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A masterful impersonationfirst-rate writing by

any standard. Think Magazine

Feeling into Miguel de Unamuno

a fictional remembrance by D. Lszl Conhaim

[Company Name]
Feeling into Miguel de Unamuno
D. Lszl Conhaim
Originally published in:

In this fictional essay, a maverick academic, Dr.

Vctor M. Carrasco Villa de Segovia, remembers:
Miguel de Unamuno, agonizing ideoclast
His phantom Generation of 1898
General Milln Astray, disfigured fascist
Unamunos novel Saint Manuel the Goodor the Gay?

Salamanca, Spain, September 1998

One morning in July the phone rang here in Salamanca, always a welcome event at my age.
The caller, after exclaiming a facile Buenos dias! in his youthful North American voice,
took a moment to conceive his next phrase in Spanishor was it to gather his courage? At
last he said, May I speak to Professor Carrasco, please. Just who was this stranger? Those
of my generation begin by identifying themselves. Unfairly, I chirped back, This is
Professor Carrasco Please. Another pause. Then, meekly, the caller asked if we could speak
in English instead. Delighted with the opportunity to tap my vast memory for traces of his
tongue, I consented. Now introducing himself as an editor of this publication, he explained
that he was gathering contributions for an issue commemorating the centenary of my
countrys Generation of 1898. He was aware ofif not at all versed inmy voluminous
interpretation of this literature, found only in better libraries. Although I retired
fromeverythingyears ago, I was intrigued by the sudden opportunity to introduce authors
largely unknown outside Spain to readers of a foreign literary journal. I owed my present
notoriety to the University of Salamancas vice-President, Emilio Cascos, a former student of
mine. The two had met at a lecture on the Generation the previous afternoon in Madrid, one
of many being held across Spain this year. Emilio had gone so far as to promise the editor,
who was visiting as a tourist, my solemn audience at the University the following week.

The restaurant where the lecture took place had been popular with fascists back in my
student days. In fact, one of its patrons from that tumultuous period will cast his grotesque
shadow on this story: General Jos Milln Astray, veteran of our unfortunate wars in Africa
and founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion.1 By the 1930s Milln Astray possessed only one
eye and one arm. As president of the association of war-wounded, he would call out to his
fellow cripples, A m, mutilados!and they would cheer, raising their canes and crutches.
His remaining hand retained enough fingers to draw his sidearm, which he liked to fire into
the air for emphasis.
Milln Astray professed a hatred of the intelligentsia, or rather of intelligence itself.
Death to intelligence! was one of his famous battle cries.2 When his tongue lashed out at
free thinkers (or subversivos, as theywewere affectionately called) his venom could be
deadly. Nevertheless, there was a theatrical quality to his remarks which never ceases to
amuse one who has survived him by a half-century. Another notable line went, When I hear
the word culture, I reach for my gun! A closet intellectual, he had lifted it from a German
In Madrid, the North American had also learned from Emilio that I happen to be the sole
surviving student of perhaps the greatest man of letters of those times, Don Miguel de
Unamuno, whose fatal confrontation with Milln Astray I will not neglect.4 Needless to say,
any explanation of the Generation of 98 wouldwillemphasize the flesh and bone
Unamuno whom I alone among living critics can recall. Don Miguel was my countrys
prophet of beliefless faith,5 the author of such monumental meditations as The Life of Don
Quijote and Sancho (1905), The Tragic Sense of Life (1913), and The Agony of Christianity
(1925)each a distinct investigation of our lifelong battle against destiny without hope of
victoryto say nothing of his novels of which Saint Manuel the Good, Martyr (1930) will be
given special attention in this remembrance.6 He was also Rector of the University of
Salamanca and to so many of us an inspiring and beloved teacher and mentor.

* * *
The sun sets in a clear sky. Salamancas amber stone turns gold. I am encouraged by my
blood pressure, just checked, to write through the night, as I did so often in my youth when a
paper was due my saint. By contrast tonights effort explores not the injustice of Nothing for
Don Miguel, but for perhaps the last time Don Miguel for everything, for posterity. In my
eighty-sixth year I confess an eagerness to ink my quill again in the interests of todays
youth, whose minds, if properly filled, maintain the past as presentmercifully reinventing
it, feeling into itso that future memory outside Spain of Miguel de Unamuno is not simply
the present daydream of an ancient literary historian.7

General Jos Milln Astray y Terreros (1879-1954) founded El Tercio, the closest thing Spain ever had to a
Marine Corps, in 1920.
Viva la Muerte! or Long live Death! was another. I never understood that one but it was catchy with
Spanish fascists around 1936.
Hanns Johsts Schlageter (1933).
Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (1864-1936).
Fe sin creencia or faith without belief: if we recognize that God might not exist we must reinforce our
faith in Him.
The Bueno in the title San Manuel Bueno, mrtir would mean the good in Spanish if it were in lower case:
I have chosen to translate it here as if it were: the novel is published in English by Princeton University Press as
San Manuel Bueno, Mrtir.
It will surprise Spanish readers that Unamuno and most of his contemporaries are practically forgotten in the
United Statesif they were ever really known there. Princeton University Press has generously kept Unamuno
on life support in fine translations by Anthony Kerrigan but Po Baroja and Ramn del Valle-Incln, I am told

* * *
When he was my student, Emilio Cascos stood eye to eye with me. Today he stoops to my
withered frame to converse, straining his neck, and leaving minealways stiffat ease, if
that is really possible. I aid him somewhat by lifting my eyes rather than staring into the
distance, longing for freedom, as I used to do when he would belabor some minor point after
class. I am relieved that, unlike so many of the young who reckon that a man grey and frail
must think as slowly as he creeps along, Emilio speaks quickly to me. But he speaks too
loudly, and I am not going deaf. Arm in arm we shuffledhe with admirable patiencefrom
the caf below my flat on the Plaza Mayor to the portal of the Old University. The sky was
cloudless dark blue. Intricate sculpture adorns the gate and square. What has become the
popular emblem of Salamancaa skull with a frog perched on itis hidden among the
figures in the stone faade above the iron doors; and among those in the crenellated bastion
of an adjacent building one can discern a male figurine masturbating. As tourists try to spot
the frog I point out the onanist.
The young editor drove up from Madrid in a friends car and found his way to the
square. His command of Spanish was indeed weaker than his North American accent; but I
already knew from our phone conversation that his interest in the Generation of 98 was
genuine. After introducing us, Emilio challenged him to find the frog; a pointing tourist made
it easy for him. I then pivoted to the right on my walking stick and drew his attention to the
Unamuno left us with numerous sketches of the frog but none of the wanker.
My new editor was intrigued to learn about Don Miguels habits and idiosyncrasies from
anecdotes I related in Englishregrettably the language in which he has experienced our
authors in mostly out-of-print volumes. Don Quijote himself observed that reading a
translation is like seeing a Flemish tapestry from the back side. Fortunately Unamunos
straight-forward style suffers less than, say, his contemporary Ramn del Valle-Incln, whose
ingenious elastic prose sensitively translated still comes out like champagne gone flat. 8
I learned of Unamunos knowledge of English in particularly dramatic fashion. One day
he was lecturing about how Hamlet created Shakespeare and sustained him for posterity,
since Shakespeare comes to us through Hamlet, just as Don Quijote is more real to us than
Cervantes. The argument is one for the ages, and never has it been treated more profoundly
than in Unamunos own nivola, Mist (1914),9 in which Augusto Prez damns his author to
a mortal death, asserts his own immortality, and so on. But our class was made restless each
time Don Miguel pronounced Shakespeare as if it was a Spanish namethat is, Shah-keh-
spey-ahrey. Finally, I raised my hand: Forgive me, master, but I always thought the name
was pronounced Shakespeare. A long silent moment passed, broken by someones giggle.
Don Miguel cleared his throat. I had fallen into his myth-making trap. Deferring to

by foreign colleagues, are confined to the far reaches of the stacks. At a reception last year I proposed to a
former Minister of Culture, once my pupil, that the Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores subsidize modern
translations of our 20th-century classics as bait for publishers in the United States. I was laughed at. Who cares
about North America when we have all of South America! he countered. I pointed out that South America has
not been ours for ages and that it was arrogance like his that lost us our empire. He withdrew to hunt down a
fresh drink.
Tony Zahareass translations of Valle-Incln are admirable but the Cervantes observation, above, holds true. It
is to Valle-Inclns credit that his magnificent prose style defies translation.
From the publication of Mist, Unamuno, ever averse to conventional labels, called his novels nivolas, texts
which in one or another way challenge the narrative authority of their author. For a longer explanation of the
nivola and Unamunos motives, see my Viva yo!: una explicacin de la Nivola de Miguel de Unamuno,
University of Salamanca Press, 1951.

correction is an expression of ones own sound judgment, he replied, paraphrasing Marcus
Aurelius. He then continued his lecture in English, pronouncing Shakespeare correctly
throughout. For this unwitting contribution to Unamunos legend, I am perhaps fated to be
remembered as an imbecile.
Needless to say, mythomania was a common characteristic among literary giants when
writers were the worlds stars; nowadays mediocre movie actors and singers of popular music
who cannot sustain themselves with talent alone aggressively build their own myths or
engage others to build them.

* * *
Emilio showed us up the street to the Casa Museo Unamuno, closed then to the public for
minor renovations. After checking that the stairwell scaffolding had been removed for our
visit, he activated the lights and left us alone to enter the time machine.
Climbing the steep staircase to Don Miguels home, my editors hand tucked firmly
under my elbow, I was suddenly seized by a sense of nostalgia for my teacher. With his big-
blinking inquisitive eyes, hooked nose, spade-shaped white beard, Unamunoto agree with
Bagarias caricaturelooked a cross between an owl and our collective idea of Don Quijote.
In spirit he was also very close to the Knight of the Rueful Countenance. Don Miguels futile
defiance of the boundaries imposed upon man, born to die, by the eternal mystery was
nothing less than quixotic: To live life voluptuously as if free, to live it rebelliously as if
imprisoned, he once told me, is Mans condition. Love, meanwhile, his sole medicine
against death, is consolation in desolation. He saw our lord Quijote as symbolic of Mans
search for meaning, a symbol not of the idealistfor Don Quijote did not crusade for ideas
but of the spiritualist because he fought for the spirit. And so diddoesDon Miguel.
With keys entrusted to me by Emilio, I unlocked the door to Unamunos home and felt
instantly like a trespasser, as if we had gained entrance while the couple was away. How
often in my youth had his wife, Concha, greeted me in that same austere foyer. Now all was
still, seemingly unchanged, thanks to restoration. We stepped deeper inside. In Don Miguels
study, the carpets musty scent evoked the memory of tertulias [intellectual salonsEd]. The
sight of his books, the very same books, brought back the rough feel of his tweed jacket
sleeve. The voices from outside somehow made me recall the taste of my salty lips when I, a
student, cast my gaze on the balcony here to witness my mentors blasting condemnation of
the nationalists.10
Before he died brokenhearted and, to his detractors, disgraced in 1936, Unamuno was
Professor of Philology and Greek and three times Rector of the University. Appointed twice
to the position, he had been deposed by the dictator Primo de Rivera while lecturing in class
one morning, only to restore himself to the post after Riveras fall with the words, As I was
saying yesterday....11
Another story springs to mind: Alfonso XIII, who had once confined Unamuno within
After he turned away from Francos side in the civil war, he explained himself to the Portuguese newspaper
Diario de Noticias: When the army revolted against the ghost government of Madrid I gave it my full
sympathy, hoping it would save Spain and its Christian civilization...I soon realized, however, with the greatest
sorrow that this struggle, which had been inspired by high motives, had developed into a class war, full of
horrors...and attempting to win full supremacy is the falange espaolaItalian fascism badly translated into
This was an allusion to the writer-scholar Luis Leons words upon his return to the University of Salamanca
in 1576 after imprisonment by the Inquisition: As I was saying last time.... Unamuno was exiled to
Fuerteventura, a Canary Island; he was rescued by a yacht hired by the French newspaper Le Quotidien and
brought to France where he stayed until Primo de Riveras fall in 1930. I saw him for the first time when he
arrived in Salamanca on 11 February to resume his chair; fourteen months later he was Rector again.

