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A Cold in the Soul: Reading the Book of Disquiet in Apartment 62

I’m not sure why I selected The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa.

It would have been almost impossible not to be curious after reading the title. Since no one I know had read it prior to me, I had the pleasure of experiencing something forbidden, which made the whole experience even more thrilling.

This book was my constant companion for a long time, and it almost became a vice for me, a minor sin or a chronic soul illness. To quote Pessoa himself, it was “like having a cold in the soul.”

For those feeling congested, staying at home may be the best option; if they go out, they may notice their own voice has a strange tone and their movements feel slightly out of place.

I, being among the young and lucky in New York, often ventured out at night after reading The Book of Disquiet and this text of solitude, sadness and disappointment seemed to make me more hesitant, affect my upbeat attitude and give my regular wishes a shade of deceit.

What are those wishes? The same as everyone else’s–achievement, love and money in the right amount. I have this image of me among a group of laughing friends, maybe even with my future wife, and I might be doing slightly better than the rest.

Sometimes I feel that my favorite book, The Book of Disquiet , has been more detrimental to my professional and social life, as well as my romantic and even my overall human life, than any other.

In this city of ambition, I was touched by a book whose message, if it has one, is that “inaction is our solace for everything, not acting is our one great comfort.” Pessoa was a loner (just like me!), he never married (so far, so good) and is only known to have kissed a woman once (the comparison doesn’t hold).

He stayed within the confines of Lisbon, without even taking a weekend trip away (this part holds true mutatis mutandis ).

Throughout his writing, he looks down on travel as an inferior substitute for his daydreams of the same and more and more I understand where he’s coming from. The least one of his loyal readers can do is have reservations about leaving the house.

The work of art known as The Book of Disquiet officially belongs to Fernando Pessoa, who made an effort to make his physical presence as slight as possible; however, he still had to maintain life through sustenance and air (as well as alcohol and cigarettes). Pessoa wanted the book credited to Bernardo Soares, a false friend and alias, who didn’t exist in actuality. After reading Soares’s book, I felt a slight change in myself, which must have been more extreme for Pessoa as he wrote Soares’s words.

This faint and peculiar sensation–like when you gaze into a mirror but your vision is blurry, so there appear to be two versions of yourself, both transparent–was likely passed from author to reader.

Pessoa was fond of incompletion and self-alienation, and most of his prose works were incomplete.

In one fragment, he mentioned that Bernardo Soares worked as an assistant bookkeeper in a fabric warehouse, likely a place Pessoa visited due to “economic necessity” since it was in one of the cheaper restaurants in Lisbon that “lacked even a train station.” He created seventy-two “heteronyms” with detailed biographies and Soares was the only “semi-heteronym” among them. Pessoa’s humor is showcased here as he described Soares as “myself minus reason and affectivity.”

I’m curious to know if Pessoa documented the date of his initial encounter with Soares. It would not be unexpected behaviour.

Ricardo Reis, one of Pessoa’s heteronyms who wrote the most, mentions that he had never written a word until he met Alberto Caeiro one day at the age of twenty-five.

This significant meeting of imaginary people makes me think of my own experience, since both Pessoa and I believe that real people usually imagine much more than they do in life.

So, I left Labyrinth Books with a paperback in hand, and the day was beginning to come to an end. With a light misty rain, the air was damp and the light was hazy and fading; transitioning from the present day to the past… This feeling was very similar to the atmosphere in The Book of Disquiet, a book that was nervous and humid, with various passages mentioning the rain off the sea and the light often being described as “the indefinite, lucid blue pallor of the aquatic evening”.

It could have been a swelteringly hot day and I may have been on the subway reading–“Today, during one of those moments of daydreaming which, even though they have no goal, make up most of my life…”–when I got off downtown and was overwhelmed by a bustling, vibrant carnival of glitz and glamour.

I could have had a kind of everyday vision: A person who seemed to be in control of their destiny, aware of where they were going and completely devoted to their ambition. This is a classic New York archetype, as common as the scissory women and the delivery men, the beggars, the police, and the tourists. This is what I would have seen, and it would have invoked in me a piteously simple and common wish: To be a successful and admired individual in the seeming capital of the world.

I can’t recall the date of an important occasion. It’s disheartening not to be able to commemorate it. I was exposed to The Book’s advice of resignation: “Whatever we renounce, we keep intact” for over a year in the bustling environment of New York City, full of ambitiousness.

The city that never sleeps and reading Pessoa, who yearned to write “an apotheosis of sleep” made me feel like an emotional outcast, someone who was willing to do without precisely what he desired the most.

