The Weekly Quill — Clemency Before the Crime

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The Global Economy Pursues Success in Failed Policy


Is there such a thing as history without life? Born June 13, 1888 in Lisbon, poet Fernando António Nogueira Pessôa purported to have thought so whilst among the living. That period was, however, short-lived. After his father died when he was five, his mother remarried, an event that proved to be a seminal turning point. Within two years, Pessôa had moved to Durban, South Africa, where his stepfather had been appointed Portuguese consul. There, in his studies abroad, Pessôa conquered the English language. It was largely inconsequential that he dropped out of university two years after returning to Lisbon; he was able to support himself as a freelance translator of business correspondence. Financially liberated, one of the world’s most prolific poets was set free to disappear.

Upon his death from cirrhosis of the liver on November 30, 1935, Pessôa was largely an unknown, having published three books of poetry in English and only one in his native Portuguese. He never married and is said to have died a virgin. In one poem, Pessôa wrote that he had never preferred one sex or another. What, and who, he left behind, would define him posthumously in the form of more than 25,000 manuscript pages written on the backs of letters, envelopes, or even scraps of paper.

Aside from Pessôa himself, the authors of those reams — no fewer than 72 names – were fictional alter egos, or “heteronyms,” as he called them. Not to be confused with pseudonyms, heteronyms have not only a detailed biography but their own psychology, politics, religion and even physique. Each had his or her own literary style. Maria José was a nineteen-year-old hunchback consumptive who wrote a desperate, un-mailed love letter to a handsome metalworker who passed under her window on his way to work each day. Álvaro de Campos, a devotee of Walt Whitman, was a naval engineer and world traveler who studied in Glasgow, traveled to the Orient, and lived outrageously in London. And Ricardo Reis was a melancholic doctor and classicist who wrote Horace-like odes.

Two melodies run throughout Pessôa’s works – solitude and regret. His most famous quotes on these subjects capture the despondency he carried with him during his brief spell among the living and provoke a deep disquietude:

“If you cannot live alone, you were born a slave.”
“There’s no regret more painful than the regret of things that never were.”


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