I woke up last week, the 24th of January, faced with a world where my hero-writer Ursula K. Le Guin is dead.
It was the first bit of news I received when I opened my tablet to check the time. I strolled past the shelves into the bathroom in a daze and a tad teary-eyed, bearing the same feeling of loss I had when Gabriel García Márquez and Adrian Cristóbal passed away.
So, my dear reader, I beg a bit of your indulgence as I write this rather difficult piece. I wrote it half-insane, half in a rage, a quarter confused, and with just a couple of sips of coffee.
To begin, I thought I knew my world, the writer’s world, when as a young man I picked up the pen to write. Until bit by melancholy bit, in a little over three decades of writing, nuggets of reality hit me in the face.
I never thought that these painful realities would later on lead me to write what is probably the most difficult piece I dare set on ink and paper.
I have only the highest esteem and deference for writers. As an introvert lured into the reading of countless books, they remain my heroes.
Once, they were called prophets. Seers and oracles of the divine. They walked the earth as voices of divinities, of principalities and powers, sharing visions and revelations that had shaped the world they knew back then and the world we know now.
Which is why the image of a writer, one held in high esteem, braving the precipice that is the dark side, is in the end profoundly sad. Sad because it is expected of men and women of letters to see clearly through the smoke-screens.
It is presumed, and rightly so, that nothing blinds the poet and the storyteller. Not his own ego, not arrogance, not desire. Neither storm nor flame.
Writers are in the habit of getting away with many an immoral or decadent thing for the simple reason that they’re cherished for this singular ability: intelligence. Their uncanny knack for reason and imagination. Not moral certitude. Not goodness. Not even miraculous faith.
By intelligence I mean discipline and aesthetic ingenuity, and no shortage of attention to the details and context surrounding his world and worlds created by the imagination.
Add to this a close to thorough knowledge of the human condition and his weapon of choice—language—and the freedom through which the writer wields language.
What you, therefore, have in each writer is a beacon defying the ever-expanding mayhem in our midst. They are road signs to a past and future held tightly by memory in one, and great expectation in the other.
This, therefore, begs the question: what sort of power, one obviously stronger than a writer’s facility for inkling and insight, lures him to the dark side? Or to rephrase the question: what plausible reason does a writer have to defy his own awareness of the human condition to take the side of the oppressor?
One more frightening query comes to mind: are all writers at risk of one day going blind?
I remember my modest entry into the world of letters. It was occasioned by several meetings and eventual friendship with authors who, at one time in their illustrious careers, allied themselves with dictators.
There was Adrian Cristóbal, a dear friend and mentor in the magazine, who worked for the Marcoses; National Artist F. Sionil José who fought Marcos but had later given his nod to Pres. Rodrigo Duterte (who, by the way, is a screaming fan of Marcos); and National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario a.k.a. Rio Alma who, I was told, also fell for the erstwhile tyrant.
Only recently, I struggled reading National Artist Nick Joaquin’s “Reportage on the Marcoses” for reasons I hardly expected: he heaped praises on Imelda. This, of course, doesn’t prove that he supported Marcos, but is there a context here that I am missing?
From various sources I’ve heard of the intimate camaraderie between writer-editor Kerima Polotan and the Marcos couple.
Of late, there are poets Rebecca Añonuevo, Simeon Dumdum Jr. and Rita Gadi’s unflinching support for Duterte.
As a bookworm, I’m no stranger to severe differences in opinion among writers. My reading of countless books has introduced me to author Günter Grass, who once stood in queue with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Youth, and writer Eli Wiesel, Jewish Nobel Peace Prize winner and victim of the atrocities at Auschwitz.
There was philosopher Martin Heidegger, who supported the Nazi movement, and his student Hannah Arendt who opposed Hitler’s death camps. French-Algerian novelist Albert Camus espoused his version of socialist thought over and against those of his good friend Jean-Paul Sartre.
Look no further. Jose Rizal the novelist and Marcelo H. del Pilar the journalist dealt with extreme differences that nearly cost them (or maybe it did) their friendship.
Must we look at these contrasting ideas as mere differences of opinion between intellectuals? Excuse my candor, but must human life, if and when the same is put at risk by violence and tyranny, be entombed in mere opinion?
Albert Camus dared to offer an answer: “In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”
As thinking people, writers cannot brave the precipice to look into the abyss without the abyss looking back at them. To rephrase Ursula Le. Guin’s words, to deny the existence of monsters is to have them eat you. You cannot cross the line into insanity and expect to come back unscathed.
I wish I knew all the answers to all my questions. It’s too easy to say we must separate the art from the artist. The candor of debate losses its meaning when actual lives are put at risk by a writer’s support of tyranny. There is no expunging the guilt of intellectuals who empower murderers.
There are absolute truths as well as relative truths, and a writer of some experience safeguards credibility—and human lives—by knowing the difference.
I write this with the frail but valiant hope that my friends would reconsider. Those who have reconsidered, I know F. Sionil Jose did, thank you. If not, then I have no choice but to outgrow my heroes. G