Fernando Pessoa: A Life of Disquiet
Mis à jour : févr. 20
I envy – but I’m not sure that I envy – those for whom a biography could be written, or who could write their own. In these random impressions, and with no desire to be other than random, I indifferently narrate my factless autobiography, my lifeless history. These are my Confessions, and if in them I say nothing, it’s because I have nothing to say.
What is there to confess that’s worthwhile or useful ? What has happened to us has happened to everyone or only to us; if to everyone, then it’s no novelty, and if only to us, then it won’t be understood. If I write what I feel, it’s to reduce the fever of feeling.
What I confess is unimportant, because everything is unimportant. I make landscapes out of what I feel. I make holidays of my sensations.
I don’t complain about the world. I don’t protest in the name of the universe. I’m not a pessimist. I suffer and complain, but I don’t know if suffering is the norm, nor do I know if it’s human to suffer. Why should I care to know ?
I suffer, without knowing if I deserve to. (A hunted doe.)
I’m not a pessimist. I’m sad.
I’ve always rejected being understood. To be understood is to prostitute oneself. I prefer to be taken seriously for what I’m not, remaining humanly unknown, with naturalness and all due respect.
Nothing would bother me more than if they found me strange at the office. I like to revel in the irony that they don’t find me at all strange.
The more I contemplate the spectacle of the world and the ever-changing state of things, the more profoundly I’m convinced of the inherent ction of everything, of the false importance exhibited by all realities.
And in this contemplation (which has occurred to all thinking souls at one time or another), the colourful parade of customs and fashions, the complex path of civilizations and
progress, the grandiose commotion of empires and cultures – all of this strikes me as a myth and a ction, dreamed among shadows and ruins.
But I’m not sure whether the supreme resolution of all these dead intentions – dead even when achieved – lies in the ecstatic resignation of the Buddha, who, once he understood the emptiness of things, stood up from his ecstasy saying, ‘Now I know everything’, or in the jaded indifference of the emperor Severus : ‘Omnia fui, nihil expedit – I’ve been everything, nothing’s worth the trouble.’
Mine inner sense predominates in such a way over my five senses that I see things in this life — I do believe it — in a way different from other men.
There is for me — there was — a wealth of meaning in a thing so ridiculous as a door-key, a nail on a wall, a cat’s whiskers. There is to me a fulness of spiritual suggestion in a fowl with its chickens strutting across the road. There is to me a meaning deeper than human fears in the smell of sandalwood, in the old tins on a dirt heap, in a match box lying in the gutter, in two dirty papers which, on a windy day, will roll and chase each other down the street.
For poetry is astonishment, admiration, as of a being fallen from the skies taking full consciousness of his fall, astonished about things.
Intimate Pages and Self-Interpretation
I see life as a roadside inn where I have to stay until the coach from the abyss pulls up. I don’t know where it will take me, because I don’t know anything. I could see this inn as a prison, for I’m compelled to wait in it; I could see it as a social centre, for it’s here that I meet others.
But I’m neither impatient nor common. I leave who will to stay shut up in their rooms, sprawled out on beds where they sleeplessly wait, and I leave who will to chat in the parlours, from where their songs and voices conveniently drift out here to me. I’m sitting at the door, feasting my eyes and ears on the colours and sounds of the landscape, and I softly sing – for myself alone – wispy songs I compose while waiting.
Night will fall on us all and the coach will pull up. I enjoy the breeze I’m given and the soul I was given to enjoy it with, and I no longer question or seek. If what I write in the book of travellers can, when read by others at some future date, also entertain them on their journey, then fine. If they don’t read it, or are not entertained, that’s fine too.
I have to choose what I detest – either dreaming, which my intelligence hates, or action, which my sensibility loathes; either action, for which I wasn’t born, or dreaming, for which no one was born. Detesting both, I choose neither; but since I must on occasion either dream or act, I mix the two things together.
I’m dazed by a sarcastic terror of life, a despondency that exceeds the limits of my conscious being. I realize that I was all error and deviation, that I never lived, that I existed only in so far as I lled time with consciousness and thought.
I feel, in this moment, like a man who wakes up after a slumber full of real dreams, or like a
man freed by an earthquake from the dim light of the prison he’d grown used to. This sudden awareness of my true being, of this being that has always sleepily wandered between what it feels and what it sees, weighs on me like an untold sentence to serve.
