AT the beginning of 1890, Rizal moved to Brussels, where he stayed for eight months in order to finish his second novel, El Filibusterismo. Rizal was living on very little money, and his move to the Belgian capital was likely due to practical reasons: the city was cheaper than Paris or Madrid and printers in nearby Ghent charged far less. Rizal lodged with José Alejandrino, a friend and fellow Filipino expat, on the Rue Philippe de Champagne. In his memoirs, La Senda del Sacrificio (1933), Alejandrino recalled his friend’s austere and thrifty ways. Rizal, he observed, followed a regimented routine in which time, money, and energy were carefully managed and directed toward useful pursuits that were mentally and physically beneficial—studying, writing, exercising, shooting, fencing, and, it appears, a strictly regulated sex life.
During the late nineteenth century, sexology was all the rage in Europe. Sex manuals by French, German, and English physicians proliferated and were veritable bestsellers. Intended for the urbane modern gentleman, these manuals sought to make sex safe and hygienic. They dispensed advice on genital cleanliness, venereal diseases, the calamitous effects of masturbation, remedies for male impotence and sterility, condoms and other forms of prophylactic contraception, physical indications of female virginity, and the proper etiquette for the conjugal bed. The books promised their readers an accessible yet purportedly scientific basis for understanding sexuality and sexual pleasure.
There was one influential and prolific author whose works Rizal and the Filipino expats most likely would have encountered. The Spanish physician Amancio Peratoner aimed to keep Spanish men abreast of the current medical thinking on sex and what constituted a normative sex life. In titles such as El Mal de Venus (1881), Peratoner expounded his theory on “male spermatic energy.” Women, he said, were the passive receptacles of this energy but men had to guard against excessive ejaculation. Too much loss of fluid and too many violent spasms sapped their vigor. His manuals were concerned with the health and marital well-being of the bourgeois gentleman. They counseled men to avoid a multitude of practices if they were to stay healthy and free from sickness and sexual diseases. Masturbation and excessive copulation were cited among the chief causes of venereal and syphilitic disorders that could afflict a man. Sex for men was regarded as little more than part of a therapeutic regime whose frequency had to be determined by age, moderation and the rules of hygiene. In Peratoner’s estimation, men in their 20s and 30s would find it beneficial to expend their spermatic energy about three times a week.
Rizal, in his late-20s, shared this belief in libidinal thrift, but thought the good doctor’s allowance far too generous. While living in Brussels, Rizal introduced Alejandrino to an unspecified “amusement.” As Alejandrino recalled:
“One day he invited me to amuse ourselves, telling me we could pass the time in the house of two sisters whom he knew. We went there and I came to like the amusement very much, because a few days later I asked him when we could return for more fun, but then he grew serious, saying that he considered such entertainment was necessary once a month, but more than once was already a vice, and he was not willing to encourage vices.”
Alejandrino’s careful choice of words is respectful of Rizal who, by the time of the book’s publication, was a national hero. Still, his meaning is plain. Looking forward to being “amused” again, Alejandrino was disappointed. He was told sternly by Rizal that a “good time” was necessary only once a month. Indulgence more often would be yielding to vice. Rizal was practicing sexual self-control. As the manuals recommended, this entailed the observation of a regular, “normal,” and moderate regime of bodily expenditures that prevented moral and physiological weakness and ensured the health of a man’s vita sexualis.
Rizal was well aware of the horrendous consequences of sexual excess. As a medical student in Madrid, he had toured the wards of the Hospital Clinico San Carlos and had seen at first-hand a range of mental and physiological illnesses said to be caused by the “abuse of masturbation.” He saw patients suffering from spermatorrhea, or involuntary night-time emissions, and others observed to be in a dangerous state of almost perpetual sexual stimulation, for which the only remedy, as Rizal noted, was amputation of the penis.
In light of his medical training and the abundance of popular literature on sex, Rizal’s calls for sexual restraint, moderation, and self-discipline were more than just mere rhetoric. Practicing spermatic thrift was an important aspect of Rizal’s sober management of his time, money, and energy. His self-rationing reflected the scientific idea, prevailing at the time, that framed sex in terms of excess or deficits of energy. For Rizal, sexual self-discipline also signified self-mastery. Male hygiene, virile health, and sexual self-regulation were not just ideal dispositions, but were the hallmarks of a respectable and civilized citizenry.
In recounting this facet of Rizal’s personal behavior, appreciably his most intimate, I am not drawing or considering any political parallels to Philippine society of today. I just want to immerse ourselves for a moment in the time Rizal inhabited and toast the great man a happy 155th birthday.