Three works of Classical Japanese Literary Criticism

(A term paper I wrote in 2014, when I was doing my Masters in Silliman for Dr Andrea G. Soluta. Also available in pdf on!)


Three works of Classical Japanese Literary Criticism


Japanese literary criticism, while not as developed as western traditions, is certainly as old as the Japanese literary tradition itself. And while there are innumerable works in the two millennia of Japanese writing, three texts stand out for their impact on subsequent criticism and literary output.


History of Japanese literary criticism

Japanese literary consciousness may have begun earlier, but its oldest definite manifestation is in Japan’s oldest book, the Kojiki. The earlier of the two ancient histories attributed to 7th century court editor O no Yasumaro (the other being the Nihon Shoki), the Kojiki describes the mythological origins of the Japanese nation. In the Kojiki, the god Susanoo, god of storms and brother of the center of the Japanese pantheon, sun goddess Amaterasu, is described as writing the first Japanese poem, in the 5-7-5-7-7 kana pattern that would become Waka. Japanese mythology then served not only political purposes (it was used to assert the authority of the Imperial family, who claimed descent from Amaterasu), but also as the initial text for Japanese philology. It asserted the divine origin of literature.

Literature (poetry in particular) would serve a central role in Japanese culture. The Kojiki documents that the earliest poems, with divine authorships, were spoken, but the introduction of Chinese characters in the first century led to the preservation of many early texts. The oldest collection of poems, the Man’yoshu (Record of Ten Thousand Leaves), was compiled during Japan’s Nara period (around 759 AD) by the court editor Otomo no Yakamochi.

But it was another anthology that would showcase the first substantial work of Japanese literary criticism. The Heian (900 AD) Emperor Daigo ordered the compilation of a new imperial anthology of poetry, and four poets, Ki no Tsurayuki, Ki no Tomonori, Oshikochi Mitsune, and Mibu no Tadamine, served as its editors. The result came to be known as the Kokin Wakashu (Collection of Japanese Poems Ancient and Modern). This anthology was notable for coming with a preface, often attributed to Ki no Tsurayuki, which not only discussed the mythological origins of literature, but also the development of styles across the ages. The Kokin Wakashu’s preface would be the first of many discussions of the nature of Japanese poetry, and its approach to discussing poetry would be used for millennia by succeeding treatises.

The Heian, considered Japan’s classic age, also saw the emergence of the Utaawase, poetry contests, which contributed further development in literary consciousness. Participants in an Utaawase would write waka about a given topic, and a judge, usually an accomplished poet, would serve as arbiter, giving critical justifications to his decision. These justifications contributed to the development of Japanese poetics.

It was with the early Heian’s critical output, in the form of anthological prefaces and justifications by Utaawase judges (which were often circulated among the court nobles), that the aesthetic of miyabi emerged. Often translated as “elegance,” miyabi was the aspiration for what has been described as courtly polish, free of emotional excesses and archaisms, characterized by restraint and dignity. With the introduction of Buddhism during the Asuka period (500-700 AD), miyabi was also highly influenced by its teachings, and the Buddhist-oriented aesthetic of mono no aware (the pathos of things) was closely associated with miyabi. Miyabi’s restraint and dignity was often cast against a backdrop of decline and impermanence. To the miyabi sensibility, the most distinguished poems are those which express grief at loss or suffering from failed love in the most restrained manner.

Miyabi’s emphasis on restraint became restrictive of expression, and the arbitration of judge on diction, driven by the desire to promote polish and perceived appropriateness as well as remove excess expression and archaism, led to a rigid system of acceptable words for poetry. This made miyabi so repetitive and stifling that, by the late Heian, the poet Fujiwara no Teika had to lead innovations in expression to prevent expressive stagnancy.

Considered by successive generations of poets as the most influential Japanese poet, Teika’s poetry made use of fresh diction that brought in new life to the waka tradition. His influence arises mainly from his body of poetry, but his treatises were considerably influential as well. A letter written to an unidentified student, the Maigetsusho, encapsulates both Teika’s views on the principles of miyabi, and his ideas on the proper composition of poetry, and it serves today as one of the most referenced works of literary criticism in Japanese literature.

Teika wrote at the tail end of the Heian period, and after him there was a considerable hiatus of literary output as the nation was plunged into successive military conflicts: the Hogen Rebellion (1156), then the Genpei War (1180-1185). Literary output was further stifled by the volatile Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333), which saw continued dispute between the Seiwa Genji clan who held the shogunate, and the Hojo clan who served to provide its regents (and at times held actual power) upon a shogun’s minority.

Lasting stability in fact would not come again until the Ashikaga shogunate of the Muromachi period (1337-1573). Around this time, the trend in tastes in the imperial court in Kyoto (where culture had been centered since the Heian) had shifted to the aesthetic of yugen. Often translated as mystique, yugen is the implication of profundity in art, the effect of hinting at greater realities, achieving the profound mystique found in koans, often paradoxical anecdotes that impart Zen doctrine. It has its roots in Teika, who defined it as one of his ten styles of poetry, but it would see its literary culmination in another form, drama, and with the work of another writer, Zeami Motokiyo.

Like Teika (who was the son of the eminent poet Fujiwara no Shunzei), Zeami was also the second generation of a family of artists. His father, Kan’ami, had earlier brought innovation to Japanese performance by merging the now obscure Dengaku (solemn harvest rituals) with more festive dances like Sarugaku (literally “monkey fun,” ribald performances) to lay the foundations of Noh. Zeami, who would win the favor of the Ashikaga shoguns, would elevate his father’s innovation to the respectable court performance Noh is today.

Zeami was the first to write treatises on drama in the Japanese tradition, and today he is considered the father of Japanese drama. Among his many treatises, his most influential is the seminal Fushikaden (Transmission of the Flower through the Forms). In it, Zeami mirrors what Tsurayuki and Teika have done for poetry, define the origins of the art, provide its basic aesthetic principles, and give suggestions for the proper handling of the craft. In Fushikaden, Zeami metaphorizes his aesthetic ideal of Noh as the “flower,” a metaphor which is closely tied with his treatment of yugen. To Zeami, it is the ultimate aesthetic aim to reveal without showing, and as such the power of art is in implying and suggesting rather than in showing. Consequently, Noh became highly symbolic and minimalist in its representation. This discussion of mimesis would prove to be influential in later discussions of art in Japanese culture.

The Muromachi period was to be followed by the tumultuous Sengoku Period, during which various feudal lords would scramble against one another for power following the collapse of the Ashikaga shogunate. Lasting nearly two centuries, the Sengoku became a period of constant unrest, and the Japanese people grew used to living in turmoil.

It was during the tail end of this age of upheaval that the aesthetic of wabi sabi emerged. Even more closely tied with Buddhism than was yugen, wabi sabi could roughly be translated as “imperfection,” and was founded on the appreciation of transience. But while it shared miyabi’s link to mono no aware in this appreciation of impermanence, wabi sabi differed with its emphasis on simplicity, asymmetry, and deliberate crudeness. Whereas miyabi was polished with cold dignity, wabi sabi was rustic and somber. Wabi sabi was particularly pronounced in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, and its leading aesthetician was the tea master Sen no Rikyu.

