READ OR DIE!*
By Gémino H. Abad
Let me tell you about my novel. It was not a best-seller, it was a failure because it hasn’t been written yet. Aliens from a high-tech civilization on a planet in the constellation we call Andromeda came to Earth to colonize it. So high-tech they were they could just say, “Do!” and anything they wanted was done; we may call them Dodos. They could assume human form, and so, they lived among us and gave us all our high-tech equipment – computers, the internet, video games, I-pods, even palatial malls, all diverting forms and voids of entertainment. Their secret agenda was to take us over by softening our cerebra all the while that we celebrate our comfort and camaraderie with Dodos. “Do!” they softly enjoin and smile and smile, and soon enough, we are done for, differently wired, we are spoken for.
I think now my novel isn’t one; it is rather a post-modern, post-colonial, post-parable.
You see, upon graduation, your education begins, you were only equipped for it in college. The word “education” is from Latin, e-ducere, “to lead out of.” Out of what? – out of any darkness of mind: out of ignorance, prejudice, fanatic advocacy.
It is a curious thing that the word “dogma” is from Greek dokein, meaning “to seem, or to seem good,” which is by definition what an opinion is: dokein. An opinion (Latin, opinari, to suppose, imagine, or conjecture) is anything that hovers between fact and fiction, with more or less of either one.
It is also instructive that “theory” is from Greek theoria, meaning “a way of seeing.” Thus, any theory one might subscribe to is only a way of looking, of making sense. No theory has a monopoly of seeing. And further, “to subscribe” is, again, from Latin sub-scribere, that is, “to be written under,” and so, if I subscribe to any theory, I see things in light of a script that is already given. By any theory, what I see and understand is a reading of a given script by which I too am read.
From all these, you can see that I am a skeptic, again from Greek skeptesthai, that is, “to look, to consider, to ponder.” That was what your college education equipped you for: a life of the mind, a care for thought that, this side of Eden, is our only light. Look and consider, to read close is to open.
You can also see, in all our etymological trips, not only that English is both Latin and Greek through a great part of its multitudinous sea of words; not only that any language is omnivorous, assimilating words and nuances of words from various cultures, so that language becomes borderless, and this makes translation (with imagination) at all possible; but also, and most importantly, you see that the sense for language is the basic poetic sense, that is to say, our most intimate sense of our reality. I said, most importantly, because the only reality we shall ever know, in science and the humanities, is only, and nothing more than, our human reality. A cat’s perceptions of the world is different from ours; it inhabits a different world. And it is only with words and words of a given historical language, be that English or Filipino-Tagalog, only with our words do we give form to our perceptions whereby we grasp a sense of our reality, what we call “our world.” As Jacques Derrida might put it – it seems to me - Il n’y a pas de hors-texte. There is nothing outside the text.
This is why I put a premium on language; through all your years in college, you shall have enhanced and enriched your sense for language. It is the finest human invention, the supreme human achievement. Without language, we have no history, no culture, no civilization.
And I put a premium too in the same instance on imagination, the finest form of intelligence. This is not a mere Romantic fancy. Without imagination, we have no literature, no art, no science, no technology. I said earlier that the sense for language is the basic poetic sense. Again, “poem” and “poetic” are Greek, from poiein, “to make” – that is, to construct with words and words, by which we make sense of our world. The poetic moment, that is, the moment of writing, “opens the intuition to all that language refuses,” as the poet Yves Bonnefoy says.
That intuition is a power of the imagination by which language is enabled to transcend itself, to overcome its inadequacies and limitations by its own evocative resources: those “turnings and twistings of sense and reference” (Donald Hall), those rhetorical strategies, by which the writer, the thinker, clears his own path through the wilderness of language. Our thoughts and feelings without our words are like brambles – the underbrush of the human psyche, dream and intuition. The writer makes his own clearing within language, for he has his own way with language, his own distinctive style. Style, or the manner of expression by which its matter or subject is negotiated, is, says the philosopher Albert Camus, “the simultaneous existence of reality and of the mind that gives reality its form.”
“All that language refuses” is opened up by the writing, for – as the writer Jose Dalisay says, “the knowing is in the writing.” But what is language’s refusal? That is symptomatic of its inadequacy to reality, for language fixes our perceptions with labels and names, and we are entrapped in abstractions. Yet, language secretly yearns to be free. Again, that word “text” is from Latin, texere, textus, “to weave.” It is the imagination that weaves the text by which the words are set free to evoke, to call forth to mind, the reality that the imagination seeks. That weave is precisely what Camus speaks of as one’s own distinctive style. For to write is to translate: yet again, “to translate,” is Latin, from transferre, translatus, “to convey or ferry across.” So then, to write is to ferry across the river of words that is a language’s dictionary one’s own soul’s freight without hurt or injury to the mind’s import and aim.
When a child is born, the brain is already there, and the brain becomes a mind through language; and that steady state of mind is state of play – play of language, play of imagination.
And so I end where I began. “Read or die.” And yes, write, or grow blind; write, even only for yourself – else, you would think vaguely, formlessly. To read, to write – the very compass of education, the unremitting work of imagination by which things are brought back alive from their labels and names. To read is to enter the living of it, for the meanings of our words come from lives lived, from a people’s history and culture. To write is to get real, for what is most real is what is most imagined.--- Gémino H. Abad UP-CAL, Day of Recognition, 16 April 2011
*READ OR DIE! (University of the Philippines College of Arts and Letters Recognition Day Speech of UP University Prof. Emeritus Gemino Henson Abad, 16 April 2011, UP Film Institute)
Gimeno Abad, poet and scholar, has written extensively about Philippine literature, particularly poetry, and is a respected anthologist of Philippine fiction and poetry. This post was reposted from Jose Wendell Capili's blog. Photo courtesy of Mr. Capili.