Monday with Pessoa: a pebble

I do not intend to dwell on the problem of anteriority…. it is worth noting that the transition [from animal to man] seems to have occurred all at once…. The operation may have taken centuries…. we will never be able to prove…. we will never be able to speak of the various phases of the transition…. Man is always given whole, in an image of his creation that he cannot situate in time’s passing…. We no longer have to cross the distance separating animals from man…, but this much remains clear: since that time, humanity has never had a more astounding, more glorious moment. We doubt this, for to the extent that we take part in being human, we want to have something to do with a more important and more fascinating moment than any other before it…. it is as if life might be nothing more, in sum, than a continual re-creation…. it seems that man lives only from renewed creation, that the result of creation wears out, that…. humanity sags, falls asleep, and it is necessary to emerge once more from darkness.
—Georges Bataille, The History of Eroticism, pp 72-74, Zone Books.


The totality is truly alien to ordinary reflection in that it includes at the same time objective reality and the subject who perceives the objective reality. Neither the object nor the subject can form by themselves a totality that involves the whole. Ibid, p 116

I’m convinced that one cannot read The Book of Disquiet like other books, that is as some sort of coherent whole, certainly not like a linear narrative or an organic poem. The parts don’t add up. What he says on page 150 he states the near or complete opposite of 25 pages later. And yet, reminding ourselves yet again that the book grew over time as a pile of fragments that Pessoa never found a final form for, neither is it a logical or even a philosophical system. However, even when we compare contradictory passages they don’t cease to ring true. I’m reminded of what our (we American poets) broad-minded father, Walt Whitman said: Very well, I have contradicted myself. I contain multitudes.

As we know, Pessoa, even writing as Bernardo Soares, contained multitudes. Indeed, he used Soares to meditate on this condition. It would stand to reason that there would be a whole range of emotional responses to the self-aware condition of containing multitudes. And yet we can’t help it, as we read on we find this disquieting. Is it because we hope to encounter the comfort of order when we read, even if it is an illusion, rather than a mere reflection (that we can’t stand to face) of the disorder of our inner selves?

It’s getting to be a bad habit, my use of the word “we”. I’ll try and stop it. So I’ll shift gears a little and take a look at section 196:

The feelings that hurt most…. the longing for impossible things…. nostalgia for what never was…. regret over not being someone else; dissatisfaction with the world’s existence…. create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are…. I don’t know if these feelings are a slow madness born of disconsolation or if they’re reminiscences of some other world in which we’ve lived—jumbled, criss-crossing remembrances, like things seen in dreams…. I don’t know if we weren’t in fact other beings, whose greater completeness we can sense today, incompletely, forming at best a sketchy notion of their lost solidity in the two dimensions of our present lives, mere shadows of what they were…. all of this weighs like a harsh sentence handed down no one knows where, or by whom, or why…. All gods die a death greater than death…. The world has slipped away….
—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, pp 171-2.

Here Pessoa’s thinking is very close to Bataille’s. I can’t help but notice a similar correlation to religious feeling—specifically the origin of the feeling—which Bataille, that other Master of the Undone, never failed to draw into such meditations. But whereas Bataille focused on Christianity, Pessoa brings in reincarnation. The point is, in both cases the feeling is tied to a perturbing inability to escape the sense of a lost wholeness. For Bataille the time when, indistinguishable from the other animals, the world of man was silent and immanent, indistinguishable from the greater world. For Pessoa, the sense that our consciousness is troubled by broken memories of a complete world, compared to which this one seems insubstantial, even though it is real. Elsewhere he wrote, most chillingly, that perhaps his fictions were more real than he himself. And knowing not simply that one of his fictions “wrote” this, but that without the brilliance of that writing Pessoa would be nothing to me and would, in effect, not exist, I get a shiver up my spine.

And now suddenly I remember what Melville wrote to Hawthorne: The Godhead is broken. We are the pieces.

I cannot honestly say I think about this. Thought has a direction and a pattern. Thought evolves and this idea about origins is static. I don’t know how to manipulate it with thought or conversely how to use it as an engine of thought. It sits like a pebble in the pool of my mind as thoughts course around it. But somehow it fuels my hunger. I feel it. I have swelled with the need to write this down, afraid I will be distracted by some practical matter calling for my attention. But this serves no purpose, and now that it’s done I can have dinner and know that the process will be repeated all over again tomorrow or the next day. It’s just another Monday.

