Fernando Pessoa | The Book of Disquiet

“I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life.” 

The Book of Disquiet is a work by the Portuguese author and poet Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935). Published posthumously, The Book of Disquiet is a fragmentary lifetime project, left unedited by the author, who introduced it as a “factless autobiography.” The publication was credited to Bernardo Soares, one of the author’s alternate writing names, which he called semi-heteronyms, and had a preface attributed to Fernando Pessoa, another alternate writing name. (Source)

“Everything around me is evaporating. My whole life, my memories, my imagination and its contents, my personality – it’s all evaporating. I continuously feel that I was someone else, that I felt something else, that I thought something else. What I’m attending here is a show with another set. And the show I’m attending is myself.” 

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

“Fernando Pessoa was inhabited by so many conflicting voices that his only solution was to turn himself into an entire school of different writers. One of the most individual of writers, he also contained a host of individuals within himself. Of his time and place—mostly Lisbon in the early decades of the 20th century, after a crucially formative education in Durban, South Africa—but also eerily beyond it, he was a one-man Modernist movement or series of movements, who aimed not merely to write individual books, but to “convert himself into a literature,” creating an ever-increasing constellation of personas that is said to number at least 75 different imaginary writers or “heteronyms.” Pessoa also helped invent at least three movements—Paulismo, Sensationism, and Intersectionism—taken up by other writer friends in Lisbon, all of which, as his editor and translator Richard Zenith writes, became “the instruments by which Pessoa and his compeers brought Modernism to Portugal.” Unusually, Pessoa’s heteronyms also commented on each others’ work, and engaged in promoting and criticising each other in ways reminiscent of other Modernist movements. But Pessoa also wanted to engage with the wider sphere of Modernism outside Portugal, and despite his relative isolation from the currents of Modernism elsewhere in Europe and America, his work resounds with extraordinarily close unconscious echoes and prefigurings of other contemporary writers. In sum, his oeuvre reconfigures the given narratives of international Modernism, as well as providing ghost or shadow Modernisms of its own.”Source

“Because he published little in his own lifetime, however, and because translations of his work have only emerged in English relatively long after his death, Pessoa has not yet been fully integrated into the story of Modernism outside Portugal. The relatively sparse corpus of English-language criticism of his work continually notes this neglect.”Source

“I’ve always rejected being understood. To be understood is to prostitute oneself. I prefer to be taken seriously for what I’m not, remaining humanly unknown, with naturalness and all due respect” 

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
The Book of Disquiet

Text below are excerpts from a text of Brian Evenson for World Literature Today

A book that means nothing, claims nothing, and goes nowhere, and does so unpretentiously. Writing in bits and starts from 1914 to 1934, Pessoa presents a text that is interesting not only as a representative of modernism but also as a book which, theoretically speaking, seems startlingly contemporary.

The Book of Disquiet is formed of a series of 520 prose fragments. Unpublished in Pessoa’s lifetime, the fragments were arbitrarily arranged by editors. The text has no beginning and no ending. It is meant to be thumbed through at random; the arrangement of the fragments is arbitrary. Pessoa’s text consists of what Cortázar calls expendable chapters —nearly hermetic, unconnected bits placed side by side. What primarily holds The Book of Disquiet together are two things: a vividness of place and a sense of voice. Pessoa’s descriptions of the city are surprisingly vivid and tangible. Both guiding us through the streets and taking us away from the real is a consistent voice and the concise, cold beauty of Pessoa’s language. This voice does not signify a self, however. On the contrary, rather than creating a solid self, the voice on one level destroys the self, unwrites it, erases it. On another level, voice multiplies the self, transforming it into a series of possible selves with no single original —a sort of literary schizophrenia: « I realized in an intimate lightning flash, that I am no one. I am the center that doesn’t exist except as a convention in the geometry of the abyss. » Or, seen in another way: “I am a multitude of beings, conscious and unconscious, analyzed and analytic, all deployed as if on an open fan. » There are remarkable similarities in Pessoa’s prose to Samuel Beckett’s Unnameable, written fifteen years after Pessoa’s death. Pessoa, though, manages to provide us with all that Beckett does and still provides, along with the void, a sense of place and physicality. Where Beckett finally returns for help to language— the Unnameable describing himself as discourse and thus gaining some sort of stability —Pessoa remains painfully stretched between his worlds: “I am two, and both keep their distance —Siamese twins who are not attached to each other.” What is occurring is not only a schizophrenia of self but a schizophrenia of place: Pessoa conducts his existence in multiple worlds that are unable to interact. Unlike T. S. Eliot, the surrealists, or a score. of other moderns (or romantics for that matter), there is no question of one realm or way of thought transcending the other. Rather, for Pessoa, the existence of his inner world necessitates the existence of his outer world, and vice versa. Although one cannot exist without the other, neither can they interact, flow into each other.

Pessoa has recognized the shattered self as the ego’s ploy: shattered self’ for him is shattered selves, and this in turn is egolessness and selflessness. Where T. S. Eliot searches for reconciliation, Pessoa sweeps away the fragments and accepts the emptiness, evolving an “esthetics of indifference. The ruins persist but are no longer the main concern: they exist to the side, unshored. Non-teleological, disjointed, bare, yet surprisingly lucid, The Book of Disquiet is a world-class achievement.

“My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddlestrings and harps, drums and tamboura I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.” 

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

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