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.

As Octavio Paz says in his illuminating Introduction to A Centenary Pessoa, an essential guide to and useful selection from Pessoa’s work, the heteronyms the poet invented stopped his internal conversation degenerating into a monologue: ‘Pessoa, their first reader, did not doubt their reality ... In contradicting him, they expressed him; in expressing him, they forced him to invent himself.’ Because he did not find his voice, but his voices, Pessoa never fell into the trap of knowing what he was doing; he didn’t need to imitate himself in order to keep writing. Pessoa discovered that to sound like oneself could be a contradiction in terms. That the I, in effect, was like an anxious host who does all the talking for fear that no one else will speak. But Pessoa was not preaching the death of the author, he was just acutely aware of how the author got in the way of the writing. His four main heteronyms among an estimated 72 – Alvaro de Campos, Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and himself, the one called Pessoa – each a remarkable poet in his own right, used him like an unintrusive parent. ‘I graded their influences,’ he wrote in a letter, ‘recognised their friendships, heard, inside me, their discussions and divergences of criteria, and in all this it seemed to me that I, the creator of it all, was the least thing there. It is as if it all happened independently of me.’

Once this virtual revelation, or visitation, had occurred, on 8 March 1914 – ‘It was the triumphal day of my life’ – Pessoa began both to fashion himself into, and accept himself as, a kind of medium; a man without character, a setting for voices. ‘Having accustomed myself,’ he wrote,

to have no beliefs and no opinions, lest my aesthetic feeling should be weakened, I grew soon to have no personality at all except an expressive one. I grew to be a mere apt machine for the expression of moods which became so intense that they grew into personalities and made my very soul the mere shell of their casual appearance.

This is a not unfamiliar account of writing poetry; but the poets who describe similar experiences – Blake or Keats in their letters, say, or Eliot in his theory of poetic impersonality – always seem to be the strongest of characters, each of them formidably distinctive in their writing and, as far as one can tell, in their everyday lives. Pessoa, as The Book of Disquietude records with a kind of subtle astonishment, really experienced himself as having no personality; as a man without recognisable qualities; an absurd chaos of moods that it was implausible to try to unify into a person. For Pessoa madness was not the failure to make it all cohere or fit together, but the attempt. As he wrote in 1932, in a late poem, ‘Rage in the Dark, the Wind’,

The soul contains, it seems,
A dark where there hardens and
Blows a madness that comes
From trying to understand.

To be unselfpossessed was a project – ‘Who believes he is his is astray./I’m various and not mine’ – that he never evaded by turning it into a fate. Pessoa doesn’t go in for the smug (or triumphant) self-defeat of tragedy. He is melancholic, but he rarely affects the certainty of the doomed.

It is a reflection of our cultural insularity that it has taken so long for Pessoa’s work to become known. When Harold Bloom recently listed him among the 26 authors who comprise, for him, the fabled Western Canon, Time magazine implied that this was a symptom of Bloom’s pretentious interest in ‘academic obscurities’. It will certainly be a shame if Pessoa’s work is immediately shrouded in academic obscurities – a possibility given his ‘relevance’ to virtually everything academically topical. But the sheer fascination of his poetic vocation, and the quality of the writing, make Bloom’s choice a characteristically inspired one. As all the pundits so well collected in A Centenary Pessoa agree – Borges, Steiner, Josipovici, Hollander, Cyril Connolly, Roman Jakobson, Mark Strand – it is a compounding of Pessoa’s mystery that he has been anonymous for so long in Anglo-American culture. A canon that includes Pessoa seems infinitely less claustrophobic and bossy.

There is, Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquietude, ‘no better étude or melody for me than the lightly moonlit moment in which I don’t know myself as knowable’. Though a source of dismay to him – self-knowledge is, after all, the traditional project – Pessoa’s inability to recognise himself was his inspiration. His writing came out of what he was confounded by: an absence of biography, of any discernible or convincing continuity or pattern in his life. One consequence of being what he called ‘a man for whom the outer world is an inner reality’ was that his adult life was largely uneventful. Though he was active in Portuguese literary affairs, he worked in Lisbon for thirty years writing letters in French and English for commercial firms to earn the modest living that would sustain his writing. He had friendships – though one doesn’t often gather this from the writing – but he lived alone. He had apparently no love affairs, and published very little of the immense amount he wrote. He was not in circulation, except among his own moods. The only (recorded) time he fell in love – in 1920, with a girl in his office – he soon broke it off. Obviously quite at odds with the whole experience, i.e. terrified, he wrote to her: ‘my destiny belongs to a different law, whose existence you do not even suspect.’ Pessoa was never to be confident that anyone – least of all him – had a clue what was going on inside him. But by all accounts his was not a determined elusiveness: he was not on the run, or thrilled at the thought of being fascinating. It was as though he was almost not really there. ‘Never, when I bade him goodbye,’ writes Pierre Hourcade, who knew Pessoa at the end of his life, ‘did I dare to turn back and look at him; I was afraid I would see him vanish, dissolved in air.’ Always at the point of disappearing from himself, Pessoa clearly had to work quite hard, as a young man, to keep believing that what he was doing was writing great poetry and not merely going mad. There is an unusually frantic note written by him in English, when he was 20: ‘one of my mental complications – horrible beyond words – is a fear of insanity, which itself is insanity.’ As it happened, it was not beyond words. And the words he found in The Keeper of Sheep – the book that inaugurated what he was doing – were a remarkable self-cure. What Pessoa seems to have realised was that it was the will to meaning that drove people mad:

