The Book of Disquiet (A Factless Autobiography)

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Read 19/02/2022-15/03/2022

Rating 3 stars

The Book of Disquiet is Fernando Pessoa’s factless autobiography written under one of his ‘heteronyms’, Bernardo Soares. Constructed from fragments of writing on scraps of paper, it is a diary of sorts in which Soares attempts to understand who he is.

I bought The Book of Disquiet roughly 15 years ago because some lines from it were painted on the wall in a French café bookshop called Liber.Thés in Blois, and I was intrigued. I started reading it straight away, and the bookmark still between the pages tells me that I made it roughly halfway, to page 232, before abandoning it. It must not have quite been the right time for book and reader to meet.

Is now its time? I’m heading for Portugal on my European book tour, and this is the only Portuguese book I own. It’s on Boxall’s list of 1001 books to read before you die, and I don’t like to be defeated by a classic.

Pessoa was born in Lisbon and, aside from a period in childhood when he lived in Durban, South Africa, thanks to his stepfather being posted there as Consul, lived there until his death in 1935. I’ve never been to Portugal, and its capital seems a good place to explore virtually.

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Lisbon © Deensel, CC BY 2.0

The Arco da Rua Augusta could be a good starting point, with its views of the city and the river from the top.

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Rua Augusta Arch in Lisbon, Portugal in April 2019 © Rehman Abubakr, CC BY-SA 4.0

Rua Augusta is a busy pedestrian street paved with traditional Portuguese paving stones. It links the city’s two main squares, and is lined with shops, street vendors, cafés and restaurants. It is part of an area that was constructed after an earthquake and tsunami destroyed much of the mediaeval city in 1755. Known as the Baixa Pombalina, it is named after the Prime Minister who laid out the plans for the reconstruction, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, 1st Marquis of Pombal.

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Rua Augusta, via the Lisbon Portugal Tourism Guide website

Just off Rua Augusta is the Archaeological Site of Rua dos Correeiros, an underground museum displaying archaeological finds from 2500 years of Lisbon’s history. There are also Phoenician archaeological finds, from the city’s time as an Iron Age trading post, in the nearby Cathedral, so I’ll pop over there, as well. Lisbon is the second oldest European capital city, after Athens, and is on a site that has been occupied since the Neolithic era.

Despite not being great with heights, I’m fascinated by the Santa Justa Elevator, an iron structure designed by a student of Gustav Eiffel that connects the downtown Baixa area with the Chiado district above.

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The lift as seen from Rua de Santa Justa © Dicklyon, CC BY-SA 4.0

I should also visit the museum about Pessoa’s life at the Casa Fernando Pessoa.

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Casa Fernando Pessoa, Lisbon © Truque da Banana, CC BY 2.0

Finally, as I’m here and they are one of my favourite pastries, I’ll make sure to pick up some pastel de nata from Pastéis de Belém.

I started The Book of Disquiet with its introduction, written by the translator and editor Richard Zenith for his 2001 edition. It provides an introduction to Pessoa and his fragmented psyche that gave birth to a dozen alter egos. Bernardo Soares is the closest in personality to Pessoa, but he isn’t the full man. Zenith explains that The Book of Disquiet was a lifelong project for Pessoa, who saw it as unfinishable. Zenith describes it as “Without a plot or plan to follow, but as disquiet as a book can be, it kept growing even as its borders became ever more indefinite and its existence as a book ever less viable – like the existence of Fernando Pessoa as a citizen in this world.”

In the following ‘Notes on the Text and Translation’, Zenith says “Had Pessoa prepared his Livro do Desassossego (The Book of Disquiet) for publication, it would have been a smaller book. He planned to make a ‘rigorous’ selection from among all the texts he had written … and to undertake ‘an overall revision of the style’ …”. Zenith argues that, although this would have given the book a plot, it would have lost its genius, the fact that it is “a monument as wondrous as it is impossible.” Elsewhere, Zenith calls it “… a treasure chest of both polished and uncut gems, which can be arranged in infinite combinations, thanks precisely to the lack of a pre-established order.”

