JOSE RIZAL: IN SEARCH OF A FILIPINO NATIONAL SUBJECT
On meeting for the first time after 5 years a former activist woman friend, I was surprisingly barraged with a pile of government propaganda about the official celebration of the Philippine Centennial. My friend also told me that life in the Philipines has immensely improved, and everyone is or has become prosperous. In one of the Centennial brochures, we are urged to “relearn the values that won for us our freedom”; the practice of such virtues as “initiative, self-reliance, industry, courteousness, and the bayanihan spirit will help achieve our vision of nationhood.” Such virtues strike us as universal, not the unique property of any group. What “the vision of nationhood” is, seems to be left to the imagination or, more precisely, it is left suspended in the miasma of cliches and exhausted rhetoric.
Despite the diaspora of 7 million OCWs (Overseas Contract Workers), “ang mga bagong bayani” as lauded by Corazon Aquino (chiefly domestics, entertainers, and low-skilled workers abroad)–the wisdom of the Centennial authorities tells us that “Filipinism is very much alive in each of us.” Like the term “mana,” “Filipinism” is another floating signifier whose content can be filled by anyone. Conversely it can be a springboard for discursive and ideological struggle. Now, so much talk about “values” and value reorientation should warn us that such moralizing, such indulgence in abstract metaphysical injunction, is a symptom that the State’s legitimacy is at stake. It is either eroded or at best seriously attenuated. The Centennial thus betokens a crisis of ruling-class hegemony. It marks a rupture in the legitimacy of the rule of the comprador/bureaucratic elite. To sustain the dominance of this minority, the l896 revolution affords an occasion for repairing the rupture, for reinforcing the fissured “dikes” surrounding the coercive fortifications of the State. For this purpose, the nation’s history and its archive need to be refunctioned, reinterpreted, and mobilized. Unity behind the rulers needs to be re-established.
The bayanihan of state-nationalism, the nation articulated by oligarchic and bureaucratic power, is a contemporary phenomenon in many Third World dependent states freed from direct Western control since World War II. Such nation-states have of course remained satellites of the former colonial power, or else constrained by multinational corporations and dictated upon by World Bank/IMF and other financial consortiums. Any neocolonial society like the Philippines subsists in a state of permanent crisis. This is exactly the form of late capital accumulation manifested in the periphery of the capitalist world system. Unlike industrialized nation-states in the West (or Japan), however, the state and the population (labelled “nation”), both as concepts and geopolitical configurations of forces, remain terrains of unceasing political conflict and ideological contestation. The reason for this is the historical condition called uneven, non-synchronized development. Uneven development is a phenomenon of capitalist regulation of state and civil society in the dominated spaces. Uneven development refers to the prevalence of severe class divisions, lopsided distribution of wealth, and the allocation of power based on property relations. Uneven development entails the existence of a state-system that is the battleground of antagonistic forces–local classes representing imperial interests or marginalized sectors, etc. In this site of antagonisms, we confront not only diverse ideas of what “Filipino identity” and “Filipinism” signify–not just “imagined” communities as suggested by Benedict Anderson–but also the structures of feeling, sensibilities, and conditions of collectivities embodied in a wide array of social practices, idioms, institutions, usages, and so on. What is central is how power is to be constituted and for whose interests. What is at issue concerns the principle of social order, a central and unifying vision of the good life, that is to be identified with the nation as well as the collective identity which distinctively synthesizes the variegated representations of our history, memory, aspirations, dreams, fantasies, and so on.
My contention is that the meaning or substance of the nation called “Filipino” is in a perpetual process of construction so long as the country has not attained genuine independence. Given the defeat of the l896-98 stage of the national-democratic revolution, the suppression of the plebeian or popular forces from l898 to the present by U.S. imperialism, the diverse forms of cooptation and neocolonizing rearticulations deployed by the capitalist power bloc, the construction of a “Filipino identity” remains an ongoing project for collective praxis and critique. A struggle over the legacy of Rizal, the meaning and significance of his life and works, between the hegemonic elite and the nation-people serves as the occasion for this essay. The following reflection on three works of Rizal–”Letter to the Young Women of Malolos (l889), “The Indolence of the Filipinos” (l890), and the “Philippines A Century Hence” (l890)–are intended to contribute to the process of conscientization (to use Paulo Freire’s term), part of the project of a radical, popular-democratic transformation of the exploitative, oppressive and unjust system we all inhabit.
Rizal is the great “enigma,” so goes the official doxa and conventional
wisdom. Because of this indeterminacy, the ruling elite and its state
agencies are utilizing everything in their power to make Rizal, his life and
writings, help to resolve its legitimacy crisis. For the centennial of his
death in 1998, Rizal (declared by the U.S. colonial government as the “national hero of the Philippines”) will again be invoked as the one of the doctrinal
foundations of the neocolonial state, his teachings on the importance of
civic virtue and spiritual reform rehashed while his critique of injustice
and inequality is kept safely in the margins. To echo “the first Filipino,”
you get the Rizal you deserve.
There have been many proponents and advocates of the enigma
syndrome since Rizal’s canonization by the U.S. colonial administration.
The most internationally renowned is Miguel de Unamuno, the fierce
thinker of Spanish existentialism (in the opinion of Julian Marias), who
recorded his reaction to Wenceslao Retana’s Vida y Escritos del Dr. Rizal.
Unamuno agreed with Retana’s view of Rizal as the “Oriental Don
Quixote,” basically a romantic personality; but for Unamuno, Rizal was
only a hero of thought, in substance a Hamlet, “a fearless dreamer,”
irresolute and weak for action and for life. This malaise infects the Noli
Me Tangere. Unamuno delivers his judgment (1968, 8-9):
Because Rizal himself is the spirit of contradiction, a soul that dreads
the revolution, although deep within himself he consummately desires
it: he is a man who at the same time both trusts and distrusts his own
countrymen and racial brothers; who believes them to be the most
capable and yet the least capable–the most capable when he looks at
himself as one of their blood; the most incapable when he looks at
others. Rizal is a man who constantly pivots between fear and hope,
between faith and despair. All these contradictions are merged together
in that love, his dreamlike and poetic love for his adored country, the
beloved region of the sun, pearl of the Orient, his lost Eden.
In his prologue to a 1908 edition of El Filibusterismo, Retana seems to
reaffirm his interpretation of Rizal as the “Tagalog Quixote,” though now
made more multidimensional with the addition of influences like
Nietzsche, Leopardi, and Alexander Herzen, the instigator of Russian
nihilism. This is suggestive; in general, however, Retana’s patronizing tone
and his anatomical determinism (influenced by the notorious Cesar
Lombroso) can only be pathetic and risible from our vantage point.
Other commentators have pursued Unamuno’s line of typologizing.
Nick Joaquin, the vindicator of the populist wing of the ilustrado tradition,
presents his own version of Rizal as the “anti-hero” by marshalling and
replaying the ideas of Ante Radaic and Leon Maria Guerrero. Radaic’s
psychoanalytic diagnosis of Rizal as a victim of an inferiority complex, if
taken as the decisive key to his life, strikes many as mechanical and even
trivializing if not a symptom of Radaic’s own obsessions: “Because of an
excess of spirit, Rizal saw his body as inadequate, and this, in turn,
influenced his complex psychological structure.” For Guerrero (1963), the
causal sequence has to do with the social and economic context: Rizal’s
schizophrenic temperament derives from his petty bourgeois class
background, even though Rizal is credited with inventing the idea of a
Filipino nation. For Guerrero, Rizal’s development as a middle-class
intellectual explains “the puzzling absence of any real social consciousness
in [his] apostolate so many years after Marx’s Manifesto or, for that matter,
Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.”
All these speculations on Rizal’s ambivalence culminate in the classic
speech of Claro Recto on “Rizal the Realist and Bonifacio the Idealist”
(reprinted in Rizal: Contrary Essays, edited by Dolores Feria and Petronilo
Daroy). The speech was given at the time when Recto, the most trenchant
critic of U.S. neocolonial intervention in the Philippines, was beleaguered
by the anti-Communism of the Magsaysay/Garcia Establishment openly
supported by the United States Embassy and CIA operatives. Recto’s thesis
that Rizal was revolutionary in his poetry and rationalizations “but in the
face of reality, based on truth, he was the inverse” and “realism
won…when the moment arrived for a final decision” was plausible, given
the evidence he adduced. Bonifacio, meanwhile, proved to be a realist in
spite of his idealism, but Recto did not really cite any substantial body of
facts or testimonies to this effect. The bulk of Recto’s rendering of
“parallel lives” centered on Rizal’s ambiguities and paradoxes, the
dialogical method of his rhetoric and thinking in his novels. Obviously
Recto was setting up a model of antithetical world views or epistemes
neither of which can be distilled in complex personalities like Rizal or
Bonifacio. Whatever the merits of Recto’s analysis, I would like to record
here how I personally was present at that historic occasion at the D & E
Restaurant in Quezon City when Recto delivered the speech in 1957, the
spark that kindled the nationalist “prairie fire” and “long march” of the
sixties climaxing in the First Quarter Storm of 1970.
