Fernando Pessoa is the ideal poet for an era obsessed with identities

Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese modernist who in many ways is the perfect poet for our identity-obsessed age, was at least four poets in one. His best verses, as well as much of his prose, appeared to the world signed by the pastoral Alberto Caeiro, the classicist Ricardo Reis and the cosmopolitan Álvaro de Campos, in addition to Pessoa himself, progenitor of this powerful triad he called “heteronomy”. Too complex to be called just aliases, too individual in their preferences, temperaments, philosophies, and bursts of genius, these were the triumvirate among the more than 90 literary alter egos that Pessoa invented in life, many of which were only discovered after his death. “Be plural like the Universe!”, Pessoa said to himself. Walt Whitman—one of his biggest influences—perhaps contained crowds, but Pessoa dispersed this cornucopia of personalities around the world, where they developed personal convictions, obsessions, and psychological tendencies of their own. The heteronomists fought among themselves in writing and sometimes even fought with Pessoa himself.

Pessoa’s unstable identity reflected the confusion of his time and also the problems he had faced in his youth . He was born in 1888, in Lisbon, capital of a decadent power, ruled by the same dynasty since 1640. Even for leftists, colonialism was a source of pride. Portugal’s economy depended on the wealth of Brazil and the monarchy, when Pessoa was born, claimed for itself the ownership of large territories sparsely occupied and poorly managed throughout the African continent, from what is now Angola, in the west, to Mozambique, in the east. It was a decaying empire. The glory days that Luís de Camões (the national poet that Pessoa intended to overcome) portrayed in his epic “Os Lusíadas” were a thing of the past.

When he died, in 1935, Pessoa had lived through a dictatorship, a republican revolution, the end of the Portuguese monarchy, the First World War and the first years of the Salazar regime. Despite writing extensively on imperialism, decadence and other cultural topics, he remained allergic to the “vocabulary of social responsibility”. Even his closest friends had trouble identifying his views. As the critic Harold Bloom said, “you can only read Pessoa as a political poet if you are sure that it all comes down to politics, including the ‘good morning’”. But he was not oblivious to the world around him. Three of his most important heteronomies emerged in 1914, the year of the outbreak of the First World War, as if emerging from the cracks of a fragmented way of life. More than his contemporaries, Pessoa personalized the confusion of his time. Each event provoked an interior seismic change, as Ricardo Reis tells us — “the Greek Horace who writes in Portuguese”, according to the person himself:

Temo, Lídia, o Destino . Nothing is certain.

At any time it can happen to us

Whatever changes us everything .

Brilliant, agitated and sometimes depressed and sometimes excited, Pessoa thought twice about everything – and three and four times as well. After dropping out of university, he borrowed money from friends and relatives, redeemed titles from his mother and stepfather, and supported himself by writing letters in French and English to Portuguese businessmen. At the same time, he was involved in several literary projects and wild business projects, most of which never got off the ground. The life he led in Lisbon was hectic, with his rounds of literary cafes, but on the whole without major upheavals. He claimed to suffer from “mild sexual inversion”, never married and probably died a virgin. Pessoa was not interested in men or women, but in language, and he was passionate about their creative powers. Infinitely fruitful, at times he seemed an observer of himself, “the meeting point of a small humanity that belongs only to me”.

They, Pessoa’s invented personalities, belong to the world now. In the dramatis personae that begins the enormous biography of the poet written by Richard Zenith, we are delighted to learn that “Ricardo Reis migrated to Brazil in 1919 and was still living in South America, perhaps in Peru, when Pessoa died, in 2021 ”—the heteronomy outlived its creator. Pessoa’s first biographer, the Portuguese writer João Gaspar Simões, believed that the exotic character of heteronomy would lose strength – but in fact time only strengthened them. The poet’s personality split has become the ultimate allegory for the obsessive way many of us invent virtual personalities, personal brands, and public lives. Pessoa’s inventions, escaped from prison in the huge wooden chest he left behind with more than 000 a thousand texts undoubtedly survived him.

But for every “complete soul” and perfect text that Pessoa created there are dozens of fragmented works and pseudo-authors that exist in no more than in name. These loose pieces – “rubble from a kind of literary Pompeii”, as Zenith puts it – remind me of Rodin’s hands on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: brimming with genius but incomplete. The prose work of People is a tomb of fragments. In November 1914, Pessoa told a friend: “my emotional state drives me to work hard, against my will, on the Book of Disquiet. But everything is just pieces, pieces, pieces.” Like his contemporary TS Eliot, Pessoa spent his life accumulating fragments, even if these fragments are not signs of ruin.

Son of a reading and romantic mother and a father who had his moments of glory as a musician and theater critic while slowly dying of tuberculosis, Pessoa became a sensitive and withdrawn but independent child. Words were his toys, even though he “liked the feeling of not understanding anything,” as he later wrote. One of the things that he perhaps suffered to understand in those first years in Lisbon was the presence of his paternal mother, a kind of semi-ideally Dionysia. Given to fits of madness, like her namesake Greek goddess, Dionysia gave the creator of so many alternate personalities proof that “multiple personalities can merge into a single human being.”

five years, People faced the death, six months apart, of his father and younger brother, Jorge. So he was a delighted observer of his mother’s change from the pain of grief to dizzying happiness. Days after losing her son, she met a charming Portuguese Navy captain: the attraction was immediate and they were married soon after. Here is another lesson for Pessoa. “Pain doesn’t last because pain doesn’t last”, tells us the heteronomous Álvaro de Campos in a poem about a recently bereaved mother. The mother who loses her child is a recurring character in Pessoa’s mature texts, along with the awareness of how quickly the pain of loss disappears.

In Pessoa’s childhood imagination, reality becomes increasingly unstable: fantasies supplant the concrete world. Protected by an uncle with a certain weakness for lying, the poet-to-be began to populate his solitude with fictitious individuals – at least two of whom, Captain Thibeaut and the Chevalier de Pas, he said throughout his life had been real and ” explored to the depths of their souls.” This habit of daydreaming only deepened in adolescence. The lonely boy’s desire to surround himself “by friends and acquaintances that do not exist” foresaw the inventiveness of a literary career in which he could conduct interviews with himself, the heteronomies provoking each other. Years later, Pessoa would play with his own notion of individuality in the same way that he played with his imaginary friends.

The chameleon boy started life again with his mother in Durban, Africa do Sul, where her new husband took over as Portuguese consul. The largest city in the British colony of Natal, Durban had efficient public transport, a public library, botanical garden, literary societies and other signs of civilization, including a religious school in which Pessoa was immediately enrolled. Compelled to start primary from scratch, and in a new language, he completed his five years in three, receiving First Prize in English and Latin, as well as being awarded for his academic excellence. In high school, he devoured the prose of Thomas Carlyle and wrote verse emulating Milton and the English Romantics. Pessoa returned to Lisbon in 1906, but having been exposed to Anglo-American literature was decisive for him.

The most important influence was Whitman. The American poet, according to Zenith, taught Pessoa “to open up, to feel everything, to be everything, and to sing”. The experience of reading “Canção de Mim Even” allowed the emergence, on March 8, 1914, of his first real heteronomy, a poet pastoral, but without sentimentality, called Alberto Caeiro:

I am a keeper of flocks,

The flock is the my thoughts

And my thoughts are all sensations.

I think with my eyes and with my the ears

And with the hands and feet

And with the nose and mouth .

A flurry of poems blew from Pessoa’s pen, who used this incredibly new voice. Explicitly uneducated, Caeiro was still a keen observer. It was as if he had discovered the antidote to his exacerbated intellectualism.

