The Heteronymous Disquietude of Fernando Pessoa’s Dreamworld

The pulverization of the personality: I don’t know what my ideas are or my feelings or my character … If I do feel something, I feel it in the visualized person of some creature who appears inside me. I have replaced myself with my dreams. Each person is merely his dream of himself. I am not even that.

The Book of Disquiet §54 (“How to dream metaphysics”)
edited by Jerónimo Pizarro; translated by Margaret Jull Costa
New York: New Directions, 2017.

Perhaps this is the epistemology of the Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa. Or perhaps it is not. In the first place, it’s difficult to tell if this is what he finally intended to say. Nearly everything Pessoa wrote was never submitted for publication. The manuscripts show signs of incomplete revisions even when they were arranged in the intended order. His major prose work, The Book of Disquiet (from which the extract above was taken) was begun in 1913, abandoned  in 1920, taken up again in 1930, and remained unsorted, unedited and incomplete at his death in 1935. But the state of the work was even worse than that. Pessoa had written the fragments on unconnected sheets of paper, which he kept in several trunks. No page or section numbers were put on the pages to indicate the order in which the fragments were intended to be arranged.

New Directions last year published an edition of this monumental prose work as part of a three year project with Jerónimo Pizarro to render in English the major works of Pessoa. Pizarro spent 15 years studying the manuscripts in order to arrange the fragments into a “complete” version in presumed chronological order. Other much shorter editions have appeared in English before but they were arranged on different assumptions of the “intended” order and contained considerably fewer of the fragments. I hope to review in some detail in a later essay this peculiar, and largely unknown (at least in English), work of Continental modernism.  Here I simply want to introduce Pessoa through several poems that he published during his lifetime. The excerpt above illustrates how Pessoa has to be approached. What he says seems plain enough—a sentiment that could have been uttered by a Symbolist or later decadent anywhere from France to Russia. But while the sentiment may be Symbolism, the scaffolding is quite jury-rigged and may not even support the ideas—or it may actually illustrate the brittleness of the thoughts themselves by making plain the artificiality of the narrative voice.

The section quoted above is not”written” by Pessoa. Instead it is one of many bits of writing by a man called Vicente Guedes who the narrator of the first half of the book met in a cheap restaurant above a respectable tavern in Lisbon. The unnamed narrator takes an interest in him and eventually discovers that Guedes is one of the very few readers of a modernist journal that the narrator publishes (just as Pessoa himself briefly published an obscure modernist literary journal). Indeed Guedes, each night after leaving the restaurant, spends the night writing alone in his small apartment. After this short introduction, the first half of the book is simply the writings of Guedes which the narrator says “is all that remains and will remain of one of the most subtly inert, the most dreamily debauched, of beings the world has seen.” The writings reveal a man who rejects the world in a very profound way, so profound that he seems to deny his own individual existence. It’s as though he mentally traces the intellectual climate of Europe backwards to the Enlightenment and then denies the material reality of Newton and the cogito of Descartes.

But Guedes is only one of the personalities that Pessoa uses to express his poetry (or in the case of Guedes, his prose poems). Indeed, Pessoa spent his entire writing career writing only through the characters of constructed personalities. He called them heteronyms. His heteronyms were not one-time narrative voices; he created “personalities” with names, specific characteristics, all of which interacted with each other. One, for example, wrote the introduction to a book of poems of another. They debated each other, negatively viewed the worth of the others and criticized each other.  A Portuguese literary magazine in 1928 called the heteronyms’ interaction as a “drama in people instead of in acts.” But on a deep (metaphysical?) level they all agreed; their view of life was otherworldly. Pessoa, however, distanced himself from his heteronyms while at the same time vouching for their “sincerity” just “as what King Lear says is sincere, that is not Shakespeare … but a creation of his.” (Letter to Armando Cortez Rodriguez, in Selected Poems by Fernando Pessoa, translated by Edward Honig (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1971), p. 167). But what is “sincerity” to Pessoa? He, after all, wrote in the poem “Autopsychography” under the name Fernando Pessoa (which he called his “orthonym”): “The poet is a faker / Who’s so good at his act / He even fakes the pain / Of pain he feels in fact.” (Translated by Richard Zenith.)  Pessoa tells Rodriguez insincere things are those things that “are made to astonish, and things likewise—note this, it’s important—that don’t have in them a fundamental metaphysical idea: that is, through which doesn’t pass, like a wind, a notion of the gravity and mystery of life. That’s why everything I write under the names of Caeiro, Reis, Alvaro de Campos is serious. In any of them I put a profound conception of life, different in all three, but in all gravely attentive to the mysterious importance of existence.”

So let’s see one of each.

Num dia excessivamente nítido

from The Shepherd (1911–14). XLVII

by Alberti Caeiro

Num dia excessivamente nítido
Dia em que dava a vontande de ter trabalhado muito
Para nele não trabalhar nada,
Entrevi, como uma estrada por entre as árvores,
Q que talvez seja o Grande Segredo,
Aquele Grande Mistério de que os poetas falsos falam.

Vi que não há Natureza,
Que Natureza não existe,
Que há montes, vales, planícies,
Que hã árvores, flores, ervas,
Que há rios e pedras,
Mas que não há um todo a que isso pertença,
Que um conjunto real e verdadeiro
É uma doença das nossas idelas.

A Natureza é partes sem um todo,
Isto é talvez o tal mistério do que falam.

Foi isto o que sem pensar nem parar,
Acertei que devia ser a verdade
Que todos andam a achar e que não acham,
E que so eu, porque a não fui achar, achei.

On a terribly clear day

translated by Edwin Honig

On a terribly clear day,
A day that made you wish you’d already worked very hard
So as to be free to do nothing at all,
I caught a glimpse, like a road through the trees,
Of what might after all be the Big Secret,
That Great Mystery deceitful poets talk about.

I saw that there is no Nature,
That Nature doesn’t exist,
That there are hills, valleys, plains,
That there are trees, flowers, grasses,
That there are streams and stones,
But that there’s no one great All these things belong to,
That any really authentic unity
Is a sickness of our thinking.

Nature is simply parts, nothing whole
Maybe this is the mystery they talk about.

And this, without my stopping to think about it,
Is just what I hit on as being the truth
That everyone goes around looking for in vain,
And that only I, because I wasn’t looking, found.

Se recordo quem fui, outram me vejo

from Odes

by Ricardo Reis

Se recordo quem fui, outram me vejo,
E o passado é o presente na lembrança,
Quem fui é alguém que amo
Porém sòmente em sonbo.
E a saudade que me aflige a mente
Não é de mim nem do passado visto,
Senão o instante, me conhece.
Por tràs do olhos cegos.
Nada, senão o instante, me conhece.
Minha mesma lembrança é nada, e sinto
Que quem sou e quem fui
São sonhos diferentes.

Recalling who I was, I see somebody else

translated by Edwin Honig

Recalling who I was, I see somebody else
In memory the past becomes the present.
Who I was is somebody I love,
Yet only in a dream.
The sadness that torments me now
Is not for me nor for the past invoked.
But for him who lives in me
Behind blind eyes.
Nothing knows me but the moment.
Even my memory is nothing, and I feel
That who I am and who I was
Are two contrasting dreams.


from Poems

by Alvaro de Campos

A minha almas partiu-se como um vaso vazio
Caiu pela escada excessivamente abaixo.
Caiu das mãos da criada descuidada.
Caiu. fez-se em mais pedaços do que havia loiça no vaso.

Asneira? Impossível? Sei lá!
Tenho mais sensações do que tinha quando me sentia eu.
Sou um espalhamento de cacos sobre um,\ capacho por sacudir.

Fix barulho na queda como um vaso que se partia.
Os deuses que há debruçam-se do parapeito da escada.
E fitam os cacos que a criada deles fez de mim.

Não se zanguem com ela.
São tolerantes dom ela.
O que eu era um vaso vazio?

Olham os cacos absurdamente conscientes,
Mas conscientes de si-mesmos, não conscientes deles.

Olham e sorriem.
Sorriem tolerantes à criada involuntária.

Alastra a grande escadria atapetada de estrelas.
Um caco brillha, virado do exterior lustroso, entre os astros.
A minha obra? A minha alma principal? A minha vida?
Um Caco.
E os deuses olham-o epecialmente, pois não sabem porque ficou ali.


translated by Edwin Honig

My soul came apart like an empty jar.
It fell overwhelmingly, all the way down the stairs
Dropped from the hands of a careless maid.
It fell. Smashed into more pieces than there was china in the jar.

Nonsense? Impossible? How should I know!
I’ve more sensations now than when I felt I was all me.
I’m a litter of shards strewn on a doormat about to be swept.

My fall raised a din like the crash of a jar.
The gods that exist lean over the bannister,
Staring down at the shards their maid left of me.

They aren’t mad at her.
They indulge her.
After all, what was I—an empty vase?

They stare at the shards, absurdly aware,
But aware of themselves, not of the shards.

They stare dolwn and smile
Indulgent, they smile at the careless maid.

The big star-carpeted staircase spreads out.
A shard lies shining, polished side up, among the stars.
Is it my work? My one and only soul? My life?
A shard.
And the gods squint at it, not knowing why it still lies there.


from Uncollected Poems (1930–35)

by Fernando Pessos

Dizem que finjo ou minto
Tudo que escrevo. Não.
Eu simplesmente sinto
Com, a imaginação.
Não uso o coração.

Tudo o que sonho ou passo,
O que me falha ou finda,
É como que um terraço
Sobre outra coisa ainda.
Essa coisa é que é linda.

Por isso escrevo em meio
Do que não está ao pé,
Livre do meu enleio,
Sério do que não é.
Sentir? Sinto quem le!


Translated by Richard Zenith

They say I lie or feign
In all I write. Not true.
It’s simply that I feel
Via the imagination.
The heart I never use.

All I dream or live,
Whatever fails or dies,
Is no more than a covering
Over some other thing
Where true beauty lies.

That’s why I base my writings
On things that are remote,
Freed from my reality,
Serious about what isn’t.
Feel? That’s up to the reader!

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