Tuesday, April 3, 2012

My implicit empire is going to be invaded by barbarians - cataloging The Book of Disquiet

The Book of Disquiet could use – I could use – an index.  If I were to do something more thoughtful with the book, my first step would be to make my own, to create a typology for the entries.

There are, for example, the thunderstorm passages:

New light of a rapid yellow shrouds the mute blackness, but now there was a possible breath before the fist of tremulous sound quickly echoed from the other point; like an angry farewell, the thunder began not to be here…   A sudden amazing light splinters. […]  Everything froze where it stood.  Hearts stopped for a moment.  They are all very sensitive.  The silence is frightening, as if death itself were present.  The sound of the rain growing stronger is a relief, like the tears of the everything.  It’s like lead.  (33, pp. 29-30)

The storms recur, and are also used metaphorically.  I detect the hand of the poet in this passage.  Soares, and Pessoa, are especially good with colors, with light.  That is another category:  descriptions of Lisbon, of people, streets, sunsets, the river.  Sometimes descriptive passages lead Soares in philosophical directions, and other times the passages stand on their own.

The assistant bookkeeper writes well about office life, bosses, co-workers, so that’s another category:

I don’t know why – I suddenly realize it – I’m alone in the office.  Just now I sensed it vaguely.  There was in some aspect of my awareness of myself an expansion of relief, a deeper breathing with other lungs.  (137, p. 123)

Soares riffs on the pleasures of being the only person at work, but soon enough footsteps approach and Soares’s “implicit empire is going to be invaded by barbarians.”

Sleep and dreams.  Childhood and memory.  Reading, writing.  A long section about love comes towards the end.  Whether the love is directed at an actual or imaginary person is a matter of interpretation*, but “I” switches to “we” for long stretches (The Book of Disquiet uses the word “I” more than any text I have read recently aside from The Collected Wuthering Expectations).

Some passages are directly philosophical, working on fundamental questions of existence and knowledge.  Why do I exist, how am I different than other people, how do they see the world – big questions.  Some are metaphorical, moving from prose to prose poem, like 248, the “Funeral March for King Ludwig II of Bavaria,” which begins “Today, more slowly than ever, Death came to my doorstep to sell things” and ends “Flowers of the abyss, black roses, moonlight-colored carnations, poppies of a red that has light” (pp. 237 & 241)

Many passages contain aphoristic ideas that are ready, or nearly so, to be pulled from context.  I am terrible at remembering or even identifying these lines.  Levi Stahl has done better, featuring a couple of good paradoxes of perfection:

We worship perfection because we can't have it; if we had it, we would reject it.  Perfection is inhuman, because humanity is imperfect.

I should have used this one last week:

Reading the classics, which do not talk about sunsets, has made many sunsets, in all their colors, intelligible to me.  (6, p. 8)

One could read The Book of Disquiet just for its well-phrased wisdom or anti-wisdom, for its wry understanding of human nature, without ever worrying so much about the puzzling fellow who is supposedly writing the whole thing.  That line about classics and sunsets makes Soares sound quite a bit sweeter than he really is.  I guess I am more interested in him than in his wisdom, so that is where I will go next.

* "My horror of real women endowed with a sex is the road that led me to find you" (199, p. 186). I have my guess.


  1. I seem to recall the proposition of a concordance to BoD coming up in early postings about this read-along. It's maddening not having one. My copy of the book bristles with a post-it note on nearly every page, which, as someone once noted, sort of defeats the purpose of post-it notes. And of course now, months after finishing the thing, I've little idea what 95% of those post-it notes mean, or why I chose one passage over a (un-post-it-noted) passage below or above it.

    Lisbon is, in itself, especially good with colors and light (and thunderstorms). I eagerly await your next post. Might the "plot," if there is one in BoD, be just the appearance of that "we" after so many "I"'s?

  2. Your suggestion about the plot is good. There is certainly a movement or development. Even if the other person, the dream woman in the "we" is Art, or is simply Soares himself (a Whitmanian move), some sort of change has still occurred.

    I figured the thunderstorms were drawn from Lisbon life.

  3. You seem to completely unveil a book. Your reading is more than mere perusal and tracking of plot. I enjoy your thoughts

  4. Thanks, Nana. This book needs it more than most. Anything I do not write about I will likely forget.

  5. I don't think this book needs an index; I like how the themes change from section from section, involving us in its whirpool of thoughts and confessions. The movements of the book seem unplanned, like the rambling thoughts of a bored intellectual chained to a dull mechanic job, which is what Soares always struck me as being.

  6. The index is not for reading the book, but for writing about it. "Where is that dang passage..."