How does one honor a National Artist in his passing? Does his death mean partly the death of that nation which honored his arts or does the nation live on as if its arts and artists are the ephemera of an institution with geographical boundaries and material histories?
It is wise to ask those questions if the person whose demise is being talked about is that of a person like Bienvenido Lumbera, National Artist for Literature, for whom literature and arts were as much about the life of a nation and the regions around it as well as the death—or slow decay—of literatures dominated by other forms, perishable in the face of other centralized expressions.
In tributes together with the wild and warm praises that now fill the sorrows of those whose lives and career he has influenced is the singularity of the importance of Bien Lumbera. Problematic perhaps is the notion of the national artist in a land where the concept and reality of nation is not only contentious but persistent, but in the title awarded to this man, that same doubt is partly diminished. The reason for that is found in Lumbera’s contribution to Philippine literature, which is located in his critique of the literary canons often considered as given and in his much admired fondness for regional writings. And yet, if that attitude to the writings from the periphery are merely reducible to an affection, then this grieving that now seeks to incarnate itself in more prose and more poetry, in a thousand and one criticism of literatures contemplating their origins and directions, will be a mere passing, a breath of a wind, strong and unusually battering our daily existence, but nevertheless inconsolably temporary.
There is, however, in Bien Lumbera, a thing that is lasting. We have a word for it—legacy.
This legacy is in his works that students often describe as awesome in range and breathtaking in their impact to all forms of learning and erudition. Think of Tales of the Manuvu, Rama Hari, and many others. Where in their original settings, these pieces were almost untouchable artefacts of our link to earlier civilizations, Lumbera made them current and made them our own.
We know we cannot forget Bienvenido Lumbera. He was a part of numerous significant gatherings where literatures were perused; he was a massive intellectual force belying, this especially during the last few years, the physical weakness in that cane and slow gait. Mang Bien, as he was fondly known, would honor all invitations to talks and festivals. He travelled alone to distant workshops, took the plane all by himself when in those times, he could well afford assistants or an entourage. In all of these journeys, Lumbera, on record, proved to be, in some places, the only National Artist students had seen and took selfies with. He charmed them with his name, the reputation preceding the august title. He signed books and conversed with all these young men and women who, perhaps, considered being with this academic, finally “instagrammable.” Observers would tell you Bien did not mind at all the attention and the lightheartedness of the situation. Proofs of these are the photos now gracing online postings and reminiscences not of the dreary thinker but of a gentle, old man who spoke low and slow but inspired all those who listened and who are now all saddened by the farewell.
To these young men and women, readers and writers or even listeners, their dear Mang or Tatang Bien lives on. He is there in his writings where he honors not only the geniuses of our culture but also those standing on the wayside, not honored.
In his essay, Ang Kamalayang Katutubo at ang Kamalayang Filipino (The Native Consciousness and the Filipino Consciousness), Bienvenido Lumbera explores identity, consciousness, and worldview, by looking at the old kundiman, “Jocelynang Baliwag.” Labeled as “Kundiman ng Himagsikan” or Song of the Revolution, its creation in 1896 cemented its reputation as indeed an anthem for a cause. In the mind of Lumbera, the song about love for a woman whose allure is caught in the second metaphorical layer of a flower that is clean and pure cannot be a de-facto battle cry. How did this song become linked to a revolution? If we stay with the literal aspect of the song, Lumbera says, how can this song ever be about the Filipino’s rise against the oppression? Is this an invention of a romantic scholar?
Here is where the keen theorist in Lumbera works as he writes: “Ang akdang pampanitikan ay walang sariling kapangyarihang pumukaw sa kamalayan ng mambabasa o tagapakinig” (A literary piece has no power to awaken the consciousness of the reader or the listener). For Lumbera, it is not in the nature of the words or languages to bring about a shift or development of consciousness.
“Wala sa salita ang himala” (The miracle is not found in language), Lumbera writes. Where then lies the transfiguration? Is it in the writer to use the language to provoke and challenge?
For Lumbera it is the audience where the task of interpretation resides and this is not merely a site of miraculous awakening but of political revelation. This is not also the passive reader because for Lumbera the reader is independent: “May sariling pandama at pag-iisip” (possessing his own sensibility and way of thinking). This is where Lumbera’s populist and popular realities are.
Bienvenido Lumbera has written numerous essays and papers presented here and abroad, like many other academics. Unlike many other thinkers, his works see praxis in the field and in communities. He sees literatures from the regions and those rendered to be national literature as “magkabukod” and “magkarugtong” (separate but connected). Whereas there is still much to be desired in acclaiming that this republic has indeed a national literature, the admission of regional writings valued at the same level as that which represents the “nation,” here, at least, we have the beginning of cultures that cannot be assumed to be just out there but to be translated.
Where this question leads us is up to the other thinkers still alive, with the materiality to wrestle with the fluidity of centers and margins, and the crucial problems of identities. All these are thoughts engendered by a gentleman who went through incarceration during the dark days of martial rules and, after being released, cried upon seeing human beings working as living mannequins on display windows. In that videotaped interview, Bienvenido Lumbera compared ourselves to those mannequins pretending to be something else, someone else, when the strong arm of the dictatorship was upon us all.
Thriving on metaphors and subsisting on appearances, Lumbera, in his person and in his works, is the closest we can get to remember the true memories of a land, its past of oppression and the literatures written about them, our only path to foreseeable futures.
And for all this, we shall remember, Bien.