By Resil B. Mojares – The Philippine Star
(This is an excerpt of a lecture titled “Jose Rizal and the Invention of a National Literature” delivered by the author in the recent PEN conference, which he dedicated to F. Sionil Jose. “Among the writers of his generation,” Mojares said, “Sionil Jose has been, in his social passion, the most Rizalian.”)
Jose Rizal recognized that a country’s literary capital is not just a collection of texts and artifacts but a living discourse. Literature — to borrow the words of Octavio Paz — “is not so much the sum of individual works as the system of relations between them.” It is “a field of affinities and oppositions,” “intellectual space” where, through the medium of criticism, works meet and enter into active dialogue with each other. Hence — in the third move in creating a national literature — Rizal argued that a broad and vital conversation within the nation must be enabled through an infrastructure of publishing, literary societies and academies, and an active community of writers, critics, and readers.
Rizal knew that a national literature is not created by a single author but by a strategic discursive community. In this sense, he spoke frequently of the need to widen literacy and public education. It was this sense of a collective undertaking that drove Rizal to propose in 1883 an anthology of essays to be contributed by members of the Circulo Hispano-Filipino in Spain, and to lay the groundwork in 1889 for launching an Association Internationale des Philippinestes in Paris. While both projects did not materialize, it is clear what Rizal was about. He was interested in making visible a community of Filipino writers and intellectuals. It was in this context that he repeatedly urged Filipinos in Europe not only “to buy, read, but critically, the books about the Philippines” but to “buy books by Filipinos; mention now and then names of Filipinos like (Pedro) Pelaez, (Vicente) Garcia, (Jose) Burgos, Graciano (Lopez Jaena), etc.; quote their phrases.”
He recognized that writing is an exercise in authority, and in the contest over authority Filipinos must not only be active participants, they must — particularly in matters pertaining to their country — exercise command.
Rizal exercised command when he wrote Noli me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891). Always the deliberative writer, Rizal had suggested that his annotations of Morga traced the lineaments of the country’s past, the Noli dealt with its present, and the Fili pointed to its future. The first attempt to “textualize” the imaginary body of the nation, these novels have rightly been called the foundational fictions of the Filipino nation.
Rizal did not close the circle. He left (as perhaps all writers do) a lot of unfinished business. Here it is instructive to dwell on the enigma of his third, unfinished novel. (Now referred to as Makamisa, it was written in 1891-1892, after the appearance of the Fili.)
What moved Rizal to write a third novel? The first reason, he said, was to write a novel in Tagalog, addressing Tagalog readers rather than Europeans. At the time, Rizal was on his way back to the Philippines, and the propaganda movement itself was beginning to shift, away from addressing Spain and Europe towards speaking to Filipinos themselves. At the time Rizal embarked on his third novel, he was in fact assisting his brother Paciano in translating the Noli to Tagalog.
Of his third novel, he wrote: “If I write it in Spanish, then the poor Tagalogs to whom the work is dedicated, will not get to know it, though they may be the ones who need it most.” As it turned out, Rizal began his third novel in Tagalog but then shifted to Spanish. In a letter written in German to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt on 20 April 1891, he said:
“… I have already given up the idea of writing the third part in Tagalog for it would not be appropriate to write a work in two languages as they would be like the sermons of the friars. So I am writing it now in Spanish.”
The language shift is not as simple as it seems. To begin with, even in the Noli and the Fili, Rizal was addressing — in the form of “double address” — Filipinos as much as Europeans, and, subsequently, the medium of translation would enable his novels’ circulation across languages. In choosing to write in Tagalog, Rizal could not quite reconcile the difficulties of “internal translation,” of rendering European thoughts in Tagalog (“like the sermons of the friars”). Thoroughly Western-educated, Rizal was the type who thought more easily in the Spanish language than in his native Tagalog. Judging his skills, not wishing to write in Tagalog as the friars did, Rizal shifted to Spanish, and then abandoned the novel.
It is beguiling (and not entirely facetious to say) that what survives of Rizal’s last novel is not in Tagalog or Spanish, but a bilingual and hybrid text. Indeed, the problem of language would persist, long after Rizal, as one of the central issues in the formation of the national literature.
His second motive, Rizal said, was to write “a novel in the modern (modernen) sense of the word — an artistic and literary novel.” “This time,” he said, “I want to sacrifice politics and everything for art.” It is not clear what Rizal means by these words. I surmise that he was reacting, perhaps too peevishly (Rizal did not take kindly to criticism) to attacks against his novels’ polemical “excess” and literary imperfections. Smarting from the criticism, he resolved to write a novel more “artistic and literary,” distanced from the polemical imperatives that drove the writing of the Noli and the Fili.
The comments on these novels by Barrantes, Rizal, and friends like Antonio Luna are interesting for the attention paid to whether the novels succeeded as novels, or (more precisely) novels in the European manner. Thus, Rizal faults Barrantes for errors of misreading, in confusing the views expressed by characters in the novel with those of the author. For his part, Luna defended Rizal’s work by situating it in the context of the European novel’s evolution from classicism to romanticism to realism. Putting Rizal in the company of Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, and Maupassant, Luna praised Rizal’s “extraordinary realism” in capturing the dynamics of a society’s development. Rizal, he said, is “a modern novelist who sacrificed incomprehensible beauty (of the Romantics) to plain truth (of the Realists)” in depicting a “corrupt, weak society.”
It may be said that in defending the novels on literary grounds, Rizal and Luna were saying (in the “internationalizing” mode of the Propaganda) that Filipinos can write novels as well as Europeans can. They were aware as well that the novel’s “truth” depends on how well it succeeds as a novel in formal terms. In any case, as Rizal sought to write for Tagalogs in their own language, he was acutely conscious — in a case of “double vision” — of how he had to contend with the demands of a foreign form as well as expectations that transcended the purely local.
Rizal’s third motive was to write a novel that would deal “exclusively with the usages, virtues, and defects of the Tagalogs.” He wrote:
“… this time politics (politik) will not occupy much space in it. Ethics (ethik) will play the principal role. It will deal only with the usages and customs of the Filipinos; there will be only two Spaniards — the curate and the lieutenant of the civil guard.”
As Rizal had turned to writing for Tagalogs in their own language, Rizal (again one surmises) meant to write of Tagalog society in its own terms, integral and autonomous, rather than a reflex of the colonial encounter. (Was this what Rizal had in mind when he spoke of “ethics” and said to Blumentritt, “I am sorry I cannot write it in Spanish, for I have found a very beautiful theme.”?)
As it turned out, Rizal was stymied not only by the problem of language but the challenge of representing something that did not quite exist in a form amenable for treatment as a realist novel instead of, say, a romance, pastoral, or myth. How does one represent in the “classic,” distinctly bourgeois form of a 19th-century European novel a nation inchoate, in the throes of being born? Thus, Rizal came face to face with the impossibility of writing a novel outside of the present and outside of history. Writing Makamisa, he did not only struggle with the Tagalog language but gravitated (as the extant fragment of Makamisa shows) towards composing what seems a reprise of the Noli.
When Rizal abandoned his third novel, he may have thought that it was a novel to be written in another time and perhaps by writers other than himself. He had a good sense of how literature — its writing, its reading — is intimately implicated in history. He said as much when he declared that the Noli “cannot be judged, because its effects still persist.” Only when crime, immorality, and prejudice disappear, he said, “when Spain ends the condition of strife by means of open-hearted and liberal reforms; finally, when all of us have died and with us our pride, our vanity, and our petty passions, then Spaniards and Filipinos will be able to judge it with calmness and impartiality, without bias or rancor.”
Though aborted, Rizal’s “turn to the native” is not in vain, if taken as a sign of the desire for a literature more deeply anchored in the realities of home. It reminds us as well, over a century later, that, in representing the nation, language, artistry, and form are problems that continue to challenge Filipino writers. At a time when Rizal’s Noli and Fili have been “monumentalized,” it is one of history’s fine serendipities that, in the end, Rizal left us a novel that is unfinished — which is what the national literature must always be.
The literature that Rizal and his contemporaries tried to bring about was vigorously promoted in the work of nation-building that began with the establishment of the Malolos Republic and continued under the new conditions created by US colonial rule.
In the early 20th-century, there was wide interest in the issue of national identity (“the Filipino Soul”), and in creating the conditions for a national literature to flourish. Hence, the surge of literary and journalistic publishing, the promotion of local languages and the drive for a “national language,” the proliferation of literary societies, the dissemination of native culture in the schools, the writing of national literary histories, the codification of local poetic practices, and the canonization of exemplary writers (such as Rizal himself).
Such promotion has succeeded in turning an artificial construction into an object of shared learning and belief. While acknowledging the utility of such a construct, we must continually interrogate its making — the processes of selection, essentialization, subordination and exclusion in its making, the role of the state and cultural authorities in its definition and deployment, and the shallow pieties it has encouraged.
Nation-formation is a continuing process, and such a construct as the national literature must remain unstable and unsettled, for it is when it is so that it is most open and creative.
The issues Rizal faced at the close of the 19th century continue to challenge Filipino writers at the beginning of the 21st. To assert difference: difference not merely for the sake of being different, but difference that meaningfully revises and renews not only how we Filipinos see ourselves but how others see us and themselves. To reconcile “internationalizing” and “nationalizing” positions: recognizing, on one hand, the danger of being absorbed and lost in the discourse of dominant others; on the other hand, the danger of being trapped in a conversation that does not open out into the world; in either case, the prospect of being barely visible in the world. To widen the social and material space that allows us to do our work and be read and heard.
And, yes, to write, write, write.
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