Denying the Postmodern. Jorge Portilla on Reason, Unreason, and the Freedom of Limits

Between the idea and the reality Between the motion and the act Falls the shadow

—T. S. Eliot ([1925] 1991)


The violence of reading lies in the fact that our encounter with a text is less an allowing-the-text-to-speak and more of a shakedown, an interrogation, a confrontation where we demand that the text tell us what it is hiding. That the text actively flees interpretation just exacerbates the problem—the violence becomes unruly, and we begin to read into, to import our meanings into its sentences, obsessing over the familiar symbols until they make sense and something is said (oftentimes by the reader herself).

Maurice Blanchot’s fictionalized account of such an interrogation is a helpful, although dramatic, illustration. In his “Thomas the Obscure” (1998), Blanchot accomplishes two things: first, the text explicitly challenges the reader to the violent confrontations of reading by being purposely impenetrable, and second, it reveals a reader within the text facing the same struggle. What we get is an experience that is, as Ortega describes it, “devilish” (1959a, 14; see the introduction).

For the sake of staying the course, let us focus on the second reader, the one we find in Blanchot’s text. We find this reader immersed in a book. “He was reading,” Blanchot writes. “He was reading with unsurpassable meticulousness and attention. In relation to every symbol, he was in the position of the male praying mantis about to be devoured by the female” (1998, 67). Thomas, the reader, wants to devour the text, to make it his own, a task that would require total understanding of each word and each sentence. The reader of this reader is then taken through the event of that task and forced to bear witness to Thomas, who seems to struggle with every word and every sentence. Reading becomes a terrifying experience for Thomas, who immediately after commencing and taking pleasure in the “little spark of life” that each word represents is hit with a terrifying realization:

The pleasure in fact became very great. It became so great, so pitiless that he bore it with a sort of terror, and in the intolerable moment when he had stood forward without receiving from his interlocutor [the text] any sign of complicity, he perceived all the strangeness there was in being observed by a word as if by a living being, and not simply by one word, but by all the words that were in that word, by all those that went with it and in turn contained other words, like a procession of angels opening out into the infinite to the very eye of the absolute. (1998, 67)

Here we witness Thomas confronting the ineffable in the act of reading. That words do not say exactly what is expected, needed, or intended turns the pleasure of reading into the terror of interpretation. Thomas waits for the word to speak; but words do not speak, they do not say, they simply sit there exactly as they were laid out by their author. The words suddenly stare back at the reader with the full arsenal of their linguistic context (circumstance). The necessary immorality and criminality inherent in the act of reading, to which Ortega alludes (see the introduction), is illustrated here: if Thomas does not force his interpretation on the words in his book, then all they will do is stare back at him and lay there, printed on the page “opening up into the infinite,” doing nothing, being nothing.

Blanchot’s description of the act of reading is perfectly aligned with the more radical account of the problems of appropriation. If we do not impose ourselves upon the text, then the text lays there, silent and terrifying. This imposition must involve, Ortega writes, “[trying] to say in a language precisely what that language tries to silence” (1992, 104). Observing this silence would be what the text demands; but then reading would be prohibited, and so would the emergence of the reader. Perhaps this is why Roland Barthe’s or Paul Ricouer’s assassination of the author has found no moral outcry. The author needs to be dead in order to justify our interpretations and appropriations and be able to live our lives as readers without guilt. The death of the author just means that we can get away with our violent readings.

Reading without violence seems impossible; we must take hold of the texts, especially since, as Blanchot tells us, without vigilance they can take hold of us—they can threaten, as Ortega observed, to punch us in the face. Blanchot writes: “[Thomas was] still thinking himself a profound reader, even when the words were already taking hold of him and beginning to read him” (1998, 68). Ultimately, we find Thomas “locked in combat with something inaccessible, foreign, something of which he could say: That doesn’t exist . . . and which nevertheless filled him with terror as he sensed it wandering about in the regions of his solitude” (68).

The event wherein Uranga, Villoro, and Portilla read French existentialism is not as dramatic as the one in which we find Blanchot’s Thomas. While the Mexican thinkers confront the existentialists’ texts in their foreignness, and lock themselves in combat with those texts, they do not doubt their accessibility. Their acts of appropriation testify to this confidence. Moreover, they freely allow the text to wander about in the regions of their solitude without terror, but they allow this for a reason, namely, to force a dialogue between the text and that solitude, for the sake of a transformative project that will benefit themselves and Mexico. Thus, there is no terror in their readings, but in confronting a text they (Guerra included) recognize their finitude, a recognition that comes as they face a text whose significance is authorized by a history of significance beyond finite comprehension. As authorized by history, the text becomes a radical other that reads them, a recognition that explains the settling on an enfoque that keeps the Mexican philosophers anchored on a most familiar terrain, lest they be sucked into, as Blanchot puts it, “the very eye of the absolute.”

Freely allowing the text to wander, the settling on an enfoque, and the recognition of the text as a radical other are tactics for the “combat” of reading; these constitute the violence of the act. Whatever the original intention of the text was, or could have been, is lost in this process. In fact, the idea that readings cannot be faithful to an original intention is central to the postmodern sensibility in philosophy, defined as it is by suspicion of established “metanarratives.”

Of the Mexican existentialists from el Grupo Hiperion, Jorge Portilla is perhaps the most resistant to the perceived irrationalism of that postmodern sensibility and the most critical of lackadaisical attitudes toward established meaning and the authority of grand time-tested narratives (see Sanchez 2012, chapters 3-6). We can imagine Portilla as Thomas, fearful and trembling before words that, dressed in the authority of history and tradition, demand seriousness and respect, words that have the power to read him, if only because before them he is merely a finite and powerless observer. But, unlike a postmodern Thomas, for Portilla the terror of reading lies in the possibility that there is only one way to read a text, that there is an original intention that must be respected and taken seriously, that one cannot suspend that seriousness by appeals to the freedom of interpretation or the absence of authors. We trace Portilla’s dread and pain to an existential reaction before the perceived disintegration of the modern, Enlightenment idea of reason, a disintegration that sanctions the freedom to misinterpret and misread, the freedom to unread, and the freedom to devalue and revalue inherited meanings with impunity.

In this chapter, I revisit Portilla’s critique of the phenomenon of relajo, which he carries out in his famed Fenomenologia del relajo (Portilla [1966] 1984; cf. Sanchez 2012), with the aim of situating the enigmatic Mexican thinker on the edge of modernity, as its great unlikely defender. I begin with a cursory reading of the relajo-critique in order to draw out Portilla’s existential angst; next, I consider the anticipated threat of the postmodern revolt against stability and certainty of meaning; following that, I return to Portilla’s religious conversion, mentioned in the previous chapter; finally, I witness the confluence of Portilla’s existential discomfort, the fear of uncertainty, and the effects of his internal transformation in his own reading of Thomas Mann, which completes a picture of what I am calling here Portilla’s denial of the postmodern.

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