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Tragic Sense of Life by Miguel de Unamuno
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May 05, 11

bookshelves: philosophy
Recommended for: atheists and agnostics
Read from March 13 to May 05, 2011, read count: 1

The first half (until he warns you that he's about to go off the deep end) is one of the best books I've ever read. The second half is almost postmodern in its imbecility.

Heretical, placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, but still an exhilirating read by a powerful writer whose mind was fixed only on the most important questions--that of God and of death.

Unamuno is classed with the Generation of 98, but I think he is spiritually closer to the postwar existentialists, Camus, Sartre, and Heidegger, (1) because he deals only with questions from the perspective of a mortal man and does not attempt like a Hegel to become an omniscient god via science/philosophy; (2) because he deals primarily with the extreme situations of life; (3) because he is unashamedly emotional; (4) because they stole his ideas and secularized them.

Unamuno's main point, which I would like to distinguish from other tragic views of life, is that in every man--he rejects such abstractions as "humanity" or "mankind," like Nietzsche (to whom he and the above men--and, incidentally, me--were heavily indebted), since the only men that are real are men of "carne y hueso"--feels in himself the desire for eternal life and knows that he must die. This is the tension of all existence; it is death that gives meaning to time and temporality, to all our actions, decisions, and our loves.

Unamuno errs all over the place (like all of the above men), but is still fun to read (like all of the above men except me). His outlook reminds me of Hemingway, his style just as masculine, displaying, as his translator puts it, "a contempt for form and grace." Unamuno was a Basque, a people which fascinated Hemingway and made up the characters in the middle section of The Sun Also Rises. They are notoriously tall (like Unamuno), strong (check) people from the mountains who hate grandiloquence (also check). Unamuno aggressively seeks out the harsh truths, the brutal ones; his is a very Basque sensibility in contrast to the Latin/Roman prettiness of the Costa del Sol.

Unamuno's chief error is fideism. Because one's reason is incapable of finding God, one must "create God." This is his chief heresy which leads to all his other errors, one crystallized in San Manuel [coincidence anyone?] Bueno, Martir, his fiction masterpiece, in which a priest pretends to still believe in Catholicism for the sake of his parishioners.

Unamuno's hunger for God will never be satisfied, since he cannot find God. Camus calls this the problem of Absurdity, and was the main point of his entire writing career. Camus found himself in the same situation as Unamuno, caught between two irreconcilibles. Sartre recognized in himself a "God-shaped hole" but blamed it on fifteen hundred years of Christian civilization, from which he claimed to have inherited it. Whereas Camus found his reasoning about God inconclusive, Sartre rejected God outright because God's existence would diminish his freedom, and proceeded from there.

So Unamuno is more closely related to Camus than anyone. Camus, though, reaches radically different conclusions. Whereas Unamuno rightly figures out that life is not worth living if God does not exist; Camus cops out and says that to commit suicide would be giving in to absurdity, even though elsewhere Camus admits (and even wrote the Stranger based on this idea) that if there is no God then we cannot say for sure what is good or bad. Unamuno thinks we must just throw ourselves at God's feet, and if we die and sleep forever, we have lost nothing. Pascal's influence is obvious.

Of course St. Augustine is also relevant to the topic, as Unamuno agrees to about half of Augustine's argument from desire ("All innate desires have objects; man innately desires God; God exists."), agreeing that it is quite curious that we want what we cannot have.

I'd like to mention Schopenhauer too. Schopenhauer profoundly concludes that life is not worth living, that we should never have been born, because (1) our desires are irrational (who would do something as unsanitary as have sex if we didn't have a biological drive to do it?) and (2) cannot be satisfied except by death. We are in a perpetual state of desire-torture, such as Gautama realized. The Buddha was right, except that there is no reincarnation.

Unamuno is right to keep reason within the bounds of life and not try to contain life within reason, but he despairs of reason, something which is by definition unreasonable and therefore untenable. It is inspiring to read this tall, mighty man bearing his emotions, passions, fears to the world, but, as Bertrand Russell said of the existentialists, it devolves into psychology, rather than philosophy.

Which reminds me of Kierkegaard, who faced the same dilemma and reached many of the same conclusions: if science makes you doubt God, throw out science. Why is it that I never hear Unamuno classed as an existentialist?

