Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Devil According To Fernando Pessoa

It’s no mystery why Fernando Pessoa is better remembered for his poetry: he was one of the giants of the 20th century, who wrote elegantly in two languages, doubled himself in several distinct poetic figures, his legendary heteronyms, and easily slipped into different styles and themes and opposing philosophies and worldviews in his poetry, in one of the most elaborate literary games ever conjured by an author. In spite of that he also tried his hand at prose fiction, of which The Book of Disquiet is his greatest success. But the thousands of pages he left behind encompassing unfinished novels and fragments of short-stories, and sketches to projects he never even started, are a testament to his desire to communicate through stories. Pessoa after all had a theatre inside him with a vast dramatis personae, in constant dialogue. For me it’s a great loss that he completed so few of these stories. What we have shows a writer who had the talent to be an excellent raconteur, if only he had the willpower to finish anything.

A case in point is “The Devil’s Hour,” a collection of fragments of a story or novella Pessoa was working on that had the Devil as its subject matter. A handful of fragments remain, bits from the beginning, the middle and the ending, giving an overview of what the author was going to do, a sketch interesting enough to whet the reader’s appetite. The fragments were left unnumbered and different versions of each part, making the task of assembling them into something coherent a matter of guesswork and providing only one possible interpretation, as Teresa Rita Lopes, the editor of the book and a renowned Pessoa expert, explains in the introduction.

But the gist is this: the Devil kidnaps a woman after she leaves from a masked ball and takes her to a mysterious place; she’s a married woman living in a boring marriage. The devil tells her about his life and his purpose on earth. After hearing his tale, she’s moved to pity, but this seemed to infuriate the Devil, who immediately disappears and makes her return home. Months later a baby boy is born, a poetic genius; this child remembers details from the meeting between his mother and the ‘man in red’ she meet at the ball. She thinks this is funny since she never told him that. Has the mother herself forgotten she ever talked to the Devil? Is the boy his son? What was the purpose of this impregnation then? Ah, so many questions! According to Teresa Rita Lopes, and quoting a note by him, Pessoa saw the “Devil as the spirit of Good, based on the fact that every time medieval inspectors achieved some truth in sciences they were threatened with death by priests, who considered them magicians and men who had business with the devil.” This story could have been an excellent example of weird fantasy in the vein of Lord Dunsany or Villiers de l'Isle-Adam; Pessoa himself was a fan of horror stories, having written some and even translated Edgar Allen Poe into Portuguese. Alas, only twenty or so pages of fragments exist to make the reader wonder.

What follows is my cherry-picking of parts for the readers’ amusement and edification:

   “I am in fact the Devil. Don’t be frightened, however, because I really am the Devil, and therefore I don’t do harm. Certain imitators of mine, on earth and above the earth, are dangerous, like all plagiarizers, because they don’t know the secret of my way of being. Shakespeare, whom I inspired many times, did me justice: he said I was a gentleman. So set yourself at ease: in my company you’re fine. I’m incapable of a word, a gesture, that offends a lady. When I weren’t being so out of my own nature, Shakespeare would force me to be so. But, really, it wasn’t necessary.
   I’m from the beginning of the world, and since then I’ve always been an ironist. Why, as you may know, all ironists are harmless, unless they want to use their irony to imply some truth. Now I never presumed to tell the truth to anyone – in part because it’s no use, and in part because I don’t know it. My older brother, God Almighty, I think he doesn’t know it either. That, however, is a family matter.”

Here he’s reassuring Maria that he doesn’t plan to rape her:

   In any event, I couldn’t. These things happen on earth, because men are animals. In my social position in the universe they’re impossible – not quite because morality is better, but because we, angels, don’t have a sex, and that is, in this case anyway, the main assurance. You can therefore rest assured because I won’t disrespect you. I know there are accessory and useless disrespects, like the ones of modern novelists and those of old age; but even those are denied to me, because my lack of sex dates from the beginning of things and I never had to think about it. They say many witches did commerce with me, but it’s false; even if it’s not, for what they did commerce with was their own imagination, which, in a certain way, is me.
   Therefore, be at ease. I corrupt, that’s certain, because I make people imagine. But God is worse – in a sense, anyway, because he created the corruptible body, which is far less aesthetic. Dreams, at least, don’t rot. They move on. Better that way, isn’t it?

His views on science:

The principle of science is knowing that we ignore things. The world, which is where we are; the flesh, which is what we are; the Devil, which is what we desire – those three, in the High Hour, have killed the Master that we were meant to be. And that secret that he had, so that we could turn into him, that secret has been lost.

The Devil’s handiwork:

Vague aspirations, futile desires, the tedium of the ordinary, even when we love it, the bothersomeness of what doesn’t bother – all that is my handiwork, born from when, lying on the margin of great rivers of the abyss, I think I also know nothing. Then my thought plunges, a vague effluvium, into the souls of men and they feel different from themselves.

The Devil and imagination:

Ever since the beginning of the world that I have been insulted and calumniated. The same poets – by nature my friends – who defend me, haven’t defended me well. One – an Englishman called Milton – made me lose, with my partners, a vague battle that was never fought. Another one – a German called Goethe – gave me the role of pimp in a village tragedy. But I’m not what they think. Churches fear me. Believers tremble at my name. But I have, whether they like it or not, a role in the world. I’m neither revolted against God nor the spirit that denies. I’m the God of Imagination, lost because I don’t create.

The Devil as the God of Imagination, that sounds so right. I wish Pessoa had written more, he had many very interesting views about the Devil.


  1. Fascinating, even if the plot sounds like Rosemary's Baby. It's indeed a pity more of Pessoa's prose work isn't available, but then again, what of it I've read - The Book of Disquiet - seems to lend itself to a shuffling and re-shuffling of papers.

    1. Don't forget Pessoa had this idea a few decades before Ira Levin. Now you get me wondering, who was the first person to come up with the idea of the Devil impregnating a woman?

      In Portugal, his prose fiction is becoming more and more available, and we're discovering amazing things. I mean, he started a novel about Aleister Crowley, that's just bizarre!