Monday, July 18, 2011



by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

Mimicking Proust’s memory, mine is a prismatic and selective affair, conditioned by what I am now as an unfinished project. And like any member of the 1954-58 cohort, I was a bifurcated citizen caught between a dead world and one struggling to emerge. Born before the carnage of World War II and growing up during the bloody Huk “pacification” campaigns of Magsaysay in the early Fifties, I entered UP at the height of the sectarian wars. It was a time of crisis and of “great expectations.” The Philippines was then leading the Asian countries in economic development and sociocultural progress; today, alas, it is mired in fierce class/ethnic antagonisms, corruption, and abysmal poverty, with nearly ten million compatriots transplanted abroad as exploited migrant workers and professionals.

The crisis in UP has been recurrent since then. The death of student Gonzalo Albert from fraternity hazing ushered a decade-long conflict between the sectarian groups led by the UPSCA and President Vidal Tan, and the secular camp (the Greek fraternities, Dr. Ricardo Pascual of the Dept of Philosophy and the non-conformists who rallied behind the cause of academic freedom). Was I caught between? I was neither a fraternity member nor a practising Catholic; I was a plebeian sympathizer of the dissidents. My two-time involvement with the YMCA-sponsored high school conferences in Baguio City might have induced partisanship with oppositional sectors led by Claro Recto, Jose Laurel, and Lorenzo Tanada. On top of that, I was a product of the “godless” public schools in proletarian Santa Cruz, Manila. At that time, I was a naïve would-be “iskolar ng bayan” willing to learn, believing UP to be the arena of debates, controversies, and scholarly jousts some of which we rehearsed in the Binondo-San Nicolas-Tondo milieu of my adolescence. For us, UP enjoyed a fabled prestige for its leadership role as intellectual and moral vanguard of the nation just resurrected from the devastation of WWII.

Looking back, I realize now that the quarrel then was only a symptomatic displacement in which the Cold War conflict between capitalism and socialism (national-democratic struggle, in our case) surfaced in a dependent “third world” formation. It was a battleground of systemic paradigms and world-views. Our “unfinished” 1896 revolution continued to haunt us, as Agoncillo noted in his book The Revolt of the Masses (1956). The neocolony stagnated from the vestiges of a feudal/patriarchal order sustained by a comprador worship of American imperial exceptionalism, that is, its self-proclaimed role as the leader of the “Free World.” McCarthyism Filipino-style thrived in the persecution of suspected communist sympathizers responsible for publishing the document “Peasant War in the Philippines” in the U.P. Social Sciences and Humanities Review, under the patronage of Dean Tomas Fonacier, Dr. Cecilio Lopez, and other pensionado ilustrados. Witch-hunting was revived before and during the Marcos dictatorship when numerous U.P. alumni in the U.S. (including myself) were blacklisted for supporting the Diliman Commune and U.P. students-faculty fighting for nationalist ideals and popular-democratic principles.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church fought Senator Recto over the Noli-Fili Bill, particularly on the question of teaching the unexpurgated Rizal novels. Even after listening to Dr. Pascual’s scholarly talk on “partyless” democracy and Bertrand Russell (debating with O.D.Corpuz), the issues gripping the campus did not acquire meaning until I worked as an apprentice reporter for the Philippine Collegian under Luis Uranza’s editorship. None of my reports of the hearings on the Albert case ever got into print; later on, when I was suspended by President Enrique Virata for using a four-letter word in a poem published in the Collegian (reprinted in my book BALIK-BAYANG SINTA: An E. San Juan Reader, Ateneo University Press, 2008), I finally understood the insidious power politics in the academic institution, despite all the ballyhoo about excellence and the “life of the mind.” But it was all petty, compared to the endemic corruption and predatory malevolence in national politics.

After two years, I was a full-fledged member of the 1958 class. Initially I was a pre-med before I chose to be an English major, my choice perhaps owing to my sad experience as a Collegian reporter and to the barkada I got mixed up with (philosophy majors such as Gerry Acay, Ruben Garcia, and others whose names escape me now). My teachers in Freshman English, Elmer Ordonez and Franz Arcellana, had perhaps something to do with it. Ordonez soon left for the U.S. , but his enthusiasm for Ivan Bunin’s “The Gentleman from San Francisco” registered vividly. UP was for me the gathering place of writers willing to take risks, daring free-thinkers, bohemian artists, weird philosophes, and anarchists of all stripes.

Before enrolling in U.P., I was already acquainted with Arcellana through reading the Literary Apprentice and Collegian when I was the editor of our school newspaper, The Jose Abad Santos High School Gazette. It was not his fiction but Arcellana’s meticulous exposition of English grammar and composition rules—how to write a paragraph, a precis, etc., based on the analysis of notable literary texts--that proved extremely valuable throughout my stay in U.P. Without this basic requirement in writing and reading, the discourse of reason and creativity cannot be articulated. Although a famous writer then, Arcellana proved to be a patient, congenial, stimulating mentor whose encouragement and critical comments on my work have been salutary. Above all, I am grateful to Franz for conversing and dealing with me as a responsible colleague. When he was retired, Arcellana confessed to me that he could not help me when I was censored by Virata; that he was a “fall guy” for the bureaucrats. In spite of that, Arcellana remained a model teacher and collaborator during my entire stay in U.P., even though we differed in politics and philosophical outlook.

Both my parents (teachers in high school and college) were graduates of the old U.P. in Padre Faura in the Thirties, so I was not a stranger to the U.P. ethos of discipline and social consciousness. My petty-bourgeois family owned copies of Villa’s Footnote to Youth, S.P. Lopez’s Literature and Society, and the anthologies of essays edited by Vicente Hilario and the English Dept. faculty. A vivacious alumna, Sylvia Camu, taught our high school class for a semester; the critic Manuel Viray also encouraged my work. My other memorable teacher was N.V.M. Gonzalez; his required textbook, Herbert Read’s English Prose Style, acquired scriptural status for us, despite Pete Daroy’s upholding of Lionel Trilling as the liberal paragon. NVM invited visiting writers like Bienvenido Santos and others to speak to our class; he urged us to attend the court hearing in the Manila City Hall over obscenity charges filed against Estrella Alfon’s “Fairy Tale of a City.” It was a scandalous trial equal to several lessons in hermeneutics, grammatology, and Ideologiekritik.

To be sure, we did not live in an ivory-tower aerie. Except for a semester in the Men’s North Dorm, I commuted daily for two/three hours one way from Balintawak; our meeting with classmates took place in Quiapo, along Morayta, Legarda, and Soler Streets; and the journalists’ hang-outs in Sta. Cruz Plaza. NVM’s outreach to the community and the wider world was of utmost importance for English majors whose natural impulse to uphold an art-for-art’s-sake credo learned from their teachers (most of whom espoused a reactionary New Criticism orthodoxy) was bound to guarantee their alienation from the unlettered masses. No doubt I myself carried the elitist virus, given my class background. This tendency is more pronounced today when the privileged class composition of UP students, intensified by unscrupulous competitiveness and pathological individualism, renders many susceptible to aestheticist seductions. This need to connect becomes more imperative for educating youth for a well-informed active participation in civic and political life after graduation, even if their night-time destination is only the now ubiquitous Call Center. What is needed is not only symbolic capital as weapons for an emancipatory project (for those interested in more than mere survival or accumulating wealth), but also the habitus or frame of mind/body for critical engagement with social actors inside and outside the “groves of academe.”

As a pre-med student, I had basic training in physics, chemistry , botany, and zoology, as well as the social sciences. Aside from the required Spanish language courses, I also took two years of German and French (our French teacher Aurelio Estanislao was the most sophisticated of all); I was exposed to the free-market economics of Amado Castro and the wonderful Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft distinctions of Fe Rodriguez-Arcinas. There was then no bureaucratic division between English literature, Philippine Studies, linguistics, comparative literature, historical philology, and creative writing. My courses in Comparative Literature under Professors Cristino Jamias, Alfredo Morales, and Leopoldo Yabes, as well as courses in philosophy under Armando Bonifacio and Cesar Majul, and regular encounters with Professors Ricardo Pascual, Teodoro Agoncillo, Agustin Rodolfo, Pascual Capiz, and Alfredo Lagmay, all helped to introduce our circle of English majors to the wider world of philosophical speculation and sociocultural argumentation.

Literary study then encompassed a wider field of knowledge and sensibility. From the montage of memory, I recall Dr. Morales’ erudite lecture on the moral dilemmas enacted in the Bhagavad-Gita and Prof. Capiz’s exhortation to read Spinoza (which I have fulfilled). It was a varied fare for most of us. We were majoring in English but not specializing narrowly in it. The lesson here is obvious: literature is more than the sanctimonious “verbal icon” of William Wimsatt and Rene Wellek, and that literature majors need to evolve into civic-minded cultural-studies scholars whose multidisciplinary and cross-cultural background will equip them with broader concepts and ideas necessary to understand the human predicament in our relentlessly intractable world of transnational state terrorism, ruthless “humanitarian” interventions, and nuclear disasters. Humanistic studies and literary criticism will not save or even reform the world; but properly designed for specific social groups and oriented to our concrete sociohistorical conjuncture, they might help us understand what are the stakes and so enable us to make decisions and pursue life-enhancing goals. Of course, the university is only one institution among many other forces and agencies shaping our lives.

