I. Literary Approaches (Virgilio Rivas)


 Approaches to reading literature, specifically Filipino literature, are ways to arrive at an independent or a healthy permutable outlook on the many facets of our literary history and production.   Reading is, therefore, not a one-to-one correspondence between the text and the author, or between the text and the external circumstances which informed its production.  If it is so, the task of interpretation would be a useless activity, interpretation being possible only in and through the objective condition underlying all knowledge claims—understanding is not readily achievable.  

The interpretation of texts started as a serious discipline during the height of the biblical exegesis in Medieval Scholasticism. Hermeneutics, the discipline which came to be known as a “theory of the art of interpretation of written artifacts”1 was thus already a well-thought out discipline, at least, as its earliest practitioners were wont to agree on.  However, as the discipline expands into literary texts, side by side with other emerging disciplines such as philology, linguistics, etc., the agreement fades into a flurry of disparate assertions as to the correct form of understanding these texts.  It must be said that biblical exegesis was not exempted from this rather inherent difficulty of interpretation, that is, to achieve a single unifying paradigm of exegetical understanding.  The crisis extended into violent cleansing campaigns with ecclesiastical prodding and sanction which mired the once perceived divine plan of God on earth. 

It was a long history before we have reached this part of our modern period where once again the difficulties of interpretation and understanding texts have been problematized anew in the light of a more demanding need for agreement as we have become witness to the tensions and conflicts in the world scene stemming from the fundamental lack of an agreeable paradigm of negotiation.  We need not go far.  Here in our country, the visible lack of a culture of negotiation, which significantly contributes to the worsening of political and religious tensions that scar our claim as a unified sovereign nation, may be treated as an expanded problematic inherent in interpretation and understanding. We may be still fortunate to have achieved a history, sanctioned by a perceived coherence of written as well as other material artifacts which indicate a self-contained continuity of our evolution into an independent nation. However, history is always achieved by privileging, that is, by gratifying a demand for coherence and unity, despite the presence of movements and real forces of change which challenge (and can also claim a right to) that history that is otherwise sanctioned by a singular official view  The same applies with the school/s of authorizing the right kind of meanings we give of our determination as a sovereign country. These schools are institutionalized establishments which produce paragons as well as paradigms for a decisive and official understanding of our history, ranging from political, social, moral, cultural and even literary productions.             

Philippine Literature, as we have earlier emphasized elsewhere, is a product of discursive interpolations which are not without the actuality of privileging, be it democratically done, or violently achieved.  It cannot be ignored that officiating our literary history serves the purpose of endorsing a privileged history in which as a nation we are urged to look up to models in literary texts that celebrate this singular indisputable mark of our greatness.  Literary texts serve as reference, as legitimate starting points of validating this history.  The need for validation is therefore a function of legitimacy.  Louis Althusser ascribes it to the operations of superstructural forces 2 in society that lend credence to the material, actual infrastructure of our history as a solid formidable architecture achieved by the blood and the valiant aestheticism of our forefathers. Legitimation operates from an assertion of unity 3 despite the glaring evidence of disjunction to an endorsement of subject-interpellants who toe the reputable line of greatness, unity, cohesiveness, hence, a country.  In other words, subject-interpellants have to be carefully and diligently chosen as paragons of the virtues of a country such as what we think of the intellectual contributions of Dr. Jose Rizal to the making of a nation.  From subject-interpellants legitimation plumbs deeper into glorifying the unquestionable virtuosity of a class that inexorably shaped the intellectual potency of an ilustrado genius. All is well except that this legitimation scheme consciously ignores other factors and positions of other subject-interpellants who are also key stakeholders in the actual struggle to attain a history.  Thus, the ideological nature of legitimation, whether in historical or literary reconstruction.              

The making of a nation cannot dispense with the fact that, as peoples who have depended on the assumption that we are united under a history, the task of legitimating discourses or officiating narratives which support this assumption (sometimes, their support have to be forcefully linked to the inherent claims of a biased outlook) is irreversibly necessary.  In other words, it is a fact that we have to produce necessary illusions, or what Benedict Anderson termed imagined communities 4 in order to establish a history of our own, unique in its development and texture.  It is an imagined community, say, our history as a nation, because it has been achieved through a process of reconstructing discourses from the past which are linked to the requirements, challenges, and contingencies of the present.  Without a reconstructive paradigm according to which the past is officially viewed, the past will be seen as a cluttered mass of fragmented texts and discourses, chaotic and/or disorganized viewpoints and disconnected actions which are hardly imaginable as decent starting points of the actual evolution of our history.  What is true, bluntly stated, about our history (including our literary history) is that it must keep its ideological nature hidden, enough to establish a history with unquestionable presuppositions, or with assumptions which need not be problematized.              

