Fernando Pessoa and the Spirit of Discovery

By Seabra, Jose Augusto | UNESCO Courier, April 1989 | Go to article overview

Fernando Pessoa and the Spirit of Discovery


Seabra, Jose Augusto, UNESCO Courier


THE Portuguese voyages of discovery left behind them a broad, indelible wake on the surface of modern history and culture. In literature, not only did they inspire the sixteenth-century epics of Camoes, they also profoundly marked the works of his spiritual successor, Fernando Pessoa, Portugal's great modern poet. In Pessoa's writings, however, the voyages of discovery are treated not simply as a tribute to a glorious past, but as a prophetic projection of that past into the future. In the first poem of his Mensagem ("Message"), a collection of verse published in 1934, Pessoa writes of the "future of the past", and throughout the book he develops the visionary, messianic theme of the "Fifth Empire" and of the "Portuguese Sea" symbolically spreading out to become the universal mother".

Pessoa, the poet of many heteronyms, made no attempt to duplicate The Lusiads, the national epic that recounts Vasco da Gama's voyage of discovery against the background of the history of Portugal. Instead he transforms his country's history into an initiatory voyage with other ships and other seafarers, symbolic figures on a spiritual quest for the occult, like the quest for the Holy Grail, under the banner of the Rosicrucians. Dom Sebastian, the "Longed-for, Hidden King" of the Portuguese, is the mythical embodiment of that quest and his return, like that of Ulysses, is awaited with endless patience. Returning to the homeric sources and tracing through Greek, Roman, Christian and European tradition, Pessoa announces the advent of a "New Renaissance" that Portugal would bring to the world and whose minstrel would be a "SuperCamoes".

This prophecy had already figured in the first major writings to appear under Pessoa's signature on his return to Lisbon, fired with patriotism that had religious and universalist overtones, following his childhood and adolescence in South Africa. These writings were published in the magazine A Aguia ("The Eagle") of Oporto, the organ of the "Portuguese Renaissance" movement. In the Republic then established in Portugal this movement preached the values of "Lusitanian civilization", invoking saudade in the sense of nostalgia for the past, but also for the future.

Drawing inspiration from the movement's charismatic poet, Joaquim Teixeira de Pascaoes (1877-1952), Pessoa attempted to define the trends of the new Portuguese poetry", under the pretext of carrying out a sociological and psychological analysis, so as to draw from it the elements of a poetic form of a stature to match his exalted vision of new caravels setting out to discover a "New India", not an earthly geographical and historical place but a transcendent land of dream. "And its true, supreme destiny, of which the deeds of the navigators were but an obscure and flesh-bound dress rehearsal, will achieve divine fulfilment" he concludes, in an outburst of messianic zeal.

It can be sensed that, in his mysterious pronouncements, the poet, who surreptitiously equates himself with the "SuperCamoes", takes as his starting point the concept of discovery", to which he attaches more importance than to the actual discoveries themselves, giving it a new meaning which, like King Sebastian, remains for ever hidden. He goes from the exoteric to the esoteric; the more one discovers about things external to oneself, the more deeply is the truth hidden; error piles upon error and deviation upon deviation.

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