Always Astonished

By Kevin Rabalais

“A lot of good arguments are spoiled by some fool who knows what he is talking about.” —Miguel de Unamuno


This started with a photograph and has ended (for now) with a return to The Tragic Sense of Life. The photograph involves penguins. The book involves everything you feel but that you need someone with the wisdom of Miguel de Unamuno to help you remember.

To begin with the penguins: a color photograph of emperor penguins in Antarctica. Everyone likes penguins, sure, so why had this image failed to move me? After examining the photograph, which was well executed, I closed the book, not allowing any time to reflect on the experience. I didn’t ask the essential question: why had this work failed to enhance the quality of my day, much less the hour?

We sometimes believe that the process of thinking and untangling ideas always trumps what we feel about a work of art, that primary state of wonder. And yet so much of what we remember—days or years or decades after the initial heat of seeing a painting or photograph or reading a book—stems from our visceral reaction. Even though the plot or author’s name has long sailed over the edge of our memory, the taste and essence—the memory of our passionate reaction—lingers.

Several hours passed after I looked at those penguins before I opened (by chance, for the first time in five years) Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life. His words struck with the force of those great lines that we carry around inside of us and make us who we are, as in the searing ending to Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: "You must change your life.”

I carry those words everywhere I go, and now beside them I place these new ones from The Tragic Sense of Life:

There are, in fact, people who appear to think only with the brain, or with whatever may be the specific thinking organ; while others think with all the body and all the soul, with the blood, with the marrow of the bones, with the heart, with the lungs, with the belly, with the life.

Unamuno’s words helped me to make sense of my reaction earlier in the day. If I hadn’t been looking, over the past few weeks, at the photographs in Sebastião Salgado’s latest masterpiece, Genesis—which includes several images of emperor penguins—these other photographs might have moved me. But Unamuno reminded me of the difference between an artist and a visionary, or between someone who does great work and another who thinks “with the marrow of the bones.”

The color photographs I had seen earlier in the day were beautiful. Salgado, however, is to photography what Pushkin is to literature: he is consummate whether working with people, landscape or animals, much as the Russian master revealed his artistry in every form—long or short—that he touched in his brief lifetime.

I won’t go so far as to call this other photographer “a man neither here nor there… a no-man,” as Unamuno—philosopher, novelist, playwright, poet and professor (he lived many lives)—might, but I will say that Salgado fits his definition of “concrete man, this man of flesh and bone.”

The “man” that Unamuno examines in the opening chapter of The Tragic Sense of Life is the type of being we strive—“all of us who walk solidly on the earth”—to become.

Even though the plot or author’s name has long sailed over the edge of our memory, the taste and essence—the very memory of our passionate reaction—still lingers.

This whole experience (the comparison of photographs, the chance reunion with Unamuno, a writer whose work has once again risen to the top of my list) reminds me of a moment I had several years ago teaching students who never would have registered for a literature course if the university hadn’t forced them. Toward the end of our discussion of David Malouf’s Johnno, I asked a student what she thought of the novel. Throughout the hour, she had remained silent. With the wisdom of a great Jesuit in mind—he once told me that if we cannot account for our ideas and experiences, we are nothing—I let her steep. At last, she spoke.

“It makes you feel,” she said.

Four words, and yet they contained the seed of everything the rest of us had been trying to grasp.

Everything I have written about Unamuno comes from “The Man of Flesh and Bone,” the first chapter of The Tragic Sense of Life. There are some books that we can live by. We sift through them one paragraph at a time. Unamuno’s essay, in which he makes a strong plea for passion over rationality, is such a book, the kind that contains wisdom to provide sustenance for our days.

“[Y]our essence, reader, mine… and of every man who is a man, is nothing but the endeavor, the effort, which he makes to continue to be a man, not to die,” he writes.

And with those words, (gathered by chance, with eternal appreciation), I saw the theme that literature had been revealing over the years, line by line, idea by idea. It’s there in Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” It’s there in Bob Dylan: “he not busy being born is busy dying.” It’s there in the work of Fernando Pessoa, who reminds us, in “Follow Your Destiny,” that “Reality is always / More or less / Than we want. / Only we are always / Equal to ourselves.”

To reach that equation, we must foster the passion that prompted our journey. One step, one hour, one day, one paragraph and one book at a time.


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