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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Pessoa’s "Disquiet": “Strange", "Sublime" and Portuguese

Updated: Jul 30, 2022

Looking in the mirror, Pessoa says he saw several times what appeared to be the heteronyms, his “face fading out” and replaced by the one of “a bearded man”, or another one, four men in total. (By Rui Pimentel)


The Book of Disquiet is not strictly about Lisbon, although native son Fernando Antonio Nogueira Pessoa, one of Portugal’s most celebrated writers, describes it from time to time:

“Yes, it’s sunset. I walk, leisurely and distracted, down Rua da Alfandega towards the Tejo and, as Terreiro do Paço opens out before me, I can clearly see the sunless western sky. To the left, above the hills on the far shore of the river, a bank of brownish, dull pink mist crouches in the sky and there the colors shade from greenish blue to greyish white. A great sense of peace that I do not possess is scattered in the cold, abstract autumn air. Not having it, I let myself suffer the vague pleasure of imagining its existence. But in reality there is neither peace nor a lack of it, there is only sky, a sky made up of every fading color – blue-white, blue-green, a pale grey that is neither green nor blue. . . .

“I feel and I forget. A sense of nostalgia invades me, like an opiate borne on the cold air, the nostalgia that everyone feels for everything. I am filled with an intimate, illusory ecstasy of seeing.”

The Book of Disquiet (Livro do Desassossego) is not strictly about language, although Fernando Pessoa, described as one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century, writes:

”To say things! To know how to say things! To know how to exist. The rest is just men and women, imagined loves and fictitious vanities, excesses born of poor digestion and forgetting, people squirming beneath the great abstract boulder of a meaningless blue sky, the way insects do when you light a stove.”

The Book of Disquiet is not strictly about Portuguese, although the author, lauded as one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language, writes:

“I have no political or social sense. In a way, though, I do have a highly developed patriotic sense. My fatherland is the Portuguese language. It wouldn’t grieve me if someone invaded and took over Portugal as long as they didn’t bother me personally. What I hate, with all the hatred I can muster, is not the person who writes bad Portuguese, or who does not know his grammar, or who writes using the new simplified orthography; what I hate, as if it were an actual person, is the poorly written page of Portuguese itself; what I hate, as if it were someone who deserved a beating, is the bad grammar itself; what I hate, as I hate a gob of spit independently of its perpetrator, is modern orthography with its preference of ‘i’ over ‘y’.”

(The Portuguese language, used in poetry and documents from the 12th century, did not have an orthography, or uniform spelling standard, until 1911. ”Modern orthography”. There have been a few spelling reforms since then. In 2009, the reform of 1990 came into effect, changing the rules of capitalization and hyphen usage, against which some columnists at the newspaper, Expresso, rebel, stating that they write in accordance with the former orthography.)

What is The Book of Disquiet?

It is a book about life and death, and the tedium that we spend splayed between the two.

“Tedium . . . No one with a god to believe in will ever suffer from tedium. Tedium is the lack of mythology. To the unbeliever, even doubt is denied, even skepticism does not give strength to despair. Yes, that’s what tedium is: the loss by the soul of its capacity to delude itself, the absence in thought of the nonexistent stairway up which the soul steadfastly ascends towards the truth.”

This collection of philosophical nuggets ruminates over the meaning of getting up in the morning and putting on a pair of trousers one leg at a time.


“Names may sometimes be fate: the Portuguese word pessoa means person, and is derived from the Latin persona, an actor’s mask.” (By Rui Pimentel)


Fernando Pessoa was about 25 when he began writing the pieces and left the book open-ended and without organization upon his death. It was written by a man with a bursting interior life of heteronyms, or authors with their own complex biographies, distinctive philosophies, and literary styles independent of him and each other.

Translator and literary critic Richard Zenith noted that Pessoa established at least 73 heteronyms.

“Alvaro de Campos, for example, was a Portuguese engineer with an English education and strongly influenced by symbolism and futurism. Ricardo Reis was a doctor who defended the monarchy and was very interested in Latin culture. Alberto Caeiro. although with little formal education (he only attended primary school) and an anti-intellectualist position, is considered a master,” according to Revista Bula, a website about art and journalism founded in 2003 in Brasilia.

Two heteronyms write The Book of Disquiet: “My semi-heteronym, Bernardo Soares, who in many ways resembles Alvaro de Campos. . . . He’s a semi-heteronym because his personality, although not my own, doesn’t differ from my own but is a mere mutilation of it. He’s me without my rationalism and emotions. His prose is the same as mine, except for certain formal restraint that reason imposes on my own writing, and his Portuguese is exactly the same,” Pessoa wrote in a letter to a friend and literary critic, Adolfo Casais Monteiro (January 13, 1935).

