Four Ways of Seeing: Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet

1.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2009

 

The book as it came to me was drab, bound in pale green cloth and devoid of all markings save for its title printed in gold: The Book of Disquiet. That starkness of labeling was its first appeal. The second was the rhythmic name of its author, written on the inside flap, falling drop-like as water when recited—Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa. The strange resonance between his middle name and my last was a trivial comfort, but an attractive one. It sustained me through the unsettling pages, from the very moment I opened to page one (a convenient place) and began.

To begin—a tremulous thing in the case of Pessoa. Now thought of as a definitive part of the Portuguese literary canon and one of the greatest poets of existential malaise of the twentieth century, Pessoa was once considered a minor figure, known mostly for founding the modernist literary journal Orpheu. Following his death in 1935, however, his sister shocked scholars by revealing the existence of a trunk containing over twenty-thousand of his documents—poems, plays, essays, even horoscopes—mostly unfinished and all but indecipherable. The subsequent frenzy of academic attempts to arrange the hundreds of disorganized journal entries into something linear could conceivably have assumed countless forms. It is entirely possible that my copy of Pessoa’s text places later entries at the front of the book, so that instead of edging toward death, his insights crawl toward natality.

The actual content of these enigmatic pages too defies a narrative arc. Pessoa presents his reader with the despairing and fragmentary diary of an assistant book-keeper who has resigned himself to never leaving his street, choosing instead to dwell in his mind. “With the soul’s equivalent of a wry smile,” he writes, “I calmly confront the prospect that my life will consist of nothing more than being shut up forever in Rua dos Douradores, in this office, surrounded by these people.” But the peculiar quality of “forever” is that it has neither a beginning nor an end. The entries—brilliant in their philosophical reflections though they are—thus retain a kind of sameness, existing outside the normal relationship of cause and effect. I could have started from page 38 or 217 with just as much reason or sense.

One final matter complicates this strange, non-linear text. Though it is born of Pessoa’s mind, he himself does not claim authorship. The writer of the diary, according to Pessoa, is instead one Bernardo Soares, a tall hunched man with a penchant for cheap tobacco, whom he encounters on the upper floor of a Lisbon café. Soares is one of Pessoa’s literary personalities, which he calls “heteronyms”—alternate personae with different biographies and philosophies, all coexisting within his fertile imagination, of whom we today count more than seventy-two. In his work they interact, reading one another’s writings, producing critiques, even penning obituaries. A poignant addition, for if imaginary characters seem to me easily created, then their deaths are all the more painful, a first killing of consciousness that precedes their second demise when, inevitably, the page is turned.

2.

Leningrad, Russia, 1948

 

The book I requested has finally arrived. I can still see the messenger scurrying away over the new snow. Cowards that they are, they wrapped it in black paper—as if that will keep away any eyes that care to see! In any case, I will write this review. I will do so in spite of myself, because I have no wish to and because nobody cares a thing for my pitiful attempts at opposition anyway. If this sounds like a contradiction, that is because it is, but my review will be about Fernando Pessoa and thus contradiction is entirely the point.

Pessoa’s works are plump with oppositions, rife with challenges. Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis—those other, famous characters of his—remain offstage in this particular book; but Soares is a lonely man, and so he seeks the chatter of contradiction within himself. Reality, without reason, appears one way for him as he sits in his office, completely another when he is caught in a rainstorm a few pages later.

Naturally, this will be a difficult pill to swallow for complacent stomachs. Contradiction is rarely defended so brazenly and consciously, and these reversals disregard completely all desire for the false consolation of a single truth. Recall the ferocity with which our illustrious critic Shklovsky loathed Rozanov for this exact point, writing that Fallen Leaves represented “a totally new genre, an extraordinary act of betrayal. Social and topical essays, presented as autonomous fragments, contradict each other at every point.”

But—a betrayal of what? Somebody feels a certain way one day, a different way the next. Or even two different ways at the same time. Hegel, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky—and I dare you to say that they are not great—all had contradiction at the very heart of their work. To propose a contradiction is to scoop out the ground from the static, to provide the necessary opposite to bring the world to completion.

Let us see if we cannot provide a little proof. From my window overlooking the Nevsky Prospekt, I see an officer stamping out a cigarette under his boot heel in the rusty dawn. Through his uniform his belly betrays the bulge of the well-fed—a disappointment, considering all the intelligent ones go hungry these days. But for the purposes of my little thought experiment, he has brains enough. Say I were to call him up to the tiny flat where I live alone, ask his permission to share some of these ideas with which I spend so much time. I see him here, listening carefully. If he agrees with me, then fine, my point is verified. But let us pretend he is more skeptical. “Come, sir,” he simpers, fiddling uncomfortably with his jacket. “Surely no rational man can truly believe that contradiction is quite adequate, theoretically?” Since this statement is itself a contradiction—quod erat demonstrandum!

