Column: One who got it all wrong

In which I criticize one beloved icon and source of Rizal studies. Published on October 19, 2010.

I apologize for writing, yet again, about Rizal. The feedback I got from last week’s column on Padre Damaso and the rape of Pia Alba persuades me that the Philippines remains incomprehensible without reference to the national hero. (To be sure, I am writing a book on Rizal, and the very act of writing makes me susceptible to just the sort of feedback I got last week!)

The question of error, of flawed but fateful renderings of Rizal and his works, fascinates me. I think many of these fall under the category of instructive errors: Apolinario Mabini maintaining that Rizal turned to novel-writing after “La Solidaridad”; Asuncion Lopez Bantug categorically stating that the “Noli” was completed in June 1886. (The “Soli” was founded two years after the “Noli” was written; the last page of the original manuscript of the “Noli” shows that it was completed at 11:30 p.m.—11½ in Rizal’s own handwriting—on Feb. 21, 1887.)

Other errors are more insidious, rankly speculative: Wenceslao Retana’s view
of Rizal as Spain’s loyal son, Austin Craig’s opinion that Rizal was the
proto-American. But of all the malignant mistakes, none, in my reading, is as
insidious, or as speculative, as the views of the great Spanish philosopher
Miguel de Unamuno. His essay started life as the eight-part epilogue of the
first major biography of Rizal, Retana’s “Vida y Escritos.” One of the most
intellectually vigorous attempts to investigate the meaning of Rizal, the 1968
anthology “Rizal: Contrary Essays,” edited by Petronilo Bn. Daroy and Dolores
Feria, gave pride of place to what it called “Unamuno’s seminal study of Rizal.”
(The English translation by Antolina Antonio, however, presented only the first
three parts of Unamuno’s lengthy essay.) It continues to be quoted today.

In 1917, in a lengthy analysis of “The Character of Rizal,” Trinidad Pardo de
Tavera criticized Unamuno’s well-intentioned ignorance in great detail. It is
unfortunate that, in a hundred years of Rizal studies, his critique has been
virtually ignored (a victim, perhaps, of his service in the American colonial

To Unamuno’s easy view that “Throughout his entire life [Rizal] was nothing
but an impenitent dreamer, a poet,” Pardo replies: This “is a figure of speech
not based on anything real, a statement unsupported by any act or any moment of
the life of Rizal. He desired the advancement and welfare of the Filipino
people. Did he desire anything unrealizable? His dream was to conquer, by
reason, an era of liberty and rights for his people. How far is this dream of
his unrealizable?”

To Unamuno’s blithe view that “Rizal, the valiant dreamer, appeared to me a
weak and irresolute man for action and life,” Pardo replies: “He preached
tolerance and was tolerant; he advocated study and studied; sincerity, and was
loyal; valor, and died without flinching; work, and worked as an author,
physician, sculptor, mason, printer and farmer.”

And to Unamuno’s dreamy view that “He was a Quijote of thought, who looked
with repugnance upon the impurities of reality,” Pardo replies: “What reality
repelled him? … neither Rizal nor [I] myself understand what the ‘impurities
of reality’ are… Unamuno’s opinions are a complete misrepresentation of the
tendencies and character of Rizal and are unsupported by any known fact.” (All
the quotes are from the June 1917 issue of “Philippine Review/Revista Filipina,”
which contains the English translation, presumably by the review’s redoubtable
editor, Gregorio Nieva. Pardo’s Spanish original appeared the month before.)

Pardo criticized both Unamuno and Retana (who was a friend of his and a
regular correspondent) not only for their sweeping, rhetorical interpretation of
Rizal but also for their selection of detail—the kind that lent itself,
precisely, to sweeping, rhetorical interpretations. He rejects “as false two
statements attributed by certain persons to Rizal and alleged to have been made
by him before his death. One is to the effect that shortly before being
executed, he said to his confessor: ‘My presumption has ruined me.’”

To this alleged fact, Unamuno responded in character, by improvising a
rhetorical rhapsody that ended with an acceptance of the charge of presumption,
but redefined. The answer seemed stirring, even ennobling. But to Pardo, the
Spanish philosopher was talking through his hat. “Unamuno, inspired by a noble
sentiment, errs in pronouncing these words, with regard to which I will say,
basing my affirmation on real facts, that [Rizal’s] dignity was not presumption,
his firmness of character was not presumption, his self-denial was not

This first false statement is kin to the second. (Indeed, they share the same
source: the Jesuit Pablo Pastells’ “La Masonizacion de Filipinas—Rizal y su
obra.”) “Nor can we accept as true the other statement attributed to him at that
moment [that is, the day of his execution]: ‘It is in Spain and in foreign
countries where I was ruined.’”

Pardo recoils from the implications, not only because Rizal “knew fully well
that he had never been ruined,” but also and mainly because the two statements,
together, represent Rizal as “a presumptuous mesticillo, according to the
traditional formula, utterly ruined by the atmosphere of Spain and the foreign
countries, because his narrow brain was not made for any climate or civilization
outside of those of the Philippines.” The two statements, together, make Rizal
“confess in an indirect way that his execution was just, because he himself
acknowledged that he had been ruined.”

Here, then, are the wages of impenitent lyricism—but Unamuno’s, not Rizal’s.
The law of unintended consequences has caught up with him.


1 Comment

Filed under Newsstand: Column, Notes on Readings, Readings in Rizal

One response to “Column: One who got it all wrong

  1. Pingback: Column: Rizal in the Catholic Encyclopedia | John Nery | Newsstand

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