Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-Creation of Andres Bonifacio. By Glenn Anthony May. Madison: University of Wisconsin Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1996. Pp. xii, 200. Index.
Appearing in print amidst the nationalistic commemoration of the centenary of the Philippine revolution against Spanish colonial rule, May's book casts doubt upon the hallowed image of the revolutionary hero, Andres Bonifacio, and in so doing delivers the most controversial intervention in Philippine historiography in recent years. May's scrutiny of the memoirs of a famous revolutionary (Artemio Ricarte) and the works of three pre-and two post-World War II historians (Manuel Artigas, Epifanio de los Santos, and Jose P. Santos in the former category; Teodoro Agoncillo and Reynaldo Ileto in the latter) leads him to argue boldly and ambitiously that the conventional knowledge about Bonifacio has been based upon dubious sources, likely forgeries, unreliable evidence, and erroneous, logically flawed methods.
Asserting his crusading belief in positivist epistemology, May assails the pre-war historians for their lack of footnote references and their silence on sources, making it impossible for him to verify "key factual points" (p. 31). He argues that "when we probe the origins of the image of the textbook Bonifacio, we find almost nothing of proven substance" (p. 35) for this image "rests upon shaky evidential foundations" (p. 32). But, although May's book is certified by endnote citations, he provides a portrait of these early historians that is sometimes bereft of documentary evidence. For instance, he writes that "Artigas simply did not have sufficient time to do extensive research on all the subjects that interested him" (pp. 29-30). A statement that can have near universal applicability is applied specifically to Artigas without evidence apart from an appeal to "common sense" (p. 29), making it impossible for the reader to verify a "key factual point" raised by May.
In May's account, the most prominent roles in the fabrication of the "Bonifacio myth" are played by the father and son tandem of de los Santos and Santos, the former for not revealing "where, when, or how he had located the letters" (p. 61) that constitute the Bonifacio-Jacinto correspondence, the latter for his attempt "to rewrite the letters to make them seem more authentic" (p. 79). These letters, according to May, lead to two propositions: 1. "The Bonifacio that emerged from those letters was honorable and patriotic..." (p. 59); and 2. without them, "the picture of the national hero that emerges is very different and much less heroic" (p. 81). Proposition 1 may be correct, but Proposition 2 does not necessarily follow from the first. Why? Because without contemporary sources May would consider reliable, there is no way to "know" the validity of Proposition 2 and to "verify" his inference (assuming of course that we can establish the "real" Bonifacio from apparently self-validating documents). By May's logic, there is no way of saying that Bonifacio was either "patriotic" (Proposition 1) or "less heroic" (Proposition 2). Yet, he jumps to advance Proposition 2.
In fact, by asserting that, without the letters, the picture of Bonifacio would be different, May contradicts his own statement which avows that "I have not the faintest idea what [Bonifacio] was like" (p. 48). But May may have some idea of the man after all. He provides a clue of his belief in the knowability of the "real" Bonifacio as "the revolutionary leader excoriated by foreign writers and homegrown enemies" (p. 47). Unfortunately, May does an Artigas by not citing references for this highly suggestive statement.
May represents Ricarte's memoirs of the Philippine revolution, particularly his recollections of the Tejeros assembly of 22 March 1897 which brought down Bonifacio's leadership, as the testimonies of a man who "consciously dissembled" (p. 84), who engaged in "creative misremembering" (p. 92). May's dissection of Ricarte's memoirs provides a view of the Tejeros assembly as marred by corrupt political maneuvering, a view which may be accepted on its own terms as one of several possible interpretations. He does not show, however, how his alternative reading of Tejeros has any direct bearing upon Bonifacio's "real" or "mythical" image. Failing to do so, May's discussion of the Tejeros assembly lends itself to the view that his project is simply to malign the Philippine revolution.
May accuses Agoncillo of inventing a "bizarre duality" in Bonifacio's personality "for personal and political reasons" (p. 114), which admittedly May imputes "somewhat speculatively" (p. 120). May also faults Agoncillo for "a most distinctive methodological quirk -- his seemingly unqualified faith in interviews" (p. 131). Why "quirk"? Contrary
to Agoncillo, May asserts that there was no personality change: "The Bonifacio who came into conflict with Aguinaldo in Cavite was the same man who earlier squabbled with fellow katipuneros in Manila" (p. 135). Again, May displays a certainty about Bonifacio's psychological traits, which negates his earlier statement that he has "not the faintest idea what [Bonifacio] was like" (p. 48).
Finally, May depicts Ileto as analyzing texts that in no way "merited the attention he gave them" because "most probably" Ileto pored over "the literary production not of Andres Bonifacio but of Jose P. Santos" (p. 159). Ileto is thus "a victim of the mythmakers" and "a victim of his own unique approach" (p. 162). At this point in May's book, his argument is based on an unswerving faith in his own interpretation of a mythified Bonifacio, and on that belief rests his indictment of Ileto. May's earlier caution that "We will probably never know for sure whether any of those writings were authored by him" (p. 43) has glided disingenuously into bedrock certainty: yes, we know for sure he did not author any of those writings attributed to him. Only on such firm personal conviction can he dismiss Ileto as "a victim of Santos" (p. 162).
May says that "a primary reason" which led historians to "raise the dead Bonifacio to heroic status" was to serve a "political" function (pp. 6, 17): "To such people, a reconstructed Bonifacio -- idealized and also sanitized -- served a vital political function as a symbol of Philippine nationalism and a model for Filipino youth" (p. 6). May, however, does not provide any satisfactory evidence concerning the supposed political motives of the individual historians he faults, which is puzzling given his commitment to indubitable sources for any historical assertion to have credence. He makes no serious attempt to reconcile the alleged nationalist agenda of Artigas and de los Santos with the fact that both "depended on the colonial regime for their livelihoods" (p. 164). He admits that "in raising at last the issue of motives, we find ourselves on very infirm terrain" (p. 33). May, nonetheless, concludes his book with broad assertions about nationalism and its need for mythical heroes, as if these would suffice to explain away what he calls "political" motives. He also does not explain why nationalism should necessarily lead to the invention of mythical heroes which he admits were extant in pre-national cultures. With May's failure to explain why, in an evolutionary way, "historical writing usually passes through a nationalist phase" (p. 6), in his book nationalism is but a spectre and reificatory label.
Early in the book May asserts, without a footnote, that Bonifacio was "a somewhat curious choice as a national hero" (p. 17). In the end, his concluding statement reads, "Almost a century after his death, the time has come to devote our undivided attention to uncovering the real Andres Bonifacio" (p. 166). But why should May appeal to "our undivided attention" when, after all, the man in question is "a somewhat curious choice" for a hero? Because May admits that his book, ultimately, "is more about historians than anything else" (p. 33), the reader is left to wonder what Inventing a Hero says about Glenn May himself.
Still, May raises a valid concern about mythmaking in nationalist historiography, and qualified historians should not shirk from the challenge of a painstaking examination of the documents May claims to have been forgeries. Coming to terms with myths of nations, which go beyond those adduced by May, is itself a complex historical process. The time for Filipinos to consciously want to confront this process may be at hand. Historians will need to extend to this process a range of sensibilities. However, to believe
that the whole enterprise of writing about the past can be purged of myths and the mediation of symbols and ideological proclivities is a myth in itself. As William McNeill humbly admits, what we have at any moment is, at best, "mythistory" and the "wise historian will not denigrate" the struggle toward "self-consciousness" of nations and other human groups as they seek their place in the world ("Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians", American Historical Review 91, 1 : 1-10).
Filomeno V. Aguilar, Jr.
James Cook University