Act In Small Things
In 1907 the nineteen year old Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa was afraid of going mad. His obsessiveness had reached critical mass, and he was constantly regaled with tales of those in his family who succumbed to their instability. Driven to the brink, he wrote letters to two former teachers under the nom de plume of Dr. Faustino Antunes, asking for information about a mentally deranged patient, one "Fernando Pessoa."
Here is the unsent first draft of a letter he wrote to former classmate Clifford Geerdts:
I am writing you about the late Fernando Antonio Nogueira Pessoa, who is thought to have committed suicide; at least he blew up a country house in which he was, killing he and several other people - a crime which caused a great sensation in Portugal at the time (several months ago). I have been requested to inquire, as far as is now possible, into his mental condition and, having heard that the deceased was with you in the Durban High School must beg you to write to me frankly how he was considered among the boys at the said institution.
Write me as detailed an account as possible on this. What opinion was held of him? Intellectually? Socially? etc. Did he seem or did he not seem capable of such an act as I have described?
I must ask you to keep, as far as possible, silence in this matter; it is, you understand, very delicate and very sad. Besides, it may have been (how I wish it may have been!) an accident, and in that case our hasty condemnation would itself be a crime. It is just my task, by inquiring into his mental condition, to determine whether the catastrophe was a crime or a mere accident.
An early reply will be very much obliged.
Dr. Faustino Antunes
Both Geerdts and Pessoa's English teacher at Durban, a Mr. Belcher, replied to the letters of "Dr. Faustino Antunes." Geerdts' response included the following observations:
He was pale and thin and appared physically to be very imperfectly developed. He had a narrow and contracted chest and was inclined to stoop.
He was inclined to be morbid.
He was regarded as a brilliantly clever boy.
He had learned English so rapidly and so well that he had a splendid style in that language.
He was meek and inoffensive and inclined to avoid association with his schoolfellows.
He took no part in athletic sports of any kind and I think his spare time was spent in reading. We generally considered that he worked far too much and he would ruin his health by so doing.
Incredibly, Pessoa recorded some of Mr. Belcher's comments to Geerdts in a follow-up letter and asked him if he agreed.
Rule of Life
by FERNANDO PESSOA
1. Make as few confidences as possible. Better make none, but if you make any, make false or indistinct ones.
2. Dream as little as possible, except where the direct purpose of the dream is a poem or a literary product. Study and work.
3. Try to be as sober as possible, anticipating sobriety of body by a sober attitude of mind.
4. Be agreeable only by agreeableness, not by opening your mind or by discussing freely those problems that are bound up with the inner life of the spirit.
5. Cultivate concentration, temper the will, make yourself a force by thinking, as innerly as possible, that you are indeed a force.
6. Consider how few real friends you have, because few people are apt to be anyone's friends.
7. Try to charm by what is in your silence.
8. Learn to be prompt to act in small things, in the trite things of street life, home life, work life, to brook no delay from yourself.
9. Organize your life like a literary work, putting as much unity into it as possible.
10. Kill the Killer.
Pessoa only wrote love letters to one woman. Her name was Ophelia Queiroz. She was a secretary at a firm in Lisbon where the 31 year old Pessoa worked as a translator. After trading a few notes and glances, he approached her with the appropriate lines of Hamlet in the office and kissed her. He wrote his first real letter to her shortly thereafter. She was 19.
1 March 1920
You could have shown me your contempt, or at least your supreme indifference, without the see-through masquerade of such a lengthy treatise and without your written "reasons," which are as insincere as they are unconvincing. You could have just told me. This way I understand you no less, but it hurts me more.
It's only natural that you're very fond of the young man who's been chasing you, so why should I hold it against you if you prefer him to me? You're entitled to prefer whom you want and are under no obligation, as I see it, to love me. And there's certainly no need (unless it's for your own amusement) to pretend you do.
Those who really love don't write letters that read like lawyers' petitions. Love doesn't examine things so closely, and it doesn't treat others like defendants on trial.
Why can't you be frank with me? Why must you torment a man who never did any harm to you (or to anybody else) and whose sad and solitary life is already a heavy enough burden to bear, without someone adding to it by giving him false hopes and declaring feigned affections? What do you get out of it besides the dubious pleasure of making fun of me?
I realize that all this is comical, and that the most comical part of it is me.
I myself would think it was funny, if I didn't love you so much, and if I had the time to think of anything besides the suffering you enjoy inflicting on me, although I've done nothing to deserve it except love you, which doesn't seem to me like reason enough. At any rate...
Here's the "written document" you requested. The notary Eugenio Silva can validate my signature.
19 March 1920
at 4 a.m.
My dear darling Baby:
It's almost four in the morning, and I've just given up trying to fall asleep, even though my aching body badly needs rest. This is the third night in a row this has happened, but tonight was one of the worst nights of my life. Luckily for you, darling, you can't imagine what it was like. It wasn't just my sore throat and the idiotic need to spit every two minutes that kept me from sleeping. I was also delirious though I had no fever, and I felt like I was going mad, I wanted to scream, to moan at the top of my lungs, to do a thousand crazy things. It's not only my physical illness that put me in such a state but the fact I spent all day yesterday fretting over the things that still need to be done before my family arrives. And to top it off my cousin came by at half past seven with more than a little bad news, which I won't go into now, darling, because fortunately none of it concerns you in the least.
Just my luck to be sick right when there are so many urgent things to do — things that no one but I can do.
See the state of mine I've been in lately, especially during the last two days? And you've no idea, my adorable Baby, how constantly and insanely I've missed you. Your absence always makes me suffer, darling, even when it's just from one day to the next, so think how I must feel after not having seen you for almost three days!
Tell me one thing, love: Why do you sound so depressed in your second letter - the one you sent yesterday by Osorio? I can understand you missing me, just like I miss you, but you sounded so anxious, sad and dejected that it pained me to read your letter and feel how much you're suffering. What happened to you, darling, besides us being separated? Something worse? Why do you speak in such a desperate tone about my love, as if you doubted it, when you have no reason to?
I'm all alone — I really am. The people in this building have treated me very well, but they're not close to me at all. During the day they bring soup, milk, or medicine, but they don't ever keep me company, which I certainly wouldn't expect. And at this hour of the night, I feel like I'm in a desert. I'm thirsty and have no one to give me a drink. I'm going crazy from this sense of isolation and have no one to soothe me, just by being near, as I try to go to sleep.
I'm cold. I'm going to lie down and pretend to rest. I don't know when I'll mail this letter or if I'll add anything to it.
Ah my love, my doll, my precious Baby, if only you were here! Lots and lots and lots of kisses from your always very own
5 April 1920
Dear naughty little Baby:
Here I am at home alone, except for the intellectual who's hanging paper on the walls (as if he could hang it on the floor or ceiling!), and he doesn't count. As promised, I'm going to write my Baby, if only to tell her that she's a very bad girl except in one thing, the art of pretending, and in that she's a master.
By the way — although I'm writing you, I'm not thinking about you. I'm thinking about how I miss the days when I used to hunt pigeons, which is something you obviously have nothing to do with...
We had a nice walk today, don't you think? You were in a good mood, I was in a good mood, and the day was in a good mood. (My friend A.A. Crosse was not in a good mood. But his health is okay — one pound sterling of health for now, which is enough to keep him from catching cold.)
You're probably wondering why my handwriting's so strange. For two reasons. The first is that this paper (all I have at the moment) is extremely smooth, and so my pen glides right over it. The second is that I found, here in the apartment, some splendid Port, a bottle of which I opened, and I've already drunk half. The third reason is that there are only two reasons, and hence no third reason at all.
When can we be somewhere together, darling — just the two of us? My mouth feels odd from having gone so long without any kisses... Little Baby who sits on my lap! Little Baby who gives me love bites! Little Baby who... (and then Baby's bad and hits me...) I called you "body of sweet temptations," and that's what you'll always be, but far away from me.
Come here, Baby. Come over to Nininho. Come into Nininho's arms. Put your tiny mouth against Nininho's mouth... Come... I'm so lonely, so lonely for kisses ...
If only I could be certain that you really miss me. It would at least be some consolation. But you probably think less about me than about that boy who's chasing you, not to mention D.A.F. and the bookkeeper of C.D. & C.! Naughty, naughty, naughty, naughty... !!!!
What you need is a good spanking.
So long: I'm going to lay my head down in a bucket, to relax my mind. That's what all great men do, at least all great men who have:
1) a mind,
2) a head, and
3) a bucket in which to stick their head.
A kiss, just one, that lasts as long as the world, from your always very own
27 April 1920
My lovely little Baby:
How adorable you looked today in the window of your sister's apartment! You were cheerful, thank goodness, and seemed happy to see me.
I've been feeling very sad, and also very tired — sad not only because I haven't been able to see you because of the obstacles that other people have been putting in our path. I'm afraid that the unrelenting, insidious influence of these people — who don't censure you or express outright opposition but who work slowly on your mind — will eventually make you stop liking me. You already seem different to me. You're not the same girl you were in the office. Not that you've even noticed this, but I've noticed, or at least I think I have. God knows I hope I'm wrong...
Listen, sweetie: the future all looks hazy to me. I mean, I can't see what's on the horizon, or what will become of us, since you've been yielding more and more to the influence of your family, and you disagree with me in everything. In the office you were sweeter, more gentle, more lovable.
Tomorrow I'll go by the Rossio train station at the same time as today. Will you come to the window?
Always and forever your
31 July 1920
Excuse this shoddy paper, but it's all I could find in my briefcase, and they don't have any stationery here at the Cafe Arcada. You don't mind, do you?
I just received your letter with the cute postcard.
It was a funny coincidence, wasn't it?, that I and my sister were downtown yesterday at the same time you were. What wasn't funny is that you disappeared, in spite of the signs I made you. I was just dropping off my sister at the Avenida Palace Hotel, so she could buy some things and take a walk with the mother and sister of the Belgian follow who's staying there. I came back out almost immediately, and expected to find you waiting there, so that we could talk. But no, you had to rush to your sister's place!
What's worse is that, when I came out of the hotel, I saw your sister's window outfitted like a theater box (with extra chairs) to enjoy the show of me walking by! Realizing this, I naturally went on my way as if no one were there. The day I decide to play the clown (which my character isn't really suited for), I'll offer my services directly to the circus. Just what I needed right now — to serve as comic entertainment for your family!
If you couldn't avoid being at the window with 148 people, you should have avoided the window. Seeing as you didn't feel like waiting for me or talking to me, you might at least have had the courtesy — since you couldn't appear alone at the window — of not appearing.
Why should I have to explain these things? If your heart (presuming this creature exists) or your intuition can't instinctively teach them to you, then I can't very well be your teacher.
When you say that your most fervent wish is for me to marry you, you shouldn't forget to add that I would also have to marry your sister, your brother-in-law, your nephew and who knows how many of your sister's clients.
Always your very own
I forgot as I wrote this, that you're in the habit of showing my letters to everyone. If I'd remembered I would have toned it down, I assure you. But it's too late, and it doesn't matter. Nothing matters.
15 October 1920
You have thousands, even millions of good reasons for being irked, offended, and angry with me. But I'm not the one to blame. It's Fate that has condemned my brain — if not definitely, then at least to a condition calling for serious treatment, which I'm not so sure I can get.
I plan (with yet resorting to the celebrated May 11th decree) to enter a clinic next month, where I'm hoping for a treatment that will help me fend off the black wave that's falling over my mind. I don't know what the result of all this will be — I mean, I can't imagine what it could be.
Don't wait for me. If I come to see you, it will be in the morning, when you're on your way to the office in Poco Novo.
What happened, you ask? I got switched with Alvaro de Campos!
29 November 1920
Thank you for your letter. It made me feel both sad and relieved. Sad, because these things always bring sadness. Relieved, because this really is the only solution — to stop prolonging a situation that's no longer justified by love, whether on your side or mine. For my own part there remains an abiding estreem and a steadfast friendship. You won't deny me as much, will you?
Neither you nor I are to blame for what has happened. Only Fate might be blamed, were Fate a person to whom blame could be imputed.
Time, which grays hair and wrinkles faces, also withers violent affections, and much more quickly. Most people, because they're stupid, don't even notice this, and they imagine they still love because they got used to being in love. If this weren't so, there would be no happy people in the world. Superior creatures cannot enjoy this illusion, however, because they can't believe love will endure, and when they see it's over, they don't kid themselves by taking what it left — esteem, or gratitude — for love itself.
These things cause suffering, but the suffering passes. If life, which is everything, finally passes, then won't love and sorrow also pass, along with all the other things that are only parts of life?
You're unfair to me in your letter, but I understand and forgive. You no doubt wrote it with anger and perhaps even bitterness, but most people in your case — men or women — would write things that are even less fair, and in a harsher tone. But you have a wonderful disposition, Ophelia, and not even your anger is capable of malice. If, when you marry, you're not as happy as you deserve, it will be through no fault of your own.
As for me...
My love has passed. But I still feel a steadfast affection for you, and you can be sure that I'll never, never forget your delightful figure, your girlish ways, your tenderness, your goodness, and your lovable nature. It's possible that I fooled myself and that these qualities I attribute to you were my own illusion, but I don't think so, and even if they were, it did no harm to have seen them in you.
I don't know what you might like to have back — whether your letters or other things. I'd prefer not to give back anything, and to keep your letters as the living memory of a past that died (the way all pasts do), as something poignant in a life like mine which, as it advances in years, advances in disillusion and unhappiness.
Please don't be like ordinary people, who always act petty and mean. Don't turn your head when I pass by, and don't harbor a grudge in your remembrance of me. Let us be like lifelong friends who loved each other a bit when they were children, only to pursue other affections and other paths as adults, but who nevertheless retain, in some corner of the heart, the vivid memory of their old and useless love.
These "other affections" and "other paths" concern you, Ophelia, and not me. My destiny belongs to another Law, whose existence you're not even aware of, and it is ever more the slave of Masters who do not relent and do not forgive.
You don't need to understand this. It's enough that you hold me in your memory with affection, as I will steadfastly hold you in mine.
After nine years of total and complete silence, Pessoa contacted Ophelia and she said she would be happy to hear from him if he wanted to write to her. She again became captivated by him. Below is one of his last letters from that period.
9 October 1929
I like your letters, which are sweet, and I like you, because you're sweet too. And you're candy, and you're a wasp, and you're honey, which comes from bees and not wasps, and everything's just fine, and Baby should always write me, even when I don't, which is always, and I'm sad, and I'm crazy, and no one likes me, and why should they, and that's exactly right, and everything goes back to the beginning, and I think I'll call you today, and I'd like to kiss you precisely and voraciously on the lips, and to eat your lips and whatever little kisses you're hiding there, and to lean on your shoulder and slide into the softness of your little doves, and to beg your pardon, and the pardon to be make-believe, and to do it over and over and period until I start again, and why do you like a scoundrel and a troll and a fat slob with a face like a gas meter and the expression of someone who's not there but in the toilet next door, and indeed, and finally, and I'm going to stop because I'm insane and I always have been, it's from birth, which is to say ever since I was born, and I wish Baby were my doll so I could do like a child, taking off her clothes, and I've reached the end of the page, and this doesn't seem like it could be written by a human being but it was written by me.
You can read Fernando Pessoa's Aspects here.
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