The original title Fernando Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet”, the title in Portuguese is “Livro do Desassossego.”
The word “desassossego” and its English counterpart, “disquiet,” share common ground in expressing a sense of inner turmoil and restlessness. Both encapsulate that profound unease or dis-ease of human-animal consciousness that those of us who love Pessoa’s sensibility also find ourselves gravitating towards.
“Disquiet” in English carries a somewhat abstract and intellectual connotation, denoting a mental disturbance, often arising from external factors which we feel worried or troubled by, while “desassossego” leans toward a more soul-searching existential angst, rooted in the human condition itself, a profound disorientation in the face of life’s uncertainties and complexities.
It also conveys a deep melancholy, a feeling of sadness and world-weariness. Not just flibbertigibbet restlessness but a sort of bummed out agitation, where one is acutely aware of the impermanence and fragility of life, as well as harbouring an ongoing dissatisfaction with the status quo, a longing for something more, or different. The word thus suggests that the person experiencing “desassossego” is not at ease with the way things are and is searching, albeit fruitlessly, for something elusive, maybe even quasi-salvational.
More than disquiet, desassossego is perhaps better related to another untranslateable Portuguese term: saudade.
Have a listen to that classic Tom Jobim/Vinicius Moraes song “Chega de Saudade”, written a couple of decades after Pessoa’s death in 1935, although not able to be in dialogue with Pessoa’s book until 1982, the year in which it was first published in Portugal. Even so, this is a song that might have been written by Pessoa himself, and certainly has the feel of some of his poetry, which was around at the time that Moraes and Jobim were collaborating on this bossa nova classic, even if they were not directly influenced by Pessoa’s poetic oeuvre.
The title roughly translates as Chega (Enough) de (of) Saudade (longing, yearning, nostalgia). Here’s the first verse penned by the little poet (o poetinho) as he was fondly known, Vinicius Moraes:
Vai minha tristeza e diz a ela que sem ela não pode ser
Go, my sorrow, and tell her that without her I cannot be
Que ela regresse, porque eu não posso mais sofrer
Tell her in a whispered prayer
Implore that she come back, as I can bear this pain no longer
Chega de saudade
Enough of this longing and pining
A realidade é que sem ela não há paz, não há beleza
The truth is that without her there is no peace or beauty
É só tristeza e a melancolia
Only sorrow and melancholy
Que não sai de mim, não sai de mim, não sai…
Which won’t leave me be, won’t leave me be, won’t leave…
Saudade and desassossego both grapple with absence – saudade mourns the external loss of a person, place or time through melancholic nostalgia, while desassossego conveys an inner turmoil from a lack existential meaning or direction. Where saudade romanticizes the past, desassossego unsettles the present by exposing us to that elusive human search for identity and purpose.
Pessoa’s desassossego is triggered, we might say by another key word in the text tedio (or tedium) which is something he refers to 131 times in these fragments that make up the book we have now.
One of the “cures” for tedium, other than writing, was smoking (accounts from those who knew him confirm that Pessoa smoked up to 100 cigarettes a day), as well as coffee and alcohol – drunk almost continuously in order to state-shift, self-regulate and self-medicate.
Here’s how Zenith describes Pessoa’s drinking in the 2021 biography:
“Pessoa was a slow but steady, discreet imbiber, a fully functional alcoholic. Wine and brandy altered neither his behavior nor his tone of voice.”
Whilst working as a clerk at Moitinho de Almeida, Ltd., an import-export firm, conveniently located between his favorite café, Martinho da Arcada, and an outlet of Abel Pereira da Fonseca, a distributor of wines and spirits, which could be consumed by the glass at the counter, several times in the course of an afternoon, Pessoa would stand up from his typewriter, straighten his jacket and his glasses, put on his hat, and announce to everyone in the office, “I’m off to Abel’s,” where he would treat himself to a glass of red wine or brandy.
One day he made so many trips to Abel’s, Zenith relates, that the boss’s son, a high school student who was to be found at the office during school holidays, commented: “You can hold it like a sponge, can’t you!”
