I remember an experience I once had with the Bureau of Internal Revenue. This was way back during Cory’s time when I was still paying my taxes. I am not paying my taxes now—not since 2005, when the “Hello, Garci” tape came to light. I was paying my taxes then, but for one reason or another failed to do so one particular year. Being a dutiful citizen, and having no problems recognizing Cory as a perfectly legitimate president, I resolved to rectify it.
I went to the BIR, waited a couple of hours for my turn, and finally got to talk with an appraiser, or whatever they call the people there that deal with these things. He took the documents I handed over to him solemnly, flexing his hands like a doctor about to perform a delicate operation. His solemnity vanished in an instant as he scanned my documents, and dismay overran his face like the hordes of Atilla. He suppressed an expletive and groaned, “Writer ka lang pala!” (You’re just a writer!)
I took it those words were a reaction to the couple of hundred pesos I owed government. I took it moreover that those words were a reaction to my entry in the box “occupation,” which was “journalist.” Whatever plans he might have had about negotiating a deal with me were dashed to pieces by that proclamation, or admission. His deflation was a thing to behold. “Writer ka lang pala,” he repeated.
He stamped my papers and dismissed me with a wave of his hand. He probably wondered what he had done to make God punish him that day by sending him someone who wasted his precious time.
That is the one phrase that has stayed with me all these years, one I wear proudly like a medal, and humbly like a reminder: “Writer ka lang pala.”
I remembered this in connection with something I’ve encountered over the years while writing a column for the Inquirer. It’s what detractors tell me when they cannot find a way to refute or get around, my argument. Which is: What you say is all very fine. But those are just words, they are not actions. When will you stop writing and act?
Sometimes, friends, and not just detractors, say this as well. Particularly those who have wondered why I do not entertain going into politics. “Why don’t you run for this or that?” they ask. “With the exposure you have in the country’s number one newspaper, you have an advantage which you can turn into votes. If you win, you can be in a position to do something for this country.”
My answer to this is not that I see no way of winning, although that’s probably true too, since the vote-friendly medium is TV. My answer to that is: “I’m already a writer, as ascertained by the BIR. Why should I want to demote myself and become a politician?”
I am not being entirely facetious when I say this. My point is simply, if a bit airily, that I cannot think of a better way to do something for the country than by writing.
Doctors will never be accused of merely saying and not doing. I do not know of another profession more resolutely associated with acting. You either cure or you do not. The patient either lives or dies. No action could be more fraught with meaning, no action could be more laden with consequence.
It is writers who routinely get to be charged with saying and not doing, of talking and not acting. It is writers who routinely get to be told: That’s all very fine, but when will you act?
It is the most astonishing thing because writing is acting. That is why we call it “the act of writing,” because it is an act. And like physically ministering to the sick, it is a vital act. It is spiritually ministering to the sick, an act that is fraught with meaning, an act that is laden with consequence. When you write, you either cure or you do not. When you write, the world either lives or dies.
What the writer does specifically, an act of awesome reverberations, is to articulate. It is to put reality into words. It is to make reality real.
We’ve all heard Socrates’ famous aphorism, “A life unexamined is a life unlived.” It is a profound insight into life. It is the difference between merely existing and living. Just drawing out the length of your days without looking at where you’ve come from and where you are going, without looking at whether you have been of service to others or only to yourself, without wondering what all this means or what all this amounts to, is not living, it is just existing. You may as well not have been there at all.
It is writers most of all that make that examination, of themselves and the reality around them. It is writers most of all who make that interrogation, of themselves and of the reality around them. It is writers most of all who articulate themselves and the reality around them.
Without that articulation, the world and ourselves are just as unreal as ghostly apparitions. Without that action, the world and ourselves are just a jumble of sense impressions.
We often speak of “grasping” things when we are able to understand them. The word “grasp” is only too apt. The action, like seizing something with the hand, is seizing something with the mind, turning it around, feeling its shape, marveling at its texture, realizing (there goes that word “real” again) that it is there.
You put things into words, you make things real.
It’s not true at all that sticks and stones may break your bones but words can’t. The opposite is true: More than sticks and stones, or indeed more than Manny Pacquiao’s fists, words crush bones. At the very least, you see that in the many knife fights that break out during drinking sprees in dingy neighborhoods because someone called another names.
At the very most you see that in what writers have done. In what a writer of no mean talent named Jose Rizal has done.
Rizal was first and foremost, a writer – a fact that many people have interpreted in various ways, some disparagingly.
