Fernando Pessoa’s Disappearing Act

by Ezra Buckley on August 28, 2017

The mysterious masterpiece of Portugal’s great modernist.

If ever there was a writer in flight from his name, it was Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa is the Portuguese word for “person,” and there is nothing he less wanted to be. Again and again, in both poetry and prose, Pessoa denied that he existed as any kind of distinctive individual. “I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist,” he writes in one poem. “I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me. . . . That’s me. Period.”

In his magnum opus, “The Book of Disquiet”—a collage of aphorisms and reflections couched in the form of a fictional diary, which he worked on for years but never finished, much less published—Pessoa returns to the same theme: “Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life. These are my Confessions and if I say nothing in them it’s because I have nothing to say.”

This might sound like an unpromising basis for a body of creative work that is now considered one of the greatest of the twentieth century. If a writer is nothing, does nothing, and has nothing to say, what can he write about? But, like the big bang, which took next to nothing and turned it into a cosmos, the expansive power of Pessoa’s imagination turned out to need very little raw material to work with. Indeed, he belongs to a distinguished line of European writers, from Giacomo Leopardi, in the early nineteenth century, to Samuel Beckett, in the twentieth, for whom nullity was a muse. The ultimate futility of all accomplishment, the fascination of loneliness, the way sorrow colors our perception of the world: Pessoa’s insight into his favorite themes was purchased at a high price, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “To find one’s personality by losing it—faith itself subscribes to that sense of destiny,” he wrote.

READ MORE

Previous post:

Next post: