November 30

1935, 1667



The deaths - I am confident that I am correct in employing the plural - of Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa, a disquieting number of individuals who may actually have written just four books (more than eighty are ascribed to him, directly or indirectly, but "scribed by" and "ascribed to" are not necessarily the same thing), three of them collections of poetry in English ("Antinous" and "Sonnets" in 1918, as well as "English Poems" in 1921), a fourth in his native Portuguese ("Mensagem" in 1933).

The heteronymity of languages results from Pessoa's father having died when Fernando was just five, and his mother taking him to live in Durban, South Africa, where he exacerbated the unhappiness of grief for just eight years, returning to Lisbon in 1905, and dying there, of cirrhosis of the liver, in 1935, virtually unknown even by his neighbours, and totally unknown in the world of literature. And yet, in "The Western Canon", Harold Bloom lists two versions of Pessoa among the twenty-six writers of "the democratic age" responsible for establishing the parameters of contemporary western literature. A remarkable achievement!

Whether or not Pessoa wrote the book for which he is now best known is a matter of academic dispute. Certainly most of the words belong to him, though many also, or instead, may be attributed to Bernardo Soares, who shared Pessoa's life, insofar as any other human can be said to have shared Pessoa's life, for many years; other fragments have been attributed to one Vicente Guedes, though this name does not appear on any electoral roll or census document for the city of Lisbon at that epoch. The book, however, known in Portuguese as "Livro do Desassossego: Composto por Bernardo Soares, ajudante de guarda-livros na cidade de Lisboa", was not published until forty-seven years after both Pessoa and Soares' deaths, and required the organisational skills of several editors to give it the multiple forms in which multiple very different versions of it may be read today, some even by the same editor, twice.

All this, however, is mere biography; what interests me, what draws me back again and again to re-read him, are the particular combinations of ordinary words which he constructs into phrases, clauses and sentences, and which are known among the cultural and intellectual snobs as Literature. Forgive me if I do not give page numbers for the citations that follow; there are now so many versions of the book, each of a different physical size and therefore heteronymously paginated, each numbering its own choice of fragments in its own disorder; you are much encouraged to acquire a copy and find them for yourself. I personally recommend Richard Zenith's 1991 translation, though it is entirely possible that Iain Watson, Alfred MacAdam and Margaret Jull Costa, who have allegedly published alternative translations, are in fact merely noms de plume employed by Zenith, or indeed that Zenith is one of them.

"I was born in a time when the majority of young people had lost faith in God, for the same reason that their elders had had it - without knowing why." 

The expression of what I call "Zeitgeist Opinions" or "Quondam Opinions", those views we hold, and believe to be our own, independently arrived at, by what we delude ourselves into thinking is critical judgement, but which are in fact the delineations of the narrow box of currently permitted views known as "free speech".

"I see life as a roadside inn where I have to stay until the coach from the abyss pulls up. I don't know where it will take me, because I don't know anything. I could see this inn as a prison, for I am compelled to wait in it; I could see it as a social centre, for it is here that I meet others. But I am neither impatient nor common. I leave who will to stay shut up in their rooms, sprawled out on beds where they sleeplessly wait, and I leave who will to chat in the parlours, from where their songs and voices conveniently drift out here to me. I am sitting at the door, feasting my eyes and ears on the colours and sounds of the landscape, and I softly sing - for myself alone - wispy songs I compose while waiting."

The Zero Positive incarnate! As is this:

"The way I see it, plagues, storms and wars are products of the same blind force, sometimes operating through unconscious microbes, sometimes through unconscious waters and thunderbolts, and sometimes through unconscious men... such is the world - a dunghill of instinctive forces that nevertheless shines in the sun with pale shades of light and dark gold."

"Inch by inch I conquered the inner terrain I was born with. Bit by bit I reclaimed the swamp in which I had languished. I gave birth to my infinite being, but I had to wrench myself out with forceps."

(There is a link from this to several passages in Kafka's diaries - click here)

"The grand, tarnished panorama of History amounts, as I see it, to a flow of interpretations, a confused consensus of unreliable eyewitness accounts."

I have to dispute with you, on this occasion: "consensus"? what consensus?

"Blessed are those who entrust their lives to no one."

"The contemplative person, without ever leaving his village, will nevertheless have the whole universe at his disposal. There is infinity in a cell or in a desert. One can sleep cosmically against a rock."

I only came upon Pessoa in 2004, and yet I feel I have known him all my life, can find every one of these phrases in my own stories, poems, aphorisms, diaries, even from many decades prior to that encounter. Perhaps I too am merely one more anagram of the destiny of Pessoa.

"Revolutionary or reformer - the error is the same. Unable to dominate and reform his own attitude towards life, which is everything, or his own being, which is almost everything, he flees, devoting himself to modifying others and the outside world. Every revolutionary and reformer is a fugitive. To fight for change is to be incapable of changing oneself. To reform is to be beyond repair...a sensitive and honest-minded man, if he is concerned about evil in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life."

The next I have slightly modified, because I think Pessoa has missed a trick. His version reads: 

"Only one thing astonishes me more than the stupidity with which most people live their lives, and that's the intelligence of this stupidity." 

My re-phrasing: "Only one thing astonishes me more than the stupidity with which most people live their lives, and that's the amount of education that has been poured into this stupidity."

"All of us in this world are living on board a ship that is sailing from one unknown part to another, and we should treat each other with a traveller's cordiality."

This final one is very tough - I doubt even Nietzsche could have gone this far:

"I see humanity as merely one of Nature's latest schools of decorative painting. I do not distinguish in any fundamental way between a man and a tree, and I naturally prefer whichever is more decorative, whichever interests my thinking eyes. If the tree is more interesting to me than the man, I am sorrier to see the tree felled than to see the man die. There are departing sunsets that grieve me more than the deaths of children."

More splendid sentences, as well as more background and commentary, can be found in my piece about Pessoa in "Private Collection"; and more about the man in a "Book of Days" piece about Pseudonyms, here.


1667


I am confident that Jonathan Swift was not one of Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms, though I would be amazed if Pessoa had not read him, and been massively influenced by him; and even, in some elements of his deeply solitary journeys into reality by way of the imagination, conceived of himself as a latter-day Gulliver on many an occasion. 

Their goals though were quite different. In a letter to Alexander Pope (29th September 1725) Swift wrote:

"... the chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than to divert it, and if I could compass that design without hurting my own person or fortune I would be the most indefatigable writer you have ever seen..."


Lemuel said much the same thing in the Travels (4:12):

"my principal design was to Inform, and not to amuse thee";

while back in his own persona he gave this advice to a young poet:

"... once kick the world, and the world and you will live together at a reasonable good understanding."

But there are so many memorable phrases:


"It is impossible that anything so natural, so necessary, and so universal as death, should ever have been designed by providence as an evil to mankind."

"Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after; so that when men come to be undeceived it is too late; the jest is over and the tale has had its effect."


"Old men and comets have been reverenced for the same reason: their long beards, and pretences to foretell events."

I am also intrigued to discover that Swift was the coiner of certain now clichéd phrases, including:

“A penny for your thoughts.” (Introduction to "Polite Conversation")

"The sight of you is good for sore eyes" (Ibid. Dialogue 1)

"She looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth" (Ibid)

"rain cats and dogs" (Ibid. Dialogue 2)

"you and he were hand-in-glove" (Ibid)

“all the world and his wife” (Ibid)


Swift was born today, November 30th 1667





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