Thursday, 10 January 2013

On The Suicide Of A Stoic

I’m aware that my unique position as a native speaker of Portuguese makes me the appropriate candidate to write about Portuguese literature. Nevertheless I’ve always tried not to bother the reader with too obscure subjects. I tend to favour reviews of accessible writers like José Saramago, Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa or António Lobo Antunes. If I write too much about unreachable or arcane writers and books, then I run the risk of looking like I’m just bragging about my solitary knowledge of minutia. Sometimes I may write about an untranslated writer, like Raul Brandão, but that is done with the conviction that if he’s not famous abroad, at least he’s of importance in Portugal and worth knowing about, even if only via a humble blog post.

But not every book I read is important and not every writer has a firm place in the history of literature. One such case is a curious literary document written by one Álvaro Coelho de Athayde, the 14th Baron of Teive. Read a history of Portuguese literature and you won’t find a mention of him. He left no oeuvre, he initiated no school or movement, he influenced no one. A single known text is attributed to him, a fragmentary, disjointed suicide note explaining his inability to create a body of literature and the motives of his suicide. The short book, titled The Education of the Stoic, is all that remains of this singular figure who lives in the margins of Portuguese literature. If it weren’t my taste for the bizarre and for searching books outside the conventional routes, I wouldn’t be writing about him today.

On July 12, 1920, the newspaper Diário de Notícias reported to its shocked Lisbon readers that the Baron, a known public figure, had killed himself the previous day. Of his books nothing was salvaged save but the ashes he turned them into. And this long note, tucked away in a drawer, several pages long, detailing his intimate life, his beliefs – the Baron was a modern day Stoic – and the temperament that made it impossible for him to become a man of letters, an eccentric man who penned his suicide note “not to fulfil the work I could never fulfil, but to at least say with simplicity the reasons I didn’t fulfil it.”

But what do we know about this man? Sadly a good part of his life remains elusive, and a biography is in urgent need of being written in order to shed more light on the life of this fascinating individual. But until someone takes up the challenge, all we know about him comes mainly from his suicide note. We know he was the only child of a noble couple. He was an educated man, with a college degree. His mother died when he was a man already and it was a traumatic event for him. He spent most of his life on an estate outside Lisbon, served by maids and leading a carefree life trying to start a literary career. We also know that he was a shy man who had difficulty in establishing relationships with women. He travelled, to Paris at least, where he fought a duel. We also know a tragic accident cost him his left leg.

A freakish curiosity, it’s hard to know just what the Baron’s books could have been since he refused to dwell on their content in this surviving text. He preferred to speak about his personality, his beliefs, his Stoicism, and even his literary pet hatreds. We get the picture of a perhaps brilliant but also arrogant, petty and ironic man. Every era has writers that don’t quite fit in – a Blake, a De Nerval, a Lautréamont or a Jarry, or a Kerouac. The Baron was one such indefinable figure, and his readers would have no doubt been those who dare to read outside the confines of respectability.

One thing we can be sure about the Baron: he had a unique talent for self-scrutiny, and was fearlessly honest about himself. As he remarks, the note was intended as an “intellectual memory of my life, an inner portrait of what I was.” His ability to analyse himself, to lay his soul bare, reveals a man of unique sensibility which would have made him an excellent writer of psychological novels, perhaps not inferior to a Dostoevsky. We’ll never know. Also remarkable is his refusal for self-aggrandizement. “It has fallen upon us the most profound and deadliest of droughts in centuries – the intimate knowledge of the vacuity of all efforts and the vanity of all purposes,” commences the note, making it clear we’re going to be in the presence of a man who is unafraid of peering into his own life and seeing the mediocrity in it.

About his literary work, he’s absolute. “In the past days I occupied my time burning, one by one – and it lasted two days because, sometimes, I re-read them – all my manuscripts, the notes for my dead thoughts, the annotations, sometimes already complete passages for the works I would never write.” No remorse, no complaint, no attachment, no attempt at explaining. A simple statement. They burned, and that is that. “I don’t regret I burnt the sketch of all my works. I have nothing else to bequeath to the world than that,” writes the man who is anxious to make the ultimate rupture with mankind.

What sort of man was the Baron? He was a man who entertained the idea of being a creator, but lacked the willpower to execute his creative urge. According to himself, his problem was one of temperament. “There’s no greater tragedy than equal intensity, in the same soul or the same man, in intellectual sentiment and moral sentiment. In order for a man to be distinctively and absolutely moral, he has to be a bit stupid. In order for a man to be absolutely intellectual, he has to be a bit immoral. I don’t know what game or irony in things condemns man to the impossibility of these two dualities in great order. For my sins, it occurs in me. Therefore, for having these two virtues, I was never to be able to do anything of myself. It wasn’t the excess of a quality, but the excess of two, that killed myself to life.”

The Baron, in his view, then, didn’t suffer from a lack of genius or talent, but from an excess of it, which, making him such a sensitive and exceptional individual, paralysed his efforts. This explanation, witty as it may sound, is not as convincing, however, as other explanations he provides. “Every time, in anything, I had a rival or the possibility of a rival, immediately I abdicated without hesitating.” This is more credible, the Baron was tormented by the idea of losing to others, of participating in the great and fierce competition of literature whose supreme goal is posthumous immortality. “Pride never allowed me to compete with someone else, with the heinous possibility of defeat,” he says; and adds, “I always lost with rancour and contempt.”

Describing himself as a recluse who “always kept the world and life at bay,” the reader also gets the impression quotidian activities, the mere act of living, were to him a huge burden. “The scruple of precision, the intensity of the effort to be perfect – far from being stimuli to act, are intimate faculties for neglect. It’s better to dream than being. It’s so easy to see everything accomplished in dream!” This seems like a variation of De Nerval’s sentence "Our dreams are a second life." The creative process is at the same time a means of controlling. One can speculate that for this man, indifferent to the active life and preferring the dream life, creating was a way of obtaining control over something. And yet even his power over his work was impossible because he lacked the power to start it, to finish it. “I feel close, because I myself want to feel it close, the end of my life,” he says because death is the only thing he can truly control. His lack of will, his inactivity was felt in him and he deplored it. “Only those have a part in the real life of the world who have more will than intelligence, or more impulsivity than reason.”

Doubt and low self-esteem are perhaps the Baron’s most prominent traits. “I put an end to a life that seemed able to me to contain all greatnesses, and I didn’t see it contain anything but the incapability of wanting them. If I had certainties, I always remember that all madmen had them bigger.” Another essential trait is his inability to feel any attachment to anything, his outsider status in his own era, his sense of loneliness. “I belong to a generation – assuming that generation is more people than me – that has equally lost faith in the gods of the old religions and faith in the gods of the modern unreligions. I can’t accept Jehovah, nor mankind. Christ and progress are for me myths of the same world. I don’t believe either in the Virgin Mary and electricity.” The ties that connected him to life were few and then were gone. “My mother’s death broke the last external rapports that connected me still to the sensibility of life.” Having a wife terrified him, and even the maids at his mansion embarrassed him and made him more acutely aware of his timidity. In spite of belonging to one of the oldest noble families of Portugal, his unhappiness was total. “I had all the conditions to be happy, except happiness. Conditions are disconnected one from another.”

Another factor that clashed with his literary creation was his own Stoicism. The Baron was a man out of his time, a man who refrained his emotions and preferred self-analysis and cultivating the intellect to the haphazard unleashing of his passions and sentiments in the form of confessional poetry. Aware that he would never accept to turn his frustrations, his tragedies, his life, into fiction, he realizes he has no place in the literature of his time. “To cry before the world – and the more beautiful the cry, the larger the world opens itself up to it and more public the shame -, there’s the final indignity that one beaten who doesn’t keep the sword for the soldier’s final act, can practice upon his intimate life.” For him there was nothing more insulting to his loyalty to reason than modern literature, with its emphasis on emotions and feelings. “There’s something sordid, and so sordid it’s ridiculous, that the weak have about turning into tragedies of the universe the sad comedies of their own tragedies.”

For this reason he poured his hatred on three particular poets: Giacomo Leopardi, Alfred Vigny and Antero de Quental – the “three great pessimistic poets of the last century” – because of their propensity, according to the Baron’s Freudian reading, for turning their sexual frustrations into material for poetry. He hates those who use their personal miseries as the source of poetry, for he expects decorum and dignity in aesthetics:

In what manner of seriousness can we take this argument, which is what is at the bottom of Leopardi’s work: “I’m shy with women, therefore God doesn’t exist”? How not to repel Antero’s conclusion: I’m sad I don’t have a woman who shows love, therefore pain is universal”? Will I accept without voluntary contempt Vigny’s attitude: “I’m not loved the way I want, therefore woman is a petty, vile being, contrasting with the kindness and nobility of man”? Absolute principles, and therefore false; ridiculous and therefore unaesthetic.

As a Stoic, he obviously believed in the control of passions and emotions, in simplicity, and not in the overflowing of sentiments. He too has problems with women but he prefers not to turn that into a public matter through poetry. “‘I am shy with women: therefore there is no God’ is highly unconvincing metaphysics,” he objects. “How can I face with seriousness and with pity the atheism of Leopardi if I know that that atheism could be cured with copulation?” he asks sarcastically. For him we lived in an age where dignity was absent from art and intellect. “The plebe doesn’t laugh at the Critique of Pure Reason” he rages in remembrance of the last great era of reason before the assault of the Romantics with their subjectivism.

Unfortunately the flavour of the age was this subjectivism, an aesthetic he can’t condone or adopt. “The romantic illusion consists in taking literally the Greek philosopher’s phrase that man is the measure of all things, or sentimentally the basic affirmation of the critical philosophy, that all the world is a concept of ours.” This idea of turning the external world into a reflection of our inner one was repugnant to this modern day Stoic. “I circumscribe to myself that tragedy that is mine. I suffer it, but I suffer it face to face, without metaphysics nor sociology. I confess myself beaten by life, however I don’t confess myself beaten down by it.”

Realizing that his life is no less tragic than of these other poets, the Baron nevertheless refuses to take their course in order to safeguard his dignity. His only solution then is death. “I have achieved, I believed, the full employment of reason. And that’s why I’m going to kill myself.”

In the final lines, however, the suicidal nobleman claims to himself one victory. “If the defeated is the one who dies and the winner the one who kills, with that, confessing myself beaten, I proclaim myself winner.”

I should remember the reader that his suicide note is a fragmentary text and that it’s impossible to make a coherent interpretation of its content. I have attempted as best as I could, after re-reading this book twice, to find a guiding line. But I couldn’t presume to be able to explain the complex life of this non-writer through these paragraphs. And even the Baron would be loath to be dogmatic and set out to establish a coherent system. “Teach nothing, for you still have everything to learn,” he counsels the reader in the book and one feels this is an advice he took to heart too. Perhaps this line best explains his difficulty – his living in an age of uncertainties, without the aid of religion or science; the author realizes there’s nothing anymore to communicate, all is noise. The great truths are gone, there is nothing to be said in this world that is as broken up as his paragraphs. Perhaps his destruction of his own work was his way of showing there is nothing to teach anymore. Perhaps this Baron of Teive was a prophet of a world without certainties, without conclusions, and his act of literary destruction was the only sane action a man could take in such an age. But those are mere speculations of mine.


  1. I too like the obscure and odd, however when it comes to reading time I cannot really afford the time for such authors. This is a very interesting story and your analysis and pondering on Teive are insightful.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. I guess I wore myself out with FP before I got to this. It was (and is) the logical next book.

    The attack on Leopardi is grossly unfair but very funny.

  3. Brian, my pleasure! The book is available in English, so give it a try one day. It only takes an afternoon and it's very enjoyable.

    Tom, I've been on a FP binge lately actually, but I think after my Álvaro de Campos post next weekend I'll take a break and move on to other things. Still, I can never get enough of him; he's so diverse and funny, whatever I read always encourages me to keep reading more.

  4. yes well my least favorite of FP
    not merely a problem without coherent solution but the problem itself inherently incoherent

    1. Nnyhav, well, like most writings by Pessoa, this was left incomplete and was under constant revision. You can see Pessoa was still deciding on the facts - for instance, the Baron is named both the 14th and the 20th of his lineage in the text. One shouldn't really expect coherence in it.

      Besides, I think the fragmentary and disjointed nature of the text helps create the illusion the suicidal Baron was writing under a frenzy.

      All in all, I found a lot to enjoy here, especially the Baron's ridiculous pot shots at the 'three pessimistic poets'. But perhaps you're right, this is best for hardcore fans, which I guess I am :)