Fernando Pessoa is one of the most and important European intellectual figures of the past century.
The London Festival of Europe 2008 dedicated a whole day to the exploration of this mysterious Portuguese Poet.
Fernando Pessoa is a multitude. Born in Lisbon in 1888, the reputation of this mysterious Portuguese poet has been steadily growing over the years, until he is today considered one of the most fundamental European voices of the past century. The most striking characteristic of Pessoa is his constant use of heteronyms, or literary egos, so that a plurality of voices and biographies are the only possible voice and biography of this poet of polygamy. Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Alvaro de Campos are the three most developed poetic heteronyms employed by Pessoa, but after his death, from a box containing his writings – fragmented, on spare restaurant receipts, napkins, loose sheets – emerged a true multitude of characters, each the author of a particular assemblage of texts.
Bernando Soares, the semi-heteronym author of the magnificent Book of Disquiet; Antonio Mora, philosopher and sociologist; Baron of Teive, essayist; Thomas Coarse and Alexander Search, writing in English; Raphael Baldaya, astrologer … and onwards to a list of seventy-two names and as many genres of writing. All the heteronyms collaborated on publication projects, critiqued and even translated one another. Sensationalism, one of the numerous “movements” started by Pessoa, was critiqued by Antonio de Seabra and compiled in English by Sher Henay, both fruits of Pessoa’s imagination. Neo-Paganism was strongly defended by Antonio Mora, Pessoa’s philosophical persona. Alvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis frequently attacked each other’s poetry, but joined in the appreciation of Alberto Caeiro’s verses.
Pessoa’s heteronyms had a real presence in his life, well beyond literary play; Pessoa’s only, mainly epistolary, romantic relation was broken by the constant interference of Alvaro de Campos, who exasperated the beloved, Ophelia Queiroz, who was, at last, real. . Most importantly, the heteronyms he assumes are not simple literary alter-egos, like Valéry and his Monsiery Teste or Rilke and Malte Laurids; they are entirely self-sufficient, perfect existents, with their own biography, attitude, aesthetics, style and, what is more, they all express, in the most profound sense of the term, a particular possibility of being, a “metaphysics”, a true, tangible, honest reaction to the mystery of being. In a letter to Armando Cortes-Rodrigues Pessoa writes: “I consider insincere all things… that do not contain a fundamental metaphysical idea, in which there is not, not even as a gust of wind, a minimum notion of the gravity and mystery of Life. This is why all I have written under the names of Caeiro, Reis, Alvaro de Campos is authentic. In each of them I have put a profound concept of life, different in each of the three, but in all deeply aware of the mysterious importance of existence.”
The production of Pessoa mirrors the evolution of a life that has given up all pretensions and wishes to find a harbour. At first it could be seen to depart from the plateau of disbelief that characterised much modernist creation, and that finds its clearest echo in Pessoa-Bernando Soares’ Book of Disquiet, the factless autobiography of a solitary employee in which all the themes dear to the high-bourgeois literature of the early twentieth century find their place, enmeshed in an absurd air of normality already prefiguring some of Becket’s characters to come. But it would be reductive, and indeed impossible, to inscribe Pessoa in the simple existential reaction to the meaninglessness of a world without certainty.
If Pessoa departs from the “nothingness” of the world, it is only to turn this nothingness into eternal possibility, to hold a constant revolution in thought by “usurping the Divine power of being everything”. And this is the effect Pessoa’s three-dimensional heteronyms achieve, that of a multiplicity of the truthful, a crystallisation of experience with its refraction of a thousand shades of possible existences; “all manners”, the poet writes, “of faking I understand the world, or better, of faking it can be understood”.
Autopsychography The poet is a faker Who’s so good at his act He even fakes the pain Of pain he feels in fact. And those who read his words Will feel in his writing Neither of the pains he has But just the one they’re missing. And so around its track This thing called the heart winds, A little clockwork train To entertain our minds. 1 April 1931 Translated by Richard Zenith, in Fernando Pessoa : A little Larger than the Entire Universe. Selected Poems. (Penguin Classics) Fernando Pessoa: European Modernist or Postmodernist? Celebrated writer and translator Richard Zenith will present a lecture and read selected verses of Pessoa.
Accompanied by a special cello composition by Vicky Steiri and screening of contemporary Portuguese Video-Art. FREE Friday 7th March, 6.30PM, St Peter’s Church (Mayfair), Vere Street, London W1G 0DQ Part of the London Festival of Europe, Full program see here