However, this may be too sweeping a generalization of history. After all, there are theories of interpretation which laid this view on the line—that texts are ideological in nature 5, but owing precisely to that nature, it must be considered as a necessary assumption to begin with. These theories cannot be dissociated from history, itself an ideological product of reconstruction. To argue that these theories stand above ideology is naïve.  To say, further, that these opposing views, by the strength of having unmasked the ideological and therefore illusionary nature of history and discourse, are better or more superior theories of understanding misses the whole point. If all texts are ideological it means that history (or discourse) is a permanent site of struggles and contradictions (Marx), of strategies of resistance and containment (Jameson), of legitimating views by means of institutional forces (Althusser), of an agonistic confrontation where meanings are at stake (Foucault).  Those theories are, at best, permanent challenges to the compelling illusion that we have a naturally evolving history, a history that operates by its own laws, or a history which is above judgment because it has been there ever since.  Worst, it is a history in-itself, whether one likes it or not.             

The effort, for instance, of Spanish missionaries to codify our native language during the first half of the 20th century colonial period, is an example of the pervasiveness of the ideological and/or political. The reader may spot this point as too simplistic, therefore, too naïve to belabor the obvious.  However, as we shall see, the first attempts by a foreign power to master a native language would prove to be compelling enough to whittle in finer nuances and discursive interpolations the succeeding traditions of reading and interpretation in post-colonial periods.  It must be shown that the practice of translations and literary assertions of independence from a foreign rule is not divorced from the strategic aims of power.  The conscious re-invention of strategic aims, for instance, of endorsing an official history, or an official national language, in the light of the contingencies in which power (that is, the preserver of the official, the authoritative, the straight and narrow, the clean, the smooth, the coherent, etc.) finds itself forced to reckon, expands to literary productions as bearers of discourses.  If literature is said to have been operating under this condition, then it is easy to see that texts are either endorsers or adversaries of particular discourses (or enunciators of truth-claims, truth-values, etc.). The many way by which texts endorse or oppose discourses, however, are sometimes hard to differentiate.  (It goes without saying, understanding is not readily achievable. Thus, the need to interpret).

In Fray San Agustin’s Compendio Del Arte DeLa Lengua Tagala (1703), a missionary attempt to learn the Tagalog poetics and therefore to master it for effective colonial administration, the Tagalog poetics is generally summed up in the following light which inform the ambitious project in colonial linguistic conceit:            

“La poesia tagala no es tan dificil como parece, porque no tiene el rigor dela cuantidad de medias y ultimas, como la latina: ni las leyes del consonante forzoso, como la castellana.”6        

Ang tulang Tagalog ay hindi kasinghirap ng inaakala ng iba.  Hindi ito kasinghigpit ng Latin, kapag ang pinag-uusapan ay bilang ng gitna at huling pantig: ni wala itong sinusunod na alituntunin sa sapilitang gamit ng katinig, tulad ng Kastila.”

This colonial reconstruction of the Tagalog poetics is easy to discern as an assertion of mastery.  This masterful putting down of native poetics has the racial overtone of a compelling ideological illusion of the supremacy of the European standards. Fray San Agustin’s project is imbued with the aim of enforcing an official view with regards to non-European aesthetics, that is, the Tagalog’s. The arrogant wholesale colonial avowal of Latin as a superior language was later to be disciplined as to its rather ineffectual linguistic paradigm of colonization.  It is fair to say that the absolutization of Fray San Agustin would be ineffective as an ideological tool of diffusing the near ripe revolutionary fervor of the natives (which exploded in 1896).  The enforcement of language is not divorced from the aims of power. In a colonial juncture when resistance is challenging the center of power with ever more consistent and organized manner, power has to re-invent  itself in favorable dispositions.  Thus, the need to re-imagine the position of the colonialist language.

Fray San Agustin’s project would give way to a rather more flexible attempt at capturing the native language in Fray Francisco Bencuchillo’s Arte Poetico Tagalog (1776).  Fray Bencuchillo’s significant contributions may be summed up as follows (as observed by Virgilio S. Almario):  1. the discovery of rhyming patterns in consonants; 2.  the longing to construct and recite poetics in the native Tagalog language (which reflects a flexible mastery of the language of the colonized) and; 3.  the discovery of the 12-syllabic meter in Tagalog verse. The last two contributions are more instructive of the new outlook on mastery and colonization.  Fray Bencuchillo’s desire to be known as a Tagalog poet is not a naïve aspiration if we consider his discovery (through Fray San Agustin’s work) of what he perceived to be the natural verse poetic system of the natives, which they found out, was an advanced evolution from the primitive 7-syllabic meter of more remote ancestors, a discovery that is really of an inventive effort to reconstruct, not an unveiling of what remained until Bencuchillo’s scholarship an unrecognized reality. Says Almario (which I am quoting at length in original Tagalog):

“Alam natin na ang sukat na lalabindalawahin ay magiging isang napakapopular na sukat pagdating ng ika-19 na siglo.  Ito ang magiging sukat ng tinatawag na awit at dito masusulat ang obra maestra ni Balagtas. Sa anyong ito lamang isusulat ni Bonifacio ang kanyang mga akda, at pagsapit ng ika-20 siglo ay higit itong lilinangin ng mga makata kaysa sinasabing katutubong wawaluhin.

Katutubo ba o naturalisado ang sukat na lalabindalawahin pati na ang karaniwan nitong saknong na may apat na taludtod?

Sa aking panukalang basa noon pa, hindi katutubo ang sukat na lalabindalawahin sa pagtulang Tagalog…Mapapansin din na pagdating sa lalabindalawahin ay walang halimbawa ng sinaunang saknong ang dalawang misyonero.  Sa halip, ang halimbawa ni Fray San Agustin ay isang sipi mula sa komedya hinggil kay San Dionisio Areopagita samantalang ang dalawang saknong na halimbawa naman ni Fray Bencuchillo ay kapwa naglalaman ng paksa at aral na Kristiyano kaya’t tiyakang sinulat niya o ng kapwa misyonero.” 8                       

Meanwhile, the ideological import of this colonial paradigms of translation and reconstruction of native poetics would shape the aims and directions of succeeding historical efforts in both sides of the struggle to attain a discursive history, between the colonist and the colonized, between reformers and revolutionists, between a nation and a foreign influence. As the noted anthropologist James T. Siegel correctly discerned, which Vicente Rafael quoted in his work Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule (Quezon City: Ateneo De Manila University Press, 1988,), there is a “pervasive connection between translation and the formation, breakdown, and subsequent reformulation of social order”. 9 Rizal would satirize this attempt by the colonist to master the native tongue in the effort of spreading Christianity, a weapon of subjugation. Rafael (1988) emphasized the passage in Rizal’s novel Noli me tangere where a Spanish friar recited his Spanish sermon to the natives in a church mass.  Rizal wrote the following satire (which I am quoting from Rafael’s original selection of the passages from the English edition of the novel):            

“Ye great sinners, captives of those Moro pirates of the spirit who prowl the seas of eternal life in powerful vessels of the flesh and the world,…behold with reverent remorse one who rescues souls from the devil’s thrall,…one who, with only a wooden cross for a gun, dauntlessly puts to rout the eternal bandits [tulisan] of darkness and all the hordes of Lucifer, and would have annihilated them forever had these spirits been immortal! This marvel of Divine Creation, this unimaginable prodigy, is the blessed San Diego de Alcala,who…is but a soldier in the most powerful army that Our Seraphic Father San Francisco commands from Heaven and to which I have the honor to belong as corporal or sergeant, by the Grace of God.” 10  

A student of Rizal would immediately recognize the owner of this sermon, Father Damaso. However, as this passage may be automatically ascribed to Rizal’s political agenda against Spain’s colonial rule in the islands, the above satire could have been dutifully informed by an agenda ‘far more instructive than its manifest political intent may lead us to believe’.11 Rafael continues to observe: “On one level, it can certainly be read as an instance of the failure of authority to legitimize its claim to power in a stultifying colonial regime.  But on another level, it suggests a distinctive Tagalog strategy of decontextualizing the means by which colonial authority represents itself.” 12 