I'd also like to make mention of another "tragic view of life" with which it might be easy to confuse Unamuno's conception. Walter Kaufmann claimed to have detected in the Greeks, especially Homer, in Shakespeare, Goethe, and others, a view of life as tragic resulting from the following conceptions: (1) man is the measure of all things, the paragon of animals, etc. (2) not only do all men die but human civilization is going to die and someday there will be no value-makers (as Nietzsche puts it, though he believed in eternal recurrence). It is tragic because it is the downfall of something great into something weak, just as Oedipus starts off as King and ends up blind and without a crown; though it may just as well be referred to as an elegiac view, in my opinion. The conspicuous proof of it is that none of the great tragedians (or even theoreticians of tragedy) have been Christians, at least not particularly religious ones--O'Neill, Nietzsche, Shakespeare (who else, writing in Elizabethan times, would write so little about Christ or about the Reformation?), Sophocles, Beckett, and so on. Christian writers are more disposed to comedy, as the Christian view of life is a comic one--that of a low being (fallen and sinful man) rising to great heights. There are far more great comedians in Heaven than tragedians--Flannery O'Connor, Swift, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Burgess, GK Chesterton, etc.

I agree with Unamuno that life would not be worth living without God [in fact, what I found so exhilirating about this book was finding so many things I realized around age 18 and 19. I always love discovering some spiritual sibling in the long dead past.], and that Schopenhauer would in fact be right in that case. Schopenhauer's gloss of Hamlet in the World as Will and Representation is enlightening:

"Every one who has awakened from the first dream of youth, who has considered his own experience and that of others, who has studied him self in life, in the history of the past and of his own time, and finally in the works of the great poets, will, if his judgment is not paralysed by some indelibly imprinted prejudice, certainly arrive at the conclusion that this human world is the kingdom of chance and error, which rule with out mercy in great things and in small, and along with which folly and wickedness also wield the scourge. Hence it arises that everything better only struggles through with difficulty; what is noble and wise seldom attains to expression, becomes effective and claims attention, but the absurd and the perverse in the sphere of thought, the dull and tasteless in the sphere of art, the wicked and deceitful in the sphere of action, really assert a supremacy, only disturbed by short interruptions. On the other hand, everything that is excellent is always a mere exception, one case of millions, and therefore, if it presents itself in a lasting work, this, when it has outlived the enmity of its contemporaries, exists in isolation, is preserved like a meteoric stone, sprung from an order of things different from that which prevails here. But as far as the life of the individual is concerned, every biography is the history of suffering, for every life is, as a rule, a continual series of great and small misfortunes, which each one conceals as much as possible, because he knows that others con seldom feel sympathy or compassion, but almost always satisfaction at the sight of the woes from which they are themselves for the moment exempt. But perhaps at the end of life, if a man is sincere and in full possession of his faculties, he will never wish to have it to live over again, but rather than this, he will much prefer absolute annihilation. The essential content of the famous soliloquy in " Hamlet " is briefly thisOur state is so wretched that absolute annihilation would be decidedly preferable. If suicide really offered us this, so that the alternative " to be or not to be," in the full sense of the word, was placed before us, then it would be unconditionally to be chosen as " a consummation devoutly to be wished." But there is something in us which tells us that this is not the case : suicide is not the end ; death is not absolute annihilation. In like manner, what was said by the father of history has not since him been contradicted, that no man has ever lived who has not wished more than once that he had not to live the following day." (Book IV)

[By the way, Bertrand Russell thought Schopenhauer had a mental disorder.]

Schopenhauer, way ahead of his time, antedating Darwin, argues that if we could really see the world for what it is, which our stupidity and physical weakness prevents us from doing (for example, we can only see ROYGBIV), we would kill ourselves because we would see that it is all Becoming and dying, that nothing Is and everything is changing. So it is our stupidity, our epistemic horizon, if you will, which sets us free, he argues. If we could know everything, we would be determinists, but since we know very little, we feel ourselves to have free will. Ignorance is freedom; ignorance is bliss.

Unamuno sees that this view is unbearable (and I haven't even got into Nietzsche and the acid bath of all morality) and that man NEEDS God. Which he does.
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