Words (for Edel Garcellano)


(photo by Karl Castro, taken from his post at the Edel Garcellano Study Group Facebook Page)

Yesterday flowed in a rather strange way. Very early after midnight, my faculty colleague, the scholar Led Villafuerte, who was formerly an aide for poet and critic Edel Garcellano back when he was still teaching at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, informed us of Garcellano’s death. I’m not sure what I felt after that. After all, it was mentioned to us hypertextually. It lacked that necessary emotional pause of physical confrontation. 

Just a while ago, another friend, scholar Ruben Garcia, shared the Esquire write-up on poet Virgilio Almario’s activity of writing a poem a day until the Community Quarantine Ends. Today, Rodrigo Duterte, through Harry Roque, announced the extension of the Quarantine in “high-risk areas.” It looks like Almario will not stop anytime soon.

For those who have read Garcellano as a critic, no one got past another text without reading his essay “Reportage on the State of Class War and Philippine Literature.” It is in this essay, appearing as the first entry in his first essay anthology, First Person, Plural (1987), that Garcellano clearly situated, in an almost tactical way, Philippine Literature as a domain of superstructural contention in the midst of an on-going Class War. Contextually, this has also been the reason why I thought that the day was weird: the essay ended with a metacritique of Almario’s critique of revolutionary theory being applied to literature and criticism.

Commenting on both the pessimism and snarky remarks of Garcellano from personal experience, scholar Jayson Jimenez noted of Garcellano being a “killer of villainous gods.” Was he, really?

If anyone is to read his three essay anthologies (First Person, Plural (1987), Intertext (1990), Interventions (1998)) along with his poetry from the 1990s up to 2016, one can notice Garcellano’s further decline into pessimism which he clearly articulated in the determinism of base and superstructural relations:


“If Marcos, Enrile, Ver, Benedicto, Cojuangco did not exist, the corporate state would have just the same way invented Marcos, Enrile, Ver, Benedicto, Cojuangco.”  (“A Conjectural Letter for the Children of the Third Generation”)


“Malaki na ang mga bata. Silang nalahian na rin ng takot ng matatanda ay bagkus ngayong tumatahak sa daang kanyang iniiwasan. Marahil sa kanilang panahon ito ngayon ang nararapat gawin. Marahil anuman ang mangyayari, inisip nilang baka pagsisihan sa dakong huli ang di pagsunod sa kutob at lohika ng nararapat sa mundo.

Ganun nga siguro. Ang kinabukasan ay nililigiran ng mga bangkay ng mga berdugo ng kapitalismo at mangingibig ng hustisya at karapatan.”

(The children have now grown up. They who shared the fears of the old now walk the road they are avoiding. Maybe it is what should be done in their time. Whatever might happen, they will think that they might, in the end, regret if they did not follow their hunches and logic that befits the world.

Maybe, that’s the way it is. The future is filled with corpses of butchers of capitalism and lovers of justice and rights.)


I can never express any personal anecdote about Garcellano, but looking at Almario being alive and well and still writing poetry whom he forces people to read by the virtue of the power vested to him by Rodrigo Duterte, I understand why Garcellano would turn pessimist.

Garcellano understood it: if not Almario, someone like him will be produced by the semifeudal superstructure surrounding literary production and all kinds of artistic production in the Philippines. This pessimism comes from an acknowledgment that one man can never kill God. 

“How can you not be suckered into thinking

that you must act beyond the finite of words?

Who would benefit from your choice?”

Garcellano asked in one of his last poems posted on his blog. In the same entry, he called poetry a “savage God.” In the same entry, which was a lecture, he tried for young people to steer away from poetry, as it is a “savage calling.” In another poem, one of his more famous ones, he referred to poetry as a minor matter.

But as a thinker of dialectical logic, this pessimism comes with it as a positive suggestion. If one can never kill a God, can the many do it?

His notion of literature being a politically partisan endeavor bears with it the kind of suggestion that whatever it is that literature has become did not come from a singular genius, but rather on a structure that produces and reproduces such forms and “geniuses.” That the way to actually become “alternative” in that mode of production is not to seek other forms or sources of content, but rather to commit to a position in the ongoing contention of the superstructure. One thing that Garcellano never mentioned directly in his writings is his equation of conscious and committed resistance as the only act of freedom and reason. That anyone who thinks they are doing their work of art or literature as individual freedom, bearing universalizing content, oftentimes does not act within their very freedom and reason, in fact, they even deny artmaking as a logical work. 

In the field of struggle, those who are within the state power, like Almario, do not act within realms of freedom and reason but rather through privilege and class impunity. In fact, they will never, ever, give in to reason. Garcellano, in an essay entitled “Of Theorizing Anti-Theorists, Nativists and Literary Shitheads”: “The power cliques that infest the state apparati still hold court— as they do now, here— and no amount of lucidity, much less dialectical finesse, would make them see the errors of their privileged ways. The system that has generously supported this southern trip is the very same system that will not allow its own subversion…” It is within the contradictory contexts between partisanship, privilege, and freedom that such pessimism expressed by Garcellano in participating in literary production comes from. Most especially that the contemporary rhetoric of weaponization of art and literature has been subsumed by the ruling class in their intensified wage of class war from above.

But this subsumption is, indeed, a dialectical moment. And it is within what theorist Jonathan Beller noted of Garcellano’s “pessimism of the intellect, pessimism of the will” that a true resolution for the contradictions within literature (between base and superstructure, production and consumption of literature, writing, and critique) can appear. Dialectical logic assures that this subsumption, which seemingly brought with it academically institutionalized progressive discourse that spread like a doomsday religion, may have relegitimized canonized thought in literature, but it can surely become a way for the twilight of the gods.

The popular anecdote in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, of a Madman who proclaimed the death of God, adds to it how, in his own reasoning, upon looking at his audience who are silent and surprised at his proclamation, he said: “I come too early.” It is within this anecdote that I always see how the task of murdering God is still at hand. Nietzsche’s madman, as Garcellano too, understood: it is “we” that killed God. And if God is not dead yet, it will also take a “we” to do so. The defiance against absolutism, to reach the point of the actual absolute through looking at contradictions, is the task among progressives that Garcellano understood too well, and has repeated several times, that it made Garcellano, according to him, “a lot of enemies/people who could have been friends.”

If there is one lesson one can capture from Garcellano’s criticisms and poetry written after the 90s (and even from anecdotes of his former students) is that in the time of imperialist globalization, new age entrepreneurial thinking, prosperity churches, identity politics white-knighting, mental health advocacy for inner idealist peace, and progressives unproblematically rubbing elbows and sharing offices with state bureaucrats who purport murder against the people, antagonism as an act and an attitude are not just essential, it is the only true expression of struggle. To antagonize God and the absolutized self (contained in bourgeois literary “self-expression”) is the only expression of freedom.

Rest in Power, Ka Edel.

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