Thursday, December 02, 2010

Pessoa notices everything, sees into everything

From The Book of Disquiet, § 298:
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. Taking the dress of the girl in front of me, I break it down into the fabric from which it's made and the work that went into making it (such that I see a dress and not just fabric), and the delicate embroidery that trims the collar decomposes under my scrutiny into the silk thread with which it was embroidered and the work it took to embroider it. And immediately, as in a textbook of basic economics, factories and jobs unfold before me: the factory where the cloth was made; the factory where the darker-colored silk was spun to trim with curlicues its place around the neck; the factories' various divisions, the machines, the workers, the seamstresses. My inwardly turned eyes penetrate into the offices, where I see the managers trying to stay calm, and I watch everything being recorded in the account books. But that's not all: I see beyond all this to the private lives of those who live their social existence in these factories and offices. The whole world opens up before my eyes merely because in front of me -- on the nape of a dark-skinned neck whose other side has I don't know what face -- I see a regularly irregular dark-green embroidery on a light-green dress.

All humanity's social existence lies before my eyes.

And beyond this I sense the loves, the secrets and the souls of all who labored so that the woman in front of me in the tram could wear, around her mortal neck, the sinuous banality of a dark-green silk trim on a less-dark green cloth.

I get dizzy. The seats in the tram, made of tough, close-woven straw, take me to distant places and proliferate in the form of industries, workers, their houses, lives, realities, everything.

I get off the tram dazed and exhausted. I've just lived all of life.
Whenever I find a text like this, I wish I were a high school English teacher again. Imagine the exercises you could do with students, opening their eyes to the images and stories hidden in everyday things. Of course, all poetry has this power. But rarely is it explicated so clearly.

Lucky for me, I'm a novelist, and can take the same text to heart whenever I hit a dry patch.

A 2008 New York Times article about Pessoa

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