There is likely no experience more human than that of feeling trapped by one’s circumstances. How people deal with this experience seems to vary enormously, something I realized after having read, in sequence, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road followed by Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. The two books somehow provide extremely different takes on how to escape one’s current condition.
While they are works of fiction, both books contain autobiographical elements. On the Road follows Sal Paradise, a young man whose life events in the years following the second world war mirror those of Kerouac, and the characters he encounters reflect people that Kerouac met in his own life. The Book of Disquiet follows the inner thoughts of Bernando Soares, one of many fictive characters invented by Pessoa although clearly the one he considered closest to himself.
Kerouac was born in 1922 and grew up in Massachusetts in a French-speaking home. He served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during the second world war, and on his return, not knowing what to do, he started living a financially precarious but eventful life mostly consisting of menial jobs, cross-country travel, fooling around, drinking, dancing, chance encounters with all kinds of uniquely strange people, as depicted in On the Road. A single sentence perfectly captures his way of thinking:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing
The “madness” in the above passage could be understood as non-conformity or non-averageness: Kerouac is showing his appreciation for people whose flame of life burns fiercely, who wish to live intensely, who are not afraid to be different. Why spend your life with average, boring, unremarkable people?
In another part of the novel where Kerouac also mentions madness, the word seems to take a somewhat different meaning. The following passage describes the inhabitants of New York:
Millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream — grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities
One starts wondering who is really mad: is it the people who all persistently hustle and work long days like hamsters in a wheel to earn a mediocre living, or is it the people who live original and unique lives, not giving a damn about social conventions? The philosophy of life that shines through On the Road, and which indirectly answers this question, could be summarized as follows:
- Never do anything that’s boring
- Don’t worry about the money
- It’s always worth trying out new experiences
- The goal of life is to get good kicks out of it
The two main protagonists and best buddies of On the Road, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, live their lives as if the above were their religious precepts. Their personalities are energetic, spontaneous, and always open to improvisation.
In an iconic scene described by Kerouac, their car slides off the road when they suddenly have to avoid another vehicle driving straight at them. They end up stuck in a muddy ditch, in the middle of Texas, under heavy rain. They manage to get the car on the road again after using chains and spinning, but their clothes are soaked and caked in mud. So the three of them (two men and a woman) decide to sit all naked on the front seat, driving fully exposed while their clothes dry in the back.
Taken to the extreme, their adventures also lead them to the frontier of what is ethically acceptable. The novel describes the morally dubious character of Dean, who leads an incredible life managing his relationship with two different women at the same time: one in New York, another in California.
We soon understand why this con man has been in jail: he is always lying to get himself out of trouble, stealing cars, telling women what they want to hear about family and commitment then leaving them after they fall pregnant, abandoning his friends when he finds himself in a difficult situation. But people still follow Dean because of his confidence, his energy and his inventiveness, as he always leads them into new and exciting adventures.
On the Road depicts the journey of people who are lost, who do not know how to give meaning to their lives. What ends up happening is that the motivation for what to do next becomes their feelings. And somehow one thing that gives a feeling of purpose is movement. The narrator is constantly traveling, constantly on the road, constantly seeking the next kick. Just being on the move gives you a very peculiar impression that you are going somewhere, even if from a spiritual perspective you are going nowhere.
It is fascinating to read everything that the narrator encounters on his journey. His life is certainly very eventful. But while the main characters live a life of freedom, it is a naïve freedom, one without regards for consequences. It’s perhaps not so surprising that Kerouac died at the age of 47 due to a lifetime of alcohol abuse.
This is the extreme opposite of what one will find in Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888. Growing up in Portugal, his family moved to South Africa when he was seventeen years old. He returned to Lisbon to study, but achieved mediocre results and got entangled in student protests which put an end to his formal studies. From that point on, he became an autodidact, devouring books in the local libraries. He became fluent in English and French, and worked as a commercial translator for much of the rest of his life, while he published poems on the side under various pseudonyms.
If anything, Pessoa was an introvert, a man whose instincts tended toward inertia and withdrawal, and his book reflects his extraordinarily rich and deeply imaginative inner life, in stark contrast with his outward appearance. A portrait of him taken in 1914 shows how he appeared to his surroundings: as a dry bureaucrat, dapper, always with a hat and tie, mustachioed — an ordinary, average look by any standards.
The Book of Disquiet is not a novel, but rather a collection of thoughts and aphorisms, most of which deal with his existential meditations. For Pessoa, we are all the slaves of external circumstance:
Slavery is the only law of life. There is no possible rebellion against it or refuge from it. The cowardly love we all have of freedom — which if it were given to us we would all repudiate as being too new and strange — is the irrefutable proof of how our slavery weighs on us.
He rejects life “because it is a prison sentence,” and he also rejects dreams as being a “vulgar form of escape.” Yet at the same time, he observes that he has “the most sordid and ordinary of real lives and the most intense and constant of dream lives.” No matter what he dreams, he realizes that he remains exactly where he is; as if he was doomed to a life of beauty that will always remain in his mind.
For much of his life, Pessoa was a dreamer and a flâneur, someone who marveled at how little of the world one needs as a starting point for the best meditations. When he did not work, he enjoyed walking around and sitting in the cafés of Lisbon, astutely observing the world around him:
Only one thing surprises me more than the stupidity with which most men live their lives and that is the intelligence inherent in that 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. 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. If life is essentially monotonous, the truth is that he has escaped from that monotony better and more easily than I have.
