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Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life is a masterpiece of twentieth-century Spanish literature and an accessible introduction to existential philosophy. That it is not “academic” philosophy gives it an edge over works by French and German contemporaries who are better known to English speaking audiences. True to the diverse group of thinkers often identified as “existentialists,” Unamuno and his work defy classification, and Unamuno refused to build a philosophical or theological system. As a result, his most philosophical work appears as a collection rather than a single essay, but it is unified by Unamuno’s passionate attention to “the endeavor not to die.” It is most nearly equivalent to the “fragments” or “scraps” of Søren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher and theologian often credited as the “founder” of existentialism, and it shares some of the concerns most intimately associated with Kierkegaard’s writing. Like Kierkegaard, Unamuno is fascinated by the interplay of faith and reason, and he locates our common humanity in the tension between the two rather than the triumph of one over the other. He does not opt for heart over head, but for a paradoxical human being that embodies both.
Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo was born September 29, 1864, in Bilbao, the capital of the Basque region of Spain. The time and the place of his birth put him at the heart of conflicts that would prove critical to the social and political development of Spain in the twentieth century and beyond--most notably the so-called Carlist Wars, the prelude to the Spanish Civil War (which began in the year of his death), and the Basque nationalist movement. Unamuno was proudly Basque but skeptical of Basque separatism--as he was of all of the “isms” he encountered in a life that spanned seventy-two years of them, beginning in a nineteenth-century context marked by civil strife and ending in a twentieth-century context marked by a civil war that was prelude to the global conflict with Fascism.
The Carlist Wars were a series of civil conflicts precipitated by a struggle over succession to the Spanish throne. In 1829, Ferdinand VII set aside an eighteenth-century law that limited succession to male heirs so that his daughter could inherit the throne when he died. His brother Carlos refused to recognize the change, and the result was a struggle that continued into the twentieth century. Partisans of Carlos (Carlists) united under the slogan “God, Country, and King,” and favored both a strong monarchy and a powerful church. Much of the struggle centered on the Basque Country on the border between France and Spain. Unamuno witnessed the Carlist siege of Bilbao (during the third Carlist War) when he was ten years old, and this experience was incorporated into his first novel, Paz en la guerra, published in 1897. That he chose to speak of peace in war rather than a choice against it is characteristic of his work, which is almost always intent on holding contradictory forces together in paradoxical relationships.
Basque nationalism grew out of the suppression of Basque language and culture that was part of a “unification” and “purification” of the Iberian peninsula that could be traced back at least to the fifteenth century (when the reconquista was mounted to drive out or convert both Muslim and Jewish inhabitants, after which the Inquisition turned its attention to purifying the Church). Basque culture, language, and identity, which predate Spain, became inextricably connected with nationalism in 1876, when the Spanish government revoked the Basque legal system. Basque nationalism became a violent revolutionary struggle under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, and this legacy continues to haunt contemporary Spain. It is part of a much larger conflict between “local” identity and “global” forces of unification often connected with language and cultural identity. This struggle between local identity and global forces is reflected throughout Unamuno’s work. The rise of Fascism may also be seen in this context, and Franco did appropriate much of the conservative patriotism of the Carlist movement as well as its insistence on a strong, centralized (and Catholic) Church. This is important for Unamuno because it meant that his work unfolded in a place marked by tension between an authoritarian church and individual conscience as well as tension between political centralization and local autonomy.
Unamuno remained in Bilbao until his departure for the University of Madrid in 1880. After he received his doctorate in 1884 (for a dissertation on the origins of the Basque language), he returned to Bilbao and spent the next seven years writing, teaching privately, and seeking a permanent academic appointment. This struggle for a permanent appointment is an interesting window on his work, since it is almost certainly associated with his being unclassifiable and his refusal (in spite of generally socialist leanings) to associate unequivocally with a particular party or a single school of thought. He was finally appointed to the chair of Greek at the University of Salamanca in 1891 (some commentators suggest because it was assumed that he could not do much political harm while teaching an “ancient” language and literature), the same year he married Concepción Lizárraga. He would remain in Salamanca for the rest of his life, except for a period of exile from 1924 through 1930 that resulted from his criticism of the military dictatorship then in power. He became Rector of the University in 1900 and served until his dismissal in 1914. He was reappointed Rector after the declaration of the Republic in 1931 (and named “lifetime Rector” in 1934, then again relieved of the post in 1936).