“Like a sponge?” Pessoa countered. “Like a store full of sponges, with an adjacent warehouse.”
In the spring of 1935 he wrote a poem in English about a fit of delirium tremens he had been experiencing, in which the second stanza reads:
When the pink alligator
And the tiger without a head
Begin to take stature
And demand to be fed,
As I have no shoes
Fit to kill those,
I think I’ll start thinking:
Should I stop drinking?
Pessoa’s personal physician, his cousin Jaime de Andrade Neves, warned him that delirium tremens was the body’s way of saying “No more, or else!” Fernando lived just a few blocks away from Jaime and occasionally had lunch with him and his family on the weekend. “You’re destroying your liver,” his cousin would repeatedly warn him, but he paid no heed to these exhortations. Pessoa, Zenith writes, “pretended to listen with attention, as if he might make an effort to drink less, but rationalised his struggles with alcohol as being part of fate’s instrument. If he would die from it, that was presumably what fate had in store for him, and there was nothing he could do to change that.”
The public records office lists “intestinal obstruction” as the immediate cause of Pessoa’s death at the age of 47 towards the end of 1935. Another possibility is acute pancreatitis, resulting from his lifelong consumption of alcohol.
Pessoa may also have been addicted to desassossego itself – not merely as a state of mind, but as an integral part of his personality. As an Enneagram Four, the Romantic Individualist, Pessoa was forever probing the murky depths of his own inner disquiet as both a quest for authentic being as well as a means of transcending the perceived emptiness and meaninglessness of his life, or modern life in general.
And this is why, I think, those of us who feel a strong identification or soul-connection with Pessoa, perhaps need to hang out and get to know each other a bit more. There is a line in Cyril Connolly’s wonderful commonplace book The Unquiet Grave where he talks about “the intense emotion, a mixture of relief and despair, at reading Sainte-Beuve’s notebook Mes Poisons, and discovering ‘This is me.’”
Any fan of Pessoa has had this experience to some extent with The Book of Disquiet. I know I have. Which was I think my initial impetus for doing a sort of cover-version reading of the book and calling it Living The Book of Disquiet. The plan was to read aloud a chapter every night or so, but my own tussles with tedium, and the substance that I use to combat this it in the evenings -cannabis, and sometimes alcohol- have scuppered my plans of late.
As I write this though, I’m on a month-long substance break, working on Season Two of my podcast “Cannabis Koan”, which feels quite Pessoan in its frameworks and focus. This project has also given me a renewed motivation to keep on engaging with Pessoa, and also with the idea that alcohol serves as a kind of liquid heteronym in these pages—a cipher for the torment of his serotonin-deficient spirit and the longing for escape that stems from this. Also for the “high” that follows these lows, and those even greater lows that see-saw out from this vicious cycle. While not overtly mentioned in the pages of The Book of Disquiet, alcohol, as it was in Pessoa’s life, acts as a kind of stand-in for his and our tangled web of distractions, palliatives, and ultimately dissociative mechanisms that we use to cope with the absurdity of our own late-capitalist, atomized, disjointed, dissociated, and largely disenchanted lives.
Writing itself for Pessoa becomes a form of intoxication, as it is for me—an exercise in distancing oneself from reality. For Soares, for Pessoa, for many of us, the process of putting pen to paper is a way to detach, to create a realm that we can somewhat control and manipulate, unlike the exterior world which can often be overwhelming and disorienting.
Viewed through an existential lens, the consumption of alcohol and the kinds of navel-gazing that Pessoa is fond of could be seen as an attempt to deal with that category of existence that Camus calls “the absurd.” This absurdity arises in part from the conflict between our desire for order and meaning, which brushes painfully up against the entropy of reality, in that Lacanian sense of the chaotic Real with a capital R that lies outside language and meaning.
This conflict inevitably produces friction as our flimsy, ephemeral words attempt to find purchase in a vastly chaotic, entropic universe indifferent to human meaning. In the absence of higher meaning, don’t we all in some way turn to our small indulgences, whatever those are (podcasting, tweeting, or posting on other social forums) so as to make our condition, whether acknowledged or not, a little more bearable, even if we know that this offers no ultimate solution.
When one makes the decision to quit one’s existential palliative or crutch, no matter what they are (coffee, sugar, alcohol), the full force of all the tedium we have been trying not to look at resurfaces and forces us to stare deep into the maw of our existential tedium once more. Here are a few quotes from the book that capture the essence of tedium for me:
“I’m writing this under the weight of a tedium that doesn’t seem to fit inside me, or that needs more room than is in my soul; a tedium of all people and all things that strangle and derange me; a physical feeling of being completely misunderstood that unnerves and overwhelms me. But I lift up my head to the blue sky that doesn’t know me, I let my face feel the unconsciously cool breeze, I close my eyelids after having looked, and I forget my face after having felt. This doesn’t make me feel better, but it makes me different. Seeing myself frees me from myself. I almost smile, not because I understand myself but because, having become another, I’ve stopped being able to understand myself. High in the sky, like a visible nothingness, floats a tiny white cloud left behind by the universe.”
“Tedium… Perhaps, deep down, it is the soul’s dissatisfaction because we didn’t give it a belief, the disappointment of the sad child (who we are on the inside) because we didn’t buy it the divine toy. Perhaps it is the insecurity of one who needs a guiding hand and who doesn’t feel, on the black path of profound sensation, anything more than the soundless night of not being able to think, the empty road of not being able to feel…”
“Tedium is the physical sensation of chaos, a chaos that is everything. The bored, the uncomfortable and the weary feel like prisoners in a narrow cell. Those who abhor the narrowness of life itself feel shackled inside a large cell. But those who suffer tedium feel imprisoned in the worthless freedom of an infinite cell. The walls of the narrow cell may collapse and bury those who are bored, uncomfortable or tired. The shackles may fall and allow the person who abhors life’s puniness to escape, or they may cause they pain as they struggle in vain to remove themselves and, through the feeling of that pain, revive without their old abhorrence. But the walls of the infinite cell cannot crumble and bury us, because they don’t exist; nor can we be revived by the pain of shackles no one has put on us.”
You’ve probably heard of that famous experiment in the 60s carried out by Ferster and Schoenfeld at Columbia University, which revealed the extreme lengths to which we will go to escape acute tedium. When left alone in a room with no stimuli, participants in the study chose repeated electric shocks over sitting with their boredom or disquiet, perhaps demonstrating that tedium’s discomforts can become so unbearable that even acute, self-harming pain is preferable to it. One man shocked himself 190 times in a single hour rather than be present to the crushing weight of tedijm when devoid of distractions.
For me, other than yoga, wim hof breathing, writing, reading, cold showers, and giving my all to serving my patients/clients/fellow travelers as best I can, I have no plans this month to resort to that kind of self-harm. But I thought this might be an opportunity to finally live the title of this podcast – to engage with The Book of Disquiet not just as a reading exercise, but as something more therapeutic and phenomenological.
When feeling the tedium of the next thirty substance-free evenings, as I no doubt will, I might also sit and read a passage aloud and record it, perhaps reflecting on it briefly to grant my mind some guiltless addictive pleasure (since thinking itself is an addiction we all share). I invite you to do the same. There are 481 fragments in the Zenith translation—more than enough to share if we read one or two per episode going forward.
If you’d like to join in, feel free to record yourself reading the next fragment in the sequence from the Zenith translation and send it to me as a voice note on WhatsApp (+447804197605). I welcome your company on this journey—so do send me your recordings and let us walk together through these pages of disquiet. If you’d like to, you can also share a few words about any disquiet, tedium, or yearning you’re experiencing righ now. Just let me know if you’re comfortable with me including your reflections alongside your reading. Otherwise, I’ll keep our correspondence private.
Until then, ciao fellow ponderers, wanderers, and explorers – all of us traversing these winding trails in thoughtful fellowship.