FERNANDO PESSOA, The Selected Prose of Fernando PESSOA, Richard Zenith, translator and editor, Grove Press, New York, 2001
Of course, reading an English translation of Fernando Pessoa’s prose writing is frustrating because you cannot have the music of the original language, hence the music of the author’s personal and mental experience. In the same way, you cannot have the architecture of the original syntax and even worse, you cannot have the paradigmatic semantic and oral/auditory networks of the original language. Translating is betraying the originality of the original work. The main loss holds in two words, apart from the one I have repeated several times: alienation and deprivation. I will not then in any way try to deem, let alone redeem, the style, beauty, and complexity of this author’s works.
Yet, there are plenty of things that can be said because the translation reveals some elements without necessarily distorting them. These elements have to do with general semantic ideas and structures that do not depend on language. I will try to pick some and analyze what they represent. I am not interested in the psychoanalysis or psychiatric evaluation of the author himself (1888–1935) who died before his normal life expectancy due to his extreme alcoholism that wiped him out of life at a precocious date. He was at least spared the Popular Fronts in France and Spain and the cruel civil war that followed in Spain. I will only consider the characters in his here-collected works, knowing that Fernando Pessoa is cheating with the process of creative writing because he is making this Fernando Pessoa a character of his own written prose. But I will not speak of the real Fernando Pessoa I will refer to as the author, always of the character Fernando Pessoa present and used, often abused, in this prose selection.
The author has a theory about these characters who are all of them declared to be the authors of some of these prose writings. Let’s first enumerate them knowing that the author published these prose-works under their different names and the author often theorized about them as being his heteronyms or semi-heteronyms. Who are they, and we can say who because the author treats them as real persons with a biography and a position in society besides being the authors of the texts published under their names? In common authors’ rights or copyright regulations, they are pennames, but Fernando Pessoa is one of these pennames. The list is long: I take the list from the January 13, 1935 letter to Adolfo Casais Monteiro.
1. First, Chevalier de Pas, when the author was six years old.
2. Second, Ricardo Reis on March 8, 1914.
3. Third, Alberto Caeiro defined as “the return of Fernando Pessoa as Alberto Caeiro to Fernando Pessoa himself,” when speaking of the poem “Slanting Rain” by Fernando Pessoa. In such a more than circular, totally entangled and messed-up affiliation of the one to the other through the one by the other and both being nothing but one in two with each other, we can accept here the author’s assumption in his constant self-distantiation and self-analysis, like page 125: “From the psychiatric point of view, I’m a hysterical neurasthenic but fortunately my neuropsychosis is rather weak.” And then the author gargles with such words: “neurasthenic… hysterical element… hysterical traits… my hysteria…instability of feelings and sensations… emotional fickleness and fluctuation… protean neurosis… a mental introvert… like most born neurasthenics… my extreme emotionalism… my extreme rationalism… an overly analytical and logical intelligence… my abulia and parabulia…” over less than ONE page. Of course, all that concerns the character Fernando Pessoa, not the author who anyway is not qualified nor able to do such a self-analysis which was absolutely rejected by people like Sigmund Freud and a few others.
4. Fourth, Alvaro de Campos who rejoins Ricardo Reis as the second, or first, the order is not important, disciple of Alberto Caeiro.
5. Fifth, “my semi-heteronym Bernardo Soares, the official declared author of The Book of Disquiet.
6. Sixth, Alvaro Coelho de Athayde, the fourteenth Baron de Teive, as the author of The Education of the Stoic.
7. Seventh, to conclude the Christian Holy Week, which the author would reject as probably iconoclastic, the only female in this colony, a hunchback girl of eighteen who writes the Letter from a Hunchback Girl to a Metalworker, Maria José.
8. Eighth, the Second Coming, the character Fernando Pessoa who intervenes in many texts as one character opposed to one of the author’s heteronyms. That makes the colony, company or gang a real redemptive team since it is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, just before the Apocalypse and Doomsday. This remark is the final nail needed to crucify the author who cannot spend one page without rejected Christianity, all the more because he is in his works and his characters a direct impersonation of Jesus Christ himself if at least we believe what the characters say about him. But that concerns more the real author than the character, the latter being so vain at times that we cannot even push aside the idea that this Fernando Pessoa in this dramatic prose-writing believes he is the Savior of this world, though the author reminds him regularly of the fact that he is nothing but a dramatic and pathetic playwright’s puppet.