For Pessoa, “the wise man makes his life monotonous, for then even the tiniest incident becomes imbued with great significance.” That is the exact opposite of Kerouac’s mode of living, which constantly seeks intensity and novelty.
To someone who has never been outside of Lisbon, the tram ride to Benfica is like a trip to the infinite. 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.
Pessoa also believes that one’s role in society constrains the imagination: “An assistant bookkeeper can imagine himself to be a Roman emperor; the King of England can’t do that, because the King of England has lost his ability in his dreams to be any other king than the one he is. His reality limits what he can feel.”
The author holds that “everything that happens in the world we live in, happens in us.” Whatever one does, whatever reality one goes through, the experience is always lived and felt inside our minds. For Pessoa, the central error of the literary imagination, is “the idea that other people are like us and must therefore feel like us.” This is simply false; we all have a capacity to think and feel differently, we all have a unique inner life, which is what Pessoa seeks to explore.
For the average man, to feel is to live, and to think is to know that one lives. For me, to think is to live, and to feel just provides food for thought.
There is a sadness, a resignation that arises from “the bitter sense that everything is at once both felt by me and external to me, and that I am powerless to change it.” The only thing Pessoa can do is to be an ironic spectator of himself, while observing the people leading somnambulist lives around him:
The girls chatting on their way to the office, the maids returning home laden with shopping, the boys out running their first errands of the day — all of this is just one unconsciousness wearing different faces and bodies, puppets moved by strings pulled by the fingers of the same invisible being.
His work is riddled with existential themes reflecting the meaninglessness and absurdity of life, something one would also recognize in later philosophers such as Sartre and Camus:
Sometimes, just walking down the street, I hear snatches of private conversations and they are almost all about another woman, another man, the son of some third party or someone else’s lover. Just hearing these shadowy fragments of human discourse, I carry away with me a tedium born of disgust, a terror of being exiled amongst illusions. I am condemned by the land and by the other tenants, to being just one more tenant among many.
There is a sense that we live the life we are given, rather than the life we choose:
Knowing what my life has been up till now — so often contrary to the way I wished it to be — what assumptions can I make about my life except that it will be neither what I presume nor what I want it to be, that it will be something that happens to me from outside, even against my own will?
When comparing the two books, one realizes that there are two modes of living: internal and external. For Pessoa, “life is an experimental journey undertaken involuntarily. It is a journey of the spirit through the material world and, since it is the spirit that travels, it is in the spirit that it is experienced.” He believes that contemplative souls can live more intensely, more widely, more tumultuously than others who have lived their lives purely externally.
At the same time, his intelligence often appears to be his curse. A smaller recurring theme in the Book of Disquiet is that what appears stupid is often, in fact, quite intelligent, while what initially appears like intelligence often turns out, in fact, to be quite stupid — at least when one considers how things evolve over time, and when we consider the bigger picture. Pessoa observes of himself and others:
When I’m alone I can come up with endless ripostes to remarks no one has made, sociable flashes of wit exchanged with no one; but all this disappears when I’m confronted by another human being […] Other people of lesser intelligence are in fact much stronger than me. They are better than I am at carving out their lives among other people, more skilled at administering their intelligence. I have all the necessary qualities to influence others, but not the art with which to do so.
Pessoa is a man of contradictory feelings, and perhaps that is what makes his writing so authentic. He is heavily burdened by the limitations of his fate, feeling “weighed down by worlds of unenacted violence, of stillborn adventures;” he feels sick of what he never had nor will have; he bears on his body the wounds of battles he did not fight.
His life is anything but a glorious one, but one could argue that this is precisely because of his overly intellectual tendencies, because he resigns himself to a life of dreaming. Isn’t Pessoa neglecting his own agency, his capacity to take his life into his own hands, to do something about it? Why not embark on new risky adventures, why not travel across the world, why not try something new?
Travel, for Pessoa, is not something that requires physical movement. To travel, one simply needs to exist, that is, one only needs to imagine and feel:
If I imagine something, I see it. What more would I do if I travelled? Only extreme feebleness of imagination can justify anyone needing to travel in order to feel. In Madrid, in Berlin, in Persia, in China, at the North and South Poles, where would I be other than inside myself, feeling my particular kind of feelings? Life is whatever we make it. The traveler is the journey. What we see is not what we see but who we are.
Pessoa quotes the French philosopher Condillac who once claimed that “however high we climb and however low we fall, we never escape our own feelings.” In other words, we cannot disembark from ourselves. For Pessoa, “the true landscapes are those that we ourselves create, because, since we are their gods, we see them as they really are, that is, exactly as they were created. Someone who has sailed every sea has merely sailed through the monotony of himself.”
It is clear then that for Pessoa, what matters is the mind, because that is where cathedrals can be built. Everything else, all our sensory experience, is just something that “floats blithely on the surface of life.” That surface can be beautiful just as it can be ugly, but it is nonetheless just a picture in which he finds himself, an incoherent ballet, a novel in which he is a character, “moving through the long waves of someone else’s literary style, through the created truth of a great narrative.”
Pessoa is deeply afflicted by the banality of his life, but at the same time he also revels in it, and in some way we could argue that he chooses a life of dreaming over a life of action: “The greater the sensibility and the more subtle the capacity to feel, the more absurdly one trembles and quivers at the small things.” Pessoa is a man who seeks to unleash the power of his imagination, and nothing else.
If there are two modes of living — a life of experimentation with the outside world, as Kerouac had, and an internal life of dreaming, as Pessoa had — which mode of living should one favor? Perhaps the best life is one that combines elements of both, or perhaps one mode of living is preferable to the other? Whatever the answer might be, it is something worth pondering about.