SALVAGING THE DISAPPEARED POET: The Case of Jose Garcia Villa
by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
After reading the poem which I've just circulated here, you're bound to expect me to perform the obligatory explication de text--since texts, especially poems entitled "The Anchored Angel," don't explain themselves and don't exhibit transparent intentions, cuing you on what to say or do next, and since this academic milieu largely determines how we are going to be constituted (if at all) as readers of Villa in a putative "interpretive community," well, let me say that I won't fulfill that expectation--that is, engage in the traditional routine practice of textual analysis, a modus operandi first instituted by the New Criticism and now almost second nature to teachers of literature; or, alternatively, perform a rigorous structuralist dissection of texts as exemplified by the writings of Roman Jakobson and Claude Levi-Strauss. Do we need another interpretation of the text? Maybe the question is (pace Fish): what text?
We all know that those formalist approaches--from Croce to Ransom, the Chicago neoAristotelians, Krieger to Hartman and Miller--immediately beg certain fundamental questions about the identity of the author, the unitary intent and coherence of form, and the more problematic reception or response of the audience, questions which are implicated in the status of empiricism and idealism in the methodology of contemporary cultural studies. The reason for this is the nature of my subject, a nearly anonymous
poet in the United States, who is however recognized as the founder of modern creative writing in English in the Philippines and thus honored as a "National Artist" in the country of his birth. For over half a century now, Villa has lived in Greenwhich Village, New York City, where he was acclaimed in the forties and fifties as a leading avantgarde poet writing in English. He has received numerous prizes and awards, among them a Guggenheim fellowship, American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, a Bollingen fellowship in criticism, and a Shelley Memorial Award for poetry. He was also nominated for the Pulitzer prize in 1943. But, as the platitude goes, times have changed. Today I am quite certain that except for a handful of specialists in the major universities, nobody has heard of Jose Garcia Villa or has even read about him. He is not mentioned in any of the extant literary history of the United States. Except for one now defunct anthology on Asian American writing, even critics of multi-ethnic American literature do not find Villa "ethnic" enough to deserve serious attention, and we shall understand why in a moment.
Given the status of Villa as an "endangered species" all by himself, I want to address not only the character of this enigma but also ways of approaching it as a central problem in cultural studies in general. Recent inquiry into post-colonial or subaltern literature, and the foregrounding of racial and national differences in Third World writing vis-a-vis the Eurocentric canon of modernism and postmodernism, have made necessary the demand for a kind of symptomatic reading (which Althusser and Macherey first theorized) of texts considered marginal, alternative, oppositional. (I would include in "texts" the social existence of the writer, the context of his practice as writer.) What is symptomatic are the silence, lacunae and absences in the text which configure the "Otherness" of its presence in the cultural scene, what enables it to say what it says as well as what it doesn't. The Otherness of such texts is itself emblematic of a larger ethico-political situation in the world today. Briefly, this reading--or a sketch of it I will venture here--attempts to construct the problematique, the unconsciousness of discourse, which is its condition of possibility. The discourse in question is not any single text but "Villa" as the rubric of the imagination inscribed in a specific worldly plot, a complex conjuncture of Western modernity and Third World underdevelopment. "Villa" names the corpus of texts whose textuality is less an essence than a construction of readings and critical commentaries which have defined it, made it accessible as knowledge, valorized it and spelled out its fate as a cultural artifact in modern industrial society. The Villa problematic, then, involves not just the production of certain texts but more crucially its consumption and reproduction by criticism and scholarly discourse: its self-consciousness, its blindness, omission, and oversights can only be understood as effects of the problematique that determine the scope of its capacity to know itself as well as its power to free itself from its own limitations. We are not intending to extract the Logos here, the "true kernel from the mystified shell," so to speak; our project is to identify the Villa problematic as a literary field (in Bourdieu's sense) where antagonistic cultural forces encounter each other--does this encounter produce a mutagenetic phenomena or a cloning process rather than an authentic synthesis? How is "authenticity" to be measured? Can Western theory apply to a transgressive sensibility shaped in a "zone of occult instability" (Fanon)? Those are questions a symptomatic reading will try to examine, a task which involves exploring approaches to meaning, identity, form articulated with precisely those specific historical necessities and forces repressed/sublimated by the problematic.
Lest we commit the faux pas of the "common reader" in mistaking Villa for a distant cousin of the Mexican Pancho Villa, allow me to indulge in deploying a tactical "metaphysics of presence" by making Villa identify himself. This point of departure stages the outline of a narrative that never quite arrives at a peripeteia nor denouement. I quote Villa's autobiographical statement from the First Supplement to Twentieth Century Authors (1955) edited by Stanley J. Kunitz which introduces Villa as an "American poet" born August 5, 1914:
Born in Manila, Philippines, of Philippine parentage. His father was a doctor and was chief of staff for General Aguinaldo in the Philippine revolution against Spain. Villa came to the United States in 1930 and attended the University of New Mexico from which he graduated [with an A.B. in 1932]. He did post-graduate work at Columbia University [where he received an M.A. in 1941]. He is now a permanent resident of the United States.
While an undergraduate at New Mexico he wrote short stories and edited a little magazine Clay, which published the early work of Saroyan, Caldwell, William March, David Cornel DeJong, etc. Edward J. O'Brien, the short story critic, was his first literary encourager and reprinted several of his stories in The Best Short Stories annuals, dedicating the 1932 volume to Villa. Scribner's later published a collection of these stories.
Although the short story form was his first literary interest, Villa felt later that it was not his proper metier, as he was not interested in outward events and his tendency was toward more and more concision. He therefore undertook the study of poetry seriously and from 1933 onwards he delved intensively into English and American poetry. He wrote a great deal but did not publish anything until 1942, when his book of poems Have Come, Am Here appeared. It received warm recognition and later Villa was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and the $1,000 poetry award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Villa has always been interested in technical experiment and in Have Come, Am Here he introduced a new rhyming method which he calls 'reversed consonance.' In his next book, Volume Two, he introduced the 'comma poems' where the comma is employed as a modulator of line movement. Both experiments are explained in notes to be found in the books.
Recently someone remarked to Villa that he found Villa's poetry 'abstract,' contrary to the general feeling for detail and particularity that characterizes most contemporary poetry. Villa comments: "I realize now that this is true; I had not thought of my work in that light before. The reason for it must be that I am not at all interested in description or outward appearance, nor in the contemporary scene, but in essence. A single motive underlies all my work and defines my intention as a serious artist: The search for the metaphysical meaning of man's life in the Universe--the finding of man's selfhood and identity in the mystery of Creation. I use the term metaphysical to denote the ethic-philosophic force behind all essential living. The development and unification of the human personality I consider the highest achievement a man can do." (1035-1036)
Note how the occasion doubles itself, with Villa quoting himself responding to someone's ad hoc comment. After this mock-interview where Villa simulates the scenario of Lacan's Imaginary register, the editor informs us that Villa is "generally considered to be the first-ranking poet of Filipino origin writing today." To support this estimate, the aristocratic British poet Edith Sitwell is quoted, attributing to Villa "a great, even an astounding, and perfectly original gift." Villa's early poems were enthusiastically praised for "their freshness" and "imaginative singularity," continues the editor; but his comma poems and "typographical jeux d'esprit" have encountered disapproval and skepticism. David Daiches is quoted for noting Villa's "mannerism and self-parody," but qualifies this with a positive judgment: Villa "retains the poet's eye and the poet's ear, and the best poems in this volume have the sharp colors, the cunning verbal precision, and that almost Blake-like combination of innocence and outrage which his earlier poems showed so markedly" (1936). The encyclopedia entry does not mention Villa's working for the Philippine government in Washington circa 1942 (mentioned in the jacket of Have Come, Am Here) nor with Columbia University Library. It ends with a mention of Villa's marriage in 1946 to Rosemarie Lamb and their two children. We are also told that Villa is "small, dark, delicate-featured" and that he began working on a "theory of poetry" in 1953 with a Bollingen fellowship.
Villa is credited with the authorship of the following volumes: Many Voices: Selected Poems (Manila: Philippine Book Guild, 1939), awarded a prize in the Philippine Commonwealth Literary Contest; Footnote to Youth: Tales of the Philippines and Others (New York: Scribners, 1933), Poems by Doveglion (Manila: The Philippine Writers League, 1941); Have Come, Am Here (New York: The Viking Press, 1942; Volume Two (New York: New Directions, 1949); Selected Poems and New (New York: McDowell Obolensky, 1958), and Appassionata Poems in Praise of Love (New York: King and Cowen, 1979). Villa has also edited an E.E. Cummings number of Harvard Wake, a Narianne Moore issue of Quarterly Review of Literature, a collection of essays entitled A Celebration for Edith Sitwell, an anthology of poems by Filipino writers. Aside from getting honorary doctorates from universities in the Philippines, Villa received the title of "National Artist" from the Marcos dictatorship in the early seventies.
Among the American and English writers who have given testimony to Villa's stature as a first-rate artist are Edward J. O'Brien, E.E. Cummings, Edith Sitwell, Marianne Moore, Richard Eberhart, Conrad Aiken, Babette Deutsch, Mark Van Doren, David Daiches, Horace Gregory, Mark Van Doren, Elliot Paul, Irwin Edman, Peter Monro Jack, and Raymond Weaver. The first Filipino critics to accord Villa priority in Philipine letters are Salvador P. Lopez and Federico Mangahas, followed by Armando Manalo who edited an issue of the University of the Philippines Writers Club journal The Literary Apprentice 1948-49 devoted to Villa, which included seven poems by Villa and nine essays on his work. Aside from the American writers I have enumerated, four Filipinos (Francisco Arcellana, Lydia Arguilla, Manuel Viray, Angel Hidalgo) contributed their share of appreciative witness to Villa's talent. While Villa was included in poetry anthologies edited by inter alia Conrad Aiken and W. H. Auden in the forties and fifties, his reputation seemed to have coincided with their obsolescence. None of the contemporary anthologies of modern American literature in the sixties and after have included Villa, nor have the literary histories from Robert Spiller's Literary History of the United States on ever mentioned him even in passing. Aside from the standard New Critical evaluation instanced by Leonard Casper's New Writing from the Philippines (1966), the only recent attention given to Villa may be found in Werner Sollor's Beyond Ethnicity Consent and Descent in American Culture (1986). For Sollors, Villa's uprooted condition, tellingly juxtaposed with Jean Toomer's predicament, motivated "a radical formal response to the ethnic writer's need for a new poetic language" (254)--hence the freedom allegedly afforded by the invention of "reversed consonance" whose principle connects "I am" and "may," "deal" and "lead" in order to renew the question of identity: "Nobody yet knows who I am,/ Nor myself may; / Nor yet what I deal, /Nor yet where I lead" (Have Come 18). Paradoxically it is Villa's ethnic difference, not his metaphysical selfhood, that aligns him with the myth of American exceptionalism, with what Sollors calls the dialectic of the languages of consent and descent.
The historical transition from the end of World War II (when Villa's Have Come, Am Here drew praise from some well-known poets and critics) to the sixties (his last volume of significant poems is Selected Poems and New, 1958) has been conceived by art critics as the passage from late high modernism to postmodernism. Sollor's perception of Villa as an "ethnic" writer is itself a product of this shift when the canon was first questioned in the early seventies. Seen within this perspective, Villa's modernism was a late comer and an early victim to fashions in the sphere of high bourgeois style and critical taste. Why was Villa unable to maneuver any change, thus suffering premature obscurity? What did the American commentators see in Villa's poems which earned him a place, albeit a precarious and transitory one, in the magic circle of modernist art? How could one explain his disappearance from the scene and his failure to be included in the canon?
To explore answers to these questions, I take as my premise the idea (first enunciated by Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey) that literary texts do not have a metaphysical essence or significance by themselves; rather, they produce fictions which are realized as ideological domination-effects by criticism, the discourse of literary ideology. The literary text is "the agent for the reproduction of ideology in its ensemble," inducing by its aesthetic effects "the production of 'new' discourses which always reproduce (under constantly varied forms) the same ideology (with its contradictions)..." (Young 96). The aesthetic effect establishes the rituals of literary consumption and other cultural practices that equate reader and author, author's intentions (one of the literary effects) and interpretations by readers. Balibar and Macherey suggest that "Interpretations and commentaries reveal the (literary) aesthetic effect, precisely, in full view. Literariness is what is recognized as such, and it is recognized as such precisely in the time and to the extent that it activates the interpretations, the criticisms and the 'readings' (Young 97). Consequently the focal point of critical analysis should be not the "metaphysics of the text" but the functions and uses to which these are deployed in specific historical conjunctures. As Tony Bennett puts it, "The text must be studied not as an abstraction but in the light of the determinations which, in the course of its history, successively rework that text, producing for it different and historically concrete effects in modifying the conditions of its reception" (158).
Of the most influential commentaries that have constituted Villa not so much an "American" poet as a "genius" with "a great, even an astonishing, and perfectly original gift," Edith Sitwell's introduction to Selected Poems and New establishes the criteria for inclusion into the canon. Sitwell's hierarchy, however, privileges the "depths of the poet's being," compounded of his blood, spirit and experience, from which art springs spontaneously and naturally. She sees in Villa's poems the "absolute sensation" which Novalis considers "religious": "All have a strange luminosity--as if they came from the very heart of light--alternating with an equally strange darkness, and this luminosity, this darkness bear a certain resemblance to that in the works of Blake and of Boehme" (xi). Aside from Novalis, Blake and Boehme, Sitwell invokes St. Catherine of Genoa, Meister Eckhart, Mallarme of course, Dr. Carl Jung, and Goethe as resonant, mystical touchstones guaranteeing the genealogy of Villa's "pure poetry." (An earlier version of this introduction compares Villa to Blake and Lorca.) Sitwell isolates lines and phrases which strike her as strange or fiery, a fiction-effect which prohibits rational comprehension of Villa's poems:
I will break God's seamless skull
And I will break his kissless mouth,
O I'll break out of His faultless shell
And fall me upon Eve's gold mouth.
Her judgment is mainly impressionistic: she says that the two words ("golden,father") that end the first line of "The Anchored Angel"
"seem sinking as the sun seems to do when it sets, into the earth from which all growth arises" (xiii). She ventures a hermeneutic gloss on the lines: "Between,the,Wall,of,China,and,/The, tiger, tree (his,centuries,his,/Aerials,of,light)" as follows: "the Wall of China is Death, seemingly dividing us from another civilisation--the civilisation of the Living, and, also, shielding us from the dangers of Life. The tiger tree is the infinite growth of the future arising from that earth, "the,father, "who,made,the,flower,
principle." Villa's themes, according to Sitwell, center on the "principle," archetype and quintessence--the metaphysical essence that Villa gestures to which escapes complete verbal capture. Language then fails even as it succeeds; the "mystery of creation" embodies the domination-effect of subduing any unease or reservation. Sitwell's extravagant reading ascribes to Villa's poems the qualities of "pure poetry": while being beautiful, their strangeness is what transforms them into objects of contemplation and awe.
Sitwell describes the following "divine poem" as one "of an ineffable beauty, springing straight from the depths of Being":
My most. My most. O my lost!
O my bright, my ineradicable ghost.
At whose bright coast God seeks
Shelter and is lost is lost. O
Coast of Brightness. O cause of
Grief. O rose of purest grief.
O thou in my breast so stark and
Holy-bright. O thou melancholy
Light. Me. Me. My own perfidy.
O my most my most. O the bright
The beautiful the terrible Accost. (Selected Poems 45)
Like Sitwell, Marianne Moore apprehends a "final wisdom" in Villa's "paradoxical avowals," delicate but forceful, whose logic can only be defined by analogy: "such writing reminds one of the colors of black ink from a hog's hair brush in the hand of a Chinese master" (77). Villa is then assimilated to the canon when his temperament is associated with Dante, Spenser, Blake, and John Bunyan. Moore believes that Villa's technique of reversed consonance affects the content of his poems to the extent that the numen or charisma is exchangeable: "And would not Everyman--however camouflaged from himself--be glad to believe that God is present and is accessible to personality?" (78). Moore praises the "reverence, the raptness, the depth of concentration" in Villa's "bravely deep poems." Meanwhile, the critic David Daiches concurs with Moore's perception of antinomian impulses in Villa: naivete and cunning, metaphysical elaboration and simplicity, nonsense and myth, coalesce in the poems in Have Come, Am Here. While Villa's mythmaking drive parallel those of Blake and Yeats, Villa's experimental wit evokes those of Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Blake, Lewis Carroll, and D. H. Lawrence (79-80). Apropos of the achievement of Villa's Selected Poems, Mark Van Doren admires their increased intensity and deepened wit; rich and surprising, Villa "assaults greater subjects and constructs wider worlds" in his "original idiom, so natural yet in its daring so weird." Weird, strange, inexplicable: we encounter here the anticipatory marks of the Kantian sublime.
Sitwell, Moore, Daiches and others have all registered enthusiastic responses to the verbal texture, diction, phrasing and imagery of Villa's poems, to what deconstructionists may call their "infinite equivocality," their "warring forces of signification." Little concern is paid to their architectonics or total designs. Quotes in the jacket of Have Come, Am Here underline Villa's "superbly momentous and beautiful articulations" (Raymond Weaver); "his way of feeling and his imagery are startling in intensity and intimacy" (Peter Monro Jack). Richard Eberhart wonders at Villa's "pure, startling and resounding poetry, informed with so much legerity and fire," "the personal is lost in a blaze of linguistic glories." On the basis of Villa's "intense and inventive imagery" as well as "the combination of intellectual fire and cool finished craft," Irwin Edman considers Villa a "poetic genius" akin to Blake, "the most original and genuine poet" in his generation. Like Daiches and Edman, Elliot Paul is struck with Villa's subtle and personal idiom. Although linked with such rebellious moderns as the imagists and symbolists, Villa's individuality keeps company with Blake, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, and E.E. Cummings. Villa is no outsider or alien intruder in the mansion of great world (Western) literature.
Following the rule of appraising new writers by comparison with the canonical authors and the received standards, Babette Deutsch holds that Villa's singularity reminds her of Emily Dickinson's and Hopkins.' The paradoxes and ambiguities (touchstones of aesthetic worth for the New Criticism), as well as the "pure intensity" of the religious poems, all bear "the burning signature of the poetic imagination" (68-69) which is also manifest in Auden, Dickinson, and the Metaphysical poets. Deutsch notes Villa's relentless humanism when he surpasses Blake by announcing that "God is his miracle, his work, his creation"; in some poems, the young poet "adopts toward Him the attitude of an intimate and peer," as in the poem beginning "The way my ideas think me." Deutsch discerns Villa's drive for transcendence via conscious craftsmanship: "Villa is concerned with ultimate things, the self and the universe.... He is more interested in himself than in the universe, and he greets the world with but a decent urbanity" (70). Clearly the doctrines of New Critical formalism operate their effects on these remarks. But what distinguishes Deutsch from all the other early commentators is the fact that she is the only one who has taken account of Villa's non-Western origin: "The fact that he is a native of the Philippines who comes to the English language as a stranger may have helped him to his unsual syntax. But no accident of birth can account for his performance save the ancient poeta nascitur, non fit. Even then the adage must be qualified, for though he was undoubtedly born a poet, he has obviously and wisely labored at his art. The result is a group of poems that for all their obscurity, which is sometimes witty, sometimes profound, are luminous and vibrant with the quality of crystal" (71). Deutsch is troubled with Villa's "unusual syntax," and she explains this not as an intentional mode of forging a hybrid, syncretic style of english (as Bill Ashcroft et al have demonstrated for non-Western authors in their book The Empire Writes Back) but as a defect of being a Filipino native not born to the language. With this sociological inference, Deutsch violates a fundamental axiom of intrinsic criticism. In a recent review of Filipino accomplishment in harnessing English for imaginative expression in over half a century, the professional linguist Andrew Gonzalez evaluates Villa's performance as the most consummate craftsman among pre-World War II writers: Villa was "the first Filipino poet who took art for art's sake to its logical conclusion and used the resources of a second language to begin innovating with these resources much as a first language speaker does. In the process...he embodied the Filipino having perfected his art as form and his mastery of the English language. He followed his own lights in poetry and as a non-native speaker experimented with the potentialities of the language in the manner of Joyce" (148).