Bernardo Soares, an accounts clerk working in an office on Rua dos Douradores (douradores, or gilders, were the craftsmen who coated gold leaf on books, paintings and other pieces) in downtown (Baixa) Lisbon, shares authorship with Vicente Guedes, who wrote semi-symbolist pieces often describing “particular states of mind or imaginary landscapes or offered advice to would-be dreamers or even unhappily married women . . . or those who, like him, had lost their religious faith,” according to the translator, Margaret Jull Costa, in the introduction to The Book of Disquiet (2017).

Born on June 13, 1888, on Largo de Sao Carlos, just opposite the opera house, Teatro Nacional de Sao Carlos, Fernando Pessoa died on November 30, 1935, at Hospital Sao Luis at age 47 of what most say was cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism. He wrote his last words the day before his death:

“I know not what tomorrow will bring.”

In 1893, when Fernando Pessoa was five, his father died of tuberculosis and, a year later, he lost his only sibling, a younger brother. In 1896, he sailed with his mother for South Africa to join his stepfather after a proxy wedding:

“. . . my stepfather becoming Portuguese Consul in Durban (Natal), I was educated there, the English education being a factor of supreme importance in my life, and, whatever my fate be, indubitably shaping it,” he wrote in a letter dated February 8, 1918.

In South Africa, he developed an appreciation for English literature: Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, and the romantics, such as Shelley, Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Tennyson, according to translator Richard Zenith in Fotobiografias do Seculo XX: Fernando Pessoa (2008). He also began writing short stories, some under pen names.

In 1905, at the age of 17, he sailed back to his beloved, Lisbon, which he barely left again.

In Portugal’s capital, he became influenced by French writers, such as Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme, and by Portuguese poets, such as Antero de Quental (“Properly speaking there has been no Portuguese literature before Antero de Quental; before that there has been either a preparation for future literature, or foreign literature, or foreign literature written in the Portuguese language.” (1915); Gomes Leal; Cesario Verde; Antonio Nobre; Camilo Pessanha, and Teixeira de Pascoaes, who was nominated five times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Later, he was influenced by modernists such as W. B. Yeats; Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, according to translator Richard Zenith.

He studied for two years at the University of Lisbon and then continued to learn as an autodidact. According to Prospect (October 20, 1997):

“In his final years, in the late 1920s, he was taken up by the students at Coimbra University who had founded Presença, a magazine that lasted longer than most. Several of the students associated with the magazine went on to become the leading Portuguese writers of their day. For them, Pessoa was both an inspiration and a bone of contention.

“These students combined a commitment to the avant-garde with an art-for-art’s sake philosophy. They included the recently deceased Miguel Torga, who split the group by criticizing Pessoa; Branquinho da Fonseca, the author of the novella, The Baron, (the latter knew (English literary critic) Cyril Connolly, who himself became interested in Pessoa later in his life), and Joao Gaspar Simoes, Portugal’s foremost critic, who sifted through papers in the trunk after Pessoa’s death and began preparing the first volume of Pessoa’s collected works, which appeared in Lisbon in 1942.”

One cannot help but wonder whether, through his association with students at the University of Coimbra, he also learned of substance (matter and form) and the thinking soul from the Commentaries on Aristotle by the Coimbra Jesuit College. (King Joao III handed down the Royal College of Arts to the Jesuits in the 16th century.)

After all, much of Pessoa’s philosophy is a negation of that of others:

“To know oneself is to err, and the oracle who said ‘Know Thyself’ proposed a task greater than all of Hercules’ labors and an enigma even more obscure than that of the Sphinx. To unconsciously unknow oneself is the active task of irony.”


“If I had the world in my hand, I would trade it, I am sure, for a ticket to Rua dos Douradores.”


Translator Margaret Jull Costa writes:

“Pessoa lived to write, typing or scribbling on anything that came to hand – scraps of paper, envelopes, leaflets, advertising flyers, the backs of business letters, etc. He also wrote in almost every genre – poetry, prose, drama, philosophy, criticism, political theory . . .”

Fernando Pessoa also wrote in and translated from English and French. He translated a number of Portuguese books into English and into Portuguese The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne; short stories by O. Henry; and poetry by Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Tennyson, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and John Greenleaf Whittier.

He also translated into Portuguese books by the leading theosophists Helena Blavatsky, Charles Webster Leadbetter, Annie Besant and Mabel Collins.