The ‘strategy of decontextualization’ may also be discovered to be not totally reflective of the disposition of the colonized, but may be, more effectively, of the colonist. Fray Bencuchillo’s attempt may be brought into line despite the positive contributions of his work on the formalistic analysis of the development of local poetic forms. Unsurprisingly, if we judge Rizal’s literary campaigns against the Spanish friars to be short of a decisive political blow against the actual historical conditions of subjugation, the hero’s effort to delineate a native art of rhyme and meter in Tagalog poetics as in his work Arte Metrica Del Tagalog (Ang Sining ng Tugma at Sukat sa Tagalog) published in 1887 would prove symptomatic of both his inadequate knowledge of Tagalog poetics (he wrote and spoke in Spanish in most of his works and public conversations) and his blindness to the fact that his admiration of the poesy of Balagtas, for instance, is already imbued with the ubiquitous elements of foreign literary traditions, a fact that is also indicative of his informal acceptance of the scholarly findings of the friars that the 12-syllabic meter is traceable to primitive aesthetic roots (PT, xx).  Almario (1996) sees this ubiquitous, unexamined tradition of Tagalog poetics compulsively shaping the history of poetic tradition in Tagalog (such as the modernist work of Lope K. Santos 13) and even in other regional languages as almost natural and authentically indigenous, thus, the unique aura of our literary history.  Needless to say, it has been endorsed by the continuing tradition of literary scholarship, a fact not far from the real contingencies of which power (both  the colonist’s and the ruling class’ of post-colonial nation who may be said to be continually parroting a defunct but secretly worshipped foreign colonial handlers) finds itself forced to become aware, and therefrom, re-invent its strategic aims.   


1 Peter Szondi, Introduction to Literary Hermeneutics, trans. Martha Woodmansee, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, p. 2.

2 Louis Althusser, a French Marxist philosopher, cites ideology as a classic example of a superstructure as distinguished from infrastructure, most often, ascribed to the economic conditions prevailing in a given period of history.  As a superstructure, he defines ideology as ‘a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’ (Raman Selden and Peter Widdowson, A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, University Press of Kentucky: Great Britain, 1993, p. 89).  The best example would be the classic works of Homer Iliad and Odyssey, being an imaginary yet compelling representation of the material or economic conditions under which Greece flourished at that time. The Homeric poems invoked memories of previous periods when Greece was at the center of cultural exchange and military conquests across the Aegean Sea, reaching as far as Syria, Cyprus, Egypt, and the old Mesopotamia. In the light of the modern Western world celebrating the poetic greatness of Homer’s epic poems, the popularity and influence of its author can be ascribed to the function of ideology.  Homer’s is considered an important canon in Western literature, which is said to have influenced the vital of Western tradition, preserved in the works of Dante, Virgil, John Milton, Miguel de Cervantes, Goethe, Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, James Joyce, all of them serve as ideological fixtures of the glorious tradition, if not the unmatched legacy of Western literary history.

3 Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, argues for a view of history as discontinuous, which connotes among other things that history is governed by rules of exclusion and regulation.  His most important work on this subject is The Order of Things.

4 Benedict Anderson, in his work Imagined Communities (2003), treats the nation as an imagined political community.  “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will  never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion…Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.  Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible,…for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.” (See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Quezon City: Anvil, 2003, pp. 6-7). 

5 I can cite Fredric Jameson’s theory of text as a socially symbolic narrative. In his Preface to the 1981 edition of his book The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Methuen: United Kingdom) Jameson writes:

                “(W)e never really confront a text immediately, in all its freshness as a thing-in-itself.  Rather, texts come before us as the always-already-read; we apprehend them through sedimented layers of previous interpretations…This presupposition then dictates the use of a method (which I have elsewhere termed the “metacommentary”) according to which our object of study is less the text itself than the interpretation through which we attempt to confront and to appropriate it.” (pp. 9-10)

                This ‘metacommentary,’ most often, performs the function of regulation and exclusion seen by Michel Foucault. Thus, the ideological. (Cf. n. 3)

6 Virgilio S. Almario (ed.), Poetikang Tagalog: Mga Unang Pagsusuri sa Sining ng Pagtulang Tagalog nina Fray Gasper De San Agustin, Fray Francisco Bencuchillo, Jose P. Rizal, Lope K. Santos, salin ni Trinidad O. Regala at ng Jose Rizal Centennial Commission, Sentro ng Wikang Filipino, Quezon City, 1996, p. 2.Hencefoth, PT.

7 Ibid., p. 3.

8 Ibid., xvii.

9 See Vicente Rafael, Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule (Quezon City: Ateneo De Manila University Press, , 1988,), 210.

10 Ibid., pp. 1-2.

11 Ibid., pp. 2-3.

12 Ibid., p. 3.

13 See his work Peculiaridades de la poesia tagala (Mga Katangian ng Tulang Tagalog)


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