Resources for Researchers 2: More on “Zozobra”

Jim Maffie asked about the etymology of “zozobra,” and rather than answer in the comment section, I thought it would be somewhat valuable to write it as a post. It is, after all, a central element of Uranga’s ontology.

The 1888 edition of the Primer Diccionario General Etimológico, defines “zozobra” as “the opposition and contrast of winds that impede navigation and place the vessel in danger of being submerged” (688). This is the sense in which it is used by Lopez Velarde and Uranga when they describe Mexican being as characterized by a fundamental anxiety of breakdown and loss. Etymologically, the word originates in Catalán, from the word “sotsobre” and its verb “sotsobrar,” which means “to overturn” [volcar], or to put upside down. Sostsobrar has Latin roots: sots from the Latin subtus, meaning below or under, and sobre from the Latin super, above or on top.

So, yes, the interplay between nepantla and zozobra is an interesting one, especially when used to define a particular, and situated, human being. This being is one that is in constant movement and perpetual uncertainty, always “in danger of being submerged,” unable to stand still in the certainty of its own existence, overturned by fortune, history, and its accidents, or to get fancy, a being-in-vertigo.

Yes, interesting. Carlos

One response to “Resources for Researchers 2: More on “Zozobra”

  1. Thanks, Carlos. I find Uranga’s characterization of the lo mexicano in terms of the conceptual interplay between nepantla and zozobra to be absolutely fascinating and profoundly worthy of inclusion in academic philosophical discussions and in our philosophy courses alongside other philosopher’s characterization of the human condition in terms of such terms as being and nothingness. While nepantla is clearly autochthonous, zozobra is not — at least not on the surface. But the more I reflect upon Robert’s and Carlos’ discussion of zozobra, the more I think that it nevertheless nicely captures many of the sentiments expressed in the Mexica songpoems collected in the16th century Cantares Mexicanos and Romances de los señores de la Nueva España. Indeed, zozobra seems to capture the uncertainty and unpredictability of human existence that the Mexica expressed with the notion of Tezcatlipoca, and Tezcalipoca’s ceaseless tug of war with his match (inamic), Quetzalcoatl. And this Mexica conception of the universe and of human existence is not unique to them; it is widely shared by native Mesoamerican peoples. So, one wonders, to what extent is contemporary Mexican philosophy not European or perhaps not even mestizo but staunchly Mesoamerican? And so, too, it appears that Indigenous Mesoamerican philosophers arrived upon a philosophy of life that some might liken to European existentialism hundreds of years prior to Europeans! So much for Mexica and Maya philosophies, for example, being pale imitations of and sidebars to European philosophy! Just the opposite is the case! This is mind-blowing stuff, you two! I can’t wait to read more.

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