Monday with Pessoa: Disquiet

There are sores which slowly erode the mind like a canker
—Sadegh Hedayat

The slobber of idiot Destiny, dripping on my soul’s consciousness
—Bernardo Soares [p 160]

There is no doubt that I’m being unfair to Bernardo Soares.

Let no one take these Monday notes as an objective account of The Book of Disquiet.

I really must balance my urge to advise the reader of what Mr. Webster says about the word “disquiet”:

noun: uneasiness; restlessness; lack of tranquility; disturbance; anxiety.
synonyms: unrest, fermentation, turmoil.

verb: to disturb; to deprive of peace, rest or tranquility; to make anxious, uneasy or restless; to vex the mind of.
synonyms: agitate, alarm, bother, derail, discomfort, discompose, dismay, disturb, distress, perturb, undo, unhinge.

—I must balance this urge with a reminder that the text we know as The Book of Disquiet was written, fragment by fragment, over a period of many years, left unfinished and unpublished. It’s as full of contradictions as a human being. I, coming now across it as pieced together and published by the scholar Richard Zenith, react to it as I read it, fragment by fragment, as a man of my time and milieu—a regular guy, for sure, in most ways, but a singular character in my own way as well. These notes must of necessity be as much about me as the book; I can hardly avoid it.

I find myself envying Mr. Pessoa for coming up with this device—inventing Mr. Soares. Could he pile up his despair in the deep envelope and folders that became Bernardo Soares’ opus, shoring it away for some future self-assessment endlessly deferred in the present concerns of that other man? Is it true that he became everyone else to avoid being Pessoa? Yet what does it mean that Zenith claims honesty is “what most distinguishes The Book of Disquiet”? Indeed, that “no other writer achieved such a direct transference of self to paper.” [pp xxiv-v] How does he know?

I’ve wondered the same thing when I’ve seen readers praise a blog post for its honesty, even declaring that such presumed honesty is courageous. Why? Readers used to say such things about Chris (the person to whom this series is dedicated), and I’d wonder, how do they know he’s being honest? Then another part of my mind would wish they’d come to my blog and say the same of me.

But the reader does not know the despair I keep hidden, does not know the contemptible ambition that eats me like cancer. Someone famous said there’s no smell more odious than a pile of unpublished manuscripts. But there is. I know it. It’s the ambition to publish. Rather, it’s ambition that lends those manuscripts their stench. And the odor of self-pity is even worse.

I write nonetheless, as Pessoa did, but I do not have the benefit of a Bernardo Soares to proclaim his saint-like indifference to the marketplace of aesthetic objects. Soares may have told the truth, but did Pessoa? Or is it contradiction itself that always looks so much like honesty?

I feel like I’m confronting ghosts with this book. It’s not just the apparition of Pessoa emerging from and disappearing behind Soares. To some extent such apparitions appear with any reading. The Book of Disquiet emphasizes the paradox of the solitary writer and his imaginary reader. It’s also friends who have gone Chris and Lee, the former a great reader I miss every day, the latter a mirror to match myself against. To reflect on The Book of Disquiet is to draw lines on a map never to be completed to a world forever parallel and other. The dead and the never born. Well then, you’ve read another opus, what say you?

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6 Responses to Monday with Pessoa: Disquiet

  1. I love the quiet way you deal with all this disquiet. As to honesty and courage, I think when people speak their truth other attentive people do hear it. Sensitive readers and listeners also hear the unspoken and see the framing devices or invisible barriers or boundary lines, etc. and have compassion for why they are there. Much comes through, sometimes the startling naked soul.

    • Thank you Kathleen. There’s a great deal of quietness in Pessoa’s disquiet – the disturbing aspects of it creep up on you. I agree that we have a feeling for honesty, even when it is solely through the written word of someone we’ve never met (of course there’s an element of trust too, bearing in mind that actors and cons are experts at fooling us). In asking, “how do you know someone is being honest?” so pointedly, I’m interested in getting people’s reactions and opinions on this matter.

      Your comment is a reminder that a text is a very complex thing – anyway, writing is as much about the words left out or not selected as it is the words chosen.

  2. angela says:

    Meh- what is honesty really when we get lost in our own story – did Pessoa even know from whose mind he was living, but it was none of them and all of him. He did what many of the creatives desire to do – live out each voice. What stops the many… a fear of insanity or someone calling us out for our insane behavior. How wonderful to wake tomorrow and decide what personality to let out for the day- it would make my lackluster job more exciting!
    You are very honest in your writing – I don’t question your voice after years of reading- it remains the same. I am never so brazen- I hide behind a anti-confessional stance/ no lyric…or, is it all just a lie. What I don’t understand is the publish business- what is the drive? To be read…or to be applauded? You write here. You are published in venues. What is it you wish to accomplish in print? (Truly just curious – I’ve never been driven to share my work on a large scale) You are a gifted mind, know that your post are appreciated!

    • Your first paragraph could be used as one of these Mondays with Pessoa.

      I don’t dream of being applauded. I only dream of publishing a few books. I’d rather not self publish, but it may come to that. Why? Hell if I know. Books have meant so much to me that maybe I’d like to throw one or two out there on the way way off chance that some day they might mean something to somebody. I’ve written hundreds of poems. A tiny fraction of them are online. Online, poems, stories and essays are so ephemeral. A book is an object that sits on the shelf. You pull it off the shelf with complete deliberation and give yourself to it. I really like that.

      Thank you so much for your kindness.

      • angela says:

        You know, it would be lovely if you were able to find a venue for a chapbook – thinking the pamphlets that I dig so much from NDP – your art/essay/poems…I’d buy one and then mail it to you for an autograph! I agree with you, though, unless you fashion your own artistic, small run chap that was more a multimedium work…I would want a book bought by a publisher- it would make me feel ‘validated’. Even that, though, shall never indicate your talent for it seems that even poetry publication can be steeped in ‘who you know’ or your pedigree – it is rather sad.

        I love that line “give yourself to it” and agree.

  3. Susan Scheid says:

    How does he know, indeed. I loved that. A wonderful response to such a proclamation.

    To my mind, there is no such thing as an objective account of a book (or anything), and of what interest could it be? Far better to have the perspective of a reader/writer whose viewpoint one admires. You are such a reader/writer for me–you take us in to Pessoa in these posts and enter into a conversation with him and with us.

    You should have a book–to desire that is no fault. My ambition, in turn, would be to have that book in my hands and read it.

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