An important, and rare, work on the history of Mexican philosophy in the 20th century, Oswaldo Díaz Ruanova’s Los Existencialistas Mexicanos (1982) [The Mexican Existentialists] paints a portrait of Jorge Portilla as a complicated and conflicted thinker, one who “was victimized by a terrible internal tension” (Ruanova, 161) and longed for security and stability, responsibility and accountability, in a meaningless world. Mostly autobiographical, Ruanova’s Los Existencialistas Mexicanos gives a vivid, and rare, account of Jorge Portilla, the man.
I found this interesting: Jorge Portilla “re-converted” to Catholicism later in life (he had been, as many Mexicans, one since infancy). Ruanova recounts a conversation with Portilla in which the latter goes through the process of his spiritual re-covery. According to Portilla, on a certain day he suddenly he began to sense that something was happening to him and felt out of place in places he usually felt at home. This feeling of homelessness moved him to flee to the Mexican coast. There he “felt humorless, shame, and dissatisfaction”; trying to fit in, he felt “uncomfortable”; “I felt out of the everyday and the habitual.” He “wandered aimlessly through the streets.” He “felt broken inside.”
As if taking a page from Sartre’s Nausea, Portilla recalls:
“The lottery vendors, the minstrels, and the beggars infesting that beach, where a man of the city finds himself out of place, bothered me….I felt irritated by everyone, from the natives with beautiful black bodies to the red-headed, freckled tourist….Even the desperation of a boy asking me for five cents…depressed me.” (Ruanova, 163).
At a somewhat similar point in his own spiritual journey, Sartre’s Roquentin is suddenly overcome with that which stands around him. He says, “the nausea seized me…I no longer knew where I was; I saw the colors spin slowly around me, I wanted to vomit. And since that time, the nausea has not left me, it holds me” (Sartre, 30). Unlike Roquentin, however, Portilla refuses to be held, or held on to, by the nausea that must accompany the irritation and depression of his own immediate existence, and instead turns his mind to the conversions of Saint Paul and St. Augustine.
This turning-of-the-mind is not reflective, but instantaneous, and brings about his own conversion, or re-conversion to Catholicism. “I felt a prolonged serenity,” he confesses to Ruanova, “everything revealed itself to me like a coherent sphere under the influence of a single light. And the light became clearer and the atmosphere sharper. Upon my return to [Mexico City] I read the first page of St. Augustine’s Confessions” (Ruanova, 164). We are not told by Ruanova what reading that first page of the Confessions accomplished for Portilla, although it is worth noting that St. Augustine, too, read only the first passage of St. Paul’s Gospel immediately following his own conversion experience (Augustine 1991, 187). In Portilla’s case, perhaps this reading reinforced his re-connection with, or rather, his re-emergence into, that “single light,” or maybe it simply put Portilla at ease, knowing he kept company with those who had escaped from the edge of nausea by a spiritual awakening. Reading that first page, where Augustine suggests that being open to God, that seeking God, is enough for God to (eventually) reveal Himself (“For they that seek shall find him”), suggests that Portilla understood, even before the act of reaching for the Confessions, that only God could save him from the nausea and the sickness that he felt beginning to envelope him, and in this way, he remained open for the possibility of the conversion experience.
What philosopher, tormented by existence and the threat of meaninglessness, would refuse the clarity of a St. Paul or a St. Augustine? As clarity ascends, Augustine doesn’t need, at that moment, any more instruction, validation, justification. Putting down “the Apostle,” he says: “No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away” (1981, 187). Likewise, we can argue that Portilla reads no further than that first page of the Confessions because he didn’t need to. To “need” to read suggests that something is lacking in the reader, something that more reading will fulfill. In the divine experience, all lack, but especially the lack of certainty, is fulfilled and so that the need disappears. Both Augustine and Portilla, on the event of the conversion experience do not need to read if only because nothing is lacking.
My question, now, is: to what extent should the fact of this conversion experience influence my reading of Portilla from here on out? If at all.