Though he was not explicitly political, Unamuno wrote and spoke publicly on a broad range of contemporary issues, and this meant that his academic career was thoroughly enmeshed with the politics of the day, as evidenced by his 1914 dismissal from the rectorship, his exile, his reinstatement as Rector under the Republic in 1931, and the conflicting appointments (or dismissals) that resulted from attempts by the forces of both Franco and the Republicans to claim him--or from their anger at his criticism. Those attempts were partly encouraged by his relentlessly contrarian stance, which led him to criticize the Republic and Republicans as well as the Fascists--and even to support Franco briefly as a possible antidote to the shortcomings of the Republic. After the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Unamuno made his anti-Franco stance absolutely explicit in a public confrontation with General Millán Astray in Salamanca on October 12. He died on December 31, 1936, while under house arrest.
Many of Unamuno’s biographers have focused on a religious crisis of 1897, precipitated when one of his children (Raimundo Jenaro, who died in 1902) fell victim to meningitis late in 1896, which resulted in permanent brain damage, leaving the boy paralyzed and unconscious. There can be no doubt that this event had a profound impact on Unamuno, and his diaries and correspondence reveal the deeply religious dimensions of his response. But the religious struggle characteristic of Unamuno’s work, including the Tragic Sense of Life, predate this event and cannot be explained by it (nor can they be explained by the early death of his own father). Unamuno was a child of his time who became, as the Spanish proverb associated with Cervantes puts it, “the child of his deeds”; and that meant that he struggled to make a place for himself between the weight of Spanish Catholicism (which included not only the great mystics Teresa of Avila and San Juan de la Cruz but also the Inquisition) and European modernism. That Unamuno’s struggle was religious makes him closer to Kierkegaard than to more “secular” or atheist existentialists such as Sartre.
The direction that Unamuno’s struggle took made him, on first glance, surprisingly “Lutheran,” though a second look may reduce the surprise. Politically, the Reformation of the sixteenth century was a struggle for autonomy against the centralizing power of Rome. This made it particularly appealing to the princes of northern Europe, and it makes it formally resemble Unamuno’s context in many respects. The Inquisition, in its zeal for a “pure” Spain, had a habit of using the terms “Lutheran” and “heretic” interchangeably, so even as undeniably Catholic a thinker as Teresa of Avila could be accused of being “Lutheran.” In correspondence, Unamuno did aspire to be “the Luther of Spain,” but readers should keep in mind that the Luther of Germany evoked in that image was thoroughly Catholic until he was forced out of the Church; and that Kierkegaard, the most Lutheran theologian of the nineteenth century, defined himself in opposition to a Lutheran (not a Catholic) State Church in Denmark. In this sense, Unamuno was indeed more Lutheran than Lutherans whose identity is defined by church membership. He was “protestant” in the original sense of the term, defined by protest, not doctrine--and this stance was a reaction to both the weight of Catholic tradition in Spain (embodied for him in his devoutly religious mother and his equally devout wife) and the personal encounter with death and suffering experienced most pointedly in 1897. He did define his work--and the essence of humanity--as a struggle against mortality. In his case, it took the arguably “Lutheran” (though not sectarian) form of simultaneously embracing human finitude and fighting it, announcing the bondage of the will and refusing to submit to it, insisting that to be human is to be both perfectly bound and perfectly free. It also took the arguably “Lutheran” form of defining local autonomy within (not apart from) a universal institution. This can help explain his simultaneous embrace of Basque identity and rejection of Basque separatism. He saw a place for Basque identity in the language of Castile, just as Luther saw a place for German theology in a universal (Catholic) Church.