It’s a book of two eras, the first broadly written under the guise of the ‘heteronym’ Vicente Guedes as a series of diary entries, between 1913 and 1920, alongside Pessoa contributing abstract reflections on his life events. Pessoa periodically added to its sprawling mass of fragments during the 1920s, but then, from 1928 until his death, Pessoa wrote as Soares, filtering his observations through the lens of this alter ego. Pessoa was largely writing in the period between two World Wars, and Zenith identifies in the texts and fragments “a generational sense of lostness”. With the arrival of Soares, this transforms into “a personal struggle for identity and meaning”.

In putting together this edition, Zenith admits that he has tampered with Pessoa’s non-order, and emphasises that his choice in ordering the texts and selecting additional ‘stray’ texts for inclusion “can claim no special validity”. His recommendation is for the reader to “invent their own order or, better yet, read the work’s many parts in absolutely random order.” As someone whose job it is to apply a system of arrangement on archival collections that often arrive with no discernible order, so that researchers can navigate their contents, Zenith’s quandary over organising Pessoa’s lack of order is a familiar one. And as someone who sees how researchers recombine documents into a new classification that fits the narrative of their research, I appreciated his recommendation for how to read, as well.

His tips for how to approach The Book of Disquiet include: as a sketchbook that can be leafed through; as a travel journal of the mind that records random impressions; as an autobiography of a man who chose not to live in the real world but to exist entirely in his own imagination. The travel journal option appealed to me, as someone who has journalled each of the seven trips to Japan we have made, but as I read, I discovered that Pessoa-as-Soares disdained travel writing. The autobiography of the man whose life satisfaction comes from dreams also appealed to me. As an unusual child who preferred my own company and had a rich imagination, often conjuring an existence that could never be achieved in the real world, I’m interested that Pessoa made such a project of his inner life. It also occurs to me that, during two separate periods of convalescing from surgery in the past three months, I’ve had enough solitude to feel more myself than since I started to earn a living. Perhaps I didn’t have that recollection of what it is to be a dreamer the first time I tried to read The Book of Disquiet.

Zenith also says that he separated out some of the fragments that didn’t seem to form part of Pessoa’s concept for The Book of Disquiet, creating a 70-page ‘Disquiet Anthology’ at the back of the edition I read. I decided to focus on the ‘Factless Autobiography’ portion of the book.

And so, armed with an idea of this alleged impossible work, I started reading again. I decided to follow Zenith’s order and read from front to back. Pessoa’s preface seems to introduce Soares without specifically mentioning his name. He is depicted as a friendless, solitary man who dines alone and lives alone in two rented rooms, where he spends his nights writing. In describing this solitary man, Pessoa seems to be setting up an experiment – to describe an aspect of human character with everything extraneous stripped away. He seems afraid to corrupt his existence with friendship, but also realises that this man doesn’t consider him a friend, but a stranger who could be useful. Pessoa here presents himself as the person tasked with bringing the solitary man’s writing into the public domain. There’s an air of Mr Lockwood from Wuthering Heights or Robert Watson in Frankenstein about this introduction, although that suggests that Pessoa’s role is as narrator. The preface is the only example of an observing narrator in the entire book. Everything else is the written thoughts and observations of Soares, the solitary man. In the first text, he depicts himself as monkish, contemplating life as the reason for his soul, while simultaneously not fully believing in anything, neither the divine nor Humanity. He accepts the imperfection of everything, as though he’s a student of Zen. “There’s no sunset so lovely it couldn’t be yet lovelier, no gentle breeze bringing us sleep that couldn’t bring a yet sounder sleep.” His aim is to dream things in order to “transform them into [his] own substance”.

Pessoa’s writing style is poetic without being florid. He paints pictures with his words that can transport the reader to the downtown streets of Lisbon, which Pessoa and his ‘heteronym’ Soares both walked as flâneurs, or to the landscape of Pessoa-as-Soares’s imagination. As I read, I visualised a man similar to the photographs of Pessoa I have seen, talking to me, but not directly to me – to an audience through a camera, as in documentaries about writers that have actors saying the words in the writer’s diary and correspondence. Pessoa-as-Soares’s written language seemed to fit with performance. Perhaps John Cusack would play him. The fragments, although undated and without much, if any, reference to the seasons, imply the passing of time, and feel as though the reader has interrupted the writer in some way, causing him to break off and tell us what is in his mind. Although unusual because there is no plot, there is narrative flow. I wondered whether this was down to Zenith’s structuring of the fragments, or whether alternative narratives would similarly flow if the fragments were in a different order.

I enjoyed his perspective on life. He reflects on the nature of work and how, if he gained his imagined freedom from his job, his boss, his colleagues, he would regret it. His boss isn’t a bad boss, and is easier to deal with, he concludes, “than all the abstract bosses in the world.” A friend suggests that he is being exploited, could do better for himself, to which he responds that since the nature of life is exploitation, it’s no worse to be exploited by a boss like his “than by vanity, by glory, by resentment, by envy or by the impossible.” I agree with him. There comes a level in life where you can settle, where the balance between exploitation for income and freedom to follow your own interests feels acceptable. For some, that balance tips towards ambition and high achievement, for others towards working to a satisfactory level and leaving it behind at the end of the working day. Those who strive don’t understand those who are happy, or at least accepting of, where they are, and vice versa.

Absurdity is a theme alongside, and tangled up in, dreaming. Although the writing and atmosphere is gentler, it reminded me at times of the absurdity of Kafka. There is an internal contradiction to everything that our brain explains away in order for us to continue linearly through life. Pessoa-as-Soares captures this and encourages us to acknowledge it. Tedium and its cousin boredom raise their heads. We are, in the 21st century, conditioned to fear boredom, to bemoan it, scare it away with activity that so often only serves the purpose of being active. But boredom and tedium are necessary parts of life, they convince us of what we’re not, and sometimes we need to allow them space in our lives in order to be convinced and inspired. Inertia, a slowness of life bordering on tedium, is a double edged thing for Pessoa-as-Soares. Sometimes it’s a fatigue that leaves him “longing to be free of wanting to have thoughts” that could be characterised as depression, other times it’s a sense of complete rest, a pleasant incapability of thinking, a golden stagnation.

He’s down on the Romantics, accusing them of confusing what we need with what we desire, of craving adulation, of wanting the moon “as if it could actually be obtained.” If he tries to emulate them, it makes him laugh out loud at how absurd they were.

The gravest accusation against Romanticism has still not been made: that it plays out the inner truth of human nature. Its excesses, its absurdities and its ability to seduce and move hearts all come from its being the outer representation of what’s deepest in the soul – a concrete, visible representation that would even be possible, if human possibility depended on something besides Fate.
Even I, who laugh at these seductions that play on the mind, very often catch myself thinking how nice it would be to be famous, how pleasant to be doted on, how colourful to be triumphant! But I’m unable to envision myself in these lofty roles without a hearty snicker from the other I that’s always nearby, like a downtown street.

There are multiple passages that I wanted to copy out and make comment on. His observation on sleeplessness is one that anyone who has experience of insomnia will recognise.

The clock in the back of the deserted house (everyone’s sleeping) slowly lets the clear quadruple sound of four o’clock in the morning fall. I still haven’t fallen asleep, and I don’t expect to. There’s nothing on my mind to keep me from sleeping and no physical pain to prevent me from relaxing, but the dull silence of my strange body just lies there in the darkness, made even more desolate by the feeble moonlight of the street lamps. I’m so sleepy I can’t even think, so sleepless I can’t feel.

Also, his riffing on a line from a poem by Pessoa-as-Alberto Caeiro, captured the feeling I sometimes get when I stare out to sea or stand on the top of a hill looking out on the landscape below, which is a heart swelling elasticity of joyous feeling that I am a part of something much bigger.

