Stories by Unamuno (1): Mecanópolis (1913)

Stories by Unamuno (1): Mecanópolis (1913)

Stories by Unamuno (1): Mecanópolis (1913)

Like Heidegger, he perhaps believed technology was beneficial until it began to erode the essence of humanity

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Andreu Navarra


This story, published on August 11, 1913, is a model of simplicity. It adopts the swift and fundamental structure of Bécquer’s Legends: a tale of an extraordinary journey or experience that a friend has undergone, which the narrator tries to replicate in his own words. This narrative technique, reminiscent of Cervantes, is almost a staple in the realm of fantastic or speculative literature. In this case, we are clearly facing a case of moral dystopia, like the one Julio Verne wrote but left unpublished half a century earlier about the mechanized Paris of the 20th century. In this instance, we find ourselves confronted with a moral dystopia, akin to an unpublished work by Julio Verne about the mechanized Paris of the 20th century from half a century earlier. The protagonist remains nameless, and it is evident that through this character, Miguel de Unamuno wanted to express not so much his opposition to techno-progressivism, but rather its potential to dehumanize.

The situation, as we’ve said, is very simple: a wanderer, lost in the desert, seeks water and stumbles upon an oasis. Within this oasis lies an automated railway station from which an incredibly fast train, which was empty, departs. This train crosses the plains to reach Mechanopolis, a city full of wealth that no one enjoys. What the author describes resembles a famous Gestapo torture: “I cannot describe the city to you. We can scarcely even dream all the magnificence, grandiosity, comfort and cleanliness that abounded in that place. Of course, I failed to comprehend the need for all those cleaning apparatuses, since no living creature was in sight. No people, no animals. Not a single dog crossed the street; not a swallow crossed the sky.” It is remarkable that Unamuno imagined this dystopia a year before the First World War, over a decade before Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, seven years before the publication of We, by Evgeny Zamiatin, the progenitor of all 20th-century dystopian nightmares. Within a building in Mechanopolis there exists a “Hotel”, completely deserted, equipped with machines that prepare and serve delicacies at the mere push of a button, like on the Enterprise ship. The tragedy lies in the fact that the humanity has been excluded from that unfortunate perfect city.

Within the Art Museum, one can find flawless reproductions of all the great paintings ever created by humanity. It’s a place where one can learn about all the art of the world, but without seeing a single work of art. We can wonder what the hell a work of art is. Walter Benjamin would do it in 1936 in a transcendental little essay. However, Unamuno had already been contemplating the subject… And one more disturbing detail: “I learned from a sign at the entrance that in Mechanopolis, the Museum of Painting was considered part of the Museum of Paleontology”… It’s as if Unamuno had taken a stroll around Barcelona in 2024!

Neither food, nor luxuries, nor riches for anyone. We do not know if he is talking about the contemporary city or the Metaverse. Because we could apply this moral to our world: it seems that Unamuno was thinking of us when he described a technical world where humans mattered so little that they ceased to count at all. It’s not merely that the humanities have been and continue to be trampled upon (this is an age-old debate: they’ve been systematically dismantled for decades, to the point where authorities can scarcely recall what literature or cultural heritage even mean; a future Verne had already predicted). It’s that people, often seen as obstacles and sources of contradictions, no longer serve to optimize systems and are thus made to vanish. As Unamuno says, some “mechanical souls” steer our world and I’m unsure what frightens me more: being expelled by a robot or a robotized man, I mean lobotomized. In other words, a person devoid of soul.

We know that Unamuno campaigned against the railway. We also know that he had a frequent traveller railcard, which he used to visit Gredos and Extremadura, to purify his spirit. He claimed walking as a form of spiritual hygiene, using technology to achieve it and avoid becoming trapped in the city: a humanist stance, characteristic of someone who loves the countryside but must sometimes go to Madrid or Bilbao to make the public remember. Unamuno sometimes struggled to harmonize this dual life. However, after reading Mecanópolis we understand that he viewed exaggerated technical progress as a threat. Like Heidegger, he perhaps believed technology was beneficial until it began to erode the essence of humanity.

Luckily, the story concludes positively: Frantically I ran outside and threw myself in front of the first electric tram that came. When I came to, I found myself back in the oasis that I had departed from. I walked until I came to the tent of a group of Bedouins, and when I met one of them I embraced him in tears. How well we understood each other even without understanding each other! They fed me; they took care of me, and at night, I went outside with them and, lying on the ground, looking up into the starry sky, we prayed together”. They were fine, for they were humans doing things together.

Source: educational EVIDENCE

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