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Monday, March 26, 2012

Disease as Metaphor: Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo

In the world of literature, diseases are often used to represent dysfunctional societies.

An Internet definition describes disease as "any disturbance or anomaly in the normal functioning of the body that probably has a specific cause and identifiable symptoms. Diseases are one of the factors threatening us from having a properly functional life. Throughout our history, epidemics have caused the extinction of whole populations. Over the last century, man has discovered many microorganisms that cause diseases in humans and animals, and has learned how to protect himself from them, by either prevention or treatment" (Era-net PathoGenoMics, 2007).

If that definition is applied to characterize social malady, it will be:

A social malady is any disturbance or anomaly in the normal functioning of society that probably has a specific cause and identifiable symptoms. Social afflictions are one of the factors threatening us from having a properly functional society. Throughout our history, social injustice, political tyranny and religious abuses have caused the extinction of whole populations. Over the last century, man has discovered various factors, origins and agents that cause society's degeneration and decadence and has learned how to protect himself from them, by either prevention or purgation.

Some works of literature that utilize diseases and epidemics as society's allegorical symbols are Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love In The Time of Cholera (Colombia, 1988); Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward (Russia, 1967); Albert Camus' The Plague (France, 1947); Thomas Mann's Death In Venice (Germany, 1912) and Magic Mountain (Germany, 1924); Joseph Marie Eugene Sue's The Wandering Jew (France, 1844); Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" (United States, 1842); and Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron (Italy, 1353).

As shown by the examples, societies and cultures suffer the same ailments across time and space.

Moreover, the choice of a specific malady to represent a schematic idea varies among authors. Some use the prevailing disease of the time when the piece of literature is set. The 1340s bubonic plague or black death was used both as a backdrop and social commentary by Boccaccio in The Decameron and the 1830s cholera epidemic was used in The Wandering Jew, Death in Venice, The Plague, and Love in the Time of Cholera. Others use personal experiences like Solzhenitsyn in Cancer Ward and Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Mann in "The Masque of the Red Death" and Magic Mountain, respectively. Mann's wife was suffering from lung disease during the time the novel was being written. Likewise, Poe's wife was suffering from tuberculosis (or consumption as it was known at the time) when the former was writing the short story "The Masque of the Red Death."

Noli Me Tangere was published in Berlin in 1887. Through the novel, the stifled cry of the natives found release.

"Noli" is a canvass of the 19th century Philippines during the last years of Spanish colonization. It is peopled with characters whose colorful stories range from painful to mysterious, from romantic to bizarre. As Saramago, in his 1998 Nobel Lecture said, "it was with such men and women risen from the ground, real people first, figures of fiction later."

There are the old women and men who tally divine indulgences for tickets to heaven and numbered stubs to save souls in purgatory. Then there are the men in skirts who make thriving businesses out of Catholicism: selling masses at various lengths and importance, and scapulars and other itemized divines, wooden or otherwise.

A son who lost his father and a mother who lost his sons. Men and women who lost their lives. Some even lost their minds. There are the rich and the educated. It is also where the powerful are the strongest; the poor and marginalized the weakest and the most forgiving. There are foreigners acting like natives and natives wanting only what is foreign.

It is an era where textbook injustice takes form. It is where the voice in the pulpit is also the voice of power; the government only the chamberlain of his master. Where religious infallibility reigns, Manila should have been the seat of Catholicism.

This is the society's canvass in Noli Me Tangere. The picture is wicked, misshapen and offensive. One easily recognizes the anomaly and disturbance in the daily grind of human lives. The specific cause is colonization of this once peaceful, promising, and non-Catholic trade hub in the southeast.

The symptoms glare like the noonday sun. The rich get richer, the poor not only get poorer, some of them die before finding out what is worse than being poor and an indio at the same time. Still, both the rich and the poor; the educated and the unlettered are puppets on a string. One bows one’s head to the tiniest flick of the stick or suffer equality with the dead.

Elias, the foil of the central character Ibarra, traces his accursed fate back to the roots of the latter in a revelation orchestrated so masterfully, untangling layers and loops of gothic sub-plots. The story of Elias puts to shame prime time television.

Having gone through the worst during those bad times: losing the good life he was raised in and discovering his malignant past, Elias seeks vengeance first for himself and while he is at it, perhaps save his country along the way. It is unthinkable to see one’s mother lying and wailing on the ground, wide-eyed on the sky looking at the severed head of one’s brother in a basket hanging on a branch of a tree.

Ibarra, despite his family's good social standing, lost his father to a tyrant in cassock who will eventually be revealed as the real father of his "comfort in the solitude of his soul" and the dream "wrapped in the warm light of early dawn" whom he will lose to a priest whose concupiscent desires break the sweat out of all his pores.

Both Ibarra and Elias find themselves afflicted with cancer that slowly eats away hope and faith. Dignity having been the first to go.

To cure this social cancer, Ibarra advocates education, saying: "I desire this country's good, that is why I am putting up a school. I will seek for that good by means of instruction, by progressive advancement. Without light, there is no way."

Elias, on the other hand, calls for struggle for "without struggle, there is no freedom.” He believes that struggle will awaken freedom that has been sleeping for centuries. "One day lightning struck, and the lightning, in destroying, brought forth life."

Each thinks of the same end, but their means are worlds apart. Further metaphor will render the first preferring to learn to be a doctor to cure and prevent future cancers. Regardless that the wait may kill those already afflicted.

The second wants to cut the part with gangrene and is most cancerous so the disease will not multiply or spread throughout the body. Never mind that the rusty knife may also kill.

Elias, who is Ibarra's constant savior, sacrifices his life for Ibarra in that famous chapter "Pursuit in the Lake." Elias dies "without seeing the dawn break on (his) country" but before drawing the last breath asks those "who are about to see it, greet her" and "not forget those who have fallen during the night."

Both Ibarra and Elias are pushed to the fore of their Messiah-nic impulses. In their sleep and in their hopelessness, they ask: If not now, when. If not I, who? To whom the disease had clung like a parasite to survive, to take the life of the host for its own, who would not have chosen to self-medicate?

One of them dies while the other resurrects. Ibarra returns in the guise of Simoun in El Filibusterismo published in 1891.

As the jeweler Simoun, Ibarra returns to the same islands thirteen years after his escape that lonely, dreadful Christmas Eve when the other messiah died. Thirteen years and before him are the same vultures of vile and greed feeding on a corpse that "let itself be torn to pieces" whose "decay and total disintegration were taking too long." Because the corpse will not turn against its oppressor, Simoun "incited even greater greed, facilitated its satisfaction, and injustices and abuses have multiplied." He "encouraged crime and cruelty to accustom the people to the thought of death, fostered insecurity to drive them to seek the most desperate solutions, crippled businesses so that the country, impoverished and ruined, would no longer have anything to fear." He "whetted appetites for the public funds" and "wounded (the people)in their most sensitive spot" by making "the vulture insult and pollute the very corpse on which it lived." "Extremis malis extrema remedia," that is to say, desperate diseases must have desperate remedies; desperate times call for desperate measures.

Then again, Simoun finds himself another foil in the person of Basilio, the altar boy whom Simoun-then-Ibarra helped to bury the mad woman Sisa, Basilio’s mother. He is the same boy who helped him burn Elias' body on the same hillock where Simoun's ancestors were laid to rest many years before.

Basilio is a phoenix who rises from the ashes of his childhood's misfortune. After burying his mother and failing to find his younger brother who has been accused of stealing from a friar, Basilio leaves his hometown and moves to the city to work for a rich family and then study in his spare time. Basilio lands in the home of Capitan Tiago, the father of Maria Clara, Simoun's former sweetheart.

Basilo performs well as a student of medicine subsequently helping Capitan Tiago cope with his opium addiction. Basilio is on his final year of studies and expecting to graduate with honors, marry his childhood sweetheart Juli, have a happy family life while serving his community by "alleviating the physical ills of his fellow citizens." (44)

However, dreams, even the simple ones, will wither and die in a "field that has been eaten bare, and the locust moves on." (217)

Tragedy comes to Basilio one after the other. His connection to the group of students petitioning for a permit to open an academy to teach Spanish leads to his imprisonment. Among the group of students, he is the one who has suffered the most, not because of the enormity of his guilt, but because of his lack of patronage and strong political influence. Basilio misses his final examinations. His sweetheart Juli dies of a gruesome death after throwing herself out of the window of the parish house the day she takes the courage, having been goaded by a religious elderly neighbor earlier, to seek help on Basilio’s behalf from a friar who has once asked her to make "certain sacrifices."

The phoenix in Basilio fails him this time. Now, he "looked as if he had risen from the dead, horrified by what he had seen on the other side of eternity." (218)
He knocks on Simoun's door and asks for forgiveness for he "had been a bad son and a bad brother who forgot his brother's murder and the tortures his mother suffered…now all he has left is the determination to return evil for evil, crime for crime, violence for violence!" (218)

In a trance, Basilio listens to Simoun's description of his plan to create his own Sodom and Gomorrah. Something snaps and Basilio returns to his senses. He knows "that only God can try such methods, that God can destroy because He can also create, that God has eternity in his hands as a recompense to justify His acts, and man has not."

Thus, for the second time, Simoun's plan fails and curiously so both because of love. Basilio, despite his misgivings, agrees to help Simoun carry out the plan. However, as fate will have it, he sees on the street of Anloague his friend Isagani spying on the wedding feast of the latter's former sweetheart, Paulita. Basilio wastes no time and seizes Isagani by the arm and tells him to get away from the place. He has no choice but to tell him about the bomb planted in the house where the wedding reception is being held, doomed to blow up and be the grave of everyone in it. Isagani whose "generous heart remembered only his love for Paulita" runs into the pavilion and seizes the lamp that contains the dynamite and throws it to the river.

The first failed siege is the day when Maria Clara dies, the same day Simoun plots the revolt. For Simoun wants only to "…rescue her. He had wanted to live only to rescue her. He makes a revolution because only a revolution can open for him the gates of the nunneries!"

In the end, everything is left to God. In the voice of the Filipino priest Father Florentino, the rebellion fails, regardless of its reason, because Simoun "chose a means of which God could not approve." (250) Simoun dies alone save for Father Florentino who prays over Simoun’s dead body: "God have pity on those who led him astray!" Plans of rebellion are thrown into the sea and will emerge only when God wills it. It is at crucial and hopeless times such as this when Filipinos look up, let go and say "God, it is yours now."

In the end, social cancer has become so malignant, only a miracle can heal it.
Much of Rizal's religiosity is put into his works. He dedicated El Filibusterismo to the three Filipino priests Gomez, Burgos and Zamora who were executed on charges of subversion arising from the Cavite uprising in 1872. While it is true that he relentlessly attacks the Catholic church and his most acidic criticisms are aimed towards the Spanish friars, he has also given voice to the humility and piety of some priests in the forms of Father Florentino and the friar-teacher Father Fernandez. It may also be said that the religious leanings of his works, contrary to how they have been perceived over the years, are geared towards the sentiments of the time when most people feared God and believed the after-life despite.

In Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Rizal exposes Catholicism in its ugliest form on one hand. Readers encounter priests stealing property, lusting for young ladies, impregnating women, making false witness against innocent people, corrupting government officials, turning religious indulgences into business ventures, etc.

On the other hand, he presents the most honorable and loyal people in the characters of other priests and in the quiet faith of some of the pious men and women. Making it debatable if indeed the medium is the message.

Spain sent Catholicism to conquer this brown nation. The messengers of faith held hostage the faithful with the sweet promises of heaven and the stern warnings of hell. Intelligent and learned individuals will consider this premise too simplistic and suited for the gullible mind. Notwithstanding, Rizal with his exposure too advanced for his time ends his two novels with religious metaphors, consciously or otherwise. The first one concludes with two messiahs but one giving way to the other. The second novel closes with reluctance as the messiah fails to save his rotten sick society, leaves fate to the hands of the Father.

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