‘I’m the size of what I see!’ Each time I think on this phrase with all my nerves, the more it seems destined to redesign the whole starry universe. … I want to raise my arms and shout wild and strange things, to speak to the lofty mysteries, to affirm a new and vast personality to the boundless expanses of empty matter.

His solitude and lack of fellow feeling for the people he encounters in daily life occasionally prompt a burst of existential angst. It isn’t crisis, but a momentary realisation of who he is that then weighs on him. He’s a curious study, and I found myself reflecting on how we never fully know what’s going on in someone else’s mind, or how they perceive themselves and how that intersects with how they present themselves. Similarly, we can’t truly know how the persona we present to the world is interpreted by others. Some people are an open book, others guard themselves closely, with their true self emerging by accident. Perhaps it’s impossible to fully suppress who we are, no matter who we want the rest of the world to see. Pessoa-as-Soares also considers this, towards the end of Zenith’s edition.

We are all used to thinking of ourselves as primarily mental realities, and of other people as immediately physical realities. We vaguely see ourselves as physical people, in so far as we consider how we look to others. And we vaguely see others as mental realities, so only when we’re in love or in conflict does it really dawn on us that they, like we, are predominantly soul.
And so sometimes I lose myself in futile speculations about the sort of person I am in the eyes of others …

At other times, he embraces isolation as only an introvert can, because the stimulation of the company of others is a suppressant for him, draining him of energy. I fully related to this. His isolation also breeds a desire for more isolation, something that I have found to be true of the lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic, and of my current convalescence. Spending such long periods without face to face contact with others makes the prospect of rejoining a social space even more daunting, somehow.

I wonder whether any psychoanalysts have read The Book of Disquiet, and what they make of it. I think Carl Jung would have had a field day with it. The occasional plunge from ecstasy to despair spoke to me of disordered emotions, particularly of depression.

Pessoa-as-Soares depicts modern life as a conveyor belt of work built on the desire to have something else, something in some way ‘more’, that turns people into automatons. The disintegration, as he sees it, of both moral and political spheres has left a world that “belongs only to the stupid, the insensitive and the agitated.” He spears a modern societal flaw. “Today the right to live and triumph is awarded on virtually the same basis as admission into an insane asylum: an inability to think, amorality, and nervous excitability.” The First World War and its seismic ripples through the 20th century into the 21st has a lot to answer for. As I was reading, the horror of war returned to Europe, once again in the East, this time in Ukraine. There’s a lot from the decade following the end of the First World War that has been neither forgiven nor forgotten. There’s a lot, too, about autocratic leadership that hasn’t changed. This is another thing that Pessoa-as-Soares made me think about, with his thoughts on who owns the world.

The world belongs to those who don’t feel. The essential condition for being a practical man is the absence of sensibility. The chief requisite for the practical expression of life is will, since this leads to action. Two things can thwart action – sensibility and analytic thought, the latter of which is just thought with sensibility. All action is by nature the projection of our personality onto the external world, and since the external world is largely and firstly made up of human beings, it follows that this projection of personality is basically a matter of crossing other people’s path, of hindering, hurting or overpowering them, depending on the form our action takes.
To act, then, requires a certain incapacity for imagining the personalities of others, their joys and sufferings. Sympathy leads to paralysis. The man of action regards the external world as composed exclusively of inert matter – either intrinsically inert, like a stone he walks on or kicks out of his path, or inert like a human being who couldn’t resist him and thus might as well be a stone as a man since, like a stone, he was walked on or kicked out of the way.

All of which sounds very familiar from the present day, never mind the last century and beyond. “All life is war,” Pessoa-as-Soares says, and what a hard sentence to read that is, even as someone for whom war isn’t an immediate reality, but something that happens to others while we watch or turn away.

