New York—Every man has his Rizal. I have mine.
He was a revolutionary. No: a reformist. No: a reactionary.
He was gay. No: a devoted heterosexual. A sexist, down-and-dirty womanizer.
He was an elitist who presumed to speak for the people.
No: He was a man of the people who spoke the language of the elites.
He put his life on the line. No: He was an armchair activist.
He was a gifted novelist. No: He was a propagandist, with a small “p.”
He renounced Catholicism irrevocably. No: He returned to the fold.
He never died.
No: He is completely irrevocably dead. Gone.
* * *
We continue to invent Rizal, long after he existed. Despite the earnestness of his self-proclaimed guardians with their strictures on how he should be viewed, he has been lifted out of history, canonized, if not deified, as much by legend as by his ideas. His life is now, was, and will be, a sacred text appropriated for every occasion. He is a trope, a theme, a metaphor and symbol of what a Filipino can be, and not just a Filipino but any human being, as relevant now, perhaps even more so, as he was in his time. He belongs, as the cliché goes, to the ages.
The man who was born a century and fifty one years ago, in the town of Calamba, in the genteel province of Laguna, not far from Laguna de Bay, may have been a Tagalog with Chinese blood, and the First Filipino (to use Leon Ma. Guerrero’s title) as well as the Great Malayan but he is now a world citizen of the first rank. In that sense Miguel de Unamuno’s description of Rizal as the Tagalog Christ is perhaps the most apt. Not just for his martyrdom, but in the wider religious sense (though Unamuno may not necessarily have been alluding to this in his comparison with the man from Galilee). Rizal figures as a principal in the theology of various sects, principally on and around Mt. Banahaw. To the millenarians on that sacred mountain, he is a demigod, an avatar, a Bernardo Carpio unfettered, ready to serve us in the struggle for the liberation of the Filipino soul, if only we would let him.
A Rizal then of the imagination. An imagined Rizal, a life so rich and full of drama (especially in the telling of it) in the short span of thirty-five years as to promise, as Rilke would put it, infinite dreams. A life without borders.
So I adopt the Whitmanesque view: he contains multitudes. Let a thousand contradictory Rizals bloom! Most historians would probably have a fit with this sentiment. So too with those who in their views of the beloved Lagunense draw a line in the sand and cast all others as ignoramuses, if not heretics.
Good. Let all of them have hissy fits, let them revel in their apoplectic diatribes. If such contortions keep them out of mischief, why not? They deserve happiness as much as the next misanthrope.
* * *
Who then is my Rizal? My Rizal is first and foremost a writer, and so it is through a writer’s lens that I view him. Without the words he put down—in epistolary form, in poems, in La Solidaridad, and especially in the Noli Me Tangere and El Filbusterismo—the vitriol against him would have been significantly less and he would have escaped the executioner’s bullet. But even with his writings, some may argue that had the 1896 Revolution not occurred, he would have been spared anyway, and perhaps ended his days in Dapitan. But the fact is, his writings helped inspire Bonifacio and the Katipunan revolution of 1896, and so it could not have been otherwise. The word was his end. It was also and always his beginning, at least to this writer.
* * *
It used to be the Big Ideas that he paraded through his novels, especially in the arguments between the embittered, buff Elías and the ilustrado Ibarra, or the melodramatic twists and turns of Ibarra’s unfulfilled love for the beautiful but rather passive and lachrymose Maria Clara (someone I keep wanting to shake, to say, Snap out of it, girl!) or the unrelenting and unflattering portraits of Padres Damaso and Salvi, that drew me in. Don’t get me wrong: the debate between Elías and Ibarra (really brothers under the skin) on whether to take up arms or agitate for reform still resonates for me. They personify the internal debate the novelist was surely having. Maria Clara still annoys the hell out of me. And Damaso and Salvi still infuriate me. Especially Salvi, the thin-lipped joyless hypocrite lusting after María Clara as he plots Ibarra’s downfall.
But the Noli and the Fili last because they are first and foremost damn good novels. Not without flaws (there are a lot), the Noli and the Fili nevertheless proffer a brilliant tableau vivant of late-19th century Philippines. In particular, it’s the satire that now leaps out at me. What keep drawing me in are the portraits he draws, whether of a gathering, such as the dinner party at Kapitan Santiago’s luxurious Binondo residence that opens the Noli—news of which “surged like a bolt of electricity among the parasites, spongers, and freeloaders that God, in his infinite goodness, has so lovingly multiplied in Manila”* —or the premiere performance in the Fili of a visiting French theatrical troupe where tout le monde comes together as much to ogle the charms of the showgirls as to see and be seen. But it’s the portraits of characters who aren’t quite center stage but nevertheless give depth to this gritty picture that, with a few modernizing touches, would still accurately represent today’s contemporary and Catholic Philippines.
There’s Tasio the old philosopher of San Diego who acts as a one-man Greek chorus, our guide to the idiosyncrasies—and idiocies—of village life dominated by the parish priest and the chief of the Guardia Civil. And does a better satire in Philippine literature of the preening indio aspiring to the ranks of the colonizers exist than that of Doña Victorina de Espadaña, wife of the faux doctor, the pathetic, irredeemably Spanish, Don Tiburcio de Espadaña?
The encounter on the streets of San Diego between her and Doña Consolacíon, the Guardia Civil commander’s wife, is between two harpies, claws out, ready to tear each other to pieces. Victorina doesn’t care for Consolacíon’s belittling looks (She dresses in flannel! She smokes a cigar! She spits in front of Victorina! Que horror!), tells her she’s a mere washerwoman, while Consolacíon accuses Victorina of being “everybody’s tramp.” The hapless Don Tiburcio can only look on, as does a crowd of onlookers who are relishing every bit of this melodrama. The arrival of the Guardia Civil commander, and of Padre Salvi, compounds the hilarity. In an instant, as Salvi tries to placate both sides, “they pulled every dirty thing from their quivers and all four spoke at the same time, saying a good variety of things, abusing certain classes, bringing so many truths to light that we prefer not to write down a lot of what was said.” As Don Tiburcio will not (wisely) challenge the commander, his wife in retribution “ripped the dentures from his mouth and threw them into the middle of street, where she stamped on them.” The poor man is now figuratively and literally toothless.
There are other such passages that show off the novelist’s eye for the telling detail. At the same time, it’s transparently clear that Rizal was having a good laugh at the expense of the pretentious, the inane, the sanctimonious, and the hypocritical. His skewering of the church and holding its representatives to well-deserved ridicule (which they continue to deserve even today in their mindless and implacable opposition to birth control) must have placed him beyond the pale, as far as the padres were concerned. Martin Luther would surely have been pleased, and he might even have laughed uproariously.
My Rizal lives because his words live.
Because his words were and are made flesh.
[email protected] Francia
* All excerpts are from Noli Me Tangere, translated by Harold Augenbraum. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.
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