19 March 2006

In praise of disquiet

A lovely look at the work of my favorite Portuguese:
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 His legacy, enormous and in large part unpublished, comports philosophy, literary criticism, linguistic theory, writings on politics in Portuguese, English and French. Like Borges, Beckett or Nabokov, Pessoa shows up the naive, malignant falsehood still current in certain Fenland English faculties whereby only the monoglot and native speaker is inward with style and literary insight.

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. [...]

What we have is a haunting mosaic of dreams, psychological notations, autobiographical vignettes, shards of literary theory and criticism and maxims. 'A Letter not to Post', an 'Aesthetics of Indifference', 'A Factless Autobiography' and manual of welcomed failure (only a writer wholly innocent of success and public acclaim invites serious examination).

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. '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.' [...]

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: 'To have touched the feet of Christ is no excuse for mistakes in punctuation.' Or that fragment of a sentence which may come close to encapsulating Pessoa's unique reckoning: '... intelligence, an errant fiction of the surface'.
Read this book.

Update: wood s lot offers more glimpses.

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