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Vincent Barletta's Talk - Encounters with the Lyric Form

Published on 
December 22, 2022


You can watch the recording here.

Or read the transcript of the talk:

Fernando Pessoa was a modernist Portuguese poet likely best known for employing a set of heteronyms and semi-heteronyms in his written work. These heteronyms are not pen names or pseudonyms, it’s worth pointing out, but rather semi-autonomous selves who shared time (and a body) with “Fernando Pessoa” and wrote on very different topics and in diverging styles between 1914 and 1935. Ricardo Reis, for example, was a learned classicist, while Alberto Caeiro, the poetic master of the other selves (including Ferando Pessoa), was an unschooled naturalist, devoted to “things themselves.” Considering this system and the “human drama” that stemmed from it, it’s fair to say that selfhood for Pessoa was intricately tied to writing style. Aesthetics was for him something like “first philosophy.”

Turning to “Autopsicografia” itself, it’s a three-quatrain Portuguese poem published in 1932 by Fernando Pessoa (not by any of the heteronyms). It first appears in the modernist review Presença, which was published in Coimbra from 1927 through 1940 and devoted to what the editors called literatura viva—that is, texts that self-consciously broke from tradition. Also central to the concerns of the review were reflexive explorations on the nature of poetry and the poet, and Pessoa’s “Autopsicografia”—focused as it is on “writing oneself”—fits nicely with this project (as did Pessoa’s moderate celebrity near the end of his life).

The first line of “Autopsicografia” is likely the most debated one, at least from the perspective of non-Portuguese readers. In Portuguese, it reads: “O poeta é um fingidor.” The rest of the first quatrain develops this idea without really defining it, in large measure because these three lines employ the verb fingir as though the first line made its meaning somehow univocal and clear. Of course, it doesn’t. On one hand, fingir translates to English more or less easily as “to lie,” “to fake,” or “to feign,” and most translators, their backs against the wall, use one of these three verbs. They work fine, but they also leave out important historical links encoded within the Portuguese verb fingir, namely its diachronic connection to the Latin verb fingo, fingere, fictum, which points to creation, composition, and imagination rather than out-and-out lying. Even if Ricardo Reis failed to remind Pessoa of this bit of Romance philology, William Wordsworth’s “mighty world” would have been close at hand for Pessoa, both what eye and ear perceive (as Wordsworth frames it) and what they “half create.” Wordsworth’s notion of “half creation” is probably quite close to what Pessoa is getting at with fingir, as is the use to which Horace puts fingere in his Art of Poetry. In lines 48-53, for example, Horace speaks of the “invention” of neologisms taken, for example, from Greek. The term Horace uses for “invention” is fingere, and it is difficult to deny that invention (with its baroque links to ingenio) likely serves as a kind of asymptote for Pessoa’s fingir. It’s just a shame that “The poet is an inventor” works so poorly as a stand-alone translation of the Portuguese fingidor, but then this likely has more to do with the (often underreported) limitations of English than anything else.

What kind of inventor is the poet? The sort that invents so completely that they invent even the pain they actually feel. Everything, one might say, finds itself pulled into the poet’s invention machine, as light is pulled into the overwhelming gravity of a black hole. Another way to look at this idea is to imagine Wordsworth’s experience above Tintern Abbey run through a Nietzschean mill. There are certainly Pessoa scholars who read his work this way (though again, the heteronyms produce very different sorts of poetry and prose).

Readers also have a place in the poet’s machine, even if what Pessoa presents here is a more or less conventional idea of catharsis. Readers find release or pleasure by reading of the pain the poet has invented, though the direct source of this pleasure is the purgation of their own pain through the vicarious experience of others’ (invented) suffering. It has little to do, Pessoa seems to argue, with authentic empathy or even human contact. This is a long way from Paul Celan’s idea of the poem as a handshake, as a gift or offering produced by human hands. For Pessoa, it all seems to be more about machines driving other machines, in something like a proto-Deleuzian sense. I feel things, I construct a papier-mâché copy of those feelings, and you examine the copy, feeling joy in beholding the pain you don’t feel. That’s about it.

The final quatrain completes the thought, comparing sentiment—insofar as it relates to poetry—to a kind of toy train going endlessly around a track. It’s all a game, and this for Pessoa extends to just about everything, including his notion of selfhood. It’s not that we put on a theater mask and play a role, it’s that there’s nothing at the end of the day but masks and roles. Our world, to put this in Platonic terms, is all cave and no sun. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing to Pessoa; it’s just important to recognize the game for what it is. Basketball is also a fine game, but it’s similarly a form of quixotic lunacy to see it as somehow “real.” This, at least, is the orthodox reading of “Autopsicografia” that we tend to impart to students.

Beyond orthodoxy, there are other options for this poem. Of particular interest is the implicit theory of temporality that underlies the final stanza. According to Pessoa, the toy train we call our heart goes around and around on a circular track, entertaining our intellect. The English notion of “going around and around” is handled economically by the Portuguese verb “girar,” and it’s not clear from the poem when or if this circular motion ever stops. It’s a strange sort of temporality, going (at least theoretically) endlessly around a track—like going nowhere, but making excellent time. 

The connection between this strange form of temporality—that of the poem, and of the work of art more generally—is also at the center of Emmanuel Levinas’s 1948 essay on aesthetics, “Reality and its Shadow.” This essay is often read as proof that Levinas felt deep mistrust for art or that he was particularly moved by a broader Jewish concern over graven images. Richard Cohen has done an excellent job debunking these readings, and I won’t spend time today repeating his arguments. Suffice it to say that Levinas was quite nearly obsessed with art, music, and literature, and evidence of this fills his writing. Indeed, over his fifty-year career, he cites Shakespeare, Proust, and Dostoyevsky nearly as often as he cites Husserl.

The problem at the center of “Reality and its Shadow” is precisely that which one finds in Pessoa’s “Autopsicografia”—the strange, even uncanny temporality into which art draws us. As Levinas puts it: “every image is in the last analysis plastic, and […] every artwork is in the end a statue—a stoppage of time, or rather its delay behind itself” (10). This “delay behind itself” is what Levinas means by reality’s shadow, as the time of the work of art is a kind of moon that orbits lived experience, and with its own rhythm and gravitational pull. This temporality is the realm of toy trains and novels, which undoubtedly can move (in both the transitive and intransitive sense of the verb); however, that movement is circular. “It is not that an artwork reproduced a time that has stopped,” Levinas reminds his reader; rather, “in the general economy of being, art is the falling movement on the hither side of time, into fate. A novel is not, as [Jean] Pouillon thinks, a way of reproducing time; it has its own time, it is a unique way for time to temporalize” (9-10).

In 1948, Levinas had not yet articulated his break with Martin Heidegger. By 1951, however, he would be openly circumspect about fundamental ontology and the lack of any recognizable Other in Heidegger’s philosophy. Given this, it’s likely not a stretch to see in “Reality and its Shadow”—as well as earlier works written during his wartime imprisonment—the first shoots of his mature criticism of Heidegger. For Levinas we do not dwell poetically, since this would imply inhabiting a shadow realm that suspends us like a fly in amber, or like a toy train pushing around a circular track. Levinas goes on:

The characters of a novel are beings that are shut up, prisoners. Their history is never finished, it still goes on, but makes no headway. A novel shuts beings up in a fate despite their freedom. Life solicits the novelist when it seems to him as if it were already something out of a book. […] That is what myth is: the plasticity of a history. What we call the artist’s choice is the natural selection of facts and traits which are fixed in a rhythm and transform time into images. (10)

Levinas does not mention Cervantes, but it is difficult not to think here of Don Quijote. He is, after all, a fictional character who reads too much fiction and sets out on a track that leads ineluctably, and in a circular way, back to his death and rebirth, ad infinitum. He is forever suspended between his initial break with reality and his deathbed palinode, a plastic thing of plastic time. That Cervantes also presents the story as a history originally composed in Arabic and hastily translated into Castilian for some raisins and a bit of wheat only adds to the sense of plasticity, of endless stretching folds that somehow have motion but don’t move anywhere but where they’re meant to.

