Bit of Disquiet

We generally colour our ideas of the unknown with our notions of the known. If we call death a sleep, it’s because it seems like sleep on the outside; if we call death a new life, it’s because it seems like something different from life. With slight misconceptions of reality we fabricate our hopes and beliefs, and we live off crusts that we call cakes, like poor children who make believe they’re happy.

[Number 66, Zenith edition]


I had a dream, and I gave it a name…

Way, way back, I wrote about Fat Albert’s in Toronto, and some of the people who passed through there in the past. One of them, Sam Larkin, even dropped by and left a comment or two. Last night I discovered that he’s put up two videos of himself singing, including everyone’s favourite, Mirabeau Bridge.

This sounds exactly like the record, minus Bob Wiseman’s accordion.

Nice seeing you again, Sam.


The other day I saw this link on Wood s Lot, and followed it. That took me to another YouTube link, which showed Liberal leader Stephane Dion struggling to understand a question that had been put to him.

In the twelve years since I left Canada, I have not followed Canadian politics and am very unfamiliar with what’s going on there. I’ve observed, however, that politics in North America has become increasingly partisan and divisive, especially in the US. Liberal and Conservative have become pejorative terms, and political discourse has descended to schoolyard name-calling. When I was a teenager, there was a general sense I picked up from adults I spoke to, including teachers at school, and from the media, that Liberal and Conservative were terms that no longer really meant anything. In 1988, for example, the majority of Canadians voted for the Conservative party and therefore approved of the free trade agreement with the US, which had been the major issue of those elections. The Liberals had fought against the agreement, although historically, free trade had been a Liberal platform, which the Conservatives had traditionally opposed.

People seemed to believe that all political parties were more or less the same. It was a cynical point of view, but a civilised one.

I often feel when I see videos of journalists on television, or look at comment and message boards on the internet, that I’m watching a civilisation collapse from within, eaten up by bitterness and pettiness.

I’m disappointed to see CTV resort to the kind of journalism I would expect from Fox, something I don’t remember from when I still lived in Canada. I remember Mike Duffy, but I don’t remember this sort of blatant partisanship. Perhaps it existed then, and I just didn’t notice it. But I seriously doubt it.

If anybody responds to this post, I’ve written the above to explain that I am not writing this post as a Liberal or Conservative. I don’t really care about politics, and don’t follow what’s going on in Canada.

The story is this. Dion was asked “If you were Prime Minister today, what would you have done differently?” Dion struggles to understand the question. CTV made a story of his inability to understand the question, and this, I am sure, had an effect on the elections, which the Liberals lost. When the election was over, Dion was heard to say that he particularly didn’t want to speak to anyone from CTV. He was very bitter. Let’s see why.

When Judith Regan published O.J. Simpson’s book If I Did It, what irritated me more than anything else was that the title was grammatically incorrect. It should have been If I Had Done It.

There are basically two kinds of conditional sentences. In one, where you talk about something that could be true, but you don’t know for sure. In this conditional, you don’t change the tenses.

If that’s what you think, you’re crazy. (It’s possible that that’s what you think, but I don’t know for sure.)

If Jane went to the party yesterday, she saw Frank. (But I don’t know if she went.)

The other kind is something we could call the contrary-to-fact conditional. We are talking about something we know is not true or hasn’t happened.

If I thought so, I would be crazy. (I don’t think so, so I’m not crazy.)

If Jane had gone to the party, she would have seen Frank. (She didn’t go, and so didn’t see him.)

You’ll notice here that we change the tenses. If we’re talking about the present, we use the past tense. (I don’t think so, but if I did think so …) And if we’re talking about the past, we use the past perfect. (She didn’t go, but if she had gone …)

When O.J. Simpson and Judith Regan called the book If I Did It, they were implying But I don’t do it. What they meant was, I didn’t do it, but if I had done it …

I learned my conditionals in high school in French class. We didn’t learn grammar in English class. It seems Dion has learned to think analytically about language, because the man seems to be struggling to make sense of a very grammatically mangled question.

The question should either have been “If you were Prime Minister today, what would you do differently?” or “If you had been elected two and half years ago, what would you have done differently?” It’s illogical to think that something today could have an effect on the past. Dion struggles to understand if he should answer the question by talking about what he would do from now on to solve the problem, or if he should discuss what he would have done to prevent the problem in the first place. ( “If I have been [sic] Prime Minister two and half years ago, I would have had an agenda — let’s start again!” he says impatiently.)

There’s also a problem with the words have done, although I’m sure this never occurred to Dion. But it shows how little control the interviewer has over his language in this relatively short sentence. To have something done (this is called the causative) means that you arrange for someone else to do something for you. I’m having the house painted. When he asks, “What would you have done?”, this could also mean, “What would you have others do?” It would reasonable for someone who gave the interviewer more credit than he deserves to think that the question was, “If you became Prime Minister today, what you have others do?”

This is the only possible way the sentence can be interpreted so that it makes logical sense. “If you were Prime Minister today, what would you have done” is, as I’ve said, illogical because no present action or state can have an effect on the past. In order for the sentence to be logical, the second clause would have to refer to the present or future, and in that case the only possible meaning would be, “what would you have others do”.

So, we have a sentence that could mean three different things, and what is passed off to us as confusion is really Dion trying to clarify this. It’s a shame that the story was spun in such a way that the people who could not properly put a question together exposed Dion as someone who was sensitive enough to language that he was aware of the question’s problems.

UPDATE – 26 December 2008

The Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, has appointed 18 new Conservative Senators, in what the Globe and Mail has called “the biggest single day of Senate appointments in Canadian history”.

[C]ritics accused Mr. Harper of hypocrisy in appointing a list of individuals known primarily for their service to the Conservative Party, including a former Quebec separatist. They also questioned the legitimacy of the appointments, given that Mr. Harper has suspended Parliament until late January in order to avoid defeat in the House of Commons. [My italics.]

Among those appointed is

career broadcaster Mike Duffy, who until last week hosted a daily hour-long political show called Mike Duffy Live.

Thanks to Frankie the C for the email and link.

UPDATE No. 2 – 28 May 2009

Thanks to Rick for sending me this article from the CBC, which states:

The arbiter of ethics on the airwaves ruled Wednesday that CTV violated industry codes when it included three false starts in a broadcast of an election interview with then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council found CTV Atlantic’s 6 p.m. newscast was “discourteous and inconsiderate” when it ran the awkward false starts after the anchor promised Dion they wouldn’t be broadcast.

It also found the question that was put to Dion “confusing.”

Another on Pessoa

Leafing through The Book of Disquiet a couple of nights ago, I found the exact phrase “nostalgia for the future”, the title of my post on him. I know it’s been used before, and it’s precisely the kind of paradox you’d expect from Pessoa.

And yet what nostalgia for the future* if I let my ordinary eyes receive the dead salutation of the declining day! How grand is hope’s burial, advancing in the still golden hush of the stagnant skies! What a procession of voids and nothings extends over the reddish blue that will pale in the vast expanses of crystalline space!

I don’t know what I want or don’t want. I’ve stopped wanting, stopped knowing how to want, stopping knowing the emotions or thoughts by which people generally recognise that they want something or want to to want it. I don’t know who I am or what I am. Like someone buried under a collapsed wall, I lie under the toppled vacuity of the entire universe. And so I go on, in the wake of myself, until night sets in and a little of the comfort of being different wafts, like a breeze, over my incipient self-unawareness**.

Ah, the high and larger moon of these placid nights, torpid with anguish and disquiet! Sinister peace of the heavens’ beauty, cold irony of the warm air, blue blackness misted by moonlight and reticent to reveal stars.

From 184.

*an alternate version reads: “what regret that I’m not someone else”

**an alternate version reads: “incipient impatience with myself”

Wasting my boredom

The most nagging problem in my life, the most central source of unhappiness, is the fact that I want the slowness of time that boredom brings, the stasis and silence, the stopping of time, the sense of time not passing, and yet I always end up doing things and filling up my time with things that make it pass quickly, things that distract me from its passing. Or I sleep, which is the worst of all. Boredom is not necessarily inactivity. It is the confrontation of time and its passing.

In other words, I waste my boredom.

How could I slow time down more? By removing as many things as possible from my life: my books, my films, the computer, everything except perhaps music, which accompanies my boredom like a soundtrack instead of distracting me from it. No, even music could go, if I really wanted austerity. But what about my notebooks and my writing?

When time has passed too quickly, when I have squandered my boredom, the ache and remorse I feel present themselves in the form of this thought: that in this lost, passed time, I could have written something.

I am sure, though, that writing is the only activity that both keeps boredom at bay and allows my time to pass without remorse. And this is because I feel productive.

(I remember somewhere Elytis describing time as being that which takes you closer to or farther from the thing you love.)

For me, the white page, the page that remains white as the clock ticks, is a symbol of remorse.


A large part of remorse is finding yourself again at some point which you should have left behind. Once again at the blank page, leaving it blank yet again. Once again leaving the notebook unopened. The waste is that you can never learn from experience: I am still here: I have learned nothing from all the conscience-pangs.

Some people want to fill pages without writing, and others want to write without filling pages. This occurred to me the other night, but I don’t remember which one I am. Or if they’re not really the same thing.

Pessoa and Nostalgia for the Future

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.

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A Flower in Space

N. went out to the garden today and took some pictures. She took one of a rose, and as soon as I saw it, it reminded me of some kind of nebula, so I blackened the background. I love looking at it.