Writing the Self as Other
On Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet.”
BY SARAH KRUSE
[From the summer 2013 issue.]
FERNANDO PESSOA PUBLISHED very little in his lifetime. Writing under multiple heteronyms (different than a pseudonym, because each was endowed with a different persona rather than just the alteration of a name), Pessoa proved to be a prolific writer, poet, philosopher, critic, and translator, even if little came to light during his life. What has become known as Pessoa’s ultimate work, The Book of Disquiet was published posthumously from collected manuscripts found in a trunk, heavily annotated by Pessoa himself. While the book has been assembled into numbered sections, editor and translator Richard Zenith notes that it could also be read in no particular order at all.
To classify Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet into any single genre proves difficult. Different sections are written under different heteronyms. One could suggest it is a patchwork of fiction, but numerous diary and essayistic entries suggest a work of literary nonfiction, while moments of lyricism that edge towards the musicality of language suggest an affinity with poetry. As the narrator exclaims in a passage (#193) in the Zenith translation, “I end up more in the images than in me, stating myself until I no longer exist, writing with my soul until I no longer exist, writing with my soul for ink, useful for nothing except writing.”
The Book of Disquiet is essentially fragmentary, examining through those fragments not what has become the modernist cliché of a search for an “authentic self,” but the dissemblance of a self that melts into its work, the text, and the landscape. An idea of self comes into question under the guise of Bernardo Soares, who gradually emerges as a self that is as much the writing embodied than any idea of a self that writes. Writing emerges as a gesture of the incomplete that is in constant need of reworking, and it is at this juncture that the lyricism of Pessoa’s writing emerges. Like a Borges story that turns back on itself and the reader, The Book of Disquiet continually turns back on itself, leaving the reader not with a clear picture, but with fragments of colored light—various, disparate, and luminous.
Before metatexts and postmodernism, Pessoa offers a startling new idea of self and writing, one in which the self is always othered by the thing it creates, and created by the thing it is not. The subtitle “A Factless Autobiography” speaks to the text’s paradox, for while giving account, there are no events, no relationships that a stable “I” produces and recounts. The ceaseless negating of the speaker produces not a resting place of understanding but a labyrinth of questioning thought. The text might also be a negative-thought, or the inverse—not the reverse—of thought. As Soares says at one point (#188), “To think is to destroy, thought itself is destroyed in the process of thinking, because to think is to decompose.” Perhaps the fragment is a form of decomposition.
The consciousness we see flicker in the fictional Bernardo Soares, the predominant heteronym writing The Book of Disquiet, is a self that is an anti-self and a philosophy that hinges on the negative, but not in a pejorative sense. Instead, the negative presented in these fragments that range anywhere between several pages to two sentences is like a photographic negative: the inverse of what we are used to seeing and think we see. As Soares explains early on (#11), “We never know self-realization. We are two abysses—a well staring at the sky.”
And yet the effect is not alienating. Instead, Pessoa or Soares draws us into the instance where we feel we, too, have ceased to be anything we readily recognize. He writes, “By delving within, I made myself into many. The slighted incident—a change in the light, the tumbling of a dry leaf, the faded petal that falls from a flower, the voice speaking on the other side of the stone wall, the steps of the speaker next to those of the listener, the half-open gate of the old country estate, the courtyard with an arch and houses clustered around it in the moonlight—all these things, although not mine, grab hold of my sensory attention with the chains of longing and emotional resonance. In each of these sensations I am someone else, painfully renewed in each indefinite impression” (#93). The moment we look at a plate glass window and do not recognize the self staring at us, the moment in a crowded room we hear our voice speaking and do not recognize it, the moment in an unfamiliar city that we seem to have ceased to exist as a recognizable entity—it is in these moments that Pessoa’s narrator lives.
Perhaps what is most extraordinary and lyrical about such a space is that it is the space of writing. The self that writes is written by the text, for self and text slowly blur into one, suggesting (as Jacques Derrida did so many years later) that there really is nothing outside of the text. The self that exists in The Book of Disquiet is one that perhaps writes because it is already the text, and it must write because it is writing. As Soares eloquently puts it (#193), “I am, in large measure, the selfsame prose I write. I unroll myself in sentences and paragraphs, I punctuate myself. In my arranging and rearranging of images I’m like a child using newspapers to dress as a king, and in the way I create rhythm with a series of words I’m like a lunatic adorning my hair with dried flowers that are still alive in my dreams.”
Sarah Kruse was a staff writer for the magazine. She is currently Poetry Editor at Bryant Literary Review and an associate editor at Barrow Street.