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Miguel de Unamuno, translated by Anthony Kerrigan
Princeton: Princeton University Press, Reprint 1987

Three Exemplary Novels
Miguel de Unamuno, translated by Angel Flores
New York: Grove Press, Reprint 1987

Ficciones: Four Stories and a Play
Miguel de Unamuno, translated by Anthony Kerrigan
Princeton: Princeton University press, Reprint 1987

Half a century has elapsed since the death of Don Miguel de Unamuno and still his works are much read and written about. Three volumes of his stories and novellas have been reissued recently in English translation—able translation, by the way. Hundreds of best-selling novelists have risen, and vanished forever from bookshops, during those five decades. Yet Unamuno is everywhere cited and quoted; all of his more important fiction, criticism, and commentary is available in English and other languages; and his fiction’s originality has been admired by successive generations of readers and critics. Why this enduring power?

On the face of it, one might not expect Unamuno to retain a great reputation internationally. “Well, I am Spanish!” he wrote in his novela Mist. “Spanish by birth, education, language, profession, and calling. I am Spanish in both body and soul. Spanish before and after, through and through. Spanish is my religion and the heaven in which I want to believe is a celestial, eternal Spain, and my God is a Spanish God, the God of Our Lord Don Quixote, a God who thinks in Spanish and said in Spanish ‘Let there be light!’ ‘Sea la luz!” and his Word was a Spanish word…”

Unamuno frequently is called a philosopher, but it is not because he proposed any novel philosophical system or pattern of political thought. He would be better styled sage—one whose wisdom comes from sources not rational wholly. Contemptuous of metaphysicians in general and Descartes in particular, assailing rationalism and modernity, scourging the disciplines of sociology and pedagogy, Don Miguel, long rector of the University of Salamanca, rejected the dullness of orthodoxy and the complacency of enlightenment.

He called himself an ideoclast—a foe to ideologues; for Unamuno was bent upon undoing the tyranny of abstract ideas. Skeptical after his peculiar fashion, nevertheless Don Miguel wrote devotedly in Spanish, that language which by its very vocabulary affirms faith and rejects blind rationality. “We must sow in men the seeds of doubt, of distrust, of disquiet, and even of despair,” said Unamuno. Yet doubt, distrust, disquiet, and despair—of what? Why, of the neoterist or “progressive” modern mentality.

Faithful to his lifelong exemplar Don Quixote de la Mancha, Unamuno maintained the cause of the individual soul against the overweening dominations of our century—and even against dreary death. There runs through all Unamuno’s books and essays the burning doctrine that man is made for eternity—the life everlasting as a person, an individual, that is, not absorbed into mundane or spiritual collectivity.

Twentieth-century liberal reformers and trendsetters were flayed by Unamuno as mercilessly as he scourged the dictator Primo de Rivera:

These are the ones who, with their bohemian indulgence, help to perpetuate the cowardice and falsehood and wretchedness that destroy us. When they preach liberty, they have only one kind in mind: the right to dispose of their neighbor’s wife. With them everything is a matter of sensually; they are enamored sensually even of ideas, the great ideas. They are incapable of marrying a great and pure idea and raising a family with it. The most they can do with ideas is to co-habit with them. They take them as mistresses—even for just a night. Throw them out!

For all his rejection of abstract idea, however, Unamuno was known everywhere in Europe and America as a lover of wisdom. How is it that this philosopher, this sage, marched successfully into the realm of the novel, where the climate is that of emotion, of sentiment, not of logic and dialectic?

The philosophical novel, true, can be encountered as early as the middle of the nineteenth century. I recall all too well those weeks in the eighth grade when my classmates and I were compelled to endeavor to extract “gems of philosophy” from the chapters of Silas Marner, dull old chestnut.

Passages of quasi-philosophical discourse might be extracted similarly, from some of Unamuno’s stories–through those extracts would be more whimsical, ironical, or comical than dialectical or exhortatory. But it is not that sort of author’s aside in the midst of a narrative to which I refer when I say that Unamuno’s fiction is the work of a wise man, a sage.

For the most unusual thing about Don Miguel’s stories is that they have to do with ultimate questions: with the nature of reality, with the separation of the ego from God, with the soul and eternity, with the need for faith. Spanish senoritos, maiden aunts, seducers, coquettes, clerics and adventurers are Unamuno’s puppets. (Sometimes these are very convincing puppets, possessing distinct personality, even haunting their creator’s dreams and demanding reanimation.) Unamuno brings them upon his stage to illustrate some hard truth or some perplexing mystery. Through the talk of his characters, their foibles, and their misadventures, the philosopher of Salamanca sets his readers to asking the great questions about the human condition.

A brief examination of three of Unamuno’s stronger stories may suffice to suggest the sagacity of these innovating and sometimes startling stories.

Is Life a dream?

Mist (in Novela/Nivola), the longest of Unamuno’s fictions, was first published in 1914, as there settled down upon Europe a fog that has not yet lifted. Mist was recast as a play in 1923; and as Anthony Kerrigan remarks in the introduction to his translation, in the drama this achievement would be echoed by Anouilh, Ionesco, and Beckett.

What is this reality that we claim to know? Unamuno’s Mist carries us back to the dread that life is a dream, and dreams themselves are dreams. (In American literature, Mark Twain makes this the theme of his solipsistic romance The Mysterious Stranger.) Indeed we perceive as in a glass darkly, wondering what we may do to find direction in this gigantic fog of human existence. Bemused, we strike out willfully; we contend with shadows; we are stricken down by our own follies. Private reason is the walking stick by which we try to grope our way through the all-encompassing mist; it does not suffice—not even to repel adversaries.

At once absurd and mystical, Mist induces the reader to ask just how real he himself is: The story defies Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. A naïve romantic young man, Augusto Perez, foolishly falls in love with a beautiful piano-teacher, Eugenia, who defrauds him and runs off with a low scoundrel. This humiliation is fatal: for Unamuno, as Author, determines to finish off the comedy with Augusto’s death. When Augusto visits Don Miguel for counsel, Unamuno so informs his creature. Astounded to be told that he is a mere figment of the author’s imagination, Augusto rebels passionately: “Don Miguel, for God’s sake, I want to live to be myself!” yet Unamuno refuses to have mercy—not even the mercy of permitting suicide.

“To create me only to let me die!” Augusto reproaches Unamuno. “Well, you’re going to die, too! He who creates, creates himself, and he who creates himself, dies…Let us begin to die, then!” (One thinks of the cry of combatants on either side during the Spanish on either side during the Spanish Civil War, “Viva la muerte!”)

Mist is the Red King’s dream in Through the Looking Glass (whether or not Unamuno ever read Lewis Carroll) with its sinister hint of an antagonist world in which we are so many ephermal shadows or puppets. Tweedledee tells Alice that the slumbering Red King, there in the wood, is dreaming about her. “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?”

“Where I am now, of course,” said Alice. But Tweedledum and Tweedledee shout her down. ” If that there King was to wake,” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out—bang!—just like a candle!” Common intuition will refute this alarming theory, even though the Cartesians cannot.

Yet Unamuno is not indulging in whimsy merely. For are we not all figments of God’s imagination? And do we not all die, as poor Augusto perished? Augusto Perez has served the purposes of Miguel de Unamuno, the author, and so must be swept away. As Don Miguel tells his imploring character, “Your fate is sealed and you cannot live any longer. Anyway, I don’t know what else there is for you to do. For instance, God, when he no longer knows what to do with us, kills us.”

