Storm and Spiral: A Short History of Storm-Becoming in Nineteenth Century Philippine Revolutionary Literature | Isa Lacuna

by Critical Asia

by Isa Lacuna, June 2022】

Much has already been said about the historical and political interpretations of Philippine revolutionary literature, and all these insights remain indispensable in the tackling of the genre vis-à-vis contemporary ecocriticism from and about the islands. Alongside the many references to the sun, mountains, flowers, clouds, and the wind, storms are recurrent environmental tropes in the Philippine oeuvre, present as far back as pre-contact native literature or as immediate as the twenty-first century writing of Mayamor or Emiliana Kampilan. This enduring presence is partly explained by the number of uses atmospheric turbulence has been made to serve, and the ways in which turbulent weather inspires the tropical imagination to particular courses of action, whether these actions might be said to move towards ideologically conservative or radical positions. For example, storms have been utilized as the ultimate dramatic setting for either love or colonial suffering (as in May Bagyo Ma’t May Rilim), as the mythic intervention of higher beings in narratives (the pasyon), or as marker of a particular character’s fated-ness or destiny (of which the legend of Bernardo Carpio is most emblematic). What, however, is of specific interest to this essay is a particular use of storm tropes figured by writers associated with the Philippines’ many insurgencies, which show a tendency to figure subversives as atmospheric disturbances. Radical figures and storms are troped as not only similar but as intertwined intensities, signifying perhaps the continuous overarching contestations within and against the different irrepressible violences embedded in Philippine history. The historical development of this tropism reflects and refracts the complex nature of the archipelago’ environmental concern, riddled as it is with questions of ongoing repressions from the state, its enduring economic and social inequalities, and the necessarily entangled liberation of all these categories.[1] Moreover, aside from serving as historical marker of postcolonial political contestation, the radical-as-storm also provides the dual purpose of unsettling the divide usually imposed between nature and culture in general environmental discourse, showing how the relation of these two categories are necessarily intertwined and undeniable, even when they are at their most materially obscured or occluded.[2]

A short historical illustration might better demonstrate this thought. Rizal is one of the earliest writers to figure a particular kind of storm embodiment in terms of revolution, though similar to his own dedication to the 1896 insurrection, the commitment is always ambiguously on the verge of emergence. The Noli Me Tangere is rife with storm tropes used in all manners of ways, but never is it as poignant as in that memorable argument between Ibarra and his foil, Elias. “Do you not see how everything awakens? The sleep lasted for centuries, but one day lightning struck, and the lightning, in destroying, brought forth life,[3] says the latter as he berates the former, pertaining to the necessary electric enlightenment of the natives to their own colonial conditions. The metaphoric initiation of the revolutionary as lightning-born surfaces and disappears in the novel just as quickly as the phenomena it follows, appearing in this scene only to be overshadowed by the unfolding of the more obvious dramas of the novel. This stormy figuration which recedes in the Noli appears a few years later in the El Filibusterismo, but mirroring the convoluted spiral of Ibarra-turned-Simoun’s morality, all its generative potential has been lost, and the storm that had brought forth Ibarra’s new life can now only destroy its bearer. Simoun, for a moment, contains a contradictory and hyperbolic storm within his chest (a tempest of whirlwinds and thunder without a drop of rain[4]) only to disappear from view just as his anarcho-utopian plan begins to unfold in San Diego.

Rizal’s inconsistent and sparing use of the storm trope vis-à-vis his anti-/hero does not detract from its popularity in the coming years of the nineteenth century, and the storm’s links with struggle and revolution gain more traction from this point onwards. A number of famous authors seem to reiterate the figuration after Rizal, such as Emilio Jacinto in “A la Patria,”[5] and Claro M. Recto’s “El Alma de la Raza.” Recto’s poetry possibly most concretely crystallizes the slow transition of conventional romantic natures towards the more novel idea that tropical atmospheres are not simply external settings and reflections of an interior drama[6], but are in fact part of a larger anti-colonial and locally grounded agency. Attesting to the former, observable within Bajo Los Cocoteros are numerous figurations of gardens of love alongside the sublime eruption of volcanoes and the thundering pulses of war.[7] Storms, however are quite unique in Recto’s collection, because they are not only figured as emotions that are contained in bodies (as in Rizal), but as the Filipino people themselves without qualification. The postcolony becomes these contrasting environments, likened as the native is to “a cyclone in battle and a sephyr in peace / [with] furies of thunder and canary song,” depending on the situation he finds himself in.[8]

This mutable and chimeric becoming is not limited to the literary field of the fin de siècle, especially if one considers the use of symbolic names chosen by Katipuneros active during the revolution. Hermogenes Plata chose “Quidlat” [trans. “Lightning”] as his alias, and later changed it to “Unang Quidlat” [“First Lightning”] because, it seems, so many other members of the society had also adopted the same alias.[9] In one of the minutes of the Katipunan’s Supreme Council meetings, we find a few storm-named officers elected into key positions of the society: “Lintik” [“Lightningbolt”] and “Bagyo” [“Storm”] were appointed fiscals, and “Buhawi” [“Whirlwind”] was appointed president of Katipunan’s Pasig River division.[10] In Jim Richardson’s collection of Katipunan members from 1892 to 1896, we find at least 4 “Buhawi” [“Waterspout”] (Hilario Rubio, Melecio Ruestra, Victoriano Domingo, and Petronilo Zamora), 2 “Kidlat” [“Lightning”] (Hermogenes Plata and Macario Almeda), 2 “Lintik” [“Lightningbolt”] (Eleuterio de Guzman and the secretary of Barangay Dimasayaran), 1 “Ipo Ipo” [“Whirlwind”] (Lucino de la Cruz), 3 “Bagyo” [“Storm”] (one in Barangay Pandayan and another in Barangay Silanganan)  and 1 “Habagat” [“Monsoon”].[11] Santiago Alvarez, general of the 1896 revolution and a hero of the battle of Dalahican, was popularly known by his codename “Apoy,” which is short for “Apoy ng Kidlat” or “Fire of Lightning.”[12]

The significance of such nominative choices reflects the palpable weight of the atmosphere in political and radical discourse in the late Philippine nineteenth century. What begins in Rizal as metaphoric entry becomes in Recto and the Katipunan a metaphoric embodiment of storms. Whether ilustrado or guerrilla (and the clouding of such class distinctions merits its own discussion), there is a shared force of desire to be found in the imagination of the atmospheric turbulence, one that is quite different from the fatalism and patient endurance of most religious writing that precedes it. The understanding of storms here has developed past the point of being conceived merely as an event of sufferance, but had become the representation of a kind of native agency, one that must and can only be assumed in the face of cataclysmic events on a scale quite unimaginable at that time. In other words, if the end of the “rational” colonial world as it was known was nigh, then the only imaginable counterpoint is to embody another equal force as world-shaking as what was about to occur. Systemic failure in the structure of the social and modern world is thus addressed by returning allegorically to the natural and its sublime, chaotic, but nonetheless familiar, cyclic catastrophes. And while such maneuvers are not free of their problematic consequences, what it does illustrate for us is how representations of nature are, in this case, welded to representations of developing politics, allowing both to speak of each other in varied and unusual ways.

From an ecocritical perspective, a number of promising tangents then comes into view. First, one wonders whether the Rizal-to-Recto literary arc is possibly an early postcolonial iteration of that much desired weathering proposed by Neimanis and Walker, illustrating an other-wise thinking that imagines human bodies as weather-bodies in order to “do something,” of ethical and political import.[13] Another related inquiry worth considering is the inversion of power dynamics revolutionary poets enact as they imagine their particular instances of storm-becoming. Historically, natives tend to be conflated with their environments in colonial writing, often figured as less-than-human because of their proximity to nature instead of Western civilization. However, in native Philippine revolutionary poetry, the understanding of this environmental relationship is inverted; closeness to nature does not signify a loss of power but its reclamation, and critics are invited to reconsider how and why such a dynamic is meaningful to contemporary global ecocriticism.

These ideas and questions remain significant as almost a century later, we find the continued endurance of the storm trope in the poems of Mayamor or Roger Felix Salditos, another writer that joins the long line of martyr-poets of Philippine history, who is this time killed by state forces under the Duterte regime in 2018.[14] No poem in Mayamor’s oeuvre displays the nineteenth-century atmospheric model more clearly perhaps than “Desaparecidos.” Beginning with the persona’s desire to be the wind, the zephyric persona of the poem gains raging momentum as the search for their lost comrades-in-arms proves futile in their human body. This rage and despair finally erupts in the last verse and culminates in another storm-becoming, demonstrating a poetics that melds the strange enduring romantic medievality of Philippine society with the social realism of its current politics.

We now want to be a storm
A hurricane to wipe out the lies
Strong gusts of wind to find you,
In whatever darkness they had you imprisoned
A force that cannot be contained
By any evil king or queen
We will walk you through the eye of the storm
This storm that shall exact a heavy price
From whoever are the culprits![15]

The monsoon assemblage[16] of writers and ideas featured within this essay is densely packed with more insight than this brief overview can hint at, but the literary constellation I have pointed out hopefully illustrates not only the historically entangled relationship between Filipinos and the many atmospheres they experience, but also the rich potential of the Philippine archive for further studies for ecocritical readings. One expects that this turbulent connection will only become more visible in the coming years, with the Philippines on the cusp of many cataclysmic changes brought about by, on the one side, the ever-increasing dangers posed by climate change and its many storms, and on the other, the political instability that will follow the Marcos Restoration in the islands. The cultural, the political, the environmental, and the historical are now visibly locked together in relations that refuse segregation, and we are all challenged to respond with a complexity and immensity equal to the problem at hand. What exact form this takes remains to be seen, but we might take our cues once again from Mayamor, whose sense of history and personal agency necessarily arises from his own stormy disposition. For him—as it is for many of us—the current struggle is a spiral, a spiral formed by our own tangled dialectics,[17] which must be continuously rethought and reshaped to address both our most historically rooted failures and our imagined vision of the future world we would like to share with each other.


AUTHOR
Isa Lacuna, University of Western Australia, Australia


NOTES

[1] For a brief overview of the contemporary Philippine environment and its many issues, see IBON Foundation, The State of the Philippine Environment (Quezon City: IBON Foundation, 2019).

[2] Angela Last, “Fruit of the Cyclone: Undoing geopolitics through geopoetics,” Geoforum 64 (2015): 57.

[3] Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tangere, trans. by Soledad Lacson-Locsin (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), 336-337. Emphasis mine.

[4] Jose Rizal, El Filibusterismo: Subversion, trans by Ma. Soledad Lacons-Locsin, ed by Raul L. Locsin (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007) 197.

[5] Emilio Jacinto, “A mi Patria / To the Fatherland,” in The Revolutionists: Aguinaldo, Bonifacio, Jacinto, ed by Teodoro A. Agoncillo, trans by Gregorio Nieva (Manila: National Historical Institute, 2009), 146.

[6] Frederic Jameson, “Magical Narratives: Romance as Genre,” New Literary History 7, no. 1, (1975): 146.

[7] Claro M. Recto, Bajo los Cocoteros (Beneath Coconut Palms), trans Alfredo S. Veloso (Quezon City: Asvel Publishing, Co., 1963)

[8] Claro M. Recto, “El Alma de la Raza (“On the Native Soul),” in Bajo los Cocoteros (Beneath Coconut Palms), trans Alfredo S. Veloso (Quezon City: ASVEL Publishing Co, 1963), 14.

[9] Teodoro Plata, (alias “Pangligtas” [“For Salvation”]), co-founder of the Katipunan, alongside Andres Bonifacio. Gregoria de Jesus (alias “Lakambini” or “Muse”), who is vice-president of the Katipunan, keeper of the society’s documents, and wife of Bonifacio. On Unang Quidlat, see Jim Richardson, “Storming the Citadel: The Katipunan’s military plans prior to August 1895,” Katipunan: Documents and Studies, revised April 2021, accessed 15 September 2021. http://www.kasaysayan-kkk.info/march-august-1/unang-quidlat-letter-to-kanilang-minamahal-c-may-1896-re-the-katipunan-s-military-plans.

[10] Emilio Jacinto, “Supreme Council, Meeting held on 8 March 1896,” Katipunan: Documents and Studies, accessed 15 September 2021, http://www.kasaysayan-kkk.info/march-august-1/supreme-council-meeting-held-on-march-8-1896.

[11] Jim Richardson, “Katipunan Activists in Manila, 1892-1896” Katipunan: Documents and Studies, accessed 15 September 2021. http://www.kasaysayan-kkk.info/studies/notes-on-the-katipunan-in-manila-1892-96/table-1-katipunan-activists-in-manila-1892-96.

[12] Andres Bonifacio to Mariano and Santiago Alvarez, 29-30 October 1896, in Jim Richardson, Katipunan: Documents and Studies, 1 April 2013, accessed 23 December 2021, http://www.kasaysayan-kkk.info/kamaynilaan-and-morong-august-1896-september-1897/supreme-council-letter-to-mariano-and-santiago-alvarez-october-29-30-1896.

[13] Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker, “‘Weathering’: Climate Change and the ‘Thick Time’ of Transcorporeality,” Hypatia 29, no. 3 (2014): 560-563.

[14] Karlo Mongaya, “Maya Daniel: Poet-painter, revolutionary,” Inquirer.net, 7 September 2018, accessed 19 May 2022, https://opinion.inquirer.net/115892/maya-daniel-poet-painter-revolutionary.

[15] Roger Felix Salditos, “50: Mga Binalaybay ni Roger Felix Salditos, trans by Kerima Lorena Tariman (Quezon City: Sentro ng Wikang Filipino-UP Diliman, 2020), 173-174.

[16] The phrase “monsoon assemblage” comes from the conceptual work forwarded by both Lindsay Bremner and Anna Tsing. Both approach monsoons (and their storms) as events replete with overlapping meanings and representations, a plurality which arises from the understanding that such events are simultaneously both “data and world,” or real and imagined, for all the people to whom they matter. For more, see Lindsay Bremner, “Introduction: Thinking with the Monsoon” GeoHumanities 7, No.1 (2021): 1-5; and Anna Tsing, “When the Things We Study Respond to Each Other: Tools for Unpacking the Material,”,” in Penny Harvey, Christian Krohn-Hansen, and Knut G. Nustad, eds., Anthropos and Material (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 221-243.

[17] Roger Felix Salditos, “In the Spiral of Dialectics,” in 50: Mga Binalaybay ni Roger Felix Salditos, trans by Kerima Lorena Tariman (Quezon City: Sentro ng Wikang Filipino-UP Diliman, 2020), 114-115.

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