Noli Me Tangere - Frames


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            Hello everyone! Kumusta ka! Welcome to today’s episode. The first of the batch I’ll be doing on Noli Me Tangere the pivotal novel by José Rizal that—if the back of my copy is anything to go by—is the novel that (quote) “sparked the Philippin revolution.” (end quote) I talked about this last week, but it was José Rizal’s work that turned him into the George Washington of the Philippines not his military achievements. He did not have any, but his book gave the Filipino a sense of agency again, and it brought the truth of colonialism into the public light where everyone could finally have their suspicions confirmed. And then acted upon.

            Anyway, that’s how I interpreted what I was learning about José Rizal. And as someone who likes to write stories (hint, hint I have an audio drama called The Oracle of Dusk), there was something truly awe-inspiring about a writer or storyteller becoming a national hero. Not that I have that much ambition or anything. (quieter) I don’t know. It’s just a fun thing I like doing. It’s a good way to bring people together and all that.

            (Normal volume) And this is where things get interesting, though, because even when I wrote that, I had no misconceptions that this was a narrative of my own design. It was rooted in reality, but it was also MY reality. And considering this is my podcast, that seemed thematically appropriate.

            But it turns out that everything about this book and Rizal in general, returns to the themes of presentation and the framing surrounding the narrative therein. So yeah there turned out to be something poetic in my choice.

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            Let’s start with the introduction that came with my copy of Noli Me Tangere. It’s the Penguin Classics edition translated by Harold Augenbraum, by the way.

            Augenbraum includes an introduction to the story that tries to contextualize it and Rizal’s life in a way that makes any uninformed reader understand Noli’s importance of it all. Right on that first page of that introduction, Augenbraum opens up with the spectacle that was Rizal’s execution. The story goes that Rizal was ordered to keep his back to the firing squad, so he could die as a traitor falling face down into the dirt, but Rizal had asked to face the other way. (xi) Now, story or not, it has some truth to it if you look hard enough. Poetic truth, maybe.

            It calls back to an interpretation of the “turn the other cheek” bible passage in the Gospel of Matthew: chapter five verse 39. One interpretation of that passage isn’t telling you to forgive and give the other person the chance to hit you again because, “hey, they might not.” Rather, it could have been that Jesus was advising you to present your other check because at that angle, the only way the other person could then strike you again was as an equal not as someone who was above you. That’s not Augenbraum, by the way. That’s a Biblical interpretation I remember from college whose source I couldn’t find again. Admittedly.

            On the other hand, it’s worth remembering Rizal hadn’t advocated for outright independence so much as he wanted reform. He didn’t want new; he wanted better. And in this way, you could see him fighting to keep that narrative from outright breaking. How could he be a traitor if he wasn’t betraying anything? He one wanted a better version of what was there. And honestly, that’s the best type of support you could ever give something.

            Or, he could have been taking his own advice, making his death something to be remembered. After all, as he once said to a friend, “One only dies once, and if one does not die well, a good opportunity is lost and will not present itself again.”(xxii)

            Regardless of the details, Augenbraum’s introduction captures the way that the man and his book took on a mythical status in the Filipino consciousness. These aren’t just things anymore. They are a critical part of the Filipino narrative.

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            If you couldn’t tell from the first couple seconds of this episode when I said it in passing, I’m going to do a few episodes on Noli Me Tangere. I had a lot of thoughts after reading this book, which makes sense. There’s a lot in there to think about. Partially because of the layering in the actual text of the story, the place the book as an object has taken in Filipino history, and the place this book now takes in my own life.

            For this episode, I want to focus on the framing that even lands outside of the book but is still part of the book. And I promise things will not move so slowly in the upcoming episodes, but I do think certain details are vital in understanding the work that Rizal laid out and the work his novel and he would do for the Philippines after its release and his execution.

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            To lay out a bit of the history of this book that is going to greatly influence my treatment of it, it was originally published in Germany in 1887 during Rizal’s time in Europe not because of a publishing contract but because Rizal wanted it to exist. He borrowed some money from a friend to get the initial batch of books out (xxi). Ultimately, there was no interest in the plight of colonialized people or at least not a commercial interest that a publisher was willing to stand behind. If anything, the opposite might have been true. Europeans would have had a vested interest in pretending that colonialism was an incorruptible good for the peoples it was inflicted on, but that needs to be unpacked in a different context.

            But the actual point. Rizal wanted it to exist and borrowed money from his friend to make that happen, but its contents made dissemination both slow and also somewhat inevitable because of a precursor to the Streisand Effect. The Striesand Effect an phenomenon online when suppression of an image leads it to being literally everything, The forbidden nature of this books and the attempts of governments to stifle them drew fascination, more so every time it was stopped at a border.