It is easy to reduce any person’s life to certain character traits or
recurrent habits and customary practices, following the orthodox
ideological reflex of focusing on the psychology of individuals to explain
complex events in which s/he participates. This may have some
pedagogical value, but it is entirely misleading, of course, since
individuality can only be understood within the milieu of the totality of
social relations at any given time and place. What is crucial is the complex
interaction of multiple forces of which the individual (who becomes
historically significant only when s/he represents a collective or group or
sector) is only one element. Manifold structures and a nexus of factors
overdetermine every other element in any concrete situation. Provided we
take into account the entire trajectory of Rizal’s life, the preponderant
influence of certain events (like the 1872 Cavite Mutiny and the execution
of Burgos, Gomez and Zamora, the Dominican order’s harassment and
eviction of Rizal’s family and others in Calamba in 1887, 1889, 1891, and
so on) and figures in his life, it is a useful shorthand device to concentrate
on certain tropes and themes in Rizal’s writings to highlight hitherto
neglected aspects, especially those regarded as subversive, oppositional,
and revolutionary, that have been obscured or downplayed to promote the
interests and reproduction of the status quo. This is the primary intent of
these exploratory notes. I assume that most readers would consult the
most available biographical works to provide the historical and social
contexts of Rizal’s writings: for example, Rafael Palma’s The Pride of the
Malay Race, Austin Coates’ Rizal, Leon Maria Guerrero’s The First
Filipino, and others.
Writing in Harper’s Monthly Magazine of April 1901, the distinguished
American realist writer William Dean Howells praised Rizal’s Noli for its
artistry and its “sense of unimpeachable veracity.” Although he was active
in the Anti-Imperialist Movement at that time (Mark Twain and Williams
James were two of the most articulate members), Howells was not fully
cognizant of the atrocities being committed by his countrymen in the
suppression of the Philippine Republic led by Emilio Aguinaldo. Howell’s
editorial remark betokens his generous spirit (1979, 27-28): “The many
different types and characters are rendered with unerring delicacy and
distinctness and the effect of all those strange conditions is given so fully
by the spare means that while you read you are yourself one of them, and
feel their hopeless weight and immeasurable pathos, with something of the
sad patience which pervades all…. Even in the extreme of apparent
caricature you feel the self-control of the artistic spirit which will not
wreak itself either in tears or laughter” (for a perceptive commentary on
the dialogic techniques of Rizal’s novels, see Matibag 1995). The last
sentence reminds us of Rizal’s well-known “Laughter and Tears,” a
masterpiece of ironic satire in which one can apprehend dissonant and
rebellious notes amid the burlesque and scandalizing mimicry:
It was a world which granted privileges to some and imposed
prohibitions on others without regard to one’s merit or to one’s
capacity…. Endowed with strength and eager to learn, one had to drag
oneself in a narrow prison cell when one could see an open field, a
vast horizon in the distance; when one hears from above the flapping
of wings; when one could feel the beatings of a heart; and when one
believed oneself entitled to enjoy the beauty of a dream (1979: 32).
In March 1887, Rizal (1979, 142) commented on the Noli (which to
Retana combined the wit of Voltaire and the carnivalesque daring of
Rabelais): “Where I have found virtue, I said so emphatically in order to
render homage to it; and if I have not wept in speaking of our
misfortunes, I have laughed at them for no one would like to weep with
me at the misfortunes of our country and to laugh is always good in order
to hide one’s sorrow.” Rizal writes in his “dedication” of the Noli: “I shall
lift a corner of the veil which shrouds the disease, sacrificing to the truth
everything, even self-love….” He wrote to Father Federico Faura: “I want
to awaken my countrymen from their profound lethargy, and one who
wishes to do that does not use soft and gentle sounds, but detonations,
blows, etc.” Given the repressive climate of the colony, Rizal’s
disingenousness can be considered a product of his strategic genius at
dissembling, simulating, awakening, unveiling and unmasking (both Noli
and Fili were designed to expose the “cancer” of the body politic on the
steps of the temple so that a cure may be offered). Rizal, indeed, was
speaking truth to power.
In our “postcolonial” and postmodern milieu, we are familiar with the
phenomenon of hybridity, syncretism, marginalization of Others, especially
subaltern people of color–the entire range of Orientalisms and perverse
subjectivities produced by imperial/colonial domination so acutely
examined by Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, Paulo Freire, and
others. Rizal’s case falls into this sociohistorical zone, a time when (to
recall Gramsci’s famous observation) the old order is dying and the new
one has not yet fully emerged from the bloody womb, and all kinds of
morbid symptoms abound. After the aborted revolution of 1848 and the
still undreamed-of Paris Commune of 1872, Karl Marx mused in 1856: “In
our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary.” From this
perspective, we can appreciate how Rizal’s ordeal (intensely replicated in
his novels) condenses all the symptoms of anxiety, uncertainties, self-
doubt, and paranoia shared by all, subalterns and masters alike, generated
by the oppressive and alienating circumstances of colonial society (see San
Rizal’s Memorias, an experiment in self-detachment and performative
risk-taking, epitomizes the bewildering, even chaotic, transitional stage
found in all “third world” peripheral or dependent formations. One can
discern the affliction of melancholia and the arduous labor of mourning
that shaped Rizal’s sensibility:
Whenever I thought that I must now leave that peaceful retreat in
which the eyes of my intelligence had been opened to a degree, and my
heart had begun to learn nobler feelings, I fell into a profound
despondency…. I had a cruel foreboding which unfortunately came
true…. I was depressed, indifferent, brooding…. Tears paid in token of
farewell to the times gone by, to a contentment that would not return,
to a tranquillity of spirit that was slipping out of my grasp, leaving me
I formed the design of keeping silent and, until seeing greater
proofs of sympathy between us [Rizal is referring to Segunda Katigbak
who "bewitched" him at a certain point in his student life), neither
subjecting myself to her yoke nor declaring myself to her....I felt
anguish and inquietude conforming with love, if not with jealousy,
perhaps because I saw that I was separating from her, perhaps because
a million obstacles would rise between us, so that my nascent love was
increasing and seemed to be gaining vigor in the struggle....
But in the critical moments of my life always I have acted against
my disposition, obedient to different purposes and to ponderous
doubts. I spurred my horse and took another road without having
chosen it, exclaiming: This is ended thus (quoted in Guerrero 1963,
The last statement encapsulates Rizal's singular predilection for
overcoming crisis: an inclination to sacrifice, to deny the seduction of
what is forbidden (perhaps the preOedipal mother), to seize the time for
pleasure, for the good death--as he wrote to Mariano Ponce in 1890: "One
only dies once, and if one does not die well, a good opportunity is lost and
will not present itself again."
There are many revealing episodes in Rizal's adventure toward
"martyrdom," an ending he anticipated many times (see in particular the
two letters he left with his family in Hong Kong dated June 20, 1892), but
none more intriguing and heuristic than his exile in Dapitan. A short
digression on this may be instructive.
When Rizal was banished to Dapitan for alleged “filibusterismo” in 1892,
he seemed to sense that it was an interlude or moment of calm before the
final storm. He assured his family that "wherever I might go I should
always be in the hands of God who holds in them the destinies of men."
Despite this resigned deistic attitude, Rizal was not to be deterred: he
applied himself to diverse tasks and preoccupations, engaging in
horticulture, eye surgery, collecting butterflies and other specimens,
teaching, civic construction--his signal achievement was the waterworks of
Dapitan, a community project of distributing water to the town. It was a
testimony to his collectivist orientation, his scientific creativity, his will to
change and improve things for a more just and humane order--an authentic
revolutionary stance. Rizal also maintained a voluminous correspondence
with friends in Manila and in Europe. Amid various scholarly pursuits, he
was also occupied in composing a massive dictionary of all the languages
and dialects of the Philippines together with their equivalents in Spanish,
English, French, and German. While the Spanish authorities were lenient
and tolerant, Rizal had no utopian illusions. He confessed in a letter to a
friend: "To live is to be among men, and to be among men is to
struggle...It is a struggle with them but also with one's self, with their passions, but also with one's own, with errors and anxieties." His versatile preoccupations and worldly concerns awed everyone, but they seemed to hide the more turbulent and agonizing drama within.
