Everyone wants to be Fernando Pessoa’s friend. If, for every published writer, there’s a thousand readers who dream of being published, then ‘The Book of Disquiet’ is their book written in secret. A loose collection of self-absorbed fragments written over many years which excavate febrile moods and store shifting convictions, and threaded together by only the tacit hope that these jottings might mean something to some future self. It is the writing of the long-haul, evidence of a stubborn persistence to tramp down the same ground over and over in search of that elusive 'enter stage left' into the floodlights of genius. Those first few rays from the beam to be felt like a warm wet cloth on a furrowed brow long before their completed being becomes everyone's. How then, can one not be encouraged when, mid-way through his masterpiece, Pessoa casts a quick look back on his work in progress and declares it all worthless? ‘Nobody achieves anything…Nothing is worth doing.’ Arguably, a form of platonic friendship is the hidden motor behind these sorties into NoMansLand. Yet Bernardo Soares, the half-heteronym who appropriates ‘The Book of Disquiet’ from his equally strange cousin, Vincent Guedes, adecade after it was begun, rejects this illusion of friendship with a flip disregard:
‘Friends, not one. Just a few acquaintances who imagine they feel something for me and who might be sorry if a train ran over me and the funeral was on a rainy day.’
Aside from hyperbole, there’s a sincerity to what Soares claims for Pessoa. Not only in the authentic ungrateful lamenting of a would-be writer in the throes of self-pity, but rather in Soares's wish to disabuse readers who might be tempted to correlate their self-respect with their friends’ esteem. For all the delightful contained moments of affection for those down-to-earth bosses, naïve office juniors and sun-loving cats who make up a life, there is no friend worthy of admiration or even envy in ‘The Book of Disquiet’. To include friends wouldn’t simply have spoilt the mood: it would have undermined the project. For Soares, a friend is as much a visitation as a dream. To find them, you must look to the Book’s outside. The one thing which irritates in this otherwise rigorously honest work is how Soares presents himself as the archetypical unpublished writer, when in reality 'The Book of Disquiet' required the propulsion from an undisclosed elite literary milieu. That milieu was Pessoa’s own, who, by fifteen, had already published poetry in his second language, English, and was well-connected with the Portuguese avant garde writers of his day. Frankly, it’s much easier to keep chipping away at the prison walls when you know there are friends on the outside cheering you on. And for the literary elite of Lisbon, Pessoa had already earned their public veneration. Nevertheless, ‘The Book of Disquiet’ is Pessoa’s attempt to get away from this physical crutch. He never wants to use anyone. And in this regard, it is a glorious failure. He can’t help but encourage us. To speak at all ‘is to show too much consideration for others. It’s when they opened their mouths that fish, like Oscar Wilde, were fatally hooked.’ The Floating Negator In his ‘Handbook of Inaesthetics’, Alain Badiou attempts to steer Pessoa away from a kind of Aristotelian life-world of fluxes which he associates with his philosophical rival, Gilles Deleuze, and aimed to draw Pessoa towards a kind of negative Platonism, which Badiou identifies with himself. Badiou concedes that this will be a difficult revision. If, as Aristotle held, the soul of an axe would be cutting, then what distinguishes man from other animals is our capacity for rational purposive action. Consequently, rational contemplation becomes the most valued activity for man, and Pessoa seems to radicalise this notion by delinking any form of practical utility from the mode of contemplation, so that an inversion occurs, where ‘feeling our way through the world of thought’ becomes the highest mode of attainment. How does such a position evade the charge of solipsism? Why does the ‘Book of Disquiet’ seem to redeem quotidian city life rather than refuse it? Badiou stipulates that there’s an amphiboly in the relation between things and ideas in Pessoa which is not there in the Aristotelian hylomorphic schema, where matter is ultimately determined by form. ‘The Book of Disquiet’ is full of tactical exhortations to see things as they are rather than indulge in metaphysical speculation, as if simple perception were a better guarantor of thought than any grand rational system. At other times, the tendency is very much to realise all concrete things in thought. To get drunk on a glass of water far superior to getting drunk on wine, our discreet alcoholic whispers. Could it be that Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’ is a network of escape routes which negates first the material world, and then the ideal, according to when and where the present danger lies? Pessoa’s unique means for forcing his way out of a situation is what Badiou will term ‘floating negation’. Fictions of the Interlude Creator of Indifferences The Inner Aristocrat If there’s an underlying pattern to these floating negations, then it’s one determined by the need to keep the machine ‘well-oiled’. Pessoa is not victim to an agonised hand-wringing over the in-decidable. There are speeds and slows to ‘The Book of Disquiet’, but more often than not Pessoa gallops ahead of the social and artistic norms of his time, overturning eternal verities with a flick of the wrist, casually negating future existentialisms in passing:
‘To act...requires a certain incapacity for imagining the personalities of others, their joys and sufferings. Sympathy leads to paralysis. The man of action regards the external world as composed exclusively of inert matter—either intrinsically inert, like a stone he walks on and kicks out of his path, or inert like a human being who couldn’t resist him and thus might as well be a stone.’
Superior to Nietzsche in this regard, Pessoa won’t succumb to what is often read as the redemptive myth that permeates Nietzsche’s ‘Gay Science’ (1882) wherein man is cajouled into loving suffering as a means to make one strong. For Pessoa, this is simply a fallacy. The human animal cannot be made to love something that’s harmful to it, just as extreme physical pain, in the last instance, often has a much more profound effect on the individual than psychic suffering. How many of us would choose a severed head (especially our own) over a broken heart? In Praise of Surface For Pessoa,
‘Modern things include: --a wardrobe --a mirror.’
More than just symbolic of self-fashioning and vaguely narcissistic introspection, clothes not only maketh the man, they entangle us in a network of material relations that are every bit as real as our physical bodies. More than expressive, clothes and mirrors are integrative and implicate us in a social hierarchy geared towards the young and fertile. To resist fashion is as futile as to pretend to self-reliance. To what extent does Pessoa accept an implacable social hierarchy as a premise for any human society? If action in the world requires in some sense ‘an incapacity for imagining the personalities of others’ as you tread on their dreams, then it’s not so far-flung to imagine a world where one might long to be downtrodden: ‘Whenever I see a pretty smile or a meaningful gaze, no matter whom the smile or gaze belongs to, I always plumb the soul of the smiling or gazing face to discover what politician wants to buy our vote or what prostitute wants us to buy her. But the politician that buys us loved at least the act of buying us, even as the prostitute loved being bought by us. Like it or not, we cannot escape universal brotherhood. We all love each other, and the lie is the kiss we exchange.’ Aside from the gendered behaviour, there’s an unavoidable libidinal exchange in these interactions which is not reducible to satire. If simulation and exploitation is an inexorable component of love, these mechanisms are also seen in our relation to literature. ‘To read is to dream, guided by someone else’s hand. To read carelessly and distractedly is to let go of that hand. Superficial erudition is the only method for reading well and being profound.’ The only way beyond the dreams of others is to negate, exploit, and relate their ideas as your own. A deft means to show how mistranslation is necessary for any new creative work: the point is not to understand each other, but to select and betray those elements which you most admire. The Estranger The Factless Confessor Pessoa is often compared with the Danish writer, Søren Kierkegaard, insofar as both depend on heteronyms as a means for generating internal conflicting philosophical positions, and both may be said to share broadly existentialist views on rationalism and the potential for human progress. Kierkegaard’s apocryphal dictum, ‘the instant of decision is madness’, itself more a product of French mistranslation, implies action only gets done through a more-or-less thoughtless ‘leap of faith’, while for Pessoa, all action is a priori regretful: ‘Never think about what you’re going to do. Don’t do it.’ And just as Kierkegaard’s ‘knight of faith’ can be ‘indistinguishable from a bourgeois in his Sunday dress’, so, for Pessoa, value shouldn’t be measured by degrees of external accomplishment. In fact, Pessoa often flirts with the idea of a perfect literary work being the one that is both perfect and never read because the author has chosen to destroy it, and the extant packet of unfinished drafts which forms ‘The Book of Disquiet’ comes close to this ideal. Did Pessoa believe in an afterlife of sorts, even if only as a model exemplar to other future friends who would take inspiration in the dignity of his vision? How does this differ from Kierkegaard’s trust that his understanding of the absurdity of Christianity would ultimately prove to be religiously edifying to those ready to hear? Pessoa reads like Kierkegaard without the angst or the objective. Where the later existential phenomenology of Martin Heidegger hinges on an idea lifted from Kierkegaard concerning what’s allegedly constitutive of the human condition, namely, an anxious awareness of our own finitude, no such appropriation is possible from Pessoa. ‘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.’
