Miguel de Unamuno’s Rhetoric of Intrahistory

Elizabeth R. Earle

Although Spanish public intellectual Miguel de Unamuno is widely known for his works of fiction and philosophy, he also wrote a large body of newspaper articles in which he critiqued society during his lifetime. Living during a polarized time in Spanish history, he witnessed many political and social conflicts, including the Third Carlist War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, a military dictatorship, the Second Spanish Republic, Franco’s military coup, and the ensuing Spanish Civil War. In the midst of this conflict, Unamuno used the newspaper to write what he called “articles of battle,” fighting against the problems he observed and presenting possible solutions (Starkie 1976, xxxiv)

Unamuno characterized the general problem in Spain as one of ideology, excess rationalism, and inauthenticity, and he approached this problem in two ways. First, he acted as what he called an “idea-breaker,” or as one who assumes an attitude of skepticism and uses individual thought to break down ideology and dogma. Second, he encouraged the development of a unified collective spirit through what he called intrahistory, or the history that occurs beneath written history.

Unamuno first coined the neologism intrahistory in the 1890s, and it appears in many of his early essays. As the prefix “intra-” indicates something inside, or internal, intrahistory refers to internal history, or the history masked within Spain. It is created through the banality of everyday life, myths, rituals, and interactions that occur beneath the level of official history. Intrahistory is the history that happens daily, among anonymous people, never appearing in the record of officially recorded history. Not only unnarrated, it is also largely unperceived. It is the quiet history, lived unconsciously by the people, and it becomes, for Unamuno, the glue that holds a people together. As something constantly evolving and something authentically apart from formulas, it stands in direct opposition to rationalism and the authority of dogma. Never completed or dead, intrahistory is the “‘living tradition’ or the continuous refreshing of the authentically historic past in the deep life of the people” (Pascual Mezquita 1993, 38).

Unamuno differentiates intrahistory from recorded history in several ways. For one, standard “history is produced in dialectic and agonic relationship” through events, wars, and conflicts (Pascual Mezquita 1993, 26). This history of events exposes important struggles and dialectic, while intrahistory captures the underlying intimate life, attitude, and spirit of the people. Intrahistory is the unconscious, interior, deep history of anonymous people, those excluded from history’s tales. As such, intrahistory accesses a different mode than the history found in books. While recorded history is quantified, narrated, and final, intrahistory is unconscious within the people, and it is living, dynamic, and impossible to delimit.

Unlike recorded history, intrahistory is not marked by time, but rather by timelessness (Fiddian 1974, 788). The timeline of recorded history marks beginnings, endings, and temporal relations, but the factors that compose the intrahistoric happen outside of time, and apart from any sense of chronological or causal order. Unamuno’s use of the term “eternal tradition” further indicates that intrahistory exists outside of chronological time. Moreover, when he writes of “the present historic moment” it also indicates “that there is another moment that is not” present or not historic (Unamuno 1958, 184). Thus, the intrahistoric refers to the a-historic, the nontemporal.

Unamuno often associates the concept of intrahistory and the collective spirit with metaphors expressing depth, like those of roots and the sea. In 1899 he writes of the task to “deepen our collective spirit, to arrive at its roots […]. By the roots the people must be linked, not by their hearts; by their intrahistoric roots, not by their historic hearts” (Unamuno 1899). Through this metaphor, he describes the need to deepen the collective spirit, with roots that connect, give life, and extend into the depths of the ground. Unamuno saw himself as the guardian of Spain’s intrahistory, combatting myths and legends that he perceived as inaccurate, and supporting those that were beneficial and true. Additionally, he uses the metaphor of the sea to explain intrahistory, describing it as the

substance of history, its sediment […]. The waves of history, with their whispers that reverberate in the sun, roll on a continuous, deep sea, immensely deeper than the foam that undulates on a silent sea whose deepest depths the sun never reaches. Everything the daily newspapers write, all the history of the ‘present historic moment’ is nothing but the surface of the sea, a surface that is frozen and crystallized in books and records, and once crystallized that way, becomes a hard layer […]. The newspapers say nothing of the silent lives of the millions of people without history, who, at all hours of the day and in all countries of the globe, arise at the orders of the sun and go to their fields to continue the dark and silent, daily and eternal labor […]. That intra-historic, silent, and continuous life, like the same bottom of the sea, is the substance of progress, true tradition, eternal tradition, not that false tradition that can be found interred in books and papers and monuments and stone. (Unamuno 1958, 185)  

The sea here functions as a metonymy to make the intangible concept of the intrahistoric something more easily understood. He describes a history that comes in waves, that is presented in the surface level information in the press, the historic moment, information that crystallizes in books, that loses its living quality. On the other hand, there is an immense and unknown depth to the sea, to the people, to the intrahistory, that is found under the surface, near the depths of the sea.

