I recently travelled to Italy for a conference and in a small bookshop in San Marino, high up on the shelves stocked with English language books, there it was again: Fernando Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’. On the cover, the editors assembled an impressive cast of commentators praising the book as ‘a masterpiece’, ‘like nothing else’.
I have already mentioned that I do not think Pessoa’s writing works as well in prose as it does in poetry. The almost compulsive introspection and hyper-sensitivity may have predisposed him to wonderful poetic phrases, but did not capture my imagination when put into prose. The main flaw of the book is that it fails to tell a story and lacks any consistent narrative of personal development. There is some disagreement about whether Pessoa’s notes are autobiographical or whether his choice of pseudonym reflects his desire to distill his observations into a fictional account at a later stage (Pessoa did not publish the book or prepare any manuscript for publication).
For me, Pessoa’s own voice is clearly articulated throughout the book, and it is the lack of cohesion or personal development which I think reveals it as autobiographical notes. There can be no doubt that Pessoa at times surprises with beautiful turns of phrases, fascinating observations and telling flashes of ingenuity. Yet, the constant introspection which uses mainly pseudo-psychiatric talk must wear any reader down.
Consider this passage: ‘All I’ve ever done is dream. That, and only that, has been the meaning of my existence. The only thing I’ve ever cared about is my inner life.’ (194) How true, and yet Pessoa does not develop a suitable language to tells us anything about this inner life. The book oscillates between contradictory positions that are articulated with gusto but with little justification. He continues to dwell on the surface:
‘Day by day, in my deep but ignoble soul I record the impressions that form the external substances of my consciousness of myself.’ (142) If he only had! In fact, he does not tell us anything about these impressions that clearly would be good to know if we are to judge his ruminations about his consciousness. One of the most revealing passages comes when he talks about tedium, a concept he wrestles with endlessly without ever getting close to any satisfactory description:
‘No one has as yet produced an exact definition of tedium, at least not in language comprehensible to someone who has never experienced it.’ (122). One is tempted to say: well, go for it! But the nature of words is such that conceptual understanding is best done through the recognition of feelings that are set within real life contexts. Instead of providing us with an example of what he believes tedium may be like, Pessoa tries to define tedium by using other similar words. It is a process of hermeneutic approximation, championed by others in philosophy, but ‘tedious’ (excuse the pun) when used in prose.
Yet Pessoa’s book does have its moments of insights. It seems fitting that those are mainly of the type we know from other writers in the inter-war period. The topos of the ‘misunderstood’ writer is much laboured by him as it was by others, claiming that he was way ahead of his time. Pessoa’s intellectual arrogance is also quite disturbing when writing things such as: ‘Between me and a peasant there is a qualitative difference, deriving from the existence in me of abstract thought and disinterested emotion; whereas between him [the peasant] and the cat, at the level of the spirit, there is only a difference of degree.’ (249)
What a breathtaking misperception of his own abilities.
Pessoa doesn’t seem to have had much contact with other people and he comments on it throughout the book. If there is a lesson to be drawn it is this: a stunted social life may allow you to engage in some navel-gazing, but don’t expect much insight from looking there.
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