Fernando Pessoa

An especially apt passage from Pessoa, in light of my recent post:

The highest honour for a superior man is to not know the name of his country’s chief of state, or whether he lives under a monarchy or a republic.

He should be careful to position his soul in such a way that passing things and events can’t disturb him. Otherwise he’ll have to take an interest in others, in order to look out for himself.

For as much as I claim to agree with Emerson that self-reliance is the basis of all virtue, I often feel as if I have no self, no natural state of thought and feeling that is distinctly mine, and on which I can stubbornly rely. Rather, I find within myself many competing voices, all engaged in a continual struggle for power. And I find, further, that what I choose to read plays a substantial role in this power struggle.

I first noticed this when reading Cioran. His dour pessimism seemed to enliven the more melancholy voices within me, to give them an advantage over those that opposed them. And I am noticing the same thing with Pessoa. His praise of a certain form of lethargy rouses what in me inclines to torpor, and I become more torpid. Why, then, read Pessoa? What in his work provides value that overcomes this negative effect?

I had this thought after reading the following passage from The Book of Disquiet:

Whether I like it or not, everything that isn’t my soul is no more for me than scenery and decoration. Through rational thought I can recognize that a man is a living being just like me, but for my true, involuntary self he has always had less importance than a tree, if the tree is more beautiful. That’s why I’ve always seen human events – the great collective tragedies of history or of what we make of history – as colourful friezes, with no soul in the figures that appear there. I’ve never thought twice about anything tragic that has happened in China. It’s just scenery in the distance, even if painted with blood and disease. (§165)

This is a thought that I do not, on balance, endorse. If needed, I could argue with this passage, point out the one subtle flaw that unravels it. But that is not the point. There is a part of me that thinks this way, and when I read this passage that part is emboldened, for it has been externally validated. No amount of arguing rids me of it, nor particularly do I want to be rid of it. At most I want to control it, to allow it to contribute to the richness of my experience without destroying me.

The main value in reading Pessoa is that he has taken this voice, which is not unique to me, and fleshed it out into an entire person, one who is, if not fully consistent, at least more persistently under the thumb of this mood and feeling than I am. Bernardo Soares, the invented author of The Book of Disquiet, is a magnification of this element of myself. In reading this book, I am thus able to study this element writ large without fully giving myself over to it. It is a highly useful means of self-scrutiny.

I read this morning in Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet the following passage (§163):

Direct experience is an evasion, or hiding place, for those without any imagination. Reading about the risks incurred by a man who hunts tigers, I feel all the risks worth feeling, save the actual physical risk, which wasn’t really worth feeling, for it vanished without a trace.

Men of action are the involuntary slaves of the men of reason. The worth of things depends on their interpretation. Certain men make things which other men invest with meaning, bringing them to life. To narrate is to create, while to live is merely to be lived.

This captures a reality I have often felt: that the value in things lies in the way we describe them—and they admit so many contradictory descriptions. Why does Nietzsche’s life seem so remarkable? For no other reason than that he was able to describe its joys so vividly, and to describe them as triumphing over its sorrows. What good was it for Chōmei to build his little house and live in it? Nothing, but for the fact that he told the world about it in such a charming fashion.

But the knowledge that the single event admits of multiple descriptions that ascribe to it competing values raises a problem. How are we to know which description is the right one? What value should we actually ascribe to this, or that? Start asking these questions, and it soon appears as if these values are merely imposed on the event from without, by the sheer will to power of the narrator. And that is why Pessoa is right, at least in one sense, to say that the man of action is the slave of the man of reason, to the man who describes him.

At this point I think of the second poem in Laozi’s Daodejing, which I give in the translation by Addiss and Lombardo:

Recognize beauty and ugliness is born.
Recognize good and evil is born.

Is and Isn’t produce each other.

Hard depends on easy,
Long is tested by short,
High is determined by low,
Sound is harmonized by voice,
After is followed by before.

Therefore the Sage is devoted to non-action,
Moves without teaching,
Creates ten thousand things without instruction,
Lives but does not own,
Acts but does not presume,
Accomplishes without taking credit.

When no credit is taken,
Accomplishment endures.

One way to read the ideal of accomplishing without taking credit is to see it precisely as accomplishing silently, not insisting on this or that (generally self-glorifying, though of late self-deprecation has come in vogue) description of what one has accomplished.

Laozi makes the interesting claim that “When no credit is taken, / Accomplishment endures.” This seems to conflict rather directly with the passage from Pessoa. There, narration is defended precisely because it lends something of endurance to a feeling that otherwise would vanish “without a trace.” I am not so sure, however, that they actually conflict. The feeling as described does indeed endure in a way in which the physical feeling does not. So Pessoa is correct. At the same time, because description is fickle, because it will serve any master who calls on it, every particular description is unstable, liable to be displaced by some other. (If you don’t believe me, ask Columbus. He knows.) Only the event as it occurred, regarded silently, endures, and can never be undone. So Laozi, too, is correct. The only dispute between them is this: are we to prefer the permanence of having occurred, or the ever-renewing endurance of being described?

This attempt to show how Laozi and Pessoa take the same reality and ascribe it diametrically opposed values nicely illustrates Pessoa’s point, and we must take him to have won the dispute. But then we should not be surprised that the side that is permitted to speak will win a debate, and we should remember that to get the better of an argument and to be correct are not the same.

In an earlier post, I tried to summarize the core of Emerson’s philosophy in a few dogmatic statements. I managed it in eight. But I think I might have condensed it further, down to the following two:

  1. The individual is fundamentally alone in the world, cut off from others.
  2. The only hope for true, if partial, communion between two separate individuals requires that both burrow deeply into their own individuality, bringing what they find as a gift to the other.

Insofar as I consider myself an Emersonian, I do so because I feel the truth of both of these claims in my bones, and it was Emerson who taught me to recognize that.

I have only just begun Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, but I find myself immediately drawn in by it precisely because Pessoa (or rather Pessoa’s heteronym, Bernardo Soares) grasps both of these truths:

Sadly I write in my quiet room, alone as I have always been, alone as I will always be. And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes. In these moments my heart beats faster because I’m conscious of it. (6)

In my first post on Pessoa, I spoke admiringly of the distance that stands between Soares and other people, a distance I know well. He sits at a location not altogether separate from them, but neither participating in their joy. He delights in it without participating. This is the right distance, I think, from which to approach these Emersonian theses, for it is the distance from which they are felt most distinctly. One is separate, and thus the aloneness is felt, but one hears the songs in the distance and understands the possibility of communion. I do not say this to suggest it is better to exist at this distance, to always evade participation, merely to highlight certain advantages of the time one spends there.

Now, I have a bit dishonestly cut off the passage in the middle. It continues on to criticize itself:

I live more because I live on high. I feel a religious force within me, a species of prayer, a kind of public outcry. But my mind quickly puts me in my place. . . I remember that I’m on the fourth floor of the Rua dos Douradores, and I take a drowsy look at myself. I glance up from this half-written page at life, futile and without beauty, and at the cheap cigarette I’m about to extinguish in the ashtray beyond the fraying blotter. Me in this fourth-floor room, interrogating life!, saying what souls feel!, writing prose like a genius or a famous author! Me, here, a genius!. . .

It is striking how exactly he hits on Emerson’s definition of genius: the expression by one individual of a thought or feeling that speaks to “the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives.” But this, his mind tells him, somewhat patronizingly, is a delusion. Pessoa certainly is more pessimistic here about the second claim than Emerson is, though such pessimism finds more voice in Emerson’s work than many of his readers think. I am not so gloomy about the prospects of communion as Pessoa—at least not most of the time. But I know the mood in which it seems an absurd vanity.

But it should not be thought that this mood is as desolate as it sounds. Though I spend less time there than Soares, it is a solitude to which I often, and happily, retreat.

Bernardo Soares (Fernando Pessoa), in his The Book of Disquiet:

I see life as a roadside inn where I have to stay until the coach from the abyss pulls up. I don’t know where it will take me, because I don’t know anything. I could see this inn as a prison, for I’m compelled to wait in it; I could see it as a social centre, for it’s here that I meet others. But I’m neither impatient nor common. I leave who will to stay shut up in their rooms, sprawled out on beds where they sleeplessly wait, and I leave who will to chat in their parlours, from where their songs and voices conveniently drift out here to me. I’m sitting at the door, feasting my eyes and ears on the colours and sounds of the landscape, and I softly sing – for myself alone – wispy songs I compose while waiting.

Though I will not feign to be quite so isolated as Bernardo Soares, this is a mood I know well. I delight in other people from far away, preferring to hear of their songs those muted strains that drift out to me than to be fully present. Yet this is not mere evasion and inactivity, is not pessimism. It is perhaps difficult to impress the vivacity of this mood on one who does not know it firsthand, though Soares succeeds better than I can.

This passage immediately allies itself, in my mind, with the following poem by Su Tung-p’o, which I give in the original, followed by my own translation and that of Burton Watson:


Spring night, one moment worth a thousand gold coins;
faint scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Flute song from the high tower: sound soft, soft;
Swing in the courtyard, night heavy, heavy.

Spring night–one hour worth a thousand gold coins;
clear scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Songs and flutes upstairs–threads of sound;
in the garden, a swing, where night is deep and still.

What attracted me to the poem is the narrator’s location: not up in the tower with the song, not out in the heavy night, but somewhere in between. Of course, the narrator is a different person than Soares, is not an ineffectual Epicurean. We do not know what brings him to this strange middle position. But the distance is the same.