Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Disquieting Read (Pessoa Book Review) by Alison Ross

The Book of Disquiet by Portuguese scribe Fernando Pessoa is a quietly potent book that stealthily seeps into your psyche and rearranges the (dis)contents. If you are normally tormented by your thoughts and harassed by melancholic musings, then this book will exacerbate your compulsive condition. If you are typically of a rather cavalier and even merry mood, this book will threaten to alter your buoyant being irrevocably. Either way, you have been warned.

Pessoa’s book reads like a disjointed journal of philosophical erudition. It is one of Pessoa’s many heteronyms, Bernando Soares, digging into his subconscious and psychological selves and extracting the bleakest thoughts and ideas that are nonetheless tempered by mystical sensibilities. From his observations, we can glean very clearly that Pessoa/Soares would rather not exist; but since he has no choice, he makes the best/worst of it through obsessive introspective intellectualizing. The results are lucid and shimmeringly depressive insights, astoundingly profound perceptions that will shake up your own truth-pursuit endeavors.

However, Pessoa’s concern is not exploring the truth, but rather DISMANTLING the truth. Since, in his view, truth is a subjective construct, Pessoa sets about taking theoretical topics and whittling them down to ragged skeletons left to disintegrate in the cruel winds of time.

Pessoa’s implicit and sometimes explicit aim in his book is to convey the somewhat grandiose thesis that the greatest hope for humanity is to simply accept the tedium of life for what it is, without attempting to embellish or deny it. That way, we can endure the monotony with minimal emotional injury.

Pessoa finds paradoxical purpose in his exercise. For in denouncing life, he affirms it.

Pessoa, ultimately, is trapped in his own head. He is imprisoned in his own mental hell, with harrowing epiphanies as the fiery devils who threaten to consume him. In a way, though, he seems to revel in his confinement. He is both the prisoner and the warden of his thoughts.

This is not to say that there are not actual moments of humor in Pessoa’s fragmented reflections, but any comedy is, of course, darkly tinted.

You could say, really, that Pessoa is a constructive nihilist. His damning words are rendered in such a way as to diminish their destructive potential. His aphorisms may be cynical but they are not sinister. His pronouncements carry metaphysical import, inducing us to linger more thoughtfully over our own convoluted lives, even as we become more devastatingly aware of our inescapable condition.

Some of the more poignant passages:

My life: a tragedy booed off the stage by the gods, never getting beyond the first act.

The logical reward of my detachment from life is the incapacity I've created in others to feel anything for me. There's an aureole of indifference, an icy halo, that surrounds me and repels others. I still haven't succeeded in not suffering from my solitude. It's hard to achieve that distinction of spirit whereby isolation becomes a repose without anguish.

I've never seen suicide as a solution, because my hatred of life is due to my love of life. It took me a long time to be convinced of this unfortunate mistake in how I live with myself. Convinced of it, I felt frustrated, which is what I always feel when I convince myself of something, since for me each new conviction means another lost illusion.

I don't distinguish in any fundamental way between a man and a tree, and I naturally prefer whichever is more decorative, whichever interests my thinking eyes. If the tree is more interesting to me than the man, I'm sorrier to see the tree felled than to see the man die. There are departing sunsets that grieve me more than the deaths of children.

Revolutionary or reformer - the error is the same. Unable to dominate and reform his own attitude towards life, which is everything, or his own being, which is almost everything, he flees, devoting himself to modifying others and the outside world. Every revolutionary and reformer is a fugitive. To fight for change is to be incapable of changing oneself. To reform is to be beyond repair.

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