Column: Bonifacio’s blank stare, Agoncillo’s ‘friendly hostility’

Published on October 20, 2015.

BONIFACIO BEGAN to eat his simple fare, and while thus employed he heard a rifle shot that made him start. He put down the bowl and looked blankly at his uncle-in-law. His heart beat loudly, savagely against his breast.

“What was that, Uncle?” he asked, fidgeting nervously. “Did they kill my brother?”

“No, my son,” the old man answered laconically.

“Well, how is he doing? Please feed him, too,” he implored, fearing that his brother was suffering from hunger.

The old man promised him he would.

“Do you have a piece of paper and a pencil, Uncle?” Bonifacio inquired.

The old man shook his head.

“Then,” Bonifacio said as if asking for a last favor, “kindly look for Oriang tomorrow noon and tell her not to despair. Tell her to do everything at the earliest possible moment to live in peace with her mother. And,” he added as an afterthought, “how are you, Uncle? Are you all right?”

“I am all right, my son, with the help of God Almighty,” the old man answered.

Bonifacio continued his interrupted meal and then sat on the cot till daybreak.

* * *

The last two columns, especially the last one on the Marxist cast of Renato Constantino’s nationalist historical project, seem to have struck a chord. I have heard complaints, impassioned arguments, ad hominem attacks—and these were just from my friends! I was not able to respond to most of them, because last week I was taking part in a climate change workshop in Hanoi in preparation for covering the climate change conference in Paris next month. Let me do so now.

The substantial comments can be grouped into two main currents. The first is represented by the argument from sense: Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino’s reading of history, despite its imported Marxist framework, allowed us to “make sense” of it all during the Marcos years. The second can be summed up in a plaintive question: “So who do we read now?”

I do have suggestions to make, but I do not know if it is in fact my responsibility to suggest alternatives. I only wish to start on firmer ground.

I am interested in recovering the truth of the Revolution—or as much of it as can be glimpsed, given the distance in time, the difference in cultures. I do not seek to discredit Agoncillo or Constantino, but only to base my understanding of the formative experience of our nation on as much of the primary sources as I can handle and on the best available historical research I can read. I take my bearings from certain historians, of course.

Here, for instance, is a passage from a historian’s famous account of the Katipunan, which made an impact on me when I first read it in college. The author is speaking of the scholar doing historical research, but I think his bracing guideline applies to the ordinary reader as well.

“In examining my sources of information, I have adopted the attitude of friendly hostility. It has been my experience that most of the errors in the difficult task of interpretation—which, after all, is the most important in any book—spring from the scholar’s uncritical attitude. He takes for granted that the fame of an author is sufficient guaranty of reliability and competence. Such mental outlook smacks of hypocrisy and cowardice.”

The easy pugnacity, the moral certainty, the judgmental language: That can only be Agoncillo himself. (It comes from his 1948 Foreword to “The Revolt of the Masses.”) But let’s listen to what he is saying: Be critical.

It is a sad truth that in today’s public discourse the fame of Agoncillo or Constantino is taken, wholly, as a sufficient guaranty. But we should take Agoncillo’s own advice, and adopt the attitude of friendly hostility to our textbooks—including those of Agoncillo and Constantino.

* * *

Consider the passage from “Revolt,” excerpted in the first part above.

This is not history, but fiction. It is a reimagining of one of the last days in the life of Andres Bonifacio.

The footnote draws our attention to Agoncillo’s lone source: a letter from “Gregoria de Jesus to Jose P. Santos, dated at Kalookan, June 2, 1929.” I must confess: I have not read this letter, but I have my doubts that a 32-year-old recollection can serve as the sole basis of such a concretely detailed anecdote. How does Agoncillo know that Bonifacio “stared blankly” at his uncle, or that his heart “beat loudly, savagely against his breast”? How does he know that Bonifacio “was fidgeting nervously” or that his uncle replied “laconically”?

Agoncillo’s use of adverbs is often redundant, his narrative flourishes often touched with cliché. But beyond the style which recommends itself to a certain kind of reader, and the lack of rigor in the matter of evidence, there is something worse: The historian who defines the Philippine revolution as an uprising of the masses doesn’t think very highly of them.

Here is just one instance. In attempting to justify why the people of Cavite looked upon Bonifacio with increasing suspicion, he writes:

“The rumor, as usually happens, took on wings and found comfortable nesting on the lips of men outside Cavite. The unschooled masses, usually gullible enough to believe news that was difficult to verify, were infected with the venom of the rumor and were led to believe that Bonifacio was not the man they had thought him to be ….

“Such rumors, flying at an unbelievable speed and passing from mouth to mouth among the most credulous, could only result in an unfortunate belittling of Bonifacio’s character. The untutored masses, so easy to be influenced to action in the search for freedom and honor, were also the easiest to be swung from their loyalties by any means other than legitimate and just.” Apparently, it was a revolt of the credulous masses.

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