While no contemporary treatise about the application of wabi sabi on literature was written (one, In’ei Raisan by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, would only be published in 1933), it nevertheless came into the written art with inter-media influence (a recurring theme in Japanese aesthetics: the arts inform one another). It saw its literary manifestation in the haiku. Written during the tail end of the Sengoku period, the brief Azuchi-Momoyama period, and into the early Edo period (1600s), the haiku was first called “hokku,” the first three lines of a five-line waka (of 5-7-5 syllables, with waka having 5-7-5-7-7 syllables respectively). The hokku came to evolve as an independent form with renka, or linked verse: one poet would write a hokku, and another would add the two remaining lines to form a waka. To these two lines another poet would add another hokku to make another waka, and so on. Influenced by wabi sabi and its emphasis on imperfection, the early haiku poets wrote hokku as poems of their own right, “imperfect poems.” To add to this, many of the haiku written were about raw images of nature and rustic life, further adding to the effect of wabi sabi. Poets who first wrote in the form include Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa. It would not be until Masaoka Shiki, who wrote during the Meiji period (1868-1912), however, that discussions on the haiku, and its links to wabi sabi would appear.

The Sengoku period ended with the unification of the warring domains started by Oda Nobunaga and completed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1603), but lasting peace only came during the Tokugawa shogunate of the Edo period.

During this period of stability and isolation, there came a boom in arts, with several art forms emerging from the various capitals, including the shogunate capital of Edo (now Tokyo). Among them were two performing arts of related origin: Joruri, or Bunraku (puppet theater); and Kabuki. Playwrights for one form often wrote for another, and plays in one were also adapted to the other, making the two forms intimately connected. The connection is such that Kabuki’s theatrical movements have always emphasized on mimicking the movement of Bunraku’s puppets.

One of the most prominent playwrights for both stages was Chikamatsu Monzaemon. At various times described as the Shakespeare of Japanese drama, Chikamatsu wrote diverse plays, from historical action to his famous Love Suicides, and many of his works were adapted for both Bunraku and Kabuki. Chikamatsu’s work was what contributed to the development of the dramatic form during his time, but one commentary of his exists, the Naniwa Miyage. Compiled by Hozumi Ikan, the Naniwa Miyage is Hozumi’s record of remarks made by Chikamatsu (a close friend of his) about writing for Kabuki and Bunraku. As the two theatrical forms have been governed more by convention than by theory, Naniwa Miyage serves more as a manifestation of poetics common during its writing rather than as prescription, although subsequent writers would invariably take heed of Chikamatsu’s remarks from time to time.

A cultural sensibility also emerged during the Edo period: Ukiyo. Literally “floating world,” Ukiyo was the urban decadence characterized by the seeking of pleasure, both aesthetically and corporally (often together), and was the result of the wealth a large middle class had come to acquire as a result of the political stability. Brothels and Kabuki theater houses were often the focal point of this decadence, and the lifestyle manifested itself in art. This was most visible in the woodblock printing form known as “ukiyoe,” which often depicts scenes of this lifestyle, but it also manifested itself in literature (ukiyo-zoshi): from the respectable, often aristocratic art that it was, literature suddenly found itself a mass product as the novel emerged as a popular form. Works of high drama and action, written for the emotional pleasure of the reader, were written during this time and contributed to the overall decadence of life. Such writers as Ihara Saikaku, who wrote both lurid erotic stories and historical action serializations, and Akinari Ueda, known for his grotesque and perverse tales, characterized Ukiyo literature. No work of criticism other than Chikamatsu’s emphasis on feeling in Naniwa Miyage, however, comes close to discussing Ukiyo in writing.

The Edo period ended with the Meiji Restoration, and with the succeeding Meiji era came rapid Westernization. This had a profound effect on Japanese literature, and modern Japanese literary criticism has its roots during this time.

With many Japanese writers receiving European education, Western aesthetic and literary movements began entering the Japanese tradition. Most notably, many Meiji writers began writing in a style that was roughly parallel to European Naturalism, with such writers as Natsume Soseki, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and Yasunari Kawabata leading the helm. In poetry, Masaoka Shiki continued the writing of haiku, but shifted it away from Basho’s wabi sabi and applied instead the principles of what would later be seen as Imagism in western poetry. Shiki in particular wrote numerous treatises, both attempting to evaluate the tradition of poetry he was following (sometimes in negative light, as he criticized Basho’s poetry) and to bring it to modernity.

Japanese society was devastated after the war, and many writers reflected the sense of existential crisis felt by post-war Japanese society in their works. Chief among these post-war writers was Osamu Dazai, whose seminal novel Ningen Shikaku captures both the cultural schizophrenia of the post-war Japanese and the hollowness of urban life. The development during this phase was evident more in the literary output than in the criticism, which was at best minimal.

This largely continues to be the case to this day, with the sole exception perhaps of visual artist Takashi Murakami’s discussions of the “Super-flat.” According to Murakami, post-war Japan had to deal at once with two things: the disintegration of the traditional social hierarchies dismantled after the war; and the popular, largely western culture brought in following Japan’s reconciliation with the west. What emerges is a “super-flat” culture, where there seems to be no social stratification, and where all consume a popular culture that is a mishmash of western as well as traditional Japanese influences. This condition makes art spread out rather than stratified, and what would be considered “high art” in other cultures would be popular consumption in Japan, and vice versa: a manga with an anime adaptation, Aku no Hana, was recently produced, inspired by Baudelaire’s Le Fleur du Mal; while Murakami himself often creates anime-themed sculptures that are auctioned for millions of dollars or are exhibited in such venues as Versailles or the Louvre. Whether this may in fact be a return to the popular consumption of art in the Ukiyo age of the Edo period (when prostitutes were expected to know Heian poetry) is simply this author’s conjecture.



Ki no Tsurayuki, The Preface to the Kokin Wakashu

The tradition of Japanese literary criticism substantially traces its roots to the preface of the Kokin Wakashu. While it is often attributed to the poet Ki no Tsurayuki, it is uncertain if he, or one of his other fellow editors, wrote the preface. Posterity has remembered him most among the editors, and as such the preface is attributed to him.

The preface comes in two: the first one in Japanese, written by Tsurayuki, and another one in Classical Chinese, attributed to Ki no Yoshimochi, a rough translation of the first one.

The preface begins with a declaration of poetry’s emotive origins (“it has the human heart as seed and myriads of words as leaves”) and its power (“It is song that moves heaven and earth without effort”). It then continues by mentioning the divine origins of Japanese poetry before pointing out that poems of old were unregulated in the absence of form until Susanoo introduced the waka form.

It then proceeds to describing two poems, the Naniwazu poem, and the Asakayama poem, as the mother and father of Japanese poetry.

The Naniwazu poem goes thus:
Naniwazu ni
saku ya ko no hana
ima wa harube to
saku ya ko no hana

(Flowers on the trees
in bloom at Naniwazu
say “now the winter
yields its place to the springtime!”
flowers blooming on the trees)

The poem, attributed to the semi-legendary scholar Wani, was obliquely referring to the emperor Nintoku, who had just been put on the throne but who was thinking of abdicating. The poem is indirectly convincing Nintoku to stay as the court wishes him to continue reigning, with his reign characterized as “springtime.”




