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The Ideas of Unamuno

December 10th, 2007

Miguel de Unamuno was a 20th century Spanish philosopher who used fiction to elucidate his philosophy. In other words, like Erin and I, he was a writer from ideas. Also his last name is a hell of a lot of fun to say.

Strictly speaking, nothing Unamuno wrote can quite be classified as genre, but the fact that so much of his fiction takes the form of parable, engaging its ideas with such inexorable passion as to alter the world-view of the reader, to my mind makes it kindred with the political idea-SF of people like Heinlein and Le Guin as well as with the surrealism of Kafka and certain aspects of proto-magic-realist writers like Borges and Bioy Casares.

Unamuno was a rationalist, an individualist and an optimist, someone who believed in the transformative power of conviction without actually accepting as his own any proscribed conviction—be it religious, political or philosophical. His prose often gives the effect of immersion in a mind so eloquently preoccupied, even obsessed, by the ideas of the story, that any external element of the world in which this mind exists can come only as a distant rapping at a windowpane, evocative of some new iteration of thought. His stories take the form of assaults against dogma, yet his characters seem to end as much destroyed by that dogma as they are triumphant over it—managing to leave me feeling bleak and reassured at the same time. I can’t tell anymore if Unamuno’s world-view naturally coincides with my own, or if his eloquence has altered my view to match his. Either way, there’s something here to be learned.

I earn my living as conscientiously as I can, and, once my living is made, I do with my life what I want, and not what these louts want me to do. You can’t imagine what profound misery of a moral sort there is in the attempt, which so many people make, to confine everybody to a specialty. For my part, I find a tremendous advantage in living from one activity and for another…. You probably don’t need to be reminded of Schopenhauer’s justified denunciation of professional philosophers and busybodies.

—from “The Madness of Doctor Montarco”, in which the title character works for a living as a doctor healing the sick, but works for himself as a writer of fiction, and is driven mad by the expectations of society.

Would that I had never lived! I say with Cain. Why was I created? Why must I live? What I do not understand is why Cain did not choose suicide. That would have been the most noble beginning for the human race. But then, why didn’t Adam and Eve kill themselves after the fall and before they gave birth to children? Ah, perhaps because Jehovah would have created other beings such as they, another Cain and another Abel? Isn’t this same tragedy perhaps repeated in other worlds, up there among the stars?
Perhaps the tragedy has been performed elsewhere, the first-night performance on earth not having quite sufficed. Was it opening night, after all?

—from Abel Sanchez, a retelling of the Cain and Able parable, in which Cain is redeemed.

As we reached the section “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh and life everlasting,” the voice of Don Manuel was submerged, drowned in the voice of the populace as in a lake. In truth, he was silent. And I could hear the bells of that city which is said hereabouts to be at the bottom of the lake—bells which are also said to be audible on Midsummer’s Night—the bells of the city which is submerged in the spiritual lake of our populace; I was hearing the voice of our dead, resurrected in us by the communion of saints. Later whan I had learned the secret of our saint, I understood that it was as if a caravan crossing the desert lost its leader as they approached the goal of their trek, whereupon his people lifted him on their shoulders to bring his lifeless body into the promised land.

—from “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr”, in which a selfless priest receives beatification in spite of the fact that he has no faith.

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