Writer, Hero, Myth, and Spirit: The Changing Image of JosÚ Rizal
by Smitha Lahiri, PhD. candidate, Department of Anthropology, Cornell University
Note: This article was accessed from Cornell University. (Cornell URL no longer active.)
Studying Rizal: From Course Work to Fieldwork
Encountering the novels of JosÚ Rizal in a country seminar taught by Ben Anderson during my first year at Cornell did more than anything else to draw me into the study of the Philippines. Wry, urbane, comically realist, and scathing in their moral and political commentary, Rizal's novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo have fascinated and eluded generations of scholarly readers since their first publication in Germany in the 1890s. Since that time, they have withstood waves of adulation, vilification, and dismissal, followed by nationalist reappropriation and finally canonization, while continuing to reward new readers with pleasure and abundant interpretive possibilities. Although Rizal is more renowned for his political writings and role as a public intellectual in the first wave of Philippine nationalism in the 1870s, I found myself far more interested in the voice of Rizal the novelist. More than Rizal's explicit polemics, it was the Noli's story of an intellectual-returned to the Philippines from overseas-pushed to radicalism by the corruption of Spanish rule in the Philippines, which demonstrated Rizal's keen social intelligence and command over the intellectual currents of his time. In the Noli and Fili (as the two novels are nicknamed), Rizal overtook his teachers and superiors. Writing in Spanish, he cast off the intellectual hegemony of Spain in the Philippines with every appearance of effortlessness.
My appreciation of these novels was shaped in large part by a number of Cornell teachers, alumni, and fellow students. First and foremost, Ben Anderson drew my attention to their subversive irony, evident in how the Noli indicts the colonial state system or "frailocracy" by ridiculing the self-serving friars and posturing gobernadorcillos who held power within it. He also pointed out Rizal's subtle yet powerful idealism in using fiction to give shape to his pluralistic idea of the Philippine nation-as Ben memorably put it, to "imagine it whole." Other important insights into Rizal came from Vicente Rafael's Contracting Colonialism (a book that was based on his Cornell history thesis). According to Rafael, the Noli both depicts how the friars maintained the colonial hierarchy by withholding access to Latin and Spanish from the vast majority of Filipinos and illustrates that Filipinos nonetheless managed to produce new and destabilizing meanings from the language and religion of their colonizers. But even as I absorbed these cele-bratory interpretations of Rizal as part of my course work, quite a different note was being sounded: my fellow student Carol Hau was already pointing out that despite the levity on their surfaces, Rizal's novels are a dark, even despairing meditation on the incompatibility of Enlightenment ideals of modernity with the Philippines, and a warning of the violence that might ensue from transplanting them there.
When I set off for the Philippines to conduct anthropological fieldwork, I did not expect new encounters with Rizal the novelist, since I planned to spend the bulk of my time outside university settings. In addition, I knew that in the Philippines, his novels had been subjected to "normalization" through reverence-inducing translations. This had the effect of blunting their immediacy and holding the reader at a distance from the world of the text-all part of the process of enshrining Rizal as a national hero whose worship was obligatory.1 Although my expectations proved correct, I was in fact constantly reminded of Rizal the novelist, since I found myself surrounded by the image of Rizal the national hero on movie billboards, TV advertisements, infomercials commemorating the centennial of the Philippines' independence from Spain, and book displays in the national bookstore. This Rizal jostled for face space with other heroes like Andres Bonifacio, but his dreamy good looks (accentuated by a wave of hair springing back from his youthful forehead and fixed forever in his most-often-reproduced portrait) gave him a distinct edge. Less prominent than the hero's image were his political writings and views, which were nevertheless also receiving attention from intellectuals and columnists.
While I had been fully prepared for the eclipse of Rizal the novelist by Rizal the hero, I simultaneously expected to encounter another aspect of the man: Rizal the myth. From my pre-fieldwork preparation and reading, I had learned that after Rizal's trial and execution for sedition in 1896 by the Spanish authorities, he came to be viewed in popular imagination as a Filipino Christ. Part of the doctrine of "Rizalista" societies that mushroomed in the twentieth-century Philippines was that at the proper moment, Rizal would be resurrected and reemerge from his hiding place deep inside Mt. Makiling, in his birthplace of Calamba, Laguna, to liberate the Filipino nation. Reynaldo Ileto (another Cornell alumnus) studied these legends and showed the association of Rizal with both Christ and with Bernardo Carpio, the culture-hero of Tagalog literary romance. It explained why the mythic Rizal came to be endowed with the characteristic powers of Filipino shamans: transformation of physical form at will, invincibility to bullets, and healing power.2
Prior to Ileto's work, popular veneration of Rizal was viewed rather ambivalently by historians as a form of patriotic nationalism distorted by superstition and credulity. Perhaps this view unconsciously mimicked the attitudes of the seventeenth-century Spanish chroniclers who were both appalled by the pagan religion of the Filipinos and reassured by its apparent monotheism. But I suspect that condescension was only part of it. Some historians probably viewed Rizal-veneration as a sign of a colonial mentality on the part of the masses, particularly when it came to light that Rizal's stature as the preeminent national hero had been partly the result of official promotion during the American period. Perhaps his elite credentials and urbanity made him more compatible with the objectives of U.S. colonialism than other contenders, such as the militant Andres Bonifacio.3 One counterresponse has been to attempt to demythify Rizal the hero and return to the man himself, or more precisely to the writings-on topics as diverse as pre-colonial Philippine history and epidemiology-through which he aimed to build a national consciousness. But ironically, the posthumous cults and legends about Rizal (which he would surely never have intended or desired) show that his death did even more to achieve this objective than his life's work.
But when I arrived in the Philippines in 1997, I learned that for the past couple of decades Rizalista churches with their charismatic leadership, prayer sessions, songs, and collective healing sessions invoking the curing power of Rizal have been in decline. While some have been disbanded, others have lost members due to internecine squabbles or failure to attract younger followers. This has sent older followers, in the words of one elderly Rizalista, "crawling into the woodwork." Accordingly, I put Rizal out of my mind altogether and settled down to begin research on pilgrimage and local identity on Mt. Banahaw, just south of the Rizalist heartland of Laguna. But before many months had passed, I stumbled across JosÚ Rizal in another guise that was not the novelist, the urban ilustrado, or the martyred Christ-figure. Instead, as pilgrims and healers recounted their mystical dream encounters with divinities and spirits, I began to hear more and more about Amang Doktor (Father-Doctor), a cantankerous spirit who appears to certain people as a wizened old man hunched over a walking stick. Although in appearance he is nothing like the handsome young man with the wave of hair over his forehead, according to my informants they are one and the same: this is Amang Doktor JosÚ Rizal. The spirit of the young patriot who was martyred at thirty-three has apparently grown old.
None of my informants who had met Amang Doktor had much familiarity with Rizal's writings or achievements as national hero beyond the basic contours of his life: his birth in Calamba, medical training in Europe, achievement of international renown, and finally, his execution by the Spanish. But if Amang Doktor's spirit did not appear to correspond directly to Rizal as writer or patriot, was he instead the mythic Rizal of the Rizalistas? In fact, the relationship between the myth of Rizal as Filipino savior and Amang Doktor the spirit was an ambiguous one. Like the former, Amang Doktor was not only a healer but a quasi-divine dispenser of wisdom about the past and the future. But his aged form and peremptory personality suggested that he did not resemble Christ so much as he did a rather crotchety old saint. To make matters more complicated, several people presented to me the theory, sometimes based upon personal communication, that Amang Doktor was the distinctive form assumed for the Philippines by the Holy Spirit. One such person was Mama Rose, a middle-aged woman who had left her comfortable life in a prosperous ethnic-Chinese family in Manila to become the founder of a mystical church at Mt. Banahaw. According to her, the life and career of JosÚ Rizal was only a brief but important interlude in the ancient history of Amang Doktor or the Holy Spirit, whose other titles included Engkanto de Dyos or "God's Enchanter." Instead of appearing in Mama Rose's dreams, Amang Doktor spoke to her directly and passed on messages and instructions to her followers. In accordance with Amang Doktor's wishes, devotees in Mama Rose's church took oaths of chastity, dressed modestly in white, abstained from eating meat, and spent six to eight hours a day on their knees, singing and worshipping the Four Persons-for Filipino folk-theology adds to the Trinity by positing four divinities: the Father, the Mother (who is distinct from the Virgin Mary), the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The overlap between what I have called the "mythic" Rizal of the Rizalistas and the spirit Rizal or Amang Doktor thus made the drawing of a sharp distinction between them particularly problematic. But as I became more familiar with Amang Doktor, I came to believe that his very existence and character also referred to the two other figures I have mentioned-Rizal the ilustrado writer and Rizal the nationalist hero-perhaps even conveying a ghostly commentary upon them. For instance, what was one to make of the aging of Rizal, notwithstanding his death at thirty-three, manifested in the transformation of his image from youthful nationalist poster-boy to wizened old man? Should this be read as a symbol of the declining relevance and appeal of Rizal's brand of national consciousness, as indicated by the collapse of the Rizalista churches? Similarly, what was the significance of the fact that Amang Doktor's miraculous cures employed not the shamanic techniques of traditional healers but the professional paraphernalia of the medical profession? Was this some kind of reminder that the potency of elite credentials such as those commanded by Rizal the medical doctor and ilustrado ultimately outstrips the healing prowess of a folk-expert such as an albularyo?
But while I mulled over the echoes and reverberations amongst these multiple figures of Rizal-writer, hero, myth, and spirit-I little thought that I might one day witness a direct encounter between any of them. What I did not realize was that the plurality of interpretations of Rizal I had encountered in course work at Cornell might also have its analog in the real-life context of my fieldwork, where individuals and their distinct interpretations of Rizal had the potential to meet and clash. One such occurrence which I describe in some detail below took place within the walls of Mama Rose's church at Mt. Banahaw in April 1998, a few months before I returned from the Philippines to Ithaca. It will be apparent that such incidents do less to resolve the puzzle of Rizal's multiple personalities than to confirm the disorder. At the same time, I also believe that they challenge us to see this kind of plurality as productive rather than problematic.
The Voice against the Text: Amang DoktorMeets Rizal
It was Holy Week, perhaps the most intensely observed event in the religious calendar of the Philippines, and the time of year when the number of pilgrims and visitors at Mt. Banahaw reaches its height. A rather unusual event was taking place within the whitewashed walls of Mama Rose's simply built church: an acquaintance of hers of many years standing, the self-styled "Monsignor" of a mystical association based in Manila, had organized an impromptu open seminar on the theme of "spiritual government." His stated intention was to provide an opportunity for spiritually aware persons to converge and exchange their views on the state of the nation on the eve of the Philippine national election, scheduled to take place the following month.
Leaders and followers of tiny rural mystical associations from far-off provinces like Cagayan sat next to middle-class Manila professionals with interests in astrology and the occult. As the participants introduced themselves, I noted that while some called themselves as "Rizalistas," others referred to Dr. JosÚ Rizal as a great patriot and soul whose legacy still guided the Philippines in facing the uncertainties of an election and the approaching millennium. The name of JosÚ Rizal appeared to serve as a kind of emblem establishing this diverse array of individuals as a temporary community. By invoking Rizal's name, participants in the seminar demonstrated their shared perception of the inseparability of the outcome of this juncture in the Philippine polity from the spiritual fate of the nation, however differently each might be positioned on these topics. In addition, participants nodded as speaker after speaker reiterated his or her conviction in the special and mysterious role assigned to the Philippines in God's plan for the world.
The sense of harmony at the seminar was disturbed when one of the speakers, a provincial college teacher called Brother Art, began his talk by deploring that the sacrifices of national heroes in the Revolution appeared to have been in vain. Something of Brother Art's pointed animus that came as a shock in this gathering can be seen in the following excerpt from his speech:
"Brothers and sisters, have we forgotten the message of Dr. JosÚ Rizal? How can we Filipinos move ahead when we allow so many foreigners in our midst? Our language, religion, government, and educational system are all borrowed. What culture of our own have we? None. What is our national soul? It is not yet reborn. Before we speak of universal brotherhood, we must first renew it. For how can we unite with the world if we do not first unite amongst ourselves? Hate the foreigner first, so that we may be united! If we love the foreigners before ourselves, we will be lost. What has our love of foreign things brought us? It has robbed us of our national soul and treasure. Inchik (Chinese), Kano(Americans), and Bumbai (Indians) prosper in our country, but the Filipino remains behind."
Brother Art's words were indeed an eerie echo of one of the many voices of Rizal: that of the nationalist propagandist. Within several of his writings, including his well-known commentary upon the chronicle of the conquest-era Philippines written by sixteenth-century Spanish Jesuit Morga, Rizal developed a historical critique of colonialism that claimed that the Spanish had capitalized upon Filipino disunity to
assert their control over the islands. According to him, it was the Filipinos' vulnerability to the blandishments of a foreign power that had made them acquiesce to what was ultimately a corrupt and exploitative relationship with Spain, whereby they lost their technological and cultural achievements as well as their place in Asia.4 By pioneering the study of the pre-colonial Philippines, Rizal intended to create the preconditions necessary for the Philippines to rise above this susceptibility and reclaim her authentic history and national self. But while Brother Art was not inaccurate in his rendition of certain Rizalist views, I could not help thinking of other key characteristics of Rizal the ilustrado that had gone unmentioned. Chiefly I thought of his expansive interest in the world as a whole and the undefensive self-assurance with which he drew upon foreign intellectual traditions for what he found valuable. Surely these qualities mitigated the xenophobic quality of certain of Rizal's polemics? But even if so, who would make that point?
