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18 August 2021

Living in Fernando Pessoa’s world

How the Portuguese writer’s multiple identities pre-empted the modern condition.  

By John Gray

According to some reports, the last words of the occultist and self-described Great Beast 666 Aleister Crowley were, “I am perplexed.” Crowley, who was born in 1875 into a wealthy family of evangelical Christians, founded an ersatz religion he called Thelema, whose central injunction was: “Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law.” His interest in the occult seems to have begun while he was at Cambridge from 1895 to 1898. When he died in 1947, an impoverished heroin addict in a Hastings boarding house, the religion he had concocted had been embraced by the leading theorist of tank warfare, Major-General JFC Fuller; the American rocket scientist John W Parsons; and, for a time, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Duranty, who, as Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, helped cover up the man-made Soviet famine of 1932-33.

A succession of improbable exploits, Crowley’s life is best understood as an exercise in self-advertisement. His supposed magical powers were legends he persuaded others, and probably himself, to accept as true. In September 1930 he staged a fake suicide in Portugal. Richard Zenith describes this episode as being “a publicity stunt, an attempt to revive the flagging Aleister Crowley brand”. It was also a ploy to impress a lover, one of many Crowley tried to recruit in order to practise the “sex magick” that was at the heart of his new religion.

Crowley’s co-conspirator was the writer Fernando Pessoa, long interested in occultism and at times himself a practitioner. Pessoa’s encounter with Crowley is the most remarkable episode in his outward life, otherwise almost without incident. The differences between the two men are telling. Both dismissed the ruling values of their day, but Pessoa was far too subtle to adopt a stance of mere contrarianism. The certainties against which Crowley staged his flamboyant revolt have long since evaporated. His final perplexity may have come from a well-founded suspicion that he had become an anachronism. Today he is not much more than an Edwardian curiosity. Pessoa, on the other hand, remains utterly contemporary.

Pessoa is unique in that most of his writings were presented as the work of “heteronyms”, fictive personalities he spun off as metamorphoses of himself. This much he had in common with the self-styled Great Beast, who spawned a multitude of sub selves – magician, mountaineer, chess player, theatrical producer, painter, poet and short story writer, among others. In contrast with Crowley, Pessoa’s alter egos – of which there were more than 100, counting those he invented as a boy – included three indisputably great poets and the author of one of the supreme modernist texts, The Book of Disquiet. In his first letter to Crowley, Pessoa wrote that the creation of the three poets “seems, at first sight, an elaborate joke of the imagination. But it is not. It is a great act of intellectual magic, a magnum opus of the impersonal creative power.”

Other writers have coined pseudonyms through which to express different aspects of themselves. WB Yeats, also a practising occultist, invented a pair of collaborators with contrasting personalities. The 19th-century Danish philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard had more than a dozen pseudonyms. For Pessoa, however, his heteronyms were not just aliases but autonomous personalities. Aside from a crust of daily habit, Pessoa had little in the way of any definite character. His unparalleled capacity for self-multiplication reflected the fact that he had no unitary self.

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Many of the texts produced by Pessoa’s heteronyms were not published in his lifetime but written on slips of paper, more than 25,000 of which he deposited for posterity in a large wooden trunk. He published widely under his own name. But he believed he was “less real” than his alter egos, one of whom wrote: “Strictly speaking, Fernando Pessoa doesn’t exist.” As Zenith puts it, “No writer can rival Pessoa’s achievement in configuring, through his heteronyms, radically different poetic and philosophical attitudes that formed a glorious if not always harmonious musical ensemble.”

Zenith’s portrayal of Pessoa and his life is more than a masterpiece of literary biography. More than 1,000 pages long, not one of them wasted, it is a tour de force of cultural history. The task Zenith set for himself was to present a “cinematographic” account of the writer, showing what he looked like, the people he interacted with and the settings in which his life was passed. But Pessoa’s “real” existence unfolded primarily in his imagination, and here Zenith’s achievement is extraordinary. By illuminating this elusive figure Zenith has produced a work in some ways as astonishing as those of Pessoa himself.


Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888. He moved with his mother in 1896 to Durban, the capital of the British colony of Natal, whose Portuguese consul she had married by proxy after her first husband died of tuberculosis. It was there that Pessoa’s heteronyms, which seem to have been with him since childhood, first began to appear in a public form. From 1903 to 1904 he published poems signed by WW Austin and Charles Robert Anon in the Natal Mercury. In 1905 he moved back to Lisbon, where he would live with his aunt and cousins and in a series of rented rooms for the rest of his life. Lisbon became an integral part of him, as Dublin did for James Joyce – though unlike Joyce, Pessoa wrote and published a tourist guide to the city.

Once he was back in Portugal other heteronyms emerged, including Alexander Search, the most substantial so far, to whom Pessoa assigned his own date and place of birth. Search shared Pessoa’s eclectic intellectual interests, and like him wrote verse in English. Again, like his progenitor, Search read with interest the speculations of evolutionary thinkers such as Ernst Haeckel and Herbert Spencer. By 1907 Search realised that science had left unanswered the question of why the universe exists at all, and it is around this point that Pessoa’s interest in magic and kabbalah began.

