Looking Back

Enter the future with a memory of the past

/ 05:14 AM January 02, 2019

January in English—Enero in Spanish and Filipino—comes from the Latin Ianuarius, rooted in ianua (door), which reminds us that this month, we leave 2018 and pass through a door into 2019. Ianua is also rooted in Janus, the ancient Roman god, who is depicted with two heads, one facing the past, the other facing the future. Janus is the god of doors, gates and transitions, the god of new beginnings, the god of time.

From childhood, we are taught that Rizal said: “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan, di makararating sa pinaroroonan (He who does not know how to look back on the origin, will not reach his destination).” This quote was rephrased by a grade school classmates into: “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan, tae ay maaapakan (He who does not look back where he started, will step on excrement).”


The Tagalog quote attributed to Rizal is not by Rizal; the authentic and better quotation on history comes from his juvenile play “El Consejo de los Dioses” (Council of the Gods): “Con el recuerdo del pasado, entro en el porvenir (I enter the future with a memory of the past).” It is a relevant thought not just for the beginning of a new year, but also for this time when some people want us to move on from the past, to forgive and forget, when history is not about forgetting but remembering.

When asked to comment on the present and, sometimes, the future, I often reply that a historian’s place is in the past; he is not a fortune-teller. The only time I peer into the future is when I review student grades in the middle of the semester and know, from their performance, who will end up with the A’s and B+s. I leave them alone and focus on those who missed many classes, or those whose grades are erratic and need improvement. They are encouraged to shape up and steer away from F’s and D’s in the finals.


On the third week of this month, I will face yet another batch of students, and while the general Philippine history course is one I have taught for many years, its delivery changes every year with every class, depending on our interaction and the work I put into it. So my New Year’s resolutions, meant to be broken, are: to handle more physical books, to do more primary source research, and to revisit museums, landmarks and historic sites.

In the digital age, many of my students have ditched the library for their laptops. They think handling physical books is a Jurassic act, and presume everything should be online; if it isn’t, then it probably does not exist.

Over the years, I have downloaded and scanned most of the books and documents I need for my work. It is amazing that I can carry my reference library in a palm-sized external drive. Over the years, I have also tried in vain to convince my colleagues to convert to digital, but they remain romantics in love with the pleasures of the physical page or document. They are right, and it is time to take the antihistamine and dive back into the dust of the rare book and manuscript rooms of the research libraries again, if only to relive the joy of research.

Not all books are the same. Every edition of the same work is printed differently; it has different prefaces, introductions, afterwords, footnotes, endnotes and bibliographies. Sometimes, a physical book contains handwritten annotations on the pages and margins, showing the interaction between the book and a previous owner. Digitized manuscripts are easy to use; one can magnify to decipher illegible text or zoom into details, but this all presumes that scanning was done in high resolution, that all pages are complete and clear, that nothing has been cropped out. More often than not, a historian looks at erasures and marginalia sometimes omitted or manipulated by the scanner. Returning to the primary sources always has its surprises.

Traffic permitting, I should get to research libraries in Metro Manila. While it is always nice to work in a quiet air-conditioned library, a historian must make an effort to revisit the three-building National Museum complex, or the historic shrines and landmarks scattered in the city. One can always learn from revisiting historic sites, reading biographical data off tombstones, etc. All this can only mean better teaching, lecturing and writing.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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