Tuesday 30 July 2013

Pessoa's national poems

I have previously made some unflattering comments on Pessoa's writing on this blog, in particular on his 'Book of Disquiet'. After a pause for reflection (and to revive my will to live after his depressing prose), I have embarked on another dangerous liaison with Pessoa's output, this time his Mensagem (Messages).

The poems in Mensagem are the only ones he ever published himself, so they surely reflect to some degree how he wanted to see himself and his work. They are mainly a collection of short pieces on historical figures or critical historical moments of Portugal. Mostly written around the mid to end 1920s, they represent a curious seriousness and lack of healthy distance to the Portuguese national project.

This is the more remarkable for the fact that at this time, Portugal was firmly in the grip of Salazar, who installed a right-wing authoritarian regime with all the trappings of fascist imagery (although Salazar's regime was certainly not fascist, old newsreel clearly documents how much it adopted proto-fascist symbols).

This lack of critical distance to the nationalistic imagery is odd given that at the time of writing, Pessoa must have been well aware of the (short and violent) pedigree of the nation as a unifying project. He must also have been familiar with alternative ideological trajectories, such as the internationalistic rhetoric of communism and socialism. Given that he wrote plenty of prose and poetry for the drawer, there also appears to be no need to write for the censor.

So, why this strange unquestioning proximity to Portuguese 'nationalism'?

I think one reason lies in his lack of humour. There is not a single instance in his 'Book of Disquiet' or in Mensagem where Pessoa uses irony or humour as a rhetorical device. This creates the impression of an overly serious (if not slightly depressed) author.

The second reason may be his mistrust of human behaviour as a trope for realism. Pessoa's world is populated with unreal heros, mainly historical and distant, who cross the dangerous seas or plant the Portuguese banner in hostile places of the world. Whilst they explore the universe, their inner world of feelings and motivations remains hidden. There is a strange contrast here between the excessively introspective character in the mainly auto-biographical 'Book of Disquiet' and the heroic world of explorers in his Mensagem poems.

In a sense, Pessoa may not have trusted his own poetic devices to portray the world as a representation of this inner world of feelings of his heros. So, all he is left with is either the recounting of glorious adventures or his own emotional universe.

But a poetry of human heroism and unbending will is of little interest to others. Where Pessoa stopped short of exploring the meaning of human actions as a reflection of their visions, art begins to flourish. That's why his poetry has a strange shallowness, despite some wonderful turns of phrases.

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