Wednesday, September 3, 2014


   Fernando Pessoa – a new name to add to my growing library. Or possibly four new names, including Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis. Wonderful concept: to create not one but four voices for yourself, each with its own subject, its own method (Caeiro writes exclusively free verse, as does Campos but the tone is entirely different; Reis uses metre but not rhyme; Pessoa under his own name is always metrical and closely rhymed – discounting the juvenilia, written before he became poetically schizoid).

   In fact, later on, there were other pseudonyms, including Bernardo Soares; and who knows, maybe Neruda or Achebe or Calvino or Prashker or Magris or Chatwin are only further pseudonyms for Pessoa; or perhaps Pessoa is himself a later pseudonym for Cervantes or Borges or Pierre Menard, even perhaps for Dante, Shakespeare, Schiller…

   And then there is Marc Weidenbaum’s website Pessoa’s Trunk ( which adds to the sum of the poet’s identities those of his multifarious translators into multiple languages (though limited multiple languages: there are, for example, translations into English, but not into Canadian, American, Australian or Trinidadian), and sometimes variant translations from the same translator (or have two translators employed the same nom de plume?).

    Pessoa, who was Portuguese but spent his childhood in South Africa, wrote: “I enjoy wording. Words for me are tangible bodies, visible sirens, incarnated sensualities…and so I write with no desire to think, in an externalised reverie, letting the words cuddle me like a baby in their arms. They are sentences without meaning, flowing softly like water I can feel, a forgetful stream whose waves mingle and yet remain undefined, becoming other, still other waves, and still again other. Thus ideas and images, fearful of expression, pass through me in resounding processions of subdued skills, on which an idea shimmers like moonlight, dappled and uncertain.”

    This is, of course, completely disingenuous, and Pessoa was too intelligent not to have known it, and for it therefore to be wilfully and deliberately disingenuous: the self-awarding of a very specific type of poetic license. It words, as he desired it to do. It achieves the creative moment he is seeking, lyrical and romantic, which another moment, prosaic and cynical, will embrace in a different form and style, but with equal skill, and equal apparent conviction. And it is indeed an aesthetically beautiful image and idea, even despite its falsehoods. But “they are sentences without meaning” simply does not hold; if it were true, then everything it has to say self-destructs; if it were false, why say it?

    Rare among writers (I include Pascal and Roethke but can think of few others), Pessoa cannot be read continuously, from the beginning of a book systematically to the end, nor even from the beginning of a page, and sometimes not even a paragraph. He exists to be dipped into – if I may continue his image of water above – like a flowing fountain of water, into which one puts one’s hands on a stiflingly hot day, in order to take them out again wet enough to cool one’s face with the residue. That small splash is quite sufficient; one would crack one’s skull and drown if one dived into the fountain.

    So let me dip my hands a few times for you, and splash you.

    “The only way to survive in this world is by keeping alive our dream, without ever fulfilling it, since the fulfillment never measures up to what we imagine…How is it done? By not doing. By dreaming insistently. By performing our daily duties but living, simultaneously, in the imagination. Travelling far and wide, in the geography of our minds. Conquering like Caesar, amid the blaring trumpets of our reverie. Experiencing intense sexual pleasure, in the privacy of our fantasy. Feeling everything in every way, not in the flesh, which always tires, but in the imagination…To dream one’s life and to live one’s dreams, feeling what is dreamed and what is lived with an intensity so extreme it makes the distinction between the two meaningless.”

    I especially like this: “Inch by inch I conquered the inner terrain I was born with. Bit by bit I reclaimed the swamp in which I had languished. I gave birth to my infinite being, but I had to wrench myself out of me with forceps.”

   In my 2009 diary, reflecting the third time I had engaged with Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet”, I have literally pages of quotes, and simply cannot decide which to include here. In the end, the best I can do, is urge my reader to obtain a copy, and dip slowly, but intensely, and contemplate as well as reading. As Pessoa himself informs us: “The contemplative person, without ever leaving his village, will nevertheless have the whole universe at his disposal. There is infinity in a cell or a desert. One can sleep cosmically against a rock…There are metaphors more real than the people who walk in the street. There are images tucked away in books that live more vividly than many men and women.”

   And I know that I have to include this, from fragment 160: “Revolutionary or reformer – the error is the same. Unable to dominate and reform his own attitude towards life, which is everything, or his own being, which is almost everything, he flees, devoting himself to the modification of others and of the outside world. Every revolutionary and reformer is a fugitive. To fight for change is to be incapable of changing oneself. To reform is to be beyond repair…A sensitive and honest-minded man, if he is concerned about evil in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life.”

    Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet” is published by Penguin Classics. For his poetry, best search on-line: the Poetry Foundation has a few, though Poem Hunter, which is usually reliable, has only one. There is also which includes innumerable poems by Fernando Pessoa, but you will need to decide for yourself whether this is genuinely “our” Fernando Pessoa, or a clever extension of Pessoa’s own game of schizoid personalities through the use, by someone else, of Fernando Pessoa as a nom de plume.

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