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‘When we find ourselves alone and abandoned’

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I WAS delighted to take part in last week’s Philippine PEN Congress, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). The year’s theme was on the role of the writer as public intellectual; the panel I served on, the first in the two-day conference, was tasked with drawing the context of a Philippine intellectual tradition. “You can discuss perhaps your work on Jose Rizal,” read the invitation from National Artist Bien Lumbera and film critic and fellow Inquirer editor Lito Zulueta, chair and secretary of Philippine PEN—and so I did.

I focused on a letter Rizal sent the priest Vicente Garcia, one of the first to defend the “Noli,” because it seemed to me to best sum up his ideas about just such a tradition. After I located the letter in the context of Rizal’s correspondence (using the Alzona translation), I proceeded to make my case, as follows:

It took Rizal more than two years after first hearing of Garcia’s gallant defense, and some 10 months after the “little treatise” was published in La Solidaridad, before he found the occasion to write the priest himself. He was working on the “Fili” in unhappy Madrid, and at the same time preparing to return home via a doctor’s detour through Hong Kong. I do not know if he ever received Garcia’s reply; I would like to think he did and the reply is simply no longer extant, because his letter of Jan. 7, 1891 was—in a word—a cry for help. It was not so much to thank Garcia, “but to seek light for the uncertain need of the future.”

“I who belong to the young generation, anxious to do something for their country and uneasy about the mysterious future, I need to come to men who have seen much and studied more so that with their experience they may supplement our youth and limited knowledge. We need besides the applause and the blessing of the old to encourage us in the colossal struggle and the gigantic campaign that we have thrown over our dwarfish shoulders. However great is our enthusiasm, however confident is our youth, however promising our illusions, we hesitate nevertheless in certain moments, especially when we find ourselves alone and abandoned.”

I want to pause for a moment and let the circumstances in which the letter was written sink in. The letter in the Rizal correspondence I see as a touchstone for understanding Rizal’s notion of an intellectual tradition—that letter was written when Rizal found himself “alone and abandoned.” He had stopped writing for La Solidaridad; he was caught in the throes of writing a second, much darker novel; he was desperate to get home. In his plight, he reached out to one of his first defenders.

“In the titanic task of common regeneration, without stopping in our forward march, from time to time we turn our eyes toward our elders to read on their faces their judgment of our actions. For this thirst of understanding the past, of knowledge, to enter into the future, we go to persons like you. Leave us in writing your thoughts and the fruits of your long experience so that condensed in a book, we may not have to study again what you have already studied and that we may increase the heritage that we receive from you either expanding it or adding to it our own harvest.”

Note the forward movement, so typical of Rizal as a man of projects; note too the practiced linking of past and future, so characteristic of Rizal as a scholar of history. And then note the act of writing at the very center of the common task. “Leave us your thoughts in writing.” Condense your studies, your life’s learning, in a book, so “we may increase the heritage that we receive from you.”

Here, in condensed form, is Rizal’s concept of an intellectual tradition: Write it down. Pass it on.

In another letter to Ponce, mainly about Sol business, Rizal had written: “It would be desirable for La Solidaridad to invest a part of its income in the acquisition of books on the Philippines…. Buy books by Filipinos; mention now and then names of Filipinos like Pelaez, Garcia, Burgos, Graciano, etc; quote their phrases.” In yet another letter, he had repeated the refrain: “Try to mention in every issue some old or modern Filipino, citing his works. Always talk about Blumentritt…. Quote Pilapil, Pelaez, Burgos, etc. Little by little build a reference library.”

For Rizal, pace  [Jorge Luis] Borges, the library was not a circular maze but a linear progression. That intellectual tradition summed up in Rizal’s image of a reference library built book by book, however—what was it for?

Rizal’s sole letter to Father Garcia provides the answer.

“The smallness of the advancement that the Filipinos have made in three centuries of Hispanism is all due, in my opinion, to the fact that our talented men have died without bequeathing to us nothing more than the fame of their name. We have had very great intellects; we have had a Pinpin, a Dr. Pilapil, a Father Pelaez, a Father Mariano Garcia, a Dr. Joson, and others. We have still a Benedicto Luna, a Lorenzo Francisco, and more. Nevertheless, all that these men have studied, learned, and discovered will die with them and end in them, and [we] shall go back to recommence the study of life. There is then individual progress or improvement in the Philippines, but there is no national, general progress. Here you have the individual as the only one who improves and not the species.”

For Rizal, the act of leaving one’s thoughts in writing, of condensing study and learning and discovery in a book, may have been a necessarily solitary task, but it was a task with a common purpose: nothing less than “national, general progress.” That reference library, then, that writers build together, little by little, book by book—it is not only a progression. It is, at one and the same time, both possibility and proof of progress.

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On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand

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