The mysterious masterpiece of Portugal’s great modernist.
If ever there was a writer in flight from his name, it was Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa is the Portuguese word for “person,” and there is nothing he less wanted to be. Again and again, in both poetry and prose, Pessoa denied that he existed as any kind of distinctive individual. “I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist,” he writes in one poem. “I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me. . . . That’s me. Period.”
In his magnum opus, “The Book of Disquiet”—a collage of aphorisms and reflections couched in the form of a fictional diary, which he worked on for years but never finished, much less published—Pessoa returns to the same theme: “Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life. These are my Confessions and if I say nothing in them it’s because I have nothing to say.”
This might sound like an unpromising basis for a body of creative work that is now considered one of the greatest of the twentieth century. If a writer is nothing, does nothing, and has nothing to say, what can he write about? But, like the big bang, which took next to nothing and turned it into a cosmos, the expansive power of Pessoa’s imagination turned out to need very little raw material to work with. Indeed, he belongs to a distinguished line of European writers, from Giacomo Leopardi, in the early nineteenth century, to Samuel Beckett, in the twentieth, for whom nullity was a muse. The ultimate futility of all accomplishment, the fascination of loneliness, the way sorrow colors our perception of the world: Pessoa’s insight into his favorite themes was purchased at a high price, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “To find one’s personality by losing it—faith itself subscribes to that sense of destiny,” he wrote.
The facts of Pessoa’s destiny are briefly told. Born in Lisbon in 1888, he moved to South Africa at the age of seven, when his stepfather was appointed Portuguese consul in Durban. He excelled at English, winning prizes for his school essays, and wrote English verse throughout his life. In 1905, he moved back to Lisbon to study at the university there. After two years, however, a student strike shut down the campus, and Pessoa dropped out.
For the rest of his life, he devoted himself to reading and writing while supporting himself as a freelance translator of business correspondence. He never married, and while biographers speculate about his sexuality—“I was never one who in love or friendship / Preferred one sex over the other,” he writes in one poem—it is possible that he died a virgin. He was involved in several literary enterprises, including a famous magazine, Orpheu, which, though it ran for only two issues, is considered responsible for introducing modernism to Portugal. He published just one book during his lifetime—“Message,” a collection of poems inspired by Portuguese history, which appeared in 1934. He was a familiar figure in Lisbon’s literary world, but when he died, in 1935, at the age of forty-seven, he had no major achievements to his name. It might well have seemed that he had had “a history without a life.”
But Pessoa was to have an extraordinary afterlife, as he prophesied in his poem “If I Die Young”: “roots may be hidden in the ground / But their flowers flower in the open air for all to see. / It must be so. Nothing can prevent it.” Among his belongings when he died was a large trunk, containing more than twenty-five thousand manuscript pages—the product of a lifetime of nearly graphomaniacal productivity. As Richard Zenith, one of his leading English translators, has written, Pessoa composed “on loose sheets, in notebooks, on stationery from the firms where he worked, on the backs of letters, on envelopes, or on whatever scrap of paper happened to be in reach.”
This cache of documents, which now resides in Portugal’s National Library, contained enough masterpieces to make Pessoa the greatest Portuguese poet of his century—indeed, probably the greatest since Luís de Camões, the sixteenth-century author of the country’s national epic, “The Lusiads.” Among the papers, too, were the hundreds of entries that make up “The Book of Disquiet”—but in no particular order, leaving successive editors to impose their own vision on the work. The first publication of the book was in 1982, nearly fifty years after Pessoa’s death. A newly published English translation, by Margaret Jull Costa, is called “The Book of Disquiet: The Complete Edition” (New Directions), and it is based on a Portuguese edition by Jerónimo Pizarro, which came out in 2013. This was the first version that attempted to put all the entries in chronological order, as best as can be established from Pessoa’s dating and other sources.
In addition to the size and the disorder of the Pessoa archive, there is another confounding level of complexity: it is, in a sense, the work of many writers. In his manuscripts, and even in personal correspondence, Pessoa attributed much of his best writing to various fictional alter egos, which he called “heteronyms.” Scholars have tabulated as many as seventy-two of these. His love of invented names began early: at the age of six, he wrote letters under the French name Chevalier de Pas, and soon moved on to English personae such as Alexander Search and Charles Robert Anon. But the major heteronyms he used in his mature work were more than jokey code names. They were fully fledged characters, endowed with their own biographies, philosophies, and literary styles. Pessoa even imagined encounters among them, and allowed them to comment on one another’s work. If he was empty, as he liked to claim, it was not the emptiness of a void but of a stage, where these selves could meet and interact.
In Pessoa’s poetry, three heteronyms were crucial. In addition to the poems he signed with his own name, he wrote as Alberto Caeiro, an untutored child of nature; as Ricardo Reis, a melancholic doctor dedicated to classical forms and themes; and as Alvaro de Campos, a naval engineer and world traveller who was a devotee of Walt Whitman. Each of these personae was assigned a date of birth within a few years of Pessoa’s own, and their mythologies were intertwined: Pessoa once wrote a passage in which Campos explains how Reis was fundamentally transformed by listening to a reading by Caeiro.
Ordinarily, we expect important poets to have a distinctive style, a way of writing that identifies them as surely as a painter is identified by his brushstroke. But the subdivision of his selves allowed Pessoa to have at least four such styles at once. Writing under his own name, Pessoa is terse, metaphysical, sentimental:
I contemplate the silent pond
Whose water is stirred by a breeze.
Am I thinking about everything,
Or has everything forgotten me?
Reis, meanwhile, sounds like Horace or Catullus, dwelling on the fleetingness of life and love in disciplined stanzas:
As if each kiss
Were a kiss of farewell,
Let us lovingly kiss, my Chloe.
Campos, at the opposite extreme, is an excitable futurist, glorying in the power and the speed of the modern:
Pantheistic rage of awesomely feeling
With all my senses fizzing and all my pores fuming
That everything is but one speed, one energy, one divine line
From and to itself, arrested and murmuring furies of mad speed.
And then there is Caeiro, who is said to have died of tuberculosis in his mid-twenties. Revered by the other heteronyms as their “Master,” he wrote plainspoken poems that eschew abstract thought and cleave to the natural world, in an almost Zen spirit of wisdom:
I thank God I’m not good
But have the natural egoism of flowers
And rivers that follow their path
With only their flowering and their flowing.
For many readers, the heteronyms, with their complicated mythology, are a large part of Pessoa’s appeal; other readers might consider them an unnecessary and cumbersome apparatus. But they are undoubtedly one of the elements that mark him as a supreme modernist. This was a generation of poets that believed in what Oscar Wilde called “the truth of masks.” T. S. Eliot, who was never more Eliotic than when he was J. Alfred Prufrock, has a particular kinship with Pessoa. Born just months apart, both poets had a fondness for dandyism, a contempt for the ordinary, a principled attachment to impersonality, and a tendency to cherish unhappiness.
Pessoa, however, went beyond masking to a kind of deliberate dissociation. In a section of “The Book of Disquiet” titled “How to Dream Metaphysics,” he prescribes a method for dissolving consciousness, which in its rigor resembles a manual on self-hypnosis, or a set of religious exercises. First comes the reading of novels, which trains you to care more about a fictional world than about the real one. Then comes the ability to physically feel what you imagine—for instance, “the sensualist” should be able to “experience an ejaculation when such a moment occurs in his novel.” Finally, after several more stages, comes what Pessoa calls “the highest stage of dreaming”: “Having created a cast of characters, we live them all, at the same time—we are all those souls jointly and interactively.” This, of course, is what he achieved, and if, on one side, it sounds like self-abnegation, on another side it resembles self-worship: “I am God,” the entry concludes. After all, if your imagination is so powerful that it can people the world, then there is no need for the existence of actual people.
This kind of solipsism was a great temptation for Pessoa, as “The Book of Disquiet” reveals. The material that he marked for inclusion in the book was written in two phases, each with its own heteronym, separate from the four characters who dominate his poetry. During the first phase, from 1913 to 1920, he attributed the work to Vicente Guedes, whom he describes in an introductory vignette as “a man in his thirties, thin, fairly tall, very hunched when sitting though less so when standing, and dressed with a not entirely unself-conscious negligence.” The passage goes on to describe Guedes’s austerity, melancholy, intelligence, and seeming insignificance—all qualities that he shared, of course, with his creator. Thus, when Pessoa describes “The Book of Disquiet” as “the autobiography of someone who never existed,” he is simultaneously telling a factual truth (there was no such person as Guedes) and making a poetic confession: he himself never lived what the world considers a full life.
During the nineteen-twenties, Pessoa set the book aside, turning his attention to poetry and indulging a lifelong fascination with occultism and astrology. When he returned to it, in 1929, he had reimagined its author. Now it was to be the work of Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper in a Lisbon fabric company. Soares, too, is spiritually akin to Pessoa: indeed, Pessoa wrote that he was only a “semi-heteronym,” because “his personality, though not my own, doesn’t differ from my own but is a mere mutilation of it.” Soares is a more fully imagined character than his predecessor, Guedes. He makes observations about his neighborhood of Baixa, his workplace in the Rua dos Douradores, and his boss, Vasques, in a way that gives the second phase of the book a more novelistic feeling. Indeed, the Penguin Classics edition of “The Book of Disquiet,” edited by Richard Zenith, places a number of these passages near the beginning, smoothing the reader’s entry with a kind of miniature narrative.
The chronological method of the new edition precludes any kind of thematic organization, and the result is a book that is less approachable than its predecessor. This is partly because it opens with the weakest material, which dates from when Pessoa was a twenty-five-year-old heavily under the influence of French Symbolism and the Decadent Movement, of the eighteen-nineties. (Portugal seems to have been about a generation behind the literary mean time of Paris and London.) “My soul is a hidden orchestra,” the first entry reads. “I do not know what instruments, what violins and harps, drums and tambours sound and clash inside me. I know myself only as a symphony.”
