The Book of Disquiet
The Book of Disquiet was written as a series of inter-related fragments that Fernando Pessoa worked on between 1913 and his death in 1935. It was discovered in a trunk left behind in his small room, a trunk that also contained a lifetime of other writings: poetry, plays, philosophy, criticism, translations, linguistic theory, etc., variously typed, handwritten or illegibly scrawled in Portuguese, English and French. He wrote in notebooks, on loose sheets, on the backs of letters, advertisements, handbills and in the margins of earlier texts. The Book of Disquiet was first published in Portuguese in 1982 and there have been many different versions since, as various editors and translators attempted to put the book together in whatever way seemed best to them at the time.
Fernando Pessoa also continuously fragmented himself into other writers he famously called heteronyms: imaginary characters created to write in different styles. Some of his most fully developed heteronyms include: Alberto Caeiro, a shepherd, a humble man of little education who nonetheless wrote poems filled with philosophy and paganism; Ricardo Reis, a classicist, a monarchist, a doctor who wrote in an austere, cerebral manner, with particular attention paid to the correct use of the Portuguese language; and Álvaro de Campos, a world traveller, whose poems expressed a fervent wish to experience the entirety of the universe in himself. However, Bernardo Soares, the author of The Book of Disquiet, an accountant working on Rua dos Douradores in Lisbon, was merely a semi-heteronym. “He’s a semi-heteronym,” Pessoa wrote in the final year of his life, “because his personality, although not my own, doesn’t differ from my own but is a mere mutilation of it.”
Pessoa clearly planned to compile his fragments of disquietude into a finished manuscript, but never managed to do so. Based on the many notes he left behind, if he had been able to complete the book in his lifetime, it is likely he would have edited it down towards a shorter, more cohesive narrative. Like many authors, he might very well have edited out some of the most contentious, vulnerable or revealing passages. Therefore, the ramshackle glory of The Book of Disquiet that we know today derives in no small part from the fact that it was assembled long after its original composition, and that this method of assembly implicitly acknowledges the work’s deeply unfinished nature.
Adventures can be found anywhere, même dans la mélancolie
The only basis for truth is self-contradiction. The universe contradicts itself, for it passes on. Life contradicts itself, for it dies. Paradox is nature’s norm. That’s why all truth has a paradoxical form. – Fernando Pessoa
When you watch a film that makes you cry, do the tears come from within the film or from within you? This is a stupid question, since the answer must be something like: a bit of both. Another question might be: if you were to get together with your friends and remake the film not in order to imitate it, but in order to change it into something closer to your own life, would this new, remade version still make you cry?
The relation between art and emotion is a long and complicated one. With Adventures can be found anywhere, même dans la mélancolie, PME-ART rewrites The Book of Disquiet page by melancholy page, altering the emotional tenor of the book in many subtle and unsubtle ways. Of course, within any conventional view of literature, rewriting such a classic and deeply loved text is practically sacrilege. But the intention here is not to break any particular canonical rules, rather to see what happens when a door long assumed to be locked is partially reopened, when fragments left unfinished seventy-nine years ago are mischievously treated as if they still remained unfinished today, as if one could simply continue working on them.
Fernando Pessoa was a great writer and it is unlikely that PME-ART will be able to consistently match his eloquence or depth. They will give it their best shot, but clearly that cannot be the point. This is a more playful, democratic, collaborative notion of writing. Pessoa’s virtuosity in turning his own compulsions and doubts into literature here meets a contemporary moment, the year 2014, in which compulsions and doubts are expressed in a multitude of old and new ways: online, in televised pseudo-reality and in every kind of autobiographical literary expression. What might it mean to rewrite these fragments today? What shades of early twenty-first century emotion might be woven into Pessoa’s unfinished twentieth century elegy?
One joke we often tell: PME-ART is rewriting The Book of Disquiet to make it a little bit happier. But just a little bit. And then what kind of happiness could this possibly be? Is it the author or the reader whose mood will be lightened? The word ‘happiness’ perhaps conjures an imaginary past-life America: ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of…,’ fantasies that in the harsh light of our current economic and ecological collapse might seem threadbare at best. At times, in artistic works, there is a kind of reverse psychology effect; extremely sad works can make you feel happy and vice versa. Sometimes simply expressing something socially taboo, for example extreme sadness or apathy, gives the viewer or reader a feeling of release, even elation. Pessoa’s almost absolute melancholy has this effect on many readers, and therefore the happiness being sought of course already exists between the lines, in the affect of the original text.
One clue to the added happiness PME-ART is searching for might be found in the unfinished nature of the composition itself. While previous experts and translators sought to work towards some definitive version of The Book of Disquiet, here we clearly find ourselves drifting towards the distant other end of the finished/unfinished spectrum. (Emotions, one might suggest, are always left unfinished.) When nothing is finished, everything remains possible. At least for awhile. Or at least within a work of art. This is one of the paradoxes that art can scratch away at and evoke: sometimes a job well done is a job left partially undone, to make room for the future. Pessoa never finished his masterpiece The Book of Disquiet, and neither does Adventures can be found anywhere, même dans la mélancolie. One can gaze at a fragment and fear its implicit sense of failure. Or one can glance at a fragment and think: this is only the beginning.
Adventures can be found anywhere, même dans la mélancolie happens from October 23 - November 1, 2014 at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery.
Facebook event here.