Thursday, October 31, 2019

Slime Mold, Whitman & Pessoa

I am large, I contain multitudes.
Song of Myself - Walt Whitman

I was researching slime molds the other day and came across this short little video about Physarum polycephalum…and all of a sudden it hit me. This is a great metaphor for Pessoa! 

Slime molds are described as single-cell organisms that defy classification; not quite fungus, not quite plant, exhibiting intelligence in an incredibly unique way. This mold path-finds. It “solves” mazes. But more to the point, it communicates with itself in a way described as “waves pulsing across the body.” At the plasmodium stage, a drop of water is given to the tendrils on one side of the cell, and you can visibly see the cell pulse as the fluid flows across the body. Again, food is placed within reach of it’s tendrils and you see the closest tendrils reach out and swell as they ingest the food and then again pulsate throughout the rest of the body. 

This is Pessoa. An amorphous cell, ingesting and disseminating information throughout his many nuclei. I can picture a drop of Whitman causing “rhythmic contractions” and as each member of the cell ingest and consume, they express Whitman in distinct and yet traceable ways. 

I have spent the past three months with the many faces of Pessoa: 

Vicente Guedes, the decadent, self absorbed, sensationist, with his head in the clouds. He’s extreme, conceited, and an avid dreamer who is still working out his metaphysics. In fragment 54 [1914]: “How to dream metaphysics” he writes:

“The pulverization of the personality: I don’t know what my ideas are or my feelings or my character…If I do feel something, I feel it in the visualized person of some creature who appears inside me. I have replaced myself with my dreams. Each person is merely his dream of himself. I am not even that. 
I never knew what I felt. When people spoke to me of this or that emotion and described it, I always felt they were describing some part of my soul, but when I thought about it later, I was unsure. I never know if the person I feel myself to be really is me, or if I merely think I am. I am bits of characters from my own dramas.” 

Guedes takes Whitman’s sentiment about dreams/dreamers to another level. In “Sleepers” Whitman writes:
I go from bedside to bedside, I sleep close with the other 
sleepers each in turn,
I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers, 
And I become the other dreamers.

In fragment 83 [1915] Guedes adds layers of complexity to dreaming: 
All I’ve ever done is dream. That, and only that, has been the meaning of my existence. The only thing I’ve ever really cared about is my inner scenario…

My mania for creating a false world is still with me and will leave me only when I die. I no longer line up in my desk drawers cotton reels and pawns- with the occasional bishop and knight thrown in- but I regret not doing so…and instead, like someone in winter, cozily warming himself by the fire, I line up in my imagination the ranks of constant, living characters who inhabit my inner world. For I have a whole world of friends inside me, each with his or her own real, definite, imperfect life. 

Some go through hard times, others lead bohemian lives, picturesque and humble. Others are traveling salesmen (dreaming of being a traveling salesmen was always one of my greatest ambitions - unfortunately never realized!).

Complexity and contradiction. It’s not enough to say you become the other dreamers. That’s empty and impersonal; the demarcating lines hover around the “me” and the “other.” For Guedes the lines have blurred, and he often can’t tell where “he” begins and the “others” end. Like the other heteronyms, Guedes struggles to recognize his own image and identity in the reality reflected and refracted from both his waking life and his subconscious dream world. What for Whitman had been a cry of democracy, for Pessoa is saturated in the crisis of modernity, where the fragmented self is beyond assimilation. 

Bernardo Soares feels like a kindred spirit. I’ve met this person before…maybe I am Bernardo Soares, or rather Soares has anticipated me and creates the taxonomy for the thoughts and feelings that have been previously without vocabulary. 

While Soares writes more than half of the Book of Disquiet, numerically he has a third of the “dreams” (300 out of the 953). Reading through Jeronimo Pizarro’s edition, we can see the transformation chronologically play out. The constellations of words shift, the dreams change, the subject and object are frequently out of place and disjointed. 

Fragment 166 [22 Mar 1929] (excerpt):
In the bay, between the woods and the meadows, there rose out of the uncertainty of the blank abyss the inconstancy of flaming desire. There was no need to choose between the wheat and the myrtles, and the distance continued to recede among the cypresses. 
The magical power of words, whether isolated or brought together to form a musical chord, full of intimate resonances and meanings that diverge even as they converge, the pomp of sentences placed in between the meanings of other sentences, malicious vestiges, hopeful woods, and nothing but the peaceful pools in the childhood gardens of my subterfuges…
Thus, between the high walls of absurd audacity, among the lines of trees and the startled shivers of things withering, someone other than me would hear from sad lips the confession denied to the more insistent. Not even if the knights were to ride back down the road visible from atop the castle wall would there be more peace in the Castle of the Last Lost Men, […]

Then, again, as a consequence of the magic, the dead shouts rang out again, and the dogs could be seen hovering and havering on the garden paths. It was like an absurd wake, and the princess of other’s people’s dreams strolled endlessly about at their ease. 

The above is a long chunk, but so much will be relevant to what I want to talk about. For now, I want to mention that once again the “I” is no longer the subject who is dreaming and as such has no agency or control. There is a ‘blank abyss’ that is insurmountable and in the end language has failed and the simulacra have become meaningless. The dogs hover. The dream princesses of other people’s dreams stroll without purpose or direction. The only communicable action is the “havering” or indecisive babbling of the dogs. 

It’s not a surprise that each person in the Pessoan cell would ingest Whitman (and so many others) and then that the output would be different. But what I have found surprising is how different each voice is. It's a “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total work of art.” This aesthetic ideal was championed by Richard Wagner and also referred to as ‘the integrated drama' which is even more to the point.

Pessoa outlines his heteronymic structure in “Bibliographical Notice” in part as: 

“The works of these three poets form, as said, a dramatic set; and the intellectual interactions among these personalities, as well as their own personal relations, are studied in detail. All this will contain biographies to be made, together, when published, with horoscopes and, maybe, with photos. It is a drama in people, instead of a drama in acts.” 1

Each heteronym is a total work of art, and the drama is played out within the tension between their integration and disintegration. They have their own reading notebooks and read widely different things. In Alexander Search’s reading notebook we find reference to six books written by an Italian psychiatrist, Cesare Lombroso and references of four books written by Max Nordau, the renowned physician and social critic. Both Alexander Search and Pessoa seem to have had ownership of Poems by Walt Whitman and his/their copy looked like “a veritable palimpsest, showing stratified comments made by different hands and at different times.” 2

This past month I spent time getting acquainted with Alvaro de Campos, the provocative futurist 3globe trotting engineer and the most public and acerbic of the heteronyms I’ve met thus far.

In an essay “Sensationism began with the friendship between Fernando Pessoa…” (1916) Campos describes himself as:

“Álvaro de Campos is excellently defined as a Walt Whitman with a Greek poet inside. He has all the power of intellectual, emotional and physical sensation that characterised Whitman. But he has the precisely opposite trait — a Power of construction and orderly development of a poem that no poet since Milton has attained.” 

In Campos’ poetry we see the insatiable desire not only to feel all the feels but also to be all the feels:
My entire life—in its nervous, hysterical, absurd ensemble— 
The great organism in which every act of piracy ever committed 
Would be a conscious cell, and all of me would spin As a huge, rocking putridity, embodying all of this! 
The feverish machine of my teeming visions Now spins at such frightening, inordinate speed 
That my flywheel consciousness
Is just a blurry circle whirring in the air. 
Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum! 

Campos is not just the dreamer living the dreams of the multitudes, he’s also the environment, he’s the totality of being in one conscious seething cell. 

My initial reading of the Maritime Ode was that is was almost an extreme satirization of the Futurist ManifestoAs Pasciolla says "... Campos uses onomatopoeia and innumerable typographical devices to sing the praise of modern life, the crowd, speed, electricity and the machine." 4 Marinetti et al. wrote up their manifesto in the feverish days of 1909, when monarchies and archaic regimes were being overthrown and the future seemed actionable and within their grasp (futurism is the precursor to fascism so…things may have gotten a little out of hand.) The whole manifesto is applicable but for now I’ll just mention a few points: 

1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness. 
3. Up to now, literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy and sleep. We intend to eat aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap. 
5. We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the earth, along the circle of its orbit. 
9. We will glorify war - the worlds only hygiene - militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women. 

We see all of this, the totality of the futurist manifesto, within the poetry of Campos. And yet it’s more than that. It’s not just the ideals and mantras of futurism, he has ingested futurism, and Marinetti, and Whitman and everything else. Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” is titrated with Marinetti’s danger song and Campos’ “old aunt” singing lullabies before bed. No priority is given. The democratic experience is lived out in both death and song.  

Maritime Ode (1915) begins with the poet standing on a pier and watching a ship slowly depart. We feel the same uncertain blank abyss from before, the separation between the self and the other, the failure of identity, of knowledge and of language. The poet retraces the “better life” (Whitman’s “Passage to India” - Rousseau's “noble savage” - Richard Wagner’s folk legends - etc) and slowly the rational (“to look”/“to see”) is replaced with sensation. (“to dream”/ “to feel”). 5

The uncertainty of the blank abyss the inconstancy of flaming desire builds to a climax and then comes screeching to a halt in song, or rather noise. This is the dogs havering from above, the frantic and yet unintelligible noise that is a metonym for the chaos of the twentieth century. 

Astern he dies, howling his song: 
Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum! 
And then yells in a blasting, unreal voice: 
Darby M’Graw-aw-aw-aw-aw!
Darby M’Graw-aw-aw-aw-aw-aw-aw-aw! Fetch a-a-aft the ru-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-um, Darby! 
Ah, what a life! what a life that was! Hey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey! Hey-la-oh-la-oh-la-OH-la-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah! Hey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey! 
Split keels, sunken ships, blood on the seas! Decks awash in blood, sectioned corpses! Severed fingers left lying on gunwales! Heads of children here and there! 
People with gouged eyes shouting, screaming! Hey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey! Hey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey!
I bundle up in all this as in a cloak when it’s cold!

I rub against all this like a cat in heat against a wall! I roar for all this like a famished lion! 
I rush at all this like a crazed bull!
I dig my nails into this, break my claws on it and chew it till 
my teeth bleed! Hey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey! 
Suddenly I hear the old cry, Now harsh, angry, metallic, Like a bugle blasting at my side, Calling the sighted prey, 
The schooner that’s going to be seized: 
Aho-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o- - - - yyyy . . .
Schooner aho-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o- - - - yyyy . . . 

Eventually his aunt's lullaby brings his focus back to the present and the glories of modernity: 

I’m no longer interested in the incoming steamer from before. It’s still far away.
Only what’s close now cleanses my soul.
My healthy, rugged, pragmatic imagination

Is concerned now only with useful, modern things,

With freighters, steamers and passengers,

With rugged, immediate, modern, commercial, real things. The flywheel in me is slowing down. 

Eventually as the ecstasy of modernity ebbs, he's again standing at the pier, watching the ship sail away. As the distance between them infinitely expands, he whispers: 

Disappear, follow your destiny and leave me...
Who am I to weep for you and question you? 
Who am I to speak to you and love you? 
Then nothing, just me and my sadness,
And the great city now bathed in sunlight,
And the real, naked hour like a wharf without ships,

And the slow turning of the crane, like a turning compass, 
Tracing a semicircle of I don’t know what emotion

In the staggered silence of my soul . . . 

I’m not sure how to end this, perhaps there is no ending. To quote Jonathon Culler: “there will always be new contextual possibilities that can be adduced, so that the one thing we cannot do is to set limits.” I think this is a good summation. There are no limits. 

I think maybe my parting salutation will be to say that I find Pessoa enchanting. He’s brilliant and yet playful, he doesn’t have the temperament or patience to become an acolyte of a singular doctrine or theory and instead tries them all. Reads everything. Experiences everything. And then in response creates heteronyms, distinct people within himself to live out the “spectacular view of the consciousness of the twentieth century” from different perspectives. He is the poet exemplar. He’s all of it. 

Like Physarum polycephalum, Pessoa is a phylum of his own. As the mycologist says of her beloved slime mold: we lack the words and vocabulary to perfectly describe what is happening.

All Pessoa texts translated by Richard Zenith.

1. Fernando Pessoa, “Tabua Bilbliografica,” in Presenca No. 17 (1928) 10. Found in The Transformation Book: Edition Notes & Introduction by Nuno Ribeiro & Claudia Souza
2. Francesca Pasciolla, Walt Whitman in Fernando Pessoa (London: Critical, Cultural and Communications Press, 2016), 15.
3. Francesca Pasciolla, who makes the case that Pessoa/ Campos is not futurist, in that only a few of his works would fit within the parameters of this description. 
4. Francesca Pasciolla, Walt Whitman in Fernando Pessoa (London: Critical, Cultural and Communications Press, 2016), 23.
5. Fernano Pessoa, A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, ed. Richard Zenith (London: Penguin, 2006) xiii.

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