fernando pessoa – 27, from the book of disquiet

Literature – which is art married to thought, and realization untainted by reality – seems to me the end towards which all human effort would have to strive, if it were truly human and not just a welling up of our animal self. To express something is to conserve its virtue and take away its terror. Fields are greener in their description than in their actual greenness.

Flowers, if described with phrases that define them in the air of the imagination, will have colours with a durability not found in cellular life. What moves lives. What is said endures. There’s nothing in life that’s less real for having been well described. Small-minded critics point out that such-and-such poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it’s a nice day. But to say it’s a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It’s up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world.

Everything is what we are, and everything will be, for those who come after us in the diversity of time, what we will have intensely imagined – what we, that is, by embodying our imagination, will have actually been. The grand, tarnished panorama of History amounts, as I see it, to a flow of interpretations, a confused consensus of unreliable eyewitness accounts. The novelist is all of us, and we narrate whenever we see, because seeing is complex like everything.

Right now I have so many fundamental thoughts, so many truly metaphysical things to say that I suddenly feel tired, and I’ve decided to write no more, think no more. I’ll let the fever of saying put me to sleep instead, and with closed eyes I’ll stroke, as if petting a cat, all that I might have said.

From The Book of Disquiet (Livro do Desassossego: Composto por Bernardo Soares, ajudante de guarda-livros na cidade de Lisboa), a work by the Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935). Published posthumously, The Book of Disquiet is a fragmentary lifetime project, left unedited by the author, who introduced it as a “factless autobiography.”

pessoa: “because i’ve already seen cats staring at the moon”

Life would be unbearable if we made ourselves conscious of it. Happily we don’t do so. We live with the same unconsciousness as the animals, in the same futile and useless way, and if we anticipate death, which might be assumed, though one can’t be certain, we anticipate it by way of forgetting so much and with so many distractions and subterfuges that we can scarcely say we think about it at all.

So we live our lives, with little grounds for thinking we’re superior to animals. Our difference from them consists in the purely external detail that we speak and write, that we have the abstract intelligence for both distancing ourselves by employing it concretely and by imagining impossible things. All those qualities, therefore, are accidents of our basic organism. Speaking and writing do nothing new for our primordial instinct to live without knowing how. Our abstract intelligence is of no use except in concocting systems or notions about half-systems rather than permitting us to be animals out under the sun. Our imagination of the impossible is not exclusive to us, because I’ve already seen cats staring at the moon, and I don’t know whether they weren’t yearning for it.

– Fernando Pessoa, Always Astonished (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988), transl. Edwin Honig, pp 118-19.