Academic journal article Romance Notes

The Metaphor of the River in Unamuno's El Cristo De Velazquez: Subversive Text or Devotional Reading?

Academic journal article Romance Notes

The Metaphor of the River in Unamuno's El Cristo De Velazquez: Subversive Text or Devotional Reading?

Article excerpt

In his introduction to the poetry volume of Unamuno's Obras Completas, Manuel Garcia Blanco records Unamuno's first known comments on his extended poem, taken from a letter of July, 1913 to the Portuguese poet Teixeira de Pascoaes.

A mi me ha dado ahora por formular la fe de mi pueblo, su cristologia realista y ... lo estoy haciendo en verso. Es un poema que se titulara Ante el Cristo de Velazquez, y del que llevo escritos mas de setecientos endecasilabos. Quiero hacer una cosa cristiana, biblica y ... espanola. Veremos. (24)

It is interesting to note that this "Christian," "biblical" and uniquely "Spanish" work was begun in the same year that Unamuno wrote his defining philosophical treatise, Del sentimiento tragico de la vida and was not finished until 1920. If Unamuno intended the work to be Christian and biblical, the Church and subsequent literary critics have found reason to question such a view. (1)

Felipe Lapuente points out that in 1948 a seminary professor, J. M. Cirarda, claimed that Unamuno only sought to undermine the Catholic faith, and he gave as evidence the book-length poem El Cristo de Velazquez (32). The early studies of Calvin Connan and Vicente Marrero found Unamuno's Christ a mythic one rather than the Christian Son of God, based on the symbols of moon, sun and earth. The most recent work that has been done on the heterodox nature of Unamuno's image of Christ is that of Linda Bartlett in "The Sanctity of the Creative Act in El Cristo de Velazquez." In this insightful and persuasive study Bartlett looks closely at the metaphors for Christ as the Word and Text, the creator and created. Though the first of the metaphors is wholly biblical, the Text refers not just to the human side of Christ, but also to the production of the artist that becomes the vehicle through which he becomes immortal. She concludes, "as the linguistic metaphors for Christ display, the hope for immortality projected in El Cristo de Velazquez rests not in a traditional concept of Christian salvation, but rather in the holy and unorthodox artistic enterprise described and realized in its verses" (44).

Nevertheless, this same poetical work has been used by believers for the deepening of their faith. A devotional book written by Roberto Lazear in 1979 uses appropriate passages from scripture to illumine fragments of Unamuno's poem. The author then adds his own commentary and suggests prayers to form a daily discipline or "office." How are such different readings possible? I will try to explain the divergence of opinions about this text by looking at Unamuno's use of yet another metaphor in El Cristo de Velazquez, the metaphor of water in the forms of a river and a wellspring. Following the pattern in Bartlett's article, the metaphor will be found to have a solid foundation in the Bible, but Unamuno's use of it will reflect his own particular passions, anxieties and remedies for the human condition.

Unamuno makes use of important Biblical images associated with the River Jordan and that of a stream as source or "wellspring," as he describes the image of Christ on the cross, painted by Velazquez. Here there is nothing heretical about Jesus, Son of God, and Savior. But he also uses the metaphor of the river to further advocate themes found in many other places in his work, that of the yearning for immortality and the omnipresence of tension and conflict that bring to fore the questioning Unamuno, the Unamuno inquieto. I suggest that the use of these Biblical images is evidence of Unamuno's desire to believe, querer creer, as it is articulated in Del sentimiento tragico de la vida. The latter uses of metaphor of the river remind us of the ongoing struggle that characterizes Unamuno's perspective on existence.

Some have reacted negatively to the overwhelmingly human picture of Christ in the poem. However, we can see that in the Biblical associations with the River Jordan and a wellspring, a clear image of an orthodox, Trinitarian God comes to light. …

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