And He was asking him, "What is your name?" And he said to Him, "My name is Multitude; for we are many."
“you will die and so will all those who read my story, all, all, all with no exception! Fictional beings, like me; the same as I am! You’ll all die, all of you.”
A story I wanted to share: it’s about a man called Augusto Peréz, a wealthy guy who is first and foremost an introspective intellectual, someone who mainly spends his time reasoning with himself and rationalising. Rationalising everything that happens in his life. Things start getting complicated when Augusto falls in love with a woman, and then with a second. In the midst of the romantic quandary he gets himself into, his hyper-rationality and his hyper-introspection start short circuiting. He starts to get very confused, in a that state of mind in which things seem not to make any sense anymore, in which their internal logical coherence seems to crumble. All of this, the sense of losing Reason – which has such a centrality in his life, is caused by the distressing unraveling of his love affairs. And he describes his state of mind, and in fact his life, as being invaded by a certain type of fog, a mist, in which everything seems unclear. This mist is Niebla, by the spanish author Miguel de Unamuno.
As the narrative develops and Augusto’s love affairs get more and more complicated his questioning starts to occupy even more space of his life. In fact, most of the book is a description of Augusto’s inner thoughts. And as the existential questioning gets denser and denser, so the fog grows stronger. Already by the end of the book, and with the catastrophic turnout of his love life, he decides to kill himself; but before doing so, again because he intellectualizes everything he’s going through, he remembers having read an enlightening essay about suicide, and decides to go and meet the author of the texts.
It so happens that the author of the text is Unamuno himself. And so Augusto goes to Unamuno’s house and is greeted by his creator – who, obviously, already knows he’s coming.
Well, this confrontation with the creator is the catharsis of the book. And it’s far from being plain. Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein, made manifest the vivacity and painfulness of questioning our maker on the matters of our monstrous experience and of the darkness of our promethean fire. In her case it is a confrontation between a being who questions the Reason of its existence and its essence, and a man – or rather, ‘Man’ – whom the creature sees as its superior but who finds himself as lost, clueless and incapable of dealing with the consequence of his action as does his creation. (1)
The story Unamuno tells is quite different: Augusto is met by a smiley man who interrupts him before he’s able to finish any sentence declaring to already know his life, and even the purpose of his visitation. Augusto is astonished and doesn’t understand how this is possible until Unamuno categorically let’s him know that he’s actually a product of his literary creation. “- Well, the truth is, my dear Augusto – I told him with the sweetest voice- you cannot kill yourself because you are not alive, and that you are not alive and neither are you dead, because you do not exist… // What do you mean I don’t exist? – he exclaimed. // No, you don’t exist more than as a being of fiction, you are not, my poor Augusto, more than a product of my fantasy and of the fantasies of my readers that read the story of your fictional adventures and misadventures, which I wrote; you are not but a novel’s character.”
It is here that the encounter described by Unamuno deviates a lot from the frankensteinian matrix. You see, Unamuno has already presented proof of what he says: he has shown he to know everything about Augusto’s life, about the purpose of that trip, things he could not have known if it wasn’t for the fact he wrote them himself. What Unamuno is doing is to use knowledge to assure himself he’s in control of the situation, to perform his dominance, to differentiate between a living, creating agent and a fictional, created subject. In a pretty ubiquitous Modern claim, which found fertile epistemic ground in the West all the way from Bacon’s Organum to its social twist in 19th century disciplines, Unamuno tries to use knowledge as the criteria of asymmetry, of meta-differentiation.
However, in the beginning of the 20th century, when the book was written and Auguso brought to letter, the argument finds no resonance with the newborn. Augusto pays no heed to his creator’s declaration of superiority and, to Unamuno’s astonishment, questions his creator’s reality itself. This happens, not by chance, after his eyes wonder around the room and see what’s most important in Unamuno’s life, as well as one of his representations – a portrait. “Hearing this, the poor man gazed at me for a bit with a look that seemed to traverse my eyes; he then looked for a bit at my oil portrait above the books; he recovered his colour and breath, became the owner of himself again, put his elbows on the armchair that he had brought close to me, his face in the palm of his hands, and looking at me with a smile in his eyes told me slowly: // – Couldn’t it be the case, my dear Don Miguel – he said – that it is you and not me who is the fictional being, the one who does not really exist, neither alive nor dead…? Can’t it be the case that you are nothing but the excuse for my story to reach the world? (…) when a man is slipping in his bed, and he dream something, what exists the most? Him as a conscience that dreams, or the dream itself?” By refusing the asymmetry criteria posited by his creator, instead of denying the relation of creation itself, August dethrones Unamuno from his position of superiority. He doesn’t deny that he his a fictional being, he just says that so is Unamuno. He refuses his creator’s Knowledge as a criterion for ontological differentiation.
Unamuno starts by laughing at the proposition; but as the dialogue develops and Augusto argues his case he feels a growing anxiety and a growing discomfort. This discomfort, together with the astonishment provoked on him by his own creation, destabilize the hierarchy he considered to be solid. How could something he himself created surprise him? Unamuno was willing to accept and even defend the idea that a character has a logic of its own but he had not thought of the possibility that his own logic could share the same fictional nature. So the argument continues: “- How about if the dreamer dreams of his own existence? – I replied // – In that case, my friend Don Miguel – I ask you in turn in which way does a dreamer exist? As a dreamer that dreams, or as the dream dreamt? And consider, besides, that in admitting this discussion with me you already recognize in me an existence independent from you. // No, not that! Not that! – I told him vividly”.
As the conversation moves forward Unamuno grows more and more outraged with the character who was about to commit suicide. “- Well, enough! Enough! – I yelled punching the armchair – Shut up! I don’t want to hear any more of your impertinence…! And on top of everything from one of my creatures!” He decides, there and then, to kill Augusto in his story. Augusto is taken by a dreadful fear and begs Unamuno not to kill him. “- So you were going to take your own life but you resist that I take it?” questions Unamuno; to which Augusto replies that it makes perfect sense, for “most suicidal men are just frustrated murderers: they kill themselves for lack of worth to kill others…. // – Ah, yes I understand what you mean, Augusto, I do! [- Unamuno replies -] You mean that if you had the worth to kill [your loved one and the man she ran with] you wouldn’’t think of killing yourself, is it? // – Actually, in my case, not those two, no! // – Who then? // – You! – and he looked me in the eyes. // – Excuse me?! – I yelled getting up – what were you thinking about? You? Killing me? // – Sit down and calm down, my dear friend Don Miguel, or do you think by any chance that it would the first case in which a fictional being, as you call me, would kill someone who thought he had given him… a fictional existence?”
Augusto reiterates his arguments, but as he increasingly infuriates Unamuno he comes to understand that his creator is not changing his mind about Augusto’s faith. Just before leaving Unamuno’s office, defeated, Augusto repeats his threat, this time as a promise: “- So you won’t? You won’t let me be who I am, to get out of the mist, to live, to live, to live, you won’t see me, hear me, touch me, feel me, hurt me, be me: so you won’t, so I shall die a fictional being? Well, my lord creator Don Miguel, you will die as well, you as well and you shall go back to the nothing you came from. God shall stop dreaming you! You will die, yes, even if you don’t want it; you will die and so will all those who read my story, all, all, all with no exception! Fictional beings, like me; the same as I am! You’ll all die, all of you. I’m the one who’s telling you, me, Augusto Pérez, fictional being just like you, a novel’s being just like you. Because you, my creator, my Don Miguel, you are just another make-believe being, and make-believe are all of your readers, the same as I, the same as Augusto Pérez, the same as your victim…”
The tale presents, in 1907, a deep inversion in the real-fictional division. What is being challenged is not just the epistemological hierarchy that we usually use to separate the dream from the dreamer, reality from fiction. For this inversion comes from a character imprisoned in the intensity of its own logic; and from a character that clearly mirrors, at each moment, the intellectual and mental processes through which Unamuno brings it to being. Augusto’s doubts are Unamuno’s doubts, his existential questions are shared with his creator as are his suffering and his uncertainties.
Unamuno’s book is wonderful, but truly genius is the preface he wrote, several years afterwards, for a reprint. There, he recalls Augusto’s threat and tells us how it came to materialize. “That’s what he told me; and throughout more than twenty years, as an almost silent, dreadful hiss – just like the biblical one from Jehovah – those prophetic and apocalyptic words have whispered to me. It’s not just that I have been dying, no; it’s that I have been dying through the death of those who better did me, those who better dreamed me.”
A couple of years ago I moved from Portugal and was met with an environment I didn’t recognize myself in, in which I felt alienated, and in fact annihilated. At the time I wrote “I never thought that leaving Lisbon behind was going to be so difficult. As in many other moments in life, to think one knows how difficult a change can be and how lonely it might feel it’s completely different from actually living it, from understanding it. Things haven’t been fine. I have been dealing with cyclic periods of depression. I have met wonderful people here but I must confess that in these moments I feel I don’t know who I am anymore – in the worst possible sense – and I miss dearly the people who make me who I am. So while I am losing myself in the mist of life, there is no other thought in my mind than that of my friends, that of my authors. Perdervos es perderme.”
The question comes very clearly to me: We are not things between which relations are established. Rather, we are the relations between the things we assumed were there in the first place. We exist beyond ourselves, and certainly beyond our skin. I am alive from, within, and as the relations with the things that surround me.
When my body dies I will remain here as did so many of those I’ve known – even those I didn’t meet (Saramago comes to mind). I won’t be here with you, but I will be here as you. This is a conversation I have often with people who have just lost a good friend or who have gone through an intense break up. They feel that a part of them died; the whole process of acceptance and separation becomes a process of mourning. And it is true that a part of them died – somehow a part of those who died was a part of them. But it is also true, in death or any other form of separation, that they linger and that they remain; for those parts of them we have with us remain as long as we are alive. (2)
When we recognize ourselves as the relations that constitute us, and we submerge in them, the intensity of its potencies is such that one feels the touch of transcendence. Not a transcendence that is beyond materiality, in the idealist sense, but rather one that lives in it. Transcendence as a form of materiality that one can reclaim, and that refuses to be framed by a grand narrative, be it History, Progress, or any other. Transcendence in the precise sense of existing beyond ourselves. Transcendence, finally, not as the opposite of immanence, but exactly as an essential form of it, of an immanence without centers that only varies in density. To live these intensities and this transcendence is to say: No, there’s certainly life after death; but more certain is that there is no death after life.
The story by Unamuno tells us yet another thing: How a profound revolution comes hand in hand with an epistemological rupture. What outrages Unamuno is that a being of his creation, that belongs to his Knowlege, has the impertinence to revolt. This is once the relation we had with God and the divine, it is today the relation we have with sciences – both natural or social. To claim our power to become something else is to challenge the Knowledge that presides over our domestication.
Mist is probably the best translation for niebla, given its romantic and dramatic connotation. Unamuno was part of the “generación de 98” and as such wrote during an epoch marked by the spanish defeat in the Spanish-American War, which left a heavy mark on the spanish self-perception as an empire in fast decline.
Unamuno’s concerns are thus parts of a social conjuncture that is reevaluating its national and imperial condition (“- Don’t be so Spanish, Don Miguel! // – But yes, I am Spanish, I am Spanish of birth, of education, of body, of spirit, of language, and even of profession and work! Spanish over and above all and spanishism is my religion and a heaven in which I want to believe is a celestial and eternal Spain and my God is a Spanish God, that of Our Lord Don Quixote; ; a God that thinks in Spanish and in Spanish said ‘Let there be light!’, and His verb was a Spanish verb… // – Yes, so what? – he interrupted me, bringing me back to reality.”)
But his concerns are not understood as conjunctural. Influenced by the spirit of the beginning of existentialism, in particular by the work or Kierkegaard, Unamuno built his Mist as a philosophical device for questioning the meaninglessness of life and the lack of sense in ‘Man’s’ condition (if in niebla, female characters are far from being passive they are also far from presenting the ‘deep concerns’ that characterize their male counterparts, and the existence of their soul is even questioned by the protagonist). Mist shapes up as a spectre of existential doubt. And although it is not part of the reality-based essentialism that existentialism came to oppose, Mist is presented as something intrinsic and inseparable from ‘Man’s’ condition. It is not conjunctural, it is not genealogical, and it is subjective only inasfar as it is universal, for it shares the traits of western imperialism that sees the rational colonization of thought as the definition of liberation.
Our concerns and our age, are far from this. Many of us left existential concerns back in the times of our late teenagehood and high school philosophy classes and have come to understand them as bourgeois worries that not only have no impact in the concrete problems of our lives, but that in fact function as a cementer of the current state of things. Existentialism as a common experience, has been pushed back, and not by chance, to the realm of depression.
If we are to recreate a similar device, which would allow us to confront the dichotomy between artificial and real, creator and creation, then we might need to replace the translation mist with fog. To recognize it as an artificial device that brings us no closer to the true nature of the human condition, but that can function as an artificial device for destabilization and in fact derangement. If we are to build ourselves as a machine of war, then we might also have to be a fog machine.
(1) I’ve been very interested in questions of monstrosity for the last year and besides the posts already on this blog I hope to write more on the subject soon. In the meantime, besides Shelley’s opus magnum, Susan Striker’s “My works to Viktor Frankenstein above the town of Chamounix” and Latour’s comment on the Monster are worth reading. (Se tudo correr bem havemos de ter uma tradução portuguesa do texto da Striker daqui a pouco tempo.)
(2) [In fact the only way we can experience the parts that have left/died, or rather the only ways we know that they have left and died is precisely through and in relation to those parts that have remained? And vice versa. – comment by Jo from Misty Moon Workshop]