            Now neither Augenbraum nor anyone else can lay out the exact timeline of events between Noli’s arrival in the Philippines and the political unrest it created, but that’s partially because of a few factors. For one, a great deal of time that has passed since then, some of these records could have suppressed, and how quickli it all happened. Augenbraum says local governments grew restless in a matter of weeks (xxi) likely because of the nature of the offenses against them. And because, to be frank, Noli didn’t do more than light a match. All the fuel for the fire was already there.

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            Another thing of note, Augenbraum also points out that Rizal might have been or likely was influenced by Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables (xviii), and that feels noteworthy when you consider the numerous asides or comments Rizal put into his work, things that any contemporary editor worth their salt would have immediately cut. You see, Victor Hugo is somewhat infamous for being wordy among many other things that would warrant an advisory warning for this podcast if I were to discuss them.

            Now, Hugo might have been paid per word for Les Mis. That’s a very believable rumor which speaks to the amount of potentially needless filler Hugo packed into that book, but it seems as if Rizal had a very different takeaway.

            One of the central themes was Hugo’s novel was a philosophical one. Namely, to contrast actual good with proclaimed good, particularly as it related to law and religion.

            In Les Mis, Jean Valjean—the novel’s protagonist—starts off as a convict, an evil man for breaking his parole after being imprisoned for nineteen years after stealing bread to feed his sister’s children during a famine. In theory, the law is carried out. Valjean is caught, arrested, charged, and he’s supposed the serve his sentence, including the parole. But on parole, Valjean finds himself hated, unable to get a new start. It’s not until a kindly bishop gifts Valjean with expensive silver items that Valjean had admittedly tried to steal that Valjean is able to become an honest man.

            Restoration of goodness and grace didn’t come from obeying the law but from somewhat defying it. And that’s the contrast that defines Hugo’s book. You can tell me—the reader or anyone—what the law actually is, but when you confront me with actual people trying to make the most of their lives in extreme poverty and suppression, I might make a different choice.

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            Knowing all of that led me to conclude a couple conclusions. First, it’s an authentic portrayal of how Rizal viewed the colonial government, without anyone to restrain him, and that genuine nature spoke volumes to the people it reached. Second, that it’s a story framed in such a way as to focus on the various miscarriages of justice that plagued colonial society, contrasted to actual grace and dignity.

            And finally authorial intent aside, I personally don’t seen how this book could have ever led to reform in lieu of outright rebellion, which was supposedly what Rizal was hoping for. The Augenbraum really confirmed for me, but Rizal has completely lost say or control over his legacy. In fact, everyone has. He’s become a larger than life figure that has the same hard to lay out qualities that the term “Filipino” has. You can think that you know what it means, but the fact that this podcast is pretty much slated to go on into perpetuity should drill in the point that this is not an easy thing to define.

            Maybe the romantic side of him would like to know of his larger than life presence. It certainly would certain seem in character, but yeah, none of us have any real way of knowing.

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            Noli Me Tangere is also known by the title The Social Cancer, but that’s not a literal translation nor is it all that good of  a replacement title. It cuts straight to the point while missing the nuance of Rizal’s actual choice.

            Rizal took the title from a Biblical passage in St. John’s Gospel: Chapter 20, verse 17 The whole thing reads “Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascended unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.”

            Here’s the whole picture. Basically after being crucified, Jesus is making his rounds visiting his disciples, and He runs into Mary Magdalene who immediately goes to touch him, thrilled Him (quote) “alive,” and Jesus is just like “Touch Me Not” which is the literal translation of Noli Me Tangere. Now when you consider that after this, Jesus lets His Disciples handle His wounds, it’s a bit hard to understand why she’s the exception. I mean we could go into the whole socio-historical contextualization of this particular gospel book relatively to the life of Jesus and the history of Christianity, but no, let’s lot. If we don’t do that, there’s two basic interpretations.

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            One, at that point, because He sees her first or relatively early on, the wounds of the Crucifixion are still very fresh, and Jesus in his bodily form can very much still feel pain. And touch was a way to instill belief that Mary Magdalene very much had in Him. So her touching him would have been pointless but still very much painful. Hence why he made that choice.

            Second, while you might have interpreted the text to mean, she might have not just be touching Him or poking Him or tapping on Him in some way, she might have been doing a lot of. She might have been hugging him or outright restraining Him in some way. It’s possible that her joy and love for Him might have actually been hindering Him from doing His Resurrection work. And He was telling her not to do that, but to send forth the Good News instead.

            Either way, both interpretations have a thread that connects them that could actually be what Rizal was trying to get at. When Mary Magdalene see Jesus, there is pain and suffering, and focusing on that or constantly mishandling that, is only going to hinder things. Worshipping this pain for pain’s sake isn’t going to yield anything. You need momentum. You need to go forth. You need to spread the good news of change. This novel is meant to give momentum to the plights laid out in the story, and it’s fairly poetic that this message comes from one of the main tools of the colonial government: religion.

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            It’s important to remember that unlike most colonial governments, it wasn’t the general or appointed governors that truly held power. It was the friars (xiii – xiv). There could have been various reasons for this. Augenbraum’s writing led me to think it was because forming a unified Spanish-dictated identity in the Philippines was hard with so many different ethnolinguistic groups whereas missionaries were able to adapt certain aspects of pre-existing religions into the Christian schema, making this new religion even more tolerable. But it’s hard to lay out every single factor that gave the church advantages in this power struggle.

            On the other hand, if you take Rizal’s portrayal of church-people reactions at face value, there’s probably an epiphany to be had when—within the first thirty pages or so—a priest openly brags about the devotion people in various communities show him despite the fact that he does not speak their language and his efforts to learn have been a bit… lacking. He can’t even understand the confessions people offer him, but he still goes through the motions, prescribes an arbitrarily selected penance that likely does not fit the sins he (in soft air quotes) heard, and offers forgiveness as if anything in that schema makes sense. Which it doesn’t.

            But the people still adore. They’re still trying to hold onto something anything, that links them to that higher force or power. Almost like it’s a genuine urge or desire.

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            And it may very well be. Now Rizal clearly holds that structure of the church in contempt. With reason and influenced by personal circumstances. But it’s the structure he has a problem with not so much the whole.


            When reading the book with modern eyes, you can see that the friars and priests of Noli Me Tangere are largely just going through the motions. Like the aforementioned example of a priest hearing confessions he doesn’t understand. Where’s the theology? Where’s the actually divinity. Now, technically. Technically. According to canon law, it would be acceptable for a priest to offer absolution to someone he doesn’t understand in so small part because the church keeps a “sometimes bad things happen and you have to make a judgment call” card in the figurative pocket. Which isn’t bad in all situations. For example, a baby born very sickly and on the verge of death  can be hastily baptized in the minutes between its first breath and last by anyone in good standing with the church. Because, yeah, this is a terrible and tragic situation. Let’s not use bureaucracy and theology to make it even worse.

            I don’t think Rizal would object too much to something like that. After all, he doesn’t seem entirely anti-faith, though that might just be a sign of his times. Ultimately, it seems like to him, the divine still lingers, but the structure built upon that foundation is rotting. And I think this was strongest in that first page marked “to my country” (3). I think it’s this passage where the alternative title The Social Cancer comes from. Rizal uses that term to refer to the suffering specific to the people of the Philippines as being a most heinous cancer that they haven’t seemed to have notice. They haven’t been able to see just yet, so he has to lift the veil off of them. He wants to bring it to their attention, like when the ancients placed the sick (quote) “on the steps of their temples so that each in his own way could invoke the divinity that might offer the cure.” (end quote) And it seems like Rizal sources this cure as being in the people and in his country. If they can only see the affliction on their skin, they can treat.

            Now, I don’t deny that Rizal invoked the word “divinity” in the context of comparing his countrymen to the ancient philosophers of days gone by to whom nearly everything could be considered divine. Consequently, I have to admit that it might not have had any extra significance or meaning, and maybe I shouldn’t be going down this route. But at the same time, he’s ascribing a great deal of power to the conscious awareness of his people in a way that—to me—read like a callback to the divine and a divine power. Just because it’s not vested in the church doesn’t mean it doesn’t actual exist. It could just elsewhere. Both interpretations—that it doesn’t exist versus exists elsewhere—without further information, are both equally valid.

            And when you consider the aforementioned uproar this book caused, the eventual march towards complete independence, I would default more to saying that there was power within the Filipino people that merely need to be awakened. And that it was in many ways divine.

            And that this, quite possibly, is what they were looking for.

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            Now, I’m hesitant to close out this or any episode on this book without linking it back to me, but to be honest, I have less to say on this than I will on other aspects of the story. Because, yes, despite the time and space divide, I still hear the march of Rizal’s proverbial drums. I feel connected to this book in a way I wasn’t expecting to feel. And I’m not sure why I wasn’t expecting it. Maybe because my cousin’s Facebook post, made from the perspective of someone taking on a difficult homework assignment, whereas I get to come with this with a sense of unhindered optimism and discovery. Possibly, but really, it’s hard to say.

            If you haven’t read this book yet, I’d go ahead and get on that. And I would recommend the edition with the introduction by Augenbraum, even if it is a bit more expensive than some of the others. Even if it’s only because it might help you understand any of other things I’ll say about this book. But that’s all coming later.

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