Text: M. Thomas Inge and Gloria Downing, “Unamuno and Poe,” Poe Newsletter­, December 1970, vol. III, no. 2, 3:35-36


[page 35, column 1:]

Unamuno and Poe

Virginia Commonwealth University

Michigan State University

Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (1864-1936) is reported to have read some fourteen foreign languages with fluency. The literatures of England and the United States were among his favorite reading matter, and among his favorite authors he counted Whitman, Thoreau, Melville, Holmes, William James, and Poe. His library, still intact at Salamanca under the supervision of his daughter Felisa, contains two editions of Poe’s works, with annotations in Unamuno’s handwriting: The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe with a Selection of Essays, with an introduction by Andrew Lang (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., Everyman’s Library, 1927) and Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by John H. Ingram (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, Collection of British and American Authors, 1884, 1907 reprint). Unamuno’s verse diary, first published in 1953 as Cancionero, contains two poems directly inspired by his reading in Poe’s works; these are translated by M. Thomas Inge in “Miguel de Unamuno’s canciones on American Literature,” Arlington Quarterly, II (Autumn 1969), 83-97.

On only one occasion did he address himself to a full essay on Poe. This was written in response to a book review of John W. Robertson’s early psychoanalytic study Edgar A. Poe: A Psychopathic Study (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923) which he read in the Buenos Aires journal La Nacion. The review was written by Ernesto Montenegro and had been reprinted from Revista Chilena,

XV (March-April 1923), 548-553. Unamuno’s essay appeared in La Nacion of August 19, 1923, and was collected by Manuel Garcia-Blanco in his edition of the Ohra Completas, Volume VIII (Madrid: Afrodisio Aguado 1960), pp. 1165-69. This is the first time the essay ha been translated into English. The translators are grateful to Don Fernando de Unamuno, representing the Unamuno heirs and estate, for his kind permission to publish this essay.

Artistic Morality

It is a sad thing to have to return from time to time, and with greater frequency than one would desire, to certain principles of sane criticism which should appear to be good common sense. It is a sad thing to have to establish at every step the dignity and independence of literature and to have to defend it from the attacks of sociology, of pedagogy, and above all of literary pathology, which is no more than pathological literature. Because the literature truly pathological, insane, and sick is that written by those who are investigating the pathology of the literati — of the literati and not the literary works. Because a sick man can write very sane works — in the literary and aesthetic sense, of course — and a very sane man can write sick works.

This applies to the essay “Edgar Poe, A Scientific Rehabilitation,” which Ernesto Montenegro published in these same columns — in the issue of June 3 — reviewing, with very good judgment, the book by John W. Robertson Edgar A. Poe: A Psychopathic Study, a book which we know only through this review.

It is the old question, which [Cesare] Lombroso [Italian physician and criminologist! recently raised in his book The Man of Genius [1891] and Max Nordau [German physician and essayist] in Degeneration [1892]. While Lombroso’s book is superior in its genre, the author himself has an inferior, pathological genius. As has been said many times, the investigation of what physical afflictions a great poet or novelist suffers is like judging the discoveries of a man of science by whether he suffers from the liver or the spleen. And if to common sense it appears that an artistic work is less objective than a scientific discovery, then leave common sense to its incurable blindness and aesthetic deafness.

In the essay by Montenegro, we see cited a statement by Poe himself that appears essential, and it is that in which he says, “I lost my reason between long periods of horrible lucidity. During these attacks of absolute unconsciousness is when I drank. Only God knows how often and for how long. Of course my enemies attribute the mental agitation to drinking, instead of seeing in that the cause of it.” Perhaps what occurs in most cases is that the alcoholism is the effect more than the cause of an agitation, degeneration, or prior disorder.

The work to which Mr. Robertson has been dedicated and the note which Montenegro has written about him are to be praised; but literary criticism and aesthetics, in any case, have more to do with works than with men. The biography of the author hinders more than helps in [page 36:] the best aesthetic comprehension of his productions. The fact that we know nothing of Homer, not even whether he was a single person, permits us to see the lliad and the Odyssey with clearer eyes. Thus has the knowledge of the afflictions of poor Poe, victim of a society infected with a badly degenerated common sense, a provincial and colonial common sense, prevented many from seeing the sublime aesthetic sanity, the logical lucidity of his productions. And perhaps poor Poe drank in order not to succumb to the uncouth common sense of his fellow citizens. Even though they are fellow citizens .... No! The city of Poe, his ideal city, was not, could not be that of those democratic and colonial Puritans, whose common sense could indeed become excessive, but it was more suited to the Transcendentalism of Emerson, who could not be taken for insane.

What would all the pathologists (we prefer to call them thus and not doctors, which is something more artistic, more noble) say, who choose to judge a work of art by the illness of its author, if an artist were to judge his works of pathology — in themselves pathological — by his literary weakness, by his perverse style, by his lack of taste? The turnabout would be very fair.

This is an old debate which recurs time and again. And we should observe the diabolical satisfaction that the slaves of common sense, those incapable of any feeling of their own, experience every time they believe that it has been demonstrated to them that a genius was insane or degenerate. Then they touch their own heads — that is to say not their own but that part of the common head which it has been their lot to receive — and exclaim, “Thank God I ’m no genius!” Yet to themselves they think differently. We say “diabolical satisfaction,” but it is the work of poor devils.

The scrutiny of the private lives of artists of any class should be prohibited. Does it matter how they live at home? An artist is explained by his work and not his work by him. And even if we like to read his correspondence or an intimate diary, it is because it is his work, his literary work. Great writers do not have a private correspondence. They always have the public in mind. This reminds us of a phrase attributed to a great Spanish actor who, having heard a colleague of his praised for moving on the stage as naturally as in his own house, answered, “What a bad actor! The good actor is one who acts at home and in the street as he would on stage.” An actor must be judged as an actor, and a poet as a poet. The one who suffered from an extremely severe moral illness was Griswold, Poe’s detractor. He suffered from a covetousness which is characteristic only of those who have common sense, of those who lack individuality and are not able to achieve it. This covetousness is the demogogic passion par excellence.

Acquire common sense? Yes. There are a few axioms which are common to us all, most of which control our lives, but a normally intelligent man acquires them, makes them his own, reflecting: How many of those who believe by authority, and only through it, that the earth revolves around the sun, would he capable of offering proof of it? They believe it because of implicit faith, a coal-merchant’s faith. And in the same fashion they believe in obviously false axioms. [column 2:]

The case of Poe is a typical case — a typical case of myth. The herd mentality, that tolerates neither excellence, nor superiority, nor exquisiteness, creates a legend around those who are not subservient to it, who do not search for easy popularity. And the legends are terrible!

Ernesto Montenegro spoke of the “lucid judgment” and of the “disciplined imagination and the high artistic integrity” of Poe. And thus it is. The expression “artistic integrity” is conveniently appropriate, and integrity is sanity.

There is more to be said, and that is, as soon as a genius, made to the measure and taste of the commonsense herd — or the sense of the community — produces works without artistic integrity, vulgar or coarse, the moment they are submitted to scrutiny, he will find himself a victim of the evil passions of the herd. We must believe very little in the good intentions of the average commoner. As for the fools, the utter fools, it is known that they are worthless. Foolishness is a moral sickness. A foolish man is a fool because he is of little consequence. The good man of little wit does not become a fool. He remains discreet.

Salamanca, July, 1923.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1970]