'Necessary fictions' | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

‘Necessary fictions’

When students do research today, they search online with Google. When I was a student, we had to deal with physical books in a library, and search for the ones we needed using a card catalogue. My students search for books online, sometimes without even being physically in a library. A card catalogue is ancient history to them, and opening a physical book old-fashioned.

I used to know the Filipiniana collection of the Rizal Library like the back of my hand. I could visualize a book by its cover, knowing its exact location on the shelves by the color of its spine. When books were rearranged I simply reacquainted myself by running my eyes on all the books shelf by shelf. Sometimes I entertain the thought that I must have been a librarian in a past life.


My habit of going over shelves of books or reading all the entries in a card catalogue has become a research method for me, such that when I search Google Scholar for something, I do not stop with the top 5 entries but scroll all the way to the end until Google has nothing more to offer. In this way, you come across relevant or engaging items you were not originally looking for. Serendipity is the best word to describe it.

Sometimes you follow a lead that comes in handy years later. For example, after seeing Nick Joaquin’s “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino” on film and on stage, I decided to read the play. But while searching for it in the library I was pleasantly surprised to come across James Joyce’s novel “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (1916), which I tried to read if only to find out why Nick Joaquin reworked Joyce’s title for his play. I did not find Joyce to my liking, but one line stood out and I have remembered it ever since. It goes: “Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”


This wonderful line reminded me of the summer of 1889 when Jose Rizal was in the British Museum in London going over Filipiniana and copying out, by hand (because the photocopier had not been invented yet), the rare copy of Antonio de Morga’s “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas” (1603). Rizal was both so impressed and upset by what he read that he published an annotated edition of the “Sucesos” in Paris in 1890, a work that sadly remains largely unread because it has since been overshadowed by his novels.

Contrary to popular belief, Rizal published three books: two novels and a work of history. These three books reflect his sense of order: “Noli Me Tangere” (1887) was a picture of the Spanish Philippines, his present time; his edition of “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas” (1890) peered into and represented the pre-Spanish Philippine past; and “El Filibusterimo” (1891) projected into the future. While Rizal’s novels remain in print for compulsory reading by Filipino high school and college students, the “Sucesos” should be read as well if only to appreciate it as the first piece on Philippine history from a Filipino point of view.

We should also remember that Rizal was not alone in using the past to forge a nation. There were other works and authors, similarly forgotten by a generation separated from its past because of language. Three contemporaries of Rizal—Pedro Paterno, Isabelo de los Reyes and Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera—also wielded history as a tool for building the nation; their life and work were recently revisited by Resil Mojares in a shameless display of erudition titled “Brains of the Nation.”

Building a nation or “forging in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of the race” is always taken in a positive light. But it has a dark side, too, because the word “forge” can mean to make, form, or create something or something that is false, fraudulent, or fake. This brings to mind the life and works of Jose E. Marco, a creative writer who enriched Philippine historiography with many works from his imagination. From Marco’s writings emerged a 15th-century lawmaker named Kalantiaw from Aklan who left us with the “Code of Kalantiaw” and a novel by Fr. Jose A. Burgos titled “La Loba Negra.” While Marco’s works have since been debunked as 20th-century forgeries, these have taken on a life of their own. Aklan does not want to let go of Kalantiaw, and “La Loba Negra” has since been retold by Virginia Moreno as “Itim Asu” (or Onyx Wolf) that has been the subject of academic inquiry.

If Rizal, De los Reyes, Paterno and Pardo de Tavera are seen as the “Brains of the Nation,” how do we classify Jose E. Marco and his work?

I have been working on Marco for some years now, fascinated by important questions, the first ones being how he was able to dupe scholars for half a century, and why. The role of the gullible was stellar, beginning with James Alexander Robertson and Manuel Artigas y Cuerva, associated with the prewar National Library, to H. Otley Beyer, the so-called “Father of Philippine Anthropology,” and the University of Chicago Philippine Studies Program that published and disseminated Marco’s handiwork to scholars in the 1950s.

Marco did more than fool the “experts.” His story is a critique of the use and abuse of history, a call to reexamine our notions of authenticity and authority. Monetary gain aside, was Marco part of that generation that wanted to forge the Filipino nation? Creating Kalantiaw and a novel by Burgos from nothing? Or creating something false because they are what Caroline Hau calls “necessary fictions”?


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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: card catalogue, Code of Kalantiaw, fiction, filipiniana, Jose E. Marco, Jose Rizal, La Loba Negra, library, research, Rizal Library
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