Salamancas city limits as punishment for an article he published condemning the monarchy,
later invited him to Madrid to receive a medal for his service to Spain. In the Royal Palace,
Don Miguel accepted the medal admitting that he deserved it. When the king remarked,
Other recipients of the cross all assured me that they did not deserve it, my master
responded, They were right.
It was in his salon during the short, chaotic life of the Republic that the most important
Spaniard of my youthiconoclast, ideoclastwould delight his most esteemed students in
paradox. Don Miguel was infamous for his distrust of ideas, passionately contradicting his
own previously stated convictions depending upon his mood, his company, or the political
climate: at first, disgusted by the regime of the Republic, he was for the fascists; then, and
until the endso quickly at handhe was a republican sympathizer.12 He once said, My
painful duty is to irritate people. We must sow in men the seeds of doubt, of distrust, of
disquiet, and even of despair.
As if displaying the contents of a treasure chest, I showed the editor around Don
Miguels bright and airy study. Sixty-two years after my classmates and I had anxiously
gathered here about our condemned hero while our country fell apart, this young North
American, at centurys end, peered awestruck at the display of Unamunos first editions,
manuscripts, awards, medallions, sketches, and the bird-like figurines he habitually fashioned
from paper.13
I too am being shown the past: Ive gone back to what Unamunos contemporaries wrote
about him, and found that his standing as the writer who most embodied the national
character was widely acknowledged in his own lifetime. Salvador Madariaga, for example,
called him the greatest literary figure of Spain, a supreme honor indeed given the eras
richness in whole men of lettersthe Generation of 98s politico-literary advocates who
today inhabit the pantheon just below Cervantes and Lope de Vega. Madariaga went on to
write, Baroja may surpass him in variety of external experience, Azorn in delicate art,
Ortega y Gasset in philosophical subtlety, Ayala in intellectual elegance, Valle-Incln in
rhythmical grace...but Unamuno is head and shoulders above them all in the highness of his
purpose and in the earnestness and loyalty with which, like Quijote, he has served all through
his life his unattainable Dulcinea. [Unamuno] incarnates the spirit of modern Spain.
To Count Keyserling in his book Europe, he was the living Spaniard of most
importance to Europe...probably the most important Spaniard that has ever lived since Goya.
But I am missing my role here, which is to inform not panegyrize.14

There is no tyranny in the world more hateful than that of ideas, Unamuno wrote during that turbulent time.
Ideas bring ideophobia, and the consequence is that people begin to persecute their neighbors in the name of
ideas. I loathe and detest all labels, and the only label that I could now tolerate would be that of ideoclast or
He called this art cocotologia.
It is this lack of discipline which made me popular with students and suspect with less popular faculty. When
accused of rambling I would quote Baroja: A novel is a sack in which everything fits. A typically Spanish
attitude, it is no excuse for bad fiction of which Baroja was a master. In my restless old age I myself am inclined
toward what I call the epic essay in which the writer is all at once scholar, memoirist, even fiction writer. I
recently read an enlightening piece, originally published in The New York Review of Books and reprinted here in
ABC, about the rediscovered writer Isabel Bolton and the critic Edmund Wilson. In it, the essayist, Gore Vidal,
actually imagines the lovesick Wilson calling on her at home! Some would contend that if one is going to add
fiction to history and interpretation one should invent a fictional narrator who is himself expert in the subject
but who then should take credit for the piece? It was my teacher, after all, who proclaimed that fiction is the
truest history and history the truest fiction, and that the historian is really an autobiographer, because, like life
itself, history is seen, felt, lived by the historian. The Italian historian Giambattista Vico was onto this in the
early 18th Century. He called it entering into history in a fantasia. For Herder it was "Einfhlen or feeling
into history. To honestly understand history (i.e., What history means to me, the writer of this piece...) we

* * *
In the words of Donald L. Shaw, the fiction of the Generation of 98which, besides the
above names, included Antonio Machado, Ramiro de Maeztu, and Juan Ramn Jimnez
tried to resolve the crisis of ideals and beliefs at the individual level, while at the same time
keeping in sight of the national problem...the notion that in the spiritual and ideological
regeneration of the individual lay the key to the regeneration of a nation...[while
acknowledging] the inability of the mind to make sense of existence.
Not a bad summation. But a good one?
Although it was his contemporary Azorn who devised the label, to Po Baroja Azorns
remained a phantom generation. Better an intellectual invention, I say, than a commercial
Classifications aid literary historians short of breath. I acknowledge the Generation of
98 as a useful point of reference although I use the label with reservation: good writers are
independent thinkers; independent thinkers do not follow the herd and therefore should not be
branded as belonging to one. That said, few would contest that the unifying consciousness of
the writers of 98 was what Unamuno called grief for Spain. The loss to the United States
in 1898 of the last significant vestiges of our empire, the grandest the world has ever known,
was a national emasculation. My uncle, a former newspaperman in Cuba, once recounted
how the modernized American fleet bombarded our ships while the artillery shells fired from
our antiquated vessels fell short of the enemy.16
Old Spain was dead, existing Spain backward. Introspection, we were told by our
writers, was the first step toward Spains resuscitation. But nearly forty years of chaos
followedanarchist bombings, dictatorship, Republicculminating in a civil war that would
put an abrupt end to what has been called Spains second golden age of literature, a country-
critical one that had risen from the ashes of empire. Only Baroja, Jimnez, and Azorn
survived the warto face censorship.

