Sunday, December 11, 2011

PURSUING PESSOA


16. Epilogue


If the measure of success of any pursuit is the finding of its object, I would have to say that my pursuit of Pessoa was at least moderately successful. Clearly, it was never likely that I was going to physically encounter someone who died in 1935, but his presence permeates Lisbon all the way from kitschy tee shirts with his image and that of three of his heteronyms to tiles with his caricature and a few lines of poetry on them, to his statue outside A Brasileira in the Chiado, to the bed turned down in his former room awaiting his decision to nap--even though he's been sleeping in the family mausoleum for 76 years--if you don't believe in reincarnation--under the less than benevolent scrutiny of his grandmother. In the best case scenario, he was reincarnated rapidly, and escaped being nagged ad nauseum.


More than his image, Pessoa's presence is omnipresent in the atmosphere of Lisbon. Its timid and antiquated marginality mirrors his own on a larger--but not grander--scale, and the pervasive "saudades" of its people are a permanent presence--like that of a fly in amber. It was inpossible for me to walk up and down the streets--whether following part of the itinerary of Pessoa's tourist guide from 1926, or moving along the melancholic references to streets in The Book of Disquiet--without finding it easier to walk in his imagined footprints than to avoid them.


It is also close to impossible, when pursuing Pessoa, not to have one's footsteps tap out the lines of some of his poems.


Walking toward the docks through fog and light rain on a Sunday, when the streets are practically deserted, since most shops close from 1 p.m. on Saturday until Monday morning, there are no visible landmarks. Suddenly, the sun seeps through the clouds and you see you have crossed the Pra├ža do Comercio, and are now being swept into the river by virtue of your iinattention and your daydreams:


"My dreams are a stupid refuge,
like an umbrella against a bolt of lightning."
(Paginas Escogida, p. 58, Pessoa under his own name)


It's easy, in Lisbon, to enter Pessoa's timeless dream state, to become part of his hallucinations or your own--or even those of a stranger. When the gypsy woman in Tabucchi's novel, REQUIEM, after selling the narrator (Paul) two fake Lacoste polo shirts and four genuine alligators to stick onto them, begins to read his palm, she tells him that he is living a hallucination and that by just touching his hand she feels that she has become part of it, we sense that just by reading the novel (or by watching Alain Tanner's faithful film version) that we have also become part of it, and that we are in for a slow (it is a Requirm, after all) but bumpy ride of our own if we attempt to sort out the real from the imagined, the living from the dead. And although Paul has from mid-day to midnight to make his own peace with the dead, it needs to be noted that in Lisbon most of the clocks don't keep time, and even though a stopped clock tells the correct time twice every 24 hours, there is a pervasive lethargy and free-floating anxiety that indicates that you yourself may well float free of the string and miss connecting with one or both of those moments.


Absent reliable clocks, there is no past and no future--only an uncertain present--as we are habituated to measuring our experiences:


"But I don't want the present, I want reality;
I want the things that exist, not the time that measures them."
(p. 120, Pessoa's heteronym Alberto Caeiro)


In short, the present is just as unreal as the past and future. So there we are, stuck in a quicksand present which cannot reliably be said to exist, with our "saudades" of a past that may or may not have existed, looking to put it all into linear alignment with what the late Mexican writer Elena Garro called "Memories of the Future".


Walk down any street in Lisbon, especially on a Sunday--when you may be the only person you see--and then only because you are peering through the windows of darkened shops--and it could be any day of any year: there could be Portugese troops camped outside the castle waiting for enough arabs to die of starvation that they finally surrender after the siege of 5 months (arbitrarily, we'll say it's 1147 a.d.); there could be Phoenician ships arriving to found a settlement (around 1200 b.c., although some folks say that Lisbon was founded by Ulysses on his circuitous journey back to Penelope after the Trojan War); or perhaps Julius Caesar has just been appointed governor--with schemes to make the city great in his own image for his climb to the top of Rome's political heap (60 b.c.); perhaps Vasco da Gama is just now setting out for India (1497); or instead of the dilapidated building across from my window, the extravagant offices and dungeons of the Inquisition are having their heyday (16th century, probably); or in place of this sleepy Sunday it's the morning of All Saints Day, 1755, and in a few minutes the city will be reduced to ruins by an earthquake--which Voltaire claimed signified the existence of Evil on earth and the impotent weakness of our species.


Ultimately, it doesn't matter which day of which year it is. You are going to spend the day walking around Lisbon, hoping to connect with Pessoa on some level and shake some answers out of him--at least to your most pressing question: If life is a hallucination, what is death?


