Book review of The Book of Disquiet (Serpent’s Tail Classics) by Fernando Pessoa.
I was set up with Pessoa by a couple of commenters who introduced him to me.
I fell in love with him the way a girl falls in love with a boy: first I was indignant with him for pulling my pigtails and teasing me about my braces and generally being so infuriating! Then I noticed that I was thinking about him all the time. Finally I came to understand how he ticks, what he’s all about, and I was in deep.
The pigtail-pulling is his insufferable weakness, laziness, incessant daydreaming, and inability to seek solutions to his problems:
My sensitivity to all things new is a constant affliction to me; I only feel safe in places I have been in before.
Unlike the spotty girl, my annoyance is increased by the fact that I happen to share his faults almost precisely. I hate going to new places! I always want to go where I’ve been before. I even stay in the same hotels if I can manage it.
And so I drag myself along, doing things I don’t want to do and dreaming of what I cannot have [. . .] as pointless as a public clock that’s stopped.
By day I am nothing, by night I am myself.
My isolation is not a search for happiness, which I do not have the heart to win, nor for peace, which one finds only when it will never more be lost; what I seek is sleep, extinction, a small surrender.
He sees a man selling bright yellow bananas and imagines a time when someone will be selling bananas here but he will no longer be alive to see them. And then . . .
I could easily consecrate this moment by buying some bananas . . . but I feel ashamed of rituals and symbols, of buying things in the street. They might not wrap the bananas properly, they might not sell them to me as they should be sold because I do not know how to buy them as they should be bought. My voice might sound odd when I ask the price. Far better to write than dare to live, even if living means no more than buying bananas in the sunshine . . .
Later, perhaps . . . Yes, later . . . Another, perhaps . . . I don’t know . . .
It’s as though he’s been sitting in my head and taking notes.
But then I looked into who he was and what it was all about, and my attitude began to shift.
Pessoa wrote under the names of many invented characters, and this one is Bernardo Soares the bookkeeper. He represents the dreamer and passive non-actor of Pessoa’s soul, and when he lets him loose, this is what comes out. These are not necessarily the considered thoughts of Pessoa himself.
To his eternal credit, it seems Pessoa might not have intended these writings to be published. They were found, messily handwritten and unsorted, among his things after he drank himself to death. There are different editions that put them together in different ways.
Now ready to forgive Pessoa and take this work less seriously, I began to enjoy the book far more. The eccentric faults we share seem less awful and perhaps even charming, in their own way:
How good to be all alone! To be able to talk out loud to ourselves, to walk about with nobody’s eyes on us, to lean back and daydream with no interruptions! Every house becomes a meadow, every room takes on the amplitude of a country villa.
Sad, in my quiet room, alone as I have always been and as I always will be, I sit writing.
When Pessoa becomes philosophical his writing, as with any good existentialist, lacks firm meaning but becomes strangely beautiful:
And then there comes over me an absurd and irresistible desire, a kind of satanism predating Satan, that one day – a day outside of all time and matter – we might find a way of fleeing beyond God in order that whatever constitutes the deepest part of us might cease entirely (though how I don’t know) to participate in either being or non-being.
We are all accustomed to think of ourselves as essentially mental realities and of others as merely physical realities . . . only when we find ourselves in love or conflict with another do we really take in the fact that others have a soul just as we do.
Having now got to know Pessoa (as well as he can be known), I become more willing to consider, appreciate, and perhaps even acknowledge as my own, his peculiar perspectives:
I consider myself fortunate no longer to have any relatives, for I am thus free of the obligation, which would inevitably weigh on me, of having to love someone.
How wearisome it is to be loved, to be truly loved! How wearisome to be the object of someone else’s bundle of emotions! To be changed from someone who wanted to be free, always free, into an errand boy with a responsibility to reciprocate those emotions, to have the decency not to run away, so that the other person will not think one is acting with princely disdain and rejecting the greatest give the human soul can offer. How wearisome to let one’s existence become something absolutely dependent on someone else’s feelings; to have no option but to feel, to love a little too, whether or not it is reciprocated.
Finally, I grasped what I’d missed before: Pessoa is here writing a kind of poetry in prose. There might be meaning, if you go looking for it, but beauty is the forefront. Why bother with what it’s all about? It’s like opening up a kitten to figure out how it works. The imagery ought to be enough.
Something in me pleads eternally for compassion, and weeps over itself as over a dead god stripped of all his altars, when the pale coming of the barbarians dawned at the frontiers and life came to call the empire to account, to ask what it had done with happiness.
Weary, I close the shutters on my windows; I exclude the world and for a moment I am free. Tomorrow I will return to being a slave; but now, alone, not needing anyone, fearful lest some voice or presence should disturb me, I have my own small freedom, my moment of exaltation.
In dreaming one does not rest one’s gaze equally on the important and unimportant aspects of a real object. The dreamer sees only the important part. The true reality of an object lies only in a part of it; the rest is the heavy tribute it pays to the material world in exchange for its existence in space.
The whole world is confused, like voices in the night.
We live out the brief time the gods give us to enjoy ourselves happily or unhappily (or ignorant of quite what our feelings are), like children playing earnest games.”
For me life in an inn where I must stay until the carriage from the abyss calls to collect me. I don’t know where that carriage will take me because I know nothing . . . I sit at the door and fill my eyes and ear with the colours and sounds of the landscape and slowly, just for myself, I song vague songs that I compose while I wait.
Night will fall on all of us and the carriage will arrive. I enjoy the breeze given to me and the soul given to me to enjoy it and I ask no more questions, look no further. If what I leave written in the visitors’ book is one day read by others and entertains them on their journey, that’s fine. If no one reads it or is entertained by it, that’s fine too.
It entertained me.
Meanwhile, it’s time Pessoa and I took things to the next level. What else of his should I read?