Translation: “The Mexican Idea of Death”

The Mexican Idea of Death*

by Emilio Uranga ©1950

Original Translation by Carlos Alberto Sánchez ©2017**

One of the more direct and immediate expressions of our style of life is found in our eagerness to play games. The Mexican continuously plays games with his own life. To play with one’s own life means exposing it, putting close to its own destruction, to challenge destruction itself. This game is not played to win, but to lose. We don’t play in order to win, we play in order to see whether or not we lose. This absolute abandon to fate places us in the presence of the pure possibility of dissolution. Sometimes we play so as to not forget our capacity for destruction, so as to not forget our originary possibility to choose between being and non-being. In other words, we play so as to taste and not allow to grow stale that possibility of a radical frustration.

We could say the same thing regarding the fundamental insecurity in which we find Mexican life. Insecurity refers to the idea that the right to live one’s life to its fullness is not recognized. No one can demand protection or security for their own life, nor the time, necessary and indispensible, to give oneself peacefully to some task and complete it. Mexican life does not demand rights, nor does it have them—it is free, it is “abandoned,” given away to its own impulses. If security were instituted it would constrain a life given to destruction, to many opportunities and occasions to destroy itself. The contrast here between Mexicans and North Americans is extreme. Josiah Royce proposed that, certainly, that the moral institution par excellence in the US was the insurance company. To insure one’s life is the clearest symbol that the life of the North American essentially takes place in accordance with principles, that is it not free and abandoned, but is rather conceived as a life of rights and demands, in consequence, the right to being secured and respected in order to be realized.

What we mean to say is that life for the Mexican involves an essential “fracturing” [tronchamiento] or “cracking” [quebrazón], the ability, that is, to suddenly and sharply tear oneself apart. The Mexican knows with inexorable certainty that his life will break apart sooner or later and that that life does not contain within itself the sense of a possible culmination. Breakable, but not fulfillable—that is life for the Mexican. Life, then, can find its end at any moment. Life is always on the brink of its fracturing. We are always already on the verge of death. There is in the life of the Mexican a permanent disposability, a giving oneself to an imminent death. The certainty of a final end and the imminence of it constitute the [194] axis of life and death for the Mexican. If one thinks that there must be a culmination to life, a consummation or fulfillment, then one must think that there must be time to do so. But, who assures us of that time, who will give us that time? In spite of the Mexicans religiosity, he does not think that providence will concede him such time. Neither by a “miracle,” or “luck” will the life of the Mexican find its conclusion.

On the other hand, there is always time to frustrate one’s life—any time for that purpose is sufficient, any age of life is the right age for death. “In the end, we are born in order to die” [Al fin para morir nacimos] “If they’re going to kill me tomorrow, why not do it today.” The first expression refers to the established belief that life cannot brings itself to a conclusion and the second that it can drown itself out at any moment. For the Mexican, the schema of a life that will achieve fullness after dying is not a realizable one. Death is the only thing that the Mexican does not leave for “tomorrow” because she knows that as today, tomorrow will continue to converse its radical sense of fracture. If we don’t believe that life must “fulfill” itself, then death does not seem like an injustice. That celebrated proposition of Obermann, “Live in such a way that if you are condemned to nothingness that act will be an injustice,” means nothing to the Mexican, since to believe in such a maxim means that one understands neither life nor death. Death does not frustrate nor does it fracture, neither does it seem like an injustice before life, and this because life itself has not chosen itself as fulfillable or just. The Mexican does not believe himself to have the right to a fullness of which death would rob him; that is, death, in happening, would not deprive him of anything.

Recently, the North American begins, although sporadically, to open himself to a different idea of death. Hemingway’s novels make this clear. But despite this change, the fundamental sense of life and death have not changed. They still believe in death as imminent and personal. When the bells toll I ought not ask for whom they toll, but rather I must live in the certainty that they always toll for me. But if death is certain and unavoidable and, moreover, proximal, then life must be realized with a maximum effort to fulfill its mission in the shortest amount of time. It seems as if the God of the North American gives them a deadline, a minimal amount of time to live their lives. It is imperative, then, to do everything quickly. Certainly, the amount of time that before was assigned to complete a life has changed, but the conviction remains that life is something to complete. Fear of death expresses a fear of dying before having exhausted all of life’s possible experiences. D.H. Lawrence affirmed that the North American [195] lives his life in the belief that life in its concreteness is a project to find pleasure in certain experiences, for instance, in drinking tequila. Life would appear as truncated if death would come before having lived this “experience,” or a similar one, such as being part of the running of the bulls, and so on.

For the Spaniard, for instance, death is also imminent, but one cannot say that he thinks of life as something that concludes. We are alike in this respect. But he fears death because, in the words of Unamuno, “it rips away the I,” and the Spanish lends this grammatical fiction to everything. The expression, “I don’t feel like dying,” reveals the sense of that irremediable loss of the self that cannot be accepted. The Spaniard feels in his achieved individuality a kind of irrevocable and beloved homeland. For the Mexican, on the contrary, the I is not redressed in these narcissistic characteristics. Death is not feared for the ends it brings nor because it impedes some mission, which doesn’t exist, nor is it feared for ripping away a self that also does not exist. This is opposed to that extreme case, the German, which is Heidegger’s, in which death is imagined as conferring upon life both individuality and totality. For the Spaniard and for the North American death takes away something, while for the German, it gives, but for the Mexican it neither gives nor takes because there’s nothing to take and there’s nothing to give.

*Emilio Uranga, “La idea mexicana de la muerte,” in Análisis del ser del mexicano y otros escritos sobre la filosofía de lo mexicano (1949-1952). Selección y prólogo y notas de Guillermo Hurtado. México: Bonilla Artigas Editores, 2013: pp. 193-195.

**For more cool translations, see our Mexican Philosophy in the 20th Century: Essential Readings (Oxford University Press), which you can order here or here.

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One response to “Translation: “The Mexican Idea of Death”

  1. Great piece. Thanks for posting. Does Uranga attempt to trace the genealogy of this way of thinking to indigenous Mesoamerican ways of thinking about life and death?

    Jim Maffie

    On Fri, Sep 29, 2017 at 8:38 PM, 20th Century Mexican Philosophy wrote:

    > carlosalbertosanchez posted: “The Mexican Idea of Death* by Emilio Uranga > ©1950 Original Translation by Carlos Alberto Sánchez ©2017** One of the > more direct and immediate expressions of our style of life is found in our > eagerness to play games. The Mexican continuously plays games” >

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