Monday, September 30, 2019

The Book of Disquiet: Phase 2 - Bernardo Soares (Fernando Pessoa)

I’ve spent the last two months reading The Book of Disquiet. I’ve read books about this book, I’ve read books about Pessoa…and instead of clarity and illumination I feel like I’m in a haze. There’s isn’t one flickering Alexandrian lighthouse to steer me safely through the literary shoals of Pessoan prose…but rather many flickering lights in opposing directions. The question is how to proceed… The more I read this book, the less I know how to describe it. 

There’s only one way forward. I turn on The Milk-Eyed Mender by Joanna Newsom, and plunge in. This isn’t a book to be read like other books…It’s subversive. It’s personality claws itself into your heart and you’re left with emotional scar tissue rather than a synopsis.

In some ways it’s kind of like a magical 8-ball for those suffering from chronic depression. Question: “Will I enjoy this ten day excursion across four different countries with my extended family?”

Shake. Shake. Shake. 

“I find the idea of traveling only vicariously seductive, as if it were an idea more likely to seduce someone other than myself. The whole vast spectacle of the world fills my awakened imagination with a wave of brilliant tedium; like someone grown weary of all gestures, I sketch out a desire and the anticipated monotony of possible landscapes disturbs the surface of my stagnant heart like a rough wind.” [213] 

8-Ball version: “Don’t count on it.” 

Question: “Should I take a shower and get dressed…it’s been four days.” 

Shake. Shake. Shake. 

“Action is a disease of thought, a cancer of the imagination. To act is to exile oneself. Every action is incomplete and imperfect.” [71]

“Anything that involves action, be it war or reasoning, [or showering?] 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]

8-Ball version: “My reply is no.” 

Question: “Should I try to teach my kids the basic geography of the regions we’re visiting?” 

Shake. shake. Shake. 

“The supreme, most honorable state for a superior man is not even to know the name of his country’s head of state, or whether he lives in a monarchy or a republic.” [52]

8-Ball version: ‘My sources say no.” 

Question: “Will I regret following this advice?” 

“..I myself, who dares but does not act, will end up, with no regrets, among those soggy reeds made muddy by the nearby river and by my own flaccid inertia, beneath the vast autumn skies of evening, in impossibly far-flung places. And through it all, like the shrill whistle of naked anxiety, I will feel my soul in my dreams- a deep, pure howl, useless in the darkness of the world.” [320]

8-Ball version: “Reply hazy, try again.” 

Having experienced my own bout of major depression, Pessoa’s prose feels like discovering the journal of a kindred spirit, long forgotten, hidden beneath the bed. There’s an immediate recognition of this shifting topography of the mind…I’ve been to this terrain; I’ve traveled this vast expanse; alone and exhausted, with the impossibility of one more step, the impossibility of one more breath, looming almost menacingly before me. 

“I found myself in this world one day, I don’t know when, and until then, from birth I presume, I had lived without feeling. If I asked where I was, everyone deceived me, everyone contradicted everyone else. If I asked them to tell me what to do, everyone lied and told me something different. If I became lost and stopped along the road, everyone was shocked that I did not just continue on to wherever the road led (though no one knew where that was), or did not simply retrace my steps- I, who did not even know whence I came, having only woken up at the crossroads. I realized that I was on a stage and did not know the words that everyone else picked up instantly even though they did not know them either. I saw that though I was dressed as a pageboy they had given me no queen to wait on and blamed me for that. I saw that I had in my hands a message to deliver and when I told them the paper was blank, they laughed at me. I still don’t know if they laughed because all such pieces of paper are blank or because all messages are only hypothetical.” [306]

This is Kafka. This is Prufrock. This is depression. Waking up like Rip Van Winkle, in a world you used to inhabit that no longer makes sense, where all the landmarks are unrecognizable and all words have become indecipherable. 

In The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon describes depression as: “an emotional pain that forces itself on us against our will, and then breaks free of its externals. Depression is not just a lot of pain; but too much pain can compost itself into depression. Grief is depression in proportion to circumstances; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstances. It is tumbleweed distress that thrives on thin air, growing despite its detachment from nourishing earth. It can be described only in metaphor and allegory.”  

“I have lived so much without ever having lived. I have thought so much without ever having thought. I feel weighed down by worlds of unenacted violence, of stillborn adventures. I am sick of what I never had nor will have, weary of gods always just about to exist. I bear on my body the wounds of all the battles I did not fight. My muscles are weary from efforts I never even considered making.” [389]

Pessoa’s metaphors and similes are unhinged, they push association beyond the comfortable into the realm of the unreasonable where anything can happen. His narrative style is filled with non-sequiturs and ellipses, thoughts are aborted almost mid-sentence. This is not comfortable reading, it’s a labyrinth with a center that cannot hold. In An Unwritten Novel: Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Thomas Cousineau describes Pessoa’s poetic style in an intriguing way: “When we look more closely at the emergence of poetic figures within the prosaic texture of The Book, we notice that it occurs in three quite distinct forms of amplification, contradiction and comparison. Like ellipses, all of these figures create reciprocities where we would expect to find mutual exclusions, although they do this in quite different ways. At first glance, ellipses imply incompletion; as we have already noticed, however, Soares’s ellipses often create co-presences between fragmentation and wholeness.”  Intriguing. There’s a tension between the fragmentation and wholeness that’s amplified and then left unresolved and ambiguous. 

“Like the useless corpse of the average man being lowered into the common ground, the equally useless corpse of my prose, written while I wait, is lowered into a general oblivion. What right have I to make fun of another man’s pork chop, red wine and girlfriend?” [176]

“My dream failed even in its metaphors and figurations. My empire didn’t even go as far as a pack of old playing cards. My victory didn’t even include a teapot or an ancient cat. I will die as I lived, among the bric-a-brac of my room, sold off by weight among the postscripts of things lost.” [193]

“All of this leaves me with the impression of a vile, monstrous animal created out of the unwitting dreams of the soggy crusts of desire, the chewed-over remains of sensations.”  [234]

There’s something beyond the modernist breakdown of language here…something deeply personal and without grounding. Like Prufrock, this non-book is not comprised of action or plot, there is no “going.” In a previous post I described Prufrock as being caught in a net of indecision, hemmed in by his own self-loathing. But behind the inaction, T.S. Eliot has created an almost obsessively refined structure. There are bones that the futility and ‘flaccid inertia’ cling to. Pessoa is different; here we have raw, desperate, unfiltered, unorganized emotion.

“I’m two people who mutually keep their distance - Siamese twins living separate lives.” [275]

Using Jeronimo Pizarro’s edition which is organized chronologically we see Pessoa age and shape shift before our eyes. Vicente Guedes makes his last entry in the spring of 1920 and then after a decade long pause he is reborn as Bernardo Soares. Siamese twins living separate lives.  This multiplicity is always just below the surface, and towards the end of the book becomes a burden, a fractured displaced soul, searching for a place to land. His identity is fluid rather than fixed and as such the disparity of text reflects the disparity of his personhood. 

On the back of my copy of this book, the Irish novelist, Mike McCormack describes this book as ‘Beautiful and life affirming.’…I wonder what he means by that. I found the narrative to slowly devolve into one long extended death wish. 

“I feel physically sickened by ordinary humanity, which is, besides, the only kind there is. And I sometimes play at provoking that nausea, the way one can sometimes make oneself vomit in order to relive the urge to vomit.” [234]

“I, too - this feeling and thinking soul, the universe I am to myself - yes, tomorrow I, too, will be someone who no longer walks these streets, someone others will evoke with a vague ‘I wonder what’s become of him?’ And everything I do, everything I feel, everything I experience, will be just one less passer-by on the daily streets of some city or other.” [437]

“Death is liberation because to die is to need no one else.” [438]

The first seven of eleven times suicide is mentioned (from 1913-1916) it is from the perspective of others committing this act or posed as a theoretical conundrum: “Why did he commit suicide?” [46: 1913]  Or “I never considered suicide a solution, because I only hate life out of love for it.” [88: 1915] 

By 1930, Soares is exhausted. Suicide is no longer objectively theoretical but dangerously close to becoming a dream of relief and respite. 

