Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Either and/or Or?

In the preface to his book Either/Or Soren Kierkegaard, through the name of another, speaks of a deception. Either/Or is a two volume work, written under three pseudonyms, the Either being written by the aesthetic ‘A’, the Or written by ethical idealist ‘B’, and the whole presented to the reader by its impartial and equally pseudonymous editor Victor Eremita. Either is a series of essays extolling the philosophy of a young romanticist, Or is a series of letters written as a critical response directly addressed to the author of Either. Kierkegaard regularly published his aesthetic works under a number of pseudonyms, saving his own name for his religious philosophy.

Kierkegaard says of his use of pseudonyms that they are more than a mouthpiece for his own views, “behind each pen name lies a “subjectively actual personality””[1], a view that sounds very similar to Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s use of ‘heteronyms’. Over the course of his writing career Pessoa utilised over seventy names, preferring the term ‘heteronym’ to the more familiar ‘pseudonym’, “since they were not merely false names but belonged to invented others, to fictional writers with points of view and literary styles that were different from [his own].”[2]

Fernando Pessoa’s most celebrated book, The Book of Disquiet (a series of reflective vignettes, or Texts), was ‘written’ by Bernardo Soares, who, in Text 193 of that book, says: “I am, in large measure, the selfsame prose I write...I’ve made myself into the character of a book, a life one reads.” Another of Pessoa’s heteronyms, the poet Alvaro de Campos says “Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist.”[3]

One of the reasons Pessoa, an intensely private man, used heteronyms, was to hide, from the public and from life. But it was also a philosophical stance, as he believed each person to be capable of holding many contradictory thoughts and opinions, and he didn’t want his works to be limited to the one self. Each name provided him with a different voice. He wrote, through Soares: “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.”[4] And again, Alvaro de Campos: “Be what I think? But I think of being so many things!”[5]

Is Pessoa’s deception then more honest than Kierkegaard’s? Kierkegaard’s deception is most clearly carried out in Victor Eremita’s preface: “I, who [has] simply nothing to do with this narrative, I who am twice removed from the original author.”[6] And again, “I am neither an author nor a professional literary man.”[7] But, like Pessoa, Kierkegaard’s work also contains a confession: “During my constant occupation with the papers [of Either/Or], it dawned on me that they might be looked at from a new point of view, by considering all of them as the work of one man...Let us imagine a man who had lived through both of these phases, or who had thought upon both. A’s papers contain a number of attempts to formulate an aesthetic philosophy of life...B’s papers contain an ethical view of life.”[8]

Kierkegaard seems to agree with Pessoa’s view that a self is comprised of many selves, and that each self may carry within it contradictory beliefs. This, surely, cuts to the quick of what it is to be a human being. We are all of us a mass of contradictions. And the ‘I’, this seemingly singular identity we so stubbornly cling to, is the sum of these contradictions. This can be expanded, I believe, to include the creations of human beings, such as the work of art and the text. (Again this can be extended to encompass the whole body of an artists’ work or the entire oeuvre of the writer.) Why should the work of art or the text be considered to be the work of a single author? Surely a large part of the point of a work of art is to explore and expose these contradictions, these multiple selves.

In his seminal essay on authorship and authenticity, Roland Barthes states “…a text is…a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”[9] Our work is the culmination of all we have read or witnessed or lived. It follows that this is an ever evolving process. And the same, I believe, can certainly be said of the self.

[1] Howard A Johnson, quoted in his Foreward to the Princeton University Press 1971 paperback edition of Either/Or

[2] Richard Zenith, from the Table of Heteronyms in the Penguin Classics 2002 paperback edition of Fernando Pessoa The Book of Disquiet

[3] Quoted in Richard Zenith’s Introduction to The Book of Disquiet

[4] Text 396, The Book of Disquiet

[5] Quoted in Richard Zenith’s Introduction to The Book of Disquiet

[6] Preface to Either/Or

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

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