RELIGIOUS EXISTENTIALISM, OR THE POSTMODERN DENIAL

In both the Fenomenologia and the Thomas Mann essay just discussed, Portilla presents himself as nostalgic for a loss already suffered or a loss to come. What we read in these works is that Portilla’s is a nostalgia for seriousness, or, at least, for serious personalities; for individuals who took care of values and committed themselves to their realization; for bounded communities that would impose social sanctions on behavior that would negatively impact the sanctity of traditions and the established order; for truth procedures that would positively impact those traditions and that order (e.g., irony as a means to truth); and, finally, for a human community that valued truth above all else and sought it in common. Scouring the historical archive, he finds that Socrates embodies this ideal. In a telling passage, Portilla writes:

Socrates was affirming his absolute relationship with truth. He was making himself infinitely responsible for it. For Socrates, truth was an absolute demand that required absolute devotion.

His irony was founded on a supreme seriousness, since seriousness is nothing other than vocation for and unconditional devotion to a value. In it, this vocation and devotion are not subject to any condition whatsoever, not even to that of living. Socrates would employ irony precisely because he transcended himself and his concrete interests toward truth, beyond the assumptions of his fellow citizens regarding virtue and knowledge, but also beyond his own life. He himself points out the absolute character of his commitment when he presents it as a demand of the Deity and he affirms, facing death, its irrevocable character. (Portilla [1966] 1984, 69-70; Sanchez 2012, 174-175)

I call this a “telling” passage because it is not Socrates that we find in it but Portilla himself. Socrates’s commitment to truth, or to the value of truth, is absolute, and so is Portilla’s. Like Socrates, Portilla is not pretending to “embody” truth; he seeks it as an “absolute demand,” a demand revealed by oracles or spiritual experiences. Truth is not what Socrates is or what Portilla is; it is what they do, that is, it is their “vocation.” They express their seriousness through an “unconditional commitment” to the call of duty (in both cases, the call of divinity), a commitment that takes precedence even over their own social existence. Portilla, like Socrates, is serious even in the face of death.

Commitment to truth, to community, and to tradition restricts and bounds one’s freedom. Both Socrates and Portilla bound their freedom through their chosen vocation, through a search for truth. Portilla’s truth, however, seems to be wrapped up in a vision of human well-being measured by the degree of organization and self-discipline that a society can produce. This is his vision for modernity, as I have been describing it. My basis for attributing this vision to Portilla is that I read his Fenomenologia, his noncritique of Sartre, and his vicious reading of Mann as together forming a treatise against the fetishism of contingency and excessive freedom, or, better yet, as a defense of modernity. Thus, when Poritlla writes that “relajo is a negation that founds a pseudofreedom that is purely negative and thus infertile [infecunda]” (Portilla [1966] 1984, 71; Sanchez 2012, 176), I take this to be more than a critique of a communal attitude toward values that passes itself as an act of freedom when it is not; I read an exasperated attempt to combat the seduction of living without a plan, without higher legislation, and without life-structuring narratives. I read a fear of the postmodern urge. As sterile and unproductive, relajo and similar attitudes sanctioned by a fetish for chaos bring about no-thing. And so, nothing will emerge from a time lacking the scaffolding of modernity. There will be no decisions, no revisions, no ideas, and no plans for action, which, as we saw in his critique of Mann, will certainly lead to death and destruction. Such is the rationale that allows Portilla to argue that relajo destroys the future: “The relajo individual [hombre de relajo] performs a profoundly irrational move that consists of turning one’s face [volverle la cara] against the future to realize a simple act of negation of the immediate past. The future is thus stripped of its power of attraction. Each instant of the immediate future is lived as a mere possibility of negation of the present” (Portilla [1966] 1984, 39; Sanchez 2012, 147). Put differently: the future is suspended, the past is negated, and the present is governed by “profoundly irrational” decisions. The future cannot come because without order there is no progress. Sure, history will scurry to its next stage, but due to the pseudo-freedom that governs it, nothing will be accomplished since nothing is valued. The individual will be trapped in the constant repetition of the “now,” in the repetitive process that cancels the eventuality of the event, killing action in its crib, and deferring all meaning to an impossible future. If we define insanity, as we commonly do, as doing the same thing again and again but expecting different results, then the future, as Portilla conceives it, is insane.

 
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