It’s so hard to describe what I feel when I feel I really exist and my soul is a real entity that I don’t know what human words could de ne it. I don’t know if I have afever, as I feel I do, or if I’ve stopped having the fever of sleeping through life.
Yes, I repeat, I’m like a traveller who suddenly finds himself in a strange town, without knowing how he got there, which makes me think of those who lose their memory and for a long time are not themselves but someone else. I was someone else for a long time – since birth and consciousness – and suddenly I’ve woken up in the middle of a bridge, leaning over the river and knowing that I exist more solidly than the person I was up till now.
But the city is unknown to me, the streets are new, and the trouble has no cure. And so, leaning over the bridge, I wait for the truth to go away and let me return to being ctitious and non-existent, intelligent and natural.
Tedium is the physical sensation of chaos, a chaos that is everything. The bored, the uncomfortable and the weary feel like prisoners in a narrow cell. Those who abhor the narrowness of life itself feel shackled inside a large cell. But those who suffer tedium feel imprisoned in the worthless freedom of an infinite cell. The walls of the narrow cell may collapse and bury those who are bored, uncomfortable or tired.
The shackles may fall and allow the man who abhors life’s puniness to escape, or they may cause him pain as he struggles in vain to remove them and, through the feeling of that pain, revive him without his old abhorrence. But the walls of the infinite cell cannot crumble and bury us, because they don’t exist; nor can we be revived by the pain of shackles no one has put on us.
This is what I feel before the placid beauty of this eternally dying afternoon. I look at the lofty, clear sky where I see fuzzy, pinkish shapes like the shadows of clouds, an impalpable soft down of a winged and far-away life. I look below me at the river, whose ever-so-slightly shimmering water is of a blue that seems to mirror a deeper sky.
I raise my eyes back to the sky, where the coloured fuzziness that shredlessly unravels in the invisible air is now tinged by a frigid shade of dull white, as if something in the higher, more rarefied sphere of things had its own material tedium, an impossibility of being what it is, an imponderable body of anguish and desolation.
But what’s in the lofty air besides the lofty air, which is nothing ? What’s in the sky besides a colour that’s not its own ? What’s in these tatters that aren’t even of clouds (and whose very existence I doubt) besides a few glimmers of materially arriving rays from an already resigned sun ? What’s in all this besides myself ? Ah, but that, and that alone, is tedium. In all of this – the sky, the earth, the world – there is nothing at all but me !
I’ve reached the point where tedium is a person, the incarnate fiction of my own
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.
Isolation has carved me in its image and likeness. The presence of another person – of any person whatsoever – instantly slows down my thinking, and while for a normal man contact with others is a stimulus to spoken expression and wit, for me it is a counterstimulus, if this compound word be linguistically permissible. When all by myself, I can think of all kinds of clever remarks, quick comebacks to what no one said, and ashes of witty sociability with nobody.
But all of this vanishes when I face someone in the esh: I lose my intelligence, I can no longer speak, and after half an hour I just feel tired. Yes, talking to people makes me feel like sleeping. Only my ghostly and imaginary friends, only the conversations I have in my dreams, are genuinely real and substantial, and in them intelligence gleams like an image in a mirror.
The mere thought of having to enter into contact with someone else makes me nervous. A simple invitation to have dinner with a friend produces an anguish in me that’s hard to define.
The idea of any social obligation whatsoever – attending a funeral, dealing with someone about an o ce matter, going to the station to wait for someone I know or don’t know – the very idea disturbs my thoughts for an entire day, and sometimes I even start
worrying the night before, so that I sleep badly. When it takes place, the dreaded encounter is utterly insignificant, justifying none of my anxiety, but the next time is no different: I never learn to learn.
‘My habits are of solitude, not of men.’ I don’t know if it was Rousseau or Senancour who said this. But it was some mind of my species, it being perhaps too much to say of my race.
To live a dispassionate and cultured life in the open air of ideas, reading, dreaming and thinking of writing – a life so slow it constantly verges on tedium, but pondered enough never to find itself there. To live this life far from emotions and thought, living it only in the thought of emotions and in the emotion of thoughts. To goldenly stagnate in the sun, like a murky pond surrounded by flowers.
To possess, in the shade, that nobility of spirit that makes no demands on life. To be in the whirl of the worlds like dust of owers, sailing through the afternoon air on an unknown wind and falling, in the torpor of dusk, wherever it falls, lost among larger things.
