Living Fernando Pessoa’s Dreamlife in Lisbon

Saleem Haddad on Leaving London for Portugal's Melancholy Streets

By  Saleem Haddad

This essay mentions a method of suicide.

In the months leading up to the publication of my first novel, deep anxieties were percolating in my mind. I had the increasing sense of entrapment, of being led towards my own execution in the form of public judgement, humiliation, and shame.

This shame was familiar to me: I had felt this sense of inevitability when I was younger, gay, and closeted in the Middle East, imprisoned in a situation I felt helpless to change. The day of publication, I didn’t get out of bed, fielding interviews and congratulatory messages like they were the signs of the apocalypse, until my lover dragged me out for a celebratory beer in the pub down the road (the furthest I could leave the house).

Suicide had flickered across my mind at various points throughout this period. But one afternoon in May, hours before a reading I was scheduled to give at my local bookstore in Hackney, my mind suddenly crystallized around a single thought with a determination that chilled me to the bone: I would throw myself in front of a train. In that moment, the method didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I had to die, and I had to die soon.

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It is difficult to write about the minutiae of decision-making involved when the mind resolves to destroy the body. The act of suicide goes against how our mind is conditioned: to find ways to escape threat and stay alive. But suicide can seem, in the moment, like a decision of survival in its own way. The mind decides to cut its losses, to escape the threat of life.

*

I had to get out of London. The city that had opened its arms to me ten years ago now felt like it was gripping me by the throat. Brexit. Trump. Orlando. Syria. Yemen. Grenfell. The line between political outrage and my own personal anguish began to dangerously blur. The angry echo chambers of social media only fed my despair.

Lisbon was not a natural choice. We knew no one in the city. Neither of us had ever been. We didn’t speak Portuguese. Still, on a hunch, we booked a flight.

We weighed our options. Beirut was inspiring and familiar, but also expensive and difficult, and my lover was nervous about the idea of transporting our anxious and aging greyhound such a far distance. Berlin seemed like an attractive option. It was an open city. We had friends there. But the winters were unforgiving and we were done with the cold. At a reading I gave in Antwerp that summer, a friend of a friend suggested Lisbon.

“It’s got a cool vibe, full of artists.”

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Lisbon was not a natural choice. We knew no one in the city. Neither of us had ever been. We didn’t speak Portuguese. Still, on a hunch, we booked a flight in October. On our second visit the following summer, we found a short-term apartment in the city and bought a one-way ticket on a ferry from Portsmouth to Santander.

That summer, as we prepared for our move, I came across an article about the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. If for the title alone, I was immediately drawn to the book, a novel but not really a novel. The title itself held a certain allure; the word “disquiet” seemed to describe much of the anguish that had been gripping me since late 2015. The discovery of the book crystallized Lisbon as our destination.

The book, published almost 50 years after Pessoa’s death, was composed from thousands of loose sheets stored in a trunk with no clear order or structure. It is made up of a series of vignettes, running from between one line to five pages each, with musings and maxims on philosophy and literature, politics and loneliness, dreams and psychology. It is an incomplete book. Sentences remain unfinished.

At the time, my anxiety had brought with it a terrifying inability to read. My gaze had retreated inwards, obsessively ruminating on thoughts and scenarios over and over again in a spiral. Trying to read anything longer than a paragraph became impossible. In contrast, Pessoa’s disjointed vignettes—what he referred to as “a drifting, disconnected logic”—were easily digestible and mirrored my own fragmented mind.

At first, I tried to read the book as I would any other novel, trying to make it through at least a dozen pages in one sitting. Very quickly, it became clear this was not how The Book of Disquiet should be read. I put the book away and began to pack for our move.

*

The journey to Lisbon was agony. Our greyhound was diagnosed with bone cancer ten days before we left, and had to be put down just days before our trip. The day our boat was scheduled to leave, a hurricane hit the Western coast of England, and our ferry was the last to depart before all others were cancelled for the storm. Upon arriving in Portugal, we drove through some of the worst forest fires the country had ever experienced. As we raced down the highway towards Lisbon, fire and smoke billowed on either side of us, the landscape black and charred. The dog, the hurricane, the fires: it felt like the end of the world and a sign that our decision to move had been a grave mistake.

I didn’t pick up The Book of Disquiet again until about a month after we moved. By then, tourist season had trickled to a stop, and the city let out a sigh of relief as residents retreated inwards. Through a friend, we had found a quiet studio space where we could work alongside a small number of artists, designers, and human rights activists. Endearingly referred to as the Palace by those who worked there, the once-abandoned building, which overlooked the Praça do Príncipe Real, was scheduled to undergo renovations in the summer. One of the investors—Andre, a young and friendly Lebanese man—had decided to temporarily open up the crumbling interior to artists.

