Here now is one piece that may or may not appear in the Rizal Plus anthology — an excerpt from “The Beautiful Filipina in Philippine Literature” which first appeared in Magandang Filipina: Beauty for Life, edited by our dear departed friend Reynaldo Gamboa Alejandro, published by Unilever Philippines in 2005.
It is a collaborative essay I co-wrote with Dr. Cesar Ruiz Aquino — who’s certainly a master at the appreciation and evaluation of pulchritude, and which. The excerpt is taken from the part that dwells on the Filipina Muse as seen by Dr. Jose Rizal as writer.
If it’s true that we may gauge the literary artist by the quality of his description of “the woman loved,” to borrow Alain-Fournier’s phrase, it should be more than fun to raid our literature for such a portrait — which we may conveniently call a portrait of the Muse as Filipina.
Rizal’s “kayumangging kaligatan,” as the Tagalogs call it, is not describing Maria Clara who is mestiza. The young woman is not a character in any of Rizal’s novels but a figure from Philippine myth and legend — Mariang Makiling, from whom, at any rate, Maria Clara is clearly descended, especially in the following aspect, that “Mariang Makiling was very charitable and had a good heart.”
This is in truth Rizal’s Muse, who appears in yet another literary work of the national hero outside the Noli. In an unfinished prose piece to which he gives the title Memories, Rizal recollects a summer encounter he had while vacationing in the provinces. He was, he writes, only sixteen at the time, while the young woman he liked was “of fourteen or sixteen summers, fair, slim for her age, with her black tresses loose, almost reaching her heels. She wore a red skirt girded under her shoulders, a black tapis over it which traced the contour of her virginal form….”
The Muse (very likely Leonor Rivera, in Lingayen) appears in her two aspects: young maiden and crone. The work was left unfinished — but perhaps only those with a historical interest at stake will feel a loss. The young maiden returns as Maria Clara in Rizal’s immortal novel.
It appears that Rizal’s type (archetype!) is gentle and kind, and though he qualifies this in Mariang Makiling, the quality always surfaces without strain.
In the fishing excursion chapter of the Noli Me Tangere, Maria Clara is struck by Elias’ sadness and, taking pity, hands him some biscuits. When later Elias visits the hut of his sweetheart, Salome, they get to talking about Maria Clara. And Salome, in turn, is a mirror image of Maria Clara in her reaction. Just as Elias is Ibarra’s double, so is Salome Maria Clara’s.
Literally, she is the poor man’s Maria Clara, but the latter’s soul twin really, enforcing the impression that Rizal’s Muse was sweet and, unlike that of John Keats’, sweet to the end. In his “Mi Ultimo Adios” he calls Josephine Bracken “dulce extranjera,” sweet stranger.
Perhaps the most intriguing touch in the Noli is the juxtaposition of the pious fuss, centered in the images of the saints, particularly Our Lady, by the aunts — which Rizal pokes equally relentless fun at — and the cumulative sense the reader gets that the beautiful Maria Clara is herself the Virgin.
“I saw her again. She is beautiful as the virgin!” exclaims the distinguisado towards the novel’s end. The scandalous truth of her birth and begetting only intensifies this by way of irony and paradox.
The line must be drawn between the Virgin as an image of the transcendent, as divine, and the Virgin as a persistence, in our consciousness, of the immemorial goddess of myth and magic. It is in this latter sense that Maria Clara is the Virgin. And it is in this sense that Philippine folk, male and female, invoke the Virgin as the inevitable simile and touchstone for female beauty — “parang birhen.”
But the Filipino ultimately bows to the commanding wishes of the Filipina, who is strong and sure, as much of her love as of her sensing of fate. Thus the parting scene between the lovers in Rizal’s Noli:
“‘I am nothing but a fugitive… on the run. Soon they will discover my escape, Maria…’
“Maria took the young man’s head in her hands and kissed his lips repeatedly, embraced him and afterwards brusquely pushed him away from her.
“‘Go! Go quickly!’ she told him. ‘Go, farewell!’
“Ibarra looked at her with glowing eyes, but at her gesture the young man left staggering, vacillating.”
Ah, the Filipina!