Wednesday, April 4, 2012

I’m almost convinced that I’m never awake. - dreaming, screaming, nausea, and other signs of disquiet

What I would like to do is work through an interpretation of The Book of Disquiet.  What I am likely to do is string together a bunch of curious and odd quotations from the book and sprinkle them with light commentary.

Bernardo Soares is assistant bookkeeper at a shipping company and has been for a long time, almost timelessly.  His desk is a “bulwark against life” (58, p. 52).  For Soares, “against” is a good thing:  “Life disgusts me, like a useless medicine”  962, p. 55).  Soares eats every dinner at the same café, lives in the same apartment, and wanders the same Lisbon streets.  Although he contributes poems or other writings to avant garde magazines, he has no friends (or: Because he contributes etc.).  He has no family.  His father committed suicide when Bernardo was three (citation, please! – where is this passage?).

One direction – I am interrupting myself –  that might be fruitful would be to piece together the scattered reference Soares makes to his family and childhood and see how they relate to his existential crisis.  Say Soares is erecting a defense against the attraction of his father’s suicide.

Soares’s basic crisis is one of meaning and identity.  He not only assumes that his life is meaningless, but he is not entirely clear that he is living at all:

I’m almost convinced that I’m never awake.  I don’t know if I’m not dreaming when I live, if I don’t live when I dream, or if my dreaming and living aren’t mixed, intersected things, out of which my conscious being is formed by interpenetration.  (160, p. 146)

He is not sure he exists, everything may be a dream, and what if he is a character in a novel.  Soares returns to the difference between sleeping and waking repeatedly.  Other repeated metaphors of his condition:  illness, nausea, ennui.  Human contact is destructive:  “I feel physical nausea toward the common man, which is, in any case, the only kind there is” (60, p. 53).

I am omitting all of the amusing and inventive metaphors that accompany all of Soares’s simpler declaration.  If I paid closer attention to them they would like complicate – perhaps upend – everything I have said.

The Modernist mentalité is often characterized as fragmented, alienated, and neurotic, conditions caused by, say, the increasing separation between home and work or the isolation of urban life or sexual repression.  I am usually not sure how these ideas fit any particular Modernist text, so it is amusing to see them all concentrated in this one character, both effects and causes.  Soares may be a mess, but he is a representative mess, even if I, an ordinary fellow, only catch glimpses of myself in his life:

An enormous disquiet made me tremble making even the slightest gestures,  I was afraid of going mad, not of madness itself, but going mad.  My body was a latent scream.  My heart beat as if it were sobbing.  (114, p. 102)

I will remind myself that this kind of description of an extreme state or crisis is typically surrounded by passages describing shops and storms and so on (roof tiles in the moonlight are "liquid with a blackened whiteness," 113, p. 101).

The odd thing is that Soares has created a meaning for himself, has found a mechanism to prop himself up.  Perhaps this is obvious from the concept of the plotless fictional journal.  Soares works, eats, sleeps, dreams – and writes.  He writes this book.

So that will be Part IV of Disquiet week, tomorrow.  Friday is a holiday for me.


  1. Not having read a word of the text except for your excerpts, this sounds more existentialist than Modernist. The nausea (or other physical symptoms), induced by contact with others and by situations that encroach on one's ability to define oneself; the creation of meaning for oneself through actions (il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux.) Nice hook!

  2. Yes, Disquiet is proto-Sartre. A deceased Portuguese poet had anticipated his ideas and metaphors. Or do they share a common source, in Kierkegaard or someone like that?

    The Sisyphean task Soares uses to create meaning is writing. That interpretation I am confident about, although we will see if I can write about it coherently. Everything else in this post: stamp with a red ink "Maybe."

    1. The connection with Kierkegaard certainly exists. The scholar Eduardo Lourenço has written an interesting essay about it, although he focuses more on the question of identity and fictional masks: he compares Kierkegaard's use of pseudonyms with Pessoa's use of heteronyms.

      Incidentally, he calls BoD a 'non-book'; I thought you'd like to know that.

  3. Ah, I have read someone, certainly following Lourenço, on that very topic, but I had forgotten.

    To be clear: what I have been doing all week is assuming that Disquiet is a "book." Call it a book and see what that suggests. Other assumptions lead to other interesting places.

  4. Soares' reference to his father's suicide is in entry #30 in my Penguin Richard Zenith edition. By noting that brief passage, you've offered another possibility for the "plot," a sort of Karen Horney-style self-psychoanalysis (albeit without the effort of will required to carry it out). Against his father's very real self-extinguishment in death is posed Soares' self-extinguishment in life. So yes, perhaps that would be fruitful, looking at Soares' background. In an essay on BoD, Antonio Tabucchi notes that the book practically begs a psychoanalytic approach, but that, lacking qualifications, he can't do it himself, and is limited to observing that Soares "doesn't exist, that he's a phantom, a fictional character, a literary creation," to whom Pessoa has given the task of "living, vicariously, his depression." The referent for that last pronoun is not made clear (perhaps intentionally).

  5. I picked up a strong sense of some version of this story - of Soares writing himself away from some strong dangerous (?) or attractive (?) mental state into something safer (?) or saner (?). That his temperament, anyway, is not the end of the story. Following Tabucchi, the passages that move away from Soares - the dreams and prose poems - move to the center of the interpretation.