The Asakayama poem is thus:

Kage sae miyuru
yama no i no
asaki kokoro o
wa ga omowanaku ni

(Mount Asaka –
Its reflection appears in the mountain spring
that is not shallow, and of you
my thoughts are not shallow either)

The poem is attributed to a daughter of the governor of Mutsu province, who recited it to cheer up a disgruntled prince Kazuraki, who was sent to the distant province and was poorly received.

The preface then provides its six styles of Japanese poetry, with examples provided for each style: the indirect style (which implies its allusive reference); the enumerative style (which is direct and non-metaphorical); the figurative style (which draws comparisons); the metaphorical style (which refers to scenes of nature); the correct style (where there is a logical chronology of things described); and the eulogistic style (which praises the current reign and the gods). This categorization of styles of poetry, a mimicry of Chinese poetry’s tradition of making categories, would be continued by succeeding generations of Utaawase judges, but many more systems will emerge, most notably Fujiwara no Teika’s ten styles.

Then the preface describes how the art of poetic expression is an ancient one, once dominated by the poet’s expression rather than the “frivolity and empty show” the author saw in his time.

It then proceeds to discussing great poets of old, beginning with Kakinomoto no Hitomaro and Yamanobe Akahito, and mentions the Man’yoshu, the first anthology of poetry (which the Kokin Wakashu follows).

What follows is the preface’s famous criticism of the Rokkasen, or the Six Gods of Poetry: Henjo, Ariwara no Narihira, Fun’ya no Yasuhide, Kisen Hoshi, Ono no Komachi, and Otomo Kuronushi. Henjo was judged “master of style but deficient in substance,” Narihira “tries to express too much in too little words,” Yasuhide’s language “is skillful, but his style is inappropriate to his content,” reading Kisen is like “trying to keep the autumn moon in sight when a cloud obscures it before dawn,” Komachi’s poetry “is lacking in strength,” and Kuronushi’s poems “are crude.”

Pointing out the emperor’s realization of the lack of education of many with regard to poetry (the same lack which has allowed these six poet’s flaws to go unnoticed for centuries), the preface then describes how the emperor has called for the collection to be made with discerning eye to further the development of the art. It then describes how the collection is divided into themes, before the editors extol the immortality the collection will bring to poetry and collectively lament their own shortcomings as poets.


As is evident, the preface was not only aware that it is the first work of literary criticism in its literary tradition, the collection itself had been written to fill in this gap. The preface makes up for the lack of criticism before it by making a general assessment of poetry before its (the preface’s) writing: that poetry in ancient times was heartfelt and of genuine expression, but was crudely written and unpolished. This assessment would be echoed by subsequent critics later on.


Fujiwara no Teika, The Maigetsusho

Written as a subtly admonishing letter to a disciple of high rank, Fujiwara no Teika’s Maigetsusho (Monthly Records) is the lengthiest and most detailed discussion of poetics Teika has written. The letter is crucial in providing insight into the creative process of the poet who has been considered the greatest waka poet.

The letter begins apologetically, as Teika has always resisted giving lengthy lectures on poetry lest he be deemed pretentious by posterity. He is unable to resist this time, as the student has sent him hundreds of poetry and, while he has seen the improvement in them, he feels he must caution him against several errors in writing.

He first points out that not everything in the Man’yoshu, or in fact in imperial anthologies in general ought to be taken as models for poetics without some skepticism, as the tastes of the times vary. He thus cautions against contemporary poets writing in archaic styles, emphasizing instead on writing in fundamental styles first before the poet can experiment with this archaisms.

He then sets out his ten styles of poetry, which he however does not discuss as he has already written about them in previous correspondence: the style of mystery and depth (yugentei), the style of appropriate statement, the style of elegant beauty, and the style of deep feeling (ushintei) which he considers the fundamentals the beginning poet must learn, the lofty style, the style of visual description, the style of clever treatment, the style of novel treatment, and the style of exquisite detail, which are easy to learn after the fundamental styles are mastered, and the demon-quelling style, which says is most difficult to write. He particularly cautions against this last style, which is characterized by violent, “demon-quelling” words, as they may be deemed inappropriate in the tradition of “gentleness and sensibility” that dominates Japanese poetry. Teika makes particular emphasis on the style of deep feeling (ushintei), saying it is in deep feeling (ushin) that the success, or failure, of poetry lies.

He then enjoins the poet to take his writing seriously, lamenting many who take poetry for granted, and he insists that the writing of poetry demands rigid attention and dedication. It is in this dedication, he says, that the poet captures authentic ushin.

He gives advice on writing: one must not write when one is dispirited or in mental turmoil, as it will not wield deep feeling; at such times, easy poems such as those of nature’s beauty ought to be written instead, specially if the topics of writing has been provided in the Utaawase, not only because they are easier, but because they cheer one up with their lightness; Ushintei must be used in such topics as “love” and “expressing grievance.” He reiterates the importance of Ushintei, and enjoins the poet to extend it to the other nine styles.

He then discusses diction: making a distinction between “thick” words (words of heavy imagery and connotation) and “thin” ones (which are otherwise). He then enjoins the poet to consider the balance, never letting thick words overwhelm thin ones, or isolate thick ones in thin ones, and to consider if the overall line is too thick or too thin.

Teika then discusses the literary metaphor of fruit and flower, which he takes from the preface to the Kokin Wakashu (which, however, does not discuss it in detail). By “fruit” is meant thought and feeling, while by “flower” is meant language. He points out that some poems “have fruit but neglect blossoms, while others are all blossom and no fruit.” He emphasizes the importance of ushin (which is synonymous with the fruit) but nevertheless insists that the two must be considered with equal care, enjoining the poet to ensure organic unity between the two.

He then points out, almost romantically, that it is impossible to fully teach poetry, and that while poets of his time focus on form their work’s empty polish is inferior to poems of old. He then describes characteristics of the superior poem: it is free in its topic and theme, fresh in its treatment, and it is characterized by ushin.

He describes the seemingly inarticulate spontaneity of some poems to be works of masters, as it takes great skill to express by failure of expression, but cautions against beginning poets from attempting this without mastering fundamental styles first. He then condemns overly fancy verse, insisting that poetry must be of genuine feeling.

His famous discussion of the honkadori – poetic allusion – then follows: it takes great skill to allude to thematically corresponding poems, such as one about cherry blossoms, to describe seasons (in this case, alluding to the cherry blossom poem in writing a spring poem), so he advices beginners to use autumn or winter poems instead in writing spring poems. He also cautions against copying too much at the risk of un-originality. He condemns those who obscure phrases in order to achieve a semblance of breathing new life into an old verse at the risk of making the line nonsensical.

He then discusses the use of the topic words in the poem, suggesting to disperse the words of topics of several words, and warns poets never to begin the poem with the topic word.

Teika mentions the several “poetic ills” that have been prescribed against by centuries of Utaawase judges, but never discusses them in detail except for a passing expression of what he thinks as their irrelevance in the face of a superior poem. He does however agree that rhyme is a fault in poetry.

In a return to diction he tells the poet to avoid both repeating a word too much, and giving the impression that one is fond of a phrase.