How much of this do I truly believe? Is contradiction so important that where it does not exist, we must invent it? I often feel that what I have written myself is merely artificial provocation, contradiction for its own sake. But one must pass the time somehow. There is no alternative to that.

 

3.

Vienna, Austria, 1993

The book first came to my attention on account of a tattered copy of the morning newspaper in the visitors’ ward, which I picked up and pretended to read as I watched the patients. With their hair combed and tucked behind their ears, hands on their laps and smiles hanging from their lips, they sat like small children waiting for mothers, sisters, uncles. Yesterday they fought for control of the remote, and tomorrow they will quarrel over seats in the cafeteria. But at this particular moment they were quiet, fixing their cuffs and rubbing their faces to check their shaves. This behavior is to be expected. Psychologists have noted a particular fastidiousness and resignation to one’s surroundings among the most hopeless, marked by a preoccupation with the tiniest details (Hirsch and Meitzel, 1985, “Picturing Death Row”).

I held the newspaper open to page C2 and C3 as a pure ruse so as not to draw attention, but a photo on the page caught my eye. It was a black and white portrait of that disturbed Russian author of Truth and Artifice, who, in following his theory to its logical end, sought the contradiction of life itself by his own hand. He left behind no note. But tucked away in paragraph four of the accompanying retrospective was a glancing reference to the book, one of the few things found on his desk. It is widely understood that one’s final possessions provide the most accurate representation of a person’s desired projection of self (Mirsky, 1990, “Objects and Endings”); and so, cognizant of a hidden significance to the elusive author, I walked over to the institutional library, where a never-stamped copy fortunately still occupied its expected place on the shelf.

Opening the pages to this fascinating case study of Pessoa’s heteronym, I recalled the query of a colleague of mine, who questioned why, if writers can have alter egos, the critic’s mind should be limited to only one point of view (Gould, 1989, “The Poetics of Perception”). In a world composed of so many viewpoints, in which existence is necessarily fragmented. It would thus be inaccurate of the critic to assume only one voice. In fact, scientists now understand that an overly strong sense of subjectivity can lead to neurosis and depression (Finnegan, 1992, “Negative sites of self-assertion on the limbic-pituitary axis”).

The major psychiatric breakthrough of the twentieth century came in the realization that what was traditionally considered pathological, the shattering of perception found in victims of dissociative identity disorder, in fact allows for a clearer, more comprehensive experience of reality. Writers began to develop literary alter egos: Pound had Mauberley, Rilke had Malte Laurids Brigge, Valéry had Monsieur Teste. But Pessoa outstripped them all in the sheer number and detail of his alternate selves. He even impersonated a therapist, writing to old teachers and schoolmates to ask for their opinions on his patient “Fernando Pessoa” in an attempt to learn what they truly thought of him.

A bell sounds through the building, signaling patient curfew. I smile at the librarian and check out the book. Then the bell sounds again, nearly masking the approaching footfalls of the two wardens coming to wheel me away, serene, back to my room.

 

 

4.

Cambridge, England, 1956

 

The book revealed itself to me on a park bench, in the public gardens, where it lay half concealed in the shadows of a linden tree casting down its leaf prints in sharp relief. There it was, and there was my body slicing lengthwise through the light (thin here in a sunny patch, textured golden nearer the flower beds), as I moved at a steady pace over the gravel paths toward its presence. I made no sudden gestures, fearing it would disappear if I showed any effort. To reach deliberately for something is to lose it, to close oneself to the possibilities of being. The poet must relinquish  desire, submerging himself in complete indifference, so that life may catch him unawares, all the more intense for its suddenness.

This idea too came to me from the outside. It came from the book itself, and now I am projecting it backwards in time to fit my discovery, in which I moved more purposefully toward those pages (ducking a ball, dodging a running child) than I care to admit. But now that I am safe here in this café, tucked into a corner with the book and a half-eaten pastry and the steam from my cup tumbling upwards, I can reflect. Soares calls his philosophy an “aesthetics of indifference,” a letting go of being so that images may flicker by him, lit briefly by the sun like the backs of salmon as they surge seaward through the mind. Perhaps consciousness will one day be quantified, made the subject of scientific study, but for now it exists only as rich unknown spaces.

I fail at the task Soares has set, though. I cannot be indifferent. My preferences continue to order the world, despite myself. Before my lips touch this cup I know that the coffee will be bitter; this knowledge informs my perception of the drink before the first sip. Nor is language effortless. My poems win accolades for their studied lyricism; I search through cabinets, shuffle through drawers, reaching for the right words. For Soares, love wearies, action dissipates, thinking confuses. But I cannot allow life to merely flow its way past. Tousled as the strands of life are, various as its characters may be, I must go out—capture it—share its fractured loveliness with those around me.