A Literature on the Brink of Dawn


Arts & Culture

Fernando Pessoa. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

One afternoon while browsing in the English bookstore, located midway between two of the offices where he worked for a few hours nearly every day, Fernando Pessoa spotted a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The scandal generated by its partial publication in The Little Review, between 1918 and 1920, may not have reached Pessoa’s attention, but by 1933 he knew all about its celebrity status as a banned book, judged obscene and still unavailable in the United Kingdom and the United States. The copy he saw—​and purchased—​was of the two-​volume Odyssey Edition, published in December 1932, in Germany. Both volumes have come down to us in pristine condition, without so much as a fleeting pencil mark. The only evidence that Pessoa actually read Ulysses, or enough of it to know that he wanted to read no more, is the laconic commentary he scribbled, in Portuguese, on a scrap of paper:

The art of James Joyce, like that of Mallarmé, is art preoccupied with method, with how it is made. Even the sensuality of Ulysses is a symptom of intermediation. It is oneiric delirium—​the kind treated by psychiatrists—​presented as an end in itself.

A literature on the brink of dawn.

Pessoa’s less than enthusiastic reaction to the book recalls Virginia Woolf’s comment in a diary entry written shortly after the complete novel was first published in Paris, in 1922: “When one can have cooked flesh, why have it raw?” It might also remind us of Edmund Wilson’s much more positive reaction in the book review he wrote for The New Republic: “Mr. Joyce manages to give the effect of unedited human minds, drifting aimlessly along from one triviality to another, confused and diverted by memory, by sensation and by inhibition. It is, in short, perhaps the most faithful X-​ray ever taken of the ordinary human consciousness.”

Woolf, who had a few other snide things to say about Ulysses, may have been rattled because Joyce had so brilliantly realized her own ambition, soon enough revealed in performances such as Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), her most stunning novel. Unlike either of these writers, Pessoa was not interested in representing human consciousness in literature; he wanted to analyze and, if possible, expand it. His Book of Disquiet often meditates on the nature and limits of consciousness, and on its relationship to the unconscious. Bernardo Soares repeatedly reminds his ideal reader that consciousness deceives us, by solipsistically taking itself to be the measure of reality. We are largely ruled, he insists, by unconscious instincts, and our life, as for any other animal, is contingent on the external dimension. For Pessoa there was also the reality, or the real possibility, of a spiritual dimension, with the whole of our human drama being a mere analogue of some other sort of life.

Joyce and Pessoa had an unusual trait in common: brontophobia. If a storm broke out while he and Nora were going somewhere by car, Joyce would immediately order the driver to turn around and take them home. Pessoa, on the other hand, did not feel safe from the convulsions of weather even when safely indoors. One afternoon he and the painter José de Almada Negreiros were calmly conversing at the Café Martinho da Arcada when a rainstorm hit. Almada Negreiros, assertive in his art and impetuous in his behavior, ran to the door so that he could revel at the sight of rain gushing down over Praça do Comércio as lightning crackled and thunder resounded. When he turned around to say something to Pessoa, he stopped midsentence, astonished to see nobody there. Looking more closely, he noticed a black shoe poking out from under their table, where his trembling friend had taken cover.

Joyce and Pessoa, who had both rejected Catholicism early on, still retained a feeling of awed humility vis-​à-​vis the vagaries of nature, and both were inclined to see mystical signs in life’s odd details, symbolic meanings in everyday coincidences. Joyce made use of this inclination in his writing, which is interwoven with signs and symbols, to convey the wondrousness of life and our perception of it. He read a number of books by mystics and Theosophists, and his own books, especially Ulysses, are seeded with allusions to the doctrines of Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and alchemy; yet he also ridiculed those who, like Yeats, put great store in the occult. Esoteric symbols and doctrines served Joyce, it seems, as metaphors for the hidden side of human consciousness and for the hard-​to-​decipher mysteries of life on Earth. He had no patience for the idea that this world is but a shadow of some other, more perfect place. Pessoa, on the contrary, used his writing to go in search of something before and beyond symbols, words, and the life we know.


Pessoa’s search for God was a search for language, and his search for language was a search for God. But he was not a linguistic innovator like James Joyce, who invented thousands of new words and even new forms of syntax for his most challenging work, Finnegans Wake (1939). Pessoa pushed gently against the boundaries of Portuguese and English, coining occasional neologisms and using words in new ways, but he made no attempt to reinvent language. He aspired, more simply, to use received vocabulary and grammar with precision, to make language stick close to the things it denotes. His linguistic project bears some resemblance to that of another contemporary, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Alberto Caeiro, in particular, sometimes sounds like the compulsive clarifier of Philosophical Investigations. In poem 45 of “The Keeper of Sheep,” for instance:

A row of trees in the distance, toward the slope … ​

But what is a row of trees? There are just trees.

“Row” and the plural “trees” are names, not things.

In another poem, Pessoa’s poet of nature reproaches Saint Francis of Assisi for the anthropomorphism that runs through his “Canticle of the Sun”:

Why call water my sister if water isn’t my sister?

To feel it better?

I feel it better by drinking it than by calling it something—​

Sister, or mother, or daughter.

For Pessoa-​Caeiro, words are properly used only when and to the exact extent they are necessary.

After Caeiro stopped poetizing, in 1930, Bernardo Soares continued his campaign on behalf of limpid and accurate, radiographic language, though with a rather different outcome. Caeiro had celebrated the outer world, all that is knowable through vision, hearing, and the other senses. He prided himself on being “superficial,” asserting that reality has no inner “depth” except in our confused thinking. Soares, while seeing everything with no less clarity, internalized the world and then—​in an instantaneous turnaround—​externalized his sensations of it. His world included dreamed and imagined things as well as things seen. Caeiro, standing to one side, had said: “Behold the world!” Soares used his science of language to become the world that he closely contemplated, transforming himself into the exquisitely composed passages that form The Book of Disquiet: “I am, in large measure, the selfsame prose I write. I unroll myself in sentences and paragraphs, I punctuate myself. […] I’ve made myself into the character of a book, a life one reads.”

It was a painful metamorphosis, achieved at the price of an uncompromising solitude. The assistant bookkeeper’s attempt to live a completely independent life, dedicated only to his sensations of what he saw, he felt, and he dreamed—​without concessions—​proved to be almost unbearable, though by no means unfruitful. “All this stupid insistence on being self-​sufficient! All this mocking awareness of pretended sensations! All this imbroglio of my soul with these sensations,” vents Soares in a moment of exasperation, linguistically molding yet more sensations into another scintillating passage of his sumptuous diary, left for whomever it might move, inspire, or at least amuse.

Lurking behind the relentlessly solitary Soares was the not-quite-as-solitary Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet tends to be distortedly autobiographical, but sometimes Pessoa and Soares perfectly coincide. Whether the experience described in a passage for the book written on September 8, 1933, happened in fact or only in Pessoa’s imagination makes little difference, but I will suppose it to have been factual.

Pessoa’s sister and her family were spending this summer, like the previous summer, at their house in São João do Estoril and would not return to Lisbon until October. Pessoa’s small bedroom, situated in the middle of the apartment on Rua Coelho da Rocha, was overrun by books and papers—​papers in his wooden trunk, and books as well as papers piled on the table, the dresser, and the nightstand next to his bed. When staying at the apartment by himself, he and his papers and books would spread into the dining room, covering almost every inch of the oval-​shaped table. Four or five ashtrays overflowed with cigarette butts. Here and there an empty glass still smelled of brandy. Late into the night, after he had finished writing and for as long as his insomnia kept him awake, Pessoa would either pace or sit still in the darkness, smoking. On such a night in September, looking out of a window onto the sleeping city, the poet sees—​or imagines Soares seeing—​a single lamp lighting up a high window in the distance. All the other windows are black rectangles. Without mitigating his solitude, that one light makes him feel at least tentatively pertinent:

An invisible thread links me to the unknown owner of the lamp. It’s not the mutual circumstance of our both being awake; in this there can be no reciprocity, for my window is dark, so that he cannot see me. It’s something else, something all my own that’s related to my feeling of isolation, that participates in the night and in the silence, and that chooses the lamp as an anchor because it’s the only anchor there is.

Pessoa, who had always cringed at the mere idea of belonging to a collective, any collective, configured in The Book of Disquiet an absurdly tenuous form of solidarity: isolated individuals who, enveloped by silence and mystery or perhaps mere nothingness, realize that there are others immersed in that same mystery or nothingness. He had reached a point in his life in which he identified with a “community.” It consisted of the world’s solitary, ill-​adapted, and invisible people.


Richard Zenith is an acclaimed translator and literary critic. His translations include Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet and Fernando Pessoa and Co.: Selected Poems, which won the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. The recipient of Portugal’s Pessoa Prize, Zenith lives in Lisbon, Portugal.

Reprinted from Pessoa: A Biography. Copyright © 2021 by Richard Zenith. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.