Assault on Authorship

By Gray, John | New Statesman (1996), May 28, 2001 | Go to article overview

Assault on Authorship


Gray, John, New Statesman (1996)


"Fernando Pessoa invented at least 72 fictive identities. His jostling aliases, argues John Gray, expressed his belief that the individual subject -- the core of European thought -- is an illusion

"Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn't exist." These words were written by Alvaro de campos, naval engineer, opium-eater, absinthe-drinker, dandy and futurist -- and one of at least 72 "heteronyms", fictive identities through the medium of which Pessoa produced some of the most remarkable poetry and prose of the 20th century. C R Anon, an English philosopher who wrote with a sharply anti-religious edge on questions of free will and determinism; Ricardo Reis, a Portuguese monarchist, neo-Horatian poet and sometime Latin teacher; Alberto Caeiro, the pagan author of The Keeper of Sheep, a poetic critique of language and metaphysics as subtle and forceful as anything to be found in Wittgenstein - these are a few of the personae adopted by Pessoa in the course of a life that anticipated and embodied the postmodern condition, in which no one has a single, stable identity. Of Pessoa's alter egos, the closest to the man himself -- if such a person existed -- was Bernardo Soares, the fictional author of The Boo k of Disquiet.

Soares's "factless autobiography" must rank as the supreme assault on authorship in modern European literature. Even in its publishing history, it displays the beguiling elusiveness that surrounds everything to do with Pessoa. Born in Lisbon in 1888, he passed his days writing, drinking and chain-smoking, scraping a meagre living from translations and devising English crosswords, a reclusive figure with few friends and almost no love life. To him, obscurity became a kind of vocation. When he died in 1935, most likely from liver failure, he was admired in Portugal as an accomplished essayist and experimental poet, but was otherwise largely unrecognised in Europe. The greater part of his work consists of more than 25,000 pieces, some apparently unfinished, others mere scraps, which were found in a trunk after his death. Pessoa left no guidance as to how these jottings were to be assembled. Not long before his death, he placed some of them in an envelope marked with the book's title, but not all of his selectio ns seem to belong there, and it remains unclear which of his literary remains were meant to be included.

As a result, there can be no definitive edition of The Book of Disquiet. Written on and off over a period of more than 20 years, seemingly beginning as a book by another of Pessoa's heteronyms, Vicente Guedes, and slowly evolving into the imaginary testament of Soares, it is a dishevelled album of thoughts, sensations and imagined memories that can never be fully deciphered. Any version is bound to be a construction. In his notes on the text, Richard Zenith recognises this and suggests that readers "invent their own order or, better yet, read the work's many parts in absolutely random order". Despite this disclaimer, readers of Zenith's edition will find it supersedes all others in its delicacy of style, rigorous scholarship and sympathy for Pessoa's fractured sensibility.

"Pessoa" can mean "person" and--by a well-known classical extension -- "mask", but Pessoa's fictive identities were not disguises. It was widely known that he was the creator of many heteronyms. On the contrary, Pessoa's jostling aliases expressed his absolute belief that the individual subject, the core of European philosophy, religion and morality, is an illusion. As one of his heteronyms put it: "Each one of us is an assembly of subsidiary psyches, a badly made synthesis of cellular souls." That the self is multiple, not singular, was Pessoa's most intimate experience. …

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