It was during my third and fourth years that my studies expanded willy-nilly beyond belletristic concerns. With the help of Pete Daroy, Carlos Platon, F.T. Marquez, Max Ramos Jr., Ernie Manalo and others, I edited a “little” magazine, The Prufrock, inspired by Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis’ Vorticist movement; and later, a philosophical newsletter, Inquiry and other college publications. Although we were all under the spell of Anglo-American writers like T.S. Eliot (who was idolized by most English teachers), Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner (whose visit was also a historic milestone for the Diliman community), and others sanctified by the Department-approved Cleanth Brooks-Robert Penn Warren text, Approach to Literature, somehow their aura disappeared for me. Perhaps because of my frequent visits to Popular and other downtown bookstores, plus my hobnobbing with the newspaper crowd around Soler and Florentino Torres streets, I became fascinated with European writers, particularly existentialists such as Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Kafka, Malraux, Gide, Dostoevsky, etc. I also read the letters and political essays of the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. At the same time I devoured numerous accounts of the Hungarian Revolution and of course the brewing Civil Rights struggles in the United States and the youth revolts fermenting around the world. In 1955, the historic Bandung Conference of “third world” countries (the precursor to today’s World Social Forum) took place in neighboring Indonesia. As English majors, we discussed these events and authors with students from other colleges and from Manila universities in the restaurants at Little Quiapo, in Cubao and Balara, and in dimly lighted quonset huts when all traffic ceased, and one was stranded on the edge of the Sunken Garden behind the night-shrouded Library.

Contrary to appearances, the Department offered some diversity, even though the old patriarchs dominated that “market-place” of bourgeois ideas. Migrant teachers such as Dolores Feria and Ricaredo Demetillo (both started in Silliman University), among others, departed from the narrow formalism of visiting U.S. expert Leonard Casper and his local disciples. Chicago Aristotelian pluralism then was just whispered by Yabes, and preached much later by visiting Fulbright lecturer Elder Olson (whom I met in 1966). Others pursued religious or idiosyncratic concerns, such as Wilhelmina Ramas, S.V. Epistola, Concepcion Dadufalza, Alejandrino Hufana, and others.

It was only in the Seventies that I shared Feria’s interest in Carlos Bulosan; while much later, Demetillo attacked me for being a “Maoist” in the pages of F. Sionil Jose’s Solidarity magazine (reputed then to be a CIA front funded by the Congress of Cultural Freedom). In his “Unforgettable Years as an English Major 1959,” Jose Maria Sison refers to the trouble I got into because of “the prudish majority in the department represented by J.D. Constantino,” when I used “a supposedly forbidden word” in a poem. Actually, the persons who attacked me were not English faculty, but Amador Daguio, Ramon Tapales, and other characters motivated by malice toward Franz Arcellana, the adviser of the Collegian.

It was also during this time, influenced by professors Rony Diaz and Armando Bonifacio, and law student leader Mario Alcantara, that I became engaged in the nationalist movement of Claro Recto and Lorenzo Tanada. By this time I was already looking forward to my collaboration with the avantgarde Tagalog writer Alejandro Abadilla and the progressive unionist Amado V. Hernandez on parole from Muntinlupa (my translation of his poems, Rice Grains, appeared in 1966).

My apprenticeship was almost over, culminating in the “chores” that U.P. master director Behn Cervantes, the darling protégée of Wilfredo Maria Guerrero, noted in a newspaper column: “A student assistant was one Epifanio San Juan who went about his chores very quietly although it was bandied about that he was quite an intellectual” (Business World, 16 September 2002). Readers would likely surmise that some “chores” (such as our campaigning for the Recto-Tanada ticket) may include those that exceeded what the society-gossip columnists would call “intellectual,” a put-down of “eggheads” addicted to academic book-worship and the cult of Jose Garcia Villa or Nick Joaquin, not to mention of James Joyce or Wallace Stevens.

Overall, it was not any single individual teacher who can be said to play a significant role in educating our “batch”; rather, it was the whole complex milieu of teachers, students, administrators, staff—including the janitors and workers such as those in the Basement Cafeteria--that enabled the production of happenings and the staging of situations crucial to forming our minds. Above all, it was the UP tradition of intellectual exchange, the rigorous disciplinary requirements and curriculum, the textbooks and pedagogical heuristics, and a certain style of free-thinking and wild experimentation that laid out the field for the mental/physical expression of our dreams and desires.