[see also: How history haunts the present]

Throughout the rest of his life Pessoa believed that reality could only be represented in symbols. But there were many systems of symbols, and the implication for him was that the world can be read as we please. He was untroubled by contradictions in his thinking. An ardent scientific materialist, he also practised astrology. He distrusted and disliked Roman Catholicism, but invented a “Gnostic” version of Christianity. He was a proud republican and a mystical monarchist.

Disdaining faith, he floated from one world view to another. Belief for Pessoa was not a settled state of mind but a bundle of sensations, which he savoured for their passing pleasures.

This ability to enter into different world views, and delight in their differences, is illustrated by the three great poets he invented. Alberto Caeiro, whom Pessoa described as “my master”, was a contemplative recluse ecstatically absorbed in the natural world. Unlike most nature-mystics Caeiro believed the cosmos contained no hidden meaning, or unity; everything in it was what it appeared to be, and the parts were greater than any imagined whole. Another sensibility was expressed by Ricardo Reis, a melancholy doctor and modern pagan who accepted the brevity and sadness of life, and wanted from the gods only the grace to ask them for nothing. Then there was Alvaro de Campos, a retired naval engineer and bisexual poet of Whitman-like intensity, in love with travel and city life, and longing to taste every human experience.

All three appeared in 1914 and each had a wholly distinctive style and voice. Zenith has provided the best selection and translation of the three heteronomous poets in his book A Little Larger than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems (2006), which also contains verse Pessoa published under his own name.

The Book of Disquiet initially appeared in 1913 as a magazine article signed by Pessoa. It became an unfinishable scrapbook of the thoughts of his “semi-heteronym” Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper. Pessoa’s text has been compared with the Austrian author Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1943), also unfinished, although Musil’s ineffectual anti-hero yearns for a life of action whereas Soares lives only for and in his dreams.

Soares’s round of office work, drinking and smoking in cafés, and whiling away his waking hours in reverie corresponded closely with Pessoa’s own way of living. As Zenith writes: “Pessoa preferred to live on the fringes. He did not marry or have children, never earned enough to pay taxes, and refused to belong to any political, religious, professional, or fraternal association.” There is no known evidence of him having any sexual interaction with another human being. (Only one of his heteronyms was female.) For a time, he dallied with a young woman who seems to have wanted to marry him, and he happily defended a gay poet’s erotic verse. But if he had lovers, male or female, they were as fictive as his alter egos.


Pessoa liked living on the blurred edges of the world. In the flesh he was shy and noncommittal. In his imagination he could be mischievous and reckless. This mixture led Pessoa into folly when it spurred his forays in politics. He described himself as “a conservative in the English style, that is to say a liberal within conservatism, and absolutely anti-reactionary”. But this was not a sustainable stance in early 20th-century Portugal. A volatile period of coups, military dictatorship and the fascist Salazar regime, and at times Pessoa’s interior wanderings, took him to some dark places. He mocked Hitler, writing in English, “His very moustache is pathological”, and became increasingly contemptuous of Salazar. At the same time, he displayed a perverse tolerance towards some of the racial prejudices that were pervasive at the time, including anti-Semitism.

Pessoa’s ancestry was complex. Through part of his family it led back to the “New Christians”, Jews who converted to Christianity in order to escape persecution but nevertheless found themselves hounded and tortured by the Inquisition. Sancho Pessoa da Cunha, who was arrested around 1705, was the first male ancestor to use the name Pessoa, which in Portuguese means person. Sancho derived the name from his mother, whose New Christian husband had been imprisoned by the Inquisition in 1699.

[see also: Minae Mizumura’s linguistic mission]

By the 20th century, Pessoa’s Jewish heritage was, as Zenith puts it, “considerably diluted”. That does not explain how he could bring himself to contemplate publishing the notorious anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion via a short-lived publishing house he had founded, assigning the task of translation to a hitherto unknown heteronym. Luckily nothing came of the project, but it reveals a fragility in Pessoa’s protean identity. His openness to divergent visions of the world left him incapable of steering any definite course through the perilous cross-currents of his time.

Far more than a stylistic device, the heteronyms were integral to what Zenith describes as Pessoa’s “experimental life”. Initially they may have come to him as part of a dissociative psychological disorder – a possibility he candidly acknowledged. But he befriended his alternate selves, enabling them to create seminal works of poetry and prose. He died, moderately well known in Portugal as a writer and critic, in 1935. (His death has been attributed to cirrhosis, to which he may have been vulnerable as a result of his heavy drinking, though the exact cause is not known.) His global celebrity was posthumous. He was recognised as one of a kind – a writer who deployed the fragmentation of the personality in an experiment in literary production.

Pessoa’s boldest experiment was his way of life, which anticipates our own. His kaleidoscopic inner world has become our collective condition. In our world, which is continuously being reinvented by new technologies, ideas and values are subjective and the subject itself fractured and episodic. Human identities are fleeting memes, fictions without an author, suddenly emerging to command or distract us, then vanishing only to be replaced by further figments. Living as a succession of heteronyms, whether we know it or not, we are all Pessoas. 

Pessoa: An Experimental Life   
Richard Zenith
Allen Lane, 1,088pp, £40

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This article appears in the 18 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Betrayal