Mondays with Pessoa: Introduction

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.

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11 Responses to Mondays with Pessoa: Introduction

  1. So excited you’re doing this. I’ve not gotten around to reading Pessoa yet. You make me want to pick his work up right now. Glad you’re dedicating this to Chris. Miss him.

    • I miss Chris every day. This is one of the reasons Pessoa resonates so much with me. I’m very glad that The Blog of Innocence is still available but disturbed that the title has been removed from the header. That title was very important to Chris. I always felt that he was semi-secretly writing a great book akin to ‘Disquiet’ called The Book of Innocence. That Chris was taken out so early is one of the cruelest things I’ve ever seen. In one of these entries I might speculate on that title and the possible meanings of the word “innocence” as Chris used it.

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    Zizik’s comments are indeed disquieting. I have been curious about Pessoa since learning of his poetry not long ago, but have buried myself too thoroughly in other things to pursue it. (I think I may previously have mentioned that the first poem in Charles Bernstein’s new book is a translation of Pessoa’s “autopsychographia,” the opening lines of which are, “Poets are fakers/ Whose faking is so real/ They even fake the pain/ They truly feel,” which may go to a similar point as Zizik’s, perhaps. In addition, I recently saw a poem called Occident, an excerpt of which appears in a DC subway station, of all things, along with an excerpt of a Whitman poem. The theme is Columbus’s venture to the Americas, as far as I can tell. (I’ve not been able to track Occident down, but it piqued my interest. Here’s some information, if of interest: http://lostintranslationdc.blogspot.com/2011/01/trans-atlantic-poetry-navy-memorial.html.)

    I look forward to your posts.

    • Zenith uses a different rhyme for the stanza:

      The poet is a faker
      Who’s so good at his act
      He even fakes the pain
      Of pain he feels in fact.

      which I prefer, because the “he” is more intimate than “they”. Poets and novelists, if they want to be good at their craft, do this, they distance themselves from their own experiences and emotions – however potent those experiences and emotions might be – because the craft requires a knowledge of all sorts of techniques which in turn requires a type of analytical thinking apart from emotional experience. Actors are professional fakers too, but just like writers they draw on personal experiences to make their act believable. It can get rather complicated. Readers suspecting autobiography where it does not exist, for example, or not being able to discern when a piece of writing is actually based on something very intimate for the writer. When my friend Chris began blogging about his health issues I thought he might be playing it up for dramatic effect and so I kept a certain distance from that issue. But what I perceived as bad acting turned out to be real. Less than a year later he was dead.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        I like the Zenith translation better, too, for just the reason you state. “Persona” online and off is a tricky business. I was thinking about it yesterday again, and had two sort of miscellaneous thoughts:

        –I recalled a man who worked in a school, never any problems or incidents for years and years, then, with the advent of the internet, he was caught indulging in online pedophilia. It was speculated that the internet gave him an outlet for his “true” self which he had suppressed before. Hard to know, of course.

        –I often wonder whether the person I am online is more true of me than the live me. I think the probable truth is that each presents aspects of the whole me (whatever that may be).

        I’ll be interested to hear more about Pessoa’s personas.

  3. newleafsite says:

    Mark, I’m glad that you have presented this post as the introduction to a series, because I will be interested to hear you talk more about what Pessoa’s thinking means to you or how it inspires you. Both of the video clips you present here led me on different tangents – neither of which you indicate are your point – so I’ll just mention them briefly, as possible other ways of hearing what they say.

    The first, the scene from “The Matrix,” of course relates to Pessoa’s use of heteronyms – though not a new concept, an interesting term of his invention. The first connection that occurred to me, because I’m unfamiliar with Pessoa, even though I’m reading your post about him, is reincarnation – a belief system I realize not all your readers will share.

    In the second clip, Slavoj Zizek makes a remark right at the end which exemplifies the lines Susan Scheid quotes in her comment, above. When he speaks of people feeling that they can express an identity which is closer to their true selves while playing video games, he refers to violent tendencies which they can play at in the games. What occurs to me in his statement, though, is a question about the persona we present online. Even in using real names and information about ourselves, in speaking about objective subject matter, how much editing do we do, how much do we hide behind the subjects we discuss?

    One of the things I have been appreciating about your blog is how openly you speak about whatever is important to you. It may be in part because you are an artist, and the creative impulse just flows, in various ways, undisguisedly. Pessoa’s theme of exploring identity becomes unusual, for me, when he refers to his heteronym Soare as a “mutilation” of his own personality. Of all the terms he could have chosen – which most people would have chosen – “mutilation” is a thought-provoking decision. I see why you say that his writing “may not be as transparent as it appears.” So it’s especially interesting that you include Zizek’s remarks in this piece. I look forward to your further exploration of the subject, and next Monday I will arrive at my computer, ready with a cup of green tea. — Elizabeth

    • First of all I apologize for the comment moderation. My blog is set to moderate only the first comment a user makes. I don’t know what went wrong.

      Your question about online personas is one of the important questions of our time. I am attentive to the fact that avatars, pseudonyms and role-playing can say as much about a person’s character as the outer accoutrements of their daily life (Žižek’s point) but internet culture makes this form of “fakery” (see above comment to Susan) far too easy. It’s too easy to lie. The fantasy becomes cheap, thoughtless. So it becomes difficult all over again to be one’s self precisely because an essential difficulty has been removed. And then we have the problem Žižek presents but seen from a different angle: without knowing what the pedestrian behind the actor looks like, we can’t fully appreciate the act, however true it might be. it’s far more challenging to appear online with one’s own name and face and be believable or compelling. The same mysteries are in play in either case.

      The truth in the “lies” of art is still the best way of thinking about these issues. If I did not want to load this post too heavy with videos I would have shared one by the person it is dedicated to, in which he talks about the truth in fiction, beginning with the question, “What is truth?”

    • P.S. Pessoa’s use of the word “heteronym” is original, not the word. He used it rather than “pseudonym” because they were not merely made-up names but were personas – invented persons with biographies and points of view different from Pessoa’s.

  4. angela says:

    look forward to the posts, Mark – Pessoa has intrigued me ever since I stumbled upon Antonio Tabucchi’s little book, “Dreams of Dreams” which includes a fictional account of the last three days of Pessoa’s life. Fascinated by the complex nature of Pessoa’s alter-egos, I purchased Pessoa & Co, but have always desired to read Disquiet. Knowing you, even if you post something in poetry, it shall give me insight into the mind of Pessoa.

    As an aside, I just spent quite a while hitting links trying to find out about Chris. What an intriguing soul. I’m saddened to read of his passing. It is wonderful that you keep his spirit and passion alive by adding this installment to your blog. I believe the greatest gift we can give to those who have left us is to honor their memory through the arts, especially those that engage a conversation.

    • angela says:

      oh, and I realize that some may disagree with my use of alter-egos…but I am of the thought that even those traits we do not posses are within our interior on some level – esp. for Pessoa to be able to write in a manner that is so authentic that one oft wondered if he was of a fractured mind, not just an amazing intellect.

      This whole posts and sidebar reading has been rather serendipitous as I question my own mask. After visiting the city that I longed to be a part of in my teens, I left with the question, could I do it now? If yes, what mask at 40 would be created – when do we finally understand our authentic self… the question remains unanswered ~

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