No matter how much we take off what we wear, we’ll never reach nakedness, which is a phenomenon of the soul and not of removing clothes.
—Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, p 221
It has always been my particular madness to see similarities in and make comparisons between unlikely things, even if I’m not in the habit of admitting it. I’m a collagist, a bricoleur and a mockingbird. After reading Wallace Stevens’ poem Cuisine Bourgeoise it occurred to me that I could write a Monday With Pessoa entry around it, not in place of something Pessoa himself has written but as a secondary springhead. And then, in preparing to write it, I found myself sitting with Rilke’s Duino Elegies.
The line from Stevens’ poem that grabbed me is the last one, and it is a question: “Are they men eating reflections of themselves?” Although it is clear that Stevens is referring to a kind of zombie cuisine, a mode of consumption leaning more toward corrosion than ingestion and based on an ossified way of life, I wondered if Pessoa might be said to eat reflections of himself, albeit in a somewhat different sense?
What is the “I” when its primary mode of operation is its deployment in elaborating others—one other after another? Is the “I” consumed or enriched—that is, nourished? Does the self create its own food this way, or is it an illusory food, intellectual carbs that fill one up but choke rather than maintain life? Or does Pessoa escape the prison of self in this way, in an apogee of empathy, merge thus with the world and affirm it?
Since I’m unsettled about Pessoa I turn to Stevens whose position at least with regard to these matters seems more determined.
Throughout the poems of Parts of a World (the book that contains the poem Cuisine Bourgeoise), Stevens seems to set up a dialogue between the human mind and the world at large. The poem is a mediation between the two, some kind of conduit through which the human being establishes a bond of being with the cosmos. There are repetitions of words, “flawed words and stubborn sounds” (The Poems of Our Climate) that Stevens seems to show himself arranging like chess pieces in search of a perfect game. “Everywhere spruce trees bury spruce trees” from Variations on a Summer Day, as well as “The merely revolving wheel/Returns and returns” of The Woman That Had More Babies Than That, to name but two examples, remind me of a peculiar phrase by Heidegger: The world worlds, in which the word “world” is both verb and noun, at once.* Since there’s no way to show this condition (of what we might call Being in/with/of the World) in language other than in more or less circuitous operations of rhetoric or poetic artifice, we have odd phrases such as Heidegger’s and probing poem-machines like Stevens’.
And we have the Duino Elegies, in which reflections of ourselves, whether they be angels or puppets, can only inform us of our aspirations and failures, or, together, the drama that is our life as we attempt to play it out as literature, but cannot tell us what in fact we are, even when (especially when) we want to define ourselves as that which is forever in search of a definition.
I find Rilke most compelling and most true when he evokes failure, with its underlying despair. He is less compelling, for me, when he swells with passion or aspiration toward transcendence. So my favorite Elegies are the eighth and especially the fourth, which evoke Kleist’s puppet essay and Bataille: “The animal is in the world like water in water” (Theory of Religion, p 23, Zone Books, 1989). Here Rilke sums us up: “Flowering and fading come to us both at once.” As soon as a person, even in middle age, begins to feel a certain security the bottom falls out somewhere else. As soon as one begins to feel a sense of self-knowing, Fortuna intercedes to show that the depths of the heart are unfathomable. And the longer one lives the more death accumulates. Perhaps the highest form of wisdom one can attempt is suggested at the end of the Fourth Elegy:
…. that one can contain
death, the whole of death, even before
life has begun, can hold it to one’s heart
gently, and not refuse to go on living
But who needs a reminder? Haven’t we been here before, rolled the same stone up the same hill, read the hollow, ancient admonition etched in the stone itself: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Fuck Sisyphus. And stop worrying about being happy. John Berryman called Rilke a jerk. Sometimes I know what he means.
In the essay Building Dwelling Thinking Heidegger writes:
It is language that tells us about the nature of a thing, provided that we respect language’s own nature. In the meantime, to be sure, there rages round the earth an unbridled yet clever talking, writing, and broadcasting of spoken words. Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.**
If we want a poetry separate from the pack we might do well to heed Heidegger’s words. And so I return to Stevens. Cuisine Bourgeoise describes how, or at least who, not to be: the calcified ones, the zombies who, whether they know it or not, merely reflect each other’s speech, manners and maneuvers. The abrupt switch from the first person plural to the third at the end (“Who, then, are they….”) is jarring. One of the surprisingly potent effects of Stevens’ concise use of language here is that he takes you into the intimacy of the poem with the switch to third person: it is they it is us. We are stuck in the reflection, or in the act of reflecting.
But in the end Stevens’ position, like Rilke’s, remains fixed in another sense: “The words are written, though not yet said.” A poem written from this point of view of the human’s relation to the cosmos cannot be anything other than a limbo, a summer that is and is not. Like the Rilke of the Eighth Duino Elegy, Stevens has made his own bed. The poem is the bed.
I don’t know if Pessoa has it any better. He may just represent the successive sleepwalkers that venture out into the “cosmos” that remains, of logical and structural necessity, an abstraction.
If I were to choose though, I would say Pessoa’s position, not despite its disquieting character but because of it, offers more to the possibility of thought. Stevens seems to suggest that something has been resolved by the poem. Take for example Life on a Battleship, by the end of which Stevens imagines taking control of the ship. It’s an important trope, to become the master of one’s speech and not its puppet. When he writes that the hand that takes control “must be the hand/Of a man” I choose to take that in a Nietzschean sense, that it must be done on our own power, and not with the help of a transcendent being. But when he imagines in the final two lines, “the centre of a circle, spread/To the final full, an end without rhetoric” he loses me. Poetry resolves nothing, and never escapes rhetoric. The nature of language tells us this.
Going back to the beginning quote from The Book of Disquiet—if we take the “removing of clothes” to be an act of writing that attempts to strip away masks, the masks being all of the artifices (including our angels, our puppets and yes our heteronyms) we employ in our interactions with others, we will never by this route reach nakedness—the true and essential being of ourselves—because the nature of writing and the nature of the soul are not the same thing. Thinking, as Heidegger said, may be unavoidable, but it “refuses to be a path to salvation.”***
Pessoa tirelessly repeats that transcendent rest does not exist for the living, and maybe not even for the dead, since no one who has died has reported back to confirm or deny anything. We can believe whatever we want, but beliefs don’t amount to anything substantial. They are the floating branches we grasp in a fast-flowing stream. And such are poems. They only, as Pessoa tells us, serve to pass the time while we’re here. To be sure, we’d rather pass the time this way than in many others, but it doesn’t mean more or less than an hour spent gazing at the passing clouds.
The orientation one takes toward the poem is exactly equivalent to the orientation one takes to the cosmos: it occurs outside the poem. The poem can point, sure, but it cannot be. Only the world, the objects and beings in it (including ourselves) can do that.
* The world worlds, and is more fully in being than the tangible and perceptible realm in which we believe ourselves to be at home. —Martin Heidegger, The Origins of the Work of Art, from Poetry, Language, Thought, p 44, Harper Colophon, 1975
** Ibid, p 146
*** Ibid, p 185
Other books consulted: Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose, Library of America; The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Vintage International.