Plural Like the Universe | City Journal


Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese modernist who, in many respects—and in many aspects—is a fitting poet for our identity-obsessed age, was at least four poets. His best verse, and much of his prose, entered the world variously under the sign of the pastoralist Alberto Caeiro, the classicist Ricardo Reis, and the world traveler Álvaro de Campos, as well as that of Pessoa himself, the progenitor of this powerful triad that he dubbed “heteronyms.” Too complexly realized to be mere pseudonyms, too individual in their tastes, temperaments, philosophies, and flashings-forth of genius, they were the high triumvirate among the more than 100 literary alter egos that Pessoa invented in his lifetime, many coming to light only after his death. “Be plural like the universe!” he commanded himself. Walt Whitman—one of his largest influences—may have contained multitudes, but Pessoa sent his panoply of inner selves flocking out into the world, where they unfolded rich psychologies, personal convictions, and private obsessions. The heteronyms argued with one another in print, at times even taking issue with Pessoa himself. 

Pessoa’s unstable identity reflected the upheaval of his time, as well as the disruptions of his own early life. He was born in 1888 in Lisbon, the capital of a decadent, declining power whose ruling family had sat on the throne since 1640. Even for left-wingers, colonialism was synonymous with national pride: Portugal’s economy depended on wealth extracted from Brazil, and its monarchy, at the time of Pessoa’s birth, laid claim to a vast swath of lightly occupied, poorly administered colonial territory stretching the entire breadth of the African continent, from what is now Angola in the west to Mozambique in the east. This was the decaying empire, the glory days of which Luís de Camões, Portugal’s national poet—whom Pessoa aimed to outdo—had extolled in his Virgilian epic The Lusiads.

By the time he died, in 1935, Pessoa had lived through a dictatorship, a republican revolution, the end of the Portuguese monarchy, the Great War, and the first several years of the Salazar regime. Despite writing at length on imperialism, decadence, and other cultural topics, he remained allergic to the “vocabulary of social responsibility.” Even his close friends had trouble pinning down his views. As the critic Harold Bloom remarked, “Pessoa can be read as a political poet only if you start with the good morning’s conviction that everything is political, including a good morning.” But he wasn’t insensitive to the world around him. His three major heteronyms emerged in 1914, the dawning of World War I, as though welling up from the fissures of a fractured way of life. More than any of his contemporaries, Pessoa personalized the upheaval of his time. Each disruption occasioned a seismic shift of self, as Ricardo Reis—“a Greek Horace who writes in Portuguese,” according to Pessoa—tells us:

Fate frightens me, Lydia. Nothing is certain.
At any moment something could happen
To change all that we are.

Brilliant, restive, alternately depressed and exhilarated, Pessoa had second thoughts about everything—and third and fourth thoughts, too. After dropping out of college, he cadged money from relatives and friends, borrowed against his mother and stepfather’s investment bonds, and supported himself by writing letters in English and French for Portuguese businessmen, while pursuing a dizzying array of literary projects and business schemes, most of which never got off the ground. His life in Lisbon was hectic—he made the rounds of literary cafés—but largely uneventful. Having diagnosed himself with “a mild sexual inversion,” he never married, and likely remained a virgin. He was besotted not with men or women but with language, enamored of his own alchemical creative powers. Endlessly fecund, he seemed to be at times a spectator of himself, “the meeting-place of a small humanity that belongs only to me.”

They belong to the world now, Pessoa’s invented selves. In the dramatis personae that opens Pessoa, Richard Zenith’s mammoth new biography of the poet, we learn, charmingly, that Reis “immigrated to Brazil in 1919, and was still living in the Americas, perhaps in Peru, when Pessoa died in 1935”—the heteronym surviving his maker. Pessoa’s first biographer, the Portuguese author João Gaspar Simões, believed that the “exotic” appeal of the heteronyms would fade—but, in fact, it has only grown stronger with time, the poet’s self-partitioning a more apt allegory for the obsessive and self-obsessed way in which so many of us craft our digital personae, personal brands, and public-facing lives. Pessoa’s inventions, sprung from their captivity in the large wooden trunk he left behind, stuffed with more than 25,000 papers, have unquestionably outlived him.

But for every “full-fledged soul” and perfect piece of writing he produced, there are dozens of fragmentary works and pseudo-authors who exist in little more than name. These cast-off limbs—“rubble [from] a kind of literary Pompeii,” Zenith calls them—put me in mind of those wonderfully expressive hands by Rodin on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: radiant with genius, but incomplete. Even Pessoa’s greatest prose work is a tumulus of shards. Early on, in November 1914, he told a friend, despairingly, “My state of mind compels me to work hard, against my will, on The Book of Disquiet. But it’s all fragments, fragments, fragments.” Like his contemporary T. S. Eliot, Pessoa went on to the end of his life shoring up fragments, though not exactly against his ruins.

Born to a romantic, literary mother and a civil servant father who moonlighted as a prolific music and theater critic while slowly dying of tuberculosis, Pessoa grew up a sensitive, withdrawn, yet independent child. Words were his playthings, though he still “enjoyed the good health of understanding nothing,” as he later wrote. One thing he may have struggled to understand during those early Lisbon years was the disruptive presence of his paternal grandmother, the half-demented Dionísia. Prone like her namesake, the Greek god, to fits of madness, she furnished the future creator of so many alternate selves with early evidence, according to Zenith, “that multiple personalities can dwell in one and the same human body.”

At age five, Pessoa suffered the deaths, six months apart, of his father and his infant brother, Jorge. Then he watched, bewildered, as his mother whipsawed from grief to giddy elation. Just days after losing her son, she met a charming Portuguese navy captain: the attraction was electric, and they soon married. Here was another lesson for the budding Pessoa. “Grief doesn’t last because grief doesn’t last,” the heteronym Álvaro de Campos tells us in a poem about a newly bereaved mother. The mother who loses her son is a recurring figure in Pessoa’s mature writings, along with an awareness of how quickly the loss can lose its sting. Personalities, emotions, marriage, widowhood—it seemed that nothing was stable or endured for long.

In Pessoa’s childish imagination, reality itself grew unstable: daydreams supplanted the waking world. Egged on by a doting uncle with a weakness for make-believe, the future poet began to people his solitude with fictitious individuals—at least two of whom, Captain Thibeaut and the Chevalier de Pas, he remembered for the rest of his life as having been utterly real to him, “fathomed to the depths of their souls.” This dreamy habit only augmented in adolescence. The lonely boy’s desire to surround himself “with friends and acquaintances who never existed” prefigured the grand fakery of a literary career in which he would conduct interviews with himself, one heteronym picking another’s brain. Years later, Pessoa would play with his own selfhood as he had once played with imaginary friends: “I unwind myself like a multicoloured skein, or I make string figures of myself, like those woven on spread fingers and passed from child to child. . . . Then I turn over my hand and the figure changes. And I start over.”

Starting over was what the chameleon-like boy and his mother did in Durban, South Africa, where her new husband assumed the post of Portuguese consul. The largest city in the British colony of Natal, Durban boasted efficient public transportation, a public library, a botanical garden, literary societies, and other trappings of civilization, including the rigorous convent school where Pessoa was promptly enrolled. Forced to start the five-year primary school curriculum over from the beginning, and in a new language, he finished in just three years, receiving First Prize in both English and Latin as well as the award for all-around academic excellence. In high school, he devoured the prose of Thomas Carlyle and wrote verses emulating Milton and the English Romantics. Pessoa returned to Lisbon for good in 1905, but his exposure to Anglo-American literature proved decisive.

The most crucial influence was Whitman. The American poet, Zenith writes, taught Pessoa “how to open up, feel everything, be everything, and sing.” The experience of reading Song of Myself made possible the sudden emergence, on March 8, 1914, of his first true heteronym, a pastoral yet unsentimental poet named Alberto Caeiro:

I am a keeper of sheep.
The sheep are my thoughts
And my thoughts are all sensations.
I think with my eyes and my ears
And with my hands and feet
And with my nose and mouth.

