Saturday, September 11, 2010

`To Read is to Dream'

“To read is to dream, guided by someone else’s hand. To read carelessly and distractedly is to let go of that hand. To be only superficially learned is the best way to read well and be profound.”

I’m not sure about the “profound” part but Fernando Pessoa and his profusion of heteronyms otherwise make sense in this passage from The Book of Disquiet (translated by Richard Zenith), the Portuguese poet’s major prose work. It’s a seductive book, one I can’t stop reading whenever I pick it up, an experience that certainly feels like being “guided by someone else’s hand.”

The way people read, their methods and expectations, often are intriguing. Seduction, the feeling of being swept away, comes unexpectedly, as with Pessoa and, of late, Cowper and Yvor Winters. I remember feeling that way with The Golovlyov Family, the stories of Giovanni Verga and William Dean Howells’ Indian Summer. I expected little of these books, and none is a masterwork, but I surrendered happily to their charms. To a reader in Canada I recently suggested he try The Golden Bowl, one of my favorite novels. He always intends to read it, he confesses, but it keeps slipping away. He writes:

“Good intentions aside, I never manage to be systematic in my reading. So while I finished three [William] Maxwell novels in Volume 1 of the [Library of America] edition, I didn't immediately go on to Volume 2. Instead I read two by John Berger. When those were done, instead of reading the two others of his I owned, I reread Richard III. The sense of freedom this 'method' provides has the unfortunate effect of my not getting as quickly to some books as I would like. I tell myself this is necessary when reading great novels - like with any rich and satisfying experience…”

Is this rationalizing waywardness or a reading “method” in disguise? The latter, I hope, because my reader describes my customary practice. If there exist connections among the books I read and the order in which I choose to read them, it’s news to me. Except for the few times I’ve read a writer’s work systematically – Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, Henry James – I’ve always followed an intuitive path. Mentioning Dickens reminds me of another Pessoa observation in The Book of Disquiet:

“One of my life’s greatest tragedies is to have already read The Pickwick Papers. (I can’t go back and read them for the first time.)”


William A. Sigler said...

Kafka once famously ordered Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts when he died. Pessoa didn’t even have to do that, for he had no friends, nothing published, and no reason to think his work would not pass from, in his terms, dream-being into invisibility when he died. What Pessoan irony, then, to be the person assigned after his death to turn all Pessoa’s barely legible scraps of thoughts into “The Book of Disquiet?” How very Portuguese! While there is great debate to this day over whether Kafka actually thought his writing might have value to other human beings, there’s no doubt where Pessoa came down on this:

“My attempt to say at least who I am, to record like a machine of nerves the slightest impressions of my subjective and ultra-sensitive life - this was all emptied like a bucket that got knocked over, and it poured across the ground like the water of everything. I fashioned myself out of false colors, and the result is an attic made out to be an empire.”

Pessoa is usually grouped with that strain of modern writers called “self-conscious” – the lineage of Dostoevsky, Svevo, Sartre, or if one goes further back, Sterne and Montaine. Pessoa though takes it to a whole other level, denying himself the capacity for any self-consciousness at all:

“To know nothing about yourself is to live. To know yourself badly is to think.”

As such, he gives humans no special privileges over trees or ceramic cups:

“There are departing sunsets that grieve me more than the deaths of children.”

This lack of cant can translate into some boldly commonsensical aphorisms:

“A sensitive and honest-minded man, if he's concerned about evil and injustice in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person.”

In many places, he reminds me of Schopenauer, that life is a dream – rather a nightmare – that is necessary in order for us to shed all our illusions. And, if everything is an illusion, he has no difficulty seeing through the more stubborn illusions, such as the one where he’s communicating with anyone:

“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.”

He serves the coffee black when it comes to reading…

“I'm with those poor slobs who have no books to show, who have no literature beside their own soul, and who are suffocating to death due to the fact that they exist without having taken that mysterious, transcendental exam that makes one eligible to live."

…and writing as well:

“I begin because I don't have the strength to think; I finish because I don't have soul enough to stop things. This book is my cowardice.”

As for his Guiness Book of World Records number of literary heteronymns, here’s one of his many perspectives on that:

"Since no outward detail would give him away, he having disguised even his voice, and since he didn’t take careful note of whoever had listened to him, he could enjoy the ample sensation of knowing that somewhere in the world there was someone who knew him as not even his closest and finest friend did. When he walked down the street he would ask himself if this person, or that one, or that person over there might not be the one to whom he’d once, wearing a mask, told his most private life. Thus would be born in him a new interest in each person, since each person might be his only, unknown confidant. And his crowning glory would be if the whole of that sorrowful life he’d told were, from start to finish, absolutely false."

Dwight said...

An ironic post for me, since The Book of Disquiet is a book I have intended to read, having picked up a copy several years ago. At least I will have the pleasure to read it for the first time.

Other tragedies that Pessoa could have mentioned are books worth reading that will never get read for the first time.

Roger Boylan said...

I love Pessoa, his melancholy, his and Bernardo Soares' disquiet, and his other heteronyms, especially Ricardo Reis. Lisbon, that dignified, melancholy old port, is a fitting monument to him, and them. Incidentally, his name means both "person" and "nobody" in Portuguese, a detail that seems as if it should be significant, but probably isn't.