I was born in a time when the majority of young people had lost faith in God, for the same reason their elders had had it – without knowing why. And since the human spirit naturally tends to make judgements based on feeling instead of reason, most of these young people chose Humanity to replace God. I, however, am the sort of person who is always on the fringe of what he belongs to, seeing not only the multitude he’s a part of but also the wide-open spaces around it. That’s why I didn’t give up God as completely as they did, and I never accepted Humanity. I reasoned that God, while improbable, might exist, in which case he should be worshipped; whereas Humanity, being a mere biological idea and signifying nothing more than the animal species we belong to, was no more deserving of worship than any other animal species. The cult of Humanity, with its rites of Freedom and Equality, always struck me as a revival of those ancient cults in which gods were like animals or had animal heads.
And so, not knowing how to believe in God and unable to believe in an aggregate of animals, I, along with other people on the fringe, kept a distance from things, a distance commonly called Decadence. Decadence is the total loss of unconsciousness, which is the very basis of life. Could it think, the heart would stop beating.
For those few like me who live without knowing how to have life, what’s left but renunciation as our way and contemplation as our destiny? Not knowing nor able to know what religious life is, since faith isn’t acquired through reason, and unable to have faith in or even react to the abstract notion of man, we’re left with the aesthetic contemplation of life as our reason for having a soul. Impassive to the solemnity of any and all worlds, indifferent to the divine, and disdainers of what is human, we uselessly surrender ourselves to pointless sensation, cultivated in a refined Epicureanism, as befits our cerebral nerves.
Retaining from science only its fundamental precept – that everything is subject to fatal laws, which we cannot freely react to since the laws themselves determine all reactions – and seeing how this precept concurs with the more ancient one of the divine fatality of things, we abdicate from every effort like the weak-bodied from athletic endeavours, and we hunch over the book of sensations like scrupulous scholars of feeling.
Taking nothing seriously and recognizing our sensations as the only reality we have for certain, we take refuge there, exploring them like large unknown countries. And if we apply ourselves diligently not only to aesthetic contemplation but also to the expression of its methods and results, it’s because the poetry or prose we write – devoid of any desire to move anyone else’s will or to mould anyone’s understanding – is merely like when a reader reads out loud to fully objectify the subjective pleasure of reading.
We’re well aware that every creative work is imperfect and that our most dubious aesthetic contemplation will be the one whose object is what we write. But everything is imperfect. There’s no sunset so lovely it couldn’t be yet lovelier, no gentle breeze bringing us sleep that couldn’t bring a yet sounder sleep. And so, contemplators of statues and mountains alike, enjoying both books and the passing days, and dreaming all things so as to transform them into our own substance, we will also write down descriptions and analyses which, when they’re finished, will become extraneous things that we can enjoy as if they happened along one day.
This isn’t the viewpoint of pessimists like Vigny,* for whom life was a prison in which he wove straw to keep busy and forget. To be a pessimist is to see everything tragically, an attitude that’s both excessive and uncomfortable. While it’s true that we ascribe no value to the work we produce and that we produce it to keep busy, we’re not like the prisoner who busily weaves straw to forget about his fate; we’re like the girl who embroiders pillows for no other reason than to keep busy.
I see life as a roadside inn where I have to stay until the coach from the abyss pulls up. I don’t know where it will take me, because I don’t know anything. I could see this inn as a prison, for I’m compelled to wait in it; I could see it as a social centre, for it’s here that I meet others. But I’m neither impatient nor common. I leave who will to stay shut up in their rooms, sprawled out on beds where they sleeplessly wait, and I leave who will to chat in the parlours, from where their songs and voices conveniently drift out here to me. I’m sitting at the door, feasting my eyes and ears on the colours and sounds of the landscape, and I softly sing – for myself alone – wispy songs I compose while waiting.
Night will fall on us all and the coach will pull up. I enjoy the breeze I’m given and the soul I was given to enjoy it with, and I no longer question or seek. If what I write in the book of travellers can, when read by others at some future date, also entertain them on their journey, then fine. If they don’t read it, or are not entertained, that’s fine too.
I have to choose what I detest – either dreaming, which my intelligence hates, or action, which my sensibility loathes; either action, for which I wasn’t born, or dreaming, for which no one was born.
Detesting both, I choose neither; but since I must on occasion either dream or act, I mix the two things together.
