‘The Book of Disquiet’ Is the Weirdest Autobiography Ever

Scott Esposito and Bradley Babendir chat about Fernando Pessoa’s unfinished, indefinable masterwork

“Double Take” is our literary criticism series wherein two readers tackle a highly-anticipated book’s innermost themes, successes, failures, trappings, and surprises. In this edition, Scott Esposito and Bradley Babendir discuss Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

The Modernist master Fernando Pessoa’s work remained largely unnoticed during his lifetime. He left behind a chest full of writing that would be later known to many as The Book of Disquiet. The book has been deemed an “autobiography” and a “diary,” but it’s equally a novel or an essay collection or even a kind of pre-internet codex blog. Pessoa ruminates about pretty much everything, often entering enlightening and sorrowful spaces while battling life’s eternal questions. Recently released by New Directions with a brand new translation, The Book of Disquiet is in its most complete form ever.

Scott Esposito: The Book of Disquiet is enormous — in every sense of the word — and I’m eager to get into some of the granular details with you, but I thought we might start off this conversation with a more general question: In what sense is The Book of Disquiet a book? Is it a book? Just what is it?

Famously, The Book of Disquiet is an incomplete work, composed of 500-some fragments that were not even published until 1982, decades after Pessoa’s death in 1935. No one knows what order these fragments should be placed in, or even which fragments constitute the work itself (and if there are more hidden somewhere that have yet to come to light). Nobody seems to know just what genre this book is: Is it a novel (it’s supposedly written by one of Pessoa’s most famous alter egos, Bernardo Soares)? Is it a journal? Is it a commonplace book? Something along the lines of a Portuguese version of Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi’s infamous Zibaldone?

I want to pose the question of just what this item is, but before I do that I’d just like to quote the critic George Steiner on The Book of Disquiet:

The fragmentary, the incomplete is of the essence of Pessoa’s spirit… The very kaleidoscope of voices within him, the breadth of his culture, the catholicity of his ironic sympathies… inhibited the monumentalities, the self-satisfaction of completion… As Adorno famously said, the finished work is, in our times and climate of anguish, a lie.

It was to Bernardo Soares that Pessoa ascribed his Book of Disquiet, first made available in English in a briefer version by Richard Zenith in 1991… What is this Livro do Desassossego? Neither “commonplace book,” nor “sketchbook,” nor “florilegium” will do. Imagine a fusion of Coleridge’s notebooks and marginalia, of Valery’s philosophic diary and of Robert Musil’s voluminous journal. Yet even such a hybrid does not correspond to the singularity of Pessoa’s chronicle. Nor do we know what parts thereof, if any, he ever intended for publication in some revised format.

Modernism, of course, was a movement of fragmentation, a movement of missing pieces — think of Kafka, the modernist writer par excellence, who never finished a single novel (and who indeed intended his manuscripts to be burned), yet who is often lionized as one of the greatest novelists of all time. Those incomplete novels always seem to be drawing us toward meaning, toward completion, but then stop short, endlessly frustrating our desire for some kind of ending, so the fact that Kafka never managed to finish them is oddly appropriate. Modernism is all about incompletion, and many modernists have been considered great writers in spite of (or rather, because of) their incompleteness, something that is very clearly present with Pessoa.

Bradley Babendir: The question of exactly what The Book of Disquiet is has been on my mind since I started the book, and I’m glad that you opened broadly. In one sense, of course it’s a book: it looks like a book, feels like a book, and is organized like a book. That is, of course, facile, so I suppose what I’m getting at is that it’s presentation as a book is in some sense inextricable from my interaction with it on those terms. Still, its incompleteness and lack of known order undermine the idea that it is a book, in the sense that it’s not any one thing. In other words, there is not one The Book of Disquiet, but many.

Part of what makes this enthralling, and as you said, one of the greatest literary works to ever emerge out of modernism, is that incompleteness feels intrinsic to its project. What would a truly finished The Book of Disquiet look like? It seems like it could never be finished, which makes it an almost perfect manifestation of modernism. Steiner’s Adorno quote is exactly right. With this in mind, I can’t think of it as a novel. With Kafka’s work, for example, I can see how and in what way those books could be finished, if they were truly finished. This isn’t the case for The Book of Disquiet.

The most interesting part of Steiner’s quote is that desire to categorize it alongside an admission of its impossibility. When reading it, alongside considerations of how it compared to the works of writers that you and Steiner mentioned, I couldn’t help but think about it alongside the work of writers like Sarah Manguso, particularly her books 300 Arguments and Ongoingness. Her commitment to efficiency sets her apart, but the reading experience feels somewhat similar. Those books, too, don’t have a sense of completion.

In that sense, to get back to the central question, I suppose it feels to me most like an essay collection. Yet that feels unsatisfactory to me, obviously, because it’s such a limiting category for something so irregular and so unique, but any designation more specific seems destined to be more wrong than it is right.

What do you think about that? Is that a useful in understanding the book? What would it mean to accept that a book is uncategorizable? And what about it makes it so, because it’s not just the lack of organizational direction intrinsic in the text, but the text itself that makes it one-of-a-kind.

Modernism is all about incompletion, and many modernists have been considered great writers in spite of (or rather, because of) their incompleteness.

SE: I think you are smart to point out the desire to categorize, which is an obsession that we’re all a little prone to, but which ultimately is just one, somewhat arbitrary, way of looking at a work. What does it mean to accept that a book is uncategorizable? I think that we would effectively be stating that this book constitutes a category of one, that it is revolutionary, without precedent, a book that establishes another way of seeing, a work that is a new thing under the sun. Does Pessoa live up to that? Perhaps, or perhaps not, it is a difficult question.

The Portuguese have a famous, untranslatable word called saudade, which is often translated as “nostalgia,” specifically a melancholic and/or longing nostalgia, although it seems this scarcely suffices to explain this deep and complex emotion. I bring it up because Soares’s temperament is absolutely saturated with this saudade, you find it everywhere in this book; I quote, almost at random, “Everything wearies me, even those things that don’t. My joy is as painful as my grief.” Or consider the beautiful dictum, “I dream because I dream.”

Soares is a flâneur, a person whose vocation is loafing around a city, wandering through it at random, and though The Book of Disquiet does offer many remarkable descriptions of Lisbon, to me its real project is a very detailed exploration of the mental topography of Soares’s saudade. One of the things I find so impressive about this book is how Pessoa makes it feel so full of life, of knowledge, of wisdom, of beauty, of mystery, despite basically always going back to this one enervating emotion. The book is so incredibly dense, so exact in its very inscrutability, so endlessly ponderable that I always end up reading it very slowly, and with many breaks, as every page just bristles with so much. It’s so dense, mystic, and inexplicable that it’s practically a divination tool, like a Portuguese I Ching.

What has been your experience of reading this book?

It’s so dense, mystic, and inexplicable that it’s practically a divination tool, like a Portuguese I Ching.

BB: My experience was rather similar to yours. The density of thought on each page is staggering, and it can make the longer sections in this book (which are usually no more than a handful of pages at most) seem daunting. Even the shortest sections, sometimes no more than a sentence or two, can be intellectually daunting. One of the sections I’ve thought about most from the book is numbered 19: “Let us absurdify life from east to west.” Only seven words, but as you said, it’s endlessly ponderable. I’m not sure, even after thinking about it for a long time, I’ve approached what feels to me like an understanding of it. What exactly does Soares mean by absurdify? On its own, the sentence feels emphatic, perhaps declarative and triumphant, but the book is drenched in saudade and in that context it exchanges an energy for weight.

This brings me to something I’m interested to hear your thoughts on, which is the worldview conjured in the book. There are so many incisive passages in The Book of Disquiet that seem worthy of unpacking. Take, for example, the frequent invocation of dreaming throughout the book. The dictum you mentioned is an excellent place to start. “I dream because I dream” is elegant and simple and imbued with an inevitability that is often times comforting. At other points in the book, however, dreaming is not so easy. Soares writes, “Being able to dream the inconceivable and make it visible is one of the major triumphs that even I, great dreamer though I am, only rarely achieve.” He also draws clean lines around dreaming and other activities.

He distrusts anything he perceives as action, and goes so far to say:

“To think, yes, even to think, is to act. Only in absolute daydreams where no activity intervenes, where all consciousness of ourselves gets terminally stuck in the mud — only there in that warm, damp state of non-being can one truly abandon all action.”

Passages like this certainly read like divinations, and that’s one sense in which they should be understood. But I also wonder about the line between thinking and dreaming, which is difficult for me to navigate. Dreaming to me seems an imaginative process, especially if, as Soares claims to sometimes do, it is possible to dream the inconceivable. I wonder what you think about Soares’s conception of the dream, as it frequently recurs in the book.

I’d also like to know what you thought about some of the darker observations that appear in this book. At one point, Soares writes, “We are made of death.” And another: “all loves are the abomination of love.” A third: “To express oneself is always a mistake.” These are odd, counterintuitive, sad, and entirely fascinating to me. How did you take them?

What does it mean to accept that a book is uncategorizable?

SE: These quotations you’ve given us regarding dreams immediately take me to another one of Pessoa’s heteronyms, namely Alberto Caeiro. Caeiro is a very special character: here’s a sort of foundation of all of Pessoa’s other heteronyms, the poet-master, the ultimate genius, even though Caeiro himself is scarcely an artist as we usually understand it. He’s just this very naive, simple, somewhat fragile man in the Portuguese countryside who writes beautiful verse as if by sheer instinct. Here is what Pessoa has to say about him:

“He sees things with the eyes only, not with the mind. He does not let any thoughts arise when he looks at a flower . . . the only thing a stone tells him is that it has nothing at all to tell him . . . this way of looking at a stone may be described as the totally unpoetic way of looking at it. The stupendous fact about Caeiro is that out of this sentiment, or rather, absence of sentiment, he makes poetry.”

My gut instinct, although I hardly feel able to generalize about such an enormous, confounding, and contradictory volume as The Book of Disquiet, is that Soares yearns toward this kind of immediacy, this (to draw from one of your quote) “warm, damp state of non-being [where] can one truly abandon all action.” And I think this also gets at the contradictory dictums that one finds in such prodigious numbers everywhere here, for instance, “all loves are the abomination of love” and “To express oneself is always a mistake.”

The desire to get into a state analogous to Caeiro’s mystical oneness with everything outside of himself in the world is a kind of skeleton key for unlocking these sorts of statements — that, perhaps, if once dreams well enough, one might escape into the realm of dreams entirely, where there would be no division between “dreams” and “the real world” — or between “love” and “the abomination of love,” etc, etc — and one would attain the sort of consciousness that Caeiro has by pure instinct.

In this way, of course, Pessoa is doing his own rendition of one of the key questions in the European philosophical tradition, this question of being estranged from “being,” a question that begins with the likes of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, and continues right up through Heidegger and Sartre (of course), and which is a major concern of French post-structuralists like Barthes, Derrida, and Lacan. To me, this impossible desire informs much of that saudade that one finds endlessly throughout Pessoa, this omnipresent sense of one’s own estrangement, and this wish that one might be like Caeiro and enter into a sort of pre-linguistic relationship with the world — this complete absence of all artifice would yield the most beautiful poetry possible.

To conclude, let me go back to a word you used to describe some of these quotations: dark. I see what you mean, and I do think that there’s a definite darkness to Pessoa’s vision of reality, but whenever I read this book I also always feel like Pessoa just “gets away” with so much, in the sense that observations which, in a different book, might come off as overly trite, sentimental, dark, simplistic, or what have you always end up sounding miraculous when Pessoa makes them.

So perhaps this is a good segue to a question that I feel we must grapple with, which is: what about the title of this book? What exactly is a book of disquiet? And is disquiet — at least in the way we commonly define the word — really the major organizing principle of everything that one finds in this volume? I don’t know that I can answer any of these questions satisfactorily, but to get us started I will note that in the “preface” to this book, Soares claims that “this book is the autobiography of someone who never existed,” a certain Vicente Guedes for whom “dreaming was a religion.”

BB: I’m not sure what a “book of disquiet” would be, but I did find reading this book to be disquieting. It does not feel like an organizing principle, at least as I think of them, in that it does not feel like there is an organizing principle imposed on the book. The Book of Disquiet reads like something that happened. There is an inevitability to it. This fits with how Soares claims the book came to be, which you quoted. Autobiographies are an inevitable type of book. Their course is set before the writing begins.

The claim that this is an autobiography of a man for whom “dreaming was a religion” is fascinating to me because, as we’ve discussed, dreaming is treated as a spiritual experience, something akin to becoming one with ones thoughts and the world around them. I’m also interested, in contrast to this, in how on page 28 (section 17), the project of the book is described like this:

I am offering you this book because I know it to be both beautiful and useless. It teaches nothing, preaches nothing, arouses no emotion. It is a stream that runs into an abyss of ashes that the wind scatters and which neither fertilise nor harm — I put my whole soul into its making but I wasn’t thinking of that at the time, only of my own sad self and of you, who are no one.

I wonder what you think of this quote and of the questions it raises. I find the conflicting arrogance and self-criticism fascinating, and I am of course struck by how viscerally I disagree with it. I’m not sure what to make of a passage wherein a writer assesses their own book in a way that seems so wrong. This leads to me a somewhat related question: What does it mean to read a work like this in times so saturated with irony? For me, I think it created quite a beautiful experience, and part of that was because I was constantly navigating the space between my perception and what seemed to be the intended impact of the text.

SE: I like what you say about this book not having an organizing principle so much as reading “like something that happened.” Like you, I don’t read this book as being “about” anything so much as being a tendency, an immense body of thought that came out of a particular way of inhabiting the world. Also like you, I don’t find this book disquieting per se (or, at least, the disquiet that one finds in it is just one of many, many emotions encountered here). But I could perhaps see it as being the product of someone’s disquiet, this regular writing out of short prose fragments a way of coping with a profound state of anxiety.

The Book of Disquiet is saturated with irony in the sense of a unreliable narrator — a person whose words we don’t quite know how to regard.

As to the quote you’ve shared, my opinion is that, like so much in this book, it’s made of discrete chunks that on their own are quite simple to parse but when all put together baffle me with their complexity. Regarding the irony, I feel that this is part of the immense depth of this book, that one never knows what to take seriously and what to read between the lines. Just look at where Pessoa calls this book both “beautiful and useless:” what writer would really admit his work has no use, and in which sense would he mean that his writing is “useless?” And would he really be so arrogant as to flatly call his writing “beautiful?” It seems so out of character.

In my reading, The Book of Disquiet is saturated with irony in the sense of a unreliable narrator — a person whose words we don’t quite know how to regard. I think is a quite richer and more interesting sort of irony than the way we tend to use the word popularly nowadays, as a kind of shorthand for a sharp, biting humor where the intended meaning of a remark is never in doubt (it’s usually the exact opposite of the superficial meaning of the statement). I think this gets back to what I was saying about how hard I find this quote to parse, and which you mention at the end of your remarks: the level of irony in Pessoa seems to constantly be shifting — some of the quote reads as quite earnest, while other parts seem almost impossible to take on their face, and then right in the middle is that beautiful poetic metaphor (a different kind of discourse altogether), which dances right on the precipice of incoherence (as Pessoa so often does).

It strikes me that this is one of the great, unique things about literature — as opposed to other forms of art — the way that it can combine these different registers of communication into statements of intense depth. I find it a little like the end of 2001, when David Bowman looks into what he takes as a black monolith floating in space and suddenly realizes that it is in fact full of stars, that this object that seconds before was simply a metallic rectangle of some 20 feet or so becomes an object of profound depth, a portal to another world. And that to me is the longed-for experience of reading great literature, an experience that Pessoa excels at evoking to a rare degree, this sense of feeling chasms open up before your eyes as you work your way through these seemingly mundane statements.

Let’s go a little bit further in interrogating Pessoa’s claim that his book is both “beautiful and useless.” I think you and I will have no difficultly agreeing that The Book of Disquiet is quite beautiful; I’m more curious about this word “useless.” What, if anything, have you found The Book of Disquiet useful for in your lifetime? Does a great work of literature like this have a “use” (in any sense of that word), or is Pessoa correct that his book really is useless? In which case, why do we read it and spend so much time talking about it?

BB: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ways in which I find The Book of Disquiet useful. I’m not certain that I’ve got a satisfactory answer. It is useful in the ways that all remarkable and uniquely structured books are, in that it has taught me how to read differently. That is insufficient because this is also a book that has given me a profound, emotionally complicated reading experience, unlike any that I’d had before or will again.

Maybe its biggest use is this: It’s changed the way I think about thinking. One way to describe The Books of Disquiet is a collection of thoughts. (Not thought, which would, I think, imply a less idiosyncratic and contradictory book). I don’t mean this in a cheeky way, wherein one could describe all books as collections of thoughts. Of course, all things written had to be previously thought. What I mean in reference to The Book of Disquiet is that most sections describe how the narrator sees the world. I wouldn’t say that I agree with most of those points of view, but the processes the narrator goes through of explaining his conclusions and how he arrived at them is fascinating and has impacted the way I conceive of seeing and analyzing the world around me.

Is this really a use? Perhaps not. I don’t tend to look at works of literature in terms of their uses, and I would not have if the writer himself had not described the book itself as “useless.” I have a knee-jerk defensive reaction against that sentiment, which I suppose amounts to wishing to defend the book from itself. To me, that sees the mark of a very powerful work.

I’d like to hear what you have to say about the book’s uses, too. I your original question you rightly mentioned the number of meanings ‘uses’ can have and I am sure I’ve left many stones unturned.

I think literature can contribute to the national architecture, it can elevate a simply great city into one of the world’s truly unique places.

SE: The phenomenology — the very texture of the narrator’s experience of the world — is perhaps the chief draw for the book. It’s so multiple, and so strange, that it’s just dazzling. It’s taught me to read in new ways and simply to be sensitive to aspects of the world that I never noticed existed, which, truly, what more could you want from a book?

I could go on and on (and on) in that vein, but, okay, here’s a very different “use” for The Book of Disquiet. A couple years ago I traveled to Lisbon, and as happens when you cross nine hours of time zones I had some pretty severe jet lag. Lisbon, incidentally, is an incredible city, full of hills and beautiful architecture, a castle, an unbelievable monastery, world class art, that incomparable music known as fado, and of course espresso, which they refer to as “bica.” I was so severely jetlagged that each morning I would awake at approximately 4:00 am, completely awake and utterly unable to fall back asleep. So I would take my copy of The Book of Disquiet out into the common room of the guest house I was staying in and read as the sun came up. Not only was it a glorious way to pass what otherwise would have been a chore, it felt like the ideal way to start each morning in Lisbon (Pessoa is, of course, celebrated everywhere in Lisbon). It is one of the reading experiences I can best recall out of the two and a half years since I was in Portugal.

I think literature can contribute to the national architecture, it can elevate a simply great city into one of the world’s truly unique places, it can be the exact right thing at the right moment, it can help you transform from a tourist into a traveler. Those are uses, right?

I mean, what else can do all that, and fit right into the palm of your hand? I loved The Book of Disquiet before I went to Portugal, but after my time there it had taken on an altogether new importance in my life.

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