Prose from Poetry Magazine

From a Notebook that Never Was

The ridiculous, work, and dedication.

by Fernando Pessoa

Asterisks separate the short, autonomous prose pieces that follow. None was written in a notebook (see the longer note at the end for information on the author’s real notebooks). Some of the original manuscripts contain alternate words or phrases between the lines or in the margins; I have used the word or phrase I find most appealing for the translation. Lacunae and unfinished sentences—frequent in Pessoa’s posthumously revealed work—are indicated by six dots: “. . . . . .”.—RZ


I always acted on the inside . . . I never touched life . . . Whenever I began to trace an action, I finished it in my dreams, heroically . . . A sword weighs more than the idea of a sword . . . I commanded large armies, won great battles, savored huge defeats—all inside me . . . I enjoyed strolling alone through green parks and down wide corridors, issuing commands to the trees and challenges to the hanging portraits . . . In the wide and dusky corridor that’s at the back of the palace I often strolled with my fiancée . . . I never had a real fiancée . . . I never knew how to love . . . I only knew how to dream of loving . . . If I liked to wear ladies’ rings on my fingers, it’s because I sometimes supposed that my hands belonged to a princess and that I, at least in the motions of my hands, was the woman I loved . . . One day I was found dressed up as a queen . . . I was dreaming I was my royal wife . . . I liked to see my face reflected, for I could dream it was someone else’s face—namely that of my beloved, since the reflection I saw denoted feminine features . . . How often my lips touched my lips in a mirror! . . . How often I clasped one of my hands with the other, or fondled my hair with my hand I’d become strange to, as if it were her hand touching me. It isn’t me who’s telling you this . . . Who’s speaking is what’s left of me.

*     *     *

Believing in nothing firmly and therefore accepting as equally valid, in principle (which is as far as they go), all opinions, and considering that a theory is worth only as much as the theorist, an emotion as much as the emotion’s expresser, I could never take seriously the literary dogma that consists in the use of a personality. Personality is a form of belief and, like all belief, impossible for the reasoner.

It’s a short step from believing in outer truth to believing in inner truth, from accepting a concept of the world as true to accepting a concept of our self as true. I don’t affirm that everything is fluid, since that would be an affirmation, but to our understanding everything is indeed fluid, and the truth, unfolding for us into various truths, disappears, since it cannot be multiple.

*     *     *

In me every thought, however much I’d like to preserve it intact, turns sooner or later into reverie. If I wish to set forth reasons or launch a train of argument, what comes out of me are sentences initially expressive of the thought itself, then phrases subsidiary to those initial sentences, and finally shadows and derivatives of those subsidiary phrases. I begin to meditate on the existence of God and soon find myself speaking of faraway parks, feudal processions, rivers that pass almost soundlessly beneath the windows of my contemplation . . . And I find myself speaking about them because I find myself seeing them, feeling them, and there’s a brief moment when my face is grazed by a real breeze rising from the surface of the dreamed river through metaphors, through the stylistic feudalism of my central self-abandon.

I like to think, because I know it won’t be long before I stop thinking. It’s as a point of departure that thinking delights me—a cold, metallic harbor station from which to set sail for the vast South. I sometimes try to focus my mind on a large metaphysical or even social problem, because I know that, ensconced in the hoarse voice of my reason, there are peacock tails ready to spread open for me as soon as I forget I’m thinking, and I know that humanity is a door in a wall that doesn’t exist, so I can open it onto whatever gardens I like.

Thank God for that ironic element in human destinies that makes dreams the mode of thought for the poor in life, even as it makes life the mode of thought—or thought the mode of life—for the poor in dreams.

But even dreaming channeled through thinking ends up making me weary. At which point I open my eyes from dreaming, go to the window, and transfer my dream to the streets and rooftops. And it’s in my distracted and profound contemplation of so very many roof tiles divided into rooftops, covering the astral contagion of people organized into streets, that my soul becomes truly detached from me, and I don’t think, I don’t dream, I don’t see, I don’t need to. Then I truly contemplate the abstraction of Nature—of Nature, the difference between man and God.

*     *     *

How often, in the age-old trajectory of the worlds, a stray comet must have brought an Earth to its end! A catastrophe so utterly material will determine the fate of countless mental and spiritual projects. Death spies on us, like a sister of the spirit, and Destiny . . . . . .

Death is our being subject to something outside us, and we, at each moment of our lives, are but reflections and a consequence of what surrounds us.

Death lurks in our every living act. Dead we’re born, dead we live, and already dead we enter death. Composed of cells living off their disintegration, we’re made of death.

*     *     *

As a child I used to save old cotton spools. I loved them with a sorrowful love—how vividly I remember—since their not being real filled me with compassion . . . One day I laid my hands on some miscellaneous chess pieces, and what happiness that was! I immediately thought of names for them all, and they passed into my dream world.

All these figures took on definite features. They had distinct lives. One of them, who I had decided was rowdy and liked sports, lived inside a box on top of my dresser, where each afternoon a streetcar passed by when I, and then he, would come home from school. The streetcar was made of the interiors of matchboxes, strung together somehow by wire. He’d bounce up and down when the car was in motion.

O my dead childhood! Forever living corpse in my breast! When I remember these toys I had as a boy already getting older, a sensation of tears warms my eyes, and a fierce and useless longing gnaws at me like a regret. All of that happened and has remained frozen and visible—seeable—in my past, in my perpetual idea of my bedroom from back then, spread out around my childhood person (who is unseeable except from within) going from my dresser to the nightstand, and from the nightstand to my bed, driving through the air the primitive streetcar that I imagined was part of the citywide network and that took my ridiculous wooden schoolmates home.

I endowed some of them with bad habits—smoking, stealing—but I’m not sexually inclined, and their only acts in this line were, I believe, a predilection for kissing girls and peeking at their legs, which seemed to me mere acts of play. I made them smoke rolled paper behind a large box that was on top of a suitcase. Sometimes a schoolteacher would come around. And it was with all their anxiety, which I obliged myself to feel, that I quickly hid the false cigarette and placed the smoker—who struck me as curiously nonchalant—at the corner to wait for the inevitable passing of the teacher, whom he greeted I don’t remember exactly how . . . Sometimes the figures were too far apart for me to move this one with one arm and that one with the other. I had to make them move alternately. This pained me the way it pains me today not to be able to give expression to a life . . .

Ah, but why do I remember this? Why didn’t I remain a child forever? Why didn’t I die there, in one of those moments, preoccupied with the wiles of my schoolmates and the as-if-unexpected arrival of my schoolteachers? Today I can’t do this . . . Today I have only reality, which I can’t play with . . . Poor little boy exiled in his manliness! Why did I have to grow up?

Today, when I remember this, I feel nostalgia for other things besides all this. More in me than my past has died.

*     *     *

The ancients hardly saw themselves. Today we see ourselves in all positions. Hence our self-horror and self-disgust.

Every man, to be able to live and love, needs to idealize himself (and, ultimately, those he loves). That’s why we love. But as soon as I see myself and compare what I see to an ideal—not high, even low—of human beauty, I give up on real life and on love.

The false aesthetic sensibility of the Greeks . . . How unhappy it must make a people to conceive such statues and be (inevitably) so imperfect physically, like all real humans!

That is, it would have made the Greeks unhappy if that’s how they’d felt. But there’s no sign of that feeling in their literature. It is, in fact, a purely modern feeling.

Even a beautiful woman does not satisfy like a statue. Because a woman is beautiful as well as other physical and moral things that are not beauty. A statue is only beauty. (It is also stone, but the stone is nothing for us, and so we ignore it, looking only at the beauty.)

*     *     *

Doing something contrary to what everyone else does is almost as bad as doing something because everyone else does it. It shows a similar preoccupation with others, a similar attention to their opinion—a sure sign of absolute inferiority.

That’s why I abhor people like Oscar Wilde and others who are intent on being immoral or infamous, and on impinging paradoxes and delirious opinions. No superior man deigns to grant other people’s opinion such importance that he’d bother to contradict it.

For the superior man, others don’t exist. He is his own other. If he wants to imitate someone, it’s himself he tries to imitate. If he wants to contradict someone, it’s himself he endeavors to contradict. He strives to hurt his own self, in its most intimate reaches. He plays tricks on his own opinions. He has long conversations with the sensations he feels, talking down to them and . . . . . .

Every man that exists is Me. I have all society inside me. I am my best friends and my truest enemies. The rest—what’s on the outside, from the hills and plains to people and . . . . . . —is all just Landscape . . .

The great defect of work and effort is that they can become habits. The same defect pertains to inaction. It also tends to become a habit. The right way for the superior man to be contrary is to refrain from having habits, or opinions, or a definite individuality.

But it’s not that we shun opinions and habits so as to smile at the opinions and habits of others . . .

To have a fixed personality, regular habits, and consistent opinions is to belong to oneself. We should always change our opinion, personality and intentions, without that opinion or . . . . . . ever coinciding with other people’s.

The superior man’s efforts should all be spent on trying to forget that the outer world exists.

*     *     *

I like you so much it embarrasses me. There are all sorts of good reasons not to like you, except that of not liking you, because I do. How fantastic to feel what we don’t want to, and to have an independent heart.

*     *     *

Man’s greatest triumph is to arrive at the conviction that his being ridiculous exists only for other people, and whenever they want it to exist. Then he’ll stop worrying about the ridiculous, which he cannot annihilate, since it isn’t in him.

The superior man, to enjoy his superiority in perfect calm, must teach himself to forget three things: the ridiculous, work, and dedication.

Dedicating himself to no one, he naturally demands no dedication from others. Sober, chaste, frugal, and touching life as little as possible so as not to be inconvenienced nor get too close to things, which could destroy their capacity for being dreamed, he isolates himself to accommodate his pride and his disillusion. He learns to feel everything without feeling it directly, since to feel directly is subjection—the subjecting of oneself to the action of the thing felt.

An Olympic Whitman, a Proteus of understanding, he lives in other people’s sorrows and joys without living them really and truly. He can, at his pleasure, set sail or stay behind when ships depart, and he can stay and sail at the same time, since he neither sails nor stays. He has been with everyone in every sensation at every hour of their life. Watching through the eyes and hearts of the protagonists, he has witnessed every tragedy on earth. With those who renounced he renounced. He fell in every battle, being the victor of them all.

He won his joy and his sorrow by winning all the joy and sorrow in the world.

He remembers his own voice shouting among the Jewish people all crowded together: “We’d rather have Barabbas!” And when he thought about that moment, the name of Barabbas reminded him that he had been Barabbas, as well as Christ, whom the people didn’t want. When he went back to trying to remember which man he’d been in the crowd, he realized he’d been all of them. When he looked up a little, he felt on his dreamed woman’s forehead the black hair of Mary, Jesus’s mother. He felt breasts. Since these steered his mind toward the sexual instinct, he suddenly wept and knew he was Mary Magdalene. He lovingly stretched out his hands but remembered when Pilate had washed them of all responsibility, and his figure straightened up, Roman governor, in the dreamed toga that lightly rubbed the ideal sensation of his own skin. He closed his eyes, the real eyes of his dream, with the multiple weariness of all he’d felt, and in one last reflex, before his sensitivity gave out, the final banderoles of everything he’d felt passed by, crested by eagles, in a twilight with green mountains in the background.

His weariness from so much scattered sensation made him depressed, and the depression made him have depressive feelings, which included—at his absolute weariest—a feeling of tender, tearful pity for others: a lullaby sung by a nanny in the night, when the friendless pauper meets on the road Our Lady dressed as a shepherdess, and she takes him by the hand up to heaven.

And his remembered childhood opened the door to Christ, who entered through his sensation of every tear yet to be wept.

*     *     *

For everyone we see and who interests us, we should create a biography of their past and future. One of the sage’s mental characteristics is his ability to dress up other people inside himself, giving them the clothes he deems most suitable for however he chooses to dream them.

Masquerades disclose the reality of souls. As long as no one sees who we are, we can tell the most intimate details of our life. I sometimes muse over this sketch of a story—about a man afflicted by one of those personal tragedies born of extreme shyness . . . . . . who one day, while wearing a mask I don’t know where, told another mask all the most personal, most secret, most unthinkable things that could be told about his tragic and serene life. And since no outward detail would give him away, he having disguised even his voice, and since he didn’t take careful note of whoever had listened to him, he could enjoy the ample sensation of knowing that somewhere in the world there was someone who knew him as not even his closest and finest friend did. When he walked down the street he would ask himself if this person, or that one, or that person over there might not be the one to whom he’d once, wearing a mask, told his most private life. Thus would be born in him a new interest in each person, since each person might be his only, unknown confidant. And his crowning glory would be if the whole of that sorrowful life he’d told were, from start to finish, absolutely false.

*     *     *

In its essence life is monotonous. Happiness therefore depends on a reasonably thorough adaptation to life’s monotony. By making ourselves monotonous, we make ourselves equal to life. Thus we live to the full. And living to the full is to be happy.

Unhealthy, illogical souls laugh—uneasily, deep down—at bourgeois happiness, at the monotonous life of the bourgeois man who obeys a daily routine . . . . . . , and at his wife who spends her time keeping the house tidy, is consumed by the minutiae of caring for the children, and talks about neighbors and acquaintances. That’s what happiness is, however. It seems, at first glance, that new things are what give pleasure to the mind; but there aren’t many new things, and each one is new only once. Our sensibility, furthermore, is limited, and it doesn’t vibrate indefinitely. Too many new things will eventually get tiresome, since our sensibility can’t keep up with all the stimulations it receives.

To resign oneself to monotony is to experience everything as forever new. The bourgeois’s vision of life is the scientific vision, since everything is indeed always new, and before this day this day never existed.

He, of course, would say none of this. Were he capable of saying it, he wouldn’t be capable of being happy. My observations only make him smile; and it’s his smile that brings me, in all their detail, the considerations I’m writing down, for future generations to ponder.

Originally Published: October 1, 2009

Translated by Richard Zenith

COMMENTS (9)

On October 1, 2009 at 1:22pm Adam Fitzgerald wrote:
Increasingly, we are becoming aware, in
the 20th century, or any century for that
matter, there is only Pessoa.

English and American readers owe their
thanks to Richard Zenith.

AJF

On October 2, 2009 at 9:24am Reader wrote:
Amazing, thank you.

On October 3, 2009 at 8:29pm jmleezung wrote:
a catholic view with beauty, so profound in thought and so much in wisdom. i will spend many days to come in joyful memory and dreaming. thnaks to you

On October 7, 2009 at 11:42am mycueed@yahoo.com wrote:
Pessoa is a goddess. Edward Mycue

On October 7, 2009 at 9:10pm ray gibbs wrote:
Pessoa: always free, daring, interesting.

well done, well appreciated, this post/translation. more !

On October 7, 2009 at 9:22pm anechoic wrote:
I read Pessoa's 'The Book of Disquiet' and was never the same -- then I visited Lisbon and get a deeper sense of the writing
thank you for posting this!!

On October 9, 2009 at 9:10am Michael T. Young wrote:
Spectactular. Thank you for more Pessoa to read: one of the great explorers of our glittering darks, our bright and burning ambivalences.

On October 14, 2009 at 9:21am ray gibbs wrote:
perhaps, our Harlequin, irrepressible, our
Western Canon !

On November 27, 2009 at 10:13am arthur freed wrote:
I've told all of my students that Pessoa is
essential reading - he's remarkable in
being able to generate pleasure where
one might easily despair.

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MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

This prose originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

October 2009

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Biography

Poet Fernando António Nogueira Pêssoa was born in Lisbon, Portugal. His father died when Pessoa was five years old, and the family moved with his mother’s new husband, a consul, to Durban, South Africa, where Pessoa attended an English school. At thirteen Pessoa returned to Portugal for a year-long visit, and returned there permanently in 1905. He studied briefly at the University of Lisbon, and began to publish criticism, . . .

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