But my reflection is not on these eight characters and the Christian allusion we can feel behind and then the contradiction with the numerous anti-Christian assertions in the name of paganism, of a multiplicity of gods that correspond to the multiplicity of human personalities, experiences, and experiments. Paganism and multi-polytheism are not really at stake here. It is quite obvious Pessoa does not really know the “logic” of the multiple gods in ancient polytheist societies. In fact, I am not sure he knows much beyond Greek mythology and its copycat Roman mythologies. And I am not going to discuss the point because his choice of a polytheistic vision is purely ideological. It is in no way “natural” as he is prone to say. It is only the way societies started conceptualizing and spiritualizing their experience of real life. They saw, not because what they saw existed but because that was their own conjecturizing and mental construction, a vast array of spirits and they established a lot of rituals. These spirits could be existential, having to do with life, death, birth, initiation (at 12–13, that has become circumcision in some societies for boys, and excision for girls), coming of age, procreation, fertility. They could also be real and attached to the moon, the sun, stars and planets, Venus and Mars for example, and the cycles attached to each one of them. They could also be attached to moments in these cycles, like day and night, the seasons, the seasonal weather, and many other things. They finally could be attached to other living beings, animals of course, but also plants, trees, and particularly the wild plants that were domesticated by man and transformed man’s life, like Maize becoming the Maize God, Jun Nal Ye, for the Mayas, and under other names for many Meso-American old agricultural civilizations. All that is missing in Pessoa, at least in this selection of prose texts.
But it is a lot more interesting to discuss this systematic attitude that erases the identity of the real author and splits a hypothetical identity into eight different entities, and in fact some more with a lot of minor heteronyms or semi-heteronyms, without speaking of the women in the play The Mariner — A Static Drama in One Act. There the dead woman and the three waking women are nothing but plain theatrical characters. That can lead you to the idea that the author is looking at himself as a bunch of actors on the stage of life, or at least the stage of life he is imagining, because I am not sure he is realistic about what life really is. I will come back to The Anarchist Banker later, but let’s say here this Anarchist Banker text, with an extra character who could be considered as another heteronym, but yet with the proper status of a character being interviewed by the author, or an interviewer who is supposed to be the author — but is he really? — is at least of a fictional journalistic nature that makes it something absolutely different from what it pretends to be.
For the time being, we can bring up, several ideas in this imbroglio.
First, the author does not want to project his real personality into his writing, and he does not accept the idea he has only one personality, or that his one personality is absolutely unified. He says several times that his nature is double, one side feminine and the other masculine, but that is not the author, but the character Fernando Pessoa who also expresses several times his revulsion and refusal of anything gay or homosexual (the two are not the same thing), both practice or attraction. He invests this homosexuality in some of his heteronyms and semi-heteronyms. But, in the very same way, we may think the character Fernando Pessoa has no sexual life at all, his heteronyms and semi-heteronyms have no sexual life either. They are haunted by sexuality, by masturbation, by passion and love but they have no real sexual intercourse with anyone or, as for that, anything else. The final letter by Maria José is typical of this absolute frustration the author imposes onto his characters: “I’m neither a woman nor a man, because nobody thinks I’m anything but a creature that fills up the space in this window and is an eyesore to everyone around. God help me… I hope you never find out about me so as not to laugh, for I know I can’t hope for more. I love you with all my heart and life. There I said it, and I’m crying.” We should discuss this female semi-heteronym who is neither a woman nor a man, — whereas Fernando Pessoa, as a man, says he is both — who has a hump and whose body is distorted with arthritis in the legs. She can’t even stand up on her legs and straight with her hunch or hump. When he deals with female characters, the author seems to be at least sexist.
