Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The poet, the magician, the suicide, and the detective novel that never was

In 1929, only a few days before the end of November, the Mandrake Press, located in London, received a letter from Portugal making inquiries about The Confessions of Aleister Crowley in order to make the purchase of the same. This publisher had been founded by the infamous English occultist and writer Aleister Crowley, who, in a financially difficult period for him, set it up as a means to publish and sell his numerous books. The letter’s author was none other than Fernando Pessoa, the greatest Portuguese poet of the 20th century and dabbler in the occult himself. Shortly after Pessoa sent this letter, and for the next two years, he and Crowley started corresponding. The letters and the ramifications of this meeting of titans is the subject of Encontro Magick, a non-fiction book organised by one of Pessoa’s nephews, Miguel Roza.

The reader will probably be surprised that the meeting of these two remarkable and avant-garde figures did not produce a body of epistolary splendour or make a decisive contribution to illuminate their thoughts, aesthetics or beliefs. No doubt the incurable romantic in me expects that when two idiosyncratic writers meet, they will discuss art, literature, the life of the mind, with the sagacity, wit and uniquely awkward way of seeing the world that writers in our imaginations possess. We presume they will be as fascinating an clever in private as in their public writings. And we feel a bit defrauded when their private letters are no less preoccupied with the mundane than our e-mails. This makes me wonder if the literary epistle isn’t the most artificial of genres, at least in this day and age when everything the author writers must be saved for posterity to analyse, read decode, interpret; and the author knows this, meaning his private writings have none of the innocence, ingenuity and even banality that is the mark of privacy. Now if anything can be said of the letters Pessoa and Crowley exchanged, is that they were not written with an eye on posterity. As much as letters can reveal about the personality of their authors, they reveal Pessoa and Crowley as rather petty, deceptive, boorish mortals with ordinary problems – money in particular – especially Pessoa, whose skills at poet dissimulation here bleed into real life.

After the first letter, the correspondence with the editors took a more personal turn when Pessoa incidentally reported to them that Crowley’s horoscope, as publicly known, was wrong. “If you have the occasion to communicate, as you probably have, with Mr. Aleister Crowley, you may inform him that his horoscope is unrectified, and that if he reckons himself as born at 11h.16m.39s. p.m. on the 12th October 1875, he will have Aries 11 as his midheaven, with the corresponding ascendant and cusps. He will then find his directions more exact than he has probably found them hitherto.” Pessoa was slowly letting the cat out of the bag; pretending to be merely interested in a couple of books, the poet surreptitiously induced the editors to give Crowley, for his own sake, a reason to contact Pessoa. As it will become clearer later, Pessoa must have planned this all along as a stratagem to persuade Mandrake Press to publish his books in England. Pessoa’s plans backfired in the most amusing, and for this slightly misanthropic and insecure man, irritating way possible. Crowley not only contacted him but immediately proposed their meeting each other, then went to Lisbon to visit him, and ended up dragging Pessoa into the story of a fake suicide, upsetting the peaceful existence of the Portuguese poet. But we’re getting ahead of our facts and narrative.

Not long after Pessoa brought attention to Crowley’s imperfect horoscope, the great magician replied to him, and to his merit it must be said he immediately treated Pessoa with respect, addressing him as ‘Dear Frater’ in his letters, recognizing him as an equal in initiation. No doubt he was impressed with Pessoa’s astrological knowledge, which indeed were not negligible. Pessoa was well-versed in the occult and hermetic studies, and had an occult-themed library which included the English translation of the Zohar by MacGregor Mathers, the founder of the Golden Dawn, a magical order to which Crowley belonged.

Crowley, it must also be said, knew geography well enough to locate Lisbon in Portugal, unlike the Mandrake Press editors, who not unusually thought it was in Spain, a frequent mistake the Portuguese are used to. Even so Pessoa ironically asked the editors to ‘disannex Portugal from Spain,’ the clever fellow.

