Several literary works around the world have been called “classics” as they were considered to have given the spirit of revolution to humankind. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Charles Dickens’ Wretched and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to name a few are some of these masterpieces. Little is known though about Jose Rizal’s twin novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, which spawned the Philippine revolt against Spain and won independence as Asia’s first republic. Long before the word ‘selfie’ was coined, Rizal was already at the helm of his own camera, putting himself in front of the battle lines through his immortal classics that paint different layers of social issues across cultures up to this time. Reading Rizal would have one rethink what ‘selfie’ truly means in an explosive context, which if analyzed and utilized carefully, would be beneficial not just to the Filipino civil society but to the global community as well.
In Noli Me Tangere (1887), Rizal made his own ‘selfie’ by inventing himself as the main character–the charming and youthful Crisostomo Ibarra, who came home after seven years of getting education from Spain in order to find out what caused the death of his father. It was indeed full of Rizal’s imagined realities as it reflected most of his patriotic thoughts for his homeland and his search for the Filipinos’ sense of nationhood amidst the Spanish cruelty. What Rizal proposed as the key to the issue was the broadening of the mind and this became apparent when Crisostomo decided to put up a school in his father’s honour. If Filipinos were educated, to Rizal’s belief, they would be able to understand more clearly the concern for the common good and to press for the inherent right to govern the politics of their own country.
With the help of philanthropic donations from a few Filipino elites in Spain, Rizal was able to publish the novel. When copies of the book reached the Philippines, the Spanish friars examined it and their instant reaction was to ban the book due to its malignant representation of the Spanish authority in the islands. This prompted Rizal to write the sequel: El Filibusterismo (The Filibustering). In El Filibusterismo (1891), some characters of Noli Me Tangere returned after a 13-year gap. Rizal reinvented Crisostomo Ibarra and made another ‘selfie’ in the character of Simoun, a wealthy jeweller, sporting a beard and blue-tinted glasses. If Crisostomo was the idealistic young man, Simoun was pessimistic and a fitting dark side of Rizal. If education was the key to the Filipino sense of identity in Noli Me Tangere, a hidden desire for an explosive revolution to oust the Spanish government was the general theme in El Filibusterismo.
Mainly through these subversive but non-violent writings, Rizal was exiled by Spain to a Philippine island called Dapitan. In his four years of banishment, he lived life to the fullest. He built a school, erected a hospital, engineered the water supply system and introduced new techniques of farming and horticulture. He also founded the socio-civic organization La Liga Filipina, aimed at uniting the Philippine archipelago with the encouragement of basic education, agriculture, commerce and political reform. He was later implicated in the revolution plot through his association with members of the Filipino freemasonry group Katipunan (Gathering) and was tried before a court-martial for rebellion, sedition, and conspiracy. After an unfair trial, Rizal was convicted of all charges and was sentenced to death by firing squad.
His tragic execution only strengthened the Filipino resolve for self-determination. Though indirectly associated with the revolution, his twin novels were instrumental in creating a unified Filipino national identity and consciousness. Both Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo lampooned, parodied and exposed various cancers of colonial society. More than a documented mental picture of a‘selfie’, Rizal’s imagined realities were indeed self-fulfilling prophecies in humanity’s quest for good against evil.