Second, every single heteronym or semi-heteronym is conceived as a stage-enacted reproduction of the author but systematically distorted in a way or another, and/or amputated, castrated, deprived of some elements of the author, and this is true even of the character Fernando Pessoa. This systematic psychological excision or circumcision makes all these characters stripped or bereft of something essential that could make the character livable, humanly plausible. They are in a way all of them cartoons, caricatures of the author so that the author is never really present in his writing. This creates a feeling of alienation, frustration, dissatisfaction, even discontentment in the absolute meaning Sigmund Freud gave to the term in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929). Sigmund Freud was targeting the two main discontented political parties of Germany in 1929 after the Big Depression, viz. Ernst Thaelmann’s Communist Party and Hitler’s National-Socialist party. The latter seized power in 1933 and the former’s leader died in Buchenwald. This systematic discontentment leads to a negative feeling and it is not the concept of “fifth empire” for Portugal that he will invest in the nationalism of António de Oliveira Salazar after the May 28, 1926 military coup and his appointment as Prime Minister on July 5, 1932. He finally found the extreme he needed to invest his characters’ discontentment and frustration into: then he just had to lock himself up in his alcoholism and let his characters play on his mental slightly distorted stage. And I must say there is then a depth that can be rebuilt in this exploded multiplicity that goes millennia beyond his present time. We can probably compare him to Gabriele d’Annunzio who found in Mussolini the force he needed outside his own self to be able to balance this very self into some kind of peaceful coexistence with the world.
Third, what is the anarchism of his character, the Anarchist Banker, in this political or ideological approach? Is it a prank, a satire, a real conviction? Probably these three things at once, and many others in the exploded way of thinking of this author projected into his exploded characters. The Banker is a character like many others and he is telling his life, totally fictitious of course, to a Fernando Pessoa who is there only to say he approves what the Banker says and to ask some slightly disruptive questions, but nothing very deep or provocative. And we know, from the very start, what it is all about: the inflated ego of this anarchist banker. “I’m an anarchist in theory and practice… I’m an intelligent anarchist. I, in other words, am the true anarchist” Note how the article “the” makes this character vain enough to assert there is only one true anarchist and he is that unique true anarchist. The humility of “I am a true anarchist” is beyond the self-centered umbilical personality of this character. He tried to integrate anarchist groups of trade-unionists or political activists and he was side-tracked, rejected, laughed at when he defended his vision of his true anarchism, that, by the way, is so close to my brother’s anarchism in the 1950–60–70s turned ecological in the 1980–90s. He too came to that true individualistic anarchism from a Christian education turned anti-militaristic into conscientious objection, which led him into prison, with a military court-martial afterward that hit a compromise, condemning his refusal to abide by the law on conscientious objection, but freeing him de facto at the end of the trial. But let’s look at this author’s Anarchist Banker’s principles. Objective: “An anarchist is someone who rebels against the injustice of people being born socially unequal.” He rejects any reformist approach: “Any system besides pure anarchism, which aims to do away with all systems, is likewise a fiction.” That makes him reject any “progressive” approach he calls social fictions. He needs a concept of justice to justify his objective and he states it in very simple terms: “Where does the notion of justice come from? It comes from what is true and natural, in opposition to social fictions and the lies of convention.” This reference to natural truth is the most surprising element you can imagine. Even Jean-Jacques Rousseau knew that there was no truth in this concept because all human history is nothing but the ideological vision of the situation of humanity trying to go against nature and control it with social contracts or compacts, to avoid the Christian or Jewish term covenant.
The Anarchist Banker then favors “the only adaptation, evolution, or transition that can occur in passing from the bourgeois society to the free society [that] is psychological; it’s the gradual adapting of people’s minds to the idea of the free society.” He rejects the “revolutionary dictatorship… A revolutionary regime … is materially only one thing, a revolutionary regime… a despotic military regime, because a state of war is imposed on society by just one part of it… Military despotism…” That leads him to his conclusion: “Goal: an anarchist or free society. Means: an abrupt passage, with no transition, from bourgeois society to the free society. This passage will be made possible by an intense, sweeping propaganda campaign, designed to prepare people’s minds and break down all resistance.” Then we seem to be in Trotsky or at times Mao Zedong. The revolution is done by propaganda in words and actions but with no violence or duress of any sort. That’s purely dreamlike. And he does not seem to understand that it is all a question of power, who is in power, no matter how they manage to capture it, but of course, that goes against his pure anarchism that dissolves the state at all levels. And that is the main contradiction. He is in fact in line, ninety years before, with what Marcel Gauchet defended last week in Le Figaro, Paris, France, about the COVID-19 pandemic: “Let’s hope this crisis will be the opportunity to come to a real re-evaluation of our social reality and it will be a wake-up call.” (Si cette crise pouvait être l’occasion d’un vrai bilan et d’un réveil collectif!) and for him, this call is the call for a mythologized social revolution.
