Thursday, November 10, 2011

Reflections: To Be, Or...

Give  a bit of thought to this passage from Unamuno's magnum opus, The Tragic Sense of Life:

It has often been said that every man who has suffered still prefers to be himself, with all his misfortunes, than someone else, even without those misfortunes. For the fact is that unfortunate men, as long as they keep their sanity in the midst of their misfortune, that is, as long as they still strive to persist in themselves, prefer misfortune to non-being. Of myself I can say that when I was a young man, even when I was a boy, I was not to be moved by the pathetic pictures of Hell that were drawn for me, for even at the time nothing seemed as terrible as Nothingness. I was already possessed of a furious hunger to be, “an apprentice for divinity,” as one of our ascetics put it.  ~ Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life

What Unamuno is saying here may, on the one hand, seem to some to be patently true. On the other hand, those persons who share with me what might be called "suicidal tendencies" may consider the idea that suffering is worse than oblivion to be utter nonsense.

I guess that it is the ferocity of Unamuno's desire for "divinity"--that is, for immortality--that makes him so willing to risk what Prince Hamlet called "the rub."  It was surely oblivion--dreamless sleep--that appealed to Hamlet as he found himself inextricably caught up in afflications for which he could find no remedy other than death.

Whatever your immediate take concerning Unamuno's thought on the matter, until you have contemplated death as the ultimate antidote, you can't really know where you stand.


wade-m said...

Because you made reference to Unamuno's *Tragic Sense of Life* I obtained a copy for myself and read it over the weekend. I found it quite interesting...

I realize that your intention in quoting this passage is more *existential* than *intellectual*--and I too know something of oblivion's allure--even so, may I be permitted to advance a philosophical query of sorts?

(Btw--does Unamuno himself play somewhat of a double game? Is his book *irrationalist* or *rationalist*..? It isn't clear-cut to me.)

In another passage of the book than the one you've quoted, Unamuno points out the obvious: that non-being is inconceivable. When we try to conceive it, we always do so from the standpoint of being conscious.

This raises the question whether we are, really and truly, in any position to judge the relative merit of non-being vs. misfortune. Might our temptation to oblivion be of the nature of fantasy--like the Muslim dreaming of his seventy-two virgins? Are oblivion and heaven similarly mythic ideals?

What's more--and I wish I could express the force of this objection better than I'm able--if one's misfortunes are sufficiently strong to tempt one to oblivion, to annihilation, to non-being--why not just endure them?

Rodak said...

Thank you for the thoughtful comments, wade-m. I envy you having finished the book. I always have several books going at once, so I'm barely into myself.
I think (from what I've read) that Unamuno was an irrationalist. I also think that he would advise the man contemplating oblivion to endure his suffering instead.
If this supposition changes as I get further along in the book, I will certainly update, as needed.
Welcome. And, again, thank you for the comments.