Saturday, July 01, 2017

Miguel de Unamuno, San Manuel Bueno, Mártir


Opening Passage:

Ahora que el obispo de la diócesis de Renada, a la que pertence esta mi querida aldea de Valverde de Lucerna, anda, a lo que se dice, promoviendo el proceso para la beatificación de nuestro Don Mauel, o, mejor, San Manuel Bueno, que vue en ésta párroco, quiero dejar aqui consignado , a modo de confesión y sólo Dios sabe, que no yo, con qué destino, todo lo que sé y recuerdo de aquel varón matrarcal que llenó toda la más entrañada vida de mi alma, que fue mi verdadero padre espiritual, el padre de mi espíritu, del mío, el de Ángela Carballino.

My translation:

Now that the bishop of the diocese of Renada, to which belongs this, my village of Valverde de Lucerna, has begun to promote the cause of beatification of our Don Manuel, or, better, San Manuel Bueno, which is what he was for our parish, I wish to leave here written, as a confession, and only God, not I, knows what its end will be, all that I know and remember of that matriarchal man, who filled all the depths of my soul, who was my true spiritual father, the father of my spirit, of the spirit of me, Angela Carballino.

Summary: The picturesque little village of Valverde de Lucerna sits beside a lake that reflects the nearby mountain. Close by is the ruin of an old monastery. According to local legend, there is a medieval town submerged beneath the waters, and if you listen carefully on St. John's Day, you can hear its church bells ringing. Rustic and pastoral, the townspeople quietly continue on their way as they have done for long years past.

The priest of the town is Don Manuel, and he is everything one could possibly want in a priest. He spends his days tending the sick and helping the poor, comforting the brokenhearted and encouraging the anxious, healing divisions and bringing peace to families, administering the sacraments and encouraging the people to pray. He is a fount of joy and consolation for his parishioners. He works incessantly, always putting the needs of others above his own, never pausing in his work, always driven to do more. And the source of the drive, the thing that pushes him to do so much for the good of others, is that he has lost his faith. Death has come to seem to him merely an end, nothing more, with nothing beyond, and that sense of things haunts everything he does.

This kind of sapped faith has led many a mind into progressivism of one sort or another, but Don Manuel will have none of it. We learn the story of Don Manuel through the narration of Ángela Carballino, who is writing her memories of him long afterward because the bishop has opened the cause of Don Manuel's beatification. Her brother, Lázaro, had left the village and gone off to the New World, and has become cosmopolitan and freethinking and anti-clerical, full of the latest progressive ideas. But when he returns to the village, he finds himself baffled by Don Manuel, and is converted by him from progressivism to -- not quite Catholicism but -- the nurturing of the Catholic faith of the village. Progressivism is just the same story; it is dreams of future glory in a reality in which everything simply dies. And its proselytizing excuse -- that truth matters above all -- is in reality just a way to disparage people like the villagers for having a different version of the same story. All of Lázaro's talk of truth as the most important thing can be seen, when set beside Don Manuel, to be just a pretty way to express contempt for other people. Lázaro the progressive was as much in the spell of an illusion as the people he dismissed as parochial and rustic, taken in by illusions; he too had been following dreams in order to live without looking at the harsh truth. Hay que vivir -- one must live; and in the meantime there is little to be done if you lack the support of illusions except to distract yourself by helping people to live -- which means, among other things, helping them to maintain their own illusions in a way that makes people happy. That is the source of the intensity of Don Manuel's drive to do good for others, the anguish of trying to help people to live while believing that everything will just die.

This summary makes things sound more simple than they are. We learn, for instance, that Don Manuel comes from a family with a history of depression; that he is tempted by suicide; that he has lost someone important to him. But these come across as incidental; there is a sort of timelessness to Don Manuel, the semper nunc of one who has no time to do good except now.

In Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno gives his own existentialist characterization of what it is to live as a Spaniard. It is to be Catholic in sensibility even if one is no longer Catholic of head, to have something medieval submerged within, echoes or legends, so to speak, of a feudal town. It is to be driven by life and by reason, and to find that they are not companionate but are instead enemies bound together, needing each other yet tending to oppose each other. And this, the immortality of the soul, is the clinching point: one reasons as a mortal; one lives as though one can never really die. Thus the Spanish sense of life, Unamuno thinks, is a tragic sense; it is a sense that one must do the thing that will certainly fail. One may laugh at Don Quixote; but the only way to live is by a sort of quijotismo. Genuinely to live is to be quixotic.

Given this one might think that San Manuel Bueno, mártir is just a straightforward narrative depiction of the ideas, but this, too, is not so simple. Storytelling is already a sort of illusion-weaving; it conveys a suggestion of Something Beyond. To believe in immortality, in heaven, even in the future worker's paradise, is to read history as a story, with the events as words that allude to so much that they never actually say. And this tale in particular is not told by Don Manuel, but by Ángela, who is a believer even if she sometimes has doubts. Her own view -- perhaps a bit of illusion-weaving of its own -- is that perhaps Don Manuel and Lázaro really did believe in the immortality of the soul, and that God by His grace made it so that they did not believe that they believed it, for precisely the result that came about: a lifetime of service here and now, doing good here and now, sacrificing for others here and now, reflecting the faith they did not seem to share and a starry heaven they did not think existed. An illusory view, perhaps -- but life is a network of dreams. If reason and life are really in conflict, it is all well and good to exclaim pompously that one is on the side of reason -- but hay que vivir.

It was interesting to (re-)read the work, as well as the more philosophical elaboration of the same themes, given that I have no natural or temperamental inclination to Unamuno's ideas. Unamuno represents a Spain that is Catholic in its blood but has gone Protestant in the head, or perhaps better, caught a Protestant head-cold. It is a modernity that is haunted by feudal and medieval echoes, a city of concrete and steel that cannot shake the sense that it should be painted in the colors of chivalry with Baroque and Gothic at every corner. The depictions are all somewhat analogous to those that we find in Umberto Eco's The Island of the Day Before, in which a lush and beautiful view of the world is just out of reach, visible across an impassible channel in the realm of yesterday. My roots are Northern European, not Mediterranean; for Unamuno and Eco it seems that the anxious picture of an unmeaning world is a modern thing, but for anyone of Scandinavian background, it is worn and mythological and pagan-ancient, for sooner or later, the wolves will devour the gods. With such roots, the path to reason only lies, as Chesterton saw, as the Anglo-Saxon poets insisted, in something that can be victory over death.

This is all a very florid way of saying that while I can admire the picture painted, it seems very clear to me that it is a picture, whatever its claims to realism; to treat realism as reality is the most basic form of delusion. Look around you, and you will see no immortality, no resurrection, no future glory, no better world in the future, just walls and trees and walking bodies of flesh and blood in a fleeting space of time, and to treat everything as that is the most straightforward kind of realism. But nobody understands the world just by looking around them, and the world we recognize must be cannot really fit into that kind of realism. Unamuno gets a contradiction between reason and life because he sets them up to contradict each other.

But, of course, this is not just a claim about my own sympathies or lack thereof, which would be a thoroughly uninteresting topic. The point is that what Unamuno is doing is not giving a rigorous analysis of the world; he is telling a story about it. And a story, as I said above, consists of words suggesting much more than they ever say on the page, and suggesting something that has a kind of timelessness. Sense is immortality writ small; meaning is like Sunday in Ordinary Time, a sort of Easter out of season. To tell a story is already to suggest what Unamuno says cannot be. Unamuno tells this particular tale about Don Manuel well, because so much of it was the story he was already used to telling himself and others about life; but someone who is not already immersed in that kind of story can only look at it and see not as capturing the world itslef, but as itself a sort of fantasy fiction, lovely in its way, but more realistic than real. For such a person, that difference in sympathies makes the tale of Don Manuel seem in some ways, I think, a different story than Unamuno intended to tell. But he himself, I think, would accept such an ambiguity without much protest.

Favorite Passage:

--Es un hombre maravilloso -- me decía Lázaro--. Ya sabes que dicen que en el fondo de este lago hay una villa sumergida y que en la noche de San Juan, a las doce, se oyen las companadas de su iglesia.

--Sí --le contestaba yo--, una villa feudal y medieaval...

--Y creo --añadía él-- que en el fondo del alma de nuestro Don Manuel hay también sumergida, ahogada, una villa y que alguna vez se oyen sus campanadas.

--Sí --le dije--, esa villa sumergida en el alma de Don Manuel, ¿y por qué no también en la tuay?, es el cementerio de las almas de nuestros abuelos, los de esta nuestra Valverde de Lucerna... ¡feudal y medieval!

My translation:

"He is a marvelous man," Lázaro told me. "You know that they say that at the bottom of this lake there is a submerged town, and that on St. John's night, at midnight, one hears the bells of its church."

"Yes," I answered, "a feudal and medieval town...."

"And I believe," he added, "that at the bottom of the soul of our Don Manuel there is also submerged, drowned, a tow, and that sometimes one hears its bells."

"Yes," I said, "that town submerged in the soul of Don Manuel -- and why not also in yours? -- is the cemetery of the souls of our ancestors, those of our Valverde de Lucerna...feudal and medieval!"

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

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