No Words Wasted Sale

Saturday, October 11th, 2003


The Book of Disquiet


Necessary Illusions

A review by Tricia Yost

Fernando Pessoa had a rare strand of multiple personality disorder: one that is self-imposed. Born Fernando Antonio Nogueira Pessoa in 1888 in Lisbon, Portugal, where (with the exception of nine years in South Africa) he lived all his life, Pessoa began at a young age writing in English as Alexander Search and Charles Robert Anon. Then, older, he adopted and wrote under the names Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Alavaro De Campos. These are not simple pseudonyms, but, to use Pessoa's own term, heteronyms, for they are imaginary poets who write real poems. In attempting to explain their source, Pessoa writes that they derive from "an aspect of hysteria that exists within me" and from a "persistent and organic tendency to depersonalization and simulation." He goes on to explain that these personalities don't surface and intrude upon his daily life, but they live within him. What's remarkable is that each one is distinct, having his own style, biography, and ideology. Reis is a doctor and writes in classical forms; Caeiro is a shepherd who writes in simple free verse; and De Campos is an engineer and an expansive poet a la Whitman. In addition to writing their own discrete poems, these personalities would comment on and critique each other's work. They held interviews with each other and exchanged letters. In any other context this would reveal the mind of a madman, but the heteronyms allowed Pessoa to explore the "other," in fact, many others. He was a writer, who, though always sitting alone at his desk, was constantly traveling in his mind, making and remaking himself, exploring consciousness, and the familiar questions it breeds: What is the self? And what's to be done with it?

The idea of the self is at the forefront of all of Pessoa's work, particularly The Book of Disquiet, his major prose piece. Tucked away in a trunk for more than fifty years after Pessoa's death, it was finally discovered (with thousands of other documents) and published in 1982. Three English translations followed in 1991, of which Margaret Jull Costa's has been lauded as the finest. The book takes the form of a diary, written in extended fragments. Its author is Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper. Pessoa called Soares a "semi-heteronym" because his personality isn't so radically different from Pessoa's own. Together they speak of Lisbon, literature (yes, even Soares writes of Caeiro and the others), monotony, dreams, commercialism, and much more, but in the final analysis, the minutiae of life is made heartbreakingly beautiful.

Dubbed "A Factless Autobiography," the book does not suffer from its lack of names, dates, and times, nor its lack of physical grounding. A sense of place emanates from the text. Soares loves Lisbon, but the city is not described in social-realistic terms. Rather, it's described as an ethereal place, as seen through the eyes of a poet:

The morning unfurls itself upon the city, interleaving light and shade (or rather degrees of intensity of light) amongst the houses. It does not seem to come from the sun but from the city itself, for the light issues forth from the city's walls and roofs (not from them physically but from the simple fact of their being there).

Just as the diary lacks realistic details about place, so too, Soares tells us nothing of his physical stature. However, knowing he's a bookkeeper, one might imagine him as slight of build, with a clerk's neat appearance (crooked bow tie, trim moustache, bespectacled). One might imagine him a cipher. This is the problem with appearances: almost always, they're wrong. In this case, beneath the staid outward disposition is a mind alive, buzzing. This is one of the major cords ringing through the book: the contradiction between the intensity of his feelings and the banal reality of his daily life, "the mechanical rise and fall of your legs as they walk involuntarily forwards." Pessoa's Soares is like Beckett's Molloy; he only has his inner thoughts to sustain him. Yet both are utterly aware of the futility of even this last vestige of meaning: "I write down what I feel in order to lower the fever of feeling. What I confess is of no importance because nothing is of any importance." Compare to Beckett's Molloy: "And truly it little matters what I say, this, this or that or any other thing."

Though it does not matter what he writes, Soares writes anyway. For him, cataloguing his shifts of mood, putting down dream vignettes, studying his own psychological states, relating autobiographical anecdotes, pushes him closer to the ever-elusive nature of the self. He's the anti-activist; he's a version of Descartes: "I've always believed it better to think than to live." On the surface his diary may seem a long record of one man's narcissism. Soares is too self-deprecating for that. He readily admits his mediocrity and that he's no better or worse than anyone else. Further, his introspection is not self-serving and there is much empathy in his words.

What's to be done is another matter. He writes: "I asked so little from life and life denied me even that. A beam of sunlight, a field...some peace and quiet and a mouthful of bread, not to feel the knowledge of my existence weigh too heavily on me, to demand nothing of others and have them demand nothing of me," and in another section, "Life for us is whatever we imagine it to be....I've dreamed a lot."

Pessoa's genius, like Beckett's or the philosopher E. M. Cioran's, lies in his deliberate abandonment of the conventions of his genre. This is not the book to turn to for easy escape; it cannot be read quickly. It's not the book to study for plot or story; voice and perception guide its movement, as does the dream-life. It's fiction, philosophy, and poetry. It's a book informed by solitude. Because of its leisurely fragmented style, the book, if read in one or two sittings, can feel tedious. This is all too fitting since this concept serves as motif. Like Bartleby, Soares sees the vacancy of production and consumerism, and feels the boredom and restlessness that results. Yet unlike Bartleby, who refuses to be a cog, Soares must be one. For him, tedium is not simply negative. He tells us straightaway in the early pages: "banality is a form of intelligence" and "much of what I feel and think I owe to my work as a bookkeeper since the former exists as a negative of and flight from the latter." For him, tedium is the necessary complement to the dream-life.

This life — of thought and feeling, of solitude — is what matters to Pessoa, to Soares, Caeiro, and the others. And in looking at it, Pessoa is unsparing. He won't shield his eyes from what he ultimately sees behind his many selves: emptiness. His is a quiet meditation, which acts as antidote to the noise and vapid words coming at us from all angles, from advertisements and television, and from unfortunately all too often, other books. This one, however, lives up to one of its author's proclamations: "Art gives us the illusion of liberation from the sordid business of being."

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