I recall that many activists of my time submitted that Andres Bonifacio was the greater hero because he had done something marvelous. He had almost impossibly, given his personal circumstances (he was a plebeian) and his social circumstances (the indios were abject and acquiescent), founded the first truly revolutionary organization of his time. Rizal had merely written essays and novels, which however grand and brilliant did not quite equal in importance the creation of the Katipunan.
Their equation was: Where Rizal had just written, Bonifacio had done. Where Rizal had just expostulated, Bonifacio had acted.
It was no small irony, they went on, that Rizal was tried and executed for subversion. Which we could only attribute to the stupidity of the Spaniards; they had bad intelligence in more ways than one. Rizal was never a member of the Katipunan, however the organization tried to recruit him, or offered the leadership of it to him. In fact he had openly discouraged, if not opposed, it, saying the country was not prepared for a revolution. All Rizal had done, they said, was to become a martyr, which even more ironically only helped to fuel the very thing he tried to hold back.
Looking back, you see how wrong that judgment was. Looking back, you see how the Spanish authorities knew something the activists of my time did not. Namely, that by writing his essays and his novels, Rizal had become more subversive than Bonifacio or any of the Katipuneros. By writing his essays and novels – and doing so better than Marcelo del Pilar and the other propagandists in Spain – he had done more than those who took up arms.
The Spaniards were not wrong in jailing him for subversion, even if they did it for the wrong reasons, even if they did it on the wrong evidence. Rizal was the most subversive Filipino of his time. He did so by putting the plight of the Filipino under Spanish rule into words. He did so by putting the anger, the restiveness and the growing awareness of the indios they were a separate people into words. He did so by putting the reality of his time and place into words.
By doing so, he made that reality real.
It is no surprise that the Spaniards would make this recognition. Given that they had a Miguel Cervantes who had blown up the conventions of his own time and place. Indeed, given that they themselves had deprived the indios of Spanish out of the belief that giving them a unified and unifying language would make them ungovernable.
Spanish rule had lasted more than 300 years not just because the Spanish rulers had divided and conquered, it had done so also because the Spanish rulers had kept the indios mute, silent, voiceless. But then toward the end of that rule, which hastened the end of that rule, the same indios found a voice in Jose Rizal.
By satirizing the friars in his essays, by depicting them as bumbling fools quite apart from womanizing hypocrites, Rizal turned them not just into ordinary mortals but into objects of ridicule. By indicting the Spanish authorities in “Noli” and “Fili,” by railing against their corruption and their backwardness, Rizal turned them into obstacles in the path to progress of the indios that needed to be, and could be, removed. By the ferocity of his mind and the breadth of his talents, Rizal showed his fellow Filipinos how limitless their possibilities were, if only they could be free.
You cannot have anything more subversive than that.
These days, when some people tell me, “That’s all very fine, but when are you going to act?” I just smile and remember this.
I do not mean to compare myself to Rizal. He was one of a kind, a man of resplendent abilities and character, the likes of which we may not see again in a long time, if ever. But it can’t hurt to aspire to become like him in one or two of his many facets. I myself aspire only to catch a glint of his spirit in writing.
Certainly our time lends itself to that aspiration. For the simple reason that our time is not unlike Rizal’s time. In fact, it is almost a mirror image of Rizal’s time – talk of those who do not read history being condemned to repeat it.
It is a time when the rulers are as alien as a colonizing power, pillaging the land with a ruthlessness and ferocity to make the pirates of Tortuga blush. It is a time when the people tasked to safeguard the morals of the indios are as besotted and venal and hypocritical as the friars and oidores, making right wrong and wrong right, and proclaiming God to have ordained this order of things. It is a time when the masa are prostrate and broken and abject, unable to lift the yoke off their backs, reposing their deliverance in false prophets and clowns and sellers of snake oil.
It is a time when you realize that there is no action without articulation, there is no flesh without word, and look for ways to capture the agony of oppression and the ecstasy of liberation. It is a time when you realize that there is no direction without interrogation, there is no life without examination, and look for ways to release the power of a subjected race and the glory of a people longing to be free. It is a time when you realize that to do all this, you have to grope and grasp and clasp with your mind the truth of your plight, to impale with words the thoughts and feelings that flit around you, the fears and aspirations that well up within you, to make reality real so that you can face it, so that you can confront it, so that you can live it.
It is a time when you can tell yourself proudly: Writer ka pala. It is a time when you can remind yourself humbly: Writer ka lang pala.