"hystero-neurasthenic" or "the levels of lyric poetry"

Continuing the thread of the plasticity of self, I want to briefly look at Pessoa’s use of the heteronyn and his exploration of the “hystero-neurasthenic”. To begin with two parallel notes:

“In each of us there is a differingness and a manyness and a profusion of ourselves.”

“I am a nomadic wanderer through my consciousness.”

The decentralized “I” of modernity, the fractured and fragmented self, runs through Pessoa’s project. Pessoa is a modernist, in every romantic sense of the word: his heteronyms function to reconstruct the ruined consciousness in the same way Pound, H.D., Later Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Olson, Duncan…the heteronyms become Pessoa’s “Supreme Fiction.” In an essay called” On the heteronyms,” he writes “I want to be a creator of myth, which is the highest mystery that anyone can make out of human kind.”

In describing the genesis of the heteronyms, Pessoa begins with the psychological part of the project. “The origin of my heteronyms is basically an aspect of hysteria that exists within me. I don’t know whether I am simply a hysteric or if I am more properly a neurasthenic hysteric […] Be that as it may, the mental origin of my heteronyms lies in a persistent and organic tendency of mine to depersonalization and simulation.”

Pessoa, not satisfied with simply writing under other names, gave the names lives. Reis was born in 1887, was a doctor, and lived in Brazil. Caeiro was born in 1889 and died in 1915; he was born in Lisbon but lived nearly all his life in the country, having received no education or pursued any profession. de Campos was born in 1890, was a naval engineerand lived in Lisbon, unemployed. “All [were] clean-shaven.”

He describes the process of writing under each name: “Caeiro, by way of pure and unexpected inspiration, without knowing or deliberately thinking of what I’d write. Reis, after abstract deliberation that suddenly concretizes itself in an ode. Campos, when i feel a sudden impulse to write and don’t know what. Soares…seems always to be tired or sleepy, so that his powers of ratiocination and his inhibitions are slightly suspended; he writes prose in a constant daydream.”

Pessoa claims that he neither agrees nor disagrees with what the heteronyms write, that any parallelism of personality is merely coincidental, or one should say, dramatic.

This brings us to Pessoa’s idea of the “levels of lyric poetry:”

“Aristotle divided poetry into lyric, elegaic, epic, and dramatic. Like all classifications that are well conceived, it is useful and clear; like all classifications, it is false. Literary genres are not so easily separated, and if we look closely at what they involve, we see that there’s a continual gradation from lyric to dramatic poetry. In effect, and going back to the origins of dramatic poetry, it is more accurate to say we find lyric poetry placed in the mouths of various characters.

On the first level of lyric poetry, the poet who is focused on his feeling, express that feeling. If, however, he is someone of many different and shifting feelings, his expression will take in a multiplicity of characters unified only by temperament and style. One step further up the poetic ladder and we have the poet of varied adn fictive feelings, given more to the imaginative than to sentiment and living each mood intellectually rather than emotionally. Such a poet will express himself through a multiplicity of characters not united by temperament and style, because imagination displaces temperament and intelligence displaces feeling, with style as the only unifying element. Another step up the same ladder of depersonalization, or let us say of the imagination, and we have the poet who, during each of his various moods, gives himself over to that mood so completely that he is entirely depersonalized; who, analytically experiencing that state of mind, makes of it the expression of another character, and in this way the style itself tends to vary. Take the final step and you have a poet who is various poets, a dramatic poet writing lyric poetry. Each mood cluster, similar to each other, will become a character, with its own style and with feelings that perhaps differ from, even contradict, the feeling of the poet in his living person. And he will have raised lyric poetry […] into dramatic poetry, without, however, giving it dramatic form, either explicitly or implicitly […] It is in such a way that these poems of Caeiro, of Ricardo Reis, and of Alvaro de Campos must be considered.”

In reading the various heteronyms, I feel the sense (or sensation, as it were) of the drama of the self, of the plasticity of self as dramatic structure. The furthest edge of depersonalization paradoxically returns the “poet” to the drama of personalization — allows a different kind of “interseccionismo.” For me, Pessoa’s heteronymic project establishes a way to navigate the multiplicity of self through the dramatization of that multiplicity.

(all quotes from various sections of the book: “Always Astonished: Selected Prose”. City Lights. 1988. Trans: Honig.

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