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The Novels Of Jose Rizal

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Autor: reviewessays 08 February 2011

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Rizal, for all the agitation his writings produced, never called for outright revolt against the Spanish colonizers. On the contrary, his explicit statements never ceased to sustain the hope that Spain would allow the Philippines the freedom and means to develop its intellectual and material resources within a colonial partnership. A Philippine revolution, in Rizal's view, would be unsuccessful and yet inevitable, should Spain continue to delay in granting the kind of reform that would ensure security, freedom, dignity and education for the Filipinos. If a revolutionary, then, Rizal remained a cautious one to the end of his brief life. Regardless of these reservations on Rizal's part, the Judge Advocate General Pe=F1a, charged with passing the death sentence on Rizal, called him el Verbo del Filibusterismo, meaning, according to the Philippine usage of the time, the "word of insurrectionism" or revolutionary separatism. That Pe=F1a thus identified Rizal as an exponent and leader of the separatists. And although Rizal had discouraged insurrection, his words would later arouse the militant Katipunan ("patriots' league," literally "confederation"), led by Andr=E9s Bonifacio, to take up arms in a violent confrontation that might have forced the departure of the Spanish from the Philippines.

Rizal, to judge from his writing, intended no such effect in his readers; his correspondence reveals why prudence had tempered his indignation against colonial misrule. In a letter written to Dr. P=EDo Valenzuela from his exile in Dapit=E1n in June 1896, the year of his death, Jos=E9 Rizal expressed his views on Philippine revolution in response to Valenzuela's news that an uprising was imminent. Rizal wrote:

That I do not approve. A revolution without arms should not be started against an armed nation. Its consequences will be fatal and disastrous to that country. The Filipinos will necessarily have to lose owing to lack of arms. The Spaniards, once conquerors, will annihilate the Filipinos who love their country, will employ all means to prevent the intellectual, moral and material progress of the conquered people who, sooner or later, will have to start a new revolution.

In the same letter to Valenzuela, Rizal cites the Cuban revolution of 1868 as a precedent to current events in the Philippines, and he alludes to the tremendous costs of the second and third Cuban struggles as well.=20 Although in the right, a Philippine revolution, like the Cuban revolutions of the mid- nineteenth century, would simply fail. It was practical considerations, not inflexible principle, that moved Rizal to oppose revolution while doing his part to start up the anti- colonial resistance movement in Asia.

One can se the same sort of pragmatic idealism (the phrase is Gandhi's) worked out in Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. In the novels themselves, Rizal's mode of satire and social criticism puts in question the legitimacy of Spanish domination and yet displays some complexities that challenge the traditional documentalist, propagandist interpretation that his works have elicited to this point. Those novels bear out the particular ambivalence in Rizal's viewpoint -- an ambivalence, I would stress, not chosen by temperament but imposed by sociohistorical conditions. Rather than to unfold only a verisimile depiction of colonial injustices, the novels deploy a strategy of evocation, indeterminacy and self-ironizing metafiction, problematizing the narrative of Philippine revolution by constructing self- referential narratives implicitly critical of their own propositions and hypotheses.=20 This would be the logical path, given that the substance of nationalist resistance, according to Rizal's preface to El Filibusterismo, is itself fictional. In that preface addressed "Al Pueblo Filipino y su Gobierno," which was suppressed in the first edition but appeared in subsequent editions, Rizal states, "Tantas veces se nos ha amedrentado con el fantasma del Filibusterismo que, de mero recurso de aya, ha llegado a ser un ente positivo y real, cuyo solo nombre (al quitarnos la serenidad) nos hace cometer los mayores desaciertos." Rizal proposes to examine the reality of that ghost and this ruse: mirages that have taken on substance in the minds of the Spanish gobernadorcillos and the Filipinos alike.=20 The "Advertencia" that follows the preface of El Filibusterismoindeed warns that the author has "disfigured his characters" in order to avoid making them "the typical photographs" that were found in his first novel. To complete this strange apparatus of framing the narrative proper, an epigraph credited to Ferdinand Blumentritt, Rizal's Austrian mentor, ambiguously remarks:

