Column: The OFW as a nationalist

Published on July 1, 2014.

In the eighth chapter of “Noli Me Tangere,” we see balikbayan Crisostomo Ibarra ride through “Manila’s busiest suburb” in a carriage. The drive turns into a trip down memory lane: “All the noise, movement, even the sun itself, a particular odor, the motley colors, awakened in his memory a world of sleeping remembrances.” (This and other passages from the novel are from the Soledad Locsin translation.)

The memories are those of his life before he left to study in Europe—until he passes a familiar landmark. “The sight of the botanical garden drove away his gay reminiscences: the devil of comparisons placed him before the botanical gardens of Europe, in the countries where much effort and much gold are needed to make a leaf bloom or a bud open; and even more, to those of the colonies, rich and well-tended, and all open to the public. Ibarra removed his gaze, looked right, and there saw old Manila, still surrounded by its walls and moats, like an anemic young woman in a dress from her grandmother’s best times.”

The sight of the landmark prompts more remembering, then, but of an outsider’s life in the cities of Europe and (“even more”) of a traveler’s passage through colonies like Singapore. The expatriate had returned, and found his country wanting.

The eminent scholar Benedict Anderson, an acute reader of the “Noli,” has repeatedly drawn attention to this pivotal paragraph. “There is a dizzying moment early in the narrative when the young mestizo hero, recently returned to the colonial Manila of the 1880s from a long sojourn in Europe, looks out his carriage window at the municipal botanical gardens, and finds that he too is, so to speak, at the end of an inverted telescope. These gardens are shadowed automatically … and inescapably by images of their sister gardens in Europe.”

(Unfortunately, Anderson’s early reading scants the important reference to the botanical gardens that the “Noli’s” author saw for himself in European colonies. The omission is of some consequence.)

Rizal used a resonant phrase to describe this shadowing, and Anderson responded to the sound and amplified it. “The novelist arrestingly names the agent of this incurable vision ‘el demonio de las comparaciones,’” which he then proceeds to translate as “the specter of comparison.” (Anderson uses the translation as the title of a collection of essays; I prefer Charles Derbyshire’s version, “the demon of comparison,” not because “specter” carries a Marxian overtone which Anderson must have intended but would have meant nothing to Rizal, but because “demon” seems a more straightforward and at the same time a more literary choice.)

In another essay, Anderson explains the meaning of the phrase: “What he meant by this was a new, restless double-consciousness which made it impossible ever after to experience Berlin without at once thinking of Manila, or Manila without thinking of Berlin. Here indeed is the origin of nationalism, which lives by making comparison.”

Anderson is perhaps the world’s most influential thinker on nationalism; the foundation stones of that reputation were laid with the publication some 30 years ago of “Imagined Communities.” In that instant classic, which privileges the “Noli,” Anderson found the connection between narrative and nationalism. He defined the nature of nation-ness with the elegant precision of a scientific formula: “I propose the following definition of a nation: it is an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”

His treatment of that comparative passage in the “Noli,” therefore, is a return to the novel which helped him make sense of the perplexing paradoxes of nationalism in the first place. He seizes on the idea of an incurable vision—an illness that afflicts a citizen who has had the misfortune to travel to other countries—and turns it into “the origin of nationalism.”

Rizal, speaking through Ibarra, saw the contrast between the botanical gardens of Europe and of its colonies and that of listless Manila as a figure, a symbol of the lack of progress. The metaphor he uses to complete Ibarra’s thought, that of an anemic young woman (“una joven anemica”) wearing her grandmother’s dated clothes which had seen better times, is telling. (It is also a genuine act of imagination: When Rizal wrote the “Noli,” he had not yet returned to the Philippines. Ibarra’s more recent memories were events in Rizal’s present.)

Anderson is surely right to suggest that Rizal’s nationalism, his sense of a better fate for his country, was driven by a deep sense of frustration, a profound dissatisfaction, rooted in the double-consciousness he had acquired.

We do not often speak of overseas Filipino workers as nationalists. We speak of them as heroes or, more precisely, and more in keeping with Filipino culture, as martyrs, who sacrifice themselves in foreign lands for the sake of their families. The incidental impact of workers’ remittances on the Philippine economy, now accounting for about 10 percent of the gross national product, is enormous, but I still have to hear someone argue that Filipinos look for work abroad so they can contribute to the GNP.

But the 10 million Filipinos abroad share something in common with Rizal’s Ibarra. They are expatriates with a double-consciousness; they are nationalists in Anderson’s generous sense. They ride on Hong Kong’s ferries, and wonder why the Philippines has nothing comparable. They board Singapore’s light rail system, and wonder why the MRT in Metro Manila is a disaster. They work in the gleaming airports of the world, or construct endless roads, or manage international ports and multinational companies, and wonder why so much of what they see back home is dated or anemic.

They do not need, like Ibarra, to build a school, but they can imagine a better fate for the Philippines.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Rizal

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