There are some works of literature that require a certain kind of humility from the reader; an understanding that when someone on the train asks to know about the book you are reading, you will hesitate over the details–because you have trouble explaining what makes the book interesting or even relatable. It’s a frustrating experience, especially when the work deserves better, but it happens regardless of your intentions. Incidentally, I’ve found myself trying to explain The Book of Disquiet with the implicit understanding that it has no definition. So over the past month, with varied successes and failures, I’ve spoken to more than a few curious strangers about the book (don’t be surprised if you start seeing people all around New York City carrying around a copy). Anyway, it’s nearly impossible to describe this book without making it sound too abstract or too elaborate, yet somehow, I keep trying. In the last month, I’ve explained the identity of Bernardo Soares as a heteronym, the language of despair made accessible through the narrator’s lucid and poetic prose, made reference to the reserved life of a Portuguese writer from the early twentieth century, etc. Technically speaking, I should have just called it what it is: a factless biography. Pessoa’s own words, not mine; though I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean anything to anyone that hasn’t read the book. Then there’s the back cover of my edition which compares Pessoa’s portrait of Lisbon to the “haunting spell of Joyce’s Dublin or Kafka’s Prague.” But the city of Lisbon is just another abstraction; with familiar names and locations that Pessoa narrowly avoids consummating. Instead, they only provide some structure early in the narrative, but by the end, they are only impressions the author had sought to establish. In retrospect, the title alone should provide enough context for the reader. The Book of Disquiet. It almost sounds like one of the lost gospels. And in a way, it is. The theme of disquiet is a counter-narrative that runs parallel to the narrow spectrum of life that hardly exists outside of the mind; fragments of non-existence that Pessoa manages to articulate with both precision and a profound sense of detachment. The Book of Disquiet is an anthology of these fragments, sparse impressions on everything from writing to philosophy, love, death, religion, dreams, history, etc. Somehow they form a coherent narrative, bounded by the intimacy of Pessoa’s intellectual prose.
In the end, I still don’t know whether The Book of Disquiet should be considered a cautionary tale or a companion guide to melancholy. Either way, I’ve decided to list twenty quotes from the book to share some of my experience, omitting the longer passages and texts that require more context in order to be properly understood. This is by no means a definitive list; there’s something on almost every page worth noting, but I did my best to select only the essential.
- Could it think, the heart would stop beating.
- I’d woken up early, and I took a long time getting ready to exist.
- Each thing is the intersection of three lines, and these three lines form the thing: a certain quantity of material, the way in which we interpret it, and the environment it’s in.
- Blessed are those who entrust their lives to no one.
- The cause of my profound sense of incompatibility with others is, I believe, that most people think with their feelings, whereas I feel with my thoughts.
- To think is to not know how to be.
- Renunciation is liberation. Not wanting is power.
- I’m not a pessimist. I’m sad.
- We squander our personalities in orgies of coexistence.
- There is no enduring emotion without syntax.
- We weary of everything, except understanding.
- I have indigestion of the soul.
- Whatever has been ours, because it was ours, even if only as a casual presence in our daily routine or in what we see, becomes part of us.
- What am I today, living today, but the denial of who and what I was yesterday?
- Whatever can’t be done in a single burst suffers from the unevenness of our spirit.
- There are thus two types of artists: the one who expresses what he doesn’t have, and the one who expresses the surplus of what he did have.
- A sensitive and honest-minded man, if he’s concerned about evil and injustice in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life.
- Irony is the first sign that our consciousness has become conscious, and it passes through two stages: the one represented by Socrates, when he says, ‘All I know is that I know nothing,’ and the other represented by Sanches, when he says, ‘I don’t even know if I know nothing.’
- Those of us who don’t know how to want – whether geniuses or beggars – are related by impotence.
- I stagnate in my very soul. My will, emotions and thought stop functioning, and this suspension lasts for days on end; only the vegetative life of my soul – words, gestures, habits – expresses me to others, and through them, to myself.
*And for honorable mention, I would consider texts 235 and 236 to be the two most important passages in the entire book.
For more quotes, there is also a blog that features Pessoa’s work alongside images of Portugal here. Enjoy and despair!
–N. David Pastor