Unamuno Preceptorial Essay

The Connection Between Love and Suffering

in The Tragic Sense of Life, Nothing Less than a Man, and San Manuel Bueno, Martyr

NOTE: the formatting is a little off – I apologize, but it wasn’t worth taking an hour to reformat. If you care, download the PDF version.

There is no true love save in suffering, and in this world we have to choose either love, which is suffering, or happiness. And love leads us to no other happiness than that of love itself and its tragic consolation of uncertain hope. The moment love becomes happy and satisfied, it no longer desires and it is no longer love.

Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of life in Men and Nations. pg. 225

In The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations Unamuno writes about suffering as creating consciousness, compassion, and ultimately love in such a way that true love is impossible without first experiencing suffering. Without such suffering, we are not truly conscious; rather we sleepwalk through life, imagining ourselves happy. At first glance, that seems at odds with the usual understanding of both love and happiness. As humans we spend a good deal of effort attempting to minimize suffering both in our own lives and throughout the world. If what Unamuno says is true, it creates a choice between love and happiness, and if love is the superior choice perhaps rather than attempting to overcome suffering to the greatest possible extent, a certain amount of suffering is necessary, and even desirable. In this essay I intend to explore the question of how suffering and love are related in Unamuno’s understanding through The Tragic Sense of Life the characters of Julia and Alejandro in Nothing Less than a Man, and a brief look at Don Manuel in San Manuel Bueno, Martyr.

Though it is well known that love often leads to or causes suffering, it is difficult to look at relationships involving love, whether they be parental, romantic, or of friendship, and immediately understand them to be rooted in suffering, since that element is most often avoided or downplayed; when it’s not, we suppose that the relationship may end in collapse. Surely a healthy love will offer more happiness than pain? It’s easier for me to start from religious love, which is far readier to admit an element of suffering into its core. For Unamuno religious and sexual love are both species of the same thing, for “thanks to love, we can feel whatever is flesh in the spirit” (147). This spiritual love expresses itself both as joy and suffering; on the one hand in feasts, dances, light, and joy; and on the other in fasts, vigils, hair shirts, prostrations, chains, lack of sleep, tears, and a number of other bodily and spiritual discomforts. And while there are certainly people who do such things out of fear of condemnation, there is also a side of desire and love to them. We “get to” do hundreds of prostrations for Lent; “get to” fast and stand for hours on end; young men of my acquaintance have been excited that they “get to” sleep on the floor, hardly eat, stand in cold water, weep, reflect on our unworthyness, and so on. In the early Church people sometimes went out of their way to get martyred (though that kind of behavior was usually condemned), and when that was no longer possible fled to the desert to suffer in strict asceticism. Even if people have on occasion been overzealous in courting suffering, it does seem that courting suffering is a more or less natural expression of love for God, or to seek to love better.

For Unamuno to love is, to a great extent, to pity and feel compassion for the beloved, and so as we suffer ourselves, and realize that others do the same, and as we experience anguish over the realization that everything must die, and perhaps everything is meaningless, and there is no eternity, we are moved to pity and compassion, which manifests itself as love (152). Indeed, in Christianity even love for God can be compassion, since Christ was said to suffer for and with us: “a God who loves and thirsts for love, for pity, a God who is a person.” A God who did not suffer, in this view, could not really be loved, like the god he accused Spinoza of creating; a mere idea, dead and cold and unable to love or suffer.

It’s an odd idea – to pity God. Even more so to say that we would be unable to love that which we cannot pity. It is true that a kind of universal compassion is often held up as the highest form of love: that I might feel sorrow for every person in the world; feel their pain as my own, and their sins as my own burden. That last part is not Unamuno’s concern; if God does not certainly exist, or if we create him, guilt can hardly be of first importance. And if at one point he asserts that he would prefer eternal purgatory to paradise, some remaining imperfection may be for the good. But universal compassion is of utmost importance, and if God is the universalization and then personalization of our common suffering consciousness, as Unamuno sometimes says that he is, then a universal compassion would surely come to encompass him as well.

At several points Unamuno mentions the 16th century Spanish mystic St. Theresa of Avila, as when he says of his country that “Other peoples have left chiefly institutions, books; we have left souls; St. Teresa is worth any institution, any Critique of Pure Reason.” So it seems reasonable to investigate her experience of suffering and love. As a young woman Teresa endured a severe illness, and afterward was given visions, along with imageless experiences of being taken out of herself. Very often in those visions she experienced pain and love together, as when she recounted:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. … I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. (Life, 29:13)

St. Teresa’s combination of pain and love differs from Unamuno’s, in that she does not associate it directly with pity, especially when recounting her visions. And though it begins to make sense that love may in experience be deeply connected with a kind of suffering, that this connection might always be compassion is unexpected.

To love with the spirit is to pity, and he who pities most loves most. Men aflame with a burning charity towards their neighbours are thus enkindled because they have touched the depth of their own misery, their own apparentiality, their own nothingness, and then, turning their newly opened eyes upon their fellows, they have seen that they also are miserable, apparential, condemned to nothingness, and they have pitied them and loved them. (152)

So the connection of pity and compassion comes in when we are able to truly appreciate the tragedy of life; that we will die and be nothing, along with all those around us – and perhaps with everything human. And just as that realization causes pain in oneself, it also causes compassion for others. But that seems problematic if one doesn’t adhere to Unamuno’s current version of what it means to be a human. Does either full belief in immortality or full acceptance of a final end to humanity make compassionate love impossible? Or would it simply take another form? Perhaps compassion at our smallness or wretchedness or transitoriness next to the universe, or infinity, or God, rather than infinite time? Inconsolable sadness appears to be necessary to universal compassion, but perhaps the main reason for the sadness is not the most important thing, but simply its presence. It may be that each person has his own misery that can potentially lead to love, but all are in some related to the possibility of death and eternal nothingness.

So, it seems true that suffering is necessary to love, just as love tends toward producing greater suffering, at least as humans are at present, and that a feeling for that connection draws people toward painful love at the expense of an easier kind of happiness. And misery in the face of an inadequate existence could very possibly lead to the universalization of compassion for one’s own suffering, perhaps even personalizing that universal in the form of a suffering God; whether or not that God is also eternal and created us before we presumed to create him as a reflection of our reflection of Him.

“Whenever we speak of love there is always present in our memory the idea of sexual love,” and as an example of one such love we are given, first, an abstract description of how love goes from the purely sexual to the spiritual in The Tragic Sense of Life, and then a narrative of the workings of that love in Nothing Less than a Man. After describing how carnal love is as much a battle as a fusion, and declaring it “brother, son, and father to death” (148), Unamuno says that “out of this love of the whole body with all its senses, which is the animal origin of human society, out of this loving-fondness, rises spiritual and sorrowful love. This spiritual love, is born of sorrow, is born of the death of carnal love.” He then goes on to describe how lovers, united physically while being estranged in soul, might come to share a common sorrow, as in the death of a child. And in that experience of mutual suffering, their sexual love is cooled, while their spirits are brought closer, in a “true fusion of souls.” However, if their bond is not strong enough to bear the suffering together, they will be altogether estranged, in soul and body. Is it possible to impose the above understanding onto the story of Julia and Alejandro, and if so how might it help to clarify the original passage?

Julia’s experience is described in greater detail, so I’ll look at her first. At the beginning of the story she is already undergoing a form of suffering: because of the financial irresponsibility of her father, it looks like she’s going to be forced to marry against her desire, and is looking for a way to escape that fate. “He wants to sell me!” she keeps repeating to herself. And so in desperation, she is looking to find a lover before her father can carry out his plans. The oppression by her father seems to her the only suffering she is not willing to endure, and against it she urges her suitors to either flee or die with her. They are not so desperate, and refuse; either they do not love her as they say they do, or their expectations of love do not include risking suffering and death in its service. Here there is no shared suffering and fusion of souls, but rather infatuation combined with estrangement of soul.