Then what is the significance or purpose of this Unamuno fantasy? Why, the quest for the eternal, the obsession of Unamuno and of souls like his. In Mist there is a Prologue purportedly contributed by a critic named Victor Goti–actually another creation of Unamuno himself, although represented as a friend to both Perez and Don Miguel. Goti analyzes Unamuno:

His idee fixe—and on this point he is a monomaniac—is that if his own soul is not immortal, if the souls of all other men and even of all other things are not immortal, and immortal in the sense meant by the ingenious Catholics of the Middle Ages, then nothing is worthwhile, nothing is worth the slightest effort.

Just so. Mist persuades us to inquire within ourselves whether we are essences called souls, meant somehow to endure always. Are we something better than so many shadows, pursuing other shadows as Augusto pursues the splendid-eyed but treacherous Eugenia? Mist asks such questions.

Unamuno does not state explicitly the end or purpose of this comedy Mist. What it signifies, though, is well expressed by Euguene Ionesco speaking in 1985 about his own comedies of the absurd; for Ionesco was influenced by Unamuno in much.

“If I have shown men to be ridiculous, ludicrous, it was in no way out of any desire for comic effect, but rather, difficult as this is during these times of universal spiritual decay, to proclaim the truth,” Ionesco declared; the words might have been Unamuno’s.

It is still possible, at least, to show what he may become, when he is cut off from all transcendence, when the notion of metaphysical destiny is lacking in the human heart. That is, when “realistic” reality is substituted for the Real, the eternal. It is the sacred that is what is real…The comic is only the other side of the tragic; absence is only a form of the call or the presence of Him who waits behind the door for someone to open it for Him.

Extinction at the hands of the Author is not what Unamuno sees as the Reality behind the Mist. On the contrary, as he wrote in one of his Essays on Faith:

The secret of human life, the universal secret, the root secret from which all other secrets spring, is the longing for more life, the furious and insatiable desire to be everything else without ever ceasing to be ourselves, to take possession of the entire universe without letting the universe take possession of us and absorb us; it is the desire to be someone else without ceasing to be myself, and continue being myself at the same time I am someone else; it is, in a word, the appetite for divinity, the hunger for God.

In search of true love

Of the stories in Three Exemplary novels (first published in 1920), the most moving is Nothing Less Than a Man. A masterful self-made entrepreneur, Alejandro Gomez–muy macho, the Mexicans might say—marries a beautiful strong-willed coquette, Julia. She had bitterly resented her parents’ endeavors to “barter” her; but, once wed, she comes to love her egoist husband most passionately. Yet does he love her, or is she a possession merely? Her misgivings lead to her seduction by a worthless nobleman. Gomez refuses to believe that such a wrong could have been done to him; he has Julia confined to a madhouse. At last, as Julia lies dying, Gomez confesses his consuming love for his wife.

“Only God can save her,” the physician tells the egoist.

“God! Where is God? I never thought of him.”

The final scene of this tragedy, with Alejandro finding means to convey his love to his beloved, may remind the reader of the dying words of Lena in Conrad’s Victory: “I’ve saved you! Why don’t you take me into your arms and carry out of this lonely place?” Like Heyst in Victory, Gomez apprehends the truth about love when it is too late for him; he pays the fatal price of his long isolation in the citadel of self.

“Won’t you tell me now who you are, Alejandro?” whispered Julia in his ear.

“I? Oh, just a man–the man you have made of me.”

“This word sounded like a murmur from beyond death, as if come from the shores of life as the craft is sailing off into shadowy waters beyond.”

As Angel del Rio writes of this short novel, “Alejandro Gomez is the embodiment of man’s will deprived of spiritual strength. His struggle with death becomes in the last instance a struggle with God. He had never dared to look within himself. It is his failure in the face of love and death, the inscrutable design of God, rather than his contempt for his fellow men, that gives him tragic dimensions. Thus, more than any other of Unamuno’s fictional heroes, Alejandro acts the author’s central idea: the drama of individual life is the result of pure will, without horizon beyond the ambit of our conduct; we are condemned to live in agony.” (To understand the meaning of this statement, one needs to read Unamuno’s book of reflections, The Agony of Christianity.)

