In Spain at last: Arturo Barea on Unamuno

William Chislett
Senior Research Fellow Associate at the Elcano Royal Institute | @WilliamChislet3


Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) would seem an odd choice for an essay by Arturo Barea (1897-1957), best known for his autobiographical trilogy The Forging of a Rebel, first published in the UK in the 1940s after Barea arrived there in exile after the Civil War.

Unamuno calleWhen the War started in 1936, Barea, the son of a washerwoman and self-educated (he left school at 13), supported the Republican cause. Unamuno, the 72-year-old philosopher and professor of Greek at the University of Salamanca, backed Franco’s uprising, and, as a result, was sacked as Rector of the University by the Republican government. Franco reinstated him, but then got rid of him again after Unamuno’s famous confrontation with General José Millán Astray on 12 October 1936 in the university’s auditorium. In response to Millán Astray shouting “¡Muera la inteligencia!”, Unamuno replied “Venceréis, pero no convenceréis

When Barea was given the choice to write an essay on Unamuno or Ortega y Gasset, he did not hesitate to choose the former. By then the philosopher and novelist was viewed sympathetically among Spanish exiles for various reasons, including his period in exile (1924-1930 under the dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera) and his intellectual honesty. His Del sentimiento trágico de la vida had been published in English in 1921, with an introduction by Salvador de Madariaga, and Unamuno received honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge in 1936.Unamuno libro

Barea’s essay was published in England in 1952 and in Argentina in 1959, two years after his death.  It has now, in May 2020, finally been published for the first time in Spain, with my preface.

Barea regarded Unamuno’s struggle for a ‘new’ Spain as more honest and democratic than that of Ortega y Gasset, who theorised that the country could be saved by the intellectual elites. Barea felt attracted to Unamuno. In his earlier essay Lorca: el poeta y su pueblo,  published in 1944, Barea wrote “La tragedia de Unamuno era que tenía que protestar contra tener que morir, a sabiendas de que la aniquilación de su existencia llegaría implacablemente.

millanyunamunoBarea’s wife Ilsa also had a connection with Unamuno as she had translated for Cyril Connolly’s prestigious magazine Horizon in 1941 the account by the also exiled Luis Portillo (father of Michael) on the confrontation with Millán Astray, although Portillo did not witness it. That version was taken by generations of Spaniards as definitive  – and used by Hugh Thomas in the first edition of his ground-breaking book on the Civil War first published in 1961 – and has since been disproved as not exactly how it happened.

In little more than 100 pages, Barea covers for the general public the philosophic and religious dimension of Unamuno, the “problema nacional” (the conflict between Spanish tradition and the opening toward Europe), his tragic sense of life and his ambition as a poet.  “No hay español pensante que no haya sentido, voluntaria e involuntariamente, la influencia del pensamiento aguijoneante, estimulante, irritante y humiliante de Miguel de Unamuno,” Barea concludes.

Unamuno by Arturo Barea (Espasa), €19.90.

William Chislett curated the exhibition on Arturo Barea for the Instituto Cervantes in 2018.