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?

FRANCESCO ZIZOLA/NOOR/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

The refugee crisis proves that Fortress Europe is a fantasy

In 2015, more people landed in Greece in a single month than the whole EU has agreed to share over the next two years – and it's a tide that can't be turned.

On a stormy night in September 2002 a wooden fishing boat carrying 150 Liberian asylum-seekers broke up on a reef near the long, sandy beach at Realmonte, on Sicily’s southern coast. Tourists were dancing at a café nearby, but such was the noise of the freak hailstorm on the plastic roof that it was some time before they heard the cries for help coming from the water. Of the 35 Liberians who drowned, one was a 15-year-old girl. Most of the dead had no names; their graves, high in the walls of the cemetery at Canicatti, are marked only by a single letter of the alphabet, in bold black type, to distinguish one from another.

The reaction of the tourists and the local people, once they had recovered from the horror, was one of surprise. Who were these strange Africans, washing up on their shore? But the survivors were welcomed, fed and looked after; one of the women, who was pregnant, was given nappies and baby clothes. There was little press coverage of the event.

That was 14 years ago. Today, when the weather in the Mediterranean is fine, boats bring over a thousand people each day to the Greek island of Lesbos alone. Others ­arrive in Europe through Malta, Lampedusa and southern Italy and by the land route through the Balkans. About 42,500 people are said to be leaving their homes every day to seek protection. These people come from Afghanistan and Eritrea, from Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia, and from Syria, which on its own contributes 52 per cent of all the new arrivals. Well over four million Syrians are now refugees in 107 countries. There are young men and women, whole families, children on their own, and many of their sea journeys have been preceded by terrifying land crossings, negotiating deserts, bandits and traffickers. As the numbers keep growing, so the figures rather than the people become the story: so many on a single day in April, so many through Serbia, so many others into Italy. It is in order to turn these numbers back into people, each with an identity, past, character, fears and hopes, that three journalists have written new books about what Angela Merkel has described as the defining hum­anitarian issue of our age.

Wolfgang Bauer is a reporter for Die Zeit. In April 2014, taking with him a photographer and posing as an English teacher from the Caucasus, Bauer joined a Syrian friend planning to cross the sea from Egypt to Italy. He grew a beard and bought a false ID, but even so it was a perilous undertaking, because people-smugglers have little time for reporters who might expose their lucrative rackets. Most of the sea journeys are nightmares, involving leaking and capsizing boats and gangs of violent smugglers, often drugged, but Bauer experienced one of the worst. Even before his group left Egypt, they were kidnapped by a rival gang on to whose territory his smugglers were said to have strayed. What followed were days in squalid, unfurnished rooms while the gangs brokered a deal. Bauer excellently re-creates the predatory, tense world of these shadowy men, whom he likens to travel agents, constantly on the phone, bribing, threatening, changing plans. The man who negotiated his trip confided that he had sent 250 boats across the Mediterranean in 2013, each carrying about 200 people.

Once the deal was made, the group was moved to a beach – another dangerous moment, for here, as dusk falls, bandits arrive and smugglers try to extort more money. Here, too, families get separated and children disappear. Bauer never made it across the Mediterranean: dumped by his smugglers on an island and arrested by coastguards, he was eventually rescued by being able to show a European passport. His fellow travellers were not so lucky.

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson is a former deputy foreign editor of the ­Independent. Dividing her inquiry between the five years since the start of the Arab spring and chronicling the most significant moments in that period, she follows in the footsteps of a cast of travellers. One of these is Majib, an 18-year-old working in Libya when Gaddafi began to round up migrant workers. The son of a prosperous doctor and philanthropist, Majib had seen his father killed by a mob during fighting between Christians and Muslims. Subsequently the young man was kidnapped, smuggled and enslaved. Then there are Sina and Dami, an Eritrean husband and wife, both engineers, whose lives have been made impossible by President Isaias Afewerki’s repressive policies, which have driven over 320,000 of his countrymen abroad. McDonald-Gibson keenly evokes the hell of their voyages: water lapping over the sides of boats, nothing to eat or drink, failing engines, bodies thrown overboard. To read these vivid stories is to understand not just the enormity of what is taking place, but the courage and desperation of those who embark on them.

In March 2015, the Guardian appointed Patrick Kingsley as its first migration correspondent; he set out to visit 17 countries and write about people as they fled across deserts and seas. Of the three books under review, The New Odyssey is the most analytical, consistently trying to make sense of information and pin down the facts. Kingsley has gone further than the others in trying to explore the economics of the smugglers and their accomplices. He writes at fascinating length about the “second sea”, the Sahara, which most people from the Horn of Africa have to cross and where many die even before they reach the Mediterranean. In Agadez, he discovers about 50 compounds where smugglers gather their customers before despatching them in overcrowded Land Cruisers across the sands to waiting boats, with the connivance of the Nigérien military and police. Interviewing smugglers, he spells out the profits: with each of a group of 100 paying $1,000 or more, and the only costs involved the buying of old boats and bribery of coastguards, the profits are immense. Middle-class professionals from Syria face extortionate demands. It is a world of blackmail and thuggery against vulnerable, frantic people.

Once Libya had slid into civil war, its borders made porous by lawlessness, the Syrians found their route to Europe. What is striking is how appalling their lives had become before they were driven from their homes; how much they lost; how they were exploited, menaced, terrorised along the way; and how dismally and ungenerously they were treated on arrival. Some encountered kindness but this kind of treatment was the exception. How far they fled and the means of travel depended on how much money they could raise. All but a few arrived in Europe destitute, having lost houses, cars, jobs. As a mirror to modern life, all three books make for bleak reading.

It was only in October 2013, when 368 people drowned within sight of the Italian coast, that notice began to be taken of the mounting numbers of deaths at sea. The then president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, vowed that such a tragedy would not be allowed to happen again. In its wake came talks, guidelines and promises. “As things stand,” Malta’s prime minister said, “we are building a cemetery within the Mediterranean Sea.” Pope Francis inveighed against the “globalisation of indifference”. That the deaths have not only continued but the volumes grown – 700 reported in 2013, 3,500 in 2014 and 3,771 in 2015, with the true figures certainly considerably higher – says much about the intractability of the problem, something all three writers try to address. As Bauer optimistically puts it, “We need to stop the wars in the Middle East from robbing Europe of its concept of humanity.”

All offer the same eminently sensible ideas: a need to improve lives in Syria’s neighbouring countries; the importance of identifying the dead; greater investment in Africa; more aid for Lebanon and Jordan, both home to vast refugee camps; more support for Italy and Greece, which bear the brunt of the arrivals. Yet these suggestions have been made many times, and there is little will to help realise them.

Rightly, Kingsley offers scathing criticism of the myth that European leaders like to milk – that the smugglers are the problem, and that once you do away with them, the frenzy of migration will cease. As the interceptions at sea, crackdowns on traffickers and strengthened monitoring of borders close one route, so another route opens. When the crossings to Lampedusa were reduced by more interceptions at sea, so those to Lesbos grew. When three fences with motion sensors tipped with razor wire – the trenches in between them filled with more razor wire – were put up at Ceutá, the Spanish territory on North Africa’s coast, a new route was found. In camps across Europe, in disused factories, tented cities and crumbling buildings, under dripping tarpaulins or clearly visible out in the open, the population of displaced and unwanted is growing steadily. If they were a nation, they would be the 24th-largest country in the world. In refugee circles, the vocabulary is all about growth: more child refugees, more migrants in detention, more people in more camps, more asylum applications.

As nationalist parties make electoral gains by delivering xenophobic speeches, and as political leaders squabble and temporise, with Merkel one of the few to consider the moral implications of the present crisis, so European countries prefer to erect more barriers, pay for more security measures and bicker over commitments, rather than attempt to reach humane and practical agreements. In the summer of 2015, the UN High Commission for Refugees was $2bn short of what it needed to keep its camps functioning in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. As Kingsley notes, more people landed in Greece in a single month in 2015 than the whole of the European Union has undertaken to share between its members over the next two years. The wealthy states, as Jeremy Harding wrote in the London Review of Books in 2000, “have learned to think of generosity as a vice”. At the peak of the landings on Lampedusa, Silvio Berlusconi spoke of the “grave danger” that refugees posed to Europe’s stability. The right-wing Lega Nord put it more succinctly: the party’s leader told migrants to “piss off”.

The future, in this context, does not look promising. Global warming threatens to send people displaced by flooding – the so-called environmental refugees – to join the flight to safety. Half the population of Bangladesh lives less than five metres above sea level. Given continuing conflict across the Middle East, the rise of murderous fundamentalism, the enduring powers of military dictatorships, and the extreme poverty and lawlessness in which so many parts of the world live, it is perfectly possible that up to three million more refugees could reach the shores and borders of Europe within the next three years. One of the things that makes the subject so confusing is the way it shifts: Egypt, once considered a safe haven in the Middle East, ceased to be one when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the military took power and turned against the Syrians who had found shelter there.

Whether those who flee are “good” refugees (in the sense of falling under the 1951 Refugee Convention, facing a justifiable “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality” if they return home) or “bad” (so labelled because they are seeking work and a better life) has become largely meaningless in the world today. No one, ever, anywhere, wants to be a refugee, but for many there is no alternative. A Syrian man told Kingsley, in words that are repeated, in different forms, by many of the people interviewed for these three books, that whatever steps Europe takes to keep migrants out, even if they include bombing their boats, they will make no difference, because if he stayed home he was “dead already . . . a destroyed human being”.

There are precedents for the absorption of migrants, whose presence in Europe can in any case be hugely beneficial to ageing populations. At the end of the Second World War, not long before the Refugee Convention was drafted, about 12 to 14 million people made stateless by the fighting and the shifting borders were resettled throughout Europe. So were 1.3 million people after the war in Vietnam. In comparison to the numbers of refugees settling in countries bordering on those in conflict – there are 1.2 million Syrians living in Lebanon alone, and 85 per cent of the world’s refugees remain in their own regions – those who survive the journey to Europe are relatively few. It is the global South, not the prosperous North, that lies in the eye of the storm.

There is a crisis in migration but, as Kingsley insists, it is largely of our making, caused less by the flow of arrivals than the chaos of how we have received them. As right-wing parties make gains, governments respond with varying degrees of panic; scenes of rioting at borders, at train stations and at ports lead to more barbed wire, more attacks on refugees and more fodder for populist politicians. Yet sealing off Fortress Europe is not a viable proposition; fences and walls are nothing more than symbols, illusions for domestic audiences, promoting the fallacy that what is happening is a temporary phenomenon. And the more difficult it is made for refugees to reach Europe, the more refugees will die. Barriers, leaking boats, deserts and people traffickers are doing nothing to halt the flow. So, what will? There are 60 million people now on the move, half of them children. The choice that faces the West today seems to lie between an orderly system of mass migration – and chaos.

Caroline Moorehead’s book “Human Cargo: a Journey Among Refugees” has recently been reissued by Vintage

Crossing the Sea: With Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer is published by And Other Stories (144pp, £15)

Cast Away: Stories of Survival from Europe's Refugee Crisis is published by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson (272pp, £14.99)

The New Odyssey: the Story of Europe's Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kinglsey is published by Guardian Faber (336pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster