Leon Ma. Guerrero’s biography of Rizal, The First Filipino, is a rambling life, punctuated by too many lengthy quotations, and written in a discursive style. However, it contains genuine insight into the Philippines’ enigmatic national hero and presents a consistent and convincing picture of Rizal as a torchbearer for rationalism and humanism martyred by an essentially medieval colonial government violently opposed to independent thought.
One thing I have never understood about Rizal is why he did not save himself while he could. Having moved most of his family to Hong Kong in 1891¬¬-1892, why did he not settle for life as simple bourgeois eye doctor with a second career as a novelist? Instead of returning to the maelstrom, why did he not decide to have an arms-length relationship with the politics of his country? As Guerrero recounts in great detail, by then he had already fallen out with many Madrid-based exiles, particularly Marcelo H. Pilar, and had refused to write any more for the journal Solidaridad. Even after his return to the Philippines and exile to Dapitan, it was not too late. Why did Rizal not take the advice of Governor General Blanco in 1894 and go to Spain? Or simply escape from Dapitan as many of his friends urged him to do?
Rizal’s own explanation of his return from Hong Kong is contained in a letter “to the Filipinos” dated 20 June 1892.
The step I have taken or am about to take is very risky no doubt and I do not have to say that I have given it much thought. I know that almost everyone is against it but I know too that almost no one knows what goes in my heart. I cannot go on living knowing that so many suffer unjust persecution because of me … I also want to show those who deny our patriotism that we know how to die doing our duty and for our convictions. What does death matter if one dies for what one loves, for one’s country and loved ones?”
This is fine as far as it goes, but it is too general to provide the complete answer—it is possible to imagine Ninoy Aquino saying the same 94 years later. It seems to me there are at least four main ways of explaining why Rizal made the choices he did.
1. He was a true intellectual who valued ideas above everything, even his own life—“a man should die for his duty and his convictions” he wrote to his parents (note not “be prepared to die for his convictions”). Rizal knew, with a certainty only the truly brilliant can ever have, that his ideas were correct and would conquer the forces of obscurantism that overwhelmed his country. Even on his last night, while assailed by priests trying to force him to recant, he clung to his Enlightenment beliefs: “But Father, what do you want me to do? It seems I cannot give up my reason” he told one persistent Jesuit.
2. Rizal found the mantle of leadership of the Filipinos impossible to shake off in favour of bourgeois respectability. Since his patriotic speech to celebrate the gold medal awarded to Juan Luna’s Spoliarium in 1884 (“the Oriental chrysalis is breaking out of its sheath”), he had been anointed the leader of the illustrados (although Guerero points out that “Rizal did not have the temperament that makes for success in politics”).
3. Rizal’s tragic and in part self-inflicted death was consistent with a dominant trait of Filipinos, a love of melodrama and the dramatic gesture.
The fourth possible explanation comes not from Guerrero, but from Rizal from Within by Ante Radaic, who refers to Rizal’s “Hamlet disposition.” (See Nick Joaquin’s essay on the two works here.)
"Rizal, the bold dreamer, strikes me as weak of will and irresolute for action and life. His withdrawal, his timidity, proved a hundred times, his timorousness, are no more than facets of his Hamlet disposition. To have been a practical revolutionary he would have needed the simple mentality of an Andrés Bonifacio. He was, I think, a faint-heart and a dubitator."
This is too strong to describe a man who displayed such heroism in his final hours, but at key points in his life Rizal did show great indecision. None of his numerous relationships with women ended in marriage until his wedding to Josephine Bracken in his death cell two hours before his execution. He travelled continuously around Europe, and his inability to settle down anywhere, or even to decide on Europe over Asia, suggests a man overwhelmed by the many and competing choices that lay before him.
This indecision pursued him to the end. Despite the statement in the letter to the Filipinos quoted above, when Rizal was finally arrested in 1898 for the crime of subversion he had just arrived in Barcelona on his way to Cuba to join the Spanish forces fighting the revolutionaries as a doctor, surely a curious occupation for a revolutionary. It is fascinating to speculate what would have happened to this brilliant man had Bonifacio not begun the revolution a few months earlier, which Rizal was unjustly executed for leading. The fourth reason for Rizal’s refusal to leave danger before it was too late would therefore read something like this.
4. Unable to decide on a career (doctor, writer, political agitator), a wife (Leonora, Tottie, Josephine, to name just a few), where to live (Madrid, London, Paris, Heidelberg, Hong Kong, Manila, Borneo), he remained in the Philippines, paralysed by indecision, until events overtook him.
To accept at least part of Radaic’s thesis does not seem to me to diminish Rizal. He was an intellectual and an artist, why should we expect him to be a Napoleon as well?
There are so many sides to this fascinating man that I can well understand why historians such as Ambeth Ocampo have dedicated much of their lives to try to figure him out. However, it is the preternatural calmness with which he awaited his (completely unjust) execution that is the most impressive part about him. To the end, he was vigorously debating theology with the many friars who pestered him to recant, writing poignant letters to his family (“Tell our father I remember him. How? I remember his tenderness and love. I ask him to forgive me for the grief which I unwillingly caused him”), marrying Josephine, and of course writing the beautiful poem Mi último adios. Perhaps the most affecting part of Rizal’s final preparations is in the last line of a letter to his family, in which he asks them to look after the dulce extranjera of Mi último adios
Pity poor Josephine.