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The Mouse That Roared

<i> Lindsay Waters is executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press</i>

Fernando Pessoa is probably the greatest 20th century writer you have never heard of. That was OK by him, because being famous among one’s contemporaries is a sign that one’s work is not designed to withstand the ravages of time. “How can an age understand or appreciate what is, by definition, above it?” he wrote. Although you may not have heard of Pessoa until now, he is becoming the center of a cultural industry. A veritable mouse by choice, as Kafka was, he is being turned into a literary lion. Wim Wenders’ recent film “Lisbon” had a main character, a German filmmaker, who is obsessed with Pessoa. Pessoa tourism is promoted in “Lisbon” the way Kafka tourism is in Prague and Elvis tourism in Memphis. A virtual unknown in the English-speaking world, Pessoa was the surprise winner of an award for lifetime achievement in Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages,” guaranteeing his star status.

Before Pessoa went nova, he wanted to burn a few messages into our souls, not be turned into an object of mere aesthetic appreciation. “One last thing afflicts me, tears me apart, destroys my entire soul. It’s that I, at this moment, at this window, before these sad, smooth things, should be an aesthetic figure, beautiful, like a figure in a painting,” he wrote in “The Book of Disquiet.” However, he was exceedingly picturesque in that schlemiel-like way that Kafka and the early Chaplin were attractive. An endless outpouring of drawings and paintings portray his slightly comic figure in the business suit, chosen to be boring, with the wide-brimmed fedora, ambling down the streets of Lisbon or ensconced in a cafe.

Born in 1888, Pessoa lost his father when he was 5, spent his childhood in Durban, South Africa, returning to Lisbon in 1905, where he attended university for a few months, then dropped out and became a translator of business letters, a job he kept for the rest of his life. He was active in literary circles for a time. He became infatuated with a woman or two but never married. One feels the pathos of his life but, as with Chaplin, there was a delirious egotism to him. He was charming and cold. That comes across in his writings. He was a beautifully mannered dreamer whose emotional sensibility mixed the feminine with the masculine and whose egotism speaks to disappointment, churning feelings and failure. He was, like Jorge Luis Borges, in love with the literature of the English language, especially Milton and Whitman. He published almost nothing in his lifetime and made a high-stakes gamble with fortune for literary eternal life by withdrawing from life as his contemporaries led it. He literally put all his eggs in one basket: Having published very little during his life, he left at his death a trunk stuffed with 25,426 manuscripts in complete disarray.

Pessoa died in 1935, and even the Portuguese are still getting to know him: His magnum opus, “The Book of Disquiet,” appeared only in 1982 in Portugal. After putting his eggs in one basket, to make things more difficult or more charming for us, he deprived us of the neatness of shells by cracking them and scrambling the eggs. Instead of leaving us with thousands of manuscripts and one author, he ascribed the manuscripts to a plurality of authors, 72 at last count, among whom there were at least four major players. He bet his entire fame on a potentially suicidal project to become “plural like the universe” and let the future make sense of thehodgepodge of manuscripts this gaggle of poets and writers had left behind.

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There is something very deep going on in Pessoa’s decision to write under various names, but most analysis of Pessoa gets bogged down in trying to explain what the proliferation of “heteronyms” (which he called his various masks) was about and how it worked. It is like trying to identify what was great about the Beatles by endlessly going over which one of them was responsible for what. The only difference: With the Beatles you can work out with some precision what the contribution of each was; in Pessoa’s case, however, the elaborate masks that the heteronyms make are important but frequently distracting.

He created a Shakespearean village of lyric poets. His great fiction is the lives of these poets, available through their explorations of what it means to be a human being. Pessoa would be Shakespeare if all that we had of Shakespeare were the soliloquies of Hamlet, Falstaff, Othello and Lear and the sonnets. His legacy is a set of explorations, in poetic form, of what it means to inhabit a human consciousness.

The editing and translating of Pessoa will go on, but you have in the books under review here all you need to know about why Pessoa is great. He is not a “Great Man of Action,” as he says, but rather a “Great Man of Inaction.” That is what we want in a person of letters. The problem with all of Pessoa’s picturesque qualities is that they might keep us from seeing that he was, as a writer, a man without characteristics, truly centerless. His name in Portuguese means “person,” and his name needs to be understood literally. He is the “degree zero” of humankind.

Writers whose souls encompassed the cosmos were his chosen ancestors--Camoens, Whitman, Emerson, Melville. “The wise man,” Pessoa writes, “makes his life monotonous. The only true distinction one can make is between those who adapt or conform to society and those who do not; the rest is literature and bad literature at that. . . . It is we in the shadows, amongst errand boys and barbers, who constitute humanity.” Pessoa is, essentially, a Bartleby who kept his day job, kept it because it was the best cover he had for his life of covert inaction: “I approach my desk as if it were a bulwark against life.” He wants to fit in at least superficially: “Nothing would make me as indignant as being thought extraordinary by the people in the office. I want to enjoy, by myself, the irony of their not finding me extraordinary.” In a poem called “Advice,” Pessoa writes:

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Put high walls around the part of you that dreams yourself. . . .

Lay flowerbeds like those the others lay

And place them where eyes may spot

Your garden as you plan to show it.

But where you dwell and no one ever looks

Let flowers shoot up freely from the ground

And let the grass grow naturally.

What makes Pessoa’s thought and poetry compelling is not that he picks up and develops the forms and themes of Whitman and Emerson and retransmits our patrimony back to us--though this would be marvelous--but because in the poems and prose he has passed a judgment upon the 20th century rejection of individualism. The 20th century has been the century of corporate man. He asks: What does it mean to be alive? To fit in, to go along--is that living? To let your mind be a parking lot for a fleet of used thoughts and feelings? Is that living? Pessoa has given us a new way. He, “who sang his anthem to Infinity in a chicken coop,” has refashioned an individualism for us that is not selfish and yet is without the posturing of 19th century individualism. He shows us how to dig deep in ourselves and find the infinite there. We don’t need to frantically pursue the trendy. We have had a century of mass bohemianism. He realizes that he himself looks like “an isolated bohemian,” too.

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In the most stunning pages of “The Book of Disquiet,” he gives us a prose poem in how to rebuild your way back into love with the world and other people. The sections of the book called “A Forest of Alienation” and “Our Lady of Silence” are extraordinary, giving us a sense of what love would be like if it was not confused with possession.

The new offering of Pessoa books is indeed welcome. We are in debt to Richard Zenith, who edited and translated the edition of the poems published by the Grove Press. The translation by Edwin Honig and Susan Brown for City Lights, however, is more satisfactory in diction and rhythm. There are now three editions of “The Book of Disquiet” available in English. Each has its virtues, but the new edition of the Alfred Mac Adam translation from Exact Change reads like poetic prose. Because there is not and cannot be a definitive edition of “The Book,” all editions differ in contents. The Mac Adam edition features prominently the sections on love just mentioned. I recommend you buy several editions but buy this one first.

Pessoa’s writings, his poetry and especially “The Book of Disquiet,” deliver a judgment on the 20th century, and he wants the world to take notice. “One day perhaps they will understand that I, like no other, did my life-long duty as an interpreter of a part of our century.” In his “Salutation to Walt Whitman,” he sweeps aside all the money-changers just like a secular Jesus, just like Whitman, and proclaims:

Get out of here, you politicians, literati,

You peaceful businessmen, policemen, whores, souteneurs,

All your kind is the letter that kills, not the spirit giving life.

The spirit giving life at this moment is ME!


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