The Book of Disquiet
by Fernando Pessoa
First Published in Portugal in 1998
Translated by Richard Zenith
509 Pages long
Grade : A+
Here’s a Borgesian analogy: In order to make a perfect map, the map has to be as big as the landscape it depicts. Therefore, the map of the earth, if it is to be good, will be as large as the earth itself. Similarly, in order to write a good summary of Pessoa’s book The Book of Disquiet, your summary has to be as long as the book itself. This novel, or what the author calls “factless autobiography,” is singular kind of a book of which there can be no imitation or simulation whatsoever by another author.
Fist of all, it is a fiction, but Pessoa first created a fictional author who would be writing this fiction. In fact, Fernando Pessoa is known for multiple heteronyms; these heteronyms are not merely “false names but belonged to invented others, to fictional writers with points of view and literary styles that were different from Pessoa’s.” All the people embodying the heteronyms invented by Pessoa, they are “Pessoa, or parts of Pessoa, who made himself into nothing so that he could become everything, and everyone. Pessoa was the first one to forget Pessoa.” For this book, he created a man named Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper in the city of Lisbon.
Here’s another interesting fact: This book was discovered 47 years after Pessoa’s death. Found in a box, literary scholars discovered tens of thousands of pages that Pessoa had written nearly half a century ago. They edited and compiled these pages, and out came into existence this book called The Book of Disquiet.
Like I said in the first paragraph, it’s impossible to say what this book is about, except to argue that it truly is a highest literary achievement. A person may read a book in a day, or in a month. This is the book that you read throughout your life; first of all, it has no plot-line, everything is a fragment. For me, I started this book last September and finished it in March the year after. The book seeped into me; it was more than fascination that enveloped me, it was a feeling that I was finding another world within this real world. But I resisted from reading it continuously because I somehow knew this book was different, I felt this book was different; I knew I should read it differently. I know that when I read this again five years later, it will be like reading a different book. The text transforms itself non-stop.
This is what has been said about this book in the introduction by the translator Richard Zenith. “What we have here isn’t a book but its subversion and negation.” Also, “What we have in these pages is an anti-literature, a kind of primitive, verbal CAT scan of one man’s anguished soul.” Zenith also mentions that “the more he (Pessoa) prepared it, the more unfinished it became. Unfinished and unfinishable.”
This book is a confession by a man who delves into the deepest valley of human soul and peeks into the abyss, by a man whose dream becomes so real that it overtakes the reality. The nihilism depicted in the book is so intense as to make Nietzsche looks like an optimistic child. However, we readers find ourselves accepting his outpouring of words because of the sheer beauty of his language. “In these random impressions, and with no desire to be other than random, I differently narrate my factless autobiography, my lifeless history. These are my Confessions, and if in them I say nothing, it’s because I have nothing to say.”
If there is a theme, then it is this: “The only way to survive in this world is by keeping alive our dream, without ever fulfilling it, since the fulfillment never measures up to what we imagine.”
As I said earlier, it’s impossible to summarize this book, and any attempt to describe the feeling evoked from reading this book will undermine it, so I’ll just directly quote some of the passages. Long passages actually. Just read this book. Don’t worry about finishing it because this is the book you spend your life reading it.
I’ll begin with the very first paragraph of the book.
“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 judgments 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 improbably, 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.” – Text #1 –
“The dreamers of ideals – socialists, altruists, and humanitarians of whatever ilk – make me physically sick to my stomach. They’re idealists with no ideal, thinkers with no thought. They’re enchanted by life’s surface because their destiny is to love rubbish, which floats on the water and they think it’s beautiful, because scattered shells float on the water too.” – Text #399 –
“I’ve seen everything, even what I’ve never seen nor will ever see. Even the memory of future landscapes flows in my blood, and my anxiety over what I’ll have to see again is already monotonous to me.” – Text #397
“This is my morality, or metaphysics, or me: passer-by of everything, even of my soul, I belong to nothing, I desire nothing, I am nothing – just an abstract centre of impersonal sensations, a fallen sentient mirror reflecting the world’s diversity. I don’t know if I’m happy this way. Nor do I care.”
“Life would be unbearable if we were conscious of it. Fortunately we’re not. We live as unconsciously, as uselessly and as pointlessly as animals, and if we anticipate death, which presumably (though not assuredly) they don’t, we anticipate it through so many distractions, diversions and ways of forgetting that we can hardly say we think about it.
That’s how we live, and it’s a flimsy basis for considering ourselves superior to animals. We are distinguished from them by the purely external detail of speaking and writing, by an abstract intelligence that distracts us from concrete intelligence, and by our ability to imagine impossible things. All this, however, is incidental to our organic essence. Speaking and writing have no effect on our primordial urge to live, without knowing how or why. Our abstract intelligence serves only to elaborate systems, or ideas that are quasi-systems, which in animals corresponds to lying in the sun. And to imagine the impossible may not be exclusive to us; I’ve seen cats look at the moon, and it may well be that they were longing to have it.
All the world, all life, is a vast system of unconscious agents operating through individual consciousness. Like two gases that form a liquid when an electric current passes through them, so two consciousnesses – that of our concrete being and that of our abstract being – form a superior unconsciousness when life and the world pass through them.” – Text #405 –