Pessoa Constructs a Self

September 15, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The mind's dignity is to acknowledge that it is limited and that reality is outside it.”

Fernando Pessoa's The Education of the Stoic is a thought-project based on the construct of a fully rational self through the fictional persona of The Baron of Teive. From the beginning, the text unsettles the reader. In a book that attempts to define a self, it is also, ironically, difficult to know the narrator. In the text, the Baron writes short journal entries about random matters. In these 'conversations' he intends to discover what it is like to fully divorce emotion from reason. His journey begins with, “We've been devastated by the severest and deadliest drought in history – that of our profound awareness of the futility of all effort and the vanity of all plans.” This, to me, sounds astonishingly like J. Alfred Prufrock, as if that persona had moved past the moment of indecision and stepped into his futile future. In other words, this narrator is capable, but consumed by his own futility. He accepts his fate. It is also ironic to note that the future is devoid of plans, and yet the next one hundred pages discuss the Baron's plan to kill himself. While the future is admittedly bleak, still, this instance represents the first in a series of half-truths.

The Baron of Teive's mantra is something like, “teach nothing, for you still have everything to learn.” And that kind of attitude is admirable in that it puts one in the open mindset of learning. But it is also debilitating, as we see here, from the standpoint that all the teaching never leads to a satisfactory level of expertise. The Baron wants the ability to act, but never finds it. On the other hand, this short entry also does what it claims not to do: it simultaneously offers a teaching and presents something learned. Instead of taking a rational backseat to life, the Baron is making a point based on his own experience. Another piece of irony: Teive writes from experience, which is a fault he finds in other writers.

He condemns the success or failure of popular poets as further proof of his current dilemma. The Baron writes,

“[H]ad these poets sung directly of their baser troubles (for they are indeed base, however they may be used poetically), had they bared their souls in all their nakedness rather than in padded bathing suits, then the sheer violence of their sorrow's root cause might have yielded some admirable lamentations. This would to a certain extent have eliminated – by bringing everything out in the open – the social ridicule that, rightly or wrongly, attaches to these emotional banalities. If a man is a coward, he can either not talk about it (and this is the wiser course), or he can say point-blank, 'I'm a coward.' In the one case he has the advantage of dignity, in the other the advantage of sincerity; either way he escapes being comical, since in the first case he has said nothing and so there's nothing to discover, for he himself revealed his own cowardice. But the coward who feels the need to prove he isn't one, or to affirm that cowardice is universal, or to confess his weakness in a vague, metaphorical way that reveals nothing but also hides nothing – this man is ridiculous to the general public and irritating to the intelligence. This is the kind of man I see in the pessimistic poets and in all those who raise their private sorrows to the status of universal ones.”

This definitely describes the Baron's conundrum: his rational divorce from emotion leaves him unable to empathize with anything other than reason. To admit that one is a coward is unadvised, and yet, it would seem that his inaction is in part due to cowardice. To make the idea of cowardice desirable is even worse. While this is his judgment of others, the judgment also points a finger at himself (unwittingly or not, the reader is unsure). The Baron of Teive embodies cowardice, inability to act, a lack of connection and hesitation. So, instead of connecting with others based upon this shared territory, he creates a rational approach – that of distance.

The Baron claims that the ordinary is uninteresting and un-literary. While claiming to know something about universality, he remains aloof in individuality. That Teive comes to these conclusions as he nears death is as he would have it. He is orchestrating and narrating his own demise. What better way to meet the self than through its preparation for and encounter with death? Yet, it is a rational approach to death, which leaves the reader with a little less sympathy, empathy or connection to this character. And this, I surmise, is as Pessoa would have it.

In my copy of the book, the translator, Richard Zenith, wrote a few notes about the creation of a self after Pessoa's text. In order to better understand the mindset and narrative presented by Pessoa, Zenith describes the writing of the poem “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge. In this poem, a “man from Porlock” interrupts the stream of writing and inserts himself (like it or not) into the poem's narrative. Coleridge never gained the momentum to fully finish that poem, so the reader is left with a brilliant, unfinished fragment. We are left with questions such as: was there truly a visitor, or did the poet interrupt himself? Is this some extension of a conflict between emotion and reason? Do we, too, often interrupt ourselves? By extending these questions to ourselves, we can better identify with the experience – both of Coleridge's and Pessoa's Teive. Is the reader to understand that the brain might sometimes get in its own way? And if so, what does that even mean?

Fernando Pessoa's text is short and easy to read. It has many noteworthy passages and is well worth the short investment of time. It fits solidly into the Modernist literary tradition, which creates a wealth of comparisons. Feel free to post a comment if you have read it or written about it. We would love to hear from you!

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