Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How hard it is to be oneself and see only what is there! - radical Caeiro

Sometimes, on days of pure and perfect light,
When things are as real as real can be,
I quietly ask myself
Just what makes me suppose
That there is beauty in things.

The beginning of poem XXVI of The Keeper of Sheep is what we have here, this time in the translation of Peter Rickard (University of Texas Press, 1971).  Readers who follow me more closely than is wise may detect a hint of my interest in Alberto Caeiro, although I merely asked if there was beauty in literature, conceding the beauty of things from the start.  The naïve Caeiro is, unlike me, a real radical.

Is there beauty in a flower, then?
Is there beauty in a fruit?
No: they have colour and shape
And they exist, that’s all.
Beauty is non-existent, the name
I give to things in return for the pleasure they give me.
It has no meaning.
Why then do I say that things are beautiful?

Holy cow, Caeiro pushes this idea a lot farther than I dare – “they exist, that’s all”!  But that’s a lot, I think to myself, and why do we want to stop there?  Most of us, most of the time, stop all too soon, reflexively.  Caeiro makes an ideology of reduction.  He has a response for me, in poem XXII: “But who ordered me to want to understand? \ Who told me I had to understand?”

The simple pastoral poet seems to have been (not) reading Plato or Kant or who knows who – someone with genuine knowledge can help me out.  Or he is a throwback to the sorts of philosophers who talk about properties of matter, “extension,” that sort of thing.  Each brand of breakfast cereal is a specific combination of traits – sweetness, crunchiness, mouthfeel, and so on, all measured on a five point scale.  Everything is like breakfast cereal.  Color, shape, existence.  Why are these components not themselves understandable, or beautiful?  Perhaps Caeiro has an answer to his difficult question.

Yes, even to me, who live just by living,
Come all unseen the lies men tell
When faced with things,
When faced with things which simply exist.

How hard it is to be oneself and see only what is there!

Kinda strong, huh, “lies”?  The corruptions of men, received ideas, I guess, must be resisted.  At least the poet acknowledges the difficulty of his stance.  If Caeiro, who lives just by living, has so much trouble, what can I, who live not only by living, but also by thinking, possibly do?

Ricardo Reis, a contemporary of Caiero, wrote that “my knowledge of The Keeper of Sheep opened my eyes to seeing,” a paradox more interesting than anything I have seen in his own poems.  Did Reis’ knowledge just happen somehow, or did it require something more active, some kind of knowing?  My eyes were already open, and already saw, or so I claim.

I just read – I think I just read, but cannot find – a line by Annie Dillard, in Living by Fiction (1982) to the effect that good criticism has no obligation to be right but rather to be fruitful.  The same is true of poetry.  Is there beauty in the abundant fruitfulness of Caiero?


  1. It is a cliché
    to say
    beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    That something is subjective
    does not make it meaningless.
    That beauty can be reduced
    to primary colors and shapes
    detracts not from beauty.
    For colors and shapes
    can be reduced to molecules
    and molecules to atoms
    and atoms to quarks
    and quarks
    reduced further.
    Reduction can continue
    forever without ever
    the ‘thing in itself’
    which Kant said
    causes all our sensations
    but is outside our realm
    of possible experience.

    ‘Beauty’ is not meaningless.
    I know what you mean
    when you say something
    is beautiful.
    I know the ‘cash value’
    of that term.

    Because life is subjective
    does not render the
    non-subjective more real.
    It is the subjective
    that provides the final
    destination for the real.

  2. Vince, I love that you put your comment in the form of a Caeiro-like free verse poem.

    You may know what I mean when I use the word "beauty," but I don't, and thus avoid it, although I assume that I use other slack words in its place, words that help me avoid difficult problems.

    You are certainly convincing me that Caeiro was arguing with Kant and the Kantian tradition, even if he did not know it.

  3. Hi A.R.

    "You may know what I mean when I use the word 'beauty', but I don't, and thus avoid it…"

    Do you have to know the intricacies of the Federal Reserve System to know what a dollar is and what it will buy and how to use the word ‘dollar’ in a sentence?

    As a philosopher once said, “It’s not as if skeptics just wanted certainty; they want mathematical certainty.”

    And as Wittgenstein would say: “There is no such thing as a private language.”

    Humpty Dumpty may believe that words mean exactly what he wants them to mean and no more or no less but he doesn’t get to dictate language.

    Like money, language gets its ‘cash value’ by community acceptance.

    It is true that I can’t derive your theory of aesthetics simply by your use of the word ‘beauty’ but then that’s why we philosophy.


  4. Does that "dollar" analogy really work? Another abstraction would be more convincing. Another abstraction commonly used in writing about art would be much more convincing. I have no interest whatsoever in certainty, nor did Caeiro.

    To clarify, it is only literary beauty that, in dark moments, I deny. My primary evidence is that when I see someone, let's say a book blogger, say a piece of writing is beautiful, it is invariably not beautiful. Not only do I not know what the book blogger means, it is evident that the book blogger doesn't know either.

    Caeiro's argument or claim or gesture is wilder than mine. His is fundamental to reality; mine is just a salvo in the War Against Cliché.

  5. There's some confusion in the text...
    Alberto Caeiro and Ricardo Reis, along with Alavaro de Campos and Bernardo Soares (semi-) are all heteronymous of Fernando Pessoa.

  6. I assume that "Anonymous" is in fact another heteronym. Regardless, I finally feel that these Caeiro posts really worked. "Some confusion in the text" - ha ha ha ha ha! Yes. Yes there is.

  7. Sorry for the anonymousES (don't know how to comment) and the quickness and not error-free in my reply.

    I replied to your message because indeed Alberto Caeiro is a literary voice of Fernando Pessoa, along with hundreds of heternonyms he had. Do you know that nowadays "Pessoas' Ark" is still being open, studied and edited. He left thousands of texts that still being known: ranging from politics to occultism.

    Well, Pessoa is a world, believe me.

    Good site,
    Greeting from Portugal, Lisbon, where Pessoa still wanders in every corner.


  8. Thanks for the reply. I will make a confession: my unspoken challenge for this series of posts about Caeiro was to never mention the P-word. I felt that treating Caeiro as a real poet was the proper way to enter the spirit of the heteronymical concept.

    More Portuguese literature this fall, a lot more, I hope.

    I have been to the Algarve, but not to Lisbon. I very much want to go.