The Danger of Noli Me Tangere


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            Hello everyone! Kumusta ka! Welcome to today’s episode. The final episode on Noli Me Tangere for a while. (Pause) Yeah, I’m probably going to come back to it. Because that seems inevitable in many ways. I mean, for one there’s a lot more to say about Rizal and his other books. But this is my podcast, and I feel like mixing things up a little bit and get back to myths, legends, and old tales for a while because remember, this partially started when a YouTube video reminded me of my grandfather’s stories.

            Actually, it’s okay if you don’t remember that. The pilot episode was over a year ago. But there are some things about me I haven’t said before that I should probably tell you now because it’s kind of relevant to the actual episode today.

            So fun fact about me. I actually double majored in college, and one of those majors was theology. Particularly Catholic theology given that I went to a very Catholic institution, but I did take classes on other world religions when it was possible.

And knowing that if you think I’m an expert or have any additional insight on the Catholic theological tradition that might be relevant to this book or been contradicted by this book. I’m not sure where you got that impression.

            Now for anyone who dislikes organized religion, somebody saying “I don’t know about that” regarding anything religious is frustrating because it sounds like a copout. And when you get to Catholic majority countries, I pretty sure that happens a lot. But the major takeaway I had from a major I could have taken more seriously is that the Catholic tradition is very vast and detailed, particularly in the wake of Vatican II and with so many ecclesiastical movements and groups sprouting up. Forgot after the Reformation for a second. Essentially, once there was a loosening on the theological reigns, different aspects of the religion were explored from different angles. Different questions had multiple albeit very similar answers, and for things like “Why does God permit suffering?” that was always the case.

            In Noli Me Tangere, the relevant theological question is… Well, okay, it’s one of many that this book addresses and needed to address in this grand plan for Filipino life-improvement (and I’m putting it that way to cover all my bases). But today’s theme that I want to discuss concerns divine grace and what authentic goodness is supposed to be in this particular context. Namely, according to Rizal, “goodness” wasn’t in the church authorities that held great political influence in the then Spanish colony, and that the colonial order wasn’t the divine order that they wanted you to think it was.

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            It’s a theme that I got clued into when I was reading Augenbraum’s introduction to my edition. In which he mentioned that Rizal was likely influenced by Victor Hugo’s famously giant and famous as in classic novel Les Miserables, the story of a convict finding redemption but not by accepting the punishment and judgment of the state, which was 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children, and a couple escape attempts, yes, but he also has to identify himself as a convict for the rest of his life, so either way it’s harsh. No need to split hair. Rather, Valjean finds redemption when his soul is essentially purchased by a bishop with some silver, allowing him to completely reinvent himself with that money and actually find redemption through works but works he could only pursue when he broke his parole and the law in order to escape his status as a convict.

            For Hugo, there is such a thing as justice and morality, even if the state—as depicted through Javert—has a distorted view of it. And that’s the view of the church I want to take in Rizal’s novel. It’s not necessarily that the theology of the church is right or wrong. Logic or doctrine isn’t so relevant in that context. Rizal is instead focusing on matters of practice. Largely because two individuals on opposing sides might be devoted to the same virtues that they are only practicing differently, if at all.

            In saying that, I’m stepping away from actual doctrine. Because to Rizal, it doesn’t matter. And maybe that’s why he was seen as such a controversial figure who needed to be executed. You couldn’t outright condemn him for breaking doctrine when he didn’t care about doctrine. And remember, heresy was a great excuse for execution. And also a sin that put your immortal soul at jeopardy. So with the stakes so high, convincing someone they were wrong just seemed more possible. But they didn’t try that here. Sure, the Catholic Church had never been all that great at handling theological disagreements, and why burn someone at the stake when you’re a powerful political force and can use those methods of execution instead? But you could explain why bad theology is bad theology and compel someone to at least listen to you.

