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.