The anguish of exile was modulated by the presence of Josephine
Bracken, an Irish Catholic from Hong Kong, whom Rizal married a
few hours before he was executed. (Isabel Taylor Escoda  has tried
to document what happened to her later on; she died a pauper’s death in
Hong Kong and her body was interred by the city’s Sanitary Department in
an unknown grave.) Despite such a distraction–he apparently did not lose
his mind over her, as he did with Segunda Katigbak, Rizal could not “deny
that his being transported to an alien place” was demoralizing. Terrified
by the “uncertainty of the future,” he seized the opportunity to volunteer
his medical skills to the Spanish military then engaged in suppressing the
revolution in Cuba. Amplifying distance and strangeness, he could resign
himself to the demands of duty, the necessity of accepting destiny in order
“to make progress through suffering.” A certain amount of fatalism, plus
the compulsive sense of vocation or fetish of duty, coalesced to shape the
peculiar ethos of this Filipino exile at the time of revolutionary ferment.
Contrast this with the exile of another austere and disciplined
freedom-fighter of the time, Apolinario Mabini. Mabini chose exile to
Guam instead of swearing allegiance to the sovereign power of the enemy,
the United States, who wreaked havoc on the country and killed a million
Filipinos. The “sublime paralytic” conceived the deportation as a crucible
of his insurrectionary determination. His intransigence became proverbial
even after he returned and made a sort of peace with the conquerors. So
far nobody has researched what he did during those two years of exile.
One can only surmise that his shrewd and proud spirit endured the time of
banishment because he was busy forging the “conscience of his race”–his
memoirs on the Philippine Revolution. He employed his cunning, his
intelligence, his power of remembering to bridge the distance between that
godforsaken island and the homeland he never abandoned because, as in
the labor of mourning, it was introjected and preserved as an object of
adoration. One suspects that something like this happened to Rizal except
that for him, the family and loyal friends constituted the ground of hope
for ultimate redemption.
Exile could not destroy Rizal’s trust in the emancipatory potential of
the multitude. In the “Letter to the Young Women of Malolos,” among
others, he affirmed his rationalist belief in the inalienability of rights:
“God gave each individual reason and a will of his or her own to
distinguish the just from the unjust; all were born without shackles and
free, and nobody has a right to subjugate the will and spirit of another.”
Natural right is coextensive with each individual’s power. In this he
approximated Spinoza’s radical view, elaborated in the Treatise on Politics,
that human rights cannot be alienated by a social contract, or by the
system of representation in any society (see Deleuze 1988). The third novel
of Rizal that was rescued by Ambeth Ocampo from oblivion, Makamisa, is
particularly significant because in the description of the violence of
crowds, the physical massing of bodies in the exodus from Church as well
as in the carnivalesque riot following this (including the youthful game of
tuktukan), one can discern the constitutive power of the masses, the
productive dynamic of their passions, needs, and desires that escape
codification by the colonial Leviathan. The power of bodies, the logic of
their affects, and their potential for organizing and transforming the
immanent field of social forces, may be intimated by a curious report Rizal
composed during his Dapitan exile. It is entitled “The Treatment of the
Bewitched” (dated 15 November 1895) part of which I quote here (1964,
The witch [mangagaway] is the she-ass of the burden of ignorance and
popular malevolence, the scapegoat of divine chastisements, the
salvation of the perplexed quacks. Mankind also has divine defects
among its divine qualities. It likes to explain everything and wash in
another’s blood its own impurities. The woman manggagaway is to the
common man and the quack what the resentment of the gods, the
demon, the pacts with the devil in the Medieval Age, the plethora of
blood, neuroses, and others were to the different ages. She is the
diagnosis of inexplicable sufferings.
Could the last phrase not shed light on the function of Sisa in the Noli, on
the participation of formidable women in our struggles for national-
democratic liberation who were branded and stigmatized–including the
famous “la loba negra,” the protagonist in the narrative once ascribed to
Father Jose Burgos?
Finally, I want to emphasize this corporeal logic/ethics of mass
initiative and agency that I have tried to locate in Rizal’s texts by citing
Antonio Luna and Apolinario Mabini on what kind of approach will be
most constructive in lieu of the ritualistic and reactionary worship of an
idol. It must be remembered that Rizal’s founding of the Liga Filipina was
the prime catalyst for the mobilization of the Katipunan led by Andres
Bonifacio and other separatists (note that Mabini was present when Rizal
initiated the Liga). And Antonio Luna, the brilliant general of Aguinaldo’s
army of the first Philippine Republic, was already in contact with Rizal in
Europe when Rizal was an active collaborator of Marcelo del Pilar and
Graciano Lopez Jaena in La Solidaridad. First Luna in 1884: “Assimilating
his ideas, pondering his concepts that readily aroused our enthusiasm, we
found an echo, though timid, of his voice within ourselves.” And Mabini
in 1899: “While we Filipinos living today do not individually amount to as
much as Rizal, yet we can join together to get the force necessary to the
realization of the work begun by him.” I second Luna’s multiplication of
Rizal’s voice and Mabini’s motion of unifying and mobilizing our forces
for national-democratic self-determination.
In congratulating Graciano Lopez Jaena and other compatriots for the founding of La Solidaridad on 15 February 1889, Rizal wrote from London two days after: “See that the periodical is just, honest and truthful so that its opinion may always be respected. It is necessary that we show our enemies that we are more worthy than they, morally and humanly speaking. Should we tell the truth we shall have won our cause because reason and justice are on our side.” Inscribed in the decorum of rational discourse, truth is thus conceived here as an effect of style founded on the avoidance of “vulgar and ignoble language.” But more than an offshoot of formal decorum, truth appears as the effect of identifying oneself as a partisan of reason and justice. This is one of the uses of the argumentum ad hominem that Rizal mobilizes in the strategy of his partisan speech-acts, the culmination of three hundred years of Spanish proselytizing and casuistry.
While the Propagandista cause upheld the universality and objectivity of those twin principles of reason and justice, it should be stressed that both the Associacion La Solidaridad which elected Rizal as honorary president and the fortnightly periodical were committed to one all-encompassing aim: “to champion the legitimate aspirations of the Filipino people to life, democracy, and happiness.” All of Rizal’s contributions to La Solidaridad, while polemical and scholarly in form, should be judged as texts articulating the manifold linkages between power and truth, disciplinary power yielding effects of truth. Any reading of Rizal’s texts would then try to demonstrate its suasive potency as an effect of theoretical apparatuses whose effect conceals itself within the discourse of a self-identical, transcendent Reason once solely manipulated by the Spanish administration and the church. Rizal’s texts do not intend to substitute another universal absolute for what they displace. Rather, in the process of deconstructing the apparently seamless web of colonial ideology and its libidinal investments, Rizal elucidates the breaks, ruptures, and points of unravelling in the colonial epistemes which, by an appeal for dialogue and communication, can constitute the space for the Other–the repressed identities and intellects of peasants, workers, and other marginalized subjects. The economy of colonial symbolic power and its cultural capital are thus undermined.
I should like to undertake here a reading of two exemplary texts from La Solidaridad and the “Letter to the Young Women of Malolos” in a way designed to recuperate their submerged liberatory impulses, to release latent energies–the radical potential of Rizal’s historical imagination–capable of being reappropriated for our agenda and needs today. My commentary necessarily repeats ideas and themes found in my other works, a rehearsal designed to fashion what Walter Benjamin calls a constellation of images and motifs that may capture the “messianic” vision in long buried archives. Let me address first Rizal’s “Letter.”
Cesar Majul, author of the magisterial The Political and Constitutional Ideas of the Philippine Revolution, argues that Rizal’s political thinking (like Jacinto’s and Mabini’s) was basically a product of the European Enlightenment. While that is generally correct, Majul’s interpretation lacks substantive historical contextualization. He thus emphasizes the metaphysical idealism of Rizal. This is proved by the fact that Rizal stressed cultivation of a sense of moral worth in each individual, intelligence, sense of personal dignity, and discipline of the natural instincts by reason–Kant’s tutelage. The Liga Filipina, while upholding the need for industry and mutual help, valued above all moral and intellectual qualities and virtues. Aside from Padre Florentino’s chiliastic prophecy of liberty as a fruit of providential intervention, the key statement always cited to prove Rizal’s gradualist, reformist philosophy is this well-known passage from his “Farewell Address” of December 15, 1896:
My countrymen, I have given proofs that I am one most anxious for liberties of our country, and I am still desirous of them. But I place as a prior condition the education of the people, that by means of instruction and industry our country may have an individuality of its own and make itself worthy of these liberties. I have recommended in my writings the study of civic virtues, without which there is no redemption.
But the crucial issue, if we apply a historical optic, is where and how these “civic virtues” will emerge and how they will enter the complex play of existing power relations and alignments.
I argue here that in Rizal’s cognitive mapping of the social arena, we find elements or rudiments of a historical-materialist understanding of the colonial formation grounded on an implicit dialectical analysis of specific conjunctures. In his “Letter to the Young Women of Malolos,” Rizal intervened in supporting a specific demand which, though limited in aim, signalled an immense, unprecedented step in the awakening of female activism at that time: the Malolos women’s petition to the local religious authorities for equal educational opportunities for women.
It may be conceded at the outset that Rizal betrays his adherence to a Victorian ideology of domesticity and the home as the circumscribing self-definition of woman’s identity. By setting up women as victim and goddess simultaneously, Rizal’s letter deploys the already fixed role of woman-mother as trope for the nation, the allegorical terrain for constructing national autonomy. While it is clear that Rizal grasped the historical determinants of character formation, he identified motherhood with the romantic ethos of the nurturing soil and endows it with an organic, naturalizing essence. Consequently, he placed on center stage the physical immediacy of the mother’s presence, spatial proximity spelling affinity and equivalence:
No longer does the Filipina stand with her head bowed nor does she spend her time on her knees…. What offspring will be that of a woman whose kindness of character is expressed by mumbled prayers…. The mother who can only teach her child how to kneel and kiss hands must not expect sons with blood other than that of vile slaves…. so long as they [the Spanish rulers] can keep the Filipina mother a slave, so long will they be able to make slaves of her children.
In this particular instance, Rizal’s failure to comprehend the historicity of the nature of the family leads him to the fallacy of mechanical materialism, that is, to a belief in a normative social/sexual division of labor. Gender division of labor thus becomes immutable and essentialized. His belief in maternal responsibility, circumscribed by the notion of the complementarity of the two gender roles, compels him to limit women to the domestic and reproductive sphere while the male monopolizes the public domain of exonomics, politics, and all affairs of civil society. This is a classic traditional conception of women’s place in society. Such a view of the normative division of labor as permanent and natural can only guarantee the domination of patriarchal hegemony.
It must be remarked, however, that Rizal attributes to women the capacity to obey “the dictates of reason,” hence the privileged position of women in pedagogical/educational tasks: “…so long as the woman who guides the child in his steps is slavish and ignorant, [one cannot expect honor nor prosperity]. No good water comes from a turbid, bitter spring, no savory fruit comes from acrid seed.” This genealogical theory of personality growth is conflated with a belief that given women’s honor, “fortitude of mind and loftiness of purpose,” and of course purity, the conditions are ripe for the renewal of the race. The situation of women is thus a precondition for social development and prosperity of the whole community. While this converts women into a cultural marker (the prejudiced subject-position of nurturer and protector of young patriots) imbricated into a universalizing project of uplifting future generations of youth, the nationalist contract is limiting since it conscripts their symbolic power into a restricted familial discourse subordinated still to patriarchal authority.
Within the family/mother frame of conceptualization, the woman functions as a vehicle for the selective appropriation of Western modernity. This may be duplicitous but not necessarily an absolute reimposition of a masculinist omnipotence. The textual process of subverting Christian/Spanish colonial subjection of the Filipina goes through a circuitous route that offers self-deconstructive possibilities. Rizal invokes a contrapuntal image of patriarchal governance in the historical model of the Spartan women–and indeed, the intrusion of this pagan archaic model decenters the Enlightenment code of autonomy and rational calculation. This interruption by the “political unconscious” gives a twist to the code of motherhood:
Of all women–a woman said jestingly–only you Spartans have power over the men. Quite natural–they replied–of all women only we give birth to men. Man, the Spartan woman said, was not born to live for himself alone but for his native land.
In an unpublished draft of her doctoral thesis, Maria C. Zamora, a Filipina-American scholar, comments on the motif of sacrifice and the logic of filiation elaborated here: “This Spartan idealization of loss illustrates how the patriot is bound to the motherland. Because the patriot is not born to live for himself alone, but for his motherland, his duty allows for the reversal of dependency between mother and child. The patriot posits his future authority over the mother by ‘bequeathing’ to the patria the legacy of freedom. The motherland inherits from her sons a great fortune–a surplus of symbolic wealth with which to nurture future sons. Offspring and lover, the patriot is now also father to the nation.” The reservation is astutely put and deserves serious thought. But Rizal, though acclaimed by some as “father” of Filipino nationalism, would disavow the personality cult and posit instead the freedom of autonomous individuals as the criterion of worth and prestige. His paramount concern is the alliance and mobilization of all Filipinos across categories of class, gender, religion, and so on. This of course may be seen as an evasion of the sexuality/gender problematic.
After repeating the axioms of Kant, Rousseau, and Voltaire in the seven items for reflection, Rizal concludes with a singular mandate. He holds that cunning and realism are necessary since humans are not by nature rational. To recuperate and revitalize reason, strategic planning and collective resolve are needed. This instruction is more political than didactic in intent. The Spartan desideratum of balancing wills and lines of force (as Gramsci schematized in his Prison Notebooks) can be discerned in the dialectical reasoning immanent in the first and second advice. First, “that the tyranny of some is possible only through cowardice and negligence on the part of others,” and second, “What makes one contemptible is lack of dignity and abject fear of him who holds one in contempt.”
In Rizal’s text, we encounter the dynamic tension between the forces of nature and of history. This oscillation between the instrumentality of a mechanical materialism inherited from 18th-century Hobbesian speculation and early Renaissance physicalism dovetails with residues of a sacramental cosmology that dates back to his early religious upbringing and schooling. This antinomy pervades and problematizes all of Rizal’s writings. But “The Indolence” and “The Philippines a Century Hence” testify to a new approach, one which demonstrates an authentic historicizing mode that skilfully triangulates nature, history, and human agency.
In “Indolence,” Rizal engages in a typical maneuver of demystification by comparison and contrast. One thing is clear: Rizal does not deny that indolence among individual Filipinos exist, for such a predisposition of humans is universal. He begins with the hypothesis of the physical environment, specifically climate. But natural laws alone cannot account for human behavior within the totality of the social relations of production:
Man is not a brute, he is not a machine, his object is not merely to produce, in spite of the pretensions of some Christian whites who would make of the colored Christian a kind of motive power somewhat more intelligent and less costly than steam. Man’s object is not to satisfy the passions of another man, his object is to seek happiness for himself and his kind by travelling along the road of progress and perfection.
Yet, for Rizal, natural laws are altered in the search for material and intellectual progress, as the cognitive-historical mapping he performs is meant to exemplify.
The next strategic move he makes is to posit colonial society as a body afflicted with a malady. The sick patient might have “8 million indolent red corpuscles,” so would a few white corpuscles in an agricultural colony solve the problem of indolence? Rizal quickly maneuvers from a diagnosis of the anatomy to a historicizing reformulation of the problem: “Indolence in the Philippines is a chronic malady, but not a hereditary one. The Filipinos have not always been what they are, witnesses whereto are all the historians of the first years after the discovery of the Islands.” Next follows a resume of the historical testimonies–from Morga, Chirino, Colin, Pigafetta, Gaspar de San Agustin, and others–that unanimously evince the industry, diligence, resourcefulness, creativity, and productiveness of the natives before the coming of the Spaniards. Not only trade and crafts but also military exploits, linguistic skills, and piracy all attest that precolonial Philippines was the site of fertile cultural exchanges, flourishing trade in crafts and myriad products, and innovations of all kinds.
