World Literature

Miguel de Unamuno

 

BORN: 1864, Bilbao, Spain

DIED: 1936, Salamanca, Spain

NATIONALITY: Spanish

GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho (1905)

The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples (1913)

Mist: A Tragicomic Novel (1914)

The Agony of Christianity (1925)

 

 

Miguel de Unamuno. Popperfoto / Getty Images

 

Overview

Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo is a crucially important figure in twentieth-century Spanish culture. Novelist, short-story writer, poet, playwright, teacher, and commentator on politics, culture, and literature, he was appointed professor of Greek philology at the University of Salamanca at the age of twenty-six. By age fifty, he was rector of the university. Dismissed from his rectorship and later imprisoned and exiled for his public criticisms of the monarchy and the government, he went on to publish a study of the politics and philosophy of Christianity as well as other works. After a triumphant return to his native country, Unamuno remained a controversial figure: the Vatican placed his essay The Agony of Christianity (1925) on the Index of Prohibited Books twenty years after his death.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Basque Youth. Unamuno was born in Bilbao in the Basque region of Spain and was raised in a traditional Catholic environment. He was profoundly affected during his childhood by political instability that ensued from attacks against the government by Catalan and Basque separatists; when he was nine years old, his native city was attacked by government troops, and one of their bombs destroyed a neighboring house. This civil war ended in 1876, the year Unamuno graduated from the Colegio de San Nicolas. He then entered the Instituto Vizacaino, where he became an advanced student in 1879 and revealed his aptitude for philosophy. The following year, Unamuno moved to the Spanish capital to continue his academic work at the University of Madrid, where he presented a dissertation on the Basque language and obtained a doctoral degree from the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters in 1884. For the following seven years, Unamuno unsuccessfully campaigned to obtain a university appointment; finally, in 1891, he was named professor of Greek at the University of Salamanca, the oldest and most revered university in Spain.

Religious Crisis. In the 1890s, Unamuno’s writings began to appear in periodicals, particularly the socialist Class Struggle. His first major work, En torno al casticismo, appeared as five separate essays in the journal Modern Spain in 1895. In these essays, Unamuno called upon Spain to cease its cultural isolation from the rest of Europe. Two years later, his novel Peace in War (1897) appeared, an event that coincided with a personal, intense religious crisis, from which Unamuno emerged without an orthodox faith in God. He subsequently expressed his struggle with the philosophical conflict between faith and reason in a series of acclaimed works: The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho, The Tragic Sense of Life, and The Agony of Christianity.

Political Conflicts. In his essays, Unamuno attacked the policies of Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, who ruled from 1902 until 1931, and the dictatorship of Primo de Riviera, the prime minister who effectively controlled the government from 1923 until 1930 during Alfonso’s reign. Considered both a religious and political heretic, Unamuno was dismissed from the University of Salamanca in 1914 and exiled to the Canary Islands ten years later. Unamuno then moved to France, where he lived in Paris until settling in the frontier town of Hendaye on the border with Spain, near his Basque homeland. With the fall of the Riviera dictatorship, Unamuno returned to Spain in 1930 and resumed his university position, finishing his best-crafted work of fiction, Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr (1933).

In the early 1930s, Spain was a nation torn in two. Some citizens, including many in Unamuno’s native Basque region, wished to become independent of the Spanish government based in Madrid and were known as republicans. These were regions traditionally viewed by their citizens as self-contained and autonomous despite the fact that they were all collectively referred to as Spain. Other republicans supported the creation of an effective democratic government. Opponents to this movement, known as nationalists and spearheaded by Francisco Franco, sought to keep Spain intact at any cost. Many nationalists also supported the return of the Spanish monarchy. While Unamuno was critical of the republicans, he ultimately became an outspoken critic of the nationalists as well, primarily for their brutal tactics. After voicing his opposition to the nationalists, Unamuno was confined by military order to his house, where he died in 1936.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Unamuno's famous contemporaries include:

Antonio Machado (1875-1939): Spanish poet Machado was one of the leading literary lights of the so-called Generation of 98, a collective of Spanish writers, poets, and intellectuals.

Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955): A Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset was also a social and political activist involved in the overthrow of King Alfonso XIII in 1931.

Annie Oakley (1860-1926): One of the enduringly legendary figures of the Old West, Oakley was a world- renowned sharpshooter and star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. She was also an active advocate for allowing women to serve in combat in the military.

Wilhelm II (1859-1941): Kaiser (emperor) of the German Empire from 1888 to 1918, Wilhelm was also the last emperor of Germany. He led Germany into World War I and was widely painted as the aggressor during and after the conflict. He abdicated the throne two days before the armistice and went into retirement in the Netherlands.

Marie Curie (1867-1934): Polish physicist and chemist who, with her French husband, Pierre, conducted pioneering experiments in radiation and radioactive elements. Her efforts garnered her the Nobel Prize in Physics and in Chemistry.

 

Works in Literary Context

Immortality and the Rejection of Religion. Like his near contemporary Jose Ortega y Gasset, Unamuno was well versed in modern European literature and philosophy. Initially influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s dialectical method and the positivist worldview of Herbert Spencer, he later studied Soren Kierkegaard, Henri-Louis Bergson, and William James, especially for their perspectives on faith, reason, and intuition. Unamuno’s philosophy reflected their fundamental skepticism: he defined man as an end in himself rather than as an agent of God’s will, though he recognized humanity’s innate desire for immortality, and he denied the validity of any autonomous philosophical system.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Unamuno is regarded as an early existentialist writer, whose ideas were formulated a generation before existentialism emerged as a prominent intellectual movement in philosophy and literature. Here are some of the best-known works that deal with existentialist themes.

The Stranger (1942), a novel by Albert Camus. Although Camus refused to be associated with existentialism, his philosophy of the absurd, expressed succinctly in this novel, led many to closely link him with other existentialist thinkers of his time.

Nausea (1938), a novel by Jean-Paul Sartre. This novel functions as a sort of outline of existentialism, describing a main character who is suddenly struck by the realization of the indifference of his surroundings to his own existence.

Being and Time (1927), a philosophical work by Martin Heidegger. Originally intended as the first part in an ultimately uncompleted larger project, this book has gone on to become one of the most influential works of philosophy of the twentieth century. Notably, it inspired Sartre to write Being and Nothingness, generally regarded as the first true existentialist philosophical work.

Waiting for Godot (1953), a play by Samuel Beckett. This absurdist work about two men waiting for a third who never arrives is often singled out for its existentialist themes.

 

Works in Critical Context

Critic Enrique Fernandez suggested that Unamuno ‘‘dug deeper into the national spirit than any of his contemporaries, a generation whose collective project was the exploration of Spanishness.’’ Unamuno’s poetic emphasis and concern with human mortality has led many critics to characterize his work as distinctively Spanish. Salvador de Madariaga, who deemed Unamuno Spain’s greatest literary figure, asserted that ‘‘Unamuno, by the cross which he has chosen to bear, incarnates the spirit of modern Spain.’’ At the same time, Unamuno’s eclecticism and experimental method have caused many critics to place him outside of the mainstream of modern Spanish literature. Fernandez also remarked, ‘‘Though he ravaged all genres, Unamuno is hard to classify as a writer—if he even is a writer.’’ His fiction and poetry, ‘‘though powerful, [are] more philosophical than lyrical,’’ Fernandez continued, and his philosophical writings ‘‘are emotional and personal’’ rather than logical or theoretical. ‘‘Too writerly to be a philosopher, too philosophical to be an artist,’’ Fernandez concluded, ‘‘Unamuno is, as he deserves to be, a category unto himself.’’

