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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Laid in America: how two YouTubers made a mainstream sex-comedy for children

Caspar Lee and KSI's new movie is officially rated 15, but digital downloading means their young audiences have easy access. 

It’s not that expectations are high when it comes to YouTube movies. Despite being released by Universal Studios, vloggers Caspar Lee and KSI’s latest feature film Laid In America always looked set to be cheap and cheerful rather than a cultural blockbuster. It’s just that the opening scene of the movie – in which KSI humps a blow-up sex doll doggy style while forcing its head down on Caspar Lee’s crotch, before ejaculating into his own boxers – jars a little when you consider the relative age of the pair’s fan bases.

Caspar Lee is a 22-year-old South African YouTuber whose prank videos and vlogs have earnt him 6.79 million subscribers. KSI – real name Olajide Olatunji – is a year older and has double the influence, with 14.64 million people subscribed to his video gaming channel. Although YouTube doesn’t allow the public to see the demographics of any particular YouTuber’s audience, videos of Olatunji and Lee’s meet-and-greets with fans reveal that the former is idolised by teenage boys and the latter beloved of pre-teen and teenage girls. Search “Caspar Lee book review” on YouTube and the first non-branded result shows a very young girl waxing lyrical about the star.

KSI and a 13-year-old fan, via kalabza1973

Despite Laid in America’s Red Band trailer and raunchy premise – of two English students in America desperately trying to lose their virginity, à la American pie – it seems the filmmakers, Bad Weather Films and The Fun Group, are aware of the pair’s audiences. The movie premieres tonight at the O2 in London and is then available for digital download only. This isn’t a reflection on the limited influence of YouTubers – whose transformation of the publishing industry alone shows they could easily sell out cinemas – but a savvy business decision that allows children to watch a film that has been rated 15 by the British Board of Film Classification. Rather than trying to sneak into a cinema, kids can affectively undo 104 years of film classification history with just a few clicks.

It’s not that it’s particularly shocking that 12-year-olds can easily watch this gross-out comedy complete with the requisite sex party, dwarf in a cage, plethora of swear words, and obligatory “That… was… awesome!”. No, the most offensive thing about the film (aside from KSI’s abysmal acting) isn’t the sex, it’s the sexism.

“Tabitha is a complete BLOB,” says Duncan (Olatunji) when Jack (Lee) asks why, if he’s so desperate to lose his virginity, he doesn’t sleep with the girl who keeps passing him love notes. “You know that girl that you’d never have sex with and then the night is coming to an end and you run out of options? … Basic Last Option Bae. BLOB.”

The credentials that make Tabitha a BLOB, appear to be – to the naked eye – that she is not tall, she is a normal weight, and she doesn’t wear concealer under her eyes. Heather Cowles, the actress who plays her, is in fact so attractive that you almost wish they’d gone down the old-fashioned fat-suit and fake-acne line. When a preteen girl who idolises YouTubers so much that she sets them as her profile picture watches them mock and deride what is essentially a normal looking girl, how will they feel?

Caspar Lee with fans at a book signing via Getty

There are a multitude of similar instances in the movie. “Did you get a chance to experience any American girls?” asks Jack and Duncan’s headmaster in one of the opening scenes of the film, as headmasters are wont to do. When the duo reveal they are both virgins, the principal acts shocked. “No girls? Not even fat girls?” he says.

None of this would be particularly damaging to the normal, adult audiences of similar Hollywood comedies. But YouTubers have an incredible influence over their fans, so much so that brands are willing to pay between £20,000 and £50,000 for them to recommend a single product in their videos. It seems a shame that this influence will be used to increase the insecurities of young girls and reinforce, yet again, that Sex Is Everything to young boys.

The attitudes to women in the film are beyond outdated. To begin with, Duncan and Jack need to “find hot girls” in order to be allowed into cool-kid Tucker Jones’ party. From this point on, women are a commodity. “The more money we appear to have, the hotter girls we’ll get,” says one of the stars – god, don’t ask me which – when the pair try out a dating app. Next we see them ride a Boober (like an Uber, but with two complimentary large-chested girls), leave a woman passed out in her lingerie after she hits her head, and be rewarded with sex for – and truly, romance is dying, dying, dead as I write this – telling a girl’s ex-boyfriend that she’s “not a bitch”.

But surely, surely, in 2016 this is all redeemed by a heartfelt message about how actually, losing your virginity and “getting” hot girls isn’t everything? No such luck. The ending of the film is basically softcore porn, though the final shot features Jack and Duncan riding a Segway shouting: “We go in your country and take your women!” They saw. They conquered. They came. 

It's not yet apparent whether the film will be a commercial success, though the pair think that if it is, other studios will also begin making download-only films. "I guess the studios will be like, 'Oh this worked, let's try this' and follow," KSI told the BBC. If this is the case, hopefully more consideration will be put into making movies with a positive message for YouTubers' young audiences. 

 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.