Why Benedict Anderson Counts: Lessons on Writing, Culture, and José Rizal

By Gina ApostolMarch 4, 2014

Why Benedict Anderson Counts: Lessons on Writing, Culture, and José Rizal

Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) by José Rizal
Why Counting Counts by Benedict Anderson

READING Benedict Anderson’s book Why Counting Counts (Ateneo de Manila Press) is like coming home to what you think is a quick merienda, a brief snack of pan de sal and mantikilya, only to find yourself replete, satisfied, and renewed, like a guest at some unexpectedly generous feast. The book, at 94 pages, is a morsel in comparison to his other texts, but Anderson is incapable of insignificance. The book’s resonant brevity is a testament to the scholar’s agile imagining of Southeast Asian history — in this case Philippine history — but also to his quite inexhaustible potent subject in that history: the 19th-century Filipino novelist José Rizal, whose death in 1896 precipitated his country’s revolution against Spain.

Most of Why Counting Counts is a catalog of selected words (filipino, patria, nacional) repeated in Rizal’s two novels, Noli Me Tángere (or Noli) and El Filibusterismo (or Fili), both of which, in the view of Filipinos, helped imagine the nation. The latest translations of these books, by Harold Augenbraum, are from Penguin, with Augenbraum’s introductions. Rizal is required reading in grade schools and colleges in the Philippines, like Machado de Assis in Brazil. This book by Ben Anderson, professor emeritus of international studies, government, and Asian studies at Cornell, might look like a dry exercise in arithmetic, with tables of fictional characters alongside a series of numbers. But it’s precisely this reduction that produces the book’s provocative effects. The noun tabulations and stirring of ingenious word data build suspense, and lead us to new and still-simmering questions about Rizal the nationalist, polemicist, and artist.

The reason Anderson counts (in two meanings of that verb) is that he trusts completely in the significance of Rizal’s words as a way, ultimately, to understand both the hero and the nation he produced.

My own reading of Rizal is tinged with a writerly desire. I view him as a troubled, and troubling, Filipino novelist, and I spent four years working on a novel that tried to capture Rizal the writer in a refractory light, a novel presented as the memoirs of a Beatlemaniac-level fan of Rizal’s, from his own time, circa 1896. My made-up fanatic, Raymundo Mata, was a night-blind bookworm consumed by his own private bibliolepsy, wrapped in the textual fatalities that have defined the Filipino — from folk genres like balagtasan (rhymed poetry contests) to bugtong (riddles), from the candid Voltaire, translated in multiple tongues in the Philippines, to Rizal’s figure of fun, Doña Victorina. My character was an avid, kleptomaniac reader of Rizal — and to write my book I had to immerse myself in the novels, poems, letters, debates with priests, his clinical notes (Rizal was an eye doctor), and his balarila, his grammar of Tagalog.

One of the most engrossing works by Rizal is his annotation of a book of history from 1609, Sucesos de las islas filipinas, by a Spanish lieutenant general Antonio de Morga, whose work he used to lament what he considered the lost culture of the Philippines. I looked at the book at the British Library in London, where Rizal had read it, and imagined myself purloining it, just like Raymundo Mata (note to British Library guards: the book is still there, undefiled). Rizal wrote such copious footnotes — not contained in the British Library tome, of course — that they end up being an entire novel, with paratextual prolixity and despairing acts of invention, through which Rizal sought to see the Philippines in the gaps in Morga’s history. I call it, not quite tongue in cheek, one of the first postcolonial novels about the country.

I spent years reading the eclectic Rizal, because everything he has done is dutifully printed (though not read) in the Philippines. My nutty hero reads Rizal through a myopic, thieving lens, and in this oblique way I hoped to comprehend the well known, yet still opaque figure. Like Cuba’s Martí, perhaps, Rizal is elusive precisely because he is frozen in the rigor mortis of national affection.

For a Filipino novelist like myself, Rizal is a troubling emblem. Many writers like to dwell on the burden of his monumental legacy. But my problem is that Rizal is forgotten as an artist. Remembered (or dismembered) as a patriot, a martyr, a nationalist, a savior, a saint, Rizal is not discussed much as a writer — he is not read as an artist. Our national hero now shares the fate of all of us who attempt to write about our country in fiction. No one really reads his novels.

In 1989 or so, I was hypnotized by a lecture I heard in Baltimore by a scholar whose name I almost didn’t catch, except that my husband, a meticulous man, wrote his name down in his notebook. The scholar was writing a book in which he mentions León María Guerrero’s American-era translation of the Noli. It’s clear the scholar had not only read Rizal, but also had read him very closely, and read him as a novelist. Damning Guerrero by faint unpraise, the scholar then read his own translation of the same passage from Noli, thereby exhuming for me, in the unkind whiteness of Johns Hopkins, Rizal’s mordant, dormant, and long-distant wit. By a stroke of a lecture, the scholar had resurrected not only Rizal but also my country, in a few lines from the Spanish. The man was erudite, empathic, with the congenial sarcasm that Filipinos require about themselves (the target of wit anyway was Guerrero’s gringophilia: so far, so good). At the time, Google was still a ghost in someone’s machine, and I had no idea exactly what book this scholar was writing.

I began my novel about the thieving reader only much later, but I was haunted by the figure of Rizal in that speech. That lecture was indelible because its premise was startling — Rizal was funny. This was a novelty for someone who grew up with Rizal as a corny figure brooding over lousy suicidal moths and providing killjoy quotes for vacuous people’s speeches. So I began rereading Rizal. And then I read about his contemporaries. And then I read people who wrote about Rizal. I couldn’t stop reading. I became a huge bore at parties. I could only talk about the revolution. I knew what H meant in the reformist Marcelo H. del Pilar’s name (Hilario). I learned the nickname of General Emilio Aguinaldo (Miong; he’s the guy who surrendered to America when, in their turn, in the midst of our revolution, America bought the Philippines quite mindlessly from Spain). Above all, I discovered in Rizal’s novels a writer infinitely fascinating: complex, ironic, personable, troubling — and probably, I had started to think, some kind of mutant genius. I read him in my adult life only to return to academic cliché: the guy rocks. To manage my time and my ardor, I restricted my diet only to Rizal and Filipino historiography, so by the time I had finally finished my novel, I had never, in fact, read the books of that nameless scholar who first haunted me with Rizal’s resurrection: Benedict Anderson.

Now I have read three of Anderson’s books, the first two — Imagined Communities and Under Three Flags (also published as The Age of Globalization) — published by Verso, and now Why Counting Counts. Anderson, a historian, is an immensely agile reader of literature. He has a diabolical gift for synchronic illuminations of disparate texts. My personal favorite among his books, the hypnotic Under Three Flags, made “demonic comparisons” of lines in Rizal’s texts to Poe and Baudelaire that, to me, were breathtaking. He created, in my mind, a postcolonial Poe that I had always wished upon that man’s ghoulishness. Anderson calls some of those readings in Three Flags “whimsical.” But he is being humble. His comparaciones are devastating — no one noticed these connections before, and yet there they are, haunting — offered generously to us, for us to make our own potaje.

What must we writers learn from Anderson’s discipline and ingenuity for us to make our own potage from the stew of history?

Lesson 1: We need to do our reading. At this point in time, we are all lucky to be Borgesian Pierre Menards: everyone that comes before us is our inescapable precursor. To know ourselves is to read ourselves. I read the revolutionary Apolinario Mabini in the Spanish, cribbing from the English translation, and his elegance was revelatory: the guy cudgeled the pragmatist Aguinaldo not with his sword but his syntax. López-Jaena, the reformist, was a pompous ass — but he was very much a Filipino ass, a snob with a penchant for toilet jokes. And Aguinaldo’s memoirs? Must-read, if only for its obscene whiff of pathos and bullshit. These books are available in bookstores, libraries, and online.

Lesson 2: Think global. Isn’t it nice that the postcolonial state in a postmodern era makes it a signifier of everything? Really. Filipino prisoners in orange garb own Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” We owned the 2013 Superbowl — there’s Bruno Mars, the Filipino/Puerto Rican Elvis from Hawaii at halftime, and Angry Doug Baldwin, star wide receiver of Seattle, who flew the Filipino flag upside down (a sign of war on American soil!) in the week after typhoon Haiyan because his lola is from Tacloban. And by the time Coca-Cola came out with its ad, we were ready for its tribute to us, when its montage of tongues opened with three of our languages: English, Spanish, and Tagalog.

At a Spanish club downtown in New York once, when Spain won the Euro Cup, at every hijo de puta against the Germans, all I could hear was my mom’s accent, from Barugo, Leyte, also cursing at the Germans in her own private World War II, and when Enrique Iglesias, whose mother is Pinoy, entertained the global crowd, well, I owned his coño butt. In Under Three Flags, Anderson makes this spectral link between Rizal and Arthur Rimbaud that, while “whimsical,” is also indelible. I now count that scene among my realities. Manila is in Melville’s Moby-Dick amid the descriptions of hemp and harpoons. And you can find mariner Melvilles in Manila — he’s somewhere slouching about Ermita, I think.

Lesson 3: See the world with a different lens. Go against the grain. Anderson always asks — what’s missing? What’s the blind spot? As he shows in Under Three Flags, his delightful speculations on the shadow of 19th-century international anarchism, from Slavs to Spaniards to the sad Leon Czolgosz who killed McKinley, and its effects on the far-off Philippine islands — startling revelations occur only if we jiggle ossified lenses. We need to shift in our seats and read primary sources from an oblique angle, in a way no one else has.

Lesson 5: Keep on reading. Don’t stop.

Lesson 6: Ask questions.

Lesson 7: Embrace multiplicity.

Lesson 8: Reread.

Lesson 9: Do the dirty work. Read language closely. Anderson’s strength is his ingenuity as a reader, but his supple imagination is also modest: he is modest before the text. In Why Counting Counts, it’s Rizal’s novels that count. Anderson is eerily learned, a polyglot, like his subject Rizal; he riffs on Bahasa Indonesia, various Filipino languages, French and Latin and enlightenment Castilian (which he learned to read Rizal); and congenial as he is, he is, like his subject, probably a mutant genius. Even so, he did the dirty work: he counted.

Lesson 10: Be a demonio. Anderson counted words with a perspicacity that found demonic comparisons between the two novels. I keep manhandling here a phrase Anderson takes from the Noli: the phrase demonio de las comparaciones. That art of demonio de las comparaciones — demonic comparisons — is precisely the freedom of a colonized people. We are stuck in a world of comparaciones: our historical fate is to be “post”-everything — a people at a crossroads of geography and time that makes us ultra-“modern.” History condemns us to cosmopolitanism, melting pots, sophistication. This modern world, after all, is one in which it is entirely likely that Gianni Versace ate our adobo (before we killed him, of course), cooked and simmered in Italy.

Economic cruelties mark the incidences of the sophistication of a country like the Philippines. One might say the economy is the other demonio de las comparaciones — it sparks the flight of workers from their land, so that once in Barcelona I heard a Filipino migrant worker, a waitress, speak a motley of languages to greet the customers. She spoke Catalan, Spanish, English, and Tagalog, because, as she said to me, shrugging, “If I don’t know their language here, I cannot work.” But as one can see in the outpouring of typhoon relief aid into my hometown, Tacloban, after Haiyan, from Filipinos all over the world, that global sophistication constitutes a fantastic community — which Anderson, with pathos, has also imagined.

In Anderson’s cunning counting of words in the two Rizal novels, he makes reduction a treat, a fine simmer of provocative sauces, rather than a trap. By the end of his account/ing, his reading of both the Noli and the Fili opens up a reading of Rizal as artist and, at the same time, opens up, once more, a reading of the Philippines, and of its culture.

And he leaves us one last lesson, the most important: we must exercise empathy. Empathy, as many note, is a hugely underrated cognitive skill. That’s why senators are bulok. (A pun: bulok means stupid in Waray and rotten in Tagalog.) Uncannily ingenious, Anderson has a tireless ability to see from an Other point of view. This is particularly useful for a white guy who keeps poking into brown people’s business. But it’s useful for us to train that kind of empathy on our idiosyncrasies, especially our so-called “sins.”

The point Anderson provocatively returns to in Why Counting Counts is the problem of language. Why does Rizal use words denoting nacionalismo so rarely? Why does he not invoke the Ilocano? Why does he use the chabacano Parian, but not the chabacano Zamboangan? Why all the chinos but so few mestizo chinos? Why does Elias, the perfect Filipino, speak perfect Spanish, but La Consolacion, a quite imperfect Filipina, break into “perfect Tagalog”? Anderson offers a number of conclusions, but what Anderson perfectly gets is that this issue of words cuts at our core: we are as we speak. Our world is a vibrant stew of races of multiple tongues, no matter what the ranters against that Coca-Cola ad would like to think. Anderson’s empathy for the multiple dilemmas begotten by language is illuminating for any human, even if one is not a novelist or a Filipino.

Just as Anderson asks us for whom Rizal imagined he was writing, so the agony of every writer is: for whom do we imagine we write? The monolithic implication of the question is misleading, as if “audience” must be a singular unity. As if we are not a country and a world of irredeemable multiplicity. Filipinos laugh at people who do not use “perfect English” — just as Americans in classrooms are often bothered by people who say “ax” instead of “ask” — but few Filipinos are concerned about their lack of interest in Cebuano, in the same way whites are unconcerned about their inability to spell an African-American person’s name.

The crux of Anderson’s Why Counting Counts is his explication of the chapter “Tatakut” in the Fili. In this chapter, Rizal is intriguingly modern. As it opens, Rizal mixes chabacano with Manila slang in a cunning stew. The opening passages of “Tatakut” are stylish, ultra-hip; Raymond Queneau could have written them. Rizal does what one could call a “mash-up” in cinematic terms — or he “samples” pidgin Tagalog in Spanish. He makes a hash of not just Spanish, but chabacano and Tagalog as well. Anderson translates each pidgin passage in its split tongues. In this way, he exposes to us endemic split selves in the culture — imbued as it is with a mutating, infinite capacity for language-play — that shows us Rizal (and his subject, his country) as solidly “postmodern.”

For me, Filipinos exist always in the medium of “Tatakut” — we exist in the exquisite play of our mutable languages, fatally polylingual. We are always code-switching, in speech, thought, and online (especially online). It’s as if we exist in the world of autocorrect, of kneejerk transliterations. That’s the gift, not curse, of our history and place. To say I write in English and think in Waray is a mirage: I am always working in both of those languages, in ghost-times, with my various speech-selves. Most Filipinos, like many citizens of colonized states, are at least trilingual — thus we operate on nine phantom levels of speech all the time (English/Waray; English/Tagalog; Waray/Tagalog; and so on). We are always all of our languages, not just “perfect English” and “perfect Tagalog,” but also all our other speeches, and not just Waray or Cebuano or Pangalatoc, but also our mash-ups and the pidgin and our constantly evolving, hapless, and inventive urban and provincial slangs. As Anderson says: “One has to learn to enjoy, ‘Paki-doorbell na lang kayo!’” Literally, “Can you please doorbell!” Instead of the equally terse and easy to say, “Please use the doorbell.”

Language is no crisis, Anderson implies in his final paragraphs, it is opportunity. Like all of us polylinguals, Rizal’s choice of a tongue to realize his art was fraught: “tongue-ina,” as the novelist and poet Eric Gamalinda notes. A complex pun: tongue is a mother and a curse. Anderson’s accounting asks us to empathize with Rizal’s very modern dilemma. His beautiful calculus of Rizal’s words brings us to a renewed imagination of Rizal as, above all, a fastidious novelist. Anderson may disagree, but to me Rizal’s main problem was not nation, but narration. And how interesting that as an artist, when Rizal did take up the sword and simply cut the Gordian knot of language, he broke from the illusions of our speeches’ mute multiplicity to produce the one nation his choice of words begot.


Gina Apostol is currently working on a novel about the Philippine-American war, William McKinley’s World

LARB Contributor

Gina Apostol was born in Manila and lives in New York. She went to college at the University of the Philippines and earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her first novel, Bibliolepsy, won the 1998 Philippine National Book Award for Fiction. Her third novel, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, is a comic historical novel-in-footnotes about the Philippine war for independence against Spain and America in 1896. Her latest, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, recently won the PEN/Open Book Award and will come out in paperback this fall. She is currently working on a novel about the Philippine-American War, William McKinley’s World.


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