Posts featuring Octavio Paz

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet and the destruction of the “I”

The original text must be boiled down to its constituent parts and lovingly re-moulded into new forms

The dissolution of authorship is intrinsic to the act of translation. Far from being mechanical vessels for the words of another, translators invariably leave a phantom imprint of themselves upon a piece of writing. They are the invisible co-authors of a text, the ghost writers who flit across linguistic frontiers, flirting with multiple literary identities. It seems unsurprising, then, that the most elusive of Portuguese modernist poets, the godfather of urban melancholia and man of many selves, Fernando Pessoa, should have worked as a translator for much of his life.

Pessoa’s writing spans countless styles and modes, but perhaps his most famous innovation lies in his use of ‘heteronyms,’ the multiple literary identities under which he wrote. Centred around the core triumvirate of Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos, Pessoa’s heteronyms continue to be discovered today, with over 130 currently known to us. Some of the heteronyms are even characterized by linguistic divisions, such as Alexander Search who wrote uniquely in English. As Pessoa scholar Darlene Sadlier points out, Pessoa’s splintering of authorship was in a sense symptomatic of the “general crisis of subjectivity in nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophy,” suggesting that the self is something to be created rather than preordained, and, therefore, that it can contain multitudes.

This summer has seen the publication of a new English edition of the work that brought Pessoa posthumous renown, the modernist masterpiece entitled The Book of Disquiet. The publication history of this work has become the stuff of legends. On his death in 1935 aged forty-seven, Pessoa left behind at least two large wooden trunks filled with thousands upon thousands of scribbled scraps of manuscript paper, a life’s work in fragmentary form. Out of these fragments, Pessoa’s project for a work called Livro do Desassossego (once translated as The Book of Disquietude, now as The Book of Disquiet) was discovered, but the “book” was found to have multiple authors, no discernible order, and was never completed. Here was the ultimate modernist text: a “deconstructed” book that could be infinitely reassembled out of thousands of scraps of paper lying in a trunk.

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Octavio Paz New York Centennial: Perpetually Creating Rhythm

A dispatch honoring one of Mexico's most celebrated poets

From October 1st to the 8th, the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York paid tribute to the centennial of Octavio Paz’s birth with a series of discussions, readings, concerts, and film screenings. A prolific poet, essayist, intellectual, translator, editor, publisher, and diplomat, Paz published his first poetry collection, Luna Silvestre (Wild Moon, 1933) at 19 years old, penning over 26 volumes of poetry until his death in 1998. Paz was also an accomplished essayist: his 1950 treatise on Mexican identity, El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude) is considered a seminal work of literature. The recipient of the Cervantes award in 1981, the American Neustadt Prize in 1982, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990, Paz founded three literary magazines, Taller, Plural, and Vuelta; Vuelta is still published as Letras Libres.

Now that we’ve gotten that dry but necessary introduction out of the way, let me truly begin.

The centennial celebration was a sumptuous banquet I wanted to gorge myself on until I developed gout, like those rich men of old. I eagerly chased Paz throughout New York City, from the second-floor gallery of the Mexican Consulate in Midtown to the ornate ballroom of the Americas Society in the Upper East Side, and finally to where the river meets the city, the “navel of the poetic universe,” as Paz’s translator Eliot Weinberger playfully referred to the Poets House in TriBeCa.

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