Portillo, Luis: Unamuno’s Last Lecture

Horizon review, December 1941

portillo1‘Unamuno died suddenly, as one who dies in war. Against whom? Perhaps against himself; and also, although many may not believe it, against the men who sold Spain and betrayed his people. Against the people itself? I have never believed that and never shall believe it.’

Antonio Machado, Notas de Actualidad, Madrid February 1937.

‘Some maintained, during those frantic days, their independence of mind. From the human point of view, it is a consolation; from the Spanish point of view, a hope.’

Manuel Azana, Prologue to La Velada en Benkarlo, Paris, May 1939.

The Ceremonial Hall in the University of Salamanca is a spacious chamber, used only on formal occasions, solemn, austere, the walls hung with tapestries. Through the huge windows enters a shimmering flood of iridescent light which deepens the amber glow of the century-old plinth stones. This was the setting.

The play was enacted on the 12th October 1936, when Spanish Fascism was in its first triumphant stage. The morning was half spent. The patriotic festival of the Hispanic Race was being celebrated.

There they were on the presidential dais: the purple calotte, the purple calotte, the amethyst ring and the flashing pectoral cross of the Most Illus¬trious Doctor Pla y Daniel, Bishop of the Diocese; the lack-lustre robes of the Magistrates; the profuse glitter of military gold braid side by side with the crosses and medals exhibited on presump¬tuously bulging chests; the morning coat, set off by black satin lapels, of His Excellency the Civil Governor of the Province; and all these surrounded—was it to honour or to overwhelm?—the man whose pride in his incorruptible Spanish conscience  was steadfast and straight: Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, the Rector.

From the front wall, the allegorical picture of the Republic had gone, and there shone from under a canopy the Caudillo’s effigy in plump insolence. To the left and right, on crimson-covered divans, the silk of the doctors’ gowns and their mortar-boards with gay tassels in red, yellow, light blue and dark blue, symbolizing Law, Medicine, Letters and Science.

A few ladies were scattered among the learned men; in a prominent place, Doña Carmen Polo de Franco, the distinguished spouse of the Man of Providence.

From a packed audience which faced the dais of the elect, with its protective balustrade of dark polished wood, there rose the confused murmur of expectancy. At the far end of the long hall glinted the rounded brasses of a military band, ready to play the obligatory hymns.

The ceremony began. Don Miguel opened it with the ritual formula, spoken in that unforgettable voice of his, thin and clear. Then Don Francisco Maldonado stepped on to the platform, short, fat, Professor of Literature and Salamancan land-owner. With affected, baroque diction and vast erudition, he delivered a colourless and circumstantial address. At the end, he expressed his hope for a better future, with kindly and sincere emotion. He descended the steps among cheers and applause, bowed to the dais and returned to his seat. He was followed on the speaker’s platform by Don José Maria Ramos Loscertales of Saragossa, tall and lean, with fluid gestures, flashing eyes, sober and precise of speech, his sensitive face in perpetual motion, expressing a subtle and enigmatic irony. He spoke of the mortal struggle raging at the time—yet another circumstantial speech. Its thesis: the energies of Spain at white-heat in a crucible of passion—and like gold from the crucible, Spain would emerge in the end, purified and without stain, in her true colours which rejected the taints artificially imposed on her. Clamorous ovation.

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