As a young man in Paris, I was impressed by this book by a great Spanish writer, which I used to read in an elegant English translation. The small volume is still present in my bookshelves. These days, however, I rarely reopen this category of old-fashioned stuff.
Initially, the title alone had seduced me: Del sentimiento trágico de la vida. Then I admired the art and skill with which Miguel de Unamuno—a resolute aficionado of Don Quixote—could juggle with reverential references to Jesus Christ, Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Ávila without ever telling us explicitly whether he did or did not believe in the god of Christians. Today, of course, it would be unthinkable for a popular philosopher to remain so wishy-washy, no matter how noble his prose. Unamuno signed his masterpiece in 1912, before the madness of the Great War. He died a quarter-of-a-century later, in 1936, a broken-hearted witness of events, at the start of the Spanish Civil War, after a violent public confrontation with the Falangist general José Millán Astray concerning the terrible oath "¡Viva la Muerte!".
In a different context, at a later point in time, Unamuno might have evolved into an Albert Camus. Instead, he remained an elusive Basque observer of a world that had become too complex, too chaotic and too terrible for him to understand. Nevertheless, he stood up firmly and courageously, like a matador awaiting the charge of the black toro. Finally, though, a las cinco de la tarde, the blood stains on the sand of the arena of History were those of Unamuno's Romantic "philosophy". Six months before Unamuno's death in Salamanca, the 38-year-old poet Federico García Lorca had been shot stupidly, on 19 August 1936. Yes indeed, in those days, life had assumed a tragic sense.