10 September 2016

Nick Joaquín's small rowboat

"Society for the Filipino is a small rowboat: the barangay," wrote Nick Joaquín in the beginning of "A Heritage of Smallness," one of the essays in Culture and History (1988). This provocative essay made the argument that the Filipinos' tendency to act on the small scale was detrimental to the development of their society and culture. This includes the Filipino writers' apparent preference for writing short stories. The lack of novels in the country was proof of the Filipino writers fearing the daring and bold enterprise. This habit of "thinking small" was, for Joaquín, a recipe for poverty and pettiness. The Philippine national heritage, according to him, was nothing but "a heritage of smallness."

However far we go back in our history it's the small we find – the nipa hut, the barangay, the petty kingship, the slight tillage, the tingi [retail] trade. All our artifacts are miniatures, and so is our folk literature, which is mostly proverbs, or dogmas in miniature. About the one big labor we can point to in our remote past is the [Banaue] rice terraces – and even that grandeur shrinks, on scrutiny, into numberless little separate plots, into a series of layers added to previous ones, all this being the accumulation of ages of small routine efforts (like a colony of anthills) rather than one grand labor following one grand design. ... Many little efforts, however perfect each in itself, still cannot equal one single epic creation. ... [Y]ou could stack up all the best short stories you can think of and still not have enough to outweigh a mountain like War and Peace.

The depressing fact in Philippine history is what seems to be our native aversion to the large venture, the big risk, the bold extensive enterprise. The pattern may have been set by the migrations. We try to equate the odyssey of the migrating barangays with that of the Pilgrim Fathers of America, but a glance at the map suffices to show the difference between the two ventures. One was a voyage across an ocean into an unknown world; the other was a going to and fro among neighboring islands. One was a blind leap into space; the other seems, in comparison, a mere crossing of rivers. The nature of the one required organization, a sustained effort, special skills, special tools, the building of large ships. The nature of the other is revealed by its vehicle, the barangay, which is a small rowboat, not a seafaring vessel designed for long distances or the avenues of the ocean.

Like his predecessor José Rizal before him who lamented the "indolence of the Filipinos", Joaquín was here lamenting the lack of imagination of his compatriots. The barangays he talked about referred to the smallest political unit in the country, roughly the same as barrios or villages. The word had its origin from balangay which was the sailing vessel the ancient inhabitants of the islands used as transport within the archipelago and neighboring regions.

Philippine society, as though fearing bigness, ever tends to revert to the condition of the barangay: of the small enclosed society. We don’t grow like a seed, we split like an amoeba. The moment a town grows big it become two towns. The moment a province becomes populous it disintegrates into two or three smaller provinces. The excuse offered for divisions is always the alleged difficulty of administering so huge an entity. ... What we're admitting is that, on the big scale, we can’t be efficient; we are capable only of the small. The decentralization and barrio-autonomy movement expresses our craving to return to the one unit of society we feel adequate to: the barangay, with its 30 to a hundred families. Anything larger intimidates. We would deliberately limit ourselves to the small performance.

The exhortation of Joaquín was premised on his study of Philippine artifacts that constitute the national cultural heritage. Specifically he observed three things about them: (i) the Filipinos worked best on small things ("tiny figurines, small pots, filigree work in gold or silver, decorative arabesques"); (ii) they worked in soft and easy materials like "clay, molten metal, tree bark and vine pulp, and the softer woods and stones"; and (iii) they tended to rut in his mastered skill ("material, craft or product") and did not move on to a higher level. For these assertions, he offered examples in pottery, agriculture, and wooden sculpture.

In contrast to this, the writer offered Christian statuary and architecture as indicating a semblance of a "heritage of greatness." He added three critical phases in the Spanish colonial period: the defense of the land against two centuries of attempt of Dutch and British invaders to conquer the islands; the Propaganda Movement; and the 1896 Philippine Revolution against Spain.

There were a lot of things to quibble about Joaquín's essay. His assessment was too harsh. Yet one could not easily dismiss him as having a "colonized mind" for extolling the Spanish virtues and contribution to Philippine culture. The essay was presented as a challenge for present readers not too "blame our inability to sustain the big effort on" colonialism. This was a sore point, for "colonial mentality" was a legacy that calcified in the country after one colonial regime was replaced by another (by Americans), then further replaced by the Marcos dictatorship, and after a series of "people power" revolutions – the recent ones becoming more and more dubious through time – we have the current specter of postcolonial or neocolonial capitalism.

The archeological and anthropological evidence Joaquín marshalled in writing his 1988 essay was based on the available data set at the time of his writing. The small balangay sailboats he referred to pertained to small excavated remains of boats in 1970s in Butuan, Philippines.

In 2012, almost a quarter of a century after Joaquín published his essay, a suspected much larger balangay "mother boat" was unearthed that could disprove the things he mentioned about lack of organization, effort, skills, and tools of ancient Filipino seafarers. The discovery of the large balangay – measuring 25 meters in length compared to previously excavated balangays that measured 15 meters – could disprove his argument on the lack of maritime skills, boldness, and daring of the early island people.

According to [National Museum archeologist Dr. Mary Jane Louise A. Bolunia], this new discovery suggests that these [the eight small vessels previously excavated] may just have been support vessels for a much larger main boat, where trade goods and other supplies were likely to have been held for safekeeping.

The discovery also suggests that seafaring Filipinos were much more organized and centralized than previously thought. [Source: http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/321334/scitech/science/massive-balangay-mother-boat-unearthed-in-butuan]

The interpretations Joaquín supplied for his thesis were based on artifacts available at the time that might be an incomplete data set in the light of recent discoveries. The latest information could bring in new perspectives that could weaken some of his impassioned opinions. It seemed like, for our essayist and seasoned cultural commentator, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

All of which was but a long prelude to a review post I was planning to write on the novel Shri-Bishaya by Ramon Muzones, which came out this year from New Day Publishers in a translation by Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava. This was a maritime novel, in fact Muzones's second to be translated. The first was Margosatubig which like Shri-Bishaya was an "epico-historical" novel partly set in the waters of Sulu and Philippine Seas.

Somehow the translation and publication of these two novels disproved the assertion of the writer Jose Dalisay, in an article or interview that I can no longer locate in the blogosphere, that there's a lack of novels in this part of the world that deals with the sea, which for an island nation was a bit puzzling. Well, here we have Muzones narrating in dynamic fashion the story of seafaring people gallivanting across seas, from Bornay to Paragwa (Palawan) to Aninipay/Madyaas (Panay) to Bruni (Brunei?).

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