Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thank God I cannot know What inside me is going on! - Pessoa the poet

If I’m then told that it’s absurd to speak of someone who never existed, I reply that neither do I have proof that Lisbon ever existed or that I who write exist, or that anything does, whatever it is.

Just to remind myself what I am up against with Fernando Pessoa.  This line is from one of a number of introductions to his Collected Works or Selected Poems that Pessoa wrote, books that never existed during Pessoa’s life, not that I have proof either way.  Always Astonished: Selected Prose, tr. Edwin Honig, p. 14, that’s where I found that bit of epistemological skepticism.

The imaginary Pessoa is impossible to separate from the actual Pessoa.  The only reason I know that such a creature should be considered is that Campos and Reis discuss Pessoa, and mention that he, like them, changed poetic directions when he by chance met the shepherd poet Alberto Caeiro and heard him recite his poems.  Caeiro, Campos, and Reis are imaginary, so I am taking the Pessoa who lives in their world as similarly situated.  But of course the poems of Caeiro and his disciples exist in my world (I have read them, or I believe I have), so the fact that poems attributed to Fernando Pessoa also exist tells me nothing about which Pessoa, the real one or the otherly real one, wrote them.

Half the fun of messing around with Pessoa is writing nonsense like this.

The other half is reading his poems.  I think this one, from November 1914, should be taken as a product of Pessoa’s encounter with Caeiro, but it could just as well be the “real” Pessoa writing about his creation of the other poets:

The wind is blowing too hard
For me to be able to rest.
I sense there’s something in me
That’s coming to an end.

Perhaps this thing in my soul
That thinks life is real…
Perhaps this thing that’s calm
And makes my soul feel…

A hard wind is blowing.
I’m afraid of thinking.
If I let my mind go,
I’ll heighten my mystery.

Wind that passes and forgets,
Dust that rises and falls…
Thank God I cannot know
What inside me is going on! (Zenith)

The ellipses are Pessoa's. Feeling against thinking, internal versus external – these are common Pessoan concerns.  Campos feels, Reis thinks, Caeiro is, or so he says.  The wind that blows through this poem is some expression of psychological unease, one that the poet himself does not understand.

The last lines suggest that he prefers not to understand, which suggests to me that he knows more than he is revealing in the poem.  And that is what the heteronyms are for, to allow Pessoa to externalize his internal mysteries, to give him some distance from himself.  I guess.

The wind is never stilled.  It returns in later Pessoa poems. It is more frightening in this one from 1932, a sign of something dangerous:

The wind in the darkness howls,
Its sound reaching even farther.
The substance of my thought
Is that it cannot cease.

It seems the soul has a darkness
In which blows ever harder
A madness that derives
From wanting to understand.

The wind in the darkness rages,
Unable to free itself.
I’m a prisoner to my thought
As the wind is a prisoner to air. (Zenith)

I overemphasize the playfulness of Pessoa, but his self-fragmentation has a bleaker side.  The heteronyms can look like a defense against – I do not know what.

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