Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix The Lonely Crowd

Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa lived and died in solitude -- but, as a new collection confirms, he contained multitudes.

By Graham Christian

JULY 27, 1998: 

FERNANDO PESSOA & COMPANY: SELECTED POEMS, by Fernando Pessoa. Edited and translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith. Grove Press, 320 pages, $25.

The saddest of our century's great literary modernists and perhaps its most inventive, Fernando Pessoa is almost without doubt the finest poet Portugal has ever produced. Obscure in life, he is now the engine of a substantial academic and literary industry in his native country, as well as the subject of heated debate on the Internet as to his textuality, intertextuality, sexuality, and meta-meaning. How Pessoa would have rejoiced in the posthumous confusion he has sown in Lisbon! How Pessoa -- or, more to the point, his alter ego Alvaro de Campos, a champion of the Age of the Machine -- would have delighted in the centerless multivalence of the Internet! Ten thousand names and not a single truth in them! What better haven could there be for the man who contained a tribe and yet was no one?

The usual interpretation of Pessoa's life as a writer goes as follows. He was born in 1888 in Lisbon and raised in Durban, South Africa, where his stepfather was Portuguese consul. Returning to Portugal early in the century, he made a tentative start in literature with poems in English. In 1914, three distinct subpersonae ("heteronyms," as Pessoa called them) emerged from his imagination, poets with sharply differentiated biographies and styles: Alberto Caeiro, the innocent "Master"; Alvaro de Campos, the willful decadent; Ricardo Reis, the hyper-restrained classicist. The sudden appearance of these mature poets released the poet within Pessoa himself, who wrote yet another group of poems in his own name. Refusing, from inanition or laziness, every sort of advancement, he made a bare living as a translator until he died in 1935, an alcoholic and recluse.

Yet this interpretation now seems too simple: as scholars have continued to struggle with the heterogeneous mass of Pessoa's manuscripts, it has become apparent that this scheme, odd as it is, represents less than half the truth. Within Pessoa were not three heteronyms but more than seventy, capable of authoring not only poems but critical works, philosophical tracts, novels, plays, horoscopes, letters, and interviews. Even the writer who called himself "Pessoa," as Pessoa insisted, shared nothing with his creator but a face and a name -- the very ground of identity, but nothing, it seems, that mattered. Pessoa was the shaper of a world as capacious and thorough as anything imagined by Tolkien or Frank Herbert, but all the more haunting for being so evidently anchored to our own. Through these many voices, Pessoa declared himself an advocate of futurism, occultism, fascism, nationalism, paganism, proto-existentialism, and Whitmanesque free love (for man or woman). Yet to suppose that any of these represented a true opinion would be folly. Pessoa was, finally, none of these persons and held no views at all: he was little more than the location of their combat in language. It is this story -- the "drama," as he himself called it -- of this crisis of self that unifies his work and makes it great.

Pessoa, for all his loneliness -- and despite Portugal's place on the margins of modern history -- is not isolated from his time. He is very much a soul mate of Rilke, whose semi-self Malte Laurids Brigge wrote a lengthy memoir, and he is a kind of cousin to the early surrealist artists. Reading Zenith's translation of the poets within Pessoa is very like glancing at Max Ernst's collage-novel Une semaine de bonté, with its strange hieratic symbols: it is hard to know where the parody leaves off and the meaning begins. Our enchanted unease as we negotiate this precipice is an essential part of Ernst's art, as it is of Pessoa's.

Does de Campos's shouting frighten you?

Yes, I know it's all quite natural,
But I still have a heart.
Shit and good night!
(Burst into smithereens, O heart!)
(Shit to all of humanity!)
(from "Yes, I Know It's All Quite Natural")

Then perhaps you'd prefer the royalist pieties of "Pessoa":

The One who anointed you made you Portuguese,
A sign to us of our pact with the sea.
(from "Prince Henry the Navigator")

Or the refrigerated calm of Ricardo Reis:

For when the thought is lofty and noble,
The sentence will naturally seek it,
And rhythm slavishly serve it.
(from "I Devote My Higher Mind to the Ardent")

Why have one opinion when it might be possible to have them all? Why strain at the formation of one poetic "voice" when it might be possible to have four -- or four dozen? T.S. Eliot, terrified by the idea of such fragmentation in The Waste Land, fled into conservatism; Yeats reinvented himself as a kind of occult high priest. Only Pessoa, selflessness itself, proved generous enough to distribute his substantial gift to everything, and everyone, that was in him. The collapse of certainty in identity exemplified by Pessoa is echoed by every important artist in our century, from Picasso and Kafka to Peter Handke and Cindy Sherman. For all their differences, the heteronyms all circle painfully around the philosophic anxiety of the "I." Here is Ricardo Reis, perfectionist and physician:

The seeker will find in all things
The abyss, and doubt in himself.

I don't know, when I think or feel,
Who it is that thinks or feels.
I am merely the place
Where things are thought or felt.
And here is Alvaro de Campos, engineer and orgiast:

I always want to be the thing I feel kinship with. . . .
To feel everything in every way,
To hold all opinions,
To be sincere contradicting oneself every minute . . .
Or Pessoa, the traditionalist, in the well-known "Autopsychography":

The poet is a faker
Who's so good at his act
He even fakes the pain
Of pain he feels in fact.
Only Caeiro is free of the obsession, which is perhaps why the other heteronymns called him their "Master."

Richard Zenith's able selection and translation reflect the latest discoveries in Pessoa scholarship. The volume includes poems never before translated into English and quite a number only recently published in Portuguese. His introduction is certainly the most sensitive reading in English of Pessoa's paradoxes; the translation itself does not aspire to the occasional elegance of Jonathan Griffin's versions for Penguin Books, but its spikiness admirably brings forward Pessoa's modernity and dry eloquence. It seems a shame to have omitted the syntactically tormented but moving early poems Pessoa wrote in English, but we can only hope that this, with Alfred MacAdam's recent translation of The Book of Disquiet (by another heteronym, Bernardo Soares), marks the introduction of this great modernist to a wider English-speaking audience.

Graham Christian is a writer and independent scholar living in Somerville.

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Books: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . The Boston Phoenix . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch