The Novel

In Jorge Portilla’s lecture “La nausea y el humanismo” (Nausea and humanism), Portilla reads and interprets Sartre’s Nausea and “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” He appeals to a familiar enfoque, namely, one that puts into relief that which can be deemed useful or applicable, that can be appropriated “in light of the circumstances of our actual world” (Portilla 1948, 244). What ends up fitting the criteria is Sartre’s description of, and apparent advocacy for, the notion of contingency as the phenomenologically revealed description of human existence. Portilla seems to read contingency in a state of awe and offense: in awe, because it is the description that comes “closest to existence,” designating “that which has no reason to exist” (249); and in offense, because if contingency means that human existence is absurd and “outside the space of reasons” (mundo de las razones), then human existence is not bound to any rational laws (249).

Hayden Carruth, in his introduction to the English edition of Sartre’s Nausea, explains that it is a novel about coming face to face with “a radically meaningless existence” (Sartre 1964, xvi), where necessity and stability break down in the experience of brute, naked, individual reality. In this breakdown, the only thing that remains is uncertainty and contingency where, Antoine Roquentin thinks, “anything, anything could happen” (106). Roquentin himself says: “The essential thing is contingency. I mean that one cannot define existence as necessity. To exist is simply to be there” (176). Portilla, who approaches Sartre’s texts in search of something meaningful for himself and his “actual world,” reads Roquen- tin’s sentiment as an affirmation of the radical thrownness of life. To be there, Portilla says, is “to be present and reduced to an absolute solitude” (1948, 259).

Portilla is a faithful reader of Sartre. Nausea takes place, he writes, “when there is an immediate contact with existence in an originary manner, in such a way that at that moment we capture its essential contingency. This contact cannot be achieved by will, or in a conceptual or philosophical way; it must be a real, lived experience” (1948, 249). However, Portilla continues, some, or most, flee their contingency by either denying it or by affirming a universality that they can, in some way, assume. The flight from this “fundamental experience” has led some to create or “invent a necessary being or uncaused cause [causa de si], necessarily existent and existing necessarily; they have invented God” (250). In this way, God is, according to Sartre, an imaginative construction, a veil that hides what is most fundamental about the human experience. In other words, the only way to cope with absolute solitude and the radical contingency of life is to invent God.

It is at this point that Portilla hesitates before a verbatim recital of Sartre’s views. The notion that God is an invention brought about by a fear of uncertainty, Portilla says, is a “hypothesis of Sartre’s that we find debatable” (1948, 250). Although he follows this by assuring the reader that his intention here is to “explain Sartre, and not to refute him” (250), his hesitation invites one to wonder what that refutation would involve, as he does not return to “refute” Sartre again either here or in any published text. The closest he comes to refusing Sartre is to say that “there is nothing . . . from a philosophical treatise to falling into vice and wretchedness, that cannot be interpreted as a flight from contingency” (250). That is, the argument denying God’s existence can be made against anything else that pretends to refocus one’s attention away from the terror of contingent facticity. I will return to this in chapter 2, but for now, it is enough to point out that Portilla’s hesitation has to do with his belief that contingency, in essence, demands ordering principles, and that God represents such a principle, along with reason or “logos.” The necessity of God is not contradicted by the contingency of human existence. Chaos, in other words, demands reason.

Portilla’s hesitation and refusal manifests reading’s natural pretention to infuse one’s personal beliefs into the text or its context. Hesitating before a “hypothesis” that evidently offends is clearly another way in which the text occasions reflection, and the way in which the text bears on a reader’s circumstance. But now, I am reading into Portilla’s reading, or nonreading, and, in the process, exemplifying the instability (contingency) of the reading-relation.

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