By the time Brother Art sat down, the occupants of the seminar room were already whispering to each other and looking around curiously as though unsure how to respond. They did not have to wait long. Mama Rose stood up, her face stern and eyes flashing, and she addressed the room without preamble in a voice quite unlike her own:
"Ave Maria Purisima!"
"Sin Pecado Concevida," automatically replied Mama Rose's followers and those sufficiently conversant with the spirit world to notice and realize the significance of the archaic greeting, the uncharacteristically deep tenor of her voice, and her stooped stance. They understood immediately that Mama Rose was in a state of trance, possessed by Amang Doktor, who apparently had something to say to those assembled at the seminar. She continued in the same voice:
"My children, do not speak of race. We are all descended from of God and to speak of race is to defy him. I was born on this earth a Chinese, but was brought to life for the sake of this land, the Philippines. Do you doubt me? Utter the word "foreigner" and you wound us all. Look at yourself in the mirror and recognize what you are, lest you condemn your own self."
Mama Rose continued to speak, but she stood up straight once again and her voice was recognizably her own. Casting a pointed look at Brother Art, she said, "Probably all of you think 'she's a Chinese, and wealthy to boot, what does she know about sacrifice?'" Well, I've given up all I had in order to stay here and serve Amang Doktor and Mother Philippines. Before you think ill of me, can you say the same for yourselves?"
After the challenge mounted by Amang Doktor and Mama Rose to Brother Art's anti-foreign tirade, successive speakers outdid each other in exhorting those assembled at the seminar to treat all people of good faith, Filipino and foreigners, with tolerance and acceptance. The most noteworthy of these speakers was an elderly albularyo, or healer, from the province of Cagayan in northern Luzon, who addressed his fellow-participants at the seminar with a broad smile. After describing himself as a seeker of spiritual knowledge, he raised his voice and asked himself rhetorically:
"Whose blood populated my town in Cagayan? Spanish friars and Chinese traders married with my ancestors. But what am I? An Igorot! We Igorots are the indigenous tribal Filipinos. And no matter whose blood we carry, we are God's chosen adoptees."
Although the albularyo's words had the rhetorical air of a platitude, what they conveyed was far from conventional. In fact, the seminar on "spiritual government" had the exhilarating and unexpected effect of suggesting to me that the issues contested by scholars of Rizal can acquire a life of their own outside the university. For example, the albularyo had responded to Brother Art's exhortation to "hate the foreigner" by openly asserting the presence of foreign elements in the make-up of the Igorots, who are commonly seen as the most "authentic" or autochthonous of Filipino peoples. Did this signify the rejection of the xenophobia attributed by Brother Art to Rizal in favor of a more inclusive principle of national belonging? Similarly, was the fact that Amang Doktor had claimed Chinese origins for himself his way of trumping Brother Art's version of Rizal? Or was it simply a reference to the historical fact of Rizal's Chinese-mestizo ethnicity? Finally, what role did Mama Rose's invocation of her own Chineseness play in her privileged relationship with Amang Doktor and her success in turning the tables on Brother Art?
More than a year after the event, I have not yet found any satisfactory answers to these questions. Although I have found it useful to distinguish the different figures of JosÚ Rizal: ilustrado writer, hero, myth, and spirit, charged social events such as the one described above show that the lines dividing these figures can easily become blurred and contested. This creates plenty of confusion for observers and participants and lots of scope for mutual understanding, misunderstanding, and the iconoclastic generation of new meanings. But what, precisely, is the significance of such moments in the life of an individual, a community, or a nation, and how does one learn to "read" them? As I attempt to frame and write a dissertation out of notes that document many such moments-fleeting, enigmatic, yet somehow powerful-I find this to be one of my greatest challenges.
1. On this point, see Anderson, Benedict. "Hard to Imagine: A Puzzle in the History of Philippine Nationalism." Cultures and Texts: Representations of Philippine Society. Ed. Raul Pertierra and Eduardo F. Ugarte. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1994. 80-118.
2. See Ileto, Reynaldo. "Rizal and the Underside of Philippine History." Moral Order and the Question of Change : Essays on Southeast Asian Thought. Ed. Alexander Woodside and David K. Wyatt. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1982. 274-337.
3. On this point, see Schumacher, John, S. J. "The 'Propagandists' Reconstruction of the Philippine Past." Perceptions of the Past in Southeast Asia. Ed. Anthony Reid and David Marr. Canberra: Asian Studies Association of Australia, 1979. 264-280.