To open Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is get a glimpse of still, twilit infinity. This surprisingly rich, dense, lyrical work defies classification, interpretation and conclusions. At once novel, journal, poem (or “poeticized prose,” as translator Richard Zenith calls it), meditation, confession, psychological case study (from the patient’s point of view), philosophical essay, and description of the abyss, The Book of Disquiet may well be one of the world’s most accurately titled works of art.
It also may well be one of the world’s most amorphous documents, a book only in the loosest sense. Its history reads like the contrived conceit of some contemporary metafictional novel: found at Pessoa’s death in 1935 as a collection of bound and loose pages in a trunk, The Book of Disquiet, from its indeterminate plan as to how its parts were to fit together, and as to what should and shouldn’t be included, retains an indefinite, shifting shape.
The indistinct outlines of its form provide us this: close to five hundred entries in a kind of log in which the impressions of Bernando Soares, an accounting clerk in an import/export office in the Rua Douradores in Lisbon (the city that gave birth to the sublime) are recorded with a repetitive layering, the day by day accounts of a solitary, depressive yet poetic functionary who goes each day to his office, performs his duty, dines at the same restaurant each evening, and walks home through Lisbon’s streets to his spare, humble apartment where he puts down his observations and reflections. If a more communicative Bartleby or a less bitter and incapacitated Willy Loman had kept a journal, it might read a little like this; a devotional exercise in capturing tedium, routine, and the mechanical, paralyzed life of an office worker.
Amateur Reader at Wuthering Expectations hosted something of a solo read-along of The Book of Disquiet a couple of weeks ago, pulling the weight himself. In joining this late, I can add little to the insights provided by his posts and in the accompanying comments, but among the latter one reader called The Book of Disquiet “frightening,” while another called it “comfort reading.” I can’t know what’s behind those readers’ disparate poles of reaction, but since I’ve experienced both of them myself, I’ll argue in favor of discarding an understandable reluctance to begin this admittedly frightening prospect - a 450 page book in which melancholy, insomnia, and passive crises of identity repeat across the entirety of its surface – and even finding solace in it.
I’d flirted with picking up a copy of The Book of Disquiet for many years, repeatedly passing it over out of anxiety that it would prove a dreary, melancholic cult novel attractive primarily to dreary, melancholic, cultish intellectuals. The first pages of The Book of Disquiet, however, made me sit up straight. Its immediate, prescient articulation of modern anxieties and sentiments felt intimately, eerily, abruptly familiar, yet for all that seemed fresh and illuminating. Pessoa’s language surprised me even more; in describing a world of the banal and ordinary, of office work and simple rooms, of passivity and resignation, Bernardo Soares’ gaze is also charged with an intense, ravishing lyricism and a Whitmanian, biblical cadence. Some passages in the The Book of Disquiet are simply breathtaking, lending a subversive irony and an intensity of observed life to the narrator’s meditations on futility.
Soares is a quintessential modern man, yoked to a workday that repeats itself with no promise of respite “until the coach from the abyss pulls up” (Zenith, fragment 1). In some ways he’s the flip side of a Kafka character; both are at the mercy of bureaucratic, impersonal forces larger than themselves, but Soares, rather than being reduced to the iconic singularity of a dry and dusty beetle, a badger in a burrow or a hunger artist in a cage, finds, if not escape exactly, then perhaps a kind of allowance for continuing to live, gained through the unexpected fruits of his concentrated attempts to melt into his surroundings, to extinguish himself to the point of refusing an identity, to seek refuge in nothingness. Like Whitman (whose influence pervades The Book of Disquiet) Soares, in his naked confrontation with the world and panoramic, encompassing, personified identification with all that his attention touches, contains multitudes. Unlike Whitman, whatever celebration of himself he makes is sober and interior, whatever singing of it but a wistful fado. Pessoa has taken the ebullient, expansive infinity of Whitman and seated it in 9-to-5 office job. In place of a desire to merge atomically with the world in a joyous fusion, there’s an almost pathological compulsion in Soares to obliterate himself in the world. In large measure he succeeds, sensing himself only as a concentrated awareness, a disembodied eye that observes, an existence reduced to a presence that dreams, with an effacing, disconsolate kind of freedom snatched from trying to avoid being seen. Dreams trump reality in The Book of Disquiet, providing a kind of parallel shadow life for Soares to inhabit, one multiplied by dreams’ capacity - like that of fiction, one might add - to allow one to lead, in the world of the mind, a multiplicity of lives other than one’s own (tellingly, Soares dreams of a romanticized Samarkand of the past, an exotic and impossible destination that might as well be the back of the moon). Even dreams, though, as Soares recognizes, have “detestable” limitations, since the mind recognizes that they are but dreams. Yet neither is action possible, in that action “offends… sensibility” and threatens to disrupt – as though sicklied over with the pale cast of thought - the still gaze that provides Soares the poetic response that sustains him. And so Soares remains something of a fixed quantity, a gaze that thinks, slotted somewhere between dreaming and action, between emotion and intellect, flickering but not really moving, a figure in a zoetrope.
What could be comforting in this? Routine can provide comfort. Inaction can provide a kind of tranquility. But a serious person would hardly think of these as more than illusory. What may be comforting, however, in a philosophical sense, is Soares’ acceptance of the price of routine and inaction, one articulated here as disquiet, or in the original Portuguese, desassossego (a word deconstructed by Antonio Tabucchi in a brief essay on the book[i], as being, like its sister word saudade, nearly untranslatable in its complexity of associations). Soares provides the kind of comfort one obtains from having one’s sense of reality affirmed, from accepting intranquility as a condition of modern life. In other words, Soares provides the solace of understanding that he does not understand.
One might also find comfort in the aphoristic quality of Soares’ journal. Much of The Book of Disquiet consists of meditations, aphorisms that, even in their disquieting assertions, provide a lulling affirmation of one’s existence. Despite Soares’ determined conviction that action is futile, that the refuge of dreams is temporary, that thought is of questionable use, there remains a palpable heroism not only in the poeticism of his response to the world, but in the very fact that he has one. Perhaps most striking about The Book of Disquiet is the manner in which Pessoa merges these meditations on routine existence with a rapturous poeticism that lifts Soares far above his ordinary, day to day life; it’s no coincidence that so many of Soares’ descriptions involve the sky above Lisbon. Pessoa/Soares provides us, as Tabucchi points out in his essay, a metaphysics of the banal. It’s the closest thing we may have to a religious text for the faithless and dispossessed.
The one activity in which Soares engages that may be construed as action (apart those minimal functional tasks required to dress and eat and hold a job) is writing. In this dense, amorphous collection of what at times appears to be little other than entries one might shuffle like a deck of cards (one kind of infinity), perhaps the beginning of The Book of Disquiet is really the end. Here one finds a short framing device through which Fernando Pessoa first introduces us to Bernando Soares, a man (like himself) who dines each night (like himself) at the same restaurant and who (like himself) retires each night to a simple room to write: a semblable, an intimate if not exactly a friend. At the end of this preface, Pessoa notes Soares’ contentment in finding someone with whom to leave his book, a gift Pessoa accepts with an appreciation “from a psychological point of view” and because he recognizes the writer’s need to have a reader. For those of us now privileged to be readers of The Book of Disquiet, we may recognize our own semblable in Pessoa’s book, which speaks so intimately to the many attributes of our own modern psychology, and which, by being a work of fiction and not simply a psychological case study, immortalizes, in an almost infinitely intriguing work of art (I have scarcely begun to sound its depths), the heroic/anti-heroic fragility of our dreaming, shifting, insubstantial search for meaning, solidity and identity in a mechanized and spiritually tenuous world.
One final note on reading The Book of Disquiet to help mitigate the fright of anyone approaching it for the first time, particularly those who, like me, expected a novel. While the book has novelistic aspects, its dense accumulation of observations and reflections can weigh heavily in one’s reading, and it has little if anything in the way of plot (unless one might approach Pessoa’s coyly expressed “psychological point of view” with a psychologist’s interest in tracing Soares’ pathology). In a comment, Amateur Reader notes translator Alfred MacAdams’ suggestion to approach the book by reading it through once in the already somewhat arbitrary order in which it has been assembled, then turning to its entries randomly for the rest of one’s life. This seems infinitely sound advice.