Reading Beyond

Portilla’s noncritique (his refutation-in-waiting) of Sartre’s dismissal of God is a nonevent that is nevertheless eventful. Portilla’s refusal to intervene intervenes, as both Portilla and his reader (myself) suffer through this silence. We are forced to read into Portilla and beyond, to Sartre, and further still to Saint Augustine and Saint Paul. We do not find this kind of intervention or occasion for thinking in the other lectures; that is, Macgregor, Uranga, Guerra, and Villoro do not criticize Sartre for any reason. But, aside from passing annoyance regarding Sartre’s “hypothesis,” his reading is also enhancing and productive; it reads into and beyond Sartre. Not only does he consider the wholesale acceptance of a meaningless existence without God as unfounded and harmful to the individual, but he also sees the recognition, the internalization, of contingency that Nausea discloses as prohibitive of human community, and asks whether the recognition of contingency, and its codification in cultural texts, is not a product, or symptom, of bourgeois discontent. “We believe,” Portilla writes, “that Nausea is an illustration of the collapse of the imaginary world of idealism, of the bourgeois world” (1948, 252). That is, as the bourgeois world collapses, so do the ideologies of distance, of alienation, that keep the subject detached from the real world by convincing that subject that the world is as stable and secure as the concepts used to define and delimit it. Bourgeois philosophical propaganda suggests that “the real” is an invention of human consciousness and that all we can hope to know is the meaning or sense through which we understand it, or at least, that the real cannot be known but only thought by the human mind (a la Kant). The philosophy of idealism, Portilla tell us, justifies bourgeois dominion over all things, and Nausea is the account of its defeat. Existentialism is a return to the real without parenthesis. As Portilla states: “in idealism . . . the world finds itself in the person, in existentialism the person finds herself in the world, and in that world things are soft or hard themselves, they themselves have such and such a color, such and such a temperature” (1948, 253).

Bourgeois idealism, driven by the power of subjective construction, does seem to hold things together. It purports to make “sense” of the world by offering it this sense. At its most extreme, the bourgeois idealist will become the sense that he bestows on things. In his Fenomenologia, Portilla calls the individual who embodies the ideas he aims to bestow on others and the world an “apretado.” He writes that “the bourgeois man embodies correctness; he is a correct man” (1984, 258). As existentialism performs its own Copernican inversion, placing the person in a world not of her own making, thereby evicting the source of the spectacle from that world, a vacuum seems to be left behind, fillable only by chaos. But Portilla suggests that this need not be the case. The subject is not the only source of values and world-sense; there are other sources. The denial of this “other” power is an unnecessary further step, an unsupported hypothesis—unsupported by experience, in other words. The end of bourgeois legislation of meaning via something like transcendental idealism ought not to usher in an era of irresponsibility and fleeing, where every action, inaction, devaluation, marginalization, and destruction is allowed. A world where there is no stability or control is not a world that Portilla finds conducive to any sort of human flourishing.

There needs to be a middle ground. In this lecture, as in his Fenom- enologia, Portilla finds the middle ground in a certain kind of value, namely, a vital value that gives meaning to individual existence, while not itself being a product of individual will. “An example of this,” writes Portilla, “can be Karl Marx, who proposed for the proletariat of the world a meaning to their lives: revolution, and a value to be realized: a classless society” (1948, 263). Without invoking Marxism, the value that Portilla seems to consistently, and steadfastly, propose is thus the value of community. After all, he writes and reads for the sake of this value (“the purpose of this work,” Portilla says in the first pages of his Fenom- enologia, “is to bring to consciousness an aspect of Mexican morality . . . [an analysis] on a path toward community” [(1966) 1984, 14]). The community he envisions, however, is a community with a common agenda, a common purpose, and a common reverence for seriousness before value hierarchies that guide and structure individual human life. Not surprisingly, community grounded on religious experience meets this vision, and in particular, the Catholic community, which “subsists” despite the breakdown of modernity (Portilla 1948, 264). Ultimately, the kind of value that, in general, can empower the nonbourgeoisie, particularly the disenfranchised “who fail to find the meaning of life in the actual world” (263), those oppressed by marginalizing ideologies who sit restlessly on the periphery of political and economic power (e.g., the Indigenous Mexican population, the poor, immigrants in the United States, Latino/ as, women, African Americans in philosophy, etc.), is a realizable value that challenges both the presumed meaninglessness of existence and the authoritarianism and universality of bourgeois idealism. It is the value of community authorized by the “spirit of a people” (Portilla [1966] 1984, 14) or a higher calling (Portilla 1948, 264).

Ultimately, we ask whether the “lesson” Portilla offers, by way of silences and hesitations, is one that teaches us that dogmatic faith in a higher authority is the saving grace for a world in crisis. Or rather, whether faith in the Kierkegaardian sense is preferable to reason in the Socratic sense when human flourishing is at stake. I do not think either of these is the lesson to be had. Portilla is steadfastly committed to the saving power of reason, and God represents the highest form of reason and order. The opposition between reason and faith is not found in Por- tilla. Reason is all there is. The real lesson, which I think is occasioned by Nausea itself, is that while a radical lack of foundation can be a crisis for us all, and Portilla says, for “our actual world . . . [and] our [American] continent” (1948, 244-245), the prima facie response to this realization should not be irresponsibility for ourselves, our fellows, and our values. Moreover, merely because rational order is effaced from the finite perspective of beings-in-the-world, the conclusion that it is effaced from the perspective of eternity is unfounded and arrogant.

Portilla’s purposeful reading of Nausea aims to read into and beyond Sartre; it seeks a vision of human existence, one that can be applied to our “actual” world. It certainly does not find this vision there, in Nausea, but it does find the clues, and Nausea serves as a point of departure, as a moment for pause and reflection. It serves as an occasion—as my reading of Portilla’s reading serves me.

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