A Merciful Reason: on David Soto Carrasco’s España: Historia y Revelación, un ensayo sobre el pensamiento político de María Zambrano. By Gerardo Muñoz.

In the new book España: Historia y Revelación, un ensayo sobre el pensamiento político de María Zambrano (Círculo Rojo, 2018), David Soto Carrasco has given us a systematic treatment of Zambrano’s philosophical project in a double interpretative frame (in the sense that he considers both the philosophy-political implications of her work for Spain and European modernity simultaneously) of her oeuvre. According to Soto Carrasco, Zambrano’s originality resides in a highly unique modality of thought that goes well beyond the confines of Philosophy (the metaphysical tradition), which produced a speculative critique of European history as it descended into political nihilism. In fact, Zambrano, very much like Simone Weil or Judith Shklar, writes from the abysmal non-place of the ruin of the political, and the rise of new tempting fears and pieties. Her confrontation with liberalism and democracy, at least since her vocational years as a student of Jose Ortega y Gasset, expands thinking to the turbulence of those historically defeated. Indeed, Zambrano never stopped reflecting upon what she perceived as the sacrificial structure of history and the need to open up to a non-imperial relation to politics in the name of democracy.

España: Historia y Revelación fills an important gap in contemporary thinking about the origins of the political, which remains unsteady if not failing in confronting the complex philosophical inheritance of the great thinker from Malaga [1]. Quite to our surprise, and very early on in his book, Soto Carrasco advances a downy version of his thesis, in which he calls for Zambrano’s thinking as that which bends towards an infrapolitical relation to sovereignty against the liberal foundation of politics. Carrasco states:

“…[Zambrano] pretenderá abandonar todo intento de política soberana, esto es, de establecer lo político sobre la base de un concepto infrapolítico de soberanía. De este modo, nuestro ensayo plantea que hay un mesianismo impolítico que recorre toda la obra de Zambrano. Desde esta perspectiva, la historia consistirá en que haya siempre victimas e ídolos” (Soto Carrasco 19).

Taking distance from the Schmittian critique of liberal neutralization from the friend-enemy divide integral to unity of political theology, Soto Carrasco identifies that Zambrano’s “infrapolitics” (which he only mentions once without specifications of a narrow sense of the term) announces a solicitation of democratic community against a thwarting of sacrificial history and the subject of sacrifice. This is fair enough. Soto Carrasco has in mind Zambrano’s categories of “el claro”, “la vida sin textura”, and “razón poética”, which prepare the path for an athological gnosis and arranges the conditions for what the philosopher termed the “person of democracy” [2]. Zambrano’s project for the interwar and postwar period was undoubtedly an extraordinary meditation for the Liberal interregnum and its modern political ideologies. In what follows, I would like to assess the limits and reaches of Zambrano’s project in Soto Carrasco’s reading, which in our times, due to the conditions of global and the effective disintegration of inter-state sovereignty, could allow us to think beyond some of the impasses of the valence of reason and poetics, which are still latent in contemporary thought.

Zambrano’s thinking took off in the 1930s in books such as Horizonte del liberalismo (1930) and Hacia un saber del alma (1934). This is a period of a strong readjustment of European politics and parliamentary democracy. It was a period that went through the rise of fascism, totalitarianism from the right and the left, but also of instances of restoration (conservatism), revolution (left-wing communism), and welfare containment (United States). As Carrasco reminds us, Zambrano not only wanted to make these epochal shifts legible. She also wanted to assume an “insalvable distancia”, or an “irreducible distance” from a politics that had “shipwrecked into scientism and the most mediocre form of positivism” as the justification of dictatorship and ius imperi. This is a position that Zambrano shares with the Heidegger of the Parmenides, who understood the imperial inheritance of the hegemonic domination under the sign of the Roman falsum. Zambrano was highly aware of the calculative operation of the politics that we now associate with the principle of general equivalence as the ontology of modern civil society. In this sense, fascism and communism were two ends of the continuation of absolutism.

But so was liberalism, which in Zambrano’s view, failed due not just to its foundation on a “moral economy”, but because it eluded to the sentimental dimension of man, making him a human, but not a person. The modern foundationalism of the political ran in tandem with a process of the absolutization of the logos. This meant that reason was opposed to myth, a component that had always helped the psychic balance to battle the different external absolutisms of reality. In this way, Zambrano’s definition of conservatism – “it wants to not just have reason, but absolute reason” – could well apply across the ideological spectrum to identify the nihilism of politics. This dead end leads to a philosophy of history, whose horizon of sacrifice undermines the res publica as well as the separation of powers of democracy. The notion of person, in a complete reversal of Simone Weil’s impersonal characterization of the sacred, was the condition for democracy as a livable experience in Zambrano’s own propositional horizon in light of the crisis of liberalism.

