Friday, 6 April 2012

The strange prose of Fernando Pessoa

Robert Musil once wrote that ‘if something is not a phenomenon worth talking about but merely beautiful, [people] choke. Thus emerge those Oohs! and Ahs!, painful syllables of suffocation!’ (Robert Musil, ‘It’s lovely here!’)
As a writer Musil was painfully aware of the difficulty to express certain things in language, especially if the object in question was beauty itself. His solution was to revert to narratives, telling stories that evoked the sense of beauty in us without trying to directly express the essence of it in words. I am sure literary theorists have a term for the inability of language to directly reflect the emotional inner-life of our minds. We can speak about how impressed we are by something, how happy we are, but feelings of awe and beauty escape our wordy grasp. In a way, our world of emotions represents the outer boundary of writing, something were words and prose prove futile and redundant. 
Prose writers learn this lesson early on. As Musil said, you try to express your sentiments once or twice but quickly realise that you can say ‘Ooh’ and ‘Ah’ only so often. The legitimate domain of prose is hence the narrative, while poetry can experiment with flights of linguistic fantasy. 
One poet I greatly admire is Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), the Portuguese writer who has achieved posthumous fame in his home country and beyond. Pessoa lived and died in Lisbon and this fascinating city was his main subject matter. His poetry is remarkable in that it captures the sound of a city which is equally vibrant and dormant, the latter mainly as a consequence of the choking lethargy that descended on the country during Salazar’s reign. 
So I was hopeful when I bought a copy of Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’, a collection of observations and notes that he had written over a long period and which had been found and published only after his death. Edited as a ‘stream’ of notes with little narrative or chronological rationale, the texts are a mixture of real life observations and ruminations about inner mental life. And I regret to say that they are of mixed quality. 
Pessoa seems to have disregarded the fundamental rule of prose that Musil formulated when he spoke about the ‘Ohs’ and ‘Ahs’: Do not try to describe the indescribable. Prose lives and dies with narratives, and emotions and feelings are evoked not by talking about emotions but by re-describing the situations in which individuals find themselves. What moves us to tears is not the phrase ‘she was moved to tears’ but a description of the tragic positions in which people find themselves. 
In a sense, Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’ at times reads like poetry and he is strongest when his writing approximates poetic wanderings of the mind. Some of his similes are powerful and evocative. He is weakest (and very weak indeed) however when he wants to tell us ‘how he feels in himself’ by endless introspective ruminations. There are flashes of ingenuity as  Pessoa writes about life in Lisbon or the inertia of ordinary life, yet his prose quickly regains a nauseating flatness as he reverts to continuously telling us ‘how tedious his life is’. In fact, I think the first 50 pages feature the word ‘tedium’ and ‘banality’ a thousand times, and after having read them just as often, the prose itself adopts this very quality. An indication of the impotence of language is when writers resort to acclamations of essentialism: ‘My life was tedium itself’. Pessoa’s prose is littered with these redundant phrases. 
His endless introspection is equally difficult to stomach often leading to a linguistic solipsism that turns back on itself. In a way his prose is an attempt to describe the relationship between mind and reality from a radically existentialist perspective. Heidegger tried something similar and thought he failed. Yet, in contrast to prose writers, philosophers employ a highly disciplined linguistic framework, pulled tight by numerous definitions and terminological strictures. Pessoa’s language remains loose around the edges, acknowledging the prosaic character of his writing. Yet, if prose has nothing of the rigidity of philosophical discourse, it must fail to effectively explore the boundaries between mind and reality. Hence Pessoa’s writings neither illuminate the existential realm of the mind nor do they tell us much about why we must fail to capture the essence of the soul in language. 
Sartre of course tried to approach this problem in prose as well. His novel ‘Nausea’ champions a similarly introspective perspective. Yet Sartre was aware that existential introspection substantiated in words betrays a monotony that is hard to stomach for readers. So he framed it with a narrative that, at times, relieves the existential heaviness. 
Pessoa seems to have thought that his introspective reflections are the most captivating, given that the ‘Book of Disquiet’ returns again and again to this theme. Yet the reader longs for moments of rare clarity where Pessoa tells us something about the life in his office (Pessoa worked as an accountant), a trip to the country side or the death of an errand boy. The fact is that for all the stasis of Portuguese society in the 1930s, the world was in fact turning upside down and the contrast between Portugal and the rest of Europe could have provided plenty of material for exciting prose. Pessoa, in the middle of this world spinning ever more quickly, only looked inside and missed the life around him.

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