‘TOXIC masculinity’ is a vivid, angry phrase steeped in irony. It fuses the poisonous and environmentally pernicious with a noble term—masculinity—richly evocative of such idealized manly attributes as virility and toughness. American psychologists have conjoined the two to describe the aspects of male behavior that do harm to men, others and society in general. Feminists think of the concept in terms of how patriarchy damages men’s psyche. Mass media highlights the dark side of manliness—an emotionally repressed upbringing, one that admonishes boys to never cry, the argument goes, produces remorseless killers. In the wake of the recent school shootings in Florida, where a disaffected teenager armed himself with a military-grade assault rifle and went on a deadly rampage, killing 17 of his classmates and teachers, talking about toxic masculinity has become a major part of contemporary times—urgent and necessary.
To link the phrase to Juan Luna, the Philippines’ most celebrated painter, who lived and worked in Europe in the late 19th century, thus seems bluntly anachronistic. A jarring juxtaposition, one could say. Yet, it is both just and apt. The man took a pistol and at point blank range, with his five-year old son looking on frozen in terror, shot his wife and mother-in-law, murdering both of them in cold blood.
Last Saturday, after months of media hype, a letter written by Juan Luna went up for sale at Salcedo, a Manila auction house. Dated December 9, 1892, the letter was written while Luna was in prison in Paris awaiting trial. His language is, of course, Spanish, and the script is in the attractive, rather flamboyant style of handwriting that was common at the time. Luna is writing to Ezequiel Ordoñez, a lawyer and a high-ranking Spanish functionary, a sub-secretary to the Minister of Overseas Affairs, according to research undertaken by the anonymous Spanish seller. The letter gives a glimpse of Luna’s state of mind three months after the killings.
The first thing to note is that Luna has not been neglected by powerful people. He has, in fact, been accorded special attention and consideration from several prominent government officials. There is also some sympathy thrown in for good measure. “I do not know how much to thank you for what you do for this unfortunate man,” Luna writes. He is even permitted the privilege of seeing his little boy who visits him in prison. “I see my Andresito three times a week thanks to the kindness of my judge who has behaved like a true gentleman.” Evidently, he does not lack friends in high places who are willing to pull a few strings on his behalf.
Secondly, Luna views the year, 1892, as his annus horribilis. “…I can assure you this has been a disastrous year for me, I am looking forward to see it disappear off the calendar.” It is a bizarre perception of recent events. He appears to see himself as a victim of circumstance, suffering misfortunes that, seemingly through no fault of his own, have unjustly befallen him. In other words, in his head, this guy is taking no responsibility for his actions.
Thirdly and finally, Luna confidently presumes he will be acquitted. “I’ll take this rest of my destroyed family [which we can take to mean his son]so I’ll meet yours and he will play with them.” Despite committing a horrific crime, he is convinced that he will be released and is anticipating his freedom.
At the age of 29, Juan Luna had achieved fame and accolade for his art. His patrons included Spanish royalty. In 1884 he had won first prize at the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in Madrid with the “Spoliarium,” a massive canvas depicting the appalling gore of slain Roman gladiators. It was a signal triumph. Luna was not only the first Filipino artist to gain renown in Spain, he was the first Filipino in any field to win recognition in the mother country.
In 1886, Luna was living in Paris and had married the Filipino-Spanish mestiza Paz Pardo de Tavera. She was 24 years old and came from a close-knit, cultured family with a long tradition of male intellectuals and female entrepreneurs. Her family was also extremely wealthy, maintaining their comfortable lifestyle in Europe from the considerable revenue generated by their extensive Manila properties. Luna had little money and was impecunious throughout his career. Their marriage merged fame with fortune.
The couple had two children, Andres and Maria, although the latter, nicknamed ‘Bibi,’ did not live beyond infancy. Speaking before a Paris jury in 1893, Danet, Luna’s defense lawyer, described Luna as being passionately in love with his wife. “He was more than a good husband, [he]had been a lover to his wife, a man deeply in love.”
But there was evidence of tension between the couple even prior to the marriage. In a letter written during their courtship, Luna accused Paz of mocking him in public. “You offend me,” he wrote. “Do not ridicule me in front of your family by imagining vices that will greatly hurt my honor.” Once married, Luna took control of his wife’s money, pawned her jewelry without her knowledge, and insisted she ask her mother for extra money. Doña Juliana Gorricho, Paz’s mother, had agreed to live with the family and was already shouldering their rent, paying for Luna’s studio, and most of the household expenses.
Things went really downhill for the couple after Paz, shortly after the death of Bibi, decided to take a short break at a spa. Luna harassed her with his letters. He accused her of maternal neglect, and of his authority being undermined by her and his domineering mother-in-law. He had started to physically beat her. On one occasion he terrified the maids by throwing crockery at his wife and shaking her violently by the wrists.
By 1891, the beatings had escalated in frequency and brutality. He beat her with a cane so hard it broke in two. He attempted to throw her out of the top floor window of their house. He destroyed all her clothes and forbade her to wear anything but black mourning clothes so that she would be constantly reminded of the death of her daughter. He prohibited her from wearing make-up. When he discovered that she had shopped for eyebrow pencils, he punched her eyes black and blue. He accused her of having an affair and instructed his brother, Antonio, to follow her whenever she went out. In fear and despair, Paz wrote: “I hate him with my whole body and soul.”
Things came to a head after Paz’s family decided on the modern solution of divorce. Luna was having none of it. On the morning of September 22, 1892, he calmly got the pistol he had bought previously with his wife’s money, brought the barrel of the gun to the temples of his mother-in-law and his wife, and blew their heads off.