Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Book of Disquiet: Phase 1 - Vicente Guedes (Fernando Pessoa)

In order to write this, I plucked the souls from all the flowers, and out of the ephemeral moments of all the songs of all the birds I wove eternity and stagnation. Sitting at the window of my life and forgetting that I was alive, that I existed, I began to weave shrouds in which to shroud my tedium, chaste linen cloths for the altars of my silence. 


Silent Tower of my desires, may this book be the transforming moonlight in the night of the Ancient Mystery!
River of Painful Imperfection, may this book be the boat set adrift on your waters and wasted down an undreamed-of sea. 
Landscape of Alienation and Abandonment, may this book be as much as your Hour, and transcend you as it does the fateful purple hour.
[The Book of Disquiet, fragment 17]

In 1982 Maria Aliete Galhoz, Teresa Sobral Cunha and Jacinto do Prado Coelho finally had deciphered the mountains of barely legible notes that had been found in two forgotten trunks belonging to Pessoa, and were ready to publish The Book of Disquiet, now forty-seven years after Pessoa’s death. Some notes were dated, others not. Some notes were written semi-formally on actual writing paper, others were scrawled across the top of envelopes and napkins. Creating coherence from the more than 30,000 pieces of paper was a feat similar to the archeologists unearthing the fragments of Sappho’s poetry, fragmented sporadically across the vast landscape of Lesbos. Like Sapphic poetry there is no definitive edition of The Book of Disquiet and instead there is the infinite possibility of permutations based on editorial preference. 

As one would expect, it’s challenging to describe, it defies genre and is more a kaleidoscopic eruption of text than anything else. At times it’s somber and serious, edging into the genre of philosophical diary, at other times it has a more didactic tone similar to Hesiod’s Works and Days. It’s self-referential, irreverent, playful and brilliant.

The edition I’m using, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and edited by Jeronimo Pizarro (2013), has organized the content chronologically and into two phases: Phase I, which was written from 1913-1920 is authored by the heteronym Vicente Guedes. This phase is more formative and experimental and feels like it’s written from many perspectives in many voices. Phase II is written from 1929-1934 by Bernardo Soares, the introverted bookkeeper of Lisbon. Most, if not all, previous editions have organized material thematically, and have attempted to provide a modicum of coherence to the text.

I like the chronological modality. It’s almost like watching Pessoa age in literary form before our eyes. The tone of voice is entirely different in the second phase and the outlines of a more coherent narrative structure are lightly sketched, just enough to give life to a more definitive narrative persona. Perhaps the biggest change between the two phases is a sense of place, in Phase II the geography of Lisbon emerges and situates the book in space and time.

Guedes is a symbolist and his oeuvre tends towards the fleeting, sensation driven vignettes of his individual inner life and experience. The symbolists preferred: “to communicate the underlying mystery of existence through a free and highly personal use of metaphors and images that, though lacking in precise meaning, would nevertheless convey the state of the poet’s mind and hint at the “dark and confused unity” of an inexpressible reality.” (1)

Marcelo Valdes of the Publisher Weekly (Starred Review) mentions that: “ Guedes is all preening self-absorption and jejune metaphysics; he’s like an introverted version of Dadaist Tristan Tzara. “I want your reading of this book to leave you with the sense of having lived through some voluptuous nightmare,” he declares. Pessoa himself planned a “rigorous” pruning and revision of Guedes’s droning that never occurred, and newcomers to The Book of Disquiet should consider skipping straight to Soares’s half.” (2)

I emphatically disagree. The “self-absorption" is saturated in the angst of a new era, without faith, devoid of hope and trying to make sense of a world without a center. To quote Yeats: 

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I should mention that the structure of this book is pretty much what you would expect if you were compiling a “book” based on written artifacts found in a trunk. It’s Pascal’s Pensées written by heteronyms that struggle with chronic depression. In a sense, if Pascal’s book is a fragmentary apology for the Christian faith (also compiled posthumously), then The Book of Disquiet could be though of as an apology for life in the chaos of modernity without God.

Phase I begins with a preface written in 1917 that will provide the narrative structure for the project. Our narrator, (presumably Pessoa himself) first comes across Vicente Guedes while people-watching on a lazy afternoon and observing “the eccentric and nondescript […] people who are but a series of  marginal notes in the book of life.” [Preface]

This particular marginal note he finds fascinating. Tall, thin, with the stooped shoulders of a lifetime of poor posture, approximately thirty-year-old male: Vicente Guedes. 

“Vicente Guedes endured his empty life with masterly indifference, the foundations of his mental attitude being built on the stoicism of the weak. He was constitutionally condemned to suffer all kinds of anxieties, but fated to abandon them all. I never met a more extraordinary man. He abdicated everything to which he was by nature destined, but not out of any kind of asceticism. Though naturally ambitious, he savored the pleasure of having no ambitions at all.”  [Preface]

Inert. Detached. “Dreamily Debauched”. Pessoa persuades us, his imagined ‘dream’ readers, that what we hold in our hands is not a book, but rather a life: 

“The biography of someone who never existed […] This book is not by him, it is him. However, we should always remember that behind everything written here lies a shadow, a mystery…For Vicente Guedes, being self-aware was an art and a morality; dreaming was a religion. He created an inner aristocracy, an attitude of soul that most closely resembles the attitude of the body of the consulate aristocrat.”[Preface]

Dreaming was a religion. For me, this is the crux of the thesis. There’s an authorial freedom and independence in being a dreamer, but there’s also the existential fear of being a minor character in someone else's dream. Maybe even just a walk-on, with no lines and completely lacking in dimension or character development. There’s also the fear that lucidity and madness are indistinguishable: 

“Having seen with what lucidity and logical coherence certain madmen […] justify their crazed ideas to themselves and to others, I have lost forever any real confidence in the lucidity of my own lucidity.”  [133]

I think the tension is part of the solution. Pessoa is about to redefine terms, ‘aristocracy’ will not be something hereditary, no longer the rule of the nobility that one could simply exist submerged within. Instead it will be the rule of those monastically devoted to inaction. Heroes will no longer be the type of consummate brawn, but the dreamers. 

“Seeing and hearing are the only noble thing that life contains. The other senses are plebeian and carnal. The only aristocracy lies in not touching. Do not get too close - that is true nobility.”  [11]

“Anything that involves action, be it war or reasoning, is false; and anything that involves abdication is false too. If only I knew how not to act and how not to abdicate from action either! That would be the dream crown of my glory, the silent scepter of my greatness.” [14]

The inaction is so complex. It’s not the lethargy of the superfluous man, who became a staple of Russian literature in the middle of the 19th century, like Gochorov’s Oblomov, who doesn’t get out of bed because he’s luxuriating in silk sheets. There are no silk sheets for Guedes. Between the lines for the superfluous men of Russian literature was a longing, or nostalgia, for a sense of stability, a sense of place and belonging. But for Pessoa and his coterie of modernists the world has changed. There is no stability to fall back on. 

“I belong to a generation that inherited a disbelief in the Christian faith and that created within itself a disbelief in all their faiths. Our forefathers still felt an impulse to believe, which they transferred from Christianity to other forms of illusion […] We lost all this and were orphaned at birth of all these consolations. Every civilization cleaves to the intimate contours of the religion that represents it: to go after other religions is to lose that first religion and ultimately to lose them all […] Each of us was left abandoned to ourselves, amidst the desolation of merely knowing we were alive. […] Bereft of illusions, we live on dreams, which are the illusions of those who cannot have illusions. [134]

“I lie recumbent in my life. And I do not even know how to dream the gesture of getting up, so empty of soul am I that I do not even know how to make the effort. [21]

Chronologically, one of the first entries, written in 1913, presents a metaphor of a man and a woman trapped in opposing stained glass windows. The preceding lines talk of a love based on possession to be the extremity of banality and so:

