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Home arrow Economics arrow Contingency and commitment : Mexican existentialism and the place of philosophy


Because appropriation is at play, mine will be a violent reading. The possibility of violence when reading is due to two factors: first, a text is always circumstantial—that is, it is contextualized, and thus limited, by the physical signs on the page, by the time and place of its authorship, and by the author’s intentions; and second, reading is a taking and altering. Thus, in the act of reading, the reader forcefully inserts herself into a context, into an environment that the text creates out of meanings and signs, and seeks fulfillment for her own reading intentions. Sigmund Freud notes in his “Misreadings” of 1901 that “the reader . . . reads into [the text] something which he is expecting or with which he is occupied” (1975, 160). Simply put, she reads more than what is written; she reads her expectations and desires into the text. For these reasons, Jose Ortega y Gasset, in a posthumously published essay, “The Difficulty of Reading” (1959a), suggests that reading is ultimately a utopian task, the process of which requires either a violent act of reading into or the more difficult act of suppressing this tendency and practicing “renunciation.” Renunciation is demanded by the text itself, he says, because the reader has exhausted the familiar meaning of words and sentences and comes face to face with the “ineffable.” However, and as a matter of fact, this kind of renunciation and respect for the limits of a text is impossible when one reads. So what is it that one is doing when reading?

I want to think about this question before embarking on my reading of the Mexican existentialists. The reason for this has to do with my desire to learn from them, which requires a certain amount of extrapolation and guesswork, efforts undertaken for the sake of the more existential goal of appropriation.

Reflecting on the act of reading is not new. In fact, the act of reading has been a theme of investigation in structuralism, poststructuralism, critical Marxism, and elsewhere for the past fifty years. It is Ortega who first convinced me of the mysteries of reading. Thus, I will limit the following comments to Ortega, although I could also look at Louis Althusser, whose Reading Capital famously begins with a commentary on the difficulty of reading text; although more recent, Althusser’s treatment is by far the most familiar to contemporary readers (Althusser and Balibar 1997). The basic, and I would think uncontroversial, thesis of the following, again, is that reading is, by its very nature, a violent, imposing act that never truly fulfills its intention—in other words, an unbiased understanding of what a text meant to say.

Published posthumously in 1959 in the journal Diogenes, four years after Ortega’s death, “The Difficulty of Reading” is a meditation occasioned by a reading of Plato’s Symposium. While it contains little on the Symposium itself (an analysis of which was promised but never delivered), it lays out what I call Ortega’s theory of interpretation, his ideas on the limits of language, and, of course, his theory of reading. Not surprisingly, Ortega’s difficulties with reading will reflect the difficulties spelled out by Plato himself. In the Phaedrus, Socrates says to Phaedrus: “When it has once been written down, every word roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted or attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; for it has no power to protect or defend itself” (Plato 1997, 552). Without the father, namely, the author and legislator of sense, the written word lays where it was placed, orphaned and defenseless, but also silent and uncooperative, which is why she is attacked and faulted by overzealous and demanding readers.

Ortega begins by proclaiming that reading a book is a utopian endeavor: “To read, to read a book, is . . . a utopian task” (1959a, 1).1 It is “utopian,” he writes, because “the initial intention [that of ‘understanding a text fully’] cannot be fulfilled in the development of its activity” (1). It would be ideal, that is, to sit with a text and completely understand every word and every string of words on the page, perfectly matching the pictures being drawn in our minds with the meaning emanating from the symbols, all the while holding the narrative/story/idea together in our minds through synthetic apperception. But this does not happen in the act of reading. The picture drawn in imagination will not perfectly match the emanations of sense, nor will the narrative/story/idea survive lapses in attention, biases against ways of understanding, or simple lack of awareness due to environmental happenings taking place outside, around us, in the world. Sure, one can and does read texts, but never completely, never as intended by their authors, and never with the right kind of historically informed conceptual lens, so that one is merely engaged in a “great effort to extract” something of what the text has tried, in its presence, to make known. Ortega’s point is that, when reading, “there will always remain an ‘illegible’ residue” (1), namely, that which cannot be grasped because it is either absent (it is left out by the author, and thus it is silent in the text), or because I do not have, as common speech has it, the “right kind of eyes”—something (education, experience, prejudices, trauma, etc.) keeps it from being legible.2

So what does the reader do with this residue? The reader reads into it or through it and bestows it with his or her own meaning—a meaning that, perhaps, was not meant to be bestowed. Ortega suggests, however, that this bestowal of meaning might not be merely the result of a reader’s will to understand but also a characteristic of language itself. Ortega outlines the reasons why this is so in “two principles” of language: the first, “Every utterance is deficient—it says less that it wishes to say”; and the second, “Every utterance is exuberant—it conveys more than it plans” (1959a, 2). But “utterances” are speech acts, strings of words that are voiced and heard. When one reads she is in the presence of silent, voiceless propositions on a paper or screen. In the act of reading, and in the act of reading-into, or interpretation, Ortega argues, these two (the utterance and the written word) converge. The reader hears the word she reads, and when understanding is exhausted, when faced with the “illegible residue,” the “exuberant” string of words invites the reader to add her own meaning in a play of presences and absences. The addition of meaning will be grounded on the reader’s own life; it will be an imposition with the force of circumstance—which is the necessary interpretive foundation tying the reader to the immediate presence of a text.

Reading is thus a confrontation of a self and an immediate presence that never truly gives itself. The reader confronts familiar words in familiar contexts, but also the unfamiliar and illegible, the breaks and absences that do not say much, and must, through an act of distancing and recovery, intervene on the text so as to make sense of what lies between the lines. Ortega explains how this act operates: “reading cannot consist solely of simply receiving whatever the written phrases pour over us, . . . reading is not merely sliding over the text . . . it is necessary to extricate ourselves from the text, to abandon our passivity and construct laboriously for ourselves all the mental reality not expressed in it, but which is indispensable in order to understand it more satisfactorily” (1959a, 2). The process of extraction, of distancing (not Ricoeur’s “distanciation”), is thus necessary for reading, as it is for interpretation. Distancing in this context means both a withdrawal from the text and a recovery of oneself (of one’s circumstance, ideology, or culture) in one simultaneous act that allows one to fill in the gaps. This withdrawal and recovery can be construed as an act of meditation.3 The problem with distancing, however, is that one is no longer reading the text itself but interpreting it from the lofty heights of one’s own space-time, where connections are made and sustained by the subject who lives here and now. In this space-time everything is allowed, no intervention is too forceful or too disruptive for a “satisfactory” interpretation. This kind of work required to fulfill the satisfaction is, Ortega says, “laborious” and, unfortunately for the reader, a futile effort that, as he puts it elsewhere, “will always remain a mere intention, a vain aspiration, an invalid posture” (1992, 93).

A motivated reader seldom gives up the effort when a text refuses to give up its secrets. Readers have no respect. This lack of respect is evident in a reader’s claim of clairvoyance, or when the reader claims to predict, Ortega says, “what someone had wished to say!” (1959a, 3, emphasis mine). It is no exaggeration to say that, for some of us, an entire career is built on trying to figure out what someone had wished to say—I am doing that here with Ortega’s text and will certainty do that in the readings that follow. But what are the conditions for attempting this kind of (mind)reading—a reading of what is not given in perception at all but of what I believe might be there? This is where the laboriousness of reading comes in.

In its less violent manifestation, the possibility of clairvoyance (in a most reduced and limited sense) depends on certain facts about the text and its author. These facts, Ortega explains, are the circumstance, namely, that temporal space that all occupy, into which all are thrown, and that defines my identity and challenges my subjectivity. The circumstance is that immediacy in which I am immersed. One kind of circumstance is the historical circumstance of the text and its author, insight into which is surely significant for a reader attempting to read a text. But as Kierkegaard brilliantly points out in his Philosophical Fragments, historical knowledge is inherently corrupted, due both to the passage of time and also to our inability to be contemporaneous witnesses to the facts we are being asked to believe (1985, 72-88). Historical knowledge adds little to a successful reading of texts. Another kind Ortega calls “specialization” or “vocation.”4 A reader reading Euclid’s geometry will have better luck understanding and interpreting the text if she or he is a mathematician or has a particular passion for geometry. Related to all of the above, language games and their rules are also a circumstance (linguistic context), knowledge of which can give the reader the upper hand in interpreting a text. This is a particularly important circumstance. Ortega writes: “Before understanding any concrete statement, it is necessary to perceive clearly . . . ‘what game is being played’” (1959a, 3). If one can see the game being played, then the act of reading and interpretation will be less fortuitous. Indeed, knowledge of the language game context or circumstance could be the most fruitful in our attempts to read a text. But this circumstance also retains aspects of the others, so that insight into the most general circumstance (our humanity) or the most specific (the personal life of the author) makes understanding the rules of the game an equally difficult task.