The question of immortality

We turn to Ficciones, in which “Saint Manuel Bueno, martyr” (written in 1930) is the most subtle story. Martin Nozick calls it “Unamuno’s supreme act of contrition, a public statement of regret for having tried to involve so many people in his personal turmoil, and an expression of the nostalgia the iconoclast feels for simpler times.” Such sentiments are woven into the novela; but its meaning is something bigger.

The pastor of an idyllic Spanish village, whose people are folk of an uneroded simple faith, is Manuel Bueno, whose language and private convictions are very like those of the “New Breed” Catholic priests that have become so numerous in the United States during the past quarter-century. He has a cure of souls, but it is made clear that Don Manuel himself has been severed from the Church’s Dogmata. It remains his duty to safeguard the spiritual and moral order of his parish by not undoing the web of their faith.

He persuades to Christian communion the radical Lazaro, by begging him “to set a good example, to avoid scandalizing the townspeople, to take part in the religious life of the community, to feign belief even if he did not feel any, to conceal his own ideas…” Such, indeed, was the method of the saintly Don Manuel himself. As he told Lazaro, though Lazaro only, “I am put here to give life to the souls of my charges, to make them happy, to make them dream they are immortal–and not to destroy them. The important thing is that they live undisturbed, in concord with one another–and with the truth, with my truth, they could not live at all.”

This seems a strange lesson to be taught by Unamuno, the crusader after immortality; for Don Manuel and his disciple Lazaro have no faith at all in life everlasting. But Unamuno’s valiant hope returns through the reflections of the story’s narrator, Angela, sister of Lazaro:

“For I believed then, and I believe now, that God—as part of I know not what sacred and inscrutable purpose—caused them to believe they were unbelievers. And that at the moment of their passing, perhaps, the blindfold was removed.”

There come to mind, at this point, certain lines from Robert Frost’s poem “The Black Cottage”:

For dear me, why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true.
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
It will turn again, for so it goes.

More ideoclast than iconoclast, Miguel de Unamuno attains in this story, with its several theological and political implications, the joining of existential philosophy and moral imagination. “Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr” is no attempt at apologetics: rather, it may raise in the minds of dogmatic skeptics some doubts about their own complacent skepticism, founded ordinarily on nineteenth-century scientism.

Unamuno in perspective

If all great literature has an ethical end, surely the novel now a days is far sunk in decay. It was quite otherwise once. As Thomas Vargish remarks in his study The Providential Aesthetic in Victorian Fiction (University Press of Virginia, 1985), “The English novel before George Eliot imitates life in revealing a moral intention in the universe, and as it heightens and clarifies other aspects of life—the nature of society, individual development, the action of historical forces—so it heightens and clarifies the evidence for cosmic design and divine presence.” Though more journalist than philosopher, George Eliot did thrust upon her Victorian public ideas that half undid the novel as a literary form, for her fiction drove out of the English novel belief in Providence or transcendent meaning of life.

The novel and short story of our day certainly attempt nothing in the way of moral intention, cosmic design, and divine presence. (I am willing to admit a very few honorable exceptions among writers of recent decades.) The creators of our fiction seem more intent upon what Edmund Fuller calls “the revival of total depravity.” As Fuller put it in 1958, “What some writers have lost is not an external framework of values, not just this or that set of value concepts. They have lost the basic vision of the nature of their own kind. They not only do not know who they are, which is problem enough; they also do not know what they are—and that is the ultimate tragedy: for man not to know the nature of man.”

Already so far decayed, how might the novel as a serious form of literature be reinvigorated or transformed? Lionel Trilling, in 1950, suggested that novelists might turn to exploring the labyrinths of ideology, so to revive the dying genre; this sterile recommendation has born only Dead Sea fruit. John Lukacs, in 1968, gave up the novel for lost, the victim of large social changes; and he hoped that well-conceived and imaginative historical writing might supplant prose fiction. But that substitution has not come to pass.

A vast lot of trashy fiction, at a level of intelligence and style calculated to lure people away from television, continues to pour from the presses every month. But of novels and short stories really worth taking the time to read, we are offered very few nowadays. It is inconceivable that the novel ever should regain the popularity it enjoyed before the coming of films, radio, and television. Yet it does remain conceivable that imaginative literature calculated to interest and move a body of intelligent men and women—an intellectual and moral remnant—still may find publishers and readers.

What would be the territory of the writers of such fiction? Not, surely, the dreary wastes of ideological malice, recommended by Trilling–not ideology, called by John Adams “the science of idiocy.”

Our bent world will not be redeemed by ideological passion: a point cuttingly made by Unamuno in several of his books. It is only by a renewed apprehension of the transcendent, and by a concern for the moral order, that the human race may be kept from suicide. The imaginative writer who aspires to write novels and short stories, with the aim of moving the minds and hearts of the better men and women of this age, may prepare himself for the labor, in some degree, by reading or rereading Don Miguel de Unamuno.

For the redoubtable Unamuno skillfully and honestly concerns himself with ultimate questions. That is why his writings continue to be so seriously discussed and widely read. Bryan Griffin wrote in 1983 that there has begun, in the writing and publication of fiction, a battle “between those who would be governed by the moral instinct, and those who would deny that instinct.” To Unamuno especially, among the men of letters of this century, the adherents of the moral instinct may turn for example and precept.

Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay is from the December, 1987 issue of the World & I.

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Published: Feb 24, 2012
Russell Kirk
Russell Kirk (1918-1994) was the author of some thirty-two books, hundreds of periodical essays, and many short stories. Both Time and Newsweek have described him as one of America’s leading thinkers, and The New York Times acknowledged the scale of his influence when in 1998 it wrote that Kirk’s 1953 book The Conservative Mind “gave American conservatives an identity and a genealogy and catalyzed the postwar movement.”
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3 replies to this post
  1. See also the works of Maria Zambrano, such as "Hacia un saber del anima" (Toward a Knowledge of the Soul)or "El Hombre y lo divino" (Man and the Divine).

    As a disciple of Jose Ortega y Gasset, who was a student of Miguel de Unamono, Zambrano was the last of a generation of quintessentially Spanish, but Europe wide famous, philosophers, mystics and aesthetes which appeared after the embarrassing defeat of Spain by the United States in 1898 and the loss of the last royal colonies in the Americas and Asia. It was a a sort of regeneration movement, which inaugurated the second greatest and most creative cultural era in the history of Spain since the Siglo de Oro, spanning from around 1898 and into the Franco regime.

  2. A whole literary movement exploring ideology? Mr Trilling, may I please have the root-canal treatment instead? In our post-apocalyptic culture, real art is unlikely to find a major publisher, much less an audience unless we ideoclasts (what a glorious word!) take a very radical view of art and how we present it. Most conservatives are too dull and derivative to draw near to that, but Winston and Brad are on the right track to a good degree.

    I have a Irish blackthorn cudgel masquerading as a walking stick, presented by Unamuno's translator, the poet, friend of the Kirks and Picasso, Tony Kerrigan, after I helped get him out of a social scrape at Hillsdale better left unwritten. He'd taken it (the stick, not the peccadillo or the faculty damsel in question) across Harlem on foot in the wee hours one night in 1974, having spent his cab fare on drink, and whenever approached he'd roar like a banshee and whack trash cans with the deadly ashplant, as New Yorkers (including street gangs) parted like the Red Sea. He was given to wearing glorious autumn leaves as corsages on his black velvet jacket, and taking snuff at meetings, which made we students love him while the (non-Kirkian) faculty and admin jerks feared and loathed him in equal measure. They were right for he was a dangerous ideoclast, as were his feudal hosts castellated in Mecosta and as (I hope) are we all.

    Be honest with yourself. What have you done today to upset an ideologue?

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