Project: The Art and Lives of Fernando Pessoa

The project has two interrelated goals: 1) to develop more nuanced modes of visualizing paradox in the digital humanities; and 2) to develop an effective teaching/research tool by which students and scholars might come to a deeper understanding of the complex system of alternate selves (heteronyms) employed by Portugal’s most famous poet, Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935).

One of the principal limitations of logic-based information technology is its inability to deal effectively with paradox. Perhaps nowhere is this limitation more evident than in the digital humanities, where paradoxical yes and no and this and that constructions are prevalent if not central features of the work that humanists do each day. Even basic literary features such as metaphor, according to which something both is and is not true (e.g., “night is falling,” “he’s a peach,” “she’s a bad apple” etc.), are poorly handled by current tools in the digital humanities.

Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa gives us an excellent opportunity to begin to work through information technology’s difficulty with paradox. In a sense, one can justifiably say that paradox is the very basis of Pessoa’s broader artistic project—from his prose Book of Disquiet to his philosophical writings and his large corpus of poetry (roughly 30,000 documents in all). This said, nowhere is the impact of paradox felt in Pessoa’s work as strongly as in his complex system of heteronyms.

From his youth, Pessoa invented other versions of his self and wrote texts under these names. These early experiments (roughly 100 different names in all) are more or less explicitly versions of himself; however, by his mid-twenties Pessoa had developed a system of heteronyms, three invented selves that were more or less fully autonomous agents with interests and literary styles strikingly different from his own (and from each other). Pessoa would openly disagree with these heteronyms (their names are Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos), and they would dialogue with one another. They had biographies, physical features, and they also intervened in Pessoa’s own personal life. As Pessoa frames the heteronyms, they are not versions of himself but rather independent actors that are in no way subordinate to him. In this sense, literary scholars routinely contend with the fact that the author of Álvaro de Campos’s poetry is at once Fernando Pessoa and Álvaro de Campos. In the case of the Book of Disquiet—written by what Pessoa referred to as a “semi-heteronym” named Bernardo Soares—the author is at once Pessoa and Soares, although more so Pessoa than in the case of Campos (hence Pessoa’s distinction between “semi-heteronym” and “heteronym”). In this way, even something as basic as authorship becomes fundamentally paradoxical. Rather than a question of this, not that, it is instead a matter of this and that measured in degrees understood perhaps only by Pessoa himself.

It has historically been very difficult for scholars to deal with the fundamental forms of paradox that characterize Pessoa’s literary project, a project to which his entire (brief) life was devoted. Linear narratives often become muddled and so do little to provide clarity, and critical editions frequently trip over the fundamental contradictions that run through Pessoa’s life and work (e.g., he both is and is not the author of Ricardo Reis’s prose; he both created Alberto Caeiro in 1914 and was born a year after him, etc.). It is increasingly clear to scholars of Portuguese and English literature (educated in South Africa, Pessoa wrote extensively in both English and Portuguese) that new modes of presentation and explanation are necessary if we are to understand—and help our students to understand—the deeper patterns and implications of Pessoa’s work. The digital humanities offer tools for analysis and visualization (e.g., 3D modeling, vR tools, lenticular rendering techniques) that hold great promise, and it is the goal of the proposed project to adapt these tools to the question of paradox as it manifests itself in the work and lives of Fernando Pessoa.