To understand a game, one must understand its rules. According to Ortega, the rules of a language game will specify silences. The rules will tell what ought not to be said in that language in order to make that language expressive; in other words, every language is possible only because of what is not possible to say in that language. As he says in 1937, “each language is a different equation of statements and silences. All peoples silence some things in order to be able to say others. Otherwise, everything would be unspeakable” (1992, 104). The outsider, the reader or translator or interpreter, is challenged with observing the specified silences. In a somewhat Wittgensteinian moment, Ortega implores us to remain silent, to practice what he calls “renunciation” (1959a, 5), about those things that stand outside the boundaries of our own experience, or outside the limits of our own language game. To speak when silence is required is to violate the rules of the language that demands the silence, something made much more complicated when the language game is unfamiliar to us. As he puts it in “The Difficulty”: “the most powerful condition for anyone to succeed in saying something is that he be capable of observing profound silence about everything else” (1959a, 4). When it comes to reading, a condition for the possibility of genuinely reading a text—as far as that is possible—is that one is capable of reading (or saying) only what is given in the text and “observing profound silence” about what it does not. This means that if one cannot locate the rules of the alien game, those that would give one a comprehensive understanding of the circumstance for reading, that would allow one to properly observe the absences in the text, then it seems that one must not say anything at all. To quote the early Wittgenstein, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” (1963, 151).

Ultimately, Ortega argues that “the entire context, the whole book, in turn is ‘equivocal’” (1959a, 14). About Plato’s books, Ortega has to admit that, “in a word, we do not understand Plato,” since “we do not know whether Plato really believed [his ideas] or whether they were pure sport” (14, emphasis mine). The author, Ortega writes before Roland Barthes years later, is “absent,” which “leaves us the written word disconnected from the expressive complex which was the body of it” (14). So, no “matter how accustomed we may be to reading, the better we know how to read, the more we shall feel the spectral sadness of the written word without a voice to fill it, without carnal mimicry to incorporate it” (14). Moreover, there “is no doubt that, if we could see Plato in the flesh, merely seeing him and hearing him speak would solve for us automatically some of the great problems which the reading of his books raises and which, lacking his presence, will perhaps remain perpetually enigmatic” (17).

At first glance, Ortega’s insistence that something about the author must be known in order to understand the writing seems antithetical to the postmodernist move to remove the author from the text. But while Ortega does not kill the author a la Roland Barthes (2004), he does assign to this author a particular, and unique, place in history, a circumstance that itself does not transcend space and time, making it impossible for a reader, separated by space and time, to know it. The unknowability of the circumstance in which an author set down words on paper (or screen) is tantamount to the unknowability of the author himself, leading to the necessity of equivocal readings. Ortega can thus say: “for us, the book is the absence of the author, and the written word the previous flight of the one who pronounces it” (1959a, 17).

The foregoing proposes that philosophical readings, if they are to be truly faithful, must take into consideration some aspect of the environment that nurtured the author or that conditioned the text. Ortega says this much in his “Preface for Germans” of 1934: “Only when [a text] is seen as coming from him [the author], from the entirety of his life, only when it is viewed against a background of the entire landscape of his concrete existence, does an idea appear in its true light” (1975, 20). However, this taking-into-consideration goes against our basic intuitions about reading and is, practically speaking, impossible to do in the majority of cases. A truly faithful reading of Mexican existentialism—from its inauguration in a series of public lectures to its attempted erasure in Mexico City newspapers months later—would have to take into consideration a number of aspects of the cultural landscape of midcentury Mexico City that, while obviously influential in the reception and shaping of French existentialism at the time, are practically impossible for me to grasp, given my distance in time (more than half a century) and differences in culture. Moreover, one would have to consider the faithfulness of the Mexican reading of French existentialism, a faithfulness that would depend on a preexisting familiarity with the French circumstance and the manner of French philosophizing. And while most of those readers had such familiarity, traveling to and studying in the great European philosophical centers, for example, Freiburg and Paris, to learn under the “masters” during the 1940s and 1950s (Ruanova 1982), even luring the great Merleau-Ponty to the Mexican capital in 1948 (Saint-Aubert 2012; Vieyra 2012), this does not mean that they understood the complexities of French reality to the extent that they could easily recognize the silences that the existentialist texts demanded. But they, like us, nonetheless read, and in reading, appropriated and made sense given their own circumstantial reality. In my case, my inability to fully take into consideration what a faithful reading would require means that my readings will be heavily interventionist, perspectival and aspectual, and, ultimately, biased for the benefit of my own experience.

With those comments, I do not mean to suggest that I will not bestow some authority on the authors themselves and attempt to read faithfully, as I do, after all, desire to learn a lesson. But my commitment is not to read in line with some absent, yet authoritative, intention; my commitment is to read what is given, as it is given, from my own subjective position. I will certainly intervene and disrupt the autonomy of the text before me; I will force myself into its silences, but only because that is what reading requires. I do not subscribe to the Levinasian view that “the text must always be approached but never subsumed” and that reading is a “negotiation” between the reader and the “radical otherness of the text” (Fernando 2009, 58-59). The passivity suggested by this approach implies that a text can never be appropriated and that its lessons can never be deployed for the sake of life and circumstance.

What attracts me to Ortega’s phenomenology of the reading act is his suggestion that it is impossible to totalize the text (even if one wished to), that is, that one cannot read in such a way that the text is truly understood and read in the way it was meant to be read. The text is already at a distance from the mind that conceived its order and its precise significance, that revealed its inner life, so that what the reader (myself reading the Mexican existentialists or Mexican existentialists reading the French existentialists) confronts is but a trace of an original doing.

Ultimately, analyzing the difficulty of reading has its purpose. First, it highlights the necessarily ideological experience of confronting a text; second, and related to the first, it allows us to see that reading is essentially an intervention, a forceful confrontation with a presence that demands an active response from us, whether in the form of interpretation or in the form of renunciation; third, it shows that writing itself, the text, is a derivative human expression—which makes it vulnerable to violence and totalization; and, finally, it underscores the conditions for the possibility of a reader to emerge, one who is necessarily in the position to commit the necessary violence. And perhaps this is what is important: reading endows one with subjectivity at the very moment in which one takes a stand against the obscure or deliberate absences in the text. Poststructuralists saw this clearly. Roland Barthes puts it best: “a text consist in multiple writings, proceeding from several cultures and entering into dialogue, into parody, into contestation; but there is a site where this multiplicity is collected, and this site is not the author . . . but the reader” (2004, 768).

In sum, what Ortega is suggesting is that reading is not merely a utopian task but also a violent intervention—Ortega says that it is a “crime” (1959a, 9) and a “devilish task” (14). Although presented with an abundance of text, the reader is permanently deprived of what is necessary to fully understand that text. For this reason, Ortega writes, “the relation between the reader and the book is immoral, for neither can the book answer our objections but continues insolently and without risk saying always the same thing, nor can it energetically answer the imbecile reader by giving him . . . a good blow to the nose” (15, emphasis mine). In the present case, the texts of Luis Villoro, Emilio Uranga, Jorge Portilla, and Leopoldo Zea are at my mercy. They will not answer my objections nor will they object to an adventurous interpretation; and most certainly, these texts will not punch me in the face when, in acts of appropriation, I take their lessons and run. “Immoral” acts, indeed.

And so, prepared by Ortega, I approach my task of reading readers in whose readings I find value for life.

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