Thursday, February 21, 2008

WHY CRISTOBAL COUNTS

(Remarks at the “Tribute to Adrian” Sofitel Hotel, Pasay City, 20 February 2008)


No eulogies were heard at Adrian Cristobal’s wake or funeral. So this evening’s tribute will either cure that gap or smother an unspoken plea that we honor him in peace. I believe that had our friend been heard, he would probably have said he had wanted no orations at all because he doubted that his friends’ candor could be tamed. This is what we read in his own collection of columns, Pasquinades. He had to write the Introduction to the collection himself, he says, because another writer might have proved too honest for his taste.

That, of course, is tongue in cheek. Believe it at your own risk.

I am inclined to believe that he was more concerned about our natural tendency to exaggerate when speaking of the virtues of our friends. In life, he rejected any kind of sentimental over-praise; he had to be consistent in death. But Adrian Cristobal was not just a friend. He was, and he is, an indubitable literary and historical fact. And as with a fallen tree that once towered above other trees, we can only try to measure now what had defied measuring while it yet stood.

Adrian Cristobal was first a thinker and writer before anything else. His was a first-rate mind that cut through the surface and superficialities and went into the very heart of things. His works --- I, Suliman, The Trial: A dramatization of the prosecution of Andres Bonifacio, The Tragedy of the Revolution, and nearly everything else he wrote -- all testify to it. Suliman is a meditation, more than a short story, which is not nearly half the size or length of The Old Man and the Sea; The Trial is a play in three acts, which is out of print, and the Tragedy is an 81-page monograph on its last few copies. All three pieces are too slim to stand alone individually, outside of an anthology or a collection of the author’s works. Everything else he had written remains either uncollected or unpublished.

Many more people talk about these works than have actually read them; this is the fate of many writers and their books. Still it is not unreasonable to hope that a new generation of Filipinos with a deeper sense of the past will one day go back to these works and discover there seeds of national pride which their elders had failed to grasp. This need not remain a hope. We dare not forget that a great classic like Charles Peguy’s Jeanne d’Arc sold only one copy when it was first published in 1897, and that it took Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere over a hundred years to join the Penguin classics.

Cristobal gave to journalism the drive and output he had failed to give his literary craft. But this is probably a false distinction, since the best journalism is but another form of literature, and the best journalists are almost always literary men. Indeed, it is as much the journalist as it is the literary author G. K. Chesterton who has become today’s most widely quoted English writer after Shakespeare. Cristobal wrote tons and tons of political and social tracts, not all of which perished with the newspaper or magazine issues that carried them. One who trades in ‘futures’ will probably need no extra incentive to collect and publish these materials now for future gain.

The world has not quite heard the last word from Cristobal. I do not believe we shall know his real place in the literary world until we have read the Journals which he had so assiduously kept all his life. The publication in 2005 in France of Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine (which appeared in the United States as The Last Cavalier, Pegasus Books, NY, 2005), did nothing more to improve or diminish the value or reputation of its author Alexandre Dumas pere, who died in 1870. Neither did the post-humous publication of Albert Camus’s first novel, La mort hereuse in 1971, and his last, Le premiere homme, in 1995, alter the literary standing of the French Nobel Prize laureate who died in 1960. But I have no doubt that the publication of the Cristobal journals can only enhance his literary standing, just as the journals of Soren Kierkegaard and Andre Gide enhanced theirs.

Cristobal’s varied intellectual pursuits took him close to the very center of political power. He was for years a valuable source of intellectual stimulus, if not illumination, of the President of the Philippines. With natural ease he took to the sturm and drang of high politics like it was his “second amniotic fluid,” to borrow the words of Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes. It became part of his enduring search for meaning, his restless quest for eagle’s wings to fly him to the “high cliff of the human dawn” as Pablo Neruda puts it in Canto General, from where one could see everything below, or at least a bit more ground.

In 1970, he confided in his Journal that he had found only one true friend in government, whom he did not name. But on his 50th birthday in 1982, he surveyed the distance he had covered and wrote: “I have come a long way in a crass and materialistic society that I have never accepted. A kind of success in enemy territory. Why then should I be anxious about that success? There is a plan or destiny for me, whether I recognize it or not. What is required of me is to play it through.”

He played his role well, but his political engagement did not last forever. After a change of regime, he went on lecture tours and into serious column-writing. He dissected the lunacies of our times and spoke for sanity, beauty and intelligence. At the height of his influence as autocrat of The Breakfast Table, the column which ran for the longest time in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, he regularly lampooned the foibles of politics and politicians, slicing the objects of his amusement into little ribbons, without arousing the slightest suspicion on their part. It mortified him so whenever some of them sent him the most sincere, if most saccharine, thank you notes, white the detritus of their battered ego lay scattered on the op ed page.

One recurring complaint, repeated over and over tonight, was that he was not easy to read. This amused him no end. No one said he wrote only for himself, as Blaise Pascal’s own nephew Etienne Perier said of the author of Pensees. But even his own friends complained they could not always understand him. He wrote to bring out of himself what otherwise would torment him if he did not; but he often wrote in epigrams and double entendre. It was, I suspect, his way of “choosing” his readers, of playing with them, as it were. He tended to forget that the men in Plato’s caves were not encouraged to look straight into the light, lest they went blind.

Yet he could really play the snob whenever he liked, as once when, filling in as presidential spokesman (this was after I had left the office, which I held for ten years), he tried to end a public argument by throwing at his adversaries three adjectives that sent them running to the dictionary for help. Webster pointed out that “nascent” means “just coming into existence and beginning to display signs of future potential,” and that “amentic” comes from the noun “amentia,” which means “severe congenital mental handicap.” But no English dictionary could help them figure out what the third word –“thersitecal”—meant. It was obviously a coinage, derived from the Latin word Thersites, which refers to “a Greek soldier in Troy notorious for his ugliness.” But he never bothered to relieve his adversaries of their discomfort and embarrassment. It never struck him that “to instruct the ignorant” is one of the spiritual works of mercy of a good Christian.

Cristobal had no sympathy for mediocrity, stupidity or bad manners. He could not bear the yahoos and churls that tended to proliferate wherever politicians and the media gathered, or the plain anonymous bore who came up to you and told you about the poundage you had gained or lost, as though it were everybody’s business. He rarely failed to let them have it. “There must be other things in life worth pursuing besides a fortune in the bank and a 28-inch waist,” reads one entry in his Journal.

Yet beneath his awesome public gravitas, he was at heart a romantic who drooled like a lovestruck kid whenever his wife Teching sang, “How are things in Glocca Morra?” He also loved to horse around reciting Reb Tevye’s melodious reverie in Fiddler in the Roof--- ”If I were a rich man.” Indeed, if he were a rich man, he wouldn’t have to write hard; he would build a big tall house with rooms by the dozen right in the middle of town; a fine tin roof with wooden floors below, with one long staircase going up and one even longer going down, and one more leading nowhere just for show. If he were a rich man, he’d probably be cruising in the Adriatic, skiing at St. Moritz or playing baccarat at Monte Carlo---{do be do be do be do!}

But not even his “success in enemy territory” had made him a biddy biddy wealthy man. No regime ever risked its fate or fortune by drowning its intellectuals in immoderate or inexhaustible wealth. The regime he served was no exception. Thus, not having turned himself into a television star, a party list congressman or a Makati businessman, he continued to write for a living, and the only kind of writing that offered him a reasonably decent regular income was column-writing.

It was here where he continued to converse with history --not as a historian but as a man of letters--- on the unresolved questions about our history, and all the other questions spawned by them. He said what had to be said, and he said what nobody else had said, or in a way nobody else had said it. This is what made him and makes him necessary; this is what made him and makes him relevant.

Consider the question of nationhood, of truth, of justice, of democracy. Whether or not we are one nation now remains unresolved. But Cristobal knew that if we are, we are not a nation without a history, only a nation without a common consciousness of its own history. He also knew that although the terms are used everyday by the man in the street, we have yet no common conception of truth, justice, or democracy.

John Rawls calls truth the first virtue of systems of thought, and justice the first virtue of social institutions. The French philosopher Alain Badiou sees democracy as the principal organizer of consensus, and that it is forbidden, as it were, not to be a democrat. But we seem to have as many conceptions of these as there are speakers on each subject. Indeed, on one thing alone do we seem to agree: that we are deeply divided, and that we are deeply divided because of politics. But Cristobal would probably have said it is a mistaken view: we are divided because of greed---greed for power and money, uncontrollable and insatiable greed.

These are times when political practice or malpractice seems able to proceed against all common sense, tradition and theory; when the law of the strong seems to prevail over the strength of the law; when so many faithful are able to integrate into their Faith the worship of Croesus and Hedone; when truth and reason are detained without charges and without bail, deprived of all inherent rights and civil liberties; when right and wrong have become total strangers; when the first thing which those in power proclaim is relativism and the first thing they deconstruct is the most undeniable reality.

In 1878, on the centenary of Voltaire’s death, Victor Hugo, the aging author of Les Miserables, proclaimed these words: “since night issues from the thrones, let light come from the tombs.” I borrow these words now to charge ourselves and those who will come after us to reflect wisely and see with the clearest light of day why Cristobal was necessary and why he will continue to be relevant to us and to our progeny.

3 comments:

Jing Panganiban-Mendoza said...

Hi Sen. Tatad, great you posted the speech you delivered last night. It was a lovely gathering for a man of great intellect.

Francisco Tatad said...

Thank you for your comment. I hope you keep in touch.

Ian said...

Hallo, Senator Tátad. I am Mr. John Christian Canda of Tágum City, Dávao del Norte, 26 years old. I got your blogsite's address from an ANC interview last year. May I please have your e-mail address? I should like to add to my planned e-mail list. By the way, my e-mail address is: jccanda@yahoo.com.