Reviewed: Philosophical Essays - a Critical Edition by Fernando Pessoa

The many identities of Fernando Pessoa.

Philosophical Essays: a Critical Edition
Fernando Pessoa
Contra Mundum Press, 260pp, £15

“I was a poet animated by philosophy, not a philosopher with poetic faculties.” As a summary of the work of the writer generally known as Fernando Pessoa, this autobiographical declaration poses some unusual problems. Most of Pessoa’s prolific writings, only a single volume of which appeared in print in his own language during his lifetime, were written under the name not of the Portuguese man of letters, who was born in Lisbon in 1888 and died there in 1935, but under those of a host of fictive personalities – “heteronyms”, as he came to call them – some more enduring than others but all of whom had for him an independent existence.

The work for which Pessoa is best known to English readers, The Book of Disquiet, is the “factless autobiography” of one of these heteronyms, though the fragments found in a trunk after Pessoa’s death from which versions of the book have been assembled may contain traces of a number of personae, including “Pessoa” himself.

Pessoa is remembered nowadays in Portugal chiefly as a poet but much of his poetry was the work of heteronyms with different styles and philosophies –nature mysticism, melancholy paganism and the futurist pursuit of movement and sensation, among others – each of whom speaks in a distinct and convincing voice. No one knows how many heteronyms Pessoa spun off during his lifetime but probably something approaching 100 can be identified from the writings he left behind.

Problematic as it may be – since the reader can never be sure which persona is speaking – Pessoa’s self-description as a poet inspired by philosophy is apt and illuminating. Many kinds of writing flowed from this most elusive figure, one of the greatest 20th-century writers and still one of the least known. Prose of all sorts –manifestos for obscure or imaginary literary movements, critical essays on Dickens, Wilde and other English writers he cherished, a tourist guide to Lisbon written in 1925 and only published almost 70 years later – poured out alongside the poetry, the best of which was written in Portuguese by three of Pessoa’s more enduring heteronyms. (A superb collection translated and edited by Richard Zenith, A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe, contains many of these poems.)

The verses of Alberto Caeiro – the first of Pessoa’s significant heteronyms and the only one he described as his “master” – are the most astonishing, since he goes as far as any writer has done in using language to express what cannot be put in words. A seer who looked for no hidden meaning in things, Caeiro was a tranquil mystic of the sort that Pessoa may have dreamed of being.

Pessoa’s visible life was uneventful. Making ends meet by office work, a small inheritance and an intermittent income from solving English crossword puzzles that reached him via a Lisbon mailbox registered under the name of A A Crosse, having only one known close personal relationship (apparently conducted mainly by letter), spending time drinking in quiet cafés and dying from cirrhosis, he eluded the inconsequential routine of his days by internal migration into an inner world that contained a multiplicity of identities.

Taken as a whole – if something so multifarious can ever be seen as a totality – Pessoa’s writings are a dialogue between these several selves. Very often, the conversations concern philosophical questions, though these are not pursued with the pious earnestness that is generally associated with philosophical inquiry.

Much of the work that flowed from Pessoa and his many alter egos shows him playing with philosophy, not in order to establish any kind of “truth” – an aspiration dismissed with a smile by pretty well all of his heteronyms – but to rid the mind of the false certainty that comes when it is fixated on any single view of the world.

Pessoa shared the view of Jorge Luis Borges – a lifelong admirer – when the Argentine writer later described philosophy as “a branch of fantastic literature”, a genre that, like poetry, aims to expand the imagination rather than to demonstrate or persuade. Like many at the time, Pessoa was drawn to occultism – he corresponded with Aleister Crowley and assisted the celebrated satanist in a fake suicide attempt in 1930 – but he never accepted the central occultist conceit of belonging to an elite of initiates with access to a secret order of things.

For Pessoa, there was no order, secret or otherwise, only the passing impressions of disjointed individuals who devise many different pictures of the world as they go through life. Occultism was no different from classical metaphysics – the elaborate intellectual structures produced from Aristotle and Plato and their successors up to the modern devotees of materialism – in being an unwitting exercise in the composition of fictions.

Once philosophy is understood in this way, its central role in Pessoa’s work becomes clear. Yet it is only now that we have a full version of the texts that show how far back in Pessoa’s life his philosophical impulse goes. Written in English in the years immediately following his return to Lisbon from South Africa, where he was educated after his stepfather became Portuguese consul in Durban in 1896, the essays collected here are the work of two of Pessoa’s “pre-heteronyms” – Charles Robert Anon and Alexander Search.

Beautifully edited and presented with a spirited afterword, the essays form part of over 1,400 separate sheets, themselves only a small part of over 27,000 sheets that are preserved in the Pessoa archive in the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal.