Throughout the story, beginning with the first suitor, Julia is accused of getting her understanding of love from novels. Certainly if her temperament were different she might not have been so miserable; but would it have been the happiness of one who might as well have been asleep? There are people who describe themselves as content in arranged marriages, without any kind of passionate love. Insuch a case, happiness is judged more important than love, since the latter is perhaps less achievable by conventional means. Julia is not such a person; for her the options seem to be love, misery, or miserable love. The men say that this is because of the novels; perhaps if she didn’t read them, she would have a different understanding of what is achievable or desirable. Perhaps there’s something to that: literature suggests forms of tragic love that may not be readily apparent in normal life, both because it’s impossible to know what’s happening in the souls of others, and because passionate love on the scale of that described in plays and novels may not be either very common or lasting – especially in a society that condemns romance as frivolous. At one point Julia mentions Othello, suggesting that perhaps she has read Shakespeare, and would look with admiration at characters like Romeo and Juliet, or even the darker passion of Othello. As Don Quixote read tales of Chivalry and considered the possibility of being a knight, so Julia might read love stories, and consider the possibility of being a romantic heroine; and if she cannot speak with her love in the terms of romance, she cannot be happy whatever else she might possess. Is it a good idea to stir up the possibility of romantic excesses with stories and plays? At first saying that Julia is doing so is meant as a censure on her emotional extravagance, but considering Unamuno’s other statements on the necessity of suffering and love to being really awake and alive, perhaps he is more on the side of Julia in this matter, as he is certainly on Don Quixote’s side.

So along comes “A Real Man:” he is rich and impressive and influential, so her father agrees to “sell” Julia to him. After she has agreed to marry Alejandro, Unamuno describes a kind of passion that does not seem to correlate well with a woman’s love in The Tragic Sense of Life. This is not a love of compassion and pity, but rather of fear and dominion; he “conquers” her, and her response is a kind of passion of love, but one likened to that of a “captive slave-girl.” Is it then self-pity that stirs her love? She takes pleasure in relating her woes to her previous suitors in the manner of self-pity, but so far it has not expanded into universal compassion – or even much compassion for her lovers. Is that because it’s not yet complete? She has recognized a particular suffering on her own part, of oppression from her father and cowardice or ownership by her lovers, but has suffered in isolation, and can not see a similar anguish in others? Unamuno narrates that though she loved Alejandro in a way, and he loved her beauty and to show her off, “no intimacy existed between them;” as it had not existed between him and his former wife, who he refers to as something he owned, and not as a true person. Therefore, at this point her love is that of the body only, as when Unamuno says that “It has been said that love is a mutual selfishness; and, in fact, each one of the lovers seeks to possess the other, and in seeking his own perpetuation through the instrumentality of the other, though without being at the time conscious of it or purposing it, he thereby seeks his own enjoyment.” If that is a correct reading, then Julia’s anguish over the question of whether or not Alejandro loves her is one of whether she does in fact possess him as he possesses her. At first she believes that having his child will bring him to admit her claim on his love, but he refuses saying only that he “expected as much,” and so she is left in doubt: does she or does she not possess him?

In the Count of Bordaviella Julia sees a kind of mirror of what she is suffering and is drawn to him, though without much passion. She can have him if she wants, but he’s hardly worth having; compared to Alejandro he’s not much of a man, but more like a pet. Even so, he is a man, and Julia sees in him a possibility of compassion, and also a way to create jealousy in her husband. If he really loves her – if she really possess him – surely Alejandro will be jealous of her affair with the count, as she was of his servant? He gives her no such consolation, however, and remains distant, even in anger. And as for the count himself: though he’s willing to use pretty words of love, in the end he’s not any different than the suitors who refused any risk on her behalf. The love of Julia and the Count seems more like the kind where, rather than being fused in common suffering, “when the bond of flesh which united them is broken, they breathe with a sigh of relief” and go their separate ways.

Despite a small measure of shared compassion with the Count, jealousy seems to weigh far more in Julia’s mind than love here. For, though it’s a possibility that the isolation of the asylum really did drive Julia to forget what had happened between herself and the Count, it seems more likely that it was Alejandro’s declaration of love when she is released, and she and the count no longer have anything in common; though he is still subject to his own cowardice and his wife’s infidelity, Julia now knows that she possesses Alejandro, which was her only real concern to begin with. When she sees him suffering over her illness as she did over his indifference, “her husband’s blind fury filled her soul with a very sweet light. At last she was really happy!” But it’s a costly happiness, ending in illness, derangement, and ultimately an early death. So, while she did not fall into the sleep of seeming happiness, it’s doubtful that her kind of love was ultimately worth pursuing.

In Julia’s case, it seems that while there is a certain resemblance between her experience of love and the description given in The Tragic Sense of Life, there is also a difference in that before Julia and Alejandro’s love and suffering become mutual, hers is not described as being founded in pity and compassion as when Unamuno says that “…what is maternal love but compassion for the weak, helpless, defenceless infant that craves the mother’s milk and the comfort of her breast? And woman’s love is all maternal.” But rather it comes from fear, as when “she was overcome by a mad and blind love, founded on an equally blind terror.” So though through much of the story Julia searches for a weakness in Alejandro on which to show compassion, she fails on account of his distance, and is left with only the animal love that is as much hate as love. And in the end, if it is true that “the moment love becomes happy and satisfied, it no longer desires and it is no longer love,” then what does it mean when, before her final breakdown, Julia is satisfied in her love? Could that even be what finally sends her over the brink into madness and death?

On account of being less effusive than Julia, and also not the point of view character, it’s more difficult to follow what’s going on with Alejandro without lapsing into speculation. Through most of the story he isn’t particularly interested in love, but rather in power. There’s a suggestion that his childhood was so awful, to the point where he cursed his father and then God, that he was intent on maintaining power over both others and his own passions, to the point where he could never again be plunged into despair. Such a position toward life is opposite to Unamuno’s tragic sense, which seeks love and life, and must accept suffering and doubt as both condition and consequence of authentic life. So Alejandro married a woman for her money, treated her as an object, and may have been in some way responsible for her death. With her money he bought other people’s debts, using that leverage to hold power over weaker characters such as Julia’s father and the Count. In addition to the power that wealth brings, he had a kind of personal charisma and self-deception that allowed him to be absolutely certain of his sway over those around him that he would never admit doubt of its affect. People heard his confidence in this persona in the way he said I, and his response to such things as Julia agreeing to marry him, or remain faithful, or the birth of a son. Of course he was having a son! How could anyone doubt it? He? Of course Julia could not refuse him; had to love him!

It is not within the scope of this essay to examine what psychological mechanisms were at work, turning a miserable and helpless child into a cold, merciless, controlling tyrant, but one of the affects thereof was to make him unwilling to consider himself vulnerable to any love – much less a deep, anguished love, until he had already destroyed any chance of happiness in that love. Some such possibility is perhaps present when he threw a bottle at the man who had insinuated about his wife and the count; perhaps he has begun to doubt his absolute power over Julia, but it cannot break his cool manipulations of her love. So he dismisses her question of whether he loves her as the fantasy of a silly woman who reads too many novels; he writes the count off as a pet, like a monkey or a small fluffy dog; he will not bend to order the count from his house, because that would be to admit some potential that his wife is not completely in his power. Even when he must know that she has been accepting the advances of another, he will not respond by showing jealousy, thus admitting weakness, and has to set up the scam of sending her to the asylum instead. What happened to cause the change is not described; he seems to learn something of suffering through a wretched repressed jealousy, the realization that it is in fact possible for his wife to cheat on him, and Julia’s absence at the asylum; but the result was that his perfect, icy, cruel control of himself slipped, and admitted a kind of love, and he finally has compassion on her.

It was as though a flash of tempestuous light had for an instant illuminated the black, tenebrous lake of that soul that caused its surface to shimmer. It was that she saw two teardrops in this man’s cold eyes as piercing as daggers. Then he burst forth:

“Do I love you, my dear child, do I love you! I love you with all my soul, with all my blood and with all my being, more than my own self! At first when we were marriedI didn’t. But now? Now I love you blindly – wildly! I am yours more than you are mine.”

It’s not a particularly high form of love: now Alejandro has compassion for the sufferings of his wife, and admits to sharing them, but he has learned none for the count, and little for his son: he regains composure and puts Julia and the count through another wretched ordeal in the service of his need to show that his wife could not possibly betray him. A little more suffering is needed.

That suffering occurs in the illness and death of Julia; at that point Alejandro finally expresses his now passionate love, though he still tries, in despair and with “a cold and obstinate fury” to declare that his wife could not die; he surely could not be so powerless! And yet, such he is, and unable to deal with it he kills himself. Indeed, his love is hardly less terrible than his indifference; did he know that before, and try to defend himself from it? Almost certainly the suffering of Julia, and by extension of himself, led Alejandro to realize his love, but the desirability of that love is less clear; as it is forced upon him against his will, he seems unable to accept it and deal with it in a compassionate way.


At our coming into the world it is given to us to choose between love and happiness, and we wish—poor fools!—for both: the happiness of loving and the love of happiness. But we ought to ask for the gift of love and not of happiness, and to be preserved from dozing away into habit, lest we should fall into a fast sleep, a sleep without waking, and so lose our consciousness beyond power of recovery. We ought to ask God to make us conscious of ourselves in ourselves, in our suffering.–The Tragic Sense of Life, 225

The case of Don Manuel presents a peculiarity: he is obviously a very good, loving man deeply concerned for the welfare of his people, even if it leads to greater suffering for himself. And in himself he either will not or cannot choose happiness above love, though it torments him at times, to the point where he cannot be alone with his own soul without great pain. But with the exception of Lazarus and perhaps Angela, he does not appear to believe in Unamuno’s “15th corporeal work of mercy,” that of “waking the sleeper.” On the contrary, he tells Lazarus not to bother people with the truth, but rather to allow them to continue in their faith without disturbance, and even to support that very faith that may be working to keep them only partly conscious, though happy. Why is that the case?

Speaking of the people of Valverde de Lucerna in San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, Lazarus says, recounting his discussions with Don Manuel that “it is a holy cause, a most holy cause […] to protect the peace, the happiness, the illusions, perhaps of his [Don Manuel’s] charges.” Then, Don Manuel says “I am put here to give life to the souls of my charges, to make them happy, to make them dream they are immortal – and not to destroy them.” Later, when Angela asks him if he believes the people of the village to have true faith, he replies: “About that, I know nothing!… They probably believe without trying, from force of habit, tradition. The important thing is not to stir them up. To let them live from their thin sentiments, without acquiring the torments of luxury. Blessed are the poor in spirit!” Thus it appears that Don Manuel does not agree with the aim of “waking the sleeper,” or that we ought to ask for love and not happiness – for it is his work and desire to preserve the contented illusions of the people to the greatest extent possible. Only when Lazarus is already unable to believe does Don Manuel relate to him his terrible secret. As for the others – let them dream of happiness! What is he doing? Does he disagree with Unamuno’s position in The Tragic Sense of Life, that we ought to choose consciousness and suffering over happy dreams? And yet Don Manuel equates this dream-like existence with life. By the previous understanding of the connection between suffering, compassion, love, and a deeper sense of life, how is it possible that the villagers are being offered life, without spiritual anguish? Do they simply have a different path toward fulfilling the longing for life which does not lead through the rational wasteland? In the chapter The Essence of Catholicism Unamuno writes “The vital principal asserts itself, and in order to assert itself it creates, with the help of its enemy, the rational, a complete dogmatic structure, and this the Church defends against rationalism, against Protestantism, and against Modernism. The Church defends life,” and before that “This thirst for eternal life is appeased by many, especially by the simple, at the fountain of religious faith; but to drink of this is not given to all.” It is, it seems, given to the people of Valverde de Lucerna, and to a certain extent to Angela, but not to Don Manuel or Lazarus; and they are content to let it remain that way. What, then, of love?

Perhaps it’s the case that the villagers can learn compassion through another means than despair, as is the case with the religious mystics: through the death of a child, or a lover; through temporal illness and sorrow and pain, and then still, in a more limited way, learn compassion for the cares of others through those experiences. That certainly seems possible, but it is still problematic that the truly impressive characters in the story, who are willing to give their lives in service to others, have learned that through anguish, doubt, and fear of solitude. Why is their position not a sin against humility? Granted it may be possible to achieve life and wakefulness through either simple faith, or realizing the anguish and despair of the nothingness of existence. Then, on the one hand there are people who are happy and alive, but “simple,” like the coal heaver; and on the other there are people who are miserable and alive, like Don Manuel. Are both ways equally good, and we should let people have whichever they are capable of? There’s still something unnerving about the dichotomy; a suspicion that they are not really presented as equal – and that the higher one is that of Don Manuel, and the lower that of the village: because they never learn to love with universal compassion. And then there is perhaps a third way – to “believe because it is absurd” as Tertullian is said to have declared of his own faith. And the faith of those who realize the possibility of unbelief, but are not themselves driven to it, as with Angela.

In that case it’s alright to say that certain people are able to face the terror of the possibility of utter annihilation, and learn love from that, and other people are not, and should learn it in another way, as with a mother who has lost her child, and takes comfort in caring for the needs of other people’s children. Unamuno seems less concerned with the cause of the suffering than with its presence: and perhaps it’s foolish to force others to bear a suffering that is not their own. There’s a potential, however, for pride on both sides, which destroys love. On the one side is the temptation to believe that the anguish of the intellectual afflicted with unsatisfied vital longing puts him above the “simple;” the “coal heaver,” who couldn’t possibly handle that same anguish, and should be left to his “dreams of immortality.” That would be pity of the wrong kind: pity for others, while being above them oneself, or pity for oneself that doesn’t transfer to others, because they’re so carefully guarded from such painful realization. Love implies a kind of mutuality that can hardly be present in pride and superiority – even if it’s condescendingly “for their own good.” On the other side is the temptation to wounded pride: feeling like one is being looked down on for “simple faith.” How is there to be mutuality of love and suffering if some people have to be kept ignorant because they are believed unable to share the burdens of those who understand the tragedy of life?

It is in keeping with how people describe their experience of certain kinds of love, and with those of Julia, Alejandro, and Don Manuel to say that “spiritual love” is founded in shared suffering, and at odds with simple happiness. It is also at odds with simple love, as we sometimes expect it to be: that of love as a form of pleasure, or happiness, or consolation for loneliness. I could not, however, find a definitive answer as to this love’s universal desirability: in The Tragic Sense of Life it is held up as good in that we ought to seek love over happiness. And yet it leads to tragedy with little consolation – it is unclear that Julia derived greater benefit from her determination to maintain her love and have it reciprocated in Alejandro than she would have by resolving to seek out happiness rather than love, if that were at all possible. She did not learn any greater compassion for others from her pain, and in the end became very petty – her greatest happiness in love is seeing Alejandro’s anger and pain, whether it’s to him benefit or not. As for Alejandro himself, he is unable to transfer his newly discovered love into compassion for others, most especially his own child. In the sphere of the carnal, then, it is unclear why it may be better to have love and tragedy than a somewhat boring happiness. Love may jolt the characters awake, but teaches them no greater compassion for others, nor higher consolation for themselves – unless Julia’s delight in the pain of her husband should be considered a higher consolation. In Don Manuel we get to see suffering love transformed into compassion and help for his people, but this presents it’s own problem in that this very compassion leads him to keep his people from gaining for themselves his kind of compassion, by shielding them from the painful possibility that we are not immortal. Since Unamuno is by his own account not trying to make a tidy system that can account for every possibility without contradiction. In the end, it may be more helpful to keep open the possibility that love is worth achieving, even if it increases tragedy, and that compassion seeks to shield others from its’ own pain, even if that very pain is what teaches it to love.

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