A rush of poems poured from Pessoa’s pen in this astonishing new voice. Ostensibly lacking in formal education, Caeiro was nonetheless a keen observer, “newborn with every moment / To the complete newness of the world.” It was as though he had distilled the antidote to his own overwrought intellectualism:

I lie down in the grass
And forget all I was taught.

However, as Thomas Merton, Caeiro’s first major English translator, noted, these poems have a touch of self-consciousness. It is as though the world in which the Galician poet declares himself an “Argonaut of genuine sensations” were not the everyday world but some imagined highland of the sun, where things dwell in accurate light and cast clean shadows on the eye. Caeiro is more cerebral than Whitman, who had likewise wondered at the material world and refused to offer final answers:

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands.
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

Pessoa dreamed of launching himself as an English poet in his own right. He wrote dozens of sonnets, publishing 35 of them as a chapbook, and sent poems to the Poetry Society in London. (They were ignored.) Often, he attributed his English works to one of his other selves. Incredibly, Pessoa’s last name means “person” in Portuguese, as well as “persona.” Seemingly taking the hint, he punned with the names of his English alter egos, too—each had a distinct signature and notebooks of his own.

First came Charles Robert Anon, who published a poem in a Durban newspaper in 1904. He was superseded, around 1906, by Alexander Search, who claimed authorship of more than 100 poems, a short story, and various essays. Zenith characterizes Search as “a Platonic or transcendent version of Pessoa”—a Shelleyan idealist questing after truth, with a head full of philosophy and enlightened humanism. In other words, Pessoa’s most fervent spiritual or metaphysical inquiries in English were conducted by an alter ego named A. Search. Years later, Caeiro, again as if reacting to his maker’s native bent, declared this search pointless: “Things have no meaning: they have existence. / Things are the only hidden meaning of things.”

Zenith’s biography takes flight whenever it immerses us in the Pessoan imagination and tends to flag when it turns political or sociological. The Durban section gets bogged down in passages about the living conditions of native Africans and Indian immigrants in Natal, as well as asides about the “racist division of labor” that they were part of. The index has a two-page entry for “blackface.” Zenith’s book having been published in 2021, it was perhaps inevitable that some of its 937 pages (not including the prologue and back matter) would be devoted to convicting Pessoa of racism and misogyny wherever possible—though Zenith in the role of judge and jury has clemency enough to acknowledge that such attitudes, never central to Pessoa’s genius, had “shallow roots” and were eventually outgrown as he matured. A biographer, having promised us a portrait of the man, can be forgiven for describing his outer garments as a clue to the essential self, but it’s another thing to spend thousands of words on the pedigree and life history of the subject’s tailor and on the labor practices of the mills that produced the cloth out of which said garments were made.

The essential self lies elsewhere, and what is best in Pessoa transcends politics. Yet Zenith devotes a whole chapter to Gandhi on the thin pretext that the older man was a practicing lawyer and budding civil rights activist in Durban while Pessoa was a student in primary school. It’s true that Pessoa admired Gandhi later in life—mainly for his asceticism—but Zenith doesn’t stop there. He closes a disquisition on the British treatment of Indians as second-class citizens this way: “All of which no doubt seemed to Fernando, the stepson of a European diplomat, like the natural order of things.” Rare indeed is the biographer who would feel compelled to round out his portrait of the artist as an eight-year-old by depicting that child as a representative of white supremacy.

“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a reformer,” writes Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet, defining this type as “a man who sees the world’s superficial ills and sets out to cure them by aggravating the more basic ills.” Call him a reactionary, if you like; one searches his oeuvre in vain for a social program. Roman Catholic by birth, he was a spiritual seeker and dabbler in the occult, obsessed with astrology, and a thoroughgoing skeptic—part of a generation “that inherited disbelief in the Christian faith and created in itself a disbelief in all other faiths,” which presumably would include most of the secular dogmas in which our media and universities today catechize the faithful. In one of his English poems, Pessoa locates God “Between our silence and our speech, between / Us and the consciousness of us.” Religious curiosity and metaphysical concerns crop up frequently in his work, whether attributed to a heteronym or not. Even Caeiro, whom Pessoa dubbed an “atheist St. Francis of Assisi” and who denies any reality beyond material things, invokes God—if only to say that the deity is largely beside the point:

