Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa


The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet, is considered an early classic of existential writing. I’ve been drawn to existentialism — which I understand to be the recognition that life lacks meaning, rendering the human condition a function of mere existence — since reading Sartre, Camus and Kierkegaard years ago. There’s a dizzying, and occasionally terrifying and paralyzing kind of freedom that comes with accepting there is no externally imposed or internally accessible grand purpose. And so it falls to each of us stare unflinching into the void, steady our nerves, and then get busy creating and maintaining a consistent sense of meaning to guide and sustain our lives.

Pessoa explores these themes in a unique, memorable and effective way. Apparently, he wrote using a variety of pseudonyms — or semi heteronyms, whatever that means, according to the foreword — both as an artistic statement and, I presume, as a means of putting some space between his writing and his own filters and experiences. The Book of Disquiet is “written” by one of his personas, Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper in an inconsequential office, as a diary or journal of ruminations on a life that, by his own admission, is truly not worthy of ruminating about. The guiding force is page after page of Soares — uneasy that he is even alive — thinking about what it means to think, to feel, to live, to exist and to work. It is a disquieting exploration of what it means to be human, and what it means to exist, from someone who seems almost disappointed that he is human and does exist.

Soares is content to move through life — his own and the world around him — as a reluctant observer, focused on his own reactions to reacting, and grounded in his experiences of experiencing, his own feelings at feeling, with only his incomplete senses serving as a somewhat reliable source of truth in a world billowing with half truths. And that truth, for him, is that even with only the most fleeting of closer looks, life is absurd and those of who stride boldly through the world with a sense of purpose are mistaken and misguided. In today’s world, Soares would probably be considered a depressive, asexual narcoleptic — and likely be highly medicated — but in this book, he becomes a champion of reacting rationally and effectively to the truth of existential despair — that is, by embracing the notion that nothing matters and living a specific life that mirrors, and celebrates, the meaningless of all life.

It was a grinding slog, reading the musings of a (created) man constantly questioning what it means to be human, and finding the answer in his ability to find no answers. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it accurate, and moving. For me, no other author has so successfully captured the disorienting liberty of existentialism. And, because the “real” author was an accomplished poet, the almost monotonous reflections on reflecting, the most minute observations on his sensory observations, glittered with powerful, lyrical lines that literally caused me to put the book down and close my eyes, just so I could think about them longer undisturbed. Lines like these:

“If the heart could think it would stop beating.

In modern life the world belongs to the stupid, the insensitive and the disturbed.

I envy in everyone the fact that they are not me.

What would become of the world if we were human? If man really felt, there would be no civilization.

To know oneself is to err.

The life one lives is one long misunderstanding, a happy medium between a greatness that does not exist and a happiness that cannot exist.

I’m just the bridge between what I do not have and what I do not want.

Leadership requires insensitivity. Only the happy govern because to be sad it is necessary to feel.

What has happened to us has either happened to everyone or to us alone; if the former it has no novelty value and if the latter it will be incomprehensible. I write down what I feel in order to lower the fever of feeling. What I confess is of no importance because nothing is of any importance. I make landscapes out of what I feel. I make a holiday of sensation.

… the insatiable, unquantifiable longing to be both the same and other.

Action is a disease of thought, a cancer of the imagination.”

The Book of Disquiet may not be for everyone, but it’s a tremendous journey into the heart of self-doubt that powers existentialism, the self-doubt that — if we’re as honest as the dishonest (manufactured) Soares — constantly lurks just below the surface of life.