Fernando Pessoa’s and Rachel Cusk’s “Fertile Dis-ease”

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.”

 

Something For the Weekend

Detail from a fresco in the 'Tomb of the Diver', c. 470 BC, at Paestum in what is now Italy.
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.”

“All of this is dream and phantasmagoria, and it matters little whether the dream be of ledger entries or of well-crafted prose. Does dreaming of princesses serve a better purpose than dreaming of the front door to the office? All that we know is our own impression, and all that we are is an exterior impression, a melodrama in which we, the self-aware actors, are also our own spectators, our own gods by permission of some department or other at City Hall.” p. 22

“What I write, bad as it is, may provide some hurt or sad soul a few moments of distraction from something worse. That’s enough for me, or it isn’t enough, but it serves some purpose, and so it is with all of life.” p. 22

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

“What is there to confess that’s worthwhile or useful? What has happened to us has happened to everyone or only to us; if to everyone, then it’s no novelty, and if only to us, then it won’t be understood. If I write what I feel it’s to reduce the fever of feeling. What I confess is unimportant because everything is unimportant.”

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, (trans. Richard Zenith). Penguin, 2002.

Our Own Religion

There is much worth contemplating in Lars Iyer’s responses to these questions on Full Stop, beyond the title: The Situation in American Writing, particularly this point, which is arguably hyperbolic but contains many truths.

As for the audience for serious American writing — I don’t know anyone who reads it, really. America seems to be everywhere; we are living in an American reality. Which makes me want to read anything but American fiction, however ignorant this sounds. I admit to having very little interest in British fiction, either. It seems to me that everything that is alive in fiction today comes via translation.

This idea that it is the omnipresence of American lifestyle that ends up subverting our appetite for American intellectual achievements is recognisable, and compelling.

This excerpt also gave me much pleasure:

You ask whether online criticism has made literature into a more or less isolated cult. Not really. I think literature itself was already becoming an isolated cult. Bernardo Soares, Pessoa’s heteronym in The Book of Disquiet, writes, ‘I am today an ascetic in my own religion. A cup of coffee, a cigarette, and my dreams can easily replace the sky and its stars, work, love and even the beauty of glory. I have, so to speak, no need of stimulants. My opium I find in my soul’. When it comes to literature, many of us have their own cult, their own religion, their own literary sky and stars. But there is a sadness to this, I think. Our stars are toy stars, like the ones which glow on a child’s bedroom ceiling. We are isolated; we read on separate islands. And reading, for us, is a hobby, a pastime, and little more than that, even if it once meant much more than that.

The Book of Disquiet

I have been intrigued for a while with Fernando Pessoa’s The Book Of Disquiet. The title has drawn me in each time I have seen it on the shelf at the London Review Bookshop. Today I began reading it whilst commuting but have concluded that it is not a book to be read in hour long chunks.

The themes change frequently and, it seems to me, that is is a book to be read every now and again, almost at random. It appears a wonderful, challenging book that merits a slow, discursive approach. I shall use it as my bedside book capturing my final twenty minutes before sleep. It has a dreamlike quality that seems appropriate.There are scents, so far, of Kierkegaard, particularly Either/Or and the beginnings of the theme of existential angst that Sartre was to develop.