These dense passages where Pessoa hits a nerve are thankfully leavened by other, more whimsical passages. I found the pacing of the book, derived from the mix of longer pieces punctuated by entries of a single line, some of them titled ‘Dolorous interlude’, enjoyable. It made the work feel conversational, as when someone tells us a longish tale, full of detail, and then a single sentence on its own, to change the tone or show that they don’t take themselves so seriously. Having said that, its fragmented nature made it hard for my brain to retain most of what I read, even with noting certain things down. It’s a transient book. There’s something ephemeral about the fragments, despite the often serious nature of Pessoa-as-Soares’s ruminations. Then again, some of the passages are so dryly serious that they seem comedic, as though Pessoa is baiting the literal reader through Soares’s text. Text 76 considers the possibility of making a science out of self-awareness in which scientific instruments of the mind can accurately measure self-awareness, before drifting into a consideration of dreaming. Soares says, “Today’s dreamers are perhaps the great precursors of the ultimate science of the future. Of course I don’t believe in an ultimate science of the future, but that’s beside the point.” Surely Pessoa is laughing here at the pomposity of certain scientists of the mind.

Most of all, I enjoyed those travel journal aspects that Zenith had alluded to in the introduction, where Pessoa-as-Soares physically travels outside his apartment, on a walk in the city or a visit to the countryside, documenting what he observed. The travel is occasionally abstract, as in the consideration of Japanese teacups and Chinese fans that carry depictions of far off lands. Their mention reminded me of Portugal’s adventuring past in the 15th and 16th century Age of Discovery, and how this long established nation was one of the first world superpowers, before Napoleonic occupation, civil war and revolution dimmed its global power. That then made me think about how Pessoa and Joseph Roth were contemporaries, and each wrote about sociopolitical change in their own way in the years following the First World War.

There’s a moment, too, when this book calls across to Eco’s work, in a reference to the need for a “splintered, Babelish language” to describe anything which isn’t a universal, “common to all human souls and to all human experience”. The universal, Pessoa says, is described in the soul through “the primitive and divine language, the Adamic tongue that everyone understands.” He talks, too, of the need to live in the Extreme, “via a Ulyssean journey through all experiential sensations”, making me wonder whether he had read Joyce’s Ulysses, and whether he understood it, as Eco did, as a step on the way in an attempt to regain “the Adamic tongue”.

This time around, I noticed that I started to flag around a third of the way through. I couldn’t recall why I abandoned the book on my first attempt, but now realise that I find it hard to maintain interest in philosophical works. There is too much of another person’s analysis of the world.

Philosophy, for me, lacks the grounding of empiricism that makes history and political analysis more appealing to me. It’s not that I’m not interested, it’s more that hundreds of pages of one person’s take on the world, without a perceptible narrative, drains me, in a similar way to spending lots of time with someone gregarious. Some things are better in small doses. Monologues are less fun than conversations. Perhaps I should have paid more heed to Zenith’s recommendation to “invent [my] own order or, better yet, read the work’s many parts in absolutely random order.” Perhaps it’s a book to take down from the shelf periodically and dip into, rather than try to read it all of a piece.

I persevered, though, or perhaps I persisted, not helped by a reading slump brought on by worries about the Russia-Ukraine war. Hey ho, the world is very awful.

Many years ago, I read an abridged version of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and The Book of Disquiet reminded me in some ways of what I remember from that. For Either/Or, Kierkegaard assumed a fictitious persona to gather together a range of writing that explores the choice between two opposing ways of life. Its subtitle is A Fragment of Life. Pessoa’s work carries within it some of Kierkegaard’s key existentialist ideas, particularly angst and the dichotomy between aesthetic and ethical existence, and explores a similar central question to Either/Or, that of how we should live. But there’s also a nihilism about Pessoa’s book, in his consideration of the meaningless nature of life, and his personal disaffection towards his own existence.

The Book of Disquiet is dense with the ideas of one man, sometimes repetitive, always with a sense that nobody would ever read Pessoa’s words, creating a sense of how a writer writes, before the editing process begins. This would be a very different book if Pessoa had edited it, and I don’t know that I agree with Zenith’s assessment that editing would have removed the genius of the work. I felt that, for all the seriousness and introspective contemplation, there was a light-hearted book yearning to emerge. Unfiltered as it is, there’s something of the anguished diary of an unfulfilled person waiting for life to happen to them. I came away feeling that Pessoa had, in some way, been emotionally arrested in his teenage years. He seemed like a 1930s version of 1980s Morrissey.

Pessoa-as-Soares seemed to be aware of this adolescent arrest even if he couldn’t quite understand it.

I often come across pages I wrote in my youth, when I was seventeen or twenty … There are certain phrases and sentences written in the wake of my adolescence that seem like the product of the person I am now, with all that I’ve learned in the intervening years. I see I’m the same as what I was. And since in general I feel that I’ve greatly progressed from what I was, I wonder where the progress is, if back then I was the same as now.

At times, he seemed to understand that his navel gazing and angst was excessive. In one passage he says, “I’ve made myself into the character of a book, a life one reads,” before going on to describe how the time he has spent contemplating, analysing and redrawing himself means that he has destroyed himself. While I could feel sympathy for him, at times I found him too self-indulgent, at others plain old unlikeable. This was particularly true when he revealed his superiority complex, based around intellect and dismissive of anyone who doesn’t share his airy highbrow ways.

For all the periodic struggle I had in maintaining momentum, I enjoyed The Book of Disquiet. There are things I took from it that are helpful, such as the acceptance that sitting in my own headspace in order to gain respite from the world outside is a handy tool for feeling calmer, the reframing of work that I can do standing on my head as a means to an end, rather than a frustration, in order to free myself from the pressure of meeting other people’s expectations, and realising that taking life as it comes, as Pessoa’s ‘ordinary man’ does, can be another handy tool in finding contentment.

This was a marathon read, and reaching the end of the ‘Factless Autobiography’ confirmed for me that my decision not to continue with the ‘Disquiet Anthology’ was the right one. Perhaps one day.

5 thoughts on “The Book of Disquiet (A Factless Autobiography)

  1. The sleeplessness quote hit hard – I had one of those last night, and all I can do is to breathe, keep my eyes closed, and periodically check the clock. I remind myself this illness does that to me a lot (‘unrefreshing sleep’ is one of the markers of ME/CFS), and that I survive anyway, by not freaking out about it, and counting the rest periods as not really sleep, but still helpful.

    Poor man – what a life! Possibly believing himself to be superior helped somehow, but that’s not what I would have concluded about him.

    I must confess to have skimmed your review toward the end – with the soggy brain from last night…

    I hope you enjoy your visit – and that elevator is really something, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I house shared with someone who had ME in my final year of university, so have seen how debilitating it can be, especially the inability to sleep despite being chronically tired. It sapped my friend. I like your coping mechanism of counting the rest periods as still helpful, even if not true sleep. I’ll try to remember that, next time I have a bout of insomnia.

      His superiority complex is fleeting, most of the time he’s a combination of self-deprecating and sympathetic. Which somehow made the superiority jar more as I read.

      It’s a long review, not helped by the virtual tour at the start! I’m starting to flag with my virtual tour. My next three books aren’t part of it, so there will be less to wade through next time.

      Like

      1. It is me, not your wonderful review – after one of those nights – maybe one in ten for me – I don’t have the same use of my brain!

        It helped when I stopped stressing about these sleepless periods. Since I don’t seem to be able to change them, raging is useless. I survive by taking naps EVERY day – and count as rest the ones where I don’t sleep. And ALWAYS feel better a while after one, so they’re working.

        Ah – just bouts of superiority. I have those, too. 🙂 Except that I really don’t want to be in charge of the world – Pinky and the Brain notwithstanding. All I want to do is find the chunks of time in which the fiction grows apace.

        My biggest problem sometimes is giving my main character a believable version of illness without overwhelming her completely: circumstances make a huge difference, as well as belief from others, specific help, and the ability to disengage.

        Thanks for the creativity you put into your posts.

        Liked by 1 person

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