|Fernando Pessoa: The Art of X = 72
We write to be what we are or else to be
what we are not.
To pretend is to know yourself.
I was confident for a few hours, at least, that I had discovered the key phrase to unlock the treasure chest of Fernando Pessoa's literary art, and in his own words, no less. "If our hearts could think, they would stop." No, that's good, but that wasn't it. I had trouble relocating the relevant passage in Pessoa's "Book of Disquiet", which has been arranged differently by each of its several translators, but I wouldn't allow myself to feel distressed. In fact I was particularly proud in a Pessoan kind of way, for I had simply and unconsciously followed one of his maxims: "To erase everything from the slate from one day to the next, to be new with each new morning, in a perpetual revival of our emotional virginity."
"Emotional virginity", oh, wow! But I had to wonder about this baleful 20th century Portuguese poet, who, despite whatever virginity he might have been under the influence of, nonetheless wrote relentlessly as one of seventy-two different personalities in some sort of literary genre (fiction, poetry, drama, philosophy, social and literary criticism, political commentary, translation, linguistic theory, horoscopes, wrestling treatise) almost every day of his monochromatic life. He thought and wrote and drank until his premature death in 1935, at the age of 47, and left a steamer trunk full of manuscripts, some 27,000 in number: How professional was that?
And the answer, in regard to an author who had bestirred himself to organize the publication of only four slender books of poetry in his lifetime, despite the outlines and plans for grandiose editions of his work that were found in the trunk, must be: not very.
Pessoa was gifted, insanely so, but resolutely remained an amateur, soaked in tobacco and alcohol, possessed by unquenchable thirst and driven to an almost unheard of level of page production. He muttered, to anyone who would listen, a slightly off-kilter mantra: "rhythm, indecision, duration, and fluidity..." And in his unruly and endlessly fascinating "Book of Disquiet", Pessoa wrote: "Destiny gave me only two things: accounting ledgers and a talent for dreaming."
Pessoa thrust his life force, his spirit, into the world of his dreams. He wasn't a surrealist, content to follow that shimmering, just-out-of-reach world wherever it might take him. He felt guilty and fearful and lucky, and those contradictory feelings drove him to introspection and distraction. "Dreaming is the worst of drugs," he wrote, "because it is the most natural of all. It works its ways into our habits like no other drug can. We take it unawares, like a poison slipped in a drink. It doesn't hurt, doesn't make you pale, and won't knock you out, but the soul that takes it can't be cured, for it can never let go of its poison, which is its very own self."
I'm not sure I agree with Pessoa's entire pronouncement about dreaming, especially the part about getting pale. The predominant feature of any portrait of Fernando was his black mustache, which was the only colorful element, other than his ever-present black fedora, of his physiognomy. No writer on earth was ever paler than Pessoa, no writer more precise, more analytical about his moods, his real or imagined illnesses, his relationships with the stars, with Lisbon, with the face (or faces) that stared back at him from the mirror.
In truth Pessoa kept all of his colors inside. He lived and died almost furtively in the drowsy gray city of Lisbon, at the mouth of the Tejo, one of the great rivers of the world. He was exposed to and aware of, but self-exiled from the epicenters of European literary activity in Madrid, Paris, London, Berlin, Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the shadowy, unfinished alleyways of this Portuguese poet and his other-egos, any 20th century writer might find an individual self (or a portion of that self) reflected back from a window or a mirror, just the same way he did. Incomplete. Hungry. Cynical. Politically incorrect. A reflection that might often have to be turned away from, in embarrassment or even fear.
No other poet I have ever read was so entranced with the texture of literature. "Words for me are palpable bodies, visible sirens, sensualities made flesh." He saw the words appear in the mirror, out of the mouths of his friends. Words are the opposite of dreams, and Pessoa could wield his words like emotions, softly and subtly, with manic, obsessive glee, or with the blunt force of a weapon.
The sounds Pessoa heard at all hours of the days and nights streamed through his consciousness like medieval funeral processions, or scenes out of Shakespeare, with the actors dressed in glorious silk array. The colorful silks of emotion! We greet Death in our finery. Death, in this sense, to be accompanied and embellished by processional, rhythmic noise that was traditional, repetitious, disturbing, emotional, and thus immortal, although whoever was being borne on the bier might soon be forgotten.
"Immortality," the poet declared, "is a creation of grammarians... Without syntax there is no lasting emotion." The words we read march across the pages, left to right, left to right, as if they were on the parade grounds as soldiers in their full dress uniforms. They are stable, dependable, and as immortal as an Ionic column. And the poet's temporal task, I must assume, in the face of those pale, emotionless, anonymous grammarians, came to demandof Pessoa the necessity of inventing diversions to combat immortality's tedium, while at the same time leaning heavily on all that grammar had to offer. "[W]ords set free contain all possibilities for expression and thought."
Pessoa's endemic relationship with his writing and himself (as an adult he never left Portugal) led him to a grandmotherly fetish. "I completely understand women," the never-married poet declared, "who embroider out of grief or knit because life exists. Life is
knitting according to the intentions of others." At least once in the "Book of Disquiet" Pessoa refers to himself as a seamstress, a Penelope whose enchanted suitors "stroll through their parks between instants when the hooked ivory needle sinks into the yarn."
The Dead Sea Scrolls, the Bayeux Tapestries, the lace produced by Hazel Hall, the slim, gabardine sheaths of Parisian designers -- these are works of syntactical genius that have almost lasted forever, and I think it is no mistake that in Pessoa's world, their "authors" are
nearly anonymous. Oil paint on woven canvas, painted with slender brushes... So many incredible strokes of the brushes, each one slightly different, each one untraceable. The Irish, who began to crochet with hooks in the 1840s as make-work against the famine, eventually became able to imitate lace. Ivory chopsticks, like blunt knitting needles, are used to pick bones from the cremated ashes of dead loved ones by Japanese families. I once heard a writer make sorrowful reference to the exact stitch on which he or she had been
working during the moment a relative had passed away. Pessoa's allegiance to this (for him, imaginary) art was expressed through the words of his beloved heteronym, Alvaro de Campos:
With my first thoughts,
I began a lifetime of crochet.
Stitch after stitch, whole with no wholeness.
I don't see cloth. I see garments or through them.
I think, had he lived longer, Pessoa might have eventually felt the same dramatic impulses that dominated the final years of Garcia Lorca and Henry James. He would have wanted to write plays in which his characters, dressed in costumes of his own invention, spoke in intensely emotional sentences and lived Shakespearean lives beneath the gray skies of Lisbon.
In fact, all of Pessoa's fascination with woven and dyed material such as Indian or Chinese silk has tremendous resonance with Portuguese history. Portugal's second great struggle, after the expulsion of the Moors, was waged against Venetian traders over the rights to the eastern supplies of spices. In his death-defying search for the source of this vast wealth (and health, as the use of spices was, for a considerable time, the only reliable method of preserving food), Vasco da Gama discovered that the Hindu traders could also deliver bales of cotton and silk fabrics. After the deprivations he and his crews had suffered on the route to India around the entire continent of Africa, da Gama would have watched with considerable envy as the wealthy traders of Calicut were carried about the town on their palanquins, "a richly cushioned chair which the holders / lift, and bear along upon their shoulders." (Camoes.) And if he had been lucky enough to get a local woman to undress for him, da Gama would have been amazed at the silken finery she might have been wearing next to her skin.
The fortune in spices the militant Portuguese like da Gama took by force from the Venetian traders resulted in an empire built on pepper, at one time worth more by weight than gold:
He had hot peppers he had purchased;
There was mace from the Banda Islands;
Then nutmeg and black cloves, pride
Of the new-found Moluccas, and cinnamon,
The wealth, the fame, the beauty of Ceylon.
Italian sea power kept the Portuguese away from the Mediterranean, and so the unexpected by-product of all the often erratic, wind- powered, tortuous sea travels necessary to subdue East Asia via the Cape of Good Hope was the discovery of Brazil.
End of Part One
Quotations from the "Book of Disquiet" translated by Richard Zenith and Alfred Mac Adam.