Thursday, May 15, 2008

America and the "tragic sense"

"My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth, even knowing that I shall not find them while I live." Miguel de Unamuno
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The above quote is from one of Spain's greatest literary and intellectual figures, Miguel de Unamuno. Unamuno is perhaps best known for his book, "Del Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida" (The Tragic Sense of Life).

Richard L. Rubens, Ph.D. wrote of Unamuno's philosophy,
The central, defining characteristic of the tragic sense of life is its insistence on the balance between the striving for rationality on the one hand, and the recognition of the underlying irrationality of existence on the other.
Nothing is more foreign to most Americans than the idea that we struggle in vain and that the struggle itself is the meaning of life. Another great Spanish poet and contemporary of Unamuno's, Antonio Machado wrote and I'll make a clumsy attempt to translate,
Caminante son tus huellas
Traveler the path is your footprints and nothing more
El camino nada más;
caminante no hay camino
Traveller, there is no path
se hace camino al andar.
You make the path by walking
Al andar se hace camino
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
When walking you make the path
And when you turn to look back
You see the path that you will never trod again

Caminante, no hay camino
sino estelas sobre el mar.
Traveler, there is no path
Only sparkling reflections on the sea

¿Para que llamar caminos
A los surcos del azar...?
Why call paths,
That which are only the furrows of fortune

Todo el que camina anda,
Como Jesús sobre el mar.
Every traveler walks,
Like Jesus on the sea

I put this under a photo of LBJ and MLK because I think that somehow they illustrate both Unamuno and Machado's philosophy. The tragedy of the American left: how justice defeated justice... how basic decency and democratic values condemned millions of Americans of all colors to poverty and illness.

Hegel wrote:
"The heroes of ancient classical tragedy encounter situations in which, if they firmly decide in favor of the one ethical pathos that alone suits their finished character, they must necessarily come into conflict with the equally justified ethical power that confronts them."
Making equal citizens of the descendants of slavery:
descendants of both master and slave, was the inescapable duty, dharma, of American progressives. This situation made and still makes a mockery of the Declaration of Independence, which was written by a slaveholder and seconded by slaveholders... This injustice could not be allowed to stand

Lyndon Johnson, perhaps the closest thing to a man of the left that has ever sat in the White House, knew that this was his duty and although a southerner carried out that duty unflinchingly.

Master politician that he was, I'm sure he knew what was to follow: Nixon's "Southern Strategy", that opened the door to Reagan, Bush-I and Bush-II, a movement that strived mightily to undo all that Johnson tried to achieve with his "Great Society"... and largely succeeded in destroying it and gave a political base to all those whose philosophy has deprived generations of Americans of decent public health care and decent public schools.

This contradiction is America's original sin and its tragedy, its eternal fate. DS


RC said...

I's always nice to read Machado, but you bury his credit in that lower paragraph.
America has turned its back on complexity and tragedy, instead there is therapy, pharmaceuticals and pop psy delivered via all media. The tragically hip are accused of being negative persons. Been there, am that.

Jay Salter said...

I love reading your blog because your analyses are right on, but too damn dark.

Yes, yes, we’re fated to keep confronting our destiny over and over endlessly. And I guess that’s what gets to you.

Warren Zevon has a feel for it:

“Well, I've seen all there is to see
And I've heard all they have to say
I've done everything I wanted to do . . .
I've done that too
And it ain't that pretty at all
Ain't that pretty at all
So I'm going to hurl myself against the wall
'Cause I'd rather feel bad than not feel anything at all”

Look, if we’re tragically fated, then what choice have we but keep on doing it over and over?

Anyway, it’s all mostly soap opera, isn’t it? Things only turn ugly in the last act.

RC said...

Coming from a long line of emigrants, Jay, may I suggest that when the conflict presents itself as one that can't be overcome, the secret is to hit the road, Jack.
Vote with your feet.
Never hang around for that final scene in the opera where everyone stabs everyone else.
Not my idea of fun or integrity, even if they all sing while the boards turn crimson.

bingregory said...

Thank you for sharing that beautiful poem. I've reproduced your translation on my own blog, with credit and a link back. If you'd prefer I didn't, let me know and I'll take it down.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

No thank you for linking to it, I'm flattered.