A Cold in the Soul: Reading the Book of Disquiet in Apartment 62
I don’t know why I picked up Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. But it would have required some monster of perfect well-being not to be attracted by the title alone, not to suspect that such a book might contain examples of his own admissions and evasions. The book can’t have been recommended to me, since no one I know had read it, which I always liked: it permitted me as I read Pessoa not only the lightly sinister pleasure of a minor vice, but that sensation of guilty singularity that attaches itself to any good vice as well. See, The Book of Disquiet (sitting by my bedside over almost a year as hundreds of glasses of water were drained and filled) really did function, more than anything else I’ve ever read, as a vice, or a small suffusing sin, or a chronic low-level illness—“like having a cold in the soul,” to borrow from Pessoa.
Anyone thus congested will want to stay at home—and if he goes out will catch a strange timbre in the voice he overhears as his own and feel a once-removed slipping in and out of his gestures even as he makes them. Yet I (who am one of those young and lucky, aspiring people in New York) often went out at night after having looked into The Book of Disquiet earlier on, and when I did, this breviary of loneliness and melancholy and failure seemed to introduce a flutter of hesitation into my actions, compromising my ready smile and tinting with hypocrisy all my usual desires. And what are those? The standard issue. It would be nice to have success, love, and money in the right degree. I have this image of a table surrounded by laughing friends, maybe including—I can’t quite see this—my future wife. It seems we all have done well for ourselves, and perhaps I have done just a little better than the rest.
So at times I have imagined that this favorite book of mine, The Book of Disquiet, has done more damage to my professional and social and romantico-sexual and general all-purpose human career than any other has. Here in the famously striving city I’d been infected by a book whose credo, if it has one, is that “Inaction is our consolation for everything, not acting our one great provider.” Pessoa lived alone (like me!). He never married (so far, so good), and is only known to have kissed a woman once (the parallel collapses). He rarely left the city of Lisbon, even for the weekend, (this part works, mutatis mutandis) and throughout his writing he denigrates travel as a poor substitute for his fantasies of the same (more and more I agree with him there). It seems the least tribute his loyal reader can pay him is to have misgivings about leaving the apartment.
But officially The Book of Disquiet belongs not to Fernando Pessoa, who while contriving to make his real existence as light a phenomenon as possible nevertheless had to eat and breathe (and drink and chain-smoke). Pessoa wanted the book credited to Bernardo Soares, a pretended acquaintance and actual pseudonym, who naturally didn’t exist at all. If reading Soares’s book made me feel fractionally different from myself, then how much more strongly must Pessoa have felt this as he set down Soares’s words. And maybe this mild and eerie sensation—as if when you looked into a mirror your bifocal vision failed you, so that there were two figures there, mostly overlapping but both transparent—has been transmitted from author to reader.
Pessoa was as devoted to incompleteness as to self-estrangement, and most of the prose he wrote was fragments. In one fragment, he says that Bernardo Soares was an assistant bookkeeper for a fabric warehouse, someone Pessoa used to run into when “economic necessity” forced him to frequent one of the cheap Lisbon “restaurants or eating places, which have the stolid, homely look of those restaurants you see in towns that lack even a train station.” Pessoa credited his various texts to at least seventy-two different people, and he called these invented figures, some equipped with complex biographies, his “heteronyms.” Within the huge clan of heteronyms, Soares is the only “semi-heteronym.” And in what way was Soares merely somewhat other? He was—and here’s the dry extravagance of Pessoa’s humor—“myself minus reason and affectivity.”
I wonder if Pessoa somewhere recorded the date of his first meeting Soares. It wouldn’t have been uncharacteristic. Ricardo Reis, who, among Pessoa’s heteronyms, is one of the most prolific, reports that he never wrote a line before meeting another of the three, Alberto Caeiro, one day at the age of twenty-five. I think of this decisive encounter of imaginary people alongside my own discovery, because it is Pessoa’s sense, and mine, that real people too are mostly imaginary—in that they imagine far more life than they lead.
So I walked out of Labyrinth Books with a paperback in hand. Maybe this was late in the afternoon and the air was suitably moist. A mizzling rain; the light nacreous, diffuse, and failing; today resigning itself to becoming yesterday… That, at any rate, is the tone of The Book of Disquiet, a book at once nervous and damp, where passage after passage takes note of the rain off the ocean, and the light seems always to be “this indefinite lucid blue pallor of the aquatic evening.”
Yet the event just as easily might have occurred on a poundingly hot day, a Friday, say, and after starting to read on the subway—“Today, during one of those periods of daydreaming which, though devoid of purpose, still constitute the greater part of the spiritual substance of my life…”—I may have emerged downtown onto streets taken up by a bright jostling carnival of competitive glamour, and there I may have had a sort of everyday vision. (This was when the city knew itself as the headquarters of a boom rather than as the prey of terrorists.) I would see some put-together person, relaxed but intent, who seemed to know just where he was going. The impression was of his doing what he was meant to and being not the least bit divided against himself: He has served his ambition as the obvious and only good and is in the middle of a long success. This is a New York type, harder to describe but as much a part of the scene as the scissory women and round-shouldered delivery men, the beggars, the police, the tourists; and if that figure is what I saw in one or another of his versions, then I must also have been assailed by a pitifully simple and common fantasy, which is that I too will get to be a successful and admired person in this apparent capital of the world.
In any case, I’ve forgotten the date. It’s disheartening not to be able to mark an important anniversary. For me The Book’s counsel of renunciation—“Whatever we renounce, we preserve intact”—leaked over a year into the close atmosphere of New York City, with its roast and exhaust of immodest aspiration. The city that never sleeps… and reading Pessoa, who wanted to write “an apotheosis of sleep,” made me feel like an emotional dissident here, someone eager to do without exactly what he wanted most. Which is why if I eventually fail in what I’ve come here to do, a portion of blame should probably be laid at the apartment door, to be found on Lisbon’s Rua dos Douradores, of the imaginary assistant bookkeeper Bernardo Soares who with his “inert soul of a born abdicator” anticipated, when dreaming of literary glory, the nostalgia he might someday suffer “for this uncertain life in which I scarcely write at all and publish nothing.”
It’s been a while now since I finished The Book of Disquiet. A favorite book from the start, I read it more slowly than if it was a chore. For one thing, the book consists of aphorisms, some as short as a single line, others as long as three pages, and to read too many at once would have muddled the arguments of them all. Not that The Book isn’t of a piece. In its determined melancholy, its gentle audacity, and in its insistence on renunciation, frustration, and solitude as the nectars of life, it is almost scarily whole.
Improbably, too, when you consider that no one knows how to put the individual parts together. Pessoa, born in 1888, announced The Book of Disquiet as forthcoming in 1914, but this was not to be. The work was published posthumously, as all true odes to frustration should be. Livro do Desassossego, “the saddest book in Portugal,” Pessoa called it, didn’t appear in his city of Lisbon until 1982, forty-seven years after his death from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of forty-seven. The entries of this “factless autobiography”—from which it’s impossible to learn of any meals taken, trips set out on, jobs completed, friends entertained, or women courted—were written between 1912 and 1935, the year of Pessoa’s death, and are, according to the translator of my edition, “frequently undated and undateable.” At least 27, 543 documents—more than two for each day of Pessoa’s solitary and graphomaniacal adult life (so much for scarcely writing at all)—are to be found in the Pessoa archives in Lisbon, and while he clearly indicated many passages as belonging to the Livro, and as being written by Soares, just as many are included on the basis of scholarly conjecture.
This editorial chaos almost seems a part of Pessoa’s design. The Book of Disquiet is a diary, but of a self that is several and precarious, and always more potential than actual. Its floating boundaries expand and contract, lazily animated by “the horror of making our soul a fact.” As Pessoa/Soares writes, “I’m always astonished whenever I finish anything. Astonished and depressed. My desire for perfection should prevent me from ever finishing anything; it should prevent me even from starting.” Presumably it was this desire that prevented Pessoa from publishing more than one book in Portuguese during his life. That was a book of poetry, a nationalistic collection called Mensagem (Message), and for many years Pessoa was known only as a poet, Portugal’s greatest since the equally nationalistic Camões. He and his three main heteronyms are indeed very good poets, but it seems that it was as Soares and in the prose of The Book of Disquiet, where he wrote of the “desire to die another person beneath unknown flags,” that he found himself more truly.
My edition of The Book—among the infinite possibilities, at least three exist in English—is translated, beautifully, by Margaret Jull Costa. It follows a thematic selection by Pessoa scholar Maria José de Lancastre, who has clustered the passages around such themes as dreams, weariness, ambition, affections, landscapes, rain. Reading a page or two a day, I would find myself curiously preoccupied along certain lines for a week or more—weird: in the sunlight I’d been thinking constantly of rain—and then the topic would change and, like a spell of weather, move on. I suppose this is just as well if Pessoa is right and
No problem is soluble. None of us unties the Gordian knot; we either give up or cut it. We brusquely resolve with our feelings problems of the intellect and do so because we are tired of thinking, because we are too timid to draw conclusions, because of an absurd need for support, or because of our gregarious impulse to rejoin the others and rejoin life.
Yet slow immersion in The Book gave me some trouble in setting it aside and rejoining, without compunction, my gregarious colleagues in youth and ambition and—in one instance—love. It wasn’t only the heavy emphasis laid on renunciation, a rare pleasure at a time when nothing else around you seems to honor or recognize such a thing. The Book also reflects and encourages an elaborate solitude. The trouble with such a solitude is that the more elaborate it becomes, the more difficult it is to haul into the light of an ordinary conversation. Even a uniquely subtle conversation will violate its constitutive contradictions.
When I though of love, I would imagine enjoying a type of communion with another honest, articulate being. But throughout the Pessoa phase, the Pessoa year, I was becoming less and less forthright: hard to confess to your girlfriend your growing delight in solitude. And in talking about anything that mattered, I was always aware of that remainder of the insoluble problem which the words left behind, as if I were constantly failing at a simple problem of division. Now I missed being single, with its license to be shapeless and confused. The old promise—finally being known—had become a menace to the delicate incoherencies I was nurturing. Love seemed to want to enforce my identity as someone I had never, not liking to choose, wholeheartedly chosen to be.
“You don’t seem all the way in this,” she said, my girlfriend.
If there were ever someone to be in something with, it would have been her, so I thought, for reasons like the reasons anyone has in these cases. Besides, it pleased me when I could make this good and attractive person happy. So I said, “I am in this, all the way.” Meanwhile it was clear to me that nice guys are in fact dangerous people, and I remembered The Book of Disquiet: “I have a very simple morality: not to do evil or good to anyone.”
Kafka is always quoted as saying that a great book should function like “an axe to break up the frozen sea within us.” The image calls to mind a weekend spent indoors with a book, a short fatal siege. But it may be that a book is most affecting when read in dribs and drabs over many months. Troubling and even repugnant at the outset, it becomes familiar, and by dint of prolonged exposure to the poison we become immune to it. The term is mithridatism, and the best illustration is Hawthorne’s Beatrice Rappaccini, a lovely virgin to whom the world outside her artificial paradise, all concocted of poison, becomes a fatal toxin.
Susan Sontag (the point of quoting all these people is to suggest a certain book-bound existence) once wrote that writers are either husbands or lovers. There are also confirmed bachelors. And Pessoa, who almost certainly died a virgin, is the great bachelor of modernism—entirely singular, solitary, and aloof. In photographs the appearance is always the same, his face like a disguise picked up at a novelty shop: the big nose attached to the thick black glasses, the thin unsmiling lips almost concealed by a little moustache. The fedora, bowtie, and raincoat are likewise invariable, and the whole effect is of neutrality-of-being carried almost to the point of non-existence. Photographs seek to prove that we exist, but Pessoa appears to be trying to tamper with the evidence—an impression that wouldn’t be worth much, except that his writing ratifies it so completely.
The system of the heteronyms allowed him to disown his words even as he wrote them. The heteronyms formed a small society of alter egos, “a whole world of friends inside me,” and they were united above all by their conviction that the soul has no product. That is, any deed immediately estranges itself from its doer, and travesties the intention behind it. It becomes alien. “Every gesture, however simple, represents a violation of a spiritual secret,” Pessoa writes. “To act is to exile oneself.” The same goes for emotions, those interior gestures: one day, “Nothing will remain of the person who put on feelings and gloves”—just as if those were the same.
Certain philosophers passed much of the twentieth century in an effort to exorcise the ghost of Descartes—to rid us of the notion that every self is split between subject and object, one who is versus one who thinks, a watcher versus a doer. But Pessoa represents a kind of kudzu Cartesianism: a crazy interior multiplication of egos, each thought or feeling producing a separate spectator self, a subject then made into the object of a brand new subject, and so on indefinitely. From The Book of Disquiet:
I created various personalities within myself. I create them constantly. Every dream, as soon as it is dreamed, is immediately embodied by another person who dreams it instead of me.
In order to create, I destroyed myself; I have externalized so much of my inner life that even inside I now exist only externally.
The more I’ve learned about Pessoa, the better I seem to understand how one of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for The Divine Comedy frightened him all his life: Canto 13, the Forest of the Suicides. There a multitude of people dead by their own hands turn ineluctably into objects, namely trees. Self-destroyed, they exist only outside themselves, and this externalization is the internal experience they have to go on suffering.
But if that is the infernal image of Pessoa’s work, The Book of Disquiet most often seduced me as a perversely cheerful apologia for withdrawal from everything, for “the sweetness of having neither family nor companions, the gentle pleasure akin to that of exile, in which we feel the pride of distance shade into a hesitant voluptuousness.” Behold the paradise of Bernardo Soares: “A cup of coffee, a cigarette, the penetrating aroma of its smoke, myself sitting in a shadowy room with my eyes half-closed.” Elsewhere he is more elaborate: “To live a dispassionate, cultured life beneath the dewfall of ideas, reading, dreaming and thinking about writing, a life slow enough to be always on the edge of tedium, but considered enough not to slip into it. To live a life removed from emotions and thoughts, enjoying only the thought of emotions and the emotion of thoughts. To stagnate, golden, in the sun like a dark lake surrounded by flowers.” The best guess is that the bending flowers themselves are narcissi.
And it’s easy and correct enough to say that Pessoa and his work are simply narcissistic. He and the heteronyms seem intent on nothing so much as their arrested development; they are life-long adolescents, addicts of potential. The less one acts, the more potential is conserved, or so you can believe. Pessoa and Soares et al. are not, therefore, the best group to fall in with in your twenties. The big task of people my age, those who haven’t yet found a partner or exactly settled on a profession, must be to enter the really existing world without getting broken in the process, to distinguish realism from selling-out and also ideals from excuses. Pessoa’s work, on the other hand, is testimony to the melancholy pleasure of shirking this task permanently and devotedly. Like a temp, Soares has taken his job as an assistant bookkeeper reluctantly, because he must: “Anyone reading the earlier part of this book will doubtless have formed the opinion that I’m a dreamer. If so, they’re wrong. I don’t have enough money to be a dreamer.” But this only means that he lacks enough to dream full-time. Getting called a good-for-nothing would not affront him. He enjoys quoting the French philosopher Gabriel Tarde: “Life is a search for the impossible via the useless.”
Work and love are alleged to be the keys to happiness, but Soares and Pessoa, who have each other, demur. Pessoa is never more audacious, characteristic, or sinister than when he says such things as: “Woman is a rich source of dreams. Never touch her.” Friendship doesn’t fare much better in his account: “The only possible reason for asking other people’s advice is to know, when we subsequently do exactly the contrary of what they told us to do, that we really are ourselves, acting in complete disaccord with all that is other.”
All throughout the year of my reading The Book of Disquiet I was also finishing up grad school; making a first go of a freelance career; eating and dressing a little better than before, and a little beyond my means; hanging out with the friends who have, like me, ended up in the huge funnel of New York; and alternately suffering and enjoying an on-again, off-again love affair, or affaire maudite, with that girlfriend whom I loved and often avoided. I was also working on a novel—the completion of which seemed to recede further away the more I wrote. I’m referring to “the horror of making our soul a fact.” Yet it doesn’t seem impossible or even all that unlikely that I will more or less get what I want and what I’d come here for, in this city that more than any other is consecrated to such desires. No doubt I would have hesitated in the face of a threatened fulfillment no matter what book I’d left by my bedside for months, but it remains hard to imagine one that would have more exacerbated my hesitations, or better improved upon them, as the case may be, than The Book of Disquiet.
“I like to read the way a chorus girl does,” E.M. Cioran writes, “identifying myself with the author and the book.” So it is for me too. In many ways Pessoa and I couldn’t be more different. My politics are to the left, I’m reasonably abstemious, I travel when I can, I have more than enough friends, and to my barbaric ear, Portuguese—Pessoa’s “clear, majestic language”—sounds like Spanish as spoken by Eastern Europeans. Yet The Book of Disquiet, the work of a royalist loner and virgin dead sixty-seven years ago from too much drink, has often seemed as intimate a book as if the words were mine. At times it was as if someone had drawn up my confession, to which I need only supply the crime.
I seemed to savor my life by my reluctance to live it. The romance I was in, as I finished The Book of Disquiet, was presumed to be ending again, and again not actually acting like it was. In my politics too there were issues of “commitment.” The power of my left-wing analysis seemed constantly to increase while—despite the rallies attended, the petitions signed—the power of the left itself steadily diminished. And the great novel I was writing I suspended or abandoned in order to work on something shorter and less important to me. Even in small things—what to do next week with a friend—I was hesitant and uncertain. Decisiveness seemed to shear the edges off time, permitting the days to lapse by too quickly, and I didn’t know—I still don’t—any better way of slowing things down than to enter a pleasant little agony of abulia. The Book of Disquiet, involved in all this, had become my book of hours.
It’s not that its philosophical contents couldn’t be found elsewhere. I could have re-read Emerson on self-reliance. I could have adopted the opinion Proust labored to adopt, over thousands of pages, on the emptiness of friendship and love. I could have remarked, with Samuel Beckett in his study of Proust, on “the nullity of what we are pleased to call attainment.” Even Joseph Conrad, temperamentally so different from those others, wrote in Nostromo that “Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusion.”
But I think my susceptibility to Pessoa’s “cold in the soul” had to do with his own susceptibility. Where the others make arguments, he confesses himself in fragments. The transvaluation of values he proposes—all the customary grails turned upside down—is more persuasive to me than Nietzsche’s much more strenuous operation, not only because Pessoa will have nothing to do with the despicable will-to-power, but because he suffers his truths at least as much as he advances them. After all, he is giving things up not because he doesn’t want them, but because he does. The image of the Gordian knot isn’t an idle one:
The further we advance in life, the more we become convinced of two contradictory truths. The first is that, confronted by the reality of life, all the fictions of literature and art pale into insignificance… They are just dreams from which one awakens, not memories or nostalgic longings with which we might later live a second life.
The second is this: every noble soul wishes to live life to the full, to experience everything and every feeling, to know every corner of the earth and, given that this is impossible, life can only be lived to the full subjectively, only lived in its entirety once renounced.
These two truths are mutually irreducible…
Nothing satisfies me, nothing consoles me, everything—whether or not it has ever existed—satiates me. I neither want my soul nor wish to renounce it. I desire what I do not desire and renounce what I do not have. I can be neither nothing nor everything: I’m just the bridge between what I do not have and what I do not want.
This bridge—Pessoa is often writing about bridges—is also between the self and the world. Pessoa’s intuition was that the two could not both be real at once. Meanwhile there was the bridge, nothing solid on either side.
These days it often seems to me high time that I try to take a single shape in the world, that I make a sincere effort to live the best of my possible lives. At such times my way of reading The Book of Disquiet appears in retrospect as a bad habit and a symbol of undisclosed troubles. What did this book do for me but aggravate my indecision and help perfect my bad conscience? The advice anyone would give is to get it together and be serious, and although I can quote chapter and verse against this counsel—“The world belongs to the unfeeling. The essential condition for being a practical man is the absence of any sensitivity”—I feel guilty not taking it.
And there are other arguments to be made against Pessoa-ism, or Soares-itis, or whatever it is. For one thing, Pessoa rarely specifies the contents of his dreams, and while this strange emptiness invites the reader to take the book as his own, it doesn’t only do that. It also breeds the suspicion that Pessoa is more capable of relishing his dreams than of having them. For how long can he keep up their production without believing in or really desiring their realization?
Yet just as often as I am tempted to give in to misgivings and guilt, I feel something else—I feel that I’m right to clutch the thought of The Book to me, and to prefer, to any satisfaction I might obtain, the excitement and dread of being solitary and unrealized. This is especially so when I’m back in my apartment, alone with my books. Then I wonder again if it’s true that “Freedom is the possibility of isolation.” Meanwhile, “Life, obvious and unanimous, flows past outside me in the footsteps of the passers-by.” All that is quoting Pessoa, with whom I may have identified too strongly, as a patient becomes a part of his disease, or disquiet. Yet the ideal reader is an invalid. He lies in bed and imagines the life he might lead once recovered. If the illness is prolonged, what was a chance occurrence, an event separate from him, alters his character somewhat and becomes a part of it. Of course I’m not sick at all, and in reading The Book of Disquiet I took all the pleasure that is the mark of good health. Nevertheless, even now that I haven’t taken the book down from its shelf in my bedroom for several months, sometimes when I am walking through New York, with its hurry and din and its large portion of purposeful and enviable people (I have sometimes even heard that I am one of them), I look around and think, thinking of The Book of Disquiet, “I’ll never set foot in this world.” Whether this sentence, uttered silently in a voice not quite my own, amounts to a boast, a bizarre lie, or a statement of sad fact is one of many things I don’t know and, if the example of Pessoa is any guide, may contrive never to learn.