Friday, January 20, 2012

I believe in their infinite number - or Pessoa's fun with heteronyms

The two Pessoa collections I have been thumbing through (Zenith, Honing & Brown) both divide Pessoa’s poems by heteronym; the old and excellent Peter Rickard translation does the same thing.  Alberto Caeiro’s poems always comes first.  Álvaro de Campos always gets the most pages; Ricardo Reis the least.  A highly recommended exception is the Honig and Brown book that assembles Caeiro’s The Keeper of Sheep into a single, separate book.

Even with the Caeiro-only book – no, moreso – the emphasis of the editors is on the character, on the imagined poet.  Pessoa-himself fades.  Caeiro brightens.  This is why I like the Caeiro-only book: Pessoa’s fiction is so convincing.  These are just the poems the semi-naïve non-shepherd genius poet would have written.  No wonder Reis and Pessoa and Campos were so impressed.

Both Zenith and Honig & Brown preface each heteronym’s section with explanatory material about the poet.  Zenith writes his own summary, while Honig & Brown go to the author himself (authors themselves).  Pessoa says Ricardo Reis “was born inside my soul on January 29, 1914, around 11 o’clock at night.”  An invented brother describes Reis’s philosophy as “sad Epicureanism.”  Then Reis describes his own aesthetic  and spiritual beliefs: “The colder the poetry, the truer it is”; “I believe in the existence of the gods; I believe in their infinite number, in the possibility of man to ascend to divinity.”  All of this is from Poems of Fernando Pessoa, Honig and Brown, pp. 125-6.  Edwin Honig’s selection of Pessoa’s prose, Always Astonished (1988), has more more more of this stuff.

All of this phony biography and positioning and commentary comes before the poems themselves.  The editors seem to think it is important to know beforehand.  This is an amusing challenge to readers who dismiss any interest in the biography of the author, and a different challenge, also amusing, to readers who demand a biographical capsule before starting any new author.  Here is the biography and more, but all invented.  Or ignore the biography, and miss much of the intent and inventiveness of the actual author.

Well, in reality, we can read in multiple ways, yes?  The imagined author, the real author hidden by the imagined, the text as such.  Pessoa gives the reader more to play with, not less.

The great question is what creative problem the heteronyms solved for Pessoa.  The primary problem must have been idiosyncratic, a search for a means of expression that could contain his ideas.  But I think there was another purpose.  Pessoa was, like many of his conceptual peers, obsessed with artistic “movements,” Symbolism and Futurism and Cubism, that sort of thing.  All of these were imports into Portugal. 

The cluster of fictional poets allowed Pessoa to immediately create his own Modernist Portuguese movement.  One poet becomes four; the surviving poets (Caeiro unfortunately died in 1915, soon after writing the Keeper of Sheep poems) could then behave like members of a movement, promoting or arguing with each other.  I do not believe that Pessoa ever expelled any of his creations from the movement which would have been a good joke, especially if the poet he expelled had been Fernando Pessoa.

The movement, as such, is Sensationism, which I will summarize with these lines of Caeiro’s:

To think a flower is to see it and smell it
And to eat a fruit is to taste its meaning. (IX, H&B, 17)

and then with any luck I will never mention Sensationism again.  I am not so interested in “movements” or schools, but I am not a conceptual artist.

Next week, poems, just poems.


  1. Zenith's introduction to the poems (which I glanced at last night) puts the heteronyms in the context of other authors' experiments with other-authorness, but it's still striking, the extent to which Pessoa goes to make himself (what self?) disappear amid this created throng. I can't stop connecting this to your post about the end of Little Dorrit; one almost expects Pessoa to finally just - *pop*- disappear altogether.

  2. Pessoa took an idea implicit in the Modernist projects of a number of writers and pushed it to an extreme (and difficult) conclusion. This would be interesting even if the poems were not as good as they are.

    And then it turns out that Pessoa was a genuinely world-class poet, once he figured out how to disappear, which makes the whole thing even wilder.

  3. Perhaps it's the same phenomenon as Peter Sellers, who claimed he did not exist apart from his creations onscreen. He said, "There is no real me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed."

  4. Yes.

    That's a great comparison. Pessoa writes about himself as a kind of dramatist, but an improvisatory actor works similarly.

  5. I do not believe that Pessoa ever expelled any of his creations from the movement which would have been a good joke, especially if the poet he expelled had been Fernando Pessoa.

    Do I detect (ahem) that someone's been reading The Savage Detectives? If not, even funnier!

  6. Someone who wrote The Savage Detectives had been reading Pessoa, at least. One of the entries - this one - in Nazi Literature of the Americas is about "the Caribbean's bizarre answer to Pessoa," except this faux Pessoa does not write poems, but only plagiarizes them.

    With the purges, though, I was actually thinking of Pessoa's Parisian contemporaries, Breton and the Surrealists. The purges among the visceral realists are presumably Belano and Lima's deliberate parody of Breton.

  7. Breton was so ripe for parody because he was so bloody self-important. A few of the Surrealists had a sense of humor, though. My own favorite is Louis Aragon, who translated "The Hunting of the Snark" into French and said of shining shoes that it was art: "Art mineur je le concède mais art art art."

    I just ran across this user's guide to Bolano:

    Can I trust it, roughly, about where to begin?

  8. How weird. Quibbling with some details aside, and limited by what I have & haven't read, and blah blah blah, that New Yorker list is how I would organize Bolaño. One of the books of short stories or By Night in Chile are great places to start. The latter might actually have some resonance with the French WWII literature that you know well.

    Ma femme is a great champion of Paris Peasant, which for no good reason I have not read.

    Michel Leiris is another ex-Surrealist with a real sense of humor.