This of course isn’t to say that Don Quijote, the novel, or literature in general is without merit. It’s simply on different temporal footing than our lived experience. And we can obviously experience literature, but that experience has a particular shape and quality. It is, as I’ve argued elsewhere (and a greater length), a form of enrhythment—a kind of dispossession that is not without its risks. Mimesis or representation, Levinas suggests, has little to do with what occurs when we engage in literature; for Pessoa, who was always happy to play the provocateur, Aristotle was a kind of grifter, passing off a game of mirrors as a mirror held up to reality. Pessoa’s signature move was to embrace this game and live much of his life in service to its logic. The difference between Don Quixote and Pessoa is actually quite stark. If the former confused reality and fantasy, the latter absolutely did not; he clearly understood the difference between reality and its shadow; but unlike Levinas, he chose shadow. Put another way, the toy train (operated by pulling a string) never ceases to be a toy for Pessoa, and the circular track implies an orbital temporality that is quite different from that of one’s life among others. There is, for example, no ethics possible here, since the time of the poem—that round track—admits no others in any real sense. We may of course interact with others through the mediation of art and literature (akin to what Léopold Sédar Senghor means when he claims, “I dance the other, therefore I am.”), but this is another sort of business altogether.

For another take on Pessoa’s account of poetry, ethics, and time, it’s useful to turn to The Book of Disquiet, written over time (and in pieces) by Bernardo Soares, one of Pessoa’s semi-heteronyms (that is, a heteronym that is pretty close to Pessoa himself). Soares begins by discussing the “practical man,” a person of action best represented by the strategist. For the strategist, “life is a war, and battle is in effect a synthesis of life. The strategist is one who plays with human lives as a chess player moves pieces on a board. What would become of the strategist if they thought that each move in the game brings night to a thousand homes and pain to three thousand hearts?” Here Pessoa lumps the industrialist and the war criminal together as “action figures” who treat reality like a game of strategy. The Indian Removal Act, the bombing of Cambodia, the formation of the assembly line, and the Reagan Revolution; it’s in such events that games and human life collide. For Pessoa, to step out of the game means to feel the cost of one’s moves, to see how each action—however small—is an interruption, a closing-off of possibilities for others. He then asks a pointed question: “What would become of the world if we were human? If we truly felt, there would be no civilization. Art serves as an escape for the sensibility that action had to forget. Art is Cinderella, who stayed home because it couldn’t be otherwise. All men of action are essentially jovial and optimistic, since a person who feels nothing is happy.”

So then, to build or act, we must cease to feel, turning reality into a game and Others into pieces on a board. Action cuts us off from feeling, which for Pessoa (or Soares) is what it means to be human. There is no place for Cinderella in the boardroom, the battlefield, or the factory floor. But now the metaphors have mixed: it is the person of action who plays with toys without reflecting on the humans behind the game. Capitalists have their numbers game, generals play war games, and politicians employ game theory. Art is the domain of feeling—a sensibility relegated to the sidelines—and so the artist does nothing, which is usually much better than doing something (as readers of Don Quijote also discover). Levinas’s circumspection about art and temporality make sense, perhaps most directly as a counter to Heidegger’s idea of “dwelling poetically,” but he might also agree with Pessoa that it’s better to “invent” things and play on a circular track—to feel something, anything, remotely human—rather than give in to action, which inevitably ends in “the crying of orphans / that reaches up to the throne of God and / beyond, making a circle with no end and no God” (Amichai).