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Existentialism as Pause and Occasion The Appropriations of el Grupo Hiperion

The event of existentialism’s appearance in Mexico in the 1940s could be credited to a variety of sources: lectures by Spanish exiles and philosophers such as Juan David Garcia Bacca (1901-1992) and Jose Gaos (1900-1969), who had fled Spain at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War of 1937 (Gaos 1954); the worldwide popularity of the works of Jean-Paul Sartre or Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and even of Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit; or Mexican intellectuals themselves who traveled to France and Germany and brought with them an unwavering enthusiasm for the new philosophical “trend” (Ruanova 1982; Zirion Quijano 2004; Hurtado 2006, 2007). But, arguably, what truly announced existentialism’s arrival in Mexico was a series of lectures on French existentialism given by members of El Grupo Hiperion (the Hyperion group) in the spring of 1948 at El Instituto Frances de America Latina (IFAL, French Institute of Latin America), together with the publication, of the lectures and related essays, in 1948 and 1949 in the journal Filosofia y Letras (fall 1948, spring and fall 1949). These texts, by philosophers Emilio Uranga, Jorge Portilla, Joaquin Sanchez Macgregor, Luis Villoro, and Ricardo Guerra, will be the subject of the present chapter.1

With one exception, Jorge Portilla, I will not touch on the philosopher’s life or contributions beyond the IFAL conferences. I will leave that for another time or to other, more capable, narrators. My focus here will be on those conferences and on whatever interpretive strategy was at play in their readings of the French existentialists. With that said, while philosophical historians might consider these lectures mere attempts to abbreviate and introduce French existentialism to a Mexican audience, I argue that it is imperative to approach each essay as a unique reading motivated by a certain purpose and aim of vital significance, that is, as an appropriation. As Emilio Uranga puts it in his own reading of Merleau- Ponty, “In these lectures on French existentialism we will offer a series of perspectives [enfoques] regarding existentialism, guided toward... the realization of a concrete analysis of the manner of being of the Mexican” (Uranga 1948, 224, emphasis mine).2 In other words, French existentialism serves as a point of departure, an occasion, for reflection into an intersubjective complex or circumstance that demands its own thinking, its own situated and organic enfoques—perspectives, approaches, conceptual matrices, intentions, and so on—that, while occasioned by a reading of and into the existentialist texts, emerge from and are tied to that intersubjective complex or circumstance and are guided toward its own transformative analysis.

Those who participated in the IFAL conferences shared similar presuppositions about the value of existentialism for Mexican life, even if they did not share a defined and determinate enfoque. Their philosophical aspirations were representative of an “interpretive community,” to use a notion employed by Stanley Fish. As such, they read the existentialist texts through “interpretive strategies” that, while not explicitly laid out in advance, nonetheless filtered or determined their interventions (Fish 1980). Portilla, for instance, recognizes the pull of his interpretive community and confesses the difficulty of reading purely, or objectively. Fourteen years after the IFAL conferences, and while lecturing on another existentialist, albeit a German one, Thomas Mann, he says: “While aspiring to absolute objectivity, any lecturer on [Mann’s] work would likewise make a focused selection of themes in which it would be extremely difficult to separate objective from subjective motivations” (Portilla [1966] 1984, 184). Hence, what we get from the readings here discussed, or those that come later, is not a simple summary or repetition of ideas but an interested appropriation (in the sense discussed in the introduction), or an attempt to, as we say, “make one’s own.”

Why French existentialism? Elsewhere, in a moment of reflection, Uranga explains that in the early 1940s, when the Spanish exile Jose Gaos first began lecturing on Heidegger, “being an existentialist meant being a Heideggerian” (2013a, 173). However, the appearance of Sartrean existentialism drove the younger generation, thirsty for novelty, to reevaluate their allegiances. Against the protests of their teacher, Gaos, members of Hyperion gravitated toward Sartre and French existentialism because, as Uranga recalls, Sartre offers a “theory of social relations, a pedagogy, a theory of history, an ethics, and an idea of man . . . while Heideggerians break up the matter [parten el cabello] in eight parts, to see in which of those is the human person [el hombre] going to remain as ‘the guardian of the nothing’ or the ‘shepherd of being’” (2013a, 175). Clearly, the well-publicized awkwardness and elusiveness of Heidegger’s writings had something to do with choosing Sartre, or French existentialism (as Sartre will not be the only French philosopher to be considered) over Heidegger. But it also had to do with which of these two ways of thinking was more suitable for “saving” or “liberating” the Mexican circumstance, or that concrete situation familiar to all Mexicans. In a column for a Mexico City daily, Mexico en la Cultura, Uranga is surprisingly blunt: the reason for appealing to Sartre over Heidegger is that the latter’s style is “esoteric,” “hermetic,” “only for the initiated,” and unable to be applied (1949b, 3). On the other hand, Sartre offers a theory of responsibility that can be appropriated for the sake of present crises, and so the choice is made in the latter’s favor. In another column for the same daily, titled “Dos existencialismos” (Two existentialisms), Uranga reiterates the commitment to Sartre’s vision of this philosophy: “[Sartre’s] words, far from disaffecting us, consolidated, as few testimonies had, our path. From then on we knew, not without joy, that the responsibility for a particular task had been recognized. I am not afraid to declare that the word most loved by our generation is precisely responsibility. To assume a responsibility almost sounds like a generation theme, a theme that also defines the generation itself” (1949a, 3).

In this chapter, my focus will be on the lectures given by Uranga, Villoro, and Portilla. However, I will begin with a brief summary of Macgregor’s and Guerra’s lectures in an effort to set a tone. The tone, or mood, in which I approach my reading of the Mexican existentialists will structure and dictate my focus, or enfoque. As a reader of Mexican philosophy, who finds in their readings models to emulate for the sake of saving my own circumstance as a contemporary Latino/a in the United

States, a literal, nonviolent reading holds no value. Thus I spend more time reflecting on those texts that offer more in terms of orientation. Following Stanley Cavell’s reading of Ralph Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, I read el Grupo Hiperion, and particularly Uranga, Portilla, Vil- loro, and Leopoldo Zea, as “philosophers of direction, orienters, tirelessly prompting us to be on our way, endlessly asking us where we stand, what it is we face” (Cavell 2003, 20).

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