When we travel, how often is it in search of a validation of our existence? Can we live a full life without the desire for it to be endless?
Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.
– Regularly misattributed to Albert Einstein
In all the time I’ve spent travelling, I’ve found there are three things travellers love to share: crazy stories, comparisons to home and tales of coincidence.
The first two come in abundance – the things we’ve found and the things we hold onto. The last is more of a rarity but consists of the stories that most capture the spirit of travel – serendipity, the barest blush of some greater intention, the disparities and interconnectedness of a world both vast and small.
For the expressly defined traveller – of certain means and disposition, on the search for something authentic – these experiences constitute a sense of what might be called the sublime, often simply labelled as life (or perhaps some take on God).
But why does this search for authenticity, for some sense of relative meaning, cast us out into the world? In his wonderful book of essays, The Dream of Spaceflight (2000), Wyn Wachhorst observes that ‘the heart of exploration, it seems, is an attempt to complete the grand internal model of reality, to broaden the context of meaning, to find the center by completing the edge’.
I came across book and quote inadvertently, through a recent essay in Aeon by physics professor Gene Tracy. Both Wachhorst and Tracy discuss the seismic shifts caused by the Copernican revolution, and how it not only placed Earth adrift in an indifferent universe, rather than at its centre, but also cut our sense of self adrift from our own concrete being. We became ‘wanderers among the stars, through a space with no centre’, as Tracy puts it.
As with the physical, so with the psychical: the onset of the scientific revolution externalised meaning, materialised it – and the self became a more abstract concept. Science and technology advanced, the death of God was proclaimed, and we were left standing, somewhat bewildered, the universe stretching away endlessly.
And so we travel. We travel for moments of clarity, moments of inspiration and confirmation, moments of joyous serendipity that let us see back through the proverbial Oort Cloud of our outward conquests to the pale blue dot – that we might, to paraphrase Wachhorst, grasp our own essence in its entirety.
Of course, most people won’t claim such intentions when they travel, and many will claim none at all beyond having a holiday or seeing something different. But what is the experience of difference, other than to learn something of our place in the world, however implicitly?
I recently went looking once again. In Dublin, where I fell in love. In Norway, where I stood on frozen ocean. In Paris, where I was seduced by the night. In Italy, where I slept on pine needles next to the Mediterranean. In Edinburgh, where I was never alone. In Morocco, where I discovered colour. And, between these places, in the Canary Islands.
The village of Artenara sits at the roof of Gran Canaria, straddling the lip of a long-extinct volcano well over a kilometre above sea level. From the ‘terrace’ of El Warung Cave Hostel – a sloping pebbled area edged with cacti – the view is extraordinary. La caldera de Tejeda (the crater of Tejeda) traces a semi-circular ridge to the left and falls away to the right, towards the sea. Torn, immense, timeless – it is the kind of landscape where a person becomes both infinitesimal and accentuated.
There are, no doubt, more far-flung places to discover. The Canary Islands attract millions of tourists every year, and swathes of pale, predominantly English and German bodies are hurled onto beaches across the archipelago.
Like most, I had travelled to Gran Canaria to get my hit of vitamin D after a long winter. The capital, Las Palmas, presented an unexpected culture shock after so much time in Ireland and on the continent. It is the ninth-largest city in Spain, and a traditional port city for trade with West Africa and across the mid-Atlantic.
The Canary Islands attracts swathes of pale, predominantly English and German bodies across the archipelago.
Over five centuries, the triumvirate of Spanish, Berber, and Central and South American cultures has forged a distinctly Canarian identity, nowhere more manifest than in Las Palmas. Unemployment in the islands, however, is 10 per cent higher than the already alarming levels of mainland Spain. Unaware of any of this, I went to volunteer at El Warung Beach Hostel in the city.
While most tourists visiting Gran Canaria congregate in relative isolation on the beaches to the south, around Maspalomas, and a handful take on Las Palmas, Artenara remains untouched and indifferent – so barren and so unlike anywhere I had encountered on my European sabbatical. No cosmopolitan Romanticism, no verdant vistas or snowy ranges or teeming beaches. Only rock and space, and a persistent feeling of being elsewhere.
I hadn’t known about the cave when I first started working. It usually received only a few guests each week and sometimes had stretches of vacancy, so it wasn’t essential to have a staff member there at all times. And it seemed elusive, somehow, difficult to explain to those who hadn’t been there.
The Guanches – the indigenous people of the Canary Islands – had made houses from caves for centuries, using hand tools to dig into the soft volcanic rock, before the Castilian conquest brought colonialism. But the tradition continued, and the cave hostel, along with many of the houses in Artenara, was born from it. The building itself consists of three caves – two bedrooms and a two-tiered kitchen and general living area – that open out onto a tiny courtyard, just below which is the terrace.
My first day there alone was otherworldly. I had caught the bus from Las Palmas, which stops in the lush and charming pilgrim town of Teror before making the ascent to Artenara along a narrow, winding road punctuated by hairpin turns. As the altitude and dryness increase, the only notable greenery is in the forests of Canary Island pine trees.
The walk from the bus stop to the hostel passes through the Plaza San Matias – a distinctly Spanish square with a church, a bar, a restaurant and a post office – and the road that leads away, around to La Cuevita 38, is shouldered by the crater. The view opens up unexpectedly, almost painfully at first sight – the massiveness is overwhelming. For Spanish poet-philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, it was a landscape of Dantesque intensity: ‘It is a tremendous commotion from the bowels of the earth, it all seems like a petrified storm, but a storm of fire, of lava, rather than water.’
Miguel de Unamuno. A name I could have easily never discovered but for the grace of coincidence. I stood on the hostel terrace, the tense quiet of the crater only interrupted by the occasional dog bark or goat bleat drifting up from the valley, escaping into an intensely blue sky. Guests weren’t due to arrive until late afternoon.
Miguel de Unamuno. A name I could have easily never discovered but for the grace of coincidence.
I walked into town to buy pan de papas, a local bread made from potatoes and spices, and took in the crater in its midday over-exposure. At the last bend before reaching the square is an unassuming stone platform, which I hadn’t noticed before – a lookout with a spectacular view. And a bronze statue of a man with angular features, wearing a suit, hat in hand and looking out over the spectacle. There is a plaque next to him, with a quote of his in Spanish: ‘To dream of life on that stony abyss!’
In 1952, Bowes & Bowes, a small, family-run bookselling and publishing company in Cambridge, published the first run of their series Studies in Modern European Thought. The series included books on Frederico García Lorca, Rainer Maria Rilke, Charles Baudelaire, Friedrich Hölderlin, Paul Valéry, Benedetto Croce and Miguel de Unamuno.
Across the stretch of more than six decades a copy of the final title found its way to Archives Fine Books in Brisbane. Second shelf from the bottom, philosophy section. A small, 61-page book about a philosopher not widely appreciated or translated into English; in the dim light of the colossal store I barely made out UNAMUNO printed on the spine in tiny block letters, and had passed over it before the jolt of recognition hit.
It wasn’t a book of his writing, as I immediately hoped, but a biographical work by another Spanish writer. ‘Arturo Barea represents the Spanish Basque Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936) as one of the most interesting figures of modern European letters,’ the dust jacket claimed. I could scarce spare the $16.50 for it at the time, but the happenstance was too much.
‘From time to time, men arise who embody the qualities, the mood or the ambitions of their peoples so forcibly that they achieve an extraordinary influence, a symbolic greatness, which belong to their persons rather than to their achievements.’ It is a monumental opening line but, with measured elegance, Barea goes on to outline a worthy figure – an intellectual at once contentious and optimistic, incisive and contradictory, admired and misunderstood.
Unamuno’s heart and mind were forever set to the goal of realising and championing life as experienced in his native Spain and, by extension of our shared humanity, by all people as they are in the world. His focus was ‘the man of flesh and bone; the man who is born, who suffers, and dies – above all, who dies; the man who eats and drinks and plays and sleeps and thinks and wills.’ This he contrasted to ‘the legendary featherless biped… A man neither of here nor there, neither of this age nor of another, who has neither sex nor country, who is, in brief, merely an idea.’
Few philosophers claim such a desire for non-abstraction – it is messy. Fewer still do so with the passion and assurance that Unamuno maintains (despite his numerous, self-professed paradoxes and contradictions) across his entire body of work as a thinker, teacher, poet, novelist, playwright and journalist. Nowhere is this more evident than in his seminal work, The Tragic Sense of Life (1912), which I tracked down and laboured over after reading Barea.
It was not just living out the course of his ‘natural’ life in fullness that concerned Unamuno. He wanted immortality. For what else could he want, when pure reason argues the pointlessness of a life that ends in nothingness and yet we struggle against it in our quests for meaning? To Unamuno, not wishing to die, and moreover wishing to flourish as an individual, was tantamount to wanting to live forever. Accusations of individualism were not an issue – he embraced them, because the source of his individualism ran deeper than ‘the childish half-thinking that inspires most anarchists’.
He was concerned with the questions that most plague us as individual, thinking beings. His desire for this vital knowledge, for knowing the ‘wherefore’ of our actions and existence, could not be denied; nor could he see how it could be denied in others, for when our instinct for survival is satisfied, our unsatisfied, ever-inquiring reason takes over. This desire was what Unamuno called the tragic sense of life: the fundamental conflict between the reason that demands definite answers, and the ‘will to life’ that persists in spite of and refuses to be subsumed by it.
For Unamuno, failure to admit one’s desire for immortality was self-deception. The agnosticism or monistic spiritualism that claims a disinterest in such things (what will be will be; we are all part of the universe and to the universe we will return) presented a weak-willed approach to life. And the rational empiricism of the atheist was contrary to living.
[Unamuno] believed that we must seek meaning through religion, through absurd, anti-rational faith.
It is a difficult notion for many in the substantially secular 21st century – myself included – particularly given the desperate faith it evinced in the Spaniard. He believed that we must seek meaning through religion, through absurd, anti-rational faith – more precisely, through Christianity, as it was the only religion that addressed the immortality of the flesh-and-bone self we hold so dear.
This challenges the ideas we have of ourselves as meaning-making beings, and no doubt can be comfortably and quickly dismissed under the logical structures we hold dear. But in reading his work, Unamuno’s strength of thought and passion of conviction are striking. How to argue with a man whose critical eye is so open to our experience – who wants nothing more than life itself, and fulfilment built on a deep understanding of existence as it is lived?
On my second solo trip to Artenara I had another day to myself while waiting for the guests to arrive later that afternoon. I decided to make for Roque Bentayga, a huge column of rock that rises from a ridge in the crater. In the morning, the sun hits Bentayga before touching any other part of the crater – it’s a majestic sight, glowing yellow and orange, surrounded by a pool of pre-dawn. The owner of the hostel told me that it was once the spiritual centre for the Guanches of the area, and they would make the hair-raising ascent to its peak to perform rituals. Perhaps something still lingered.
I packed water and a roll of pan de papas, and slid a brace over my right ankle; I’d torn the ligaments down the right side of my foot in a skating mishap in Paris about a month earlier. No set path leads to Bentayga from the hostel, and walking trails, goat tracks and gutters carved by the seldom-seen rain criss-cross and are often obscured by scrub. To get to the ridge, I first had to descend several hundred metres to the crater floor.
My sense of intrepidity grew as Roque Bentayga loomed closer. The sparse village sounds died away, the silence punctuated by little more than the crunch of rock underfoot. I began to take the descent in bounds, making for a small outcrop about halfway down.
I reached it, breathless but invigorated, but soon realised I’d lost all semblance of a path. I began to pick my way slowly through dense and spiky growth. As the sun crested overhead, I reached a more established track that I hoped would lead to the foot of the ridge that held Bentayga.
Then came a blinding pain. I had stepped awkwardly on a loose rock, and the thin brace had done little to prevent a sickening roll of my ankle. I cried out and hit the ground, scraping my hip and elbow. For a moment I lay there, stunned, feeling the touch of the void as I thought of broken bones and the world so far away. Another wave of pain hit me and I wailed, loudly, the despairing sound of someone who just realised they don’t want to die.
Of course I wasn’t going to die. If I had broken my ankle, it would have meant an even more excruciating climb, but a climb that would see me back at the hostel. Nonetheless, the fear had hit me, and for a moment I saw myself as a tiny speck of life cast against a great unconscious nothingness. What was I doing all the way out here? What had I hoped to find?
Unamuno saw his life as being rooted in the political, social and spiritual turmoil of Spain, a country bitterly divided between various orthodox and progressive movements, particularly during and after the Second Carlist War (often referred to as the Third Carlist War) of the late 19th century.
In his thinking and writing, Unamuno sought to strike at the heart of the malaise that had settled on his homeland. But, as Arturo Barea notes, his conviction was that ‘he spoke for every human being in speaking of himself, and that he had to speak as a man rooted in his soil, as the Spaniard of Basque origin, if he wished to express a concrete human truth.’
For better or worse, Spain was in his flesh and bone. When he moved to Salamanca in 1895, he found what would be home for the remainder of his life in the ‘monotheistic landscape, this infinite plain where a man is made small without losing his self, and where amid the parched fields he is made to feel the parched places in his soul’.
The most significant occasion on which Unamuno left mainland Spain was not in search of anything. He was, in fact, exiled. In 1924, after a military coup, General Miguel Primo de Rivera banished him to Fuerteventura, another of the Canary Islands, to silence the fervent criticism Unamuno launched against the dictatorship.
This is how his likeness ended up overlooking a petrified storm: he walked the islands in thought and anguish, finding beauty but little solace. He fled to Paris before the year was out, and then to the French Basque country (as close to his heartland as possible) until the dictatorship fell in 1930.
Here was a man who saw the centre from the centre, who doubtless found that the periphery, however abstractly fascinating and full of potential it may be, didn’t speak to the life of the heart that he so ardently lived. Or wished to live. He knew that his assertion of the universal desire for eternal life, and of its sole practical expression being found in Christianity, was only what he believed to believe, longed to believe – for the tragic sense of life, the unresolvable warring between reason and life, knowledge and will (or faith), meant absolute conviction in either was never possible.
While convinced that his philosophy was true to the lived life, Unamuno nevertheless offers both veiled and explicit admissions of his own uncertainty, particularly at the heart of The Tragic Sense of Life: ‘Someone perhaps will add that I do not know what I say, to which I shall reply that perhaps he may be right – and being right is such a little thing! – but that I feel what I say and I know what I feel and that suffices me.’
He didn’t desire objective truth but the subjectivity that was true to the experience of being human:
And if, when at last I die out, I die out altogether, then I shall not have died out of myself – that is, I shall not have yielded myself to death, but my human destiny will have killed me… And as regards its truth, the real truth, that which is independent of ourselves, beyond the reach of our logic and of our heart – of this truth who knows aught?
When we travel in search of ‘something’, it is often for objective or external validation of our existence. But are we merely exiles, looking back to our heartland? Even if we relocate, find a home that resonates more deeply than where we’ve come from, is there not a sense in which we are still looking back, irrespective of disposition, to make a comparative exercise of meaning?
Interestingly, and sadly, Arturo Barea – the author of the Studies in Modern European Literature and Thought edition on Unamuno – was also an exile. A writer of considerable status for his autobiographical work The Forging of a Rebel (1946), published in three parts and detailing his adolescence, time in the Spanish army and involvement in the Republic’s resistance during the Spanish Civil War, Barea fled the impending demise of the Spanish government and settled in the United Kingdom in 1939.
When we travel in search of ‘something’… are we merely exiles, looking back to our heartland?
He found comfort and a measure of peace in rural English life, and a liberalism much more aligned with his own views. But in his writing and broadcasting for BBC World Service’s Spanish section, his heart was turned towards home: ‘In all of these he tried to be a voice for the Spanish working masses and continue the fight against fascism.’
And what of atheism? Unamuno associated the quest for objective understanding with death, or at least with the opposite of living: ‘In order to understand anything it is necessary to kill it, to lay it out rigid in the mind. Science is a cemetery of dead ideas, even though life may issue from them.’
He factored in a number of potential atheist objections to The Tragic Sense of Life, recognising their validity as rational arguments but dismissing them on grounds of being anti-vital:
These clever-witted, affectively stupid persons are wont to say that it is useless to seek to delve into the unknowable or to kick against the pricks. It is as if one should say to a man whose leg has been amputated that it does not help him at all to think about it. And we all lack something; only some of us feel the lack, and others do not. Or they pretend not to feel the lack, and then they are hypocrites.
Many rail against this idea. I fluctuate between feeling the truth in Unamuno’s words, and wanting to be okay with my fate as a person lacking a distinct spiritual belief. Can’t we live a full life without the desire for it to be endless?
In having this conversation with Unamuno, with myself, I find it interesting that there has been a recent kickback against atheist thought, particularly the New Atheism preached by the supposed ‘Four Horseman of the Non-apocalypse’ – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.
In place of their predicted decline and ultimate demise of spiritual traditions in the face of uncompromising reason, author and philosopher John Gray identifies a worldwide resurgence of religion and a rejection of secular life. He considers this – and Unamuno would be pleased – to be a reaction to the perceived potential for amorality, or even for ethical appropriation, inherent in the scientific basis of atheist thought and secular life (ignoring, for a moment, fundamentalism). Where atheists claim a self-evident liberalism, Gray sees a large oversight:
It’s a reassuringly simple equation. In fact there are no reliable connections – whether in logic or history – between atheism, science and liberal values. When organised as a movement and backed by the power of the state, atheist ideologies have been an integral part of despotic regimes that also claimed to be based in science, such as the former Soviet Union. Many rival moralities and political systems – most of them, to date, illiberal – have attempted to assert a basis in science. All have been fraudulent and ephemeral […] In fact, as the most widely read atheist thinker of all time [Friedrich Nietzsche] argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.
Perhaps we’re witnessing a shifting of power in the struggle between reason and life, in Unamuno’s favour. I hope so, at least on his behalf, for he died an exile for the second time, placed under house arrest after rallying against the fascist vitriol of General Millán Astray. To the Falangist cries of ‘¡Viva la muerte!’ (‘Long live death!’) and ‘¡Muera la inteligencia!’ (‘Death to intelligence!’), Miguel de Unamuno replied as he had all along: with an indomitable will to life.
Over the course of a few hours, I limped and dragged myself from the depths of la caldera de Tejeda back to the cave hostel. I showered, changed, bemoaned my tortured ligaments, and greeted the guests at the bus stop – a young Canadian woman and a German couple.
As soon as they settled in, I (to my immediate regret) suggested a walk to the ridge above the cave, where we could watch the day disappear behind Mount Teide, far in the distance on Tenerife – one of the most glorious sunsets I think I will ever witness.
We chatted and drank Tropical, a beer brewed on Gran Canaria, as the night settled in. The blackness merged land and sky, and the only light came from the stars blazing in the great firmament and from the houses dotting the invisible land below – as if we had stepped into the vacuum of space.
As the night deepened our conversations trailed off, and we began to look upwards, commenting now and then on the occasional shooting star or on glimpsing the Milky Way. When you’re not used to it, such remote darkness can feel both thrilling and oppressive – an expansion and a contraction. It evokes the tragic sense of life.
But it’s from this darkness, this tragedy, that we make light. The living, thinking people of flesh and bone who stood beside me on the mountain, and who ate and slept in the houses below, were all the more precious in that moment. It was like a scaled-down version of the overview effect – the cognitive shift reported by some astronauts when they behold Earth in its entirety, defying the odds, against a bleak and infinite backdrop.
Similarly, Unamuno saw the tragic sense of life as the basis for rather than a negation of meaning. It’s the very uncertain and contradictory centre of our being that propels us forward, forces us to strive, and ultimately gives us hope.
On my final day in Artenara I was alone once again, and hobbled up the ridge to watch the sunset one last time. After night had settled, I eventually noticed a motionless figure about thirty metres down the hill from where I stood, whose silhouette I could just make out as the moon began to rise.
My pulse quickened, and an indulgent fantasy of the mountain darkness embodied and come to lay claim to me began to play out. I tried to match the silhouette’s stillness, and it began to feel like we were part of the mountain, merging with the timeless rock. But the figure eventually moved, shuffling off towards the village. I smiled at myself, and wondered if for a moment we had shared in the same confused, exhilarated human moment.