Silence: Reflections on Unreasonable Themes (Part B of Part I)–Jorge Portilla

Of all the definitions of philosophy, I keep coming back to Rorty’s: philosophy, he says, is the transcendence of contingency. I like it because it’s short and to the point. But also because it captures the essence of philosophical thoughts, namely, thoughts that are stripped of their contingency and their transitoriness, thoughts that refer to what is timeless and eternal, that speak to all human beings and for all time. Philosophical thoughts are those, then, that transcend the clamor of becoming, the noise of disruption, the anxiety of the times. In this way, philosophy promises a path to a silence that is absolute…to a peace that is absolute.

Despite their infatuation with historicism, Mexican philosophers endorsed this view of the philosophical. Jorge Portilla (1919-1963), at least in his authorship, believed more than anyone else that philosophy was the transcendence of all kinds of desmadre.

What Portilla calls relajo can be thought about as the disruption of a serious commitment to value, or as a suspension of seriousness, that is, as the putting into play of what is not serious. The overcoming of relajo, and hence of the suspensions of seriousness, became for him a generational task. His Fenomenologia del Relajo (the translation of which is published as an Appendix in my The Suspension of Seriousness) is an attempt to contribute to this task, a means to put philosophy to work in the overcoming of relajo. He puts philosophy to work in the task of setting things right by exposing the stupidity of those who don’t respect values and seriousness. But, this, to me at least, doesn’t do the trick. Relajo persists, perhaps, as I say in my analysis, as the ultimate gesture of the dispossessed against inherited colonial authority.

Ultimately, I think that philosophy fails Portilla and that he loses hope in its redeeming character, in its promise to transcend that which is trivial and contingent. Portilla’s writings in in the 50s and early 60s (before his death but after his involvement with el grupo Hiperión) show an anti-philosophical turn to Marx, wherein social criticism replaces phenomenological description. Philosophy is no longer tasked with transcending the world. What happened? Why give up on philosophy? I think the answer has to do less with recognizing the limits of philosophy and more with the recognition of what transcendence really meant.

Let me explain. Portilla has a “religious” conversion sometime in the 1940s or 50s—or, we could say, a spiritual experience wherein his world-view is radically altered, after which the realm of the ego and the limits of reason appear constricting and arbitrary (Villoro, as we saw, comes to have a similar experience in the Blue Mosque). Upon this happening, Portila confesses that he “felt a prolonged serenity.” The serenity is due to the achievement of a certain kind of surrender, of a letting go of the desire to overcome contingency and a surrender into the moment, a sinking into a mere being there. He describes experiencing a “radiant beauty that seemed to burst from a unified totality, raising the landscape, animating the living water, the pure sky, the rocks…with a new sense.” A new sense, of course, not projected or constituted in Portilla’s own consciousness, but emanating from the water itself, from the sky itself, from the rocks themselves.

Portilla doesn’t give up on philosophy after this conversion experience; he doesn’t flee into a monastic life or accept a life without desire. He understands that he must still exist in the world, and the search for seriousness and silence takes a more detached feel. “Philosophy is good for understanding,” he say in response to the questions, “what’s it good for?” The deconstructive, argumentative, character of philosophy, as we find it in his more critical writings (and that we tend to find often enough in our classrooms and in our students), is replaced by this character of understanding, of letting things speak for themselves. “The only men who don’t seem to learn anything from philosophy,” he says, “are certain professors of philosophy” (apparently because they don’t allow things to be; they don’t respect the demands of givenness).

The difference between Portilla the phenomenologist and Portilla the mystic is not clear to me after his conversion (a true phenomenologist seeks the same selfless detachment from the contingency of the world that is sought—at least to me—by mystics such as St. Francis and Simon Weil).

“Placed before evil, man tries to escape it by explaining it. Motivating the movement of explanation is a fleeing, an attempt to turn one’s eyes elsewhere. And this is a natural movement, since evil is what is unintelligible par excellence. Just as nothingness. Nothingness does not allow itself to be grasped, we have to envision it as the emptiness in the depths of being, as water in the cusp of one’s palm. Just as water drains and overflows, evil resists being grasped by our concepts. Evil does not make sense. It is the inarticulate, what is essentially ungraspable.” (Fenomenologia del relajo y otros ensayos, 177)

Here, explanation is the opposite of silence. Evil, like death, like God, like immortality (Kant’s ideas of Reason) falls outside the realm of what can and should not be said, if only for the sake of inner peace and tranquility.

Portilla’s conversion, while wholly religious in nature, is also one that places him before the limits of what can and should be said. Thus, in his later Marxist-inspired critiques of what he comes to call “bourgeois sophism,” i.e., the dogmatism and over-intellectualizations of modernity, Portilla’s aim is to shed light on the rush to confuse self-interested explanations for truths, for prescriptions of what and how to achieve the good life.

Explanations can be violent acts of resistance in which we try to give sense to what generally doesn’t need it or deserve it, ask for it or admit to it. In the process of explaining, we lose ourselves in the explanation, and end up losing ourselves in the violence. Or, better yet, we end up trapped in our violent explanations, in the violence of the explanations, in the chaos and in the despair. Perhaps I’m just being dramatic, but maybe freedom lies in silence, too, since without the need or desire to explain, we have the freedom to remain still, to surrender explanation and accept the shittiness when that shittiness is out of our control.

Ok, one more in the “Silence” series, then I’m done…cas


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