*Unamuno, Miguel de
Unamuno, Miguel de
Unamuno is, along with José Ortega y Gasset, one of the most prolific, versatile, and original minds in modern European literature, and Spain’s most eminent thinker.
Patriarch of the so-called Generation of 1898, he achieved eminence as novelist, poet, philosopher, and dramatist. The sheer volume and thematic diversity of his essayistic output—over seven hefty volumes—is staggering. Unamuno engaged every major discipline in the human sciences (especially the fields of philosophy, religion, history, linguistics, literary criticism, and politics), and practiced a variety of the types and subgenres of the essay among them the treatise, autobiography, diary, letter, meditation, speech, dialogue, aphorism, travel essay, and confession. A classical philologist by training (he was professor of Greek and became rector of the University of Salamanca), Unamuno was equally well-versed in Catholic and Protestant theology, and 19th-century scientific theories and philosophical systems.
Studies of Unamuno continue unabated, with each generation of scholars finding new dimensions to his personality and work. Religious, existential, and linguistic orientations of past decades have been steadily enriched in recent years with deconstructive and rhetorical studies, Jungian analysis, and gender perspectives. Along with the traditional image of Unamuno as an intellectual gadfly who challenged the conventional religious beliefs and practices of his day, there has emerged a picture of him as a Modernist with a keen insight into the nature and function of language as both the instrument and the subject of philosophical inquiry. Although a lapsed Catholic and crypto-atheist, Unamuno was unwilling to abandon theological inquiry or the comforts of religious belief, and made the unremitting struggle between reason and faith and a hunger for immortality the cornerstone of his thought and the subject for his best known book-length essays. These are principally Del sentimiento trdgico de la vida (1912; The Tragic Sense of Life), Cómo se hace una novela (1927; How a novel is made), and La agonía del cristianismo (1925, 1931; The Agony of Christianity).
Unamuno’s career as essayist began in 1886 under the spell of positivism, leading him to embrace briefly the aims of Marxist socialism (1894–97). Diiring these early years he contributed to the socialist press of his native Bilbao commentaries and exhortations on momentous political and economic issues of the day. He gradually evolved into a liberal and by 1917 became openly anti-Marxist; yet even during his brief commitment to scientific socialism Unamuno looked upon Marxism more as a moral and humanitarian ideal compatible with Christian values than as an economic theory or blueprint for violent revolution. A disenchantment with the utopian ideals of science and the narrow logic of positivism, exacerbated by a wrenching religious crisis in 1897, broke Unamuno’s trust in social engineering and in the ability of the great rationalist philosophical systems to address and satisfy humankind’s deepest longings.
Influenced by Kierkegaard and liberal Protestantism, Unamuno’s essays probe deeply and dramatically into the meaning and possibility of being Christian in a secular age. But unlike Kierkegaard, Unamuno renounced any ultimate metaphysical security and exploited the tensions and contradictions inherent in a modern religious sensibility.
Although at times he would defend the simple, genuine, untutored faith of Everyman, more often than not he was bent on sowing doubt. Thus critics have long accepted both the contemplative, reflective Unamuno in search of harmony and peace, exemplified by En torno al casticismo (1895; On authentic tradition), and a passionate, paradoxical Unamuno determined to shake public apathy and undermine intellectual complacency and dogmatism. This temper is typified by Vida de don Quijote y Sancho (1905; The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho) and “Sobre la europeización (Arbitrariedades)” (1906; On becoming Europeans). Although it is risky to categorize Unamuno ideologically, his essays are, as a rule, rhetorical strategies devised to challenge the commonplaces of his day, provoke readers into a state of uncertainty, and encourage self-scrutiny. A Christian existentialist beset by disbelief, he urged that individuals create, in the crucible of doubt, the meaning and purpose of their lives and induced them, in line with his paradoxical and “tragic sense of life,” to wager on personal immortality without renouncing rational inquiry.
Unamuno confronts his reader directly and openly, appealing to the concerns of the concrete “man of flesh and bone” and not just to scholars and intellectuals. The tone of his essays is familiar and engaging, but often aggressive and abrasive. He does not, however, apologize for any breach of decorum, but admits candidly that he is not a pleasant fellow (“A mis lectores” [1909; To my readers]): it is better to be disliked and admired for boldness and honesty than liked for toeing the line of conventional thought.
