Tuesday, 11 September 2012

You don’t have to fill your mouth with duty

The narrator is still arguing with his consciousness whether or not God exists, and how that changes things. If something can be said about him, is that he’s stubbornly analytical: he turns the same idea over and over in his head, seeing it from all angles, with a dash of masochism for good measure since these thoughts are clearly agonising for him. For him the matter boils down to a supreme question. What is the supreme question?

I put myself looking at you, consciousness, and I demand you stare me in the eyes and speak clearly to me. Don’t stammer with your tongue. First of all, tell me what you are and what you mean: fear, dread, a voice that shuts up if misery squeezes or luxury rears its head. A nothing, such a timid voice and ready to vanish… You bother me, that’s true, but you stop nothing. You speak when you should be quiet, you don’t know your role and you’re never on cue. I inherited you: you’re convention and foreign egotism burrowed into my egotism, synthesized into two or three rules for the commodity of others. You make of me an easy prey for whoever doesn’t have it. You’re scruple, and scruple is at least useless.

You’re in perpetual contradiction. You make half my life useless and I could never get rid of you. In this everyday struggle, when I think myself free, that’s when I feel the whole weight of you.

This is certainly life. But life is also the instinct that tells me: Make the most of it, don’t let the only minute flee. If life is a moment between nothing and nothing, making the most of it is the only thing worth it.

Wait, here it comes, the supreme question:

The supreme question is this and this alone: God exists or God doesn’t exist. If there is no God, life, product of chance, is a mystification. Let’s use it to quench instincts and passions. If God doesn’t exist, there’s no force stopping me. There are no words, nor rules, nor laws. Everything is permitted. Logical question: so I’m supposed to go to the grave, forever, for all eternity, without having extracted from life everything that it can give me, bound to words or to mere questions of form? Oh! Let’s ask the question, consciousness: if God doesn’t exist you’re nothing but a burden, half a dozen learned or inherited rules. Let us then ask the question with total clarity, because you’re the only problem that matters to me and to you to solve.

You don’t have to fill your mouth with duty. Duty doesn’t interest me at all. The fundamental question, the question I’m debating with all my being, and from which I can’t disconnect, is the one of eternal death and of eternal life.

If God exists I’m a man – if God doesn’t exist, I’m another completely different man.

If you don’t exist, consciousness, how much you interfere with my life! And it doesn’t matter if I analyse you, discuss you, deny you, you always bother me. You’re dead – you’re alive. In the grave I will uselessly cry for having obeyed you. I’ll squirm in despair, because you damaged me and made me petty. As much as I try to disentangle myself from you, you impose yourself upon me. When I think you’re annihilated, you start talking again.

You come from very deep!

Sometimes I protest and impose myself. I decide to go by without you: you humiliate yourself. You humiliate yourself in order to rear your head and twist the dagger in the wound. You weigh on me like lead. You’re made of iron. I do try to explain you: it’s the scruples that don’t let me betray, lie, climb. Efficiency isn’t having scruples, it’s pretending to have them. It’s everything others ask of us. – But you won’t compromise. If you get down, it’s just so you get up again, to torment me anew. You don’t let me go. You follow me everywhere.

If I could get rid of you! If I could get rid of you!

This long excerpt, a debate between the narrator and his consciousness, is dated January 11. It’s fascinating that the narrator actually had enough sang froid to jot this down on his diary. I once tried to keep a diary: it wasn’t nearly this interesting.

So this is the narrator’s dilemma. He’s not sure whether or not God is dead, and even if God is dead, there’s still that pesky Christian consciousness somewhere in there, tormenting him, stopping him from killing and cheating and lying. Horrible, horrible consciousness.

But even if God doesn’t exist, I’m afraid of myself, I’m afraid of my soul, I’m afraid of finding myself alone with my soul, which is nothing, the end and the beginning of life and the reason of my being. Even if God doesn’t exist and consciousness is but a word, there’s still another indefinite and immense thing before me, close to me, inside me.

And what if God does exist? Won’t that perchance make life easier for him?

God exists – or God doesn’t exist. If God exists, if I’m certain God exists and is interested in my pain, this transitory life is but a single minute with eternity waiting for me. Everything seems easy to me. What does my God demand? That I reduce myself to dust and despise appearance? Everything is vain before the eternity waiting for me. My God fills the world. Only my God exists, and the rest of the Universe is so small and futile, that I demand more pain, more suffering, more hunger. May disgrace fall upon me with all the weight of disgrace; may pain skin me to the medulla. I despise pain. I demand it before eternity. I’m capable of walking in drags with my mouth on the dust, or capable of suffering all torments, with the certainty that I get myself rid of an eternity of anguishes to see God.

Ha, ha, that’s what they call being caught between a rock and a hard place. Maybe flipping a coin?

God exists, God doesn’t exist, God doesn’t exist but consciousness does, consciousness exists but I hate consciousness, I hate consciousness but I can’t get rid of consciousness. If you think Raul Brandão can’t keep milking this for 250 pages, you’re wrong.

To find out there is no God, what joy! It sets people at ease. They breathe in another way. The world changes looks. To find out death isn’t inevitable hardens you. Now I finally contemplate life – and lose myself in life. I start being afraid of myself and I can’t look at myself without terror. What is this, this dream, this pain, this insignificance between excessive forces?

The narrator isn’t a very constant person either. Dare I even say he’s an unreliable narrator? He suffers from acute mood swings, one moment he’s experiencing ecstatic religious awe, the other he’s storming at God; one moment he’s in doubt, the other he’s living in dogmatic certainty.

Maybe I’m a complex being, maybe others are as complex as me. Everything makes me suffer – but I’m acting half my suffering. I certainly have doubts – but half my doubts are fake. I’ll end up not believing in myself the way I don’t believe in others.

And this is definitely Pessoa! This is straight from “Autopsychography:”

The poet is a faker
Who’s so good at his act
He even fakes the pain
Of pain he feels in fact.

But later:

Remorse? I have no remorse. Doubts? I have no doubts. Since I saw you – I saw the Universe. I understood everything. I understood I hadn’t lived and that my whole existence had been fictional – that I should have lived a minute rather than one hundred years. That everything is simulacrum and only you are truth. And I comprehended the Universe as force and destiny with such profundity, that in that quick second the entire whirlwind of life burst past me, with its voices, its mysteries and its entire ferocious greatness. I saw everything. I felt everything. I only had to see you. Therefore, I have neither doubts nor remorse. On the contrary I am calm, on the contrary I am determined.

He’s neither calm nor determined.

Who is he speaking to by the way? Who did he find? God? But isn’t God dead? Consciousness? I can’t understand this novel, I just know it makes sense when I read it.

I also just realized who the narrator reminds me of: the Underground Man.

OK, just a bit more because I’m loving re-reading bits of this novel again:

   This hell, to which I gave life and the best part of my being, doesn’t exist? I had managed to see only you in the world. With a word I filled the void. And this God, for whom I sacrificed a whole life and the best part of life, doesn’t exist? It was all useless. I dilacerated myself. I offered myself in spectacle. I watched this torture, and you didn’t exist! I lived outside myself and all of a sudden I had to accept myself. All my life was useless! Everything I did was useless! It was grotesque and useless!
   I sacrificed everything to what? I sacrificed the best of my life to the void. I offered my pain to it in spectacle. But then what does exist? What is the directive of my life? What illusion will I fill this with? And what will I live for? What immense dream is capable of replacing this dream? What is God now? God is everything and nothing. It’s a force. God is an inexorable law. But then you who can do everything – you can do nothing. You’re a law – and you’ll uphold that law. You’re a destiny and you can’t take a step outside that destiny. You don’t see, you don’t hear, you don’t feel. I’m an insignificance and I’m worth more than you. Because I scream, I suffer, I dare. Tomorrow I break my destiny. I’m illogical and absurd. I debate myself. And you, God, you’re nothing but a blind and stupid force. You’re of no use to me.

   I need a God who attends to me, who listens to me, who knows that I suffer and who sees me suffering. I need a God who saves me or dooms me. I need a God to support me. I need an intelligence superior to mine and in communication with mine.

I imagine – but I hope not – that some readers may be finding some of these passages darkly amusing. I assure you humour couldn’t be further from the narrator’s intentions. He’s a sensitive soul speaking in dead earnest:

Ah, yes, irony… Much good will irony do to you now!

So don’t laugh. You don’t get this book. Stop reading this right now.

Come back tomorrow for Gabiru.


  1. I really love these passages that you translated here.

    You wrote - "The narrator isn’t a very constant person either. Dare I even say he’s an unreliable narrator? He suffers from acute mood swings, one moment he’s experiencing ecstatic religious awe, the other he’s storming at God; one moment he’s in doubt, the other he’s living in dogmatic certainty."

    I want to take a guess and say that this is true of many people who spend a lot of time pondering these big existentialist issues! I know a few myself!

    1. Well, when you read Gabiru, you'll see the opposite: a man who had solved the problem of faith.

      I sent an e-mail to Dedalus Books recommending they translate and publish this novel. They replied saying that Margaret Jull Costa will read it for them and then they'll decide. Well, now it's up for the book to make a big impression. Here's hoping!

  2. Very impressive that they responded fairly positively!