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Home arrow Economics arrow Contingency and commitment : Mexican existentialism and the place of philosophy


Uranga’s existentialist-inspired characterization of Mexican being as fundamentally contingent is a philosophical insight grounded on the history and circumstance of Mexico itself. With the first mestizo comes the first internal duality, the first tension, and the first conflict of identity. Mexico becomes the land of contradictions, and these make their way into the depths of the Mexican psyche. Mexican art testifies to this, and so does Mexican poetry, where Uranga finds his Friedrich Holderlin in the person of Ramon Lopez Velarde.

It was pointed out in the introduction that Heidegger’s encounter with Holderlin gave the former pause and occasion for philosophy; Ura- nga’s encounter with Velarde accomplished a similar feat. Indeed, poetry for Uranga provides direct access to the most inaccessible aspects of being: “what the poet reveals sets itself apart with an almost religious caution from the accessible dominions of thought” (1952, 76). In line with Rorty’s characterization of the quarrel between poetry and philosophy, Uranga likewise recognizes that “poetry and thought [pensar] oppose each other” and, again like Rorty, laments that the “divorce between poetry and thought” has not been beneficial to either (76). The common assumption is that philosophy is “dry and narrow” while poetry is “stupid [tonta] and prejudicial,” which leads to the shutting out of the poetic in the search for truth and meaning (76). As we have seen, however, the Mexican existentialist project, in all of its profiles, is unafraid to be prejudicial, for the health and future of those circumstances of which it is a reflection or toward which it is an intervention. But it is not poetry! That is, at the very least, our literary prejudices tell us that theirs is not poetry, even if a fundamentalist apostle of philosophy would charge his or her thinking as unphilosophical. This suggests that the divorce between poetry and philosophy is not as clear-cut as we would think. Uranga recognizes this, professing hope that his generation “begins to heal its myopia and it opens itself to the new conviction that poetry and philosophy communicate with each other through robust networks that only our narrow vision can make impalpable and subtle” (76). Thus, Uranga sees in poetry, and especially in the poetry of Velarde, the secret to the unraveling of the mysteries of existence, and especially Mexican existence. Velarde’s poetry, he says, “will always be the final word in my ontology” (81).

So what does Velarde’s poetry reveal? Uranga reflects on the following lines: “Weaver: weave into your thread / the inertia of my sleep and your confident illusion; / weave the silence; / weave the terrible syllable that crosses our lips but says nothing” (Uranga 1952, 85). Uranga’s reading is penetrating yet telling. He writes: “the thread of life, that weaves in a zigzagging movement . . . is not woven by a logical or providential hand, but by a hand that is adventurous and random. The weaver is not wise and calculating of effects and conclusions; the weaver is the abandoned inspiration of the accidental” (85). Pausing in several of Valerde’s poems, Uranga reads them as revelatory of contingency, accident, randomness, and contradiction. Reading with Uranga, we can say that Valerde’s poetry occasions a reflection of Mexican existence in a restless limbo of uncertainty and homelessness; or, said differently, the poems reveal Mexican life as situated in a nondialectic that nonetheless traps this worldly being in a perpetual movement, woven in and out, to-and-fro extremes. Pushing our reading even further, Valerde reveals Mexican mestizaje—this vague mark of historical identity—as fluid and contradictory, and the Mexican as a perpetual immigrant, always in transit from one site to the next. Mexican being, in this account, is therefore not subject to a Hegelian- type dialectic, where one conception of identity is subsumed by the next in a process leading to a sublation of the first and, consequently, a richer, more robust sense of self. What Uranga is talking about is “an oscillating or pendular manner of being that goes to one extreme and then to the next, that makes both instances simultaneous and never annihilates one for the sake of the other” (82). Because of this pendular movement, Mexican character, or identity, cannot situate itself on either extreme, but locates itself, when it must, as perpetually in-between. The Nahuatl word for the in-betweenness of Mexican being is nepantla, a concept, Uranga boasts, that is the “purest cardinal category of our ontology” and not one “recklessly borrowed from the Western tradition” (81).

Nepantla refers to an ambivalent middle-ground that is neither and both of its extremes. It is the point at which contradictory forces converge, and from which they perpetually repel each other; nepantla is where contradictory forms of the human are condemned to perpetual simultaneity. Uranga lists a few ways in which nepantla has manifested itself in the history of Mexican thought: the convergence-repulsion of the “Christian and the indigenous,” of “hypocrisy and cynicism,” of “brutality and gentleness,” of “fragility and toughness,” and so on (1952, 82). Nepantla rests in the conjunction that ties the extremes together as its logical glue.

Uranga refers to this “logic of oscillation,” where nepantla conditions the simultaneity of extremes, as “zozobra” (1952, 82). Zozobra, like other categories in Mexican philosophy, for instance relajo, does not lend itself to unproblematic translation into English. The Velazquez dictionary defines zozobra as “Uneasiness, anguish, anxiety” and a zozobrante, which would refer in Uranga’s analysis to Mexican being in general, as “that which is in great danger; [a] sinking” (Velazquez, Gray, and Iribas

2003, 932). In Uranga, zozobra is a definitive characteristic of Mexican being, and it refers to a

not knowing what to expect, or what is the same, adhering to both extremes, an accumulation, a not letting-go [un no soltar presa], a grasping at both ends of the chain. The incessant play of to-and-fro . . . ‘our lives are pendulums,’ as Lopez Velarde puts it. . . . But what zozobra contains, perhaps deeper than anything else, is a peculiar pain, the most private suffering. The inevitable wound found in this type of being that reveals zozobra is incurable. It is a wound that will not heal; a permanent wound.

The immersion in the originary announces itself in the irrepressible screams that emanate when we touch, with our finger, that wound . . . indelible and bloody. (1952, 82)

We can certainly see how zozobra is a kind of uneasiness or anxiety, or the feeling of great danger. But this common way of understanding it does not do it justice. Clearly, this is an instance of Uranga appropriating Heidegger’s notion of “angst,” or existential anxiety, whereby the world itself appears as “unnerving” but the being that confronts that world cannot “let go” of it, holds on to it, all the while recognizing the permanence of this “private suffering.” In Heidegger, Stephen Mulhall writes, “anxiety confronts Dasein with the knowledge that it is thrown into the world—always already delivered over to situations of choice and action which matter to it but which it did not itself fully choose or determine. It confronts Dasein with the determining and yet sheerly contingent fact of its own worldly existence” (2005, 111). Likewise for Uranga, zozobra confronts Mexicans who understand their accidentality, or their contingency, reminding them that life is constant suffering and perpetual struggle, that Mexican existence itself is played out in the horizon of accidentality where freedom and uncertainty reign, where choice and responsibility offers the only semblance of control.

In our reading, zozobra, as a “grasping at both ends of the chain,” can help explain the oscillation, hesitation, and floundering of Mexican philosophers as they face a radically vital choice, namely, a choice that decides the nature of the appropriation and accomplishment of a philosophical commitment. If zozobra is an ontological characteristic found in the depths of being, then it must surely manifest itself in the realm of thinking, of thought, in the way in which Mexican philosophers communicate with the universe and in the way in which they conceive of philosophy, if philosophy is to be a way to cope with the “indelible and bloody” reminder of their thrownness into that particular world in which they find themselves. As with everything defining the zozobrante (the historical individual who suffers zozobra), philosophy will likewise present itself in the guise of extremes: on the one hand, as universal and ahis- torical and, on the other, as rooted and circumstantial.

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