Indeed, the author acknowledges that he may shout and rant and even offend, but this may be the only way, he believes, to “wake up the sleeper.” A strident individualism and personalism, given to gesture and histrionics, characterize Unamuno’s persona. He is not content, like Montaigne, to be the multifaceted subject of his book, but in addition orchestrates a dramatic interplay of conflicting and contradictory selves in tones both shrill and grave, dispensing indignation, scorn, reverence and irreverence, prophecy, advice, or simply engagement in intellectual games and wordplay. And yet, very often, Unamuno’s essays are a model of reasonableness and common sense—a term uncongenial to his thought. Thus, on the one hand, he can belittle Cervantes as a poor devil, unaware of the significance of his own creation, condemn the French for their joie de vivre, or rail in mawkish self-pity against the dictator Primo de Rivera for offenses to his person more imaginary than real. On the other hand, his articles written during the Spanish Republic (1931–36) are eminently sensible, balanced, and fair, revealing a liberal who welcomed and supported the secular legislation of the new government, yet wished to preserve some traditional religious values that he saw threatened by extremists. Unamuno never failed to extend his personal drama to a preoccupation with the historical and spiritual destiny of Spain. This patriotic concern ranges from earnest and informed criticism of social injustices based on economic exploitation to a total indifference to such issues in the name of spiritual values; in this vein he would extol the dignity of an idealized Spanish peasantry as a counter-example to European materialism (“La vida es sueño” [1898; Life is a dream]).
Unamuno’s evolution as an essayist may be illustrated by attention to a few representative works. It is instructive to begin with En torno al casticismo, which appeared in 1895 as a series of five essays in La España Moderna (Modern Spain) and in book form in 1902. It reflects the author’s faith in the idea of progress and the redeeming power of science. Influenced by such diverse sources as Hegel, Spencer, Darwin, and the Spanish mystic Fray Luis de León, Unamuno argues mainly by analogy and dialectic for unity and harmony within diversity in the historical development of Spanish identity.
This is to be achieved by a reconciliation of perennial opposites such as personal/collective, temporal/eternal, Spain/Europe. The most important of these dualities is history/intra-history; that is, the tension between the transitory, superficial dimension of Spanish life and the deep and lasting values of the people. Unamuno elaborates the dynamics of these concepts with analogies derived from biological and geological metaphors.
After the religious crisis of 1897, Unamuno lost faith in the explanatory power of science and the great rationalist systems and under the influence of Kierkegaard began to explore the domain of inwardness. At this point one finds a significant turn in Unamuno’s style, mainly the displacement of analogy by the extensive use of paradox. Whereas analogy reflected the author’s will to harmonize opposites, and dialectic promoted a reconciliation of local and universal themes, paradox reveals a mind bent on dissociation and contradiction. Pithy oxymorons and extravagant puns, conceits and etymological games serve to dramatize the author’s existential anguish and to frustrate in the reader the process of expected associations. Perhaps the most widely used and effective trope in the agonistic Unamuno is the chiasmus, in which a phrase is repeated in reverse order and the relations between the same or similar words yield a wide range of semantic possibilities.
Typical chiastic paradoxes in Unamuno are: “I seek peace in war and war in peace”; “The word hypocrite designates in Greek an actor… But if a hypocrite is an actor the actor, surely, is no hypocrite”; “Just as our death is an unbirthing, so our birth is an undying.”
The transition from rationalism to voluntarism, from analogy to existential paradox is evident in “Sobre la europeizacion.” Here, for example, the terms of the opposition Spain/Europe, which in En torno al casticismo were harmoniously interdependent, are now polarized with their respective values redefined and ultimately reversed. The “European” cultural categories of logic, science, progress, and the celebration of life are rejected in the name of arbitrariness, passion, and the wisdom derived from the Spanish people’s meditation on death. As if to mock his own previous penchant for harmonious analogies, Unamuno now writes in neat chiastic equations: “Wisdom is to science what death is to life or, if you will, wisdom is to death what science is to life.”
In The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho Unamuno fuses Nietzschean voluntarism with traditional Spanish cultural values. In this passionate dissection of Cervantes’ masterpiece the heroic and tragic knight assumes the virtues of Christ, becoming an outcast who in his loneliness and will to create new spiritual values is defeated by a world of philistines and materialists. Unamuno’s text is, in the words of Martin Nozick (1982), “a tapestry of ingenious paradoxes, diatribes, poetic prose, and arbitrary conclusions drawn from the best-known episodes of the original.” Some of these qualities are evident in the first sentence of the work: “You ask me, my good friend, if I know of a way to unchain a delirium, a vertigo, any kind of madness upon these poor, peaceful, orderly masses who are born, eat, sleep, reproduce and die.”
