Letter to Mário de Sá-Carneiro :: Fernando Pessoa


I’m writing to you today out of sentimental necessity — I have an anguished, painful need to speak to you. It’s easy to see that I have nothing to tell you. Just this: that I find myself today at the bottom of a bottomless depression. The absurdity of the sentence speaks for me.

I’m having one of those days in which I never had a future. There is only a present, fixed and surrounded by a wall of anguish. The other bank of the river, because it is the other bank, is never the bank we are standing on: that is the intimate reason for all my suffering. There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful; nor is there any port of call where it is possible to forget. All of this happened a long time ago, but my sadness began even before then.

On days of the soul like today, I feel, with all the awareness in my body, that I am a sad child abused by life. I was abandoned in a corner where I could hear other children playing. I feel in my hands the broken toy I was given out of malicious irony. Today, March 14, at 9:10 P.M., my life knows just how much all that is worth.

In the garden I can just make out through the silent windows of my cell, someone has thrown all the swings over the branches they hang from; they’re tangled up, high and out of reach; the result is even the idea I have in my imagination of myself running away cannot have swings to play with.

And that is, more or less, but without style, the state of my soul at this time. Like the woman who waits in “The Sailor,” my eyes burn from having thought about weeping. Life pains me bit by bit, in sips, through interstices. All this is printed in very small type in a book whose binding is already coming apart.

If I weren’t writing to you, I would have to swear to you that this letter is sincere and that the hysterically linked things in it spring spontaneously from what I feel. But you must sense that this unstageable tragedy is of a rigorous reality — full of the here and now — and taking place in my soul just like the green on the leaves.

It was for that reason the Prince did not rule. This sentence is entirely absurd. But in this moment I feel it’s the absurd sentences that really make me want to cry.

If I don’t mail this letter today, it may be that when I reread it tomorrow, I’ll make a typescript of it, so I can insert sentences and expressions from it into The Book of Disquiet. But that would not deprive it of any of the sincerity with which I’m writing it, nor the dolorous inevitability with which I feel it.

This is the latest news. So is our being at war with Germany, but even before that, pain made me suffer. From the other side of Life, all this must seem like the caption for some caricature.

This is not exactly madness, but madness must bestow a relaxation on the person who suffers it, the astute pleasure of the soul’s bounces, not very different from these.

What color can feeling be?

Thousands of hugs from yours truly, always truly yours,

Fernando Pessoa


P.S. I wrote this letter in one rush. Rereading it, I see that I will definitely copy it over tomorrow before sending it to you. I have rarely written out my state of mind — with all its sentimental and intellectual attitudes, with all its essential hysterico-neurasthenia, all those interstices and corners in its self-awareness that are so characteristic of it — so completely…

You think I’m right, don’t you?


Mário de Sá-Carneiro, a major Portuguese avant-garde poet who collaborated with Fernando Pessoa on numerous occasions, committed suicide in Paris in 1916, at the age of twenty-six. [editor's note]

TELEPATHY: contact on the nonverbal level of intuition and feeling

I know from my own experience that telepathy is a fact. I have no interest in proving telepathy or anything to anybody. I do want usable knowledge of telepathy. What I look for in any relationship is contact on the nonverbal level of intuition and feeling, that is, telepathic contact.

— William Burroughs, Junky

The orgasm of a hanged man when his neck snaps

I lay on the narrow wood bench, twisting from one side to the other. My body was raw, twitching, tumescent, the junk-frozen flesh in agonizing thaw. I turned over on my stomach and one leg slipped off the bench. I pitched forward and the rounded edge of the bench, polished smooth by the friction of cloth, slid along my crotch. There was a sudden rush of blood to my genitals at the slippery contact. Sparks exploded behind my eyes; my legs twitched — the orgasm of a hanged man when the neck snaps.

— William Burroughs, Junky

I never could mix vigilance and sex . . .

In the French Quarter there are several queer bars that are so full every night the fags spill out on to the sidewalk. A room full of fags gives me the horrors. They jerk around like puppets on invisible strings, galvanized into hideous activity that is the negation of everything living and spontaneous. The live human being has moved out of these bodies long ago. But something moved in when the original tenant moved out. Fags are ventriloquists’ dummies who have moved in and taken over the ventriloquist. The dummy sits in a queer bar nursing his beer, and uncontrollably yapping out of a rigid doll face.

Occasionally, you find intact personalities in a queer bar, but fags set the tone of these joints, and it always brings me down to go into a queer bar. The bring-down piles up. After my first week in a town I have had about all I can take of these joints, so my bar business goes somewhere else, generally to a bar in or near Skid Row.

But I backslide now and then. One night, I got lobotomized drunk in Frank’s and went to a queer bar. I must have had more drinks in the queer joint, because there was a lapse of time. It was getting light outside when the bar hit one of those sudden pockets of quiet. Quiet is something that does not often happen in a queer joint. I guess most of the fags had left. I was leaning against the bar with a beer I didn’t want in front of me. The noise cleared like smoke and I saw a red-haired kid was looking straight at me and standing about three feet away.

He didn’t come on faggish, so I said, “How you making it?” or something like that.

He said: “Do you want to go to bed with me?”

I said, “O.K. Let’s go.”

As we walked out, he grabbed my bottle of beer off the bar and stuck it under his coat. Outside, it was daylight with the sun just coming up. We staggered through the French Quarter passing the beer bottle back and forth. He was leading the way in the direction of his hotel, so he said. I could feel my stomach knot up like I was about to take a shot after being off the junk a long time. I should have been more alert, of course, but I never could mix vigilance and sex. All this time he was talking in a sexy Southern voice which was not a New Orleans voice, and in the daylight he still looked good.

