‘Ever since I was a child, I have had the tendency to create a fictitious world around me, to surround myself with friends and acquaintances who never existed. (I don’t know, of course, if they didn’t really exist or if it is me who doesn’t exist. On such matters, as in all others, one shouldn’t be dogmatic.) Ever since I became aware of the thing that I call self, I can remember the figures, the movements, the character and the history of several fictitious people who were, to me, as visible and mine as those things which we, perhaps abusively, call real life. This tendency has always been with me, modifying slightly the kind of music it uses to bewitch me but never altering its manner of bewitching’ – Fernando Pessoa in a letter to Casais Monteiro, 1935.
Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa lived most of his life in a furnished room in Lisbon, where he died in obscurity in 1935, aged forty-seven. He had never married, preferring instead his own company or that of a brandy bottle. He had left behind him one slim volume of verse called A Mensagem – ‘The Message’, itself largely ignored by the Portuguese literary fraternity. When cleaners were sent to clear out his belongings, however, they found a locked trunk: inside were close to 26,000 pages of poems, musings and writings that were to make him, posthumously, into one of the most important poets of the twentieth century.
Pessoa was special not because he wrote learned, vital, metaphysical poetry – but because this kind of world-view was only one of his many mouths. For all intense purposes, Pessoa was a literary schizophrenic: more, a sufferer of multiple personalities. Chain-smoking in his room, he developed heteronyms; fictional characters with their own histories, personalities, flaws and qualities by which he could make sense of his own contrasting desires, hopes and opinions. These heteronyms would comment and criticise each other’s works and even Pessoa’s ‘own’ writings that he published under his own name, appearing in the literary review, Orpheu, which he published with some friends.
Pessoa was never the vibrant socialite. In fact, he regularly gave up on real life to feed the authenticity of his fictional poets, rendering each with a personal biography, psychology, politics, aesthetics, religion and physique: Alberto Caeiro, the blue-eyed, uneducated shepherd. Ricardo Reis, an epicurean, doctor and classicist. Álvaro de Campos, a modernist, naval engineer, traveller and bisexual dandy. These three ‘authors’ were to become the principal voices in Pessoa’s mind, three in an eventual collection of at least seventy-two heteronyms that were responsible for the hundreds of published and the tens of thousands of undiscovered texts that filled that innocuous trunk.
However, what is so compelling about Pessoa is not the number of different ‘selves’ he entertained but the extraordinary relationship he had with them. Completely convinced of their legitimacy, he would even calculate their horoscopes in order to better understand them. He wrote of his first real heteronym, Alberto Caeiro, to a friend: ‘One day…March 8, 1914…It was the most triumphant day of my life…What followed was the appearance of someone in me…Alberto Caeiro. Forgive the absurdity of the sentence: in me there appeared my master.’
Caeiro, the villager, was distinctly anti-metaphysical. ‘In the world around us’, he said, ‘things are precisely as they seem – there is no hidden meaning anywhere.’ Caeiro thought that our unhappiness sprung from our unwillingness to limit our horizons and accepted sadness as a natural state. In this sense, Caeiro represented a natural, primal vision of reality, the pagan incarnate of Pessoa himself.
From Caeiro’s The Keeper of Sheep:
I’ve never kept sheep
But it’s as if I’d done so.
My soul is like a shepherd
It knows wind and sun
Walking hand in hand with the Seasons
Observing and following along.
All of Nature’s unpeopled peacefulness
Comes to sit alongside me.
Still, I’m sad, as a sunset is
To the imagination,
When it grows cold at the end of the plain
And you feel night come in
Like a butterfly through the window.
But my sadness is comforting
Because it’s right and natural
And because it’s what the soul should feel
When it already thinks it exists
And the hands pick flowers
And the soul takes no notice.
I’ve no ambitions or desires.
Being a poet isn’t my ambition.
It’s my way of being alone.
Ricardo Reis, Pessoa’s second heteronym, like Caeiro, urged Pessoa to feel rather than to think: ‘wise is the one who does not seek… the seeker will find in all things the abyss, and doubt in himself.’ A classical epicurean, Reis prayed to the Greek gods and believed completely in the notion of Fate. As an epicurean living in Christian Europe, however, Reis knew that his spiritual life was limited. He would muse melancholically upon the brevity of life, the vanity of wealth and struggle, and advocate the joy of simple pleasures, patience in times of trouble. He preached only the avoidance of pain and that man should seek tranquillity and calm above all else:
As long as I feel the fresh breeze in my hair
And see the sun shining strong on the leaves,
I will not ask for much.
What better thing could destiny grant me?
Other than the sensual passing of life in moments
Of ignorance such as this?
Yet Reis was unable to shake off his feelings of sadness, to regard them as a natural part of life. The increasingly-tormented Pessoa at this point was stuck in the monotony of a day job as a commercial translator and foreign correspondent. One pictures him asking himself whether he was to spend the rest of his days in an office, sneaking out to get drunk at lunchtime in order to see the day through.
Yet the most compelling and complicated of the heteronyms, Álvaro de Campos, was perhaps the closest character to Pessoa’s own. Campos was torn between a feverish desire to be and feel everything and everyone declaring – ‘in every corner of my soul stands an altar to a different god’ – and at other times, profoundly wishing for a state of isolation.
From de Campos’ Tabacaria (The Tobaconists’)
I am nothing.
I will never be anything.
I cannot wish to be anything.
Yet, in me lies all of the dreams of the world
How should I know what I’ll be, I, who don’t know what I am?
I am what I think? But I think of so many things!
And there are so many people that think the same thing that there can’t be enough room for everyone!
Perhaps like the American writer Sylvia Plath after him, Pessoa was affected by the awareness that so many of the things he could have been, or potentially be, would remain unrealised. Though Pessoa would break off a potential love affair with Ophelia Queiroz, a young girl he met in his office because of his commitment to poety, a recurrent theme in Pessoa- himself’s poetry is Tédio or Tedium. It is more than simple boredom. It is from a world of weariness and disgust with life, a sense of the finality of failure. Pessoa could find solace in nothing but his literary ‘selves’, consumed more by his spiraling emotions than the desire to rid himself of them.
Or perhaps writing was the only way Pessoa knew how to rid himself of them: “One writes to become other than what one is” he once said. Was he then guilty of making up his alter-egos to compensate for a life deliberately unlived?
From Fernando Pessoa’s Bicarbonato de Soda (Bicarbonate of Soda):
Should I drink something or should I commit suicide?
No; I am going to exist. Dammit! I am going to exist.
Give me something to drink, for I am not thirsty!
To get to know Pessoa is to try and come to terms with the constant, ticking metronome of our own identities, our own endlessly changing desires and occasional complete lack thereof. Not as something bad or malignant but as something to be accepted as natural, as necessary to life. Here’s hoping he found it in death.
From Fernando Pessoa’s Autopsicografia (Self-Analysis):
The poet is a faker
Who’s so good at his act
He even fakes the pain
Of pain he feels in fact.
And those who read his words
Will feel in what he wrote
Neither of the pains he has
But just the one they don’t.
And so around its track
This thing called the heart winds,
A little clockwork train
To entertain our minds.