Stories by Unamuno (2): Batracófilos y Batracófobos 1 (1917)

Stories by Unamuno (2): Batracófilos y Batracófobos 1 (1917)

Stories by Unamuno (2): Batracófilos y Batracófobos 1 (1917)

The incessant croaking of the frogs presents a new problem. And at that precise moment discord arises…

Steffi Wacker. / Pexels

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Andreu Navarra


In August 1917, Miguel de Unamuno wrote not a dystopia, but a satire. It’s evident that he’s mocking the internal disputes within the Ateneo de Madrid, using the fictitious Casino de Ciamaña, a name that seems to derive from Ciudad Magna. His skill is such that his parable could apply to any renowned cultural institution in the country, such as Ateneu Barcelonès or El Sitio de Bilbao, both of which he was well-acquainted with.

It also seems evident that Unamuno is having fun at the expense of the heated controversy between allies and Germanophiles, a fact confirmed by both Óscar Carrascosa (a scholar and compiler of Unamuno’s short stories, and his editor at Páginas de Espuma publishing house) and earlier critics. A decade ago I had the opportunity to examine this national literary and ideological schism in my book 1914. Allies and Germanophiles in Spanish culture (Madrid: Cátedra), a struggle that reached considerable levels of virulence and absurdity. I can attest that this story by Unamuno, a leading figure among the allies, was written during the harshest period of the First World War. At a time when Spain, under the protection of the Count of Romanones, faced a real risk of joining the conflict, this story captures the divided and murky atmosphere like no other.

Unamuno’s skill lies in his ability to combine the controversy of that moment with many others that a minimally informed reader could recall. For instance, the one that divided classics and romantics around 1820, the clash between the followers of the positivist Azcárate and the traditionalist Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo in the ‘Controversy about Spanish Science’ from 1876, or the division between supporters of Naturalism and moralizing idealists. The Unamuno controversy, led by the practical Don Restituto and the poet Don Herminio most closely resembles, for its exterior design, the two crises of the second half of the 19th century since supporters of batracophobia uphold the ideal of science, while the batrachophiles defend that of Art. It is a typically post-romantic confrontation, without the focus on technological issues or the futurisms that came to star in the discourses of the early 20th century.

In the story he avoids taking an explicit side, despite his relentless and harsh attacks on Eduardo Dato, the neutralist Head of Government whom he accused of being cunning and a sellout to the Germans (although it was revealed a decade ago that Dato had secretly managed to serve the French government commercially), and wielded the whip over and over again against the Germanophiles. Deep down, like the socialist Araquistáin, what they condemned was the inertia of Spanish civil society, which they believed to be nonexistent. Both Ortega and Araquistáin, along with Unamuno, expressed their despair at a country that refused to engage with the major processes of Modernity, instead indulging in revelries, festivities, distractions, and siestas.

Indeed, the controversy between batrachophiles and batrachophobes marks yet another ignorant crisis in our national life, resembling a senseless Casino fight with a traditional flavour.

Unamuno’s narrative, like all his stories, is schematic and simple. They are tales of ideas and not of adventures: the courtyard of the Casino de Ciamaña is decorated with a charming pond, and the consequence is that the readers of the library begin to be bothered by clouds of untimely mosquitoes. Let’s stop here. This is the first symbol of the text: this artificial swamp and the insects that no longer let the “readers” read or study, disturbed by an external element that does not allow concentration or patient work. From the political marsh emerges an annoying press, full of screams and stings. Today’s mosquitoes could be, for example, mobile phones, or the continuous dripping of hyperactive headlines.

The proposed solution is to fill the pond with frogs to eat the mosquitoes. However, the incessant croaking of the frogs presents a new problem. And at that precise moment discord arises: the poets and the readers want to read and write but they cannot; and the practical-minded scientists can’t take a nap. Let’s stop again: Unamuno theoretically should be located in the romantic band, the one that ruminates and works, but he offers a Nietzschean solution we’ll discuss later. It is curious that the idle, those who sleep, are the scientists. As an adversary of the mechanistic Kultur, whose maximum symbol is the Germany of the Kaiser, it is not surprising that the author views the positivists as spiritually dormant and alienated, unable to delve into and dream within the national Intrahistory, the true eternal essence of Castilian identity.

Those who read are those who know how to dream, those who sleep are those who have abandoned themselves to some pseudoprogressive clichés. But, after months of bitter debate between supporters and detractors of the batrachians, a third option emerges: a philosopher named Don Socrates proposes a compromise solution: eliminate the pond. In national terms, that would be equivalent to tearing out and silencing public opinion, and imposing censorship. The compromise is accepted and the pond is drained and removed, ending the controversy between batrachophiles and batrachophobes. However, everyone misses the political pond, for man cannot live without struggle and intellectual progress, which involves conflict per se. In our current pedagogical debate, the solution of this Socrates would be competency pedagogy: “You don’t know how to educate better, do you? So, give up educating, and that’s it”. The resolution to such a heated controversy is pure and simple nothingness.

How much has the country advanced morally? Isn’t the current polarization ridiculous and aren’t minor issues, mere distractions from our real concerns, being blown out of proportion in the hysterical and histrionic media? The tiresome discord between ‘teachersaurians’ and innovators, for example, would be a typically batrachian uncivil civil war: without nuances, utility or reference to any practical solution. In short, a farce. Our hyper-partisanship, our totally batrachian social networks, and the stupid croaking that form our daily choral accompaniment, aren’t they chapters and processes worthy of laughter like the confrontation between frog-lovers and mosquito-lovers coming to blows in cultural institutions?


1 These names appear to be derived from the Greek word “bátrachos”, which means “frog”. The words could be translated as “batrachophiles” and “batrachophobes,” respectively. The first mention of “batracófilos” in the original is followed by the clarification “frog-lovers”.

Source: educational EVIDENCE

Rights: Creative Commons

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