Fernando Pessoa: A Heterodox Occultist
Pessoa’s incursions into occultism and secret doctrines reveal a heterodox desire, whose main premise was that one’s own judgement is the path towards knowledge.
Fernando Pessoa, his name and his work, are well known nowadays. Together with Luís de Camões, Pessoa is one of Portugal’s national poets, and within a given literary community, he is considered the mastermind of an oeuvre rich with emotional and philosophic hues, a nihilist who celebrated the miracles and revelations of existence, but, who also had hedonistic spirit that would enjoy pleasure and earthly delights, but afterwards would stare into the ominous darkness of the void.
This esteem however, can be considered relatively recent. As it happens every now and then and with some artists, their works are forgotten and ignored for years, occasionally, when the artist is still alive, and only with time, when someone rediscovers and rescues them, does the work make a triumphant return of sorts and it is valued as it should have been from the very start.
This is, more or less, the story of Fernando Pessoa, who only published a couple of compilations with his poems in English (Antinous and 35 Sonnets, in 1918, and English Poems, in three volumes in 1921) and Mensagem in 1934. Beyond these three books, all the texts we know were published after the Portuguese’s death, principally because of the interest invested during the mid-twentieth century in the poet. An outstanding situation if we consider that he has a vast amount of pages that remained unpublished some remained this way until recently.
In the midst of this reserved archive, to a certain degree because of the author’s desires, we can find several texts that reveal Pessoa’s interest in occult arts and secret societies, a concern that left its traces in his work (ranging from Mensagem to Livro do Desassossego) and which in 1916 resulted in the suicide of his best friend, the poet Mario de Sa-Carneiro, in Paris.
After this loss, Pessoa began frequenting esoteric doctrines, greater and lesser orders, secret societies, ideas and methods. He translates Helena Blavatsky and wrote Aleister Crowley a letter where he pointed out the mistakes he’d found in a horoscope Crowley had published. The poet also wrote over a thousand horoscopes and he is rumoured to have constantly made astrological consultations for himself. He studied Masons and Rosicrucians, and while he seemingly was never initiated into any order, he did write a fiery text in defense of the Masonic lodges of Portugal when the country’s Assembly, following the orders of Salazar’s dictatorial regimen, established a wall that forbade and penalized secret societies.
Despite the latter, Pessoa’s eloquence notably contrasts with the closeness of occultist ideas, resulting in a type of distance approach, an exposition that sought to clarify rather than convince. This is an undoubtedly contradictory stance but one which perhaps is predictable, considering the intellectual rigor of the poet.
In this sense, in the “Doutrina dos Trânsitos”, Pessoa describes the true and untrue purposes of a horoscope, what we can and cannot expect when we receive one and, in sum, the indispensable requirements of individual clairvoyance in order to understand their true meaning:
Life is essentially action, and what the horoscope indicated is the action that lies in the life of the born. There are three things we should seek in a horoscope: (1) the individual’s fundamental qualities, in terms of their intimate self; (2) the point at which they departed from life; (3) what he will become, and the life he had, after death. Everything, except this, is included and can be defined by the horoscope.
We will not be amazed when the horoscope of a famous artist is dull and frustrating after his death: the horoscope will indicate the artistic qualities (to an immeasurable degree) and it will indicate darkness. All this will be shown abstractly; only our own sight can make it concrete (this is the sense of Ptolemy’s first apothem).
[…]The horoscope reveals, slowly, what the world can, more or less, see. We should never forget this all important detail. Without it, we will make nothing of astrology.
In a similar text, Pessoa affirms that the “paths of Mysticism and Magic are often the path of deceit and error”, since “Mysticism essentially means trusting an institution […], an operation of the mind through which the results of intelligence can be obtained without using intelligence;” and “Magic essentially means trusting the power […] an operation of the mind through which the results of constant effort are obtained without using constant effort”. In sum, according to Pessoa, both are “shortcuts to knowledge”. For example in a spiritualist session, is it not more certain that “the communication of one of the things known solely to one of those who are present can be a projection from his mind?”
“The path of the symbols is easy and dangerous, because it is easy and seductive”, declares the poet, who despite having spent a long time studying these matters was never a follower of the popular fascination which these usually provoke. As the master of ceremonies of a heterodox cult that, above all else, invites us to believe until we reach, by our own means, a true knowledge.
O mistério das coisas, onde está ele?
Onde está ele que não aparece
Pelo menos a mostrar-nos que é mistério?
Que sabe o rio e que sabe a árvore
E eu, que não sou mais do que eles, que sei disso?
Sempre que olho para as coisas e penso no que os homens pensam delas,
Rio como um regato que soa fresco numa pedra.
Porque o único sentido oculto das coisas
É elas não terem sentido oculto nenhum,
É mais estranho do que todas as estranhezas
E do que os sonhos de todos os poetas
E os pensamentos de todos os filósofos,
Que as coisas sejam realmente o que parecem ser
E não haja nada que compreender.
Sim, eis o que os meus sentidos aprenderam sozinhos:
As coisas não têm significação: têm existência.
As coisas são o único sentido oculto das coisas.
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