“This is my most-highlighted book of the year. It is about a man who avoids interacting with other people whenever possible, lives for the sake of his daydreams, and would rather not be alive at all — less because he feels depressed than because life is boring.
“I… still don’t understand why I like this book as much as I do.”
Aaron Gertler, The Best Books of My 2015
The Book of Disquiet is remarkably difficult to talk about. And yet, when a stranger messaged me on Facebook because they’d seen that I was a fan, we wound up talking about it for an hour, stumbling around in circles trying to explain the way we felt.
(Reviewing the book is like trying to make up a new language in the middle of a conversation.)
The book’s Goodreads entry features nothing but four-and-five-star reviews on the first page. The second page, along with lots of additional praise, contains:
- A single one-star review, which appears to be ironic (“it is the very fact of its valuelessness that gives it its value”).
- A three-star review where the reviewer becomes furious at Pessoa for writing only half of a brilliant book, when — like a loving parent — they know he could have done better.
It would seem that, for any common definition of “hate”, The Book of Disquiet is almost impossible to hate. And that seems right. Can you hate the air you breathe? Can you hate the ground on which you walk? Can you hate sleep?
Why The Book of Disquiet Is Remarkable
One of the beliefs that defines my life: Every person has a brain, and that brain is thinking almost all the time.
Even so, most people never write a book.
Most authors prefer telling stories to writing about their own thoughts.
Most authors who do write about their own thoughts choose to gather thoughts around a theme.
Most authors who avoid themes, and write stream-of-consciousness, are constrained by editors.
After all those filters, very few books really express what it’s like to be inside the mind of another person for that person’s entire life.
Joseph Heller gets close. Nicholas Baker gets close.
But both authors deliberately choose to write from the perspective of someone more… ordinary than themselves. A philandering businessman with typical Freudian problems, or an office worker focused on the trivial details of the objects around him.
These narrators think a lot, but they aren’t especially thoughtful.
By contrast, Fernando Pessoa gets closer than anyone to a very particular type of mental experience: That of a born philosopher, someone almost entirely separated from the physical world and instead drawn inward by the gravity of their own mind.
My Best Attempt to Explain The Book of Disquiet
Imagine sitting in a room for three decades. You can write down whatever comes to mind, but you can’t leave the room — and someone has rewired your brain so that you don’t really want to.
There is a window that looks out on the city of Lisbon, Portugal. Sometimes, a person comes to speak with you for a few minutes about their day, but they won’t respond to you unless you say something ordinary. These conversations don’t let you really connect to anyone, but they give you something to think and write about.
After thirty years of this, the book you’d write, if you took the five hundred most profound pages, might look something like The Book of Disquiet.
And yet, no one locked Pessoa in a room. Somehow, he managed to inhabit the life of someone locked in a room even as he published poetry and wrote about politics and started his own publishing company. Writing as Bernardo Soares, one of his many alter egos, he admits to leaving his room, eating at restaurants, working in an office — but it’s as though he does all this without being seen by anyone around him. The Book of Disquiet could be the autobiography of a ghost.
Reviews of The Book of Disquiet That Represent Other Good Attempts, However Futile the Exercise
The Book of Disquiet […] is the work of someone who knows himself well, and cares only about reaching a kind of existential purity: a clarity of view, a refinement of mood, the isolation of particular beauties that resonate more deeply and linger longer than the others […] Soares is a monk of the poetic mind, for whom aloneness is a vocation.
Having been sentenced to a term of life by an errant universe, Pessoa decided to renounce action and ambitions in what we hold to be real life to pursue a variegated and abundant existence within the realm of dreams. As our life is measured through the archived clippings of one’s memory, whether one actually performed the deeds recalled matters less than the detail and substance they contain.
But our natures are diverse, for I am not as solitary as he was. I am solitary, you might say, but I have my books. What does he have? Only his dreams or a poignant and fruitful solitude.
“I’m with these poor slobs who have no books to show, who have no literature besides their own soul,” says the writer in the act of writing. The greatest irony of all is that Soares himself is privy to the largest literary ambition there is: “to feel everything in every way” […] The Book of Disquiet is funny, life-affirming, and, of course, desperately sad.
The Onion, reviewing The Book of Disquiet without mentioning it by name:
Man Hates Being Put In Position Where He Has To Think, Feel, Or Act
Some of the Many, Many, Many Lines I Highlighted:
“These are my Confessions, and if in them I say nothing, it’s because I have nothing to say.”
“I’d woken up early, and I took a long time getting ready to exist.”
“To be a retired major seems to me ideal. Too bad it’s not possible to have eternally been nothing but a retired major.”
“I see life as a roadside inn where I have to stay until the coach from the abyss pulls up. I don’t know where it will take me, because I don’t know anything. I could see this inn as a prison, for I’m compelled to wait in it; I could see it as a social center, for it’s here that I meet others.
“If life has given us no more than a prison cell, let’s at least decorate it as best we can – with the shadows of our dreams, their colourful patterns engraving our oblivion on the static surface of the walls.”
“There’s a thin sheet of glass between me and life. However clearly I see and understand life, I can’t touch it.”
“And so we were left, each man to himself, in the desolation of feeling ourselves live. A ship may seem to be an object whose purpose is to sail, but no, its purpose is to reach a port. We found ourselves sailing without any idea of what port we were supposed to reach. Thus we reproduced a painful version of the Argonauts’ adventurous precept: living doesn’t matter, only sailing does.”
