Books: Cultural Amnesia — Miguel de Unamuno |
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Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936) was a Basque, born in Bilbao. From 1891 he was professor of Greek at the University of Salamanca, but his writings and influence extended far beyond the academic world. In 1897 he had a spiritual crisis in which he lost his faith: the most important personal event in his life. From then on, every idea was a new struggle, which he dramatized in his prose, on the principle that his mind was the main character in a drama. With a twenty-year head start on Ortega, Unamuno pre-empted the title of the most style-setting philosopher of modern Spain, although Unamuno’s philosophy was avowedly anchored in a literary context, whereas Ortega prided himself on an apparently broader scope. But Unamuno’s more diffident range gave him a sharper focus. (And his humility gave him a deeper realism: the son of a baker, Unamuno would never have been capable of Ortega’s contempt for the masses.) Unamuno’s sensitivity to what was vital in literature not only allowed him to redirect the traditional evaluation of the literary heritage of the Spanish mainland, it allowed him to detect that it was about to be re-energized by what was happening in the Americas, the key factor in the thrilling story of how the Spanish world, in the twentieth century, came back from the dead. That was the vital analytical breakthrough, which we can now see should be counted as political as well as cultural, because the literary confidence in Latin America was the vehicle, for the countries below the Rio Grande, of a workable nationalism, a connection which the philologist Pedro Henriquez Ureña, one of the men on the spot, was able to establish from direct participation. Unamuno had enough to deal with in the mother country. Of Republican sympathies, he was exiled in 1924 to the island of Fuerteventura. After the founding of the Republic he returned in triumph to Salamanca. His mental independence, however, was incurable. He was soon at odds with the Socialist regime, whose doctrinaire aims and methods, he thought, confused the issue of a nationalist struggle; and he loathed the idea of foreign interference in Spain’s affairs. Since the two biggest totalitarian powers on Earth, at the instigation of the infinitely cynical Franco, were both intent on interfering in Spain with no thought at all to the country’s interests, he was thus in the position of being a witness to a tragedy. Luckily, in December 1936, he died before he could see the worst of it. But he might already have heard the worst. His death from a heart attack was brought on by a confrontation with a fascist general who drove the old professor out of his beloved university at gunpoint. The physical insult might have been bearable but the rhetoric wasn’t. “Death to intelligence!” screamed the general. “And long live Death!” The general was living proof that his two propositions were valid; especially the first one.

* * *

Rather than reading a book in order to criticize it, I would rather criticize it because I have read it, thus paying attention to the subtle yet profound distinction Schopenhauer made between those who think in order to write and those who write because they have thought.


ANYONE WHO HAD ever done any book reviewing will recognize the importance of the distinction Unamuno is making here. For a young writer, being asked to review books is an exciting business. Unless he is an unusually dedicated novelist with a well-organized budget—including, for preference, private means—he will find time to review a book when asked. He will also find that the time can be a dead loss: the book wasn’t worth the effort. He might write a funny piece saying so, and the funny piece might lead him into a useful sideline: but even if for the best, his career will already be distorted. Further down the line, the man of letters who draws his principal income from book reviewing will find himself wasting his main asset. His main asset is to be well read, but if he spends too much time reading secondary books only for the sake of reviewing them, he will be adding little to his initial stock of useful erudition. Worse, he will be adding much that is useless. The activity dilutes itself automatically. In any literary editor’s stable of regular contributors, the man who can be counted on for a thousand words by Friday about absolutely anything is always the most pitiable figure. The deadly combination of facility and impecuniosity did him in. In the 1930s, in Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly had already codified the dangers lurking in Grub Street for the too biddable bookman.

As often occurs, the worst case defines the ideal. Anyone faced with the deadly task of first reading, then writing about, a book he would not ordinarily have read in the first place, is brutally reminded of what he was really born to do: read books that can be felt, from page to page, to do nothing for his wallet but everything for the spirit. (At a publishing house, the best editor is always the one who physically suffers at the thought of how his daily labours are ruining his capacity to read for pleasure.) A good sign is the constantly welling urge to underline, to make notes in the margin, or to sketch a commentary in the endpapers. In the book you are reading now, almost any book mentioned has passed that test. Unamuno’s pages cry out to be defaced. One hesitates, because his books are usually very pretty physically. Invariably published by Aguillar, his early collected editions on thin paper are hard to find now. I found most of mine in two very different Spanish cities: in Madrid, where they cost a bomb in the specialist bookshops, and in Havana, where they can be found on the open-air stalls in the bookshop square. In Havana they cost little but are seldom in good shape. Buying two sets of the essay volumes, one set in each city, I was well equipped to make marks in the damaged volumes and keep the pristine ones for the bookcase. Mine were by no means the first marks Unamuno’s margins had ever received. At his potent best he could put the aphorisms one after the other like the wagons of an American freight train stretching from one prairie railhead to the next.

Unamuno first ambushed me in Mexico City. I had a date with Carlos Fuentes to do an interview. Turning up at his beautiful house, for a while I was alone with his books. The whole of the Spanish literary world was there on the shelves and lying around piled on tables. My eye went straight to an open volume of Unamuno, from which, I guessed, Fuentes was currently reading, because there was a pen beside it on the table. I couldn’t resist taking a peek at what he had underlined, although it felt like snooping. He caught me at it. Slightly embarrassed, I said that he had underlined a lot. He flicked through the book: there seemed to be at least one underlined passage on every page. He said that when reading Unamuno it was rare when he didn’t underline an argument at the point where it was drawn to a conclusion. “Very great Spanish writer. Very great writer in Spanish. Because he was one of the writers who began to give us our sense of the Spanish world. The essay as an art form. Unamuno.”

I think his mention of the hero’s name might have been a gentle corrective to my pronunciation of it, which had been a bit hesitant. (The third syllable should be stressed, but for an English speaker the attraction of the word “unanimous” tends to drag the stress back to the second.) My pronunciation must have been good enough, though, for Fuentes to deduce that I had at least made a beginning on reading his native language. Thus began the kind of conversation that you could have before or after a TV interview but not during it. Nowadays, when I have transferred most of my television interviewing activities to the Internet, those are the conversations that I seek rather than avoid, but in the circumstances it would have been inconceivable to tape a conversation about Rubén Darío, Ortega, Octavio Paz and Unamuno. It would have been inconceivable because it would have been self-defeating. Carlos Fuentes had only one reason for going on television with me in a “Postcard” programme, and the reason was good: he did it to talk simple sense on an elementary subject, the status of his country. There would be a mass English-speaking audience listening: millions of people who would never hear of Unamuno.

But the television programme wouldn’t have happened if there had not been a democratic world, and that was where Unamuno came in. Voices like his had helped to restore the Spanish empire to civilization. Unamuno’s message to a moribund Spain was that Spanish culture was alive in the Americas and would eventually come home. His essays had been worth writing in themselves—there were no utilitarian tests they had to pass, and none they could have passed in the long run if they had been written to short-term utilitarian requirements. But one of their uses had been to stay good. They had provided a measure of intelligence that could be referred to in times of confusion. By his own example, he had proved that Spanish is one of the languages of the modern world. Hence the special pleasure of finding his books in the sunlit marketplace of old Havana. With their gold-stamped spines flaked and crumbling and their onion-skin paper crinkled by the plaster-curdling humidity, they were still too expensive for the few book-lovers left among the local population. Spanish-reading tourists like myself do most of the buying, and I suppose that in the course of time almost every Aguillar edition that has ever gone into the marketplace has been taken back to Spain, where it was first printed. But some of the people who had first read the books were probably still alive somewhere. Perhaps a few of them were still in Cuba: not every bibliophile had taken to the rafts. Almost all of them had underlined something. Underlining means the determination to remember. The determination usually fades faster than the marks of the pen or even of the pencil, but the intention was good. All the readers had participated with the writer in the tradition of tolerant, receptive sense he had helped to found: a tradition which had made the critical essay part of the wealth of the modern Spanish language—the true and worthwhile residue of the Spanish empire, as the English language is of the British.

The eternal, not the modern, is what I love: the modern will be antiquated and grotesque in ten years, when the fashion passes.

Unamuno, like Croce, was a critical writer with an instinctive grasp of how the sublimities of the arts he loved were rooted in the mundane. In his time, the febrile Spanish literature of the mainland, as opposed to the burgeoning Spanish-language literature of the Americas, suffered badly from the aestheticist belief that a high calling required a high treatment of (the fatal step) a high subject. In a magnificent linked series of critical essays, he laid out an aesthetic principle that would counter the final mutation of that belief into modernismo—which was merely the latest version of the assumption that the right elevated artistic attitude would bring automatic results.

The quoted passage makes more sense when we trace what he meant by eternismo, the eternal. He didn’t mean an appeal to transcendental values: he meant attention to the profane reality that is always there. On the same page (once again a great book has a great page) he wrote that the universal is in the guts of the local and circumscribed, and that the eternal is in the guts of the temporal and evanescent. Entranos could be more decently translated as “entrails” or “bowels,” but I think he meant to be arrestingly earthy. (Memo to myself and younger readers: all guesses about tone in a foreign language should be checked with someone who speaks it for a living.) Two pages later, he glossed universalidad. “Universality, yes: but the rich universality of integration, brewed from the concourse and shock of differences.” Or to put it another way: not the universality of abstract ambition.

Unamuno took his concern with concrete reality all the way to the basement, in the artist’s personality. He didn’t think it could be left behind any more than a bird could spurn the air. What Unamuno says—more than a thousand pages into the same rich volume—can be borne in mind when we remember Eliot talking about the artist’s striving after an ideal state of impersonality. Unamuno had already said that there could be no choice involved. A true artist, he wrote, puts in his personality even when he most wants to conceal it. Unamuno said that with Flaubert you can see his personality even in his last novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, which is all about clichés and pedantry. Unamuno meant that Flaubert, uniquely alert to language, could not create the character of a pedant without incorporating into the character the pedant within himself. The best writers contain within their souls all the characters they will ever create on the page; and those characters have always been there, throughout history; so the writer, no matter how modern he thinks he is, deals always and only in eternity.