Ferdinand Blumentritt: An Austrian Life for the Philippines

Harry Sichrovsky (1983/87)

Noli me tangere

Even as a student and a budding physician in Madrid, the twenty- four year old Rizal had already reached the decision of writing a novel. Where he got the time to do it remains puzzling, since along with his medical subjects, he was also learning several languages, English from German textbooks, French from Italian textbooks, and ancient and modern history as well. Eventually, in addition to all of these, he translated into Tagalog Schiller's William Tell and several fairy tales of Andersen.

Now he wanted to describe the life of his people in a small provincial town in a novel. Did he want to find a place in the history of his country as a novelist? Was it his intention to add to his numerous talents as physician, historian, poet, sculptor, that of a literary man as well? Was his work meant as an agitatory contribution to the freedom fight of the Philippines? Did he plan, did he know what he would evoke with it, what significance his book would have for the further development of the history of his country?

Questions with no answers. The fact remains that he began writing in Madrid, where he finished about half of the book, continued the work in Paris, and ended it in Leipzig. He put the final touches on the book on February 21, 1887.

First of all, however, he had no money for the publication. Since the book was written in Spanish, he could not hope to publish it in Madrid, since the contents would immediately be censored. At any rate, no Spanish printer would take the risk. And that outside of Spain, printing in a foreign language was somewhat expensive. His brother, Paciano, sent him three hundred pesos and in the end, it was the wealthy Maximo Viola, who, despite the resistance of the modest Rizal, paid the printing expenses of two thousand copies. Some three weeks later, in the middle of March, the first copies came out of the printing presses of the "Setzerinnungsschule des Letter-Vereins, Berliner Buchdrukkerei AG" (Guild school of typesetters, berlin Book Printing Press Co.). The well-known Spanish writer, Vicente Blasco Ibañez, volunteered his services as consultant and proof reader.

Rizal named his book Noli me tangere, in German Rühre mich nicht an or Berühre mich nicht (in English, Touch me not). The title has its origin in a famous biblical passage; the Gospel of John, twentieth chapter, which narrated how Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection. It says in Verse 17: "Then Jesus speaks to her: Touch me not, for I have not yet ascended to My Father. But go to My brothers and tell them: I am going to My Father, to My God and your God." Rizal had seen in the Prado Museum in Madrid the famous painting of Corregio which depicts the scene.

Rizal wanted perhaps to express with the novel, that for the first time he was dealing with problems and conditions, which up to then no one dared to touch on. Or, that the Spanish colonial regime, with its censor, had not, up to then, given the permission to make reference to these matters. In any case, the title can only mean that, here, reference was made to a taboo, which up to then was considered untouchable.

The Noli, as it would soon be called, owing to the Spanish partiality for contractions, and under which name it is familiarly called today, has, in many ways, autobigraphical features: Crisostomo Ibarra, son of a wealthy landowner, returns from his studies from Madrid to the provincial town of San Diego, located near Manila. He does not know that his father, Rafael, was arrested while he was away, because he had defended a child against the brutaliiy of a tax collector. Rafael dies in prison, but the priest, Padre Damaso, denies him a Christian burial, because he considers him a free-thinker, who never went to confession. When the young Ibarra learns of the fate of his father, he immediately want to wreak vengeance. So then he sets a plan. Instead, he will put up a modern school and will emancipate the people through liberal education. Ibana has been engaged for a long time, to the daughter of Capitan Tiago, Maria Clara. Padre Salvi, the new parish priest, however, is himself secretly in love with the girl and does everything not only to prevent the marriage, but also to get Ibarra out of the way.

At the laying of the cornerstone of the school, Ibarra almost loses his life in an accident, apparently planned and set in motion intentionally, had he not been saved in the nick of time by the mysterious boatman, Elias, who later on in the novel is somehow always to appear suddenly, and at the right moment. Padre Damaso is also an avowed enemy of Ibarra and of his marriage plans. During a banquet on the occasion of the opening of the school, Damaso hurls such insults against Ibarra's dead father that Ibarra lunges at the priest. Ibarra is promptly excommunicated because of the assault on the priest. He is prohibited from seeing his fiancee. In the meantime some native priests of the lower clergy, especially chaplains, prepare an insurrection.

Here, also, it is obviously a provocation, because not only is the uprising nipped in the bud through the betrayal of a priest but also the friars spread the rumor that Ibarra led the rebellion and financed it with his money. Ibarra is arrested, the evidence against him is fabricated through his letters from abroad to Maria Clara. These letters contain critical remarks against the Spanish rule. And, once again, the mysterious Elias is at hand to help Ibarra escape from prison. They flee in Elias' boat. On the way, they are apprehended by constables who open fire. One of the two is killed, though it remains a mystery up to the end of the novel, whether it is Ibarra or Elias. In the meantime it becomes apparent that Padre Damaso is in reality the father of Maria Clara. The girl, who thinks that Ibarra is dead, refuses to marry a relative of the priest and enters the convent.

All of this is depicted in exaggerated melodrama, although occasionally not without humor. According to present literary concepts, the Noli is a sentimental, trivial novel. To be sure, it conformed to the social novels of the epoch of a hundred years ago. Rizal himself declared that he was influenced by Dickens, Zola, and Daudet, but above all, by Alexandre Dumas and his Count of Monte Cristo.

Judged purely by its content, it is difficult to believe that the Noli, in the final analysis, had a similar signal effect for the Philippine revolution as UncIe Tom's Cabin had for the liberation of the Negro slaves in North America. The Noli is often compared to this novel.

The comparison becomes evident only when one considers some special features. First of all, Rizal, as already mentioned, assimilated here many events from his personal history. And even more, as an innocent, persecuted leader of a revolution, which he neither wanted nor organized, Rizal anticipated his own action for which, in the end, he paid with his life. In his letters to Blumentritt, Rizal stresses the fact that every character in the Noli is drawn from real life, that every episode can be repeated on any day in the Philippines, that he experienced not only the events depicted in the novel but also even much worse ones.

The real explosive value of the book lies in its dialogues which take up subject-matters and present them to the public for the first time; subject-matters which, until then, were at best only whispered in secret, which precisely, in the sense of the title - no one dared touch on. As early as the first debate, Padre Damaso cursed and swore against the proposed reforms of the government in Madrid, which were meant to make the lives of the "indolent natives" easy. Yet, are the natives really born lazy? "Or is that foreign traveller right, who says that we Spaniards raise the complaint about the indolence of the natives merely to justify our own indolence, and the lack of progress in our colony, as well?" Ibarra asks in return.

In a conversation with Tasio, a wise, old philosopher of the town, who explains to him the almighty power of the friars, Ibarra himself assumes the role of a sceptic, who defends the friars against an altogether too severe criticism: "I can not imagine that the brothers are as powerful as you describe them. And granted that, the people and the government, which have the best intentions for the Philippines are on my side," Ibarra, who is seeking support for his school project, asserts.

"The government, the government," the old man exclaims mockingly, "the government hears nothing, sees nothing, and decides nothing which the priest or the general of the order has not, of course, heard, seen or decided already ... The government does not plan for a better future, it is just the arm, but the head which moves it is the monastery."

And to the objection that the people neither complained nor suffered, hence would be able to live under the protective wing of the church, the old man says in reply, that one does not hear the complaints because the people have no voice, because they live as if in a daze, because no one sees their hearts bleed. Yet, one day, the reaction will be dreadful, when all those forces which have been suppressed and strangled for centuries, when all repressed and stifled feelings will erupt into a powerful explosion.

In the discussion between Ibarra and the mysterious Elias, the contrast between revolutionaries and reformists is once again exposed. Elias presents his program: "Radical reforms in the army, in the clergy, in the justice machinery ... more concern of the government for human dignity, more security for the citizen, less privileges for an authority which misuses them."

Ibarra promises to bring his influence to bear in Madrid in order to achieve reforms, though there are necessary evils, to keep law and order upright. Elias counters by demanding a radical cure for the evils. The state is an organism, infected with a chronic illness. Indeed, he would be a bad physician who would restrain only the symptoms without going to the root of their causes and destroying it.

In the last conversation, the roles are suddenly changed. On account of his experiences, Ibarra becomes a revolutionary, while Elias, who is apparantly well-versed in underground work warns against hasty, ill-prepared actions. Nevertheless, to no avail. He advises Ibarra to lead the fight from Spain, where the latter has influential friends. Elias warns against initiating a war in which only the defenseless and innocent would be the victims. Ibarra, however, averts that he has been blind, and now the blindfold has been removed from his eyes. Now he sees the cancerous growth, which is destroying the society and which has to be operated on. And he ends with a burning call: "I want to become an agitator, a real agitator. I want to call on the suppressed ... No, that will not be a crime, it will never be a crime to fight for one's country." And he turns to the Spanish people: "We have stretched out our hands to them for three centuries, we asked for their love; we wanted to make them our brothers. But what was their answer? Insults, humiliation, sarcasm, even refusal to recognize us as fellow-human beings. But God ... will not leave us; He who extended his helpful hand to all peoples, who fought for their independence!"

Some books were sent by regular mail to Madrid, where they made the rounds. In Barcelona, the book was also circulated and had, as reported, a tumultuous turnover, after the book-sellers had ordered more copies. A large shipment of the Noli was seized by the customs authorities in Manila and held for a long time, because the censors withheld the import permit. By devious means, the books finally got to the city, where they were circulated in a bazaar by a bookseller, a prominent free-mason. Rizal himself expressed the suspicion that a considerable number of the Noli had been purchased in bulk by the monks in order to destroy them. The historians are still arguing about how many of the two thousand copies reached the readers. And, according to dispassionate analysis, they add up to not more than half of the printing, thus about a thousand copies. Moreover, it should be considered that the book was written in Spanish and therefore was accesible to just a small group of the educated, the so-called "ilustrados", while the great mass of the Tagalog-speaking Filipinos was, to begin with, excluded as readers. And yet these thousand copies exerted an explosive effect, were of decisive influence and changed as no other event had, the course of Philippine history at the end of the nineteenth century. (In fact, Rizal finds himself here in not quite too bad a company because, of the first volume of the "Capital" by Karl Marx, not more than a thousand copies were distributed from the first printing.)

