26 Jun Larger than Life
Larger than Life
Fernando Pessoa was a man with many lives and ways of thinking. The countless personalities that inhabited his mind helped forge one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century.
© Herdeiros de Almada Negreiros/SPA, Lisboa, 2020
THE MANY LIVES OF FERNANDO PESSOA
“Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life. These are my Confessions and if I say nothing in them it’s because I have nothing to say.” (Fernando Pessoa, “The Book of Disquiet”, 1982). Can an autobiography tell the story of someone who never existed? Can a man have a life story without having actually lived? However, much aphorism might conceal a poetic confession, the answer could never be found in “O Livro do Desassossego” [“The Book of Disquiet”], on which Fernando Pessoa started to work in 1913, but was published for the first time 47 years after his death.
The author’s wandering exploration of existential angst, unfinished and reconstituted in multiple collages, is a two-decade long monologue not in one, but in three voices. None of them is his, all of them are his, and all belonging to each other. That of Vicente Guedes, named his representative, that of Barão de Teive and that of Bernardo Soares, an assistant book-keeper credited as author by certain publications and regarded by the critics as his semiheteronym.
“If, after I die, you wish to write my biography,/ There is nothing simpler./ It only has two dates – my birth and my death./ Between one and the other every day was mine”.
“THE COLLECTED POEMS OF ALBERTO CAEIRO”, FERNANDO PESSOA, 1946
As the author himself explained: “Whilst not my own personality, it is, not different from mine, but a simple mutilation of it. It’s me minus the reason and the affection.” So we can speak of a fragmented book or even argue that it is not one, but rather three books, running in parallel. And this is where, with the magnum opus of one of the greatest literary geniuses of the 20th century, we begin our inquiry into his many lives. Because, in fact, Fernando Pessoa wrote as if he were many people. For this reason also, he has never been an easy subject for biographers. Dark suit, round glasses, almost always wearing a hat. Poker faced, shy, melancholic. A brilliant student, eager for knowledge, who dropped out of his university course in languages and literature to study independently at the National Library.
A self-effacing office clerk who led a discreet life and practically never left Lisbon (apart from his adolescent years in South Africa, with his mother and stepfather, who was the Portuguese consul in Durban). A sketchy romance with a young woman called Ophelia. The same cafes and walks. And an imagination that only found its home in the loneliness of rented lodgings and sleepless nights. Whether or not he had an actual life story, or that which, for the common mortal, would be a full existence, is perhaps of little importance in view of a chest overflowing with thousands of texts – some written by hand, others typed – an inexhaustible legacy, with the breadth and pulse of an entire language and greater than Life itself.
The poet introduced Modernism in Portugal with the “Orpheu” magazine (1915) and the epic “Mensagem” (Message), published in 1934.
A MAN MULTIPLIED BY HIMSELF
He sought distance from the world in order to live in freedom but, ironically, he had to invent company to survive. “It’s not my ambition to be a poet. It’s my way of being alone,” wrote Alberto Caeiro, born from Pessoa’s imagination, and the poet who, with just primary education, was the master behind the other heteronyms of Fernando Pessoa and behind Pessoa, the orthonym. Alberto Caeiro, the pantheist, shepherd and poet of simple things, who was an orphan and lived on the farm of his elderly grandmother in the Ribatejo region, in the centre of Portugal.
With him, the author discovered the philosophy of the senses, the one who teaches that “thinking is to have a disease of the eyes” or that trees, in not knowing what they live for, are masters of metaphysics. The extent of Caeiro’s existence was the sensations he felt, and being sad of so much joy, he would feel his “whole body relaxed in reality” and say “I know the truth and I am happy.” It was Caeiro who, in a way, prophesied that Pessoa’s vast poetic oeuvre, impossible to catalogue, would one day be salvaged: “But they cannot be beautiful and remain unprinted,/ Because roots may lay underground/ But flowers bloom in the open, in clear sight.” And these symbolise the ephemeral nature of life in the poetry of another of Pessoa’s selves: Ricardo Reis, who had studied in a Jesuit college and assimilated the value of classical antiquity. Renouncing strong emotion, he gathers flowers only to set them down again, he loves them without however seeking them out. He commends to us the spirit of carpe diem and ataraxia. “Sit in the sun. Let everything go/ And be king of yourself.”
Epicurian and stoic in equal measure, he preaches pleasure as the secret of happiness, but this is a cool pleasure, heedless of ills and passions that undermine reason and serve no purpose in the irremediable flow towards the “final coin”, death: “Let us disentwine our hands, because it is not worth tiring ourselves./ Whether we take our enjoyment, or not, we pass like a river./ The better wisdom is to pass silently/ And without great disquiet.” Physician, pagan and staunch monarchist, Ricardo Reis is the only of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms who is still physically alive: the date of his death is not known.
Another giant of Portuguese literature, the Nobel prize-winning novelist, José Saramago, hazarded 1936 as the date of his death, in his novel, “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis” (1984). Whilst Caeiro is “pure and unexpected inspiration” and Reis “abstract deliberation”, the temperamental Álvaro de Campos, with an aesthetic similar to Walt Whitman, was born from a “sudden impulse to write”.
A naval engineer trained in Glasgow, he sees the world as concrete intelligence dominated by the machine, seeking to be, like the machine, complete. He seeks to flee from monotony, to express himself as an engine might, “To tear myself open, to be permeated/ By all the scents of oils and engines and coal”, in the fury of which he sees the archetype of beauty: after all, “Newton’s binomial theorem is as beautiful as the Venus de Milo”. The poet endeavours to feel everything in every way, to go through life like a fast car, which in the end brings “Extreme extreme extreme tiredness” and the discouragement of failure, and leads him back to the initial tedium and to the opium in which he finds consolation: “It is before the opium that my soul is sick”.
Pessimism also brings nostalgia for childhood, another recurrent theme in the poetry of Fernando Pessoa (orthonym), in which tradition and modernism co-exist. These intersect with other themes, such as the pain of thought (he is, after all, a disciple of Caeiro), the fragmentation of the self (“To live is to be another”) and poetic pretence – according to which, when feelings and emotions are materialised in a poem, the poetic subject distances himself from them and transforms them, creating a “feigned” pain, which will then be transformed into a third pain, the one felt by the readers.
“ORPHEU” AND MODERNISM
Fernando Pessoa lived in almost complete anonymity. During his lifetime, the public encountered his literary work in two essential publications: “Orpheu” (1915), in which his celebrated heteronyms, in whom he diluted and found himself, took the stage, and in “Mensagem” (1934), a masterpiece of epic poetry that at the time he called a “small book of poems”. The first of these publications marks the emergence of Modernism and its sub-currents in Portugal. Only two editions were published (the third never went to press, supposedly due to lack of funds), but they were enough to have an indelible impact on the country’s cultural scene.
Imagined by a group of young men with transgressive audacity, “Orpheu” introduced a radical language calculated to scandalise. Álvaro de Campos contributed to the first edition with “Opiário” (Opiarium) and “Ode Triunfal”. The ensuing controversy and opprobrium exceeded expectations: the authors were decried as “imbeciles” and their literature dubbed as the “ravings of the madhouse”. As Fernando Pessoa himself wrote, they were “the talk of Lisbon”. And after “Orpheu”, nothing would be the same again.
THE PROPHECY OF THE FIFTH EMPIRE
The glories of a country. Its heroes and myths. A small people, a great race that had set out in search of a “new India”. In the 44 poems of “Mensagem”, Fernando Pessoa takes up his Story/ History where Camões had left it, four hundred years earlier. Like Camões, he sees the voyages of discovery as an incitement to dream, but the empire that he sings and longs to see built is not of this world; the Fifth Empire is civilisational and, out of decadence and fog, will bring (along with the lost King Sebastian) a nation reborn: “The time is come!” Fernando Pessoa was born in 1888 and died in 1935. Between these two dates, all the days belonged to the many identities that inhabited him.