The bulk of this discourse, sections III and IV, contains Rizal’s polemic against Spanish arrogance and racist prejudgments. Its main thesis is the transmogrification or the brutalization of the indigenous inhabitants by Spanish frailocracy and mercantile greed. His diagnosis of the body politic involves a shrewd appraisal of circumstances, human efforts, and policies: “How then, and in what way, was that active and enterprising infidel native of ancient times converted into the lazy and indolent Christian….?” So the focus of understanding shifts to the mutations and alterations of the secular space of these bodies and their interactions. Rizal concentrates on the wars of conquest that wasted the moral and material energies of the country, the predatory raids of pirates and the exhaustion of local resources for the defense of villages, and last but not least the onerous taxation levied on the subaltern–all these factors constitute the negation of choice and purpose. Human agency promptly dissolves under such pressure: “Man works for an object. Remove the object and you reduce him to inaction.” Scholastic teleology is now articulated toward an instrumental means-end universe of transactions reflective of the bourgeois market ethos.
Even when wars of conquest, conscription, and piracy had declined or utterly disappeared, Rizal observes, indolence persisted. This was caused by the oppressive practices of the Spanish colonial administration and the abuses of the friars. Rizal attacks the “pernicious example” of the colonial masters who assumed “the chivalrous pride of the heroes” of past centuries and despised manual labor. Spain was unable to remedy the paralysis and lethargy induced by the Empire’s accumulation of loot from the American continent. Aside from remarks on gambling, Rizal describes the wastage of fiestas, religious rituals, government cruelty and apathy, and above all the perverse education of the native meant to rob him of his dignity and self-esteem: “Add to this lack of material inducement the absence of moral stimulus and you will see how he who is not indolent in that country must needs be a madman or at least a fool.”
What strikes us today is that Rizal affirms an essential humanity in the native who, after centuries of degradation, has been transformed into a “half-way brute.” As though drawing up a commentary on Hegel’s narrative of the bondsman and the lord in The Phenomenology of the Spirit, Rizal stakes his wager on an irrepressible something that survives: “the brutalization is not yet complete and because the nature of man is inherent in his being in spite of his condition, the native protests; he still has aspirations, he thinks and strives to rise, and there’s the trouble!” Humanity still smolders behind the damaged body, the manacled will. And so, in spite of the changes, breaks, interruptions, something continues, perhaps the substratum that Marx calls “species-being” which serves as rubric for the potential for collective self-realization that can be actualized by, first, education and then, second, by the invention of “national sentiment” or national identity.
In the last section of Rizal’s essay, we encounter the intuition of dialectics, the balancing of antagonistic wills and reciprocity of conflicting trajectories of forces. This imagination of change via class/people’s war sparks Rizal’s mind beyond the prudential horizon of the class to which he objectively belongs. At this point he is now laying the groundwork for the possibility of popular insurrection. The germ or matrix of this tendency is embedded in the contradictions produced by historical development:
Is it any wonder that with this vicious dressage of intelligence and will the native, of old logical and consistent–as the analysis of his past and of his language demonstrates–should now be a mass of dismal contradictions? That continual struggle between reason and duty, between his organism and his new ideals, that civil war which disturbs the peace of his conscience all his life, has the result of paralyzing all his energies, and aided by the severity of the climate, makes of that eternal vacillation, of the doubts in his brain, the origin of his indolent disposition.
A prime desideratum to Rizal’s Enlightenment intellect is liberty, first of the two cures for the historical catastrophe suffered by the body politic. The necessity of physical freedom establishes the premise for revolution, literally a return to the original condition celebrated in the valorization of the chronicles of the past. But such a return to the archaic scene is not recovery but reconstruction of the new and the future:
What the [native] asks is in the first place liberty to allow expansion to his adventurous spirit, and good examples, beautiful prospects for the future. It is necessary that his spirit, although it may be dismayed and cowed by the elements and the fearful manifestation of their mighty forces, store up energy, seek high purposes, in order to struggle against obstacles in the midst of unfavorable natural conditions. In order that he may progress it is necessary that a revolutionary spirit, so to speak, should boil in his veins, since progress necessarily requires change; it implies the overthrow of the past, there defied, by the present; the victory of new ideas over the ancient and accepted one. It will not be sufficient to speak to his fancy, to talk nicely to him, nor that the light illuminate him like the ignis fatuus that leads travelers astray at night: all the flattering promises of the fairest hopes will not suffice, so long as his spirit is not free, his intelligence is not respected.
While Rizal concludes his critique of colonial injustices with a reiteration of the fundamental imperative of education and liberty, it is the anticlimactic insight into “the lack of national sentiment” that functions as the center of gravity of the entire discourse. It is symptomatic that here Rizal returns to the body metaphor in anticipation of his privileging “material interests” in the concluding paragraph:
The lack of national sentiment brings another evil, moreover, which is the absence of all opposition to measures prejudicial to the people and the absence of any initiative in whatever may redound to its good. A man in the Philippines is only an individual, he is not a member of a nation. He is forbidden and denied the right of association, and is therefore weak and sluggish. The Philippines is an organism whose cells seem to have no arterial system to irrigate it or nervous system to communicate its impressions; these cells must nevertheless yield their product, get it where they can; if they perish, let them perish. In the view of some this is expedient so that a colony may be a colony; perhaps they are right, but not to the effect that a colony may flourish.
Rizal’s dialectical approach may be traced to pressures of specific life-circumstances, especially his exile in Dapitan, the ordeals suffered by his mother and the whole clan in Calamba, and his own personal agonies as son and ilustrado. The scholastic education he received imbued him with lessons of the classical dialectics found in the preSocratic Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, up to the neoPlatonists, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. It was the natural science of the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly the discovery of differential and integral calculus (Newton), that led to the mathematical description of processes of motion and speculation on the unity of the infinite and the finite, the discrete and the continuous. In addition, the cosmological hypothesis of Kant and Laplace also demonstrated that nature enjoys a life in time, that nature evolves in history and has a history of its own.
In his studies in Europe, Rizal spontaneously absorbed the ideas of Kant, Fichte and Hegel: Kant’s theory of the antinomies of Reason, Fichte and Schelling’s idea of opposing and contradictory forces in the psyche and in all natural phenomena. In both the “Letter to the Young Women of Malolos” and the “Indolence” essays, Rizal diagnosed the multilayered contradictions found in ideas and attitudes. Unlike Hegel, however, who located changes and transformations in society and nature in the self-development of the concept, Rizal endeavored to incorporate the one-dimensional materialism of the French Enlightenment, in particular the French socialist Saint-Simon, in his elucidation of indolence as a collective symptom of a disorder tied to the form of organization of social relations. Such mutable forms manifest transitoriness, contingency and intelligible motion. Saint-Simon also designates given historical phenomena as integral to a concrete stage of historical development of specific formations. In Rizal’s careful delineation of the vicissitudes of “indolence,” for example, as it traversed stages of social process, and then to the conjunction of residual and emergent trends in the dominant structure of the colonial order, we perceive the influence of Saint-Simon’s principle of historical determination of the social field as an overdetermined articulation of various tendencies. In his inquiry into the Filipino character, Rizal attempted to undertake both a micro- and macro-analysis of confluent tendencies–residues of the declining past and embryonic forms of the emerging future, a double gesture of assigning responsibility and causality in the past in order to locate the agency for democratic change and mobilize popular energies for creating the future.
On the surface, “The Philippines a Century Hence” may be construed as an exercise in ordinary prediction–the term “prophecy” which connotes chiliastic or apocalyptic fulfillment I would like to reserve later on–based on a judicious accounting of the past. On one level, the essay is a simple exercise of trying to extrapolate from the evidence of past records and testimonies the future trajectory of the country. It is an attempt to gain knowledge of what is absent from what is present, of what must be from what has been. An innocent exercise? On the contrary. Far from being innocent, Rizal’s text tries to destroy the pretence of historiographic objectivity despite avowals of scientific veracity and allusions to 19th century evolutionism and environmental determinism (more pronounced in the “Indolence” article). In effect, the reader of signs here claims that any such stance or pose of naivete can be interpreted as a disguise of logocentric power.
In general then, this essay may be considered Rizal’s masterpiece of materialist dialectics in action. It is essentially a project to extrapolate from the play of contradictions betwen past and present the outline of the future. One can construe it as a conjunctural analysis between his second exile to Europe in February 1888 and the exile to Dapitan (1892-96). Critique and praxis combine to yield revolutionary ethics for the vanguard of the ilustrado stratum. This ethics is premised on the principle that there is constant ineluctable change in the world around us, shifts from quantitative increase to qualitative transmutations, so that by a negation of previous stages of development, there is a sublation of the past–both cancellation of some aspects and preservation of others–and elevation of the rest into a higher stage. In short, there is no repetition or simple cyclical return of the same. In the first section of the essay, Rizal enunciates this cardinal axiom: “When there is in nature no fixed condition, how much less must there be in the life of a people, a being endowed with mobility and movement!” But motion in history is not arbitrary or merely contingent; it proceeds via the working out of contradictions, through what Lenin calls “the law of the unity and struggle of opposites,” which is the motive force in the unfolding of the potential of the productive forces and the human “species-being” (as delineated by Marx in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts).
We first need to reckon with what can be deemed the “prehistory” of the people. Rizal summarizes the past for Filipinos after the first few decades: the country “was depopulated, impoverished and retarded–caught in their metamorphosis without confidence in their past, without faith in their present and with no fond hope of the years to come.” This is a narrative of obsolescence and decay, the disintegration of the organic spirit of the community. But from this “ethical abasement” arises a contrary movement: from this pole of the negation proceeds “sure salvation. Some dying persons are restored to health by a heroic remedy.” Evidently the logic of homeopathic medicine shows its influence here. From this nadir of self-negation and subjection springs a new unprecedented antithetical impulse: the will of the colonized subject “to study himself and to realize his misfortune.” Abuses and oppression breed the flame of revolt, of sedition. Even “fear and confusion” contribute to fueling the fire of resistance.
Rizal posits the vicissitudes of historical necessity as an anchoring point of departure for inferring what will happen next. He demarcates the arena for Spain fighting to recover the natives’ trust, for regaining the “ethical forces.” In the second section, Rizal compares the Philippines three centuries ago to the present, when “the masks have fallen.” Demystification, it seems, transpires when the time is ripe. So long as the Malays have preserved their “sensitive self-love,” they will expend energies and sacrifice everything for the sake of an aspiration or a conceit. At this juncture, Rizal envisages the possibility of a popular revolt: “The batteries are gradually becoming charged and if the prudence of the government does not provide an outlet for the currents that are accumulating, some day the sparks will be generated.” It seems the machine of history operates without consulting anyone, following a scheme ordained in the totality that Spinoza calls Nature.
In the past, Rizal observes, insurrections were localized and were not based “on a need of the whole race.” Rizal inquires: “But what if the movement springs from the people themselves and based its causes upon their woes?” A new element has been introduced: “the spirit of the nation has been aroused and a common misfortune, a common debasement has united all the inhabitants of the Islands.” Advanced technology of communication has now made inhabitants capable of apprehending the commonalty of their sufferings and struggles (Rizal anticipates here the recently proposed theory of the nation as an “imagined community” a hundred years earlier). Not even poverty can arrest these changes which require more liberty. The “peaceful domination and tranquil suzerainty” that Spain seems to be achieving with technological progress is challenged by “ethical” imperatives “far more powerful and transcendental.” Here the text engenders a cathexis that motivates the decisive swerve of expression:
Orientals and Malays, in particular, are sensitive people: delicacy of sentiment is predominant with them. Even now, in spite of contact with the Occidental nations, who have ideas different from his, we see the Malayan Filipino sacrifice everything–liberty, ease, welfare, name for the sake of an aspiration or a conceit sometimes scientific, or of some other nature, but at the least word which wounds his self-love he forgets all his sacrifices, the labor expended, to treasure in his memory and never forget the slight he thinks he has received.
Is this characterological notion of “delicacy of sentiment” associated with “self-love” an inborn or acquired trait? It now appears that this peculiar “structure of feeling” in the native offers the raw material, the fabula, to the plot of history where character is born: “The terrible lessons and the hard teachings that these conflicts will have afforded the Filipinos will operate to improve and strengthen their ethical nature.” Not equivalent to pathos, ethos springs from intention and its realization in conflict, in the collision of will and circumstance, dream and objective reality. The tension of contradictory forces generates the vision of necessity Rizal calls “fate”: “In short, then, the advancement and ethical progress of the Philippines are inevitable, are decreed by fate…. For new men, a new social order.” The aphorism bears repeating: “For new human beings, a new social order.” This principle explodes the fatalism proverbially ascribed to the bahala-na-loving Filipinos.
The third section of Rizal’s discourse explores the possibility of peaceful reforms emanating from the upper classes–a wish-fulfillment that’s quickly aborted. Could it be a mode of sublimating a desire to equal if not surpass the master that is the secret desire, the fixation of ressentiment, of the bondsman? Rizal replies to critics who might accuse him of utopianism: “Yet civilization has left the country of Utopia [invented by St. Thomas More] far behind, the human will and conscience have worked greater miracles, have abolished slavery and the death penalty for adultery–things impossible for even Utopia itself!” Rizal entertains the possibility that peaceful reforms will not materialize, that violence will suppress the cries for reform, when he urges his readers not to turn away in horror but, as though descending into Hades, forge on to “sound the terrible mysteries of the abyss.” The figure of Virgil here who guides him is none other than the association of propagandistas and their reformist partisans who have exposed themselves to the danger of state violence.
When Rizal, in the fourth and concluding section, predicts the eventual independence of the islands–this ultimate schism indeed becomes the content of a prefigurative vision, the impulse of a self-fulfilling prophecy–he sketches a typology of 19th century colonial politics predicated on the view that an equilibrium of the division of the planet would be reached then. It assumes that even the United States, given her anti-colonial genesis, would be prevented by the European powers from expansion into the Pacific. Rizal’s blindspots are obvious, his ignorance of the development of finance-capitalism (traced acutely by Lenin in his essay on Imperialism) glaring enough despite his recognition of the European partition of Africa in the 1870s. Moreover, Rizal seems also not to have drawn the correct lessons from the Mexican agitation for independence in the 1850s.
Despite these shortcomings, we find here the most eloquent and audacious part of Rizal’s prescient deciphering of the “signs of the times.” He predicts the coming of “the great American Republic” among other possible eventualities. Rizal is of course mistaken in thinking that the republican traditions of the United States would prevent their invasion and subsequent occupation of the islands. He is ignorant, or has forgotten, the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction, the rise of white supremacy and violence against people of color–a continuation of the genocide of the Indians, enslavement of Africans, and subjugation of the Mexicans. Before the advent of American power, Rizal invokes the physical sciences to forecast the independence of the country:
The existence of a foreign body within another endowed with strength and activity is contrary to all natural and ethical laws. Science teaches us that it is either assimilated, destroys the organism, is eliminated or becomes encysted…. Encystment of a conquering people is possible, for it signifies complete isolation, absolute inertia, debility in the conquering element. Encystment thus means the tomb of the foreign invader.
Rizal, however, is not fatalistic in the sense of believing that human agency is worthless or non-existent since–as I’ve already pointed out–Rizal cherished a species of romantic voluntarism that is an integral part of the activist idealism of the European Enlightenment. So he tries to conflate objective analysis, critique, and praxis into the following statement: “Necessity is the most powerful divinity the world knows, and necessity is the resultant of physical forces set in operation by ethical forces.” Even when Rizal registers the role of chance accidents in shaping the destiny of poeples, he warns us not to ascribe too much to accidence or happenstance: “for there is sometimes an imperceptible and incomprehensible logic in the workings of history” that governs peoples and states. Rizal may be justly acknowledged here as a practitioner of a holistic realism oriented toward critique and transformation. His scientific acumen and totalizing intellect bear affinities with the historical genius of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. He is therefore the real founder of our indigenous tradition of national-popular radicalism despite the objective class limits of his origin.
Rizal’s passionate plea for Spain to heed the grievances of six million Filipinos lest Filipinas tries to “redeem herself” appears like a deceptive closure. He may be trying to appease his Spanish audience. The whole burden and thrust of the discourse is that Spain has already lost the allegiance of the masses, that revolution is inevitable, and that the masses have finally entered the arena of world-history in challenging imperial power. What is my proof?
Here is the earlier passage that illustrates how materialist dialectics links realism with imagination, remembrance with desire, in something called “a memory of the future” (to use Ernst Bloch’s pregnant phrase). At this point Rizal has dismissed the United States and now speculates on the advent of “new men” coincident with the “new social order” about to be established. He launches forth to inaugurate it in a lyrical paean to renewal, progress, and harmony between humanity and nature. We find strands of thought from Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Marx embedded in this palimpsest:
Very likely the Philippines will defend with inexpressible valor the liberty secured at the price of so much blood and sacrifice. With the new men that will spring from their soil and with the recollection of their past, they will perhaps strive to enter freely upon the wide road of progress, and all will labor together to strengthen their fatherland, both internally and externally, with the same enthusiasm, with which a youth falls again to tilling the land of his ancestors so long wasted and abandoned through the neglect of those who have withheld it from him. Then the mines will be made to give up their gold for relieving distress, iron for weapons, copper, lead, and coal. Perhaps the country will revive the maritime and mercantile life for which the islanders are fitted by their nature, ability, and instincts, and once more free, like the bird that leaves its cage, like the flower that unfolds to the air, will recover the pristine virtues that are gradually dying out and will again become addicted to peace–cheerful, happy, joyous, hospitable and daring.
After this visionary glimpse of a liberated future, an affirmation of a genuinely separatist goal, Rizal qualifies the scenario with the possibility that “remote and insignificant causes” (for example, “the great American Republic” dreaming of foreign possession or an accident of nature sublimated in history) may foil such destiny. But Rizal nonetheless asserts that “it is not well to trust to accident, for there is sometimes an imperceptible and incomprehensible logic in the workings of history” to which governments and people are subject. Retrospective rationalization? Or shade of Hegel eavesdropping? In spite of this faith in a hidden historical logic, Rizal concludes with a last-ditch entreaty: that Spain grant Filipinos their rights, or else face the necessity of a people redeeming themselves by violence, creating themselves in the process as new world-historical subjects. The apostrophe to Spain ends with questions that rhetorically construct the image of the bloodsucking, barbaric exploiter and executioner which has already been unmasked in Rizal’s review of the past in the first two sections.
We perceive at this juncture the emergence of an aporia, an resolved dilemma. While Rizal’s project extrapolates the peaceful assimilation of the islands despite “three centuries of brutalization and obscurantism,” in the same breath he argues that “the advancement and ethical progress of the Philippines are inevitable, are decreed by fate.” Facticity (the past) and desire (the future) collide here, overdetermined by filial, patriarchal ideology. Further than this boundary, liberal thought (as exemplified by the prudential and calculating sensibility in Rizal) is unable to proceed.
Everyone concurs with the conventional view of Rizal as an unreconstructed assimilationist, a reformist even up to the time of his trial and execution. Quotations can be adduced to provide a convincing rationale for that received opinion. This essay endeavors to qualify Rizal’s reputed assimilationism.
It might be instructive to note that Rizal points out two alternatives facing the people: the Philippines “will remain under Spanish domination but with more law and greater liberty, or they will declare themselves independent after steeping themselves and the mother country in blood.” Faced with the prospect of such “violent and fatal” political transformation “if it proceeds from the ranks of the people,” Rizal believes that the necessary change will be “peaceful and fruitful if it emanates from the upper classes.” The theme of “reforms from above” versus plebeian revolt insinuates an uneasy dualism in place of dialectical synthesis. While Rizal demands not just palliative reform, the “plasters and salves of a physician,” but radical modes of change to solve “evils that must be cured radically,” his conviction ultimately rests on the minimal expectation that “the honesty and rectitude of some governors” would insure the successful implementation of liberal reforms. This somewhat naive trust in the privileged few makes one wonder what Rizal learned from his being beaten up by a lieutenant of the Civil Guard, from his own earlier recitation of a “regime of continual terror and uncertainty” unrelieved by the presence of virtuous officials who have some respect for the honor of their office, not to mention the rights and dignity of the people.
What is happening here is typical of Rizal’s conduct and thinking as a member of the ilustrado fraction of the principalia. Precarious and vacillating, his position cannot be understood without tracing the alignment of political forces and tendencies in the specific conjunctures of his life, particularly in the context of his identification of the masses as the gravedigger of colonial despotism. We might suggest here that there are positive and negative qualities, internal contradictions, to the ilustrado sensibility. Its weakness is beyond dispute: above all, it cannot represent the emergent organic unity of the masses and its counterhegemonic program. It seeks to exercise the power of the patriarchal entrepreneur from its base in the merchant or rich peasant class. Its strength derives from its challenge to the colonial state and the church apparatus. In doing so, it is able to grasp two insights of countervailing import: first, the historical fact of change in society as intimated by the assertion: “When there is in nature no fixed condition, how much less must there be in the life of a people, being endowed with mobility and movement.” And second, the vision of “racial” integrity: “History does not record in its annals any lasting domination exercised by one people over another, of different races, of diverse usages and customs, of opposite and divergent ideals.” This capacity to conceive of destiny as an outcome of the mutual conditioning of past and future, of memory and hope, premised on praxis (the fusion of consciousness and collective action), is what enables Rizal to apprehend the crisis of community instanced by the people’s “ethical abasement,” followed by the awakening of this “lethargic spirit” to life when his “sensitiveness, the chief trait of the native,” is provoked. In the first section, as we’ve seen, the text establishes death as the precondition for the resurrection; out of degradation, the flame of the spirit is stirred into life by those “abuses and stupid endeavors.” A dialectical process in which the ethical practice of the multitude–the productive dynamic of desires and passions working out their contradictions–engenders the historical agent of change.
A conversion, something unexpected, then occurs. After building his case for Filipino representation in the Cortes and the need for freedom of the press, Rizal betrays his class bias, the narrow corporative blindness inherent in ilustrado metaphysics: “We are not sure that we serve the true interests of our country by asking for representatives. We know that the lack of enlightenment, the indolence, the egotism, of our fellow countrymen, and the boldness, the cunning and the powerful methods of those who wish their obscurantism, may convert reform into a harmful instrument.” He loses faith in the people he wants to enlighten: “If after so just as well as necessary a measure has been introduced, the Filipino people are so stupid and weak that they are treacherous to their own interests, then let the responsibility fall upon them, let them suffer all consequences.” Rizal even suggests that the representatives to the Cortes (the privileged minority) may find themselves “hostages” so that popular discontent may be effectively pacified. These reforms are not utopian, Rizal contends, because “the human will and conscience have worked greater miracles, have abolished slavery and the dread penalty for adultery–things impossible for even Utopia itself!”
In that last quote, we perceive the humanist and rationalist kernel vitiating Rizal’s conviction that an “insurrection” of a popular character is required “based on a need of the whole race” for human rights and justice. He is not only foregrounding the repression of “the classes that suffer and think,” although he notes that modern means of travel, communication, and exchange are integrating the otherwise atomized social body: “A numerous enlightened class now exists within and without the islands,” now only in the brain, as it were, but in a few years constituting “the whole nervous system.” Rizal envisions the inevitable: “Would not a bloody chasm yawn between victors and vanquished and might not the latter with time and experience become equal in strength, since they are superior in numbers to their dominators?…But what if the movement springs from the people themselves and based its causes upon their woes?”
Throughout this conflicted text, the conscious thematic drive for the reconciliation of warring parties encounters a series of blockages that inheres in any recuperative project. This plot of resistance opens up the space for the “political unconscious” in Rizal’s anticipatory enterprise. The linear thrust of the narrative has been aborted several times before in its quest for a pacific compromise: the subordination of the natives to the paternal authority of Spain. “Filipinas” and her children suffer the loss or absence of patriarchal solicitude, the pastoral concern, which this simultaneously retrospective and prospective appeal seeks to reinstate. Yet, invoking Machiavelli but subsequently refuting him in the name of “stern necessity and interests” that predominate in the arena of political struggle, Rizal marginalizes if not completely eradicates the need for patriarchal law.
Subsumed within the concept of “necessity,” the text constantly subverts the thematic goal of family and the feudal hierarchy: “Necessity is the most powerful divinity the world knows, and necessity is the resultant of physical forces set in operation by ethical forces.” Here Rizal approximates the passional and corporeal logic of the mass constitution of democracy first broached by Spinoza in his Political Treatise.
Having constructed his plot of crisis and degeneration in the first installment of his article, Rizal becomes the vehicle of the repetition compulsion. I refer here to the drive for mastery over death, the unleashing of the will to communal gratification, the release of mobility and movement (in Spinoza’s terminology, conatus, expanded to encompass a multitude of bodies) which have been frozen by three centuries of colonial domination. After cataloguing all the possible ways of brutalizing and paralyzing the consciousness of the people, Rizal posits a dialectical turnabout in the second section: “There now exists a factor which was formerly lacking–the spirit of the nation has been aroused and a common misfortune, a common debasement has united all the inhabitants of the Islands.” Predicated on a common experience, the birth of a national consciousness is the rupture that cannot be prevented. “Let us see what history says; uprisings and revolutions have always occurred in countries tyrannized over, in countries where human thought and the human heart have been forced to remain silent.” So then, will the demand for a voice in the Cortes and for the liberty of expression suffice to purge this drive for repetition of the primordial freedom and independence the natives enjoyed before the conquest?
The narrative dictates now its semiotic necessity under the pretext of a historical exigency that subtends it, a pretext easily grasped as the will to affirm an ethical universal or a categorical imperative that ultimately has to give way to the pleasure-principle incarnate in revolution:
….Howsoever much the Filipinos owe Spain, they cannot be required to forego their redemption, to have their liberal and enlightened sons wander about in exile from their native land, the rudest aspirations stifled in its atmosphere, the peaceful inhabitants living in constant alarm, with the fortune of the two peoples dependent upon the whim of one man. Spain cannot claim, not even in the name of God himself, that six million people should be brutalized, exploited and oppressed, denied light and the rights inherent to a human being and then heap upon them slights and insults. There is no claim of gratitude that can excuse, there is not enough power in the world to justify the offenses against the liberty of the individual, against the sanctity of the home, against the laws, against peace and honor, offenses that are committed there daily. There is no divinity that can proclaim the sacrifice of our dearest affections, the sacrifice of the family, the sacrileges and wrongs that are committed by persons who have the name of God on their lips. No one can require an impossibility of the Filipino people. The noble Spanish people, so jealous of its rights and liberties, cannot bid the Filipinos to renounce theirs. A people that prides itself on the glories of its past cannot ask another, trained by it, to accept abjection and dishonor its own name!
Caught in the imaginary sphere where the ilustrado seeks to justify its existence and legimitize its ambition to rule by analogy with the master–recall Hegel’s phenomenology of lord and bondsman–the subject protesting this injury to her honor belongs to the party of peace and rational debate. She is quick to establish her identity with the addressee because they share the same code of amor propio, of honor and family pride: the patriarchal law of the symbolic order. But at the same time, it accepts vulnerability and recognizes that its failure will not be the nation’s downfall since “numerous tendencies will rush to occupy the places that we leave vacant.”
Rizal sounds the ilustrado’s warning, the tone of premonition becoming a signal of its impending obsolescence: “If what we desire is not realized….” The narrative cannot postpone anymore the end through detours of pseudo-rational pleas and argument; the narrator is now compelled to enunciate the figure of a descent into the underworld as the insignia of prophecy, the intervention of charisma: “…let us frankly descend into the abyss and sound its terrible mysteries.” What are these mysteries but the destruction of one people by another, the inexorable overthrow of the colonizer and the redemption of the oppressed? The future springs from bloodletting, carnage, a fight to the death. Even death guarantees by accident the joy of the future: “a cross on Calvary and a just man nailed thereon changed the ethics of half the human race, and yet before Christ, how many just men wrongly perished and how many crosses were raised on that hill! The death of the just sanctified his work and made his teachings unanswerable.” But such an accident is easily reconciled with the “imperceptible and incomprehensible logic in the workings of history” after which the last paragraph, a rhetorical plea or prayer to Spain that the ilustrado class must not be sacrificed, becomes a pathetic anti-climax.
While this essay purports to cast the horoscope of the future for the islands, to decipher the “destiny of a people” from the traces and marks of the past and present, the process of summing up history leads to an ethical judgment: “delicacy of sentiment,” self-love, and a people’s pride in the past will inform necessity and determine the operations of fate. The future heralds a return of the repressed. What is the lesson of this diagnostic appraisal of the past, a catechism of symptoms? The narrative insists: “So we repeat and we shall always repeat, while there is time, that it is better to anticipate the wishes of a people rather than to yield to force.” Acknowledging ominously the repetition compulsion in the distribution of bodies and their aggregation, the narrative dissolves into a gesture of a dialogue that never quite materializes. A monologue takes over: “Spain, must we someday tell Filipinas that thou hast no ear for woes and that if she wishes to be saved, she must redeem herself?” Not a submission to the castration threat but an injunction to slay the father is what this discourse expresses, sacrificing the dream of the ilustrado to be the rightful surrogate.
We witness then a discourse of class suicide and “racial” self-emancipation exhibiting its process of birth and elaboration. We follow Rizal performing a magical ritual of exorcising the pettybourgeois hubris by its assimilation not with the civilizing patriarch–the symbolic order has disintegrated into a mockery of its former self, now narcissistically self-deluded–but with the Oriental and Malay race. Self-love returns to execute vengeance on the usurper. Wishing that Spain will change to its former chivalric self–an impossibility because “new men” now require “a new social order,” Rizal is forced to frustrate that wish when he accumulates the massive testimony of uninterrupted injustice and oppression. The Philippines “will remain Spanish if they enter upon the life of law and civilization” characterized by respect for human rights. But such respect is denied under the “pretext of the integrity of the fatherland and the safety of the state.” In sum, by the ruse of a self-deconstructing procedure, Rizal exposes the deadly contradictions, the paradox and irony, integral to a reformist conscience that dare claim history and truth on its side. What the text dramatizes is the self-negation of reformism and the assimilationist wish. That wish undergoes encystment in the articulation of its future and thus, in the text’s own formulation, “signifies the tomb of the foreign invader.”
Amid the equilibrium of world-powers hovering over the Philippines at the turn of the century (we find ourselves in an analogous position), the stasis of anticipation and reversal is disturbed by the discovery of a new subjectivity looming in the horizon. What Rizal invents here is the spectacle of a revolutionary people that has secured their independence “after heroic and stubborn conflicts” frightening enough to repel other European invaders reluctant to suffer a fate similar to Spain’s defeat.This passage is unsurpassed for its prophetic edge, its apostrophe to a future still in the womb of the past and the entrails of the present, its projection of a hegemony that constitutes precisely the substance of what later became the Katipunan (the revolutionary people’s organization that initiated the insurrection against Spain), and later on became sedimented in all the popular-democratic institutions of our people–from Sakay’s resistance to the Huks to the New People’s Army and other contemporary insurgents. It is no longer valid to counterpose Bonifacio to Rizal: in their difference and similarity, they are constitutive and integral parts of our revolutionary nationalist heritage.
What then are the lessons to be gained from studying Rizal’s signifying practice embodied in these essays? Let me provide the outline of an answer by oversimplifying. I cite first the alleged confession Rizal made to General Jose Alejandrino:
I regret having killed Elias instead of Crisostomo Ibarra; but when I wrote the Noli, my health was badly broken and I never thought that I would be able to write its sequel and speak of a revolution. Otherwise I would have preserved the life of Elias, who was a noble character, patriotic, self-denying and disinterested–necessary qualities in a man who leads a revolution–whereas Crisostomo Ibarra was an egoist who only decided to provoke the rebellion when he was hurt in his interests, his person, his loves and all the other things he held sacred. With men like him, success cannot be expected in their undertakings (The Price of Freedom, Manila, 1987, pp. 3-4)
In the scheme of the narrative of Rizal’s two novels, Ibarra and Elias constitute the polar forces that unfold the dialectic of freedom–each individual seeks its own interest but ultimately subserves the “ruse of Reason” in history. This Hegelian “cunning of Reason” (immanent in the ironic plots of his two novels) haunts Rizal’s discourse and now reveals its worldly incarnation as the collective project of popular emancipation and national liberation.
Overall, Rizal’s grasp of social contradictions as represented by classes and groups, his comprehension of the struggle and unity of opposing forces, their genealogy and their progression into higher forms of social motion–that is what is exemplary, not any particular judgment or interpretation or dated inferences he made. His texts in themselves embody multiple contradictions that reflect the clash of heterogeneous forces that shaped the configuration of his life. But in their strategy of argumentation, their feel for the process of change, the force of the rhetorical “structures of feeling” and their prophetic reach as well as pragmatic potential, Rizal’s essays–I have only concentrated on the ones most often read and studied by millions of Filipino youth–can serve as weapons for mass conscientization and self-organizing of popular-democratic agencies, for understanding the working of power/knowledge in the political terrain. They can serve as tools for the comprehension of the laws of motion of social reality and the revolutionary transformation of our everyday lives. We can ask nothing more valuable than this at this impasse in our national odyssey.
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—. 1964. “The Treatment of the Bewitched.” In Miscellanous
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—. 1984. “The Discourse of the Other: A Reading of Rizal’s
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