Monday with Pessoa: The Double Dream

Giorgio de Chirico, The Double Dream of Spring, 1915, source: WikiPaintings

I wanted to record some notes on todays’ Pessoa reading which has taken the form of a poem. The notes, it seemed to me, should stand separately from the poem, as they are not intended for those who don’t care to look in on the clutter of a maker’s desk. They are for the reader who might be as curious as I am about the feeling often accompanying a creative act that essential matter has escaped like grains of sugar through a pinhole in the bag—the bag here being the poetic edifice.

The poem is based on passages between pages 245 and 258 of the Penguin edition of Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. On page 247 Pessoa writes that, “Whatever can’t be done in a single burst suffers from the unevenness of our spirit.” This is the clearest formulation thus far (in my reading of the book) not only of Pessoa’s preference for short poems over other literary forms, but also of the explanation for Disquiet’s lack of form, many contradictions and incompleteness. He found it difficult (and in the end perhaps impossible) to write a long work. Yet the hundreds of shorts he wrote sometimes seem like pieces to a puzzle that never comes together. Much, indeed, like a life.

I’ve learned on the St. Orberose blog that Borges (coincidentally, another writer of shorts) did not believe in writing drafts. He said in a conversation with Osvaldo Ferrari that “a person finds the word or doesn’t.” Leaving aside Borges’ curious belief that to some degree the right word comes to you as a gift (but only if the muse decides to reward your hard work!), I agree with his opinion of drafts, although with reservations and exceptions. It’s absurd to think that by writing a thing over and over again it will be perfected, assuming one has a good grasp of the language and, as Borges says, practices the craft of writing on a regular basis. Chances are if the word does not come to you you do not know the word in the first place. One can wait. In the course of life and learning the proper word may, by chance, be found. I have kept poems in drawers for years, getting them out every once in a while to see if I have learned the word yet. In some cases I have. Better though to craft the poem around the words one does in fact know. But what if one is plagued by the idea of a work (even if it is an illusion) that one cannot grasp?—say a vision that has come to one in a dream? On page 247 Pessoa writes,

To achieve perfection would require a coldness foreign to man, and he would lose the human heart that makes him love perfection…. How tragic not to believe in human perfectibility! And how tragic to believe in it!

Our dreams also define our humanity, sometimes tragically. “The work we produce,” Pessoa writes, “is always the grotesque shadow of the work we dreamed.”

Section 293 (page 251) is unique in that the writer seems to cease for a moment being another. He rubs his scorched eyes, lifts his heavy head and stares uncomprehendingly at a world full of people that might just as well be dressmaker’s dummies, so little does he understand anything about them. And the fact that he has sacrificed everything for the labor of his writing seems an utter waste. But just two pages later a mere ride on a tram has him dizzy with the feeling, having watched everyone and become everyone, that he has “just lived all of life.” These are the frightening extremes of The Book of Disquiet. These are the soul’s changes, these are the temporal realities that intrude on the aspirations of perfectibility of artistic form.

And speaking of the soul’s changes:

The only way you can have new sensations is by forging a new soul…. From the time we’re born until we die, our soul slowly changes, like the body. Find a way to make it change faster…. [255]

as the right word will only come with the diligence of continuous writing. Someone’s got you on that treadmill, mate….

The world belongs to those who don’t feel [men of action]…. Sympathy leads to paralysis…. men of action, be they business leaders, military commanders, social and religious idealists, great poets, great artists, beautiful women, or children who do what they please…. don’t feel…. The remaining general lot of humanity…. is no more than the backdrop against which these stage actors perform until the puppet show ends, no more than the flat and lifeless chess board over which the pieces move until they’re put away by the Great Player, who, fooling himself with a double personality, plays against his own person and is always entertained. [257-8]

This might be the tripartite structure of the vicious circle that is The Book of Disquiet: 1) Complete absorption in the writing project; 2) Despair over ultimate failure and futility; 3) Reassertion of the project in a near-mad apotheosis: the maker as a god, God in the image of the maker. One must remember that Bernardo Soares was a believer, and that “Great Player” he mentions is a double metaphor, split between the writer with the double personality and the image of a God who also splits into two, for reasons of His own.

The question remains: Was Pessoa a man who felt, or strictly a man who acted through poetry? It’s not an easy question to answer.

A Note on de Chirico

Giorgio de Chirico was not a painterly painter. Many of his paintings are crude or even bad from a technical viewpoint. But the paintings he did from the so-called “metaphysical period”—from about 1910 to about 1925—are imbued with poetic power. My favorite painters, in terms of painting itself, are those that, for me at least, resist language. Something in these early paintings of de Chirico’s seem to beg a poet to speak. One of Ashbery’s best books was named after a de Chirico painting.

Two Heads, for all its simplicity, speaks volumes. Like most of the metaphysical paintings it is haunted by humanity. It is not just that manikins and dressmaker’s dummies seem to be haunted, as makers of creepy movies know. De Chirico simultaneously enhances the artificiality of the heads and pushes their humanness at the viewer. This tension animates the painting, giving it a haunted life that will persist in the eyes of viewers long after I am gone. The two heads are divided yet united. The one, which might be masculine, seems to be hiding from or spying on the other, which might be feminine. And this is but one of the many contradictions at work in the painting. One head conveys a play of convex design, the other concave. The convex design loops around itself to form a circle, which might suggest an eye. But this eye sees nothing, it is empty, opaque, a drawn-on design. The other has two “eyes” but they are also sightless, being sockets only. Moreover they are sockets that evoke the architecture of windows more than a skull, yet they are windows that open into and onto nothing. Even as the one figure thrusts itself upon the other, and both on the viewer, they echo the absence of humanity, and they do this forever, suspended between a backdrop of apparent human manufacture and the natural sky.

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3 Responses to Monday with Pessoa: The Double Dream

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    What you write here, or rather I should say one strand among so many of what you include in this post, reminds me of a conversation a friend had with a composer who is a great reviser. She observed that the problem with revising is that, when you go back to revise, you’re not the same person you were when you first wrote the piece. It’s interesting how contrary this is to the usual advice about writing–and yet it makes sense. Your own formulation is a bit different, but somehow kin, and I like it very much: instead of revising, set the poem aside, wait, “and learning the proper word may, by chance, be found.”

    • The usual advice about writing is often either wrong or half-truths (wrong again). Really like that story about being a different person with each revision. I’m going to remember that, it’s so true. Do you know if the composer has said that in an interview somewhere? – it’s so quotable.

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