Unamuno never abandoned the Catholic Church, though his work (both Tragic Sense of Life and The Agony of Christianity) was included on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books. His situation in Spain was analogous to Kierkegaard’s situation in Denmark. To be born in Spain in the nineteenth century was to be “Catholic” as surely as to be born in Denmark was to be “Lutheran.” Neither Kierkegaard nor Unamuno could avoid “religious” issues--even if they had desired to do so. And both, being in a context unavoidably defined by a particular religious identity, were drawn to a variety of forms that subverted the identification--what Kierkegaard called “indirect communication.” For both thinkers, the looming presence of Hegel in the immediate past was another contributing factor. Unamuno learned Danish so that he could read Kierkegaard, and he was first drawn to Kierkegaard by a reference in a critical study of Ibsen; but he was also drawn by Kierkegaard’s consistent resistance to Hegelian System. Both wrote in opposition to two totalizing tendencies--the State Church and Hegelian philosophy. While neither was consistently radical politically (and it could certainly be argued that Kierkegaard was so consistently conservative as to be reactionary), their critical practice provided an important framework within which to oppose another totalizing tendency, that of the State, that came to dominate the twentieth century. Unamuno was a consistent critic of Fascism, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the earliest and most consistent German critics of Nazism, drew inspiration from Kierkegaard.
Unamuno was also drawn to Kierkegaard because he could draw Kierkegaard as a Nordic Don Quixote. All three--Unamuno, Kierkegaard, and Don Quixote (and Cervantes makes four)--can be understood as knights errant confronting a world that appears full of menacing giants through the eyes of divine madness. And all championed such madness as an appropriate response to “rational” dehumanization. To the extent that Unamuno left a philosophical system, it was (as he said) “Quixotism,” and that is a term he applied to the Tragic Sense of Life, which ends with “Don Quixote Today” and serves as a philosophical introduction to the theme Unamuno often repeated in one form or another, that “every madman is driven mad by his sanity.” Unamuno, who fled from being classified, noted that others may struggle for victory, but he struggled for struggle.
As with Don Quixote, imagination was the arena for his struggle--but the arena of imagination is the world, and the means of struggle is art. For this reason, Unamuno thought of himself primarily as a poet, and that is how he said he wanted to be remembered. Given that desire, it is ironic that he is best known to the English speaking public as a philosopher--and particularly as the author of the volume republished here. He wrote volumes of poetry, novels, short stories, popular essays, and letters, virtually all of which have been translated--and his philosophy emerges by design in fragments dispersed throughout this lifetime of work. In this sense, the body of the work is the body of the man, and we encounter him there, as he wished, in the flesh and bone of poetic fragments.
The Tragic Sense of Life was met with criticism from professional philosophers when it appeared in 1913 for its inconsistency, its lack of system; and it is still criticized in those terms by readers whose rage for order makes them impatient with paradox. But for a philosopher who was systematically anti-systematic, the appearance of a system would be a weakness, not a strength, and this inclines such philosophers toward fragments and toward poetry. That this is poetry is evident from the opening pages, where Unamuno insists on encountering “the man of flesh and bone” and insists that this encounter is impossible if we limit ourselves exclusively to reason. Human beings, he maintains, are not simply beings of reason but also beings of passion: “Perhaps,” he writes, “that which differentiates him from other animals is feeling rather than reason. More often I have seen a cat reason than laugh or weep. Perhaps it weeps or laughs inwardly--but then perhaps, also inwardly, the crab resolves equations of the second degree.”
A philosopher who begins with reasoning cats and mathematical crabs can be expected to make much of human laughter and human tears. His emphasis on living--on existence--can be expected to carry us into opposition against the kind of reason that has to bring living to an end in order to understand it. That is not irrationalism, but it is a style that will shatter reason when it gets too comfortable or too close. And it is the style of Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life, an invitation to struggle, because, as Frederick Douglass famously put it, “Where there is no struggle, there is no life.” True to his vocation as poet, Unamuno will not try to convince. He will show, and he will invite you to join him--not in a party or a school of thought (certainly not an Unamunist one!), but in living engagement with a living world.
Steven Schroeder is a poet and philosopher who divides his time between Chicago and Shenzhen, China, where he teaches American philosophy, peace studies, and poetry at Shenzhen University.