Category Archives: Pessoa

Finishing

I’m astounded whenever I finish something. Astounded and distressed. My perfectionist instinct should inhibit me from finishing; it should inhibit me from even beginning. But I get distracted and start doing something. What I achieve is not the product of an act of my will but of my will’s surrender. I begin because I don’t have the strength to think; I finish because I don’t have the courage to quit. 

— Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (trans. R. Zenith)

The gift of not knowing

If there’s one thing life grants us for which we should thank the gods, besides thanking them for life itself, it’s the gift of not knowing: of not knowing ourselves and of not knowing each other.

— Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (trans. R. Zenith)

The battleground

Today I woke up very early, with a sudden a confused start, and I slowly got out of bed, suffocating from an inexplicable tedium. No dream had caused it; no reality could have created it. It was a complete and absolute tedium, but founded on something. The obscure depths of my soul had been the battleground where unknown forces had invisibly waged war, and I shook all over from the hidden conflict. A physical nausea, prompted by all of life, was born in the moment I woke up. A horror at the prospect of having to live got up with me out of bed. Everything seemed hollow, and I had the chilling impression that there is no solution for whatever the problem may be.
   An extreme nervousness made my slightest gestures tremble. I was afraid I might go mad — not from insanity but from simply being there. My body was a latent shout. My heart pounded as if it were talking.
   Taking wide, false steps that I vainly tried to take differently, I walked barefoot across the short length of the room and diagonally through the emptiness of the inner room, where in a corner there’s a door to the hallway. With jerky and incoherent movements, I hit the brushes on top of the dresser, I knocked a chair out of place, and at a certain point my swinging hand struck one of the hard iron posts of my English bed. I lit a cigarette, which I smoked subconsciously, and only when I saw that ashes had fallen on the headboard — how, if I hadn’t leaned against it? — did I understand that I was possessed, or something of the sort, in fact if not in name, and that my normal, everyday self-awareness had intermingled with the abyss.
   I received the announcement of morning — the cold faint light that confers a vague whitish blue on the unveiled horizon — like a grateful kiss from creation. Because this light, this true day, freed me — freed me from I don’t know what. It gave an arm to my as-yet-unrevealed old age, it cuddled my false childhood, it helped my overwrought sensibility find the repose it was desperately begging for.
   Ah, what a morning this is, awakening me to life’s stupidity, and to its great tenderness! I almost cry when I see the old narrow street come into view down below, and when the shutters of the corner grocer reveal their dirty brown in the slowly growing light, my heart is soothed, as if by a real-life fairy tale, and it begins to have the security of not feeling itself.
   What a morning this grief is! And what shadows are retreating? What mysteries have taken place? None. There’s just the sound of the first tram, like a match to light up the soul’s darkness, and the loud steps of my first pedestrian, which are concrete reality telling me in a friendly voice not to be this way.

— Pessoa , The Book of Disquiet (trans. R. Zenith)

Perfection

We worship perfection because we can’t have it; if we had it, we would reject it. Perfection is inhuman, because humanity is imperfect.
   To achieve perfection would require a coldness foreign to man, and he would lose the human heart that makes him love perfection.
   In awe we worship the impulse to perfection of great artists. We love their approximation to perfection, but we love it because it is only an approximation.
   How tragic to believe in human perfectibility!
   How tragic not to believe in it!

— Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (trans. R. Zenith)

To think of our greatest anxiety as an insignificant event

To think of our greatest anxiety as an insignificant event, not only in the life of the universe but also in the life of our own soul, is the beginning of wisdom. While we’re actually suffering, our human pain seems infinite. But human pain isn’t infinite, because nothing human is infinite, and our pain has no value beyond its being a pain we feel.
   How often, oppressed by a tedium that seems like insanity or by an anxiety that seems to surpass it, I stop, hesitating, before I revolt, I hesitate, stopping, before I deify myself. From among the pains there are — the pain of not grasping the mystery of the world, the pain of not being loved, the pain of being treated unjustly, the pain of life oppressing us, suffocating and restraining us, the pain of a toothache, the pain of shoes that pinch — who can say which is the worse for himself, let alone for someone else, or for the generality of those who exist?

— Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (trans. R. Zenith)

Dream

And I don’t dream, I don’t live; I dream real life. All ships are dreamed ships if we have the power to dream them. What kills the dreamer is to not live while he dreams; what hurts the man of action is to not dream while he lives. I fused the beauty of dreaming and the reality of life into a single, blissful colour.

— Pessoa

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This idea — the opposition of imagination to reality, which is also of course the opposition of art to politics — is of great importance, because it reminds us that we are not helpless; that to dream is to have power… Unreality is the only weapon with which reality can be smashed, so that it may subsequently be reconstructed.

— Salman Rushdie

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Reality can be dreamed away.

— William Burroughs

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The great Taoist master Chuang Tzu once dreamt that he was a butterfly fluttering here and there. In the dream he had no awareness of his individuality as a person. He was only a butterfly. Suddenly, he awoke and found himself laying there, a person once again. But then he thought to himself, ‘Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?’

Zen Stories

Shipwrecks of our understanding

Have you ever considered, beloved Other, how invisible we all are to each other? Have you ever thought about how little we know each other? We look at each other without seeing. We listen to each other and hear only a voice inside ourself.
   The words of others are mistakes of our hearing, shipwrecks of our understanding. How confidently we believe in our meanings of other people’s words. We hear death in words they speak to express sensual bliss. We read sensuality and life in words they drop from their lips without the slightest intention of being profound.
   The voice of brooks that you interpret, pure explicator… The voice of trees whose rustling means what we say it means… Ah, my unknown love, this is all just us and our fantasies, all ash, trickling down the bars of our cell!

— Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (trans. R. Zenith)