The Blog of Disquiet

January 24, 2012 § 2 Comments

Fernando Pessoa (June 13 , 1888, Lisbon – November 30, 1935, Lisbon)

Someone reminded me recently of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, whom I began reading again this fall. I came upon the book by chance, as I was attempting to create order on my shelves, and I opened it with that nostalgic joy with which one greets the books of the truly great—the books I read in youth and which blinded me to so much that one might call the lesser world, which unfortunately is where I’ve mostly had to live.

The beauty of this work that idealizes melancholy, solitude and failure was a comfort to me this autumn. There, you see, I said to myself, being a creature undone at every turn by her own personality is not so bad…look at Pessoa, what he created! I don’t believe that unhappiness is required for genius, and I know from experience that writing eases pain even as it stimulates its recall. But I also know that for those who are not congenitally cheerful, there are ways to live that make extreme pain less likely, and I suspect that they also make one’s best work less likely. One must be willing to walk the mind’s halls without guide or company, and how many of us have minds that are mostly happy, or mostly safe?

I don’t mean there are no guides. There is Fernando Pessoa and his peers; you can make your own list. But they only take you part of the way. They take you into the dark grass at the edge of the lawn, over the first few fallen branches, sun fading fast, into the thorn bush that from the outside looks no bigger than a Volkswagen Beetle, but from the inside….They take you to where blood flows and you watch like a girl menstruating for the first time, a girl who’s been told not nearly enough, nothing about the color, the pulse, the flow, or how much is too much.

I had an IUD put in when I was 15, by a doctor in Brooklyn my mother knew nothing about. All that summer when I bled, I bled so heavily I could barely leave the bathroom. Three super tampax and a thick layer of wadded cloth lasted me an hour. It never occurred to me I could be bleeding to death, that there are limits to how much blood a person can lose, no matter the reason. I hadn’t been stabbed; I had my period. I was just sorry I couldn’t go on a hike with my sister and her boyfriend to the top of Rattlesnake Island in Lake Winnepesaukee but instead had to stay home alone, without transportation, on the mile-long New Hampshire island where we had a summer house, bleeding.

My husband believes that IUD made me sterile, and he may be right. That brand made a lot of women of my generation sterile. The memory has always been an indication to me of what I thought, even at 15, sex was worth—sex not as physical pleasure but as the union of male and female, the center of life, the meaning of life, what I had to have or I would die. I should note that I hadn’t even had a boyfriend yet.

I was wrong about what teenage sex was worth, just as I’ve always been wrong about what passion is worth. Yet what is it worth? It doesn’t even count as irony that in the history of life, the emergence of sex made death necessary. Once the possibility of new genetic combinations emerging every generation was realized, it wasn’t long before it became advantageous for the older generation to not stick around consuming all the resources. In the far off days of our beginning, we were all just like each other, cells splitting into genetic replicas, the “death” of an individual not occurring for—what? Millennia? And so when death comes calling, we jump in the sack, “affirming life,” as we say, which is all very well—but you have to acknowledge the other side, too. We pay for sex with death. And sometimes, you can even feel it.

What does this have to do with Fernando Pessoa, who apparently died a virgin? My associations are partly a result of the person who mentioned him to me the other day. But mostly I remember the bleak and utter beauty of his prose, what it was like to read it for the first time; I remember being young and thinking, Yes, I’ll take all the pain, the loneliness, if I have to, to write that well…already knowing enough about pain to know that it actually hurts…not letting myself know I’d never write that well….

Would I do it again? Give up all hope of stability, safety and reward for the thrill of writing and the thrill of love, doing both so recklessly? No. Yes. Maybe. Beyond passion, beyond daring, is the other Margaret, whom anyone who knows me well will recognize.

“To live a dispassionate, cultured life beneath the dewfall of ideas, reading, dreaming and thinking about writing, a life slow enough to be always on the edge of tedium, but considered enough not to slip into it. To live a life removed from emotions and thoughts, enjoying only the thought of emotions and the emotion of thoughts. To stagnate, golden, in the sun like a dark lake surrounded by flowers.”

Fernando Pessoa


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