30 December 2021 marks the 125th death anniversary of José Rizal.
Rizal is a man of many titles: The First Filipino, Pride of the Malay Race, national hero of the Philippines, Father of Filipino Nationalism, and many more - I call him the first Pan-Southeast Asianist. Unfortunately, I knew so little about the man whom I call my source of inspiration, and to make up for that I decided to read John Nery’s Revolutionary Spirit.
There are many influential revolutionary figures in Southeast Asia, but few would be regarded as inspirational outside of their own countries - not to mention the creation of a whole academic field surrounding himself. The 1956 Republic Act No. 1425 (also known as the “Rizal Law”) mandated the teaching of Rizal in both public and private institutions.
With our reverence of Rizal we run the risk of misunderstanding and misrepresenting him. We must see Rizal in his own light, and even I myself have at times overstated his visions. In this book, Nery summarizes three major types of errors in Rizal studies. First, instructive errors reflect mistakes in facts about Rizal or interpretations of him; second, unfortunate errors are imprecisions in the details of Rizal’s biography; lastly, pernicious errors manifest in gross misinterpretation guided by ideology.
In the rest of the book Nery goes on to address and critique many other works on Rizal, supported by extensive research. In the process of reading it, I also discovered several interesting new facts about Rizal’s influence in the wider Southeast Asian region.
Rizal, Multatuli and his Great Nephew are related in unexpected ways.
Eduard Douwes Dekker, more widely known by his pen name Multatuli, is a Dutch writer who used to work as a civil servant in the Dutch East Indies. First published in 1860, his book Max Havelaar exposes the corrupt government system in the Dutch colony, in which colonial administrators and indigenous elites benefit at the expense of the common people. Rizal read it in 1888 and held high praises for this book: “so viciously anti-colonial — but was so beautiful.” He would write to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt several times about Max Havelaar and sought hard to send him a copy to read.
Twenty-five years later, Multatuli’s grandnephew E. F. E. Douwes Dekker, known to Indonesians as Setiabudi, would discover Rizal. He was the first to openly advocate independence for Indonesia, and conducted his own research on the Philippines under American colonial rule. Setiabudi subsequently wrote an essay titled “Rizal” in the magazine he founded, Het Tijdschrift. In this essay published on 15 May 1913, Setiabudi drew parallels between the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies: “I am comforted. If our Rizals, our Josefines, our Pascianos, our Aguinaldos, our Maximo Paternos, our Burgoses, our Zamoras, our Gomezes would be needed — Fate forbid — they — will be there!"
Rizal was not that much the hero of Sukarno.
At the International Congress on Rizal held 4-8 December 1961, Indonesian journalist Rosihan Anwar credited the country's Founding President Sukarno for popularizing Rizal’s name in Indonesia. Given Sukarno's early involvement in the idea of Maphilindo, I assumed like me he would be a big fan of Rizal. However, Nery shows that Sukarno did not actually have a clear understanding of Rizal: he mistakenly pronounced his full name as “Jose Rizal y Mercado”, and claimed that he “was shot dead by the Spanish in 1903” when in fact he was killed in 1896.
//That, as I see it, was what was missing from Sukarno’s picture of the Philippine national hero. He never read Rizal; he must have only read about him.//
Seen in this light, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Rizal was simply one of Sukarno’s long list of examples. He was not that much of an inspirational figure for the latter, his story was just conveniently used in Sukarno's oratory. Nevertheless, Rizal did influence the young generation in their struggle for independence from the Dutch. Rosihan Anwar's translation of Rizal's final poem Mi Ultimo Adios was published in the newspaper Asia Raya in 1944. Rosihan Anwar later recalled that the his translation of the poem was circulated in the frontlines of the Battle of Surabaya.
//...at least in Java, Indonesian nationalists at a moment of real peril had taken inspiration from a stirring poem that promised a useful, even glorious martyrdom.//
Rizal influenced a lineage of Malaysian scholars on the sociology of knowledge.
Apart from Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, another of Rizal’s most iconic works would be the essay On the Indolence of the Filipinos (Sobre la indolencia de los filipinos). What I did not know, however, was that Rizal has also influenced a pipeline of scholars in Malaysia on the sociology of knowledge. This area of research studies how we arrive at certain notions, with our thinking shaped by the social context and vice-versa.
Syed Hussein Alatas carried the torch in this topic, resulting in the classic book The Myth of the Lazy Native where he dedicates a full chapter to Rizal’s essay. Alatas’ own student Chandra Muzaffar and grandstudent Shaharuddin bin Maaruf would later go on to make their own marks in other topics: the former studied patronage under UMNO and the latter wrote another classic titled Concept of a Hero in Malay Society.
Rizal had a role to play in the Buru Quartet.
Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) is my favorite Indonesian movie of all times, though the original novel remains on my long list of unfinished readings. It is the first book of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s famous Buru Quartet, which tells the story of Indonesian nationalism through fiction. In 1999 the widely-acclaimed author traveled to accept an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Michigan, and in an interview he recognised Rizal as an influence.
In the second book of the series, Anak Semua Bangsa (Child of All Nations), the Dutch journalist Ter Haar likened the protagonist Minke to Rizal:
"Someone as cultivated as that, writing poems in Spanish, just as you write in Dutch. A doctor, Mr. Tollenaar, and you too intend to become a doctor. Perhaps that is no coincidence."
The book would continue to mention Rizal: learning about the events in the Philippines including Rizal’s death would be an essential catalyst to Minke’s growth. Both in history and in fiction, Rizal has influenced Indonesian thought in profound ways.
If there is something I wished to see more in this book, it would be on how Rizal sought to reconnect the Philippines with its wider regional Malay heritage - to undo the severance of historical ties caused by the Spanish colonists. This, to me, is the greatest reason why Rizal should be hailed not just as a national hero of the Philippines, but a hero of Southeast Asia-at-large. That being said, Revolutionary Spirit is undoubtedly a valuable book, a condensation of John Nery’s hard work and the essence of many historical sources he extracted from. As shown in the above examples, this book serves as a testament to Rizal’s legacy in the wider Malay archipelago while also taking a deep dive into a variety of issues in the Southeast Asian region.
Revolutionary Spirit is my very first reading about Rizal, and I am not sure at all whether this is the best starting point. The upside of starting with this book is that I am “warned” of the deficiencies in the many works on Rizal, before my understanding of him gets “contaminated”. The downside, however, is that I had a hard time following the book. Some parts were simply too abstract as I have not read anything that Nery was critiquing. If I were to choose again, I would at least start with Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo for a basic understanding before jumping straight into Revolution Spirit. This book is like a beacon in the vast world of Rizal studies, and anyone wishing to get to know Rizal better probably should read this book at some point.