“I am me again, exactly as I am not.” — Bernardo Soares, a.k.a. Fernando Pessoa
If the Portugese writer, Fernando Pessoa, would not have existed, he would have created himself, if only to negate and deconstruct the existence of a writer named Fernando Pessoa. As an invisible spokesperson for identity crisis, and forger of multiplicities, Pessoa had up to 136 alter-egos, what he called his “heteronyms,” about which he said, “They are beings with a sort-of-life-of-their-own, with feelings I do not have, and opinions I do not accept. While their writings are not mine, they do also happen to be mine.” These heteronyms existed in a Pessoa-spawned universe in which their lives sometimes overlapped, i.e., the criticism and translation of one-another’s work, and it wasn’t until 1982 that the bible of that universe, The Book of Disquiet, was first published. Originating as a fragmentary series of impressions, speculations, reveries, distillations and dream-speak, Pessoa’s unending work-in-progress was unified into the book he one day hoped it would become…forty-seven years after his death. Which makes a passage like this one all the more achingly poignant: “I sometimes think with sad pleasure that if, one day in a future to which I will not belong, these sentences I write should meet with praise, I will at last have found people who ‘understand’ me, my own people, a real family to be born into and to be loved by. But far from being born into that family, I will have been long dead by then. I will be understood only in effigy, and then affection can no longer compensate the dead person for the lack of love he felt when alive.”
Life is an experimental journey undertaken involuntarily. It is a journey of the spirit through the material world and, since it is the spirit that travels, it is in the spirit that it is experienced — Fernando Pessoa
The new edition of The Book of Disquiet, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, presents the complete texts of the two heteronyms—Vicente Guedes and Bernardo Soares—ordered separately, and covering two different periods in Pessoa’s life.
Abandon hope all ye who enter here, might be the most fitting sign and qualifier preceding entry into the world of Disquiet. And yet, paradoxically, there is beauty, staggering, asphyxiating beauty, and seductively sonorous rhythms which transform Pessoa’s “autobiography of a man who never existed” into a spiritual blood-let of kaleidoscopic rupture. As the estranged kissing cousin to the French symbolists and the Romantics, Pessoa revels in metaphor, syntax and synesthesia, losing himself with the solitary joy of a lonely child whose favorite plaything is Language. He writes, “Some metaphors are more real than people you see walking down the street. Some images one finds in books are more vividly alive than many men and women. Some literary phrases have an absolutely human individuality. Parts of certain paragraphs of mine send a shudder of fear through me, because they feel so like people, clearly silhouetted against the walls of my room, the night, the darkness…”
Stating that his book is “a single state of soul, analyzed from every angle, traversed in every possible direction,” Pessoa’s masterwork of internal mania functions on multiple levels. It is a religious tract (“Where is God, even if he doesn’t exist? I want to pray and weep, to repent of crimes I did not commit, to enjoy being forgiven as if it were a not-quite-maternal caress.”), a book of aphorisms (“I have never had convictions. I have always had impressions.”), a dating guide for narcissists (“We never love anyone. We love only our idea of what someone is like. We love an idea of our own; … it is ourselves that we love.”), political op-ed (“Revolutionaries and reformers all make the same mistake. Lacking the power to master and reform their own attitude towards life, which is everything, or their own being, which is almost everything, they escape into wanting to change others and the external world.”), metaphysical travel guide (“Life is an experimental journey undertaken involuntarily. It is a journey of the spirit through the material world and, since it is the spirit that travels, it is in the spirit that it is experienced”), advice column for existential slackers (“Postpone everything. Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow. You don’t have to do anything, tomorrow or today.”), and dirge (“But sometimes I’m different and I weep real tears, hot tears, the tears of those who do not have or never had a mother; and my eyes, burning with those dead tears, burn too inside my heart.”). Disquiet could also be read as a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of getting lost in the labyrinthine ravels of a claustrophobic interior. If the life unexamined is not worth living, the inner-life, relentlessly examined, from myriad angles, harbors its own set of losses and small deaths.
Sitting at the window of my life and forgetting that I was alive, that I existed, I began to weave shrouds in which to shroud my tedium, chaste linen cloths for the altars of my silence. — Bernardo Soares
It is interesting that Pessoa is from Portugal, birthplace of the hauntingly poetic term, saudade, which has been translated as “the presence of absence,” or, “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present . . . an indolent dreaming wistfulness.” Pessoa’s literary essence and timbre is saturated with saudade to the nth degree, its echoes found in passages such as: “Every part of me is a vague nostalgia neither for the past nor for the future: the whole of me is a nostalgia for the anonymous, prolix, unfathomable, present” or, “Why are there not islands for those who feel uncomfortable here, ancient avenues for the lonely to dream in and that others cannot find?”
Pessoa, in his fragmentary exposition of one man’s life–splintered into the lives of many—did indeed create that island, and pave those ancient avenues, which recommend a flaneur’s pace and sensibility. The Book of Disquiet is by no means a comfortable or easy book, nor is it engaging in the traditional narrative sense, but it compels through the sheer force of language and ideas, through self-dissection done up in the raiments of poetry, through surges of musicality, recalling Joyce and Woolf and Proust, which resulted in some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful passages ever recorded.
Or, as Pessoa himself might testify through the voice of Bernardo Soares:
“During those hours when the landscape forms a halo around Life, and dream is simply a matter of dreaming oneself, I created, O my love, in the silence of my disquiet, this strange book like a series of arches opening up at the end of some abandoned avenue.
In order to write this, I plucked the souls from all the flowers, and out of the ephemeral moments of all the songs of all the birds I wove eternity and stagnation. Sitting at the window of my life and forgetting that I was alive, that I existed, I began to weave shrouds in which to shroud my tedium, chaste linen cloths for the altars of my silence.
And I am offering you this book because I know it to be both beautiful and useless . . . It is a stream that runs into an abyss of ashes that the wind scatters and which neither fertilize nor harm—I put my whole soul into its making, but I wasn’t thinking of that at the time, only of my own sad self and of you . . . And because this book is absurd, I love it; because it is useless I want to give it to you, and because there is no point in wanting to give it to you, I give it anyway…”
John Biscello is Book Critic at Riot Material magazine. Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, Mr. Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of two novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale and Raking the Dust, as well as a collection of stories. His latest novel, Nocturne Variations, will be published by Unsolicited Press. To see more of John Biscello’s work, visit johnbiscello.com