The Complete and Total Incoherence of a Soul

Not even I know if this I that I’m disclosing to you, in these meandering pages, actually exists or is but a fictitious, aesthetic concept I’ve made of myself. Yes, that’s right. I live aesthetically as someone else. I’ve sculpted my life like a statue made of matter that’s foreign to my being. Having employed my self-awareness in such a purely artistic way, and having become so completely external to myself, I sometimes no longer recognise myself. Who am I behind this unreality? I don’t know. I must be someone. And if I avoid living, acting and feeling, then believe me, it’s so as not to tamper with the contours of my invented personality. I want to be exactly like what I wanted to be and am not.

I made a slight error when talking about Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet in an older blog post a few months ago. The post wasn’t about the book itself, I simply referenced a particular passage at one point. Well actually that’s not quite right, see I was remembering wrongly. What I had said was that there was a passage early on where the narrator of the book — for lack of a better term — describes a man he met in a restaurant. This is actually not quite right, instead this moment takes place in the preface to the book proper (not the introduction by the editor/ translator), and the man in the restaurant we are introduced to is in fact the man who the rest of the book from that point forward is “narrated” by. This short sequence right at the start is the only part of the book actually written from the perspective of Pessoa himself.

In one sense anyway. In another however, you might instead say that only after Bernardo’s (Bernardo Soares, the man introduced in the preface) perspective takes over do we really get a true perspective from the real author. I will explain. Pessoa was a prolific writer, though not really recognised in his own lifetime; a familiar story, brings to mind various other famous “starving artist” figures: Vincent Van Gogh, Antoni Gaudi, Breece D’J Pancake, the list goes on. He only ever had one published work I think, a collection of poetry composed in his native tongue of Portuguese — Pessoa also wrote (both prose and poetry) in English and French, for a time he actually worked as a translator — however he was somewhat known in local literary circles and was involved with and had his writing featured in magazines and journals from time to time.

See, from as far back as his earliest days writing, supposedly even as a young boy, he almost never wrote under his own name. Now when an author writes under a false name, we call it a pseudonym, but Pessoa rejected that term. For example, Vladimir Nabokov initially considered publishing his controversial novel Lolita — which, incidentally, I also finished reading recently — pseudonymously. Pessoa instead created a new term to describe the names he used, heteronyms. One of the reasons Nabokov didn’t opt to publish under a pseudonym was that he has a rather distinct style, which attentive readers familiar with his other novels would recognise anyway; the book is distinctly a product of his hand, it is marked by his identity.

A heteronym is not a simple false name, it is almost — but not quite — a whole new identity. Different from a novel or poem written from the first person perspective of a fictional character (like Lolita, again) in that in those cases the author still maintains his own style and identity, and publishes his work under his own name or a pseudonym, which as I’ve explained still represents him. Pessoa almost seems to have believed that he was channelling these heteronyms through the physical act of writing, that the finished products were truly not written by him but by the heteronyms, and for this reason he didn’t use his own name. The heteronyms were the names under which he published, or at least attempted to publish, his various writings.

When first reading about this I didn’t like the idea, it sounded gimmicky to me, but I’ve come around to it. In fact I think it serves as a unique and intelligent method of self examination. It works really well for a certain kind of writing, or maybe a certain kind of writer. Each of Pessoa’s heteronyms had a different individual style and personality, most stuck to one form of written expression, some wrote in English or French of course. Almost everything he wrote, even essays and strictly non-fictional writings, even love letters, was done under one of these heteronyms. A few major ones were used over and over for years, others only a few times or in a few cases only once. One of these single work heteronyms was the only known female of the group, Maria José, a cripple who wrote a love letter to a working man who walked past her window every morning, but never found the courage to present it to him.

I read a post by an Anon on /lit/ from Portugal who said that a joke people sometimes make there is “Pessoa is the four greatest Portuguese poets of the 20th century”. And he does seem to be most famous there for his poetry, rather than for the experimental novel which he never finished, The Book of Disquiet; the collected three decades worth of work towards which, found in a locked chest some time after his death, brought him international recognition. The only poems of his which I read I found online, a few sonnets in English written in a very old fashioned Elizabethan style presented under the name Alexander Search. These of course were inspired by the poetry in English that Pessoa enjoyed most, was most influence by.

At least that’s what I read about them, I have very little understanding of poetry and I rarely read poetry myself as I’ve written about before on this blog. In recent months I’ve been reading it more than usual however, mostly the stuff Anons on /lit/ have written. Like most of his foreign admirers — and I do consider myself one — I’m primarily familiar with Pessoa for The Book of Disquiet. That is, to restate, the collected prose works written under the heteronym Bernardo Soares which would have been collected in a novel called The Book of Disquiet had Pessoa lived longer. He passed away at the unfortunately young age of 47, from some kind of organ failure probably caused by excessive alcohol consumption over time. And in reading the book, you’ll understand why he may have been such a heavy drinker.

If any long term readers of this blog think I’m a particularly reclusive figure, then I suggest you read Pessoa, because his level of social detachment is extreme even compared to mine. At least after a time it seems to have become so, though when he was around the age I am now not so much. For example there’s a section in the book where he alludes to the brief period of time he spent mingling with other members of the Lisbon literary scene of his time, describing a disgust for what those café dwelling types represented that he began to develop. It seems that he really tried with people, but found that he just didn’t belong there. There is a definite tone of resignation throughout the book, one of the few consistent things to it. Because while it is very tonally consistent, the book is also full of contradictions.

This makes the book a little hard to make sense of at first, because you find it hard to know what you can and can’t trust. However, after a little while it does fall into place for you, at least it did for me. A large portion of the book is made up of passages that are somewhat like diary entries in both structure and content, a little like this blog I suppose in that it’s not a diary but it has a definite diary-like quality. So this means that Pessoa/ Bernardo expounds upon all sorts of half-baked theories on many subjects and it’s only after you read through a fair few of these that you understand that the book isn’t really about those things. They help to present a way of life, the way of life that this book as a whole is trying paint a picture of. A lonely one lost in reverie, something I know well.

The version of the book I read is essentially a collection of found notes and fragments of writing, some a few lines long, others several pages, ordered somewhat arbitrarily. They are presented in numbered order. Other versions order the notes as close to chronologically as can be deciphered, the only real noticeable example of the editor’s hand in the version I chose is that when multiple things he wrote covered a similar topic or point it seemed Pessoa wanted to say, they were often presented close together. This actually made the book somewhat tedious at times, ironically enough as “tedium” is a subject which Pessoa expatiates on in great depth in the book, and is one of the reasons the book took me so long to read. There’s only so many times you can read about the significance of the sun rising over the streets of Lisbon without getting a little bored.

I’m definitely very glad to have found this book, and indeed I do plan to return to it (I have a long list of my favourite passages written down), but I won’t pretend that at times I didn’t struggle with it. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of the translation, if the original Portuguese has a much easier flow to it, but there were times where I struggled to follow along. Where metaphors were dragged on too much, or became totally confused by one another, and it’s a real shame. Because at other times Pessoa, through the voice of Soares, is able to express a feeling — one that in some cases, if you’re someone like me, you’ve probably felt yourself — in such a beautiful and clever way that you completely re-evaluate your own experience of it. It’s a remarkable thing, and for those moments, which are plentiful, it’d be worth persevering through the duller or more difficult parts a hundred times over.

I want to keep this entry focused though, because there’s so much in this book to talk about that I know I wouldn’t be able to cover even if I intended to. Rather than attempting a huge many-thousand word entry — which I’m known to do from time to time — trying to talk about every passage I enjoyed, and failing to hit half of them, I’d rather keep this entry focused and leave myself the opportunity to talk about a specific quote or passage (or several) I find interesting or moving in other posts at other times. I’m not saying it’ll definitely happen, I’ve had plenty of ideas for this blog which I never managed to bring to fruition so don’t expect anything. I’m sure I will continue to reference or quote from the book though, as I have done in quite a few posts since first starting to read it, I’ve been really influenced by it.

He talks about so much, there is a whole man’s life in between those two covers. It really lives up to one of the potential subtitles Pessoa planned to give the book, A Factless Autobiography. That is also the subtitle used for this book, or at least the bulk of it. As I’ve mentioned there’s an introduction from the translator Richard Zenith, which has some biographical information about Pessoa and an explanation of why the book is presented the way it is; there’s a long section of endnotes and a few collected letters Pessoa wrote about the BoD project he was working on which are all very interesting; and then the actual writings intended for the book itself of course. These are split into two parts, one about a tenth the size of the other. This second section collects stuff from earlier on, the writing is a little more elaborate in style, and most notably was originally attributed to a different heteronym from Bernardo Soares. Which brings me back to the main subject of this post.

Some time in the 1910s, so in his 20s, Pessoa began writing under a new heteronym (in total he developed around 70) named Vicente Guedes. Through tangled and intricate prose he explored his early ideas about dreams and waking life, and about the position of a singular soul in relation to the others around it; eventually deciding that this writing should be collected together in a novel or novel-like work which he decided to name The Book of Disquiet/ Disquietude. These writings are collected in the shorter second section I mentioned, subtitled: A Disquiet Anthology. Personally I’m not sure I like the hard break, of course whatever form the final book would have taken wouldn’t have been segregated so.

It seems Pessoa lost interest in the project for a while, and left it to work on other things, but then towards the end of the 1920s he seems to have felt a lot of these similar ideas creeping into the writing he was doing under a new heteronym, Bernardo Soares. The style wasn’t exactly the same, but some crucial aspect of Vicente’s identity had somehow come through in Soares, and so Pessoa returned to The Book of Disquiet. Vicente’s writings were folded into Bernardo’s, attributed now to him, and because Bernardo was a much more developed figure The Book also developed into a project much grander in scope it seems. He was now labelling any writings done under the Bernardo heteronym — whether they be on the backs of envelopes, or scrap paper from his office, etc. — BoD, as with Vicente Guedes.

