Article abstract: Unamuno, an existentialist, described his struggle for faith and longing for immortality in his poetry, novels, drama, cultural criticism, and philosophy. He depicted a world in which people’s desire for meaning and faith comes into conflict with science and rationality.
Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo was born September 29, 1864, in Bilbao, Spain, the first son and third of the six children of Félix de Unamuno and Salomé de Jugo. His father had gone to Mexico as a young man, accumulated some money, and then returned to marry his much younger niece, Salomé. He had also acquired several hundred books on philosophy, history, and the physical and social sciences, which helped form his son’s mind. From an early age, death preoccupied Miguel. His father, two of Miguel’s sisters, and a school friend died by 1873, producing fear in the young boy. Unamuno’s struggle to accept his own mortality became one of the major themes of his religious, philosophical, and literary work.
Miguel completed a traditional Catholic secondary education at sixteen and then was enrolled in the Central University of Madrid, torn between his love for his childhood sweetheart, Concepción (“Concha”) Lizárraga, and a mystical belief that God wanted him to become a priest. Fascinated with language since listening to his father talk with a man in French, Unamuno wrote his doctoral dissertation on the origins and prehistory of the Basque race. In Madrid, he applied reason to his religious faith and lost his faith. He struggled for the remainder of his life to overcome his doubt. After receiving his doctorate in 1884, he returned to Bilbao, competed for a university teaching position, taught private classes, and wrote for local periodicals. Impatient to wait until securing a permanent teaching position, he married Concha on January 31, 1891, and, under the influence of his wife and his mother, began religious observance again. In 1891, he also won a competition for the chair in Greek language and literature at the University of Salamanca.
In the provincial university town of twenty-three thousand, with the faded glory of its medieval university and magnificent, café-lined central plaza, Unamuno found the tranquillity to read voraciously and widely, ponder the human condition, write insatiably, and rear his family. Yet he soon lost interest in teaching Greek: Given the desperate problems facing Spain, he decided that the nation really did not need more Hellenists. Although he conscientiously met his pedagogical responsibilities, Unamuno devoted the rest of his time to writing novels, poetry, and essays intended to illuminate the solution to Spain’s problems and his own concerns about the human condition. He also associated himself with Spanish socialism, believing it offered the best hope of liberty through a religion of humanity, but refused to join the party. In fact, his interest in socialism was primarily religious and ethical; Unamuno in his heart was an anarchist.
Transcendental questions troubled Unamuno. In 1896, Raimundo Jenaro, the third of his nine children, was born, but shortly after birth the infant contracted meningitis, which produced fatal encephalitis, although the child lingered until 1902. His child’s condition agonized Unamuno. Why was God punishing an innocent child? Was it because of Unamuno’s own sins, perhaps for having abandoned his Catholic faith? He was desperate for consolation, spent days in meditation and prayer, yet remained anguished. God did not answer, and Unamuno was obsessed with suicide and beset with angina, insomnia, and depression. Not only was reason unable to bring him to a knowledge of God, but it told him that God did not exist, that death brought the finality of nothingness. Yet Unamuno’s despair at the inevitability of death forced him to hope and led him to the paradoxical solution of creating God for himself through his own faith. When he began reading the works of Søren Kierkegaard in 1900, he discovered a kindred being, although Unamuno had already developed the fundamentals of his own thought.
Meanwhile, Unamuno poured forth articles for Spanish and Latin American periodicals, as well as novels, plays, and criticism to supplement his meager academic salary. In 1895, he published a series of essays, later reedited as En torno al casticismo, which urged a return to the bedrock of tradition, to the study of the Spanish people, as the first step in confronting the nation’s decadence. Peace in War, sometimes called the first existentialist novel, reflected his experiences during the Carlist siege of Bilbao (1874-1876). Two plays, La esfinge and La venda, and an analysis of Spanish higher education, De la enseñanza superior en España, soon followed, as did Nicodemo el fariseo, which used Saint John’s account of Nicodemus’s meeting with Christ as a dramatic vehicle for stating the basic theme of all his remaining work: human beings’ desire for God and their existential will to believe.
In 1900, Unamuno became rector of the university, despite opposition from conservatives who disliked the outsider from Bilbao for his socialist rhetoric and his unorthodox religious views. On taking office, he appointed himself to a new chair of the history of the Spanish language, declared that Spain was ready to be discovered, and urged that the students study popular culture. Dressed idiosyncratically in his...
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