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|Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (1864-1936)|
Spanish author, philosopher, and educator, predecessor of Existentialist philosophy with Søren Kierkegaard. Unamuno was one of the foremost representatives of the movement Generation '98 (see also: Ángel Ganivet). Main themes in Unamuno's work are the conflict between life and thought, the tension between reason and Christian faith, and the tragedy of death in man's life, the horrendous void of non-being, in which reason offers no consolation. As a philosopher Unamuno did not create a systematic presentation of his thought. He objected strongly to academic philosophers and stressed that the deepest of all human desires is the hunger for personal immortality against all our rational knowledge of life. Unamuno wrote his works in Spanish, although his mother tongue was Basque. His essays had a great influence in early 20th-century Spain.
"The man of flesh and blood; the one who is born, suffers and dies – above all, who dies; the man who eats and drinks and plays and sleeps and thinks and wills; the man who is seen and is heard; the brother, the real brother." (from The Tragic Sense of Life, 1913)
Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo was born in Bilbao, the third of six children of Félix Unamuno, a proprietor of a bakery shop, and Salomé de Jugo, who was also his niece. When his father died, Unamuno was brought up by an uncle. In his childhood he witnessed the violence between traditionalist and progressive forces during the siege of Bilbao. This experience left deep traces in his political thinking. Unamuno studied in his native city at the Colegio de San Nicolás and the Instituto Vizacaíno. In 1880 he entered the University of Madrid, where he studied philosophy and letters, receiving his Ph.D. four years later. Unamuno's dissertation dealt with the origin and prehistory of his Basque ancestors.
Shaken by the illness and death of his son, Unamuno went in 1896-97 through a religious crisis, which changed his belief in finding a rational explanation of God and meaning in life. From universal philosophical constructions and outer reality, he turned his attention to the individual person, inner spiritual struggles in the face of questions of death and immortality. Unamuno once stated: "Wisdom is to science what death is to life or, if you will, wisdom is to death what science is to life." Seeing that reason leads to despair, Unamuno concluded that one must abandon all pretence of rationalism and embrace faith.
Despite the opposition of the conservatives, Unamuno was
appointed in 1901 rector of the University of Salamance; he held the post intermittently until his death. For the
first time he was relieved of his duties in 1914 due to political
reasons. In 1924, after King Alfonso of Spain was deposed, he was
exiled to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands
for opposing the military dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera. From
the prison of Fuerteventura, where he spent four months, he was
allowed to sailt to Paris.
Unamuno settled into a tiny room in a pension on rue la
Perouse. "Books were piled everywhere," one visitor recalled. "Piles of
them stacked on the hearth reached to the mantelpiece and those on the
mantelpiece reached to the ceiling." Every afternoon Unamuno
walked to the Café Rotonde and met his friends, who included the
filmmaker Luis Buñuel. With their help, an international
attention was created to his exile. Eager to leave Paris, Unamuno then
Hendaye, the French Basque town nearest to the Spanish frontier. He was
escorted there by his friend Eduardo Ortega y Gasset. Politically they
were mismatched. Ortega was a staunch leftist whereas Unamuno was
a convinced Spanish nationalist, though he also attacked both the
Catholic conservative type of mind and the idea of progress.
Unamuno spent in Hendaye
five years. General Rivera died in 1930 and Unamuno returned to the
University of Salamanca, and was reelected rector in 1931. He worked as
professor of the history of the Spanish language, and continued to
criticize both left and right, but in 1936 he was removed once again - this time denouncing Francisco Franco's
Falangists. Unamuno was dismissed as rector and placed under house
arrest. Unamuno died in Salamanca on December 31, 1936, a few months after
the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
Ten weeks before his death, Unamuno had had a dramatic public confrontation with the one-eyed, one-armed José Millán-Astray Terreros, the founder of the Spanish Foreign legion. The incident took place at the University of Salamanca. After a speaker condemned the defenders of the Republic, Basques, and Catalans, Unamuno rose up and protested. During the uproar someone in the audience shouted the unofficial slogan of the Legion, "Viva la muerte!" (Long live death) and Astray continued with "Muerta la inteligencia!" (Death to the intelligentsia)
Unamuno mastered 14 languages. In order to read Kierkegaard in
the original language he learned Danish. Among his major works are Del
sentimiento trágico de la vida en los hombres y en los pueblos
(1913, The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples), an example of his longing to find some assurance of
immortality, Abel Sánchez: Una historia de pasión (1917), a
modern exploration of the Cain-and-Abel theme and the effects of
hatred, El Cristo de Velázquez
(1920, The Christ of Velázquez), meditations on Velázquez's painting in
the Prado,'Cristo crucificado' (1631-1632); Unamuno considered this his
most Catholic work. La agonía del
cristianismo (1925, The Agony of Christianity) came out in French edition before it was
published in Spanish.
Just before the publication of El Cristo de Velázquez,
Unamuno was tried in a Valencian court for publishing articles critical
of the monarchy ('The Arcduke of Spain,' Irresponsibilities,' and 'The
Loneliness of the King'.) He was condemned to sixteen years'
imprisonment and to pay a fine of 1,000 pesetas. At the same time he
was presented in both Bilbao and Madrid as a candidate for the national
Unamuno's highly concentrated poems, written between 1928 and 1936,
were published in Cancienero (1953). As a poet he had little
patience for the rhythm and subtleties of expression. Unamuno's travels
are recorded in Por tierras de Portugal y España (1911) and Andanzas y visiones españolas (1922). The poetic novella Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr (1931, Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr)
focused on a country priest, Don Manuel Bueno, who doesn't believe in
afterlife. Don Manuel continues to take care of his parishioners,
revealing his tragic secret only to a few people before his death. The
story is narrated by a woman, Angela Carballino, who calls Don Manuel
her true spiritual father. "Overall, this is typical Unamuno ambiguity.
