The Book of Disquiet - by Fernando Pessoa

I asked for very little from life, and even this little was denied me. A nearby field, a ray of sunshine, a little bit of calm along with a bit of 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 – this was denied me, like the spare change we might deny a beggar not because we’re mean-hearted but because we don’t feel like unbuttoning our coat.

Whether or not they exist, we’re slaves to the gods.

Whenever I see a dead body, death seems to me a departure. The corpse looks to me like a suit that was left behind. Someone went away and didn’t need to take the one and only outfit he’d worn.

Solitude devastates me; company oppresses me. The presence of another person derails my thoughts; I dream of the other’s presence with a strange absent-mindedness that no amount of my analytical scrutiny can define.

We generally colour our ideas of the unknown with our notions of the known. If we call death a sleep, it’s because it seems like sleep on the outside; if we call death a new life, it’s because it seems like something different from life. With slight misconceptions of reality we fabricate our hopes and beliefs, and we live off crusts that we call cakes, like poor children who make believe they’re happy.

But that’s how all life is, or at least that particular system of life generally known as civilization. Civilization consists in giving something a name that doesn’t belong to it and then dreaming over the result. And the false name joined to the true dream does create a new reality. The object does change into something else, because we make it change. We manufacture realities. The raw material remains the same, but our art gives it a form that makes it into something not the same. A pinewood table is still pinewood, but it’s also a table. We sit at the table, not at the pinewood. Although love is a sexual instinct, it’s not with sexual instinct that we love but with the conjecture of some other feeling. And that conjecture is already some other feeling.

When asleep we all become children again. Perhaps because in the state of slumber we can do no wrong and are unconscious of life, the greatest criminal and the most self-absorbed egotist are holy, by a natural magic, as long as they’re sleeping. For me there’s no discernible difference between killing a child and killing a sleeping man.

The cause of my profound sense of incompatibility with others is, I believe, that most people think with their feelings, whereas I feel with my thoughts. For the ordinary man, to feel is to live, and to think is to know how to live. For me, to think is to live, and to feel is merely food for thought.

There’s a thin sheet of glass between me and life. However clearly I see and understand life, I can’t touch it.

The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to doggedly pursue an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to adopt norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.

Anything and everything, depending on how one sees it, is a marvel or a hindrance, an all or a nothing, a path or a problem. To see something in constantly new ways is to renew and multiply it. That is why the contemplative person, without ever leaving his village, will nevertheless have the whole universe at his disposal. There’s infinity in a cell or a desert. One can sleep cosmically against a rock.

The truly wise man is the one who can keep external events from changing him in any way. To do this, he covers himself with an armour of realities closer to him than the world’s facts and through which the facts, modified accordingly, reach him.

I always live in the present. I don’t know the future and no longer have the past. The former oppresses me as the possibility of everything, the latter as the reality of nothing. I have no hopes and no nostalgia. Knowing what my life has been up till now – so often and so completely the opposite of what I wanted – what can I assume about my life tomorrow, except that it will be what I don’t assume, what I don’t want, what happens to me from the outside, reaching me even through my will? There’s nothing from my past that I recall with the futile wish to repeat it. I was never more than my own vestige or simulacrum. My past is everything I failed to be. I don’t even miss the feelings I had back then, because what is felt requires the present moment – once this has passed, there’s a turning of the page and the story continues, but with a different text.

We never love anyone. What we love is the idea we have of someone. It’s our own concept – our own selves – that we love. This is true in the whole gamut of love. In sexual love we seek our own pleasure via another body. In non-sexual love, we seek our own pleasure via our own idea. The masturbator may be abject, but in point of fact he’s the perfect logical expression of the lover. He’s the only one who doesn’t feign and doesn’t fool himself.

Like all men endowed with great mental mobility, I have an irrevocable, organic love of settledness. I abhor new ways of life and unfamiliar places.

I’m curious about everyone, hungry for everything, greedy for all ideas. My awareness that not everything can be seen, not everything read and not everything thought torments me like the loss of ..... But I don’t see with fixed attention, I don’t read with great care, and I don’t think with continuity. I’m an ardent and inconsequential dilettante in everything. My soul is too weak to sustain the force of its own enthusiasm. Made out of ruins of the unfinished, I’m definable as a landscape of resignations.

I’ve always rejected being understood. To be understood is to prostitute oneself. I prefer to be taken seriously for what I’m not, remaining humanly unknown, with naturalness and all due respect. Nothing would bother me more than if they found me strange at the office. I like to revel in the irony that they don’t find me at all strange. I like the hair shirt of being regarded by them as their equal. I like the crucifixion of being considered no different. There are martyrdoms more subtle than those recorded for the saints and hermits. There are torments of our mental awareness as there are of the body and of desire. And in the former, as in the latter, there’s a certain sensuality

To visualize the inconceivable in dreams is one of the great triumphs that I, as advanced a dreamer as I am, only rarely attain. To dream, for example, that I’m simultaneously, separately, severally the man and the woman on a stroll that a man and woman are taking along the river. To see myself – at the same time, in the same way, with equal precision and without overlap, being equally but separately integrated into both things – as a conscious ship in a South Sea and a printed page from an old book. How absurd this seems! But everything is absurd, and dreaming least of all.

The entire day, in all the desolation of its scattered and dull clouds, was filled with the news of revolution. Such reports, true or false, always fill me with a peculiar discomfort, a mixture of disdain and physical nausea. It galls my intelligence when someone imagines that things will change by making a stir. Violence of whatever sort has always been, for me, a flagrant form of human stupidity. All revolutionaries, for that matter, are stupid, as are all reformers to a lesser extent – lesser because they’re less troublesome. Revolutionary or reformer – the error is the same. Unable to dominate and reform his own attitude towards life, which is everything, or his own being, which is almost everything, he flees, devoting himself to modifying others and the outside world. Every revolutionary and reformer is a fugitive. To fight for change is to be incapable of changing oneself. To reform is to be beyond repair.* A sensitive and honest-minded man, if he’s concerned about evil and injustice in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life.

Men of action are the involuntary slaves of the men of reason. The worth of things depends on their interpretation. Certain men make things which other men invest with meaning, bringing them to life. To narrate is to create, while to live is merely to be lived.

To see all the things that happen to us as accidents or incidents from a novel, which we read not with our eyes but with life – only with this attitude can we overcome the mischief of each day and the fickleness of events.

The downfall of classical ideals made all men potential artists, and therefore bad artists. When art depended on solid construction and the careful observance of rules, few could attempt to be artists, and a fair number of these were quite good. But when art, instead of being understood as creation, became merely an expression of feelings, then anyone could be an artist, because everyone has feelings.

Thought can be lofty without being elegant, but to the extent it lacks elegance it will have less effect on others. Force without finesse is mere mass.

The idea of travelling seduces me vicariously, as if it were the perfect idea for seducing someone I’m not.

Freedom is the possibility of isolation. 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. If you can’t live alone, you were born a slave. You may have all the splendours of the mind and the soul, in which case you’re a noble slave, or an intelligent servant; you’re not free.

I loathe the happiness of all these people who don’t know they’re unhappy. Their human life is full of what, in a true sensibility, would produce a surfeit of anxieties. But since their true life is vegetative, their sufferings come and go without touching their soul, and they live a life that can be compared only to that of a man with a toothache who won a fortune – the genuine good fortune of living unawares, the greatest gift granted by the gods, for it is the gift of being like them, superior just as they are (albeit in a different fashion) to happiness and pain.* That’s why, in spite of everything, I love them all. My dear vegetables!

The joy of being understood by others cannot be had by those who want to be understood, for they are too complex to be understood; and simple people, who can be understood by others, never have the desire to be understood.

We’re all used to thinking of ourselves as primarily mental realities, and of other people as immediately physical realities. We vaguely see ourselves as physical people, in so far as we consider how we look to others. And we vaguely see others as mental realities, though only when we’re in love or in conflict does it really dawn on us that they, like we, are predominantly soul. And so sometimes I lose myself in futile speculations about the sort of person I am in the eyes of others: how my voice sounds, what kind of impression I leave in their involuntary memory, how my gestures, my words and my visible life are inscribed on the retinas of their interpretation. I’ve never succeeded in seeing myself from the outside. No mirror can show us ourself from outside, because no mirror can take us out of ourself. We would need a different soul, a different way of looking and thinking. If I were an actor projected on a screen, or if I recorded my voice on records, I’m certain that I still wouldn’t know what I am on the outside, because like it or not, and no matter what I might record of myself, I’m always here inside, enclosed by high walls, on the private estate of my consciousness of me.

Heat, like an invisible piece of clothing, makes one feel like taking it off.

It’s a rule of life that we can, and should, learn from everyone. There are solemn and serious things we can learn from quacks and crooks, there are philosophies taught us by fools, there are lessons in faithfulness and justice brought to us by chance and by those we chance to meet. Everything is in everything. In certain particularly lucid moments of contemplation, like those of early afternoon when I observantly wander through the streets, each person brings me a novelty, each building teaches me something new, each placard has a message for me.

Life is an experimental journey that we make involuntarily. It is a journey of the mind through matter, and since it is the mind that journeys, that is where we live. And so there are contemplative souls who have lived more intensely, more widely and more tumultuously than those who live externally. The end result is what counts. What was felt is what was lived. A dream can tire us out as much as physical labour. We never live as hard as when we’ve thought a great deal.