some smarmy subject

February 5, 2004

7 [63]

I went into the barber’s as I usually do, experiencing the pleasure I always get from being able to enter places known to me without suffering the least distress. My sensitivity to all things news is a constant affliction to me; I only feel safe in places I have been in before.

When I sat down in the chair and the young barber placed a clean, cold linen towel around my neck, it occurred to me to ask after his colleague, a vigorous, older man, who had been ill but usually worked at the chair to my right. The question arose spontaneously, simply because the place reminded me of him. As fingers busied themselves tucking in the last bit of towel between my neck and collar, the voice behind the towel and me answered flatly: ‘He died yesterday.’ My irrational good humor died as suddenly as the now eternally absent barber from the chair beside me. My every though froze. I said nothing.

Nostalgia! I feel it even for someone who meant nothing to me, out of anxiety for the flight of time and sickness bred of the mystery of life. If one of the faces I pass daily on the streets disappears, I feel sad; yet they meant nothing to me, other than being a symbol of all life.

The dull old man with dirty gaiters I often used to pass at half past nine in the morning. The lame lottery salesman who pestered my without success. The plump, rosy old gentleman with the cigar, who used to stand at the door of the tobacconist’s. The pale-cheeked tobacconist himself. What has become of those people who, just because I saw them day after day, became part of my life? Tomorrow I too will disappear from Rua de Prata, Rua dos Douradores, Rua dos Fanqueiros. Tomorrow I too - this feeling and thinking soul, the universe I am to myself - yes, tomorrow I too will be someone who no longer walks these streets, someone others will evoke with a vague: ‘I wonder what’s become of him?’ And everything I do, everything I feel, everything I experience, will be one less passer-by on the daily streets of some city or other.

10 [28]

Today, suddenly, I reached an absurd but unerring conclusion. In a moment of enlightenment, I realized that I’m nobody, absolutely nobody. When the lightning flashed, I saw that what I had thought to be a city was in fact a deserted plain and, in the same sinister light that revealed me to myself, there seemed to be no sky above it. I was robbed of any personality of having existed before the world. If I was ever reincarnated, I must have done so without myself, without a self to reincarnate.

I am the outskirts of some non-existent town. the long-winded prologue to an unwritten book. I’m nobody,. nobody. I don’t know how to feel or think or love. I’m a character in a novel as yet unwritten, hovering in the air and undone before I’ve even existed, amongst the dreams of someone who never quite managed to breathe life into me.

I’m always thinking, always feeling, but my thoughts lack all reason, my emotions all feeling. I’m falling through a trapdoor, through infinite, infinitous space, in a directionless, empty fall. My soul is a black maelstrom, a great madness spinning about a vacuum, the swirling of a vast ocean around a hole in the void, and in the waters, more like whirlwinds than waters, float images of all I ever saw or heard in the world: houses, faces, books, boxes, snatches of music and fragments of voices, all caught up in a sinister, bottomless whirlpool.

And I, I myself, am the centre that exists only because the geometry of the abyss demands it; I am the nothing around which all this spins, I exist so that it can spin, I am a centre that exists only because every circle has one. I, I myself, am the well in which the walls have fallen away to leave only viscous slime. I am the centre of everything surrounded by the great nothing.

And it is as if hell itself were laughing within me but, instead of the human touch of diabolical laughter, there’s the mad croak of the dead universe, the circling cadaver of physical space, the end of all worlds drifting blackly in the wind, misshapen, anachronistic, without the God who created it, without God himself who spins the dark of darks, impossible, unique, everything.

If only I could think! If only I could feel!

My mother died very young; I never know her…

(I love that last line, as if a mother would have made all the difference…)

20 [56] Only one thing surprises me more than the stupidity with which most men live their lives and that is the intelligence inherent in this stupidity.

To all appearances, the monotony of ordinary lives is horrific. I’m having lunch in this ordinary restaurant and I look over at the cook behind the counter and at the old waiter right next to me, serving me as he has served others here for, I believe, the past thirty years. What are those men’s lives like? For forty years the cook has spent nearly all of every day in kitchen; he has a few breaks; he sleeps relatively little; sometimes he goes back to his village whence he returns unhesitatingly and without regret; he slowly accumulates his slowly earned money, which he does not propose spending; he would fall ill if he had to abandon (for ever) his kitchen for the land he bought in Galicia; he’s lived in Lisbon for forty years and he’s never even been to the Rotunda, or to the theatre, and only once to the Coliseu (whose clowns still inhabit the inner interstices of his life). He got married, how or why I don’t know, has four sons and one daughter, and as he leans out over the counter towards my table, his smile conveys a great, solemn, contented happiness. He isn’t pretending, nor does he have any reason to. if he seems happy it’s because he really is.

And what about the old waiter who serves me and who, for what must be the millionth time in his career, has just placed a coffee on the table before me? His life is the same as the cook’s, the only difference being the four or five yards that separate the kitchen where one works from the restaurant dining room where the other works. Apart from minor differences like having two rather than five children, paying more frequent visits to Galicia, and knowing Lisbon better than the cook (as well as Oporto where he lived for four years), he is equally contented.

I look again, with real terror, at the panorama of those lives and, just as I’m about to feel horror, sorrow and revulsion for them, discover that the people who feel no horror or sorrow or revulsion are the very people who have the most right to, the people living those lives. That is the central error of the literary imagination: the idea that other people are like us and must therefore feel like us. Fortunately for humanity, each man is only himself and only the genius is given the ability to be others as well.

In the end, everything is relative. A tiny incident in the street, which draws the restaurant cook to the door, affords him more entertainment than any I might get from the contemplation of the most original idea, from reading the best book or from the most pleasant of useless dreams. And, if life is essentially monotonous, the truth is that he has escaped from monotony better and more easily than I. he is no more the possessor of the truth than I am, because the truth doesn’t belong to anyone; but what he does possess is happiness.

The wise man makes his life monotonous, for then even the tiniest incident becomes imbued with great significance. After his third lion the lion hunter loses interest in the adventure of the hunt. For my monotonous cook there is something modestly apocalyptic about every street fight he witnesses. To someone who has never been out of Lisbon the tram ride to Benfica is like a trip to the infinite and if one day he were to visit Sintra, he would feel as if he journeyed to Mars. On the other hand, the traveler who has covered the globe can find nothing new for 5,000 miles around, because he’s always seeing new things; there’s novelty and there’s the boredom of the eternally new and the latter brings about the death of the former.

The truly wise man could enjoy the whole spectacle of the work from his armchair; he wouldn’t need to talk to anyone or to know how to read, just how to make use of his five senses and a soul innocent of sadness.

One must monotonize existence in order to rid it of monotony. One must make the everyday so anodyne that the slightest incident proves entertaining. In the midst of my day-to-day work, dull, repetitive and pointless, visions of escape surface in me, vestiges of dreams of far-off islands, parties held in the avenues of gardens in some other age, different landscapes, different feelings, a different me. But, between balance sheets, I realize that if I had all that, none of it would be mine. The truth is that Senhor Vasques is worth more than any Dream Kings; the office in Rua dos Douradores is worth more than all those broad avenues in impossible gardens. Because I have Senhor Vasques I can enjoy the dreams of the Dream Kings; because I have the office in Rua Dos Douradores I can enjoy my inner visions of non-existent landscapes. But if the Dream Kings were mine, what would I have to dream about? If I possessed the impossible landscapes, what would remain of the impossible?

May I always be blessed with the monotony, the dull sameness of identical days, my indistinguishable todays and yesterdays, so that I may enjoy with an open heart the fly that distracts me, drifting randomly past my eyes, the gust of laughter that wafts volubly up from the street somewhere down below, the sense of vast freedom when the office closes for the night, and the infinite rest of my days off.

Because I am nothing, I can imagine myself to be anything. If I were somebody, I wouldn’t be able to. An assistant book-keeper can imagine himself to be a Roman emperor; the King of England can’t do that, because the King of England has lost the ability in his dreams to be any other king than the one he is. His reality limits what he can feel.

25[12]

I envy - though I’m not sure if envy is the right word - those people about whom one could write a biography, or who could write their autobiography. Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life. These are my Confessions and if I say nothing in them it’s because I have nothing to say.

What could anyone confess that would be worth anything or serve any useful purpose? What has happened to us has either happened to everyone or to us alone; if the former it has no novelty value and if the latter it will be incomprehensible. I write down what I feel in order to lower the fever of feeling. What I confess is of no importance because nothing is of any importance. I make landscapes out of what I feel. I make a holiday of sensation. I understand women who embroider out of grief and those who crochet because life is what it is. My old aunt passed the infinite evenings laying patience. Those confessions of my feelings are my game of patience. I don’t interpret them, the way some read cards to know the future. I don’t scrutinize them because in games of patience the cards have no value in themselves. I unwind myself like a length of multicolored yarn, or make cat’s cradles out of myself, like the ones children weave around stiff fingers and pass from one to the other. Taking care that my thumb doesn’t miss the vital loop I turn it over to reveal a different pattern. Then I start again.

Living is like crocheting patterns to someone else’s design. But while one works, one’s thoughts are free and, as the ivory hook dives in and out amongst the wool, all the enchanted princes that ever existed are free to stroll through their parks. The crochet of things…A pause…Nothing…

For the rest, what qualities can I count on in myself? A horrible keen awareness of sensation and an all too deep consciousness of feeling…A sharp self-destructive intelligence and an extraordinary talent for dreams to entertain myself with…A defunct will and a reflective spirit in which to cradle it like a living child…In short, crochet…

35[159] 21.4.1930

Some feelings are like dreams the pervade every corner of one’s spirit like a mist, that do not let one think or act or even be. Some trace of our dreams persists in us as if we had not slept properly, and a daytime torpor warms the stagnant surface of the senses. It is the intoxication of being nothing, when one’s will is a bucket of water kicked over in the yard by some clumsy passing foot.

One looks but does not see. The long street crowded with human creatures is like a fallen inn sign on which the jumbled letters no longer make sense. The houses are merely houses. Although one sees things clearly, it’s impossible to give meaning to what one sees.

The ringing hammer blows coming from the boxmaker’s shop have a familiar strangeness. Each blow is separated in time, each with its echo and each utterly vain. The passing carts sound the way they do on days when thunder threatens. Voices emerge not from people’s throats but from the air itself. In the background, even the river seems weary.

It is not tedium that one feels. it is not grief. it is the desire to go to sleep clothed in a different personality, to forget, dulled by an increase in salary. You feel nothing except the mechanical rise and fall of your legs as they walk involuntarily forwards on feet conscious of the shoes they’re wearing. Perhaps you don’t even feel that much. Something tightens inside your head, blinding you and stopping up your ears.

It’s like having a cold in the soul. And with that literary image of illness comes a longing for life to be like a long period of convalescence, confined to bed; and the idea of convalescence evokes the image of large villas on the outskirts of the city, but deep in the heart of them, by the hearth, far from the streets and the traffic. No, you can’t hear anything. You consciously pass through the door you must enter, you go through it as if asleep, unable to make your body go in any other direction. You pass through everything. Where’s your tambourine now, sleeping bear?

Fragile as something just begun, the evil sea smell carried on the breeze hovered over Tagus and grubbily infiltrated the fringes of the Baxia. it blew cool and rank over the torpor of the warm sea. Life became something lodged in my stomach and my sense of smell inhabited some space behind my eyes,. High up, perching on nothing at all, thin skeins of cloud dissolved from grey into false white. The atmosphere was like a threat made by a cowardly sky, like inaudible thunder, full of nothing but air.

Even the gulls as they flew seemed static, lighter than the air itself, as if someone had simply left them hanging there. But it wasn’t oppressive. Evening fell on our disquiet; the air grew intermittently cool.

My poor hopes, born of this life I’ve been forced to lead! They are like this hour and this air, vanished mists, inept attempts at stirring up a false storm. I feel like shouting out, to put an end to this landscape and this meditation. But the salt smell of the sea fills all my good intentions, and the low tide has laid bare in me the muddy gloom which only my sense of smell tells me is there.

What a lot of nonsense just to satisfy myself! What cynical insights into purely hypothetical emotions! All this mixing up of soul and feelings, of my thoughts with the air and the river, just to say the life wounds my sense of smell and my consciousness, just because I do not have the wit to use the simple and my consciousness, just because I do not have the wit to use the simple, all-embracing words of the Book of Job: ‘My soul is weary of my life!’