Saturday, May 5, 2018

Miguel de Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life

It may not have been the most sensible idea to read a work of philosophy (or theology or spirituality--more on that later) as reading for a vacation in Spain, but that's what I did. And it turned out, maybe it wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Miguel de Unamuno was born in Bilbao in 1864. He became a professor of Greek and then Rector at the University of Salamanca. He wrote novels, philosophy, poetry. Tragic Sense of Life came out in 1912 in Spain and was translated into English by J. E. Crawford Flitch (with the author's help) in 1921. Unamuno writes in the introduction to this edition "this English translation of my Sentimiento Trágico presents in some ways a more purged and correct text than that of the original Spanish." Though there may be some loss, he says, in the "spontaneity of my Spanish thought." In any case, the English version is the one I could read.

I don't know exactly what I expected from a book with this title--something different--but what it is, I would say, is Unamuno's attempt to describe the nature of his belief in God. If I can briefly summarize (and what else am I going to do?) Unamuno is doubtful about Cartesian dualism; sees the life of the body as the real life, not the life of the mind; asserts there is no spirit separate from our physical presence. Consequently, rational proofs of God don't convince him, and he's uninterested anyway. We believe with our heart. Tertullian (credo quia absurdum--I believe because it's ridiculous) and Kierkegaard are important antecedents for him.

"So long as I pilgrimaged through the fields of reason in search of God I could not find him," is how he expresses it.

So why tragic? It seems it ought to be possible to believe with the heart and be happy, though neither Tertullian nor Kierkegaard strike me as happy men. Nor, it seems, is Unamuno, though perhaps less unhappy than either of those two. But if we remain physical, and there is no Dantesque Paradiso, then we can never be in a perfect relationship with God, we cannot avoid suffering. Our suffering is what we offer God as individuals. He cites Kempis' Imitatio Christi, which I haven't read. It's here that the work becomes almost spiritualist.

Only a couple of other things. For a philosopher, Unamuno is lucid and readable. It's not a page-turner, of course, but compared to something like Kierkegaard, ordinary mortals like myself can make their way through it. Whether I was convinced or not, I found it cogently argued.

Also I want to note the year 1912. There are a number of things in the book that I would hope were rethought a few years later.  "War is the most effective factor of progress, even more than commerce." Or the words he ends his book on: "And may God deny you peace, but give you glory!" He may mean mostly suffering, but the expression of it is troublesome. In 1912, even literate civilized Europeans thought there was something powerful, something important to be found in death and violence and war. There needed to be more resistance to that way of thinking than there was.

He does say in the introduction to the English edition of 1921, that "if I were to set about writing an Introduction in the light of all that we see and feel now, after the Great War...I should be led into writing another book." It would be interesting to know what different things he might say, and I suspect if I read Spanish I could find out; Unamuno is not completely translated into English, I think.

And as for its purpose for me as a Spanish book? Unamuno thinks of himself as producing not just a Catholic's approach to our relationship with God, but particularly a Spaniard's. Unamuno is a very cosmopolitan man; I can't count the number of languages he reads, and he seems to correspond across Europe. But Spain is a bit of a European backwater in 1912, or, at least, Unamuno feels this, and wants to produce something pan-European, but also particularly Spanish. He does have the great Don Quixote to rely on for a bit of Spanish pride.

A statue of his predecessor Fray Luis de León on the campus of the University of Salamanca:

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