Psychologizing, Immortalizing, and Unamuno Contra Nietzsche

As promised yesterday, here is Miguel de Unamuno on Nietzsche. In my first post on Unamuno, I had written that ‘there are streaks of ‘conventional’ conservatism visible in his fulminations against Nietzsche.’ The following is one such outburst. It occurs in the chapter that sets up Unamuno’s central thesis in The Tragic Sense of Life: ‘The Hunger of Immortality’:

There you have that ‘thief of energies’ as he so obtusely called Christ who sought to wed nihilism with the struggle for existence, and he talks to you about courage. His heart craved the eternal All while his head convinced him of nothingness, and, desperate and mad to defend himself from himself, he cursed that which he most loved. Because he could not be Christ, he blasphemed against Christ. Bursting with his own self, he wished himself unending and dreamed his theory of eternal recurrence, a sorry counterfeit of immortality, and, full of pity for himself, he abominated all pity. And there are some who say that his is the philosophy of strong men! No, it is not. My health and my strength urge me to perpetuate myself. His is the doctrine of weaklings who aspire to be strong, but not of the strong who are strong. Only the feeble resign themselves to final death and substitute some other desire for the longing for personal immortality. In the strong the zeal for perpetuity overrides the doubt of realizing it, and their superabundance of life overflows upon the other side of death. [Nietzsche is not named directly here but, instead, is footnoted via the ‘he’ in the first sentence above.]

Sympathetic readers of Nietzsche will find plenty to disagree here: the accusations of nihilism and self-pity, the claim that ‘his is the doctrine of weaklings’, the resignation of Nietzsche to ‘final death’ (this is especially an oddity as it occurs a few sentences after noting Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence).  But these criticisms of Nietzsche are not novel, of course; most arch-critics of Nietzsche have made them too. The irony implicit in a man perpetually racked by illness writing so eloquently on ‘health and strength’ has not gone unnoticed, for instance, and neither has Nietzsche’s religious upbringing, nor his anxiety over romantic failure (with Lou Salome) and publication and recognition. There is plenty in Nietzsche’s life to prompt such readings then. And because Nietzsche dished out so many dressings-down in his writings and suggested much philosophical theorizing amounted to involuntary autobiographies of its authors, he himself invites such polemical counterblasts built on relentless psychologizing.

It is not something that he would have minded, I suspect. The vigor of his polemics have clearly provoked Unamuno and shoved the proverbial burr under the saddle. Unamuno has been forced to admit he has read Nietzsche and found him a threat to the doctrines he aims to expound and defend in his book; he knows that unless Nietzsche is defused and defanged, his writing will continue to mock them.

For a man who feared lack of attention the most, this is not such a bad outcome. For the final irony is that Unamuno himself immortalizes Nietzsche by this attack.

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