The Triumphant Day of Fernando Pessoa

On March 8, 1914, in Lisbon, Portugal, “I found myself standing before a tall chest of drawers, took up a piece of paper, began to write, remaining upright all the while since I always stand when I can. I wrote thirty some poems in a row, all in a kind of ecstasy, the nature of which I shall never fathom. It was the triumphant day of my life, and I shall never have another like it.”

Having knocked out all those poems, Fernando Pessoa, writer, editor and literary critic, blew the smoke from the barrel of his pen and commenced round two. On a fresh sheet of paper he wrote six more poems, a suite that makes up a collection called “Oblique Rain.”

Passoa was 25, in the prime of life and vigour. But what really made this 24-hour burst of productivity possible was that he was not just one man. He was at least three or four.

You see, right after Pessoa had finished that first poem, called “The Keeper of Sheep,” “there “appeared someone within me to whom I promptly assigned the name of Alberto Caeiro,” he later recounted. Caeiro went to town, producing poem after poem. But some time after lunch he vanished — perhaps to return to his day job as a shepherd. Now in the writing chair sat, once again, Fernando Pessoa. Or rather, “it was Fernando Pessoa’s reaction to his own inexistence as Alberto Caeiro.” And the furious output continued.

Pessoa’s margin notes let us glimpse the mechanics of his febrile imagination. He is, you might say, literature’s patron saint of dissociative identity disorder – or let’s call it dissociative-identity advantage. Throughout his short life, within the nesting dolls of his psyche, many other characters would emerge.

There was Claude Pasteur, a French translator, and A.A. Crosse, a puzzle-solver. There was Charles Robert Anon, a philosopher, and Pero Botelho, a man of letters. There was João Craveiro, a journalist, and a poet named Alexander Search. (Which would be a good name for a band. And actually is.)

By the end of his life Pesseo would have roughly 70 “heteronymns” in play. Each had a distinct personality, appearance and philosophy of life. And each wrote in a distinctive style.

For example, Bernardo Soares, a stylish and imaginative flaneur, wrote dreamy prose with no brakes. “He’s me without my rationalism and emotions,” Passoa would say. Uncle Pork pecked out short detective stories. David Merrick, a playwright, was the only one to write in English.

Pessoa noticed that each alter-ego emerged under certain conditions. For instance, “when I feel a sudden impulse to write and don’t know what,” Alvero de Campos (a naval engineer) would appear: zoop. The physician Ricardo Reis would report for duty after a meditation session. The prolific Soares, Passoa said, “always appears when I’m sleepy or drowsy, so that my qualities of inhibition and rational thought are suspended.”

Strangely, these characters varied wildly in their ability to actually write.

Caeiro has a rather poor command of the language, Passoa reported. Campos writes “reasonably well but with mistakes such as ‘me myself’ instead of ‘I myself.’ Reis “actually writes better than I,” Passoa acknowledged, “but with a purism I find excessive.”

A half-century later, after Passoa died of liver failure at the age of 47, the American poet laureate James Dickey weighed in with admiration.

“I think it’s important, as you get older, to discover and energize different parts of yourself. Pessoa tried to create a completely separate body of work for each of his personalities. Unfortunately, I believe none of them turned out to be very good, but what a terrific idea!”

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