most obvious of things. That her effort was really in consolidating what was already well-trodden ground. Whatever the case, her probity could sometimes state the obvious in a way that managed to surprise with its casual dismissal of truisms (emphasized below).

The familiarity of certain photographs builds our sense of the present and immediate past. Photographs lay down routes of reference, and serve as totems of causes: sentiment is more likely to crystallize around a photograph than around a verbal slogan. And photographs help construct—and revise—our sense of a more distant past, with the posthumous shocks engineered by the circulation of hitherto unknown photographs. Photographs that everyone recognizes are now a constituent part of what a society chooses to think about, or declares that it has chosen to think about. It calls these ideas "memories," and that is, over the long run, a fiction. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory—part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction.

Collective memory was something I was interested to learn more about, and here Sontag dismissed the concept with a careless shrug of shoulders, so to speak. National memory, which is another form of this collective remembrance, was also here stated as fiction. This is of course logical, considering that a nation is already construed as imagined (see Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson). I do think, however, that collective memory remains a potent concept to historically assert collective experience, especially of the experiences of the vulnerable and marginalized groups. These communities could be nations or specific races sharing historical circumstances that defined their identities or their common plight. There are certain uses for collective memory, which may be historical fiction or fictional history, for specific tribes or segments of society—a certain use that empowers or validates certain historical truths. To think about the fictionality of memory was a kind of tautology. Which is not to say that I disagree with Sontag. She continued to expand her argument, thus:

All memory is individual, unreproducible—it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds. Ideologies create substantiating archives of images, representative images, which encapsulate common ideas of significance and trigger predictable thoughts, feelings. Poster-ready photographs—the mushroom cloud of an A-bomb test, Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the astronaut walking on the moon—are the visual equivalent of sound bites. They commemorate, in no less blunt fashion than postage stamps, Important Historical Moments; indeed, the triumphalist ones (the picture of the A-bomb excepted) become postage stamps....

Sontag's denial of collective memory, then, was limited to the scope of Important Historical Moments (IHM). She seemed to be critiquing the packaging of certain iconic photographs as ideological artifacts, entering the mainstream as readymade IHM products, without the critical apparatus that contextualized their history. Her mistrust of collective memory lay in the commercialization and stereotyping of certain historical photographs. Certain photographs already commanded predictable knee-jerk reactions such that they were no longer useful historical referents but tired materials, emblazoned on stamps or printed in souvenir items. The portrait of Che Guevara printed on shirts. The built-in satire of the photographic art of Andy Warhol, which luxuriated in the visual sound bites, was perhaps a match to Sontag's thesis.