So far Villa "who hails from the Philippines" has posed no threat to the orthodox standard of literary excellence in the forties and fifties. Marianne Moore has counseled those alarmed by his unconventional attitudes to religion and bourgeois decorum: "He is not a destroyer, his work is reverent...." While Villa can be domesticated by New Critical norms, something escapes the reviewers so that they can only address his weird and strange and even carnivalesque affair with language, a practice of textuality which exudes the aura of what may be called "the Third World sublime."
After more than twenty years since the appearance of Have Come, Am Here which occasioned Villa's acceptance into the fold of English literature, we find a critic who, though doctrinally a formalist, claims to measure Villa's accomplishment in the context of putative Filipino values and realities. In evaluating the writers included in his anthology New Writing from the Philippines (1966), Leonard Casper presumes to see in Filipino intellectuals like Villa "a peculiar kind of rebelliousness neither tolerant nor liberating"; "his poetry's near-blasphemy, the unconvincing pretense at repentance, have some portion of their origin in the sometimes careless religious observances among Asia's only Christian people" (106). Villa's stylistic excesses--meager and solipsistic vocabulary, "geometry of narcissism," "essential looseness due to the loss of substance and consequence"; exhibitionistic abuse of the comma, lack of "specific presence and circumstantial detail"--prove that Villa cannot be assigned to the same rank as Donne, E.E. Cummings, Seurat, Picasso, Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell. While not openly admitting it, Casper seeks to reverse Villa's reputation constituted (as I've detailed earlier) by the celebrations of Sitwell, Moore, Deutsch, Mark Van Doren, Daiches and others; he is relegated to being "the premier poet of the Philippines," not a distinguished American poet. Villa is no longer a genius or an original artist but merely the object of an arrogant cult. Notwithstanding this attack, Casper includes four poems by Villa one of which is the following:
Inviting a tiger for a weekend.
The gesture is not heroics but discipline.
The memoirs will be splendid.
Proceed to dazzlement, Augustine.
Banish little birds, graduate to tiger.
Proceed to dazzlement, Augustine.
Any tiger of whatever colour
The same as jewels any stone
Flames always essential morn.
The guest is luminous, peer of Blake.
The host is gallant, eye of Death.
If you will do this you will break
The little religions for my sake.
Invite a tiger for a weekend,
Proceed to dazzlement, Augustine. (Selected Poems 26)
In the context of resurgent nationalist resistance to ongoing U.S. imperialist intervention in the Philippines, Casper claims to tutor Filipinos and others who may have been misled by Villa's revolutionary pose: "As an expatriate from the Philippines, he scorns in various disguises his people's most sacred images--the father; the homeland: that residue of ancestor worship visible in oppressive family circles....The arch-rebel may prove to be even more conservative than his society; and far more anachronistic" (105, 110). Casper's "Orientalism" is grounded more on the most positivistic and dogmatic stereotyping of Filipino culture than on the immanent meanings of the texts he claims to be contextualizing. But what is really at stake in Casper's demotion of Villa?
As the vicissitudes of the Cold War intersected with the civil rights struggles, the worldwide youth revolt, the impact of the Cuban revolution and the emerging Cultural Revolution in China in the early sixties, the climate of critical opinion in the U.S. shifted from the narrow if universalizing formalism of the New Criticism (supplemented with archetypal/phenomenological sophistication) to a more historically conscious and self-critical stance initiated, in particular, by Black cultural activists and assorted radicals. Texts can no longer be explicated in their autotelic singularity divorced from their manifold contexts. Account must be taken of the historical and social specificities that enable any discursive formation to signify, to communicate. Meaning is essentially dialogic and intertextual, an effect of relations and processes. It is against this background that I propose we should view Casper's attempt to implement his program of revising the Filipino canon; he deploys traditional New Critical methodology refurbished with sociological platitudes in order to reaffirm the supremacy of an ultimately reactionary, Eurocentric ideology which was then being challenged in the Philippines and in many Third World societies. In the process of pursuing this inherently contradictory project, Casper has to concede that Villa is not a floating spirit without roots, an "unanchored angel" so to speak, without a history or destiny. Casper's history, however, is that of the dominant elite. It cannot but occlude the basic contradiction that forms the subtext of Villa's life and works--the contradiction between a subaltern artist adopting the colonizer's tongue for emancipatory individual and collective ends, and the hegemonic constraints of a culture that reduces the Other to an instrumentalized object. Both Casper's moralizing formalism and the transcendental aesthetics of Sitwell, Moore and others conspire to erase Villa's "Otherness" by assimilating it to the homogeneous, totalizing space of Western modernism. Without intending it, both approaches have also ushered Villa's "disappearance" into a new stage of world capital where the postmodern compression of time and space may no longer enable a master-narrative of national liberation to make sense of Villa's exile from the Philippines, his solitary struggle for recognition as a poet writing in English, and his possible rediscovery as an oppositional Filipino artist by coming generations. In retrospect, however, Casper's revision has produced no lasting significant impact.
Except for Deutsch cited earlier, the only person who had acknowledged the differential nuance that Villa's Filipino background plays in the economy of the text was the editor Edward J. O'Brien who furnished the introduction to Villa's 1933 collection of short stories, Footnote to Youth. It is beyond question that O'Brien's understanding of the influence of race, culture and geography is unashamedly empiricist and mechanical: he believes that endowed with the "Filipino sense of race" fused with "a strong Spanish sense of form and color," Villa was deeply affected by the "severe and stark landscape" of New Mexico where he settled for a while. The severity and "ascetic pattern of the American desert" together with the "stripped dry quality of New Mexican life," O'Brien goes on, coincides with the asceticism, the "classical reticence of form" of the Spanish short story. Into these containers Villa poured "passionate feeling," "a native sensuousness of perception and expression" (Villa, Footnote 3-4). The result is a virginal and lyrical art quite distinct from that of Sherwood Anderson, whom Villa credits for opening up for him "the world of literature and of life itself." O'Brien intuits or posits a "Filipino sense of race" or "race consciousness" in Villa's fiction but leaves this unexplained. Although O'Brien claims that the Philippines (a U.S. colony for over thirty years at the time of his writing) is "a totally unrelated civilization," he can nonetheless appreciate the lyrical power of Villa's Filipino tales "where memory takes the place of vision and race consciousness flowers in an unfamiliar kind of art." Unfamiliar and yet somehow quite accessible, even transparent to O'Brien who has used the received pedagogical formulas for containing any possible threat from recalcitrant material and incorporating the marginal into the centralizing regime of his discourse. Alterity is recognized but only at the expense of recuperating sameness, of foisting identity on the mirage of difference.
Villa's predicament is, however, an intractable and recalcitrant one: the colonized artist revolts against the philistine and utilitarian colonial milieu where vulgar commercialism coexists with rigid feudal taboos and repressive religious codes, where individual freedom (both that of the native as colonial subject and the artist as critic of conventional morality) is limited by the political, economic and cultural backwardness of a dependent formation. What is the alternative? For three hundred years an exploited outpost of the Spanish empire and for thirty years an annexed territory of the United States--the door to the China market, as the proponents of Manifest Destiny put it, the Philippines at the time of Villa's flight had all the characteristics of what is called the uneven and combined development of a peripheral Third World formation where heterogeneous beliefs, practices and styles converge in the compressed time-space frame of commodity production for the world market. Where will this poet inspired by American avant-garde writing, expelled at age 21 from the state university for writing "obscene" poems, flee if not to the metropolis?
There is a more profound complicating factor. In the Philippines, despite the defeat of the revolutionary army of the First Philippine Republic under Emilio Aguinaldo, literature in Spanish and the vernacular were mobilized against U.S. domination through the first twenty years of pacification. It must be recalled that the chief ideological instrument for instituting U.S. colonial rule was the teaching of the English language and its codification as a prerequisite for official employment in the bureaucracy and all state apparatuses. English was also the language of world trade and industry on which the Filipino compradors and feudal landlords--two components of the native elite, the other being the bureaucrats who became petty capitalists--depended for their survival. In due course, writing in English (the medium of schools and government) functioned as the central ideological signifier for legitimizing U.S. hegemony and its reproduction in the patron-client transactions between American authority and the Filipino intelligentsia and middle strata. The function of literary practice in English resembled closely that in Central America where, according to John Beverley and Marc Zimmerman, "the role of literature was to legitimize the new oligarchic order, to act as an intermediary between the emerging inadequate 'national' culture represented by the agro-export bourgeoisie and the culture of the metropolitan centers" (41). Repelled by the utilitarian ethic and its commodifying logic, Villa could not (despite his nationalist family background) identify with the vernacular culture represented by the seditious playwrights, Lope K. Santos, etc., whose project was to construct a national-popular subject with an agenda of immediate dismantling of the imperial apparatus. Vernacular writers were partisans of the independence struggle. He could not identify with what was left of the indigenized Spanish culture of the Propagandists (Rizal up to Mabini and Isabelo de los Reyes) whose surviving exponents were nationalists like Recto and the journalists in El Renacimiento and other periodicals in the first two decades of the century. Above all he could not identify with vulgar Americanizers like Trinidad Pardo de Tavera nor with pensionados like Carlos Romulo whose opportunism flourished later in the banal terrorism and corruption of the Marcos dictatorship. In effect, Villa in the halcyon days of the Twenties was already stranded in a no-man's land while still in the Philippines. While peasants in the colorums were staging armed insurrections against caciquism and militant workers were organizing unions in Manila, the adolescent Villa was busy wrestling with the English language, trying to find his unique individual voice, experimenting and pushing the rules of syntax and the conventions of genres to the breaking point. It was the beginning of a lifetime's adventure, the quest for affirming and pursuing a vocation (like that of Joyce's persona Stephen Dedalus) of exploring the terrain of the psyche and mapping the boundaries of the imagination set over against the claims of family, ritual kin, compatriots, local tradition--this problematic of the romantic artist evolves differently for Villa because despite some superficial correspondence the relation of Ireland and Europe (in Joyce's case) is different from the relation between the Philippines and the United States. One thinks also of the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo's long exile in France and the African/Caribbean intellectual's diaspora (C.L.R. James, Fanon, Aime Cesaire).
As an interview done in 1982 reveals, Villa's rebellion against his parents was traumatic--we find there a replication of Baudelaire and Flaubert's classic epater le bourgeois motivation transposed into a Third World milieu. Situated in its overdetermined social context, Villa's personal predicament becomes an allegory of the Filipino intellectual born (1908) into a colonial world where the displacement of Spanish culture (and the Spanish language) and the suppression of the indigenous revolutionary forces--their culture and their plural vernaculars--have closed the paths to a restoration of the Propaganda renaissance of the ilustrados (Rizal, del Pilar) and the fruitful liaison with the popular strata. Synthesis of those traditions into one national-popular culture in the Philippines is up to now still an unfinished agenda. In his stories where the Rizal hero-figure functions as an Imaginary mediation, Villa certainly understood the need to break out of a collective mirror-stage: the Rizal myth fostered by the colonial ideological state apparatuses bred idiosyncratic characters, Anderson's "grotesques," whose pathos sublimated the aspiration for national sovereignty. In Villa's theater of the soul, Rizal no longer inspires seditious violence; instead he provokes fantasies of requited love, bizarre analogues of integrity, fulfilled desire, autonomy. In most of the stories where "race consciousness" supposedly predominates, we find the cyclical time of patriarchal-feudal society interrupted by the irrational force of sexuality ("Footnote to Youth"), disease and decay ("Given Woman"), and the exorbitance of woman's time ("Valse Triste" and "Malakas"). What we find in Villa's fiction on domestic life--in contrast to the apologues or didactic fables of "Mir-i-Nisa" and "Kamya" which continues an indigenous tradition of folk-storytelling--is a displacement of the literary system of emergent social realism found in the massive production of novels and satirical drama (notably the seditious plays and later the sarsuwela) in the vernacular which embodied the radical impulse for popular democracy and national independence. Because Villa used English, the language of privilege identified with the colonial power, and because his experience of subordination occurred not in the directly economic but in the more complexly mediated spheres of intellectual and cultural production, he had no use for the code of social realistic representation which aimed to construct a collective agent of social transformation. For Villa, the crisis of representation bedevilling contemporary Filipino writers never arose. What was available for Villa under the historical circumstances of Philippine colonial society in the twenties was the U.S. literary mode of representing moral and ethical problems of colonial subjects as versions of individual psychological experience--the rendering of family, class and national situations as symptoms of a breakdown in the power of a monadic subjectivity to intervene effectively in specific life-circumstances. Curiously enough, the paradigm of the transition from rural to urban life, its ordeals and challenges, informing the fiction of Sherwood Anderson and other anti-genteel writers appealed tremendously to Villa. In any case, the master-plot of experiencing individual isolation, disillusionment, and resignation found in many stories written in the twenties and thirties serves as a synecdochic trope for the disempowerment of the Filipino people as a whole and their fragmentation into isolated citizens governed by the laws of symbolic exchange (labor-power as commodity) within the philosophical framework of liberal democractic ideology and its disciplinary regimes in civil society. Hence the attraction for Villa and his generation of the individualist dramas of the soul in Anderson, Hemingway, etc. Everything of the past has become problematized. In the first twenty years of U.S. colonial consolidation and the campaign for hegemonic control in the Philippines, we are confronted with an interregnum where the antagonism between ideological practices, codes and norms, cultural systems of representation were still in the process of unfolding. This can account for the hybrid and syncretic nature of Villa's fiction, its mixture of tones ("The Woman Who Looked Like Christ" is the prime exhibit here) and its tendency to mannerism and self-parody (a trait also displayed in the later poems) despite the presence of certain recurrent themes and motifs that give the illusion of coherence.
We have yet to theorize the process of transition from the pre-exilic stage (late twenties to 1930) to the silence and cunning of the Depression years (from 1933 to 1942), that is, from the texts (many still available only in rare magazines) of Villa's apprenticeship where the influence of the Western tradition (e.g. Biblical rhythms) and the indigenous aphoristic/didactic strain consorted easily with the avantgarde impulse of breaking down the syntagmatic chain of discourse (see "Poems from an Unhumble One"; Selected Poems 211-13). For this theorizing, the model of metropolis-periphery needs to be modified by stressing the appropriative capacity of the subaltern more than the reactive defense mechanisms. I submit that Footnote to Youth affords us some insight into Villa's response to the challenge of fragmentation, heterogeneity, difference--the homogenizing of time-space by the power of money and commodity-exchange which was slowly encroaching into the ecological organic lifeworld of Filipino traditional life. What I think will provide the key to Villa's modernism and his existentialist project of discovering essence, "man's selfhood and identity in the mystery of Creation," may be found in the process of mediation between the colonial mentality of concrete contextualization and the dynamics of symbolic exchange in the metropolitan milieu represented by the way the stories of the transition (in particular "Wings and Blue Flame: A Trilogy" as well as "Song I Did Not hear" and "Young Writer in a New Country") tried to resolve their conflicts. These texts capture the crisis of the transition, the passage of the Filipino sensibility into the intensely commodified world of what David Harvey calls the Fordist compression of time-space in world capitalism.
Villa confessed that he wrote his prize-winning story "Mir-i-Nisa" to obtain money for his passage from the Philippines to the United States. We can see in the structure of this story how Villa's conflict with his father and by extension the patriarchal feudal order (inter alia the state university and its censors) is mediated by the form of an ordeal or test where the daughter Mir-i-Nisa, through her father's help, succeeds in deciding to marry the tame Tasmi instead of the fiery, sweet-tongued Achmed. Achmed's "ingenious" character leads him to lie, to pretend that he found the "pearl"--an illusion found him out. But this truth the mother asks his son not to reveal to his father: the honest and truth-telling father should not know what actually happened, should continue to live in innocence. But this is the collective wisdom being orally transmitted to the generation coming of age, a wisdom testifying to a solidarity of belief in certain absolute precepts, to a system whose continuity is founded on the distrust of speech unless guaranteed by action, on the precedence of integrity over passion. The narrative machinery of the fable which Villa inherits from indigenous oral folklore survives as residual ornament in "Malakas" and "Kamya" but breaks down or is finally dismantled in the tales of "grotesques" like "The Woman Who Looked Like Christ" where the desacralizing force of modernity becomes visible, or in "Footnote to Youth" where the reproductive urge severs the generations and the father's erstwhile rebellious will is rendered impotent by the uncanny repetition of his own past in his son. The rapid displacements of time-space (from the brief moment of freedom from Spanish rule to brutal American reprisals) offer barriers difficult to negotiate. We sense here a glimpse of that futility and resignation which overtook the generation of Villa's father (Aguinaldo and the ilustrados of the Malolos Republic) and inspired the compromising and even opportunist rituals of the "nationalist" politicians surrounding Osmena and Quezon.
When Villa arrives in the United States at the beginning of the depression, the subaltern intellectual undergoes a fateful metamorphosis: he abandons the subject-position of colonial deracinated/paranoid rebel and tries to construct on the borderline of the migrant's nomadic space a simulacra of self-reconciliation. Decentered by colonial marginalization, he seeks unity of being, wholeness, recognition as a gifted artist taking advantage of "careers open to talent"--a citizen of the Republic of Humane Letters. Invested with native ressentiment, he also seeks revenge. In the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, the unresolved contradictions of Villa's personal life--a microcosm of the multilayered antagonisms in colonial society as a whole--begin to be played out in the metropolitan arena of intense commodity-reification. The diary-like notations of his life in the new environment found in "Wings and Blue Flame: A Trilogy" might strike one as arbitrary, pointless transcription of routine incidents; Casper in fact condemns its "artificial cellular geometry" as conveying only "the mechanical aftermath of loss," static proclamations of vision and not the unfolding of the process of experience (104). But at the risk of the imitative fallacy I would say that precisely this form of representing Villa's shock of initiation in industrial society (even though mediated in the desert landscape of New Mexico, itself a binary opposite to both the exuberant geography of the Philippines and the "wilderness" of New York City) attests to the breakdown of realistic continuity which still sutured the spasmodic epiphanies of Winesburg, Ohio. This impasse prepares the way for the Villa of reversed consonance, the comma poems, and the attenuated energy of the "Adaptations."
What gives coherence to the "Trilogy" is the drama of self-recovery operated mainly by metonymic juxapositions sliding into metaphor. Note the way the protagonist's sense of loss and dispossession, his loneliness, his apparent lack of control are all gradually overcome by fantasy, by the discovery of metaphor as a means of restoring intelligibility. This discovery of being able to complete the sentence which apostrophizes him as agent: "You...." is cathartic in its fortuitousness: "31. One night I stopped talking to myself. I was no longer incoherent and the sentence on my lips that began with 'You....' got finished. 32. The finished sentence was beauteous as a dancer in the dawn. The sentence was finished at night but it was not like the night but like the dawn." This power of articulation substitutes for the erotic pleasure of caressing Georgia's blond hair: "67. After I finished the sentence that was beauteous as a dancer in the dawn I did not care to touch her hair." The artist assures himself that language heals and restores wholeness. This leads to a self-negation, a saying goodbye to the self alienated from his surroundings, from President Hoover's home in Palo Alto or the poor crippled woman selling pencils on a sidewalk in California or the nigger worker in the Pullman train who behaved automatically "like a machine": "70. I was nowhere. I was now only a shell, a house. The house of myself was empty" (88). The signs of bondage and suffering in the United States only reflect the father's negativity. His anger sublimates itself into "a gorgeous purple flower" which, kissing the "soft dark hair" of Aurora becomes "God's white flower" at which point, Villa says, "I was no longer angry with my father."
Throughout the trilogy, the colonial patriarch is the signifier of division and of a ruptured identity : "I left myself with my mother because I had always loved her but I took with me the tree of my father, my new love, to the new land--America." By a paradoxical turn the animus toward the father who separated him from Vi becomes impregnative; the son's imagination refuses substitutes for the prohibited woman in the homeland and mobilizes its own resources: "Warming woman, warming woman," he sings as he suffers in a phantasized cold dark room in New York City. It is not the women but the male friends who test his capacity of self-regeneration and catalyzes his resolve: when the impoverished David who first befriended him leaves, Villa says: "I died in myself."
In "White Interlude," he affirms the value of pain because he is not a machine: "I am like a great mother wing nourishing loves and never deserting them." Nevertheless he wonders: "Had I ever been lost to some one?...If I were lost to some one how was I to know? Would God whisper to me the beauteous name? ---I am waiting for your whisper, God. I am waiting for your whisper." The young artist suffers a sequence of losses: Vi, David, then Wicki, Jack, Johnny. In the last section of the trilogy, "Walk at Might: A Farewell," the protagonist now envisions himself a child born from the beating of God's wings against blue flame" so that in the pain of his love for Jack and Johnny he undergoes "a silence of death" while he clutches wildflowers lying on the "cool earth's breast" until he is possessed with an ecstatic vision of God's turbulent wings:
60 I am hungry for You, O God! 61 Stronger beat God's white wings--stronger blew God's kind winds--stronger God ran His fingers through my hair. And then I knew: No, no, Johnny! It is enough to know the Bird is there...to know His Wings are beating for me. It is enough...it is enough! And then as I turned to Johnny the rain of music was everywhere, in the air and in me, and I was no longer unhappy and the thought of Jack and the walk I had made alone did not hurt any more. And I knew that when I lay on the ground, with the sky wet with stars above me, I was taking Jack out of me and giving him to the earth and to the sky, and white flowers in my hands were my gifts of forgiveness.
This process of cancelling the posessive and privatizing aura of affection is repeated in "Song I Did Not Hear." But this time it is the "I" who substitutes for Jack and questions Joe Lieberman's friendship--in fact Lieberman becomes the surrogate for the father whose knowledge kills, and for Christ. But it was Jack whom the speaker loved the most and who hurt him the most. It is here in this triadic situation that Villa's characterization of Jack becomes emblematic of the larger relation between the marginal subaltern (self-conscious of implicit racial boundaries, the Jewish Lieberman reenacts the father's curse, so that Villa accuses him of Vi's being lost) and the dominant, colonizing master: "Jack's life was walled thickly and nobody could break into him. The house of his life was strong but it was empty of people.... Jack's life was an arena: all soil and no sky: only the unresponsiveness of earth without sky" (256). Villa is ambivalent: he entreats God to purge Jack out of his life but at the same time he wants him "always to be in my life...even if it hurts" (258). Isn't this the typical dependency syndrome? In the end, despite his praise for God's wisdom whispering to man how difficult love is and his vow that "I will be winged again!" we are left with the lingering doubt which sums up the atomized and alienated condition of life in a commodity-centered world: "And would I have known why I could never enter Jack's life...even as Joe Lieberman could not enter mine?" (260-61).
Villa's vocation is thus rooted in the elision of erotic attachment and the transfer of libidinal cathexis to a self now assured of its capacity to give, and receive, pleasure. This yields an aesthetic model of self-reconciliation which is given a sharper and more overt formulation in "Young Writer in a New Country." In the homeland the poet feels in harmony with the natural surroundings; youth and love and nature blend together until the Law of the Father decrees exile and converts the "plenitude" of language, the full word, into what would become the free-play of signifiers, relations, perspectives:
At night, in the new country, I would say to myself: "America, America." I lie in bed quietly, trying to think what it really means. A wind blows through the open window and makes me shiver. America is cold, for the moment that is my thought. In the homeland--never any snow. In the homeland, greenness. O green, O warmth, O bamboos unforgotten--
What I want to say is that I could not make out anything. I lay in bed, wanting sleep to come, but all the time my lips kept saying: "America, America"--fondling the words, wanting to know what they meant. But nothing got solved in my mind. (300-301)
The poet understands that Vi has been changed by Time, that she also aspires for the freedom he enjoys, and that the father is not responsible for lying--it is the mutations occurring in time that dissolve the antinomy between truth and lie. "But Time that hurts also knows how to heal." Abstract symbolic exchange has taken over; a general equivalent of value--Villa's "essence"--is discovered. This is also shown when Villa memorializes David, his first friend, as the figure of impoverished humanity, honored because he lacks the speed of industrial civilization.
Finally the discourse of place, body, inheritance and need culminates in the colonial subject being reborn in the desert of New Mexico (note the reference to the trilogy), where the Oedipal crisis is surmounted in a totalizing myth: the imagination as the ideal solution to the conflict of universal and particular, the polarities of solitary ego and community and of father and sons, the antagonisms of subjugated people and imperial master, of phantasy and the circumscribed body:
Do you see America getting clearer in my mind? Do you see myself getting articulate, getting voice? Little by little calm comes to my mind. Little by little comes my white birth--a cool white birth in a new land.
It was then that my stories were born--of the homeland and the new land. Some of you may have read them--they were cool, afire with coolth.
I, father of tales. Fathering tales I became rooted to the new land. I became lover to the desert. Three tales had healed me.
Now Villa thematizes his role as prophet in the wilderness, passing through the sinful stations of Chicago, Milwaukee, Washington until he reaches New York City where he is detained (for ultimate salvaging?), suspended between those two origins, tired from "daytime movement and nighttime movement"--the circulation of the psyche mimicking "the leveling, equalizing, indifferent operations of the commodity form itself, which respects no unique identity, transgresses all frontiers, melts solidity into air, and profanes the holy" (Eagleton 36). What Villa accomplishes from here on may interpreted as a ritual performance to exorcise a transgression, to fulfill an unspoken promise or vow, to appease the furies of what he could have been if he did not make the decision to embrace exile into the master's foretress, as it were, from where he could plot his return as "anchored angel":
What I am trying to say is that I left the desert, the desert of my white birth--and now I want to return to it. I want it to enfold me completely, I will surrender, I will never leave it.
But in the homeland, there I was young....
Do you get what I am driving you to see? I am crying for the desert, for the peace of the desert.
Will the native land forgive? Between your peace and the peace of a strange faraway desert--Between your two peaces--
O tell softly, softly. Forgive softly. (303-04)
All this as a prologue to inviting a tiger for a weekend.
We have moved thus a long way from the narrative continuity of "Mir-I-Nisa" and "Footnote to Youth," the quasi-parables about Rizal's doubles, and the montage of scenes in the trilogy. In "Young Writer in a New Country," a collage of open-ended confessional revelations fails to pass the test which Villa, in an article written in 1936, applies to the short story as a dramatic art, the requirement of a dramatic-unitive principle, organic completeness, finality ("The Contemporary Short Story" 287-88). But no matter: life's problems must be lived through. And the journey of self-integration seems to have terminated in New York City where, in 1938, the Filipino critic Federico Mangahas found Villa living in dire straits but quite obsessed with his being acknowledged as the only worthwhile painter of the Philippines on the basis of four paintings of a face which struck Mangahas enough to record the following impression: "I notice that the face to which he had called my attention was really one and the same thing in every canvas whether of a woman or a child or a man--a highly simplified geometric-like gesture that struck me as a much stylized representation of the artist's face intensely idealised. It must be said to be the human face, perfected in the artist's own, liberated of all human handicaps" (iii). Narcissus has displaced the Promethean anti-Christ of the "divine poems" as the rumbling of apocalypse is heard from a distance. It appears that on the face of the relentless challenge of the fascist Minotaur, Villa has withdrawn to the study of his persona, his mask, which was the only alternative left after his departure from the desert of New Mexico whose "windloved sands" stood in stark contrast to the opaque density of the anomic marketplace.
Sometime before Mangahas' visit, the leading progressive intellectual Salvador P. Lopez who had vehemently condemned Villa's early poetry for its illogic and obscurantism conversed with the poet in his Greenwich Village. Although they had opposing temperaments and beliefs, Lopez and Villa were united as expatriates in the United States, the colonizing power. Because both shared a passionate commitment to art, Lopez was able to elicit this revealing evidence of a double process of awareness and deflection inscribed in Villa's conceptualization of his practice:
It is not true that I am wholly lacking in the "social consciousness" of which you speak. There is no place in all the world where this consciousness is more ubiquitous and powerful than New York. I have been exposed to it continually, and my artist friends here have chided me for what they consider to be my indifference exactly as you have chided me for it back home. But why have I not written poems or stories of social significance? Because I am an artist, and in the kind of art I believe in and to which I have given my whole allegiance, there is no place for anything that has to do with social, economic or political problems. The whole function of the poet is to arouse pleasure in the beautiful. Propaganda does something else. (Lopez 162)
Villa's credo is quite familiar since Kant's Critique of Judgment gave philosophical legitimacy to the division of social labor and the hierarchization of the faculties that have altered the production and consumption of knowledge since the Renaissance. (Kant of course simply articulates in theory what has already happened since the enclosure movement, the Atlantic slave trade, and the rise of the factory system.) But Lopez would rather examine the texts. He remonstrated with his judgment that some poems which later appeared in Have Come, Am Here exhibit semantic thickness or topical worldliness, and they are good poems, to which Villa retorts:
...but not as good as the purely artistic ones I have written. These poems have been written with a purpose, and any purpose other than the creation or celebration of beauty is fatal to poetry as art. They are addressed to the intellect, and the truly beautiful poem should never be addressed to anything but the emotions.
Poetry should approximate painting as closely as possible, and as in painting the greatest canvases are those which have magically caught one mood or aspect at least of beauty, so in poetry the greatest poems are those which, in memorable words, achieve an identical object. (Lopez 163)
In the 1982 interview I referred to earlier, Villa reaffirmed his conception of poetry as the expression of universals that "touch the essence of life," devoid of descriptive details. Since poetry is designed to evoke pleasure in the manipulation of language, the paramount concern of the artist is the refinement of his craft. Form, not content; craft is all--"If you have the art of writing, whatever you say becomes good...Without technique you have nothing.... The select always demand craft....Craft is control....Art is craft before it is meaning. First, craft, then meaning...." (Fernandez 294, 307). Hewing closely to Mallarme's axiom that poems are made of words, not ideas or meanings, Villa's artisanal mentality (affiliated to a pragmatic outlook) springs from the means/end rationality of modern bureaucratic administration and corporate technocracy. Its essentialism--its privileging of craft--is however enabled by what it denies, the silence or invisiblity of what is deemed "content" or raw material being already asserted in the categorization of what is present. It is generally agreed, however, that forms and techniques have their own historical specificities (T. S. Eliot once said that a modern writer cannot use blank verse anymore since that conventional pattern implies more than itself, implies in fact a whole universe of meanings, beliefs, practices.) Villa's inveterate avantgardism itself, his valorizing of craft (form becoming its own content), can be conceived as symptomatic of the modernist anxiety to defy tradition and aim for the new and the strange. Villa's penchant for inventing violations of the rule--e.g. reversed consonance, the mechanical use of the comma and other punctuations (to surpass e.e. cummings) as well as playful parodies like "The Emperor's New Sonnet" and the postmodernist pastiche of his adaptations--all exemplify this anxiety. "If you will do this you will break/The little religions for my sake...." Villa adopts the problematic of Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Picasso, Eisenstein, Strindberg, and so on. The Russian Formalist principle of ostranenie, defamiliarization or estrangement, may be said to underwrite the avantgarde program of endless experimentalism and innovation, shocking novelty for its own sake or to scandalize the philistine bourgeoisie. Originally introduced as a strategy to circumvent the levelling power of the commodity-form and the equalizing abstraction of money in nineteenth-century commercial society, aestheticism harbors both an anticipatory and utopian thrust as well as a nostalgic, reactionary agenda. In futurism and its offshoot in high modernism, we find the principle of technical innovation and functionality upheld as the realization of the power of the romantic imagination to humanize nature and unleash the potential of the spirit for self-fulfillment in secular life. In the focus on artisanal finesse and cult paradigms, we find a retreat to the medieval community or to a handicraft stage of production. Villa tends to fluctuate between these ideals, at one moment emphasizing the virtue of artisanal skill and at another moment exalting genius. Either way, they function for Villa as modes of sublating the predicament of the Third World artist who is forced to adopt the conqueror's language for ends which he believes transcend the contingencies of birthplace, memories, concrete cultural practices, experiences of specific times and places. Could this project of transcendence have spelled Villa's disappearance from the U.S. literary scene and its domination by the market? What could be salvaged from this exemplary performance for post-colonial writers struggling against the still undeterred power of the imperial Canon?
In the period from the thirties to the fifties, Villa's range of poetic themes and styles was dictated and limited by the dominance of the standards of the New Criticism and its models: the Metaphysical poets, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound's dicta ("make it new"), T. S. Eliot's synthesis of classical reference and the French symbolists, etc. Villa has acknowledged the influence of E.E. Cummings, Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Elinor Wylie, and to some extent Sitwell, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and Dylan Thomas. Although Villa's "divine poems" echo Donne, Hopkins and Dickinson, they deviate in their intent to reenact a stylized psychomachia in order to abolish the hierarchy of institutional religion. They seek to reinstate the inaugural demiurgic role of the human mind in something like a versification of Feuerbach's humanist reversal of Christianity. Given the subaltern's tendency to mimick the colonizer's repertoire, Villa's antinomianism derives less from the axioms of irony and paradox and metaphysical conceit endorsed by New Criticism than from the project of simultaneously abrogating the hegemonic rule of the English language (symbolic of the colonial predicament) and reappropriating it to prove one's autonomy and integrity.
After the typographical disruption of syntax and grammar as tokens of his will to demonstrate mastery of the imposed language, Villa's "reversed consonance" and the use of the comma to deliberately slow the flow of utterrance (in Villa's words, to regulate the poem's "verbal density and time movement" analogous to Seurat's pointillism)--recall how he bewailed the civilization of speed in the trilogy--aim to prove the resourcefulness of his self-conscious craftsmanship and his avantgarde credentials. He is not scandalizing any critic who is aware that, following Jakobson, the poetic act imposes the paradigmatic axis on the syntagmatic, the synchronic on the diachronic process of utterance, metaphor on metonymy. The "Adaptations," however, are less improvisations than attempts to uncover "pure poetry" in the debased counters of commercial advertisments and mass media, hoping to find in Time, Newsweek, New York Times, and Life Magazine language's authentic voice. This is Villa's approximation to postmodernist performance or eventual verse whose ego-cancelling objective is inspired by anarchist/ pacifist politics premised on Buddhist and Taoist cosmology (Mottram 615-16). If American culture--as one hypothetical formulation puts it--is distinguished by a refusal to predicate the present on the sacred authority of an originating covenant so that every act bears its own legitimacy, its "self-born purity of both intention and execution" (Berthoff 661), then Villa's habit of beginnings puts him squarely in the genealogy of Whitman, Ezra Pound, the Beat generation (Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara), and Charles Olson whose creed annuls the ego or person so that "events do the work" in re-enacting poetic utterance (Mottram 612).
But is this American exceptionalism consonant with the struggle of peoples (Amerindians, African-Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans) whose histories have been interrupted, suppressed at their beginnings by EuroAmerican violence?
Villa resists this identification with the Whitman/Pound lineage for the simple reason that the world he inhabits has not recognized the presence of his subjectivity, his position as decolonizing agent. His "divine poems" persistently replay his challenge to "God" to validate his image in the "genius" of the poet-maker (Selected Poems 35-41; see in particular his Miltonic/Blakean homage to the rebellious Lucifer in poem #45). Villa's project is to invent the subject-position of social agent which EuroAmerican artists already take as given, to "break the genetic economy" where the "I-Absolute" will spring "in a Time-land of decimals," as he says in "Parthenogensis of Genius" (Selected Poems 114). Nor can Villa afford to sacrifice whatever piece of territory he has claimed to a universalizing ethnopoetics championed by Jerome Rothenberg and others, a "symposium of the whole" that would supposedly include the excluded: "the female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and the failure," the bush man, the child, the ape (Mottram 598)--but not, it seems, a Filipino writer named Jose Garcia Villa. Such a new striving for an inter-cultural sociality in the program of American postmodernist poetics is clearly attuned to what Fredric Jameson calls the cultural logic of late or multinational capitalism, a program symptomatic of what Warner Berthoff calls the distinguishing core theme of American literature: "the dream of an exemption from history, an escape from either continuity or consequence in the cycles of elected experience" (662).
If Villa is really trying to be exempt from history, then he is as American as, say, Frank O'Hara who, invoking Whitman and Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams, seek to abolish the "book" and install the poem "at last between two persons." But Villa's commitment is to "the book" in Mallarme's sense, to erase the blank space into which he (together with millions of other Third World peoples) has been hurled by imperial violence. Unlike O'Hara and Olson, Villa wants to write his signature between "the Wall of China," the past from which he has been disconnected, and "the tiger tree," "the betrayer tree" of modern industrial civilization. If print-capitalism spawns the imagined community of the modern nation-state, then the precursor for this is the metaphysics of "the book." But in the non-sychronous levels of a Third World formation, the book competes with other signifying systems both residual and emergent: oral, cinematic, visual and gestural/performance arts. Ironically this book has to be invented through the mediation of Hopkins' sprung rhythm, the mythological machinery of Christianity where Christ is secularized into a "six-turbined deadlock prince," an Orientalist geography ("Sanskrit of love," "Arabian...love flecked eye") and the discoveries of experimental science ("cobalts love," "Genesis' phosphor"). Using the narrative of the incarnation and eroticizing the passion of Christ as the poet's, "The Anchored Angel" exalts the poet as the hermaphroditic angelic liaison, perhaps the maternal agency--"Genesis unfissured spy"--between the spirit (Verb-verb) and "Christ's gentle egg: His terrific sperm." While Villa's poem on the surface appears so remote from the immediate problems of the impoverished colonial artist trying to survive in the heartland of the imperial power, in "the belly of the beast" (as Jose Marti put it), yet in offering a substitute sense of wholeness, ecstasy and fulfillment realized in poetic language, he demarcates a space for the subject of enunciation not just to be represented but to speak and present himself. In the transposition of Christian myth to an allegory of the poet's empowerment:"So birthright lanced I hurl my bloodbeat Light," the signifiers seem to liberate themselves from the signified. Not the least token of this empowerment is the dislocation of the coherence of the syntagmatic chain (via sprung rhythm, parataxis, obscure allusions, distancing idiom, four-stress popular meter) which characterizes Villa's practice, a technique which Antony Easthope (in his instructive book Poetry as Discourse) argues is the archetypal modernist strategy for abolishing (not just decentering) the transcendental ego, foregrounding the materiality of the signifier and the sociohistoric determinants of the writing process, and opening up a subject-position for a community of speakers/readers, the matrix of enunciation and communicative action. In this way, the problematic of aestheticism--the privileging of the self-identical verbal icon--self-destructs in the endless substitutions along the paradigmatic axis so that closure is forfeited. The "book" is a script open to oppositional readings and utopian articulations.
In proposing that Villa's poems be read as allegorical constructions of a subject-position for the decolonizing artist, a subject responsible for enunciation and not just a recipient of the Establishment's address, commands and injunctions, I want to use as rationale for this procedure the insights of Theodor Adorno in his provocative essay "Lyric Poetry and Society." Adorno counters the commonsense notion that lyric poetry is "the untouched virgin word...free of the impositions of the everyday world, of usefulness, of the dumb drive for self-preservation." This demand, Adorno writes,
is in itself social in nature. It implies a protest against a social condition which every individual experiences as hostile, distant, cold, and oppressive; and this social condition impresses itself on the poetic form in a negative way: the more heavily social conditions weigh, the more unrelentingly the poem resists, refusing to give in to any heteronomy, and constituting itself purely according to its own particular laws. Its detachment from naked existence becomes the measure of the world's falsity and meanness. Protesting against these conditions, the poem proclaims the dream of a world in which things would be different. The idiosyncrasy of poetic thought, opposing the overpowering force of material things, is a form of reaction against the reification of the world, against the rule of the wares of commerce over people which has been spreading since the beginning of the modern era--which, since the Industrial Revolution, has established itself as the ruling force in life. Even Rilke's 'cult of things' [recall Williams' slogan of 'back to the thing itself!' which inspired Olson and a whole generation of American poets; Rilke is one of Villa's favorite poets] belongs to this form of idiosyncracy, as an attempt to bring the alien objects into subjectively pure expression and dissolve them there--to give their alienness metaphysical credit. The aesthetic weakness of this cult of things, the cryptic gesture, the mixing of religion and decorative handicraft, betrays at once the genuine power of reification that can no longer be painted over with a lyric aura, and can no longer be comprehended. (58-59)
How is the lyric poem to be construed as a metacommentary on modern society where reification inflicts its toll the more it is denied or ignored, where aestheticizing individualism (the fetishism of objects and artefacts) is the revealing index of its subordination to its Other? Adorno defines the lyric form in general:
What we mean by lyric...has within it, in its 'purest' form, the quality of a break or rupture. The subjective being that makes itself heard in lyric poetry is one which defines and expresses itself as something opposed to the collective and the realm of objectivity. While its expressive gesture is directed toward, it is not intimately at one with nature. It has, so to speak, lost nature and seeks to recreate it through personification and through descent into the subjective being itself. Only after a transformation into human form can nature regain anew that which man's rule over her has taken away. Even lyrical creations which are untouched by conventional, material existence, by the crude world of material objects, owe their high worth to the power the subjective being within them has, in overcoming its alienation, to evoke an image of the natural world. Their pure subjectivity, apparently flawless, without breaks and full of harmony, actually witnesses to the opposite, to a suffering caused by existence foreign to the subject, as much as it shows the subject's love toward that existence. (59)
There is no doubt that Villa's poems can no longer evoke that "image of the natural world" still discernible in the early poems; in fact, the theme of dispossession (as in the first poem quoted earlier) together with the poet's struggle to overcome the loss, to assert his control over the situation and challenge fate, is what pervades the majority of his poems. What is evoked is the scenario of discovery of creative power (together with the force stifling it) intimated in "The Anchored Angel," the realization of autonomy. What is precipitated in the poems are historical forces which oppose alienation and reification--both the reality-effect and domination-effect are given utterance in the poem. By virtue of its own subjectivity, Adorno argues, lyric poetry as a genre possesses this objective content: "it has this objectivity only if its withdrawal into itself and away from the social surface is motivated by social forces over and beyond the head of its author" (62). One social force is linguistic form which confirms the proposition that individual and society, subject and object, are comprehended only in the process of their dialectical interaction. Lyric poetry, Adorno says, "is the experimental test of this philosophical proposition. In the lyric poem the subject negates both his naked, isolated opposition to society as well as his mere functioning within rationally organized society" (63).
The silences and gaps contoured by the problematic and disclosed by Adorno's symptomatic gloss can be apprehended in the imagery, diction, rhythm and design of the poem itself. By this linkage of presence and absence, Villa's poems can be grasped as "the subjective expression of a social antagonism" whose elements I have sketched earlier.
Finally I want to quote here a testimony, a dialogic counterpoint if you like to the biographical statement I used as my point of departure for this meditation on the case of a disappeared Third World artist. In his 1982 interview, Villa was asked whether it is true that American critics consider him an American poet. He replied: not true, as witnessed by his being denied the Bollingen Prize in 1949 because he was not an American citizen; instead Wallace Stevens won the prize. The epithet "American" is reduced to its juridical/legal signification. Another injury Villa resents: unlike Conrad Aiken, W. H. Auden and Selden Rodman, Oscar Williams refused to include Villa in his anthology because Villa was not, legally speaking, an American. When asked whether Villa considers himself a Filipino--of all metaphysical questions!--Villa gives an overdetermined response which epitomizes the ethico-symbolic status of millions of Filipinos in the United States: "Yes, I am a Filipino, but an American resident" (308). (Incidentally, in this interview, Villa also mentioned his preference for two philosophers glorified by existentialism: Nicholas Berdyaev and Friedrich Nietzsche.)
In the fin-de-siecle postmodern era, the era of a post-Persian Gulf "New World Order," Villa remains disappeared partly by choice and partly by the asymmetrical global picture in which the Philippines (which identifies him as its "National Artist") remains a neocolonial dependency of the United States, Japan and the consortium of interests represented by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Why he chooses to do so may be illuminated by this document entitled ,,A Composition,, published in 1953 but probably written in the time when the Hukbalahap uprising in the Philippines was being suppressed by the CIA-backed government of Ramon Magsaysay and when the carnage of the war in Korea, gateway to Vietnam, was subtly and painstakingly marking the demise of pax Americana:
My name is Jose, my name is Villa.
I was born on the island of Manila, in the city of Luzon.
My true name is Doveglion.
My business is ascension.*
("Ascension" here has nothing to do with the Biblical ascension of Christ. The reference is to man's inner development.)[Villa's footnote]
I was born on the island of Manila, in the city of Luzon. My country is the Country of Doveglion.
The Country of Doveglion is a strange country: Boundaries it has none--and yet boundaries it has:
Subhumans cannot live there.
Only the Earth Angels, the true humans, may live there. These perceive my rigors, my perils and fervors, my hazards and possibles, my graces, my invincibles, and claim my citizenship: them I greet.
Even the Heaven Angels have deserted Heaven for the Country of Doveglion! There are fiftyfive Angels only but now they have found their true Allegiance.
It was a winter night God,s fiftyfive angels deserted Him to warm themselves at my side. For I am the South, God is the North: though the North is but the South,s reflection. But every spring I go North, God comes South: then the South is the North's image....This is our Movement, mine and my fiftyfive angels. Mystery is here and greatly. A Moving Country! A country that moves to follow Fire! That is a real Country.
Countries should learn to move.
And follow always the ones of Light. Land is not real country: it is commerce, agriculture, politics: a husk country.
The soul is my grand dominion, my grand possession.
It is the ,,I,, I write about, the I of Identity, the Eye of Eternity.
Not the I of mostpeople, the tambor I: the big little rhetor I of conceit, the hollow midget I, the grammarian,s derelict I. This is the I of aggrandizement, of vainglory, the micro I of poverty.
The I of Identity, the eye of Eternity, is the ore-I, the fundamentalizer I. The I that cannot discontinue itself: the truefarer amazer I. The voyager, ransomer and parablist I: the I that accosts and marauds eternity--the covenantal I. This is the ,,I,, I write about, the true and classic I, the I of the Upward Gravity.
I fundamentalize and situate the I.
So that Life may have a light, so that God can cast a shadow.
The I has no shadow.
For fire has no shadow.
Eternity is the creation of the I,s direct temporal flower.
The I can have only a temporal flower, for the I is housed in temporal soil and the temporal soil can yield only a temporal flower. In temporality the I and the I,s direct flower must exist and be achieved.
Conjugator death will illuminate and bloom it, as corsair death will end it.
Yet the temporal flower can have a permanent flower. And this is Art only that can be the permanent flower.
Art is the permanent flower of the I,s direct temporal flower.
But temporal flower must have a Core of flower!
Art is the flower Within the flower.
Eternity demands of a man only his direct perfect flower. If the perfect permanent flower appear, eternity is twice.
And that is Immortality.
Biography I have none and shall have none. All my Pure shall beggar and defy biography.
Myself I busy creating my perfect temporal flower. That is my direct flower, my direct concern. Let the temporal flower, if it can, flower a permanent flower: if it is great enough it will blaze its italic image whether I will it or not. Ambition cannot create the italic flower.
If I attain out of my life two perfect flowers, two eternities--
The main thing always is that I lived
The First Eternity.
My name is Jose, my name is Villa.
My true name is Doveglion.
Doveglion is the author of Jose Garcia Villa.
What have we salvaged here: a myth of self-identity? a testimony of ethnogenesis? the voice of national liberation willing its transcendence from imperial exchange-value founded on logocentric, instrumental reason? A mimicry of the Enlightenment ideal of humanist emancipation, as indicated by the transposition of "ascension" to "man's inner development"? The deconstruction of the atomized, self-acquisitive, monadic ego of business society? Is it Lyotard's differend (Villa's "Earth Angels") exploding both the imperatives of universality and identity? Finally, is this the essentializing discourse of the unnameable disappeared, archetype of the exile and stranger in modern writing? Or is it the unrepresentable trace of Desire well beyond the reach of language, of critical theory, of the norms of postmodern civility and academic heteroglossia under the aegis of which I, we, presume to speak?--##
Adorno, Theodor W. "Lyric Poetry and Society." Telos 20 (Summer 1974): 56-71.
Aiken, Conrad, ed. Twentieth-Century American Poetry. New York: Random Hall, 1944.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back. London: Methuen, 1989.
Bennett, Tony. Formalism and Marxism. New York: Methuen, 1979.
Berthoff, Warner. "Continuity in Discontinuity: Literature in the American Situation." American Literature. Volume 9 of the New Pelican Guide to English Literature. Ed. Boris Ford. New York: Penguin, 1988.
Beverley, John and Marc Zimmerman. Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990.
Casper, Leonard. New Writing from the Philippines. Syracuse: U of Syracuse P, 1966.
Easthope, Antony. Poetry As Discourse. London: Methuen, 1983.
Fernandez, Doreen G. and Edilberto Alegre. The Writer and His Milieu. Manila: De La Salle U P, 1986.
Grow, L. M. "Jose Garcia Villa: The Poetry of Calibration." World Literature Written in English 27.2 (1987): 326-44.
Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1989.
Kunitz, Stanley J., ed. Twentieth Century Authors. First Supplement. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1955.
Lopez, Salvador P. Literature and Society. Manila: University Publishing Co., 1940.
Manalo, Armando, ed. The Literary Apprentice 1948-49. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1949.
Mangahas, Federico. "Personal Introduction." Poems by Doveglion [by Jose Garcia Villa] Manila: Philippine Writers League, 1941. ii-vi.
Mottram, Eric. "'Forget About Being Original': Recent American Poetics." American Literature. Ed. Boris Ford. New York: Penguin, 1988.
Sanguineti, Eduardo. "The Sociology of the Avant-Garde." Sociology of Literature and Drama. Ed. Elizabeth and Tom Burns. London: Penguin Education, 1973.
Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.
Tinio, Rolando. "Villa's Values; or, The Poet You Cannot Always Make out, or Succeed in Liking Once Your're Able to." Brown Heritage. Ed. Antonio Manuud. Quezon City: Ateneo UP, 1967.
Villa, Jose Garcia. Footnote to Youth. Tales of the Philippines and Others. New York: Scribners, 1933.
----------------. Selected Poems and New. New York: McDowell Obolensky, 1958.
---------------. "The Contemporary Short Story." [first published in Prairie Schooner, Fall 1936] Filipino Essays in English. Ed. Leopoldo Y. Yabes. Quezon City: U of the Philippines P, 1962.
White, Hayden. "Literature and Social Action: Reflections on the Reflection Theory of Literary Art." New Literary History 12.2 (Winter 1980): 363-80.
Young, Robert, ed. Untying the Text. Boston: Routledge, 1981.
Aiken's Modern Library anthology included the following poems by Villa: "There Came You Wishing Me," "Be Beautiful, Noble, Like the Antique Ant," "God Said, 'I Made a Man,'"Now, If You Will Look in My Brain," "My Mouth Is Very Quiet," "The Way My Ideas Think Me," "Saw God Dead but Laughing," and "Mostly Are We Mostless" (396-400).
One Filipino critic, Rolando Tinio, seems to follow Casper's footsteps when he confesses difficulty in sympathizing with Villa's universe, "a universe completely evacuated of values which we can easily recognize as human. The landscape is completely antiseptic, like Mondrian" (724). Less adversarial though still mainly negative is L.M. Grow's recent appraisal (326-44).
On the nature of Villa's avantgardism, these remarks by Eduardo Sanguineti on Baudelaire are illuminating: "We see in the prostitution of which Baudelaire speaks a two-fold tendency which is intrinsic to the avant-garde. It expresses a heroic and pathetic straining for an immaculate product, which would be free of the immediate interplay of demand and supply, and which would, basically, be commercially enviable. At the same time and through precisely the same gesture, it expresses the cynical dexterity of the 'hidden persuader'launching on the art-market a commodity which might achieve instantaneous success, through sheer surprise and audacity, in competition with the feeble products of those who are less astute and less free from prejudices" (390-91).
Adorno's "dialectical" deciphering of the worldliness of poetic form finds support in Hayden White's remarks on the social function of literature in bourgeois society and how literature as a commodity "reflects" the social conditions of its production: "Considered as a commodity, the literary work would reflect the social conditions under which it was produced, the various conditions under which it was exchanged, and the various conditions under which it was used. Considered as a peice of historical evidence for the illumination of the social structures and processes of an earlier time, however, it is the exchange function that is crucial. It is the literary text which enters into the exchange system prevailing in a given society" (376).
I might note here that the term "disappeared," a literal translation of "desaparecidos," applied to persons kidnapped and killed by the military in Latin America (especially in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador) is a contribution of the Third World to the English language. The same goes for "salvaged" in the sense of abducted and murdered, applied in the Philippines to political dissenters or prisoners who disappear and appear later as corpses. A reversal is operated on the English word to make its meaning conform to the horrendous reality of a neocolonial truth vis-a-vis the fact that English is the language of business and the military, both institutions complicit with the U.S. in exploiting and oppressing the majority of sixty million Filipinos.
Villa has made only three visits to the Philippines, one in 1937 for two months, the second in 1962 when he was awarded a doctorate honoris causa by the Far Eastern University, and the third sometime in the seventies. During his visit in 1962, this "Filipino who made good" was reported to have said: "I feel haunted by my country!
During my visit I feel in love with my country and my people. It was very good realization, to have rediscovered myself as a Filipino."
use the term metaphysical to denote the ethic-philosophic force Ò à=_/ÿÿ 2 ø% ° 0
TOWARD A “NEW WORLD” POET: An Intellectual Biography of Jose Garcia Villa
A Project Proposal by E. San Juan, Jr.
Jose Garcia Villa (1914-1998), avantgarde artist from the Philippines, was probably the most neglected twentieth-century writer in the United States if not the whole world. In terms of his work and reputation from our current multicultural perspective, Villa encapsulates the complex and dynamic interaction between U.S. culture and a “third world” society, the former U.S. colony in southeast Asia, the Philippines. He represents an emergent Filipino American culture on the margin of the canonical mainstream, a product of American “tutelage” and the peculiar hybrid conjuncture of Spanish, Asian and Malayan cultures. In the process of a genealogical anatomy of Villa’s life and works, I will raise crucial questions about subjectification, autonomy, cross-cultural disseminations, and the bordercrossing resonance of a Weltliteratur in the epoch of cyber-globalization. Ultimately Villa may well turn out to be the unknown avatar of Goethe’s world citizen-artist, a native spirit from the colonial frontier materializing in the heart of the technocratic metropolis of the last “American” century.
Overall my project, an unprecedented one in this particular area of postcolonial cross-cultural encounters, is a comprehensive mapping of the directions of intellectual trends, both the hegemonic and the oppositional, manifest in what I may denominate as the Filipino vernacular speech, the syncretic differential idiom, of Villa. In the process I intend to explore fundamental philosophical questions in aesthetics and literary theory concerning subjectivity (the schizoid versus the paranoiac subject); the interplay of gender, class and race; intertextuality; the utopian imagination; “transnational” citizenship; the dialectics of national autonomy and cosmopolitan interdependence; and history as ethnographic meta-narrative—issues and topics at the center of the American cultural imaginary (initially explored in my previous books).
Villa was perhaps the first ethnic high modernist in the Asian diaspora. Born of the unique encounter between the traditional culture of a “third world” formation in Asia and the industrial Western ethos of an emergent world power, Villa almost singlehandedly founded modern writing in English in the Philippines. Two decades after the Filipino-American War of 1899-1903, Villa inaugurated the first self-conscious theoretical literary and art criticism in the Philippines. He is distinguished for initiating the project of synthesizing U.S. modernism (Anderson, Stein, Hemingway) with an emergent hybrid Filipino sensibility in his poems, stories, and critical discourse. This marked an unusual historic conjuncture: like Ruben Dario's modernist performance in Latin America, Villa's aestheticism registered the advent of a secularizing transgressive creativity in a milieu characterized by feudal and religious “structures of feeling.” We witness in Villa’s work the catalyzing encounter of old and new, with the demands of a pragmatic/commercial individualism filtered through a peculiar Asian/Malayan temperament, so poignantly dramatized in his first collection, Footnote to Youth (1938).
After two decades of colonial tutelage in the Philippines, Villa immigrated to the U.S. in 1930 and, after a brief sojourn at the University of New Mexico, lived in New York City until his death in 1998. When Villa moved to New York, his daring lyric voice, together with his technical idiosyncrasies and ingenious performative stance, attracted the attention of the leading critics and writers (among them, Conrad Aiken, Marianne Moore, Mark Van Doren, Babette Deutsch and Horace Gregory). His volumes Have Come Am Here (1942) and Volume Two (1949) arguably signify world-historical events in the subaltern’s search for cultural identity and spiritual liberation. Villa inexplicably lapsed into obscurity after the publication of Selected Poems and New (1958). With the 1999 publication of The Anchored Angel, an anthology of Villa’s major works together with substantial commentaries by Filipino critics, Villa has re-emerged from obscurity as a major intellectual force in a multicultural United States. His exemplary charismatic figure continues to exert even after his death a powerful influence on ethnic or minority intellectuals here and abroad..
Despite Villa’s fame, no sustained critical study of Villa's writing exists today. My proposal is to write a systematic interpretation and analysis of Villa's important works in the context of his life and the sociopolitical milieux (the Philippines and the United States) that his imagination textualized in radically innovative modes of expression. By a close textual-cultural reading of his writing situated in the stages of Villa's development as a public personality, from the rebellious bohemian youth of the twenties in the colonial “frontier” to the high-modernist rebel in the industrial metropolis of the forties and fifties, I will try to define the central themes, motifs, styles, and rhetorical strategies of his work in the hope of articulating the specific contribution Villa has made to the construction of the archetypal figure of the “third world” artist in late modernity. I hope to measure and judge Villa's achievement in the light of the immense cultural revolutions of thought and feeling that have radically transformed the global landscape of late modernity from the era of Freud and Picasso to the period of Warhol, Derrida and Foucault. Structuralist and poststructuralist insights, particularly the semiotic methodology of critics like Roland Barthes and the sociohistorical apparatus of Pierre Bourdieu, will be deployed to elucidate Villa's practice of writing, the theory of art implied by his texts, and its sociocultural implications. By using a cultural-studies approach, I hope to fashion an intellectual biography of Villa in which his poetic performance becomes an act of communication, an “equipment for living” (to use Kenneth Burke’s terminology) exercising a constructive and dialogic influence on a new generation of Filipino-American and Asian American intellectuals.