His interest in esotericism, occultism and astrology led him to complete hundreds of horoscopes of famous people such as Shakespeare, Byron, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Robespierre, Napoleon I, Benito Mussolini, Wilhelm II, Leopold II of Belgium, Victor Emmanuel III, Alfonso XIII, and the kings Sebastian and Carlos of Portugal, Salazar and, of course, himself. He created an astrologer heteronym, who planned to write System of Astrology and Introduction to the Study of Occultism.

He offered astrological services at the price of 500 to 5,000 reis (the real, plural reis, meaning royal, was the unit of currency of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire from about 1430 until 1911, when it was replaced by the escudo as a result of the October 5 Republican revolution of 1910, at a rate of 1 escudo to 1,000 reis. The escudo was replaced by the euro at a rate of 1 euro to 200.482 escudos in 2002.) At the turn of the 20th century, a full glass of rum (cachaça) in Brazil cost 40 reis, noted a ship’s bill of lading in 1900. Perhaps, Fernando Pessoa’s horoscope charts could keep him dry, fed and watered for a time.

In The Book of Disquiet, Bernardo Soares lives and works in the Baixa of Lisbon, where Fernando Pessoa worked at 21 firms as a freelance translator. From 1905 to 1920, Fernando lived in 15 different places, moving from one rented room to another, depending on his fluctuating finances and personal troubles, according to translator Richard Zenith.

The Book of Disquiet defines freedom:

“Freedom is the possibility of isolation. You are only free if you can withdraw from men and feel no need to seek them out for money, or society, or love, or glory, or even curiosity, for none of these things flourish in silence and solitude. If you cannot live alone, then you were born a slave.

“Death is like a liberation because to die is to need no one else.”

The Independent (May 30, 1995) writes:

“Names may sometimes be fate: the Portuguese word pessoa means person, and is derived from the Latin persona, an actor’s mask.”

On masks:

“No one recognized me beneath the mask of equality, nor did they once guess that it was a mask, because no one knew masked players existed in the world. No one imagined that there was always another by my side, the real me. They always thought me identical to myself.

“We all live such distant and anonymous lives, disguised, we suffer the fate of strangers. To some, however, this distance between another being and ourselves is never revealed; to others, it is revealed only every now and then, through horror or pain, hit by a limitless lightning flash; for yet others it is the one painful constant of their daily lives.”

On the external:

“The toothache or the corns of life, things that give us some discomfort but which, although ours, are outside us, (are) as things that it is up to our organic existence to deal with, things that only our biology need concern itself with.

“Once we fully adopt this attitude, which, in a way, is that of the mystics, we are defended not only against the world but also against ourselves, because we have conquered what is external and contrary to us and therefore our enemy.

“That’s what Horace meant when he spoke of the just man who remained unmoved even as the world crashed about his ears. The image may be absurd, but the truth of its meaning is indisputable. Even if what we pretend to be – because the real me and the pretend me coexist – even if it collapses around us, we must remain unmoved, not because we are just, but because we are ourselves, and being ourselves means having nothing to do with those external things collapsing about us even if, in falling, they destroy what we are for them.”

According to Prospect:

“Both (the Greek poet, Constantine) Cavafy, and Pessoa were great patriots, for their language as much as their people, but Pessoa had an ambiguous relationship with literature in Portuguese.

" ‘There is only one great period of creation in our literary history,’ he wrote, ‘and it hasn’t happened yet.’ He tended to disparage the writer normally considered to have Portugal’s greatest claim on posterity, the 16th-century Luis de Camoes, who wrote the epic poem, Os Lusiadas.

“Pessoa’s own pantheon was mainly foreign, and he knew that, to foreigners, Portuguese literature was largely a void. His achievement was to write directly from that void, a poet overwhelmed by the voices of others, yet speaking with miraculous virtuosity, variety and freedom from illusion. Many of his countrymen dislike him. ‘Muito Pessoa enjoa,’ they sometimes say, ‘Too much Pessoa makes you ill.’ Nevertheless, he turned their historically derived inferiority complex into wholly unsentimental art.”

In The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994), Harold Bloom, described by The Guardian as ‘probably the most celebrated literary critic in the United States’, discusses 26 writers since the 14th century, including Pessoa, Shakespeare and Marcel Proust, whom he sees as central to the canon and whose work he considers sublime and representative of their nations.

“Bloom says that what links the 26 writers is, above all, strangeness, “a mode of originality which either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.’

"This indeed applies to Pessoa,” writes Prospect.

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