“Since we choose to be sterile, let us also be chaste, because there can be nothing baser and more ignoble than to renounce in Nature all things fertile, and yet vilely keep back anything that takes our fancy among those things renounced. There are no partial nobilities.” [2]

They renounce the corporeal and exchange religious dogma for a new faith of love based on each other: 

“Let our love be a prayer…Anoint me with seeing you, and out of the moments when I dream you I will make a rosary on which all my tediums will be Our Fathers and all my anxieties Hail Marys…”[2]

So far so good. The two lovers hold their gaze, suspended in time, as the maelstrom of humanity swirls around them, and the occasional passerby sprinkles their inanimate forms with a prayer. But then everything begins to devolve: 

“The centuries will not touch our glass silence. Outside, civilization will come and go, revolutions will break out, parties will whirl past, meek, everyday people will rush by…And we, my unreal love, will be frozen in the same pointless pose, the same false existence, and the same […], until one day, after centuries of empires, the Church will, at last, crumble and everything will end…But we, knowing nothing of this, will still be here, quite how or where or when I don’t know, like eternal stained glass windows, hours of innocent art painted by some artist who has long been sleeping in a Gothic tomb where two angels, hands clasped in prayer, have set the idea of death in cold marble. ”[2]

The lovers separation from humanity has gone from idyllic contemplation of each other to a type of estrangement and alienation. 

“A tenuous pane of glass stands between me and life. However clearly I see and understand life, I cannot touch it.  Should we reason our way out of sadness? But why, when reasoning requires effort? And the sad man lacks the necessary energy to make any effort at all. […] My dreams are a foolish refuge, about as reliable as an umbrella in a thunderstorm. I am so inert, such a poor wretch, so entirely lacking in gesture and action. However deeply I plunge into myself, all the paths of my dreams lead into clearings of anxiety…” [16]

Throughout the first phase there is a motif of being caged or trapped. “Your hands are like caged doves…” [1] The futility and impotency of existence is overwhelming, language is fragmented and reality is ambiguous and untenable: 

“You do not exist, I know that, but can I be sure that I exist? Does the I who allows you to exist in me necessarily have more real life than you, than the dead life that lives in you? Halo-thin flame, absent presence, rhythmic, female silence, twilight of vague flesh, glass left over at the banquet, stained glass window painted by a painter-cum-dreamer in the middle of ages of another Earth.” [10]

“ feelings a confused yet lucid mistake - like an imaginary condor, I spread my wings but do not fly.” [19]

The splintering and fragmentation are not just historically contextualized, but specific to the heteronymonic psyche. Like the stained glass window, Guedes is constructed from a multiplicity of fragmented glass shards, each one jockeying and vying for authorial power and control. Like the crowds eddying around the icons, occasionally offering a prayer, he finds himself frozen in time, without language, without hope, trapped within the ebb and flow of his anxiety. 

“Yes, I live aesthetically in another being. I have sculpted my life like a statue made of material alien to myself. Sometimes, I don’t even recognize me, so external to myself have I become, and so entirely artistically have I deployed my consciousness of myself. Who am I behind the unreality? I don’t know. I must be someone […] If I were to live I would destroy myself. I wanted to be a work of art, at least as regards my soul, since physically that’s impossible. That is why I sculpted myself calmly and indifferently and placed myself in a hothouse, far from draughts and direct sunlight - where the exotic flower of my artificiality can bloom in secluded beauty.”  [29]



Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. Harcourt Brace & Co, 1994.

Cousineau, Thomas. An Unwritten Novel: Fernando Pessoa’s The Book Of Disquiet. Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.

Griffin, Jonathan. Fernando Pessoa: Selected Poems. 2nd ed, Penguin Books, 2000.

Jackson, David. Adverse Genres in Fernando Pessoa. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Pesso, Fernando. The Book of Disquiet. Ed. Jeronimo Pizarro and trans. Margaret Jull Costa. London: Serpent’s Tail’s, 2018. 

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