08 February 2023

The books of disquiet

There are quiet places on this planet. Well, quiet except for natural sounds: the breaking of waves, a bird call, the wind in the trees and such. Stillness too, if you were to ignore the movement of time and elemental movements which, like a surreptitious lover who with a single word captures a single cubic millimetre of a beloved’s heart, sets in motion processes that can produce one day tectonic shifts or melt a glacier.  

Quietness and stillness, so perceived, one assumes, are reflection-enablers. One is left to contend with the disquiet and turbulence within, without human interruption or the many invasions of the routine. And then it is that we can deal with the larger or deeper or more personal disquiet and turbulence which we often postpone for a quieter hour, a still place and enabling solitude.

‘No doubt there are real sunsets elsewhere. But even in this fourth room floor above the city one can ponder about the infinite. An infinite built over warehouses, it’s true, but with stars above it…These are the thoughts that occur to me standing at my high window watching the slow end of evening, feeling the dissatisfaction of the bourgeois I am not and the sadness of the poet I can never be.’

This is from ‘The book of disquiet’ by Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), a Portuguese poet, writer, literary critic, translator, publisher and philosopher. Pessoa, interestingly wrote not only under his own name, but created approximately seventy-five others, Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, and Ricardo Reis being the stand-out heteronyms, a term he borrowed from the Danish philosopher Søren Aabye Kierkegaard. These ‘characters’ had their own supposed physiques, biography and writing styles.

‘The book of disquiet’ is considered Pessoa’s most extensive prose work and is blurbed by Philip Pullman thus: ‘Mysteries, misgivings, tears and dreams and wonderment. Like nothing else.’

Between cover and cover the many facets and collective cadence of Pessoa’s disquiet could, theoretically, be ascertained.  

But what is disquiet? Stripped down to essence they have something to do with loss, disrepute, sorrow and blame. It’s about self, loved ones, collectives one identify with or the world, its currency and the transformations one envisages as being ideal.

A simple and simplistic flip, one would imagine, would inform us that profit, joy, fame and praise (related to self, loved ones, collectives one identify with or the world, its currency and the transformations that now seem possible) would produce ‘quiet’ or stop agitation. That, however, is illusion because life is not about one set (loss, disrepute, sorrow and blame) or the other (profit, joy, fame and praise), for they come entwined in element or whole, forcing agitation, creating disquiet.

There are sunsets somewhere else, but right now as I write, it’s the time of moonrise. This is the twentieth century and the fourth floor doesn’t seem quite as high, at least not as high as Pessoa may have thought. The bourgeois may be suffering from dissatisfactions of the kind Pessoa imagined or others he could not have envisaged. We can feel the sadness of the poet, artist, musician, sculptor or anything else we are not and can never be.

We could also rejoice in the fact that there are poets, artists, musicians, sculptors and others who through dedication, hard work and courage have reached heights unimaginable. We could also feel compassion for the bourgeois who are dissatisfied, for whatever reason. We could also be kind to friends, strangers, other creatures and the world. We could also, in deference to the eternal verities of birth, decay and death, cultivate equanimity.

The moon rises above a world whose miseries and serendipity are largely cloaked by a night whose darkness is accentuated courtesy a power cut. There is quietness. There is stillness of a kind. The disquiet-demons never sleep. Indeed, one may argue,  even when appearing to be asleep, they are still at work and that this is not necessarily a bad thing.  

Siddhartha long ago was tormented by disquiet of all kinds; royal disquiet and human disquiet as well, the disquiet of the impending war between the Sakyans and Koliyas, familial binds and the inevitabilities of sickness, infirmity, old age and death. He read the book of disquiet. He found the quiet that could not be sullied, in light or dark, with or without sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset, at ground level and above, by the finite and infinite.

We can be quietened by the Enlightened One we are not or delve into the disquiet with the quietude that is made possible by the readiness to give, openness to insight and the practice of meditation. The quietest place could be a mind uncluttered. Cultivable.

Pessoa wrote about a journey in his head: 'In the plausible intimacy of approaching evening, as I stand waiting for the stars to begin at the window of this fourth floor room that looks out on the infinite, my dreams move to the rhythm required by long journeys to countries as yet unknown, or to countries that are simply hypothetical or impossible.'

There are countries, existent or hypothetical, and both are resident in our minds. The long journey, then, can take us far away to where the sun sets or the moon rises, but then again the sun and moon can rise and set together or at different times as we wish in a strange and familiar, confusing and yet revealing continent of the mind. I am still reading Pessoa. His disquiet is enhancing and diminishing mine.

Other articles in this series:

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road