I recently bought Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I had been seeing his name around a lot. The first time I’d seen it was in the Greek translation of Antonio Tabucchi’s Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa. Various blogs started mentioning him a lot last year, including The Blog of Disquiet (404’d). Then, last summer, in Lisbon, I saw his statue outside the cafe A Brasileira. I promised myself that when I got back, I would get his book. (I was surprised that I could not find a single English edition in any of the shops I went into in Lisbon.)
The book is, to say the least, very strange. To begin with, the first thing a reader has to deal with is Pessoa himself, who is everywhere in the book, and yet not quite there. Throughout his life, he wrote through over 70 different personae (he called them heteronyms) with elaborately imagined lives, and in some cases even deaths, filled with details that didn’t even enter into what he wrote under their name.
Pessoa was a dreamer, in the sense that he lived the life of the imagination, removed from the life of action and or experience, and as a writer he was a dreamer in that he knew that any book he imagined he could write would be an imperfect shadow of the book he had imagined and planned and outlined. Nevertheless, for most of his life he worked on this constantly changing book, a book of fragments and scraps, a record of his uneventful, nonexistent life, a “factless autobiography”, a book about the impossibility of writing the book of his dreams and imagination.
I cultivate hatred of action like a greenhouse flower. I dissent from life and am proud of it. (103)
Life is whatever we conceive it to be. For the farmer who considers his field to be everything, the field is an empire. For a Caesar whose empire is still not enough, the empire is a field. […] I’ve dreamed a great deal. I’m tired from having dreamed but not tired of dreaming. No one tires of dreaming, because dreaming is forgetting and forgetting doesn’t weight a thing; it’s a dreamless sleep in which we’re awake. In dreams I’ve done everything. I’ve also woken up, but so what? How many Caesars I’ve been! […] I’ve been truly imperial while dreaming, and that’s why I’ve never been anything. My armies are defeated, but the defeat was fluffy, and no one died. I lost no flags. […] How many Caesars I’ve been, right here, on the Rua dos Douradores [the street that Bernardo Soares, the book’s heteronym, lived]. (102)
I’ve always been an ironic dreamer, unfaithful to my inner promises. Like a complete outsider, a casual observer of whom I thought I was, I’ve always enjoyed watching my daydreams go down in defeat. I was never convinced of what I believed in. I filled my hands with sand, called it gold, and opened them up to let it slide through. Words were my only truth. When the right words were said, all was done; the rest of the sand that had always been. (221)
Perhaps the personae facilitated writing for him. If his life was as uneventful as he said, it’s logical that he could only write if it was through someone he had dreamed up. Persona, the Latin word for an actor wearing a mask, is thought by some to mean a sounding-through (sonare = to sound, per = through). If this is not actually the case, it’s still insightful. If Pessoa took off the mask, he would fall silent.
(Thanks to the Dude for pointing out that pessoa is actually Portuguese for person.)
When Pessoa died in 1935, the manuscript of The Book of Disquiet, a collection of loose sheets of paper, not a “book” at all, ended up in a trunk with all his other writings until it was published in 1982. More complete editions followed in 1991 and 1998. Richard Zenith, writing about the fragmentary nature of the book, says
Since a loose-leaf edition is impractical, and since every established order is the wrong order, the mere circumstance of publication entails a kind of original sin. Every editor of this Book, automatically guilty, should (and I hereby do) (1) apologise for tampering with the original non-order, (2) emphasise that the order presented can claim no special validity, and (3) recommend that readers invent their own order or, better yet, read the work’s many parts in absolutely random order.
When I started reading the book, and Zenith’s introduction, I had the confusing sense that Pessoa had suffered from some kind of insanity. Bernardo Soares was, according to Pessoa, a “semi-heteronym” because he most closely resembled Pessoa, was a “mutilation” of Pessoa. As a result, one can assume that it’s a self-portrait, albeit a mutilated one. The book is so odd that one feels it must be sincere.
And it occurred to me that we are of the first or second generation to read this book, and that a body of exegesis has not yet grown around it, that we don’t really have a fully developed critical apparatus with which to approach the work. And I wonder if the fragmentary, disorderly nature of the book, the fact that there can never be an authoritative edition of it, subverts or undermines any attempt to develop such a critical apparatus.
* * * * *
In my last year of university, I went one afternoon to the Robarts Library and sat down in some corner of the seventh or eighth floor, by a window that overlooked the west end of the city. I thought about how many of those streets below I had never walked down, and would never walk down, although I felt that the city was actually part of me. I thought about all the various houses on those streets, the rooms in those houses, the people who lived in them, the rooms in their lives, rooms I would never walk through, people I would never know. (A large part of this was due to the fact that I knew I would be leaving in a year or two.) I felt a strange sense of nostalgia, something like a nostalgia for the future, a nostalgia for all the possibilities and opportunities that I would never be able to take advantage of.
The Book of Disquiet is a book of self-absorption, but it is not boringly so. There are passages of exquisitely lyrical nostalgia of the kind I describe above. I would like to quote extensively from two such passages, for the benefit of anyone who’s not sure if this book is for them.
When I first came to Lisbon I used to hear, from the apartment above ours, the sound of scales played on a piano, the monotonous practising of a girl I never actually saw. Today I realise that in the cellar of my soul, by some mysterious process of infiltration, those scales persist, audible if the door below is opened, played over and over by the girl who is now someone else, a grown woman, or dead and enclosed in a white place where verdant cypresses blackly wave.
I’m no longer the child I was back then, but the sound of the playing is the same in my memory as it was in reality, so that whenever it gets up from where it pretends to be sleeping, it has the same slow finger work, the same rhythmic monotony. When I feel or think about it, I’m overwhelmed by a vague and anxious sadness that’s my own.
I don’t mourn the loss of my childhood; I mourn because everything, including (my) childhood, is lost. It’s not the concrete passing of my own days but the abstract flight of time that torments my physical brain with the relentless repetition of the piano scales from upstairs, terribly anonymous and far away. It’s the huge mystery of nothing lasting which incessantly hammers things that aren’t really music, just nostalgia, in the absurd depths of my memory.
I summon up, insensibly, the vision of the sitting room that I never saw, where I pupil I never met is still playing today, finger by careful finger, the forever identical scales of what’s already dead. I see, I see more and more, I reconstruct by seeing. And the entire household of the upstairs apartment, for which today I feel a nostalgia I didn’t feel yesterday, is fictitiously constructed by my uncertain contemplation.
I suspect, however, that all of this is vicarious, that the nostalgia I feel isn’t truly mine or truly abstract but is the emotion intercepted from an unidentified third party, for whom these emotions, which me are literary, are — as Vieira would say — literal. Conjectured feelings are what grieve and torment me, and the nostalgia that makes my eyes well with tears is conceived and felt through imagination and projection.
And with a relentlessness that comes from the world’s depths, the scales of piano student keep playing over and over, up and down the physical backbone of my memory. It’s the old streets with other people, the same streets that today are different; it’s dead people speaking to me through the transparency of their absence; it’s remorse for what I did or didn’t do; it’s the rippling of streams in the night, noises from below in the quiet building.
I feel like screaming inside my head. I want to stop, to break, to smash this impossible phonograph record that keeps playing inside me, where it doesn’t belong, an intangible torturer. I want my soul, a vehicle taken over by others, to let me off and go on without me. I’m going crazy from having to hear. And in the end it is I — in my odiously impressionable brain, in my thin skin, in my hypersensitive nerves — who am the keys played in scales, O horrible and personal piano of our memory.
And always, always, as if in a part of my brain that had become autonomous, the scales play, play, play, below me and above me, in the first building I lived in when I came to Lisbon.
I sorely grieve over time’s passage. It’s always with exaggerated emotion that I leave something behind, whatever it may be. The miserable rented room where I lived for a few months, the dinner table at the provincial hotel where I stayed for six days, even the sad waiting room at the station where I spent two hours waiting for a train — yes, their loss grieves me. But the special things of life — when I leave them behind and realise with all my nerves’ sensibility that I’ll never see or have them again, at least not in that exact same moment — grieve me metaphysically. A chasm opens up in my soul and a cold breeze of the hour of God blows across my pallid face.
Time! The past! Something — a voice, a song, a chance fragrance — lifts the curtain on my soul’s memories… That which I was and will never again be! That which I had and will never again have! The dead! The dead who loved me in my childhood. Whenever I remember them, my whole soul shivers and I feel exiled from all hearts, alone in the night of myself, weeping like a beggar before the closed silence of all doors.