In my own hallucination, which appears to be shared by others, I am no longer in Lisbon, but back in Mexico, and I am watching Alain Tanner's REQUIEM with my nephew Max. Isabel has just arrived at the Casa do Alentejo to meet up with Paul, who wants answers from her as well (Was he or Pierre the father of her aborted child, did Pierre convince her to have an abortion, why did she kill herself?) We do not hear his questions, nor her answers; we watch them dancing to a Fado in the balltoom. Then we see Paul sitting alone on a straight chair against the wall, and the camera shifts its point of view to his to show us Isabel continuing to dance the same Fado with Pierre, and then the two of them wave good-bye.


But, before the image fades to black, I feel myself sitting on the chair--not Paul--with my own unanswered questions, my own "saudades" for a past that cannot be recovered because if it did exist outside of my dream, it is floating somewhere in the future.


To have a biography, then, entails the creation of an arbitrary invention--the same as the biographies that Pessoa constructed for his heteronyms, and only as real--or unreal--as theirs:


"If, after I die, they want to write my biogtaphy,
nothing is more simple.
It has only two dates--that of my birth and that of my death.
Between the one and the other all the days are mine."
(p. 124, Alberto Caeiro)


Note that there is no past tense in that quote....


The pursuit of Pessoa, then, is the pursuit of the mystery of our own elusive past, present and future--the search for the key to unlock the door that lets us out of this hallucination that is either life, or death, or both at the same time--or neither, as who's to say that our biographies are not simply the inventions of a poet who wanted to squeeze more life and death and poetry into his own experience?


It's possible in REQUIEM that Paul misunderstood the message of the gypsy woman outside the Prazeres Cemetery when she told him that he could not escape his destiny and that he had an appintment with someone inside. It's possible she was referring to Pessoa, whose family tomb is not all that far away from the niche of Paul's friend Pierre. Or it may be that the hallucinatory pursuit of Pessoa, and the midnight "literary" supper with him, is a fog thrown up by his unconscious (which, when he converses on a park bench with the figure of the lottery ticket seller from Pessoa's BOOK OF DISQUIET , he claims is different from his soul and that the unconscious is a sickness, like a virus which one catches) to cover the real agenda: the opening, treating and closing of an unattended and unhealed wound.


One unhealed wound which figured in my trip to Lisbon uner the cover of pursuing a poet whose physical death began on my birthday 9 years before I was born is a wound that most people who live in my hemisphere, ironically called The New World, prefer to leave alone as an ugly unattended scar rather than open the wound and clean out their part in the infection still producing crimes against our humanity: the wound of conquest and colonialism.


Lisbon was the center of a widespread, if minor, colonial empire--for most Portugese that was its 15 minutes of fame for which they have "saudades". When a taxi driver took me up the back way to St. George's Castle, he commented that the route was through a barrio of poor immigrants. "Those poor immigrants are the result of colonialism", I said.


The process of genocide carried out by The West in the name of civilization (sic) was nothing more than a thundering herd of white barbarians out to slaughter all non-whites in the pursuit of gold, silver, tin, ivory, cinnamon and anything else of value they could grab in the process. Now the survivors of Portugal's colonialism are here in Lisbon from Goa, from San Tome, from Cabo Verde, from Guinea, from Angola, from Mozambique and others in search of a small slice of the riches that were taken from them and squandered a long rime ago (or today, or tomorrow).


Lisbon, along with the rest of the European capitals, is wringing its hands at the very possible collapse of the Eurozone. What else should they expect: They tried to create the structure of a colonial empire, with the colonies' provision of resources to the metropolis, but without any colonies! In a closed system, with no influx of riches to generate profits, all that is created and circulated is debt, which is sold so many times over that it becomes unpayable--and is worthless, anyway!


So, Europe has "saudades" for colonialism, and has been trying to do the impossible: eliminate all those non-white faces from its former colonies who are asking for jobs and handouts in their streets without replicating their crimes of genocide on their home turf.


If there is such a thing as a global body, to achieve homeostasis in a condition of grave imbalance due to inequality of wealth, one of two things will have to occur: Everyone will have to become rich (desperately unlikely, given that no one wants to open that denied ugly wound and clean it out so that it can humanity, even with terminal gangrene in the offing) or everyone will have to become poor (looking ever more likely in a city whose clocks have stopped ticking away the time).


Why choose Portugal, a minor player in the global grab-bag, to pick at my part of the wound? My unconscious probably had a hand in it, and the literary and cinematic tradion slowly being formed of chasing around Lisbon after a phantom named Fernando Pessoa (among others) has a decadent attraction. And since Lisbon is a city with very little "dynamism" and few if any reliable clocks, one can go at whatever pace one chooses--and on foot, by taxi, by tram, by funicular, by metro--or by climbing to the top of one of the seven hills and pulling one's cape over one's head, in the words of Pessoa (in English in the original) "like a raised wing". (p. 66)