a collaborative genealogy of spirituality


by Maria Jose A. de Abreu

In the work of Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa, heteronyms proliferate. Heteronyms are not merely pseudonyms. They are fictional characters who have independent lives, fully realized identities, opinions, tastes, horoscope charts, business cards, signatures, and literary styles. Of the seventy-two fictionalized personae that are known, Pessoa’s most important heteronyms were: Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, and Pessoa-himself (the latter being an orthonym, the alterity that is utterly intimate).

The heteronym Álvaro de Campos “is Walt Whitman with a Greek poet inside.” In “Triumphal Ode” (March 1914), “Maritime Ode” (1914), “Salutations to Walt Whitman” (June 11,1915) and “Passing of the Hours” (May 5, 1916), Campos’s desire for ecstatic oneness with Walt Whitman, plays out Pessoa’s wish to reformulate an idea of possession, both spiritually and erotically.

It is, perhaps, not surprising to note that Pessoa’s most important heteronyms “appeared” to him around the time that he was practicing mediumistic writing, between 1912 and 1916. This period includes the time when Pessoa lived with his aunt Anica in Lisbon. Anica was a Spiritualist and adept at automatic writing. And she frequently organized family séances at her home.

Reflecting the precipitous rise of transatlantic Spiritualist movements in the later part of the nineteenth century (in France, England, the United States and Brazil), Pessoa developed an intense practice of communication with dead and fictional spirits. There were heteronyms contemporary to Pessoa, like Ricardo Reis or Álvaro de Campos, and there were also those who spoke to Pessoa from another time, including the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonist Henry More and the eighteenth-century voodoo spirit Joseph Bálsamo. Spoken primarily in English, though occasionally also in Portuguese, French and even Latin, these séances combined Pessoa’s aptitudes as a writer with more practical matters of life.

Literary ambitions tend towards the logic of the séance and Pessoa’s ambitions found common cause, perhaps even erotic charge, in the practice of mediumship. Pessoa’s long-standing bachelorhood and, in particular, his obsession with masturbation, were often the source of spiritual attention, even ridicule. In a 1916 séance, the spirit Henri More “exhorted him to lose his virginity,” reproaching him as “a masturbator! … a self-swallower’s barren touch of time.” Later, in a moment of stoic determination, the spirit went so far as to recommend:

You must take my wife, reborn as mistress
She is the great masturbator, your charts
Will flow, kindle her balsamic moon
Here’s her horoscope—note Libra rising
Sapient lust will empty you both into day.

On still another occasion that year, the spirits raged at him: “You man without a man’s prick! You man with a clitoris instead of a prick,” and warned him that “he was not cut out for a monastic existence” and that “chastity would be ultimately prejudicial to his literary ambitions.” Rather than convince, the force of these spirit injunctions allowed Pessoa to see his masturbation as beneficial if not absolutely integral to his art of heteronomia. As he declared at some point, “the multiplication of the I is a frequent phenomenon in cases of masturbation.” But “how,” the spirit would ask in verse, “can an onanist engender, truly inhere the identities of all your bloodless ticking selves?”

Fernando Pessoa was fascinated with disintegration of the idea of the self under the force of heteronomy—dissolutions of possessive individualism that had been in vogue during the Romantic period. Like Whitman before him, Pessoa figured the will as a paradigmatic case of heteronomy. For Pessoa, as for Whitman, the fragmentation of the self was intimately and perhaps inevitably associated with technological conditions and imaginings of empire. But there was a strange inversion here, an odd-angled reflection of spirituality in the American grain.

Whitman sang of the machines and the “great cathedral sacred industry” that was flourishing around him. But whereas Whitman conflated the reproducible possibilities of printing with his divisible self, Pessoa (who like Whitman, worked as a printer) refrained from publishing his work (or, indeed, that of his heteronyms). Whereas the “American bard” spoke, or better, sang from the perspective of a rising new empire, Pessoa witnessed a disintegrating one. Pessoa’s challenge to authorship was born not of plenitude of self but with its lack. Indeed, Pessoa sang all the higher and more extravagantly about the machinery and industry that his agrarian provincial country did not own, and of which it could not even dream.

The desire “to be large and contain multitudes” emanated from Whitman’s engagement with an ever-expanding physical world. Pessoa’s desire “to feel everything in every way,” however, was both a strategy and poetic of virtuality, of not being there.

Pessoa’s vicariousness has all to do with his relation to the death of the Portuguese Empire in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Issued on August 30, 1890, just a few months before the birth of Pessoa, the British Ultimatum demanded that the Portuguese give up the inner lands between Angola and Mozambique—what is currently Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi—in order to allow the British to build a major north-south railway linking Cairo to Cape Town. In the years immediately following this concession to the British, Portugal was shaken by a massive wave of protests. These protests would lead to years of political anarchy and socioeconomic turmoil marked by regicide and the outbreak of the Republican Revolution.

But while the nation mourned the loss of the Empire, there goes Pessoa walking triumphantly and overjoyed down Lisbon’s Rua do Ouro, the poetic equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge. Indeed, for Pessoa, the death of the empire presaged the much anticipated dawning of greater literature. Unlike his compatriots, he interpreted the conflict over the Ultimatum as the final retreat of the diachronic concept of history and the rise of providential, messianic time. The withdrawal of a territorial empire transposed to a newborn spiritual empire, the Fifth Empire: a timeless linguistic empire formed by poets and grammarians which, as he legendarily puts it, “only a small nation could fulfill.”

For Pessoa, the British Ultimatum stands for the reawakening of a primary loss, one that goes back to the infamous year of 1578, and the disappearance of the body of King Sebastian in the tragic battle of El-Ksar-el-Kebir in northern Morocco.

At just twenty-four years of age, Don Sebastian, a radical bachelor (not unlike Pessoa) had been the darling of the Portuguese nobility whose messianic crusading missions to North Africa proved disastrous. Despite warnings from his closest allies, the young king could not be swayed from invading Moorish territories. The result was an enormous loss of human life, a severe economic crisis, and, as the king left no successor, the loss of political autonomy to the Spanish court.

According to legend, King Sebastian will return one foggy morning to rescue his country and fulfill its glorious destiny. When impostors and pseudo-Sebastians rose repeatedly to claim the identity of the missing monarch, however, they were one by one, sent off to the galleys. The return was repeatedly promised but ever postponed. Over time, the missing body of the king evolved into a site of articulation of a general longing—as framed by the Portuguese phenomenon of saudade (deep nostalgic longing for someone or something that was much loved and is now lost)—sustained by the very poetics of deferral of the body-territory that undergirds the legend of Sebastian.

It is in this traumatic space of deferral that Pessoa will envision the demiurgic moment of the Fifth Empire, an empire of literature composed not by chapters but by people.

Pessoa’s pantheon of heteronyms is nothing else than the spectral reappearing of Sebastian. The sleeping king distributed in, and interconnecting, time and space. Pessoa’s famous cohort of heteronyms talk about and between themselves, about and indeed to “Pessoa-himself,” the most false of all heteronyms. Unlike Whitman’s announcement of “a life that shall be copious, vehement, spiritual, bold,” Pessoa’s heteronyms announce the nothingness that simmers below the “great individual.” Pessoa, after all, is the Portuguese word for person.