The Crowd Within: The Many Identities of Fernando Pessoa

By Gray, John | New Statesman (1996), April 26, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Crowd Within: The Many Identities of Fernando Pessoa


Gray, John, New Statesman (1996)


Philosophical Essays: a Critical Edition

Fernando Pessoa

Contra Mundum Press, 260pp, [pounds sterling]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 ofhis 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.)

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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 cafes 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. …

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