Fernando Pessoa

I Have More Souls Than One

“I have more souls than one.
There are more I's than myself.
And still I exist.”

In 1960 Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short, short story called “Borges and I” about an artist engaged with himself in a creative battle for being. It is a dialogue of authorship, dominance and existence.

This confusion of souls, so to speak, is a normal part of artistic complexity. “The mere act of writing splits the self into two” confessed Margaret Atwood, echoing Mary Oliver’s simple brilliance that there is a part of her who makes the coffee and a part who writes poetry.”1

Humans create figurations of protection, strength – finding and creating what we lack.2

But what if there are more than two souls? More than five, indeed, more than fifty?

“I have more souls than one” wrote Fernando Pessoa (1888 – 1935), a Portuguese poet who created more than seventy-five alter-egos (he termed them heteronyms.) This boundless human created and threaded these fully-developed personalities throughout poems, prose and essays.

Almada Negreiros - Portrait of Fernando Pessoa - 1954, featured in Fernando Pessoa's "I Have More Souls Than One" in the Examined Life Library.
José de Almada Negreiros’ “Portrait of Fernando Pessoa” in 1954.

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.

From Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet

“Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist.” wrote one of Pessoa’s most critical personas, Álvaro de Campos.

Or did Pessoa exist in abundance like leaves scattered on the ground from one expansive tree?

As you steer your mental vessel around and through Pessoa’s I Have More Souls Than One a collection of poems written from three of his most developed personas, avoid mapping to archetypes. Let them exist in their boundless, overlapping complexity as the one and only Pessoa.

Pessoa as Alberto Caiero

I never kept sheep,
But it is as if I did watch over them.
My soul is like a shepherd

[…]

I have no ambitions or wants.
To be a poet is no ambition of mine.
It is my way of staying alone.

[…]

Lightly, lightly, very lightly
A wind, a very light one, passes
And goes away, still very lightly.
I don’t know what I know
And have no wish to know.

[…]

This is what without thought or even a pause
I realized must be the truth
Which all set out to find and do not find
And I alone, because I did not try to find it, found.

From “The Keeper of Sheep”

Caiero seems to exists in a simple oneness. The lines “I alone, because I did not try to find it, found” jumped out at me.

“Fernando Pessoa’s heteronym Alberto Caeiro lies at the very core of Pessoa’s fiction” argue Jerónimo Pizarro and Patricio Ferrari in their illuminating article on the literary relevance of Pessoa’s main characters: “Born in Lisbon, Caeiro would be a shepherd who spent most of his life in the countryside… simply of passing the time “without reading anything, or thinking anything. He was a spontaneous, ingenuous, simple being…A master, whose work transcended inspiration.”

Bird. Photograph by Ellen Vrana featured in Fernando Pessoa's "I Have More Souls Than One" in the Examined Life Library.
”The Many Egos of Bird” by Ellen Vrana.

Pessoa as Ricardo Reis

Reis is one of Pessoa’s most developed personas and even inspired José Saramago’s 1984 masterwork The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis in which Reis reacts to the death of a his creator, Pessoa.3

Legion live in us;
I think or feel and don’t know
Who it is thinking, feeling.
I am merely the place
Where thinking of feeling it

I have more souls than one.
There are more I’s than myself.
And still I exist
Indifferent to all.
I silence them: I speak.

From “Legion Live in Us”

Pessoa as Álvaro de Campos

de Campos was one of Pessoa’s first heteronyms, born in 1890. He represents some of the most common themes of self-doubt and longing for something unnamed that exist throughout Pessoa’s literature.

I am nothing.
Never shall be anything.
Cannot will to be anything.
This apart, I have in me all of the dreams of the world.

Windows of my room,
Room of one of the millions in the world about whom nobody knows who he is
(And if they knew who he was, what would they know?)

From “Tobacconist’s”

Pessoa as Pessoa

Does this autobiographical collection of poems give us more insight into Pessoa?

Formerly I was wise and had no cares,
Listened, at days’ end, to the homing cows,
And the farmland was solemn and primative.
Now that I have become the truth’s slave,
The gall of having it is all I have.
I am an exile here and, dead, still alive.

From “Why, O Holy One?”

When Pessoa writes “I am in exile here” does he mean himself, his body, his own soul?

Simone Weil once argued the singular power of a human is to collate the ego into one: “We possess nothing in the world- a mere chance can strip us of everything- except the power to say ‘I’.”

Perhaps for Pessoa, that “I” was a “we”. “I contain multitudes” wrote Walt Whitman who died four years after Pessoa was born and greatly influenced the Portuguese writer.

If we contain multitudes how do we pinpoint the self? Where do we look to see ourselves?

Photograph from Casa Fernando Pessoa, featured in Pessoa's work "I Have More Souls Than One" in the Examined Life Library.
Casa Fernando Pessoa, Lisbon. Learn more. Photograph by Ana Serrano.

I think of the essayist, short-short story writer and life-long translator of others’ words, Lydia Davis, who launched a work of essays with the question “Can you say the same thing in radically different ways?”

Can the same person have radically different souls?

Rather than spreading himself so thinly until he spreads himself away, I think of Pessoa as aggregating himself from all these personas. From many, one.

“And still I exist.”