Countless Lives Inhabit Us

In two recent posts, “What’s Structure Got to Do With It?” and “The Life We Learn to Lead as Writers,” I took a look at the various ins and outs of how writers structure their work. In this post, I’d like to consider the idea of anti-structure, or at least to think about what might be the cunning use of the absence of structure, as I see it, in the work of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

If you don’t know the work of Pessoa (oh but you should, you should), here’s a little capsule description. Pessoa lived most of his life in the first half of the 20th century (he died at the age of 47 in 1935), and he was a poet who didn’t write poems as much as he created poets, who then wrote poems. Basically, Pessoa invented his own internal literary salon, consisting mainly of poetic voices that he dubbed heteronyms: more than pseudonyms but less than actual people. He gave them not only names—Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, and Bernardo Soares were his primary creations—but also biographies, astrological charts, personalities and physical features, even individual signatures.

Since his death, Pessoa’s reputation has increasingly grown throughout the world, to the point where he’s recognized as one of the major poets of the 20th century. The Portuguese adore Pessoa, and not only does his legacy pervade most discussions of literature in Portugal, but to the general public at large this modestly dressed, be-speckled poet is something of a rock star. Anywhere in Lisbon you can exchange euros for Fernando Pessoa tee shirts, coffee cups, notebooks and key chains, even Do Not Disturb signs—you name it. The first evening I ever spent in Lisbon, back in June of 1999, turned out to be the birthday of Pessoa (he would have been 111), and my family and I made our way to a grand celebration of the event: 400 Portuguese artists had been commissioned to each create a work of art about Pessoa, and these were displayed together on a long wall.

Not only did Pessoa’s invented poets have separate biographies and signatures, they each wrote an entirely different sort of poetry from the others. Alberto Caeiro, who imagined himself a sheep herder, was a poet of nature and a philosopher who distrusted abstraction in language:

“A row of trees in the distance, toward the slope . . .
But what is a row of trees? There are just trees.
‘Row’ and the plural ‘trees’ are names, not things.

Unhappy human beings, who put everything in order,
Draw lines from thing to thing,
Place labels with names on absolutely real trees,
And plot parallel lines of latitude and longitude
On the innocent earth itself, which is so much greener and full of flowers!”

Álvaro de Campos, an engineer by training, was a wilder, more loquacious poet:

“I’m nothing.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.

Windows in my room,
The room of one of the world’s millions nobody knows
(And if they knew me, what would they know?),
You open onto the mystery of a street continually crossed by people,
A street inaccessible to any and every thought,
Real, impossibly real, certain, unknowingly certain
With the mystery of things beneath stones and beings,
With death making the walls damp and the hair of men white,
With destiny driving the wagon of everything down the road of nothing.”

Ricardo Reis was a poet obsessed with fate and love and strict poetic forms, while Bernardo Soares was a prose poet who combined metaphysical musings with close descriptions of everyday city life. Yet all of them, in one way or another, wrote about the multiplicity of selves that inhabit every human being. Here’s Ricardo Reis’s take on the subject:

“Countless lives inhabit us.
I don’t know, when I think or feel,
Who it is that thinks or feels.
I am merely the place
Where things are thought or felt.

I have more than just one soul.
There are more I’s than I myself.
I exist, nevertheless,
Indifferent to them all.
I silence them: I speak.

The crossing urges of what
I feel or do not feel
Struggle in who I am, but I
Ignore them. They dictate nothing
To the I I know: I write.”

Most of the poems written in Pessoa’s name or in the names of his many heteronyms were not published in his lifetime. After his death, his friends and literary executors opened a trunk in his study and discovered thousands of pages of works of every sort: poems, of course, and prose poems, essays, translations, short stories, plays. Most of what we know of Pessoa’s literary life and imagination comes from that trunk, and literary editors have been mining it for over half a century, collating the work into genre, category, and attribution—Pessoa used scores of alternate names besides the main four I’ve already mentioned. And collections of Pessoa’s poetry are usually broken down into different sections, the poetry of Caeiro kept together, separate from the poems of Reis, and so forth. One of the most popular collections of Pessoa’s poetry translated into English is Richard Zenith’s aptly titled Fernando Pessoa and Co.

