Strange Music Of Silence: Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet

Reviewed by John Biscello

“I am me again, exactly as I am not.” — Bernardo Soares, a.k.a. Fernando Pessoa

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“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” — Dante

If the Portugese writer, Fernando Pessoa, would not have existed, he would have created himself, if only to negate and deconstruct the existence of a writer named Fernando Pessoa. As an invisible spokesperson for identity crisis, and forger of multiplicities, Pessoa had up to 136 alter-egos, what he called his “heteronyms,” about which he said, “They are beings with a sort-of-life-of-their-own, with feelings I do not have, and opinions I do not accept. While their writings are not mine, they do also happen to be mine.” These heteronyms existed in a Pessoa-spawned universe in which their lives sometimes overlapped, i.e., the criticism and translation of one-another’s work, and it wasn’t until 1982 that the bible of that universe, The Book of Disquiet, was first published. Originating as a fragmentary series of impressions, speculations, reveries, distillations and dream-speak, Pessoa’s unending work-in-progress was unified into the book he one day hoped it would become…forty-seven years after his death. Which makes a passage like this one all the more achingly poignant: “I sometimes think with sad pleasure that if, one day in a future to which I will not belong, these sentences I write should meet with praise, I will at last have found people who ‘understand’ me, my own people, a real family to be born into and to be loved by. But far from being born into that family, I will have been long dead by then. I will be understood only in effigy, and then affection can no longer compensate the dead person for the lack of love he felt when alive.”

Life is an experimental journey undertaken involuntarily. It is a journey of the spirit through the material world and, since it is the spirit that travels, it is in the spirit that it is experienced — Fernando Pessoa

The new edition of The Book of Disquiet, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, presents the complete texts of the two heteronyms — Vicente Guedes and Bernardo Soares — ordered separately, and covering two different periods in Pessoa’s life.

Abandon hope all ye who enter here, might be the most fitting sign and qualifier preceding entry into the world of Disquiet. And yet, paradoxically, there is beauty, staggering, asphyxiating beauty, and seductively sonorous rhythms which transform Pessoa’s “autobiography of a man who never existed” into a spiritual blood-let of kaleidoscopic rupture. As the estranged kissing cousin to the French symbolists and the Romantics, Pessoa revels in metaphor, syntax and synesthesia, losing himself with the solitary joy of a lonely child whose favorite plaything is Language. He writes, “Some metaphors are more real than people you see walking down the street. Some images one finds in books are more vividly alive than many men and women. Some literary phrases have an absolutely human individuality. Parts of certain paragraphs of mine send a shudder of fear through me, because they feel so like people, clearly silhouetted against the walls of my room, the night, the darkness…”

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Fernando Pessoa

Stating that his book is “a single state of soul, analyzed from every angle, traversed in every possible direction,” Pessoa’s masterwork of internal mania functions on multiple levels. It is a religious tract (“Where is God, even if he doesn’t exist? I want to pray and weep, to repent of crimes I did not commit, to enjoy being forgiven as if it were a not-quite-maternal caress.”), a book of aphorisms (“I have never had convictions. I have always had impressions.”), a dating guide for narcissists (“We never love anyone. We love only our idea of what someone is like. We love an idea of our own; … it is ourselves that we love.”), political op-ed (“Revolutionaries and reformers all make the same mistake. Lacking the power to master and reform their own attitude towards life, which is everything, or their own being, which is almost everything, they escape into wanting to change others and the external world.”), metaphysical travel guide (“Life is an experimental journey undertaken involuntarily. It is a journey of the spirit through the material world and, since it is the spirit that travels, it is in the spirit that it is experienced”), advice column for existential slackers (“Postpone everything. Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow. You don’t have to do anything, tomorrow or today.”), and dirge (“But sometimes I’m different and I weep real tears, hot tears, the tears of those who do not have or never had a mother; and my eyes, burning with those dead tears, burn too inside my heart.”). Disquiet could also be read as a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of getting lost in the labyrinthine ravels of a claustrophobic interior. If the life unexamined is not worth living, the inner-life, relentlessly examined, from myriad angles, harbors its own set of losses and small deaths.

To read more of this review, go to Riot Material Magazine:

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