This is why, if I eventually fail in my mission, part of the blame should be attributed to the flat on Rua dos Douradores in Lisbon, the home of the fictitious bookkeeper Bernardo Soares who, while dreaming of literary fame, felt a regret “for this unpredictable life in which I scarcely write anything and publish nothing.”

I have now completed The Book of Disquiet which has been a favorite of mine since the beginning. I read it at a slower pace than if it was a task.

The format of the book is composed of aphorisms, some of which are merely a line long and others going up to three pages. To read too many at once would have made it hard to comprehend the arguments. Even though it is made of different pieces, The Book is very unified in its melancholy, audacity, and its embracing of renunciation, disappointment and loneliness as life’s sweetest treats.

It is hard to believe that no one knows how to piece together the individual parts of The Book of Disquiet, a work by Pessoa, who was born in 1888 and announced its release in 1914. The book was published posthumously and in 1982, forty-seven years after Pessoa’s death from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of forty-seven, it was released in his hometown of Lisbon.

Known as “the saddest book in Portugal,” the entries of this “factless autobiography” are mostly undated and undateable, having been written between 1912 and 1935. In the Pessoa archives in Lisbon, there are at least 27,543 documents, which is more than two documents per day of Pessoa’s adult life, and while he indicated many passages as belonging to the Livro and written by Soares, many more are included based on scholarly conjecture.

It appears that this editorial disarray is an intentional part of Pessoa’s work. The Book of Disquiet is a journal of a multifaceted and uncertain self, growing and shrinking as Pessoa/Soares expresses “the horror of making our soul a fact.”

He observes, “I’m always astonished whenever I finish anything. Astonished and depressed. My ambition of perfection should prevent me from ever completing anything; it should even stop me from beginning.” This ambition possibly hindered Pessoa from publishing a book in Portuguese during his life, Mensagem ( Message ), a collection of patriotic poetry. Despite this, he and his three main heteronyms remain excellent poets.

Nonetheless, it appears that he found himself more authentic in the prose of The Book of Disquiet and in the words of Soares, where he wrote of his “desire to die another person under mysterious flags.”

My copy of The Book –with multiple versions of it available in English– was translated elegantly by Margaret Jull Costa. Maria Jose de Lancastre, a Pessoa enthusiast, has arranged the sections according to topics like dreams, ambition, affections, and rain.

As I read a few pages each day, I felt as if I was stuck in one given theme for a while–it was strange to find myself thinking of rain even when the sun was out–until the topic changed and, like a shift in the weather, it moved away. I guess it’s good that this happens, if Pessoa was right and

 

There is no easy solution to any dilemma. We cannot untangle the complexities of the Gordian knot, so our only recourse is either to quit or to cut it. When it comes to intellectual matters, we often replace thought with emotion in order to avoid having to arrive at a conclusion. This is often due to fatigue, timidity, a need for acceptance, or a desire to be part of the group and take part in life.

However, my gradual absorption in the text made it difficult to put it down and return to my cohorts in youth, ambition, and even at times, love. It wasn’t just the emphasis placed on sacrifice, which was a rare thing to come across in my surroundings. The book also advocates and invokes an intricate aloneness.

The issue with this type of solitude is that the more intricate it gets, the harder it is to bring it into the natural discourse. Even a very sophisticated conversation would not be able to handle its complex intricacies.

When I thought of love, I envisioned a connection with someone honest and articulate. During the Pessoa phase, I found myself becoming less open, making it hard to admit to my girlfriend that I was enjoying my own company more and more.

Whenever I spoke about anything of importance, I was aware of the unsolved problems that the words left behind, as if I was always failing to solve a basic equation. I realized I missed being single, with its freedom to be undefined and uncertain.

The old promise of being known had become a threat to the small inconsistencies I was cherishing. Love seemed to be forcing me to be someone I had never really wanted to be.

My girlfriend commented, “It appears you are not fully invested in this.”

I felt that if there was to be anyone I could be involved with, it would be her for the same reasons that most people have for such situations. Additionally, it was a source of joy for me to be able to make her, who was so attractive and nice, happy.

So I told her that I was in it all the way. However, I was aware that nice guys can be hazardous and recollected the words from The Book of Disquiet: “I have a quite simple moral code: never do evil or good to anyone.”

Kafka is often quoted as saying a great book should act like “an axe to break up the icy sea inside us.” This metaphor paints a picture of a day spent inside with a book, a brief and destructive invasion.

However, it could be argued that a book is most powerful when read in small portions over a long period of time. Initially unsettling and even repellent, it becomes recognizable, and due to long-term contact with the venom we become tolerant to it.

The term for this is mithridatism, and the most fitting example is Beatrice Rappaccini from Hawthorne’s work, a dazzling virgin who finds the environment beyond her manufactured paradise, full of poison, to be fatal.

Susan Sontag once stated that authors can be grouped into three categories: husbands, lovers, and confirmed bachelors. One prime example of the bachelor type is Fernando Pessoa, a modernist who likely died a virgin. In pictures, his appearance is always the same: with a big nose, dark glasses, and a moustache.

He always wears a fedora, bowtie, and raincoat, and looks almost as if he is not present. Photographs are supposed to show that we exist, but Pessoa’s image appears to challenge that. His writing also supports this idea, making the impression more meaningful.

He utilized the heteronyms to reject ownership of his words as he was writing them. This community of alter egos, according to him, formed “a whole world of friends inside me,” and they all agreed that the soul has no product.

Any action taken will veer away from its author and corrupt the intention behind it, becoming a stranger to them. Pessoa expressed, “Every gesture, however simple, symbolizes a breach of a spiritual secret. To act is to exile oneself.”

This sentiment is applicable to emotions as well, “Nothing will remain of the person who put on feelings and gloves”–as if they were one and the same.

Throughout the 20th century, some philosophers worked to put an end to the idea of Descartes that each self is divided between a subject and an object, between an ‘actor’ and an ‘observer’. But then along came Pessoa, with his ‘kudzu Cartesianism’ – a wild inner multiplication of egos, each thought or emotion creating a new observing self, and that self becoming the object of yet another new self, and so on and so on. As The Book of Disquiet puts it:

 

I have developed multiple personas within myself. I am constantly crafting new ones. Every notion that I conceive is immediately brought to life by someone else, who envisions it in lieu of me.

 

To form these personalities, I broke down my original self; I have transferred so much of my inner being outwardly that even my innermost self only exists on the outside now.

My understanding of Pessoa has grown deeper with time and it has enabled me to grasp why one of Gustave Dore’s illustrations for The Divine Comedy petrified him for life: Canto 13, the Forest of the Suicides.

There, those who had taken their own lives were transformed into trees, unable to escape their fate. Having destroyed themselves, their existence was restricted to outside their bodies and this externalization was what perpetuated their distress.

However, Pessoa’s work is often seen as a strangely comforting justification for taking refuge from the world, for “the joy of having no family or companions, the gentle pleasure akin to that of being in exile, in which we experience the pride of distance blend with a hesitant delight.” Bernardo Soares’ utopia is portrayed as follows: “A cup of coffee, a cigarette, the rich smell of the smoke, and me seated in a dim room with my eyes half-closed.”

In other places, he is more descriptive: “To lead a detached, cultivated life beneath the rain of ideas, reading, dreaming, and contemplating writing, a life slow enough to be always at the brink of boredom, but profound enough to never fall into it.

To live a life removed from emotions and thoughts, delighting only in the thought of emotions and the emotion of thoughts. To remain still and golden in the sun like a dark lake surrounded by flowers.” Most likely, these bending flowers are narcissi.

It’s easy to say that Pessoa and his works are narcissistic.

He and the heteronyms seem to be fixated on their immaturity; they are essentially eternally young, dependent on the potential of life.

People in their twenties should not follow their example, as the challenge for them is to establish themselves in the real world, understanding the difference between realism and compromise, and between having ideals and making excuses. Pessoa’s work, however, is evidence of the melancholic joy of avoiding this mission forever. Soares is a temporary bookkeeper, not because he wants to be, but due to necessity; he states “Anyone reading the earlier part of this book will doubtless have formed the opinion that I’m a dreamer. If so, they’re wrong. I don’t have enough money to be a dreamer.”

This implies he lacks the resources to dream all the time. He would not be offended if someone called him a good-for-nothing. He often quotes the French philosopher Gabriel Tarde, who said “Life is a search for the impossible via the useless.”

It has been suggested that work and love are the keys to contentment, but Soares and Pessoa, who are together, disagree.

Pessoa is particularly audacious, characteristic and sinister when he makes statements such as: “Woman is a plentiful source of fantasies. Don’t ever touch her.” Friendship doesn’t seem to be much better in his opinion: “The only reasonable excuse for seeking out advice from others is to be sure, when we later take exactly the opposite course of what they suggested, that we are indeed ourselves and are acting in opposition to all that is foreign.”

Throughout the year that I read The Book of Disquiet, I was also finishing grad school, transitioning to a freelance career, trying to dress better than I could afford, and hanging out with my old friends in the “funnel” of New York. On top of that, there was an on-again, off-again relationship with a girlfriend I loved yet avoided.

Additionally, I was working on a novel that seemed to become further away with each passing day. I was facing “the horror of making my soul a fact,” yet I still believed that I could achieve the desires I had come to the city for.

However, I knew that I would hesitate even if it wasn’t The Book of Disquiet that I was reading. This book only exacerbated my hesitations, and somehow, it even improved them.

E.M. Cioran once stated, “I like to read the way a chorus girl does; I identify with the author and the book.” This is how I feel as well.

I am in many ways dissimilar to Pessoa; my political views are left-leaning, I’m rather moderate with my drinking, I take trips when I can, I have plentiful friends, and to my unrefined ear, Portuguese–which Pessoa considered a “clear, majestic language”–seems akin to Spanish as spoken by Eastern Europeans.

Nevertheless, The Book of Disquiet, the work of a royalist who was single and dead from too much alcohol sixty-seven years ago, often feels as close to me as if the words were my own. It was like someone had inscribed my confession, leaving me only to add in the offense.

My reluctance to live my life seemed to give me a sense of pleasure. The relationship I was in while I read The Book of Disquiet was expected to end again, yet I acted as if it wouldn’t. Even in my political views, my left-wing ideas seemed to rise in intensity while the left itself kept waning.

My ambition of writing a great novel was given up, and I decided to work on something smaller and less meaningful to me instead. I was often hesitant and indecisive in minor matters such as what to do with a friend the upcoming week.

I felt that decisiveness would make time go by too quickly, and the only way I knew to slow it down was to be in a pleasant state of abulia. The Book of Disquiet had, in this way, become my book of hours.

Although its philosophical concepts exist in other works, I chose not to re-read Emerson’s literature on self-sufficiency.

I could have taken on Proust’s view after reading thousands of pages that depict the hollowness of friendship and love. Samuel Beckett’s assessment of Proust in his study includes the idea that “attainment” is nothing more than a false assumption. Even Joseph Conrad, who has a different style than the others, portrayed in Nostromo that action is a comforting distraction from thought and a source of deceptive delusion.

I believe my connection to Pessoa’s “cold in the soul” comes from his own vulnerability. Unlike others who construct arguments, he reveals himself in pieces. The transformation of values that he proposes–with all conventional aims reversed–has a greater effect on me than Nietzsche’s strenuous process, not just because Pessoa has no interest in the repugnant will-to-power, but because he feels the weight of his own insights as much as he expresses them. Ultimately, he is giving up things not because he does not value them, but because he does. The metaphor of the Gordian knot is not accidental:

As we go through life, we come to realize two opposing realities. On one hand, the experiences of life overpower the fictional stories in literature and art.

They become mere dreams we eventually wake up from, not something we can look back on fondly. On the other hand, every person strives to live life to its fullest, to feel everything and explore everywhere.

However, this is impossible, so we must instead live life fully subjectively, only once we surrender to it.

These two truths cannot be reconciled. Nothing brings me satisfaction, nothing comforts me, yet everything, real or not, satiates me. I neither want nor renounce my soul. I crave what I don’t want and relinquish what I don’t have. I can neither be nothing nor everything, I’m just the bridge between what I don’t have and don’t want.

Pessoa frequently discussed bridges in his work, often as a metaphor for the divide between the individual self and the outside world. His perception was that it was impossible for both to be true at the same time. The bridge itself remained, however, providing no tangible connection between the two.

I have recently been realizing that it is time for me to make an effort to live the best life I can. Looking back, I can see that reading The Book of Disquiet was a detrimental tendency, which only served to increase my hesitance and magnify my bad conscience. It would be sensible advice to get my act together and be more serious, however I can quote passages from the book that oppose this opinion–“The world belongs to the unfeeling.

The essential condition for being a practical man is the absence of any sensitivity”. Despite this, I feel guilty for not following the advice.

Various other objections can be raised against Pessoa-ism or Soares-itis, whatever one may call it. In the first place, Pessoa rarely details the elements of his dreams, thus prompting a reader to make the book his own whilst simultaneously generating doubt as to whether Pessoa is more enamored of his dreams than truly wanting them to come to fruition.

How long can he persist with their production without believing in or earnestly hoping for their fulfillment?

I often find myself tempted to give into guilt and dissatisfaction, yet there is something else I feel – the excitement and fear of being solitary and unfulfilled is more preferable than any satisfaction that could be obtained.

When I am alone in my apartment, surrounded by my books, I contemplate the notion that “Freedom is the possibility of isolation”. As I go out in the city, with its hustle and bustle of purposeful and enviable people (including sometimes me), I think to myself, thinking of The Book of Disquiet, “I’ll never set foot in this world”. This could be a boast, a lie, or simply a sad truth; something which I may never know, just as Pessoa himself did not.

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