RELIGION AND PHILOSOPHY
According to different accounts, Portilla lived as though he had, indeed, incurred enormous psychic costs (cf. Sanchez 2012, chapter 1). One can read the Fenomenologia, as I have suggested earlier, as a testament to the trauma of witnessing the destabilizing of value structures that give order and stability to human life, of witnessing the breakdown of modernity. The question becomes: how does one cope with witnessing such disintegration? There are two answers to this question: on the one hand, philosophy, and on the other, religion. Existentialist Portilla will reach for both of these answers and prescribe philosophy for the social sickness and religion for the personal.
“Philosophy,” writes Portilla, “to the extent that it is a ‘logos’ on humankind, performs an educating and a liberating function” (Sanchez 2012, 126). Moreover, “in Mexico, nothing seems more necessary than this liberating action of ‘logos’” (127). In other words, philosophy, “to the extent that it is” law, reason, or ordering principle, will liberate Mexicans, and humankind alike, from “psychological habit, tradition, class interest, and so on,” and deliver them to “truth” (126-127). This conception of philosophy, handed down from the Greeks, would transcend human contingency, obviate all difference, revealing a realm of stability and certainty where particular communities can join other communities in a common truth. A Mexico delivered by philosophy would justify its sameness with those communities on the centers of modernity, the “developed” West.
Portilla’s Fenomenologia itself is a faithful, and genuine, attempt to bring about this deliverance. But, as Reyes notes: “That logos would not liberate itself nor would it liberate Mexico. But maybe it liberated Jorge Por- tilla, faithful to his destiny as writer and philosopher” (2004, 84). Reyes then asks, “Did [Portilla] realize this?” and suggests that he “probably” did realize the failure of logos to liberate Mexico and the possibility that it had liberated him (84). I tend to think that Portilla did not have much faith that philosophy would liberate him, despite his steadfast belief in its liberating function. As he tells his friend Oswaldo Ruanova, “philosophy is a prostitute that promises much but delivers little” (Ruanova 1982, 167).
So how does one deal with the trauma stemming from the crisis of foundations and stability, of logos, that Portilla perceived all around him? On an individual, existential level, what is needed is a spiritual experience, like the transformational experience he had on a Mexican coast (see chapter 1).
Oswaldo Ruanova, who playfully refers to the Mexican existentialist as “the theologian Jorge Portilla,” recalls the “evangelic and messianic” (1982, 162) philosopher who looked like “an enraged sexton” (161) upon their initial meeting. “He was the victim,” Ruanova writes, “of a terrible internal tension” (161). This internal tension, I have suggested, was rooted in a worry over the dangers of incredulity toward values and grand narratives that led, ultimately, to a degenerate culture. It was rooted, that is, in the instability of the material world. William James describes the unhappy man as a “battle-ground for what he feels to be two deadly hostile selves, one actual, the other ideal” (James 1999, 190). In this sense, Portilla was an unhappy man. Values, he told Ruanova, “have left the world” (1982, 163). Ultimately, the way to a regrounding of culture and circumstance requires a reconquering of the solemnity and seriousness that made social, cultural, and existential values matter in the first place. When values matter, then individuals and communities also matter; when individuals and communities matter, then genuine humanity is possible. But for this to come about, Portilla tells Ruanova, “We need a ground for being, a basis to continue living” (163). Portilla finds that basis, that ground for being, through a spiritual experience that reveals the unity in all things, a connection that transcends the perceived togetherness of the experienced, material world.
The experience takes place suddenly. His is not a conversion of the “gradual” variety as William James describes it, whereby one turns to
God slowly, over the course of time (1999, 228). In fact, Portilla’s conversion story (as told to Ruanova) fits nicely into certain types of conversion experiences one finds in James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. For instance, we can classify Portilla as fitting what James calls the “selfsurrender” type, in which the subconscious plays a more important role in the ease or difficulty of having such an experience (228-230). Portilla’s past experiences, as well as his present angst, both lying in wait in his subconscious, had clearly prepared him for his conversion. Before the event, Portilla recalls that “he does not know why” he started to think of other converts, such as Saint Paul on his way to Demascus, or the Spanish “philosopher Morente”2 (Ruanova 1982, 164), whose conversion is described as involving the achievement of “a deep solace” with a voice that promised “an a-temporal and eternal peace” (Iribarren 1942, 17-19). At the moment of his own conversion, Portilla is suddenly filled with a “sense of unity, like we find in the pantheism of Baruch Spinoza . . . a radiant beauty that seemed to burst from a unified totality, raising the landscape, animating the living water, the pure sky, the rocks . . . with a new sense” (Ruanova 1982, 164). Taken at face value, Portilla’s conversion experience is like that of Saint Paul or Saint Augustine or Morente, namely, the sudden realization that Reason is operating at those imperceptible levels into which only the heart, open and unprejudiced, is allowed to enter. Or, crudely put, Spinoza’s basic insight was right and God is everything and everything is God.
However, if we read into his conversion memory, what Portilla experienced on the Mexican coast was the sudden realization that despite the disorder and relajo all around him, a power greater than his was legislating control. Henceforth, the disunity and disorder of the circumstance and, generally, the contingency of existence cease being so chaotic and threatening. There is a metanarrative that survives the fleeing of modernity, and it alone gives reason to what seems, prima facie, irrational. The time following the conversion, Portilla tells Ruanova, “I felt a prolonged serenity” (1982, 164). This serenity could only come, we can imagine, from an apodictic belief in a rationality greater than his own operating beyond the bounds of finite human cognition.
Identifying Portilla’s space-time as one on the fringes of modernity, neither in nor out of modernity, but like Mexican identity itself, straddling two ontological-epistemological realms, allows us to appreciate the philosophical significance of Portilla’s spiritual experience (his reconversion). If we read his reading of Sartre’s Nausea together with his Fenomenologia,
we can see the philosopher struggling to convince his readers (presumably, his contemporaries) of the saving power of philosophy. But thinking about his conversion experience makes it clear that, as he tells us in the Fenomenologia, only an internal “change of attitude,” or more specifically, a spiritual upheaval, could accomplish what philosophy promises but fails to deliver (Portilla  1984, 62; Sanchez 2012, 169). That he does not say this explicitly is a testament to his own fear of being taken seriously—a well-founded fear, given the historical animosity between faith and reason, or between religion and philosophy.
Portilla’s transformative intuition of an all-encompassing order and unity helps explain his defense of seriousness as a means to combat momentary human failings like relajo. But it also helps us imagine what the end of modernity, as the end of order and metanarratives, signified for Portilla, namely, a cultural challenge (albeit earthly and limited) to a grand design. However, as Ruanova writes, “without [the story of his conversion] we cannot understand [Portilla’s] determination” to enlighten and transform others (1982, 165).
At this point, someone familiar with Portilla’s Fenomenologia will feel compelled to ask the following: was Portilla the real apretado, the value-obsessed snob, whom he assails in his Fenomenologia? I do not think so. He certainly saw the importance of respecting established values and traditional ideas, but he did not embody them as apretados do, his critique of Thomas Mann notwithstanding. I will turn to that now.