Portugal Holds on to Words Few Can Grasp

The New York Times
Joao Pina for The New York Times

A Fernando Pessoa stencil made on a wall of a building in the Bica neighborhood of Lisbon. His heirs plan to sell some of his manuscripts.

July 15, 2008

Portugal Holds on to Words Few Can Grasp

LISBON — The latest brouhaha involving cultural property is unfolding here — and not, for a change, over stolen vases or precious war booty, but a poet's correspondence. As usual, it's a window onto a nation's character. The elderly heirs of Fernando Pessoa, the exalted Portuguese writer, plan this fall to auction Pessoa's correspondence with Aleister Crowley, the early-20th-century British mystic, mountaineer, writer and practitioner of black magic. Portugal's culture minister is among those who have shown distress in recent days about the letters' leaving the country.

Already the heirs have sold several of Pessoa's notebooks, which the National Library of Portugal bought last year. Since much of Pessoa's work remains unpublished, scholars fear that dispersing his papers (he left behind some 30,000 of them, in trunks in his home) will make it harder to decipher what remains one of the trickiest and most voluminous legacies among the great writers of the modern era.

Pessoa and Crowley struck up an odd-couple correspondence in 1930. Pessoa was the shy, probably celibate, at the time virtually unknown Portuguese poet who lived through a multitude of literary pseudonyms. Crowley was the larger-than-life spectacle whose recent biographer felt compelled to point out that his subject "did not — I repeat not — perform or advocate human sacrifice." A fellow astrologer, Pessoa wrote initially to correct errors he spotted in Crowley's calculations. Crowley responded, warmly, in letters to Pessoa that he signed "666."

In Pessoa's last home, now the Casa Fernando Pessoa, a city-run cultural center, Portugal's minister of culture, José António Pinto Ribeiro, politely made clear the other night during a public forum that the state has the power to keep what it decides is national patrimony in the country. Manuela Nogueira, Pessoa's niece, responded that a contract had already been signed with an auction house, but added that there was no reason to worry, because all the papers were being photographed so that copies would forever be available to scholars, regardless of where the originals ended up.

Nationalism is on the rise in Europe. The vast majority of Pessoa's papers belong to the National Library; the remainder, some 2,700, to the heirs. In this case the originals contain all sorts of scribbled notes and other unrecorded details that even good photocopies might miss. Most Portuguese, truth be told, couldn't care less about what happens to Pessoa's papers, but he is still the most remarkable sort of national treasure.

Eduardo Lourenço is perhaps Portugal's most distinguished literary critic. Pessoa is "an exception, being a great writer," he said the other afternoon. "But he had a way of being that is distinctly Portuguese." He paused to find the right words. "It has to do with everything and nothing — that we Portuguese can have everything, but still feel we have nothing."

Portugal, he explained, had discovered half the world by the 16th century but still felt itself a failure for having not discovered the rest. The national mind-set, Mr. Lourenço said, is "a combination of megalomania and humility."

"Also Pessoa was a loner," he went on, "one of the great poets to express absolute loneliness — some of his poems are so sad they are difficult to read, which is very Portuguese. Listen to fado." He was referring to the music that here connotes "saudade," a nearly untranslatable word meaning homesickness but also something more, something, he suggested, like paradise lost.

Pessoa of course represented much else besides. Raised in South Africa, trilingual, he wrote in English and French as well as in Portuguese, and in person ("pessoa" means simply person in Portuguese) affected the reserve of an English gentleman, inventing in his writing heteronyms, or imaginary characters, through which to make himself, as it were, disappear.

His most famous prose work, "The Book of Disquiet," was written under the name Bernardo Soares. It was cobbled together posthumously by scholars combing through the thousands of uncollated pages of literary fragments. (It's said that Pessoa, who died of cirrhosis in 1935, at 47, misread the stars, thinking he had two more years to live, during which he planned to organize his papers, although in a sense they could never be reduced to a single order, and so remain open-ended and forever elusive, like a hall of mirrors, and therefore quintessentially modern.)

Pessoa also wrote as Alexander Search, a Scottish engineer; Alberto Caeiro (Pessoa often called this invented character "my master"); Ricardo Reis; and Álvaro de Campos, a retired, bisexual naval engineer and melancholic with an addiction to drugs.

"What happened, you ask?" Pessoa wrote in 1920 to his one and only sweetheart, explaining why he was breaking up with her. "I got switched with Álvaro de Campos."

As Campos, he also wrote: "Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn't exist." "The History of the Siege of Lisbon," by the contemporary Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese novelist José Saramago, imagines a proofreader named Raimundo Silva, a man not unlike Pessoa, who, by inserting the single word "not" into a book, changes Portuguese history.

"Raimundo Silva," Mr. Saramago writes, "thought to himself, in the manner of Fernando Pessoa, If I smoked, I should now light a cigarette, watching the river, thinking how vague and uncertain everything is, but, not smoking, I should simply think that everything is truly uncertain and vague, without a cigarette, even though the cigarette, were I to smoke it, would in itself express the uncertainty and vagueness of things, like smoke itself, were I to smoke."

Pessoa, not coincidentally, nursed an 80-cigarette-a-day habit. Jerónimo Pizarro is the young Pessoa scholar whom the heirs have allowed to photograph the papers they have. "Pessoa's like a shadow, an invisible man," he said. "He wrote about being the center of a center where there was nothing."

Mr. Pizarro resisted pigeonholing Pessoa as distinctly Portuguese. (Mr. Pizarro himself happens to be Colombian.) But the director of Casa Pessoa, Inês Pedrosa, who is Portuguese, insisted that Pessoa captured something distinct about the nation's congenital mind-set. When Antonio Salazar became the country's dictator in 1932, she said: "The idea was not to have to worry about your next meal, but not to dream too much, either. We don't like people who stand out too much in Portugal. I have a friend who went to work in the United States for a big advertising firm and was asked to write a self-evaluation of his portfolio. What he thought he did very well he wrote was 'good,' what he thought good, 'sufficient.' The people at the firm told him he had a psychological problem."

"But it was not a psychological problem, it was a cultural issue," Ms. Pedrosa said. "He was simply being Portuguese, and Pessoa wrote brilliantly about this ridiculous condition."

In the basement of Casa Pessoa she pulled from shelves on Pessoa's old wood cabinets some of the books he collected and annotated. (Just recently, she said, a poem by Caiero was discovered on the back cover of one book.) In "A Short History of Christianity," by John M. Robertson, from 1902, Pessoa wrote in a tiny hand in the margin of one page, "excellent," in English, beside a passage declaring: "the material refinements of civilization" had bred in modern cities "a new neurosis." Pessoa underlined the last three words.

"For Portugal, it's not just the leftovers of something unimportant, it's Pessoa," Mr. Lourenço said about the Crowley papers. An expression connoting saudade briefly flashed across his face. "A painter paints a picture with the idea of selling it; a poet doesn't write with the idea of selling his papers, least of all Pessoa."

"All of the big questions of philosophy, religion and politics are in his work in the most radical way," he continued, "and in a fragmentary form that reflects on man and the creator. 'Because God has no unity, how can I?' Pessoa asked."

Mr. Lourenço gathered his thoughts one more time. "He is the most tragic of the Portuguese poets," he said. "The pleasure of unhappiness is particularly Portuguese."


Joao Pina for The New York Times

Manuela Nogueira, Fernando Pessoa's niece, at her house in Estoril on the outskirts of Lisbon.

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