An inspiration to our heroes

By Ambeth Ocampo
PARIS—In a city where labor strikes and protest demonstrations are as common as breathing, May 1, Labor Day, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in the church calendar, was relatively quiet. All around town one can still see remnants of the protests against the Beijing Olympics and the passing of the Olympic torch in this city. “Wanted” posters are still up calling for the arrest of Hu Jin Tao for human rights abuses. Beside the menu in a Tibetan restaurant are photographs of bloodied monks being beaten up or carted away. There are many other causes that are advertised in posters, stickers and graffiti, but my French isn’t fast enough to spot them. Surely there must be some that read, “Bawal omehi deto.”

There is something in the air in the French capital that incites protest, or at least some reflection on the human condition. When Jose Rizal visited Paris for the 1889 Exposition, he was interested in organizing an international conference of scholars interested in the Philippines. This may explain why he failed to describe the Eiffel Tower, the most amazing engineering feat of its time, and now an enduring symbol of Paris. At the time, Rizal was still enthusiastic about his research in the British Library that uncovered the pre-colonial, pre-Spanish Philippines.

The 1889 Paris Exposition was set up to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution, the same revolution that inspired the struggle of Andres Bonifacio against Spain, and that of Emilio Aguinaldo, first against Spain and later against the United States of America. We do not have material on the discussions of the Filipinos during the Expo, but we know that some of them were already reading progressive works, some were already starting to see the end of the campaign for reforms in Spain, during the period in our textbooks called the “Propaganda Movement.”

A trick question from the historian Teodoro Agoncillo used to be, “Did the reform movement fail?” The obvious answer should be yes, because the reforms in the Philippines were not granted. Agoncillo says the propaganda failed in the campaign for reforms but it was successful because it led to the Philippine Revolution in 1896.

One Filipino who was sensitive to the human condition was the painter Juan Luna, the artist who gave us the bloody “Spoliarium” now in the National Museum. In 1891, a year before he would murder his wife and mother-in-law in a jealous rage, he wrote a revealing letter to Rizal that mentioned a jar of bagoong in his apartment that he had yet to try. He also said, “You know how I sell my paintings? Like potatoes in the market.”

While Luna had a number of commissions, I don’t think his paintings sold enough to keep a household as well as maintain the studies of his brother Antonio, who was then enrolled in the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Here is Luna complaining about selling his paintings like potatoes in the market, when those same paintings now cost millions in Manila.

Luna was searching for inspiration for a new large-scale painting and asked Rizal to recommend books to read. “I want to read an author who has written against naked materialism and the infamous exploitation of the poor, the struggle of the masses against the rich! I am looking for a subject worthy to be developed on a canvas of eight meters.”

In 1891, Luna completed charming portraits of his son “Luling” and his daughter Maria de la Paz, or “Bibi” (that’s the Spanish form of “Baby”?). He also did the famous portrait of Rizal, and there were some paintings whose titles give his outlook away: “Los Desheredados” (sometimes referred to as “Los Ignores,” or “The Disinherited”), “Victime du Devoir,” “La Bete Humaine,” etc.

In the letter dated May 13, 1891, Luna recommended a particular book:

“I am reading ‘Le Socialisme Contemporain’ by E. de Laveleye, which is a compilation of the theories of Karl Marx, La Salle, etc.; Catholic socialism, the conservative, the evangelical, etc. I find these most interesting, but what I would like is a book which stresses the miseries of contemporary society, a kind of ‘Divine Comedy,’ a Dante who would walk through the shops where one can hardly breathe and where he would see men, women, and children in the most wretched condition possible.”

I’m sure this book can be found in some library, and reading it will make us understand the mind of Luna. Perhaps if Rizal read it, we would have something new to talk about.

Some scholars wonder why Karl Marx does not figure in Rizal’s writings. Since there are no references to Marx even in his letters and diaries, some scholars criticize Rizal for not reading Marx. I have always maintained that Rizal shouldn’t be blamed for what he did and did not read. At the time Luna sent his recommended reading, Rizal was already working on “El Filibusterimo” where he continues where “Noli me tangere” left off. Here Rizal also comments on the social condition in his own way.

France and the French Revolution have always been an inspiration to our heroes, and it is timely to remember this on the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and France.

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One response to “An inspiration to our heroes”

  1. maximo p.fabella Avatar

    Ambeth: the article is personally interesting. Maybe, because i am not formally
    a historian. i worked 22 yrs as a social
    worker, retired as such. never stopped book reviewing….amerasia, journal of african
    and asian studies, Pilipinas journal,
    newspapers…now,we arein the same boat….
    heh heh heh.

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