Portilla’s "Nostalgia for God”

An important, and rare, work on the period under discussion, Oswaldo Diaz Ruanova’s Los existencialistas mexicanos (The Mexican existentialists) (1982) paints a portrait of Portilla as a complicated and conflicted thinker, one who “was victimized by a terrible internal tension” (Ruanova 1982, 161) and longed for security and stability, responsibility and accountability, in a meaningless world. Mostly autobiographical, Ruanova’s Los existencialistas mexicanos gives a vivid, and rare, account of Jorge Portilla, the man with a “nostalgia for God.”9 If we take Ruanova’s account as factual, and there is certainly no reason to believe that it is not, then our reading of Portilla’s reading of Nausea as a book about the loss of ground and meaning justifies our contention that it was not a literal, or straightforward, reading, that the enfoque was motivated by aims and purposes beyond that of a casual, or even an academic, reader.

Jorge Portilla “reconverted” to Catholicism later in life (he had been, as many Mexicans, one since infancy). Ruanova recounts a conversation with Portilla in which the latter goes through the process of his spiritual recovery. According to Portilla, suddenly (a “suddenly” that we see often in Nausea) he began to sense that something was happening (much like Roquentin) and felt out of place in places he usually felt at home. This feeling of homelessness moved him to flee to Mexico’s Pacific coast.

There he “felt humorless, shame, and dissatisfaction”; trying to fit in, he felt “uncomfortable”; “I felt out of the everyday and the habitual.” He “wandered aimlessly through the streets.” He “felt broken inside.” As if taking a page from Nausea, Portilla recalls: “The lottery vendors, the minstrels, and the beggars infesting that beach, where a man of the city finds himself out of place, bothered me. . . . I felt irritated by everyone, from the natives with beautiful black bodies to the red-headed, freckled tourist. . . . Even the desperation of a boy asking me for five cents . . . depressed me” (Ruanova 1982, 163). At a somewhat similar point in his own spiritual journey, Roquentin is suddenly overcome with that which stands around him. He says, “the nausea seized me. . . . I no longer knew where I was; I saw the colors spin slowly around me, I wanted to vomit. And since that time, the nausea has not left me, it holds me” (Sartre 1964, 30). Unlike Roquentin, however, Portilla refuses to be held, or held on to, by the nausea that must accompany the irritation and depression of his own immediate existence, and instead turns his mind to the conversions of Saint Paul and Saint Augustine.

This turning-of-the-mind is not reflective but instantaneous, and brings about his own conversion, or reconversion to Catholicism. “I felt a prolonged serenity,” he confesses to Ruanova, and “everything revealed itself to me like a coherent sphere under the influence of a single light. And the light became clearer and the atmosphere sharper. Upon my return to [Mexico City] I read the first page of St. Augustine’s Confessions” (Ruanova 1982, 164). We are not told by Ruanova what reading that first page of the Confessions accomplished for Portilla, although it is worth noting that Saint Augustine, too, read only the first passage of Saint Paul’s Gospel immediately following his own conversion experience (Augustine 1991, 187). In Portilla’s case, perhaps this reading reinforced his reconnection with, or rather, his reemergence into, that “single light,” or maybe it simply put Portilla at ease, knowing he kept company with those who had escaped from the edge of nausea by a spiritual awakening. Reading that first page, where Augustine suggests that being open to God, that seeking God, is enough for God to (eventually) reveal himself (“For they that seek shall find him”), suggests that Portilla understood, even before the act of reaching for the Confessions, that Sartre’s vacuous conception of being held no promise for a meaningful existence; he understood, in advance, that only God could save him from the nausea and the sickness that he felt beginning to envelope him, and in this way, he remained open to the possibility of the conversion experience.

In Portilla’s hesitation to critique Sartre’s dismissal of God—the place wherein the text of his lecture demands my silence—we read a passion for clarity, the kind of clarity that only an uncluttered, serene mind can access. What philosopher, tormented by existence and the threat of meaninglessness, would refuse the clarity of a Saint Paul or a Saint Augustine? As clarity ascends, Augustine does not need, at that moment, any more instruction, validation, justification. Putting down “the Apostle,” he says: “No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away” (1991, 187). Likewise, we can argue that Portilla reads no further than that first page of the Confessions because he did not need to. To “need” to read suggests that something is lacking in the reader, something that more reading will fulfill. In the divine experience, all lack, but especially the lack of certainty, is fulfilled and so that the need disappears. Both Augustine and Portilla, on the event of the conversion experience, do not need to read if only because nothing is lacking. (I return to the theme of Portilla’s religious conversion later in this chapter.)

Ultimately, what becomes clear from my reading is that Portilla’s reading of Nausea is intimate and personal. It reinforces a conception of existence without foundations, experienced as loss and nausea, and allows us to reflect on why foundations are important in human existence in the first place.10 Moreover, that his own existential angst gave way to his spiritual transformation explains what I have been calling his enfoque and his pause before Sartre’s hasty dismissal of God.

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