Monday, January 11, 2021



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Rizal According to Retana:
Portrait of a Hero and a Revolution
 An Excerpt from Elizabeth Medina's Annotated Translation of W.E. Retana's 1907 Biography of José Rizal (© Coypright 1998)

The Noli's Impact

Retana muses:

Did Rizal take the measure of how much of an impact his book would have? Did he foresee that it would make such a deep impression on his country? We believe he did not. He knew, of course, that it did something. He was guided by a higher objective than writing a literary work for amusement; but we do not doubt that he never imagined, after giving the Noli the final flourish from his pen, that his novel would move his country's spirit, and prepare it for a major revolution. Around March, 1887 he wrote from Berlin to a friend:

"In your last letter you complained about my silence. You're right: forgetting is the death of friendship; I must only add that for a real friendship a point of forgetfulness doesn't exist, and I will prove it to you immediately.

"For a long time now you have wanted to read a novel written by me; you said that it had to be something serious, and not to write articles that are born and die like the pages of a newspaper. Very well then: to your wishes, to your three letters, I answer with my novel, "Noli me tángere," a volume of which I am sending in the mail.

"Noli me tángere, words taken from the Gospel of St. Luke, means: do not touch me at all. The book therefore contains things that no one in our land has ever until the present time spoken of because they are so delicate that they did not consent at all to being touched by anyone. I myself have tried to do what no one has wanted to. I felt obliged to answer the calumnies that have been heaped over us and our country for centuries: I've described our social situation, our lives, our beliefs, our hopes, our desires, our grievances, our sorrows; I've unmasked the hypocrisy that under the mantle of Religion came to impoverish us, to make us stupid; I've differentiated between true Religion and false, superstitious religion, which trafficks with the sacred word to make money, to make us believe idiocies that would make Catholicism blush if it ever learned of them. I've unveiled what was hidden behind the tricky and brilliant words of our governments; I've told our compatriots about our prejudices, our vices, our guilty and shameful complacencies with those wretches. Where I have found virtue I have proclaimed it to render homage to it; and if I haven't wept while speaking of our unhappiness, I have laughed, because no one would want to weep with me over the sorrows of our country, and laughter is always good for hiding one's pains.

"...Here is my answer, then, to your three letters. I hope you'll be glad and won't reproach me anymore for my silence. It will give me great pleasure to hear that you like it; I don't believe I have disgraced myself. You've always encouraged me with your approbation and counsel; encourage your friend once again, who prizes your opinions and your criticism.

"I'll look forward to your letters. As soon as you've read my book, I hope you'll give me your most severe assessment. I am not feigning a studied modesty; rather I believe and I assure you that I will follow your opinion...."

Retana continues with a synthesis of the Noli's main conclusions:

Thus, to defend his people, Rizal attacked the most fundamental elements in the Philippines that bore the stamp of Spanish rule. The principal conclusions of Noli me tángere are these:

a) Because the liberal Filipino ilustrado is incompatible with the friar, he cannot live quietly in his country.

b) He is persecuted through all means and false conspiracies are even plotted which serve as a pretext to implicate him, and, once this is achieved, to imprison, exile or shoot him.

c) The country is not for us, but for them -- principally for the friars. The country is not for those of us who are born in it, if we advocate ideas of progress; it is for the foreigners, the reactionaries above all, who treat us not as fellow citizens but as pariahs.

d) The public administration has honorable officials within it, but placed at the service of the friars' interests, it lives in prostitution.

e) The Civil Guard is abusive in such a way, it commits such excesses, that for every outlaw it apprehends, it succeeds in converting many into bandits who were not born for banditry.

f) Since the Spaniards who come to the Philippines today do so out of need or because of personal misfortune, and not because of noble and elevated ideals, they degenerate; and even those who lean towards decency wind up turning into bastards.

g) The Catholic religion, employed as an instrument of domination, resorts to thousands of tricks that convert it from a channel for lofty and disinterested sentiments into one for contemptible deceit.

h) The pure Filipinos, of pure Malay blood, who live in isolation are excellent people, but they are condemned to eternal ignorance. If they become educated and their enlightenment transcends, they will become targets of criticism and innumerable harassments. Those who mix with the Spanish, chiefly those who intermarry with them, end up being corrupted; they become wrapped in a film of hypocrisy that strips them of their dignity.

i) The Filipino woman should not marry a Spaniard, but if her relatives force her to because of ambition or pressure from the friar who protects the family, she agrees; but always with the understanding that she must not forget her OBLIGATIONS to her previous Filipino fiancé.

j) Under the current political regime, it is impossible for a voluntary union between the Filipinos and Spain to endure: we speak, but we are not listened to; we ask with all courteousness for the rights that we consider our entitlements, and we are shown contempt. The Universidad de Manila makes us lawyers, doctors, etc.; but we earn the degree, and we continue being the big children that we were before.

k) There is a filibusterismo that causes more damage than any other: it is desperation. And who pushes us to that subversiveness? Anyone worth anything is dragged towards it if he is not a submissive bootlicker (3/1905, 346-348).

Nevertheless, Retana criticizes what he perceives in Rizal's novel as an unfair bias against the Spaniards and a propagandistic idealization of the Filipinos:

The narrations of Rizal are true, insofar as they are based on rigorously exact events.... And yet...There is a good reason why it has been said that he who proves too much, proves nothing. It would be extremely easy to write the Anti-Noli me tángere, with facts whose authenticity would be unarguable, in order to turn Rizal's novel upside down. In the novel there isn't a single Spaniard (except for Lt. Guevara, who hasn't been promoted above the rank of lieutenant in spite of being "an old man," due to the fact that "he had never been a stool pidgeon") with any sense of shame, and, moreover, all of them are stupid and ignorant. On the other hand, almost all the pureblooded Filipinos portrayed in the novel are models of virtue, enlightened and well-mannered. Rizal only wrote for his countrymen -- this explains the abyss that exists between the genuinely Filipino criticism and the genuinely Spanish one. For the Filipinos, Noli me tángere was a new Bible in which the Nation had to seek its redemption. For the Spanish, Rizal's book was nothing but an intolerable insolence, an insult to everything that was ours, a rock thrown at our race (348).

A fascinating account follows of the Noli's arrival in the Philippines, when Retana was living in Manila:

I remember it well. It was in mid-1887 when the first copies reached Manila. There was much talk of the Author and his work, but not a single copy was to be found, not even for the price of an eye: none were for sale; no one confessed to having one. Between the friars and their friends there was an unusual stir. To think that an indio dared to parody them with the greatest cruelty!...What nerve! It was the old Dominican Fr. Payo, then Archbishop of Manila, who got his hands on a copy and went hurrying to the rector (another Dominican) of that University with an order that a Commission of the Faculty issue a report. The faculty, made up of friars and lay people, issued one; but the Dominicans (the ones most interested) were in charge of issuing the ruling. The report stated that the members of the faculty had unanimously found the book "heretical, impious and scandalous in the religious sphere, and anti-patriotic, subversive to public order, offensive to the Spanish Government and its administration of these Islands in the political sphere." It continued: "...In the copy which Your Most Illustrious Excellency kindly forwarded to me, and which I have the honor to return to Y. M. I. Excllcy., some passages are marked with red pencil which contain concepts, sometimes moderately and other times absolutely against Spain, against her legitimate Government, and against her representative in these Isles; and with blue or black pencil, other passages which are impious, heretical, scandalous, or serious for any other reason. But the entire narration, absolutely all of it, in its entirety and its details, in its primary points as well as secondary ones, in its main content as well as in its most apparently insignificant events, goes against dogma, against the Church, against the religious orders and against the civil, military, social and political institutions that the Spanish Government has implanted in these Islands." Thus, the report concluded, "...if it were to circulate in the Philippines, it would cause serious harm to faith and morality, it would dampen or extinguish the love of these indigenous people for Spain, and, disturbing the heart and inciting the passions of the inhabitants of this country, could usher in very sad days for the Motherland...Manila, August 30, 1887 (349).

Retana continues:

Fr. Payo forwarded the ruling to the Captain General (Don Emilio Terrero).... And the criticism was the subject of talk, but no one had seen the novel! The rumors grew...and so did the eagerness to read the book! And the more talk there was about the criticism, the more propaganda there was for the book! The impatient ones among us had to order it from Europe, at any price. Some copies were resold in the colony at 10 and even 20 duros. Terrero, egged on by Fr. Payo, felt obliged to request a ruling from the Permanent Censorship Commission "to absolutely prohibit...the importation, reproduction and circulation of this pernicious book in the Islands." Fr. Salvador Font, an Augustinian friar and member of the PCC, drafted this document, addressed to the Governor General, and imprudently sent it to be printed (against the advice of others who thought it wiser not to give any importance to the novel). The printed copies of the censorship order began to circulate, and the general interest in reading Rizal's sinful work grew even more! (349-351)

According to Retana, had it not been for these orders, the book would not have been so widely read, and even more widely discussed the more it was read, "thus extending the dividing line between the indignant Spaniards and the Filipinos who were lovers of their country's progress -- these last saying, "What the...! Is it legitimate that day after day, and year after year, the Spaniards can write all kinds of insults and calumnies against us, and on the other hand, it's impermissible that just once a Filipino should tell the Spaniards the plain truth?"

Noli Me Tangere produced deep indignation in many Spaniards, which Retana shared. He recounts that he had a vehement exchange of letters with Rizal's friend, the linguist, ethnographer and eminent scholar of Philippine culture Prof. Ferdinand Blumentritt, about the book. Rizal had convinced Blumentritt of the inadvisability of translating the Noli into German, saying he would only draw down on himself the hatred of all Spaniards, and so Blumentritt limited himself to writing a pamphlet in defense of the novel (whose content consisted of his responses to Retana's letters). The pamphlet still caused the Noli to be read in Japan, the U.S., Germany and France, winning more fame for Rizal than any other Filipino had ever achieved up to that point. In Spain, however, the novel was unknown, though it was discussed in the Senate and anathemized by members who had never even seen its covers! Marcelo H. del Pilar took advantage of these goings-on to defend Rizal and his book in a series of articles in La Publicidad of Barcelona. "From then on," writes Retana, "[Rizal] was converted into the idol of progressive Filipinos" (353).

See also by the same author:
Who was Wenceslao Emilio Retana?

The book "Rizal According to Retana: Portrait of a Hero and a Revolution" is available from the author.

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created: September 15, 1998
updated: September 15, 1998
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger

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