            And also, the novel doesn’t include grand discussion on theology at all nor is it explicitly subversive. The protagonist Crisóstomo Ibarra is motivated by the desire to do good works for his country. Not to overthrow the church or become a saint or any theological. And as noble as that intention was, his attempts end up going awry. And that’s where the important break is.

            Really, it’s not a matter of theology or belief but an accounting for action and wrongdoing.

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            So obligatory spoiler warning because it’s kind of relevant but on the other hand, saying a colonial government is the villain and that it’s representatives do evil things is probably obvious given the book’s status as a revolutionary force. Look, fair enough either way. Anything I can do or say to make you not read this book is something to be avoided, though, so there’s my endorsement—yet again. If you care about spoilers, go read the book before you listen to this episode.

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            Crisóstomo—despite his father’s death and undignified burial—is a man of great wealth and status, beloved by many for his honorable nature but not by others because of his blood be it his father’s or the racial makeup therein.

            His father ended up dead because of a friar’s scheming, and Crisóstomo essentially ended up inheriting that problem. But on the other hand, ethnically, he’s mestizo, as they call it—partially Filipino and partially foreign. The word itself is derived from the Spanish language, though the term itself could refer to any combination of ancestries. And I remember as a mixed person, that there was this lingering aesthetic preference for the features and looks of mixed race children within the cultural memory. However, within the colonial government, I guess not so much.

            This comes up in two different ways that I want to talk about:  Crisóstomo’s attempts to better his community and his attempts to better his own life. Actually, that latter bit means attempts to marry the woman he has loved for a long time, María Clara, who does love him back, but I was trying to set up a turn of phrase, so bear with me.

            In either situation, Crisóstomo is positioned as the good and righteous force if not ideal, aiming to improve the lives of the Filipino people while the colonial government, particularly the friars, are seeking to undercut his attempts. It’s not necessarily a subversion of expectations. Remember, this novel was for the Filipino people who lived this reality. It was more like a depiction of the way the actual narrative has been subverted. Those who were doing good for the Filipino people were often outside of the system that was, at first glance, entrusted with the preservation and perpetuation of that good. And the attempts to actually do right were being undercut by the system. A system that was supposed to be doing to opposite of undercutting what was good.

            To bring it back to Hugo, you see a similar narrative within his novel. The ex-convict with a heart of gold is just trying to do good and take care of a little orphan girl, but the inspector is chasing him down for breaking parole, and so Valjean never gets to do what he could have done. In Noli Me Tangere, on the other hand, the system isn’t just trying to blindly execute a command like an adolescent AI with no boundaries. Rather, and this should be telling, instead of trying to execute an idea to an illogical end, it’s focused strictly on self-preservation. And rather than being collateral damage for an ideal, the Filpino people end up being sacrificial lambs to that ideal, an ideal that really doesn’t mean anything when you look at it the right way.


            I want to say that Rizal took the themes of Les Mis one step further, and I think that’s why his novel was seen as such a threat whereas Les Mis landed a bit more on the annoying side, but yes, I need to get around to unpacking all of that.

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            Considering how important education still is to Filipinos and is within all of political theory in general, I think this is a perfectly thematic conflict for Rizal to depend much of his novel on. So the novel starts off, and Crisóstomo is returning from Europe trying to or determined to fulfill his father’s plans for him. Those plans being, that Crisóstomo should use what he learned in Europe to improve the lives of his countrymen and serve them as much as he is able to.

            To fulfill that, Crisóstomo decides that the best thing he could do is build a school for his community. Because, and here’s the thing, he’s realized from his time in Europe that the current school system is not great, and he is t is supposedly hindered it. The friars want to maintain the status quo and keep the populace somewhat uneducated. And it really is the friars not the actual secular authorities that Crisóstomo is working against. The Spanish authorities are fine with his plan, and because of it, the initial planning stage goes smoothly. The problem is that the secular Spanish authorities aren’t really the ones in control when it comes to day to day life.

