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Philosophical Essays: A Critical Edition – Fernando Pessoa

by Nuno Ribeiro, Editor
Contra Mundum Press, New York, NY, 2012
190 pp. Paper, $20.00
ISBN: 978-0-983-697-268.

Reviewed by Allan Graubard


Nominally considered the most significant poet of 20th century Portugal, Fernando Pessoa also holds the distinction of writing himself out of much of his works systematically, something unique in European literature as a whole. This is all the more curious for his having published just four books during his life, and many other poems and texts in literary journals and magazines. While a known figure in his locale and time, the broader international acclaim he has more recently gained during the last several decades well plays into the game he established as his overall method. He wrote the majority of his work under several heteronyms, each composing an oeuvre relatable to the name, not the author. But then who was the author and whom do we read  – Pessoa or the heteronym? And what difference does it make if we confound the two? Where does the one appear and the other fade? Or are they twins or something else that entices and eludes us?

There is playfulness here certainly, and it can grow infectious. Play has a tendency to do that. And what a breath of air it is to find a poet who found, in fully embodied masks, a kind of multiplicity, of character if you wish to take it that way, and relative anonymity, for the author behind, within or in front of the mask.  At least in my reading of “his” poems and essays before the publication of the present book, it kept me attuned, not only to their brilliance but also to the way that Pessoa set the stage for our encounter with them.

Not being a scholar in things Pessoa, I am not the one to comment in any authoritative fashion on the histories, complexities, or parallelisms that his masks -- that is, his heteronyms -- and writings involve. Perhaps his upbringing was a factor. It seems to have been. Born in Lisbon in 1888, thereafter relocated to Durban, South Africa in 1896, he learns English, and the effect of this linguistic and spatial disjunction on the young sensibility of the future poet must have been significant. In 1906 he returns to Lisbon for good but does not give up writing in English. He only gives up writing in his name in English, adopting two droll “pre-heteronyms,” as Pessoa calls them – Charles Robert Anon and Alexander Search – in which to compose most of the brief philosophical essays that comprise the book at hand.

Make no mistake: these essays, discovered recently and published as written for the first time, are not in any sense methodical or complete. They can be read as commentary on a host of issues -- rationality, atheism, belief, freedom, the will, the soul, sensation, consciousness, etc. -- that seem at once serious in their intent and ludic in their results.

This is not an unknown for poets who grapple with philosophical concepts. Nor are flashes of insight unknown, particularly in regard to a fundamental origin for the poetic: the encounter with the Other, whether real or imagined, or partaking of something of both.

The recounting of Baudelaire’s exclamation to a friend to stop, who was just about to throw an African mask into the corner in disgust, because the mask might be “the true god” is striking in this respect, especially for us, ever drained of the kind of heterogeneity between peoples and cultures that gives meaning to who and what we are.

Striking, too, is this perhaps involuntary couplet at the end of a paragraph on “introspective psychology,” which of course can also be taken as two unconnected jottings:

“Psychological arguments.
Walking in the street, too quickly.”

Nor can I really say what the author meant with the following depiction though I have an inkling that it responds more to a poetic than a philosophical desire:

“Objective classifications made according [to] a process are Subjective, Objective or Subjective-Objective.
Subjective classifications as processes are of exaltation of degrees and of degree-exaltation.”

The relationship of poetry to philosophy, and vice versa, which to my mind at least is one theme of these musings, however seemingly couched in the discourse of argument, is an exceptionally rich area. In one sense it returns to language a resolution not to foreclose too quickly on meaning, significance and resonance. In another sense it can open a reciprocal current that enlivens the concept that seeks clarity in its expression and the expression that seeks clarity in its embodiment.

I cannot but believe that behind Pessoa’s “pre-heteronyms,” which feed the current volume, and his “heteronyms,” which feed the books he is celebrated for, that play carried the day, and that all else to follow for their author would come because of his mastery in playing.

Pessoa’s Philosophical Essays are part and parcel of this sensibility, which left me wanting more from the aforesaid Charles Robert Anon and Alexander Search, however much those two last names, when placed contiguously, transform my want into something entirely else: Anon Search.

Last Updated 1st April 2013

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