[From William Burroughs’ Junky]

No Such Thing as Language

We should realize that we have abandoned not only the ordinary notion of a language, but we have erased the boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way around the world generally. For there are no rules for arriving at passing theories that work. . . . There is no more chance of regularizing, or teaching, this process than there is of regularizing or teaching the process of creating new theories to cope with new data — for that is what this process involves.

There is no such thing as language, not if a language is anything like what philosophers, at least, have supposed. There is therefore no such thing to be learned or mastered. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language users master and then apply to cases . . . We should give up the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions.

— Donald Davidson, from “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”

Gloomy Passivity

A young man has hoped for a happy or useful or glorious life. If the man he has become looks upon these miscarried attempts of his adolescence with disillusioned indifference, there they are, forever frozen in the dead past. When an effort fails, one declares bitterly that he has lost time and wasted his powers. The failure condemns that whole part of ourselves which we had engaged in the effort. It was to escape this dilemma that the Stoics preached indifference. We could indeed assert our freedom against all constraint if we agreed to renounce the particularity of our projects. If a door refuses to open, let us accept not opening it and there we are free. But by doing that one manages only to save an abstract notion of freedom. It is emptied of all content and all truth. The power of man ceases to be limited because it is annulled. It is the particularity of the project which determines the limitation of the power, but it is also what gives the project its content and permits it to be set up. There are people who are filled with such horror at the idea of a defeat that they keep themselves from ever doing anything. But no one would dream of considering this gloomy passivity as the triumph of freedom.

— Simone de Beauvoir, from The Ethics of Ambiguity

Contra “Rule Seventeen: Omit Needless Words!”

Brevity is a great virtue [. . .] yet it may be overestimated. The reader’s mind must be permitted to eddy around the subject. . . . [Yes, brevity is a virtue,] but we must not make a fetish of it. . . . Must one never say great big dog because great equals big? Nay, it is a mark of man’s overflowing vitality and sheer joy in emphasis to say great big dog.

— Edwin Herbert Lewis

[Courtesy of The Boston Globe]

Culture, which is born of life, ends up killing it.

Referring to the end of Latin civilization, I represented artistic culture as a type of secretion welling up within a people, at first indicating a plethora, an abundance of health, but later congealing, solidifying, forming a hard membrane preventing direct contact between spirit and nature, creating an appearance of vitality which disguises the decline of life within, like a casing in which the spirit languishes, wilts and finally dies. Pushing these thoughts to their natural conclusion, I made the assertion that Culture, which is born of life, ends up killing it.

Historians accused me of overgeneralization. Others criticized my methods. And those who complemented me were the ones who had understood me the least.

— André Gide, The Immoralist

Now, it is enough just to die

Blood pools in the temples; reddened rocks
soaked in slaughter. Age is no help:
no shame in hastening an old man’s dying day
nor in cutting off a babe on the brink of life.
For what crime could these young deserve death?
Now, it is enough just to die. Bloodlust carries them away:
a man shows himself weak if he inquires about guilt.
Many die to stack the numbers; a bloody winner
snatches a head severed from unknown neck, ashamed
to walk empty handed. . . .

— Lucan (2.103-13), translated by Braund and Hooley

Glimmer of a myriad lost sensations

It was a fine day, I felt well rested, not at all weak. I was happy, or rather in high spirits. The air was calm and warm, but I took my shawl anyway, so that I might ask someone to carry it and thereby strike up a new acquaintance. I have mentioned that the park adjoins our terrace, so I got there in no time. I walked into its shade with a sense of rapture. The air was luminous. The cassias, which flower long before they come into leaf, gave off a sweet scent — or perhaps it emanated from everywhere, that light, unfamiliar smell which seemed to enter into me by all my senses and filled me with a feeling of exaltation. I was breathing more easily, walking with a lighter step. I did have to sit down on the first bench, but I was more intoxicated, more dazzled than tired. I looked around. The shadows were light and fleeting; they didn’t fall on the ground, they barely skimmed it. O light! I listened. What could I hear? Nothing, everything; every sound amused me. I remember a shrub whose bark, from a distance, seemed to have such a strange texture that I had to get up to go over and feel it. My touch was a caress, it filled me with rapture. I remember . . . was this finally the morning when I was to be reborn?

I had forgotten I was alone; I sat there, waiting for nothing, oblivious of the time. Until that day, it seemed to me, I had felt so little and thought so much, and I was astonished to find that my sensations were becoming as strong as my thoughts. I say ‘it seemed to me’, for from the depths of my early childhood the glimmer of a myriad lost sensations was re-emerging. With my new-found awareness of my own senses I was able to recognize them, albeit tentatively. Yes, as my senses awoke, they rediscovered a whole history, reconstructed a whole past life. They were alive! Alive! They had never ceased to live but throughout my years of study had led a secret, latent existence.

I met no one that day, and I was glad of it. I took out of my pocket a small edition of Homer which I hadn’t opened since I had left Marseille, reread three lines of the Odyssey, learned them by heart, then, finding enough to nourish me in their rhythm, savoured them at my leisure. I shut the book and sat there trembling, more alive than I thought possible, my spirit drowsy with happiness . . .

– André Gide, The Immoralist

Alas, I had started to love life

I came back, bent over, found the clot, picked it up with a piece of straw and placed it in my handkerchief. I looked at it. It was a nasty dark colour, almost black, sticky and horrible . . . I thought of Bachir’s beautiful, glistening blood . . . And suddenly I felt a wish, a desire, more pressing and imperious than anything I had ever felt before, to live! I want to live. I want to live. I clenched my teeth, my fists, concentrated my whole being into this wild, desperate drive towards existence.

– André Gide, The Immoralist