To write is to lay bare one’s soul, in so many words, for all to see. To read a book, then, is to look into the soul of its author.
I have just finished reading Leon Maria Guerrero’s highly readable English translation of Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and am now moving on to its sequel “El Filibusterismo”. My purpose in this, to look into Rizal’s soul, is to inquire about his ideas on freedom. I want to see how Rizal’s ideas of rights and freedom match either the socialist or capitalist notions of rights and freedom. Rizal wrote these novels in the late 19th century, about a couple of decades after Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” and about a century after Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”. Was Rizal more influenced by “Das Kapital” more than by “Wealth of Nations”? Or was it the other way around? This question requires another blog piece, which I will write later.
The premise I start with is that Rizal was a genius, but like all of us mere mortals he was a slave to ideas he had been exposed to. Many people claim that they are practical and are not influenced by any abstract idea, not realizing that by going to church or watching any movie, they are influenced by one intellectual or another who is in turn influenced by an original thinker. The fact is that every belief we hold can be traced to an original thinker who has written about it in the past. Even great thinkers themselves had to start from truths already established before they contributed their own original ideas.
Imagine that you are an actor or actress in a movie. You assume the personality of a character, and every word that comes out of your mouth follow a script. In real life, we also follow our own scripts. We live our daily lives according to our script, a dynamic script that itself may or may not change slowly as we experience our existence. Life is a script, but we have the power to change that script. We can author our lives to be either contrived to be tragic or designed to be triumphant. Rizal has authored both his life and Noli Me Tangere to be tragic, but his genius is that deep within his tragedy is hidden a seed for hope and eventual triumph.
Small minds, in an attempt to hide their limited expanse, reduce the stature of great minds by focusing on the wrong aspects of a great person’s life. The documentary film “Bayaning Third World” focuses on the wrong questions as to lose the meaning of Rizal’s life altogether. One question that the film focused on is whether Rizal retracted all his writings just prior to his execution. One cannot retract full contents of books in a page of denunciations: it requires books to retract one’s soul laid bare in prior books. What exactly was being retracted? What logic was followed to arrive at an opposing conclusion? Rizal’s alleged retraction, even if it were true, is relatively an insignificant event compared to the structural beauty of his plot and the grandeur of the characters in his novels. Instead of focusing on his warts, we should rather be focused on Rizal’s outpouring of his soul in his novels and other writings.
Reading a book written by somebody who lived some time ago is like listening to a dead person, who comes alive through the pages of that book. Digital technology can help us push this idea of dead persons talking one step further: what if we can freeze Rizal’s script and play it in the present world? “Bayaning Third World” uses a literary tool in which a character in the present talks to another character in the past. Aside from the fascinating effect of making a dead person come alive, this poses in fact a real possibility with the advent of digital computers. When we Google a phrase, we are basically asking a question for all of the Internet to answer. Google basically searches the whole Internet to find answers to questions. We can come up with a smart program (smarter than the Google search engine) that embodies all of Rizal’s written materials, including all the logic employed in his thinking. This program can then be a static representation of Rizal’s thinking (by “static” I mean no emotions and no maturation process), a static version of the script by which our national hero lived. We can then ask this automaton (who thinks he is Rizal himself) any question we want. My very first question would be not about his retraction, but about his ideas on freedom.