There’s no happiness without knowledge. But the knowledge of happiness brings unhappiness, because to know that you’re happy is to realize that you’re experiencing a happy moment and will soon have to leave it behind. To know is to kill, in happiness as in everything else. Not to know, on the other hand, is not to exist.—Fernando Pessoa (translated by Richard Zenith), The Book of Disquiet
This line has been revolving around my head all day. Sometimes I can make sense of it. Sometimes not. Maybe if it would just stand still for a second? If I don't know what it means will I ever be happy?
Bonus: Thomas Swick. "Wandering Through Literary Lisbon in Search of Pessoa’s Disquiet". Literary Hub (2020-06-24)
Not even we could say what homes, duties and loves we’d left behind. We were, in that moment, no more than wayfarers between what we had forgotten and what we didn’t know, knights on foot defending an abandoned ideal. But that explained, along with the steady sound of trampled leaves and the forever rough sound of an unsteady wind, the reason for our departure, or for our return, since, not knowing what the path was, or why, we didn’t know if we were coming or going. And always, all around us, the sound of leaves we couldn’t see, falling we didn’t know where, lulled the forest to sleep with sadness.
The entirety of fragment 386 in Richard Zenith's translation of Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet is perhaps my favorite of the book so far, about two-thirds of the way through. It's a long fragment—a few whole pages. The whole thing loops and meanders and doubles back on itself, very much like being lost in the woods in the dark. It's full of pair's contradictions—things that are and aren't, things that are done together alone or alone together. The scene is familiar but unknown, unknowable. And always there is a soft sound of leaves falling at the periphery.
The whole fragment is, I think, this long metaphor about what life is. There is no point, or maybe we forgot what it is, and there is no destination, but we have to move onward. And always the contradictions—as if you couldn't make sense of what is without also considering what isn't. And always a soft sound at the periphery, reminding you that what you can see is only a part of the whole.
Don’t apologize, and don’t pay any attention to what we’re talking about… Every good conversation should be a two-way monologue… We should ultimately be unable to tell whether we really talked with someone or simply imagined the conversation…—Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet.
I'm still winding through The Book of Disquiet—and perhaps always will be—and it's hard to categorize it, hard to say what it is. Talk of dreams. Talk of doing nothing. Interminable logics, painstakingly built up. And occasionally these cutting insights like the one above about the brief feelings we feel in the briefest passing-by moments of life. On its face, sure, it is nonsensical, but taken ironically it's like so many interactions that we have—which I suppose means it's not ironic at all.
From fragment 356 in The Book of Disquiet:
I don’t trust masters who can’t be down-to-earth. For me they’re like those eccentric poets who can’t write like everybody else. I accept that they’re eccentric, but I’d like them to show me that it’s because they’re superior to the norm rather than incapable of it.
Or maybe in the words of Del The Funky Homosapien ("Check It Ooout"):
I love to peep a rhyme / First of all I'm seein' if my man can keep the time / If he go off beat, and it's on purpose / He gotta come back on beat / Or the effort is worthless
Either way—it's not genius just because it's different. It has to be better.
The human soul is so inevitably the victim of pain that is suffers the pain of the painful surprise even with things it should have expected. A man who has always spoken of fickleness and unfaithfulness as perfectly normal behaviour in women will feel all the devastation of the sad surprise when he discovers that his sweetheart has been cheating on him, exactly as if he’d always held up female fidelity and constancy as a dogma or a rightful expectation. Another man, convinced that everything is hollow and empty, will feel like he’s been struck by lightning when he learns that what he writes is considered worthless, or that his efforts to educate people are in vain, or that it’s impossible to communicate his emotion.—Fernando Pessoa. "245". The Book of Disquiet. Translated by Richard Zenith.
Offhandedly it seems like a rupture in personal logic—to be surprised by the thing you were ostensibly expecting. But that makes an assumption: that you were really expecting that difficult or bad thing to happen.
I think, at least sometimes, that expected pain is a talisman to ward against the pain coming—like taking an umbrella not to keep the rain off your head, but to keep the rain in the cloud. Maybe the right word or thought or action will keep the bad things away.
Probably not, but it's worth a shot.
I've been reading Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet (Richard Zenith translation) off and on for a few months. I'm not sure what to think of it.
I feel like it ought to be a fine book to read while cooped up during the pandemic. Or a horrible one to read. I could conclude either way at this point a third of the way through. (A third of the way through the book, not the pandemic, I hope.) Nothing... happens in the book. Each chapter (fragment) is just a line or a postcard worth of inwardly-directed observation of some kind, often a description of some tedium or dream detail. It's the most thorough treatment of ennui I've ever encountered, for good or ill.
I don't recommend reading through it from front to back, although that is what I'm doing. I'm only reading like this because it's the only convenient way to approach an ebook. And I feel a compulsion to read although the way through each book that I start. I feel like it should be flipped to a chapter at random, have a few chapters consumed, and then be put down for a while.
The entire life of the human soul is mere motions in the shadows. We live in a twilight of consciousness, never in accord with whom we are or think we are.
A final thought about the book. It's not that nothing happens, it's that what does happens—what is described, at least, because really nothing happens—is all very local, very compressed. Most of the book is in the narrator's head. Most of the rest occurs in his apartment or office—again, nothing happening in those places, just a location for the inward walkabouts to be set. This many pages with such a small (external) geography— that is some feat, I suppose.
I need help understanding what I'm reading. (A side note, it has taken me this long in my life to believe that I need help reading.) A few links found along the way: