Disquiet

22 Jul

Fernando Pessoa, Book of Disquiet

To express something is to conserve its virtue and take away its terror. Fields are greener in their description than in their actual greenness. Flowers, if described with phrases that define them in the air of the imagination, will have colours with a durability not found in cellular life.
What moves lives. What is said endures. There’s nothing in life that’s less real for having been well described. Small-minded critics point out that such-and-such poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it’s a nice day. But to say it’s a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It’s up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world.
… The grand, tarnished panorama of History amounts, as I see it, to a flow of interpretations, a confused consensus of unreliable eyewitness accounts. The novelist is all of us, and we narrate whenever we see, because seeing is complex like everything.

(Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, tr. Richard Zenith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001), p. 30)

In summoning The Book of Disquiet to provide examples for Fado and the Place of Longing (the original title of which was to be Songs of Disquiet, a title I retained for the opening chapter), I wanted to connect fado to the Pessoan project of estranging the world, of locating its disquiet. This line of thinking stresses the links to modernity that one finds in both Pessoa and fado while also opening a dialogue with existentialism and phenomenology, highlighting fado’s links to perception and to lived experience, space and place.

It is also worth commenting on the fragmented nature of Pessoa’s most famous prose work. These fragments seem crucial to the growth in the twentieth century of archived knowledge, written texts, museum exhibits and recorded sounds: at once parts of a whole they can never fully catalogue and desperate attempts to salvage the present as it slips from view and earshot. They anticipate a whole range of fragmented experiences of the twentieth century: the ‘fragments I have shored against my ruin’ in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; the wealth of ethnomusicological collections made possible by advances in recording technology; the broadcast media and its love of the soundbite; David Harvey’s ‘museum of modern knowledge’; the internet and its hyperlinked web of information.

Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon

The Book of Disquiet is also a book about Lisbon and about the ways of living made possible by city life. The role of the observer and chronicler is crucial and Pessoa creates a special character, Bernardo Soares, to achieve this task for him. Soares interweaves his own existential confusions into his descriptions of other city dwellers who walk past his place of work, his rooms or the cafes in which he spends much of his free time. A self-described dweller on the fringe of society, Soares represents what had by this time become a defining trope in western literature, from Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1840, rev. 1845) through Baudelaire’s ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863) to Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910). A strong sense of alienation amongst the crowd comes into play in Pessoa’s work, leading to yearning for a past in which individuals were more noticeable. In this way, Pessoa’s book speaks to earlier modern works on the city. The excitement that Walter Benjamin finds in the Baudelairean city, for example, is present in Pessoa yet it is an excitement that mixes uneasily with a sense of estrangement.

From where does this disquiet emerge? Perhaps it is from what Italo Calvino, writing on Balzac, calls the ‘intuition of the city as language, as ideology, as the conditioning factor of every thought and word and gesture … as monstrous as a giant crustacean, whose inhabitants are no more than motor articulations’. The imposition of (the idea of) the city upon the citizen is alluded to by Svetlana Boym when she identifies the prevalence in the modern world of an urban identity which, while not vanquishing national identity, has taken over some of nationalism’s most pertinent features, yet which ‘appeals to common memory and a common past but is rooted in a man-made place, not in the soil: in urban coexistence at once alienating and exhilarating, not in the exclusivity of blood.’ This mixture of communal and alienating aspects is crucial to fado, where the modern disquiet of the city dweller so well captured by Pessoa is always already entangled in the responsibilities of communal living that urban society demands. If this disquiet is to be seen as one symptom of late modernity, it is possible to link the longing for freedom from the trappings of the past as another, something Boym seems to have in mind when she writes that the city is ‘an ideal crossroads between longing and estrangement, memory and freedom, nostalgia and modernity’. (Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 76.)

Furthermore, there is a sense in The Book of Disquiet of the attempt of the individual to overcome the monstrous in the city, to imprint his or her own trace upon the structured, symbolic city plan. Such is the case in José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, where the figure of Ricardo Reis is witnessed in an ongoing process of walking the streets of Lisbon; even as he is marked for disappearance, Reis leaves his trace on the city, on the dead poet who haunts him and on the readers of Saramago’s text. Citizens are able to take partial ownership of the city. Yet that partiality only leads to a new type of symbolic ownership and, though the culturally-scripted city has been challenged by this new symbolic city, the new symbolic city becomes both familiar and fantastic.

