Unamuno was born in Bilbao, Spain, on 29 September 1864; and, as a teenager, he witnessed a siege of the city by Carlist forces (in the so-called Third Carlist War) - a formative experience according to biographers. Aged but 16, he went to study philosophy and belles-lettres at Madrid university, and then did a thesis on the Basque language. From 1884, he worked as a private teacher, but was also writing articles. In 1891, he married his childhood sweetheart, Concha Lizarraga, and they would have nine children.
The following year, having failed to find an academic appointment in the field of philosophy, Unamono took up the chair of Greek at the University of Salamanca, an institution to which he would stay attached for the rest of his life. Around this time, he began writing the essays that would be published in 1902 as En torno al casticismo. His first novel - Paz en la guerra (Peace in War) - was published in 1897, and a second - Amor y pedagogía (Love and Pedagogy) - in 1902. By then, still in his 30s, he had been named rector of the University of Salamanca. In 1905, the García brothers opened Café Novelty in Plaza Mayor, and it soon became a focus for the city’s political and cultural life - Unamuno was a regular patron, often giving talks.
Unamuno was a man of wide interests, with a passion for poetry - he published several collections - and for languages. He read a dozen or more modern languages, as well as Latin and Greek, all the better to understand philosophers from their original texts (he learned Danish to read Kierkegaard, for example). He was also a renowned Lusophile. As a philosopher, he became recognised, latterly, as an early European existentialist.
Unamuno’s most important work - Del sentimiento trágico de la vida - was first published in 1913, and translated into English in 1921 as The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples. In 1914, Unamuno was dismissed from his post as rector by the Minister of Education, for political reasons. But in 1920, he was elected fellow in the philosophy and arts faculty, and re-appointed rector in 1921. By 1924, though, his attacks on the king and the dictator, Primo de Rivera, led to him being forced out again. This time, Unamuno went into exile, first to Fuerteventura, in the Canary Islands, where his house is now a museum, and from there to France, first Paris, and then Hendaye, a border town in French Basque country.
Unamuno remained in Hendaye until after the fall of Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship, and in 1931, he was reappointed, for a third time, to be rector of the University of Salamanca. At first, Unamuno welcomed General Franco’s Second Republic, but he soon became disillusioned with the regime’s harsh tactics. In 1936, he had a public quarrel at the university with the Nationalist general Millán Astray. He was sacked again, and put under house arrest. He died ten weeks later, on the last day of that same year. There is not much biographical information about Unamuno online in English, but try Wikipedia (and a translation of the Spanish entry too) or Kirjasto. Fundación Zuloaga has a Spanish language page on Unamuno.
In 1897, Unamuno underwent a deep depression, a kind of spiritual crisis. This is well documented in his biographies - see Stefany Anne Golberg’s essay at The Smart Set. During this time, he kept a diary, although only a few entries are actually dated, and most of them are philosophical ruminations. These writings were somewhat rough and ready, yet he copied and circulated them to friends. They were not published in English, however, until 1984, as part of Princeton University Press’s seven volume series, The Selected Works of Miguel de Unamuno. Volume 2 is titled The Private World - Selections from the Diario Intimo and Selected Letters 1890-1936, as translated by Anthony Kerrigan, Allen Lacy and Martin Nozick.
Lacy’s introduction explains that Unamuno’s Diario intimo, most of which was written in the months immediately following his crisis, in five bound notebooks, was circulated (except for the brief and scanty entries from 1899 to 1902) to several of the author’s closest friends between 1898 and 1901, then hidden among the papers in his study. He continues:
‘The Diario intimo is by no means a polished piece of work. [. . .] Even in the abridged version which is given in the present volume, few readers will fail to notice that it is obsessive, extremely repetitious, and often self-conscious in a rather theatrical way, nor that it lacks the literary merit that, even for relentless non-believers, distinguishes such other examples of confessional writing as St Augustine’s Confessions and Pascal’s Pensées. But it is an important document for two reasons. First, it announces many of the themes that were to occupy Unamuno in later years, especially in The Tragic Sense of Life and The Agony of Christianity. Second, it provides a vivid picture of a sensitive and deeply intellectual man.’
Here are a few snippets from Diario Intimo.
25 April 1897
‘Quasimodo Sunday. A conventional Mass at the parish church, a sermon by the priest about the fact that many believe that going to church is doing God a favor, when it is we who need God, not He us.
How is it that I imagine myself to be a great personage, one destined to create a sensation in the Church, my conversion providing a model for others? How many ways has pride of surviving!’
28 April 1897
‘Read the ninth chapter of the Gospel of St John. I am a blind man in whom the works of God must be made manifest. Anoint my eyes with clay, Lord, and lead me to wash in the pool of Siloam, in the confessional, so that I may return with sight restored. Give me strength, for I have no will.
And later I will say, to your glory: yes, I am he who sat and begged for human glory. Jesus took clay and anointed my eyes and said to go to the pool of Siloam, and I went, and once I had washed, I saw.
The Lord has made clay out of the dust to which I reduced everything by means of analysis in my passage across the desert of intellectualism, and He has placed it upon my eyes, so that I might desire to see, and then go and wash and see.’
10 May 1897
‘Yesterday, Sunday, at Canillas. What peace there! If one could live and die like they do. We went to the burial at Calzada of a poor fellow who had died of paralysis. I kept thinking about spiritual paralysis. They told me that he died saying: “What a sweet dream!” He seemed asleep there, at the door of the church.
Later the fields were blessed. The young girls brought all their presents in a procession, shawls, kerchiefs, all strung up on a pole.’
Notebook 5 [which contains only a page and a half of entries - here are the last few]
9 May 1899
‘How is it suddenly, today, the 9th May, 1899, in the midst of my studies, I am overcome by a craving to pray? I have had to lay down my book and retire to my room to say a brief prayer and to read in the Imitation the prayer asking for light for the spirit.’
15 January 1902
‘Today, the 15th of January, 1902, in the middle of reading Holtzmann’s Leben Jesu, p. 102, I again take up this diary.’
Always the Father, always engendering the Ideal in us. I, projected to infinity, and you, who are projected to infinity, meet. Our lives, parallel in infinity, meet, and my infinite I is your I, the collective I, the Universe I, the Universe made person, and it is God. And I, am I not my father? Am I not my son?
Thy will be done’