The Value of Instrumental Reason

If all readings are violent confrontations, perspectival and circumstantial, ideologically and historically informed, filtered through conceptual schemes and life experiences, then Portilla’s reading of Mann says more about Portilla then it says about Mann. It speaks to Portilla’s ever-growing concern with his own salvation. It suggests a desperation to reinvert those values whose initial inversion had given way to the crisis of modernity in general, and his own personal crisis in particular. It illustrates a purposeful misreading that was both violent and innocent yet manipulative until it ceased being a reading and became a writing. The exaltation of reason, humanism, and life are values he himself wanted to propose as critically important to human existence; not finding them in his reading of Mann was Portilla’s attempt at dialogue with the dead lion.

Portilla’s is certainly a vicious reading, and the dead lion is certainly torn to pieces by the rabid dog, but at times it seems that the dog is merely madly jawing at the shadow of the lion. In other words, Portilla seems to be disgusted by Mann for all the wrong reasons. Of crucial importance is Portilla’s criticism of Mann on the basis that Mann’s existentialist motivated irrationalism, or “hate of reason” ([1966] 1984, 198), is antihuman and thus shares in the same “spiritual atmosphere” that justified the Nazi atrocities. In his hurried defense of reason, Portilla suggests that more reason would have prevented the atrocities of that time, and will certainly prevent atrocities in the future.

What Portilla does not seem to realize is that it was “more reason,” or at least reason instrumentalized, that created the conditions for the possibilities of the Nazi gas chambers and the death trains. Hannah Arendt, in her reports on the 1963 trial of Adolf Eichmann, notes the massive instru- mentalization of the Nazi death apparatus (Arendt 2006). Procedural efficiency, quality control, and risk management are clearly a consequence of rational deliberation and not a product of the spiritual conditions created by irrationalism. Portilla’s faith in reason, it seems, is blinded by what he himself wants to accomplish, namely, reason as instrument of dominion over chaos and unruliness. In fact, Portilla’s view of reason, as the antidote to the suspensions of seriousness that had given way to the crises of modernity and as the antithesis to the irrationalism that had justified the culture of death that he finds so abhorrent, fits the view of reason that was blamed for the very things Portilla blames on existential irrationality. Thus, Max Horkheimer argues in Eclipse of Reason, “in its instrumental aspect . . . reason has become completely harnessed to the social process. Its operational value, its role in the domination of men and nature, has been made the sole criterion” ([1944] 2013, 13).

Ultimately, in Portilla’s reading of Thomas Mann we confront the end of the existentialist period in Mexico, or at least, the end of that philosophical impulse to find value in freedom and contingency (I will say more about this in chapter 3). Delivered toward the end of his life, it is fitting that Portilla would wish to push back against the tide of postmodernity disguised as irrationalism that was fast approaching, as it signaled new value inversions where contingency, difference, and convention replaced necessity, sameness, and universality on the value hierarchies of global culture. As tragedies must end, Ruanova tells us, “[Portilla’s] messianic scream was lost in a community where ‘relajo’ rules, a community without game plans, without objectives or collective ideals, where the same is to die as to live” (1982, 175).

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