I’m going to argue that Bernardo Soares is different from the other heteronyms. More than that I think he is the result of those other ones, an imperfect realisation of the goal that the heteronyms served. Maybe not the primary goal, or one that was initially intended at all, but maybe the most valuable one in the end. That being to help Pessoa achieve that aim which people like us so desperately strive towards, but never seem to be able to achieve. That challenge stamped above the entranceway to Apollo’s oracular temple at Delphi, to “bee urself”. Of course I’m being a little tongue in cheek expressing my point that way, but I do mean what I say. As I said at the start I think the heteronyms serve as a very interesting tool for introspection, let me explain.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever spoken about this on this blog before, but something that has bothered me my whole life is the fact that I think I appear differently to different people. I believe the first time I really noticed this was when inviting friends to a birthday party I was planning to have when I was quite young, probably seven or eight years old. There were primarily two groups of friends, one being kids from school and the other being the children of my mum’s friends (who mostly all knew one another), the result being I had what can almost be called a mini-crisis when I realised that I acted a little differently around the first group than I did with the second. I was confronted with the fact that I must be a fraud, and that on the day of the party it would be demonstrated to me which group I was being dishonest to, because I really wasn’t sure.

Of course the party came and no such thing happened, everyone got along well; we played with this inflatable toy in the courtyard of the building I lived in, we had cake, it was a good time. I didn’t really learn from the experience though, because the same doubt would continue to crop up repeatedly when similar situations would arise. More than that it just remained something that would bother me constantly for years. See what I now understand is that I wasn’t putting on a fake persona with either of these groups, but that certain aspects of my personality came out more around some of them, and others around others. Neither “version” was what I harshly condemned as fake at that younger age, but neither was it quite me.

Take my two closest friends, they’re both very different from one another (one is very middle class, the other not at all) and so naturally the conversation is very different when I’m alone with one or the other. When the three of us do manage to get together, I quite seamlessly slide into a place somewhere in-between the person I am with either one of them when it’s just the two of us. It’s a perfect example, because even though they’re both very different people I’m very comfortable around both of them. So I can discard any other potential causes for me not “beeing myself” around them, like inhibition or shyness. For all my mockery and oftentimes fatuous — though just as often at least a little insightful I hope — analysis of that stupid expression, I understand that whatever normalfag initially said it meant something very simple, “Let go of your inhibition”. Were it so easy.

Anyway, my point here is that were I just unconsciously putting on a false persona around one or both of these people, then when the three of us were together this would be revealed. You can be two people at two different times, but you can’t be two people in any one moment. So that was how I thought my way out of that particular strain of self hatred. Nevertheless, realising this is still not quite satisfying, if anything it raises new questions. If I’m different around different people, than how can I know who I really am. For me I solved this next raised question by deciding that, as it was other people drawing out these particulars from me, the truest version of myself is the one I embody when alone. This realisation roughly happened in my mind around the time I began to seriously retreat inward from the world, but I’m not sure if the two things are related or if this is mere coincidence.

Then I read this book, and I read about Pessoa and his heteronyms, and the whole subject was dredged back up from the recesses of my buried insecurities. The parallel is just so clear to me. Pessoa, I believe, must have come to a similar dilemma as I did at some point, even if he wouldn’t have expressed it as I did, and he developed a much more thorough response than I. See, it’s not enough to simply retreat from the world. Those differing constituents of personality — some superficial: interests, or tastes; others deeper than that: disposition, or humour — are still present even if not being drawn out by the presence of others. Therefore, they continue to obscure your true self even when you are alone. So, if you wish to know yourself, you need to exorcise them.

How does one go about such a thing, how does one take only a portion of a personality and set it free? It can’t survive on it’s own. The only option is to take it, and build that fraction a whole. To craft an entire personality for it, and let it go. So he kept doing that, and it’s not an easy process so in some cases he would spend years on a certain one. Chipping away the excess surrounding his soul like an archaeological find. I think these were the heteronyms. One stands out from all the others however, Soares, the one he was never able to complete. There’s a quote from Pessoa himself where he describes Soares as the heteronym most like himself, I think the specific wording was (as close as you can get to it in translation) “he is a merely a mutilated version of myself”.

I think it might be the other way around, I think Pessoa might have mutilated himself, his real truest self, in writing Soares. That in trying to cut off the closest clinging remnants of who he was not, he accidentally carved off some of who he was. There are a few moments that are so heartfelt, like nothing I’ve ever read before, that make me think this. And more than this there are a few times where the lives of the two men completely fuse back together, for example when Soares talks about two books he would read every night before going to sleep, Rhetoric by Father Figueiredo and Reflections on the Portuguese Language by Father Freire; a well worn copy of each of which were found in Pessoa’s apartment after his death.

I’m not sure if he realised, if he was actually fully aware that he was sacrificing a piece of his true self to give to the book, or not. I think it’s possible, I think he may have cut this piece unwittingly in his younger days in the forming of Vicente Guedes, hence why he folded what was written under that name into the new character of Soares. With the later work on The Book of Disquiet, with Soares, he may have been more aware. Knowing that he was developing a book with true soul, and thereby achieving a kind of immortality, as well as getting closer to that goal of self understanding than anyone else ever has. The book certainly feels like it has a spirit of it’s own, something I’ve never felt from another book before, I really recommend it. Thanks for reading.

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