To think about God is to disobey God,
Since God wanted us not to know him,

Which is why he didn’t reveal himself to us. . . .
Let’s be simple and calm,
Like the trees and streams,
And God will love us, making us
Us even as the trees are trees

Religion, for Pessoa, was an illusion without which “we live by dreaming, which is the illusion of those who can’t have illusions.” His dreams were, first and foremost, about self-invention, self-division, self-multiplication. His inability to believe in the triune God seems wedded somehow to his endless unfolding of new personae. Álvaro de Campos sets intellectual uncertainty beside the wish to be someone else:

Every day I have different beliefs—
Sometimes in the same day I have different beliefs—
And I wish I were the child now crossing
The view from my window of the street below.

Just so, Pessoa’s detachment from society gives rise to the impulse to invent his own society. In his static drama The Mariner, a character tells of a shipwrecked man, who, finding it too painful to recall his former life, invents an imagined past, a fictitious homeland, the made-up people and geography and events of which gradually supplant his actual memories. Pessoa, in The Book of Disquiet, longs to create in himself

a nation with its own politics, parties and revolutions, and to be all of it, everything, to be God in the real pantheism of this people—I, to be the substance and movement of their bodies and their souls, of the very ground they tread and the acts they perform! To be everything, to be them and not them!

An infinite expansion and elevation of the self, so that it would exist as both deus and demos, bringing about a solipsistic kingdom of heaven on earth, though this nation—with its “parties and revolutions”—would be fractious, disputative, rabble-rousing. Among friends, Pessoa had a “fondness for ardently defending a certain idea one day and then attacking it the next, with equally impassioned arguments,” Zenith writes. While the more romantic modernists sought an “unfractioned idiom” (as the American poet Hart Crane put it) with which to mount their raids on the inarticulate, Pessoa’s own idiom was endlessly fractionated, full of tricks and evasions, enriched by philosophies and ways of seeing that he practiced for the length of a poem and no longer. Rather than try to integrate his disparate drives into a cohesive whole, he heightened the contradictions. He produced new selves as if by cellular mitosis and gave them independent life.

Among these selves was the “semi-heteronym” Bernardo Soares, the supposed author of Pessoa’s unclassifiable prose masterpiece The Book of Disquiet. This “factless autobiography,” as Pessoa/Soares calls it, was first published in 1982 (47 years after Pessoa’s death), but subsequent editions have enlarged and reordered its contents, about which editors and scholars disagree. A nonbook of which no original exists, begun in 1913 and consisting of irregularly dated entries composed intermittently over the course of 20-odd years, some handwritten, some typed, with no definite order or overarching schema, The Book was nonetheless an astonishing discovery. Few posthumous works have caused such a dramatic reevaluation of their author’s achievement.

“I make landscapes out of what I feel,” Soares writes. The Book of Disquiet puts you midway along the journey of another man’s life, lost in the dark wood of his interiority. But whose interiority, exactly? The Book’s heteronymic authorship changed over time; but ultimately, Pessoa laid it at the feet of his invention Soares, an assistant bookkeeper who lives in a rented room on the Rua dos Douradores and writes in his spare time. Soares espouses a philosophy of inaction, lives in his imagination, and, at times, can view his fellow Portuguese only as “an alien tide of living things that don’t concern me.” Less individuated than Caeiro, Reis, and de Campos, Soares is a sort of pared-down Pessoa, possessing his irony but not his humor. His semifictional diary is a kind of library in utero; many of the roughly 500 passages feel like the seeds of unwritten books, sorties where a more stolid writer might have launched entire campaigns.

Written over half a lifetime, The Book discloses an unwieldy profusion of styles and genres, from ethereal dream scenes and prose poems to clear-eyed confessions and cultural observations, sociological speculations, aesthetic maxims, and aphorisms worthy of Kafka. Even if you aren’t as dreamy or passive as Soares, you know what he means when he says that he is “suffering from a headache and the universe.” Paradise, for Soares, is eternal stasis, everything in abeyance: a world in which “the same moment of twilight forever paint[s] the curve of the hills,” a life that resembles “an eternal standing by the window”—because, even in paradise, he imagines himself as alienated, an observer at one remove from the scene. “The Book of Disquiet never ceased being an experiment in how far a man can be psychologically and affectively self-sufficient, living only off of his dreams and imagination,” Zenith tells us. “It was an extreme, monomaniacal version of Pessoa’s own, essentially imaginative way of living life.”

It was probably also a coping mechanism. The world of daydreams is one where mothers don’t plunge suddenly into obsessional love affairs and where little brothers don’t expire in infancy. Tedium besets Soares, but tedium is a small price to pay. “The fictions of my imagination . . . may weary me, but they don’t hurt or humiliate,” he says. “They never forsake [me], and they don’t die or disappear.”

Twenty-first-century America, with its cult of action and positive thinking, would hardly know what to make of the dreamy, ineffectual Soares, were it not that the narcissistic sublime (or a degraded facsimile) has become our dominant cultural mode. Then, too, at a time when some individuals claim to be incapable of settling on a single gender, much less any other unambiguous identity, we are primed to accept what Zenith calls Pessoa’s “poetics of fragmented selfhood.” There are moments in The Book of Disquiet when Pessoa breaks through the authorial mask, if only to affirm his lifelong masquerade: “To create, I’ve destroyed myself. I’ve so externalized myself on the inside that I don’t exist there except externally. I’m the empty stage where various actors act out various plays.” The triumph of his heteronymic enterprise is like that aimed at by those who today practice “manifesting”: the triumph of an idea transcended into life.

The Pessoan spirit—albeit lacking his genius—is alive and well. It lives on in Reddit forums, Twitch chats, Twitter feeds, and other venues where anonymity, or pseudonymity, is common and where even members of the blue-checkmark class, who use their real names, put up a front. The once-singular self divides or turns into a heteronym. Online spaces are loud with the personae we have unleashed.

I know this firsthand. In the summer of 2021, I delved into the world of non-fungible tokens—digital items that are provably unique and the ownership of which can be publicly verified on a blockchain. NFTs represent a new frontier of art and collectibles, gaming and pop culture, where even some of the biggest-name artists and collectors don’t use their real names. Instead of self-portraits, they employ NFT avatars as visual identities. In this scene, “anon”—Pessoa’s first major English heteronym—is a common form of address for a compatriot whose real-world identity you may never know.

To participate, I needed a suitable persona. So I created a pseudonymous Twitter account, registered domain names to match, and launched my alter self into that hothouse ecosystem. More gregarious than usual, I found it easy in that guise to make friends and forge bonds. The real me, such as he was (shades of Whitman again), took a backseat. And it worked: inside of three months, I had gained 1,000 followers and a reputation as a serious collector. We are what we dream ourselves to be, Pessoa says. Through his eyes, I have come to see the Internet increasingly as a place where heteronyms abound, casting large shadows and printing their own legends. From Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto to the master conspiracist Q, these identities shape the lives of millions.

Who, then, is the real Pessoa? A dream dreamed by no one, he sometimes thought—as Borges imagined Shakespeare in one of his Ficciones. One of Pessoa’s strongest poems, “The Tobacco Shop,” begins:

I’m nothing.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.

In Borges’s story, Shakespeare at the end of his life, having “been so many men in vain,” asks God to give him at last a singular identity to call his own. From a whirlwind, the voice of the Lord answers: “Neither am I anyone; I have dreamed the world as you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who, like myself, are many and no one.”

Wanting to be everyone while fearing that he was no one, Pessoa was nonetheless, in his fiercest moments, in touch with an unshakable core at the center of his kaleidoscope of selves. Refusing either to suppress or falsify his internal conflicts, he displayed a kind of radical authenticity. “Even if what we pretend to be (because we coexist with others) crumbles around us, we should remain undaunted,” he exhorts readers in The Book of Disquiet, “because we’re ourselves, and to be ourselves means having nothing to do with external things that crumble, even if they crumble right on top of what for them we are.”

Nearly 90 years after his death, the best of this inveterate pretender’s poetry and prose has not crumbled.

Top Photo: Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935): even his close friends had trouble pinning down his views. (Milton Díaz/GDA/AP Photo)

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