by Joel Pablo Salud
The word hums as if it were a bomb waiting to be donated. In the Philippine context, the word is almost always uttered and handled with care. More so because they are associated with oligarchy, the cacique, the alta sociedad or high society, the powerful principalia, the ilustrados.
They wear different masks: one of philanthropist, entrepreneurs or public intellectuals; the other, of purveyors of greed, instigators of corruption, opportunists, murderers.
In the way the most powerful predators hunt in packs, so do elites pursue their prey with equal ferocity and synchronized diligence, watching each other’s backs and interests. In situations when interests clash, as they often do, with enough resources and power at their beck and call, they have been known to bite the hands that grease them.
In our country, they are part villain, part hero—benefactors to some, a curse for others. True to form, they are the best specimen in what is contradictory, and in many ways dispiriting, in human nature.
The book, Elite: An Anthology, edited by Caroline S. Hau, Katrina Tuvera and Isabelita O. Reyes, ushers the readers into the darker realms of these dynastic entities through stories and poems penned for the purpose.
As the books says, “These stories and poems can be read not only as works of art, but also as collective biography and as critical ethnography of the tribal customs of the wealthy, high status, and educated cohorts who have long been heroes and villains in Philippine history, society, culture, politics, and the economy.”
Published by Anvil Publishing in 2016, the book fittingly starts off with an excerpt from the novel by José Rizal, Noli Me Tangere, and the story of Capitan Tiago. It then leaps several decades into the future in the retelling the story penned by National Artist F. Sionil José—the character Don Carlos Cobello of the novel, Sins.
The company of Filipino authors who have contributed their stories and verse to this anthology forms a venerable list: Bienvenido S. Santos, Luis V. Teodoro, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Linda Ty-Casper, Kerima Polotan, Jose Dalisay, Jr., Vicente Groyon, Chuckberry J. Pascual, Lakambini Sitoy, Rolando B. Tolentino, Epifanio San Juan, Jr., Francis Macansantos, Marne Kilates, and others.
In the introduction by Caroline S. Hau, she wrote, “What matters is that the dynamics of elite relations with each other and with the rest of the Filipino people have an important bearing on the fortunes or otherwise of the Philippines nation-state. In a sense, “elite,” along with its cognate “elitist” (elitist in Tagalog), is the name that scholars, students, media practitioners and other professionals, and activists give to the human agency behind the problems and failures besetting the Philippines. Deemed traitorous, colonial minded, opportunistic, predatory, mayabang (arrogant), and indifferent to the plight of the less privileged others, “elite” is one element of a politically potent binary system of values, with the ‘poor,’ ‘the masses,’ and ‘the people’ constituting the opposing element.”
Such a dynamic, of course, takes on the presumption that in the country’s slow but sure deterioration, the principalia holds the key to the country’s survival. It’s a narrative spread as both truth and lie.
Truth because what they may have in their hands are resources needed to bolster an aging, limping economy; lies because the elite is perceived to only be interested in their gains, not anyone else’s.
This tug of war has left the country largely polarized and differentiated by class and interests—the haves and have-nots—which on the whole wittingly and unwittingly opposes any attempt by the country to move forward.
But the book is not all bluster and bombast against the elite. Even a cursory reading of the tales and verses here published reveals varying opinions about them, some even reminding readers of the humanity of their subjects, those racked with imperfections, flaws, and that ounce of spirit within them struggling between greed and remorse.
In Luis V. Teodoro’s story, “The Trial of Professor Riesgo,” the author relates the tale of an academic who bravely differentiates the world of the predator from the world of the poet.
“‘Consider,’ he had said then, his voice just rightly tremulous in the momentous confrontation with genius, ‘the filthy world of commerce, the harsh exigencies of power. Consider, further, the poet—his anguish and torment at the vulgarity and ruthlessness of those who call themselves his fellowmen. Before these, he can look away, for only thus can he remain faithful to his calling.
“‘And yet, how many have affirmed that faith, have refused to sully their art with the crassness and hypocrisy that constantly taunt all of us? And only the truly faithful, alas, are the true artists. In our time—it is a sad thing—there are only a very few.’ He had only looked at one face and another letting his ideas sink into the breathless silence. ‘A very few,’ he had shaken his head sadly, ‘and they reveal this as much by their formal adherence as they do by the purity of their ideas.’”
Professor Riesgo here speaks the voice of the free, regardless of the mechanized engines that move universities subsidized by the state. Facing his critics and a tribunal, the professor fought against his own thoughts, questioned his own practice of the freedom he and others of his kind had long wielded in defense of the weak and the voiceless. In the end, he realized that neither achievements nor his own convictions could save him. For under the law, all is on equal footing.
“How strange, it occurred to him, that he was nothing to this symbol of the authority under which, after all, he was subject: that his long list of accomplishments, the respect of his colleagues, here and in foreign lands, his degrees, the dignity of his profession would not stop him from sending him to the prison where he would be the equal of those without accomplishments, to be a name and a number distinguished only by the relatively timorous character of his crime.”
The book is as much a part of our historical documents regardless of the fiction and metaphor spread on its pages. For with each telling and retelling of tales and lines come a solitary narrative of our relationship not only with the wealthy and learned, but the very things they possess as marks that distinguish them from another lesser mortal.
Fascinating artistry coupled with brushstrokes of truth: the book stands as a compelling read all because there is so much that we could gather about ourselves, the principles we use to face each day, and the missteps that occur as we try to make sense of the inevitable.
The book, Elite: An Anthology, is published by Anvil Publishing, Inc. G