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‘All the honorable men of the world’

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To respond to certain queries about Rizal occasioned by a paper I read at the Philippine PEN Congress the other week, allow me to run excerpts from another paper I read at a much earlier seminar—one hosted by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore last year to mark the launch of “Revolutionary Spirit.” Over and above his exile’s experience, which made him feel “alone and abandoned,” Rizal also knew what it meant to live inside a living community of equals, a band of brothers as it were. I believe this other experience informed Rizal’s concept of an intellectual tradition:

Jose Rizal … did not of course think in terms of Southeast Asia then; the available evidence suggests that he belatedly came to think of the Philippines as part of the Malay world, linked by both geography and misfortune to what he knew as the Dutch East Indies….

But he would certainly have been gratified if he realized that some day he would become the object of trailblazing study by scholars from the Malayan peninsula. I would have wanted to write about these scholars and their work at greater length. For lack of time, however, I was able to devote only one chapter … to what I call the Alatas tradition, the lineage of elite Malaysian scholars begun by that towering pioneer, the late Syed Hussein Alatas….

We can use the appropriation of Rizal as object of study or source of inspiration to trace this living tradition of inquiry, beginning with Hussein Alatas’ own influential deconstruction of “the myth of the lazy native,” to Chandra Muzaffar’s founding of a Malaysian social reform group on Rizal’s death anniversary, to Shaharuddin Maaruf’s brave but unjustly neglected discussion of “the concept of a hero in Malay society,” which posited Rizal as one of three ideal heroes; down to Farish A. Noor’s web-based ruminations on Rizal and especially Syed Farid Alatas’ important, groundbreaking work on alternative discourses, with Rizal as both precursor and paragon. The Alatas tradition is a living lineage based largely in the congenial universities of Singapore, a community of scholars whose work of insightful engagement with Rizal is, sadly, still largely unknown in the Philippines….

The Alatas tradition reminds me of a particular gift of Rizal’s—he had an extraordinary ability to gather men of superior merit (and in those days it was only men) around him, engendering wherever he went a living community of expatriates who saw themselves, not just Rizal alone, as doing new, important, even historic work. I think, for example, of Paciano, Rizal’s older and only brother, whose self-sacrifice subsidized Rizal’s European education and who later became a leader of the Philippine revolution. Or Maximo Viola, like Rizal a medical doctor educated abroad, who scoured several countries for the lowest-cost printer and later lent the money to pay for the first printing of the “Noli Me Tangere,” the novel that made Rizal and the first-ever anticolonial novel written from the perspective of the colonized. Or Jose Alejandrino, who helped read the proofs of “El Filibusterismo” as they came off the press, and later, inspired by Rizal’s example during their time in Belgium, became a general in the revolutionary army.

Even after his martyrdom, Rizal continued to enjoy the devoted support of men of quality. I think of Mariano Ponce, the great workhorse of the so-called Propaganda Movement—the campaign in Spain to publicize the urgent need for reforms of the Philippine colony—who assiduously tracked down and archived as many letters and other pieces of writing by Rizal as he could. Or Gregorio Aguilera, one of the few known members of the secret society Rizal set up in Paris in 1889, the “Rd. L. M.,” initials believed to stand for “Redemption of the Malays,” who founded a newspaper in Batangas province during the Philippine-American War. (His own pseudonym was “R. del M.”)

It is vital to a full understanding of Rizal that we must recognize his restless energy, what management gurus today would call his bias for activity. He was a man of projects. Many of these projects were not completed; in fact, it is a fruitful exercise to list his many false starts—not because they were failures, but because they prove he was no mere ivory-tower intellectual but rather a constant improviser. It was partly because of this bias for action that men of quality gravitated around Rizal….

So around him Rizal was able to gather not only the most enlightened Filipinos of the day, but also European kindred spirits who gave unstinting support to his work. I think, for example, of his great friend Ferdinand Blumentritt in Litomerice, on the periphery of the Austro-Hungarian empire, or of the leading orientalist Reinhold Rost, right in the center of imperial London. They too were brothers in his fraternity of equals.

I think Rizal understood this fundamental equality explicitly, a point I address in the Introduction … and especially in the first three chapters. In a letter dated May 2, 1889, on the occasion of the birth of a son to his good friend and classmate Fernando Canon (later a revolutionary general, like Paciano and Alejandrino), Rizal wrote about a higher patriotism: “Todos los hombres honrados del mundo son compatriotas”—All the honorable men in the world are compatriots.

I do not think this was mere rhetoric. Rizal was consistent in imagining a future nation of Filipinos, but he always believed that such a nation would form part, not so much of what we today would call the community of nations, as of something else altogether: a universal regime of free peoples.

* * *

jnery@inquirer.com.ph/johnnery.wordpress.com


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