|The Fifth Empire of Fernando Pessoa
O Portugal, hoje es nevoeiro...
O Portugal, nothing but mist today...
All those who attribute definite belief in things Pessoan to Fernando Pessoa instantly subject themselves to the treacherous shoals of refutation, often by the poet's own writings. One of Pessoa's favorite modes of argument and self-mockery was contradiction. Antonio Tabucchi wrote that each of the 72 heteronyms who spoke through Pessoa "was also a contradictory poet, endowed with complex mechanisms, intricate psychological circuits, and varied and conflicting cultural antecedents: a universe, as each and every person is."
I think it is safe to say that certain ideas occasionally interested Pessoa, or were found by him, or his 72 fellow travellers, to be useful, if only temporarily. (There! Refute that sentence.) One such idea was that of the Fifth Empire, cultural short-hand for the belief that Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome would be succeeded one fine blue day by an equally great empire. Some scholars speculate that the Fifth Empire was Byzantium; others propose that it might be Chinese, Islamic, or American. Just for the intellectual challenge of it, Pessoa argued that following the collapse of Europe's colonial system, the real Fifth Empire could only be literary. And because Pessoa had made the difficult decision in his own life to favor Portuguese over English, or any other language or culture, the rest of the world, he concluded, might as well go that way too.
Of course it would first be necessary to convince his fellow Portuguese of the desirability of this plan for world domination. For that he turned with uncanny intuition to the myth of Sebastian, based on the loss of an entire Portuguese army in the sand dunes of Morocco in 1578. That army was led by the sensationally deluded child king, Dom Sebastiao, only 24 years old when he died in fierce battle against the Moors. But did he really die, or simply go underground, destined to return one day and lead his country back to glory? The latter is what his cultists profess to believe.
The King's body was never found in the carnage. In "Mensagem" (Message) (1934), the book Pessoa wrote about Portugal, he quotes the absent King: "Porisso onde a areal esta, Ficou meu serque houve, nao o que ha." (Abandoned in the dunes of Morocco -- My hollowed self, not the ethereal one...) Pessoa is honoring in his own way the age-old cult that prophesied the child king's return. "We don't have to create a myth," Pessoa declared in an essay, explaining the mechanism by which the idea of a literary-only Fifth Empire might be promulgated, "but simply renew it."
Pessoa placed the child king on a throne similar to the one he thought might be occupied by Antonio Viera (1608-1697), a prolific Portuguese cleric who spent half his life in Brazil. Viera, whose famous book was optimistically titled "The History of the Future", is credited by many historians with bestowing on the fledgling Portuguese language the gift of fecundity.
Sebastiao, who fanned the flames of empire, and Viera, who gave Portuguese its gravitas -- a vision and a language worthy of the nation of discovery -- both would be joined in battle by the 72 acolytes, torch bearers, proselytizers, and egoists, those invented by Pessoa. In truth Pessoa would gladly have invented as many other writers as were needed to successfully bring the Fifth Empire to fruition, if he felt like doing that, or had he lived long enough.
Predictably, Pessoa died prematurely at the age of 47, in 1935, contradicting himself, and leaving 25,000 disorderly manuscript pages behind. Alas, those first blue mornings of Fernando's Fifth Empire, the mornings he describes with such lyricism in his writings, which appeared at his command like the mist just beyond Lisbon's windows,on both banks of the Tejo, are all that we will ever have.
The Chateau (II)