A New Universe, a False World

‘I am still obsessed with creating a false world, and will be until I die. Today I don’t line up spools of thread and chess pawns (with an occasional bishop or knight sticking out) in the drawers of my chest, but I regret that I don’t, and in my imagination I line up the characters- so alive and dependable! – who occupy my inner life, and this makes me feel cosy, like sitting by a warm fire in winter.’

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith.

‘If I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it.’

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, apparently as quoted by Jacques Guillaume Legrand in Notice historique sur la vie et les ouvrages de J. B. Piranesi.


We Merely Come to Dream

‘I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. My worst sorrows have evaporated when I’ve opened the window on to the street of my dreams and forgotten myself in what I saw there. I’ve never aspired to be more than a dreamer. I paid no attention to those who spoke to me of living.’

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith.

‘We merely come to stand sleeping, we merely come to dream. It is not true, not true, that we come to live on earth.’

Cantares Mexicanos, translated from the Nahuatl by John Bierhorst.

When We Read

When we read, we are not looking for new ideas, but to see our own thoughts given the seal of confirmation on the printed page. The words that strike us are those that awake an echo in a zone we have already made our own—the place where we live—and the vibration enables us to find fresh starting points within ourselves.

Cesare Pavese, This Business of Living, translated by A. E. Murch.

The only advantage to studying is to take delight in all the things that other people haven’t said.

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith.

Not Knowing Nor Able

‘I received in inheritance neither god, nor a given spot on earth from where I can draw the attention of a god: no one either legated me the well disguised fury of the skeptic, the Sioux guiles of the rationalist or the burning innocence of the atheist. So I dare not throw the stone neither at the one who believes in things which inspire me only doubt, nor at the one who cultivates his doubt as if it was not, just as well, surrounded with darkness. This stone would hit me myself because I am well certain about one thing: the need of consolation that dwells within the human being is impossible to satisfy.’

Stig Dagerman, Our Need for Consolation is Insatiable.

‘Not knowing nor able to know what religious life is, since faith isn’t acquired through reason, and unable to have faith in or even react to the abstract notion of man, we’re left with the aesthetic contemplation of life as our reason for having a soul. Impassive to the solemnity of any and all worlds, indifferent to the divine, and disdainers of what is human, we uselessly surrender ourselves to pointless sensation, cultivated in a refined Epicureanism, as befits our cerebral nerves.’

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet.

There is No Enduring Emotion without Syntax

The concepts of the mind are pictures of things and the tongue is interpreter of those pictures; the order of God’s creatures in themselves is not only admirable and glorious but eloquent, then he that could apprehend the consequence of things in their truth and utter his apprehensions as truly, were a right orator, therefore Cicero said as much when he said Dicere recte nemo Potest nisi qui prudenter intelligit. The shame of speaking unskillfully were small if the tongue were only disgraced by it, but as the image of the king  in a seal of wax ill represented is not so much a blemish to the wax or the signet that sealeth it as to the king whom it resembleth, so disordered speech is not so much injury to the lips which give it forth, or the thoughts which put it forth, as to the proportion and coherence of things in themselves so wrongfully expressed. Yet cannot his mind be thought in tune, whose words do jar, nor his reason in frame whose sentences are preposterous, nor his fancy clear and perfect, whose utterance breaks itself into uncertainties; were it an honour to a prince to have the majesty of his embassage spoiled by a careless embassador? And is it not as great an indignity that an excellent concept and capacity, by the indilligence of an idle tongue, should be defaced?

John Hoskyns, The Life, Letters and Writings, ed L. B. Osborn.

Everything is interconnected. My readings of classical authors, who never speak of sunsets, have made many sunsets intelligible to me, in all their colours. There is a relationship between syntactical competence, by which we distinguish the values of beings, sounds and shapes, and the capacity to perceive when the blue of the sky is actually green, and how much yellow is in the blue-green of the sky. It comes down to the same thing – the capacity to discriminate. There is no enduring emotion without syntax. Immortality depends on the grammarians.

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith.

