Review: Joy Williams on Fernando Pessoa, et al.

“I’m beginning to know myself,” Fernando Pessoa wrote. “I don’t exist.” Or perhaps it was one of his “heteronyms” who said this. There were at least seventy-two of them. A heteronym is not a pseudonym. A pseudonym is a fictitious name a writer composes under. A heteronym, in its literary meaning, is a character created by a writer to write in a different style. Pessoa broke this down further with his “semi-heteronyms” and “orthonyms,” an orthonym being the real name of a person who uses a pseudonym. For example, The Book of Disquiet, which you might have heard of, was credited to a Bernardo Soares and a Vicente Guedes, with a preface (more or less, as the incompleted work was found in a trunk, or several trunks possibly, after Pessoa’s death) by Fernando Pessoa as an orthonym for Fernando Pessoa. About Soares, Pessoa (which one it is not quite clear) said: “his personality, though not my own, doesn’t differ from my own but is a mere mutilation of it.”

So it seems almost irrelevant to say that Fernando Pessoa was a Portuguese poet born in 1888 who died in 1935. He grew up in South Africa where his stepfather was Portuguese consul but he lived in Lisbon all his adult life. He even wrote a guidebook in English to the city, not a very helpful one, for as one reader remarked: “he seems oddly unfamiliar with the place.”

There is little detail about his life though he was much a part of the argumentative literary scene of the time and published in short-lived journals. He was proficient in many languages, affected the owlish, natty look of James Joyce, was a devoted student of astrology and the occult, lived with his mother or his aunties or alone, smoked and drank a great deal, and was described as “cold.” He is considered one of the giants of modernist literature and is extremely well regarded by poets—John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, W. S. Merwin, many others. But did Jimmy Merrill and David Jackson consider inviting him to Stonington and their teacup soirees. I don’t know! Pessoa might have felt he was being toyed with.

Of all Pessoa’s heteronyms, three are the most realized—Alberto Caeiro, “an untutored child of nature,” Ricardo Reis, a classicist and doctor, and Àlvaro de Campos, a naval engineer and bit of a dandy. (Pessoa’s only female heteronym was an eighteen-year-old hunchback infatuated with a workman who passed beneath her window each morning.)

Caeiro, the author of The Keeper of Sheep, was “born” on April 16, 1889, but his poetic arrival in life was in March of 1914 when Pessoa was twenty-six years old. He “died” the following year but his work continued to be discovered, translated, praised, and promoted. He was presented as “absolutely new, absolutely original,” a “concrete materialist,” a simple shepherd though one without sheep:

I never kept sheep
But it’s as if I had.
My soul is like a shepherd.

Caeiro was very much a proponent of what you see is what you see. The trick is to know what you see without thinking:

the stars are just stars
and the flowers are just flowers,
which is why we see them as stars
           and flowers

what we see of things are the
things themselves
why would we see one thing if
there were another?

The critics, that is, Reis and de Campos and sometimes Soares and Pessoa (the orthonym one) went wild with enthusiasm. Another heteronym, Alexander Search, conducted an interview with Caeiro, who modestly described himself as the “Discoverer of Nature,” and the “Argonaut of genuine sensations.” Search agreed: “In a sense he is nature,” adding that the shepherd Caeiro “brings joy, expresses everything and illuminates everything.”

I find it is so natural not to think
That I sometimes laugh to myself,
I don’t know about what exactly, but
about something
That has to do with there being
people who think …

But these were the early poems. (He had been writing since 1911, it was determined.) The second collection, The Shepherd in Love, wasn’t quite so remarkable. By the time the “uncollected” poems came around, the heteronym Thomas Crosse lamented that the “lucid inspiration” had become “slightly blurred, a little less lucid.” He had lost his splendid nonmysticism. The heteronym de Campos said: “The Keeper of Sheep is Caeiro’s mental life until the moment when the carriage appears over the hill. The Uncollected Poems are the descent.” He ventured: “There are some that I believe I could have written.”

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Alberto Caeiro died shortly after this. He’d been ailing. It was said to be tuberculosis. But de Campos only shared his judgments years later in his “Notes in Remembrance of My Master Caeiro” in 1931, four years before Pessoa himself (the more or less real one) died of cirrhosis of the liver.

After 1935 the heteronyms grew quiet, though the Nobel-winner José Saramago did write a novel in 1984, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, in which Reis, who had emigrated to Brazil, returns to Lisbon when he hears that Pessoa has died. He’s upset, as you might imagine, but he manages to meet with Pessoa a few times and they get to talk a bit about life and art, love and death.

This is all quite … dizzying. But how you feel about the heteronyms and the figures of fiction and the reverence with which Pessoa is accorded quite depends upon you, or as Alberto Caeiro would say:

Being ill I must think the
            contrary
Of what I think when I am well
(Otherwise I would not be ill.)

Caeiro can be a bit contrary when he’s not being repetitive, which goes to show how difficult it is to birth a fresh, new, entirely original voice. It’s not enough to simply state: “In my gaze everything is clear as a sunflower.” The most intriguing poem in The Keeper of Sheep is #8, about the Baby Jesus, who comes down to the poet in a dream “like a photograph” and becomes playmate and friend. Baby Jesus’s father was two people:

An old man called Joseph who was
            a carpenter.
And not his father;
And the other father was a stupid dove,
The only ugly dove in the world
Because it was neither of this world
           nor a dove.

This is headlong and delightful and of course Caeiro, contrary as he was, later denounced it.

It’s quite possible that Pessoa was just horsing around. He just didn’t like where Portuguese poetry was going—the mysticism and all. He wanted something more like Walt Whitman but much better, naturally, than Whitman, “more lyrical, intellectual and tender,” perhaps a bit “more aristocratic.” But in an appendix to The Book of Disquiet there is a fragment dated (questionably) 1929 in which Pessoa discusses collecting poems in a separate volume which would:
have a title indicating, more or less, that it contains detritus or is some kind of hiatus or something equally off-putting.

That book would, moreover, form part of a definitive collection of dross, a published warehouse of the unpublishable that can remain as a sad example. Rather like the unfinished poems of some lyric poet who died young or the letters of a great writer, except that the material contained in the book would be not just inferior, but different, and that difference would be the reason to publish it, since it would made no sense to publish what should not be published.

I recall reading that Pessoa believed he would die in 1937, for he meticulously did his own chart as well as that of many of the heteronyms. Regarding himself, he erred. The carriage had not come over the hill as a harbinger of his own artistic falter, but his physical descent as a drinker was assured by another drearier process. Pessoa, who T. S. Eliot noted had a “principled attachment to impersonality,” published little after the death of Caeiro, but he wrote for twenty more years, most of the product tossed in that trunk (or trunks) that resulted, through the splicing shaping efforts of others, though not his faithless heteronyms, in the splendidly gloomy Book of Disquiet.

The great modernists, ever relevant:

Freedom is the possibility of
           isolation
If you cannot live alone then
           you were born a slave.

            —Fernando Pessoa


Joy Williams is a novelist, short story writer, and essayist. Her most recent books are Ninety-Nine Stories of God and The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories.


Book notes
Wednesday saw a historic Congressional hearing that virtually assembled the mightiest of the tech giants—Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Sundar Pichai of Google, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook—for a House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee hearing, in the words of Chairman David Cicilline, to “document competition problems in the digital economy and evaluate whether the current antitrust framework is able to properly address them.” The hearing made for somewhat spooky tele-theater, each tycoon looming in the form of a carefully manicured Zoom phantom over a sparsely populated House chamber of socially distanced, masked Congressional staffers. Bezos was appearing before legislators for the first time.

Observers who had previously doubted legislators’ ability to grasp the fast-evolving challenges tech poses to regulation were startled by the sophistication of the questioning. Said David Dayen, author of the recent book Monopolized, they “were extremely well-prepped today and loaded for bear. This is an impressive hearing.” Antitrust specialist Sarah Miller tweeted, “This hearing has been one of the most remarkable things I’ve witnessed in politics. Members are deeply educated about complex issues of market structure and corporate behavior. And they are aggressively confronting four of the most powerful men in the world. More of this.”

Some of the salient issues drawn forward in the hearing, for those of us concerned with the effects of tech dominance on the life of ideas, were these. Each of the giants, in its own way, prowls through the vast reach of its platforms in search of ideas that they can see, from their privileged vantage within their data infrastructure, to be gaining traction, and coopts them. Amazon duplicates successful products it espies in its third-party markets and prioritizes their own knock-offs over the originals; Google swipes content from providers like Yelp and Genius; Apple sidelines promising apps and promotes in-house alternatives, as when it prevented Random House from marketing a reading app in the App Store even as it was strong-arming the publisher into joining iBooks; Facebook threatens potential rivals like Instagram and Snapchat with copycat products and, having cowed them into submission, buys them up. All four were challenged for being actors in the same markets they broker. They were charged with strangling the growth of other businesses with fees and witholding competitors’ access to their audiences.

Amazon’s chronic counterfeiting problem (see David Streitfeld for its manifestation in books, where we call it piracy), legislators argued, is a feature and not a bug, compelling providers to purchase expensive services in order to rise above the knock-offs in search. Jamie Raskin challenged Bezos to explain why he was using negotiations to display HBO Max in Fire devices to secure rights to HBO content. "Do you see that to observers that would look like a structural conflict of interest?" asked Raskin. "You're using your control over access to people's living rooms … to obtain leverage in terms of getting creative content." Jerrold Nadler said bluntly that “the reason that journalism is in freefall is that Google and Facebook now capture the vast majority of digital ad revenue,” “a very dangerous situation.” Pramila Jayapal asked Pichai to confirm by the numbers Google’s dominance of its ad exchange market.“ When any company controls the buy side and the sell side,” she argued, there lie “the reasons that insider trading is regulated.” Recognizing the giants’ dominion over the advertising market she reminded the CEOs, “Independent journalism is incredibly necessary for our democracy and we want to do what we can to protect it.” Nadler also challenged Zuckerberg about the financially disastrous “pivot to video” it had forced on publishers wishing to participate in its platform in 2015, resulting in mass layoffs and closures.

Ironically the very next day three of the four giants reported robust earnings, just as The New York Times went to press with a banner headline reading, Virus Wipes Out 5 Years of Economic Growth. Observers noted that the pandemic has been good for tech: forcing consumers online not only for shopping, work, and school, but even for company. (In a hilarious moment of the hearing Zuckerberg declared that Facebook’s competition pretty much included all human interaction, of which his platform controls only a small portion, compared to their 95 percent share of the social media market.) Nadler asked Cook about reports that Apple has been canvassing the App Store to monetize businesses forced online by the pandemic. Nadler asked Cook if learning tools are on Apple’s list to go after next, looking ahead to a long season of remote and hybrid education. Mary Gay Scanlon asked Bezos about reports that Amazon had included its own (non-essential) products the “essential items” to which it was obliged to confine shipping during the most stringent early days of the lockdown.

Most of the challenging questioning was coming from Democrats, but there was some bipartisan consensus that antitrust regulation is necessary for a healthy economy. Some conservative Congressmen focused on charges that the tech companies suppress conservative content; a charge at odds with cited figures about the platforms’ most popular posts. Indeed the tendency of the tech platforms’ algorithms to promote “divisive” content—as they by their nature prioritize “engagement” over truth or merit—was one of the charges brought against them; the most popular posts appear to come from the very outlets that the defenders of conservative opinion accused the tech CEOs of suppressing. In any case, political bias would be a less salient issue if the platforms had meaningful competition.

Concurrently, a month-long Facebook advertising “pause” that 1,100 companies joined to protest the platform’s failure to curtail hateful content drew to a close yesterday, with a few vowing to stay on. (The pause was echoed by a rare public protest by Facebook employees of the company’s inadequate commitment to racial justice, both on the platform and within their ranks.) Earlier this month Facebook released the results of an independent audit that embarassed the company by chastizing it for not doing enough to keep hate speech and misinformation from flourishing on the site. The civil rights groups that met with Facebook executives in response to the “pause” (boycott) did not come away convinced that the company’s commitment to change was more than cosmetic. Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League observed that only a boycott had persuaded executives even to take the issue seriously. Derrick Johnson of the N.A.A.C.P. told The New York Times that the meeting reprised the “same conversation from the past two years,” with solidarity expressed but “no actionable steps.” (Rashad Robinson, of Color of Change, gave the Times’s Charlie Warzel a revealing insider account of the meeting.) Zuckerberg told the antitrust committee that the company not going to change their policies to suit advertisers. Jayapal quoted a statement Zuckerberg made to employees earlier this month: “My guess is that all these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough.” Which is the problem in a nutshell.

For more on monopoly and antitrust see our review earlier this week by Sarah Chayes of Break ’Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money by Zephyr Teachout.

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Image: From an August 9, 2017 tweet of the cover of The Book of Disquiet: The Complete Edition from New Directions.