Fernando Pessoa’s The Book Of Disquiet

The Book Of DisquietTwo major themes in Fernando Pessoa’s The Book Of Disquiet resonate with me to a degree I find unnerving. The first is the experience of finding reality fall short of the standards set by the imagination. If we are to take Pessoa at his word, the disappointment prompted by his failure as a writer – failure, understand, defined by Pessoa alone – prevented him from ever publishing or even completing The Book Of Disquiet. It exists as an artifact, compiled by loving biographers and editors out of the scraps of paper, notes and scrawled-upon napkins Pessoa left behind. In the words of Richard Zenith, whose translation I read:

What we have here isn’t a book but its subversion and negation: the ingredients for a book whose recipe is to keep sifting, the mutant germ of a book and its weirdly lush ramifications, the rooms and windows to build a book but no floor plan and no floor, a compendium of many potential books and many others already in ruins. What we have in these pages is an anti-literature, a kind of primitive, verbal CAT scan of one man’s anguished soul.

Not “a book but its subversion,” Disquiet consists of a series of aphorisms, anecdotes, descriptions and musings, credited not to Pessoa but to his “heteronym,” Bernardo Soares, whose “anguished soul” resembles Pessoa’s in all the important aspects. Which brings me to the second of Pessoa’s major themes: the inability to exist in the world.

There is a certain headstrong, practical type that will have no patience for Pessoa’s boast that “I dissent from life and am proud of it,” but neither could such a person comprehend Pessoa’s suffering, or his insistence that “Your love for things dreamed [is] your contempt for things lived.” Like Hamlet, Pessoa is an idealist, but unlike Hamlet, who has newly had his ideals tarnished, Pessoa has lived his entire existence in full awareness of the incompatibility between his imaginings and the dim reality. The major symptoms of this kind of disaffection, this “disquiet,” are inaction and loneliness. Inaction, because how motivate yourself to act when no pretext for action seems worthwhile? “Tedium,” he tells us, “is not the disease of being bored because there’s nothing to do, but the more serious disease of feeling that there’s nothing worth doing.” Occasionally, this tedium manifests itself in misanthropy, a hatred for those who can exist, who find pretext for action:

Intrigue, gossip, the loud boasting over what one didn’t have the guts to do, the contentment of each miserable creature dressed in the unconscious consciousness of his own soul, sweaty and smelly sexuality, the jokes they tell like monkeys tickling each other, their appalling ignorance of their utter importance.

Or in envy:

Other people, less intelligent than I, are stronger. They’re better at carving out their place in life; they manage their intelligence more effectively. I have all the qualities it takes to exert influence except for the knack of actually doing it, or even the will to want to do it.

But the major consequence, the devastating one, from the perspective of the living, is isolation, solitude, a crushing and all-encompassing loneliness.

To exist completely within yourself, to fight your life’s battles between “[your] sensations and [your] consciousness of them,” is to exist beyond human connection, since what of your being is communicable? “The logical reward of my detachment from life is the incapacity I’ve created in others to feel anything for me,” he writes. “There’s an aureole of indifference, an icy halo, that surrounds me and repels others.” In his interactions with others, we see how comprehensively he is entombed in his own self-consciousness, how hopeless is human connection from so intricate a maze of feeling. “Isolation has carved me in its image and likeness,” he half-boasts and half-laments, and we see what he means.

There is little that is linear in this book, and one of its great pleasures is in teasing out its contradictions [one thinks of Whitman, for this, too, is a song of self: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself / (I am large, I contain multitudes)”]. Pessoa, for example, can never be quite sure that he is not deluding himself, that his inward descent has not been more renunciation than triumph. “I called my incapacity for living genius, and I dressed up my cowardice by calling it refinement. I placed myself – God gilded with false gold – on an altar of cardboard painted to look like marble.” At this passage, two voices resonate, in my mind, along with Pessoa’s. The first is Hamlet’s, who can catch himself in a thought he knows to be “but one part wisdom / And ever three parts coward.” The second belongs to Emil Cioran, who, like Pessoa, committed himself to an experiment against life: “I wanted to suppress in myself the reasons men invoke in order to exist, in order to act. I wanted to become unspeakably normal – and here I am in dazed confusion, on a footing with fools, and as empty as they.” Is this all that Pessoa’s life has amounted to, he asks himself? Here he is, giving this despair its most eloquent expression:

All those hours we spent there, O useless soulmate of my tedium! All those hours of joyful disquiet that pretended to be ours! … All those hours of spiritual ashes, days of spatial nostalgia, inner centuries of outer landscape… And we didn’t ask what it was all for, because we revelled in knowing that it was for nothing.

This is the very same battle with nihilism that Hamlet must fight, that, perhaps, we all must fight, at one time or another, if we wish to live consciously.

It is a problem common to us all, how to live; we are empowered only with our choice of answer. Consider the conundrum as Pessoa describes it:

One day, I don’t know which, I found myself in this world, having lived unfeelingly from the time I was evidently born until then. When I asked where I was, everyone misled me, and they contradicted each other. When I asked them to tell me what I should do, they all spoke falsely, and each one said something different. When in bewilderment I stopped on the road, everyone was shocked that I didn’t keep going to no one knew where, or else turn back – I, who’d woken up at the crossroads and didn’t know where I’d come from.

And his eloquent solution:

Finally I sat down on the rock at the crossroads as before the fireplace I never had. And I began, all by myself, to make paper boats with the lie they’d given me. No one would believe in me, not even as a liar, and there was no lake where I could try out my truth.

The paper boats serve no practical purpose – there is not even a lake for them to float on – but they don’t need to. In another, oft-quoted passage, he summarizes this same struggle for meaning: “Inch by inch I conquered the inner terrain I was born with. Bit by bit I reclaimed the swamp in which I’d languished. I gave birth to my infinite being, but I had to wrench myself out of me with forceps.” The Book Of Disquiet commemorates this struggle for existence, and all who fight it.