'What is a Self?' Second Draft
In a Cambridge classroom in a brutalist building raised on stone stilts, not at all as you would picture it, we parse lines of poetry and pick them apart with French philosophy. It is Summer term and the backs of my bare calves prickle against the felt chair. We are reading poems by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. And also not. Our teacher tells us that when Pessoa died in 1935, aged 47 and an alcoholic, he left behind a trunk containing some 25,000 items – poems, letters, novels, journals; some incomplete, some unedited, and all unpublished.
However, not all the poems found in the collection were attributed to Pessoa himself. Rather, the names of over seventy-five distinct poets, or ‘heteronyms’, as Pessoa termed them, signed off the works. More than just pseudoynms, these were fully-formed imaginary characters with personalities, politics, poetic styles of their own.
Of the many names uncovered in the trunk, a handful are considered to be critically important poets in their own right: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos are easily identifiable not only due to their distinct poetic techniques but also because of the elaborate biographies that Pessoa constructed for them. De Campos was a modernist who trained as a naval engineer in Scotland whilst Reis, a doctor by profession, adhered to a classicist poetic tradition. Even the works signed by ‘Pessoa’ were declared to be the product of a heteronym of the same name. And these voices conversed. They criticised each other’s work in newspaper articles. When Pessoa killed one off, another wrote his obituary.
With the windows closed so as not to disturb the exam going on in the building below we debate the reasons behind Pessoa’s use of heteronyms until the hour is up. Was he a narcissist in reverse, engaged in a lifelong identity crisis? Was his plural personality a challenge to the monolithic dictatorship of the day? Perhaps Pessoa was in fact trying to reflect the great social instability in Portugal at the time, obliterating the self in his poems to capture the sense of fragmentation brought about by the European Flu epidemic and World War One. When our history runs out we cite Paul de Man and Roland Barthes and find we like the taste of these academics’ names in our mouths.
Afterwards, I write an essay entitled ‘What is a Self?’. I copy my notes into this essay and, without having read a line of his verse, quote T. S. Eliot:
‘Poetry…is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality’.
I am perfectly Pessoan in my dodge-and-weave conclusion. I receive a first and I file it away.
Years later I read poetry again, this time for a living. One day a new name appears in my inbox. I open the email and enjoy the poem. When my editor calls with a laugh to ask what I think of her new work, it takes me a moment to understand. She is a sly fox. I am reminded of Pessoa. If he had seen us in that classroom, would he have laughed as well?
That night I look for my essay, not in a trunk but in an old folder in Dropbox. I re-read the final paragraph:
“Pessoa’s work is a proliferation of poetic voices that originated from nowhere, from no-one, from the bottom of a trunk of fragments and contradictions that question the very notion of identity itself.”
Yet Pessoa’s heteronyms need not be read as a challenge to identity; not to his own, nor to that of my editor. They were not necessarily even Eliot’s ‘escape from personality’. Rather, could they not be understood as an exploration of personality and poetry in its freest, most confused, most plural form?
Perhaps I would have done better to sign off my essay before the conclusion because Pessoa is eternally, intentionally, interpretable; not one author but many. He was lover and ascetic, revolutionary and conservative, futurist and classicist, and his intellectual, political, and artistic interests were contradictory, just as my own are. And yet I must be careful again to suggest rather than prescribe, because to read Pessoa’s poems in one way does not imply the abandonment of another. Simultaneous multiple, even conflicting interpretations are more than possible. In fact, they are essential. To interpret and reinterpret Pessoa’s voices is to enter into his poetic game, to play with words and with identity, to name yourself again and again; to practice saying this is me and this is me and this is me. Simultaneously named and anonymous, the paradox of the heteronym.
By Robyn White
Robyn is a writer. She splits her time between Barcelona and London.
This essay was originally published in IOTA Issue Two.