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8 Responses to Monday with Pessoa: a pebble

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    I have had in mind Whitman’s phrase recently, for whatever reason. It’s an odd thing, as I reflect on it in response to what you’ve written here, but somehow I seem to have become comfortable with contradictions–in some way feeling that they are the whole, these bits of what we think and feel, how we behave, our public persona and our private selves, these are all together what make the whole, and if it were not a tumbled up bunch of contradictions, we would be robotic and uninteresting. I’m fearful I’ve gone way off topic, yet it’s where my thoughts went as I read this.

    • The beard ain’t the only reason Walt would make a terrible Steppford wife!

      Again I feel that a comment to one of these Pessoa Monday posts should be the spur to a post of its own. Whitman is so friendly, even loving in his declaration of contradictoriness that we can’t help but love him for it. Pessoa is disturbing in his contradictoriness. First of all, for a man so intensely self-conscious, exploring such subtle and minute details of his consciousness, his lack of acknowledgement (thus far – remember, I am reading the book slowly, fragment by fragment and reporting on my thoughts as I go) of his contradictions feels like a void. We gasp for air in that void, flipping through the pages already read for some clue as to why he is suddenly on the other side of an issue. But he doesn’t acknowledge his changes, much less explain them. The feeling is of missing something, not understanding something, which haunts the reading.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Mark: Yes, it’s clear from what you write that he’s much darker. “The feeling is of missing something, not understanding something, which haunts the reading,” makes me wonder, is he groping in the dark himself, or is he engaging in a sort of bob-and-weave, keeping us at bay somehow? I got a book of his poems out of the library and was surprised to see a poem of his that mimicked Whitman (Salutation to Walt Whitman). I couldn’t tell whether it was an homage or ironic–it seemed almost a combination of the two. He’s a puzzle, but the pieces don’t seem to fit. I feel sheepish commenting like this when I haven’t had a chance yet to read the book, but your posts are too enticing to pass up. (I do have the book on my ever-growing list.)

        • Sue, just today I read a whole series of fragments that are veritable hymns to inconstancy. And, they are among the most poetic of the book. In fact, Pessoa writes that to be a poet is to hold ALL opinions. One could hardly ask for a stronger endorsement of being contradictory. I don’t think I can agree with him though for the simple reason that my mind isn’t big enough to. I wish it was.

          No, I don’t think he’s interested in playing a “bob-and-weave” game, or any other kind of game with the reader. I’m convinced of Pessoa’s absolute sincerity, even though (or maybe even because), as I also read today, he isn’t sure of what sincerity is, much less if it’s possible. I’m inclined to agree with the translator, Pessoa is honest to a fault. He is quite open about his ignorance, but even in ignorance he has one of the finest minds I’ve encountered.

          I understand that one of his heteronyms is modeled to some extent after Whitman, a poet I’m sure Pessoa admired. I appreciate you reading these notes of mine, even though I’m fumbling around quite a bit.

  2. angela says:

    Mark ~ I cannot tell you how many times I have read this post in the last two days – each time feeling that I’ve no comprehension, only to walk away from it knowing that deep down there has been a coupling between their words, your words and the vision of what is. It seems my creative process has been drained (and my ability to understand many things right now) but one thing resonates with this post – both men realized that we are only a speck – this life is just a beginning…. What I find interesting is your observation that we find comfort in the linear – order – yet We are cyclical beings without a true beginning or end… where does one really start when opening a book or exploring a poem or blog post – perhaps that is why poetry is comforting (to me) – i can start anywhere as long as i circle back eventually ~

    • Pessoa asks some of the same kinds of questions you do. What is honesty, what is sincerity, what is truth?

      The lack of clarity in this post is my fault, and I’m sure I was unfair to Bataille, piecing his words together like that. Hopefully, if whatever I thought I was glimpsing is worthwhile, I’ll be able to say it better in the future. Personally, I don’t require linear progression or logical coherency in a book that purports to be literary, but just look at how many books do that, even memoirs. It’s really the rule, and a writer like Pessoa is the exception. He would say we are less than a speck. The phrase he repeats over and over is, “I am nothing.” The translator of ‘The Book of Disquiet’ almost apologizes in the preface for putting the thing into an order, which was necessary to have a book at all. He suggests that the best way to read it is probably to skip around at random.

  3. kkkkaty1 says:

    I love Pessoa..wrote about him for a prompt on dverse last year….I just read your comment at the pub today and found it interesting as it is similar to how I feel, even though I didn’t say it in my comment…first time to read your blog; love the blot title and intellectual and artistic content, even though a bit over my head.

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