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Losses and Grief in the Name of Art
by Cirilo F. Bautista
Date: 9/5/2002

We have had our losses in the world of literature, and our grief lengthens like shadows in the afternoon. Doreen Fernandez of Ateneo, E. Rene Fernandez of Zamboanga City, and Francisco Arcellana of the Philippines have said their goodbyes to us who did not care too much. In an ideal society, wrote Freud, art will not be necessary. That stands to reason, as the paradisiacal environment wants of nothing, not even of the unthinkable frills and frays of faultless living. No wonder the English Romantics and the bohemian cultists after them reformulated worldly desires to conform with the architecture of pleasure. All sorts of utopia emerged as the embodiment or configuration of a timeless goodness in contradiction of the faithless, painful, and fruitless world of suffering. Paradise could be replicated, albeit in the imagination, of those who survived and in the work of those who have left.

In reality, we need art to posit the exact elements of goodness that an unreachable heaven promises, without having to wait for a mystifying rapture. Art is requisite in an imperfect society. In the interplay of deceit, violence, hunger, and sickness – the webwork of fractured existence – every human action gets stained by doubt and self-aggrandizement and nobody comes out any cleaner or saner than the next person. Because of this, do we not become wary of living, worried by the great chance that, by the by, we may be rendered worthless by a stray bullet or a planned capture?

Yet, through their works, Arcellana, Fernandez, and Fernadez showed us that life is worth pursuing, that food for the body is food for the mind, and that the truths of fiction are the building blocks of existence. “Read books to understand life,”Arcellana told us once. This ascendancy of art over life was understood well by the ancient Greeks. They believed that the gods allowed sufferings so that they can be written about in epics. If the travails and trials of existence weakened their hearts and stunted their spirit, the same travails and trials, when shaped into literature, will provide the balm to ease the suffering. Then as now, that is the condition of culture. The reconstruction from reality to language allows some degree of human salvation even from the most degrading experience.

This is because the curative power of literature robs reality of its sting. Poets know this, though they do not always pontificate about it. Poetry is balm to the heart and soul. Taste has nothing to do with it, but intense existence has. By intense, we mean living life to the bare bones, when the only sensible meaning that can be attached to it is to wish it to end, but it does not. Then, the counterpoint of a poem or novel provides the courage by which we rally to a new sense of purpose, even to a new resolve to improve our despicable state. The means for that may still be nebulous, but that does not matter. What is important is that we have derived sustenance from the unlikeliest source.

For the history of art is the history of the human spirit. That is why art is unkillable. The assassins that lurk in the darkness, or the kidnappers that eye children or their vehicles are unable to stop the infallible meaning of a sonnet or a cantata. All their violence and power are frozen at the moment when artistic contemplation elevates human ideas and feelings. The artwork, once done, continues to live on its own and affects people in a kind of ripple effect -- the more they think about it, the more effective it becomes.

There is a sad note here, however. Though art is the closest we can get to paradise on earth, it still is largely an exclusive affair. The poor who have no benefit of education live and die without sharing in art’s beneficence. They have no shield within their mind to combat the pains of existence or sublimate the pangs of deprivation, making artlessness appear as condition of poverty. It is very difficult to sing on an empty stomach or measure syllables while living on the girders of a bridge. Art demands respect and three full meals a day. What our departed writers have attempted to do is to democratize literature in some degree to lessen the odds against the artless so that they can feel the liberating effect that good language and fresh imagination can bring.

Source: Bautista, Cirilo F. Philippine Panorama (25 Aug 2002), p.25.

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