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The Journey In My Head

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In 1931, probably in November, Bernardo Soares daydreamed during ‘the journey between Cascais and Lisbon’. He said

I went to Cascais in order to pay the tax on a house my boss Vasques owns in Estoril. I looked forward eagerly to the trip, an hour there and an hour back, a chance to watch the ever changing face of the great river and its Atlantic estuary. In the event, on the way there I lost myself in abstract thoughts, watching, without actually seeing, the waterscapes I was looking forward to, and on the way back I lost myself in the analysis of those feelings. I would be unable to describe the smallest detail of the trip, the least fragment of what I saw. I’ve wrested these pages from oblivion and contradiction…

In 2014, November I too made the trip in reverse, I travelled the Estoril-Cascais line and when the train slowed and then stopped, I was in Cais de Sodre, on my way to Casa Fernando Pessoa. Bernando Soares would have been pleased at the asymmetry of the journey, at the irony (my being conscious of making a journey in reverse), at the thought of the magic and mysteries of time that makes it possible both to recall his journey as well as mine as I write this. Towards the end of that most marvelous of books, The Book of Disquiet, Soares says

I sometimes think with sad pleasure that if, one day in a future to which I will not belong, these sentences that I write should meet with praise, I will at last have found people who ‘understand’ me, my own people, a real family to be born into and beloved by. But far from being born in that family, I will have been long dead by then. I will be understood only in effigy, and then affection can no longer compensate the dead person for the lack of love he felt when alive.

I don’t know, I am not sure that Soares would have thought of me as family even if it is true that I understand him. But doubt is also a legacy of Soares. For Soares nothing is certain. He recasts Socrates’ line –‘I only know that I know nothing’ into Sanches’ (1551-1623) line ‘I do not even know that I know nothing’! Certainly, Soares would have liked the notion of an African coming upon The Book of Disquiet and finding it worthy of praise, for there is nothing in Soares that anticipates the possibility that an African that might come to find his sentences praiseworthy and the wholly unexpected is part of the infinite possibility in the universe.

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The Soares of The Book of Disquiet is an early 20th century version of the Romantic Hero after Etienne Pivert de Senancour’s Obermann and Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann. Soares is a master of the tragic and absurd in human life: the inability to express what the heart desires, and the lack of full conscious awareness of our transient and meaningless place in the universe. Soares is the misunderstood hero, the genius, lonely and isolated from society, yet sensitive and grand in his passion for life. Soares is embedded in the phenomenal world, especially the visual world of colors, rarely of sounds, but definitely not of touch, human touch from which he shrank away in disgust, nauseous. But perhaps most profoundly, Soares talks about tedium, about disinterest in the world of affectations, about the many and multiple masks that he and we wear. He is the pre-eminent outsider, stranger to his own world. In his multiplicity of masks, his diverse inner temperament, he reminds me of the cry of the possessed man –“My name is Legion, for we are many”

No one has yet given an exact definition of tedium, at least not in language comprehensible to who has never experienced it. What some people call tedium is nothing more than boredom, others use the word to mean a certain physical malaise, for others tedium is simply tiredness. Tedium does contain tiredness, malaise and boredom but only in the way water contains the hydrogen and oxygen of which it is composed. It includes them without resembling them […] Yes, tedium is boredom with the world, the malaise of living, the weariness of having lived; in truth, tedium is the feeling in one’s flesh of the endless emptiness of things…

And,

I go through periods of great stagnation. By this I don’t mean that, like most people, it takes me days and days to reply on a postcard to an urgent letter someone wrote to me […] In these shadowy times, I am incapable of thinking, feeling or wanting. The only things I manage to write are numbers or mere strokes of the pen. I feel nothing and even the death of someone I love would seem as far removed from me as if it had taken place in a foreign language. I can do nothing; it is as if I slept and my gestures, words and actions were just a surface breathing, the rhythmical instinct of some organism.

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In Soares we come upon the phenomenal world:

I’ve never loved anyone. What I have loved most have been sensations – the scenes recorded by my conscious vision, the impressions captured by attentive ears, the perfumes by which the humble things of the external world speak to me and tell me tales of the past (so easily evoked by smells) – that is, their gift to me of a reality and emotion more intense than the loaf baking in the depths of the bakery as it was that far-off afternoon on my way back from the funeral of the uncle who so adored me and when all I felt was the vague tenderness of relief, about what I don’t know.

And that phenomenal world is Soares’ link with me, with my interest in phenomenology, psychopathology, and of course subjectivity and the limits of language to codify what is private and ineffable, what is ultimately unknowable.

 

Soares is a nocturnal creature, an insomniac, captivated and addicted to dreaming, daydreaming and conscious dreaming. He is also fully appreciative of reverie and understood the overlapping worlds of the febrile imagination and of the phenomenal. He would not have been surprised that, years after his death, I came upon him in the carriage of a train, on my way to Lisbon. That as he alighted at Cascais, I sat by the carriage door and saw him, his dark (neglected) suit, his hat, his shy withdrawal from the world. He barely saw me, perhaps he noticed my indigo suit that had drawn to itself the residue of the blue of the sky and had intensified it in the sorrow that neither speaks nor moans, but merely states its mood in color. He would have apprehended the subtle, atmospheric shift in the air as I watched him, a fellow traveller, another distinct consciousness sensing his uniqueness.

 

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Later that night after visiting Pessoa, together with Pedro Varandas, Michael Musalek, Giovanni Stanghellini and others, all psychopathologists, I went to dinner at a fish restaurant in Cascais. It was a dark night and although we could hear the sea, the Atlantic waves rolling in from North America, we did not catch even the most modest of glimpse of the sea. Soares’ moon, the silvery light that bathed his room was absent. There was no perfume stroking the indistinct leaves, caressing their indifference.

 

Dinner started with cheese, an unusual habit for me. We arrived at dinner at that hour when bats start to fly, that is, very late. The novel dish was sea asparagus, a mollusk that grows on cliff edges. It clings for dear life in this precarious and treacherous terrain and is collected for the Portuguese market by intrepid fishermen, who at low tide, dangle on ropes to sheer off these mollusks; all for the delight of eating them, perhaps also simply for the daring. Their taste is marine, something primordial and ancient glows in their scent, their texture is gristle like clams. The main course was sea bass (sea wolf) baked in encrusted salt, leaving it fresh, friable and delicious. I missed out on the obligatory ice cream and finished with Portuguese espresso. Poisonous until sweetened with generous sugar. I was reminded of Pessoa’s meeting with Soares in a stolid, homely restaurant where one is as likely to meet an eccentric as the nondescript.

 

The talk over dinner was all history. Who discovered Brazil? When did the Jews of Brazil leave for New York? When were the Dutch in Brazil? The Portuguese did not merely tack along the West African coast. Past, down to the Cape of Good Hope but swerved to Brazil across the Atlantic in order to swing back under the Cape of Good Hope. It is extraordinary that the Portuguese, to a man and woman, are preoccupied with colonial history whereas the British hardly discuss this period openly. Dates, names, place names, every turn and bend of historical event nailed down and argued over; every war, every defeat, military conquest rehearsed. This was quite a lesson in Portuguese history. It was how an evening is spent in thrall to the past, washed down by wine.

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I had encountered Pessoa and Soares on the same day. What sheer unlikely luck. At Casa Fernando Pessoa, a house on 3 floors, I met Pessoa in his bedroom, in his black suit, pressed white shirt, hat and just behind him, his narrow bed. He showed me, without words, his disused glasses, his pens, notebooks, and his personal library of Shakespeare’s complete works and Baudelaire, all carefully notated along the margins.

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My greatest wish was to meet Ricardo Reis too but he was out of town. The many masks that Pessoa wore in his writing were put aside for our brief meeting. But, I was conscious always of Soares

My mania for creating a false world is still with me and will leave me only when I die. I no longer line up in my desk drawers cotton reels and pawns – with the occasional bishop and knight thrown in – but I regret not doing so…and instead, like someone in winter, cozily warming themselves by the fire, I line up in my imagination the ranks of constant, living characters who inhabit my inner world. For I have a whole world of friends inside me, each with his or her own real, defined and imperfect life.

What is so wonderful is that these ‘constant living characters’ of Soares’ inner life climbed Rua dos Douradores with me and then accompanied me to Rua Coelho da Rocha to meet Pessoa: an afternoon of the most ecstatic conversation about literature and language followed by an evening of exquisite dining. That is the imaginary life for you. Literature! Literature

Which is art married to thought and the immaculate realization of reality, seems to me the goal towards which all human effort should be directed, as long as that effort is truly human and not just a vestige of the animal in us. I believe that to say a thing is to preserve its virtue and remove any terror it may hold. Fields are greener when described than when they are merely their own green selves. If one could describe flowers in words that define them in the air of the imagination, they would have colors that would outlast anything mere cellular life could manage.

 

Photos by Jan Oyebode & Femi Oyebode

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