The Private World of Unamuno
“We are all condemned to death!” —Unamuno, in his (secret) Diary
Soon there will be (by 1976 or 1977) seven volumes of Miguel de Unamuno available in English. The translation and the edition have come into existence thanks to a generous grant/subsidy from the Bollingen Foundation. The seven volumes have been, or are being, published by Princeton University Press. The first three have been reviewed with some favor in what has come to be an almost dissident press, including The University Bookman.
This dissident press—not exactly clandestine, nor yet underground—does not include the literary journals of the Ivy League colleges, or the literary pages of the moneyed Eastern seaboard press (with the exception of a well-featured review by Arthur Cohen, rabbi, in the ample sense, as well as well-known novelist, in The New York Times). But there has been a remarkable death-by-silence administered to Unamuno’s volumes in the press which customarily reflects the zeitgeist. What kind of a revolutionary, or counterrevolutionary, was Miguel de Unamuno, so to upset the ever-so-quiet established reviewers? Does he threaten current concepts, new dogma? He does.
Well-intentioned reviewers on the “Left” seem to consider him in the way Robert Lowell defined Unamuno’s fellow (in common Spanish blood) thinker, George Santayana: a “free-thinking Catholic infidel.” Was he such? He was not.
Even so, the very word Catholic, or even Catholic infidel, would make him hard to handle in the established literary columns.
Then why is he not reviewed in the established “Catholic” press?
The truth is that Miguel de Unamuno is impossible to categorize. That seems enough to exclude him from everyday consideration. He fits into none of the schemes-of-things-that-should-and-must-be.
The penultimate volume in the series is scheduled to deal with his private world. And that world will prove even more astounding and “impossible” for the average golden-hearted liberal reviewer in the liberal press, the press ostensibly open to all that is unheard-of, but which in fact is closed, almost shut tight, to anything upsetting to today’s mutualist meliorism: that is, “should-be” meliorism. For the meliorist press admits, accepts, and often encourages outrages in print against all that is eternal. It is part of the meliorist dogma, of course, that nothing is eternal. It is also part of their emotional pattern to turn away from the evidence of the senses and of the heart: the evidence of an eternal struggle within one’s own heart over the question of the eternal. And Unamuno was Nothing Less Than a Whole Man (as he titled one of his books). And a whole man must consider death. And the American (and even less the British) literary press is in no mood to consider death as a problem in and of eternity. That material question is no materialistic question. And if the liberal press will mesmerically dwell on the death of “ethnic” millions, it will not dwell on the death of one man’s soul. His body, yes, in all its excruciating abomination. Especially if death is something imposed by “reactionary forces,” “ill-management,” “bad planning.” But a consideration of one man’s lifelong battle against the death of his soul is outside their range of interest or concern. And that is what Unamuno’s life was: a lifelong battle for eternity, for his body and soul to exist forevermore. Absurd! Even the press of the Absurd will not so much as see, or hear (or read) of such a sensory pursuit by one man’s intellect.
Unamuno’s private world is revealed in a diary, a secret diary, which he kept at the turn of the century, when he underwent what was then called a “religious crisis.” A religious crisis nowadays, even in the Catholic press, seems to hinge on whether to marry or abort. Or whether to work with strikers for their material improvement—and this material improvement can be measurable only in material terms: no strike can do much about assuring a man of the eternal existence of his soul: can do anything about assuring him of what his soul or spirit sometimes tells him: that if he thinks he should not have been born to be swept away as mere body, he is already condemned to struggle, to the Tragic Sense of Life, to the intimation that he is somehow part of eternity, however much he may call himself an atheist or be called an “infidel.” (Unamuno suspected, even held—one among his endless contradictory suspicions and intuitions—that the atheist was of all men one of the most “religious” in spirit, since the atheist usually makes such a point of denying God that he is more concerned with God than most pedestrian men.)
In his secret diary (under lock and key and away from the public until only a few years ago), Unamuno wrote: “If humanity is a series of generations of men who must perish, if there is nothing permanent in it, if there is no communion of the living with the dead, then humanitarian altruism is a sad sort of altruism indeed!”
“Social” Christians he considered beside the point altogether. In his Agony of Christianity (v. The University Bookman, Autumn, 1974 for Thomas Howard’s succinct review), Unamuno wrote:
It is not the mission of Christianity to resolve socio-economic problems, to solve the problem of poverty amid wealth, to redistribute earthly goods. And such is the case even if we accept that to redeem the poor from their poverty also means to redeem the rich from their riches, just as to redeem the slave is to redeem the tyrant; so that we must abolish the death sentence not so much to save the condemned as to save the executioner. And yet all this is not the mission of Christianity. Christ summons the rich and the poor, slaves and tyrants, the condemned and the executioners. In the face of doom, of the end of the world and of death, what do poverty and riches amount to, what difference slavery or tyranny, to be executed or be the executioner? “The poor always ye have with you,” said Christ . . . because there is always a civic society, fathers and sons, and this civic society—civilization—carries poverty in its wake. [pp. 60–61]
In his diary, he revealed his struggle with death—and with himself. He wrestled like Jacob, and was touched in his head and soul, as well as in “the hollow of his thigh.” For as he wrestled with the angels and representatives of God, the priests of Salamanca, he was hurt in his wrestling mostly by himself. He was wracked by doubt (and could make no synthesis of the thesis Belief and the antithesis Doubt: he came to believe they were necessarily, if contradictorily, the same sentiment), and he fell back upon elementary ritual. He paraphrased Pascal in his “You would not be seeking Me if you had not already found Me,” when he wrote in his diary, “We ask for signs, ignoring the fact that the most evident sign is that we ask for them.” And to paraphrase Unamuno in his seeking for signs, he seems to think that if you were to ask God for some sign, God would reply: “If you think I should be, could be, might be, you have already made Me.” For Unamuno held that it was a two-way Creation: that we made God as He made us: a manifest heterodoxy, palliated by his speaking of a mutual need of one for the other. (And this paradox is the basis for much in Jorge Luis Borges, our contemporary.)
He also paraphrased Pascal in real life, translated him in action, wagered with him, by gambling also on the grand pari by water, holy water. In a letter (1895) to Leopoldo Alas, perhaps the greatest Spanish novelist of that age, and still neglected, he wrote: “Until a man bears Christianity in his marrow he has no recourse but to conserve its forms: without form there can be no consciousness and whatever is to be organized in the deeps of his spirit must go through the forms . . .” And in his remarkable correspondence with the brilliant José Ortega y Gasset he told the sophisticated Ortega, then in Marburg, at the University, that German philosophy was so murderously pure (in logic, in knowing, in will) that it took his breath away, asphyxiated him, so that after reading Wilhelm Herrmann or Herrmann Cohen he crossed himself and intoned Paternosters and Ave Marias while he dreamed of material immortality for his soul. He would not resign himself to reason, he told Ortega (all this in 1912), and even preferred superstition.
In an essay on Unamuno published in Buenos Aires in 1923, Jorge Luis Borges pointed out that Unamuno affirmed concepts by asserting that they can not be negated if they were capable of being once, ever, so much as asserted at all. In the same way, Unamuno could not conceive how any soul, any spirit, once asserted by its being brought into being, could ever be denied, could forever be denied—by death.
In connection with the silence surrounding the current volumes of Unamuno in English, Ortega wrote in 1907 of a preceding neglect of the original (long since corrected, for in Spain edition now follows edition and the diary, titled Diario íntimo, has just been, in 1975, reprinted again there, where there were four editions by different publishers in the two years following the year it was brought to public notice in Spain itself—not until 1970: i.e., some seventy years after its last entry—by the editors of the present English language volumes): “I cry—since I became Platonic everything makes me cry—when I think that, at this very hour of our now, it is possible that there are not five hundred Spaniards who have read your book on Quijote nor ten who have understood it.” In Spain today, despite a quite incredible Maoist student susurration against all Western values (against Solzhenitsyn as well as Unamuno), the words and works of Unamuno are cited and heard daily in the most unlikely places—even if only by way of disputing some resounding paradox of his. Ortega might well smile now at Don Miguel’s quixotic immortality!
(In regard to the truly unbelievable Maoism among the Spanish student class—mostly the sons and daughters of the rich—who act as if Spain were Albania, where there was not much to fall back on, not such a heritage and a culture as here in Spain, Unamuno, the future Rector-for-Life of the University of Salamanca, three times un-rectored, has an entry in his diary, which adumbrates an age, our age, which falls into a species of panic fever over Devil movies and Maoism simultaneously. He writes: “It’s quite clear that the daring freethinker—the man committed to demolition, the man who rejects all law and all tradition—is denounced by some while others applaud, but one and all are in awe of him. Proudhon is held in no less awe by believers than by unbelievers: Satanism attracts them.” The works of Proudhon, by the bye, are everywhere available in Spain and new editions of his outdated, behind-the-times musings are even now announced for 1975. Equally as astounding as Maoism among the well-to-do students is the patent fact that there is no true conservative movement, or even conservative grouping in Spain today—after all these years of “the conservatism of possession” and of the Winning Side!—unless it be the grouping around Areilza, Conde de Motrico, the civilized ex-Ambassador to the United States.)
A direct descendant of Unamuno, the Argentinian universalist Jorge Luis Borges, has somehow broken through the same barrier put in the way of Unamuno by the establishment’s indifference to eternal matters. Borges’ varying tributes to Unamuno have been incorporated into the Translator’s Foreword to the Bollingen/Princeton edition of The Tragic Sense of Life, and in the Borges issue of Tri-Quarterly, No. 25, Fall, 1972. But Unamuno’s intuitive awareness of Borges as one of his lifelines into the future has never appeared in English, and will do so only upon the Princeton publication of the volume to be titled The Private World. In a letter from Salamanca in 1936, the last year of his life, to Guillermo de Torre, the maieutic Spanish exile in Argentina, he writes, speaking of Borges:
How many times have I paused over one of his phrases, and even at some allusion to me! And more than once I have thought to compose some gloss on his sayings-in-writing. In any case, I would like him to know that quite often when I address the public but speak of my “reader,” I am thinking individually of him . . .
To all the puzzles of modern publishing and the public, one ponders on how Borges (like T. S. Eliot) was and is “taken up” by the editors and publicists who bury his predecessor. Do they never notice that Borges, though even more interested in the heterodox than Unamuno, is also even more of an antimeliorist, even more dubious of human progressivism and of all the dogma taken as received by the Liberal Establishment?
Whoever reads Unamuno will find, on his own, what Pascal thought most valuable: not a mere book, but a man, and a man who earned an immortality of some kind, however quixotic, even on this quixotic earth.
Thomas Anthony Kerrigan (1918–1992) was an author, editor, and translator and a regular contributor to Encyclopaedia Britannica. In addition to his work with Unamuno, he also translated poetry and prose of Borges and Neruda and was a poet in his own right.
Posted: March 4, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.
The Humanistic Tradition in Literature