David Delbar and Roger Macfarlane, Classics
Few characters are as enigmatic as the protagonist of Miguel de Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, mártir, and many scholars have attempted to discern the motivations of the saintly Catholic priest who does not believe in an afterlife. Because of the overt biblical allusions in the text and the personal struggles of the author with the Catholic faith, many approach the novella and its protagonist with a Christian interpretation, ignoring Unamuno’s extensive classical background. While Unamuno clearly modeled don Manuel as a Christ figure, he also embedded Dionysian characteristics that have thus far been unexamined in academic treatises of the work. This study attempts to find evidence of Dionysian characteristics in San Manuel Bueno, mártir and explain what interpretive implications such characteristics provide.
Unlike other characters in Unamuno’s works, such as the dog Orfeo in Niebla, San Manuel Bueno, mártir has no direct classical allusions. In order to determine that don Manuel has Dionysian characteristics, Unamuno’s philosophical works were examined for evidence of classical influence, in particular his Sentiminto trágico de la vida and Diario íntimo. Other authors whom Unamuno read and who worked within a classical framework were also examined as potential transmitters of classical underpinnings. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik was the primary secondary text consulted. Colette and Jean-Claude Rabaté’s Miguel de Unamuno: Biografía provided historical and biographical background to the text. Various other articles of literary criticism of the text were consulted in order to understand contemporary interpretations. Finally, the text of San Manuel Bueno, mártir was examined for elements that could be interpreted as Dionysian and were then examined in the overall context of the novella.
The results were promising, if inconclusive. Unamuno identifies both reason1 and a desire for an afterlife2 with the Hellenistic world, while faith comes from the Hebraic tradition. As don Manuel exhibits both rational thought and a desire for continuance of existence but lacks the faith to believe in this possibility, he exhibits what Unamuno himself termed Greek characteristics, not Christian ones. He lauds Erwin Rohde’s Psyche, proving awareness of the Dionysian cult of the afterlife.3 However, there was no direct connection to Dionysus that might indicate how the novella might be interpreted.
An indirect connection does exist between Unamuno and Nietzsche’s conception of the world in terms of Dionysian and Apollonian. Unamuno often references Nietzsche’s work, though seldom in a favorable light. According to Nietzsche, constant conflict between rational and irrational principles of human nature creates art, but in exceptionally sublime art Dionysian irrationality is viewed through the lens of Apollonian rationality.4 Unamuno likewise has an inverted view of life as a tragic struggle between sentiment and rationality, as an irrational desire for God and immortality in conflict with a rational understanding that such things are impossible.5 Yet the irrational could only be understood through the rational,6 a concept Nietzsche had already established four decades earlier. It is the pessimistic understanding of the irrationality of reality that Nietzsche terms the Dionysiac, one that favors the welling of life.7
If this same philosophy is applicable to San Manuel Bueno, mártir, then don Manuel’s behavior becomes clearer. His personal, pessimistic view provides him with an uncanny, Dionysian appreciation for life, which he on multiple occasions pronounces as the overriding priority of his ministry.8 However, the villagers could only understand this pained vivacity through the lens of the Apollonian image of Catholicism. Don Manuel’s actions cease to be hypocritical and instead show a rich understanding of life expressed in terms that his parish could understand. In this way don Manuel avoids the sterility of mindless adherence to the letter of the law and infuses his religion with vitality obtained through pain. The priest is therefore an example of Nietzsche’s harmony of Dionysian life expressed through Apollonian image.
Scenes from the second section of the novella, at first appearing to be disparate character descriptions, become unified in a Dionysian theme. Don Manuel’s transformation of a youths’ dance into a sacred ritual is out of place in Christian religion but in perfect keeping with Bacchic rituals. His desire at a wedding to change the lake’s water into wine, while certainly an allusion to the marriage at Cana, again deviates into a pagan desire to induce happy drunkenness, which was the common man’s worship of Dionysus. The most bizarre of the incidents involving the clown and his puppet show is an appropriate adaptation of Dionysian theater to the setting of a small country village. Don Manuel serves as the vindicator of the performing arts as another way of providing joy through life, which shows him as a master of liminal space, the prerogative of Dionysus. By invoking these roles of the god, Unamuno is better able to show don Manuel’s capacity as a giver of concentrated, exuberant life.
While there exists no concrete allusion to Dionysus in San Manuel Bueno, mártir, a probable connection exists between Nietzsche’s conception of the Dionysian and the Apollonian and Unamuno’s tragic struggle between the rational and irrational. If applied to the novella, certain aspects of don Manuel’s character are understood, which before seemed strange from a Christian viewpoint. Like Dionysus he brings an irrational joy of life to his parishioners. Further study of the Dionysian mystery religion and of Unamuno’s entire corpus may reveal more concrete connections that allow for more certain interpretation of his work.
1 Miguel de Unamuno, Diario íntimo, ed. Félix García (Madrid, Esceilicer, 1970), 332. Miguel de Unamuno, Del sentimiento trágico de la vida (New York: Las Americas, 1964), 104.
2 Unamuno, Sentimiento trágico, 59.
4 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, ed. Raymond Geuss and ed. and trans. Ronald Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 102.
5 Unamuno, Sentimiento trágico, 151.
6 Unamuno, Sentimiento trágico, 116.
7 Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, 9.
8 Miguel de Unamuno, San Manuel Bueno, mártir, ed. Mario J. Valdés and María Elena de Valdés (Madrid: Estudios de Hispanófilia, 1973), 21.