1. Reflections on Rizal - Three Thoughts

    Tiny Dancer Hero

    There is this idea that heroes inevitably reflect their country. When you think about it historical heroes exist as receptacles of a nation’s hopes and dreams. They are the guiding lights, the individuals who helped shape the nature of a people. Heroes are, in other words, can be considered the soul and conscience of a country. Their philosophies, ideals, and examples acting as the benchmarks for right collective action. That, as well, is why each generation must recast their nation’s heroes in new forms and view them in new perspectives. Heroes and their actions, much like all of history, are consistently up for reinterpretation. Without that process they will never be relevant. A disturbing question to ask is if our heroes are really relevant today.

    As a result, studying how our heroes are approached and constructed in the public sphere gives a country an understanding of who they are as a people. Heroes are a reflection of the values of a people. And if that is the case, as I strongly suspect it is, then the way we currently construct Jose Rizal (the way we approach him and his legacy) does not speak too well of us.

    There is something faintly disturbing about the fact that more is written, and known, in popular society (and pop history) about how many languages Rizal spoke (and how many women he supposedly bedded) than the importance of his annotated Morga. Or even that there is this pervasive sense of Rizal the Reformer, without understanding that his reforms were designed to lead to a successful revolution. Oh yes, with Jose Rizal we have turned one of our greatest heroes, one of the great men in history, into a small man; composed of tiny insignificant details that does little to deepen, challenge, or broaden our understanding of Rizal in his (and our) milieu.

    If our heroes our a reflection of our society, then how we approach Rizal is all the more damning for how small it makes us look. Maybe Nick Joaquin was right, maybe we have become a nation of minutia.

    Personalizing Rizal

    There is an interesting ancillary thought when it comes to heroes. More often than not, their importance rests on how an individual approaches and engages with their legacy. We often like to think of heroes in how they changed a society, or how they rebelled against the circumstances of their day. But, the importance of those events and actions lies in how they resonate with the individual. How someone like Rizal, through his words and deeds, will inspire a young Filipino to lead a life dedicated to service, or to benefit their fellow man, or to help the less fortunate. Or even to fight for a collective ideal.

    My experience with Rizal, in many ways, I think differs from the norm. I did not actually learn that much about Rizal in a formal educational setting (a by-product of where I went to school). Instead, my discovery of Rizal was shepherded by three of out greatest Rizalistas. So, instead of learning about Rizal through the interpretations (misguided in many cases) of writers like Agoncillo, or Constantino, or Zaide, I read Rizal. I read his essays, his novels, his poems, and his speeches. This began when I was a kid. You could say I was brainwashed to adore Rizal. And quite frankly, I would not disagree.

    It goes without saying that I was singularly lucky in how I learned about Rizal. And I do not say this to ‘brag’ or ‘boast’ about the experience. But, when I read some of the more flagrantly disturbing interpretations of Rizal it is shocking. For example, Constantino and his reformist trope. The fact that Constantino had to stoop to carefully editing Rizal’s words so they would fit his preconceptions is practically scandalous. Yet, in many ways, Constantino’s vision of Rizal is broadly accepted.

    One of the problems, and this I feel strongly, with our current approach to Rizal is that it removes him from our ability to relate. Yes, it’s fantastic and all that Rizal learned 23 languages (yeah…whatever). But to continue to hold that up as a reason why he should be admired is kind of ridiculous. It’s the aggrandizement of minutia. Of little pieces of flotsam and jetsam that basically add up to something ephemeral.

    Because of how we approach Rizal, with all these misguided attempts at humanizing him, we (individually and collectively) fail to approach him as he would have wanted: Through his ideas. His dreams. His hopes. His understanding of the Philippines. Its his words that should inspire. His real words, not those carefully edited and culled by colonially deficient pseudo-historians. Not the number of women he supposedly slept with. And most definitely not in the number of languages he spoke.

    Yes, Rizal’s words. How novel.

    The Three Parts of Rizal’s Writings

    One of the saddest parts of how we have let Rizal down is with regards to his three great works: Noli Me Tangere, El Filibusterismo, and his annotated Morga. We all know the Noli and the Fili, few know the Morga. Which is sad, because while the Noli and Fili reflected his criticisms and worries about the present and future, the Morga is where his passion for the Filipino comes shining through.

    The story of the Morga is almost romantic: Rizal sitting in the vastness of a library in London, painstakingly hand copying Antonio de Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas. Rizal went on to review and read every historical account of the Philippines he could get his hands on. Using those materials, he combed through the entire Morga line by line, offering up pointed criticisms of Morga’s history of the Philippines. In those notations we discover Rizal’s unwavering belief in the goodness and nobility of the Filipino; even if the scholarship upon which those notations were made was questionable at best. Rizal firmly believed that the study of history must be in service of the needs of the present. This was history as pure propaganda. Rizal’s purpose was to ignite the spirit of the Filipino by ‘showing’ them what was lost. In terms of the scholarly study of history, this type of myth-building is unacceptable. But, for a man who was fighting to preserve the soul of his country, it is perfectly acceptable and understandable. Sometimes you need collective myths to inspire a slumbering people.

    Father John Schumacher makes the point that the Noli, Fili, and Morga offer up Rizal’s pathway to nationalism for the Philippines. The Morga was the historical foundation upon which the new Philippine nation was to be built; the Noli a searing criticism of the current ills of colonial society; while the Fili was a warning against certain actions that had no hope (at that time) of proving to be successful.

    Last year, as we all well remember, was Jose Rizal’s 150th birth anniversary. There was the expected pomp and circumstance necessary for such an august occasion. And this year is the 151st celebration of his birthday. I wonder…do we know him any better? For all that has gone on in the last year, are we any closer to understanding what he hoped and dreamed of for the Philippines?

    The answer is easily found actually. Just take a look at how his popular image is used and abused. It is almost disturbing how many people seem to speak on behalf of Rizal nowadays.

    Broadly, we lack critical engagement with Jose Rizal’s actual words. Too much of his writings are filtered through almost perversely erroneous ideology. It is…unfortunate. And it seems that as the years pass by we are leaving Rizal further and further behind.