The Missing Touch: Rizal’s Immaterial Hero

When I picked up a novel with a stunning title like Noli Me Tangere (Touch me Not), I expected to encounter a work dredged in corporeal, visceral experience and language.  I wanted a novel centered on the function of touch: human interaction, physicality, phenomenology, flesh.  I didn’t get this in Jose Rizal’s incredible text, but I didn’t really feel disappointed in not getting what I wanted — because in some ways I received a more meaningful gift.

Having read Pilipino literature before and not walking away fully satisfied, I struggled to understand fiction from this very underrepresented country.  Rizal’s novel put Pilipino literature on the map for me as a force of exemplary fiction.  Rizal absolutely ATTACKS…well…everything in this work.  In fact, I have rarely seen such blatant and unapologetic interrogation of major social and cultural institutions in a work of fiction.  In Touch, Rizal problematizes it all: medicine, religion and clergy, government, love, education.  There are some moments that had me holding my breath because what Rizal suggests is so unfathomable, so dark, that I couldn’t actually believe I was reading it.  For example, the clergy’s treatment of the two poor brothers was — in a word — unnamable.  I gulped down tears and felt truly angered by the possibility that Rizal was writing from what he knew in the Philippines.  I want to be clear here: I nearly vomited.  There was so much disgusting insinuation in this novel that I couldn’t close my eyes to it: Rizal paints a picture that you hate seeing but that you cannot pull your eyes from.

The novel has a power that I haven’t encountered a long time.  That power doesn’t rest with the narrative style (which vacillates strangely and ineffectively).  It also, for me, doesn’t originate from its hero, Ibarra.  Ibarra is a weak hero who struggles to stand for anything much.  The narrator is actually the hero of Rizal’s tale, and perhaps Maria Clara who refuses to participate when she doesn’t believe in the institution (such as marriage without love).  The relationship between Ibarra and Maria Clara was the triumph of the novel, and I liked that it never comes to fruition.  Unlike so many of the issues Rizal brings to the table, the love story is not problematized as a disgusting enterprise.  It is criticized, instead, as an impossible one.

One reason that the love seems so impossible because, despite the title of this novel, TOUCH is missing from the pages of this fiction.  The institutions seem untouchable; yet, so do the characters — and not in a theoretical way: in a physical way.  There is no (appropriate, loving) touching here.  I craved that.  With so much violence, I longed for it more than anything else in Rizal’s piece. But he is relentless and unkind; he won’t allow that kind of touching.  And by doing so, he touched me.

Masculinity as the “Greatest Darkness” in Sanshiro

Sanshiro by Natsume Soseki is a novel about Japanese masculinity in which Sanshiro, our hero, comes to terms with his role as a college-educated man from the country.  Sanshiro is a Modern(ist) hero who develops a heightened sense of self-consciousness as a result of the industrialized and urbane environment of higher education in the city, a confusing confrontation with “unintelligible” Western literary artifacts that seem important in Japanese education, and from his indomitable fear of women.  In the city, Sanshiro finds himself among flowers with “no fragrance to speak of.”  The lectures that he initially painstakingly transcribes come to “neither cheer nor depress him,” and he is “quite unable to determine whether they were boring or not.”  In fact, he comes to find it “strangely pleasant that he could not understand the lecture.”  This period of Japanese history is referred to as a time in which “a freedom of the mind” is necessary and desirable through education.  For this reason, Sanshiro reads his literature closely but “when he asked himself what he read, there was nothing. There was so much nothing, it was funny.”  His journey to become an academic becomes meaningful due to its meaninglessness. Sanshiro “could not say he felt satisfied, but neither was he totally unsatisfied.”  He is positioned in the lukewarm existence of a Modern hero who straddles — often confusedly — disparate states of being.

Such a contradictory journey leads Sanshiro, of course, to a different — perhaps somewhat related — journey of finding love. The novel begins with an embarrassing encounter with a “dark” woman on the train who weasels her way into his hotel room in order to, apparently, have a sexual encounter after much staring-down.  After putting herself in Sanshiro’s way in just about every way imaginable, the woman observes, “You’re quite a coward, aren’t you?”  Sanshiro thinks and over-thinks whether he should approach the willing woman. After an uneventful night together, he reflections that  “He should have tried to go a little farther.  But he was afraid. She called him a coward when they parted, and it shocked him, as though a twenty-three-year-old weakness had been revealed at a single blow.” He comes to the conclusion that “desire is a frightening thing.”  Women, really, are frightening things for Sanshiro as we learn through his similar, unproductive affair with Mineko.

