Monday with Pessoa: In a Nutshell

One day last week I was searching for a passage from The Book of Disquiet. I combed each page, several times, paying particular attention to my marks. It had to be somewhere, just the right combination of words that summed up the kernel of thought currently teasing me. I hadn’t imagined it. Or had I? Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever searched frantically through a book for a specific passage?

In this case I never found what I was looking for. I began to wonder if I had made up the words I was searching for. And yet I still did not have them. Did they even exist? Was this some sort of hangover from a waking dream? And then a strange thing occurred. I leafed through The Book of Disquiet again and the notion crept over me that I could not find the desired passage because it was on every page!

I was pleased with this thought until a day or two later when, reading on, I found a passage that could serve for what I had formerly sought in vain. It’s on page 146:

To imagine, without being, is the throne. To desire, without wanting, is the crown. We have what we renounce, for we conserve it eternally intact in our dreams, by the light of the sun that isn’t, or of the moon that cannot be.

And the curious thing about this passage is that it is not nearly as catching as other phrases literally strewn all over every page, yet it does say, in a nutshell, what Bernardo Soares’ philosophy seems to be, based on what I’ve read so far. He builds on the truism that having is not as satisfying as wanting with the quasi-Buddhist removal of wanting—not simply in the inevitability of desire but with the approval and even the celebration of desire. It is not enough to say Soares is an esthete, although that is certainly true. He favors art over reality. For him the fantasy, the dream, is superior to reality.

Now, as soon as I’ve written this outright it makes me flinch. Is Soares really so disconnected from the earth as this suggests? No, because for Soares man is the animal who dreams. Man and the other animals of the earth share the same kind of life, according to Soares. Both are hurled into life, knowing nothing beyond the “fatal law” [p147] of their existence. True, Soares is not the sort of fellow to treasure the simple pleasures. Daily life bores him, even though, ultimately, he can’t escape it. “I will always be, in verse or prose, an office employee,” he writes (Pessoa left it to other heteronyms to celebrate the earth and simple pleasures). But he is a man, an office employee, who can dream, and that saves him. Soares knows that every man wants to be king of the world, in the sense that he instinctively feels that paradise on earth would mean everyone thinking alike. Soares also knows this can never become reality, that it belongs in dream.

Because Soares favors dreaming over reality, his philosophy does not favor political action. Those who take to the street in protest may be sincere, but Soares has difficulty imagining “sincerity in collective endeavors, given that the individual… is the only entity capable of feeling.” And he adds, “Those who suffer, suffer alone.” Revolutionaries are unable to change themselves, according to Soares, so they undertake to change the world. But

A sensitive and honest-minded man, if he’s concerned about evil and injustice in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life. [p 143]

For those who do take to the streets, Soares’ attitude denies political realities. It’s not just that some things are worth fighting for, but if no one fights then forces of oppression will become rampant. I’m sympathetic to this point of view, but by temperament I’m more like Soares. There is always work on myself that needs to be done. And the more I do the more my world improves. Do I not have the potential to inspire those around me the more I improve myself? Whereas taking to the streets in protest (or writing a protest poem) strikes me as pointing my finger at others—YOU CHANGE! Like Soares, I find this to be an aggressive stance that rubs me the wrong way. And I wonder if it’s also a result of having been attacked by my own father and damned by my own mother. Perhaps those who have fallen under the violent coercion of their own parents are less likely to try and coerce others by sign or by protest, even if the cause is just. I suppose I’d be one of those who continued to play as the Titanic went down. Not that there aren’t, in theory, causes worth taking to the street in protest over, but luckily I haven’t found one yet. In other circumstances, I would support covert subversive action, but luckily I don’t live in a world that requires it. I don’t believe, for example, that Chelsea Manning is the hero some say she is. I think her actions were based on deep conflicts and self-interest. As things are, I believe in conducting my personal life, with the actions I make and things I buy, according to my political and ecological beliefs. But the artists I admire most make art that does not have a “cause”. They make art that, without denying reality, stands apart from it, in the realm of imagination, that unique province of the human animal, that deep pool of potential, source of all that is beautiful and positive in human endeavors.

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7 Responses to Monday with Pessoa: In a Nutshell

  1. angela says:

    Yes, that elusive item within a text oft never resurfaces for me – why, because it is always in another text that I’ve used as a cross-reference. Your quote makes me think of Bataille on desire – would you draw any type of parallel? It is interesting, the idea of dreaming for survival. I wonder if he addresses not wanting – if that is an option. As I examine my own life lately, I’ve discovered a rather scary coping mechanism – to not desire in order to deal with the ordinary life. This of course becomes a vicious circle because if you’ve convinced yourself that you want for nothing then there is never a need to stretch one’s boundaries. I wonder if there is danger in using dreams in a similar vein. Curious, art should not take a socio-cultural stance…visually or literarily or both?

    • Or it’s our own partially articulated paraphrase that we think are the author’s words.

      When I think of desire for Bataille I think of the sensual pleasures he indulged in and how important they were to him. So he desired a woman but also embraced her and therefore wanted her as well. I think of Pessoa as a guy who lived entirely in literature. The desires he, as Soares, is referring to are grand desires, grand ambitions, not so much modest ones like a good meal. But he denied himself the possibility of attaining these things (fame, living happily ever after) by not wanting them in reality. For Soares, the imagination was everything. For Bataille “reality” was much more important.

      I almost wish I didn’t know (or think I know) what you mean by your coping mechanism. For selfish reasons. If it results in your losing your passion for reading and writing. By desiring without wanting, Pessoa, as Soares, exalted literature. But (if I understand it) your coping mechanism is the kind that could cause one to turn away from literature. You could be referring to other desires, or desire in general. But in my experience, I have had such powerful desires to make art that – because the necessities of survival have gotten in the way – I have often felt as though I am astride a void with a leg in each world, that of art and that of the everyday world. In other words, good for neither. If I could renounce my desire for art, maybe I’d be better for the mundane world. But I can’t, so I’m mediocre in both worlds – and mediocrity is what I hate more than anything.

      Art that is beyond the topical, or overtly political: The artists I admire the most – people like Ashbery or Pat Metheny – produce work that is, in a sense, transcendent because it’s above or beyond what’s going on. No matter what’s going on in the world I can look at them and be inspired to be better. I can’t think of a better purpose for art than that.

      • angela says:

        Thank you for delving deeper into my questions, Mark. I’ve not stopped since my trip to take time to really Think – I hope to reread these a bit more for I really wish to understand your thoughts on Soares and desire vs Bataille. (I believe that you are far better off than I regarding coping – you seem to still be able to produce your art and be able to keep important people around you.)~ a

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    What springs to my mind as I read this is that art is the only consolation we have. As I get older, I embrace that more and more. The other thing that comes to mind is the ongoing squabble between WCW and Wallace Stevens over WCW’s contention (oversimplified, of course) that the only reality is in things. I do think the tension between reality and the imagination is what makes for the greatest art–without that tension, if imagination is the only thing, isn’t that perhaps the way madness lies? But I’m free-associating here, and perhaps on a track that doesn’t relate or, anyway, makes little sense. (As for not being able to find a passage in a book I feel absolutely sure was there, it happens to me all the time.)

    • “No ideas but in things.” The imagination was of supreme importance to Williams, but it was fed by close observation of one’s experience of the real world. Coincidentally, I was going to mention Williams in this post, but didn’t get around to it.

      I do think Pessoa is very much inside his head with Bernardo Soares, and there are moments in ‘Disquiet’ that do seem to whisper of madness. One of these Mondays I’ll address that.

  3. newleafsite says:

    Mark, I especially like your concluding paragraph. People mostly don’t change, just naturally as time goes on. They only change if circumstances force them to, or if they set about examining themselves and their lives and make the effort to change. Helping others to change in ways that improve the quality of their lives results most easily from just what you describe: by the inspiration of example, by making changes, yourself. It works best, and it’s the gentlest and most effective method for showing someone that there’s a better and more comfortable way.

    Part of the way in which you are able to have positive influence is in how you express your artistic talent. And that brings me to the end of this post. Art that has to be explained in the context of what was going on in the world, or even in the artist’s life, doesn’t attain the pure communication of beauty and spirit that flows through art that, though perhaps inspired by experiences and events, can stand alone.

    What I am most enjoying in this new series of yours is that you begin with a point or a passage from Pessoa and then discuss it in a way that makes the subject matter your own. Taking the text as starting point, but without continual referencing, without quoting “experts,” you present original thinking about a complex and challenging subject. As you see, your posts are provoking a variety of responses to all the nuances both you and the author present. I am drawn to what feels like idealism in Soares. I don’t share the sentiment that paradise on earth would mean everyone thinking alike, unless by that is meant having the same ethics and the same strength of good character. But what you call quasi-Buddhist removal of wanting – letting go of worldliness, in my wording – is an interesting quality in a literary character. I look forward to more about this Soares.

    • On ‘making the subject matter my own’: I’m relieved that you enjoy this, because I get insecure about my way of blogging. Nothing would horrify me more than the thought that I am perceived as talking about myself too much, or make every subject about me. When I read someone’s review or appreciation of a work, I want to know what the work means to them, so that is what I try to do.

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