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?

MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad