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Three Entries from The Book of Disquiet

Fernando Pessoa | translation by Margaret Jull Costa

166 [3/22/1929]

In the bay, between the woods and the meadows, there rose out of the uncertainty of the blank abyss the inconstancy of flaming desire.There was no need to choose between the wheat and the myrtles, and the distance continued to recede among the cypresses.

The magical power of words, whether isolated or brought together to form a musical chord, full of intimate resonances and meanings that diverge even as they converge, the pomp of sentences placed in between the meanings of other sentences, malicious vestiges, hopeful woods, and nothing but the peaceful pools in the childhood gardens of my subterfuges… Thus, between the high walls of absurd audacity, among the lines of trees and the startled shivers of things withering, someone other than me would hear from sad lips the confession denied to the more insistent. Not even if the knights were to ride back down the road visible from atop the castle wall would there be more peace in the Castle of the Last Lost Men, where once lances clashed and clanged in the courtyard, nor would anyone recall another name on this side of the road, apart from the one that used to enchant us nightly, like the tale about the Moorish ladies, and the child who died afterwards from life and wonder.

Along the furrows in the grass, where footsteps left hollows in the waving greenery, the passing of the last lost men echoed faintly, slowly, like memories of the future.Those to come would all be old, while the young would never come.There was a rumble of drums beside the road, and the bugles hung silently in weary hands that would have dropped them if they’d had the strength to drop anything.

Then, again, as a consequence of the magic, the dead shouts rang out again, and the dogs could be seen hovering and havering on the garden paths. It was like an absurd wake, and the princesses of other people’s dreams strolled endlessly about at their ease.

167 [1929?]

I feel sorrier for those who dream the probable, the legitimate and the near-at-hand than for those who daydream about the distant and the strange. Those who dream on a grand scale or are mad and believe in their dreams and are happy, or who are simple daydreamers, for whom the daydream is music to the soul, a meaningless balm. But those who dream the possible have a real possibility of experiencing real disappointment. It may not weigh very heavily on me that I never became a Roman emperor, but it might pain me never to have spoken to the seamstress who, at about nine o’clock each morning, appears around the corner to the right of my window. The dream that promises us the impossible has already prevented us from achieving it, but the dream that promises us the possible interferes with real life and leaves it to life to provide a solution. The former lives exclusively and independently, the latter submits to the contingencies of what might happen.

That is why I love impossible landscapes and the great empty expanses of plains I will never visit. Past historical ages are a marvel too because there is no chance that I will ever be part of them. I sleep when I dream what does not exist; I will wake when I dream what does exist.

In the deserted of office at midday, I look out of the balcony window at the street below, and while I can sense the movement of people with my eyes, I am too steeped in my own thoughts to actually see them. I sleep with the balustrade digging painfully into my elbows and am aware of nothing but a great sense of promise. With a strange detachment I can make out the details of the stopped street filled with passers-by: the crates piled on a cart, the sacks outside the warehouse next door, and in the window of the grocery on the far corner a glimpse of the bottles of that port wine I imagine no one could possibly afford. My spirit separates itself off from the purely material. I probe more deeply with my imagination. The people walking down the street are always the same as the people who walked by shortly before, always the same fluctuating figures, blurred movements, hesitant voices, things that pass but never happen.

I note all this with my consciousness of my senses rather than with my actual senses… The possibility of other things… And, suddenly, behind me, I hear the metaphysically abrupt presence of the office boy. I could kill him for interrupting the ‘I’ that I wasn’t even thinking. I spin round and shoot him a silent look of loathing; tense with latent homicidal tendencies. I can already hear the voice he will use when he speaks. He smiles at me from the far end of the office and says ‘Good afternoon’. I hate him as I hate the whole universe. My eyes are heavy with imagining.

177 [1929?]

…as wretched as the aims we live for, aims we never chose.

Most if not all men live wretched lives, even their joys are wretched, as are almost all their sorrows, except those related to death, because Mystery plays a part in those.

From outside come intermittent sounds, sifted through my inattention, fluid and scattered, like interleaving waves, as if they came from another world: the cries of street vendors selling natural things like cabbages or social things like lottery tickets; the rumble of wheels—jolting carts and wagons; cars, heard more in the approach than in their passing; the shaking of something like a rag out of a window; a boy whistling; loud laughter from the top floor; the metallic groan of the tram in the next street; the confusion of sounds from the crossroads; a variety of loud sounds and soft sounds and silences; the faltering thunder of traffic; a few footsteps; the beginnings, middles and ends of voices—and all of this exists for me, as I sleep-think it, like a stone hidden among the grass and somehow peering out from its hiding place.

Then, through the wall comes a flood of sounds that merge with the others: footsteps, the clatter of crockery, a broom sweeping, a fragment of song (a fado perhaps?); an evening rendezvous beneath a balcony; a cry of irritation when something is missing from the dining table; someone asking to be brought the cigarettes he left on the dresser—this is reality, the anaphrodisiac reality that fails to penetrate my imagination.

The light footsteps of the new young maid, her slippers, which I picture as having scarlet and black braid; the firm, confident, booted steps of the son of the house going out and calling a loud goodbye, the slamming of a door cutting short the echo of the bye that follows the good; quiet, as if the world ended in this fourth-floor room; the sound of dishes being placed in the sink; water running; ‘I’ve told you before…’ and from the river a siren silence.

But on I drowse, digesting and imagining, in between synaesthesias. And it’s extraordinary to think that, if I was asked now, I would not want more for my brief life than these long minutes, this absence of thought, emotion, action, even sensation, this inner sunset of disparate desire. And then I think, almost without thinking, that, to a greater or lesser extent, most if not all men live like this, whether standing still or moving forward, but feeling the same drowsy apathy when it comes to ultimate aims, the same indifference to future plans, the same diluting of life. Whenever I see a cat lying in the sun, I am reminded of a man lying in the sun. Whenever I see anyone sleeping, I am reminded that everything is sleep.Whenever someone tells me they had a dream, I wonder if he is aware that he has never done anything other than dream. The noise from the street grows louder, as if a door had opened, and the doorbell clangs.

It was nothing, because the door immediately closed again. The footsteps stop at the end of the corridor. The washed dishes raise their watery, crockery voices. Does the air tremble? A truck passes, making the whole house shake, and since all things must come to an end, I get up from my thinking.

This excerpt of The Book of Disquiet is featured at Poetry Northwest courtesy of New Directions Press. For more, read an essay about the text by Rick VanderKnyff and an interview with translator Margaret Jull Costa.

Photo by Samuel Zeller