ads without products

Archive for the ‘pessoa’ Category

“history without life”: fernando pessoa’s book of disquiet and awp

with 5 comments

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is one of those books that has lingered at the front of the to-be-read pile for years and year. I dip in for twenty pages in a stolen moment, and then… it drifts back to the shelf waiting for another start.

I am delighted by Pessoa, but even more than delight it is probably recognition – the recognition of an orientation parallel to mine, of a project similar enough to one of my own projects (namely, the one that you are reading right now) – that informs this slow-motion compulsive pattern of starting and then leaving off, again and again, for probably something like a decade now. Take a look, for instance, at this passage which comes close to the start of the work:

I envy the people – well, I don’t know if I actually envy them – whose biographies are written or who write their own. In these disconnected impressions, which I deliberately leave disconnected, I shall narrate my autobiography in an indifferent sort of way, without facts; my history without life. These are my Confessions, and if I don’t say anything in them, it’s because I really have nothing to say.

What does it matter that someone confesses his worthiness or that he serves some useful purpose? What happens to us either happens to everyone or only to us: in the first instance, it’s banal; in the second it’s incomprehensible. By writing what I feel, I can cool this febrile sensitivity of mine. What I confess is unimportant, because nothing is important. I compose landscapes out of what I feel. I compose carnivals of sensations. I completely understand women who embroider out of grief or knit because life exists. My old aunt used to play solitaire during the course of infinite family gatherings. These confessions of feeling are my solitaires. I don’t read them, the way people read cards to know the future. I don’t put a stethoscope to them, because in solitaire the cards don’t really have any value. I unravel like a multicolored skein, or I make yarn figures out of myself that are like the ones braided by tense hands and passed from one child to another. I just take care that my thumb doesn’t miss making the final knot. Later I turn my hand over and the image changes. And I start over.

Comes very close – perhaps all too close, per what I said above – to the implicit, generally unconscious operating principle in place behind much of what I do here on this blog. ads without products started out, years ago, as a standard-issue editorializing site, commenting on the news, connecting the news with what I was reading, obliquely discussing my work, etc. But over the years, and I suppose because I’ve lived through what the shrinks call a transition crisis, the blog changed. As I went from grad student to assistant professor to lecturer, moved from America to Britain and before that from New York to somewhere else, and above all else fell abruptly from the prolonged adolescence of urban irresponsibility to the previously unimaginable heavy duties of parenthood, things changed and the blog became (for the most part – some of the old style stuff still trickles through) something else, something like my own book of disquiet.

Some very nice people have written me suggesting that there is a book scattered throughout these Sunday posts and the like. It’s a tempting thought, and incredibly heartening that they say so. (I’m well aware that there are others, if they’ve not long since gone away, who’d like nothing more than for me just to get back to the old stuff and think I’ve gone made with solipsism and the like). I’m working on a novel right now, a relatively conventional thing with a plot and characters and a setting, something that’s meant to be sold as literary fiction and sold to a publisher that publishes that sort of thing. There’s an incredibly optimistic thought at the back of my mind, a problematic thought whose optimism isn’t the worst of its problems. The thought is this: that if I were successful at publishing this novel, and maybe another like it, then I would free myself to work in unconventional forms, forms ranging from the sort of thing that I was up to here or some sort of Weight of the World style compendium of semi-fictionalized everyday life.

But of course I’m not stupid enough to think, down deep, that that plan really makes sense. No one, nowadays, earns themselves out of responsibility to the satisfaction of market demands, and the trajectory of most writers now suggests quite the opposite – with each work ever more vivid evidence of their fealty to the satisfaction of convention. This isn’t a personal failing on their part – it’s a structural attribute of the market and atmosphere in which we live. (The academic parallel is tenure, which of course is supposed to liberate American professors unto their own idiosyncrasies, but that’s is rarely the case. Having run the full race-track, 99 percent either collapse into mediocre unproductiveness or keep churning out more of the same stuff they’ve been pavlovianly stickn’carroted into doing to earn tenure).

So if I were smarter (I’m not sure whether “and braver” should be here or not), I’d just skip ahead to the formally challenging, market-resisting stuff that I’d like to do down the road, because neither success or failure the other way is particularly likely to open that door in the future. So what to do?

I’m not going to abandon the thing I’m working on because a) I keep doing that, three or four times with nearly complete manuscripts, and that’s starting to get really annoying if not super-deeply symptomatic and b) I like it OK, somedays and c) I’m 21,000 words in, which is quite a lot when you think about it. But I am also, this week, going to work on something semi-fictional and bloggic and with interesting images interspersed for another opportunity, one as exciting to me as anything else.

(For the record, this has not been a Sunday post, despite the fact that it is in fact Sunday morning, the traditional time of their composition. This was housekeeping, and like all housekeeping meta in the wrong way, meta with the wrong sort of banality….)

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 27, 2010 at 8:46 am