Fernando Pessoa & His Heteronyms

Fernando Pessoa walks on a busy sidewalk in the Baixa district of Lisbon, Portugal. He wears a fedora hat, a bow tie under a white collar, and a long black trench coat. He carries a book.

You will never get to the bottom of Fernando Pessoa. There are too many of him.

"After looking for him in the poems, we look for him in the prose," wrote the scholar and translator Edwin Honig. Yet we find him nowhere. This was, after all, a poet whose maxim was, "To pretend is to know oneself." Cyril Connolly noted that Pessoa "hived off separate personalities like swarms of bees." He pretended relentlessly, employing more than seventy personae in his self-searching circus. They were not so much disguises as extensions and iterations of himself. "How idyllic life would be," he once wrote, "if it were lived by another person."

For some authors, the task of writing is a descent into the self. Pessoa ventured in the opposite direction, using his heteronyms as a means of escape and claiming that within his mini-populace, he was the least "real" and compelling of the bunch. The others were constellations swirling around him. In the context of psychoanalysis, a split identity is seen as a wound that needs healing. But in Pessoa's mind(s), there was nothing disorienting about it. "I've divided all my humanness among the various authors whom I've served as literary executor," he explained. "I subsist as a kind of medium of myself, but I'm less real than the others, less substantial, less personal, and easily influenced by them all."

Although the basic facts of his life are now known, creating a "biography" of Pessoa is a slippery task indeed. "There never was a good biography of a good novelist," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his journals. "There couldn't be. He is too many people, if he's any good."

Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa was very, very good.

Some things about him can be said for sure. He was born on June 13, 1888, in Lisbon, Portugal, and spent his first seven years there. His surname means "person" in Portuguese. He was five when his father, the music critic Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa, died of tuberculosis. Six months later, Fernando's baby brother, Jorge, died. His paternal grandmother suffered from bouts of insanity and was in and out of mental hospitals for the last twelve years of her life. After his father died, his mother, Maria Madalena Nogueira Pessoa, remarried, and the family moved to South Africa, where the boy's stepfather, João Miguel Rosa, served as the Portuguese consul of Durban, a British-governed town. By that time, the precocious Pessoa could already read and write. He had produced what is believed to be his first poem in the summer of 1895, when he was seven years old, in response to learning that the family would be moving to South Africa. The poem was called "To My Dear Mother":

Here I am in Portugal,
In the lands where I was born.
However much I love them,
I love you even more.

He attended a primary school run by Irish and French nuns and became fluent in French and English. And at Durban High School he was a brilliant student. Clifford Geerdts, a former classmate, recalled a boy who was morbid, as well as "meek and inoffensive and inclined to avoid association with his schoolfellows."

Pessoa gained three younger half siblings from his mother's second marriage: Henriqueta (with whom he was closest), Luís, and João. He read and loved Keats, Shelley, Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe, and Byron. His first pseudonyms were Charles Robert Anon, also known as C. R. Anon, and Alexander Search, for whom he printed calling cards. Then there was Jean Seul, who wrote only in French. The shy boy created poems and stories, and even "edited" fake newspapers—a bit like an early-twentieth-century version of The Onion—with news, spoofs, editorials, riddles, and poems, all written by a staff of "journalists" who'd sprung from his imagination and whose biographies he'd made up. Later, in recalling his childhood, Pessoa wrote that "[a]ny nostalgia I feel is literary. I remember my childhood with tears, but they're rhythmic tears, in which prose is already being formed." Nothing really mattered to him apart from his writing. Real life was beside the point. "I've always belonged to what isn't where I am and to what I could never be," he once wrote, conceding his fixation on dreaming and escape. "All I asked of life is that it go on by without my feeling it."

In 1905, Pessoa returned to Lisbon to attend university. (He would never again leave the city.) Though he dropped out after two years, he got a fine education on his own by sequestering himself in the National Library to read literature, history, religion, and philosophy. He began writing short stories, some of them under the name "David Merrick," as well as poems and essays, occasionally in Portuguese but more often in French and English.

Pessoa, who had very poor vision and wore glasses, lived with relatives or in rented rooms, chain-smoking, reading, writing, and earning a modest salary as a translator for firms that conducted business abroad. Later he worked as a bookkeeper. He had few friends. "Since childhood I had the tendency to create around me a fictitious world, surrounding myself with friends and acquaintances that never existed," he wrote later. (As a boy, he'd invented the Chevalier de Pas, a faithful "playmate" who sent letters to him.) In 1910, at the age of twenty-two, he admitted that "[t]he whole constitution of my spirit is one of hesitancy and doubt. Nothing is or can be positive to me; all things oscillate round me, and I with them, an uncertainty unto myself." He understood better than most the destabilizing effect of living with perpetual uncertainty. "Am I happy or sad?" he asked in one poem. "My sadness consists in not knowing much about myself. But then my happiness consists in that too."

If he had no idea who he was, his heteronyms were equally stumped. "In each of us there is a differingness and a manyness and a profusion of ourselves," wrote one of his mental offspring. Rather than being distressing, this notion of endless expansiveness offered tremendous comfort. "I suffer the delicacy of my feelings with disdainful attention," Pessoa explained, "but the essential thing about my life, as about my soul, is never to be a protagonist. I've no idea of myself, not even one that consists of a nonidea of myself. I am a nomadic wanderer through my consciousness." Put it like that, and you can't help but envy him.

It is crucial to make the distinction that Pessoa's "others" were heteronyms rather than pseudonyms.He insisted that they were separate from him. "I'm the empty stage where various actors act out various plays," he once wrote. In Pessoa country, unification was not possible or even desired. He was a breeder of beings, and always in pursuit of another. "I break my soul into pieces," he wrote, "and into different persons." He explained:

A pseudonymic work is, except for the name with which it is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; a heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama of his would be.

Pessoa led a timid and introspective life, yet he was no hermit. Nor did he attempt to hide his heteronyms—he was quite transparent about the fact of their (separate) existence. Unlike many pseudonymous authors, Pessoa seems not to be secretive but the opposite: utterly guileless, psychologically honest, earnest rather than serving up ironic posturing. His heteronymic conceit didn't spring from a desire to fool anyone or attract attention. This was a private matter.

In his writings, Pessoa went so far as to analyze the genesis of his heteronyms; he understood that readers would be curious. He suggested that the identities derived from "an aspect of hysteria that exists within me," and diagnosed himself as either "simply a hysteric" or a "neurasthenic hysteric," but leaned toward the latter. Also, he noted, "The self-division of the I is a common phenomenon in cases of masturbation."

He claimed that the various people he had "procreated" often sent him greetings, and that he could hear and see them, even if no one else could. Was this the result of talent or sickness? He stopped short of calling himself crazy. Throughout his life he grappled with the possibility of insanity—his anxiety undoubtedly fueled by his grandmother's illness—but he was never able to draw conclusions about himself one way or the other. Perhaps he recognized that being sound enough to produce his work was what mattered most. That he was so obsessively drawn to Shakespeare's Hamlet was more telling than he may have realized.

Pessoa argued that just as a novelist becomes annoyed when readers assume that his characters' feelings and experiences are mere stand-ins for his own, so too should people respect that Pessoa's heteronyms were utterly separate from him. If they occasionally happened to express his ideas, so be it; but he said this was not calculation on his part, only chance. Although he acknowledged the strangeness of all this, he felt it was not for him to judge whether these heteronyms actually did or did not exist. Besides, he noted, he wasn't even sure which one, Hamlet or Shakespeare, was more real—or "real in truth." (He added that he had no proof that Lisbon existed, either.) Further, he said that he agreed with some of the theories expressed by his heteronyms but disagreed with others. Still, they coexisted peacefully enough. All their work was dictated to him, and they weren't seeking his advice or consent. He was not artist but amanuensis, nothing more.

Although socially ill at ease, Pessoa enjoyed meeting acquaintances in coffeehouses and restaurants, keeping tight control over his interactions. One scholar noted that those who knew Pessoa described him as cordial, if inscrutable: "He could be a delightful man, full of charm and good humor, a humor that was very British, though with none of the traditional grossness in it. But this role was also that of a heteronym, which saved him from intimacy with anyone while allowing him to take a modest part in the normal feast of daily life." One man who knew Pessoa in later years recalled, "Never, when I bade him goodbye, did I dare to turn back and look at him; I was afraid I would see him vanish, dissolved in air."

There is no evidence that Pessoa yearned for more than his "modest part" in daily life. He once wrote that he wanted to be loved, but never to love: "Passivity pleased me. I was only content with activity just enough to stimulate me, not to let myself be forgotten."

He was a lifelong outsider, but in 1910 he founded the magazine A Águia; and in 1915, he became part of the nascent Portuguese avant-garde, a Lisbon group of intellectuals who founded a journal, Orpheu, which introduced modernist literature to the country. At first it was ridiculed, but soon the publication won respect, and the criticism that appeared in Orpheu became highly influential. Only a few issues were released before it folded, yet within this group of intellectuals, Pessoa found a strong sense of kinship. He went on to associate with other literary journals (both as editor and writer), publish chapbooks, issue a political manifesto called O Interregno, and start a press called Olisipo, which failed. For a London editor, he translated into English three hundred Portuguese proverbs. Literary activity constituted his "real" life, but he paid the bills with his dreary day job, working as a clerk. (He had this dull occupation in common with fellow toiling authors Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, and Constantine Cavafy.)

He wrote and wrote—in the daytime when he could, or else at night, and usually while standing up. On March 18, 1914, he had a kind of breakthrough: "I wrote some thirty-odd poems, one after another, in a sort of ecstasy, the nature of which I am unable to define," he recalled. "It was the triumphant day of my life.… What followed was the appearance of someone in me to whom I immediately gave the name Alberto Caeiro. Forgive the absurdity of the sentence: In me there appeared my master."

Caeiro, the first of Pessoa's major heteronyms, had been "born" in 1889 and would die in 1915. He had "no profession or any sort of education," was of medium height, pale, with blue eyes, and died consumptive. Once, Caeiro spoke in an "interview" of his humble accomplishments: "I don't pretend to be anything more than the greatest poet in the world," he said. "I noticed the Universe. The Greeks, with all their visual acuity, didn't do as much." He was joined by Alvaro de Campos, born in Tavira on October 15, 1890 ("at 1:30 pm"). Campos was a bisexual, unemployed naval engineer who'd studied in Glasgow and was now living in Lisbon. He was tall, Pessoa noted—"1.75 meters tall, two centimeters taller than I"—and "slender with a slight tendency to stoop."And he was "fair and swarthy, a vaguely Jewish-Portuguese type, hair therefore smooth and normally parted on the side, monocled." In him, Pessoa invested "all the emotion that I allow neither in myself nor in my living." Ricardo Reis was a classicist and physician, born in 1887 ("not that I remember the day and the month, though I have them somewhere," Pessoa wrote) and living in Brazil. Pessoa explained that Reis "is a Latinist by virtue of school training and a semi-Hellenist by virtue of his own efforts."

Then there was the "semi-heteronym" Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper living in downtown Lisbon who "seems always to be tired or sleepy." He was the closest to Pessoa's own voice, experience, and sensibility, and therefore the closest identity to a pseudonym. These men formed a "dramatic ensemble," and Campos even claimed that Pessoa did not exist.

Because he never had children of his own, Pessoa was father to his heteronyms, and they were quite a handful: there was also the suicidal Baron of Teive, who produced just one manuscript, The Education of the Stoic, having allegedly destroyed everything else he had written. Raphael Baldaya was an astrologer. Maria José was a nineteen-year-old hunchback consumptive suffering madly from unrequited love. And Thomas Crosse was an advocate of Alberto Caeiro's work. Yes, Pessoa's heteronyms actually critiqued—sometimes savagely, sometimes kindly—one another's writings. They also collaborated on projects (Crosse worked with his brother, I. I. Crosse) and translated one another's work. These diverse personae—or, Pessoae, you might say—wrote thousands and thousands of pages, and most of those texts were left behind as fragments to be transcribed and translated after Pessoa's death. It's a vast archive, much of it untouched even to this day.

Aside from Pessoa's almost spiritual devotion to his work, his life in Lisbon was uneventful and his routine predictable. He was an eccentric man.

He smoked eighty cigarettes daily and drank a lot. He hated having his photograph taken. He never arrived on time for an appointment, always showing up too early or too late. He had terrible posture. He was very interested in the occult. He dressed formally, with a bow tie and homburg hat. Obsessed with horoscopes, he considered making his living as an astrologer. He produced horoscopes for himself, his acquaintances, and even his heteronyms. Although he enjoyed reading plays, he almost always found them flawed.

Pessoa is known to have had only one significant love affair, with a young woman named Ofélia de Queirós. (She eventually married, and died in 1991.) When they met, the aptly named Ofélia was nineteen and working as a secretary at the same firm where the thirty-one-year-old Pessoa worked. He declared his love for her one day with lines taken from Hamlet, and then kissed her, she recalled, "like a madman."

After the failure of the relationship, Pessoa argued that love was a false notion, anyway—"it's our own concept—our own selves—that we love," and argued that "the repression of love sheds much more light on its nature than does the actual experience of it." Yet Ofélia said that Pessoa was entirely to blame for their breakup. "Little by little, he withdrew until we stopped seeing each other altogether," she recalled. "And this was done without any concrete reason whatsoever. He did not appear or write for several days because, as he said, there was something wrong with his head and he wanted to go to the insane asylum." He had written her more than fifty letters—some affectionate, drunk with love, others bitter and accusatory: "Why can't you be frank with me?" he demanded in March 1920. "Why must you torment a man who never did any harm to you (or to anybody else) and whose sad and solitary life is already a heavy enough burden to bear, without someone adding to it by giving him false hopes and declaring feigned affections? What do you get out of it besides the dubious pleasure of making fun of me?"

Elsewhere, he expressed—unheard of, for him—moments of insecurity and alienation: "I'm all alone—I really am….I'm going crazy from this sense of isolation and have no one to soothe me, just by being near, as I try to go to sleep." Yet he was just as quick to assume control and withdraw. "By the way," he wrote a few weeks later, "although I'm writing you, I'm not thinking about you. I'm thinking about how much I miss the days when I used to hunt pigeons." And Pessoa even had Alvaro de Campos ("Naval Engineer") write on his behalf, explaining that his friend's "mental state prevents him from communicating anything, even to a split pea."

Some scholars contend that Pessoa was a latent homosexual who sublimated his sexual impulses.

Ultimately, the author remains, like his work, "vastly unfinished, hopelessly unstructured, and practically unknown," as the scholar and translator Richard Zenith has written. It is no accident that one volume of verse that Zenith translated is entitled Pessoa & Co. The Portuguese writer formed a Corporation of One, of which he was CEO and every employee from the top of the ladder to the bottom rung. Pessoa's dozens of constructed alternate selves, Zenith noted, "were instruments of exorcism and redemption. They were born to save him from this life that he felt ill-equipped to live, or that offended his aesthetic and moral sensibilities, or that simply bored him." Although alter egos had become fashionable accessories for European writers in the early twentieth century, no one took the ruse as far as Pessoa did—and certainly no one has since.

As the scholar Jorge de Sena noted at the first international symposium on the author's work (held at Brown University in 1977), Pessoa was hardly the first to eradicate any trace of autobiographical feeling and experience from his writing. Yet de Sena pointed out that although the alter egos of modernists such as Gide, Joyce, and Eliot produced masterpieces, they never went to the extremes that Pessoa did. He annihilated himself in the name of artistic creation. "Unceasingly I feel that I was an other, that I felt other, that I thought other," Pessoa wrote. "I am a spectator of myself…I created myself, crevasse and echo, by thinking. I multiplied myself, by introspection…I am other even in my way of being."

"Poets don't have biographies," Octavio Paz wrote in his marvelous introduction to A Centenary Pessoa. "Their work is their biography." Who could make a greater claim to this than Pessoa? "I am, in large measure, the selfsame prose I write," he confessed. "I unroll myself in periods and paragraphs, I make myself punctuation marks.…I've made myself into the character of a book, a life one reads."

George Steiner called Pessoa "one of the evident giants in modern literature." John Hollander declared that if Pessoa had never existed, Borges would have had to invent him. C. K. Williams praised his "amazing audacities, his brilliance and his shyness." Harold Bloom included Pessoa on a list of twenty-six writers he considered essential to the Western canon, which featured Dante, Shakespeare, and Proust, and argued that Pessoa was not a madman but a reborn Walt Whitman, "who gives separate names to 'my self,' 'the real me,' or 'me myself,' and 'my soul,' and writes wonderful books of poetry for all of them."

Pessoa was the loving ringmaster, director, and traffic cop of his literary crew. He tended to each of their biographies with meticulous specificity, and attentively varied their styles, idioms, techniques, genres, ideologies, and interests. He killed some off and let others live. Whereas the work of poets is typically fed by outside stimuli, Pessoa's creativity seems to have fed off itself—like one of the contemporary artist Dana Schutz's famous "Self-Eater" paintings. One persona stirred another and another, and perhaps that apparently arbitrary transmission of energy explains why so much of Pessoa & Co.'s work took shape in unfinished fragments. The ideas born of this collective were too much for one man to set down on paper. "My character of mind is such that I hate the beginnings and the ends of things, for they are definite points," he explained.

What was Pessoa aiming for with his menagerie? What drove him toward multiplicity? Because "true" biographical information about him is so limited, it is difficult to say. All we have are his written accounts of his motives and the speculations of others. Pessoa was in pursuit of self-abdication. He wanted to escape both body and mind. "Pessoa sought to expel not only his sexual desires," Zenith wrote, "but his friendly affections, his religious tendencies, his aggressive feelings, his humanitarian urges, his longing for adventure, his dreams, and his regrets." Anyone attempting to define Pessoa reductively, as a mere cocktail of pathologies, should think again. As Zenith noted, "Psychoanalysis is too poor a science to explain the case of Pessoa, who seems to have been simply, mysteriously, possessed by a demon—that of detachment."

In a 1977 interview, Edwin Honig echoed the notion of Pessoa's essential unknowability: "Being both complex and simple, he is always hovering over some piece of mysterious ground, like moonscapes with mile-deep craters—terribly attractive but also very forbidding." It's understandable why Pessoa has drawn comparisons with T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, both masters of the elusive. "Reading [Pessoa's] best poems," Honig said, "you never know if you're plumbing the depths or if you're dangling there above without even touching ground. There's always that paradox in his secret, something unanswerable. Though he invites you to share it, he resists your advance the moment you accept the invitation." (This was not unlike his personal life. In work and in his social dealings, he always preferred a bit of distance.)

By taking leave of himself, becoming invisible to the extent that he could, he was free to roam in contradiction, paradox, and complexity without being labeled as this or that kind of writer. He could hold up mirrors, play with them, and then smash them to bits. As Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his "Ultra Manifesto," the true artist does not reflect himself, but razes himself and creates from there. "Two aesthetics exist: the passive aesthetic of mirrors and the active aesthetic of prisms," he wrote. "Guided by the former, art turns into a copy of the environment's objectivity or the individual's psychic history. Guided by the latter, art is redeemed, makes the world into its instrument, and forges—beyond spatial and temporal prisons—a personal vision."

In private life, Pessoa was a demure and awkward man. But his "personal vision" as a writer was startling and brave, anything but ordinary.

Much more than mere pseudonyms, Pessoa's heteronyms were so wildly different from one another that they allowed him to explore his imagination endlessly, without paying any price. Well, up to a point: that very messiness, the refusal to be defined as just one man, explains why he is not more widely known today. (Pessoa once described his oeuvre as "a drama divided into people instead of into acts.")

Certainly to many literary types he is a significant figure—the blessing of Harold Bloom is no small thing—but his books are not easily found. It's true that more of his work has been translated into English over the past decade, yet Pessoa hardly helped the matter of his legacy. In fact, he made things rather difficult by leaving behind a trunk full of journalism, cultural criticism, philosophy, plays, poems, political essays, and horoscopes, much of it illegible and unfinished. The trunk was discovered, after his death, in his rented room in Lisbon.

The material—nearly thirty thousand manuscript pages—is daunting for even the most intrepid scholar to sift through. Some have begun, then abandoned, their Pessoa projects. The monumental task of deciphering, organizing, and translating his work is still in progress, and perhaps always will be. Pessoa wrote haphazardly in different languages, on loose scraps of paper, in journals and notebooks, on the backs of envelopes, and on the official stationery of the firms for which he worked. As Richard Zenith has written, the work stands "like variously sized building blocks—some rough, others exquisitely fashioned—of an impossible but marvelous monument." Pessoa didn't care for cohesiveness in any area of his life. Yet the quality of much of these thousands of texts, however fragmented or arbitrary, is generally exceptional enough to prove much more than the ramblings of a crazy person.

In his lifetime, he wasn't exactly the Emily Dickinson of Lisbon—well, except for having apparently died a virgin. Mostly he kept to himself, to be sure, yet he also published hundreds of poems, journalistic pieces, and essays. He became a respected intellectual figure, if not quite a celebrity, but his literary genius was not widely recognized until after he died. In his home country, he is now considered the greatest Portuguese poet since Luís de Camões, the sixteenth-century author of the epic Os Lusíadas (a text Pessoa is said not to have cared much about). He is also regarded as one of the greatest modernists in any language and is surely one of the most fascinating literary figures of any era.

On November 29, 1935, the forty-seven-year-old Pessoa suffered from abdominal pain and a high fever. He was taken to the Hospital de São Luís, where he wrote, in English, his last words: "I know not what tomorrow will bring." The next day he died from cirrhosis of the liver.

Near one of the coffeehouses he used to frequent, a statue of Pessoa now stands. At the time of his death, those who knew his work understood that the country had lost an important man. "Fernando Pessoa is dead," a young doctor (and later a distinguished literary figure) named Miguel Torga wrote in his journal. "As soon as I heard the news in the paper, I closed my surgery and plunged into the mountains. There, with the pines and the rocks, I wept for the death of the greatest poet of our times, whom Portugal watched pass by in his coffin, on his way to immortality, without even asking who he was."

In the opening lines of what is perhaps his best-known poem, "The Tobacco Shop," Pessoa declares:

I'm nothing.
I'll always be nothing.
I can't want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.

He was someone who felt like "nothing" to such an extent that he strove for self-expulsion, yet like Walt Whitman, he contained everything that he needed, desiring nothing from the universe beyond his imagination. It's a statement that presents the speaker as both meek and grandiose: I have nothing, I am nothing, but don't you wish you had what I have, don't you wish to be what I am? Pessoa's self-abnegation is the source of his power and vitality. In his free-floating way, he implicates us, his readers, in the telling and interpretation of his story. As he wrote in his posthumously published masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet:

I am the suburb of a non-existent town, the prolix commentary on a book never written. I am nobody, nobody. I am a character in a novel which remains to be written, and I float, aerial, scattered without ever having been, among the dreams of a creature who did not know how to finish me off.

Pessoa has been dead for decades. We haven't even begun to finish him off.

This excerpt is from Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms by Carmela Ciuraru from HarperCollins.

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