While he enjoins the mastery of the ten styles, he insists that each poet has his temperament, and that a student of poetry must be allowed to grow in the style he is most comfortable with before he can explore other styles. In what might be one of the earliest discussions of teaching Creative Writing, he insists that beginning poets must be taught how to write in their comfortable style, and the teacher must adjust to this, and he alludes to the Buddha adjusting his teachings to the capacities of his disciples.

Teika then laments that deplorable trend of judging a poem by the poet, pointing out that many will criticize an otherwise good poem by an unknown author, while an inferior poem by a well known poet is deemed a masterpiece.

He then discusses allusions to Chinese poetry, which is conventionally deemed improper. He agrees with this but only if it is made a habit, it ought not to be completely shunned. He then goes on describing the merits of old Chinese poetry.

Teika then discusses how the poet must write: never over think, and write in a relaxed manner. Citing his father Shunzei, he says a poet must not try too hard to write to many, advising the poet to contribute just seven or eight in an Utaawase.

His last point is then to advise the student to consider the first line thoroughly, as it is the most important. He says he got his father’s habit of writing the body of the poem first before the first line, and recommends the student to do so as well. He then apologizes for the vanity of giving these suggestions and expresses deep respect.

The addressee of the Maigetsusho remains unknown, but likely candidates are two of his disciples at that time: Kujo Ieyoshi, or Minamoto Sanetomo. Two versions of the letter, with subtle variations, have been passed down to the two families descended from Teika: the conservative older Nijo branch, and the innovative younger Reizei branch. Historians have pointed out that the Reizei manuscript appears first in historical records and it may have been the original.

As is evident, Teika is at once a follower of tradition and an advocate of innovation. He agrees with many accepted ideas during his time, but he insists that it is the poet’s feeling – the ushin he constantly repeats – which matters in poetry. He is moderate with many of the rigid prescriptions on poetry common during his time, and advocates instead freedom of expression so long as form and appropriateness are not neglected.

The Maigetsusho also continues several traditions that the preface to the Kokin Wakashu begins: the metaphor of flower and fruit (and the insistence of balance between the two); the assessment of ancient poetry as emotionally authentic but formally inferior; the emphasis on ushin; and the independence of the poem from the poet (Teika, with his views on those judging by the poet’s fame, no doubt admired the audacity in the criticism of the Six Gods of Poetry in the Kokin Wakashu’s preface).


Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Naniwa Miyage

A compilation of Chikamatsu’s remarks on writing for Bunraku attributed to Hozumi Ikan, Naniwa Miyage (Souvenirs from Naniwa) is important in not only giving insight into Chikamatsu’s creative process, but also at the state at which literary and dramatic criticism had reached at this time.

The compilation begins with emphasizing the power of words in Joruri. Because Bunraku puppets have to compete with live Kabuki actors, Chikamatsu says, the words in Joruri have to be more powerful and must evoke action more.

He refers to a Heian story he had once read, wherefrom he learned the power of words to evoke feeling. He insists that even the descriptions of locations must be charged with feeling in order for the work to come alive. He compares this to what poets call “evocative imagery.”

Chikamatsu described Joruri plays before him as “lacking in fruit and flower,” and hinted that it is his work, with the careful attention he has paid into writing them, that has brought polish into the art.

He describes his first principle as the distinction in characters’ social classes, and from there determine how to describe them and how to make them speak and move.

Then he begins his famous discussion of the nature of art and mimesis: while Joruri attempts to mimic reality, it is nevertheless an art, and it must work by that definition. As such, a woman in a Bunraku play may say things a normal woman would not, but this might be essential for revealing facts to the audience.

In another famous portion he distinguishes his plays’ pathos from that of other playwrights by emphasizing emotion not with explicit statement but with reason (giri). “The audience will be moved by the convincing logic (rikugi) of the dramatization (giri no tsumarite)… it is important that the moment be filled with pathos in and of itself.” The same he argues must be true of beautiful description: beauty must be conveyed by its details shown rather than beauty being explicitly pointed out.

He then continues his discussion of art as mimesis: while he agrees with the general chagrin over frivolous antics on stage over realistic acting, he insists that art lies between the real and the lie, “between the skin and flesh.” He gives a parable to demonstrate the view: a court lady in the Heian is prohibited from seeing the man she loves, so she has a wooden sculpture made in his exact likeness. The statue is so similar to him that it was possible to be deceived and think it was him. But when she saw how the imitation had been so successful her desire for him subsided, and her love for the man began waning as well. Chikamatsu then points out that if the real thing is duplicated exactly it is somehow repulsive, and so art must know its limits. It is the artist’s license to fabricate plot, or make unrealistic dialogue, where he deems it most entertaining or artistic to do so.

The discussion on feeling with which Naniwa Miyage begins is immediately reminiscent of Fujiwara no Teika’s discussions on ushin, himself taking it from the preface to the Kokin Wakashu. The use of “fruit and flower” is also a testament to the lasting influence of the preface, as it has been applied to drama as well.

Chikamatsu’s discussion of giri, reason in dramatization, is reminiscent of Aristotle’s inevitability of action in his Poetics. While it is not impossible that Chikamatsu might have read Aristotle, however, it is quite unlikely that he had considering the policy of isolation Japan was in at the time.

Chikamatsu’s views on the role of art in mimesis are only different than those of Zeami Motokiyo’s in his Fushikaden in their emphasis and motivation. Zeami insisted that “for the actor to represent the flower, the flower itself must not be shown.” Zeami made Noh the theater of suggestion, with the aim of revealing to the audience the true nature of things beyond their physical aspects. Chikamatsu agrees that outright realism would produce substandard, even repulsive drama, but his motivation seems to be for the enjoyment of the audience rather than for any introspective intent. Both of them have their roots in Teika, but while Zeami follows Teika’s yugen, Chikamatsu subscribes to his emphasis on ushin.

Judging by these three texts then, it seems that Japanese thinkers have recurring emphases across the ages. There is an insistence on the balance of thought and feeling and language, encapsulated by the convenient metaphor of “fruit and flower.” There is the freedom of the current generations to innovate from and even criticize writers of the past (Masaoka Shiki himself would be a later reflection of this). And most distinctly, there is an emphasis on the importance of ushin, deep feeling, in literature. Above all else, it seems, the Japanese value literature of authentic, honest feeling.





Texts discussed

Fujiwara, T. “Maigetsusho.” in Browner, R. (ed). 1985. Monumenta Nipponica, vol 40, No. 4. Sophia University. (Original work published n.d.)

Hozumi, I. “Naniwa Miyage.” in Shirane, H. (ed). 2002. Early Modern Japanese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1738)

Ki, T., et al. “Kokin Wakashu.”  in McCullough, H. C. (ed). 1985. Kokin Wakashu: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. (Original work published 905)


Other references

Beichman, J. 2002. Masaoka Shiki: his life and works.

“Japanese Aesthetics.” In 2011. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Keene, D. (ed). 1955. Anthology of Japanese literature, from the earliest era to the mid-nineteenth century. Grove Press.

Keene, D. 1978. Some Japanese Portraits. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Murakami, T. 2001. Superflat. Last Gasp.

Rimer, T. & Yamazaki, M. 1984. On the art of the Noh Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami. Princeton University Press.

Ueda, M. 1982. The Master Haiku Poet, Matsuo Basho. Tokyo: Kodansha International



My Strangers’ Repository

Part of my Library and Personal Archives is the body of unbound written materials by other writers I’ve acquired as a student, teacher, and friend to writers. They range from photocopies of literary theory readings discussed in class to the syllabi of subjects I thought in different schools. Of course a large portion of it is also composed of photocopies of literary works I picked up over the years.

A portion of it is what I call my Strangers Repository, composed of manuscripts by writers I know personally. Some of those writers are established auhtors already, though I also have works by (as of yet) non-writers. The latter is composed of my students, classmates, or peers. In the case of students, what I have are usually works they gave in class and which I found worth keeping.

I keep these files in case the writers might one day want to get a copy of their own work. I know all too well the feeling of losing a copy of my own work (I’ve whined about this before), and if I can I’d like to help others avoid that.

I’m making the list of documents available here. Please note that, unless the document has sentimental value, I’m assuming a 50 year storage period, after which the document will be disposed of. Additionally, rights to claim these works belong exclusively to the writers, so I’m afraid I cannot satisfy stalkers.

The documents in my Strangers’ Repository are as follows:

  • ‘Sun and Moon: Two Faces of the Amulet’ by Andrea Abellera (full length musicale)
  • ‘Isla Verde’ by Errol Merquita (short story)
  • various performance poems by Norman ‘Noy’ Narciso
  • first scene of a play adaptation of ‘Mangulayon’ by Macario Tiu
  • ‘Magindala’ by Don Pagusara (full length musicale adaptation)
  • ‘Suwab sa Pulong’ by Don Pagusara (collection of Martial Law protest poems arranged as a play)
  • ‘A hymn of peace’ by Don Pagusara (poem, written as a craft-decorated card)
  • ‘Wayts dyud papa no?’ by Don Pagusara (poem)
  • ‘The Language of Magic, the Magic of Language’ by Don Pagusara (lecture)
  • Lecture given to Ateneo de Davao’s SALEM by Aida Rivera Ford
  • ‘The Writing of “In My Father’s House”‘ by Elsa Martinez Coscolluela (lecture)
  • ‘Taxonomy’ by Michelle Tan (essay about the 2012 Silliman Writers Workshop)
  • Review of the 2013 Silliman staging of Elsa Martinez Coscolluela’s ‘In My Father’ House’ by Michael Aaron Gomez (copy on the 25 July 2013 issue of the Weekly Sillimanian)
  • Illustrated adaptation for children of ‘The Lady and the Tiger’ by Krizia A. Magallanes and Suset Nasareth B. Redillas
  • ‘Unity Through a Boxing Match’ by Glyd Arañes (essay)
  • ‘Jacinto’s Off Switch’ by Ianne Angel Aquino (essay)
  • ‘The Banning of the Use of Literature in Nationalistic Uprisings’ by Ianne Angel Aquino (argumentative research paper)
  • Short essay-type quiz on the poems of Leona Florentino by Khail Nicolo Tuboro (handwritten, half yellow pad paper)
  • ‘The square root of 3’ by Vincent Sacamos (poem, handwritten, intermediate paper)
  • ‘Duma-Gritty’ by Kyle Duazo (essay)
  • Essay on the (then) One Negros Region Proposal by Rio A. Enolpe
  • ‘Romeo and Jul—‘ starring Evan Ezquer, Hazel Bangcat, Czyrah Camille Academia, Andrea Alba, Deither Bargamento, Macquilson Dinglasa, Arlene Gaviola, Al Kadhzer Kabulay, Adrian Tupas, and Monica Louise Ballo-Allo (full length play skit)
  • Essay about Bisexuality by Martizza Eltin Diligencia
  • ‘The Memorable Pain of My Life’ by Adrian Ray Maranga (essay)
  • Essay about having Lupus by Pamela B. Pascual
  • Short essay on his parents breaking up by John Michael Anthony Ferrazzini (handwritten, notebook page)

The Repository also includes the manuscripts from the different workshops I have been to. But I have yet to catalogue those. I will make them available here as soon as I have done so.

My Archives

I recently rearranged my old literary files. In the more than ten years that I’ve been writing, I’ve accumulated a large amount of handwritten drafts, outlines, and revisions comments. Some of them date back to my earliest childhood, while a large bulk of them are from my prolific high school years.

Here are some photos of them.

The notebook chronicles the development of both my penmanship and my articulateness. Here, the naturalistic observation "a bird flies by its feathers" written in the cursive of my elementary days is followed by the socially conscious "Do not demand respect if you give none, for one deserves what one gives," written many years later and in the round lettering of my third year high school days.

My old Notebook of Aphorisms, in continuous use since my earliest childhood. Its earliest writings, written in pencil, are some of the oldest extant pieces of writing I have.

Printed copy of 'Cassandra,' a stage play I wrote for English class when I was in first year high school. This script was actually written by Christian Cabagnot (who directed the play), a loose rewrite of my original (which was admittedly riddled with unnecessary archaisms - I was young).

Printed copy of ‘Cassandra,’ a stage play I wrote for English class when I was in first year high school. This script was actually written by Christian Cabagnot (who directed the play), a loose rewrite of my original, which was admittedly riddled with unnecessary archaisms – I was young. The eponymous character is a beautiful but cruel young woman who makes men think she is in love with them, only to humiliate them by standing them up in dates. She changes when she meets Alexandre, who does not seem interested in him, and she takes him as a challenge. In the process she realizes her flaws and changes, slowly falling in love with him. He too sees her growth and learns to love her. They become a couple, but in typical Karlo David fashion I make her die: one of the men she jilted comes back to kill her. It was heavily influenced by the opera Carmen. Characteristic of my early writing, the names of the characters are either French or something unusually European.  It did win best script in the class competition, practically my first award.

My first ever short story

My first ever short story, scribbled on one of the notebooks I used in class when I was in third year high school. It was never titled, but it was the first of a recurring theme in many later works: the main character makes friends out of a guy and a girl, he falls in love with the girl and the guy becomes his best friend, but this best friend and the girl turn out to be attracted to one another. The main character selflessly works to bring them together, and they do end up happy as a couple. But he cannot take the pain, and when the friends seek him to thank him for bringing them together, ohmygosh he hanged himself. Told mostly as a flashback: main character is about to hang himself, flashback flashback, then he hangs himself. This time my characters have Japanese names – I was beginning to watch anime, and it dominated my imagination. Most of my stories from this period also have Japanese names.

The notebook of 'serialized' short stories I wrote when I was in third year high school

The notebook of ‘serialized’ short stories I wrote when I was in third year high school (that was the golden age of my high school writing). I say ‘serialized’ because I wrote one story on the notebook every week (two or more if I was feeling like it), and my classmates would pass the notebook around to read the latest story. I even charged a subscription fee for it. This one is on the last page of a story about a girl named Sumire (I told you, Japanese names), who was just rescued from an attempted rapist by her crush in class (wow the drama), and she and her saviour end up having sex in the classroom – remember I was writing this in a Catholic school.  The story was ended with my old signature, a stylized representation of the Chinese character for ‘human’ (a reminder to myself as a writer that I was human, and while my works may live on I would die – reverse Shakespeare). Each story was followed by a comments page. Remember this was before Facebook.