To be this with a sure understanding, neither happy nor sad, grateful to the sun for its brilliance and to the stars for their remoteness. To be no more, have no more, want no more... The music of the hungry beggar, the song of the blind man, the relic of the unknown wayfarer, the tracks in the desert of the camel without burden or destination...
However much my soul may be descended from the Romantics, I can find no peace of mind except in reading classical authors. The very sparseness by which their clarity is expressed comforts me in some strange way. From them I get a joyful sense of expansive life that contemplates large open spaces without actually travelling through them. Even the pagan gods take a rest from the unknown.
The obsessive analysis of our sensations (sometimes of merely imagined sensations), the identification of our heart with the landscape, the anatomic exposure of all our nerves, the substitution of desire for the will and of longing for thinking – all these things are far too familiar to be of interest to me or to give me peace when expressed by another. Whenever I feel them, and precisely because I feel them, I wish I were feeling something else. And when I read a classical author, that something else is given to me. (...)
I read and am liberated. I acquire objectivity. I cease being myself and so scattered. And what I read, instead of being like a nearly invisible suit that sometimes oppresses me, is the external world’s tremendous and remarkable clarity, the sun that sees everyone, the moon
that splotches the still earth with shadows, the wide expanses that end in the sea, the blackly solid trees whose tops greenly wave, the steady peace of ponds on farms, the terraced slopes with their paths overgrown by grape-vines.
Brief dark shadow of a downtown tree, light sound of water falling into the sad pool, green of the trimmed lawn – public garden shortly before twilight: you are in this moment the whole universe for me, for you are the full content of my conscious sensation.
All I want from life is to feel it being lost in these unexpected evenings, to the sound of strange children playing in gardens like this one, fenced in by the melancholy of the surrounding streets and topped, beyond the trees’ tallest branches, by the old sky where the stars are again coming out.
If our life were an eternal standing by the window, if we could remain there for ever, like hovering smoke, with the same moment of twilight forever paining the curve of the hills... If we could remain that way for beyond for ever! If at least on this side of the impossible we could thus continue, without committing an action, without our pallid lips sinning another word!
Life is whatever we conceive it to be. For the farmer who considers his eld to be everything, the eld is an empire. For a Caesar whose empire is still not enough, the empire is a field. The poor man possesses an empire, the great man a field. All that we truly possess are our
own sensations; it is in them, rather than in what they sense, that we must base our life’s reality.
The entire life of the human soul is mere motions in the shadows. We live in a twilight of consciousness, never in accord with whom we are or think we are. Everyone harbours some kind of vanity, and there’s an error whose degree we can’t determine. We’re something that goes on during the show’s intermission; sometimes, through certain doors, we catch a glimpse of what may be no more than scenery. The world is one big confusion, like voices in the night.
I’ve just reread these pages on which I write with a lucidity that endures only in them, and I ask myself: What is this, and what good is it ? Who am I when I feel ? What in me dies when I am ?
Like someone on a hill who tries to make out the people in the valley, I look down at myself from on high, and I’m a hazy and confused landscape, along with everything else. In these times when an abyss opens up in my soul, the tiniest detail distresses me like a letter of farewell.
I feel as if I’m always on the verge of waking up. I’m oppressed by the very self that encases me, asphyxiated by conclusions, and I’d gladly scream if my voice could reach somewhere. But there’s this heavy slumber that moves from one group of my sensations to another, like drifting clouds that make the half-shaded grass of sprawling fields turn various colours of sun and green.
I’m like someone searching at random, not knowing what object he’s looking for nor where it was hidden. We play hide-and-seek with no one. There’s a transcendent trick in all of this, a fluid divinity we can only hear. Yes, I reread these pages that represent worthless hours, brief illusions or moments of calm, large hopes channelled into the landscape, sorrows like closed rooms, certain voices, a huge weariness, the unwritten gospel.
We all have our vanity, and that vanity is our way of forgetting that there are other people with a soul like our own. My vanity consists of a few pages, passages, doubts... I reread ? A lie ! I don’t dare reread. I can’t reread. What good would it do me to reread ? The person in the writing is someone else. I no longer understand a thing...
I weep over my imperfect pages, but if future generations read them, they will be more touched by my weeping than by any perfection I might have achieved, since perfection would have kept me from weeping and, therefore, from writing.