“Then I wonder at my ability to survive, at my cowardly presence here among these people, on terms of perfect equality, in genuine accord with all their trite illusions. All the solutions spawned by my imagination flash upon my mind like beams from a distant lighthouse: suicide, flight, renunciation, in short, the grand aristocratic gestures of our individuality, the cloak-and-dagger of existence like mine with no balconies to climb.” [220]

Using electronic books you can track constellations of words, and in a book like this watch how these constellations change over time. The word “dream” is used 953 times throughout the book, 658 times within the first phase. The word “dream” is exchanged for dreamless sleep, “sleep” being used 486 times, only 39 of which are in the first phase. 

In the first phase we have: “Creator of absurdities, disciples of sexless sentences. Let your silence rock me to sleep, let your merely-being caress and soothe and comfort me, O Herald from Beyond, O Empress of Absence, Virgin Mother of all Silences, Hearth and Home of shivering souls, Guardian Angel of the abandoned, Human landscape- unbelievably sad - eternal Perfection.” [5:1913]

By 1929 the mood has shifted from lyrical to the somber: “We sleep our lives away, the eternal children of Fate.” [192]

“Apart from those vulgar dreams, which flow shamefully down the soul’s sewers, and to which no one would dare confess, and which haunt our sleepless nights like grubby ghosts, the slimy, greasy, seething detritus of our repressed sensibility, what absurd, horrifying, unspeakable things the soul can, with a little effort, find in its hidden corners.” [197:129]

As the dreams, coupled with the hope of the young and immortal, slowly ebb and fade, words like “tedium” (395 times, 37 in the first phase) and “death” (395 times, 60 in the first phase) form a constellation with words like dying, leaving, shipwrecked, flaccid, boredom, malaise, etc. all words that belong to the genre of hopeless exhaustion. 

“So great is my tedium, so overwhelming the horror of being alive, that I cannot imagine what could possibly serve as a palliative, an antidote, a balm, a source of oblivion. The idea of sleeping, horrifies me too. As does the idea of dying. Leaving or staying are the same impossible thing. Hoping and doubting are equally cold and grey. I am a shelf full of empty bottles.” [314]

The word “you” is used 957 times, 797 times throughout the first phase. The first phase is more of a dialogue, albeit one in which the “you” is imagined. There is life outside of the narrative voice. By the second phase the narrative voice is steeped in an introspective world couched in self-loathing and hopelessness, the petri dish of depression. 

I think it would ultimately be simplistic to say this book is about depression. It is about so many things… I’ve read books about Hamlet and Prufrock and language, trying to find the right toe hold for this insurmountable climb... But whatever themes ebb and flow, the current of depression is unavoidable. 

On December 2,1935, both Vincente Guedes and Bernardo Soares died, along with Pessoa and his seventy-three other heteronyms, and were buried together in the Cemetery of Pleasure in the city of Lisbon. In the end he did not take his own life. So maybe, when Mike McCormack said this book was “life affirming” he meant that we can witness a shipwreck of a life, buoyed on the flotsam of anguish and depression, struggling to make sense of life and communication in a world where both concepts are fraught with complexity…and yet, through the despair and hopelessness, our hero survives, battling the temptation each day to end it quietly and slip away. 

Question: “Am I even marginally close to understanding what this book was about?”

Shake. Shake. Shake.

“…I am offering you this book because I know it to be both beautiful and useless. It teaches nothing, preaches nothing, arouses no emotion. It is a stream that runs into an abyss of ashes that the wind scatters and which neither fertilize nor harm - I put my whole soul into its making, but I wasn't thinking of that at the time, only of my own sad self and of you, who are no one. And because this book is absurd, I love it; because it is useless I want to give it to you, and because there is no point in wanting to give it to you, I give it anyway…Pray for me when you read it, bless me by loving it and forget it as I forget those women, mere dreams I never knew how to dream.” [17]

8-Ball version: “Very doubtful.”

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

Solomon, Andrew. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Scribner of New York, 2001. pg.15

Cousineau, Thomas. An Unwritten Novel: Fernando Pessoa’s The Book Of Disquiet. Dalkey Archive Press, 2013. pg. 226

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.

Ghose, Zulfikar. Hamlet, Prufrock and Language. Palgrave Macmillan, 1978.

Gray de Castro, Mariana, editor. Fernando Pessoa's Modernity Without Frontiers: Influences, Dialogues and Responses. Tamesis, 2013.

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

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

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

Pessoa, Fernando. The Transformation Book. Edited by Nuno Ribeiro & Claudi Souza. First Contra Mundum Press, 2014.

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