Perhaps the most original of Unamuno’s essayistic endeavors is Cómo se hace una novela, a hybrid of autobiography, essay, and fiction. Written in the confessional mode, with tones of an anguished exile, the narrative voice is consubstantial with the selfreflective author, who occasionally splits off into his double as a character in a fictional autobiography. The dualistic themes of history/fiction, authenticity/role playing, life/art dominate this work, in which fictional techniques are subordinated to the essay. Finally,
The Agony of Christianity, also written in exile, intensifies the religious tenor of The Tragic Sense of Life with biblical parables and paradoxes, “tragic plays on words” from St. Paul and Pascal, and especially with an allegory of the death of God, sustained by the erotic language of mysticism. Unamuno emphasizes here the inherent contradictions of Christianity, its fate in a highly secularized culture which he predicts will absorb and bastardize faith and ultimately put an end to the “agony” of Christianity.
In his heroic search for truth Unamuno despairs, oscillates, wavers between the rational and the affective without relinquishing either reason or faith. His best-known essays alternately affirm and negate contraries in perpetual tension. His “rhetoric of existence,” to use Allen Lacy’s (1967) apt expression, engages the great topics of modern philosophical discourse, creating truth from doubt and doubt from truth.
Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo. Born 29 September 1864 in Bilbao. Studied at the Colegio de San Nicolás and the Instituto Vizacaíno, Bilbao, 1875–80; philosophy at the University of Madrid, 1880–84, Ph.D., 1884. Private tutor in Bilbao, 1884–91. Married Concepcion [Concha] Lizárraga Ecénarro (died, 1934), 1891: ten children. Professor of Greek, 1891–1924, rector, 1900–14 (dismissed) and 1934–36, and professor of the history of the Spanish language, 1930–34, University of Salamanca. Exiled to the Canary Islands for publicly criticizing the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, 1924; lived in Paris, 1924, and Hendaye, 1925–30; returned to Spain, 1930. Placed under house arrest for criticism of Franco government, 1936.
Awards: Cross of the Order of Alfonso XII, 1905;
honorary degrees from two European universities. Died in Salamanca, 31 December 1936.
Essays and Related Prose
Tres ensayos, 1900
En torno al casticismo, 1902
De mi país, 1903
Vida de don Quijote y Sancho, 1905; as The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho, translated by Homer P.Earle, 1927; as Our Lord Don Quixote, translated by Anthony Kerrigan, 1967
Mi religión y otros ensayos breves, 1910; as Perplexities and Paradoxes, translated by Stuart Gross, 1945
Soliloquios y conversaciones, 1911
Por tierras de Portugal y de España (travel articles), 1911; edited by Manuel García Blanco, 1972
Contra esto y aquello, 1912
El porvenir de España, with Ángel Ganivet, 1912
Del sentimiento trágico de la vida en los hombres y en los pueblos, 1912; as The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples, translated by J.E.Crawford Flitch, 1921
Ensayos, 7 vols., 1916–18; revised edition, 2 vols., 1942; part as Essays and Soliloquies, translated by J.E.Crawford Flitch, 1925
Andanzas y visiones espanolas (travel articles), 1922
L’Agonie du christianisme, 1925; as La agonía del cristianismo, 1931; as The Agony of Christianity, translated by Pierre Loving, 1928, Kurt F.Reinhardt, 1960, and Anthony Kerrigan, in The Agony of Christianity and Essays on Faith, 1974
Cómo se hace una novela, 1927; edited by Paul R.Olson, 1977
Dos artículos y dos discursos, 1930; edited by David Robertson, 1986
Ensayos y sentencias (selection), edited by Wilfred A.Beardsley, 1932
Cuenca ibérica, 1943
Paisajes del Alma, 1944
La enormidad de España, 1945
Algunas consideraciones sobre la literatura hispano-americana, 1947
Visiones y comentarios, 1949
De esto y de aquello, 4 vols., 1950–54
España y los españoles, edited by Manuel García Blanco, 1955
Inquietudes y meditaciones, 1957
Mi vida y otros recuerdos personales, 2 vols., 1959
Pensamiento político, edited by Elias Díaz, 1965
La vida literaria, 1967
El gaucho Martín Fierro, 1967
La agonía del cristianismo, Mi religión, y otrós ensayos, 1967
Desde el mirador de la guerra, edited by Louis Urrutia, 1970
The Agony of Christianity and Essays on Faith, edited by Anthony Kerrigan and Martin Nozick, translated by Kerrigan, 1974
Escritos sodalistas: Artículos inéditos sobre el socialismo, 1894–1922, edited by Pedro Ribas, 1976
Artículos olvidados sobre España y la primera guerra mundial, edited by Christopher Cobb, 1976
En torno a las artes: Del teatro, el cine, las bellas artes, la política y las letras, 1976
Crónica política española (1915–1923), edited by Vicente González Martín, 1977
República española y España republicana (1931–1936), edited by Vicente González
Artículos y discursos sobre Canarias, edited by Francisco Navarro Artiles, 1980
Ensueño de una patria: Periodismo republicano, 1931–36, edited by Victor Ouimette,
El resentimiento trágico de la vida: Notas sobre la revolución y guerra civil españolas,
Artículos en “La nación” de Buenos Aires, 1919–1924, edited by Luis Urrutia Salaverri,
Other writings: several novels (including Paz en la guerra [Peace in War], 1897;
Niebla [Mist], 1914; Abel Sánchez, 1917; San Manuel Bueno, 1933), poetry, plays, and theological works.
Collected works edition: Obras completas, edited by Manuel García Blanco, 16 vols., 1951–58.
Fernández, Pelayo H., Bibliografía critica de Unamuno 1888–1975, Madrid: Porrúa, 1976
Valdés, Mario James, and María Elena de Valdés, An Unamuno Source Book: A Catalogue of Readings and Acquisitions, with an Introductory Essay on Unamuno’s Dialectical Enquiry, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973
Blanco Aguinaga, Carlos, El Unatnuno contemplativo, Mexico: Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica, 1959
Butt, J.W., “Unamuno’s Idea of Intrahistoria: Its Origins and Significance,” in Studies in Spanish Literature and Art Presented to Helen F.Grant, edited by Nigel Glendinning, London: Tamesis, 1972:13–24
Cerezo-Galán, Pedro, Las máscaras de lo trágico: Filosofía y tragedia en Miguel de Unatnuno, Madrid: Trotta, 1996
Ferrater Mora, José, Unamuno, a Philosophy of Tragedy, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962(Spanish edition, 1957)
Franz, Thomas, The Word in the World: Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Language, Athens, Ohio: Strathmore, 1987
Ilie, Paul, Unamuno: An Existential View of Self and Society, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967
Jurkevich, Gayana, The Elusive Self: Archetypal Approaches to the Novels of Miguel de Unamuno, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991
Lacy, Allen, Miguel de Unamuno: The Rhetoric of Existence, The Hague: Mouton, 1967
La Rubia-Prado, Francisco, Alegorías de la voluntad: Pensamiento orgánico, retórica y deconstrucción en la obra de Miguel de Unamuno, Madrid: Libertarias/Prodhufi, 1996
Marías, Julián, Miguel de Unamuno, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1966 (Spanish edition, 1943)
Marichal, Juan, Teoría e historia del ensayismo hispánico, Madrid: Alianza, 1984: Chapter on Unamuno
Mermall, Thomas, “The Chiasmus: Unamuno’s Master Trope,” PMLA 105 (1990):245– 55
Navajas, Gonzalo, Miguel de Unamuno: Bipolaridad y síntesis ficcional, Barcelona: PPU, 1988
Nozick, Martin, Miguel de Unamuno, New York: Twayne, 1971
Nozick, Martin, Miguel de Unatnuno: The Agony of Belief, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982
Olson, Paul, “Unamuno’s Lacquered Boxes: Cómo se hace una novela and the Ontology of Writing,” Revista Hispdnica Moderna 36 (1970–71):186–99
Orringer, Nelson R., Unamuno y los protestantes liberales (1912): Sobre las fuentes de “Del sentimiento trágico de la vida”, Madrid: Gredos, 1985
Regalado García, Antonio, El siervo y el señor: La dialéctica agónica de Miguel de Unatnuno, Madrid: Gredos, 1968
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