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Conceptual Personae

The many imagined lives of Fernando Pessoa

“Sockpuppeting” is internet slang for the contemporary variety of an age-old hoax: with a fake account registered under a pseudonym, a social media user becomes free to post whatever they like, unfettered by the wearisome burdens of attribution. Perhaps a pundit wishes to promote his own book without appearing to do so himself. Perhaps a hack in the marketing department of a mattress-in-a-box purveyor wants to feign organic engagement with their brand. Or perhaps someone feels the urge to transgress what his peers consider correct and enlightened thought on any number of topics. As public opinion falls further under the sway of bipolar groupthink aggravated by algorithms and corporate media, online sock puppets are increasingly associated with this last use case. The most skilled are able to draw both earnest support and derision in equal measure, without the farce being detected.

In so far as they provide cover against enforced conformity, sock puppets enrich “the discourse.” But perhaps only the Extremely Online would venture that sock puppet accounts possess aesthetic value. History, however, offers some support for this idea: the same techniques generated one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable bodies of literary work.

The poet who produced that work was named Fernando Pessoa, but the majority of his finest poems were signed with three different names. Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, and Ricardo Reis were not, however, mere pseudonyms; they were separate identities—what Pessoa called “heteronyms”—crafted to undertake distinct and diverging poetic projects. A bucolic poet and a materialist in his philosophical orientation, Caeiro was the bard of simplicity whom Campos, Reis, and Pessoa himself all cited as their poetic master. Steeped in Whitman and Wilde, Campos was an exuberant, bisexual futurist who wore a monocle and lambasted Filippo Marinetti for the cold and unfeeling nature of the Italian avant-garde. Reis, the third of Pessoa’s major poetic heteronyms to be invented and the last to be revealed, was a monarchist, classicist, and self-described “neo-pagan” whose disenchantment with Portuguese republicanism led him to expatriate to South America.

Pessoa is as much an account of the poet’s life as it is a forensic analysis of Pessoa’s improbable posthumous celebrity.

Aside from these principal poetic personae, Pessoa developed dozens of other literary characters to give voice to his ideas. One was António Mora, a toga-draped asylum inmate who became Pessoa’s leading commentator on classical aesthetics and Portuguese neo-paganism. Another was Bernardo Soares, the author of The Book of Disquiet, whom Pessoa classified as a “semi-heteronym,” so called because his biography closely resembled the author’s own. Like his creator, Soares was a reclusive bachelor and office clerk who worked in downtown Lisbon and privately toiled on an immense body of literary work. Pessoa likened the heteronyms’ collective existence to a “drama divided into people, instead of into acts.”

These dramatis personae allowed Pessoa to explore extreme variations of possible poetic outcomes for their shared commitment to what their creator hoped would be Portugal’s answer to futurism and the other avant-garde -isms proliferating across Europe: an aesthetic philosophy he called sensationism. Portugal, however, was marginal to European modernism, and unlike his contemporaries, Pessoa never traveled Europe to experience modern art for himself. After returning to Lisbon following a youth spent mostly in Durban, South Africa, where his stepfather was the Portuguese consul to the British colony, Pessoa never again left Portugal. Having squandered a small inheritance on a disastrous effort to start his own publishing house, the poet had neither the funds nor the will to travel. Sensationism became his attempt, in part, to make intensity of sensation stand in for variety of experience. “After all, the best way to travel is to feel / To feel everything in every way,” as Álvaro de Campos put it. Elsewhere Pessoa was even more direct. As Bernardo Soares declares in The Book of Disquiet, “Travel is for those who cannot feel.”

Unwilling to leave sensationism’s reception up to chance, Pessoa, along with several other young writers, launched the journal Orpheu in 1915, with the hope it would become a principal outlet for sensationist literature. He then tasked the minor heteronym Thomas Crosse with translating the sensationists and promoting their work abroad. Like the majority of Pessoa’s projects, Crosse’s translations never arrived at fruition. Even so, Orpheu endowed Pessoa and his collaborators with immediate notoriety in Portugal. Although it lasted only two issues, the journal enjoyed a long afterlife: it garnered an influential cult following among the next generation of Portuguese modernists, who elevated Pessoa and several of his co-contributors to the national canon.

Inventing an avant-garde movement and its principal protagonists, then attempting to institutionalize the movement with literary criticism written by yet more imagined personae: it seems, at first, insane. Indeed, Pessoa feared for his sanity as a youth, having watched his paternal grandmother lose her grip on reality. But as a student of fin-de-siècle theories that posited a correlation between artistic genius and mental degeneracy, Pessoa decided his mind was one thus afflicted. Regardless of its cause, Pessoa’s mad strategy succeeded. Barely known in his lifetime, even in Portugal, Pessoa became one of the twenty-six writers Harold Bloom elevated to universal status in The Western Canon, alongside Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes.

His stature has grown ever since, acquiring last year the prestige of a monumental English-language biography by the translator and literary critic Richard Zenith. The text is as much an account of the poet’s life as it is a forensic analysis of Pessoa’s improbable posthumous celebrity. Departing from mythologies of the poet as a sort of mad urban hermit, Zenith succeeds in making Pessoa’s strange motivations as intelligible and enthralling as they were to the poets and artists who kept him company in Lisboan cafes. This is not biography as the dutiful accretion of minutiae across a single life, but a prismatic portrait of a writer whose powers of imagination and reinvention required as many lives as he could conjure.

Pessoa’s posthumous breakthrough was by no means guaranteed, but the delay was by design: although his poems and trolling political commentary appeared in literary journals and the popular press periodically throughout his lifetime, Pessoa only published one collection of his own poetry before his death. That book, Mensagem (Message), was ushered into print by António Ferro, an artistic acquaintance from Pessoa’s youth who had accepted a position in the Secretariat of Propaganda for the authoritarian, quasi-fascist Salazar regime that came to power in 1932. Ferro covered the cost of typesetting and printing the book so that Pessoa could be considered for a national prize organized by the secretariat. Composed as a mythic and poetic history of the Portuguese nation, Mensagem was tailor-made for the contest—but while the prize committee hailed it as a great work of nationalist art, it won the lesser of two awards. 

The slight piqued Pessoa, but he’d been ambivalent about submitting to the propaganda contest in the first place: his nationalist enthusiasm had begun to wane not long after Salazar came to power. As Zenith makes clear, the restoration of Portugal’s cultural standing in the world long obsessed Pessoa. This idée fixe gave shape to many of his endeavors, including multiple abortive attempts to start a publishing house for promulgating Portuguese literature and culture at home, where patriotism sagged under stubborn poverty and illiteracy, and abroad, where Portugal’s reputation was that of a decadent imperial power that had become a client state to Great Britain.

Sensationism had a central role to play in the Portuguese cultural renaissance that Pessoa believed was nigh. It was meant to supersede a Portuguese nationalist aesthetic known as saudosismo. Based on the concept of saudade, or longing, that they attached to Portuguese national identity, saudosismo writers extolled the refined sensitivity of the Portuguese soul, attenuated by faded glory and defeat. Like Pessoa, saudosismo was preoccupied by Sebastianism, a quasi-messianic superstition that Portugal’s slain King Sebastian (1553–1578) would emerge from hiding—having presumably risen from the dead—to lead the restoration of Portuguese imperial grandeur. While the saudosismo poets limited their belief to a Portuguese spiritual renaissance, Pessoa fantasized about an intertwined political and aesthetic movement that would arise to convince the world of Portuguese cultural superiority. He died before this could come to pass, as likely we all will.

Pessoa avoided publishing in part to avoid any limitations that a printed record of his works would impose on the liberty of his thoughts and verse.

Sebastianism was where the poet’s literary ambitions intersected with his inclination toward the paranormal. Although Pessoa disavowed the Catholic Church in which he was baptized, he certainly believed in higher powers. Occultism became an increasingly prevalent theme in both his public and private writings. Pessoa dabbled in Rosicrucianism, defended Freemasonry, translated numerous books by Madame Blavatsky and other leading Theosophists, conversed for years with a multilingual chorus of spirits, and tried to help fake—unsuccessfully—the death of the British bisexual magus Aleister Crowley. Pessoa also maintained a longstanding interest in astrology, casting more than three hundred astrological charts for himself, his friends, literary giants such as Shakespeare and Baudelaire, historical events like the French Revolution, potential publication dates for his incomplete works, and of course, for his heteronyms. So voluminous were his thoughts on the subject that he invented an astrologer heteronym named Raphael Baldaya to collate them into two books: New Treatise on Astrology and Introduction to the Study of Occultism.

Like most of the projects Pessoa envisioned, these books were never written, let alone published. The farther the reader progresses into Zenith’s lengthy account of the poet’s life, the more frustrating Pessoa’s refusal to execute his ambitious plans for dozens of collections, plays, and novels becomes. Of course, this reticence to publish was already well-documented; what I hadn’t known was that Pessoa avoided publishing in part to avoid any limitations that a printed record of his works would impose on the liberty of his thoughts and verse. He confided as much to his mother: in 1914, not long after his “master” Caeiro had appeared, Pessoa wavered over whether to publish his first collection, presumably Caeiro’s manuscript The Keeper of Sheep. “Even the circumstance of publishing my first book will alter my life,” he wrote. “I’ll lose something: my unpublished status.

Cowardly though it may be, this tactic served a purpose. The unfinished condition of the vast majority of the poet’s work is, for many readers, what marks Pessoa’s work as his—and what makes it so uniquely modern. Regarded by many readers and critics as Pessoa’s masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet is a series of numbered fragments of highly variable length—the shortest are just one line. Saturated with ennui and alienation, Disquiet has been translated by two of the most decorated Portuguese translators working today: Zenith and Margaret Jull Costa. But Pessoa never actually finished it. Following his death, researchers and editors, including Zenith, reassembled the text based on a series of fragments, some of which were numbered, stuffed into an envelope. Pessoa’s heirs discovered the envelope containing Disquiet inside the notorious trunk of papers Pessoa left behind when he died, along with thousands of pages of other unfinished projects in varying states of organization and disarray.

The incomplete and fragmentary nature of Pessoa’s production is what eventually drew his work to the attention of French poststructuralists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In their final collaboration, What Is Philosophy?, the duo placed Pessoa in the category of modernist and proto-modernist writers like Hölderlin, Rimbaud, and Artaud who were also “half-philosophers.” These are writers who “do not produce a synthesis of art and philosophy,” but rather

branch out and do not stop branching out. They are hybrid geniuses who neither erase nor cover over differences in kind but, on the contrary, use all the resources of their “athleticism” to install themselves within this very difference, like acrobats torn apart in a perpetual show of strength.

Philosophers work with concepts, Deleuze and Guattari explain, and these “half-philosophers” used their poetic speakers and novelistic characters to develop “conceptual personae” for testing and advancing their theories. Descartes’ cogito brought forth an “I” that functions as a persona: an “idiot” used by the philosopher to avoid the rigidity and errors associated with philosophical schools. For Kierkegaard, who like Pessoa wrote under the identities of assumed personae, this use of conceptual personae reaches an inflection point between philosophy and literature.

Zenith has done heroic work reconstructing Pessoa’s life, but perhaps his greatest achievement is carving out Pessoa’s place in the panorama of queer modernism.

As Zenith briefly acknowledges, Kierkegaard may be one of the most relevant antecedents for Pessoa’s heteronymic project. Victor Eremita, Johannes de Silentio, Constantin Constantius, Hilarius Bookbinder, and Johannes Climacus were among the conceptual personae that Kierkegaard used to explore his moral philosophy. Of course, Kierkegaard never used the word “heteronym”; Pessoa invented it. Nor did Pessoa read Kierkegaard, whose works had not been translated to a language the poet could read. But the functions of their invented personae were much the same: they liberated their inventors from the confines of preconceived notions and received ideas.

Curiously, Kierkegaard and Pessoa also shared significant biographical details: both were committed urbanites who seldom left the cities of their births, and who chose to jilt the women they courted rather than suffer the intrusions of domestic life. But Pessoa had an additional reason for ending his only courtship with the long-suffering Ophelia Queiroz: he was likely an asexual or a deeply repressed homosexual. Zenith has done heroic work reconstructing Pessoa’s life, but perhaps his greatest achievement is carving out Pessoa’s place in the panorama of queer modernism. Although he probably died a virgin, Pessoa self-diagnosed his own “mild sexual inversion,” deeply admired Oscar Wilde, published unmistakably homoerotic poetry, and fraternized with artists and poets who were openly gay. He readily courted public scandal by establishing an editorial imprint—perhaps, as Zenith argues, the first gay imprint in Portugal, if not all of Europe—to publish the works of António Botto, a gay poet whose work might never have found an audience were it not for Pessoa’s early support.

Pessoa’s decision to remain chaste aligned with his decision to remain obscure and nearly unpublished, his greatest works left unconsummated. Perennially noncommittal, Pessoa was free to inhabit his imagination, where there were no consequences or limits. Yet while the body dies, a great mind is able to achieve immortality, or something close to it, by living on through the work it creates. We are fortunate that Pessoa left behind a massive archive of poems, political treatises, and conflicting versions of unfinished plays. Nearly ninety years since the poet’s death, this archive is still being sorted, cataloged, edited, and published. Similar to the heteronymic project, Pessoa’s endless quest to become another and to “feel everything in every way,” it’s a task that Pessoa knew could never be completed.