Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Book of Disquiet

The Book of Disquiet - Fernando Pessoa

Like a miniaturist drawing the most intricate maps of the universe Pessoa uses a tiny canvas to open huge vistas. The trains of thought seem to circle in on themselves but then you suddenly realise he has just been erasing all your preconceptions in preparation for a startlingly original phrase or idea. I didn't find this an easy read and found myself re reading far more than usual but I also found it rewarding. At once strange and familiar, Pessoa's world is one of paradoxes, both apparent and real.

The book was written over a number of years and assembled after Pessoa's death. It is an arrangement of some of the writings he left behind. There are pointers within the text to show that Pessoa had envisaged posthumous readers and didn't intend a direct narrative of any kind. "Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life." These are "the pages which, when put together, will make up my book of random impressions."

There are characters in this but they are more like furniture than real people. They never emerge from the background. The narrator has the identity Bernardo Soares, one of the many heteronyms* that Pessoa invented, and considered to be the closest to Pessoa himself. He is a lowly clerk who uses his routine life as a launching pad for philosophical reveries. And it is a heightened state of speculation that is sought out, not answers - "The moment I find myself, I am lost; if I believe, I doubt; I grasp hold of something but hold nothing in my hand..."

Soares sees the human condition against the physical framework of the universe and the temporal framework of eternity. On such a stage the whole human experience can seem a trifling thing, let alone the thoughts and actions of a single man.  "I know that I was never anything but error and mistake, that I never lived, that I existed only in the sense that I filled up time with consciousness and thought." Although phrases like the above can seem nihilistic, there is a deep engagement with the pleasures of thought that means that this is far from being a depressing read.

At times it is as if Pessoa is writing a new mythos of the world - "we who are as much the vegetables of truth as we are of life, the dust that covers the windowpanes both inside and out, the grandchildren of Destiny and the stepchildren of God, who married Eternal Night when he was left a widow by Chaos, our true father." At other times he says we must scrupulously avoid myths as they will blind us to truly seeing and being of the world. "Civilization consists in giving an inappropriate name to something and then dreaming what results from that."

As if building and deconstructing the idea of a metaphor he picks an old man walking in the rain and speculates on what he means, ending on the sublime phrase "He belonged to the rain itself - an unconscious being, so unconscious that he could feel reality." But this is not the end, he says that this is not what he meant to say, and not the essence of the man. His final line in this piece is "One can see only what one has already seen." What are insights but illusions.

What we are is always a part of what we think. Soares' very anonymity, he feels, may allow him to see more, as less time and space is taken up with his image of his self and the projection of that into the wider world. But the very whisper of life itself will always distort our perception. "In everything we judge to be a noise there is always another noise heralding the end of everything, the wind in the dark and, if I listen harder, the sound of my own lungs and heart."

At times there are moments that seem to wander a little. The following piece reminded me of Shakespeare's original draft of the Hamlet soliloquy, before Blackadder's inspired editing (see above).   "To cease, to sleep, to replace this intermittent consciousness with better, more melancholy things uttered in secret to a stranger! ...To cease, to flow, fluid as a river, as the ebb and flow of a vast sea along coasts seen in a night in which one could really sleep! ..... To cease, to be unknown and external, the stirring of branches in remote avenues, the tenuous falling of leaves that one senses without hearing them fall..."

Soares queries his life, wondering if change in his circumstances would change his life but doesn't feel that they would. Fame would only impact on his freedom and anonymity whereas time spent in the quiet of the countryside only shows him how that would not be as satisfying as it seemed in his thoughts.  "How often, though, have my eyes longed for this peace from which now, were it easy or polite, I would flee! How often , down there amongst the narrow streets of tall houses, have I thought I believed that peace, prose and certainty could be found here, amongst natural things, rather than where the tablecloth of civilization makes one forget the varnished pine it rests on! And now, here, feeling healthy and healthily tired, I am ill at ease, trapped and homesick."

Indeed, he is often of the opinion that all human achievement, from success to travel, can be experienced in the intellect, through the imagination, and that having to actually DO things is a sign os weakness of these sensibilities. "Only extreme feebleness of imagination can justify anyone needing to travel in order to feel."

Indulgence in thought is not simply an ascetic experience for him. even when leading him down paths which appear to hold little joy: ("Tedium is not a sickness brought on by the boredom of having nothing to do but the worse sickness of feeling that nothing is worth doing."; "Living seems to me a metaphysical mistake on the part of matter, an oversight on the part of inaction."; "One man reads in order to know, all in vain. Another enjoys himself in order to live, again all in vain.") There is a sensual joy in the process of thought and expression, which the renunciation of other joys makes all the more intense: "There are more subtle martyrdoms than those recorded among saints and hermits. There are torments of the intellect just as there are of the body and desire. And as in other torments, these contain their own voluptuousness."

This book, like much else by Pessoa, was unpublished until long after Pessoa's death. Indeed, so perfectly realised is Soares that it is seductive to think of Pessoa as a twentieth century Emily Dickinson but he was in fact a significant writer in his lifetime but his use of many heteronyms and incessant writing meant that only a small proportion of his output was published in his lifetime. In The Book of Disquiet he describes his motivation to write thus: "I write, or rather scribble, these lines not in order to say anything in particular but to give my distraction something to do."

Perhaps it was important that the work of Soares not be published as that was not part of his biography?  The success he felt he would not achieve ("Success means being successful, not just having the potential for success.") was to post date him.   The heteronym obscures the actual man who wrote this book.

He reminds us that there is no end to what man can experience, even in straitened circumstances, and that every 'answer' is only an answer within the limited scope of our understanding: "what is classifiable is infinite and therefore unclassifiable." The infinite seems a fitting end point for these scattered thoughts ion this book of scattered thoughts. This is almost like writing about an encyclopedia, and this book will be put somewhere that I can dip into in the future. This may well be the best way to use this book, to inspire ones own trains of thought, ones own speculations.

One last thought. I sometimes wondered if Soares / Pessoa had Asperger's Syndrome. The following phrase struck me as potentially one of the most striking descriptions of what Asperger's seems to imply -  "most people think with their feelings whereas I feel with my thoughts."

*Heteronyms are fully realised 'authors' who were the voices for most of Pessoa's work, with each Heteronym often interacting with others. In this way Soares quotes from many writers including other of Pessoa's heteronyms. 


  1. Regarding your last paragraph, Pessoa wrote in a letter: "My semi-heteronym, Bernardo Soares, who by the way is similar in many ways to Álvaro de Campos, always shows up when I'm tired or sleepy and that's why reasoning and inhibition are as if suspended in him; his prose is a constant reverie. He is a semi-heteronym because his personality is not different from mine but a mutilation of the it. He is me minus my reasoning and affection."

  2. Thanks, Claudia - illuminating quote. I like his use of 'mutilation'. I wasn't aware that the phrase "semi-heteronym" was Pessoa's own.
    Is there another book by Pessoa that you would recommend?

  3. He wrote unfinished crime stories which I love. I mean, I love the idea that what he wanted most in his life was to write successful whodunnits, started full of steam and ideas but probably didnt have the type of analytical mind capable of giving them a proper ending. I guess the word is pathos. I'm not sure what's been translated though...