The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa
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The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa

Fernando Pessoa

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The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa

Fernando Pessoa

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A selection of prose by "Portugal's greatest writer of the twentieth century... as addictive, and endearing, as Borges and Calvino" ( The Washington Post Book World ). Building on the wonderful Fernando Pessoa & Co.: Selected Poems, which was acclaimed by Booklist as "a beautiful one-volume course in the soul of the twentieth century, " translator Richard Zenith has now edited and translated selections from Pessoa's prose, offering a second volume of this forgotten master's flights of imagination and melancholy wit. Though known primarily as a poet, Pessoa wrote prose in several languages and every genre—the novel, short stories, letters, and essays. The pieces collected here span intellectual inquiry, Platonic dialogue, and literary rivalries between Pessoa's many alter egos—a diverse cast of literary voices he called 'heteronyms'—who launch movements and write manifestos. There are appreciations of Shakespeare, Dickens, Wilde, and Joyce; critical essays in which one heteronym derides the work of another; experiments with automatic writing; and works that toy with the occult. Also included is a generous selection from Pessoa's masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet, freshly translated by Richard Zenith from newly discovered materials. Fernando Pessoa was one of the greatest exponents of modernism. The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa is an important contribution to literature that brings back to life a forgotten but crucial part of the canon.

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Grove Press
I don’t know if the stars rule the world
Or if tarot or playing cards
Can reveal anything.
I don’t know if the rolling of dice
Can lead to any conclusion.
But I also don’t know
If anything is attained
By living the way most people do.
Álvaro de Campos
(from a poem dated January 5, 1935)
On one of his frequent nights of insomnia the “semiheteronym” Bernardo Soares, repeating a ritual he no doubt learned from his inventor, finally gives up trying to sleep and walks over to the window, from where (as told in The Book of Disquiet, text 465) he gazes “at the countless stars, nothing, nothingness, but countless stars. . . .” We all occasionally think—we think and we forget—about the smallness of our human life next to the vast, indifferent, and inscrutable stars, but Pessoa was haunted, if not possessed, by that consideration. Unable to accept the nothingness that his reason so often announced, he spent many hours pondering the truths that might lie hidden in and beyond the stars’ luminous hieroglyphics.
Pessoa owned dozens of books about spiritual matters ranging from ancient religions and astrology to the Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, and Freemasonry, and he wrote scores of pages on these same topics. He also cast several hundred astrological charts for historical figures (including Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Mussolini), literary figures (Milton, Goethe, Dickens, Baudelaire), his friends, himself, and his heteronyms. Pessoa, when writing on things spiritual and metaphysical, like Pessoa when writing on most things, couldn’t avoid a degree of irony, trying out all positions to show that they’re all correct, or all wrong, or all relative, but there was a definite evolution in his spiritual interests and attitudes. By tracing it we may not arrive at what Pessoa “really” believed, but we will find out which, among the spiritual paths he explored, he at least respected, and which he rejected.
By his early twenties, Pessoa had become versed not only in Greek and German philosophy but also in orthodox and heterodox Christian theology, Judaism, and Eastern religions. Though not a believer of a specific creed, he recognized in himself a spiritual tendency, and he cultivated it. He was at the same time, and in seeming contradiction, an inveterate skeptic, having been deeply impressed as a teenager by the writings of Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist whose immensely popular Riddle of the Universe (1899) propounded a strictly materialist view of the world. Despite his doubts, Pessoa never abandoned his spiritual quest, presumably for the reason set forth in the Álvaro de Campos poem cited in the epigraph.
In 1914 Pessoa, who was living with his aunt Anica and her daughter, Maria, organized séances in which they all participated, and at the end of that year he began to study manuals of astrology and to cast his first charts. In 1915–16 he translated and published six books by Helena Blavatsky, Annie Besant, and other Theosophists, whose ideas prompted an “intellectual crisis,” according to the draft of a letter to Mário de Sá-Carneiro. Though impressed by the concept of “higher, superhuman knowledge that pervades Theosophical writings,” Pessoa could not reconcile Theosophy’s “ultra-Christian” character with his own “fundamental paganism.” He was also nonplussed by the new movement’s humanitarian aspirations. These reservations became two of the main reasons for the unqualified contempt of Theosophy expressed by Raphael Baldaya, Pessoa’s astrologer heteronym, in an unfinished essay titled “Principles of Esoteric Metaphysics.” While respecting the Hermetic traditions promoted by the Rosicrucians and other secret societies, Baldaya accused Theosophy of being “merely a democratization of Hermeticism or, if you like, its Christianization.”
Pessoa’s own experiences as a medium—described in the letter to his aunt Anica included in this section and documented by several hundred sheets of automatic writing left among his papers—were similarly discredited in an essay he titled “A Case of Mediumship.” Analyzing his “case” from a clinical point of view, Pessoa attributes its origins to “hysterical neurasthenia” and hypnotic suggestion, and narrates the mediumistic phenomena he experienced—including his “so-called etheric vision” and his “pretended communication with diverse spirits” through automatic writing—like so many symptoms of a disease. His automatically received communications are found to be the product of his excited imagination (the case, we’re told, of the Margaret Mansel story in the group of automatic writings published here) or of mere delusion brought on by mental fatigue. One of the essay’s stern conclusions is that “spiritism should be prohibited by law,” or at least limited to a sect, as in ancient times.
“A Case of Mediumship,” like the Baldaya essay, was written before 1920, and while it’s true that Pessoa was his own best devil’s advocate, his interest in Theosophy and spiritism had definitely waned if not withered. He continued to pr...

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