Mineko is a Modern Japanese woman who has the license to wear mismatched sandals, bright kimonos, and to give her money to whomever she pleases. She scares Sanshiro but also attracts him.  For whatever reason, she likes Sanshiro — seems to want to marry him.  Sanshiro wants to marry Mineko the “hypervillain,” too, but doesn’t.  He has things to say but “cannot verbalize them” because “women are terrifying.” Mineko is disappointed and marries a very attractive friend of her brother’s.  Sanshiro is disappointed and returns to his constant awareness of his body, which reflects the observations that he hears from Professor Hirota (a kind of academic hero) on his way to the city:

“‘We Japanese are sad-looking things next to them [Americans]. We can beat the Russians, we can become a ‘first class power,’ but it doesn’t make any difference. We still have the same faces, the same feeble little bodies.’m […] Sanshiro had never expected to meet anyone like this after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war. The man was almost not Japanese, he felt.”

At first disgusted with Hirota’s observations about the Japanese male body, Sanshiro comes to think like-mindedly as he observes “the awareness that he was a youth of the new age had been strengthened […] but nothing else had been strengthened; physically he was still the same.”  This sense of Sanshiro’s physicality is contrasted with Mineko’s eventual husband, who is very attractive. Mineko marries the hot friend. Hirota, that all-admired “Great Darkness” doesn’t get a real position with the university.

Sanshiro ends with Sanshiro’s verdict that “Tokyo is not a very interesting place.”  We are led to believe that Sanshiro, too, is uninteresting despite all the effort he has put in. His journey is disappointing.  He hasn’t changed from the coward that he has been “since childhood.”  We are left to acknowledge the role of the Japanese male — especially in contrast to the progressive Japanese female — is an impoverished enterprise.

Heroics in the Arctic with Satan

The motif of arctic exploration is not unique during the Romantic period in which many authors, such as Mary Shelley and Coleridge, utilize the setting of a sub-zero climate and its  dangers to highlight the macabre and mysterious nature of their plots and characters. In Wilkie Collins’s short story “The Devil’s Spectacles” the artic setting is reminiscent of such Romantic literary locations where characters are confronted with what they fear most — in this case, the devil and the dark nature of humanity.   Septimus Notman propels the tale by admitting on his deathbed to being a cannibal through eating his dead friend during an arctic adventure to save himself from starvation.  Upon his contemplation appears the devil with a pair of spectacles for Notman, which will give him the extra push needed to turn him from borderline sinful to full-fledged brute.  These spectacles allow their wearer to  “read everything in [one’s] mind, plain as print” and must be passed on to a different man before Notman can die.

When Notman dies, Alfred, his rich, empathetic, moralistic caretaker finds interest in the spectacles because he wants to determine whether he’s made the right choice to betroth himself to his poor maid, Cecilia, or if he should have followed his mother’s wishes to marry his young cousin Zilla.  “Cecilia,” which means “blind,” proves to have some indecipherable thoughts running through her mind: either they are very deceitful, or they are completely innocent and benevolent.  Alfred falls under the sway of the spectacles to believe that Cecilia is cheating on him with Sir John — a vague figure who once proposed to her and was refused.  After hiding in the bushes with his mother and eavesdropping on Cecilia’s conversation with a wayward maid, they both learn of Cecelia’s noble heart and Alfred never returns to the spectacles, passing them into Sir John’s hands.

The tale is rather more drab than it pretends to be in the first chapters, but it signals a couple important transformations and continuations between the Romantic and Victorian functions of the artic adventure.  Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, exclaims of his artic trespass: “Prepare! your toils only begin: wrap yourself in furs and provide food; for we shall soon enter upon a journey where your sufferings will satisfy my everlasting hatred.”  It is the scene of hellish retribution.  Frankenstein here comes head-to-head with his creature-ish creation.  There is, perhaps, little less than the sublime element in the arctic, and it brings about deep pain that seems to continue on into infinity.

Collins’s artic is punctuated.  The devil is there — perhaps an ode to Dante’s Inferno in which Satan, weeping from his three colorful faces, is planted beneath a sheath of ice — but he doesn’t permeate beyond the artic; his malignancy is short-lived in England.  England undoes some of his evil work.  Here, the poor, innocent, faithful, and in-love Cecilia comes with a message to be “blind” to the devil’s spectacles; in her is the truth: in woman.

Woman is almost wholly missing from the Romantic confrontation with the arctic.  Where she tries to enter, she is silenced, ineffective.  But in this Victorian landscape we witness some permeability in which saving the tainted man is possible through, of course, the sweet truth of a pure, angelic woman.  That is fodder for another discussion.  But here, the artic, Dante-esque devil meets his foil and one soul has been saved.  The heroic act occurs within the domestic sphere in the safety of the English shrubbery.