Against a politics of domination and sacrifice, one would expect Zambrano to turn to philosophy or tradition. But it is here, as Soto Carrasco argues, that we find a poetological turn in her work as a retreat from the imperial-theological drift of modernity. Carrasco asserts: “La poesía se reivindicará como género para evadir la sistemática razón moderna y rememorar un orden sagrado perdido. La poesía será su más clara revelación” (Soto Carrasco 51). It is at conjuncture where Zambrano’s Spanish context should be taken into account, says Carrasco, since due to the insufficiency or absence of a philosophical tradition in the Iberian Peninsula, there was no concept to find refuge in, but rather, the Spanish ethos was to be found in poetry or the novel. In authors like Machado, Bergamín, Unamuno, or Galdós, Zambrano will clear a path for what she calls an “intuition of a world and a concept of life” (Soto Carrasco 55). In this turn, we arrive at a substitution of Philosophy for the Poem with the promise that it will grant a “verdadera vida” or a true life, at least at the level of intra-national Spanish topoi. This strategy is more or less repeated for the European space in the essays published between 1943 and 1945, such as La agonía de Europa or La confesión, género literarios y método, which for Soto Carrasco complements her critique of logos in the tradition of the West that runs from Plato to Heidegger (Soto Carrasco 73). It is difficult to accept Heidegger as a thinker of logos; a task that became the central operation for the destruction of Western onto-theology and the new beginning of philosophy for an authentic life. Soto Carrasco never fleshes out this complex discussion, and I suspect whether Zambrano herself engaged in a thorough way with Heidegger’s work after the 1930s. But there is an important distinction that Carrasco makes in the last part of his book in relation to Heidegger. When commenting on Zambrano’s notion of “claro”, he writes:

“Por ello, el claro [de Zambrano] no es un Lichtung. Si para Heidegger la “apertura” va a actuar como sorge, como una luz que ilumina la verdad la acción desde la capacidad interrogante, para Zambrano, el “claro” es luz opaca, donde la Palabra surge a las “entrañas” porque en ellas se padece con pasividad. De ahí que el filósofo se oponga al bienaventurado” (Soto Carrasco 125).

The differences are set straight here: Heidegger, in Carrasco’s reading of Cacciari’s reading Zambrano, remains tied too deep into “philosophy”, where Zambrano opens a clear path for a poem that instantiates itself in the divine and recognizes the blessed in ‘thy neighbor’. Zambrano will be on the side of the poem of salvation, but also on the side of ethics. Whereas Heidegger is situated in the threshold of a philosophical project that demands the question of being to be asked; Zambrano’s poematic offering opens an inter-subject mode of care. Again, Soto Carrasco thematizes the differences: “Si para Heidegger pensar el olvido del ser era pensar una posibilidad no-imperial de lo político, para Zambrano, toda posibilidad de lo política fuera de una historia sacrificial solo puede pensar desde el olvido de lo divino, de la relación abismada entre el hombre y Dios, que el bueno de Molinos definió” (Soto Carrasco 83). Zambrano’s “new beginning” is not properly existential, nor can we say after this description that it is one of an infrapolitics of existence, but rather that of an ethics for a human history based on errancy and exile. But it is also an exile that finds is meaning in opposition to the loss of country.

It is in this aporetic limit of Zambrano’s project that I would like to derive a few consequences from Soto Carrasco’s intelligent and important reading. Just a couple of pages before this allusion to Heidegger, Soto Carrasco quotes from La agonía de Europa that reads “in the Roman imperial dominion, existence is lived like a nightmare” (Soto Carrasco 77). If existence is liberated from imperial politics, but substituted to the ethical determination of the poem, isn’t there a risk of assuming that the endgame of the “poetical reason”, based on “misericordia” and “un saber de salvación y sufrimiento” is only capable of being moved by the delirium of the suffering of the world, but not properly achieving a transformative freeing of existence against the transparency of the concept (“la claridad de la idea”)? And does not the inverted messianic and redemptive time posited by a gnosis arrangement against political gigantism, give us yet another chapter in the history of salvation of the onto-theological tradition and its historical productivity? If, as Soto Carrasco does not fail to remind us vis-à-vis Nietzsche, we need History but “History otherwise”, what follows is that any messianic poematic history has unfulfilled this promise as it remains tied to an account of subjection to salvation in detriment to existence, and hence within the walls of imperi and its economy of “novelerías” (Soto Carrasco 105) [3].

It makes sense that the occlusion of existence paves the way for an explicit affirmation on “life”, which Carrasco systematically teases out in the last chapters of the book. He quotes Zambrano affirming that “la vida resulta ser, por lo pronto…un género literarios”; or in relation to Galdos’ characters “una vida habiendo conocido la extrema necesidad acaba libre de ella” (Soto Carrasco 107-08). It is not difficult to find in this concept of life the texture of the Franciscan form of life that, while shredding off the goods of commerce, it still carries the vestiges of an ethical rule of an ontology of the totality of the living (in fact Zambrano in a moment writes “una totalidad desconocida que nos mueve”). This becomes even more present in Soto Carrasco’s defining moment of “razón poética” for Zambrano as based on “love”:

“Es la razón poética hecha razón misericordiosa o piadosa. Amor que solo puede emerger de la revelación, desde un nuevo nacimiento. Es fundar una “comunidad de corazones”. Ante las Palabras de Juliana, se nuestro este eros…”. Yéndose de sí misma seguía sirviendo a la Piedad sin ser devorada por ella, en la verdad de su vida” (Soto Carrasco 113).

Poetical reason offers a communitarian symbolization for a more “ethical Christianity” against the dark night of imperial politics in the name of a new salvation. Zambrano’s mysticism sought in the Spanish tradition of symbols that could mobilize a détente against the force of philosophy and politics, and the hegemony of reason spiraling downwards. The question is whether Zambrano’s poetical and merciful reason can provide us with an authentic exodus from onto-theology and alternative foundations. Or, if on the contrary, the articulation of a substitute ethical condition to the sacrificial horizon of history is really an exception that is already contained within the dual machine of modern historical development that hampers singularization from community and as well as from the negative structure of the political. That is why it remains puzzling why Soto Carrasco states at the very end of the book that Zambrano’s thinking is also a “political philosophy” that is tied to history (Soto Carrasco 134). If Zambrano’s poem produces a reification of political philosophy, then there is no question that the ius imperi is still haunting a counterhegemonic practice even when it wants to speak in the music of democracy. No political philosophy can open a path for infrapolitics, and no infrapolitics can amount to the closure of a political philosophy.

But then again, much could be said about ethics and Zambrano, but also about the ethical traction in contemporary thinking today as politics enters an irreversible crisis for conceptual renovation. In his recent book Karman (2018), Giorgio Agamben interestingly makes the claim that Alain Badiou’s recourse to the “event” amounts to a substitution for the general crisis of modern Kantian ethics, upholding an ethical determination while repeating the antinomies of being and acting proper to the fractured political foundation [4]. I suspect that the same duality can be registered about ethics and politics, or the poem and the logos. There seems to be no other pressing problem today in contemporary thought than to move, for once and for all, beyond the ethico-political axis without any reservations to messianic and poetological substitutes. What is at stake, as Soto Carrasco reminds us, is an originary sense of being. But this would require us to move beyond the mercies of lovable life and the reassurances and prospects of a glorious subject too comfortable in the pieties and mercies that cloak modern ethics. The astuteness and intensity of Soto Carrasco’s brief essay on Zambrano’s thinking asserts the need for us today to push beyond the community and the political into a region that draws out an infrapolitical fissure unbinding the temporalities of singularization in the outlook of a politics that never coincides with life.





  1. Roberto Esposito has juxtaposed two different ontologies of the political by contrasting Arendt and Weil’s projects in relation to imperial and totalitarian politics. See The Origin of the Political: Hannah Arendt or Simone Weil? (Trans. Gareth Williams, 2017).
  2. See Alberto Moreiras, “Last God: María Zambrano’s Life without Texture”. A Leftist Ontology: Beyond Relativism and Identity Politics (2009). 170-184.
  3. For a dual critique of the modern Hegelian philosophy of history and its messianic reversal, see Writing of the Formless: Jose Lezama Lima and the End of Time (2016), by Jaime Rodriguez Matos.
  4. See Giorgio Agamben, Karman: A Brief Treatise on Action, Guilt, and Gesture (2018). 42.