Underneath the shadow of the São Jorge Castle and alongside the banks of the Tagus River, the Portuguese poet Álvaro de Campos, long having escaped his training as a naval engineer émigré in Glasgow, declaimed Walt Whitman’s lines in stomping English. Past the red terra cotta roofs of Alfama, the lyricist Alberto Caeiro intuited reality simply as it was without the mediation of imperfect metaphor. Elsewhere fellow versifier Ricardo Reis generated reams of classical verse in the unspooling hexameter of ancient Latin.
“Of the gardens of Adonis,” Reis wrote, evoking the sylvan prehistory of his native land, “I love/Most of all those fugitive roses/That on the day they are born,/That very day, must also die,” a flower as fleeting as a thought as fleeting as a poem as fleeting as a person. By contrast, Caeiro could espy that same rose, but see it neither as symbol nor simile. To him, it simply was being in itself. “To think a flower is to see and smell it./To eat a fruit is to sense its savor.”
In the first few decades of the twentieth century these writers alongside novelist Bernardo Soares, short story writer Alexander Search, critic Antonio de Seabra, and the translator and editor Vicente Guedes produced a formidable corpus of stunning modernist poetry and prose in around Lisbon. “Portugal had enjoyed an ‘Age of Pericles’ in the early twentieth century and produced a number of outstanding poets with different styles who devoted their works to the plurality of the gods,” says Steffen Dix in The Pluralist. A literature multitudinous, poetry both occult and unnerving, thrumming with hermetic curiosity and zestful pagan enthusiasm. “Whether or not they exist,” writes Soares in The Book of Disquiet, “we’re slaves to the gods.” Existence, as Soares or any of these other writers could tell you, is oftentimes an obscure proposition.
After all, but for Dix, absolutely none of those authors named above is “real.” Along with sixty-five others, they are complex fictions, vestiges of the consciousness of a single person: Fernando Pessoa. The greatest Portuguese modernist poet, Pessoa bifurcated and trifurcated his mind to produce whole anthologies, movements, and libraries, an entire cast of writers whose identities he intuited and channeled, writing in the voices of a legion of fictional poets and playwrights and novelists across dozens of “heteronyms,” adopted personas as distant from a mere penname as the São Jorge Castle is from a shack.
“Pseudonymous works are by the author in his own person, except in the name he signs,” clarified Pessoa in an autobiographical note written in 1928 and published after he died from alcoholism-related complications in 1935. “Heteronymous works are by the author outside his own person. They proceed from a full-fledged individual created by him, like the lines spoken by a character in a drama he might write.”
Raised between Lisbon and Durban, a city in the southern African British colony of Natal where Pessoa’s stepfather was Portuguese consul, the young poet became fluent in English, strongly influenced by the transcendent enthusiasms of Romantics like John Keats and Percy Shelley, but also the polyvocal yawp of the American Walt Whitman. After his return to Portugal at age seventeen, Pessoa involved himself in the literary and cultural affairs of the capital, though during his short forty-seven years his corpus of published work consisted of a slender volume and a handful of critical essays. The bulk of his achievement—thousands of pages of writing—was hidden away in a trunk.
“The poet is a man who feigns/And feigns so thoroughly, at last/He manages to feign as pain/The pain he really feels,” wrote Pessoa under his own name, “And thus, around its jolting track/There runs, to keep our reason busy,/The circling clockwork train of ours/That men agree to call a heart.”
This was the spectacular vision of Pessoa, where each individual is as a neuron in the brain of humanity, but also where the single mind is a cosmos unto itself. That “clockwork train of ours” was a spectacular mystery, culture merely an ongoing negotiation between the writer and reader in the production of phantoms, and where we remain unknown to each other, though most of all to ourselves. By its very nature, Pessoa’s work was not of a man so much as it was of a multitude, the achievement not of a singer but of a chorus.
In Pessoa: A Biography, Richard Zenith argues that no writer equals the poet’s “achievement of configuring, through his heteronyms, radically different poetic and philosophical attitudes that formed a glorious if not always harmonious musical ensemble.” Works like The Book of Disquiet and Mensagem are a “kind of literary schizophrenia,” argues José I. Suárez in Hispania, while Luke Thurston in Qui Parle more charitably describes Pessoa’s corpus as a “philosophical scandal, an unprecedented and still traumatic break with conventional structures of thinking and being,” fracturing the individual subject that had been the focus of Western civilization since René Descartes first wrote “I think, therefore I am.” Whether or not it’s accurate to describe Pessoa as the most representative poet of the twentieth century as critic Harold Bloom did, there is something of the fissures and divisions of alienated modernity implicit in such a project, an opportunity provided by Pessoa to consider the complex arrangements of the human mind in exile from itself.
As a critical neologism, “heteronym” was coined by Pessoa, whose name rather appropriately translates from the Portuguese to the word “person.” Pessoa had a sense of himself as an empty vessel, as a conduit for these personalities so visceral and tangible in a manner that a mere pseudonym or penname obviously aren’t. Evoking everything from multiple personality disorder to the mediumship of occult automatic writing (a subject of keen interest to Pessoa), the poet produced something stunningly original in a multitude of volumes only read after his death, an individually-created entire canon of verse.
“I have tended to create around me a fictious world, to surround myself with friends and acquaintances who never existed,” Pessoa reminisced, a practice that went back to his early childhood when such fictious interlocutors were helpful when he was mastering English as a second language. Imaginary friends are of course common, but to maintain them into adulthood and then to flesh them out into realistic personalities is entirely another issue. Writing to his friend Casais Monteiro, Pessoa claimed that he had “created a nonexistent coterie, and gave it all a semblance of reality. I gauged the influences at work and friendships between them, I listened within myself to their discussions and divergent points of view.” Indeed, while Pessoa’s seventy-two heteronyms share certain intellectual interests (not least of all a pagan sensibility), there are profound differences as well, with Reis flowery and Caeiro rustic, while Campos is more of a dandy. These were not mere pennames or even simple personas, for as Patrícia Oliveira da Silva McNeill writes in Portuguese Studies, “Pessoa attributed significant autonomy to his heteronyms, endowing each with a biography, particular traits of character, worldview, and individual style.” As with the anecdote about William Faulkner rushing each day to his typewriter to see what had happened to the members of the Snopes family, Pessoa interacted with these characters as if they were real. As the poet would claim to Monteiro, even though Pessoa was “who created it all… [he] had the least to say in it.”
There is good reason for detecting something spooky in Pessoa’s reasoning. Like many Modernist writers, chiefly William Butler Yeats to whom Pessoa is often compared, the Portuguese poet was drawn to the occult, a lineage between the twentieth-century artistic vanguard and nineteenth-century Spiritualism too infrequently considered. The women and men who were the primogenitures of the Modernist revolution in art and literature were the beneficiaries of Victorian childhoods in which all variety of Spiritualism was considered. McNeill enumerates Pessoa’s obsessions with “hermeticism, magic, alchemy, astrology, and theosophy,” as well as secret societies such as Freemasonry, that last interest running him afoul of the dictatorial government of António de Oliveira Salazar. Both automatic writing, whereby an author lets their unconscious control their composition, as well as consulting with psychics and mediums, were methods by which Pessoa explored the occult. Describing his own relationship to the heteronyms under whose name he wrote, it’s clear that Pessoa understood them as being semi-autonomous, as not characters, inventions, or even as simple vestiges of his unconscious, but as beings with their own sovereignty for whom he acted as conduit.
Jerónimo Pizarro in Fernando Pessoa: A Critical Introduction says that the poet’s enthusiasm for trances and automatism is “less a phenomenon close to madness than a technique or method of composition of other authors, that is, a vertiginous creation of alter egos by an ego (that of the main author), which, instead of denying its multiplicity, seeks to live with it and make the most of it.” As it is, such a fascination with the occult is not mere biographical curiosity, but rather the crux of Thurston’s “philosophical scandal” that Pessoa represents. More than an avant-garde, Pessoa is a throwback, a refugee from the paganism which he aspired to.
We read poetry today through the lens of the confessional fallacy, believing that the narrator and the author are contiguous, with the lyric a spontaneous overflow of feeling derived from deep within the writer herself. As Pessoa understood it, however, the task of verse is more like being an oracle than anything. “If the Pessoan self can only feel itself through the affect of the other,” writes Thurston, “it is clear that thought (or at least Western, logocentric thought) can only struggle, in the fact of it, to avoid breakdown: the very principle of non-contradiction on which philosophical logic is founded is flouted.” Individualism has been the currency of Western culture for three centuries and in poetry it’s most exemplified by that Romantic pose which misinterprets verse as an issue of “self expression,” though with no understanding of what that first word even means. Pessoa, by contrast, stands with that remnant community of ecstatic poets who understand how fractured the psyche really is, as when Arthur Rimbaud wrote that “I is an Other,” while Whitman bleated “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes).” Such fracturing is not merely Pessoa’s means of composition, but the very subject of his poetry itself.
“I’m a herdsman of a flock./The sheep are my thoughts/And my thoughts are all sensations,” Pessoa writes in the guise of his pastoralist Caeiro. Of course, though intrinsically connected, sheep are separate from their shepherds, just as Pessoa would imply that thoughts exist independently from the thinker. This is the logic of the medium, of the oracle, but in many ways Pessoa’s thinking—ancient though such reasoning may be—has an obvious truth about it. There is a foolishness in pretending that the human mind is single and solitary, atomistic and individualistic, for right at the moment that Pessoa was intuiting Caeiro, de Campos, and Reis, philosophy and psychoanalysis were beginning to understand how complex our identities can be.
Being is not smooth and monolithic, but rather nubbly and gnarled, textured and tactile. Poet Paul Muldoon notes in the New England Review that Pessoa’s achievement “raises that much broader question about the extent to which the personality of any single poet may be thought of as being coterminous with his or her poems,” to which it could be added that an even broader question is also raised as to the extent which the personality of any person can be regarded as coterminous with their biography. After all, Rimbaud’s declaration that “I is an Other” applies not only to poets, but to all people, in our glorious complexity.
“Though the traditional continuous life narrative implies a stable self construct,” writes Greg Mahr in Biography, “the self is in fact a retrospective construct; its apparent seamlessness can be illusory.” The heteronyms of Pessoa were representative of something that wasn’t radical so much as it was a renewal, an acknowledgment that the mind is a house with many mansions.
“To be great, be whole,” wrote Pessoa as Reis, “nothing that’s you/Should you exaggerate or exclude.” This is the fundamental principle of Pessoan metaphysics, that in the division of the self there is paradoxically the achievement of a whole, for its only in embracing that multitude within us that we can finally truly and completely see ourselves—that nothing should be excluded. “In each thing, be all. Give all you are/In the least you ever do.” Anyone who writes—and you need not be consulting a medium to understand this—knows that we take on different voices and styles, personas and characters in achieving the proper mood of respective compositions. For that matter, anyone who is alive understands that we do something similar when facing others, when facing ourselves. All of literature is heteronymous, it just occasionally happens that the name on the cover is the same as the persona who is writing. What Pessoa conveyed as well as anyone is how the most potent heteronym we write with is often our own name.