Monday, January 23, 2012

Look, there’s no metaphysics on earth but chocolates (but not for nonmetaphysical Stevens) - "Tobacco Shop" by Álvaro de Campos

I’m going to wander through a long Pessoa poem, “Tobacco Shop” (1928), written under the guise of Álvaro de Campos.  The translation is Honig and Brown’s, from the City Lights Poems of Fernando Pessoa.  Richard Zenith’s version is just as good.

“Tobacco Shop” begins with a typical paradox of Pessoan identity:

I’m nothing.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t even wish to be something.
Aside from that, I’ve got all the world’s dreams inside me.

Campos is sitting across the street from a tobacco shop, which is symbolically serving as “reality,” or an anchor to the real, while the poet has some sort of epistemological crisis.  Campos was a naval engineer by profession, so I should artfully scatter metaphors like “anchor” throughout my post.

Today I’m mixed up, like someone who thought something and grasped it, then lost it.
Today I’m torn between the allegiance I owe
Something real outside me – the Tobacco Shop across the street,
And something real inside me – the feeling that it’s all a dream.

If the long, prosy lines remind you of Walt Whitman: yes, correct.

The poet has lost confidence in himself, in his art.  “I’ve secretly thought up more philosophies than Kant ever wrote down,” but to what purpose? “[W]e wake and the world is opaque.”

I take the poem as a train of thought (cross out “train,” insert, um, “steamboat”) which is intermittently interrupted by an ordinary event on the street, like a girl eating a chocolate: “Look, there’s no metaphysics on earth but chocolates.”  For some reason, though, Campos finds even the philosophy of chocolates unsatisfying, failing to provide reassurance.  He will die, as will his poems, and even his language, and so on to, in an adolescent touch, the entropic heat death of the universe.

At this point:

a man’s gone into the Tobacco Shop (to buy tobacco?)
And the plausible reality of it all suddenly hits me.
I’m getting up, full of energy, convinced, human,
And about to try writing these lines, which say the opposite.

Campos, of all the Pessoan poets, is the funniest, or at least the one most evidently amused by his own contradictions.

The poet has not quite left his reverie, narcotized by his own cigarettes (“As long as fate permits, I’ll go on smoking”).  But he is almost ready to return to ordinary concerns.  The man he saw before leaves the shop:

Ah, I know him; it’s nonmetaphysical Stevens.
(The Tobacco Shop Owner comes back to the door.)
As if by divine instinct, Stevens turns around and sees me.
He waves me a hello, I shout back Hello Stevens! and the universe
Reorganizes itself for me, without hopes or ideals, and the Tobacco Shop Owner smiles.

And that’s the end of “Tobacco Shop.”

I find Campos to be the “biggest” of Pessoa’s personae, the one with the most energy, the one who, like Whitman, is unafraid of contradiction.  He is a true follower of Alberto Caeiro (“I went off to the country with great plans \ But found only grass and trees there”), allowing things to be themselves, but also a dreamer, imaging things to be other than what they are, at least until nonmetaphysical Stevens brings him back to earth (strike that – drags him back to shore).


  1. Does it say anything to you personally or aren't you prone to attacks of metaphysical anxiety? :)

  2. By the way, I always took the chocolates as the counterpoint to his nihilism. A metaphor for enjoying life unreservedly rather than question its very existence.
    Or the silvery paper representing the illusion that everybody needs in order to live in oblivious bliss while he can only see that it's made of tinfoil.

  3. I am more like nonmetaphysical Stevens, I think. Dull, ordinary anxieties. "I am almost out of tobacco - wait, here's a shop!"

    Personally, I find the poem highly amusing and great fun to play with, although just trying to describe it accurately was enough of a challenge.

  4. As for the chocolates - yes, that sounds right. Both points sound right. The tinfoil chocolate wrapper is both real, and therefore meaningful, and trash.

    "But then I think, peeling off the silver wrapper, it's only tinfoil, \ And toss it on the floor, just as I've tossed away my life."

    It is only tinfoil, yes - but don't forget the chocolate, Álvaro!

  5. Walt Whitman, yes. Reading The Book of Disquiet I suddenly realized I was reading Walt Whitman, darked and stupyfied. Was I proud to get at the meaning of books? I was - until I turned to the web and saw reams of studies on just that connection. I notice that Pessoa's "Ode to Walt Whitman" is not included in Zenith's selection of poems - or did I somehow miss it?

  6. The heteronym project is fundamentally based on Whitman. Whitman contains multitudes; Pessoa makes the metaphor literal. In "Salutation to Walt Whitman," he says what he is doing, so it is not hidden.

    I just wrote about your last point. Zenith omits "Maritime Ode" and "Walt Whitman," for reasons of length, I suppose, but it does leave a big hole in his book. The City Lights collection has them.

  7. Well, Álvaro knows the meaning of the universe is not in the chocolates and he won't settle for anything less!

    I'm sure somebody already wrote a phd thesis on it but if any of you is into literary sleuthing, you can browse the pages of Pessoa's copy of Leaves of Grass. He underlined quite a bit of it.

  8. Thanks so much for that link. So many interesting things at Casa Fernando Pessoa.