            And so begins the major conflict between Crisóstomo and Padre Dámaso that starts off with a plan to kill him at the cornerstone ceremony because why hold back at all? The point is to destroy him and physically doing that is pretty effective. I mean, it accomplishes what you’ve been trying to do.

            But Crisóstomo is able to avoid that fate, for now. Here’s the point though. Ultimately, what would be lost if there was a school built but the sense of control the friars had over the population. That’s what Rizal wants you to see. Crisóstomo isn’t doing a bad thing by building a school, and yes, it might have problems and his teaching methods or whatever could fail. But he’s trying to move the community forward. On that general level, the only thing you could for sure know would be lost was the friar’s sense of control over the populace. And just to add salt to that wound, it’s control they never had over Crisóstomo unless they can kill him but control they could technically take if they kill him.

            But this isn’t a fight for control in the sense that one person will have the prize at the end of the day. All Crisóstomo wants it really is about helping his countrymen. He just wants to try and improve their lives and make them more independent. He’s not trying to replace a dictator; he’s trying to break a dictator’s throne.

            You have, in him, the actual force that seeks to aid and improve the Philippines. He is the spirit of progress, and what happens when he comes to the Philippines? He’s immediately fought against. Actual goodness is hindered by the perception of goodness. Or the convict is run out of a town that needs him by the inspector.

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            In terms of his love life, this is where the issue of Crisóstomo’s parentage becomes relevant. Jump back to María Clara for a second, she finds out about her true parentage as actually being Padre Dámaso’s daughter and then she ends up stuck under the dominion of this Padre/actual father that she doesn’t really seem to like that much. In so far as Padre Dámaso actually cares about his surprise child, I get the impression that it’s care in a very controlling way. He wants to make demands on her, and he wants his biased beliefs about good and bad to be the law in her life. Consequently, he doesn’t want her to marry somebody she loves and who loves her back. Instead, he wants her to marry a full-blooded Spaniard, saying that that’s the only way she could be completely and truly happy. It’s not about having a husband who loves her, adores her, and treasures her. It’s not even about having a godly and righteous man. It’s about status and the perception of superiority through marriage.

            See, the thing about this example is that this is when we step away from church doctrine and move towards corruption in a religious context. There is no scripture to back this up, there’s no tying her to someone of a religious family, one of the friars has a disturbing interest in her, which is irrelevant here, but instead, it’s just about throwing her into that upper echelon of society despite there not necessarily being a justification for it.

            And hey, the only other reason Crisóstomo is a bad choice is because Padre Dámaso keeps going after him. So he could just not do that if he wanted his daughter (surprise daughter) to be happy.

            The closest thing he has to a religious guiding principle is when María Clara protests that if she can’t have her beloved than it’s the convent or death. And he rules out death because of the prohibition against suicide. He does know that horrible things will happen to her in the convent because, not surprising plot twist, hypocrisy invades the convent when a friar does, but once again, he could have prevented all of that by keeping his pride in check in the first place. This isn’t about María Clara. This is about him having his way with what he sees as his property.

            All of this could have been avoided had Padre Dámaso remembered his place.

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            And that’s a pretty big point. Padre Dámaso should remember his place as a servant of God, but instead he is supposed to stand as a stand in for the corruption of the colonial government, and what’s telling is that his only motivation seems to be his self-preservation. Whether it be for his physical body or for the statute his gained in the community. He’ll call back to religion when it’s convenient or when a situation doesn’t directly impact him, but that’s about it. He wants to be loved but does nothing to inspire love. He doesn’t want to serve the people but for it to look like he is. Ultimately, in this light, Noli Me Tangere is a novel preaching against false hood and false appearance not faith. It’s a novel against domination not belief. And maybe that also explains why the Philippines remains so devoutly Catholic despite the force that brought Catholicism to them.

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            However, that last question is way above my pay grade, as the saying goes. So at least we get to play around next episode. I’m not sure what myth I’m going to be telling, but it will be a story. Yay story time!

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