Intrahistory is the leftover sediment of history, something that is unconscious, that is unseen and unknown, not preserved on paper or stone, but underlying the collective spirit. Moreover, it creates a deep sense of tradition and progress.

Because intrahistory can establish bonds between people, Unamuno believed it had the potential to form a collective consciousness in the people of Spain, bringing them together and beyond polarization. Yet, intrahistory was not temporally or geographically bound to Spain of that epoch, and Unamuno indicates that there is a deep intrahistory in all societies. For instance, he explained that we can look to the example of “Shakespeare [who] penetrates the Roman intrahistory and soul with Hamlet, an incarnation of such deep humanity” (Unamuno 2005, 228).

As a political tool, intrahistory can reveal things about the nature of a people, and it can also be a way to guide and modify a society’s character. Unamuno explains that in the study of individuals “we try to determine… individual character and temperament so as to guide and modify it; it is the same in a people, to determine its character. Historic events are symptoms of a collective character” (Unamuno 1889). Thus, an intrahistorical analysis can help us understand the political life and the motives of a community and the underlying causes of historical events. Moreover, it can help us understand the profound character of a people so that we can improve the community. In one article he questions the future of Spain from the midst of turmoil, asking, “is everything dead?” To this he responds, “No, the future of the Spanish society waits inside of our historic society, in the intra-history, in the unknown people, and will not emerge as powerful until it is awakened by gusts or gales from the European environment” (Unamuno 1958, 298). Thus, Unamuno sees intrahistory as a powerful force that we can access when even politics fail. Finally, in the idea and imaginative space of the intrahistoric, wars and political disputes can be resolved in new ways. For Unamuno, the uselessness “of war, the manifestation of the barbarism represented by one brother killing another brother can only be overcome through a superior synthesis, and […] history cannot offer that, but only intrahistory. It is in intrahistory where the contradictions between liberal and carlist, peace and war are resolved” (Cortina 2003).

As Unamuno attempted to unite people under a collective spirit, he employed the rhetoric of intrahistory, involving the use of common language, the landscape, familial bonds,  myths and legends, and spiritual authenticity. By employing these different strategies, he hoped to bring the people of Spain into a fuller community that shared a common spirit and consciousness. He summarizes in anecdotal form this ideal of this collective unity in his article about origami birds of his childhood: “Men of flesh should take as a model, not only ants and bees, but also those villages of paper, free and obedient, always happy, resigned to life and death, pious toward their creator, and all animated by the same idea, the same will, and the same end” (Unamuno 1888). It is Unamuno’s hope that through the rhetoric of intrahistory, one can create a community of people who are happy, free, and animated by the same ideas and ends.

Works cited:

– Cortina, Manuel Suárez. “Miguel de Unamuno y la novela histórica en la España de fin de siglo.” In Miguel de Unamuno: Estudios sobre su obra, edited by Ana Chaguaceda Toledano, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, pp. 287-311, 2003.

– Fiddian, R.W. “Unamuno-Bergson: A Reconsideration.”  The Modern Language Review 69 (4), pp.787-795, 1974.

– Pascual Mezquita, Eduardo. La intrahistoria del último Unamuno. Universidad de Salamanca, 1993.

– Starkie, Walter. “Introduction.” In Our Lord Don Quixote: The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho with Related Essays, by Miguel de Unamuno. Princeton University Press, pp. ix-xxxv, 1976.

– Unamuno, Miguel de. “The History of Some Little Paper Birds.” Bilbao, August 5, 1888.

—. Unamuno, Miguel de. “How History is Written and What Purpose it Serves.” El Porvenir Vascongado, June 5, 1889.

—. Unamuno, Miguel de. “Of the Superior Teaching in Spain.” Revista Nueva, October 5, 1899.

—. Unamuno, Miguel de. Obras Completas Vol. III: Ensayo I. Afrodisio Aguado, S., 1958.

—. Unamuno, Miguel de. 2005. En torno al casticismo, Letras Hispánicas. Cátedra, 2005.

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