Two factors contributed decisively to this development, two antipodes, which deal with the two motives fully opposing each other:
the clergy and Ferdinand Blumentritt.

The religious authorities lost no time in their attacks, immediately after the publication of the book. On orders of the Archbishop, Pedro Payo, a special commission of the University of Santo Tomas - whose student Rizal was - was formed to investigate the Noli. Their decision was swiftly submitted, and the book was classified as "heretical, godless and scandalous, from the standpoint of the religious; anti-patriotic, subversive against the public order, as well as offensive to the Spanish government and the administration of the island, from the political aspect."

Governor Terrero was, however, apparently not impressed and attempted to avert the ecclesiastical ex-communication of Rizal. He referred the act to the competent censors commission under the chairmanship of the Augustinian priest, Salvador Font, parish priest of Tondo. That did Rizal no good. The censors commission came to the conclusion of recommending to the governor-general, after an investigation of more than six months, "the absolute and unconditional prohibition of the importation, printing and distribution of this pernicious book". With unintentional irony, the reasons given are, Rizal attempted to ruin the integrity of that country, which made the Philippines "the freest and culturally highest among the countries under the protection of European countries; (the Filipinos) the luckiest race, which lives under the beneficent shadow of fatherly laws"; the biggest monument, which heroic and incomparable Spain has erected "in order to protect and raise a young people entrusted to her by God ..."

The prior of the monastery of Guadalupe, the Augustinian Jose Rodriguez went a step further by threatening in a pamphlet every reader of the Noli with the anathema of mortal sin, since the book was pure heresy. Up to now there are dioceses in the Philippines in which the Noli stands in the index!

Nevertheless, Rizal also had some few defenders among priests. The most prominent among them was Father Vicente Garcia, canon of the Cathedral of Manila, who, in a pamphlet publishd in Singapore under a pseudonym, refuted the charges against Rizal with the remark that the author did not insult and attack the religion, the church, or Spain, rather, the incapable and incompetent officials and corrupt friars. By the way, Father Rodriguez himself committed a mortal sin, since he must have read the Noli in order to be able to refute it.

Everything that was brought into play to persecute the Noli is shown by the following report from the newspaper, "Hongkong Telegraph" of july 21,1888: "Last Tuesday night, the seventeen of this month, the house of a medical student by the name of Laureado Viado was searched by the municipal officer, Don Martin Piraces, and his secretary, Don Rafael Llanos. They were accompanied by sveral policemen, who turned the house over. The civil governor, the chief inspector of the police, two inspectors, and several government officials were also present. The outcome of the search was that some books with the title Noli me tangere (written by Mr. Rizal) as well as some books and letters from Europe were found. The poor student and his landlord were immediately shackled with manacles and, without a trial, transferred as prisoners to the Bilibid Prisons, since, according to the Spanish penal law, it is forbidden to read a book which is directed against church officials. The young man explained that he bought the books in a shop with the name 'Great Britain'. The next morning, the shop of Mr. Ramos and his house were searched from 11:00 forenoon till 2:00 in the afternoon. At 6:00 in the evening of the same day, the house of the father of Mr. Ramos in Pandacan was searched too. The house of the governor of Binondo was likewise searched. No books were found in any of these houses. The man who gave the information about all of this is the brother of a friar. The search of the houses in Manila and Cavite is being continued ..."

The discussion about the book reached as far as Madrid, where in a debate in the Cortes, it was branded by a delegate as "anti-Catholic, Protestant, socialistic and Proudhonistic (Proudhon: French socialist leader,1809-1865), all in one breath.

All things considered, however, the campaign of the clergy against the book was probably the best advertisement for the Noli . A big circle in Spain and in the Philippines became aware of the book only through the public polemics and the banishment order. The copies shifted from hand to hand among Manila's student circles.

Even years after the publication of the Noli, the Hongkong papers reported over and over again about house searches, confiscations and arrests, done because of ownership or reading of the book.

In the West, however, in Europe and North America, it was Ferdinand Blumentritt, who became an indefatigable agitator and champion of the Noli. Rizal sent one of the first copies to his friend with the note: "Here, I am sending my book to you. It is my first book, although I have already written much and received some prizes for poetry." It is the first impartial and couragous book about the life of the Tagalogs, Rizal commented. The Filipinos would find here their history of the past ten years. Rizal was reckoning with the counter-attack of the government and the friars, but put his trust in the God of truth. "I am giving here an answer to everything that has been written about us and that has happened to us."

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created: February 14, 1997
updated: March 28, 1998
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger