I’m reading, for the second time, The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935, born and died in Lisbon). The first time I read it, or tried to read it, I had a different edition, organized somewhat differently, and I simply thumbed through it, reading here and there, probably skipping passages without much thought. It is a depressing read, with no narrative whatsoever, written in the form of journal entries, although with the fictional device of the author, Pessoa, telling his readers that it was handed to him as a manuscript by someone he knew only superficially as a fellow dinner at a particular unnamed restaurant.
Pessoa published little of his work during his own lifetime. According to the translator and editor, Richard Zenith,
Pessoa’s legacy consisted of a large trunk full of poetry, prose, plays, philosophy, criticism, translations, linguistic theory, political writings, horoscopes and assorted other texts, variously typed, handwritten or illegibly scrawled in Portuguese, English and French. He wrote in notebooks, on loose sheets, on the backs of letters, advertisements and handbills, on stationery from the firms he worked for and from the cafés he frequented, on envelopes, on paper scraps, and in the margins of his own earlier texts. To compound the confusion, he wrote under dozens of names, a practice—or compulsion—that began in his childhood.
The writer, who Pessoa calls Bernardo Soares, refers to these entries as A Factless Autobiography. Pessoa referred to the manuscript as the B of D, and the book was assembled as best as possible from this notation in Pessoa’s hand on various of his writings. Pessoa wrote fairly detailed biographies, including birth and death dates, careers, personalities, etc., of his various heteronyms. He stated that Soares was only a semi-heteronym—a way of identifying most strongly in personality with this particular alter-ego. Pessoa, in written instructions regarding the book, says:
This book, furthermore, could form a part of a definitive collection of dregs, the published depository of the unpublishable–allowed to serve as a sad example. It would be somewhat analogous to a book of unfinished poems by a poet who died young, or the letters of a great writer. … The organization of the book should be based on a highly rigorous selection from among the various kinds of texts written, adapting the older ones – which lack the psychology of Bernardo Soares – to that true psychology as it has now emerged. In addition, an overall revision of the style needs to be made, but without giving up the dreaminess and logical disjointedness of its inner expression.
Richard Zenith does not take the liberty in his introduction to the material, or comments at the end, or in the annotated Appendices, to put forth a comment on Pessoa’s psychological state or possible mental illness. Perhaps he felt that Pessoa was an integrated personality who entirely knew what he was about when he wrote in these different names. The strangest thing about it to me is that, while the writing is certainly brilliant at times, it puts forth a compelling and holistic philosophy and lived experience of nihilism, such that is difficult to read. And yet, these writings were tenderly (lovingly, you might say) unearthed by editors and carved into a publishable manuscript.
I’m reading it straight-through this time, adding marginalia and yellow highlights. I’m searching for its singular or subterranean meaning. I’m reading it as a graduate student who plans to write a dissertation about the underlying psychopathology of the writer. I don’t wish to disprove nihilism, but I do wish to interact with it and, perhaps, even diagnose its origins.