The Book of Disquiet

by JDP

Throw Emerson and Camus into a blender; pour the resulting contents into six separate glasses; randomly select one of these glasses and smash the rest of them out on the back porch; return to the remaining glass and just sit there staring at it as its components slowly separate from one another. Drinking this glass is like reading The Book of Disquiet.

Fernando Pessoa / Portuguese / 1982 / 262 pages
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa 

To say this book was published in 1982 is to assert three falsehoods. First, it is not really a “book” so much as it is a treatise, a meditation, or a collected work; second, its “publication” played out in phases and stages across different languages, different editors, and different schools of thought; and, third, the year “1982” conveys nothing useful about the book’s contents or historical vantage point as it was published almost five decades after Pessoa had passed away in 1935. Even the cover of the book itself bears deceptive information: Pessoa never signed the actual manuscript, rather attributing it to a pseudonym — Bernardo Soares — to whom he assigned personality traits and motivations distinct from his own. The text fragments that make up The Book of Disquiet were discovered lumped together (unordered and undated) in a large trunk after Pessoa died and the fragments, when considered as a whole, are almost completely devoid of any concrete plot details that would lend themselves to a justifiable ordering. Some editors sequence the fragments thematically; others by their best guesses about the chronological order of their composition. There are editions that clock in around 250 pages and there are others that easily double that.

If you think this would make for an intriguing, organic work then you are right. If, instead, you think this all sounds bewildering and tedious, you would also be right. After having read (and at times, struggled) through the book, I fall somewhere in between: this is a wholly unique work that counters half-developed ideas with sheerly brilliant passages, frustratingly vague meditations with insightful, incisive prose. It is on the whole worth reading, at times eminently quotable, and in parts purely musical in its use of words and phrases.

Concretely, the book charts the meditations of a desk clerk who spends his idle evening hours drafting a personal quasi-diary, but all tangible plot details skitter into oblivion in the first handful of pages. The desk clerk is a disenchanted, disaffected, indeed disquieted narrator who oscillates between timidity (most frequently) and outright arrogance (on occasion) in his descriptions of himself, his countrymen, and their surroundings more broadly. The repeated themes are the overwhelming complexity of daily life and the unerring frivolousness of efforts aimed at unraveling this complexity. To emphasize this point, Pessoa resorts to descriptions of torrential rain and storm systems, the dark night sky and the endless stars that populate it, and the unknown allures of the far-ranging countryside. These landscapes are vast, unpredictable, and unknown just as our relationships with one another and with ourselves are volatile and infinitely nuanced. For Pessoa, it’s hopelessly difficult to establish meaning in events, to establish meaningful contact with friends and family. To this end, he’s wary of love, of ambition, of success, of a whole innumerable host of other perfectly normal human sensations and feelings. This weariness is borne out of the innate subjectivity, the inherent self-construction (perhaps even self-deception) at play in these sensations. It is an intellectually honest, but practically hopeless position to adopt. The logical conclusion is disquietude, or a deep-seated anxiety about ourselves and our world. Pessoa’s narrator has had the rug ripped out from under his feet and his disjointed musings threaten to do the same to the reader as well.

Rather than a book of stories or a book of symbols, this is a book of aphorisms. They often ring true, leaping off the page and battering you about the face with their succinct wisdom; at other times, they are too vague or rhetorically circular to make much sense. Thus, while we’re sometimes given pithy sentences that are breathtaking in their imagery and insight, we are also offered up phrasings along the lines of: “I don’t think what I feel, but I feel what I think.” I’ve never been particularly amenable to sentiments along the latter lines (and many of the great essayists, even Emerson himself, occasionally indulged in them), but I was enthralled with Pessoa’s formulations along the former lines. Indeed, I’ve rarely encountered a book that so frequently prompted me to make mental note of truly exquisite passages. To that end, I anticipate returning to The Book of Disquiet frequently in my own future (feeble!) attempts at writing.

But if you need something to hang your hat on, good luck. The drawbacks to the book are its near total lack of empirics, specifics, or anything that resembles a planned trajectory. Because of this, the narration is prone to contradictions (it seems at various points, for example, that Pessoa alleges that he can never know anyone including himself, but also that, by virtue of knowing himself in great depth, he also knows all people because humans are not so inherently different from one another) and tends to drag whenever the text fragments exceed more than a few solid paragraphs. The book smacks of the poet in its composition: it is almost painfully obvious that Pessoa is incapable of dwelling (or just perhaps unwilling to dwell) on a fixed point for a prolonged period of time, developing it in depth and adding layers of complexity. One of the benefits of this approach is also the same as one of its biggest drawbacks: the text fragments are light and ephemeral, easy to consume, but difficult to hang onto once you’re through them. If you lose your place in the book and have to search for the page you were on, you’ll find yourself wondering “Have I read this already? Maybe I have, but … ?”

One of the more interesting tidbits of information about The Book of Disquiet is that your impression of its content and quality are to some (nontrivial) extant contingent upon the edition you picked up. I have read in a few places that the Jull Costa translation is regarded as the “best” translation of the book, but I have to think this is somewhat of an open question. My edition contains 259 text fragments drawn from a collection of over 500 and I understand that different editions adopt divergent editorial tactics when deciding how many to include and in what order to present them. Some criticism I’ve read suggests that the book is best consumed in pieces, randomly leafing open its pages and settling on whatever passage comes up. As there’s almost nothing linear about the narration itself, I have to admit that this reading method is probably just as defensible as beginning at page one and reading through to the end. Whether this open-ended nature is a pro or con probably depends on the individual reader. At the end of the day, I like this book, but believe that it functions poorly as a book (or at least as a book as traditionally conceived). I will say, though, that are are more quotable lines in this tome than you can shake a stick at. If you really do enjoy both Emerson and Camus (and are enchanted by the possibilities inherent in their hastily conceived literary child), then I’d highly recommend the book.

Rating: 5 / 10

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