The further I go into Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet the more apparent it becomes that this is a book to be absorbed deeply and contemplated over time. I find myself marking nearly every page and marginal notes can no longer corral my questions and considerations. It is a book, I know now, to be taken to the very end—but only if my reading becomes more active than it’s been. I’ve therefore decided to create a new category—“Mondays with Pessoa”—which will give me a chance to keep track of my thoughts and share them at the same time. These Monday postings will be informal and probably sporadic. I’m sure they will take various forms and lengths. I would be taking these notes in any case, but it is my hope that a reader or two will find some pleasure in reading along with me one of the most remarkable books in the world.
If I had discovered Pessoa in my teens I would have recognized a brother. But I never saw or heard the name until just a few years ago when I became interested in the mind of Chris Al-Aswad. Even so Pessoa remained only a name until Chris’s untimely death. Only then did I finally pick up a book by the Portuguese writer and, with time, understand what a tremendous inspiration he must have been for Chris. I never had a chance to discuss the matter with him. And because no day goes by that I don’t think of my friend, I am dedicating this exploration of The Book of Disquiet to Chris.
Fernando Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888 and died there in 1935. He worked as a translator for commercial firms and wrote obsessively in English, Portuguese and French. Although he regularly contributed poems to journals, Pessoa’s genius went largely unrecognized until after his death, and his reputation has blossomed in recent years. Pessoa occasionally wrote as Pessoa. The rest of the time he wrote as one or another of the dozens of personas that he invented, each with their own writing style and some with complete biographies. He called these personas heteronyms and he wrote The Book of Disquiet as the assistant bookkeeper Bernardo Soares.
Richard Zenith, who translated and arranged* the edition I am reading, outlines some of the differences between Soares’ personality and Pessoa’s. For example, Soares, unlike Pessoa, was rather humorless and could be somewhat self-pitying. He was an office worker like Pessoa, but whereas he slogged through the drudgery of a clerk, Pessoa’s job of representing his employers through business letters to foreign clients came with a certain amount of prestige and most importantly moderate and flexible hours. Still, it is very difficult for me to avoid seeing Soares merely as a stand-in for Pessoa. I remind myself that Pessoa, in the last year of his life, wrote of Soares, “his personality, although not my own, doesn’t differ from my own but is a mere mutilation of it.” Zenith describes Soares as a “mutilated Pessoa, with missing parts.” [p xi] My reading is not deep or broad enough yet to perceive the differences between author and heteronym. I must remind myself that what I am reading may not be as transparent as it appears, and wonder if the use of a persona so close to Pessoa’s own was a strategy that enabled him to achieve honesty in literature that would otherwise have eluded him. Of the many things that The Book of Disquiet is, paradox looms large. It is a book that strikes one as being uncommonly honest, despite there being no way to confirm its truth, other than the feeling one has while reading it.
In keeping with the journalistic approach let me briefly mention a scene from the movie The Matrix, which I just happened to see on TV a couple nights ago. For me this is the most philosophically rich scene of the movie:
It seems obvious that Pessoa’s fame has blossomed during the age of the Internet and Jean Baudrillard because of our familiarity with all things meta, of secondary experiences that in some ways are indistinguishable from primary ones. And because familiarity, in this case, does not bring comfort, but on the contrary constitutes our dilemma. If only it were as easy as choosing between the red and the blue pill. But that steak can’t be reduced to such a choice, as Žižek explained. Disquieting, indeed.
* A few words must be said about the original manuscript. Pessoa wrote The Book of Disquiet over the course of many years, and never settled on an order. Twelve sections of it were published in journals during his lifetime. The rest of the manuscript was written on random scraps of paper bearing the label “L. do D.” or included in a large envelope labeled Livro do Desassossego. Soares was not the first heteronym to author it, and one of its authors was Fernando Pessoa. In a certain sense the book does not, and could not, exist. Zenith mentions [p xi] that Pessoa was “often unsure who was writing when he wrote” and [p xv] that he took to “scribbling L. do D. at the head of all sorts of texts, sometimes as an afterthought, or with a question mark”. By 1928 Pessoa had settled on Soares, retroactively attributing former sections to him, and removing poems (he had decided that Soares was not a poet). But the book had become so heterogeneous despite the excisions that Soares had to become as complex and contradictory as Pessoa himself. We are left with a manuscript of prose exuding incredible poetic power.