Art amid slaughter
Roughly 700,000 children put at risk due to a previous administration’s decision to use a highly-criticized dengue vaccine. More than 10,000 killed in Duterte’s drug war. Close to 50 youngsters murdered by vigilante groups. Increasing cases of sexual assault, misogyny and rape. Renewed fighting between government forces and New People’s Army rebels. Religious leaders of different denominations shot and murdered by still unknown assailants, including rights advocates, indigenous peoples, and farmers.
Death and violence, corruption and incompetence: they’re are all around us.
How can ordinary citizens push back wave after wave of violent acts aimed against the poor and the helpless? Are there tools we can use to stave off the growth of incompetence in our midst? How long must we endure the hostility of those in power?
These questions popped in my head when, as one of the jurors, I attended the National Book Development Board-Manila Critics Circle National Book Awards Night at the National Museum last week. I’ve been a member of the Manila Critics Circle close to six years now.
I look at our country’s esteemed novelists—Alfred “Krip” Yuson who won the National Book Award for his novel “Music Child,” and National Artist for Literature F. Sionil José who celebrated his 93rd birthday last week—and ask myself, how were they able to push back the darkness of the times and write amid the slaughter?
Is protest limited only to people gathering in the streets of Manila to raise their grievances in the thick of guns and truncheons? Must we settle with the probability that cops would douse us with water, or worse, haul us to jail for what is clearly our right to assemble?
As for art and literature, how can these help in warding off the violence, the killings, the lies? How can beauty, the aim of and reason for art, deter actual acts of violence against people?
I look at the country’s situation today and wonder: how long will this slaughter take? How long will the people in government, and murderers, have their fill of blood?
The length of time it takes for the powerful to realize their crimes against the Filipino people requires the same length of time it takes for writers to keep on pounding the keys: to expose, reveal, unveil, shed light on the issues that hog our daily lives.
The violence to which our people are subjected is real, not metaphorical or allegorical. It snuffs out actual lives and pushes people to a corner, a state of helplessness.
This begs the question: Is shedding light on these subjects enough?
As for the arts—dance, theater, music, all the visual interpretations of life created on varying canvasses—aren’t these a bit too docile as a means of dissent? Shouldn’t we consider some level of savagery as a way to retaliate? An armed revolution, perhaps?
As for the continuing discourse online on matters pertaining to government, the German sociologist Theodor Adorno’s warning that “even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter” should be heeded.
No one said it was going to be easy.
These questions have needed answers for the longest time and I, having borne these questions in my head for many years, could only scratch the surface of what may be the most difficult issues to raise in our day and age.
Top this with Adorno’s harshest conclusion as to why we must forget literature and the arts in the face of genocide (during his time it was the Nazi Holocaust), and what we get are hands emptied of their only solutions:
“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today” (“Prism”).
I can understand why Adorno said what he said. To expect people to read literature in the face of clear and present dangers was a ruthless, if not punitive, expectation. It was almost as unforgiving at the very hostility it sought to expose andquash.
How could writers, who engage in writing within the comforts of their little corners in the world expect to be read when people’s lives are snuffed out day after Godless day?
Besides, why write poems and stories at a time when people are gassed, thrashed, trounced, butchered, crushed, sliced in slivers, set on fire, and gunned down en masse?
Creativity would, by then, have been emptied of its power to create, what with all the blood the gore and screams weighing it down.
Yet, the same Adorno who probed his own misgivings about writing in the midst of slaughter later realized the error in his words:
“Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems” (“Negative Dialectics”).
Now, what prompted the change of mind?
Because human suffering, aside from beauty, is the main reason why we have language and free expression. Grievances, the calling out of injustices, the seeking for help, the right to protest and dissent—particularly dissent—are the very justifications why writers and artists do what they do.
For all that it’s touted to be, we must remember that beauty presupposes the chance to speak also of its opposite: the hate, ugliness and bloodlust unbridled power is wont to create.
Language, under which poetry and stories, dance and music, theatre and the other arts fall into, must expose everything for it to be of any practical use to society.
Its real power lies in what the natural order of things teaches us: that darkness flees at the slightest appearance of light.
The arts as language, therefore, remain the best possible tool for protest and dissent, truth hiding beneath tiers of allegory and metaphor, rhythm and tone, colors and strokes.
When all else fails, the language of the arts is our only anchor to sanity, and our survival as a people.
Therefore, artistic creation must flourish if life and freedom are to survive. G