* * *

Dawn brings those filthy pigeons to the windows of my study overlooking the plaza. They
beg for breakfast, tapping their beaks against the glass, peering in expectantly. Their pallor
recalls my late wifes habit of feeding only the doves. The others she struck with her cane.
She has left me alone with these bright beggars. The dark ones plague the caf below. I can
hear the aluminum tables being set out down there, imagine them through a thousand greedy
bird eyes.
Before the plaza fills up with colorfully dressed students wearing rather less than they
used to, it feels much the same to me as when I was a youth, although I dont feel the same to

mustnt restrict ourselves to reporting and analysis, we should empathize with our subjectsomething easier
said than done. Fortunately for most academicsbut not for their studentsthe lifeless essay is still the norm.
Im thinking of Generation X, a vacant, if sometimes clever, North American commentary on the state of the
modern world published in Spain by Tiempos Modernos. The generation it speaks of is likewise a phantom one,
but one invented for commercial reasons on glossy paper, with diagrams, for whining children who mostly live
better everywhere than the children of yesteryear.
Conflict. The word war is too important-sounding for what actually happenedor rather didnt. As for Cuba
being one of the last significant vestiges of our empire, its considerable importance for Spain was in the mind

myself. My attempt to stand, to stretch my legs and feed the birds, alerts me to the toll of last
nights nostalgic hours. But I must get up, and, if nothing else, swallow some pills. And, yes,
take a nap. To sleep, only to dream of life....

* * *
Thirty years ago I visited my godson at his spacious residence in Madrid. He lived alone
there in the Barrio de Salamanca and yet retained a live-in housemaid. At thirty he was
already a partner in what would become a prominent law firm. I had seldom seen him since
he was graduated from Salamanca, where his father was my esteemed colleague, but we had
maintained a correspondence and during his brief visits home met sometimes for a stroll
around the University.
I gladly accepted his invitation to dinner while I was in town to participate in the
Ateneos summer lecture series. I was surprised to find that he had placed his formal dining
table in the center of his cylindrical two-story library. It was here surrounded by the
knowledge and literature of mankind that my godson entertained guests. A catwalk, accessed
by ladders, formed a ring above us midway up. Fortunately for me Literature and Philosophy
were found below it.
Before dinner we browsed his collection. My own books were there, decoratively, since
they appeared quite untouched. To my delight, however, my godson had all of Unamunos
classic works of fictionAbel Snchez (1917), Aunt Tula (1921), the Exemplary
novelettes, the previously mentioned Mist, and not one but three copies of Saint Manuel the
Good, Martyrtwo of them new editions and another old and battered. Paging through the
worn copy, I asked him why he kept extras on hand.
Wouldnt you like to know! He winked. Then dinner was served.
After devouring the better part of a suckling pig and draining a bottle of heavy red wine
we savored aged brandy in colossal oven-warmed snifters. A bottle of wine weakens
resistance, digestivos disarm. I probed once more for an explanation of those extra copies of
Don Miguels masterpiece.
Last month there were five copies, my godson replied with a quick smile. I give San
Manuel as a birthday gift to...he transferred his attention to swirling his brandy, then
looked upto special friends who havent read it.
The curious adjective registered but I didnt ask him to explain it: I was interested only
in his impulse to give such a curious gift rather than in making any connection between giver
and receiver.
If San Manuel Bueno, I said, was merely a book about a dedicated priest, serving God
and revered by his community, Id consider it a most appropriate gift in a Catholic country.
The kind one gives ones widowed mother at Christmas. But San Manuel Bueno is a book
about a man of the cloth who is really a veiled agnostic, maybe even an atheist. That you give
as a birthday gift?
He cocked his head to one side and waved the question away, as if to say, Well, thats
how it is with me.... I chuckled and let it go.
But my subconscious held on. From that day forward mere mention of Saint Manuel the
Good caused my mind to wander back to that feeling of unsatisfied curiosity.
A year later a near-scandal enlightened me. My godson had been detained overnight by
the police. There was no mention of it in the press. His law partners quietly arranged his
release, then asked for his resignation. He moved all his belongings, including that vast
library, to Valencia where he joined the firm of a former classmate. Prior to this he came up
to Salamanca to give his family the official story, whatever it wasan irrepressible love of
paella, perhaps? I got the truth. Suddenly I understood his passion for the priest who lives a

