Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887).
There are times when my reading goes into a self-cancelling tail-spin, most often when a book sends me off tracking allusions and word origins. A single word can lead me to multiple volumes in the grip of excited etymologising.
Many curious words turn out be rather dull etymologically, but occasionally there are the thrills of the exotic. Fernando Pessoa writes, “After I’ve slept many dreams, I go out to the street with eyes wide open but still with the aura and assurance of my dreams.”
Although the etymology of aura is quite diverse, it commonly refers to the perceived halo surrounding an object or figure. Russian occultist, Madame Blavatsky, whose disciples included William Yeats, defined aura as a “subtle invisible essence or fluid that emanates from human and animal bodies and even things,” or, “a psychic effluvium.” Walter Benjamin used the word differently in his essays on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, writing of its protagonist, Prince Mishkin, “he is surrounded in a quite unobtrusive way by an aura of complete isolation.”
Surprisingly its origin is not from the Latin auris, from which we get aural, even though a less common use of aura is to describe the premonitory sensations that come before an epileptic fit, with occasional auditory hallucinations such as hearing music of words. Dostoevsky wrote of “ecstatic aurae” preceding his first epileptic seizure and recurring verbal and nonverbal auditory hallucinations, including the sound of someone snoring. (Freud controversially argued that Dostoevsky suffered not from epilepsy, but neurosis.) My OED asserts that aura is from Greek and Latin for breath and breeze. We could be said to breathe aura, to absorb it into our body, which is how Pessoa appears to embark on his walk, sustained by his dream aura.
“I see life as a roadside inn where I have to wait around until the stagecoach from the abyss pulls up. I don’t know where it will take me, because I don’t know anything. I could view this inn as a prison, for I’m compelled to wait in it; I could view it as a social centre, for it’s here that I meet others. But I’m neither impatient nor common. I leave those who will to converse in the parlours, their songs and voices conveniently arriving at my post. I’m sitting at the door, feasting my eyes on the colours and sounds of the landscape, and I softly sing — for myself alone — empty songs I compose while waiting.
Night will fall for us all and the stagecoach will pull up. I enjoy the breeze I’m given and the soul I was given it with, and I no longer inquire or seek. If what I wrote in the book of travellers can, when reread by others at some future date, also entertain them on their journey, then that’s fine by me. If they don’t read it, or are not entertained, then that’s fine too.”
—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquietude (t. Richard Zenith)
“Mr Pickwick belongs to the sacred figures of the world’s history. Do not, please, claim that he has never existed: the same thing happens to most of the world’s sacred figures, and they have been living presences to a vast number of consoled wretches. So, if a mystic can claim a personal acquaintance and clear vision of Christ, a human man can claim personal acquaintance and a clear vision of Mr Pickwick.”
Fernando Pessoa, Charles Dickens
“He would have sacrificed ten years of his life, he once remarked, for the privilege of spending an hour with Sir John Falstaff.”
“He never left his house, recalled Licy, ‘without a copy of Shakespeare in his bag, with which he would console himself when he saw something disagreeable’; at his bedside he kept The Pickwick Papers to comfort him during sleepless nights.”
David Gilmour, Introduction to Lampedusa’s The Leopard
“Many men with no great claim even to mere wit could have made most of Shakespeare’s jokes, as jokes. It is in the creation of the figures who make those jokes that genius underlies wit; not what Falstaff says but what Falstaff is is great. The genius made the figure; the wit made it speak.”
Fernando Pessoa, ‘Erostratus’
- Lampedusa’s The Leopard
- David Gilmour’s The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa
- The Pickwick Papers
- Both parts of Henry IV
- Pessoa’s poems and prose
“Words are not the things they name: they are the bridges we extend between things and ourselves. The poet is the conscience of the words, that is, the nostalgia for the actual reality of things. True, words were also things before they were the names of things. They were things in the myth of the innocent poet, that is, before language, the glimpsed paradisal accord. Innocent speech: silence in which nothing is said because everything is said, everything is saying itself. The poet’s language feeds upon that silence which is innocent speech.”
Octavio Paz, Unknown to Himself
I’m back from my travels, and circumscribing Pessoa like a terrier trying to find a way into a rathole. I’ve also caught up on some stimulating blog posts in the alt-lit neighbourhood:
Have you read Lampedusa? I’ve owned the Everyman edition of The Leopard for 15 years but never read beyond 100 pages, though I enjoyed each one of them. This post at Anecdotal Evidence links to an excellent essay by Javier Marías, in which he writes:
“The few people who knew him well were astonished at his encyclopedic knowledge of literature and history, on both of which subjects he possessed a vast library. He had not only read all the important and essential writers, but also the second-rate and the mediocre, whom, especially as regards the novel, he considered to be as necessary as the greats: `One has to learn how to be bored,’ he used to say, and he read bad literature with interest and patience. Buying books was almost his sole expense and sole luxury.”
Isabella at Magnificent Octopus is documenting her reading of Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. Of course, I immediately want to reread Lispector’s elusive work that pushes at the extreme possibilities of language.
Pykk is unpacking Arno Schmidt’s Collected Stories, 1996, and his longer School for Atheists: a Novella = Comedy in 6 Acts, 1972.
Joe at roughghosts is discovering the wonder that is Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief, which a dear friend introduced to me some years ago.
Scott W. at seraillon writes compellingly about Emilio’s Carnival and makes it likely I’ll get to Svevo’s work sooner than later.
In Eugénio Lisboa’s elegant preface to Carcanet’s A Centenary Pessoa, Lisboa captures Pessoa’s distinctive way of looking at the world. There is much in this description that also accounts, I believe, for Rachel Cusk’s acuity. The two writers are more alike than would seem immediately obvious.
“Fernando Pessoa soon became aware of his acute foreignness, of his being the incurable outsider at the very centre of life, of an excruciating inability really to feel ‘the pains of happy people or the pains of people who live and complain.
Wounded by lucidity, by frigidity, by a sense of distance from living, this same distance, this omnipresent perspective, made his inquisitive mind see things in a clearer or, at the least, in a different way. People like Pessoa learn early in life that the country most of us inhabit, made comfortable by familiar presumptions, is forbidden to them. But the awkward exclusion, an embarrassment in everyday living, this disability that amounts at times to a disease, can prove a fertile dis-ease. Unable to integrate with the habitual, forbidden from happy absorption, unable to see evidence as evident and the obvious as obvious, gazing in always from outside, wondering about ‘facts’ and ‘things’ that others accept without question – such an affliction can lead to a productive amazement.”
Detail from a fresco in the ‘Tomb of the Diver’, c. 470 BC, at Paestum in what is now Italy.
Schubert, Four Impromptus D 935 (op. 142)
These four Impromptus may not have the dazzle of the Impromptus D 899, but to my imperfect ear the first of the set is one of the most stunning pieces in the entirety of piano literature. Despite a little briskness, Brendel brings both fire and poetry to the piece.
Fernando Pessoa has the intellect and passion of Schubert, and, like the composer, was a richly complicated man that wrote with great simplicity.
“Believing in nothing firmly and therefore accepting as equally valid, in principle (which is as far as they go), all opinions, and considering that a theory is worth only as much as the theorist, an emotion as much as the emotion’s expresser, I could never take seriously the literary dogma that consists in the use of a personality. Personality is a form of belief and, like all belief, impossible for the reasoner.
It’s a short step from believing in outer truth to believing in inner truth, from accepting a concept of the world as true to accepting a concept of our self as true. I don’t affirm that everything is fluid, since that would be an affirmation, but to our understanding everything is indeed fluid, and the truth, unfolding for us into various truths, disappears, since it cannot be multiple.”