Wednesday, January 2, 2013

"The Book of Disquiet" by Fernando Pessoa

Stills are from "The Broken Hieroglyphics of the Stars" my upcoming animated video based on The Book of Disquiet

Reviewed by Brian Spaeth

A week or so after finishing this book and returning it to the library, I slowly began to feel the need to re-visit it, as if a lingering mystery needed to be solved. The impression that it left in my mind was somewhat vague, unsettling, luminously beautiful, and not easily put into words. I felt transformed somehow—as if a subtle shift had occurred in my perceptions and thought processes.
        When asked to describe what the book was about, I found myself unable to adequately articulate my impressions of it, so I decided to take another look and determine what exactly it is that Pessoa does that makes this book such an extraordinary reading experience.
        I had initially read the book in sequential order, but now I'm choosing passages at random, which is perhaps a better way to appreciate its wonders. This time I am also proceeding much more slowly, reverently, savoring and pondering each passage, and absorbing its effluence.
        The name Pessoa is translated as persona, and this could not be more appropriate for this author's body of work. This book is a series of journal entries, most dating from the 1930's, which explore the nature of the self.
        A literary cousin of Kafka, Pessoa writes from a profound alienation that questions and examines everything about his identity—and who asserts over and over, and in every way imaginable, that he does not, in fact, exist.

How to describe Pessoa? Perhaps as an alchemist who creates his own reconfigured table of the elements—a weary traveler navigating ghostly latitudes and spidery longitudes—a mathematician utilizing alternate tables of imaginary multiplication—a grinder of lenses and mirrors that open up a vast interior landscape, refracting an endless multiplicity of selves, each one engaged in its own process of obfuscation and subterfuge.
        He employs a merciless and relentlessly negative technique of introspection and analysis—a destroyer of every assumption and definition of what it means to be a person. But from this negation and destruction, there arises a strange and inexplicable beauty.
        Pessoa worked all his life as a bookkeeper, and from the humble confines of his office work place, with its stultifying and repetitive tasks, he turned his world inside out, and in the process, expanded it into a limitless inner space.
        He tells us over and over that he escapes from the banalities of his life without escaping—he finds an inner life without desiring one—he experiences deeply felt emotions without feeling them—he is “nostalgic about the hypothesis of being able one day to be nostalgic, even if that nostalgia is absurd.”

He creates a constellation of personas encapsulated within a single thought—and in that same thought denies their existence, while denying his own. He inhabits an elusive, ever-shifting plane of existence, as the bottom is pulled out from under the reader at every step. He flees from a self that he doesn’t believe in and has no desire to flee from, and denies that he is fleeing even as he does so!
He is brought to tears by nostalgia for things that have never happened, and places that don’t exist, and feels himself to be most fully alive when he achieves a state of emotional and intellectual deadness.
        He thrives on contradiction, finding a measure of solace in the see-saw logic of his analysis, while carefully reminding us that he has no desire for solace.
        All of these protestations and denials might sound tedious, but out of this negativity, he produces sentences that are spun gold, miraculously woven from the threads of despair and torment.
        There are numerous religious overtones: "I wonder if my voice (…) does not incarnate the substance of thousands of voices (…). " But as soon as he experiences this epiphany, he is immediately pulled back down to the shabby and corporeal confines of his lonely room, his human vanities and weaknesses.
        He is appalled at a photograph of himself in a group portrait among his office co-workers: he sees the cold eye of the camera revealing a complete lack of character in his own face—and a seeming abundance of character in the faces of his co-workers—even the office boy appears to be a person of substance and self possession.
        I feel as if I could spend the rest of my life ruminating over the passages in this book, filled as it is with gems such as: "…my life…as absurd as a public clock that has stopped."
        Strange inversions occur regularly: "the oil lamp of my lost childhood…darkens me with the light…"
        In one passage he remarks that "…the distance between pedestrians is noticeable…" which recalls the method of the Modernist painter who realizes that the space between objects is of equal importance to the objects, and must be treated with equal emphasis—the negative shapes assume the solidity and identity of objects. Pessoa relentlessly drives this technique to its farthest reaches: the negative shapes or spaces assume an importance even greater than the so-called “real” objects. The “real” objects of his life are transformed into mere phantom nodes which serve to connect the meridians which carry the bio-electric current of existence.
        Pessoa is the intrepid explorer of these spaces between the phantom selves—a Magellan of inner space who sails these phantom oceans in search of himself. He inhabits the interstices between imaginary selves, exploring and unsparingly analyzing their nature. He is a world traveler who never leaves the quotidian confines of his office or home.
        He works almost in the manner of a criminal who tries to erase any evidence of his involvement in the crime of existing—carefully covering his tracks, and denying that he made any tracks to begin with.

But even on these phantom nodes, he is unsure of his footing: “But what am I experiencing when I read myself as if I were someone else? On which bank am I standing if I see myself in the depths? I am falling through all of infinite space, in a fall without direction, infinituple and empty.”
        He describes his soul as "a black maelstrom, a vast vertigo around a vacuum, the movement of an infinite ocean around a hole in the void, and in the waters… float all the images that I have seen and heard in the world—there are houses, faces, books, boxes, musical refrains, and isolated syllables, in a sinister, bottomless whirl. And I am the center that doesn’t exist…except as a convention in the geometry of the abyss.”
        In this passage, he suggests the model of inner space as described by R.D. Laing in The Divided Self , in which the schizoid (or in the more severe instance, the schizophrenic) creates a constellation of false selves which are deployed to deal with the external world and which orbit (agonizingly!) around the real self, which remains hidden and isolated, never interacting directly with others. In some case histories, the real self eventually withers away from lack of emotional and ontological nourishment. In the case of the full-blown schizophrenic, the person is unable to distinguish the array of false selves from each other, or from the core personality. The difference between the schizoid and the schizophrenic is perhaps one of degree. Pessoa, as he clearly states, denies the existence of the core self around which this ghostly constellation of false selves revolves. We see the characteristic schizoid discomfort at being perceived as an object by other people—that shock—that rude inversion that instantly transforms you from a loftily remote subject, into an object as perceived by others. It is this discomfort that causes the schizoid to flee from the eye of the other. But in Pessoa’s case, the torment is taken to greater depths of unease: he sees himself in the imagined expressions of people passing by in the streets—as if they somehow knew of the emptiness in his soul—and he flees from his “all-too-objectified intuition of the reality of the living souls of others.”

 “There are images in the secret corners of books that live more clearly than many men or women. There are literary phrases that possess an absolutely human individuality.” Here, he demonstrates that for him, the hieroglyphics of ink on paper have gained absolute and entire independence and soul.
        For him, even his memories are suspect: “Speaking of the multitudinous manifestations of autumn, he writes: “Today, if I write it down, it’s because I remember it. The autumn I have is the autumn I lost…
         “…people take on the aspect of symbols, and…form a prophetic or occult script which describes my life in the shadows.  The office becomes a page with people as words; the street is a book…”
        He is so estranged from himself, so uncertain of ontological legitimacy that he finds himself incapable of ordinary transactions, such as the simple act of buying bananas from the vendors in the street: “But I’m ashamed of rituals, symbols, of buying things on the street. The women might not wrap them properly or sell them as they should be sold because I don’t know how to buy them as they should be bought.  They might find my voice bizarre when I ask the price. It’s better to write than to dare to live, even if living is nothing more than buying bananas in the sunlight.”
        He has a nostalgia for things (and people) that he has never known, and people passing by in the street sadden him because they were nothing to him, but they symbolized all of life.
        In his youth he invented imaginary pen-pals, and actually wrote to them—but of course he carried the game to an otherworldly extreme: they wrote him back!
        But if this were all, we would be left with mere pathology and tedium, and self-indulgent neurosis—but we are in the hands of genius and we are offered much more.
        Tedium is one of Pessoa’s main concerns and subjects—he is oppressed by tedium—his entire life is built around it, but he is able to escape its debilitating effects.
        He ascribes emotions and identities to streets and buildings, and then inserts himself into their melancholy sway. He continually projects his identity into other people and objects. “And so in broad daylight, it happens that dreams have their huge cinemas.”

 In one of his most beautiful passages, he likens the fractured nature of his multiplicity of non-selves to “…the night where the broken hieroglyphics of the stars appear without any meaning.”
He has a horror of "being understood" by others (his co-workers), and prefers "the martyrdom of not being found extraordinary."  Here, again, are signs of the schizoid's fear of being known by the other. To be known is to be invaded, destroyed. The fragile self cannot withstand this and must remain hidden in order to survive. But again, Pessoa assigns religious overtones to his condition: "I want the crucifixion of their not distinguishing me in any way. And for those tortures, as for the others, there is a lust."
        His disembodiment is revealed by statements such as: "Some (men) are seducers and even non-existent women don't dare resist them."
        As I float through this book again, I feel myself drawn irresistibly into Pessoa's state of mind—it offers a kind of solace, and freedom, even as it oppresses and condemns. I feel the strange spirit of the book as it influences me, and shapes this review.
        "…and I stop writing, because I stop writing.”


  1. Brian, this is a magnificent and compelling review of my favourite book. Thank you.

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