As, however, noted by Thomas Merton, Caeiro’s first translator into English, these poems had something of a retreat, of shyness. As if the inhabited world in which the poet declares himself an “argonaut of true sensations” was not the everyday world, but some kind of solar plateau where things were bathed in precise light, casting shadows over the eyes. Caeiro is more cerebral than Whitman, who also pored over the material world and refused to offer definitive answers:

A child said “What is grass?” holding out his hands to me

How could the child respond? I have the same doubts as her.

Pesso dreamed of becoming an English poet. He wrote dozens of sonnets, publishing 35 of them in a booklet he sent to the Poetic Society of London. The poems were ignored. He used to attribute his works in English to one of his personalities. The most incredible thing is that, in Portuguese, Pessoa means “person”. Realizing this coincidence, he played with the names of his English alter egos too, each with their own characteristics and collections.

The first was Charles Robert Anon, who published a poem in a Durban newspaper at 1640. Around 1905 he was replaced by Alexander Search, who claimed to have authored over a hundred poems, a short story and several essays. Zenith says that Search is “a Platonic or transcendent version of Pessoa” – a Shelleyian idealist in search of truth and with a head full of Enlightenment philosophies and humanism. In other words, the most spiritual and metaphysical issues expressed in English were those of the alter ego named A. Search . Years later, Caeiro, again as if reacting to his creator’s tendency, said that this search made no sense:

Things have no meaning: they have existence.

Things are the only hidden meaning of things.

Zenith’s biography soars whenever it makes us dive into the imagination of Pessoa and loses strength when it turns to the political and sociological side. The part of Durban disappoints in the passages about the living conditions of Africans and Indian immigrants in Natal, and also when it speaks of the “racist division of labor” of which the poet’s family was a part. The name index brings two mentions of “blackface” [ato de pintar o rosto de preto]. Zenith’s book was published in 2021 and it is perhaps inevitable that some of her 1640 pages (not including the prologue and endnotes) are devoted to accusing Person of racism and misogyny whenever possible – although Zenith, in the role of both judge and jury, would be merciful enough to recognize that such attitudes, never fundamental in Pessoa’s genius work, have “shallow roots”, without ever establishing themselves or gain proportion. In promising a portrait of a man, a biographer can be forgiven for describing to us the superficial garments as clues to what is essential beneath them. It is a very different thing to spend thousands of words talking about the social origin of the biographer’s tailor or about the work practices on the looms that produced the fabrics used in the making of these costumes.

The central personality it is in other things, and Pessoa’s best transcends politics. Still, Zenith devotes an entire chapter to Gandhi, under the pretext that the Indian leader worked as a lawyer and civil rights activist in Durban while Pessoa was a student in elementary school. Yes, it is true that Pessoa admired Gandhi throughout his life — mainly for his ascetic lifestyle — But Zenith doesn’t stop there. He ends the argument that the British treated Indians as second-class citizens in this way: “All this, for Pessoa, the stepson of a European diplomat, seemed the natural order of things”. It is really rare for a biographer to feel compelled to portray an artist as an eight-year-old boy representing white supremacy.

“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a reformer,” he writes. Pessoa in the “Livro do Desassossego”, defining this type as “the man who sees the superficial ills of the world and starts to cure them by aggravating simpler ills”. Call him a reactionary if you like; the search for a social program in his work is a search in vain. A Catholic by birth, he was a cult-exploring spirit seeker, obsessed with astrology, and, on the whole, a skeptic — part of a generation that “inherited the disbelief in Christianity and created in itself the disbelief of all other faiths.” , which supposedly includes most of the secular dogmas with which the current press and university catechize the faithful. In one of Pessoa’s poems in English, he places God “between our silence and speech, between/us and our unconsciousness”. Religious curiosity and metaphysical concerns often appear in his work, attributed to a heteronomy or not. Even Caeiro, whom Pessoa called “an atheist Saint Francis of Assisi” and who denies any reality beyond material things, invokes God – if only to say that the divinity is wrong:

To think about God is to disobey God,

Because God wanted us not to know him,

That’s why if you didn’t show us…

Let’s be simple and calm,

Like streams and trees,

Religion, for Pessoa, was an illusion without which “we live dreaming, and dreams are the illusion of those who have no illusions” . His dreams were, first and foremost, about self-invention, self-division, the multiplication of personalities. His inability to believe in the Trinity God seems somehow connected to the creation of new characters. Álvaro de Campos leaves intellectual uncertainty aside and says he wants to be someone else:

I have different beliefs every day

Sometimes on the same day I have different beliefs

And I would like to be the child that crosses me now

The view from the window below —

Likewise, Pessoa’s “marginality” drives him to invent his own society. In his play “O Marinheiro”, the character talks about a castaway who, because he suffers too much when remembering his previous life, invents an imagined past and a fictional homeland with people, geography and invented historical events that, little by little, replace the memories his real ones. In “O Livro do Desassossego”, Pessoa yearns to create in himself a nation with its own politics, parties and revolutions, in order to be everything, to be God in the real pantheism of these people – to be the substance and movement of their bodies and souls. , from the ground they tread and the acts they perform.

The infinite expansion and exaltation of being, so that he exists as both a god and a demon, giving rise to a self-centered kingdom of Paradise on earth, though that nation – with its “festivities and revolutions” – was fragmented and confused. Among friends, Pessoa likes “to ardently defend an idea one day to attack it the next, always with equally rational arguments,” writes Zenith. Although the most romantic modernists sought an “unfragmented language”, as the American poet Hart Crane said) with which to express the inexpressible, the Pessoan language was infinitely fragmented, full of tricks and evasions, rich in philosophies and ideas. that he developed until the end of the poem and sometimes without going any further. Instead of trying to integrate his disparate motivations into a single being, he emphasized contradictions. He created new personalities as if by parthenogenesis, giving them independent lives.

Among these personalities was the “semi-heteronomy” Bernardo Soares, supposed author of the masterpiece of Pessoa’s prose , “The Book of Disquiet”. This “factless autobiography”, as Pessoa/Soares refers to it, was first published in 1982 (47 years after Pessoa’s death), and subsequent editions expanded and reordered her content. So there are many disagreements between editors and scholars. Scattered leaves that start at 1905 and consist of irregularly dated and compounded entries along plus or minus years, some excerpts handwritten, others typewritten, with no identifiable order or plan, still “The Book of Disquiet” it’s an impressive discovery. Few posthumous works have provoked such an intense reassessment of the author’s previous work.

“I make landscapes with what I feel”, writes Soares. “The Book of Disquiet” makes the reader come across the life of another man lost in the dark forest of his interiority. But whose exactly is this interiority? The book’s heteronomous authorship has changed over time; Anyway, Pessoa attributed it to Soares, an administrative assistant who lives in a boarding house on Rua dos Douradores, writing when he can. Soares defends inaction, lives in imagination and, here and there, sees his Portuguese compatriots as “a strange tide of living things that do not concern me”. Less individualized than Caeiro, Reis and Álvaro de Campos, Soares is something of a clone of Pessoa, endowed with his irony but not his humor. This semi-fictional diary is a kind of library in utero; many of its 100 passages sound like ideas for unwritten books, excerpts that a more combative writer would have used to launch entire campaigns.

Written over a lifetime, “O Livro do Desassossego” displays various styles and genres, from dream scenes to prose poems, through confessions and cultural observations. , sociological analyzes and aphorisms worthy of a Kafka. Even if you are not passive and dreamy like Soares, you understand when he says that “he is suffering from a migraine and the universe”. Paradise, for Soares, is an eternal paralysis, everything immobile: a world in which “the same moment of sunset paints the hills”, a life that seems “an eternal view from the window” – because, even in Paradise, he imagines himself an alienated and a detached observer of the scene. “The Book of Disquiet never ceases to be an experiment in how self-sufficient a man can be psychologically and affectively, living only in his dreams and imagination,” writes Zenith. “It was an extreme, manic version of Pessoa’s essentially imaginary way of living life.”

It was probably a defense mechanism. In the fantasy world the mother does not suddenly throw herself into another man’s arms and little brothers do not die. Soares is filled with boredom, but boredom is a low price to pay. “The fictions of my imagination (…) may wear me out, but they don’t hurt or humiliate me,” he says. “They never leave me, they don’t die or disappear.”

The 21st century United States, with its cult of action and positive thinking, would hardly know what to make of a Soares dreamy and inert, even more so given that the narcissistic sublime (or a degraded copy) have become our dominant culture. Furthermore, at a time when some individuals claim to be incapable of sticking to a single gender, let alone any other unambiguous identity, we are prepared to accept what Zenith calls Pessoa’s “poetics of fragmented individuality.” There are moments in “O Livro do Desassossego” in which Pessoa breaks the authorial mask, if only to affirm the mask of all life: “To create, I destroy myself. I’ve externalized myself so much inside that I don’t exist there except externally. I am the empty stage where various actors stage various plays”. The triumph of his heteronymic enterprise is like the one desired by those who today practice “manifesting”: the triumph of an idea transcended in life.

The Pessoa spirit – albeit without its genius – is alive and well. It lives on in Reddit forums, Twitch chats, Twitter feeds, and other networks where anonymity or pseudonymity is common and where even those chosen by blue seals that use real names wear a mask. The “I”, before singular, is divided or becomes heteronym. Online spaces are noisy with the characters we awaken.

I know this from experience. In the summer of 2021, I delved into the world of non-fungible tokens (NFT) – digital items that are demonstrably unique and whose ownership can be publicly verified by a blockchain. NFTs represent a new frontier of art, collectibles, games and pop culture. In this world, not even Some of the biggest artists and collectors use their real names. Instead of self-portraits, they use avatars as visual identities. In this scene, “anon” – Pessoa’s first major English heteronym – is a common way of addressing a fellow countryman whose real-world identity you may never know.

To participate of this world, I needed a character. So I created a Twitter account, registered domains that matched it, and launched my alter ego into that claustrophobic environment. More gregarious than usual, it was easy for me to make friends and bond using this guise. The real me as it was (Whitman shades again) took a back seat. And it worked: in three months, I gained 1.000 followers and the reputation of serious collector. We are what we dream of being, says Pessoa. Through his eyes, I came to see the Internet as a place where heteronyms abound that cast great shadows and create their own legends. From Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto to master conspirator Q, these identities shape the lives of millions.

Who, then, is the real Pessoa? A dream no one dreamed, he sometimes reflected—in the same way that Borges imagined Shakespeare in ‘Fictions’. One of Pessoa’s strongest poems, “Tobacaria”, begins like this:

I am nothing.

Never I will be nothing.

I cannot want to be nothing.

Apart from that, I have in me all the dreams in the world.

In Borges’ story, Shakespeare is at the end of his life and, having “been so many men in vain”, asks God to finally give him an identity to call yours. In the midst of a whirlwind, the voice of the Lord answers: “Neither am I anyone; I dreamed the world as you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms of My dream is you, who, like me, are many and no one.”

Wanting to be everyone and fearing that he was nobody, in his moments of fury Pessoa came into contact with the unshakable core of his kaleidoscope of selves. Refusing to suppress or falsify his inner conflicts, he displayed a kind of radical authenticity. “Even if what we pretend to be (because we coexist with others) crumbles around us, we must remain fearless,” he writes, exhorting readers in “The Book of Disquiet,” because “it is ourselves, we are er ourselves means having nothing to do with external things that fall apart, even if they fall apart on top of what we are for them.”

Almost years after his death, the best of the poetry and prose of this inveterate pretender is far from crumbling.

Brian Patrick Eha is a writer and lives in New York.

©2022 City Journal. Published with permission. Original in English
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