Paris Unloved (Miguel de Unamuno in Exile)

Paris Skyline at Sunset. Photo by James Whitesmith via Flickr.
Paris Skyline at Sunset. Photo by James Whitesmith via Flickr.

Paris, the city of light… Paris, home to the Louvre and the Notre-Dame. A great capital city whose fame and influence spread well beyond the city limits, well beyond the borders of France. In fact, at certain points in its history, Paris was quite simply the place to be for any intellectual. Famous writers and philosophers have been inspired by Paris: Dickens and Balzac, Montaigne and Nietzsche.

Whoever does not visit Paris regularly will never really be elegant. (Honoré de Balzac)

What an immense impression Paris made upon me. It is the most extraordinary place in the world! (Charles Dickens)

An artist has no home in Europe except in Paris. (Friedrich Nietzsche)

I love Paris tenderly and am French only by this great city: the glory of France, and one of the noblest ornaments of the world. (Michel de Montaigne)

But not Miguel de Unamuno.


Not Miguel de Unamuno, this great Spanish intellectual, novelist, poet, playwright and essayist, philosopher and rector of Salamanca University. Unamuno lived in Paris in 1924 after he had been removed from his post at the University of Salamanca and had been exiled by the dictator, General Primo de Rivera.

Profoundly homesick, Unamuno was unable to think Paris either beautiful or inspiring and certainly had no desire whatsoever to live there. He put his considerable skill as writer to making this point in a couple of essays, part of his book De Fuerteventura a París (From Fuerteventura to Paris), which he wrote while living in the city.

“From this Paris bursting with history… one can’t even see a mountain, a desert or a sea!”, Unamuno lamented. “We poor people who are locked up here in the city, in the big city, in this Noah’s Ark of civilisation and history, cannot clear our sight, and with it our soul every day in the vision of the eternities of the mountains, the desert or the sea.”

¡Pero desde aquí, desde París, desde este París que está reventando historia, lo que pasa y mete ruido, ni se ve montaña, ni se ve desierto, ni se ve mar! Los pobres hombres que estamos enjaulados aquí, en la ciudad, en la gran ciudad, en el Arce de Noé de la civilización y de la historia, no podemos a diario limpiar nuestra vista, y con ella nuestra alma, en la visión de las eternidades de la montaña, del desierto, de la mar.

Now this is more than just a complaint, or a dislike of a particular city; this is a lament coming from the very depth of the heart of an elderly man, cut off from his home. Strictly speaking, it was not Paris’ fault – but he disliked the place, and immensely, nevertheless.

Comparing Paris to Salamanca, Palencia and the vistas of his beloved Spain, he described the very earth and sky of Paris in terms of captivity: the land of gardens to him were ‘an imprisoned land’, the trees lining the boulevards were ‘imprisoned among stones’, the cloud-covered sky ‘framed between the rooftops’. Nor did the River Seine escape this single-minded and melancholy style of description:

And if, in the absence of sea, at least there was a river!… But this Seine is not a river; this Seine, like the Nervión in my native Bilbao, is a canal; it’s now, like the Eiffel Tower, an artefact. Who knows which is the island of the Cité, which one is St Louis? In Palencia there are two islands like that, which form an 8; but they are islands, real islands; pieces of land surrounded by water, while here it’s the water that is surrounded by the land. Neither mountain, nor desert, nor sea, not even a real river!

¡Y si a falta de la mar tuviese siquiera un río! Aquel Tormes, en que los sauces, alisos, olmos y mimbres hunden sus raíces en el agua de la orilla; aquel Tormes de cambiantes riberas, con aquella islata tupida de maleza o aquel íntimo Carrión… en que se mira la torre de San Miguel, de Palencia. Pero este Sena no es un río; este Sena, como el Nervión en mi Bilbao nativo, es un canal; es ya, como la Torre Eiffel, un artefacto. ¿Quién conoce que es isla la Cité, que es isla la de San Luis? En Palencia hay dos islas así, que forman un 8; pero son islas, son verdaderas islas; son trozos de tierra rodeados de agua, mientras aquí es agua rodeada de tierra. ¡Ni montaña, ni desierto, ni mar, ni siquiera río, verdadero río!

Nope, the Seine doesn’t even deserve to be called a river.

Perhaps the most telling sign of his misery was that he experienced even the history surrounding him – which you’d think would have offered a man of his intellect some relief –  as an oppressive force weighing him down:

The Almanzor Peak in the Gredos Mountains. Source: Wikipedia
The Almanzor Peak in the Gredos Mountains. Source: Wikipedia

And everywhere history, history, history! And then, collected in museums, archaeology! “Here was Louis XVI beheaded.” “From this tower sounded the alarm on St Bartholomew’s Night.” “This column was toppled during the Commune.” “Here are the ashes of Napoleon.” “Here…” And one searches with the eyes of the soul for the summit of the Almanzor in the Gredos Mountains, the wilderness of Palencia, the sea that has forgotten the caravels of Colombus.

¡Y por todas partes historia, historia, historia! ¡Y luego, almacenada en museos, arqueología! «Aquí decapitaron a Luis XVI.» «Desde esa torre se tocó a rebato en lo de San Bartolomé.» «Esta columna derribaron los de la Comuna.» «Aquí están las cenizas de Napoleón.» «Aquí…» Y uno busca con los ojos del alma la cumbre del Almanzor, en Gredos; el páramo palentino, la mar que se ha olvidado de las carabelas de Colón.

Rather unfairly, Unamuno then goes on to compare the Eiffel Tower – at whose inauguration he had been present in 1889 – to the eternity of the Gredos Mountains, “the roof of Castile and the stone heart of Spain”.

I contemplate the Eiffel Tower. And I remember Gredos. And I feel the nostalgia for the eternity… For Gredos is eternal; Gredos saw the Iberians arrive to Spain, and saw the Romans, and the Visigoths, and the Arabs, and will perhaps see other Barbarians pass; Gredos saw the Emperor Charles V die…

Contemplo la Torre Eiffel. Y me acuerdo de Gredos. Y siento la morriña de la eternidad… Porque Gredos es lo eterno; Gredos vio a los iberos llegar a España, y vio a los romanos, y a los godos, y a los árabes, y verá acaso pasar a otros bárbaros; Gredos vio morir, en uno de sus repliegues, al emperador Carlos V.

Only to finally conclude:

…I try to imagine myself a Parisian and I fail to feel like one.

Well, I’m not surprised! After reading all that, it would have been rather surprising if he did feel a Parisian!

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