Monday with Pessoa: Bernardo Alone

Sadly I write in my quiet room, alone as I have always been, alone as I will always be.
we, the self-aware actors, are also our own spectators, our own gods….
– Fernando Pessoa as Bernardo Soares, The Book of Disquiet, p 16 and p 22 (all subsequent quotes are from this edition)

I’ll say it outright: Bernardo Soares does not understand love. I’m not referring to love of the world or the things in it, or of romantic love—he does understand these kinds of love, and it may be said he understands self-love in the sense that he seeks pleasure and comfort, and does not wish to suffer. But he does not understand the love between a couple that grows over time. In fact, he exhibits the clichéd attitudes towards it of what used to be called a confirmed bachelor: skepticism, denial and bitter mockery.

Bernardo is resolutely a man alone.

Isolation has carved me in its image and likeness. The presence of another person—of any person whatsoever—instantly slows down my thinking…. The mere thought of having to enter into contact with someone else makes me nervous. A simple invitation to have dinner with a friend produces an anguish…. When it takes place, the dreaded encounter is utterly insignificant, justifying none of my anxiety, but the next time is no different….  [p 48]

But it’s not solitude itself that impedes his understanding. Indeed, the affliction he describes above can easily exist in one half of a couple. A woman with many friends and an active social life may complain that she can’t drag her husband out of the house. It’s not the craving of solitude or agoraphobia that cloud recognition of the possibility of love. But when Soares says on page 243 that, “freedom is the possibility of isolation,” he’s venturing into a conscious stance toward others that blocks off the path of love. “If you can’t live alone,” he boasts, “you were born a slave.” And, “We squander our personalities in orgies of coexistence.” [p 185]

Soares justifies these statements by stating that a) no one knows anyone (not himself or herself or anyone else) and b) love is merely self-interest.


No one knows anyone else, and it’s just as well, for if he did, he would discover—in his very own mother, wife or son—his inveterate, metaphysical enemy.” [221]


To feign is to love. Whenever I see a pretty smile…. I always plumb to the soul of the smiling…. face to discover what politician wants to buy our vote or what prostitute wants us to buy her. But the politician that buys us loved at least the act of buying us, even as the prostitute loved being bought by us. Like it or not, we cannot escape universal brotherhood. We all love each other, and the lie is the kiss we exchange. [227]

Reading that last passage fills me with sadness over Bernardo’s bitter loneliness. I don’t doubt his sincerity. His consciousness is bloody sharp even in its lack of understanding:

We need not suppose that those who have experienced these and similar disasters were insincere…. even if the disasters they suffered were foreseeable in their words. The sincerity of intellectual affirmation has nothing to do with the naturalness of spontaneous emotion…. We are all equal in our capacity for error and suffering…. and the highest, most notable and most prudent men are those who experience and suffer precisely what they foresaw and what they disdained. This is what is known as Life. [211]

I quote this passage from page 211 to remind myself not to gloat that I possess an understanding that Soares lacks. But I hope not to make the mistake of promoting my errors as the acts of a higher man. Living alone is a valid choice, but one need not demean love to justify it.

Soares does not mention by name (in the pages I’ve read so far) unconditional love—the concept that one loves without expecting any return—but it is clear he doesn’t believe in it, since he believes that love is self-interest. I agree with him, up to a point. It’s absurd to think that one goes out into the world is search of someone—whom one has not met!—to give one’s self to with no desire for return or recompense. It’s clear that one’s search is motivated by need—one seeks love, knowing one has the capacity to give, because one knows one needs it, nay, is desperate for it. And having received it, it is only natural to give back (the Beatles were right). Over time it’s possible that one may give one’s life for the loved one, and something like unconditional love may arise, but this is not a certainty.

It is certain that someone like Bernardo Soares will never experience it. Let’s take another look at example a). If no one knows anyone, even himself, then how can Soares be so sure that if one did come to know one’s mother, for example, she would become one’s enemy? Surely this goes beyond impossible language. Soares is writing as if he has knowledge of something. One might reasonably suppose it is his belief that everything in life is motivated by self-interest. Then he knows this much about himself and everyone else, such that if everyone knew it then everyone would choose to live alone.

This idea skirts the madness that I sometimes see in Bernardo Soares, the sense he sometimes conveys that he alone bears the burden of consciousness, at least to the degree that he experiences it.

…. as if I were seeing with the eyes of a god. I see everyone as if moved by the compassion of the world’s only conscious being. Poor hapless men, poor hapless humanity! What are they all doing here? [69]

Going back to page 243, Soares describes those who cannot live alone as “hapless”. And yet I am compelled to compare these passages with those in which Soares claims to have asked of the world only to be left alone, such as this one:

I asked for very little from life…. not to demand anything from others, and not to have others demand anything from me…. [16]

But this is asking too much, this is asking the impossible, and as a consequence it is also asking that love not become a possibility in one’s life. If it is true that we do not know ourselves or our loved one, it is also true that being in a loving relationship means constant attentiveness to one’s changes and the other’s changes. It is the most demanding but also the most exciting adventure one can undertake, imposing high risks but also the deepest of comforts.

