My readings of Portilla’s treatise on excess (Fenomenologia) and his defense of reason (the Mann essay) suggest that Portilla attributed the crisis of modernity (and not just in its Mexican appearance) to irresponsibility, irrationality, and a loss of respect for value, truth, and seriousness. If we accept Giddens’s definition of modernity, then we can say that Portilla traces this loss of value and respect, or the fallenness of humanity, into the insanity of chaos and reproduction (or repetition), to the excessive, flagrant allowances of existentialism. Portilla, therefore, saw postmodern humanity as lost in a disorder of its own making.
Elsewhere (Sanchez 2012), I pointed out that Portilla is the most prescient and realistic philosopher that twentieth-century Mexico, and Latin America, produced. The failures of modernity are captured in his frustrated descriptions and desperate appeals for overcoming. His prophetic vision is that we will all become marginal, fragmented, and victimized by chaos and disorder (relajo), in whatever form it comes and whatever name it bears, lest we return reason to its rightful place in the value hierarchies that define a well-ordered, and flourishing, culture. Thus, the solution to our modern crisis begins with peace and silence amid noise and clamor, seriousness amid distraction, commitment amid insecurity. This is a solution that the fracturing of modernity makes impossible without the legislations and groundings of reason or God.
I end The Suspension of Seriousness with the following thought, which, upon further reading, I feel needs further contextualization: “On the cusp of breaking through the Western paradigm and to an idea which we could call ‘postcolonial,’ Portilla flinched at the thought that perhaps relajo was a particularly anti-Western form of liberation—a reaction to colonial seriousness. He opted for the traditional prejudice favoring the wisdom of Western rationality” (Sanchez 2012, 121). I can now see the reasons for his “flinching,” namely, the threat of disorder and complacency, the loss of purpose and commitment, and so on, that would come about with the flight of reason from contemporary society—his and ours.
Portilla’s theistic existentialism—which, while recognizing the transformative, or destructive, power of the individual, nonetheless privileges the value of reason to constitute the horizon for the possibility of that transformative or destructive power; which supposes that the individual without God, suffering from an excess of freedom, is responsible for the breakdown of society—is an existentialism that seeks to transcend contingency, or to restore a transcendental order that can legislate seriousness toward values and demand purposeful commitment to a shared future.4 The challenges of the industrial, technical, and informational age can only be met with resolve. And resolve can only be rational and ordered, purposeful and logical. It is clear, to this reader at least, that the inflexibility of Portilla’s philosophical temperament prevented him from appreciating the spontaneity of contemporary culture. That he failed to appreciate this spontaneity caused him to hold views that, prima facie, might seem totalitarian, or at least contradictory, such as the value of restricted freedom, or a faith in reason.
With that in mind, I close with Pascal’s Pensees, in whose opening lines I find a fitting description of Portilla, the conflicted defender of modernity: “Man’s inward conflict between reason and the passions. Had he reason only, without passions . . . had he passions only, without reason . . . , but having both, he must always be at war, since only by combating the other can he be at peace with the one: thus he is always divided against himself” (Pascal 1946, 7).