lie. Last year he died a bachelor, of AIDS. At last the inner truth had risen irrepressibly to the
When in 1972 I submitted an essay to El Guardin (sic!) de Las Ideas Nuevas de la
Universidad de Salamanca arguing that Saint Manuel the Good could be read as a
homosexual novel, or rather as a text for homosexuals, I jumped pencil first into controversy.
I had apparently blasphemed against the Universitys de facto patron saint, and mine. If Saint
Manuel the Good could be interpreted as a gay text (it could not was the word I got back
from the distinguished dinosaurs of the editorial board), its authors lifelong obsession with
identity questions could be interpreted as homosexual agony.18 This was too much. The
refusal to publish came in a sharply worded denunciation co-signed by the Editor-in-Chief
and the rector himself. Not even my connection to the novels author could have gotten that
piece published in Spain at that time. I responded by tendering my resignation to the delight
of the Universitys ruling faculty. Why the reckless move? I was bored. Better to go out a
maverick like my mentor, saying something new, than just go on repeating myself to another
In 1986 I returned to letters a scholar-star. In the decade following Francos demise
Spain had, if you covered one eye, blossomed into a liberal democratic state. But I will
refrain from lecturing on my countrys recent history. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the
end of the Republic, the start of the civil war, and the death of Unamuno. The weekly
newspaper ZYX was running a series on the period. In an issue commemorating Unamuno
and his fiction, alongside rather stale tributes by youthful novelists, my essay Saint Manuel
the Gay, Martyr finally appeared in Spain.19 An old man with new ideas among the old ideas
of young men? Even the young, it transpired, could note the difference. 20 The young make
and keepone famous, and fashionable. The young can also forget, and when they do we
grudgingly slip back into obscurity. The essay was much reprinted in the Spanish-speaking
world and translated into English, French, and Italian. I was even approached by a newly
famous alternativo (read into that as you will) Spanish film director about a cameo in his next
film. Ill work you insomewhere! he promised. I waited by the phone. And waited.
But there were television interviews, radio talk shows, invitations to lecture. 21 Hardly a day
passed when there wasnt someone asking after me at the caf downstairs, usually shy young
men to whom I had become an uneasy hero.
Don Miguel, a more profound maverick, experienced a still more gloriousand tragic

In Nothing Less Than a Man, Don Miguel extrapolated on the concept of identity: Apart from what one is to
Godif one is anything to God!and apart from what one is to others and what one believes oneself to be,
there is something else: what one wants to be. And this is, in one's inmost self, the creative force and true
reality. Andr Malraux agreed: men to themselves are their ideas of themselves; to others they are what they
have achieved.
The thought never crossed my mind. But for those inclined toward that sort of thing there is The Elusive Self
by Gayana Jurkevich, a Jungian study of Unamunos great texts, including this one, which dissects most
gratuitously Don Miguels work in psychoanalytic terms. Though she does not argue that Don Miguel was a
closet homosexual, she does give him a good dose of mother complex.
The Spanish title wasSan Manuel Gay, mrtir. There is no Spanish equivalent to gay that does not sound
derogatorymaricn, marica, sarasa, invertido, desviado, afeminado. Hence we use gay or homosexual.
Not all, however, were receptive to my argument. One day I received a card whose return address read
Gabinete de la Presidencia, Congreso de los Diputados. Even before opening it I announced to my wife that I
was being summoned to receive a national honorthe first since I was given a seat in the Royal Academy of
Letters some thirty years before. But it was a note from an intern. She wrote, Why are you doing this to poor
San Manuel?
To the North American reader the resultant attention might seem fantastic, for in that part of the world, based
on my admittedly limited experience, if one drops the name of a writers famous character, even among the
educated, he is likely to receive a blank stare in return. Here in Spain, Saint Manuel is a national icon, and I had
made him the talk of the country again.

withdrawal from academia, and, as it turned out, from life itself.

* * *
Twelve October 1936. General Francisco Francos regime held Salamanca in a country
divided between his forces and those loyal to the Republic. In the ceremonial hall of the
University we were to celebrate the anniversary of Columbuss discovery of the New World.
Among the attendees was the infamous General Milln Astray, accompanying Francos wife,
Carmen. After arriving by car from headquarters in Burgos, they had taken their places on the
dais among University and church dignitaries. A motley collection, to say the least. I claimed
my seat to the right of the assembly, next to Luis Portillo, a young professor of civil law. A
number of soldiers and highly decorated officers faced us in the restless audience. As Rector,
Don Miguel would officiate. Just minutes before, he had somberly met the honored guests at
their car.22
Don Miguel introduced the speakers of the cloth, of letters, and of arms. One by one the
priests and academics rose to speak of Spains glorious past, its current strife, its resplendent
future, each contribution formulaic and safely patriotic. Finally, it was the generals turnor
he made it his turn, I forget which. He rose from his seat and began shouting. Luis, at my
side, was taking rapid notes from which I fashion the following speech and ensuing
Fascism is Spains health-bringer! cried Milln Astray. Every socialist, every
communist, every republican is a rebel against the national government, which will soon be
recognized by the countries aiding us, in spite of France and perfidious England.
The generals troops interrupted him with the Falangist call-and-response battle cry:
Spain!/One! Spain!/Great! Spain!/Free! He tried to continuerambling on about how the
brave Moors responsible for his disfigurement were now aiding Franco and himself against
the bad Spaniardsbut the adoration his gruesome figure inspired soon brought his men to
their feet with cheers that drown out his voice. He was hailed with the fascist salute as they
Viva la Muerte!Long live Death!
Luiss fifty year-old account has the advantage of recent memory, whereas mine recalls
ancient history, but I clearly remember my master, Don Miguel de Unamuno, suddenly rising
to his feet. Under his icy gaze the soldiers gradually quit their howling. When all were silent
again, the greatest Spaniard of our time spoke in a soft voice that shook the chamber: Life is
worth nothing, but nothing is worth life, he began.
Cheers erupted from his supporters.24
The opposition was too perplexed at first to react. Just what did he mean?
When his students and followers quieted down, he continued. Just now I heard a
necrophilous and senseless cry. Long live Death? He grimaced. I, who have spent my life
shaping paradoxes which aroused the uncomprehending ire of others, I must tell you as an
expert authority that this outlandish one is repellent to me, not only because, lacking
cleverness, it is meant to be taken literally as the battle cry of a band of killers, but because it
Find a photograph of the encounter on the final page of this essay. The universally imposing Don Miguel,
waiting for Milln Astray to emerge from the vehicle, arguably looks ready for a fight. I am visible top right,
surrounded by fascist salutes.
They became Unamunos Last Lecture. With modifications, I use herein the translation from Horizon
(London, Dec. 1941), 394-400.
La vida no vale nada, pero nada vale una vida. Ive taken a liberty in my translation, since no vale nada
literally means not worth anything, to retain the symmetry of Don Miguels poetic phrase.

is proclaimed in homage to the last speaker, himself a maimed symbol of death.
To this, the oppositionnot the brightest lotresumed its applause; but as that died
down smarter members of the audience protested Don Miguels blunt appraisal of a man who
had sacrificed an eye, an arm, a leg, and fingers in service to his country while he himself
read and wrote books.
I have nothing against him for his loss of appendages, Don Miguel went on, gesturing
toward the general, still standing on the dais and half-turned toward him. From my vantage
point only the back of Millns head was visible, crowned with the cap of the Foreign
Legion. But as unyielding as his expression must have been, it should be noted again that he
secretly loved books, and he probably admired Unamuno.
Like Cervantes, continued our master, stepping deeper into the lions den, Milln
Astray was wounded in war due to bravery and patriotism. Yet thats where the comparison
ends. For all his courage and fame he lacks the spiritual greatness of a hero, virile and
complete in spite of his mutilations. The general here is a mere cripple who lacks a certain
loftiness of mindand thus he finds ominous relief in causing mutilation around him.
I saw Milln Astray reach for his sidearmbut Carmen Polo de Franco, who had
propelled herself from her seat, restrained him by placing a hand on his and whispering
something in his ear.
Don Miguel was unfazed. He must have known that one way or another this was the end
for him. Like Socrates, he had offered himself up to posterity. He struck again: The general
would like to create Spain anewa negative creation in his own image, crippled for life.
Milln Astray thrust a remaining finger at Don Miguel, shouting Muera la
Inteligencia! or Death to Intelligence!
A parrot-chorus rang out from the blue shirts in the audience. But they had already
chosen arms over letters for life, and death. Men in uniform leaped onto the dais to gather
around their hero while Luis and I pushed through the melee to the side of ours. The two men
now stood face to face amid the press of jostling bodies, Unamuno a head taller than his
This is the temple of intelligence, he told the fascist.
And you are its high priest? replied Milln Astray. Maybe today, but not tomorrow.
There was silence now, broken finally by our masters last public utterance:
You will win, but you will not convince.
Luiss mentor, Don Esteban Madruga, a professor of Common Law, then took Don
Miguel by one arm, and, surprisingly, Doa Carmen Polo de Franco by the other, and led
them from the chamber. The general would join his troops at the planned banquet, held now
in hisnot Columbusshonor.

* * *
Milln Astray reported the incident to Franco at the junta in Burgos. An order was given for
Don Miguels execution. But no one in Salamanca would carry it out. Instead his house was
kept under guard. We visited him often, as I have described, and for a while we were his
consolation in desolation. Then the University dismissed him as Rector. Weeks passed. Don
Miguel, now seldom venturing from his home, slipped into an unusually anguished state.
My life, he confided, echoing the words of his Saint Manuel, is a kind of continual
suicide, or a struggle against suicide, which is the same thing. Powerless, he was at the
mercy of the regime, which had now transferred its headquarters to Salamanca. His
generations war of words would not overcome the sword. National regeneration would not
flower from the introspective individual; it would rise instead, twisted and grotesque, in the
form of a maimed soldier.

Miguel de Unamuno died of a massive stroke on new years eve 1936. I was not with
him at the time. The cathedral bells rang throughout the following day, signaling a conclusion
rather than a beginning. The quality of public anguish could be likened to that for the
deceased Saint Manuel in the village he had served with faith if not belief.

* * *
That was long ago. Today Spain is democratic and flourishing. The University of Salamanca
honors Don Miguel in the Plaza de Unamuno with a statue of him leaning forward, hands
clasped behind back, his noble visage decidedly obstinate and brash. By day the square is a
tranquil place to pause for reflection or to offer him our thoughts; but at night it erupts with
pounding rhythms and flashing lights from the resident discotheque and bars. Sunrise reveals
plastic cups strewn about him. The dawn breeze carries odors of beer and urine. Each
morning the municipal street-cleaners, a kind of pagan priesthood maintaining our saints
shrine, restore Don Miguels dignity with spearing picks and a hose.

* * *
It is evening again. The Plaza Mayor is crowded with people. Older couples take their
evening stroll, the men in jacket and tie. My late wife and I once adhered to this serene ritual
of private and public sharing. Sometimes I venture downstairs to meet former colleagues or
pupils for a copa, or to give the occasional interviewthere have been quite a few in this
centenary year. I am remembered for remembering.
In the refrigerator theres a plate of tortilla de patatas left by the woman who looks after
me. But I will phone downstairs to the bar to have some dinner sent up: sliced Iberian ham,
sheeps cheese, marinated peppers, bread, and local wine. When youve patronized a place
for three-fourths of a century they do you a favor now and then. I should watch my diet but
tonight I feel very Spanish; I feel all my life in this moment; I feel nothing less than a whole
Spanish man. Within me the centurys struggles persist, the future, as ever, uncertain. Or, as
Don Miguel put it, eternity of past time is summed up in me, and from me there starts
up an eternity to come.
Feeling into Don Miguel, I am reminded of Ciceros words on friendship: Even when a
friend has passed away he is with us still...because his friends continue to cherish him, and
remember him, and long for his death he ennobles the existences of those left
behind. And we exalt the departed. As I close my remembrance, I realize that just as his
creation, Saint Manuel the Good, having outlived his flesh and bone father, keeps Don
Miguels soul eternal, so do I. Don Miguel, who once crafted my intellect, is now sustained
by it. I hope I have felt into him faithfully: I see the past as present through mist.

Dr. Vctor M. Carrasco Villa de Segovia

Don Miguel de Unamuno, and to the right of him Monseor Pl y Deniel, awaiting
the emergence of general Jos Milln Astray and Carmen Polo de Franco from
their car, University of Salamanca, 12 October 1936.


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