“I saw that I had a message in my hand to deliver, and when I told them that the sheet of paper was blank, they laughed at me. And I still don’t know if they laughed because all sheets are blank, or because all messages are to be guessed.”
“Were I asked to discuss the social causes responsible for my soul’s condition, I would speechlessly point to a mirror, a clothes hanger, and a pen.”
“I asked for very little from life, and even this little was denied me. A nearby field, a ray of sunlight, a little bit of calm along with a bit of bread, not to feel oppressed by the knowledge that I exist, not to demand anything from others, and not to have others demand anything from me – this was denied me, like the spare change we might deny a beggar not because we’re mean-hearted but because we don’t feel like unbuttoning our coat.”
“Sadly I write in my quiet room, alone as I have always been, alone as I will always be. And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing of self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams and their hopeless hopes.”
“Not only am I dissatisfied with the poems I write now; I also know that I will be dissatisfied with the poems I write in the future. So why do I keep writing? Because I still haven’t learned… I haven’t been able to give up my inclination to poetry and prose. I have to write, as if I were carrying out a punishment. And the greatest punishment is to know that whatever I write will be futile, flawed and uncertain.
“What grieves me is that my best is no good, and that another whom I dream of, if he existed, would have done it better. Everything we do, in art or in life, is the imperfect copy of what we thought of doing.”
“It sometimes occurs to me, with sad delight, that if one day (in a future to which I won’t belong) the sentences I write are read and admired, then at last I’ll have my own kin, people who ‘understand’ me, my true family in which to be born and loved. But far from being born into it, I’ll have already died long ago. I’ll be understood only in effigy, when affection can no longer compensate for the indifference that was the dead man’s lot in life.”
(This is exactly what happened.)
“I suffer, without knowing if I deserve to. (A hunted doe.) I’m not a pessimist. I’m sad.”
“I’m the size of what I see!’ Each time I think on this phrase with all my nerves, the more it seems destined to redesign the whole starry universe. ‘I’m the size of what I see!’ How large are the mind’s riches, ranging from the well of profound emotions to the distant stars that are reflected in it and so in some sense are there!”
“The abstract intelligence produces a fatigue that’s the worst of all fatigues. It doesn’t weigh on us like bodily fatigue, nor disconcert like the fatigue of emotional experience. It’s the weight of our consciousness of the world, a shortness of breath in our soul.”
“Dreaming is the worst of drugs, because it’s the most natural of all. It works its way into our habits like no other drug can. We take it unawares, like a poison slipped in a drink. It doesn’t hurt, doesn’t make you pale, and won’t knock you out, but the soul that takes it can’t be cured, for it can never let go of its poison, which is its very own self.”
“The cause of my profound sense of incompatibility with others is, I believe, that most people think with their feelings, whereas I feel with my thoughts
“For the ordinary man, to feel is to live, and to think is to know how to live. For me, to think is to live, and to feel is merely food for thought.
“The country morning exists; the city morning promises. The former makes one live; the latter makes one think. And I’m doomed always to feel, like the world’s great damned men, that it’s better to think than to live.
“For a long time – I’m not sure if for days or for months – I haven’t recorded any impressions; I don’t think, therefore I don’t exist. I’ve forgotten who I am. I’m unable to write because I’m unable to be.”
“Ah, no nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed! The longing I feel when I think of the past I’ve lived in real time, when I weep over the corpse of my childhood life – this can’t compare to the fervour of my trembling grief as I weep over the non-reality of my dreams’ humble characters, even the minor ones I recall having seen just once in my pseudo-life, while turning a corner in my envisioned world, or while passing through a doorway on a street that I walked up and down in the same dream.
“My bitterness over nostalgia’s impotence to revive and resurrect becomes a tearful rage against God, who created impossibilities, when I think about how the friends of my dreams – with whom I’ve shared so much in a make-believe life and with whom I’ve had so many stimulating conversations in imaginary cafés – have never had a space of their own where they could truly exist, independent of my consciousness of them!”
“Everyone has his alcohol. To exist is alcohol enough for me. Drunk from feeling, I wander as I walk straight ahead. When it’s time, I show up at the office like everyone else. When it’s not time, I go to the river to gaze at the river, like everyone else. I’m no different. And behind all this, O sky my sky, I secretly constellate and have my infinity.”
“I refuse to submit to the state or to men; I passively resist. The state can only want me for some sort of action. As long as I don’t act, there’s nothing it can get from me. Since capital punishment has been abolished, the most it can do is harass me; were this to occur, I would have to armour my soul even more, and live even deeper inside my dreams.”
“Everything was sleeping as if the universe were a mistake.”
“All I asked of life is that it ask nothing of me.”
Part of me wants to travel back in time, find Fernando Pessoa, and introduce him to my century, in the hope that he’d find happiness in the Internet, the closest we’ve ever come to living inside of dreams.
But part of me senses that wherever Pessoa went, and whatever he saw, he would remain himself, something closer to a phenomenon than a person, an abstract avatar of tedium and separation doomed to a few decades of existence.
I don’t know how many people like that have ever existed. But as far as I know, only one of them wrote a memoir. You should read it.
Just learning about Pessoa and reading your review from a few years ago. He seemed to need to distance himself from people and collect impressions. I imagine he didn’t trust people to reveal much of themselves.
I have lived a solitary life mostly. By chance, I explored Buddhism and spent five years with a Buddhist community. I had difficulty with its strangeness. I found some damaged people seeking answers to life’s mysteries and desperately seeking “enlightenment”. Occasionally I met someone who had a serenity!