Getting Ready to Exist

Adam Phillips

‘True originality,’ Cocteau, Pessoa’s contemporary, wrote, ‘consists in trying to behave like everybody else without succeeding.’ It was once characteristically modern to idealise originality, and to conceive of it as a form of failure. The fittest as those who didn’t fit. If there is nothing more compliant now than the wish to be original – to find one’s own voice etc – it is also assumed that originality and success can, and should, go together. But for the European Modernist writers of Pessoa’s generation – he was born in Lisbon in 1888 and died there in 1935 – the question was still: what has been lost when words like ‘success’ or ‘originality’ become ultimate values, when lives and writing are judged by these criteria? The Romantic concept of genius, after all – the apotheosis of originality – was itself a kind of elegy for a lost community. All the solitary, disillusioned moderns – Baudelaire, Kafka, Eliot, Beckett – are preoccupied by their sociability: its impossibility, its triviality, its compromises, its shame. For these writers ambition without irony flies in the face of the evidence; a successful life was a contradiction in terms, because the Modernist revelation was that lives don’t work. A certain revulsion was integral to their vision.

One of the many remarkable things about Pessoa’s writing is the relative absence of disgust. He is not, for the most part, repelled by other people, by modern life, by his own obscurity and frustration and failings: he is genuinely baffled. He is confounded not by what he sees, but by the way he sees things:

On writing this last sentence, which for me says exactly what it means, I thought it might be useful to put at the end of my book, when it’s published, a few ‘Non-Errata’ after the ‘Errata’, and to say: the phrase ‘this chance movements’, on page so-and-so, is correct as is, with the noun in the plural and the demonstrative in the singular. But what does this have to do with what I was thinking? Nothing, and so I’ll let it drop.

It is part of Pessoa’s sophisticated innocence – his witting dismay – to assume he has made a mistake here (‘and so I’ll let it drop’). If a ‘few’ non-errata might put the whole book under suspicion, none at all should make us wonder. And that it is ‘chance movements’ that he happens to use as the phrase to illustrate his point is not accidental. To presume something is an error is simply to look at it from a point of view that makes it one. It was Pessoa’s commitment to the unavoidable multiplicity of points of view within himself that constituted his poetic vocation. To be a poet for Pessoa was to be the various poets inside him: each of his ‘heteronyms’, as he called them, a corrective to another, bearing, as they did, different strands of the poetic traditions he inherited. Pessoa, in other words, found a poetic solution for what is not always considered to be a poetic problem: the unburdening of the past. It has been a short step from Rimbaud’s ‘I is an other’ to multiple personality disorder.

The idea that one might be or have several personae or selves – that one is haunted, or has disparate voices inside oneself – is not a new one. What is new, or culturally and historically specific, is the uses to which the selves have been put. The double, the unconscious, oneself as a stranger, the multiple are all ways of describing the breakdown of a consensus in a self conceived of as, at least potentially, unified. But once the self has been described like this – and split in these various ways to make something more manageable – the question arises of whether anyone is in charge. As though there must be unity, an omniscient narrator somewhere: someone who actually does the splitting. Indeed one of the curious things about, say, self-reproach, or self-love, is that it assumes that one part of the self is virtually omniscient, really knows best. We are not lacking in authority in these moments of abjection or smugness. Selves, in other words, are always split hierarchically, in terms of internal power relations; the strongest parts of the self supposedly causing (i.e. coercing) the weaker parts; being, in a sense, irresistibly persuasive.

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