Gottfried Benn said: ‘No one, not even the greatest poets of our time, has left more than eight or ten perfect poems . . For six poems, thirty or fifty years’ asceticism, suffering, battle!’
(A Centenary Pessoa edited by Eugénio Lisboa & L. C. Taylor – page 18)
. . . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.
For the first time since I read him in the late 90s, this September I was triggered to go back to Fernando Pessoa by reference to his multiple personalities in Immortal Remains by Stephen E Braude (page 170):
Apparently, Pessoa considers the heteronyms to be expressions of an inherent and deeply divided self. In fact, one of the principal themes of Pessoa’s poetry is the obscure and fragmentary nature of personal identity.
I resonate strongly to much that Pessoa writes. I’m not sure I can explain this fully but this is my best attempt.
Pessoa himself clarifies exactly what he meant by heteronym (A Centenary Pessoa – page 133):
A pseudonymic work is, except for the name with which is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; the heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama would be.
I occasionally notice that I am talking to myself as though I were somebody else, and I don’t mean the usual split second outburst of ‘You idiot!’ when I’ve made a stupid mistake. I mean a more measured tone. For instance, I was about to heat some milk in a cup with a metallic glaze.
‘Don’t do that, my friend,’ I said. ‘It’ll upset the microwave.’
It’s possible I do this more often than I notice. We’re probably all in the same boat to some extent.
Even so, and even including my Parliament of Selves problem, this is small beer compared with what Fernando Pessoa had to contend with or benefited from, depending on your point of view, but it helps explain at least part of his fascination for me. Apparently, over his entire life he created 72 characters in what he called (page 125) ‘the intimate theatre of the self,’ many of them ‘vividly alive and themselves creative.’
Michael Hamburger quotes him as saying (The Truth of Poetry – page 139):
Each group of imperceptibly related states of mind thus becomes a personality with a style of its own and feelings that may differ from the poet’s own typical emotional experiences, or may even be diametrically opposed to them.
Hamburger also tellingly points out (page 145) that ‘Fernando Pessoa’s disguises were assumed out of the conviction that poetry is more true than the poet.’ On this same theme he adds (page 147):
It is the feelings of the empirical self which poetry enlarges, complements or even replaces with fictitious ones, but only because the empirical self is not the whole self, cramped as it is in its shell of convention, habit and circumstance. Pessoa’s disguises did not impair his truthfulness because he uses them not to hoodwink others, but to explore reality and establish the full identity of his multiple, potential selves.
There are other factors at work though in fuelling my interest.
Pessoa is a deeply unsettling poet, as his most powerful poems testify, and in a way that has echoes of my own disquiet with the dark side of existence.
He uses his heteronyms to say what might be otherwise unsayable for him. As Ricardo Reis, for example, he writes (page 69):
I have heard tell that once when Persia was
At war – I don’t know which –
As the invading City burnt its way
And all the women screamed,
There were two players at a game of chess
Who went on with their game.
And he makes absolutely sure that we know exactly what this means:
Houses were burnt, and brought to rack and ruin
Was every arch and wall,
Women were raped and then propped up against
To be run through with spears, their children were
Pools of blood in the streets . . .
And the players carry on playing even though ‘the desert wind brought messages/To them of screams and cries’ that they knew for sure were from their wives and daughters. The poem appears to celebrate this callous preoccupation with the ‘useless joy. . . . of playing a good game.’
We know this is not Pessoa’s own view. It is one ‘diametrically opposed’ to what he really thinks. Octavio Paz, in his introduction to A Centenary Pessoa, lists what he feels are Pessoa’s particular contributions (page 17) to ‘spiritual understanding, the highest and most difficult form of understanding:’ these are ‘sympathy; intuition; intelligence; comprehension; and the most difficult, grace.’ Not then an attitude likely to agree with Reis and his chess players.
The freedom from the restraint of his own perspective that Reis gives him enables him to produce a deeply disturbing experience for the reader of a particularly conscious and deliberate variation of the callous indifference we see almost everywhere that colludes with atrocity by means of distraction. To write a sermonising polemic would not have been half as effective.
In the persona of Álvaro de Campos we see the same problem from quite another angle in Martial Ode, where he conveys how it feels to be implicated in atrocity even if only by our failure to prevent it (page 107):
Yes, I was to blame for it all, I was the soldier – all of them –
Who killed, raped, and smashed,
I and my shame and my remorse with a misshapen shadow
Walked all over the world like Ahasueros
His sense of exile also resonates with me (page 94):
I go to the window and see the street as an absolute clarity.
I see the shops, I see the pavements, I see passing cars,
I see living beings in clothes in each other’s way,
I see dogs that also exist,
And all this weighs on me like being condemned to exile,
I know this is foreign, like everything.
This is rooted in different aspects of his life than mine, as he was twice uprooted during the crucial years of identity development and something so radical has never been my test, but even so I tend to stand emotionally at the edge of things and watch almost but not quite from the outside. My sister’s death before I was born, which haunted my earliest years, and the two hospitalisations before I went to school, were my prompts towards cautious alienation, which it has taken decades to undo, albeit partially.
Perhaps that’s why I also empathise strongly with the sense of emptiness he so powerfully conveys. His poems testify to the challenging problem for him of deciding who he was (page 94):
My heart is an empty bucket.
As those who call up spirits I call up
Myself and there is nothing there.
This obviously relates to the multiple identities he created to express aspects of his being. It also foreshadows the increasing awareness as the century progressed of the uncertainty that surrounds our identity, how multifaceted it seems and yet how elusive is any sense of a core Self, a ground of being, upon which we can stand more securely to confront the tests of experience.
My exploration of psychosis and spirituality may be shedding further light on this problem (Neil Douglas Klotz in Psychosis and Spirituality edited by Isabel Clarke – page 60):
Without [a] gathering or witnessing awareness, which is intimately tied up with the body’s proprioceptive awareness, the subconscious self . . . splits into a multiplicity of discordant voices forgetful of the divine Unity (the source of all ‘I am-ness’).
I am still only a short way into my re-exploration of this complex and powerful poet, whose lonely existence, rendered tolerable but also significantly shortened by alcohol, echoes so hauntingly across the decades between us.
I may return to this theme after I have gone further in my exploration of psychosis. I’ve tried not to let this interest in Pessoa distract me too much from that task and it may be more closely linked than I had at first suspected. It’s hard to keep so many keen interests in balance!
 Ahasueros: biblical tyrant, husband of Esther.