Fernando Pessoa: “I break my soul into pieces and into different persons”

A poem about compartmentalisation and a post about Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa on his 132nd birth anniversary today, follows .

Windows ~ they shut out the light ; This is a log cabin we spied on one our walks in the Fort Lee Historic Park. The Park is located on top of a bluff of the Palisades in New Jersey, overlooking the Hudson river. 

This photo inspired the short poem below. The size of the window made me think of the amount of light we humans, try shut out of our lives. Our propensity to lock ourselves from the sun and the moon, given the nature of work currently, is not quite great for our vitamin D levels or our mood for that matter. Large windows are in fact, a creation of the modern world, ever since glass was discovered in Roman-occupied Egypt, where it was used to form small panes that were then set into window openings. In 1696, William III introduced a “window tax” in England depending upon the number of windows in private homes. Many people bricked over their windows in order to avoid the charge. William’s window tax is where the term “daylight robbery” originates from. It remained in place for 156 years and  was finally repealed in 1851 [1] This does not in any way alter the fact that our lives are spent cloistered within walls even when using a treadmill. In my poem, inspired by the photos, I used windows and ‘boarded up’, as an analogy for compartmentalisation, which is a form of dissociation. These confined spaces are where our traumatic or even unsavoury memories remain, interred from the light, to vanish into the dark, until someday the rooms may need to be aired to reveal the skeletal remains of some carcass or allow the wind to blow away the dust of bones therein. 


And of words locked into phrases
that rarely come undone,
no matter how one should tease them
they block out the Sun,

encased in those mortal coils,
of an Arian philosophy,
trod rough shod like a raging ram,
gravel hills of ashen tragedy.

Celestial lights, merely be soft caress
though they burn bright or gleam or jest
Scimitar words now locked remain,
'neath dark dead wood pall they rest.

The blog today is dedicated to one of my favourite rationalist poets, Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa whose 132nd birth anniversary it is today, born that he was in, Lisbon, on the 13th of June,1888, a poet whose maxim was, “To pretend is to know oneself.” Carmela Ciuraru wrote a very interesting essay on him, ‘Fernando Pessoa & His Heteronyms’ [2] that I had referred to while reading his poetic work “Book of disquiet” early last year, long before I first joined the choral of voices on social media, at the onset of the lockdown. He wrote in English and Mensagem is the only book of poems written in Portuguese that he published during his life, in 1934. Ciuraru describes the man very simply as leading a shy and introspective life and that despite his seventy or so heteronyms or alter egos whose existence he was quite transparent about, he was an utterly guileless, psychologically honest, earnest man, not given to any ironic posturing. Pessoa writes of his personality best when he admitted at age twenty-two, “the whole constitution of my spirit is one of hesitancy and doubt. Nothing is or can be positive to me; all things oscillate round me, and I with them, an uncertainty unto myself.” He understood the destabilizing effect of living with perpetual uncertainty. “Am I happy or sad?” he asked in one poem. “My sadness consists in not knowing much about myself. But then my happiness consists in that too.” He was almost spiritually devoted to his work, with a predictable routine, an uneventful life and his many eccentricities, like of smoking eighty cigarettes a day, hating having his photograph taken, never arriving on time for an appointment, his interest in the occult, his formal dress and other such.

Fernando Pessoa Source ~ Wikipedia

Some scholars contend, as Ciuraru notes, that Pessoa was a latent homosexual who sublimated his sexual impulses but he did have one significant love affair with a woman named Ofélia de Queirós which failed ( she blamed him for the breakup) because he argued that love was a false notion, anyway, “it’s our own concept – our own selves – that we love,” and further that “the repression of love sheds much more light on its nature than does the actual experience of it.” Ofélia recalled that he withdrew from the relationship slowly without any concrete reason, stopped writing because he indicated there was something wrong with his head and that he wanted to go to the insane asylum. He wrote her letters that were alternately filled with love or bitter accusations, demanding, in his own words, that she stop tormenting him by giving him false hope and declaring feigned affections, given that his sad and solitary life was already a huge burden to bear.

What is most telling is that in rare moments of insecurity and alienation, elsewhere he expressed: “I’m all alone—I really am….I’m going crazy from this sense of isolation and have no one to soothe me, just by being near, as I try to go to sleep.” Yet, he also had perfect control over his emotions and withdrew just the same and wrote to Ofélia “By the way, although I’m writing you, I’m not thinking about you. I’m thinking about how much I miss the days when I used to hunt pigeons.” He also had one of his heteronyms, Alvaro de Campos ( a character who was a Marine and Naval Engineer) write on his behalf, explaining that his friend’s “mental state prevents him from communicating anything, even to a split pea.” Despite the grimness of the situation it can be hard not to feel amused by his wit and humour, his handling of it through the intervention of an imaginary figure.

I am most intrigued by the life of Pessoa as much as I am interested in his poetry, his multiplicity of characters. Last year in the lockdown, it made for strange reading, meandering through the mind of someone who made mental lockdowns and compartmentalisation sound so effortless, moreover I truly admire his work. There isn’t much biographical information available about him except his own written accounts of his motives and the speculations of others. His own personality was quite unknown despite writing on behalf of 70 alter egos. For all intents and purposes, he appears to be a man in pursuit of self-abdication. “Pessoa sought to expel not only his sexual desires,” scholar and translator Richard Zenith wrote, “but his friendly affections, his religious tendencies, his aggressive feelings, his humanitarian urges, his longing for adventure, his dreams, and his regrets.” Yet, it may be a disservice to define him as a case study of pathologies, as I have maintained in blogs earlier, everyone has their inner resonance and there are as many ways to live a life as there are beings on Earth. As Zenith noted, “Psychoanalysis is too poor a science to explain the case of Pessoa, who seems to have been simply, mysteriously, possessed by a demon – that of detachment.”

But the study of detachment is exactly what Psychology does best and so I turned to it to try and process Pessoa, during a time when it makes sense to process phenomena such as lockdowns, detachment and compartmentalisation. In trying to understand how a poet could create such intricate personas, embedded in nearly thirty thousand manuscript pages, inadvertently expressing an inner resonance that so defined his art, as a reader I am flummoxed like many others. After all, Pessoa wrote in ‘The Book of Disquiet‘ (posthumously published):

"I am the suburb of a non-existent town, the prolix commentary on a book never written. I am nobody, nobody. I am a character in a novel which remains to be written, and I float, aerial, scattered without ever having been, among the dreams of a creature who did not know how to finish me off."

As  Edouard Roditi mentions in his essay, ‘The Several Names of Fernando Pessoa’ [3] one of Pessoa’s heteronyms, Alvaro de Campos stopped only at the very frontiers of hallucination, depersonalization, self-alienation:

What do I know of what I shall be, I who do not know
       what I am?
To be what I think? But I think I am so much and
     so much.
And there are so many others who all think they are the
    same and they cannot all be right . . . .

Roditi goes on to speak further of Alvaro de Campos, who is drawn as an imaginary Jew, a neurasthenic* disciple of Marinetti’s Futurism**, a marine engineer who has lost faith in man and machines and no longer knows where he belongs or why he writes, where he describes de Campos as a character out of a Kafka novel:

I have lived, studied, loved and believed,
And today there is no beggar of whose fate I am not
      jealous merely because he is not I.
In each man I see the rags, the scars, the lies,
And I think: "Perhaps you too have lived, studied,
      loved, believed,”
(For it is possible to manipulate the reality of all this
      without actually achieving any of it);
Perhaps you have scarcely existed at all, like a lizzard
       that has had its tail cut off,
And the tail severed from the lizzard still quivers
       endlessly . . . .

Richard Brown in his 2006 paper [4] underlines that different types of ‘Dissociation’ have different psychological mechanisms. I tried looking up for more research on compartmentalisation within dissociation and Brown described it very well. I should be happy to read more on this though. Given that we are constantly faced with issues that beleaguer us in a way, I find many people processing trauma or experiences of high affect*** through writing and art. There are many others that are in denial while adapting to or in maladaptation to such stressors. I thought it interesting to cite the case of Pessoa and his multiplicities as a way to understand the limits of self awareness in the process of detachment as best as I can from my own reading on the topic (although limited) and my foray into writing. Perhaps this study isn’t applicable to Pessoa at all, perhaps he never suffered from any such but simply a strong urge to create.

My reading about the topic brought me to the blog of Ryan Blair, who for example, speaks of his own attempts at compartmentalisation as an entrepreneur [5], which involves a series of adaptations to the stressors of his life. His argument for focus through compartmentalisation is based on anecdotal experience, which relies extensively on an emotional detachment from all that seeks his attention in his world. It is a logical approach, mindset that promotes linear thinking that involves strict programming of the neural impulse in an effort to control it and define outcomes. On the other hand, Jill Riley, who is a minister of faith and a pastor, processes trauma and compartmentalisation differently, where she speaks of how prayer, scripture was her way of clearing out those compartments of trauma or unwieldy memories [6] I also found it interesting in both of the people I’ve mentioned, the traumatic or difficult experiences they have, differ in that some have clear solutions, while some do not. Grief experienced on loss through death or a break up of relationships for instance has no quick fix, many other stresses can actually be mitigated but how does one wish away the stress of an indefinable issue ? This is where I find Pessoa’s approach of successfully handling a multitude of personalities, most interesting. He apparently didn’t go insane but his 70 heteronyms suggest otherwise. In any case, what is insanity if not an expansive imagination, in Pessoa’s case it was perhaps even brilliant.

In his paper, Brown argues that the phenomenon of dissociation consists of two distinct categories ~  ‘detachment’ and ‘compartmentalization’ both requiring a different approach to definition, diagnosis and treatment. Dissociation engenders absorption, depersonalization-derealization, and amnesia, which occur at different rates in the population. Depersonalization and derealization are relatively uncommon in patients with medically unexplained symptoms, in contrast he says, it is patients with amnesia and dissociative disorders that often report somatoform (psychiatric disorders that cause unexplained physical) symptoms. I had written about anterograde amnesia and Rilkean memories in an earlier post about Rilke. Detachment meanwhile, is defined as an altered state of consciousness characterized by a sense of  separation (or ‘detachment’) from aspects of everyday experience.

The paper suggests that a sense of detachment may relate to the individual’s emotional experience (as in emotional numbing), their sense of self (as in some depersonalization phenomena), their body (as in out-of-body phenomena) or the world around them, phenomena that may occur in isolation although they commonly co-occur, and in each case, the individual’s sense of reality during the experience is preserved. Detachment  is also commonly experienced during, or immediately after, traumatic events, a phenomenon known as ‘peri-traumatic dissociation’, which is a defining   feature of acute stress disorder. It is assumed that humans have evolved a hard-wired biological defence mechanism to minimize the potentially debilitating effects of extreme affect in threatening situations by facilitating adaptive behaviours to it, thus detachment arises when an increase in anxiety causes the medial prefrontal cortex to inhibit   emotional processing by the limbic system, thereby reducing sympathetic output which results is a state devoid of emotional experience. A detached state, although adaptive in the short term, may be highly aversive and debilitating if it persists over time, as in depersonalization disorder. Chronicity may develop when the individual misinterprets the state of detachment  itself as a threat  (e.g., of impending  mental breakdown), perpetuating anxiety and emotional inhibition. I wonder if the construction of expressive alter egos is itself pathological detachment, does such a creation help adapt, for in Pessoa’s case, the genesis of heteronyms wasn’t, as per the literature I read on him, triggered by any trauma .

Compartmentalization on the other hand, is a phenomenon that involves a deficit in the ability to deliberately control processes or actions that one would normally be able to control, a deficit  that cannot be overcome by an act of will but which is reversible, at least in principle where the apparently disrupted functions operate normally and continue to influence cognition, emotion and action. It is a phenomenon that includes dissociative amnesia, fugue states and some somatoform disorders. (Brown)

Pessoa, a flâneur in the streets of Lisbon (Wikipedia)

No matter what be the dictates of the Psychological sciences, I take comfort in Pessoa’s argument that it can be of annoyance to a novelist when readers assume that his characters’ feelings or experiences are mirroring his own, so also people ought to respect that Pessoa’s heteronyms were utterly separate from him. It wasn’t any calculation on his part but only chance if they occasionally happened to express his ideas. He acknowledged that this was strange, yet he felt it was not for him to judge whether these heteronyms actually did or did not exist (Ciuraru). I blogged earlier about the views of Emily Dickinson on confessional poetry and also with regard to the female artist, as in the case of  Anne Sexton. I find equally concerning the views towards the writings of Virginia Woolf, as expressed in the biography I am reading of her (Granite and rainbow, The hidden life of Virginia Woolf, by Mitchell Leaska) that makes me wonder if the world has a tendency to view the female artist differently from the male artist. If respect can be accorded to Pessoa’s poetic construction of heteronyms without questioning his sanity or pathologising his detachment and compartmentalisation, then the same should hold true for the female artists, that need not, as in the word of Simone de Beauvoir, have to prostitute themselves for the sake of their art.

In Brown’s paper, it was mentioned that an important function of the working self is to limit the the retrieval of autobiographical memories that may be destabilising to the system, by creating retrieval programs that specify inhibition of such memories which remain compartmentalised, It has been suggested by Conway and Pleydell-Pearce (2000) that this may result in the development of traumatic amnesia in PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or other forms of dissociative memory loss. There is a high degree of internal consistency in a normal working self, which is made up of mutually compatible goals, It is only when there is a discrepancy between conflicting goals (e.g., the goal to develop a romantic relationship vs. the goal to avoid rejection at all costs), negative affect (e.g., anxiety) will arise. People either adapt by creating realistic goals or maladapt through avoidance of the goal altogether. Research suggests that one way for the cognitive system to manage the resulting anxiety would be to prevent the   simultaneous activation of the conflicting goals. If this were to happen often enough, separate goal hierarchies (or working selves) could develop over time, each comprising the goals and sub-goals that were co-active with the   conflicting goal in question. Each goal hierarchy would have access to the autobiographical memories associated with its component goals, while memories associated with the conflicting goal would either be inhibited or unavailable due to the lack of relevant links in the knowledge base. Such a fragmented goal hierarchy could account for the gaps in time experienced by many patients with DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), as well as the occurrence of multiple identities with inter-identity amnesia. Now have a look at what Pessoa says of the multiple identities of his heteronyms:

“I break my soul into pieces and into different persons.” he wrote. He also helped explain the difference between a pseudonym and a heteronym, that ‘a Pseudonymic work is, except for the name with which it is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; a heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama of his would be [2] He believed he had no idea who he was, but his heteronyms were also quite confused “In each of us there is a differingness and a manyness and a profusion of ourselves,” wrote one of his heteronyms. Yet, within this cacophony of the people that lived in his imagination, Pessoa’s heteronyms actually, either savagely or kindly, critiqued one another’s writings. They also collaborated on projects and translated one another’s work.

I wonder what psychoanalyses today, would have made of Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa in Portuguese translates as person. Clearly, he was not one person, but many. In fact amidst the varied lives of his thriving heteronyms, Pessoa seems not to exist at all, such was his depersonalisation, the compartmentalisation of his characters, such was his detachment as an observer of his own life. His situation may be defined as a pathology by modern science and there are many people today that suffer from such afflictions, yet, not all of them waxed as creative as Fernando Pessoa 🙂 A man who knew Pessoa in later years recalled thus about him, “Never, when I bade him goodbye, did I dare to turn back and look at him; I was afraid I would see him vanish, dissolved in air.” He needn’t have worried, Pessoa continues to live in his heteronyms, in his vast creative output that still occupies the imagination of those that are awed by the sheer brilliance of his work yet his despair echoes through the voice of Alvaro Campos:

I am nothing.
Never shall I be anything.
I cannot want to be anything.
Apart from that, I bear within me all the world's dreams.

Feliz Aniversário Senhor Pessoa !


Neurasthenia* — an ill-defined medical condition characterized by lassitude, fatigue, headache, and irritability, associated chiefly with emotional disturbance.
Marinetti’s Futurism** — Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti was an Italian poet, editor, art theorist, and founder of the Futurist movement. The Manifesto of Futurism (Italian: Manifesto del Futurismo) is a manifesto written by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and published in 1909. Marinetti coined the word Futurism to reflect his goal of discarding the art of the past and celebrating change, originality, and innovation in culture and society. (From Wikipedia and Britannica)
Affect*** — Affect, in psychology, refers to the underlying experience of feeling, emotion or mood. Affective states are psycho-physiological constructs—meaning, largely, concepts that connect mental and physical processes. According to most current views, they vary along three principal dimensions: valence, arousal, and motivational intensity (Wikipedia)








What do Linda Pastan, Muriel Rukeyser, Georgia O’Keeffe and Indie 184 have in common ?


On my bedside table: 100 essential modern poems by women; edited by Joseph Parisi and Kathleen Welton

Saturday, busy day / friends, crepes and a boathouse in it / Clouds blew the sun away / we laughed at rain, it threw a fit / / Saturday, easy day / books, photos and music in it / Pastan, O’Keeffe, Rukey … / …ser, Indie and the day’s complete // Asante sana for reading cropped bonsai rhyme ! Wikiendi njema wild as lemon thyme !

Recently, at the Shops, at Hudson Yards; Many ways to empowerment; check the Sphinx’s way below
I enjoyed this poem, it fit seamlessly to the graffiti art of Indie 184 ~ Myth by Muriel Rukeyser
By American artist, Georgia Totto O’Keeffe ; I thought it felt like the dream mentioned in Linda Pastan’s beautiful poem, the dream that remembers us
What We Want by Linda Pastan