Reviewed: Philosophical Essays - a Critical Edition by Fernando Pessoa

The many identities of Fernando Pessoa.

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

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)