The Private World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

This book may be mistitled, Miguel de Unamuno did not make any distinction between his private and public worlds. He joined a handful of other philosophers, including Saint Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and Søren Kierkegaard, in maintaining that an understanding of an author’s personal history is indispensable to an understanding of that author’s work. As he says in his introduction to Del sentimiento trágico de la vida en los hombres y en los pueblos (1913; The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Peoples, 1921):In most of the histories of philosophy that I know,philosophic systems are presented to us as if growing out of one another spontaneously, and their authors, the philosophers, appear as mere pretexts. The inner biography of the philosophers, the men who philosophized, is assigned a secondary place. And yet it is precisely that inner biography which can mean most to us.

The Diario íntimo constitutes a part of the author’s “inner biography.” Its themes will be familiar to those who know Unamuno’s philosophical works; nevertheless, the book illuminates a five-year period during which Unamuno endured an intense spiritual crisis.

This crisis was precipitated by the severe illness of his third son, Raimundo. In November, 1896, Raimundo, age ten months, contracted acute meningitis. The disease left the child hydrocephalic, partially paralyzed, and virtually unconscious until he died in 1902. At the onset of his son’s illness, Unamuno fell into a deep depression and began to fear for his physical and mental health. One night in march, 1897, his wife awoke to find Unamuno weeping. To comfort him, she spoke two words—“My child!”—that were to have a profound effect on the course of his life and thought.

Raimundo’s illness was only the catalyst for a spiritual crisis that had been building in Unamuno for years. Apparently he found in his wife’s words the beginnings of a resolution for both the immediate and the long-term crisis.

The latter, a crisis of faith dating in a sense from Unamuno’s own childhood, is another part of his “inner biography.” His devoutly religious parents had raised him as a Roman Catholic; as a youth he often dreamed of becoming a saint. In his adolescence, however, he developed an intense interest in rationalistic philosophy that in time led him to abandon the faith of his family. Orthodox philosophers, such as the Catholic apologist Jaime Balmes, who had previously fascinated him, came to seem intellectually shallow and narrowly dogmatic. Later, at the University of Madrid, where he arrived in 1880 at age sixteen, he stopped attending Mass and began avidly reading works of positivistic philosophy and physiological psychology. (He also began his lifelong practice of learning foreign languages in order to read authors in the original: German for Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, English for Herbert Spencer and Thomas Carlyle. At age twenty, he knew eleven languages. Twenty years later, he taught himself Danish so that he could read Kierkegaard.)

By the time he was graduated in 1884, Unamuno appeared almost totally committed to positivism. His doctoral thesis was a pioneering effort to apply scientific method to the question of the origin and history of the Basque people. (He had been born in Bilbao, in Spain’s Basque country.) He denounced all previous treatments for their failure, in his opinion, to define the Basque question with sufficient clarity. As further evidence of his predilections during this period, there is a scrap of manuscript in which he wrote, “Seek the kingdom of science and its righteousness, and all the rest will be added unto you.”

Unamuno, however, never disposed of the religious-scientific conflict in the fashion that many other people do—that is, by coming down squarely and permanently on one side or the other. By the late 1880’s, he had begun to encounter problems that neither rationalistic philosophy nor orthodox faith could resolve. For example, he wrote to his then fiancée, Concepción Lizárraga, about a dream that turned out to have been prophetic: “I dreamed that I was married, that I had a child, that this child died, and that over its body, which seemed to be made of wax, I said to my wife: ’Behold our love! Shortly it will decay: this is the way everything ends.’” This presented a question particularly disturbing to a person deeply concerned with words and their import: How does one committed to the concrete language of science and positivism express what is significant about a tragedy that besets a loved one? Unamuno was still confronting limitations such as this more than seven years later, when illness struck Raimundo and the strange dream became a reality.

It was at this point—1897—that Unamuno began the Diario íntimo. Both this journal and a handful of his letters bear evidence that Concepción’s words—“My child!”—eventually induced her husband to identify her with Mary and to see himself as symbolically her child and as literally a child of God. This was to open the door for him to view Christian faith in a new and wholly personal way. The diary, for example, contains many references to “Padre nuestro” (“Our Father”) and meditations on Mary, “the node of Christian life.”

Unamuno’s initial impulse, however, was not to embrace any such organic concept of Christianity but to retake his childhood faith by storm. Although...

(The entire section is 2239 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Library Journal. CX, May 1, 1985, p. 57.