Readings — From the December 2009 issue

Masquerades

From a selection of posthumously discovered prose pieces published, for the first time in English, in the October issue of Poetry Magazine. By the time of his death in 1935, Pessoa had written and published in the guise of seventy-two different pseudonymous personae, for whom he invented detailed biographies. They included, for instance, philosopher-cum-sociologist António Mora and Álvaro de Campos, a seafaring, bisexual, naval engineer who wrote Whitmanesque poetry. Translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith.

I like to think, because I know it won’t be long before I stop thinking. It’s as a point of departure that thinking delights me—a cold, metallic harbor station from which to set sail for the vast South. I sometimes try to focus my mind on a large metaphysical or even social problem, because I know that, ensconced in the hoarse voice of my reason, there are peacock tails ready to spread open for me as soon as I forget I’m thinking, and I know that humanity is a door in a wall that doesn’t exist, so I can open it onto whatever gardens I like.

Thank God for that ironic element in human destinies that makes dreams the mode of thought for the poor in life, even as it makes life the mode of thought—or thought the mode of life—for the poor in dreams.

But even dreaming channeled through thinking ends up making me weary. At which point I open my eyes from dreaming, go to the window, and transfer my dream to the streets and rooftops. And it’s in my distracted and profound contemplation of so very many roof tiles divided into rooftops, covering the astral contagion of people organized into streets, that my soul becomes truly detached from me, and I don’t think, I don’t dream, I don’t see, I don’t need to. Then I truly contemplate the abstraction of Nature—Nature, the difference between man and God.

As a child I used to save old cotton spools. I loved them with a sorrowful love—how vividly I remember—since their not being real filled me with compassion. . . . One day I laid my hands on some miscellaneous chess pieces, and what happiness that was! I immediately thought of names for them all, and they passed into my dream world.

All these figures took on definite features. They had distinct lives. One of them, who I had decided was rowdy and liked sports, lived inside a box on top of my dresser, where each afternoon a streetcar passed by when I, and then he, would come home from school. The streetcar was made of the interiors of matchboxes, strung together somehow by wire.

O my dead childhood! Forever living corpse in my breast! When I remember these toys I had as a boy already getting older, a sensation of tears warms my eyes, and a fierce and useless longing gnaws at me like a regret. All of that happened and has remained frozen and visible—seeable—in my past, in my perpetual idea of my bedroom from back then, spread out around my childhood person (who is unseeable except from within) going from my dresser to the nightstand, and from the nightstand to my bed, driving through the air the primitive streetcar that I imagined was part of the citywide network and that took my ridiculous wooden schoolmates home.

I endowed some of them with bad habits—-smoking, stealing—but I’m not sexually inclined, and their only acts in this line were, I believe, a predilection for kissing girls and peeking at their legs, which seemed to me mere acts of play. I made them smoke rolled paper behind a large box that was on top of a suitcase. Sometimes a schoolteacher would come around. And it was with all their anxiety, which I obliged myself to feel, that I quickly hid the false cigarette and placed the smoker—who struck me as curiously nonchalant—at the corner to wait for the inevitable passing of the teacher, whom he greeted I don’t remember exactly how. . . . Sometimes the figures were too far apart for me to move this one with one arm and that one with the other. I had to make them move alternately. This pained me the way it pains me today not to be able to give expression to a life. . . .

Ah, but why do I remember this? Why didn’t I remain a child forever? Why didn’t I die there, in one of those moments, preoccupied with the wiles of my schoolmates and the as-if–unexpected arrival of my schoolteachers?

Today I can’t do this. . . . Today I have only reality, which I can’t play with. . . . Poor little boy exiled in his manliness! Why did I have to grow up? Today, when I remember this, I feel nostalgia for other things besides all this. More in me than my past has died.

In its essence life is monotonous. Happiness therefore depends on a reasonably thorough adaptation to life’s monotony.

Unhealthy, illogical souls laugh—uneasily, deep down—at bourgeois happiness, at the monotonous life of the bourgeois man who obeys a daily routine . . . , and at his wife who spends her time keeping the house tidy, is consumed by the minutiae of caring for the children, and talks about neighbors and acquaintances. That’s what happiness is, however. It seems, at first glance, that new things are what give pleasure to the mind; but there aren’t many new things, and each one is new only once. Our sensibility, furthermore, is limited, and it doesn’t vibrate indefinitely.

To resign oneself to monotony is to experience everything as forever new. The bourgeois’s vision of life is the scientific vision, since everything is indeed always new, and before this day this day never existed.

He, of course, would say none of this. Were he capable of saying it, he wouldn’t be capable of being happy. My observations only make him smile; and it’s his smile that brings me, in all their detail, the considerations I’m writing down, for future generations to ponder.

For everyone we see and who interests us, we should create a biography of his past and future. One of the sage’s mental characteristics is his ability to dress up other people inside himself, giving them the clothes he deems most suitable for however he chooses to dream them.

Masquerades disclose the reality of souls. As long as no one sees who we are, we can tell the most intimate details of our life. I sometimes muse over this sketch of a story—about a man afflicted by one of those personal tragedies born of extreme shyness . . . who one day, while wearing a mask I don’t know where, told another mask all the most personal, most secret, most unthinkable things that could be told about his tragic and serene life. And since no outward detail would give him away, he having disguised even his voice, and since he didn’t take careful note of whoever had listened to him, he could enjoy the ample sensation of knowing that somewhere in the world there was someone who knew him as not even his closest and finest friend did. When he walked down the street he would ask himself if this person, or that one, or that person over there might not be the one to whom he’d once, wearing a mask, told his most private life. Thus would be born in him a new interest in each person, since each person might be his only, unknown confidant. And his crowning glory would be if the whole of that sorrowful life he’d told were, from start to finish, absolutely false.

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