Legacy. ‘‘At his death in 1936,’’ Arthur A. Cohen claimed in the New York Times Book Review, ‘‘Miguel de Unamuno was the most influential thinker in Spain, more renowned than his younger contemporary Ortega y Gasset and regarded by his own aficionados as the greatest stylist in the Spanish language since Cervantes.’’ Fernandez posited in the Voice Literary Supplement, ‘‘Quixote incarnate, he lived out his nationality to its logical philosophical conclusions.... The soul-searching of the first Spanish moderns, who would be called the generation of 1898, found its fullest expression in Unamuno. In poems, plays, novels, and essays,’’ the critic continued, Unamuno questioned ‘‘Spanishness, modernity, science, politics, philosophy, faith, God, everything.’’

The Tragic Sense of Life. Unamuno’s philosophical work The Tragic Sense of Life (1913) was, upon the publication of an English translation in 1921, a critical success. The book deals with the reconciliation of the logical mind with the spiritual, particularly regarding immortality. Salvador de Madariaga wrote in 1921, ‘‘This strife between enemy truths, the truth thought and the truth felt, or, as he himself puts it, between veracity and sincerity, is Unamuno’s raison d’etre. And it is because the Tragic Sense of Life is the most direct expression of it that this book is his masterpiece.’’ Mark Van Doren, in a 1922 review for the Nation, wrote of Unamuno, ‘‘His masterpiece, [The Tragic Sense of Life] ... is modern Catholicism’s richest, most passionate, most brilliant statement of the grounds that exist for faith in immortality, now that reason and science have done their worst.’’ Van Doren noted the author’s unorthodox but ultimately uplifting perspective: ‘‘Supremely intelligent, he never believes; religiously alive, he hopes. His book is very absurd, but it is tremendous work and fun for the mind.’’ Ernest Boyd, in a 1925 essay, described the book as ‘‘a work which comes in direct line from the literature of the Spanish mystics.... The visionary passion of a mind which refuses to accept the denial of spiritual hopes and is yet conscious of the sovereignty of the reasoning faculties finds dramatic expression in this book.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Unamuno once said, ‘‘Realism is the coherence of mysticism.’’ Write an essay in which you use Unamuno’s work to comment on that quotation.

2. Read El Cristo de Velazquez. Then, create an audiovisual presentation that illustrates the religious themes and imagery evoked by the poem.

3.Write an informative essay that explains the Basque ideals that led to six years of exile for Unamuno.

4. Unamuno lived through many important events in the history of Spain. Research the following major events or eras in Spain’s history: the Carlist Wars, the Spanish-American War, the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, the Second Republic, or the Spanish Civil War. With other classmates who have read Unamuno, discuss how Unamuno’s writings reflect the shifts in government and shifts in social concerns and attitudes toward the Catholic Church.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Altisent, Marta E., and Cristina Martlnez-Carazo, eds. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 322: Twentieth-Century Spanish Fiction Writers. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 2006.

Barea, Arturo, and Ilsa Barea. Unamuno. Trans. I. Barea. Cambridge, U.K.: Bowes & Bowes, 1952.

Basdekis, Demetrios. Unamuno and Spanish Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Bleiberg, Herman, and E. Inman Fox, eds. Spanish Thought and Letters in the Twentieth Century: Miguel de Unamuno, 1864—1964. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1966.

Ilie, Paul. Unamuno: An Existential View of Self and Society. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.

Lacy, Allen. Miguel de Unamuno: The Rhetoric of Existence. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1967.

‘‘Miguel de Unamuno (y Jugo) (1864-1936).’’ In Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, vol. 9, edited by Dennis Poupard, 507-26. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.

Mora, Jose Ferrater. Unamuno: A Philosophy of Tragedy. Trans. Philip Silver. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.

Perna, Michael L., ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 108: Twentieth-Century Spanish Poets, First Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.

Rubia Barcia, Jose, and M. A. Zeitlin, eds. Unamuno: Creator and Creation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Rudd, Margaret Thomas. The Lone Heretic: A Biography of Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963.

‘‘Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr.’’ In Short Stories for Students, vol. 20, edited by Ira Mark Milne. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Wyers, Frances. Miguel de Unamuno: The Contrary Self. London: Tamesis, 1976.