Often fragmentary, at times not much more than jottings, these essays lack the elegance of Pessoa’s verse and the wistful charm of his hetero-biographical prose. However, they abound in arresting and surprising insights and this book will be of absorbing interest not only to those who love Pessoa but also anyone who wants philosophy to be more than the dull rehearsal of commonplace pieties.

Already well read in the subject, Pessoa attended classes in philosophy at the University of Lisbon in 1906-07. The essays show his two avatars moving freely in the intellectual currents of the time while constantly ridiculing any claim to truth about the ultimate nature of things.

“Reason is powerless to arrive at any conclusion as to the fundamentals of being,” Pessoa writes. He did not deny the practical knowledge we rely on in everyday life. Like the early modern sceptic Michel de Montaigne, he saw human knowledge as being embodied in habits of behaviour. What Pessoa rejected was any attempt to turn these practices into systems of belief (or unbelief).

Writing more than a century before today’s turgid disputes about religion, he was clear that belief is a weakness of the mind that persists long after traditional faiths have been rejected. “Atheism is not a form of unbelief,” he writes, “but of belief . . . [Hence] that buoyant faith of a militant unchristian.” Primitive rationalism is a mode of belief, whereas sceptical doubt – which Pessoa describes as “the higher rationalism” – points beyond reason: “Scepticism, as in Pascal, was ever the fore-prey of mysticism.”

As Pessoa saw it, “Humanitarianism is the last bulwark of the Christian creed.” He was similarly dismissive of the militant political faiths of his day – fascism and communism – and, less than a year before he died, he received the accolade of being barred from political activity by the Salazar regime.

That is not to say he was in any sense a figure of the liberal left. A wayward but resolute individualist, Pessoa scorned belief in democracy as well as the totalitarian faiths that possessed so many European intellectuals of his generation. “It is almost invariable,” he writes here, “that the lower rationalist should be a democrat, a believer in that myth called ‘the people’. As he is generally an atheist – that is to say, a believer with a minus sign –he carries the typical attitude of belief into a concrete sphere.”

Too much given to doubt and irony to belong in any congregation of the faithful, Pessoa was particularly scornful of the secular surrogates of Christianity. “Where one believes in the Pentateuch, another believes in democracy,” he writes. Pessoa believed in neither but it is not hard to guess which of the two he preferred.

Judged by the standards of academic philosophy, there is little that is original in these pages. Pessoa’s scepticism is not greatly different in its view of the limits of human reason from the sceptical philosophy developed in the ancient world by Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, versions of which have been revived in modern times not only by Montaigne but also by David Hume.

Where Pessoa differs from most exponents of systematic doubt is in his intent, which was not to prove the validity of scepticism or even – like Hume, in some moods – to encourage people to give up philosophising and return to everyday life. If Pessoa’s philosophical writings had any overall purpose, it was simply to emancipate the mind and enlarge the imagination. The human value of philosophy was not in underwriting any view of things but in making possible a certain kind of mental freedom.

Reading these essays, it is difficult to imagine anything more remote from how philosophy is practised today. No matter how politically radical or countercultural in tone, the implicit goal of most contemporary philosophers is to supply a rationale for prevailing hopes and ideals – an aspiration that reliably produces what Wittgenstein described as “bourgeois philosophy”.

Canonically exemplified in the work of the Harvard philosopher John Rawls, this involves weaving together widely shared intuitions and using the resulting construction to frame an ideal version of what is currently accepted as a morally respectable way of living – in Rawls’s case, one that features personal autonomy and the implementation of “a rational plan of life”.

There are issues about whether the intuitions that are invoked are in reality so widely held – they tend to be those that occur to people who have organised and attended university seminars in a handful of western countries over the past few decades, hardly a representative cross section of humankind – but a more fundamental question concerns the goal of providing an apology for prevailing values. This is, after all, a variation on the method used by anxious religious believers to persuade others – and, perhaps, themselves – of their beliefs. The resulting apologias are rarely very interesting or terribly persuasive.

Pessoa is something else. Far from trying to persuade anyone of any set of convictions, he used philosophy to liberate the mind from belief. If you are content with the seeming solidity of conventional opinion, you will do best to stick to philosophy as it is nowadays commonly practised. However, if you enjoy the free play of the mind and imagination, read these essays and some of the poems they inspired.

Pessoa was – with all of his fictive selves – a unique modern spirit. It is a cause for celebration that more of his writings are coming into print.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)

The exhibition "Plural as the Universe" at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon. Photograph: Mario Cruz/EPA/Corbis

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit