On Fernando Pessoa’s Philosophical Essays

Michael Colson over at Truth Tableaux (via the NYT's The Stone):

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) is considered to be a great European intellectual and a preeminent Portuguese modernist. Born in Lisbon, he grew up in South Africa and had an English education at St. Joseph’s, a Dominican convent school, in Durban. In 1901, he passed the Cape School Higher Examination with distinction, and in 1903, he won Queen Victoria’s Memorial Prize for the best essay in English. After returning to Portugal in 1906-1907, Pessoa enrolled in philosophy classes at the University of Lisbon. He wrote poetry, fiction, and essays on topics ranging from politics and economics to mysticism and astrology. Importantly, Pessoa wrote several essays in English on philosophy.

For the first time Pessoa’s philosophical writings in English have been published. His Philosophical Essays: Critical Edition (First Contra Mundum Press, 2012), edited by Nuno Ribeiro, collects hitherto unpublished philosophical essays and fragments transcribed from material in the Fernando Pessoa Archive at the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal. The archive holds more than 27,000 manuscript sheets in labeled envelopes, and 14 envelopes contain 1,428 sheets on philosophy.

If writing is a form of autobiography, as composition teacher Donald Murray says, then much of the paradox surrounding Pessoa’s writings involve the ambiguity of his “factless autobiography” and the many personalities that are attributed to him. Pessoa created complicated sets and subsets of authorial voices: heteronyms, semi-heteronyms, pre-heteronyms, and sub-heteronyms. The heteronym is a personality that allows a writer to explore ideas and feelings outside his own person—it’s like a public mask. Pessoa’s heteronyms—Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Alvaro de Campo—offer different ideas, feelings, and writing styles than his own.

In 1915, Pessoa employed the first heteronym Alvaro de Campos in a modernist Portuguese review Orpheu. Some scholars believe that the plurality of heteronyms demonstrates a conception of self based on the multiplicity of Nietzsche’s ‘decentered self.’