Monday, July 04, 2011

"Writing is like the drug I abhor and keep taking"

Found something new to read today here in the course of excusing myself for not having recently written. I've been not-reading Pessoa, that shadowy Portuguese master of a century ago, and this morning chanced on passage number

I’m astounded whenever I finish something. astounded and distressed. My perfectionist instinct should inhibit me from finishing it; it should inhibit me from even beginning. But I get distracted and start doing something. What I achieve is not the product of an act of my will but of my will’s surrender. I begin because I don’t have the strength to think; I finish because I don’t have the courage to quit. This book is my cowardice.

If I often interrupt a thought with a scenic description that in some way fits into the real or imagined scheme of my impressions, it’s because the scenery is a door through which I flee from my awareness of my creative impotence. In the middle of the conversations with myself that form the words of this book, I’ll feel the sudden need to talk to someone else, and so I’ll address the light which hovers, as now, over rooftops that glow as if they were damp, or I’ll turn to the urban hillside with its tall and gently swaying trees that seem strangely close and on the verge of silently collapsing, or to the steep houses that overlap like posters, with windows for letters, and the dying sun gilding their moist glue.

Why do I write, if I can’t write any better? But what would become of me if I didn’t write what I can, however inferior it may be to what I am? In my ambitions I’m a plebeian, because I try to achieve; like someone afraid of a dark room, I’m afraid to be silent. I’m like those who prize the medal more than the struggle to get it, and savour glory in a fur-lined cape.

For me, to write is self-deprecating, and yet I can’t quit doing it. Writing is like the drug I abhor and keep taking, the addiction I despise and depend on. There are necessary poisons, and some are extremely subtle, composed of ingredients from the soul, herbs collected from among the ruins of dreams, black poppies found next to the graves of our intentions, the long leaves of obscene trees whose branches sway on the echoing banks of the soul’s infernal rivers.

To write is to lose myself, yes, but everyone loses himself, because everything gets lost. I, however, lose myself without any joy – not like the river flowing into the sea for which it was secretly born, but like the puddle left on the beach by the high tide, its stranded water never returning to the ocean but merely sinking into the sand.

—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, tr. Richard Zenith
Penguin Books, 2003
To write is to lose myself, yes, but everyone loses himself, because everything gets lost.

Looking for anything anyone else might have had to say about these remarkable paragraphs of Pessoa's brought me to Vincent's blog A Wayfarer's Notes, which seems to be a gentle, graceful comtemplation of Nature, literature, and the human condition as lived in the English countryside. He mentions riding the bus:
I was going to talk about a bus-ride. It provided an opportunity to scribble in my notebook, at any rate when it stopped for passengers or traffic lights. These buses judder and jolt with no inhibition, setting their fittings all a-chatter in a syncopated rhythm like loose dentures. Never mind, they serve as a Whole Body Vibration Therapy for the poor and dispossessed, especially those of us with free bus passes.
We were in London for a couple of days a week or so ago, riding buses and the Underground as well as doing a few other things. Transportation in London is alarming. The noise on the Tube from Victoria to Heathrow was never less than 80 dB — we have sound meters on our iPhones — and a couple of hours in such noise and violence is enough to wear one out. (Of course the effect was heightened by contrast with Venice, where there is neither bus nor subway.)

Pessoa, I recall reading somewhere, seems to enjoy riding the tram, as much as he enjoys anything; he observes the strangers around him — ah, here it is:
I'm riding on a tram and, as usual, am closely observing all the details of the people around me. For me these details are like things, voices, phrases. …
All humanity's social existence lies before my eyes.
The Book of Disquiet, p. 253
The last ten days have been spent re-entering our "normal" life, after that five-week interruption of London and Venice. Reading and writing, not to mention conversation, have been largely shouldered aside by unpacking, both literally and figuratively, and mowing and such, and by the fatigue inevitably associated with re-entry. And when I do pick up a book, or even a blog, my attention wanders, I'm back in Venice, or in Pessoa's Lisbon. And when I do write,
I linger over the words, as before shop windows I don't really look at, and what remains are half-meanings and quasi-expressions, like the colors of fabrics I don't actually see…
The Book of Disquiet, p. 138

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