Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Fernando Pessoa

   I am trying to draw in the threads between Kafka’s metaphors and Gottfried Benn’s, and finding in addition similar figures in Pessoa. Kafka, for example (June 21st 1913) comments on:

   “The tremendous world I have in my head. But how free myself, and free it without being torn to pieces. I would a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here. That is quite clear to me.”

   This in a sense repeats the birth image referenced in my previous entry on Kafka ("The Chinese Puzzle"). Its opposite is found in Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet”, Fragment 179, entitled “Zenith”:

   “In my writing I linger over words, as before shop windows. I don’t really look at them, and what remains are half-meanings and quasi-expressions, like the colours of upholstery that I didn’t see, harmonies on display composed of I don’t know what objects. In writing I rock myself, like a crazed mother her dead child.”

   And in Fragment 365:

   “When I write, I solemnly pay myself a visit. I have special chambers, remembered by someone else in interstices of the dramatic portrayal, where I take delight in analysing what I don’t feel, and examine myself like a picture in a dark corner.”

   Writing as therapy, in this case not for the neurotic scribbler but the compound schizophrenic. But it also begs again my question about Kafka: the extent to which he has created a literary persona named Kafka, as Proust created Marcel in “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu” and Dickens created his own multiple manifestations as Pip, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and D.H. Lawrence the same as Paul Morel, Rupert Birkin, Richard Lovatt Somers.

   So strong is the link between Kafka and Pessoa, the former could well have inspired this paragraph (Fragment 358):

   “When I laid my hands on the desk and looked at what was there (with a glance that must have reflected a weariness full of dead worlds – the first thing I saw, on really seeing, was a blow-fly poised on top of the ink-stand. I contemplated it from the bottom of the abyss, anonymous and alert…) who knows for what supreme forces, gods or demons of Truth in whose shadows we roam, I may be nothing but the shiny fly that alights in front of them for a moment or two? Trite observation? Unoriginal idea? Philosophy without thought? Maybe, but I didn’t think: I felt. It was physically, directly, with a profound horror that I made this ludicrous comparison. I was a fly when I compared myself to one. I felt like a fly when I imagined feeling like one. And I felt a flyish soul, slepy flyishly, and was flyishly withdrawn. And what is most horrifying me is that I felt, at the same time, like myself. I automatically raised my eyes towards the ceiling, that no lofty fly-switch should swoop down to swat me, as I might swat the fly.”

   Another of Pessoa’s metaphors echoes my comment about disappointment in regard to Kafka, and even more so a passage in Hofmannstahl’s “Conversation About Poems”:

   “The landscapes of the soil are more wonderful than the landscapes of the starry sky; not only its galaxies are thousands of stars, but its shadowy charms, its darknesses, are thousandfold life, life that has become lightless through its crowding, choked by its fullness. And an instant can x-ray these abysses, in which life devours itself, an instant can release them, it can make galaxies out of them. And these instants are the births of the perfect poems, and the possibility of perfect poems without limits, as is the possibility of such instants.”

   Pessoa, like Kafka, like Benn, is less optimistic, but struggled through, and eventually reached the same point:

   “For me to write is to disdain myself, and yet I cannot quit writing. Writing is like the drug that I abhor and take, the addiction that I disdain and depend on. There are necessary poisons, and some are extremely subtle, composed of ingredients from the soul, herbs collected from among the ruins of dreams, black poppies found next to graves, the long leaves of obscene trees that sway their branches on the audible banks of the soul’s infernal rivers.” (Fragment 157)

   To write is to become Dante! Or, as Rilke once commented, and it so impacted on Gabriel Garcia Marquez that it inspired the title of his memoir (“Living To Tell The Tale”), “If you think you are capable of living without writing, do not write.”

    You can find more on Pessoa in the entry "Disquietudes", elsewhere in this blog.

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