The interior of the Palace. Photo by Laura Penez

The Palace held an aura of decaying grandeur. The large doors to the entrance led into a sprawling and majestic staircase, which creaked loudly as you walked up the winding wooden stairs. Inside, the space was fitted with a number of simple wooden desks, a few plants, and an old kettle for boiling water. Many of the Palace’s windows were broken, and Andre had covered them with plastic sheeting or cardboard. This didn’t help much to keep out the cold, though, and oftentimes it was colder inside than out. On days of heavy rain, parts of the ceiling dripped with water that collected in puddles on the rotting wooden floor.

It was in the Palace one morning that I picked up The Book of Disquiet and began to read. One of the first passages I came across began: “In the dark depths of my soul, invisible unknown forces engaged in a battle in which my being was the battleground, and the whole of me was shaken by this secret struggle.”

I read the passage again, more slowly, feeling the thrill of having coming across words that spoke to something familiar inside me. Pessoa credits these words to Bernardo Soares, an assistant to a bookkeeper in Lisbon and one of Pessoa’s many alter egos (or, as he preferred to call them, heteronyms). Pessoa wrote under at least 72 distinct heteronyms, each with their own biographies, histories, voices, dreams and desires. “I have a whole world of friends inside me,” Pessoa explained, “Each with his or her own real, defined and imperfect life.”

In the winter nothing ever dries in Lisbon. Laundry hangs wet for days, married to its moisture. Clothes, blankets, bedrooms, and restaurants all carry the musty smell of damp. In the spring, as the Jacaranda trees bloomed in a magnificent explosion of purple, we opened a suitcase we had stored in our closet to find that the clothes inside had grown damp and moldy.

This sense of multiplicity and contradiction within the self was a revolutionary idea for my mental health. Anxiety feeds off a sense of being trapped: a prisoner in one’s mind and body. To open myself up to the possibility of many selves inside of me, with their own unique lives and concerns, brought with it a profound sense of freedom. By imagining the landscape of my soul as containing a multiplicity of selves, I felt the sensation of an infinite space inside me, which allowed room for sadness to exist alongside joy, for pessimism to live comfortably with youthful idealism. Perhaps this multitude would also allow space to kill a part of myself, while remaining very much alive; in fact, while Pessoa didn’t take his own life, a number of his heteronyms did.

I began to read him only in the early mornings, soon after arriving in the Palace just after dawn. The walk to the Palace from our apartment was a continuous ten-minute incline up a series of steep hills, through convocations of pigeons that pecked at the garbage on the ground “like dark, ever-shifting crumbs at the mercy of a scattering wind.” The first one there, I would arrive covered in a thin layer of sweat. I would meditate for ten minutes and then read no more than one or two pages of the book every day. After this, I would begin to work, often taking a line or idea and using it to jump-start my own writing.

From my studio in the Palace, I had a view down the hill of Príncipe Real and onto the Tejo River. In the winter, I could see the fog above the water heading towards the city like an encroaching mist, swallowing up Lisbon’s pink and yellow buildings in its wake. As the morning aged, the wet chill of the Lisbon winter would slowly creep into my bones until, by mid-morning—my body trembling from the cold—I would get up to grab some fresh orange juice from the kiosk in the praça, or else a coffee and a piece of chocolate from the mother-and-son run coffee shop across the road.

A view from the Palace at dawn. Photo by Saleem Haddad.

My early mornings became devoted to Pessoa, this strange alcoholic recluse who hardly left Lisbon, who advocated for doing nothing, and who died a virgin nearly a century ago. Unsurprisingly, then, a common theme that runs through The Book of Disquiet is withdrawal from everything. Pessoa repeatedly celebrates a life of inaction and advocates for a retreat into the world of dreams. “Postpone everything,” Pessoa advises in one passage. “Never do today what you can leave for tomorrow. In fact you need not do anything at all, tomorrow or today.”

Against Pessoa’s advice, throughout my year of reading The Book of Disquiet in Lisbon, I remained active: writing, teaching, and working. But, encouraged by Pessoa, a slowness permeated my life. At times, this slowness felt like a conspiracy. Around the Palace, there were few places that offered the option of a quick take-out lunch. In the rain, the city’s mosaic of black and white cobblestones were so slippery they were almost impossible to walk on, forcing you to walk slowly, to take your time with each step to avoid breaking a bone. Taking the tram often took longer than walking. And while the trams were nearly impossible to ride during the daytime—crammed with tourists and pickpockets—in the late evenings catching the tram across the city became a meditation on the charm of inefficiency: the rickety old machines “growl and clang” as they pull themselves with great effort up the steep, winding streets of the city, emitting their “loud, iron-hard whistle,” often breaking down or halting due to an obstruction on their tracks.

*

In the winter nothing ever dries in Lisbon. Laundry hangs wet for days, married to its moisture. Clothes, blankets, bedrooms, and restaurants all carry the musty smell of damp. In the spring, as the Jacaranda trees bloomed in a magnificent explosion of purple, we opened a suitcase we had stored in our closet to find that the clothes inside had grown damp and moldy. (“It’s an old city,” Portuguese friends said with an inevitable shrug, when we told them what had happened.)

My first year in Lisbon was like a sluggish dream, one that contained remnants of my anxious state in London. The Book of Disquiet places much importance on dreams. “To dream is to find ourselves,” he wrote. “You’re going to be the Columbus of your soul. You’re going to set out to discover your own landscapes.”

During the day, the cobblestones reflect the blue skies and bright sunshine in a sluggish glare, and in the evenings, they dazzle under the shimmer of the streetlamps like precious stones. On weekday mornings, our living room would fill with the voices of the cleaning ladies singing melancholic fado.

Both my writing and my life became infused with Pessoa’s dream-like melancholy. My dreams soon merged with my imagination, to the point where it was no longer clear where the dreams ended and my conscious mind began. Dreams became both an escape from my anxiety and also a central landscape for my writing—a source of inspiration as well as a setting for my characters to understand their waking lives and internal conflicts.

This dreaminess suffuses the city itself. During the day, the cobblestones reflect the blue skies and bright sunshine in a sluggish glare, and in the evenings, they dazzle under the shimmer of the streetlamps like precious stones. On weekday mornings, our living room would fill with the voices of the cleaning ladies singing melancholic fado, which echoed in the backstreets as they cleaned the growing number of Airbnb apartments on our block. Walking down the winding streets filled with the smell of roasted chestnuts, grilled fish, and fresh laundry, I would sometimes get the sense that I was being watched. Looking up, my eyes would catch those of the old ladies staring down from their tiny Juliette balconies, refusing to withdraw their gaze even after I spotted them looking.

Some days, the sluggishness of Lisbon can feel like a dream; at other times, it can be smothering, a heavy weight on the shoulders. Many of the Portuguese people I’ve spoken to attribute this heaviness to the brutal dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, who maintained a suffocating grip on the country for over four decades through what’s known in Portugal as the “Three F’s”: Football, Fatima (Catholicism), and Fado. Perhaps the heaviness is partly due to the country’s dark and violent colonial past: an empire that pillaged and massacred, and one that invented some of the most violent and ingenious torture techniques in the world.

Or is Portugal’s geography partly to blame? The country’s vast coastline on the rough, cold waters of the Atlantic may contribute to this feeling of severity. Meanwhile, Lisbon is built on seven hills, and the small winding roads add an oppressive weight and impenetrability to the city. Walking up the hills, through the labyrinthine alleyways on the shaky, slippery cobblestones can fast become an arduous and disconcerting task.

Or could this heaviness be attributed to the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755? The earthquake caused a tsunami, followed by a fire that ravaged much of the city. Ninety per cent of the buildings in Lisbon crumbled, flooded, or burned to the ground. The earthquake hit on a Sunday morning when the pious and conservative were in church. These places of worship—with their fragile foundations and tyranny of candles—quickly became death traps. Meanwhile, the poor, the sex workers, and the drug addicts, many of whom resided in the working class neighborhood of Alfama, were relatively unharmed, since Alfama is built on a large hill.

Perhaps the dark charm of Lisbon is that it was rebuilt not by the pious aristocrats but by the poor and the ungodly, a Turkish friend of mine in Lisbon once mused.

*

Lisbon is a city of light and shadow, where dreams are tinged with nightmares of the past. The city’s soul contains a certain paradox: the sound of fado, wistful and melancholic, is also reminiscent of Lisbon’s violent dictatorship. The gaze of the old women on the Juliette balconies, while delightful, also harken back to the days when the Catholic Church had a tight grip on the country. Reading Pessoa in Lisbon, I felt myself existing on this fine line between dreams and waking life, befriending the shadows in my own soul and, in the process, bringing them out of the darkness and into the light.

In one of my first Portuguese classes, I misheard my tutor explain the Portuguese way of saying “I am sleepy,” Estou com sono, as “I am with dream,” Estou com sonho. Unaware that I misheard her, I was enchanted with this way of describing sleep, and for my first few months in Lisbon, the idea that all Portuguese people lived with their dreams filled me with a childlike delight. I discovered my mistake months later, but I still maintain that—like Pessoa—I’d like to live alongside my dreams, to feel, like he did, “as if I am always on the verge of waking up.”

Saleem Haddad
Saleem Haddad
Saleem Haddad is the author of Guapa, which received a Stonewall Honor and was awarded the 2017 Polari First Book Prize. He is currently based in Lisbon.





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