This passage sets the tone for the florid prose poetry that dominates the first part of the work. Some entries have ponderous titles, such as “Litany of Despair” or “An Aesthetics of Abdication.” Others consist of impressionistic sketches of skies and landscapes, as in “Rainy Day”: “The air is a concealed yellow, like a pale yellow seen through a grubby white.” There are perverse reveries about nameless women who are half Virgin Mary, half Belle Dame Sans Merci: “You are the only form that does not radiate tedium, because you change with our feelings, because, in kissing our joy, you cradle our grief and tedium, you are the opium that comforts and the sleep that brings rest, and the death that gently folds our hands on our breast.”
If this were all that “The Book of Disquiet” contained, it would not be a modern masterpiece but a time capsule. Still, it was from the late-nineteenth-century cult of decadence that the first seeds of modernism germinated; and in Pessoa the transition from the nineteenth century to the twentieth is fascinatingly visible. Decadence was founded on an impertinent reversal of the values of the time: in place of hard work and moral earnestness, writers like Wilde and Joris-Karl Huysmans elevated imaginative indolence and provocative paradox. For the young Pessoa, this message resonated, since it turned his own tendency toward hesitation and withdrawal into an artistic virtue. “I never try too hard,” he writes in a 1915 entry. “Fortune, if it so wishes, may come and find me. I know all too well that my greatest efforts will never meet with the success that others enjoy.”
As he grew older, however, and particularly once he returned to “The Book of Disquiet” in his forties, Pessoa fashioned this literary pose into something more serious and sharp-edged. It became a kind of metaphysical nihilism, in which the great truth the artist had to communicate was that nothing matters. Crucial to this shift was the decision to drop Guedes, with his rhetorical grandeur, and speak through Soares, who lacks glamour of any kind. Indeed, with his shabby rented room and his boring, repetitive job, Soares is as ordinary as can be—the kind of person an aesthete would recoil from, or simply not notice. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot saw crowds of people like Soares flowing over London Bridge and considered them as already dead: “I had not thought death had undone so many.”
For Pessoa, however, the ultimate paradox is that it is precisely this living death that offers the best vantage point on human existence. If you had to describe Soares in one word, it would be “undeceived”: because he wants nothing, he can see through everything. “Yes, that’s what tedium is: the loss by the soul of its capacity to delude itself,” Pessoa writes. Among the things that fail to impress him in “The Book of Disquiet” are travel (“The idea of travelling makes me feel physically sick”), politics (“All revolutionaries are as stupid as all reformers”), and love (“I’ve had neither the patience nor the concentration of mind to want to make that effort”). History is conspicuously absent from Pessoa’s work: though he lived through the First World War, and a series of political crises in Portugal that resulted in the establishment of a Fascist regime, he rigorously excludes such matters from his consideration. He seems at his happiest simply observing the weather, and many entries include quiet descriptions of the sun and sky, the rain and clouds.
This indifferentism is hard to reconcile with the effort and the artistry that Pessoa devoted to his work. If nothing is worth doing, why write twenty-five thousand pages? At times, he suggests that thinking and writing are simply a way of killing time—an occupation for the mind the way crocheting is for the hands, as he says in his poem “Impassively”:
I also have my crochet.
It dates from when I began to think.
Stitch on stitch forming a whole without a whole . . .
A cloth, and I don’t know if it’s for a garment or nothing.
If thinking is considered the mere absence of activity, then it might well look like a repudiation of life, and “The Book of Disquiet” is shot through with expressions of boredom, regret, and despair. At the same time, however, Pessoa is convinced that thinking is the greatest of adventures, far superior to any possible action. Indeed, since we never have access to the world except through our private perceptions and ideas, action in the world is, strictly speaking, unnecessary. Why do things when you can imagine them? In this way, Soares the clerk turns out to be the ultimate aristocrat, who has no need of things like accomplishment and status, because he considers himself infinitely superior to them. “The higher a man rises up the scale, the more things he must relinquish. On the mountain peak there is only room for that man alone,” Soares says, sounding rather like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Writing is both the reason for and the proof of this superiority: “Literature . . . seems to me the goal towards which all human effort should be directed.”
In its alternations between self-loathing and self-exaltation, “The Book of Disquiet” can seem like a quintessentially manic-depressive epic. Pessoa’s achievement, deliberate or inadvertent, is to show how the roots of a certain kind of misery lie in solipsism—the belief that nothing outside the self really matters, so that the mind can never be truly affected by what it experiences. “Freedom is the possibility of isolation,” he writes in the final entry. “If you cannot live alone, then you were born a slave.” But even Pessoa, finally, could not live alone; he kept himself company by inventing his heteronyms, which, unlike actual people, would always remain under his control. Only death could free them—and him—from his imagination’s all too powerful grip. ♦
This article appears in other versions of the September 4, 2017, issue, with the headline “Voices from the Void.”
via The New Yorker