The tale is about unbelief, the statements are about unbelief. But
overall is the mood of belief – the old idea that you cannot not
believe unless you first believe." (Robert A. Parker, in A Literary Cavalcade IV, 2013, pp. 234-235).
In Nebla (1914, Mist) Unamuno presents the reader with a multitude of characters in an unnamed town. Unamuno himself takes the role of God - he has created his characters. One of them is Augusto Pérez, a rich young man, who decides to commit suicide. Before killing himself he meets in Salamanca the author, his creator, and realizes that he is a fictive person, a shadow destined to vanish in the mist. Augusto rebels against Unamuno, he wants to live. Shaken, he returns to Madrid and dies there - perhaps by suicide or by overeating or because of disappointment in love.
As an essayist Unamuno's career began in the mid-1880s under the spell of German ideological romanticism and positivism. From this period dates En torno al casticismo (1895), a series of essays, in which he attempted to define Spain's character and its collective psychology. He was briefly interested in Marxism, but by 1917 he became openly anti-Marxist, arguing that progressive social philosophy only took focus away from the true problems of Man's existence. Finally his religious crisis broke his trust in the power of science and progress. According to Unamuno, "It is not our ideas which make us optimists or pessimists, but our optimism and pessimism, derived as much from physiological or perhaps pathological origins, which makes our ideas" (from Del sentimiento trágico de la vida, 1913). Sentimiento (the tragic sense of life), arising from our desire for immortality and from the certainty of death, is no exception although it can be corroborated by rational beliefs. Unamuno's most famous sonnet, 'La oración del ateo' (The Atheist's Prayer), closes with the lines: "Sufro yo a tu costa, / Dios no existente, pues si Tú existieras / existiría yo también de veras." (Because of You I suffer, Inexistent God, since if You existed I too would really exist.)
Unamuno's articles written during the Spanish Republic (1931-36) reveal a liberal, who welcomed secular legislation but yet wished to preserve some traditional religious values. Noteworthy, in Spain patriotism and religion were inseparably linked. Unamuno caused a great stir with his attacks on casticismo, the dominance of the Castilian center over other regions, such as the Basque. He was against bullfights and was often horrified by the devastation he saw imposed by the modern age on the genuine Spanish peasant.
One of Unamuno's most stimulating works is The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho (1905), in which the heroic and tragic knight assumes the virtues of Christ. Quixote is the crystallization of our wish to overcome our destiny. With his unyielding will to create new spiritual values in the world of materialism, Don Quixote finally solves his existentialist quest: "I know who I want to be." In an introductory essay called 'The Sepulchre of Don Quixote,' the Spaniards are asked to find Don Quixote's tomb, and after many wandering, they conclude that there is no tomb, that they must think Don Quixote only as the incarnation of the Spanish mind. Unamuno draws parallels between Don Quixote and the life of the founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola.
Unamuno's thoughts influenced among others the Nobel writer Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958) and Antonio Machado y Ruiz (1874-1947). The English writer Graham Greene said in his book of memoir, Ways of Escape (1980), that he had read Life and Death of Don Quixote and forgotten it, but after publishing the short story 'A Visit to Morin', and later the novel A Burnt-Out Case (1961), he noted that he shared the same distrust of theology. "Faith which does not doubt is dead faith," was Unamuno's argument. And in Ways of Escape Greene stated: "The Catholic solution of our problems, of our unique vital problem of the immortality and eternal salvation of the individual soul, satisfies the will, and therefore satisfies life; but the attempts to rationalize it by means of dogmatic theology fail to satisfy reason. And the reason has its exigencies as imperious as those of life."
Generación del 98: cultural movement, born after the Spanish-American War (1898). In was an attempted to reestablish the lost values of Spanish life through education and through opposition to all forms of provincialism. At the same time the movement embraced Spanish people, medieval and Arab heritage, and sought to introduce modernist influences to literature. Most prominent members of the group were Antonio Machado, Ángel Ganivet y García, Ramon Pérez de Ayala, Jacinto Benavente, Ramon Valle-Inclán, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Pío Baroja, Miguel de Unamuno, and José Martínez Ruiz, who was the first to identify the Generation of '98 as a group..
For further reading: Unamuno by A. Barea (1952); Unamuno, a Philosophy of Tragedy by José Ferrater Mora (1962); The Lone Heretic by M.T. Rudd (1964); En torno Unamuno by M. García Blanco (1965); Miguel de Unamuno by J. Marías (1966); Death in the Literature of Unamuno by M. Valdés (1966); Miguel de Unamuno: The Rhetoric of Existence by Allen Lacy (1967); Miguel de Unamuno by D. Basdekis (1969); Vida de don Miguel by E. Salcedo (1970); Miguel de Unamuno by Martin Nozick (1971); Unamuno Novelist by R.E. Batchelor (1972); Reason Aflame by V. Quimette (1974); Miguel de Unamuno: the Contrary Self by F. Wyers (1976); Miguel de Unamuno: The Agony of Belief by Martin Nozick (1982); The Word in the World by Thomas Franz (1987); The Elusive Self by Gayana Jurkevich (1991); Las máscaras de lo trágico by Pedro Cerezo-Galán (1996); One Hundred Twentieth-Century Philosophers, ed. by Stuart Brown, Diané Collinson, Robert Wilkinson (1998); The Great Chiasmus: Word And Flesh In The Novels Of Unamuno by Paul R. Olson (2003); Unamuno's Paratexts: Twisted Guides to Contorted Narratives by Thomas, R. Franz (2006); Miguel de Unamuno's Quest for Faith: A Kierkegaardian Understanding of Unamuno's Struggle to Believe by Jan E. Evans (2015)