Drafts of two articles for the Green Armour, student publication of the Notre Dame of Kidapawan’s High School, also written when I was in third year. The one in the foreground is a criticism of the bad English observed among students (I used to be a prescriptivist), the one at the back is a criticism of public displays of affection (essentially I was complaining because all the snogging couples at our school were ugly). Together they are the very first works of mine that got published (I still have a copy of the print version).

I also serialized a novel

I also ‘serialized’ a novel and an epic poem in class in fourth year high school. This is the comments page of the first chapter of the novel (it was about a thirteen year old with a PhD in quantum physics and his budding love life). The epic poem was about the rebellion of the Nephilim against the Abrahamic God. In the end I never finished either, though I’m still open to reviving them. I miss all these people who wrote on the comments page!

Manuscripts for Alfonso.

Manuscripts for Alfonso. This work has seen three attempts, first as a novel in English in fourth year high school, then later in two other attempts as a full length play. I finally finished it, this time in Davao Filipino, while I was in Silliman. I planned to include it in my MA thesis, but at 96 pages it was far too long. The third act of the second attempt is in this blog.

First page of a journal required in a Filipino class when I was in second year college. It

First page of a journal required in a Filipino class when I was in second year college in the Ateneo de Davao. My teacher was ma’am LY Veneracion, and the small binder filler was full of encouraging comments from her as she read each short attempt at clever randomness. I don’t know if ma’am LY knew, but this first page was partly a translation into Tagalog of the first lines of Yoshida Kenko’s 14th century essay ‘Tsurezuregusa’!

One of the random thoughts in the Filipino journal

Some of the random thoughts in the Filipino journal. On the top was my immediate reaction to finding out Ateneo de Davao’s student literary folio Banaag Diwa 2009 came out, with my short story ‘The Barefooted Girl‘ in it. I obviously had no idea how controversial the story would be. In the entry underneath, I speculate that the colloquial Tagalog word ‘todas’ may be derived from the German ‘todes,’ ‘death.’ Of course they may simply be false cognates.

Outline sheet of 'Pagbalik'

Outline sheet of ‘Pagbalik ,’ which would come out in Banaag Diwa in 2011. I originally submitted it as a requirement to ma’am LY’s class. I can say that this piece of paper is historical: ‘Pagbalik’ is probably the first short story written in Davao Filipino to be published.

Manuscripts for 'Kei

Manuscripts for the story ‘Kei,’ which came out in the Davao Writers Guild’s Dagmay in 2010. The story had earlier gotten me into the Ateneo de Davao Campus Writers Workshop (the workshop comments are to the right). Again, these files may be historical: ‘Kei’ may be the first published work of fiction about and set in Kidapawan. The outline is revealing: I forgot that I had an alternative title for it (‘this stream has no fish’), and that I originally gave the main character a family name.

Draft of the poem 'Super Swerteng Uyab'

Original draft of the poem ‘Super Swerteng Uyab,’ which came out in Dagmay in 2011. It had earlier been titled ‘Uyab 2011’ (because camp was the intention from the very beginning). Ricardo de Ungria discussed it in a small lecture in Ateneo de Davao on that year, comparing it to a poem by Rolando Tinio and Vlad Gonzales. Again this may be historical, as the poem may be the first published poetry in Davao Filipino.

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Original draft of the story ‘In the Manner Accustomed,’ which won 2nd place in the Nick Joaquin Literary Awards in 2013. Since that first story in high school I’ve always drafted my stories handwritten on notebooks. This makes me a very fastidious ‘basher,’ as Kurt Vonnegut describes writers: I have to make sure the sentence sounds good on ink before I proceed to the next one, then when I encode it, I go over each one of them again. Look at all the erasures!

Files for 'Killing the Issue'

Files for ‘Killing the Issue,’ including workshop manuscripts. By far my most successful work, this play has gotten me in its original standard Tagalog into the Iyas Creative Writing Workshop in Bacolod in 2011 (the green envelope is the workshop kit for Iyas), in its English version into the Silliman Writers Workshop in 2012, and it won 2nd place in the Palanca last year. And I laboured to achieve all those: there are about six versions of the play, from the rough Tagalog draft I penned when I was in third year college, to the still overly verbose English version in the Silliman workshop manuscript to the right. I even had to ask my artist friend Harry Dubouzet to illustrate the set so I can picture it out clearly.

Fulfillment in writing for me has always been personal, and these files record my growth – they even reflect the gradual improvement in grammar and change in my penmanship over the decade. I don’t think I’ll ever be famous as a writer (it’s practically impossible to be famous as a writer in the Philippines, where nobody reads Filipino writers, not even Filipino writers), so I don’t think these files will ever be worth anything. But they mean everything to me, and I will continue to keep them as I have always done since childhood.

My archives are not complete though! Copies of some of the most important works in my literary growth are missing from it.

So to all old friends and acquaintances reading, if you happen to have copies of anything I wrote long ago, please give it to me, or at least give me a copy. I will thank you profusely here if you do. If you have copies specifically of the following plays by me I am willing to pay good money for each one:

‘Sa Ilalim ng Kapa’ (written when I was in grade 6, it was my first ever play. People from NDKC’s grade 6 Bro. Obed section of 2003-2004, I implore you.)

‘Tantrum Teahouse’ (written when I was third year high school, it won best script for the play competition in Filipino. This one goes to those from NDKCs 3rd Year St James section of 2006-2007)

‘Walang Kupas’ (a commissioned play, written when I was fourth year high school. I gave it to Anne Mary Rualo, who asked for it for their class play, but last time I asked she no longer had a copy. I do not know if she gave anyone copies of it).

Alfonso, Act III

(Below is the third act of my unfinished play “Alfonso.” The play revolves around the eponymous character, the contrite bastard of Don Fernando Jimenez, who is accepted by the loving family. Throughout the play Alfonso struggles to let go of his self hatred, only to find out a shocking misconception about his own origins. In this scene, some details are revealed about Alfonso’s elder half brother Carlos, their sister Isabel, Alfonso himself, and his best friend Sylvester.

This play — which I intended as a piece of closet drama — was the second attempt to write down an idea that dates back to my early 4th Year High School, an idea that is invariably one of my greatest creative discoveries. I first attempted to write it as a novel in high school, but I was still too young to handle the story’s sheer scale.  This rendition, written in late 3rd year college, shows my heavy influence from Oscar Wilde, with Sylvester clearly a Victorian dandy. There is a banter between Alfonso and Sylvester about the nature of love, liberation of absurdism, and Filipino language and culture, revealing my philosophies at the time of writing.

The text however invariably betrays my continued inadequacy as a writer, showing my tendency to moralize and my ineptness at verisimilitude. While much more mature then than when I first dealt with the material — what with my fellowship to the Ateneo de Davao Writers Workshop — the scale proved to be still too vast for me, and it was shelved. Today, as I am completing my graduate studies, I intend to give it a third try.

I am sharing it here raw, so I ask indulgence for the typographical errors.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Sigwa: A Review

(I do not even remember for what class I wrote this review of Joel Lamangan’s 2010 film Sigwa.  But it seems my third year in AB English, which I have so far overlooked as simply the year before my SALEM Presidency, was a time of critical growth.  This is hardly surprising as, in a recent ranking by Quacquerelli Symonds, Ateneo de Davao had the 4th Best English and Literature Program in the country. I had a suspicion about it, but it seems I got a really good undergraduate education.
This review has also made me realize that a considerable portion of the reviews and critical analyses I’ve written as an undergraduate student were about films, and I may have been underestimating my film competence. Like the previous archive selections, this review’s formatting has been kept as it appears in the original submitted manuscript.

sigwa ad

David, Karlo Antonio G.

3rd Year AB English

Joel Lamangan’s Sigwa: Artaudian or Brechtian?

Joel Lamangan’s Sigwa begins with Dolly, a Fil-Am returning to the Philippines after almost 40 years. Dolly was a journalist who was sent to cover the student activist movements during the Marcos regime. The story unfolds with many flashbacks, and it is thus that both Dolly’s past and present are revealed: she was caught up in the activist movements and became an activist herself. She was also romantically involved with one student activist, Eddie, with whom she bore a baby. But Eddie, it is later revealed, was a government spy who regretted his double crossing and killed himself out of this regret. Dolly was then among the activists later caught by the government forces, after which she was sent back to the US, leaving her baby in the care of Azon, another student activist. Azon informed her a few years later that the baby died, but she had misgivings about this, and it is revealed that her reason for returning to the Philippines was to confirm her baby’s death. Azon later admits, before expiring, that it was her baby who died and not Dolly’s, and thus her daughter, now a teacher and mother, was actually Dolly’s daughter. Other subplots, such as that of leading student activist Oliver, who was caught early in the Marcos regime, who has since then had a strained relationship with his former comrades and who was now the press Secretary for the Arroyo administration; that of Cita, Oliver’s lover who feels the most contempt for Oliver and now continues to live as a guerilla and Azon, who was raped after escaping with Dolly’s baby; all of these unfold with the aftermath of the Marcos Regime, still haunting the film’s characters as a backdrop.

For a Filipino film, Sigwa is surprisingly realistic to the point of being cruel. The plight of the characters in the past as well as how this past haunts them are all vividly portrayed, and Lamangan does not spare the audience from Artaudian detail. It not only reveals but presents theatrically many social realities and moral dilemmas. For instance, Oliver’s character reveals that of many student activists during the Marcos Regime: idealistic without being realistic. We see all his revolutionary convictions thrown away when he screams that he would reveal everything he knew for his life, and we sympathize with him, we share his dilemma between ideal and life. We see Azon get raped by the not exactly attractive crony, and we somehow feel how easily she could have wavered when they threatened to hurt her daughter.

But it is to be noted that the unrestrained revelation of social realities seen in SIgwa is in fact a tradition of older films of Filipino cinema, films that were not released commercially but as art. Such films include those by Lino Broka, Ismael Bernal and other classic Filipino directors.

Lamangan, then, in revealing what these revered directors revealed is indicating that he is following their footsteps, trying to create his own art film. But while he does succeed in making the viewer think more, the film ultimately fails to take our feelings away from the fictions we have made to be our realities. The film continues to apply contemporary popular media tropes like love stories that dominate the theme, the mother without her child scenario that traces back to Sisa, or the character who serves as the comic relief. Not only are these tropes unlikely in the context of the story, they also tend to distract as from the reality the film is trying to reveal. The film ultimately lacks the Artaudian cruelty we see in, say, Lino Broka’s “Manila: Sa mga Kuko ng Agila.”

Oliver is perhaps the film’s most developed character. From a leading student activist and a passionate lover who never wavered in his devotion we see him become a human who succumbs to his thanatos in the face of death, then into a reformed former activist who now works to rebuild a nation through understanding, but we still get the hint that he is bitter with his past. He is the film’s Byronic hero (though the role is confused with Eddie’s mysterious personality). He and Cita would make the best main characters for the story, for not only are they apart due to personal differences, their difference is allegorical of the dichotomy between Revolutionaries and Constructive “Nation-Builders.” The ending, in fact, would have been better if the two were the main characters: “Who will be the ultimate victor, Oliver or Cita?” would be allegorical of “What will last, Revolution or the Politics of Understanding?”

But that Oliver only serves as a secondary character and that it is Dolly, who is an easy to sympathize with and quite flawless character who is the protagonist yet again reveals how Lamangan is still controlled by popular media tropes. Instead of emphasizing the revolution-peacekeeping dichotomy with Oliver and Cita, he chooses Dolly’s personal drama as the main story. He seems to have not yet decided on whether to be entertainingly revealing (that is to say, Lacanian jouissance, as it would be had the theme’s dilemma been the central focus) or revealingly entertaining (as it already is, in which the theme is just casually revealed, for Dolly’s drama is the main story). For the film to be truly artistic in nature, the viewer should be entertained by his understanding of the film’s theme, not by the personal yet highly unlikely drama of Dolly, which has nothing to do with his (the viewer’s) life.

Ultimately, though the film’s unnatural and didactic dialogue ruins the Artaudian-realist effect the revelation of social realities creates. In one scene, we see Azon being raped by the not exactly attractive crony and we shudder at the realism, in another we hear Zsa Zsa Padilla speaking with flawless Filipino grammar about her past while trekking in the mountains with comrades and we are alienated from the realism. Lamangan is not yet decided on whether to be Artaudian or to be Brechtian. This, in fact, is the film’s biggest flaw.

Wole Soyinka’s “The Trials of Brother Jero”: A review

(The following review-analysis of Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero was written as a requirement in my Afro-Asian Literature class when I was doing my undergraduate study in the Ateneo de Davao. The class was under the great poet Don Pagusara, and being under such an esteemed writer invariably motivated me to show off. This requirement is one of the best I’ve written during that time, and it shows a stage of my critical growth: not yet intellectual enough (I’m really not quite there yet to this day) but I was beginning to know what to look for. It also shows the remarkable impact of the English 13 classes I had in first year college, as it shows influences of that structured form with thesis statement and topic sentence. I have since grown out of that form now, but as I’m currently teaching an analogous subject in Silliman University (BC 12), I’m beginning to return to the form. For nostalgic purposes I’ve retained the text’s formatting as it appeared on the submitted manuscript .)

David, Karlo Antonio G.

3rd Year AB English

Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero

A review

In a delightfully farcical manner, Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero give insight into the lucrative Evangelism industry, and it reveals that far more than being the personal and introspective discipline it claims to be, Religion is a serious trade which in fact demands impersonality to succeed.

The play, the first of Soyinka’s Jero series, introduces brother Jeroboam, a self-proclaimed prophet who evangelizes by the beach in a small, unnamed town. Throughout the play, he talks to the audience, comparable to how the eponymous Richard III talks to the audience in Shakespeare’s play. Brother Jero (as he is commonly known) elaborates to the audience on his “business,” talking about his early beginnings (he was born with long hair, a sign that he would be a prophet), his rivalry with the old prophet under whom he was apprentice and the general state of the prophet “market.” In the second scene, the play’s main plot begins when Chume, a messenger working for the government, and Amope, Chume’s “entrepreneur” wife are introduced. It is later revealed that Chume is Jero’s leading follower, and is set to be his successor in the Faith. But Jero shares with the audience that Chume’s main reason for following him was that he was seeking a way to divert his attention from the urges to hit his wife, who nags on him too much. Jero owes money to this wife, but he is at first oblivious to the fact that Amope is in fact that wife Chume wants to beat, knowing only that he owes money to some woman. Upon learning it however, he allows Chume to beat her. But Chume learns that Jero owes money to Amope before hitting her, and he is enraged. While he seeks brother Jero, the latter is busy recruiting another follower, the local Member of Parliament. Before fleeing from the coming Chume (who has added suspicions of adultery to his grievances against the prophet) Jero is able to entice the Member with prophesy of the latter becoming Minister of War. Jero is able to evade Chume, and he ends the play by assuring himself that he will get rid of the man with his newfound influence over the member.