I make all these notes bearing in mind the concurrent backbeat to all of Bernardo Soares’ observations: that his profound and relentless introspection results in a fracture of the self into many selves:

By thinking so much, I became echo and abyss. By delving within, I made myself into many. [91]

The reader is always confronted with the paradox that Bernardo’s self-awareness is leveled on VOID:

I’m a nomad in my self-awareness. The herds of my inner riches scattered during the first watch.

I seek and don’t find myself. [p 101 and 121]

Soares understands that at the core of one’s soul nothing exists but a window onto the cosmos. He understands that core in another’s eyes. He uses this knowledge to escape the confines of the individual life of an office clerk that oppresses him. He becomes many. This is the play, the literature, that becomes his life. He pursues this, for whatever reason, at the expense of the possibility of both losing one’s self in another, and the daily healing confrontation of the limits of one’s individuality that only occurs in a deep and loving relationship.

Bernardo Alone

The great show never ends, even during
eternal intermission, where glimpses
of actors at rest play serious games
with rules that change as dust is unsettled
by scuttled furniture with busted seats
stained from the same scene of love on a loop
retold across countless Valentines cards,
all the pop songs in the department stores,
behind football bleachers and back seats of cars,
and watching as from a stadium spotlight,
from the many suits of his many selves
and a mass of sameness, Bernardo alone.

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8 Responses to Monday with Pessoa: Bernardo Alone

  1. And yet Pessoa was never alone, because he created all these different literary personae; I wonder if they were enough consolation 🙂

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    The bricolage of this post is particularly intriguing to me. The interspersing of the Mingus piece offers, to me, a commentary about the richness of collaboration–what one alone cannot achieve. The last lines of the poem at the end (yours, I’m assuming?), particularly “the mass of sameness” are striking, too. The Soares persona seems terribly embittered, closed off, even afraid. I think, at the same time, about friends of mine who are quite happily “alone,” and choose it, but certainly not from Soares’s vantage point. The people who come to mind have rich interests, and their worlds are peopled with cherished relationships, many very long term. Perhaps there are more than two ways to be that are fulfilling, that is, ways beyond a claustrophobic and alienated aloneness like that of Soares and loving, long-term pairs?

    • ‘Bernardo Alone’ is my poem, yes. I take his pov, more or less, that is I observe him observing from his pov.

      At first I was disappointed that I couldn’t find a single video of the whole performance, but after it was done I liked having it intersperse the text in pieces. Yes, it does illustrate what one person cannot do alone, not just in terms of performance, but in that the composition (one of my favorites) is about Mingus’s wife.

      I’m sure that there are many more than two ways to be.

  3. angela says:

    Your post has left me in deep rumination for it ruminates on a question that has rose to the top of my cup. Entering another year, I have begun to question ‘what if this life goes on for much longer than expected – do I continue alone?’ Bernardo speaks in a voice that I recognize and wrestle with… I wonder if he suffered within the hands of love? His words, to me (perhaps projection, only) pour forth fear of being free…the type of freedom that can be found when no longer a slave to one’s self, but a servant to another. ~

    • I could have used the last sentence of your comment while I was wrestling with a way to write this. While I admire how Soares immerses himself in humanity by becoming other selves (his commentary on this shows him to be Pessoa reflecting on the process of using heteronyms) I thought that he was blind to a whole world of experience in otherness and escaping his self by being closed to – and bitter about – the possibility of living with someone else.

      I haven’t come across his mentioning being burned in love, and I don’t know if Pessoa was.

      It may sound lame to wish you luck but I really do wish you the best. As Sue pointed out, a person can be content alone or with someone else, it all depends on the person. There’s an important component of my personality that’s a complete loner. When I was younger it was bound up with my artistic self, such that I had a lot of trouble adjusting my artistic self with the self that wanted to live with someone. It has taken a long time, but I’m where I want to be now.

      • angela says:

        Appreciate your reply, and glad that my last sentence was not complete projection without worth. You comment of wrestling with that artist/loner vs artist/companion is one that I understand. I think that when the proper person arrives in life – one who completes, but does not compete with those elements of the psyche, one that inspires creative energy, is when one will find peace. Indeed, I agree, life can be enriching, even if going it alone.

        • Susan Scheid says:

          Angela’s statement is so wise: “I think that when the proper person arrives in life – one who completes, but does not compete with those elements of the psyche, one that inspires creative energy, is when one will find peace,” as is the whole discussion here. How to be alone, how to be together, how to find the balance.

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