With its always-threatened loss the symbolic city becomes an object of nostalgic desire, forever in danger of obliteration by the real city, which cannot be symbolized or familiarized. Into what we might term, following Barthes, the studium of the Symbolic irrupts the punctum of the Real, penetrating the studied and reliable, ostensibly ‘known’ city and lending an aura of disquiet to what was supposedly familiar. This disquiet, in turn, nags at any comfortable sense of nostalgia that contemplation of the familiar, familial, home might otherwise suggest, for there is a danger present: that the object of nostalgia might not, after all, be lost. This is dangerous because the object of nostalgia seeks to find its greatest effect in the safety promised by its inability to return and contradict the nostalgic subject. The lost and mourned object does not reply and this is part of what comforts the loser and the mourner. Yet at the same time that the mourner takes comfort in this stable situation, the danger is never altogether absent that the tranquillity so longed for will not be pierced by a punctum, a reminder of the reason for mourning (I can think of few more evocative examples than Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris and Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of it).

A still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR, 1972): 'the danger is never altogether absent that the tranquillity so longed for will not be pierced by a punctum, a reminder of the reason for mourning'.

Above all, The Book of Disquiet is a book of witnessing. Pessoa introduces Soares in his preface as someone who was looking for a witness, someone who would carry his story to the world. Soares himself describes the book as ‘a factless autobiography’, suggesting that it will be a biography without biographemes. It is arguably more like biography as a process of writing, a life produced by writing:

For a long time … I haven’t recorded any impressions; I don’t think, therefore I don’t exist. I’ve forgotten who I am. I’m unable to write because I’m unable to be. Through an oblique slumber, I’ve been someone else. To realize I don’t remember myself means that I’ve woken up.

(Pessoa, Book of Disquiet, p. 314.)

But, if writing is presented by Soares as an affirmation of existence, he is not always convinced that the message can be transmitted to another:

What is there to confess that’s worthwhile or useful? What has happened to us has happened to everyone or only to us; if to everyone, then it’s no novelty, and if only to us, then it won’t be understood. If I write what I feel, it’s to reduce the fever of feeling.

(Pessoa, Book of Disquiet, p. 21.)

It would be unfair of us to expect a work as fragmentary and unstructured as The Book of Disquiet to provide a consistent viewpoint about the processes of witnessing as both seeing and saying. Rather, it is a book plagued by doubts such as those just cited, an internal conflict between the desire to record and an uncertainty as to whether the record should be passed on. Bernardo Soares realizes (as does the Pessoa who, having written as Soares, then stores the writings in an enormous case destined to some kind of future revelation) that between the extremes of ‘everyone’ and ‘I’, there is a community of like-minded people to whom he is speaking: ‘It sometimes occurs to me, with sad delight, that if one day (in a future to which I won’t belong) the sentences I write are read and admired, then at last I’ll have my own kin, people who “understand” me, my true family in which to be born and loved.’ And shortly after: ‘It seems that civilizations exist only to produce art and literature; words are what speak for them and remain.’ Soares is writing for a community that will come later, which is no doubt why he wants his manuscript to be taken by Pessoa and disseminated.

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One Response to “Disquiet”

  1. Ben Soares June 5, 2011 at 8:20 pm #

    ‘It sometimes occurs to me, with sad delight, that if one day (in a future to which I won’t belong) the sentences I write are read and admired, then at last I’ll have my own kin, people who “understand” me, my true family in which to be born and loved.’

    Ah the lament of the eternal blogger. That’s how I read it anyway. And evidenced by the fact that this post has floated around the internet for a year with no-one commenting on it (which is not to say no-one reading it, but…).

    There is a moment in Lisbon Story where Monroe talks about his longing for an image untainted by consumerism, a virgin image, an innocent image. His solution is to wander the streets of Lisbon with a camera draped across his back to capture footage unseen by the naked eye.

    Wenders/Monroe had this vision in 1984. In many ways, the internet was the fruition of these unseen images, unseen words. But not even seen (and thus “understood”) in the eyes of God (or the eyes of a Dog), but literally, unnoticed. Because of there being too many of them.

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