I feel like fleeing. Like fleeing from what I know, fleeing from what’s mine, fleeing from what I love. I want to depart, not for impossible Indias or for the great islands south of everything, but for any place at all – village or wilderness – that isn’t this place. I want to stop seeing these unchanging faces, this routine, these days. I want to rest, far removed, from my inveterate feigning.
From The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Richard Zenith)
Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them.
The golden tint that still glows on waters abandoned by the setting sun is hovering on the surface of my weariness. I see myself as I see the lake I’ve imagined, and what I see in that lake is myself. I don’t know how to explain this image, or this symbol, or this that I envision. But I know I see, as if in reality I were seeing, a sun behind the hills that casts its doomed rays on to this lake that dark-goldenly simmers.
One of the perils of thinking is to see while thinking. Those who think with their reason are distracted. Those who think with their emotion are sleeping. Those who think with their desire are dead. I, however, think with my imagination, and all reason, sorrow and impulse in me are reduced to something remote and irrelevant, like this lifeless lake among rocks where the last light of the sun unlastingly hovers.
From The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Richard Zenith)
Today my soul is sad unto my body. All of me hurts: memory, eyes and arms. It’s like a rheumatism in all that I am. My being isn’t touched by the day’s limpid brightness, by the sheer blue sky, by this unabating high tide of diffuse light. I’m not soothed by the soft cool breeze – autumnal but reminiscent of summer – which gives the air of personality. Nothing touches me. I’m sad, but not with a definite sadness, nor even with an indefinite sadness I’m sad down there, on the street littered with packing crates.
From The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (Translated by Richard Zenith)
“Time! The past! Something – a voice, a song, a chance fragrance – lifts the curtain on my soul’s memories… That which I was and will never again be! That which I had and will never again have! The dead! The dead who loved me in my childhood. Whenever I remember them, my whole soul shivers and I feel exiled from all hearts, alone in the night of myself, weeping like a beggar before the closed silence of all doors.”
From The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa (translated by Richard Zenith)
Whenever anyone asks me what my favourite book is, I answer without hesitation – The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Noonan (pen name Robert Tressell).
Noonan was a house painter, and wrote the book in his spare time. It was written over 100 years ago, but the descriptions and story have a depressing familiarity. It could have been written last week. It tells the story of a house painter and his workmates, as they struggle to find work to stay out of the workhouse. They are the working poor, in some cases, dreadfully poor, and Noonan hides nothing from us. On the original title page, Noonan wrote “Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell.”
Noonan was a single father, and was afraid of the things he described in the book – not finding work, poverty, and ending up in the workhouse. It is semi-autobiographical, which makes it even more depressing than if it were true fiction. The horrors described in the book actually happened, and if you have every worked, you will probably recognise your boss, superiors or employer in some of the characters. I did!
The book explores the relationship between the working class and the employers and ruling class, and analyses the way the latter exploit the former. The “philanthropists” are the members of the working class who contribute to their own exploitation by siding with their bosses, accepting their lot and position in life, and helping to perpetuate their misery.
Noonan submitted the manuscript to three publishing houses, but it was rejected by all of them. He became so depressed, he tried to burn it by throwing it in the fire. Luckily, his daughter rescued it, and kept it under her bed.
Noonan died of TB in a Liverpool hospital in 1911 at the age of 40. He was penniless, and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Liverpool. The grave was discovered in 1970 and is now marked. I visited a few years ago, and there were flowers by the gravestone. It’s a kind of pilgrimage site for local socialist and labour activists. Noonan never got to see just how popular and influential the book would become, especially to the labour and socialist movements in the UK. George Orwell called it “a book everyone should read”. It’s free on Kindle!
Is it possible for a book to be too beautiful, too haunting, too spellbinding, to read? I hadn’t thought about that until I picked up The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Richard Zenith).
I started reading it four years ago, and I still haven’t reached the end. Not because it is extremely long, laborious or boring, but because it is just so beautiful and intense.
Fernando Pessoa (1888 – 1935) was a Portuguese writer, poet and translator. He was prolific, so prolific in fact, that he attributed his writings to heteronyms, not just pseudonyms, but “people” with histories, life stories, and their own authentic voices. He “invented” around 75 such people. Each one had their own writing style. When you read some of “their” poetry, it really is hard to believe the poems were actually written by the same person, i.e. Pessoa.
The Book of Disquiet comprises writings, passages and snippets which were left behind in a trunk when Pessoa died. I read it with a pencil in hand, to underline phrases and passages that resonate with me, or are just so beautiful to let pass by. As such, my copy is covered with pencil markings, as I mark practically everything.
I just opened the book at passage number 92. I’ve marked it. This is how it starts:
“I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. My worst sorrows have evaporated when I’ve opened the window on to the street of my dreams and forgotten myself in what I saw there.
I’ve never aspired to be more than a dreamer. I paid no attention to those who spoke to me of living. I’ve always belonged to what isn’t where I am and to what I could never be. Whatever isn’t mine, no matter how base, has always had poetry for me. The only thing I’ve loved is nothing at all. The only thing I’ve desired is what I couldn’t even imagine. All I asked of life is that it go on by without my feeling it. All I demanded of love is that it never stop being a distant dream.
In my own inner landscapes, all of them unreal, I’ve always been attracted to what’s in the distance, and the haze aqueducts – almost out of sight in my dreamed landscapes – had a dreamy sweetness in relation to the rest of the landscape, a sweetness that enabled me to love them.”
It is a book to settle down with, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, and savour.
How did I get this far in life without reading this book? The first section is tough reading, as Frankl describes life in concentration camps. The second section explores his philosophy of logotherapy. I have a strong interest in existentialism, and found the way he combines this thought with psychotherapy fascinating.
His idea of the existential vacuum, in which the sufferer, out of boredom mostly, feels that life is meaningless resonated with me. I have been in the vacuum many times throughout my life. I am prone to bouts of existentialist despair. The protagonist in my first novel is trapped in its depths. Is there a way out? Yes, according to Frankl.
Despite its deep subject matter, it is an uplifting book. There is meaning, even in suffering, if we are prepared to give meaning to it. We can’t always choose what happens to us, but we can choose our attitude towards it. Suffering is an inevitable part of life, and the way a person responds to it gives meaning to his life. This reminds me of the end of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Through revolt of the absurd, Sisyphus gives his life meaning. We have to give our lives meaning, but how? These two books give us a lot to think about.
What is the meaning of my life? Why am I living? What am I aiming for? What do I want my life to look like? How can I find peace and meaning in suffering, day-to-day troubles, and periods when life isn’t going well? Frankl had some good advice for anyone pondering these questions.
Favourite quote from Man’s Search for Meaning: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”