photo – Aleister Crowley (left) and Fernando Pessoa (right) playing chess in Lisbon, September 1930 (from Wikipedia).
“I have to choose what I detest – either dreaming, which my intelligence hates, or action, which my sensibility loathes; either action, for which I wasn’t born, or dreaming, for which no one was born. Detesting both, I choose neither; but since I must on occasion either dream or act, I mix the two things together.” ~ Fernando Pessoa, O Livro do Desassossego, 1920-1930.
[…] The fragmentary, the incomplete is of the essence of Pessoa‘s spirit. The very kaleidoscope of voices within him, the breadth of his culture, the catholicity of his ironic sympathies – wonderfully echoed in Saramago‘s great novel about Ricardo Reis – inhibited the monumentalities, the self-satisfaction of completion. Hence the vast torso of Pessoa’s Faust on which he laboured much of his life. Hence the fragmentary condition of The Book of Disquiet which contains material that predates 1913 and which Pessoa left open-ended at his death. As Adorno famously said, the finished work is, in our times and climate of anguish, a lie. It was to Bernardo Soares that Pessoa ascribed his Book of Disquiet, first made available in English in a briefer version by Richard Zenith in 1991. The translation is at once penetrating and delicately observant of Pessoa‘s astute melancholy. What is this Livro do Desassossego? Neither ‘commonplace book’, nor ‘sketchbook’, nor ‘florilegium’ will do. Imagine a fusion of Coleridge‘s notebooks and marginalia, of Valery‘s philosophic diary and of Robert Musil‘s voluminous journal. Yet even such a hybrid does not correspond to the singularity of Pessoa‘s chronicle. Nor do we know what parts thereof, if any, he ever intended for publication in some revised format. What we have is a haunting mosaic of dreams, psychological notations, autobiographical vignettes, shards of literary theory and criticism and maxims. ‘A Letter not to Post‘, an ‘Aesthetics of Indifference‘, ‘A Factless Autobiography‘ and manual of welcomed failure (only a writer wholly innocent of success and public acclaim invites serious examination).
If there is a common thread, it is that of unsparing introspection. Over and over, Pessoa asks of himself and of the living mirrors which he has created, ‘Who am I?‘, ‘What makes me write?‘, ‘To whom shall I turn?‘ The metaphysical sharpness, the wealth of self-scrutiny are, in modern literature, matched only by Valery or Musil or, in a register often uncannily similar, by Wittgenstein. ‘Solitude devastates me; company oppresses me. The presence of another person derails my thoughts; I dream of the other’s presence with a strange absent-mindedness that no amount of my analytical scrutiny can define.’ This very scrutiny, moreover, is fraught with danger: ‘To understand, I destroyed myself. To understand is to forget about loving.’ These findings arise out of a uniquely spectral yet memorable landscape: ‘A firefly flashes forward at regular intervals. Around me the dark countryside is a huge lack of sound that almost smells pleasant.'[…], in George Steiner, “A man of many parts“, The Guardian, 3 June 2001, UK.