by Joel Pablo Salud
Love. Romance. Shakespeare summed it up as a “marriage of two minds” that must forever refuse impediments. Neruda brandished the dark kind that must, in secret, be cherished—between the shadow and the soul. Francois de La Rochefoucauld takes love by the horns and milks the metaphor for what it’s worth: “Absence diminishes mediocre passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans fires.”
The ancient Greeks have three distinct words for what the English language can only mutter in one: érōs, agápē, philía. Modern Greek adds to this roster the words storgē for parental affection and thélēma, to desire close to the level of ambition. Why the Greeks have no word for love in the heroic manner of Francisco Balagtas’ Florante at Laura, or the sacrificial fashion of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, makes one wonder about the level of love ancients sought to understand. Agápē may be the nearest thing to emotional love the Greek fogies could perhaps muster (meaning, unconditional affection), knowing that philía (brotherly love) is natural, while érōs (physical love, sex) harped more on the idea of motion in emotional.
While modern pop science banks on its theory that love is no different from the feeling one gets after eating tons of chocolates, nothing could be so alien from love’s true face. Some posit the theory that evolution has done its job of hot wiring together the human psyches of both male and female in order for them to stay together long enough to rear children. Natural selection made such social and emotional bonds possible. Some experts even daresay that natural selection has lowered human “testosterone levels” and testicle size in order to curb the male’s serial fondness for promiscuity—but only when compared to chimpanzees. The same is true with marriage. And believe me, if this doesn’t scare the Byron out of you, I don’t know what will.
Literature has as much right to say a thing or two about love as the sciences, having studied the matter long before writing as we know it was in vogue. For a tale to be popular, it must be tragic, and this is where tensions inherent in love plays a key role in the plot. Literature’s and history’s famous couples were Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, Florante and Laura, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, Paris and Helena, Odysseus and Penelope and Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler of Gone with the Wind, to name a few. Of the more bizarre are the Phantom and Christine, Dracula and Mina, Humbert Humbert and Lolita. Telenovelas took the reins centuries later as a quick fix to the tedium of reading a full-length novel. The stories of A.C. Fabian, Rosario Ladia Jose, Liwayway Arceo, and Lualhati Bautista, to name a handful, have contributed much to the Filipino’s own understanding of how love smothers us with tragic kisses from its bloody lips.
Not all see love as profoundly as these authors. For some, love is synonymous with baduy, or anything horribly mushy or gooey. Like some intolerable bodily liquid, it is shunned. But not many share that view. If today’s telenovelas are any indication of how love conquers all, then ABS-CBN’s Be Careful with my Heart takes the cake—icing and all.
One can consider telenovelas as extended versions of the “penny-dreadful” romances one can buy for Php 150 to Php 300 or rent for a mere Php 50 from nearby sari-sari stores. In fact, these sidewalk readings are bestsellers of the true kind, and impressively, one that’s minus the multimillion peso advertising stints. Printed on affordable newsprint and paperback, these little-over-one-hundred-page romances—and our telenovelas—are by far what William Shakespeare’s plays had achieved during the heyday of the Globe Theatre. As easily as the Poet’s revered works were much a part of London’s bawdy playhouses and grand stages, our pre- and post-war romances and current telenovelas form part of this country’s long tradition of falling in, and into, love.
Why some Filipino authors had shunned the writing of epic love stories of the same height as Francisco Balagtas’ Florante at Laura is probably a question that’ll remain unanswered for the next century. Our uncanny but necessary inclination for stories on revolution, corruption, poverty and various ideologies pretty much occupied the length and breadth of many a wooden bookshelf. From Amado V. Hernandez’s Ibong Mandaragit and Edgardo M. Reyes’ Mga Kuko ng Liwanag to Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War, Jose “Pete” Lacaba’s Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage and F. Sionil Jose’s Rosales saga, our reading has been one of fire and brimstone, set to further conflagration by Lualhati Bautista’s recent novel, the heartrending Desaparecidos. Agustin C. Fabian’s Timawa (1953), the tale of a Filipino who, after working overseas, returned to his country a changed man, though not necessarily for the better, tackled the fall from grace of the Filipino emigrant.
Epochal in their own right, these tales of loss and triumph of the Filipino struggle to come to terms with who he is had had some difficulty reaching the young 21st-century reader. Their fondness revolves around “fan fics” (short fiction written by fans of an existing character or story), vampire love stories and teenage movie literature. The introduction of the internet has made possible access to e-books of every kind, and yet, there’s still a young generation whose sense of what it literature hangs desperately in the balance.
Perhaps our reverence for love is such that it behaves us to tread gently on its long and grandiose tradition. But to believe such would put Francisco Balagtas in the list of turgid and pompous authors. Why even bother with great traditions when great love stories in the mold of Romeo & Juliet had made giant leaps over time, unabashedly taking on the sundry shades of black and dark. Consider Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Count Dracula and Mina Harper), Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber from Fleet Street (Benjamin Barker and Lucy), Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (Humbert Humbert and Lolita), and a host of other queer couples.
Stoker’s characters, Count Dracula and Mina Harper, were quite a pair, nearly within the same uncanny range as Humbert Humbert and the young Lolita of Vladimir Nabokov’s earthshaking novel. Only the circumstances surrounding their relationships are different. But love in literature is hardly offended by streaks of oddity, look at Beauty and the Beast. Most wouldn’t dare consider Dracula as a love story, but I would without flinching. It is as grand as the history it attempted to depict, burdened by a passion as princely as the one rejected for his hatred of the Church he had served. In the end, it is not about Mina and the Count, but love as a bridge between the once faithful Prince of the Crusades and his God. This story proves that love can come from the most unexpected pages.
But, isn’t it safe to say that our penchant for stories on struggle is a by-product of gradient passions set in the mood of a continuing battle? What use could protest literature have, aside from its exposition of societal ills, outside the preservation of the people and things we love most in life? We bother to struggle because we love—country, freedoms, family, friends and ourselves. If not for these, then why make an effort to raise a fist, or in this case, a pen to write?
For all that’s worth fighting for, nothing ennobles the writer than fanatical fondness for a good cause. Ultimately, I believe, that love is the cause. The stories writers tell—loves, lives, losses and laurels—are the most poignant themes behind the pages of protest literature. If only for these behind-the-scene tales we can find time to read, then it would be time well-spent.
Joel Pablo Salud began his career in writing as a journalist of close to two and a half decades. He writes a broad range of socio-political analysis on current issues and events, and as a member of the Manila Critics Circle an extensive folio of literary reviews for various national publications. His sorties into fiction are the result of rare hours he steals outside the rough and tumble world of assaying politics. His collection of short fiction, the “Distance of Rhymes and Other Tragedies” is recently published by the UST Publishing House. He now saddles his pen as editor-in-chief of the Philippines Graphic newsweekly and literary magazine.