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Fernando Pessoa: Three Poets and an Existentialist Bookkeeper

Lecturer: Desmonda Lawrence

Originally Taught: Summer School 2018

Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa was many authors at once – as the progenitor of numerous 'heteronyms' or personas through whom he penned very different styles of poetry and prose. His strange, and rich, literary universe represents a pinnacle of modern, and modernist, poetry as well as fiction, philosophical and satirical prose.

The interest in and importance of Pessoa lies not only in the works themselves – prodigious and various, but in Pessoa's peculiar method of authorial self-replication. This course will look at a selection of works Pessoa authored under his own name; at the poetry of the three main heteronyms  - Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Alvaro de Campos; and at the lengthy prose collection, known as The Book of Disquiet, of Lisbon bookkeeper Bernardo Soares.  Pessoa claimed to be 'a poet animated by philosophy' and it is the philosophical interest in and of his work that will be a central theme of the course. Alain Badiou says that it is a philosophical task to be contemporaries of Pessoa. Pessoa poses a uniquely modern problem for the very notion of singular or central selfhood. The heteronyms are much more than pseudonyms or literary devices. Pessoa appears to have experienced a splitting up of the self into many, a fact which he embraces but which also unsettles him. An exploration of the nature of self, and an experience of the self as essentially multiple, is a constant theme throughout his work.

Each of the three major heteronyms – Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis clearly espouse distinct and frequently contradictory philosophies. – From the pastoral anti-metaphysics of Caeiro to the Whitmanesque futurism of De Campos and the anti-democratic paganism of Reis. Their poetic voices are so unique that it is impossible to confuse them. And then there is The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa's lifelong prose work. A disordered collection of journal passages and aphoristic reflections, its author Bernardo Soares calls it 'a fact-less autobiography'.  Having no real narrative structure, and traversing a wide array of themes, this work itself creates a complex philosophical dialogue that resists unitary interpretation. It is, I believe, a text of great philosophical importance – an unrivalled document of twentieth century consciousness and a vital phenomenological investigation of one of modernity's most important, and yet under-regarded themes – profound existential boredom.

Course Schedule

1. Introduction to Pessoa and his heteronyms as well as the prodigious and bizarre universe of his writing. What are the heteronyms? What did Pessoa think they were? How have his readers and critics understood and responded to the phenomenon? Also a look at a small selection of Pessoa's own orthonymous poems and the short-story/Socratic style dialogue The Anarchist Banker.

2. Alberto Caeiro, inventor of the anti-metaphysical 'sensationist' movement, nature poet, anti-symbolist, anti-metaphor. The Master of the other heteronyms. A very anti-modern modern poet.

3. Alvaro de Campos. Futurist, poet of technology and noise, poet for the industrial age. Whitmanesque. Also look briefly at some of the documented conversations, letters and interactions between the heteronyms and Pessoa himself.

4. Riccardo Reis – political exile, scholar, neo-classicist and pagan. His philosophy is a mixture of stoicism and Epicureanism. Also in this week we will discuss Badiou's piece on Pessoa – A Philosophical Task.

5. Bernardo Soares The Book of Disquiet. We look at this text through the lens of the Heidegger's concept of mood as 'attunement' and we use The Book of Disquiet as a way to understand the nature of boredom as a philosophical problem and also as an expression of the modern condition.


  • Fernando Pessoa, The Anarchist Banker, Translation by Richard Zenith.
  • Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, Translation by Richard Zenith. (Even if you don't read the whole text, spend some time with it if you can before the final week's class.)

Participants may also want to familiarise themselves with a selection of the poems of Pessoa's three main heteronyms Ricardo Reis, Alviro de Campos and Alberto Caeiro. These will be found in any edition of Pessoa's selected poetry, of which there are several available. I will be using a mixture of translations, so I have no specific recommendation. (I will advise which particular poems we will be reading as the course gets underway and make those specific versions available on the web.)

  • Alain Badiou's essay on Pessoa: 'A Philosophical Task: To Be Contemporaries of Pessoa', in his Handbook of Inaesthetics.

Also recommended:

  • Martin Heidegger: The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics.
  • Lars Svendsen: A Philosophy of Boredom.