Saturday, May 21, 2011

José Ortega y Gasset's Meditations on Quixote

Having stated my case against José Ortega y Gasset in previous postings, I decided to go back to one of his books. I chose to reread Meditations on Quixote. This edition was translated from the Spanish by Evelyn Rugg and Diego Marín, and the introduction and notes were written by Julián Marías, a student of Ortega y Gasset at one time. The University of Illinois Press of Urbana and Chicago, Illinois, releases this First Illinois Paperback Edition in 2000. I must mention that W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. previously published this book in 1961, while the first Spanish edition came out in 1914. This edition also includes Ortega y Gasset’s “First Meditation: A Short Treatise on the Novel” (“The Nature of the Novel”) that appears in The Hudson Review 10:1 (Spring 1957).

Rugg and Marín do an excellent job in translating the work. It bears a remarkable resemblance to the Spanish original. As to the work itself, I have some bones to pick with it. Ortega y Gasset may be a smart philosopher, but he is not a great teacher. He gives off this snobbishness that leaves me wondering if his pessimism comes either from his upbringing or from his studies in Germany. His sententious axioms do give food for thought, but the food leaves a bitter aftertaste and a desire for something more satisfying. What makes it even more suspicious is that Julián Marías’s endnotes almost rival the length of Ortega y Gasset’s “First Meditation.” If it were not for his endnotes, I would have been more lost than I am now.

There are some phenomenological characteristics in his philosophy, I admit. He gives a good example of exercising intentionality when he walks through a forest and listens to the spring or the bird (59-60). He analyzes the distinct angles of an orange (63, 68). Objects “have an imaginary halo around them” (144). The lover that draws out the “plenitude” of the beloved has “love—the love for the perfection of the object” (32). When we contemplate an object, it “has to be taken as Jericho was taken. In wide circles, our thoughts and our emotions must keep on pressing in on it slowly, sounding in the air, as it were, imaginary trumpets” (52). Even the core of this vitalism has phenomenological elements: “I am myself plus my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I cannot save myself” (45).

But there is a problem: Ortega y Gasset’s philosophy follows the tradition of the German stock. He exudes a macho attitude: “Few books have moved me as much as those stories in which the hero goes forward, impetuous and straight as an arrow, towards a glorious goal” (41). He prizes the German way of thinking: “Italy, France, Spain are steeped in Germanic blood” (80). He quotes or mentions Friedrich Nietzsche three times (35, 72, 89). Yes, the original phenomenologists were German, but after a while, the camp split into two schools, the French and the German. Nietzsche belongs to the German. I prefer the French. I never did like Nietzsche’s “will to power” dogma, leaving good and evil aside. I believe there are wills to power that are either good or evil, but since he dismisses the binary opposition, he conveniently avoids how a good will to power operates.

Even if Ortega y Gasset’s German education is not a factor in including him with the phenomenologists, current studies and histories chronicling the movement pass over him. I remember one book mentioning him as having some sort of impact on phenomenology, but it mentions him in a footnote, not in the body of the text. Supposedly, vitalism or perspectivism does not toe the line or goes farther than what phenomenology purports to go.

So, why would current criticism overlook this philosopher?

I tried researching the differences between the French and the German traditions of philosophy during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, but was barred from the subscription services because I was no longer associated with a university. I did read one term that described Ortega y Gasset as a radical Romanticist. I took that lead and found a recently finished dissertation entitled “Radical Romantic Pedagogy: an exploration of the tradition and viability of a synthesis of Romantic and radical visions of education, focusing on the teaching of English at secondary level in England” by David Stevens (which you can find here). This does not look like it relates to our topic at hand, but on page 15, Stevens writes: “There remains, however, an uncomfortable ambivalence about the nature of Romanticism, and its radical potential in particular. It is possible to read the history of Romantic thought, especially in its German tradition, as in some sense a precursor to emotional nationalism and all the evils that arose from this: fascism and Nazism especially.” This is not good company to be in. Even though Ortega y Gasset was a liberal, constantly calling his colleagues and students to arms in the support of the Second Republic in Spain, it seems ironic that his will to power and political activism was encouraged by a Germanic influence. It also seems suspicious that he voluntarily exiled himself from Spain and eventually returned while others, more moderate in their politics, never returned. Of course I need proof to support these claims, but my intuitions have been right so far. I can see why Julián Marías would defend Ortega y Gasset’s philosophy, saying that “it has not been assimilated, much less surpassed” (25). I say he has not been assimilated or surpassed because he has guilt by association to fascism and Nazism. Who wants to assimilate or surpass his philosophy and be associated with those political ideologies? That is why many phenomenological publications overlook him. That is why I am uncomfortable with Ortega y Gasset.

The last complaint I have goes back to the first assertion that Ortega y Gasset is not a great teacher. Julián Marías sets down a strategy to reading and understanding Meditations on Quixote, but it is not a guarantee. “At times the deficiency is in the readers,” Marías surmises, “probably not as individuals, but as members of a society which imposes certain usages upon them” (16). Even “the most sagacious readers [guided by Ortega’s finger] […] have had the impression that they were disconnected” (17). So why does the philosopher write this way? Marías states, “When the author cannot or does not wish to give the necessary directions so that the reader may carry out that adjustment by himself, he runs the risk of never being read properly and consequently not understood either” (16). But most of the readers still cannot understand him! Well, I guess the only people that can penetrate Ortega y Gasset’s barrier have to be esoteric geniuses. I suppose that if you are an esoteric genius, then you can be in his circle. And if you are in his circle, then you can be an elitist. An elitist knows everything and has the privilege of not having to explain himself completely.

I do not recommend this book. If you do decide to read this, make sure you read Don Quixote and the Iliad beforehand, because knowing those stories helps. Or just read a single chapter if you need the author’s treatment of a particular genre. Although Marías says you cannot read a chapter by itself, do not worry. Chances are you are most likely not going to understand it anyway, even if you do read the whole book.

Andrew

5 comments:

  1. LOL! The way you describe the guy, I want to slap him. "You elitist Nietzche Nazi you!"

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  2. No kidding, right? Well, I shouldn't judge him too harshly. Benefit of the doubt, no?

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  3. Actually, Ortega was most heavily influenced by Pragmatism of William James. See "A Pragmatist Philosophy of Life in Ortega y Gasset,: by John T. Graham (Columbian, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1994), especially Chapter 4: Metaphysics: "Radicalism" as Pragmatism. This is the first volume of a comprehensive study of Ortega's thought. Subsequent volumes include Theory of History in Ortega y Gasset: "The Dawn of Historical Reason" (Ibid., 1997) and The Social Thought of Ortega y Gasset: A Systematic Synthesis in Postmodernism and Interdisciplinarity (Ibid, 2001). By the way, since you seem to favor the French philosophers you might be interesed in the fact that another strong influence on Ortega was Henri Bergson. As a more straightforward introduction to Ortega's philosophy I would recommend his "Some Lessons in Metaphysics" (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969). Also check out my website: http://www.webspawner.com/users/ortegainus/

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    1. Wonderful website with amazing resources on this philosopher. Is there somewhere online where people discuss his work? Is there an email address for further contact? Here is a forum thread, just created, allowing space if needed: http://www.philorum.com/index.php?/topic/45-jose-ortega-y-gasset/

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  4. Thank you longknowledge. You certainly know your Ortega y Gasset. I hope your translations are coming along well. Thank you for the sources, too. I will look these up when I study the philosopher again.

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