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An explosive prodigality

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The following prose-poem arose is a result of reading a review of The Book of Disquiet published posthumously in 1982 as I was beginning that portion of my life north of the tropic of Capricorn in Australia. The work is by Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935). It is a fragmentary lifetime project which was left unedited by the author. He introduced his book as a "factless autobiography."1

This volume was reviewed by George Steiner in The Observer on 3 June 2001 just as I was settling down into my retirement years and beginning the reinvention of myself as a writer and author, poet and publisher, online blogger and journalist. The book was published by Penguin and at 550 pages it is a useful resource for writers like myself.

Francis George Steiner(1929), is a French-born American literary critic, essayist, philosopher, novelist, and educator. He has written extensively about the relationship between language, literature and society, and the impact of the Holocaust. An article in The Guardian described Steiner as a "polyglot and polymath", saying that he is "often credited with recasting the role of the critic".

Part 1:

I did not come across this review until 14 October 2014, the epi-centre of spring in the Antipodes, as I was completing the third month of my 71st year with the evening of my life galloping by on hurried-wing with the poet Andrew Marvell's chariot of time hurrying near and "yonder all before me lying the vast deserts of eternity."2 At other times that chariot plodded along at a pleasurable and leisurely pace.

Steiner's review opened as follows: "Was 18 March 1914 the most extraordinary date in modern literature? On that day, Fernando Antonio Nogueira Pessoa took a sheet of paper, went to a tall chest of drawers in his room and began to write standing up, as he customarily did. 'I wrote 30-odd poems in a kind of trance whose nature I cannot define. It was the triumphant day of my life, and it would be impossible to experience such a day again.'"

Steiner, one of the world's more brilliant reviewers, continued: "Other poets, notably Rilke, have experienced such hours of explosive prodigality. But Pessoa's case is different and, probably, unique. There are a range of personae, of quite distinct personalities, of voices, which are found in this book. The first set of poems in this book is by one 'Alberto Caeiro.' Pessoa refers to him as: 'my Master who appeared inside me'. The next six were composed by Pessoa struggling against the 'inexistence' of Caeiro. But Caeiro had disciples, one of whom, 'Ricardo Reis', contributed further poems. A fourth individual 'burst impetuously on the scene. In one fell swoop, at the typewriter, without hesitation or correction, there appeared the "Ode Triumphal" by "Alvaro de Campos".

Part 2:

Pseudonymous writing, that is writing which appears under a fictitious name, is not rare in literature or philosophy. Kierkegaard provides a celebrated instance. 'Heteronyms', as Pessoa calls and defines them, are something different and exceedingly strange as they appear in his writing. For each of his 'voices', Pessoa conceived a highly distinctive poetic idiom and technique, a complex biography, a context of literary influence and polemics and, most arrestingly of all, subtle interrelations and reciprocities of awareness. Octavio Paz defines the voice of Caeiro curiously as: 'everything that Pessoa is not and more'.

Passoa is a man magnificently at home in nature, a virtuoso of pre-Christian innocence, almost a Portuguese teacher of Zen. The personality of Reis is that of a stoic Horatian, a pagan believer in fate, a player with classical myths less original than Caeiro, but more representative of modern symbolism. De Campos, yet another voice, emerges as a Whitmanesque futurist, a dreamer in drunkenness, the Dionysian singer of what is oceanic and windswept in Lisbon.

None of this triad of distinctive literary styles resembles the metaphysical solitude that is Passoa; there is a sense of being an occultist medium which characterises Pessoa's intimate verse, verse which is his own voice and not the voice of the other and diverse personae.

Part 3:

I do not have different and distinctive poetic idioms, at least I am not conscious of their existence. The entire notion of my literary voice is, if anything, something which I see as an evolving entity or reality. I certainly have a complex and highly varied set of biographical influences, many literary interrelations and reciprocities of awareness and appreciation, comprehension and understanding. My solitude is not possessed or characterized by a variety of metaphysical presences, as Pessoa's solitude and writing clearly seems to have been.

Other masks follow in this book, notably one 'Bernardo Soares'. At some complex generative level, Pessoa's genius as a polyglot underlies, is mirrored by, his self-dispersal into diverse and contrasting personae. He spent nine of his childhood years in Durban. His first writings were in English with a South African tincture. He turned to Portuguese only in 1910. There are significant analogies with the poet Borges. Pessoa earned his living as a translator. His legacy, enormous and in large part unpublished, comports philosophy, literary criticism, linguistic theory, writings on politics in Portuguese, English and French.

I am no translator; I do not deal in masks; I do, though, roam across a wide field of knowledge. In the process, I do not cultivate contrasting personae, although I am conscious of dispersing myself in such a way as to take advantage of many literary insights from the work of others.

Part 4:

The fragmentary, the incomplete, is of the essence of Pessoa's spirit. The very kaleidoscope of voices within him, the breadth of his culture, the catholicity of his ironic sympathies - wonderfully echoed in Saramago's great novel about Ricardo Reis - inhibited the monumentalities, the self-satisfaction of completion. Hence the vast torso of Pessoa's Faust on which he laboured much of his life. Hence the fragmentary condition of The Book of Disquiet which contains material that predates 1913 and which Pessoa left open-ended at his death. As Adorno famously said, the finished work is, in our times and climate of anguish, a lie. After more than half a century of an evolving literary oeuvre, I can appreciate the wisdom of Adorno's words, at least insofar as my writing is concerned.

Theodore W Adorno was a German sociologist, philosopher and musicologist known for his critical theory of society. He was a leading member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory whose work has come to be associated with thinkers such as Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin,Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse. For these writers the work of Freud, Marx and Hegel were essential to a critique of modern society.

Adorno is widely regarded as one of the 20th century's foremost thinkers on aesthetics and philosophy, as well as one of its preeminent essayists. As a critic of both fascism and what he called the culture industry, his writings—such as Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), Minima Moralia(1951) and Negative Dialectics (1966)—strongly influenced the European New Left. I became more than a little familiar with Adorno's work in the 1990s when I taught sociological theory in a Tafe college in Western Australia.

Part 5:

It was to Bernardo Soares that Pessoa ascribed his Book of Disquiet, first made available in English in a briefer version by Richard Zenith in 1991. The translation is at once penetrating and delicately observant of Pessoa's astute melancholy. What is this Livro do Desassossego? Neither 'commonplace book', nor 'sketchbook', nor 'florilegium' will do. Imagine a fusion of Coleridge's Notebooks and marginalia, of the philosophically Valery Diary, and of the voluminous Robert Musil Journal. Yet even such a hybrid does not correspond to the singularity of Pessoa's chronicle. Nor do we know what parts thereof, if any, he ever intended for publication in some revised format.

What we have in this work of Pessoa's is a haunting mosaic of dreams, psychological notations, autobiographical vignettes, shards of literary theory, criticism and maxims. If there is a common thread, it is that of unsparing introspection. Over and over, Pessoa asks of himself and of the living mirrors which he has created, 'Who am I?', 'What makes me write?', 'To whom shall I turn?' The metaphysical sharpness, the wealth of self-scrutiny are, in modern literature, matched only by Valery or Musil or, in a register often uncannily similar, by Wittgenstein. I leave it to readers to place these writers, to whom I have just referred, in a modern and personal context.

'Solitude devastates me; company oppresses me. The presence of another person derails my thoughts; I dream of the other's presence with a strange absent-mindedness that no amount of my analytical scrutiny can define.' This very scrutiny, moreover, is fraught with danger: 'To understand, I destroyed myself. To understand is to forget about loving.' These findings arise out of a uniquely spectral yet memorable landscape: 'A firefly flashes forward at regular intervals. Around me the dark countryside is a huge lack of sound that almost smells pleasant.'

Part 6:

Throughout, Pessoa is aware of the price he pays for his heteronomity, that is, the influence of others on his thoughts and actions. 'To create, I've destroyed myself... I'm the empty stage where various actors act out various plays.' He compares his soul to 'a secret orchestra'. There are shades of Baudelaire in this notion of an inner orchestra whose instruments strum and bang inside him: 'I only know myself as the symphony.' At moments, suicidal despair, a 'self-nihilism', are close. 'Anything, even tedium', a finely ironising reservation, rather than 'this bluish, forlorn indefiniteness of everything!' Is there any city which cultivates sadness more lovingly than does Lisbon? Even the stars only 'feign light'.Yet there are also epiphanies and passages of deep humour.

In the 'forests of estrangements', Pessoa comes upon resplendent Oriental cities. Women are a chosen source of dreams but 'Don't ever touch them'. There are snapshots of clerical routine, of the vacant business of bureaucracy worthy of Melville's Bartleby. The sense of the comedy of the inanimate is acute: 'Over the pyjamas of my abandoned sleep...' The juxtapositions have a startling resonance: 'I'm suffering from a headache and the universe.'

A sort of critical, self-mocking surrealism surfaces from time to time as in: 'To have touched the feet of Christ is no excuse for mistakes in punctuation.' There are many fragments of a sentence, one of which may come close to encapsulating Pessoa's unique reckoning: '....intelligence, an errant fiction of the surface'. This is not a book to be read quickly or, necessarily, in sequence. Wherever you dip, there are 'rich hours' and teasing depths. But it will, indeed, be a banner year if any writer, translator or publisher brings to the reader a more generous gift.1-Ron Price with thanks to 1George Steiner in The Observer on 3 June 2001, and 2Andrew Marvell(1621-1678), English metaphysical poet and author of the poem "To A Coy Mistress."

What is there here that
describes my means and
ways of going about this
literary life of mine now
in the evening of my life
as time's winged-feet are
running after me faster it
seems than they ever did
in earlier decades of life?

Mine is certainly no mere
factless autobiography in
its several genres that are
my modus operandi, nor
am I in some trance in these
triumphant days of my life
with their prodigious, their
long-lasting, and explosive
prodigality from which, I'm
inclined to think I will never
emerge from their rich hours,
their teasing unknown depths
where sadness and joy mingle.

There is but one persona and
voice, although a slowly and
subtly evolving one across a
vast landscape of people and
places, things and influences.

I, too, am magnificently at home
behind a host of reciprocities in
this oceanic and windswept situ
with its metaphysical solitude,
its known & unknown presences
possessed of such power that the
many worlds can be a beneficiary.

There is a leaven here than seems to
leaven the world of being & furnish
some force through which the arts
and the sciences are made manifest.

And so I write fragments and forests
of words which flash forward at many
different kinds of intervals within the
context of some secret orchestra that
is not, and is, of my making, and there
is a resonance that is not so much one
that is startling but is quite reassuring.

Ron Price
14/10/'14 to 15/10/'14.

Updated 10-15-2014 at 01:20 AM by Ron Price