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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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.