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History: Forgeries, fictions

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - April 5, 2021 - 12:00am

I recently posted on Facebook that it was a Cebuano, Enrique, who was the first to go around the world. I am very glad that the post evoked so many replies, informing me that we are indeed interested in our own history.

Myths precede history. They were first oral then when writing was not yet invented. It is the narration of these myths, of creation, of gods and heroes, that were passed on from one generation to another. Many of these myths last until they are disproven. For instance, my grade school subject on “good manners and right conduct” included an ancient ethical “Code of Kalantiao.” It was found out to be a forgery.

Digging into the ancient earth, archeologists continue to be awed by the remnants created by civilizations from aeons past. The Homeric epics from ancient Greece were validated when the ruins of Troy and Carthage were found. In 1883, the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in what is now Israel; they provoked a lot of controversy because they contained so much materials contrary to the conventional narratives of Jewish faith. Several scholars have doubted their veracity. Indeed, even historians themselves can misreport or misinterpret, too conditioned as they are by their biases or simply incompetence. To wit, my fictionalized account of Mabini’s paralysis due to syphilis; this gossip was from two distinguished Filipino historians. Thank God, it was just fiction. What is written down is given permanence, and those of us who write should never forget this.

Families, societies, nations disintegrate. All perish and decay not quickly but through protracted time, sometimes without the natives themselves being aware of it until the end. It comes “not with a bang but with a whimper.” Sometimes people are imprisoned by history itself and the barnacled mindsets molded by the sense of the past. It is so difficult, particularly for the colonized, to banish its pain. It is for this reason why creative writers, scholars and historians are needed in any society that must recover and move on, for it is these creative people who are the prophets, the oracles who can look into the future. Of course, their fictions, their prognostications are not always accurate. But look at science fiction and how real so many of these imaginative works are even when they were written a mere hundred years ago.

Objective reality

Historians, scholars and creative writers must always recognize objective reality when taking action for today and making plans for tomorrow. I have pointed out the massive failure of Sison’s Communist Party to recognize this at EDSA 1 in February 1985. Sison was doctrinaire, straitjacketed by dogma. Cory and Marcos both represented the Right, the existing power structure, not the people. Of course, it is sheer speculation now to wonder how it would have turned out if they were at EDSA. Or if Enrile and Ramos did not give the power to Cory, and if they ruled instead and avoided the grievous mistakes that Cory made. But would they have done otherwise? Alas, there are no ifs in history!

Our myths

Perhaps, it was inevitable that we would have our own “records” of our glorious past. In grade school, we were taught “good manners and right conduct” partially based on the ancient “Code of Kalantiao.” That was after the war exposed it as a fake. The courage of our ancient women like “Princess Urduja” of Pangasinan. Was she for real? And there were the stories that revolved around Rizal, among them, how he threw his other slipper into the river when one fell so the pair could be used if recovered. His retraction of masonry; the historian Ambeth Ocampo saw the original and called it authentic. Rizal’s foremost biographer, Austin Coates, declared it a flagrant forgery because it was so out of character. But does it really matter?

Other countries have similar stories. Did George Washington really chop down the cherry tree and didn’t lie about it? I admired the story of that Dutch boy who put his hand in a hole in the dike to prevent a flood. Then I saw the dikes in Holland and how improbable the story is. And national myths – is there really a Swiss hero named William Tell?

Way back in the 1950s, I urged archaeologists Felipe Landa Jocano and Robert Fox to try harder – so much of the country was jungle then – and discover our very own Angkor Wat or Borobudur. If Hinduism had gone as far south as Indonesia, it must have reached the Philippines, too.

I was at Yale University when the Tasaday story broke. A Stone Age tribe, the Tasaday was found in Palawan. I asked Yale professor Harold Conklin about this (he and his family lived in Ifugao), and he said it is not possible anymore. Years later, an assistant to Manda Elizalde who broke the story in 1971 told me that Elizalde purposely buried pieces of ancient Chinese porcelain and then dug them out for the gullible media to see.

In the first place, do myths have any use at all? Perhaps they help unite a people and instill pride in them. Myths can well be the fountain head, the ethereal chaos from which the artist draws and creates the new reality, his art. Perhaps in truth, myth has very little influence in the ordinary course of events, in the failure or success of business and government. It is in the highest reaches of human thought where it is given shape, decoded and translated into motivation and action.

Look back and realize that is the myth of a perfect humanity, the myth of supermen that created a Hitler and others like him, the myth of the inevitability of history and its enshrined social order in communism that spawned its tyrants, and the myth of human frailty and religious redemption that has led to hatred and wars.

What now

Way back in the 1960s, I had a conversation with the British historian Arnold Toynbee. He gave a lecture at the Columbian Club. His massive work and the study of history explained the origins and growth of nations and their eventual rot and demise. History, he said, is the record of how a people respond to the challenges of their survival, the basic law of the jungle, the strong devouring the weak. Just look at China and us now. So then, what is the major challenge which we Filipinos face today? I hope that I am quoting Kennedy correctly when he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

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