Ex Opere Operato II – Useless Service

‘The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.’

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith.

‘If one acts, it is only to give oneself subjective satisfactions: an impression of novelty, or motion, or courage. Anyone who imagines himself aiming at a goal outside himself would be a dupe. This is what Montherlant asserts in Service inutile: “You will tell me that there is no cause worth dying for. That is quite probable. However, it is not for this cause that one suffers or dies. It is for the idea that this suffering and death gives us of ourselves…One must be absurd my friend, but one must not be a dupe. No pity for the dupes.’

Simone de Beauvoir, ‘Right-Wing Thought Today’, in Political Writings, edited by Margaret A Simons and Marybeth Timmerman.

‘You cannot really perform a significant work without being a nihilist. All those activists who appear to be optimists are fakes.’

Yukio Mishima, as quoted in The Thorn and the Chrysanthemum: Suicide and Economic Success in Modern Japan, Mamoru Iga.

A Sorry Sight

‘With the exception of the beautiful, good-natured or intelligent faces – with the exception, that is, of a very few, rare faces – I believe that every new face will usually arouse in a person of finer feeling a sensation akin to terror, since it presents the disagreeable in a new and surprising combination. As a rule it is in truth a sorry sight.’

Arthur Schopenhauer, On Various Subjects, translated by R. J. Hollindale.

‘Sometimes, without expecting it and with no reason to expect it, the oppressiveness of common life makes me gag, and I feel physically nauseated by the voices and gestures of my so-called fellow man. It’s an instant physical nausea, automatically felt in my stomach and head, an impressive but stupid consequence of my alert sensibility. Everyone who talks to me, each face whose eyes gaze at me, hits me like an insult or a piece of filth.’

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith.

The Active Life

‘Having a horror of any action, he keeps telling himself: ‘Movement, what folly!’ It is not so much events which vex him as the notion of participating in them; and he bestirs himself only in order to turn away from them. His sneers have devastated life before he has exhausted its juice. He is a crossroads Ecclesiast who finds in the universal meaninglessness an excuse for his defeats… Bearing the image of what he might have been as a stigma and a halo, he blushes and flatters himself on the excellence of his sterility, forever alien to naive seductions, the one free man among the helots of time.He extracts his liberty from the enormity of his lack of accomplishments; he is an infinite and pitiable God whom no creation limits, no creature worships, and whom no one spares. The scorn he has poured out on others is returned by them. He expiates only the actions he has not performed, though their number exceeds the calculations of his wounded pride. But at the end, as a kind of consolation, and at the close of a life without honors, he wears his uselessness like a crown.’

Emil Cioran, A Short History of Decay, translated by Richard Howard.

‘The active life has always struck me as the least comfortable of suicides. To act, in my view, is a cruel and harsh sentence passed on the unjustly condemned dream. To exert influence on the outside world, to change things, to overcome obstacles, to influence people – all of this seems more nebulous to me than the substance of my daydreams. Ever since I was a child, the intrinsic futility of all forms of action has been a cherished touchstone for my detachment from everything, including me. To act is to react against oneself. To exert influence is to leave home.

Abstaining entirely from action and taking no interest in Things, I’m able to see the outside world with perfect objectivity. Since nothing interests me or makes me think it should be changed, I don’t change it.

Whenever my ambition, influenced by dreams, raised above the everyday level of my life, so that for a moment I seemed to soar, like a child on a swing, I always – like the child – had to come down to the public garden and face my defeat, with no flags to wave in battle and no sword I was strong enough to unsheathe.’

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith.

‘How many lazy men’s truths have been admitted in the name of the imagination! How often has the term imagination been used to prettify the unhealthy tendency of the soul to soar off in a boundless quest after truth, leaving the body where it always was! How often have men escaped from the pains of their own bodies with the aid of that sentimental aspect of the imagination that feels the ills of others’ flesh as its own!

Yet my dreams became, at some stage, my muscles. The muscles that I had made, that existed, might give scope for the imagination of others, but no longer admitted of being gnawed away by my own imagination.’

Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel.