ESSAY: Everything Gets Lost by Gabriel Heller
The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa, is a masterpiece of fragmentary fiction. Assembled after Pessoa’s death from thousands of pages of notes found in a trunk and then posthumously divided into 481 short chapters, the novel weaves together the musings, observations, visions, riddles, paradoxes, prose poems, essays, parables, speculations, and confessions of Bernardo Soares, a reclusive bookkeeper in Lisbon.
It’s a work of brilliance and exhausting intensity.
There are various editions and versions of the text, none definitive. I am reading Richard Zenith’s translation in the Penguin Classics series.
This morning on the Q train, crushed up alongside my fellow commuters — oh, beautiful sad tired faces, sometimes it seems there is no mystery left in the world — I read chapter 170 that includes this amazing sentence: I felt happy because I couldn’t feel unhappy.
Pessoa died in 1935, at the age of forty-seven, having published just one book. As an adult he almost never left Lisbon, according to Zenith’s introductory essay, but as a kid he lived for a number of years in Durban, South Africa.
I remember my South African friend from high school, who used to tell me about stealing cars in Johannesburg and driving them to Durban. Political idealist, casual criminal, gifted artist, budding alcoholic, animal lover, misogynist — my friend was a true enigma. He was only a teenager, but he looked about thirty-five. One day, we smoked a joint in the arboretum, and he told me his life story in seven different languages, none of which I knew. The most beautiful was Xhosa with its melodic clicking sounds.
Famously, Pessoa wrote under the guise of a number of different authorial personas. He called them heteronymns. What is the self but a conglomeration of selves? the very form of his work seems to ask.
By delving within, I made myself into many, Soares says.
Like Cervantes, Pessoa is a master of irony. The extreme irony of the text is inseparable from its extreme sincerity. Pessoa’s irony is all-encompassing and is thoroughly rooted in the simple truth that Cervantes dramatizes with such great humor and pathos: in life, we are not who we think we are. Or in the words of Soares: We are who we’re not, and life is quick and sad.
When Don Quixote wakes up at the end of the dream, which is the end of the book, he dies.
The relation that exists between sleep and life is the same that exists between what we call life and what we call death, Soares tells us. We’re sleeping, and this life is a dream, not in a metaphorical or poetic sense, but in a very real sense.
After a long day of work, I walk past the bars on Third Avenue. Come on in and drink, the bars all say, but I quit drinking at the end of the summer, so I just walk past their steamed-up windows, thinking about Pessoa, the loneliness he endured throughout his life, the problem of emptiness and fragmentation, the impossible-seeming dream of wholeness.
My boredom with everything has numbed me. I feel banished from my soul.
I don’t know who I am or what I am.
On the subway back to Brooklyn, I put on my headphones. I listen to Radiohead. My eyes hurt.
The emptiest of feelings, clinging onto bottles, Thom Yorke sings in “Letdown”, a devastating apocalyptic poem masquerading as a pop song.
I get off at Pacific Street, walk past the Barclays Center. Traffic crawls up Atlantic Avenue. Throngs of basketball fans wait in front of the stadium. Neon lights cut through the darkness, illuminate their dreaming faces. The artificial disguise of consciousness only highlights for me the unconsciousness it doesn’t succeed in disguising. I walk along the side of the stadium, through a tunnel made of metal scaffolding and blue plywood. Where I emerge, the street is quiet — as still as a photograph. A construction site hugs the back of the dark arena. Cranes and diggers resemble dinosaur skeletons.
Where did all the people go?
Yesterday I went into a café in my neighborhood. Blake was working. He’s Hare Krishna. Sometimes while he’s working he plays Hare Krishna music, which I quite enjoy. But yesterday it was The Eraser, by Thom Yorke.
I like the unsettling beauty of Thom Yorke’s singing. I like how his voice bends language away from meaning, stretches words into pure sound. Maybe his music is about what happens to consciousness as it knocks up against the peril of the unseen. The way an insane, unintelligible world breaks into the unconscious mind, and the mind loses its hold, loses its way.
I meet my sister at a ramen place in Prospect Heights. We have some time to kill before we get a table, so we walk up Vanderbilt. She tells me about her auditions, a sociopathic scene study partner she’s working with in a Tennessee Williams class, this guy she’s seeing from Detroit.
All this makes me want to smile, but I feel a profound anxiety. I feel the chill of a sudden sickness in my soul.
And how are you, Gabey?
I’m good, I say. I’m good.
We stop at Unnameable Books. We browse the shelves for a little while. I buy a volume of Pessoa’s poetry.
It is very difficult to become conscious of what one is beyond a particular labyrinth molded to the contingencies of time and space. Coffee cups, subway rides, days dissolving into days. My tedium takes on an air of horror, and my boredom is a fear. My sweat isn’t cold, but my awareness of it is.
Blake comes back with my coffee. I hand him my bent-up card. He counts the punches out loud. Nine punches, so my coffee is free.
Congratulations, he says.
Thanks, I say.
His lips curl into a weird grin. I can see his incisors poking through his blond whiskers.
I drop a dollar in the big glass jar on the counter.
Almost nothing happens in The Book of Disquiet. It’s a book about the inner grain of experience, the self, the soul — its fullness and emptiness, its sleepiness and freedom.
We live and die — for what?
We never know self-realization.
We are two abysses — a well staring at the sky.
Last year, my sister and I went to hear Thom Yorke at the Barclay’s Center. She got free tickets. We smoked a joint beforehand, and once we were inside I got a little paranoid imagining terrorists figuring out a way to sneak poison gas into the ventilation system.
When Thom Yorke came on stage, he didn’t really look like Thom Yorke. He had a beard, and some of his grayish hair was gathered up into a samurai ponytail high on the back of his head.
I’m Justin Bieber, he said — his only greeting to the crowd.
So great is this tedium, so sovereign my horror of being alive, that I can’t conceive of anything that might serve as a palliative, antidote, balsam or distraction for it, Pessoa writes. Going and stopping are the same impossible thing. Hope and doubt are equally cold and grey. I’m a shelf of empty jars.
But once the music started, it seized me so completely and didn’t let me go. The songs were all about dread: its crystallization, but also its transformation. For what is a work of art if not an attempt to sharpen perception of what is — and to change it into something else?
Is it possible to read Pessoa without feeling some part of yourself almost constantly smiling?
Time is running out for us, Yorke sang, as squares of red light pulsed and shivered over the stage. But where was the introverted, melancholy poet? This was someone else — a jubilant trickster, full of rhythm and grace, dancing the whole time.
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Gabriel Heller’s writing has appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014, The Gettysburg Review, Agni Online, Fence, and other venues.