On the eve of my graduation, with the libertarian President Vicente Sinco at the helm, the UP was no longer the same as in my freshman years. We lost our proverbial innocence; we looked forward to adventures in the murky job market. Magsaysay was dead, but his complicity with Col. Edward Lansdale, the CIA agent infamous for the Phoenix assassination program in Vietnam, would still await disclosure in the years after the February 1986 People Power revolt. In my senior year, I attended the 1958 PEN Conference in Baguio where a mock-heroic collision occurred betwe4en the traditionalists (Edilberto Tiempo distinguished himself for this more than Arcellana) and the progressives (Adrian Cristobal, among them, who became an apologist for the Marcos dictatorship). In his recent book The Other View (2010), Elmer Ordonez recalls Dr. Alfredo Morales delivering the opening remarks condemning “attacks on intellectual and academic freedom through secret investigations.” We are back to the primal scene of the witch-hunts and the intervention of forces that foreshadowed the nationalist resurgence in the Sixties and martial law in the Seventies and Eighties.

It was also in 1958, before I graduated, that I listened to Senator Recto’s now historic Rizal lecture calling for a “Second Propaganda Movement.” Recto compared Rizal and Bonifacio in their stand on revolution, and (unlike Renato Constantino) found them complementary. For Recto, Rizal was the realist and Bonifacio the idealist; without the first, the other is impossible. It is quite probable that my four years of being an English major in UP enabled me to appreciate Recto’s nuanced discriminations and his ethico-political vision. It also prepared me to discover the works of Georg Lukacs, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams, Bertolt Brecht, and Pablo Neruda in the years when I began teaching in the Department from 1958 to 1960, and then again in 1966-67 and 1987-88.

For the Centennial Golden Jubilarian Book--Class of 1958, I sent to my good friend the late Jose Endriga a reminiscence of my UP experience. What survived his editing was my praise of UP as “a fabled wonderland of artists and word-magicians,” and my somewhat melancholy homage to “those administrators and mentors who ignored, misunderstood or excluded me—they are part of my now greyish UP experience, an allegory of the Filipino young man growing up in an impoverished third-world neocolony convulsed by peasant/proletarian rebellion, soon to be overtaken by the horrors of Marcos’ martial law and the prophetic Moro insurgency.” In other words, my personal witnessing of that conjuncture of my life is now an integral part of the collective testimony of a generation of Filipinos growing up in a US neocolony in that Cold War epoch.

As an English major, I was never assigned any text by a Moro writer, much less by Igorot or Lumad writers (I read Sinai Hamada’s and Ibrahim Jubaira’s stories in high school). Thanks to Professors Eugenio, Villareal, and other colleagues, we now have dependable texts of our indigenous cultures; thanks to militant feminist scholars, we now have numerous anthologies of Filipino women writers and their manifestos. Thanks to the sacrifices of UP students martyred in the national-liberation struggle, we have a new generation of humanities majors responding to the crisis of our society in intelligent, creative, and “conscienticized” ways, far more resourceful than our makeshift, bricolage-like responses sixty years ago.

One can neither blame nor praise those determining circumstances that are not of our own making; but we can interpret them in a larger context and attempt to utilize them not only to interpret the world but to change it for the better. When my book Carlos Bulosan and the Imagination of the Class Struggle appeared in 1972, a few days before martial law was declared, President Salvador Lopez wrote me precisely on this need not only to interpret the world and its words—as English majors are wont to do—but also to help change them in a liberatory direction. Lopez set a brave example in his support of the Diliman Commune and principled defense of the whole community against state violence.

One can say, of course, that our lives and minds are shaped by the interaction of character and experience, not just by formal schooling. But my years in the UP served to provide content and raw material to the hypothetical tabula rasa of the empiricists, the problematic slate becoming a palimpsest configured by the occurrence of Two (loosely following Alain Badiou’s definition of love; see Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Stanford University Press, 2003). It is this encounter between the student and the UP milieu that engenders the “Subject” relatively free from the monolithic and absolute One—the “One” here represented by parents, traditional authority, sacred totems and taboos, Capital and the market. That singular constellation of texts, persons, and events in that specific academic environment, the UP in the Fifties as I reflect on it here, opened a world of multiple possibilities for me and my contemporaries.

What would I have been if it were not for my time as a UP English major? Certainly, another person with a different optic and inventory, perhaps no worse nor better. For what I tried to describe here is a complex dialectic of one and many, myself and others, as far as my memory and judgment can recover the past in this provisional and intertextual form. If it is true that life cannot be lived alone in anticipation but also in retrospect, it is also true that retrospect cannot discover life’s meanings without the supplement of hopes, projects, and practicable ideals.

I hope that UP and its English Department will continue to provide a milieu of challenge, provocation, and support for generations of students as it has since its founding in 1908. Despite the worsening crisis of our time, I am convinced that the UP tradition of free inquiry and fearless rational exchange will continue under the guidance of its wise, resourceful and caring teachers and staff.

[Written at the request of Prof. Adelaide Lucero, chair of the Dept of English, University of the Philippines, for the celebration of the Centennial of the Colleage of Arts, U.P. in June 2011.]