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The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
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Jul 28, 2009

Of all the writers who have truly lived the life of a writer, trying to abolish the border between the I on the paper and the I in the world by transforming the latter into the first, the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) is probably the best example. Pessoa complemented his literary creation with that of several dozen personas, each with a different name and biography. These heteronyms—as Pessoa called them—were masks of Pessoa himself, although it would probably be more accurate to say that they were no one’s masks, as Pessoa often described himself as “no one.” In this respect he personifies poetic existence par excellence because he has transformed an esthetic idea—that of the author as a mask—into a way of being. Or rather: he has transformed his transient, mortal being into a work of art. He was a “passerby of everything, even of my own soul, belonging to nothing, desiring nothing, being nothing—abstract center of impersonal sensations, a fallen sentient mirror, reflecting the world’s diversity” (The Book of Disquiet).

If, as Paul Celan (whose last name is also a pen name, or more precisely an anagram of his “real” name, Ancel) has said, in the making of a poem, the I transforms himself entirely into a sign, Pessoa pushes the game of writing to its limit. In transforming himself into several dozen poets, he literally changes himself into numerous signs. It isn’t only his language that is an artifact; by incarnating Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro, Bernardo Soares et al., Fernando Pessoa becomes himself an artifact, a beautiful fiction.

The heteronym with which Pessoa signed one of his most important works, The Book of Disquiet (prose), is Bernardo Soares. Described as an assistant bookkeeper in the city of Lisbon, Soares is distinct from Pessoa in ideas, feelings, modes of perception and understanding, but “does not differ from [him:] in his style” (Pessoa, “Concerning the Work of Bernardo Soares,” quoted in the Preface, p. 209).

In creating these heteronyms, Pessoa’s intention is to establish a “Portuguese neo-paganism, with various authors, each different.” More than once he embraces incoherence and change as the underlying principles of his life, and mystery and the unknown as the only things he knows.
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