- OrtegaSecrecy and the World
Ortega, philosophy, literature, Spain
The image of a José Ortega y Gasset thinking about Spain, for the sake of Spain, and from out of the Spanish language and tradition, or from Hispania in a larger sense, continues to convince and orient scholars and readers the world over. Ortega himself created this profile throughout his life and his writings, claiming that he learned what he could outside Spain only to bring it home to nourish his own nation’s youth, to make possible the emergence of Spanish culture of the stature of its French, German, or English contemporaries. One of the key texts in this self-presentation is the “Prologue for Germans” (Prólogo para alemanes, first published in 1939),1 where Ortega not only describes his project (starting with studies in Germany and his decision to work primarily in “periodical publication” [1966e, 20-21]) but also declares its success: “Today Spain knows German culture by heart. It walks around in it like Peter walks around his house” (Hoy España se sabe de memoria la cultura alemana. Anda por ella como Pedro por su casa) (1966e, 25). The “Prologue” is [End Page 49] revealing not just for Ortega’s depiction of his relationship to Germany but for the intimate relationship that he draws between himself and Spain. We might begin by suspecting that the “Spain” that gives German culture a home in its heart would be limited to a few Spaniards, but especially to Ortega himself, and that, hence, he takes himself for a metonymic representation of Spain in general. In other ways, though, he means to separate the possibilities of understanding Spain, and hence understanding him, Ortega, from the Germans, to make both accessible only by way of a translation, from the proper name to the Spanish idiom and from Germany to the Spanish landscape.
Before focusing on Ortega’s curious refusal to perform this translation in a “Prologue” for “Germans,” let us recall another, simpler appeal to the immediacy of language and culture. Since the “Prologue for Germans” is one of his primary autobiographical texts, Ortega naturally justifies his self-presentation by explaining that, “including this prologue,” he has always written “excusively and ad hoc for people from Spain and South America” (1966d, 18). These “readers,” he insists, will know that they are “present” to him as he writes as he is present to them as they read: “If one puts one’s finger on any of my pages, one will feel the beating of my heart” (si se pone el dedo sobre cualquiera de mis páginas, se siente el latido de mi corazón), he says (1966d, 17). Moreover, the reader “feels as if an ectoplasmic, but authentic, hand were emerging from the page to feel his person, to caress him, or even, very courteously, to punch him” (percibe como si de entre las líneas saliese una mano ectoplásmica pero auténtica, que palpa su persona, que quiere acariciarla—o darla, muy cortésmente, un puñetazo) (1966d, 18). The German readers at whom this text was directed, presumably, needed not fear being felt up or beat up, for they were separated by language and geography from this phantasmatic hand. As we will see, Ortega’s first major work, Meditations on Quixote, also proposed not just an extreme Spanish particularity, of difficult if not impossible access to Germans and others, but insisted on the existence of a “Spanish secret,” a revelation or experience particular to Spain but containing the key to thinking adequately the nature of the world. Ortega is one name for penetrating that secret.
Inevitably, Ortega suggests, his texts will appeal only to Hispanics, and only Hispanics will “get” him. And yet, all texts speak to all who may listen, [End Page 50] Hispanics and Germans alike, and Ortega goes on to expound his “doctrine” as set out in The Theme of Our Times, which the “Prologue” was meant to introduce (1966e, 143). The “Prologue” sets out, then, to articulate the relationship between a Spanish secret and a philosophical teaching, between a doctrine that could presumably be...