written and posted by members of Lancashire Dead Good Poets' Society

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Literary Masks

I suppose everyone is familiar with the concept of the pseudonym - a fictitious name used by e.g. an author to conceal his/her identity for whatever reason. In less emancipated times, women often resorted to writing under a male 'pen' name (Mary Anne Evans as George Eliot for example) because they thought it was the only way they would get their work published or taken seriously. Vladimir Nabokov considered publishing Lolita under a pseudonym because of the 'risque' nature of the storyline.

Nowadays  authors who write in more than one genre (crime, magic realism, science-fiction) sometimes choose to publish the different styles of writing under different names - Joanne Rowling/Robert Galbraith, Isaac Asimov/Paul French, Agatha Christie/Mary Westmacott. A pseudonym is a literary mask.

The prolific American author Dean Koontz is believed to have used up to ten pseudonyms and I thought that was quite some maskery until recently, when I stumbled upon the legacy of the Portuguese author, critic, philosopher and poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935).

Pessoa did more than use pseudonyms to mask his true identity as a writer. He elevated the entity to the level of literary creation in itself and way before Koontz had racked up ten pen names, Pessoa had devoted his life to creating over eighty literary alter-egos! He called them heteronyms rather than mere pseudonyms for they were aliases in much more than name. He gave them all meticulously detailed backgrounds: a biography, physical description, psychological traits, political and religious persuasions and other idiosyncrasies. He even made some of them related to others and described their relationships. There were poets, philosophers, working men, doctors, commercial travellers, cross-word enthusiasts, even a 19-year-old female hunchback. Over his lifetime he proceeded to write individual works in the characters of these heteronyms, mostly never published. 25,000 pages of manuscript were discovered in a trunk after his death.

He once commented thus in quite moving terms on the nature of shyness and masquerade:
“Masquerades disclose the reality of souls. As long as no one sees who we are, we can tell the most intimate details of our life. I sometimes muse over this sketch of a story about a man afflicted by one of those personal tragedies born of extreme shyness who one day, while wearing a mask I don’t know where, told another mask all the most personal, most secret, most unthinkable things that could be told about his tragic and serene life. And since no outward detail would give him away, he having disguised even his voice, and since he didn’t take careful note of whoever had listened to him, he could enjoy the ample sensation of knowing that somewhere in the world there was someone who knew him as not even his closest and finest friend did. When he walked down the street he would ask himself if this person, or that one, or that person over there might not be the one to whom he’d once, wearing a mask, told his most private life. Thus would be born in him a new interest in each person, since each person might be his only, unknown confidant.”

Pessoa (the name means person in Portuguese) achieved the trick of almost disappearing behind his eighty masks. In fact, as the naval engineer and Portuguese man-of-the-world Alvaro de Campos wrote: "Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn't exist." De Campos was - of course - just one of the eighty alter-egos of his most enigmatic creator!

There's no poem from me today, as I'm down in London for the week-end. However, Pessoa penned this rather complex sonnet on theme, so I'll leave you to read and mull over its meaning:

Sonnet VIII
How many masks we wear, and undermasks,
Upon our countenance of soul, and when,
If for self-sport the soul itself unmasks,
Knows it the last mask off and the face plain?
The true mask feels no inside to the mask
But looks out of the mask by co-masked eyes.
Whatever consciousness begins the task
The task's accepted use to sleepness ties.
Like a child frighted by its mirrored faces,
Our souls, that children are, being thought-losing,
Foist otherness upon their seen grimaces
And get the whole world on their forgot causing;
And, when a thought would unmask our soul's masking,
Itself goes not unmasked to the unmasking.

                                                              Fernando Pessoa

Thanks for reading, whoever you are, S ;-)


Anonymous said...

Fascinating in a bizarre way. Senhor Pessoa sounds like a strange kettle of sardines!

The Existentialist said...

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? etc. etc.(Bohemian Rhapsody) What is more real than the mask?

Anonymous said...

Complex? You said it. Did it lose something in translation?

Anonymous said...

Steve, the blog was interesting (as usual) and I liked the sketch/story but I did find the sonnet quite awkward going in the middle.

Anonymous said...

If Fernando Pessoa strictly speaking doesn't exist... maybe the Saturday Blogger invented him? That would be something!

Steve Rowland said...

Ha ha ha - you give me more credit than I deserve! Pessoa really did exist. Google him. Read his Wikipedia entry. I've just ordered a copy of his 'novel', Days Of Unquiet, as holiday reading, described as "a mesmerising, haunting work without parallel in any other culture" - coming to a Greek beach soon.

Anonymous said...

This was an intriguing blog. BTW Pessoa's treatise is The Book of Disquiet and it is well worth reading. He's like a Portuguese James Joyce in some ways, even down to his attire.

Anonymous said...

Intriguing. FP looks worth checking out. Thanks for the literary heads-up.

Tom Shaw said...

Steve I really like your blog and will be sure to read up more about Fernando Pessoa as he sounds fascinating. I have to admit I also struggled with his sonnet in places: what does "The task's accepted use to sleepness ties" mean for goodness sake? Maybe just a poor translation?

RM said...

Love his work! I used to teach it a lot and was thinking about him the other day and just now came across this. Synchronicity! I need to reread his work.

K. Worth said...

Are you familiar with the work of Borges? Argentinian author but also a translator who once commented: 'the original is unfaithful to the translation' - a nice inversion which intrigued and amused me. Maybe Pessoa's sonnet has been unfaithful? Better in the original Portuguese I suspect. Regardless, a most interesting blog.