Facilmente se puede suponer que un filibustero ha hechizado en secreto =E1 la liga de los fraileros y retr=F3grados para que, siguiendo inconscientes sus inspiraciones, favorezcan y fomenten aquella pol=EDtica que s=F3lo ambiciona un fin : estender las ideas del filibusterismo por todo el pa=EDs y convencer al =FAltimo filipino de que no existe otra salvacion fuera de la separaci=F3n de la Madre-Patria. (my emphases)

By attributing the idea of separatism to only a supposed filibustero, his inspirations followed unconsciously by Filipinos -- and by using subjunctives to emphasize the hypothetical status of that inspiration -- Blumentritt reinforces from a distance the notion of revolution without openly espousing it or assigning it unequivocally as a thesis to Rizal's novel.

Alerted by these unusual framing devices, one can verify that a shift in representational strategies has occurred in the transition from the first novel to the second, which the Filipinos refer to affectionately by the respective nicknames Noli and Fili. The shift involves a changing attitude toward language: whereas the Noli is more classically "transparent" and referential with relation to the social reality it portrays, the Fili sustains a more "analogical" and explicitly fiction-based relation to a reality it "disfigures." Such considerations of literariness suggest that both texts would lend themselves to alternative readings to become not so much reflections of reality but provocations for the reader to interpret that reality in a different manner. In this light, it becomes easier to understand that Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo present anti- colonialist "expos=E9s" conditioned by a painful awareness of historical contingency -- of the formidable colonial power already poised to smother any sign of resistance. Such awareness matches a complex narrative form attentive to the contradictions of the Philippine colonial situation. In the framework of these considerations, my reading of Rizal's Noli and Fili will foreground the cautious critique and sophisticated subversion worked out in their respective strategies.

In succinct historical overview, Benedict Anderson analyzes the specific factors that made the Philippines a uniquely complex case of Spanish domination. Spain would colonize the Philippines as the last among its overseas acquisitions, conquering its tribes in 1560 at the peak of Felipe II's power. Early on in the Hispanic period, the class of Chinese mestizos (from which Coraz=F3n Aquino's family, the Cojuangcos, claim descent) predominated the Philippine economy by the power of their large landholdings, trade and political influence. But largely due to the lack of mineral resources in the islands, Spain preferred to concentrate its trading efforts in Europe and the Americas. Spain was indeed drawn to China for the commercial opportunities it promised, and not for the little mineral weath it seemed to offered. With the Philippines considered in this period as an extension of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the so-called "galleon trade" departing from Acapulco turned Manila into a commercial entrep=F4t where Chinese silks and porcelain were traded for Mexican gold. The lack of both mineral wealth and hacienda-based agriculture enticed few Spanish to immigrate to the islands. This meant that the Spanish who did arrive concentrated in Manila and often participated in massive exploitation of the so-called indio population. Not conquistadores or hacendados but the missionary priests would become the major ruling group in the Philippines, and they would later establish a powerful frailocracy characterized by an unwieldy and insensitive bureaucratic apparatus.

The frailocracy indeed determined the structure of the Philippine economy and culture. The domination of the clergy entailed the development of agricultural properties in ecclesiastical hands, a situation promoted by governor Jos=E9 Basco y Vargas (1777-1787) under Carlos III. (These agricultural conglomerates, never family holdings, were later to be expropriated by the Americans and would in more recent history fall into the hand of families like the Marcoses and the Aquinos.) As Anderson observes, "The Philippines thus never had a substantial criollo class" that would have supported a revolution for independence. Also contributing to Philippine dependency, the priestly caste carried out its campaign to Christianize the Philippines, not in Castillian, as was the case in Hispanic America, but in the myriad of local languages spoken in the islands. This starting condition ensured that Spanish would never become the Philippine lingua franca as in other lands, such that the pre-existing heterogeneity of languages proved a major obstacle to national unity (Anderson 6).

Rizal's early writings express a concern to shore up, against the opprobrium of colonial dominion, the self-esteem and prestige of an indigenous Philippine culture. In annotating the introduction to Morga's Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, to which he wrote an introduction, Rizal reinforced the image of complexity and sophistication that comes across in Morga's pre- Magellanic history. Even earlier, in a poem titled "A la Juventud Filipina," which he wrote in 1879 at the age of 18, Rizal approved the idea of a Philippine identity different from that of Spain, but there he also acknowledges the the benefits that mother country had bestowed on the Philippines. In the nine months following June 1888, in the period during which he was copying and annotating Morga's Sucesos in the British Museum Rizal wrote his two influential novels. Through that period, Rizal's critique never openly diverted from reformist line: while satirizing the Spanish clerics he never renounced Catholicism and even expressed skepticism toward the positivist religion of science and progress.

The two novels, along with other writings, called not for revolution but for education and development with the help of Spain, the ends to which he dedicated the peaceful Liga Filipina, which he founded in Tondo in 1892 and directed. The membership of the Liga was divided between the reformist ilustrados or aristocrats on the one side, and the militant compromisarios, including Bonifacio, preparing for the nationalist fight on the other side. This division doomed the Liga to an early dissolution. The Katipunan was founded in the same year and offered the direction of the revolution to Rizal, which he turned down. Yet having written the prohibited Noli, the novel that "was to shake the foundations of Spanish power in the Philippines," Rizal was arrested on the charge, drawn up by the Spanish Governor General, of "'anti-religious and anti-patriot agitation.'" Andr=E9s Bonifacio, with the cry of "Balintawak!" in Cavite, began the insurrection on August 19, 1896, and declared the Philippine Republic on August 21.

Mahajani avers that Rizal's two subversive novels, together with the Kalayaan "propaganda organ" printed by the Katipunan, won many adherents to the Katipunan cause (64-65). Filipino readers certainly recognized the novels' references and allusions to the abuses of the Dominican friars: their refusal to promote Spanish language instruction, their expropriations of land, their suppressions of student campaigns, their opposition to the native priests, their complicity with violence perpetrated by the Guardia Civil. Indeed, by satirizing the actions of the abusive friar class in a country that had become a "missionaries' empire," Rizal expressed the kind of nationalist outrage that in others would light the fires of armed rebellion: not only did Andr=E9s Bonifacio lead the first rebellions, but Emilio Aguinaldo instigated revolts by approximately 250,000 members of the Katipunan in Cavite. The suppression of the Katipunan and other insurrectionary movements at the close of the century included the killing of some two hundreds Filipinos, and the imprisonment and torture of hundreds more.

The military judge pronounced Rizal's death sentence characterizing the doctor-novelist as "'the principal organizer and living soul of the insurrection.'" Once again reason, the logic and the law overlook the fundamental ambiguity of the political position such as it could be inferred from Rizal's writings. Jos=E9 Alejandrino formulated Rizal's ambivalence in these words:

I will never head a revolution that is preposterous and has no probability of success, because I do not like to saddle my conscience with reckless and fruitless bloodshed; but whoever may head a revolution in the Philippines will have me at his side.

Yet Rizal's opposition to revolution indeed runs against the radical uses "made" of those novels. His occasional apologies for Spain at the same time go against the grain of his own anti- colonial denunciations and those uttered by his central characters. The contradiction indicates that Rizal faced the challenge of having to build a certain interpretive open- endedness in those polemical, denunciatory texts. They therefore present doubly-valenced arguments directed against Spanish rule; they also invite misreading and misinterpretation in the positive senses of the terms. This complexity can be explained, I would propose, through a concept of narrative misdirection, or ruses.

A ruse in ordinary speech is an artifice or action intended to mislead; the word originates from the Middle English word derived from the Old French ruser, meaning to detour a hunted game animal into a trap.=20 Narrative ruses could be the devices by which an author strives protect his meaning, and/or himself, from the violence of or consequent to interpretation. In a colonial situation, artifice allows what the author says and means to make its way past the censors of the regime and to reach, empower and redirect, by indirection, its intended readership.=20 Allegory is one means by which social critique disguises itself as innocuous fiction. Saying one thing and clearly meaning another, Rizal aptly takes up the "nursemaid's ruse" of filibusterismo and turns it into the vehicle for his complex political statement. Such narrative ruses, in addition to dissembling an anti-authoritarian meaning, also function in problematizing a many-sided, indeterminate historical moment, in which the "truth" of a fiction must be deferred to or "written up" by future historical action and interpretation.

Rizal's prose fiction and poetry, filled with political or patriotic references, are not of course political screeds but literature, susceptible to the free-play and aesthetic distance characteristic of literary art. The criticism in Rizal's novels takes the form of polyphonic dialogism, an orchestration of viewpoints and forms of speech, rather than univocal denunciation or pronouncement. This does not necessarily mean that narrative can or should say everything and anything without proposing a definite thesis; at the same time that they oppose viewpoints in mutual dialogue, Rizal's novels fulfill Jameson's description of third world texts as "national allegories, even when, or . . . particularly when their forms develop out of essentially Western machineries of representation, such as the novel" (141). Using the novelistic machinery, Rizal incorporates an allegory that evokes the forms of Philippine culture that, so narratized, becomes self-referential and ironizing, as when the narrator at the beginning of the Fili mocks his own comparison of the steamship Tabo, boarded as it is with the diverse classes and races of Philippine society on levels corresponding to their rank, as a "ship of state" (1). Earlier, in the Noli, the philosopher Tasio had told colonial history after a fashion, disguising it as a strangely pre-Borgesian "historia del Purgatorio" (75). Rizal's reader, in complicity with Rizal's narrator(s), not only grasps the code of cultural reference but also the implicit instructions for the construction of the anti- colonial signified. In remarking the ruses in Rizal's novels I am arguing for their pragmatic modernity or post-modernity. The Noli and the Fili, credited with sparking the exploding-imploding revolution that saw the Philippines delivered into the hands of a second colonizing power, were more ambivalent, undecidable works of literature than the encomiastic-patriotic tradition has acknowledged heretofore. In eschewing a plain, unequivocal thesis, Rizal in his post-coloniality is indeed committed to the well-being of the Philippines but to no definite political campaign: one could argue that, after all, no viable road to Philippine nationhood existed in Rizal's time. Rather than to call ingenuously for revolution, then, Rizal chooses the metafictional path: only in and through a fiction about insurrection in the Philippines does he call for a revolution that would become reality only in the event that the Spanish capitan=EDa does not reform the oppressive, violent system that his reader recognizes in fiction. In and through a fiction about insurrections and the aforementioned "ruse" of filibusterismo, Rizal furthermore explores the desperate consequences that would issue from such an uprising. The Spanish would crush it, and the United States is waiting in the wings to take their place anyway! Rizal's novels even suggest at times that some variation on colonialism would be acceptable in a less-than-perfect world, if it were to take the form of a truly beneficent, Christian patronage and not ruthless exploitation. These contradictory ideas must be inferred from texts in which multiple plots with their ideological implications conjoin and cross in a tangle emblematized by Rizal's baliti tree, the leafy Ficus indica that marks the site of narrative crossings and revelations. As Simoun describes it in the Fili for Basilio, the tree is "enorme, misterioso, venerable, formado de ra=EDces que sub=EDan y bajaban como otros tantos troncos entrelazados confusamente" (38). The entangled root-trunks of Rizal's stories, intertwined like the up-and-down roots of the baliti, suggest the alternate courses that Philippine history and its re-interpretation could take in the years ahead.