Throughout the play, Jero’s status as a prophet (and the status of prophet in general) is portrayed more as an occupation than a “vocation,” and the act of evangelizing more as a business than a “mission.” This is done both blatantly and subtly in the play.

Jero, in breaking the fourth wall, shares his “entrepreneurial course of action” to the audience, blatantly revealing the trade-like nature of Religion. He even says in one line that he feels like a shop keeper going to his shop when he goes to his area on the beach every day. He it is who reveals the competition among prophets for a good place along the beach. He also mentions methods in attracting followers, and he fleetingly mentions another prophetic “firm” using French dance-girls. Most interestingly, he reveals his method of keeping the followers he has already recruited. He mentions that the key is to deny them of what they yearn for most. He does not give Chume permission, for instance, to hit his wife, knowing that when Chume has fulfilled his yearning, he would no longer have any reason to have faith. Not only does this show that Religion thrives in the misery of its followers (a point we shall discuss further later on) but that Religion is post-modern in nature, for its pleasure is in fact Lacanian Jouissance, based on tantalization from fulfillment. Jero also reveals in his act of attracting the Member of Parliament that the prophet-trade is also dynamic, and with the right investment in followers, the business can grow larger and stronger. The play in fact ends with this promise.

Comparison between evangelization and business is also made in a more subtle way in the play by means of either one’s relationship with each other. Jero, a prophet, owes money to Amope, a tradeswoman, and it is to be noted that their link (that of prophet and entrepreneur) is based on the currency of the latter: money. Chume might be viewed as the victim of the play, if not the moral hero, because Jero and Amope are the ones who play the role of villains. Yet again, the connection is made: Chume is made to suffer by both Jero’s religious self-interest and his wife’s nagging personality brought about by her mercantile endeavors. With this, it can be mentioned that neither one, business nor religion, is portrayed positively in the play.

In a way, the “Trials” of the play’s title are the challenges, both decisive and introspective (the latter of which we shall later discuss) Jero faces as a businessman.

The play, in reducing Evangelization into a business, also sheds insight into how, far from the introspection it claims, it in fact demands impersonality for one to truly “succeed” in it.  This is manifested both in Jero’s success in spite of his introspective “trials” and in Chume’s defeat.

Throughout the play Jero, far from being an emotionless villain, is portrayed as a human with problems of his own, most of which have something to do with his career as prophet. Early on, it is mentioned that his biggest problem is women, a very self-centered problem. In one scene, he prays to fight against the temptation evoked by a passing young girl, remembering the “curse” (which in a way becomes a business jinx) his old mentor made against him. In order to succeed without problems in the trade, therefore, Jero needs to control himself. He ultimately is able to, and the play ends to his advantage (though I haven’t read the rest of the Jero series to say if he continues to). It is to be added that failure to control what Jero was able to (that is to say, sexual desire) is the downfall of many a Catholic priest today!

Chume, the ultimate “loser” of the play, owes his defeat in the trade to his being driven by his desires. He lets his actions get controlled by his emotions, and he ultimately fails by them. First, he joins Jero’s fellowship out of a desire to hit his wife, and he becomes Jero’s victim as a consequence. Overcome by the bliss he feels at Jero’s permission to beat Amope, he does not bother reflecting on the sudden change in the prophet’s dogma. Finally, he owes a bleak future at the end of the play to his rash and direct pursuit of Jero. All this, it must be added, with him being designated successor to the prophet, making him a bonafide “player” in the trade.

If the play has any insight into Religion per se (that is, disregarding any of its social factors) it would be that far from giving “religious fulfillment,” religion thrives in the misery of its followers, and ultimately does more harm than help. The majority of the followers in the play (Chume and the Member most especially) are portrayed as following Jero out of some unfulfilled desire and misery (desires that, as we mentioned, Jero takes advantage of). In the scene when Chume takes over for a while as prophet, in fact, he lists down all the desires of the followers, and he receives enthusiastic response (it is to be noted that this is one of only two Evangelizing scenes in the play, the other being Jero’s recruitment of the Member, also by evoking desire). Religion, as manifested by Jero’s taking advantage, thrives in these unfulfilled desires, and so long as there are unhappy people, we can presume that there will be religion. But the play reveals that while it thrives in discontent, it is far from fulfilling that discontent, and may even be a hindrance. Chume’s great desire is to hit his wife, a desire he cannot fulfill ultimately because of his devotion to Jero’s creed. All the followers in the play, in fact, do not get what they want in the end, and we can safely assume that their devotion to Jero’s creed serves as a considerable distraction as well. This is, of course, the reader-response of an Atheist!

Humorous but cruel in its polemics, Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero reveals themes that not only concern his Africa, but the entire Religious World as well, immortalizing the playwright thereby into the universal and (until religion continues to exist) timeless Literary genius he now is.

A piece of teacher’s pedantry

One of the things I lament most about the Philippines is the prevalence of pedantry in its Education system. The teaching process is focused too much on assessment that what the student actually learns is of little importance. Teachers give lectures oriented such that the students would know what to answer in exams, and students would focus on getting the answers right, getting rid of any learning once the exam is over. Teachers make grades, students earn grades, end of story.  Some would call it Textbook learning, but I wouldn’t even call it “learning,”  all it involves is memorizing. “Zombies,” Jose Garcia Villa would call them.

While cleaning up some of my old files, I came across a recent instance of it, for in my academic life I’ve suffered the mind-numbing effect of this kind of teaching all too well. It was a quiz in a Philosophy of Morality class, which I took in the Ateneo de Davao when I was in 4th year college. The teacher was one of the worst I’ve ever had, his grading system (like many Philo teachers) was unclear and he was boring to the point of paralysis. I made it a point to enter his class late.

I reproduce below an item in my quiz, with the pedant’s annotations (grammatically incorrect as they may be) as italicized parentheticals. The annotations show how he is obsessed with exactness of reproduction from the assigned text to the point of absurdity. A student can fail his class for a trifle under his teaching.  I forget exactly what  question the item was supposed to answer, but I always answer questions directly (I never bluffed, I knew admitting ignorance earns points). He gave it a 70 out of 100. You be the judge of the soundness of my point!


“That which is evil is a frustration of Life, its preservation and actualization. The label of “ontic” evil is attached to this most fundamental of evils.The very existence of evil, then, is a consequence of the evil of life.

When ontic evil is deliberately and consciously (UNJUSTIFIABLY) inflicted upon others, the evil becomes a “moral evil.” People – and ultimately all lifeforms – will inevitably inflict moral evil in (MORAL EVIL CAN ONLY DONE BY MAN) their struggle to preserve and actualize themselves and their potentials.

Moral evil, then, originates  two-fold from Life: by the very definition of evil, and as a consequence of the lifeform’s struggle to continue living.”