We’re always papering over the faults in our finite existences, and those who imagine that the furnishings of Scandinavian minimalism are more authentic might be prone to an equally kitsch illusion. Moreover, where Kierkegaard’s fracturing of the authorial ‘I’ is conducted with the pedagogic intent of inculcating a higher stage of awareness, and that goes for ‘Either/Or’ (1843), where the balance between Johannes the Seducer's veneration of the immediate and Judge Vilhelm’s defence of commitment is only ever so delicately tilted in the favour of the latter, Pessoa’s internal community of writers, on the other hand, offers no higher purpose than to provide a mirror for the real writers he knew, admired and worked alongside. And his one tragic female invention, Maria José. The Stained Glass Lover ‘I felt that I’d been given someone else’s prize—a prize that was only worth something to the person who rightfully deserved it.’ Biographies tell us neither Kierkegaard nor Pessoa had much experience with women. Kierkegaard will famously break an engagement with his fiancée, Regina, not daring to risk the disappointment of actual cohabitation and retrospectively justifying the decision on the grounds of talent, while Pessoa will make a few passes at a female colleague at the office and leave her some letters in legacy praising her ‘little pigeons’ but otherwise remains chaste. One wonders whether the buoyancy of their writing is a product of this chasteness, as if an idea of a rose-tinted sensuous bliss only remains plausible to those who haven’t early on exhausted the potentials for sensuality in the physical world. Only a Pessoa could be thrilled with his ironic advice for unhappily married women to cheat on their husbands in their imagination while upholding their conjugal duties. The Voyage Not Taken The Imperial Legend Aesthetics of Discouragement The Dolorous Reverie The Archeologist of Rain The Visual Lover The Decadent with Fallen Arches More than any other, the wit and sensibility of ‘The Book of Disquiet’ matches that of Jean des Esseintes, the fictional first person narrator of Joris-Karl Huysmans classic satire on decadence, ‘After Nature’ (1884). In this novel, Huysmans takes the aestheticians at their word and creates a character whose bottomless bank balance allows him to possess the finest things possible, and in the farcical course of events, the reader quickly comes to realise the absurdity of a life lived for aesthetic sensation alone. Like a powerful drug whose effects already begin to dwindle after first use, even as its hold on the user increases, the logic of artistic appreciation as being a matter of sensuous consumption of ever more refined objet d'art follows a similar pattern. The futile attempt to surround oneself in the most exquisite environment soon drives des Esseintes to despair. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he cannot share it with a worthy friend? While the futility of art as an end in itself would drive Huysmans to Catholic conversion, a similar insight will lead Pessoa to gentle comic reflection; Pessoa, well-dressed, but writing only with a working man’s pencil, is like a decadent on the cheap: ‘An expensive cigar smoked with one’s eyes closed—that’s all it takes to be rich.’ The category of objects worthy of sensuous appreciation is much broader in ‘The Book of Disquiet’. Pessoa, radicalises Proudhon’s slogan: ‘Property isn’t theft—it’s nothing’, because a) no-one physically possesses anything literally, and b) the pleasure in an object depends upon its conversion into a sensuous object for thought, and the logical extension of this is to attack the many strains of utilitarian progressives: ‘Dreamers of millenniums—socialists, anarchists and humanitarians of whatever ilk—make me physically sick to the stomach. They’re idealists with no ideal, thinkers with no thought. They’re enchanted by life’s surface because their destiny is to love rubbish, which floats on the water and they think it’s beautiful, because scattered shells float on the water too.’ Perhaps Pessoa’s withering critique of what Badiou might term a ‘democratic materialist’ notion of justice opens up a timely fault-line in today’s left-wing politics. If today's recidivist Marxist position would be to privilege a metaphysics of masculine labour-power, then this has been usurped by the new spin, namely, the anti-work, fully-automated luxury communist ideal, now with added care-work. To what extent would Pessoa find such quasi-futurist visions appealing? Thoroughly apolitical in his literary work, aside from a vague messianism for a philosopher king, chances are he wouldn’t give a hoot. But we might extrapolate: if ‘property is nothing’ and the perfect simulation of wealth can be enjoyed at the cost of ‘smoking a cigar with one’s eyes closed’, then shared value might lie in the work of friendship, freely entangled in the life of the cities, where, with some effort, a dream or two transmits. Paradise doesn’t come cheap, it can’t even be bought. Much like friendship, it must be earned.