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Bit of Disquiet

Life, for most people, is a pain in the neck that they hardly notice, a sad affair with some happy respites, as when the watchers of a dead body tell anecdotes to get through the long, still night and their obligation to keep watch. I’ve always thought it futile to see life as a valley of tears; yes, it is a valley of tears, but one in which we rarely weep. Heine said that after great tragedies we always merely blow our noses. As a Jew, and therefore universal, he understood the universal nature of humanity.

Life would be unbearable if we were conscious of it. Fortunately we’re not. We live as unconsciously, as uselessly and as pointlessly as animals, and if we anticipate death, which presumably (though not assuredly) they don’t, we anticipate it through so many distractions, diversions and ways of forgetting  that we can hardly say we think about it.

That’s how we live, and it’s a flimsy basis for considering ourselves superior to animals. We are distinguished from them by the purely external detail of speaking and writing, by an abstract intelligence, and by our ability to imagine impossible things. All this, however, is incidental to our organic essence. Speaking and writing have no effect on our primordial urge to live, without knowing how or why. Our abstract intelligence serves only to elaborate systems, or ideas that are quasi-systems, which in animals corresponds to lying in the sun. And to imagine the impossible may not be exclusive to us; I’ve seen cats look at the moon, and it may well be that they were longing to have it.

[Number 405, Zenith edition]

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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]

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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”

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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.

(more…)

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