Bradatan, Costica: Narrative as Imitatio Dei in Miguel de Unamuno

Miami University

unamuno1The starting point of my essay is a paradoxical claim that the Spanish philosopher, poet and novelist Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) makes—in his essay “Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho” (1905)—that Don Quixote, Cervantes’ character, is more real and authentic than Miguel de Cervantes himself. Then, after discussing this claim and analyzing the implications of an ingenious literary device that Unamuno employed in his fiction “Niebla” (1914), I will sketch some of the possible philosophical consequences that Unamuno’s literary concepts might have on understanding the ultimate identity of the self, and of the nature of human condition in general. The paper is in three parts: 1) the first part is dedicated to discussing the above mentioned paradoxical claim in “Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho”; 2) the second part deals mainly with Chapter XXXI of Unamuno’s “Niebla”; and 3) in the final part I will deal with Unamuno’s insight that the relationship between the self and God is, properly speaking, of the same nature as the relationship between a literary author and the fictional beings he creates. In addition, I will be trying to place Unamuno’s insight within a broader context of history of ideas, and to point to some of its far-reaching philosophical implications.


“In strict truth, it cannot be said that Don Quixote is the child of Cervantes.” (Unamuno 1967: III, 455) This is one of the central ideas occurring, in various forms and under different guises, throughout Miguel de Unamuno’s Life of Don Quixote and Sancho. In Unamuno’s view, such a character as Don Quixote is too complex, profound, and authentic a creature to be simply the product of one’s imagination. The less so of Cervantes’ imagination. More often than not Unamuno is very critical about Cervantes’ approach to his own characters. Unamuno admonishes Cervantes for having been too-often driven, in his dealing with his characters, by bias, prejudice and envy, and for having misunderstood the real significance of the characters of the book he wrote: “I consider myself more Quixotist than Cervantist, and . . . I attempt to free Don Quixote from Cervantes himself, permitting myself on occasion to go so far as to disagree with the manner in which Cervantes understood and dealt with his two heroes, especially with Sancho.” (Ibid., 4)

At it were, Cervantes as a person falls short of the high expectations caused in us by Cervantes as an author, or at least by the human complexity and authenticity of his narrative’s characters. On occasion, Unamuno even goes so far as to use such a strong language as that revealed by his comments on Cervantes’ account of the “affair of the lions”: “Ah, damnable Cide Hamete Benengeli, or whoever it was that wrote up this feat, how vilely and pettily you understood it!” (Ibid., 187) In general, throughout his book Unamuno begs us repeatedly that we should not mistake him for one of those literary scholars or historians of literature who, in their narrow-mindedness, consider Cervantes’ main characters simply in terms of “creatures of fiction.” He constantly reassures us of his commitment to undertaking a completely different approach to Don Quixote: “I do not want to be confused with the pernicious and pestilential sect of vain men, inflated with hollow historical scholarship, who dare to maintain that there never were such men as Don Quixote and Sancho in the world.” (Ibid., 189)

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