I love the stillness of early summer evenings downtown, and especially the stillness made more still by contrast, on the streets that seethe with activity by day. Rua do Arsenal, Rua da Alfândega, the sad streets extending eastward from where the Rua da Alfândega ends, the entire stretch along the quiet docks – all of this comforts me with sadness when on these evenings I enter the solitude of their ensemble. I slip into an era prior to the one I’m living in; I enjoy feeling that I’m a contemporary of Cesário Verde,* and that in me I have, not verses like his, but the identical substance of the verses that were his.
Walking on these streets, until the night falls, my life feels to me like the life they have. By day they’re full of meaningless activity; by night they’re full of a meaningless lack of it. By day I am nothing, and by night I am I. There is no difference between me and these streets, save they being streets and I a soul, which perhaps is irrelevant when we consider the essence of things. There is an equal, abstract destiny for men and for things; both have an equally indifferent designation in the algebra of the world’s mystery.
But there’s something else… In these languid and empty hours, a sadness felt by my entire being rises from my soul to my mind – a bitter awareness that everything is a sensation of mine and at the same time something external, something not in my power to change. Ah, how often my own dreams have raised up before me as things, not to replace reality but to declare themselves its equals, in so far as I scorn them and they exist apart from me, like the tram now turning the corner at the end of the street, or like the voice of an evening crier, crying I don’t know what but with a sound that stands out – an Arabian chant like the sudden patter of a fountain – against the monotony of twilight!
Future married couples pass by, chatting seamstresses pass by, young men in a hurry for pleasure pass by, those who have retired from everything smoke on their habitual stroll, and at one or another doorway a shopkeeper stands like an idle vagabond, hardly noticing a thing. Army recruits – some of them brawny, others slight – slowly drift along in noisy and worse-than-noisy clusters. Occasionally someone quite ordinary goes by. Cars at that time of day are rare, and their noise is musical. In my heart there’s a peaceful anguish, and my calm is made of resignation.
All of this passes, and none of it means anything to me. It’s all foreign to my fate, and even to fate as a whole. It’s just unconsciousness, curses of protest when chance hurls stones, echoes of unknown voices – a collective mishmash of life.
… and from the majestic heights of my dreams, I return to being an assistant bookkeeper in the city of Lisbon.
But the contrast doesn’t overwhelm me, it frees me. And its irony is my blood. What should theoretically humiliate me is what I unfurl as my flag; and the laughter I should be using to laugh at myself is a bugle I blow to herald – and to create – a dawn into which I’m transformed.
The nocturnal glory of being great without being anything! The sombre majesty of splendours no one knows… And I suddenly experience the sublime feeling of a monk in the wilderness or of a hermit in his retreat, acquainted with the substance of Christ in the sands and in the caves of withdrawal from the world.
And at this table in my absurd room, I, a pathetic and anonymous office clerk, write words as if they were the soul’s salvation, and I gild myself with the impossible sunset of high and vast hills in the distance, with the statue I received in exchange for life’s pleasures, and with the ring of renunciation on my evangelical finger, the stagnant jewel of my ecstatic disdain.
I have before me, on the slanted surface of the old desk, the two large pages of the ledger, from which I lift my tired eyes and an even more tired soul. Beyond the nothing that this represents, there’s the warehouse with its uniform rows of shelves, uniform employees, human order, and tranquil banality – all the way to the wall that fronts the Rua dos Douradores. Through the window the sound of another reality arrives, and the sound is banal, like the tranquillity around the shelves.
I lower new eyes to the two white pages, on which my careful numbers have entered the firm’s results. And smiling to myself I remember that life, which contains these pages with fabric types, prices and sales, blank spaces, letters and ruled lines, also includes the great navigators, the great saints, and the poets of every age, not one of whom enters the books – a vast progeny banished from those who determine the world’s worth.
In the very act of entering the name of an unfamiliar cloth, the doors of the Indus and of Samarkand open up, and Persian poetry (which is from yet another place), with its quatrains whose third lines don’t rhyme, is a distant anchor for me in my disquiet. But I make no mistake: I write, I add, and the bookkeeping goes on, performed as usual by an employee of this office.
I asked for very little from life, and even this little was denied me. A nearby field, a ray of sunlight, a little bit of calm along with a bit of bread, not to feel oppressed by the knowledge that I exist, not to demand anything from others, and not to have others demand anything from me – this was denied me, like the spare change we might deny a beggar not because we’re mean-hearted but because we don’t feel like unbuttoning our coat.
Sadly I write in my quiet room, alone as I have always been, alone as I will always be. And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes. In these moments my heart beats faster because I’m conscious of it. I live more because I live on high. I feel a religious force within me, a species of prayer, a kind of public outcry. But my mind quickly puts me in my place… I remember that I’m on the fourth floor of the Rua dos Douradores, and I take a drowsy look at myself. I glance up from this half-written page at life, futile and without beauty, and at the cheap cigarette I’m about to extinguish in the ashtray beyond the fraying blotter. Me in this fourth-floor room, interrogating life!, saying what souls feel!, writing prose like a genius or a famous author! Me, here, a genius!…
Today, in one of the pointless and worthless daydreams that constitute a large part of my inner life, I imagined being forever free from the Rua dos Douradores, from Vasques my boss, from Moreira the head bookkeeper, from all the employees, from the delivery boy, the office boy and the cat. In my dream I experienced freedom, as if the South Seas had offered me marvellous islands to be discovered. It would all be repose, artistic achievement, the intellectual fulfilment of my being.
But even as I was imagining this, during my miniature midday holiday in a café, an unpleasant thought assaulted my dream: I realized I would feel regret. Yes, I say it as if confronted by the actual circumstance: I would feel regret. Vasques my boss, Moreira the head bookkeeper, Borges the cashier, all the young men, the cheerful boy who takes letters to the post office, the boy who makes deliveries, the gentle cat – all this has become part of my life. And I wouldn’t be able to leave it without crying, without feeling that – like it or not – it was a part of me which would remain with all of them, and that to separate myself from them would be a partial death.
Besides, if tomorrow I were to bid them all farewell and take off my Rua dos Douradores suit, what other activity would I end up doing (for I would have to do something), or what other suit would I end up wearing (for I would have to wear some other suit)?
We all have a Vasques who’s the boss – visible for some of us, invisible for others. My Vasques goes by that very name, and he’s a hale and pleasant man, occasionally short-tempered but never two-faced, self-interested but basically fair, with a sense of justice that’s lacking in many great geniuses and human marvels of civilization, right and left. Other people answer to vanity, or to the lure of wealth, glory, immortality. For my boss I prefer the man named Vasques, who in difficult moments is easier to deal with than all the abstract bosses in the world.
Deeming that I earn too little, a friend of mine who’s a partner in a successful firm that does a lot of business with the government said the other day: ‘You’re being exploited, Soares.’ And I remembered that indeed I am. But since in life we must all be exploited, I wonder if it’s any worse to be exploited by Vasques and his fabrics than by vanity, by glory, by resentment, by envy or by the impossible.
Some are exploited by God himself, and they are prophets and saints in this vacuous world.
And in the same way that others return to their homes, I retreat to my non-home: the large office on the Rua dos Douradores. I arrive at my desk as at a bulwark against life. I have a tender spot – tender to the point of tears – for my ledgers in which I keep other people’s accounts, for the old inkstand I use, for the hunched back of Sérgio, who draws up invoices a little beyond where I sit. I love all this, perhaps because I have nothing else to love, and perhaps also because nothing is worth a human soul’s love, and so it’s all the same – should we feel the urge to give it – whether the recipient be the diminutive form of my inkstand or the vast indifference of the stars.
Vasques – the boss. At times I’m inexplicably hypnotized by Senhor Vasques. What is this man to me besides an occasional obstacle, as the owner of my time, in the daylight hours of my life? He treats me well and is polite when he talks to me, except on his grumpy days, when he’s fretting about something and isn’t polite to anyone. But why does he occupy my thoughts? Is he a symbol? A cause? What is he?
Vasques – the boss. I already remember him in the future with the nostalgia I know I’m bound to feel. I’ll be peacefully ensconced in a small house on the outskirts of somewhere or other, enjoying a tranquillity in which I won’t write the works I don’t write now, and to keep on not writing them I’ll come up with even better excuses than the ones I use today to elude myself. Or I’ll be in an institution for paupers, happy in my utter defeat, mixed up with the rabble of would-be geniuses who were no more than beggars with dreams, thrown in with the anonymous throng of those who didn’t have strength enough to conquer nor renunciation enough to conquer by not competing. Wherever I may be, I’ll miss Senhor Vasques and the office on the Rua dos Douradores, and the monotony of my daily life will be like the remembrance of the loves that never came my way and the triumphs that weren’t to be mine.
Vasques – the boss. I see him today from that future as I see him today from right here: medium height, stocky, a bit coarse but affectionate, frank and savvy, brusque and affable, a boss not only in his handling of money but also in his unhurried hands, in their thick hair and veins that look like small coloured muscles, in his full but not fat neck, and in his ruddy and taut cheeks with their dark, always close-shaven whiskers. I see him, I see his energetically deliberate gestures, his eyes thinking within about things outside. It displeases me when I’ve somehow displeased him, and my soul rejoices when he smiles, with his broad and human smile, like an applauding crowd.
Perhaps the lack of some more distinguished figure in my immediate world explains why Senor Vasques, a common and even brutish man, sometimes gets so enmeshed in my thoughts that I forget myself. I believe there’s a symbol here. I believe or almost believe that somewhere, in a remote life, this man was something much more important to me than he is today.
Ah, I understand! Vasques my boss is Life – monotonous and necessary, imperious and inscrutable Life. This banal man represents the banality of Life. For me he is everything, externally speaking, because for me Life is whatever is external.
And if the office on the Rua dos Douradores represents life for me, the fourth-floor room* where I live, on this same Rua dos Douradores, represents Art for me. Yes, Art, residing on the very same street as Life, but in a different place. Art, which gives me relief from life without relieving me of living, being as monotonous as life itself, only in a different place. Yes, for me the Rua dos Douradores contains the meaning of everything and the answer to all riddles, except for the riddle of why riddles exist, which can never be answered.
Futile and sensitive, I’m capable of violent and consuming impulses – both good and bad, noble and vile – but never of a sentiment that endures, never of an emotion that continues, entering into the substance of my soul. Everything in me tends to go on to become something else. My soul is impatient with itself, as with a bothersome child; its restlessness keeps growing and is forever the same. Everything interests me, but nothing holds me. I attend to everything, dreaming all the while. I note the slightest facial movements of the person I’m talking with, I record the subtlest inflections of his utterances; but I hear without listening, I’m thinking of something else, and what I least catch in the conversation is the sense of what was said, by me or by him. And so I often repeat to someone what I’ve already repeated, or ask him again what he’s already answered. But I’m able to describe, in four photographic words, the facial muscles he used to say what I don’t recall, or the way he listened with his eyes to the words I don’t remember telling him. I’m two, and both keep their distance – Siamese twins that aren’t attached.
We never know self-realization.
We are two abysses – a well staring at the sky.
SUMMARY AND QUESTION:
Fragment 1: Pessoa feels like an outsider, finding comfort in examining his feelings.
* In what way do you experience yourself as “being on the fringe” of things? Is that a torment for you, or a pleasure, or both?
* Do you consider yourself to be “a scholar of feelings”? In what way do you undertake this scholarship?
Fragment 2: Pessoa lacks faith in both God and humanity.
* What do you believe in?
Fragment 3: Contemplating aesthetics consoles Pessoa against life’s monotony.
* In what way does the aesthetic contemplation of life, as it is described here, bring you solace and consolation?
Fragment 4: Pessoa sees his life as an inn where he waits for death.
* What kind of “roadside inn” is your life at the moment?
Fragment 5: Pessoa’s life is out of balance, focused on dreaming over action.
* What is the ratio of action versus dreaming in your life? Are you happy with that balance (or imbalance)?
Fragment 6: A profound sadness often arises in Pessoa, overwhelming his senses.
* At what point in your day do you experience “a sadness, felt by your entire being, rising from soul to mind”? How do you manage this sadness?
Fragment 7: Pessoa pursues subjective, aesthetic salvation to cope with reality.
* How do you cultivate your own “salvation” and “renunciation”? What do these two words mean for you?
Fragment 8: Literature and imagination anchor Pessoa amidst anxiety.
* What sort of things “anchor” you in your disquiet?
Fragment 9: Pessoa has grand hopes and dreams but feels fated to mundane reality.
* What are your most “useless dreams” and “hopeless hopes”? What is your best and worst response to living with these?
Fragment 10: Pessoa fantasizes about escaping his drab routine for a more colourful life.
* If you were to take off your current “suit“ of life, what other costumes would you like to wear? And how would you find or manifest these in a real way?
Fragment 11: Pessoa feels exploited by and exploits the world to survive.
* In what ways do you feel exploited in your life? And how are you aware of consciously exploiting others/the natural world?