“Myself and my circumstance”

José Ortega y Gasset. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

My novel, Immunity Index, available next month, opens with a quote from the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset: “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia y si no la salvo a ella no me salvo yo.” I am myself and my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I do not save myself.

It appeared in a essay in the book Meditaciones del Quijote (Meditations on Quixote) published in 1914 when he lived in Madrid, Spain. In the essay, he posits that there can be no “I” without the external world, and he contrasts freedom and fate.

I’ve translated a portion of that essay here:


We must look for our circumstance, such as it is, precisely in what it holds as limitation, as particularity, as the apt place in the immense perspective of the world — not to remain in constant rapture of its solemn ethos but to conquer the appropriate site for our individual life there. To be brief: the reabsorption of circumstance is humanity’s specific destiny.

My natural outlet toward the universe opens through the passes of the Guadarrama Mountains [northwest of Madrid] or the fields of Ontígola [to the southeast]. This sector of circumstantial reality forms the other half of my persona: only through it can I be integrated and be fully myself. Biological science now studies the living organism as a unit composed of the body and its particular medium: thus the vital process consists not only in the adaptation of the body to its medium but also in the adaptation of the medium to the body. The hand endeavors to shape a material object by grasping it tightly; but at the same time, each material object hides a previous affinity with a specific hand.

I am myself and my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I do not save myself. Benefac loco illi quo natus est [Bless the place where you are born], we read in the Bible. And in the Platonic school, as the enterprise of all culture, we are given this: “to save the appearances” or the phenomena. That is, looking for the meaning of what surrounds us.

With our eyes schooled by a map of the world, we ought to return to the Guadarrama Mountains. Perhaps we will find nothing profound there. But we may be sure that the shortcoming and sterility result from our gaze. There is a logos as well in the Manzanares River: this most humble rivulet, this liquid irony that moistens the groundworks of our city, beyond a doubt carries among its few drops of water a drop of spirituality.

For there is nothing in the world without a thread of divine sinew: the difficulty rests in reaching it and making it contract. Heraclitus shouted to his friends who hesitated to enter the kitchen where he was: “Come in! Come in! There are gods here too.” […]

Nothing impedes heroism — which is the activity of the spirit — as much as considering it attached to certain specific substances of life. Wherever heroism might subsist below ground, every person needs to hope that if they vigorously strike the ground beneath their feet, a spring will gush forth. For Moses, the hero, every rock was a source of water.


Immunity Index goes on sale May 4. You can order an autographed copy through Volumes Bookcafé.

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