If we can judge a man by his blog, read his character and draw conclusions about the quality of his mind, Ricardo Azevedo is a man worth knowing. He is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Houston, and I interviewed him two days ago for a newspaper story I have since filed. During our conversation, I argued that a physicist today might easily never read a single word written by Isaac Newton, yet who can imagine a biologist having never read at least excerpts from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species? Azevedo politely disagreed (about physicists reading Newton, that is) but didn’t press the point.
Serendipitously, as these things often happen, I discovered Azevedo’s own blog, Newton’s Binomium, which he bills as “Thoughts on science, literature, music, food, politics and anything else I might feel compelled to impose on an unsuspecting public.”
This gets even better: When I learned he is Portuguese, I asked Azevedo if he was familiar with the great and profoundly weird poet Fernando Pessoa. It turns out the name of his blog comes from a poem Pessoa wrote in 1926. Or rather, a poem Alvaro de Campos wrote in 1926. Uniquely in all of the literature I know, Pessoa created heteronyms – poetic personae with their own names, life histories, themes and styles. These are not pseudonyms; they are discrete poetic entities, like characters in a Flann O’Brien novel coming alive and writing their own novels. His three main figures are Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Alvaro de Campos. Pessoa also had a “semi-heteronym,” Bernardo Soares. He credited his enormous output of poetry and prose in English to Alexander Search and Charles Robert Anon, and his writings in French to Jean Seul.
Alvaro de Campos once wrote, “Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist.”
On his blog, Azevedo quotes the poem from which he took its name, first in Portuguese then in his own English translation:
“Newton’s binomium is as beautiful as the Venus de Milo.
The problem is that precious few people notice.”
In his own words, Azevedo adds, “I love this poem because it places science firmly within our culture. As a scientist myself, I couldn’t agree more. (Regrettably, Pessoa engaged in a good deal of pseudo-science and mysticism himself, but I like to think that Campos was above all that.)”
In a nice Pessoan touch, Azevedo includes a thumbnail photo of himself on his blog that manages to reveal almost nothing. We see a man in a t-shirt, sunglasses tucked in the collar, and the top of a wide-brimmed hat. The man – Azevedo? – is looking down – out of shyness? Reverence? Contrariness? We see nothing of his face.
I started reading Pessoa about 15 years ago, after reading Jose Saramago’s novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, in which Pessoa and his heteronym, Reis, conduct a sort of extended dialogue in pre-war Lisbon. It’s the only novel by Saramago, who subsequently won the Nobel Prize for literature, I whole-heartedly love. Let me also recommend one of my favorite books, Pessoa’s huge and chaotic prose work, The Book of Disquiet, in the Richard Zenith translation from Penguin – a book so elastic and seductive that you can open it anywhere, read a passage at random and lose yourself for hours.