Before performing the UK premiere of Michel van der Aa’s Book of Disquiet on Wednesday 24 and Thursday 25 February we wanted to delve further into the mysterious figure that is Fernando Pessoa, on whose words the piece is based.
Below, Professor Paulo de Medeiros from the University of Warwick explains his life, work and many faces.
Fernando Pessoa is not a ghost. The fame that has been attached to his name as Portugal’s most celebrated 20th century author, as well as his own investment in the process of mythologizing, have done much to dematerialise him and to render his texts as some sort of rarefied poetic expression. Every epoch needs its own heroes and modernity was no different, except that neither was its rupture with the past so definitive, nor the future’s rapture with it so predictable.
Born in 1888, Pessoa lived through a frightful period in European history, with most great and small nations fighting for hegemony in the continent. An age, moreover, which, as he so bluntly put it, had inherited nothing but the impossibility of believing in transcendental grand narratives. In their place, the attempted substitution for the belief in humanity proved to be yet another delusion that would come crashing down in 1914 and again in 1939. Even though Pessoa did not live through that other, almost final blow to any form of belief at all, either in the gods or their puppets, in civilization and nobility of spirit, or even in crass materialism and the greed and blindness of the masses, he certainly saw it start to take shape. The contortions of the First Republic in Portugal after the King and his eldest son were assassinated in the streets of Lisbon in 1908, the continuous bankruptcies of the State, the take over of government by the military, the formation of the national dictatorship and the rise of Salazar and his ‘New State’ were all harbingers of the spread of totalitarianism.
On 8 March 1914 Pessoa had his triumphal day. As he recalls with incredible precision in a letter to his friend, the noted critic Adolfo Casais Monteiro, dated 13 January 1935, on that day he had not only written a large number of poems, but had also discovered a multitude of voices. These were his heteronyms: Álvaro de Campos, an iconoclastic modernist poet trained as a naval engineer in Glasgow; Ricardo Reis, a paganist poet, adept of the monarchy who goes into self-exile and never returns; Bernardo Soares, more properly a semi-heteronym as he is almost Pessoa himself. And of course above all Alberto Caieiro, the bucolic poet-philosopher who disdained any sort of metaphysics. These, besides Pessoa himself, would constitute the main names under which the vast oeuvre would be written.
Pessoa had entertained fictional personalities since early childhood and although there is no agreement as to their total number it is safe to say that at least a hundred of them were at one point or another active, usually with very specific functions, such as Mr Cross who was addicted to English cross-word puzzles. The importance of the main heteronyms for an understanding of the complexity of Pessoa’s writing cannot be underestimated. Comparing Pessoa to other writers such as Kierkegaard, who also wrote under different names, George Steiner writing in The Guardian still singles Pessoa out: “‘Heteronyms’, as Pessoa called and defined them, are something different and exceedingly strange. For each of his ‘voices’, Pessoa conceived a highly distinctive poetic idiom and technique, a complex biography, a context of literary influence and polemics and, most arrestingly of all, subtle interrelations and reciprocities of awareness.”
Although he published much in dispersed and ephemeral magazines throughout his adult life, Pessoa also left much more unpublished. One could say that the most important works were those he never brought to print, in a sense very much like Kafka. Both are posthumous writers whose importance for Modernism and European literature in general has few rivals. Pessoa’s fame has been slower in gathering, due in part to a poorer rate of translation into other languages such as French, German and English. Furthermore, one of his most magnificent works, the incomparable Book of Disquiet, was only published for the first time in 1982. Since then a myriad of different editions in Portuguese have appeared as Pessoa had not left a finished manuscript and editors have had to try to piece together what they imagine The Book of Disquiet to be from hundreds and hundreds of fragments. Add to this the different, sometimes competing translations, and it is fair to say that the The Book of Disquiet not only is composed of a multitude of often disparate fragments but that it has become itself multiple, metamorphosing into a new assemblage every time a new edition comes out.
Richard Zenith, one of Pessoa’s editors in Portuguese and also up-to-now his most important English translator, first ventured the notion of it as a sort of non-book, even an anti-book. One should seize and expand on that notion of an anti-book. That is, The Book of Disquiet should not be seen as an unfinished book but rather as a text without limits and thus also without a possible end. A reader who approaches it conventionally will be fascinated by some of its passages, perhaps annoyed by others, but will begrudge the lack of a conclusion. Instead of such a conventional approach, however, a first protocol of reading would demand an acceptance of the impossibility of any conclusion for The Book of Disquiet. That is, instead of regarding the text as lacking, one should see it as a form of excess. Boundless, the text refuses to be tamed into a whole as if writing were indeed an infinite task. Alain Badiou, the noted French philosopher, has written at some length on Pessoa and has enjoined us to rise up to the challenge of Pessoa’s thought. In his view, becoming contemporaries of Pessoa would be one of the key tasks for philosophy. Obviously Pessoa was not directly a philosopher. Yet his writing, and The Book of Disquiet in particular, should be seen as a compelling, powerful, intensely beautiful inquiry into the meaning of life in all its contradictions, absurdities and splendor. The reader should beware though, for there is a price to be paid for such haunting beauty. Once one starts reading it, if one has any feeling at all, one will be irreversibly changed for life.
Professor Paulo de Medeiros
University of Warwick
Badiou, Alain. “A Philosophical Task: To Be Contemporaries of Pessoa”. Handbook of
Inaesthetics. Transl. Alberto Toscano (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005)
Dix, Stephen and Jerónimo Pizarro. Eds. Portuguese Modernisms: Multiple Perspectives on Literature and the Visual Arts (Oxford: Legenda, 2011)
Jackson, K. David. Adverse Genres on Fernando Pessoa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)
Ramalho, Maria Irene. Atlantic Poets: Fernando Pessoa’s Turn in Anglo-American Modernism (Hannover and London: Dartmouth College/ University Press of New England, 2003)
Sadlier, Darlene J. An Introduction to Fernando Pessoa: Modernism and the Paradoxes of Authorship (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998)