But let’s go back ninety years and listen to our Anarchist Banker. “Social fictions are the only hindrance. They, I realized, were what had to be destroyed… in order to promote freedom.” And then the dream becomes a dystopic utopia (note the oxymoronic expression of the contradiction): “A swift, sudden, and overwhelming social revolution that will cause society to pass, in a single leap, from the bourgeois regime to the free society… A social revolution that will be preceded by an intense work of preparation — relying on direct and indirect action — to make people’s minds receptive to the coming of a free society and to reduce bourgeois resistance to a state of coma… This revolution would ideally be worldwide…” Then he has to migrate from this revolutionary vision that is very Bolshevik to the central idea that no one must be revolutionary for others but only for his own sake. He also had to do with the small little tyrannical leaders in all these autonomous anarchist groups who all had one member who was over the others. He refused that “creation of tyranny in [our] midst” even “the tyranny of helping.” So he comes to the idea that true anarchists are supposed to work separately: “We all work for the same goal, but separately… By working separately, we would learn to be more self-reliant, not to lean so much on each other, to become already freer, thus preparing ourselves — as well as others, by our example — for the future.” His mind then goes back to the real society he has to live in, and he comes across the idea that “It’s war, I thought, between me and social fictions…” And it is in this line of struggle against social fictions (all ideologies and political parties) that he realizes “the foremost social fiction, at least in our own time, is money.”
Then he implements a simple strategy: do not flee, just fight. “The only possible method was to acquire it, to acquire enough of it so as not to feel its influence: and the more I acquired, the freer from the influence I would be.” His conclusion is obvious in his way of thinking: “Since the method results in my getting rich, there is a selfish reward. And since I free myself from money, becoming superior to its power, I achieve the method’s goal, which is freedom… I resorted to all means available: profiteering, financial finagling, and even unfair competition.” He then ends up in some casuistic that is absolutely typical of the Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries. (You know: “If I kill my neighbor who is having a relationship with my wife, I do not sin since the man is practicing adultery. In fact, I liberate him from his sin.”) And here we are: “I set out to fight social forces; I fought them and, what’s more, defeated them… I’ve created no tyranny. Whatever tyranny may have resulted from my struggle against social fictions didn’t originate in me, and so it isn’t my creation. The tyranny resides in social fictions; I didn’t add it to them.” And the ranting and raving of this Anarchist Banker seems to reveal that the author might be satirical or at least humorous when the Anarchist Banker goes on to say: “What’s at issue isn’t the creation of tyranny but the creation of new tyranny — tyranny where there was none‑ before…I, by the very condition of my method, did not and could not create such a tyranny… I created only freedom. I freed one man. I freed myself.” This self-centered egotism is so intense that we are wondering if the author could even think half of it.
Let’s conclude this lesson in anarchism with two small remarks. “If you destroy capital instead of capitalists, how many capitalists will be left?… — Yes, you’re right.”
Capital is buildings, machines, raw materials, energy, and human work. Is he speaking of this capital, of destroying all this capital? Of course, he cannot be. The Anarchist Banker is beating about the bush with words he plays with.
And the punchline comes straight away: “For a man born to be a slave, freedom would be a tyranny, since it would go against his very nature.”
All slaves, past and present, and even future, would appreciate that some people are born to be slaves, that slavery is in their genes and they could not survive one minute if they were deprived of their dear slavery. How on earth do the Anarchist Banker and the author imagine a propaganda campaign to convince genetic slaves they have to turn to freedom, though they are born to be slaves?
And that will lead me to the real conclusion that comes from Fernando Pessoa himself: “An inability to adapt to real life.” Yes, his characters, including Fernando Pessoa, are unable to adapt to real life. Each one of them is plagued by this inability, each one in his own way, and the end is death, be it natural or man-made, death like TB for Maria José, or suicide for Alvaro Coelho de Athayde, the fourteenth Baron of Teive. And the castrated frustrated and alienated Baron will not complain in his feudal vision because. “Gaiety is for dogs; whining is for women. Man has only his honor and silence.” And please do not mix up gaiety and gayness. This declaration of the Baron’s is sexist on the side of women who are just above dogs. So, do not make him homophobic or gay-unfriendly. Soon enough in Germany, they were going to end up in concentration camps.
After this introduction. I am going to dive into and soak myself in the mental and intellectual juices of The Book of Disquiet. So, stay tuned.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU