Disgusting Mann

On the event of his conversion, still entranced by the power in whose presence he found himself, Saint Augustine heard a chorus of voices in the distance that sang, as if to him, “Take up and read, take up and read” (Augustine 1991, 187). He took that as a command from God, and read one verse from Saint Paul, finding it unnecessary to continue reading, as one verse was enough to convince him that the voices he had heard were divine voices and that he had arrived at a new plane of existence. Portilla does the same: on the event of his conversion, upon his return to the city and still living in the profound serenity of the experience, Portilla picked up the Confessions of Saint Augustine and read, as Augustine had done, just one page—interestingly enough, the page in which Augustine assures us all, sinners and saints alike, that all that is required to find God is the willingness to seek him. These two acts of reading, undertaken under the most emotionally charged conditions, are certainly not “innocent,” passive readings; both Portilla and Augustine read with a higher, inspired purpose: their enfoque sought to unify their entire emotional (spiritual) life with an otherness that is beyond all comprehension, and they sought this by looking at mere words on a page! Clearly their readings sought more than words; they sought God’s universal perspective and, as they read, felt ready to somehow appropriate it and make it their own.

Of course, the conditions for these readings are exceptional. But, as I have been claiming (echoing Jose Ortega y Gasset), reading itself is an exceptional act—or, at least, more so than what we commonly think. Portilla himself read with purpose and violent intent (exhibit A: reading an eidetic investigation of relajo into the history of Husserlian phenomenology). He professes as much in the first lines of a lecture he delivered in July 1962, one year before his death.

The theme of the lecture is Thomas Mann.3 He prefaces his remarks with the following warning to his listening (and, now, reading) audience: “I have the word on Thomas Mann. For the next forty minutes, this man of genius will be at my mercy. I can do with him as I please, praise him or disfigure him [deturparlo]; speak about him intelligently or stupidly. The dead lion is given to the rabid jaws of the living dog” (Portilla [1966] 1984, 183).

Portilla’s vicious reading of Mann has to do with Portilla’s antipathy toward what he has come to see as the reckless consequences of existential- ism—specifically, the triumph of irrationalism, justifications for excessive freedom, the promotion of individuality over community, and “a monstrous inversion of values,” all events he sees glorified by Mann. Thus, he says, Mann’s writings “profoundly disgust me” ([1966] 1984, 183).

We can trace Portilla’s sense of disgust to what we have already touched upon, namely, the dread and anxiety gripping him due to the loss of order and stability—both in his own person, in Mexico, and in the modern age more generally. His religious awakening notwithstanding, Portilla, now toward the end of his life, sees Mann as a culprit in the great irrationalist propaganda machine that existentialism represents and that was turned on by Luther, proponent of an “intimate,” “personal” God, and not a God “known” through “a logical system of truths” external to the individual ([1966] 1984, 188)—although I fail to see how his conversion experience, as immediate and nonconceptual as he describes it, was nestled in such a “system of truths” (i.e., as embodied in the Catholic Church). While Portilla’s God gives order to the perceived chaos of existence, and can thus be “known” rationally, Luther’s God is found through the sheer force of (irrational) faith.

Portilla’s neurotic sensibilities could not be appeased by such absence of reason and order, and in this lecture we begin to see the manifestation of his neurosis in the obsessive desire for governing principles that would extend beyond the personal and to the universal, principles that would dictate the order of values once and for all. Particularly, in his reading of Mann, we get a glimpse into what Portilla considered relajo’s radical extreme, death. Death, as event and concept, is what a world given to absolute freedom would end up valorizing. Death is what lies outside the space of reason—temporally, it is the moment after the ultimate suspension of seriousness (see Sanchez 2012, 106-107). Reading a passage where Mann muses nostalgic on the nineteenth century’s penchant for “pessimism” and its “musical communion” with “night and death,” Portilla angrily protests: “Can one imagine a more radical declaration of irrationalist faith? What kind of values are these: Night, death, [and] pessimism?” ([1966] 1984, 190).

As Portilla sees it, the value of death over life is one of those inversions that the crude existentialism of atheists, nihilists, and individualists has precipitated. Somehow forgetting the fascination with death that has existed in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times (and that, unfortunately, still exists today in, for example, the death rites of “narco culture”), Portilla finds this obsession particularly German. For instance, he points out a cult of death that glorifies Rainer Maria Rilke for “having the sensitivity to die from an infection he acquired from having been pricked by a flower’s thorn,” or drives Nazi officers to “adorn their coffins with skeletons” ([1966] 1984, 189). The most dangerous consequence of this glorification, Portilla rightly points out, is the “complacency before another’s death” (190).

There is a thin line between complacency before the death of the other and complicity in the death of the other. The existentialist postulate of absolute, unrestrained freedom, which serves as the horizon for the appearance of relajo, leads to a value inversion in which the value of life itself is suspended. The complacency toward this inversion, where, as it is said, “life doesn’t mean shit,” furthermore, means that death is likewise insignificant, which, ironically, is a stand one can take toward death, relieving one of the fear and dread accompanying all thoughts of one’s own finality. Portilla diagnoses this valorization of death over life as “anti-human.” “I confess,” he says, “that I absolutely do not understand this fidelity toward death; it is disguised to go against the human, against the other in its most concrete form” ([1966] 1984, 191). The gravest consequence of existentialism, Portilla thinks in 1962, and despite Sartre’s previous efforts to quell the sentiment, is antihumanism.

In Portilla’s view, the existentialist move of inverting the reason-life dyad has the effect of inverting the life-death dyad; irrationalism, in other words, gives us antihumanism, and antihumanism gives rise to the Nazi death camps, or “the most criminal and inhumane fifteen years in the history of mankind” ([1966] 1984, 191). And yes, Thomas Mann is an accomplice to this as well, since the “spiritual atmosphere in which [his] oeuvre navigates is the exact same atmosphere of National Socialism” (191). Thomas Mann, according to Portilla, is guilty by association.

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