The idea that Rizal was prickly, sensitive to slights and quick to take offense, was a criticism he himself heard again and again. On Oct. 9, 1891, for instance, while preparing to leave for Hong Kong (and eventually to return to the Philippines), he declined his great friend Ferdinand Blumentritt’s suggestion that he resume writing for La Solidaridad. “I have suggested many projects; they engaged in a secret war against me. When I tried to make the Filipinos work, they called me ‘idol,’ they said that I was a despot, etc. …. They said that Rizal is a very difficult person; well, Rizal clears out.”
It is easy enough to multiply the instances of “difficulty.” One only has to comb through Rizal’s correspondence. But it would be misleading to conclude that Rizal had no use for criticism, or no stomach for controversy. In fact, it would be more accurate to say he welcomed debate or disagreement, even with polemicists he clearly considered to be his inferiors; he understood that dispute played a role, both in the determination of the truth and in the making of patriots.
On March 6, 1890, in a letter to Blumentritt, he considered the aggressive ignorance of the former colonial official Vicente Barrantes and other critics like him and then characteristically sought to place the latest skirmish in perspective. “Patriotic spirit and sentiment are being awakened. We owe that to the insults of Retana, Quioquiap, Astoll, etc. I bless all insults if they bring such results. Long live all the enemies of my country, if their lives are a medicine for my people!”
Rizal certainly gave as good as he got. “I am afraid that when he reads your article he may die of rage and shame,” he said in that same letter to Blumentritt, again speaking of Barrantes. “It would be a great loss in my zoological garden; he is one of the best specimens of my reptiles and hippopotamuses.” It’s almost as if he relished the cut and thrust of controversy. When it came to infighting among the Filipinos living in Europe, however, he could not hide his pain.
In my view, the best proof of Rizal’s attitude to sensible criticism lies in his second book, his annotated edition of Antonio de Morga’s “Sucesos de los Islas Filipinas.”
“My most vehement request is this,” he wrote Blumentritt on Oct. 20, 1889. “That you write the prologue as if you did not like me or ever knew me. Criticize what you do not like, praise what you find good. I want to give an example to my people that I do not write for myself or for my personal glory, but for my country, and so I prefer the truth to my fame. May my countrymen also sacrifice their passions on the altar of the country! May they not seek their welfare in honors, employment, bribery, flattery, but in the virtues that distinguish and adorn free peoples!”
The entire letter is in German, except for the enemies of promise (the words above in italics), which he wrote in Spanish— “Honores, Empleos, Cohechos, Adulaciones”—and which we can also render as honors, appointments, bribes, fame.
After this letter comes a charming episode in the Rizal-Blumentritt correspondence. Rizal returns the proofs of Blumentritt’s prologue with his proposed corrections, and Blumentritt agrees completely with the proposals—not just once but twice. Blumentritt had a hangover the day after he gave his approval, and apparently in a fit of forgetfulness, proceeded to give it all over again. But nowhere in this exchange was there an attempt to dilute the strength of Blumentritt’s two-pronged criticism against Rizal’s Morga. Fr. John Schumacher, SJ, the eminent scholar and naturalized Filipino who wrote the definitive history of the Propaganda Movement, summed up Blumentritt’s caveats as follows: “The first was Rizal’s attacks on Catholicism, which Blumentritt declared ought not to be confused with the abuses of some of its ministers. The second was a tendency to judge the sixteenth century by the standards of the nineteenth, a practice that could only result in an unfair evaluation of much of what had been done by the Spaniards.”
In other words, to introduce his main scholarly work, Rizal used a prologue that raised questions about his scholarship. In this as in many other matters, he strove to set an example. He wrote Blumentritt on Nov. 22, 1889: “Underline with black ink what you withdraw and return to me the proofs. As to your criticism I find it very benevolent. I am not concerned with my fame as writer or historian. If you find inaccuracies, say so publicly. It is enough.”
It is one of history’s many ironies that the classic critique of Rizal’s place in the country’s gallery of heroes tries to turn a letter from the Rizal-Blumentritt correspondence into evidence. But as I have written before, Renato Constantino did not only leave out crucial passages in that letter; he left out entire letters. Indeed, one who reads the Rizal-Blumentritt letters cannot help but note Rizal’s constancy of purpose in the last 10 years of his life.
Writing on Feb. 23, 1892 from Hong Kong, for instance, Rizal tells his friend about his plan to found a New Kalamba. “You know very well that always, at all times, I am ready to serve my country not only with the pen but also with my life whenever my country would demand of me this sacrifice. But as I see that I am getting old [he was four months short of 31], my ideals and my dreams are vanishing. If it is impossible for me to give freedom to my country, at least I should like to give it to these noble compatriots in other lands.”
He got the place wrong. The New Kalamba did rise, not out of the forests of Sandakan in northern Borneo, but from the killing fields of Bagumbayan.
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