Because the only hidden meaning of things
Is that they have no hidden meaning at all.
That is stranger than all the strangeness.

The Keeper of Sheep – the opening lines of which are, aptly: ‘I never kept sheep/But it’s as if I’d done so’ – is a book about how we destroy our experience, drive ourselves mad, by the ways we have of making it intelligible. ‘Who ordered me to want to understand?’ Pessoa asks; and his writing comes to life in abrogating the order; in affirming that his ‘mysticism is not wanting to know’; that ‘what’s past is nothing and remembering is not seeing.’ For Pessoa, paradoxically, perception is not distorted by wish, but by our capacity for recognition. He implies that we have been tricked into various forms of transcendence: that Christianity and history, our secular religion, have been boltholes from the immediacy of Nature. He, or rather his heteronym Caeiro, the putative author of the book, aspires to be ‘clear, useless and transient as Nature herself’. And what rescues the poetry from being a kind of utopian paganism, from promoting some impossible immediacy of pure being, is that it is immediately answered back by another heteronym, ‘the reaction of Fernando Pessoa against his own non-existence as Alberto Caeiro’. If it is the need for meaning that drives one mad – ‘I have no philosophy: I have senses,’ Caeiro writes – it is, by the same token, the meaning of this hostility to meaning, ‘of being only what I appear to be’, that needs the address, and redress, of Pessoa’s other heteronyms. If

any real authentic unity
Is a sickness of all our ideas.

Nature is simply parts

then the poetic quest is always for the deeper disunity; for the inspiration and comfort that accrue from the ways in which things don’t fit together. For Pessoa it is disarray that is illuminating; if there is no system there is no need for the will. Nothing to try to conform to. ‘Metaphysics,’ he writes in The Book of Disquietude, ‘has always struck me as a prolonged form of latent insanity.’

The Book of Disquietude, Pessoa’s unfinished magnum opus of poetic prose fragments, is anti-metaphysical by design: it has no design, could never have been finished, and is, in fact, a compilation made by others. It is, his excellent translator Richard Zenith writes, ‘a depository ... various books (yet ultimately one book), with various authors (yet ultimately one author)’. The narrator of most of the book – a series of diary entries and reflections, mostly undated and without context – sounds like the more ‘emotional’ heteronym Alvaro de Campos. (His heteronyms range from Whitmanesque romanticism to the most serene classicism.) But Pessoa suggested that the narrator was a ‘semiheteronym’ (‘because his personality, although not my own, doesn’t differ from my own but is a mere mutilation of it’) called Bernardo Soares, who appeared around 1920. Pessoa only published a dozen of the Disquietude fragments during his lifetime, in literary magazines. Just before his death he placed about 350 fragments in an envelope marked Book of Disquietude; but scholars have found an additional 150 that seem of a piece with the projected book. Pessoa wrote of several ways of organising the book, none of them chronological, so the book we have now – which has taken nearly fifty years to be published – is both his and not his. Zenith suggests that ‘ideally’ we would have a loose-leaf edition so the reader could order the fragments in her own way; but even this seems rather too programmatic, a bit too John Cage. It is certainly better to dip into the book than to read it through – one of the many endearing things about Pessoa is that he makes conscientiousness seem silly – and the fragments should be read as a series of bulletins, without assuming one knows who or where they come from. By always implicitly or explicitly wondering what he’s writing for, Pessoa has an uncanny ability to make the reader wonder what he’s reading for.

If, on the one hand, The Book of Disquietude, like all modern wisdom literature, is itself a spoof of the genre – ‘better to write than to dare to live’ – it is also a riveting account of what intense self-reflection sounds like when there is no self to reflect on. ‘There’s nothing in life,’ Pessoa writes, ‘that gets less real from having been well described,’ including a so-called self. And yet he is ‘a poor orphan abandoned on the streets of sensation’ with no self there to organise it all, or be organised by it. ‘It’s all,’ as he wrote of his book that was neither his nor a book, ‘fragments, fragments, fragments.’ Quite what he was insisting on by reiterating the key word is ambiguous, poised, as Pessoa often is, between exhilaration and despair. It is this implausible combination of the precious and the deadpan that makes The Book of Disquietude such a relief. ‘I’d woken up early,’ he wrote on 25 December 1929, ‘and I took a long time to get ready to exist.’

