"A Sad Breeze through the Olive Trees"
Published on: August 4, 2010
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  • WigWag

    Thank you Professor Berger for this wonderful essay!

    What a treat to read a post about the wonderful Miguel de Unamuno; I didn’t know anyone remembered him anymore, at least in this country.

    Unamuno famously said,

    “Cure yourself of the affliction of caring how you appear to others. Concern yourself only with how you appear before God, concern yourself only with the idea that God may have of you.”

    Unamuno’s credo always struck me as a particularly good way to model one’s life.

    Don Quixote is, or course, the best novel ever written and Unamuno considered it to be in some sense a sacred book; in “Tragic Sense of Life” he refers to the Knight of the Mournful Countenance as the “Spanish Christ.”

    In another wonderful book of his, “The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho” Unamuno analogizes the life of the fictional Quixote with the real life Saint Ignatius of Loyala although I admit that this comparison seems quite baffling to me.

    Unamuno is convinced that Don Quixote is such a powerful literary figure that he literally escapes the bounds set by his creator (Cervantes) and in a sense becomes more real and more consequential than the author himself. He calls him, “un hombre de carne y hueso” (a man of flesh and blood). The only other literary character to ever have performed the same feat is Hamlet; who of course some commentators also think is a Christ-like figure.

    There is an endless and thoroughly enjoyable debate about the nature of Don Quixote; was he a fool and a knave? Was he the embodiment of the deity become man? Or was he the worst sort of blasphemer? Amongst the great authors to weigh in on this debate have been Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabakov and Harold Bloom.

    The Quixote that I hear is no god-like figure at all but is instead a metaphor for all of us human sinners. Ultimately the source of his madness is vanity and the quest for immortality; he literally wants to be God.

    In the end, Don Quixote repents and his sanity is restored; at the end of his life, after he repents, he sees the world clearly again. The good news for Cervantes and his creation is that they end up with immortality that they sought; there hasn’t been a work of literature produced since that doesn’t in one way or another have its roots in Don Quixote

  • AH123

    An interesting point, but I think Berger’s concept of myth as related to bullfighting was a bit over represented in dimension and over simplified in cultural significance in terms of Catalonia’s ban, which should not be mistaken for the same sentiment in Castilian Spain.

    Bullfighting is but only one myth that Catalans feel is not part of their cultural, political, moral and modern identity (despite its history in Catalonia simply due to geographical proximity). But Berger’s conclusion that the ban on this one thing represented some wholesale abandonment of myths in Spain – as opposed to Catalonia specifically – is not supported.

    Catalan culture is full of myths and symbolism, from dragons and fire that still dominate major festivals to its national anthem that portrays harvesting reapers who fight off invaders off their land. In fact, it is what unites the people. These myths may have originated in a Catholic society, but the power of their message is not overtly religious that could exclude those in present society who may subscribe to other faiths. Looking at it this way, the secularization of myths actually can be seen as more empowering to a modern, multicultural society.

    Catalans might have some of the lowest church attendance rates, but it is wrong to say they do not hold on to even Catholic-based rituals (in spite of the Catholic Church’s history of siding with the Francoist Nationalists in brutally suppressing Catalonia). During Christmas, the nativity scene is displayed everywhere, much like the prominence of Christmas trees here. For someone who was raised in a Judeo-Christian background but who is agnostic, I felt initially rather uncomfortable with such an overt, in-your-face display of such a scene. Until I was explained that Catalans see it more as a tradition that is part of their culture and the religious symbolism, though present, is not the significance of it. Analogously, many see the Christmas tree as something fun and not necessarily purely “Christian.”

    For Berger to say that Catalan rejection of the particular myth of bullfighting, which is not their tradition and is something seen today as recreational cruelty to animals by modern sensibilities, as a cultural move toward a complete mythical void was erroneous.

  • Hector

    Nice piece, especially the Unamuno and Lorca refs. Your feelings about the Nationalists are clear, though the argument that appropriating those myths de-legitimizes them ignores the secular Republicans who murdered many (including many priests and other innocents) and who would have made quick work of obliterating the myth had it remained in Republican hands. Seems to me that the Nationalists appropriated what was preserved but it is far better than the alternative.

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