Friday, April 20, 2012

Song of My Selves: Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet

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.

[i] Antonio Tabucchi, “L’infinie dysphorique de Bernardo Soares,” in La Nostalgie du Possible: Sur Pessoa, Éditions de Seuil, Paris, 1998


  1. Hello.
    I love your blog, your writing and especially your choice of books, but your blog background makes it really hard to read. I normally have to copy your text and paste it into a word document... which beats the purpose. Would you be willing to modify it for a lighter background and black letters. I'm not a designer at all, I'm a reader and I normally stay away from dark backgrounds and lots of text but I find your words are worth it, and so I dare to make this comment.

    1. Anonymous: I spent a good deal of time this weekend trying to change the post background (easy), but ran into the problem of not being able to change - without some knowledge of code - the text color of the posts without having to go in and alter each individual post. If you're on a Mac, the easiest way to read white text on black is to open System Preferences, click on Universal Preferences, and click "White on Black" under "Display." You can switch back and forth easily - far less cumbersome than copying and pasting into Word. I assume there's a similar function for Windows computers. In any case, I sincerely hope my continuing to use white on black - at least until I can figure out another solution - doesn't keep you from visiting.

  2. Anonymous - Thank you very much for the kind comments on the blog and for the helpful suggestion. I had a similar request recently from a close friend and have already been planning to make this change. Your recommendation is further incentive to do it quickly.

  3. A great post again. I've hardly made progress on the readalong but knowing the payoffs is enough motivation to keep on it. Appreciate the comparisons with Whitman and Kafka.

  4. What a wonderful post and how much I regret I didn't participate. I will have to read it very soon. I think I will like it very much but I wouldn't want to have to read it under time pressure.
    Saudade is a word I like a lot. I love those words that you can't really translate.
    I liked the comparison to Bartleby or rather that this would have been a book he could have written if he had been less passive.
    It's interesting people can see this as either frightening or comforting.

  5. Hey, neato, killer. What fun to read this. Altogether a more sensible approach than mine. Sensible is not the right word.

    I am going to revisit the subject a bit this week, I think - a Dutch cousin, actually, part of the curious rise of "clerk literature" in the early 20th century.

    "the city that gave birth to the sublime" What do you mean by this?

  6. Amateur Reader: "clerk literature" - now there's a concept. I look forward to your Dutch version.

    You've caught me out on a careless throw-away comment. I'd had a vague recollection of reading about the connection of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 to the birth of modern philosophical consideration of the sublime (I should at least have used that word "modern" as a qualifier), and thought of it in connection to Soares in his relation to forces larger than himself that prompt such disquiet questioning of identity and stability. I'm pleased to find that my recall wasn't entirely incorrect, but I should have done more homework, particularly since this actually seems to be a potentially rich vein to follow in connection to Soares, both in his tremulous instability and his confrontation with feelings of boundlessness and multiplicity. But this is probably something for an academic to take up, in the unlikely event it hasn't been taken up already.

  7. Rise, Caroline: I hope you'll both join in. This is quite a rich and challenging work, and I'd love to read your responses to it.

  8. Ah, the earthquake! A throwaway, maybe, although now that I poke around the path leads straight to Kant, which I did not know.

    Pessoa needs Soares's life to be as small as possible in order for his interior life to be as big as possible. In Burke's definition of the sublime, at least "big" = frightening. But in that profound, sublime way.

  9. I like the nods to Bartleby and Kafka you make here, Scott, and yet despite the often lyrical writing, I haven't been really drawn back to The Book of Disquiet since my break from it because of the amorphous qualities you also describe. It's a very unusual work in that regard for me. Anyway, hope to return to it sometime soon thanks in part to your and Tom's fine posts on Pessoa. P.S. What's the supposed matter what the blog background? I can read it fine with or without my Mr. Magoo eyewear on!

  10. Richard: I can understand the frustration with Pessoa, but I hope you'll be able to pick it up again. In a way, reading it all the way through felt like an accomplishment. But at the same time, I think that MacAdam advice is right on, and I really do expect now that I'll return to it regularly in a more random manner. As Claudia commented on Amateur Reader's post that it was her "comfort reading," I expect that I'll often find myself in moods where a bit of Pessoa will be just the thing - not simply to provide comfort, but to offer a kind of camaraderie across the abyss.

    As for the blog background, I"m afraid it may have to stay this way until I can figure out Blogger's arcane blog management tools. I've yet to figure out how to change both the background and the text color without having to do the latter for every post. I'm not sure I'll ever find the courage to tackle that.

  11. Do you really want to change your blog background and text color?
    I like it.
    There is something the anonymous reader could do which he/she may not be aware of. It might be worth doing a little post on it, if you would like to keep the blog as it is. But before you do it y need to sort out something.
    Usually when you subscribe to a blog in the google reader you can read it there where it is black on white. It works for Richard's blog (just naming him because he has the same background and text color) - and for most others as well... Only not for yours. Funny that. In the reader there is a blank where the text should be. Maybe you could find out why this is the case. Has Richard enabled something?

  12. Caroline: Thanks. I'll look into this. I feel like a character in a B-movie about space travel - witlessly turning mysterious dials and toggling electronic switches that do nothing - whenever I go backstage in Blogger to try to fix something. I do know that somewhere there's a site one can visit and paste in any URL to see its "negative."