Perhaps Pessoa’s greatest sustained individual work is The Book of Disquiet, by Bernardo Soares, a kind of memoir of the interior, written as prose poems and filled with gems such as this:

“I never sleep. I live and I dream; or rather, I dream in life and in my sleep, which is also life. There’s no break in my consciousness: I’m aware of what’s around me if I haven’t fallen asleep yet or if I sleep fitfully, and I start dreaming as soon as I’m really asleep. And so I’m a perpetual unfolding of images, connected or disconnected but always pretending to be external, situated among people in the daylight, if I’m awake, or among phantoms in the non-light that illuminates dreams, if I’m asleep. I honestly don’t know how to distinguish one state from the other, and it may be that I’m actually dreaming when I’m awake and that I wake up when I fall asleep.”

The problem is that none of the scraps of paper in Pessoa’s trunk that were eventually collected into The Book of Disquiet were numbered. Which means that every ordered compilation of Soares’ prose poems is a guess, and there are an infinite number of ways The Book of Disquiet can be structured. You could say that Pessoa, before Borges, created a version of the infinite library Borges dreamed of.

Pessoa himself had written a number of contradictory ideas about how to structure The Book of Disquiet (which he never did in his lifetime). Perhaps the most telling description, in a letter to his friend Armando Cortes-Rodrigues, is “it’s all fragments, fragments, fragments.”

I’d say that all the various collections of Fernando Pessoa’s work, while initially exhilarating in charting the various borders of his various selves, ultimately appear to perhaps too easily pin down the fluid possibilities Pessoa remained faithful to all his life. Much of his work was written piecemeal over thirty years: each new poem, essay, or prose poem rose out of the crowd of voices inside Pessoa, waiting to be heard, and then placed in a trunk. Sometimes I think that Fernando Pessoa’s greatest achievement was not his work as eventually posthumously archived, organized, and structured. Perhaps his greatest achievement was simply the raw material that was discovered in his trunk.

This multiplicity of voices and different identities, the messy accumulation of competing versions of the self jostling each other in that hidden, disorganized mix announce, by their very disorganization, their lack of structure, that This is what a human mind is like without the lines of latitude and longitude. As if Pessoa’s life’s work, hidden in that trunk like thoughts in a skull, was meant to make the point that we are all, inside, a “perpetual unfolding of images, connected or disconnected . . . “

Excerpt from “The Keeper of Sheep,” by Alberto Caeiro translated by Richard Zenith, in A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe.

Excerpt from “The Tobacco Shop,” by Álvaro de Campos, translated by Richard Zenith, in Fernando Pessoa & Co.

“Countless Lives inhabit Us,” by Ricardo Reis, translated by Richard Zenith, in Fernando Pessoa & Co.

Excerpt from section 342 of The Book of Disquiet, by Bernardo Soares, translated by Richard Zenith.

Photos of Pessoa artwork and heteronym signatures: Philip Graham

In the work of art above by Roberta Frandino (click to enlarge), three of Pessoa’s heteronyms, Reis, Caeiro and de Campos, stand behind the open trunk filled with his manuscripts. The papers flow out, transforming into the distinctive square cobblestones of Lisbon’s streets, which Pessoa himself is walking upon . . .

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April 17th, 2011 by admin

A Cloth of Many Colored Strips

Back in 1979-1980, then in 1985 and 1993, my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, and I lived in small, remote villages of the Beng people of the Ivory Coast. In recent days Alma and I have found it difficult to watch the tragic news coming from the country: videos of military strikes and violence in Abidjan, the country’s largest city, and photos of dead bodies strewn across streets we’d once walked.

All this has seemed like the horrific endgame of a lovely country’s slow, 30-year long downward spiral of corruption, economic and political crisis and civil war, and I’m reminded of this quote from the Ivorian writer Amadou Kourouma’s novel The Suns of Independence (a classic of West African literature): “God made this life like a cloth of many colored strips: one strip the color of happiness and joy, one strip the color of poverty and illness, one strip the color of insult and dishonor.”

The country’s recent troubles were spurred in large part by ethnic demonizing and exclusion; this is a terrible irony considering the great strength of Ivory Coast’s ethnic and cultural diversity. A recent film and music project, Abidja’Taam, le goût d’Abidjan, celebrates that diversity.

The CD is a collection of slow, soulful songs from a wide range of Ivorian musicians, a 45-minute gentle rebuke to the country’s recent madness. Listening to this beautiful music, I can imagine that once again Ivory Coast will find itself settled on the strip of cloth that’s the color of happiness and joy. Here is a video from the project, the song “Don,” sung by Tiken Jah Fakoly.

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April 13th, 2011 by admin