The Romance Mode in Philippine Literature
It is said that Literature is a means for the people to make sense of their lives, making reality understandable through a number of conventions. One could say that in Vernacular Literature, a ‘mode’ exists, which we will call henceforth the ‘Romantic’ mode that uses stereotypes of the imagination, characterized by the refusal to be judged by strict accordance to what is expected in reality, creating a world close but not really equivalent to our own as it often goes beyond what might be expected in real life.
Features of the Romance Mode
Some of the earliest examples of the Romance mode at work in Philippine literature came with the arrival of the Awit and Corrido, localized versions of the European Romance. These imported narratives were popular until the advent of the novel at the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, and surprisingly shared a similar structure with the novel, despite it being a prose form of literature while the awit and corridor were primarily poetic in construction.
It is important to be reminded that Literature and its types are nominally seen as ‘fiction’, and as such are not bound to tell the ‘truth’; the story as a literary construct usually clashes against verifiable truth, as the storyteller or writer is free to make liberties with his or her material, embellishing details as they may see fit without, and describe events or experiences that may be beyond what the reader or listener have not been able to experience. Imagination unfettered is what the Romance Mode explores, as it tackles experiences that might not exactly fit with expected reality.
Romance as a genre features a basic structure that seems to have been preserved since the time of the Greeks: the quest of a hero for a person or an object, which leads to the hero discovering a deeper insight to his or her identity, where the quest itself was initiated as a way of answering a need or meeting a desire. The journey into the unknown often frames the narrative, with another character aiding in the accomplishment of the quest, wherein the world is eventually restored to its rightful state and peace is reclaimed after a long struggle. Simple characterization is preferred, with the characters that aid the hero idealized as brave and pure, while those who impeded the quest shown as downright villainous or cowardly.
Although the settings and characters changed down the ages, narratives in the Romance Mode served as both entertainment as well as education, a subversion of the ugly realities the audience is forced to partake in everyday as well as a means of escape from the very same realities. So it was with the so-called Medieval Romances, whose idealized interpretation of Chivalry and Courtly Love influenced gentility and empowerment in an otherwise brutal Feudal reality. So it did again during the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.
The Romance Mode in 19th-Century Philippine Literature
In trying to understand popular literature in the Philippines, we must once more return to the Awit and Corrido. These narratives competed with the lives of saints as well as the pasyon for the public’s attention, which is surprising when one considers their subject material, the exploits of kings and princes in far off lands, when there was no equal precedent in the societal structures in the Philippines at that time, although one might say that the colonial experience of the average indio’s reality was familiar enough.
Literary historians point to these romantic narratives as vehicles of suppression, where the Filipino was made passive and oblivious to their colonial condition. Those subscribing to a Realist mindset even dismissed these works outright as inconsequential in significance, as they were escapist fare that did not reflect the realities of the world their audience experienced. This perspective is limiting, in that the aforementioned critics neglect to take into account the fact that the narratives, inasmuch as they were tools by the colonizers, became modes of subversion by the natives chafing underneath their yoke. Although they were escapist when viewed on the surface, a balm to the harsh reality of day-to-day living, as they also subtly exhorted their audiences to rebel against the imperfections and unfair world by presenting an ideal that, if could not be directly emulated, at least be implemented in as much as reality would allow. The old and accepted ways did not always have to remain so.
Romance Mode in 20th-Century Literature
The Romance Mode became a major influence on the literary types that emerged at the beginning of the 20th Century, particularly the novel. The reading public of the Philippines, already familiar with the narrative conventions set by the awit and corridor, took easily to the novel. Although primarily a prose form that hewed more to reality, it shared similarities to romance, in that characters were described to be on a quest for peace and love, where ideals came into conflict with the expected reality of situations. Indeed, reality and romance could find synthesis in the narrative environment of the genre.
Novels of the early 20th Century reflected the changes sweeping the country with the arrival of the Americans. Novels that tackled the issues inherent in the period, such as F. Aguilar’s Pinaglahuan and Lope K. Santos’ Banaag at Sikat utilized a realistic perspective, and were often very political in their message, and yet even these displayed elements of the romance mode in their construction; the promise of a better tomorrow attainable by the characters only after a struggle with the antagonists, all set amidst a backdrop very familiar to the targeted audience. In less political works, the focus shifted to the struggle of the people’s cultural life, where depictions of contemporary lifestyle heightened the contrast between what was really happening and what the novelist wanted to occur. Idealized worlds contrasted the familiar, where children were obedient to their parents, marriage vows were inviolate, and characters were socially integrated, as opposed to the disobedient children, infidelity, and individualistic streaks all-too-apparent in reality, in the process imparting upon the audience life lessons much like the awit and corrido did previously.
Although as the years wore on the novel began to be perceived as a mode of escapist entertainment, affirming the status quo of the day as it fell back on stereotypes and clichés—that poverty was a permanent fixture of the social landscape, that heaven awaits those who suffered in this life, and that a woman was consigned to a life of subservience to her spouse. A closer study of some novels, such as Sempio’s Punyal na Ginto and Aguilar’s Busabos ng Palad, however reveals the opposite, a subtle rebellion against these presuppositions, subverting expectations. In stories where class differences is a central issue, the materially impoverished character is uplifted to a higher societal standing, whereas the haughty and moneyed opposition turns a new leaf, situations that seldom happen in real life.
These themes and structures, as well as the subversive/affirmative tendencies reappeared in the short story medium, which grew in prominence during World War II and the Japanese occupation of the country, and even later as the printed comic medium came to the fore. It is in the latter medium, komiks as it is more commonly called, that the Romance mode is seen to be most prevalent in application, as it synthesizes features from all the preceding narrative genres and yet gives writers (and by extension the illustrators) a means of exploring issues not possible via prose alone. This is especially noticeable in serials that tackled more whimsical topics and themes, such as Mars Ravelo’s Dyesebel and Kaptain Barbel, where a direct correlation between the real and fantastic isn’t distinct, and the audience only has the material of the comic itself as a reference. In stories like Palos, themes and expectations are doubly subverted, in that character stereotypes such as the shining knight and damsel in distress of the Medieval Romances are displaced by the gentleman thief and the lady of the night, and the realistic (and therefore familiar) backdrop soon gives way to sequences that go against what is possible in reality.
And yet in the medium of the komiks, the function of the Romance Mode remains as, while not directly dealing with the reality of contemporary existence and instead giving focus on fantastic or supernatural themes, gives an uncanny reflection of the very same mundane way of life. Through the mirror of the unreal, the audience is given insight into their own lives, subverting their expectations on what normally happens, and impressing an ideal of what could very well be possible, serving as both escape and subversive inspiration.