Disquiet and Solitude in Fernando Pessoa

Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was the most prominent modernist literary figure in 20th century Portugal, where he was associated with avant-garde literary circles, magazines, and small press publications.

In his poetry, Pessoa announced modernist themes.

Metaphysics? What metaphysics do these trees have?
That of being green and having crowns and branches
And that of giving fruit at their hours, -- which is not
what makes us think,
us, who don't know to be aware of them.
But what better metaphysics than theirs,
Which is not knowing why they live
And not knowing they don't know?

Pessoa revealed a strong perception of subjectivity, imagery, and imagination.

To feel life flowing over me like a stream over its bed,
And out there a great silence like a god asleep.

"The Book of Disquiet"

Despite his accepted reputation as a poet, however, Pessoa is best revealed in his prose. His most creative insights and his grand forays into the life and character of solitude are found in his fragmentary work -- never published in his lifetime -- an erstwhile diary he called The Book of Disquiet.

The life of Pessoa is a familiar pattern found in many self-described solitaries. Pessoa's mother died when he was one year of age, and his father died when Pessoa was five years old. Pessoa's stepfather was Portuguese consul in South Africa, where Pessoa spent his childhood, returning to Portugal at 17.

Skipping the university, Pessoa educated himself in Portugal's National Library, adding fluency in French to his command of English and Portuguese language, literature, and culture. Establishing himself in Lisbon literary circles, he spent the rest of his life in urban Lisbon, working as a bookkeeper and living alone in a fourth-floor apartment.

Pessoa wrote meticulously, even fanatically -- on envelopes, ads, scraps of paper -- keeping everything. He invented pseudonymous personalities to write his poems and and prose, but finally never organized the prose entries he intended as The Book of Disquiet for publication, only marking out desired passages and fragments, nearly all untitled but dated.

The Book of Disquiet is a "factless autobiography," as Pessoa describes it, a diary and journal that records not so much events, people encountered, or even ideas but musings. His themes are introspection, alienation, solitude, estrangement, all characterized by a droll sense of tedium and lethargy, all written in a scintillating prose.

Pessoa is a brilliant psychoanalyst of self. His passages are arrestingly deep and original. He creates a "geography of self-awareness" in order to construct an "aesthetic contemplation of life." Pessoa's aesthetic is the remnant of the collapse of philosophy and metaphysics, a modernist Epicureanism, a post-modern cynicism. But modern life has left him -- and humanity, though it does not know it yet -- profoundly alone and solitary.

Daily life is relieved only by dreaming, by the exercise of the imagination, by inhabiting the confirmable world of subjectivity. Pessoa blames no one; his life is merely a crystallization of human loss. "I am not a pessimist, "he writes. "I don't complain about the horror of life; I complain about the horror of my life."

But his life is not horrible in the sense of poverty, hunger, or exploitation but rather in the sense of lethargy, inaction, and uselessness. Pessoa sets out to explore this "hazy and confused landscape" of his life armed with nothing but an acute sensitivity and awareness of each moment, a painful awareness of solitude.

In doing so, Pessoa reflects on his situation.

I asked for very little from life, and even this little was denied me. A nearby field, a ray of sunlight, a little bit of calm along with some bread, not to feel oppressed by the knowledge that I exist, not to demand anything from others, and not to have others demand anything from me.

... Sadly I write in my quiet room, alone as I have always been, alone as I will always be. And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes. (6)

Here are echoes of his favorites: Epicurians, Stoics, and Cynics -- but with a decidedly existential slant, angst unmitigated and stark. Pessoa is no Romantic. He disparages the Romantic impulse: the excessive emotionalism, the naive clinging to the possible, the confusion between need and desire, ultimately, the turning inside out of the privacy and solitude of the soul. He admits that temperamentally he might be lumped with the Romantics, but sometimes he laughs out loud at their excesses. At such times he retreats to the Classics, who write clinically but truthfully. Consciousness tolerates no illusion, and metaphysics is exhausted.

We are left with an epistemology of sensation. We cling to the immediate, luxuriate over its details, that which it stimulates in the five senses, a pleasure that unfortunately cannot but be ephemeral and sad. Pessoa wants us to be "argonauts of sensibility."

He calls himself (but only once) a Decadent, but this is too bold a theoretical construct even for him. For it is not a life of sensuousness that Pessoa is proposing -- any more than did the Epicureans -- but rather a life of observation. "All that we truly possess are our own sensations; it is in them, rather than in what they sense, that we must base our life's reality," he writes. (102)

Against Action

The first realization in pursuing the philosophy of solitude Pessoa offers is rejection of the active life. He speaks of the "iron gates of the self" and declares that "To discover ways of not acting has been my main concern in life." (120) But for all who must work and live in the world while aspiring to not be of it, he says,

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. (89)

Fideism is belief in belief, at once a necessary social and political cover and a resignation to accept a given faith simply because nothing else can be proven or disproved. In the careers of Seneca and Montaigne, for example, fideism was safety, both physical and metaphysical. These two thinkers wrote well but their lives were necessary compromises. Pessoa intends to go beyond this compromise and live in conviction; even if its philosophical content is undefined, one can come out of a life of assertive inactivity, conscious and deliberate, abstaining from the world.

The self contrived by society can become an inflated ego, a veritable monarch of pride. But, Pessoa notes,

No intelligent idea can gain general acceptance unless some stupidity is mixed with it. Collective thought is stupid because it is collective. Nothing passes into the realm of the collective without leaving at the border most of the intelligence it contained. (104)

Because this intelligence is not metaphysics, Pessoa makes it the next best thing, calling it the "aesthetics of abdication." (105) We are reminded of the Taoist wu-wei mingled with Kenko's Essays in Idleness.

Therefore, "the truly wise is the one who can keep external events from changing them in any way." (97) For the wise, less engagement with others and the world strengthens. "Renunciation is liberation. Now wanting is power." (123) As the wise pursue their personal virtue in solitude, they recognize more of what impedes. "The higher one rises, the more things one must do without." (145)

To oppose the brutal indifference that constitutes the manifest essence of things, the mystics discovered it was best to renounce. To deny the world, to turn our backs on it as on a swamp at whose edge we suddenly find ourselves standing. To deny, like the Buddha, its absolute reality; to deny, like Christ, its relative reality; to deny ... (133)

Only freedom, however, offers the "possibility of isolation," which is necessary for solitude and was unavailable to the classic Stoics and others.

You are free if you can withdraw from people, not having to seek them out for the sake of money, company, love, glory or curiosity, none of which can thrive in silence and solitude. ... To be born free is the greatest splendor of man, making the humble hermit superior to kings, even to the gods, who are self-sufficient by their power but not by their contempt of it. (283)

As a methodology, then, Pessoa highlights inaction or non-action. Inaction is not uncertainty or equivocation, but a conscious and deliberate refusal to accede or acknowledge the world and its demands. Inaction is compatible with metaphysics and ethics because it is based on reciprocity.

To join in or collaborate or act with others is a metaphysically morbid impulse. The soul conferred on the individual shouldn't be lent out to its relations with others. The divine fact of existing shouldn't be surrendered to the satanic fact of coexisting.

... When I act with others, there's at least one thing I lose -- acting alone. ... When I participate, although it seems that I'm expanding, I'm limiting myself. To associate is to die. (209)

Pessoa argues that in order to act, to be practical, to participate in the world, one must have no sensibility, no feelings, no integrity.

To act, then, requires a certain incapacity for imagining the personalities of others, their joys and sufferings. Sympathy leads to paralysis. The man of action regards the external world as composed exclusively of inert matter -- either intrinsically inert, like a stone he walks on or kicks out of his path, or inert like a human being who could not resist him and thus might as well be a stone as a human being, since, like a stone, he was walked on or kicked out of the way. (303)

Pessoa cites the military strategist as the epitome of the man of action, of one who acts. For such, life is war and people are chess pieces. Action is ruthless and cannot afford sentiment.

What would become of the strategist if he thought about how each of his moves brings night to a thousand homes and grief to three thousand hearts? What would become of the world if we are human? If man really felt, there would be no civilization. Art gives shelter to the sensibility that action was obliged to forget. (303)

These incisive observations on the nature of the active life can be applied, after all, to action at every level. Action constitutes the core of social existence and contradicts solitude. Action provides the average person with purpose, identity, even happiness, for people identify with action even when action destroys them. The equation of action as power is the premise of Pessoa's line of thought.

Among those who pursue action are "business leaders, industrialists, politicians, military commanders, social and religious idealists, great poets, great artists, beautiful women, or children who do what they please." Perhaps one can identify a personality type or pattern of cultural socialization to explain why they covet the life of action. But all action presumes authority and prerogative on the part of the one who pursues action as life's sanction. Such people come to share a necessary aloofness from their actions, an insensibility.

The one who ordains is the one who does not feel. The one who succeeds is the one who thinks only of what is needed for success. The remaining lot of humanity -- amorphous, sensitive, imaginative and fragile -- is no more than the backdrop against which these stage actors perform until the puppet show ends, no more than the flat and lifeless chess board over which the pieces move until they are put away by the Great Player. (304)

When one recognizes the nature of humanity -- the futility of war, the oppression of social life, and the absurdity of hope -- one can either insist on more data, more grounds for making life decisions, or simply begin to disengage. "Be indifferent," counsels Pessoa, not because of hard-heartedness but because we reduce the possibilities of what will or will not make a difference to others. This indifference to others will now depend on our consciousness of the nature of social existence. Do we delude ourselves by charity, playing into the scheme contrived by captains of action, justifying their continued injustice and control?


Because he renounces action, Pessoa renounces the world. But because we must live in the world and tolerate its tragedies, we create an alternative, whether it is among our books or gardens, or at the canvas or prie-dieu.

For Pessoa, being disengaged and obscure means contentment with his job as assistant bookkeeper and with the four walls of his apartment. He admits that he is not bold enough in his heterodoxy to be a bohemian:

I have something of the spirit of a bohemian, of those who let life slip away, like something that slips through one's fingers because the gesture to seize it falls asleep at the mere idea. But I never had the outward compensation of the bohemian spirit -- the carefree acceptance of come-and-go emotions. I was never more than an isolated bohemian, which is an absurdity; or a mystic bohemian, which is an impossibility. (319)

Pessoa's psychology of disengagement and solitude, then, is not outward eccentricity but consists of dreaming. Dreaming here might be called imagination when reflective, visualization when deliberate, or just fantasy when contrived for our aesthetic sensibility. Pessoa conjures up whole landscapes and people in perpetual "dreams" that substitute the dreariness of real counterparts.

Already mentioned are the dozen pseudonymous authors who write his various output. These are substitutes entering his life not at points of painful vacuity but as intended artifices with which to experiment.

A psychologist might point to Pessoa's regular evocations of lost youth, absent nurture from mother, and absent guidance from god (or father) as evident sources of his theories and dreams. However, aesthetic creativity combines with these absences to substitute both for nostalgia, which is impossible for him, and daily life, which was a stagnancy.

Oh, the dread past that survives in me and that has never been anywhere but in me! The flowers from the garden of the little country house that never existed except in me! The pine grove, orchards and vegetable plots of the farm that was only a dream of mine! My imaginary excursions, my outings in a countryside that never existed! The trees along the roadside, the pathways, the stones, the rural folk passing by -- all of this, which was never more than a dream, is recorded in my memory, where it hurts, and I, who spend so many hours dreaming these things, now spend hours remembering having dreamed them and its a genuine nostalgia that I feel, an actual past that I mourn, a real-life corpse that I stare at, lying there solemnly in its coffin. (92)

The artifice of dreaming was most representative of Pessoa's early stage of thought. Chuang-tzu (of whom Pessoa was probably not aware) includes a passage that conjures the same ambiguous sensation of dreaming.

Once Chuang Chou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He did not know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakably Chuang Chou. But he did not know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.

But there was no transformation for Pessoa, no long-term solace in dreams. How could there be if self-effacement and the "pulverization of the personality," as he put it, are the only alternatives to the nightmare of social life? Rather, dreams are the landscapes of solitude. Dreams are the paradigm of understanding.

"Each of us is an entire community, an entire neighborhood of the Great Mystery," he writes in a note of hope. The formula for living is to "quit having ambitions, passions, desires, hopes, whims, or nervous disquiet." A historical figure offers a model for existence rather than dreams.

All I asked of life is what Diogenes asked of Alexander: not to stand in the way of the sun. ... There were things I wanted, but I was denied any reason for wanting them. As for what I found, it would have been better to have found it in real life. (399)

Illusion of hope

Ultimately, the clash of dream and reality -- and the solution of solitude -- could not mitigate the deep emotional distress, the "disquiet," that plagued Pessoa. Toward the end of his life, Pessoa wrote contrarian pieces intended to be cleverly ironic and mischievous, but the passages ring hollow. In clear moments, Pessoa recognized himself in stark terms: that throughout life, he had been viewed by others as an intruder or stranger, that he had always wanted and lacked affection, that less intelligent people had crafted lives for themselves but that he was like an "overturned bucket," like something "forgotten by some god or other," that he was nothing but "Destiny's ripped-up papers."

Let me give up the illusion of hope, which betrays; of love, which wearies; of life, which surfeits but never satisfies; and even of death, which brings more than we want and less than we hope for.

Pessoa describes his life as a "tragedy booed off stage by the gods." His Book of Disquiet he dismisses as "beautiful but useless." Of his experiment in solitude:

The logical reward of my detachment from life is the incapacity I have created in others to feel anything for me. There is an aureole of indifference, an icy halo, that surrounds me and repels others. I still have not succeeded in not suffering from my solitude. It is hard to achieve that distinction of spirit whereby isolation becomes a repose without anguish. ("Lucid Diary")


Fernando Pessoa gave up his life for an experiment that would resolve the conflicts and contradictions of existence that he had observed. His modernist sentiments precluded facile solutions, and his overpowering sense of honesty left his solitude bereft of consolation.

Perhaps he was not a solitary personality, never destined to reconcile the creative forces with which he was gifted with the inheritance of his self and circumstances. Or perhaps his very situation and expression, unflinchingly open, was his intended bequest to his anonymous future readers. Perhaps for Pessoa, life could be nothing more than, as he put it in one of his last writings, "a deep and calm depression."


Numbered quotations represent fragments identified in The Book of Disquiet, edited and translated by Richard Zenith. New York: Penguin, 2001. Other editions include The Book of Disquiet, edited by Maria José de Lancastre and translated by Margaret Jull Costa. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1991; The Book of Disquiet, translated by Alfred Mac Adam. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991; and The Book of Disquietude, translated with an introduction by Richard Zenith. Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 1996.