Each of the 523 fragments, ranging from single sentences to several paragraphs, is like a false start that has to be abandoned, an aborted essay. Definitive statements (‘the human soul is a madhouse of caricatures’) and the portentous banalities of everyday life – ‘Everything, finally, is Destiny’ – dissolve into states of bewilderment, what he calls ‘absurd hollows of lost emotions’; longings too suspicious of themselves to be fully believed: ‘I had desires, but was denied any reason to have them.’ There are reassuring orgies of self-pity and weariness – ‘my life is entirely futile and entirely sad’ – and wonderfully self-conscious brief literary essays on the big subjects: Christianity, the classical inheritance, the ruins of Romanticism, the soul’s weather, death and its drawbacks. The very real and often poignant anguish and boredom are tempered by a fascinated horror at his own engagement. He goes on writing it down – ‘Life pursues us like our shadows’ – as though the writing itself was a lure; as though the book he is all the time writing is an obscure object of desire. And yet if reading The Book of Disquietude is sometimes like overhearing someone trying to invent a religion, it is not a religion of art. The narrator, or, rather, narrators, are rarely as boastful or supercilious as the average aesthete. All his epigrams try to make an ideal of impossibility; he is always drawn to the elegance of the flawed:

Some have a great dream in life, and fall short of it. Others have no dream, and also fall short of it.

The perfect pagan man was the perfection of the man that exists; the perfect Christian man the perfection of the man that does not exist; and the perfect Buddhist man the perfection of no man existing.

Inviting us to imagine a non-cynical life without ideals, a visionary imperfectibility of man, Pessoa often sounds in this book as though he is on the verge of hysterical laughter.

And yet for all his self-estrangement, his delirious and melancholic sense of the self deceived by its notions of self-deception, Pessoa does have his themes. However decentred or evanescent, the self always has its circles, always homes in on the preoccupations that take up so much time. It is perhaps not surprising that a writer obsessed by the spurious cravings of and for identity should be so interested in sleep and in work where, the story goes, we lose and find our identities. And also in that transitional state of illness which is neither sleep nor work, but a bit of both; the ‘wish’, as Pessoa writes, ‘that life were a convalescence, obliging us to stay off our feet’. Sleeping and working we might wonder exactly what it is we are participating in. What all this joining in involves. It is always both a glib and a telling reversal to think that it is, ‘as if sleeping, I wake up, and I don’t belong to myself. Life, in itself, is a vast insomnia.’ If, as Pessoa suggests in one entry, ‘I wake up to make sure I exist’ and, in another, ‘I sleep, and ... no person interrupts what I’m not thinking. I’m sleepy in the same way that I’m alive,’ the implication is that comparing sleeping and waking reveals our ignorance of both. And, indeed, the covert omniscience in all analogy: we must already know what something is in order to be able to compare it with something else. ‘I feel permanently on the verge of waking up,’ Pessoa writes in the full knowledge that he wouldn’t know what that was like.

Because sleep is factless – all we ever do in it is dream – it is exemplary for Pessoa: we don’t know where we are when we sleep and we have nothing to show for it, except our waking selves. We are lifeless and completely alive. So his book is a record of somebody sleeping something off. ‘In these random impressions, and with no desire to be other than random, I indifferently relate my factless autobiography, my lifeless history.’ When he works, as he does every day, routinely, he is effectively subsidising his sleep: the day-dreams and the night-dreams that are the only things that feel at all real to him because he knows that they aren’t. The narrator prefers to live in his mind, prefers his loopy inattention to the so-called real world – ‘my dreams are a stupid refuge, like an umbrella against lightning’ – because his inner life is immediate, absurd and utterly inexplicable. The narrator of the book, unlike Pessoa himself, so to speak, is, appropriately, a book-keeper.

Paz’s description of Pessoa – his essay alone is worth the price of the book – is agreeably extravagant:

Anglomaniac, myopic, courteous, evasive, dressed darkly, reticent and agreeable, cosmopolitan who preaches nationalism, solemn investigator of futile things, humorist who never smiles but chills our blood, inventor of other poets and destroyer of himself, author of paradoxes clear as water and, as water, dizzying; to pretend is to know yourself, mysterious man who does not cultivate mystery.

Pessoa, who has been blessed by his translators – Jonathan Griffin in the Penguin Selected Poems, Keith Bosley, Richard Zenith, Edwin Honig, Susan Brown – seems to prompt curiously unguarded responses in his readers. ‘I’m the living stage,’ his narrator Soares writes, ‘where various actors act out various plays.’ His work casts more than a spell.