Crowley also showed unusual humility for one known as a fiend and perverse man. “I dare say your guess is accurate enough. I don’t bother with directions. I do very little astrology, except pure genethliacal and transits. I should be very glad if you would let me have some information about my present situation.” Crowley not only asks Pessoa for help, he asks him to read his future for him, which is a serious request. Crowley would wait in vain for the rectified horoscope to arrive, though, since Pessoa kept making excuses not to send it. Instead Pessoa sent him ‘a curiosity without interest, three booklets of English verse I published here some time ago.’ No doubt he expected that Crowley, with his influence over Mandrake Press, would approve of their publication in England. As we can gather from his roundabout way of getting Crowley’s attention, nothing was innocent in his letters. Obviously it was of supreme importance to Pessoa to have his poetry published in England, his spiritual and cultural fatherland. Crowley read and apparently enjoyed his poems, considering them ‘very remarkable for excellence.’ But being an occultist and magician, Crowley interpreted these poems not in the crude commercial way Pessoa hoped, or even in a purely aesthetic sense. For Crowley they were augurs, signs that good times were coming. “I have, indeed, taken the arrival of your poetry as a definite Message, which I should like to explain in person.” How Pessoa must have dreaded these words! Not only did he make no mention of publishing them, now he was making plans to travel to Lisbon and disturb the peaceful life of this unassuming clerk. The correspondence they exchange for the next months show him putting up all sorts of excuses to avoid a meeting, although never extricating himself from a promise to meet Crowley, who even asked him to meet him in London. Pessoa’s main difficulty was of course finding the money to travel. Not put off by his silence, the magician one day surprised Pessoa with a telegram informing him that he and his girlfriend, a young German woman called Hanni Jaeger, were arriving by ship, asking him to meet them in the peer.

Crowley arrived on September 2, 1930. In Lisbon Crowley and Hanni take a room in Hotel de l’Europe. Pessoa serves as his guide. In his diary Crowley describes him as ‘nice.’ Pessoa, undaunted, continues to try to persuade the Mandrake Press to start business relationships with him. In what we’d nowadays call outsourcing, Pessoa proposed transferring MP’s book printing shop to Portugal, because of cheaper costs of production. Another idea consisted in arranging translations of their back catalogue for the Portuguese and Brazilian public (Pessoa would be in charge of them). Yet another idea was the ‘translation of strange or unknown Portuguese authors whose works may be potentially of interest to the English reading public.’ Pessoa’s opinions of what constituted books of interest was varied, ambitious, and odd: ‘old Portuguese Song-Books and Romances of Chivalry, which are the very beginning of European literature,’ in his deluded mind anyway, ‘strange fancies like The Mandarin by Eça de Queiroz, or scandalous masterpieces (in their own kind) like Abel Botelho’s The Baron of Lavos, which is the completest and most brutal study of pederasty which, to my knowledge, has ever been written.’ (If Botelho’s novel is ever translated into English, I hope someone remembers to use that last sentence as a cover blurb.) Pessoa did not forget to include his own poetry amongst the books worthy of translation, reminding the editors of the booklets he had sent them previously. Oh, Pessoa was one smooth operator. (There’s a whole book devoted to all his ill-fated entrepreneurial attempts.)

Whatever good fortune Crowley hoped to find by his meeting with Pessoa failed to materialise. Instead his relationship with Hanni grew so tense she started having hysterical fits, throwing tantrums and showing signs of being tired of his magical rituals and wanting to return home to Germany. On September 20 she leaves aboard a ship, making Crowley so angry he plots a little revenge: fake his suicide and leave behind a note blaming her for it. Visiting a geological site in Cascais called Hell’s Mouth, Crowley, no doubt because of the symbolism of the name but also because of its fame as a suicide haunt and place where unwary visitors disappear, he gets the inspiration to stage the suicide there. Returning home, he writes in his diary that he must arrange the details with Pessoa.

Boca do Inferno, literally meaning Hell's Mouth.

On September 23, Crowley is reported to have jumped down a crack and died in the sea below. A journalist called Augusto Ferreira Gomes, wandering about at Hell’s Mouth, came upon a note tucked underneath a rock. Ferreira Gomes was a friend of Pessoa who was in on the joke and who was going to use his connections in the media to get the story of the suicide running. On the night of the staged suicide Crowley crosses the border on the Sud-Express, heading to Berlin to reunite with Hanni. The first news about the mysterious occurrence comes out in the Diário de Notícias, on the 27th, in articles prepared by Pessoa and Ferreira Gomes. Soon a police investigation was underway, with Ferreira Gomes and Pessoa being called in to give depositions. At this point Pessoa started blurring fact and fiction. To the editors of the Mandrake Press, and even to Israel Regardie, Crowley’s personal secretary, he wrote confabulations where he entertained hypotheses of what may have happened, never confirming any suicide, but relating only the news he read. At the same time he testified to the police facts that were incongruent with the facts they had – they knew for instance that a man holding Crowley’s passport had crossed the border on the 23rd, although Pessoa swore he had seen him in Lisbon after the date of the alleged suicide, in the company of a man Pessoa did not know, adding more confusion to the case. Pessoa plays both sides, cooperating with the cops and giving reports about what he knew, while subtly adding distortions to create paradoxes in the versions, all the while never rejecting the possibility of a hoax, but exculpating himself from any role in it. The international police was so baffled they weren’t sure anymore if the man who showed the passport in the border was indeed Crowley. The rumour even starts that someone other than Crowley was killed in Hell’s Mouth. During this time Pessoa was the nexus of this elaborate hoax, being contacted by people requesting more information, dispatching news clippings to England with translations, and the news of Crowley’s suicide spread as far as Spain and France. A British newspaper even reported that Crowley may have been pushed to his death by ‘an agent of the Roman Catholic Church.’ Mandrake Press continues to write to Pessoa, showing concerns that this, if a hoax, could affect their image as a serious company. In Berlin, Hanni receives letters from Pessoa in Crowley’s behalf, playing her role in the drama. Through her, Crowley, living in hiding, was kept up to date on the events.

On matters closer to home, Pessoa’s dealings with Mandrake Press aren’t having the results he intended. The editors try to get Pessoa, a miserable clerk, to buy stocks in the company in the value of 1500 pounds. They had a very mistaken idea of who Pessoa was if they thought he had such quantities to shell out. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer to the poet that MP is not interested in the slightest in his proposals to publish his poetry in England.

Perhaps due to this lack of interest in him, or maybe due to his own nature incapable of finishing anything, of keeping his attention focused on something for too long, Pessoa started losing interest in the hoax and the letters grew scarcer. The event also never reached the proportion both authors hoped, and no doubt the censorship of suicide news in fascist Portugal may have played a role in that, an oversight in Crowley’s part, better used to England’s tabloid culture. In any event the newspapers in Portugal grew silent after a few weeks. Long after Pessoa’s own interested had clearly died too, Crowley continued to contact him. In particular the always-penniless magician asked for news about a detective novel Pessoa had committed himself to write based on the events. This was to be a detective novel about the investigation, planned to be sold at the height of the event’s popularity, but of course Pessoa’s inability to finish anything ‘triumphed’ once more. Crowley, who wanted to split the money of the sales between the two, obviously had not spent enough time with Pessoa if he ever supposed him capable of finishing a novel. Enough fragments exist to make one relieved the novel was never completed. One almost feels compassion about Crowley, who was the gullible party in this relationship. On a more positive note, Pessoa’s experience with Crowley led to some interesting poems of his own with a strong mystical undertone, as well as a translation of his “Hymn to Pan” into Portuguese.

All in all, their dealings lasted two years, from November, 1929 to November, 1931, when the letters abruptly stopped. Considering the remarkable lives these two men lived, it’s hard to say this incident was anything but a bump in their lives. Apart from the letters, Pessoa didn’t leave writings referring to it. The event itself certainly holds more interest to their fans than anyone else: there’s something that seems to defy reality when we imagine the meek, reserved, shy Pessoa meeting the diabolic Crowley, and the elaborate fabrication at Hell’s Mouth. But above all what I retain are these two men unexpectedly meeting because of financial matters, each thinking the other was somehow his lottery ticket, one demure and bound to Portugal, the other a globe-trotter in search of new experiences who never lived too long in the same place, but both drawn into a strange hoax that they perhaps never quite understood how it started.


  1. Miguel - I've been away from the Internet for three weeks, and I return to find you writing fiction? I kid - but this might make a great stage production (for the right audience). What a weird story! And if that Botelho work is any indication of what lies in store, I would love to see Pessoa's complete list of "strange and unknown Portuguese authors."

  2. I too find meetings and exchanges between great minds to be fascinating. I know mostly Pessoa from your blog but on the surface this does seem to be a very odd match. The entire suicide thing is truly strange.

    I also really like the book cover!

  3. My apologies for having noticed these comments only now.

    - seraillon, let's see if I can find the book in the Lisbon Book Fair next May. I'm curious about it too.

    - Brian, yeah, this all seems so improbable, especially when it mixes such a low-profile person like Pessoa and a notorious fiend like Crowley.

  4. Where did you find this information? Was this story originally published in a Portuguese newspaper or ?

    1. Anna, like I explain at the beginning, Pessoa's nephew edited together the letters he and Crowley exchanged. They're all in Pessoa's archives.

  5. I'm sorry I missed that. Reading too hastily, I suppose. How do you have access to Pessoa's archives? I well be in Lisbon this summer and would love to look at them. By the way, have you ever considered translating? I know a woman in the States looking for a Portuguese to English translator for her publishing company.
    I've enjoyed reading your blog. Just discovered it this month!

    1. Anna, I'm not sure. I suppose the archives are in the Torre do Tombo, the National Archive. Perhaps, however, you should visit the Casa Fernando Pessoa for more information:

      Also, although not complete, a part of his archives is online:

      Ah, you flatter me, but I fear my English skills, although adequate for keeping a blog as a hobby, are not on the level of real translators'. Thank you for the kind words nevertheless :)