You might wonder why I am opening an article on a poetry blog with philosophy? The answer is both simple and complex. I chose to write about philosophy and if you read this article about existentialism in literature, that is your choice. Once written, it cannot be unwritten. Once read, it cannot be unread. The choice to write is mine. The choice to read is yours.
Existentialism is a philosophy in which each individual is entirely free and must take personal responsibility for choices and outcomes. Nothing happens by chance. Each choice creates change. In choosing to write about existentialism and your choice to read, we are both changed from what we were previously. Are you dizzy yet?
Existentialism as a philosophical doctrine was developed by the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Both are considered precursors to the Existentialist Literary Movement that reached its peak in the mid-20th century with the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. Their works popularized existential themes of dread, boredom, absurdities, freedom, alienation and nothingness.
Sartre, the most well-known, strongly believed that there was a definite line between poetry and prose. To Sartre, writing prose is a purposeful craft with the intent of transmitting a message as accurately as possible while poetry is concerned with style and with treating the word as a fanciful waft of wind to play at the surface of meaning. Although committed to the active voice of prose, Sartre also employed poetic elements into his prose:
“Florence is city, flower, and woman. It is city-flower, city-woman, and girl-flower all at the same time. And the strange object which thus appears has the liquidity of the river, the soft, tawny ardency of gold, and finally gives itself up with propriety and, by the continuous diminution of the silent e, prolongs indefinitely its modest blossoming. To that is added the insidious effect of biography. For me, Florence is also a certain woman, an American actress who played in the silent films of my childhood, and about whom I have forgotten everything except that she was as long as a long evening glove and always a bit weary and always chaste and always married and misunderstood and whom I loved and whose name was Florence.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
Although few existentialists utilized poetry as their literary voice, Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno included poetry in his choice of expression. Unamuno is credited with being an educator, philosopher, scholar, poet, author and journalist. He is perhaps best known for his novel Abel Sánchez (The History of Passion), his modern recreation of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. He worked in all major genres and was influential in blurring the boundaries between essays, poetry, novels and theater.
Unamuno’s philosphy was a negation of all systems with a strong affirmation of faith “in itself.” He believed history could best be understood by studying the many obscure histories of anonymous people rather than maintaining a focus on the recognized major events.
According to Unamuno, art is an expression of the spirit, themes focused on spiritual anguish, pain experienced by the silence of God, the turmoil of time and death.
In crafting poetry, Unamuno preferred to write metered poetry, both rhyming and non-rhyming. In the oppressive heat of this August day, I chose the following poem to share as a welcome contrast to my personal condition.
The Snowfall Is So Silent
Miguel de Unamuno, 1864 – 1936
The snowfall is so silent,
bit by bit, with delicacy
it settles down on the earth
and covers over the fields.
The silent snow comes down
white and weightless;
snowfall makes no noise,
falls as forgetting falls,
flake after flake.
It covers the fields gently
while frost attacks them
with its sudden flashes of white;
covers everything with its pure
and silent covering;
not one thing on the ground
anywhere escapes it.
And wherever it falls it stays,
content and gay,
for snow does not slip off
as rain does,
but it stays and sinks in.
The flakes are skyflowers,
pale lilies from the clouds,
that wither on earth.
They come down blossoming
but then so quickly
they are gone;
they bloom only on the peak,
above the mountains,
and make the earth feel heavier
when they die inside.
Snow, delicate snow,
that falls with such lightness
on the head,
on the feelings,
come and cover over the sadness
that lies always in my reason.
From Roots and Wings: Poetry from Spain 1900-1975, translated by Robert Bly, edited by Hardie St. Martin, and published by Harper & Row. © 1976 by Hardie St. Martin. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
I love the idea of snowflakes being skyflowers. I believe I will recall that image the next time I see snow falling from above.
Unamuno succumbed to a heart attack at age 72. At the time of his death, Unamuno was under house arrest for his public denunciation of the Spanish military dictator, Francisco Franco.
Thank you for joining me for Pretzels & Bullfights. As usual, I am only able to provide tidbits on the literary movements, historical events and authors. It is my hope that in reading, your curious nature will send you off to discover more.
Click this link for a free ebook of Abel Sánchez by Miguel de Unamuno.