top of page

The Pessoa Syndrome

Dernière mise à jour : 13 juin 2023

Fernando Pessoa ( (1888 - 1935)

Extracts from :

The Pessoa Syndrome

by Katia Mitova

"Fernando Pessoa, the national modernist poet of Portugal, is famous for creating numerous authorial personae, which he called ‘heteronyms.’ These heteronyms wrote poetry, poetic prose, philosophical essays, literary theory and criticism, and even crossword puzzles. While indulging in this creative state of constant switching between one heteronym and another, Pessoa sometimes felt he had reached the bottom of depression.

He believed that his ‘tendency toward depersonalisation and stimulation’ was caused by ‘a deep-seated form of hysteria, or pretended communication with diverse spirits,’ but that his ‘insanity was made sane by dilution in the abstract, like a poison converted into a medicine by mixture.’

This chapter examines Pessoa’s interactive arrangement of multiple creative personalities generated spontaneously in the chaotic domain of the psyche. By allowing his heteronyms and their works to emerge organically from his personal experiences, Pessoa cultivated a positive attitude toward his own multiplicity, nobodiness, and betweenness, which comprise the creative condition that we term Pessoa Syndrome.


The Condition of Nobodiness

Conventionally, the author is understood to be a real person who signs his published works and, thanks to the laws that protect intellectual property, benefits from their multiplication and distribution. However, the creative relationship between the work and its maker is more complex. The work happens between the authorial persona and the author’s person. The persona creates by using — selectively and imaginatively — the experiences of the person.

In this triangular relationship, the author is more than the authorial persona responsible for a particular work, albeit less than the entire person of the author. An artist’s awareness of this peculiar betweenness of the creative process is often accompanied by a conspicuous sense of nobodiness. (...) Keats writes about the tendency of poets to annihilate their own identities by the chameleon-like absorption of other, more ‘poetic’ identities. Emily Dickinson delights in the meeting of another Nobody:

"I’m Nobody! Who are you ?

Are You — Nobody — Too ?"

Walt Whitman asks — and answers — with self-assurance,

"Do I contradict myself ?

Very well then I contradict myself,

I am large, I contain multitudes."

Nietzsche describes inspiration as an involuntary experience of absoluteness and freedom, in which the writer’s self disappears. Joyce’s character Stephen Dedalus proposes that through the creative process the personality of the artist ‘refines itself out of existence.’

T. S. Eliot sees poetry as ‘an escape from personality.'

Faulkner wishes for a ‘markless’ life that could be summari in one sentence,

‘He made his books and died.’

Jorge Luis Borges fantasises about Shakespeare speaking to God:

"I who have been so many men in vain want to be one, to be myself.

God’s voice answered him out of a whirlwind:

I too am not I; I dreamed the world as you,

Shakespeare, dreamed your own work,

and among the forms of my own dream are you,

who like me are many, yet no one."

Czeslaw Milosz’s memorable line, ‘I am no more than a secretary of the invisible world,’ developed by J. M. Coetzee in his novel, Elizabeth Costello, expresses the artist’s attempt at moral neutrality.

Elizabeth Costello, who appears to be Coetzee’s mouthpiece, declares:

‘That is my calling: dictation secretary. It is not for me to interrogate, to judge what is given me.’

A fervid statement by Joyce Carol Oates summarises the many facets of this collage of brief quotes on a writer’s nobodiness:

"While writing exists, writers do not — as all writers know... No one wants to believe this obvious truth: the artist can inhabit any individual, for the individual is irrelevant to art.

(And what is art ? A firestorm rushing through Time, arising from no visible source and conforming to no principles of logic or causality)."

Writers’ nobodiness, manifested as a contradictory, fluid, or missing self, is not limited to the duration of the writing process. Depending on the vehemence of their engagement in that process, writers may remain in a state of nobodiness for longer periods of time outside the writing process. For incessant writers like Fernando Pessoa, nobodiness may become the primary mode of existence.

The Case of Fernando Pessoa

Pessoa, whose surname means "person" in Portuguese, was born in Lisbon and died there in 1935, at the age of 47. From ages seven to seventeen, he lived in Durban, South Africa, where his stepfather was the Portuguese Consul. English was the language of Fernando’s education there, and it became — for a long time — the language of his literary ambitions.

Once back in Lisbon, Pessoa almost never left his city. He had one romantic relationship, but remained unmarried and always lived with one relative or another. He earned his living as a part-time translator of business documents into English; spending most of his time in bars and cafés brought him a circle of acquaintances but no intimate friends.

Pessoa’s legacy is a trunk containing more than 25,000 documents, signed by about 75 different names that suggest different writing personae. Among the 17 more distinct ‘heteronyms,’ as Pessoa called his impersonations, were the poets Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos. Semi-heteronym Bernardo Soares wrote prose intended for The Book of Disquiet. Alexander Search wrote poetry in English. Orthonym Fernando Pessoa, or Pessoa as himself, wrote poetry and prose in Portuguese and English. The most prominent heteronyms had biographies and horoscopes.

Pessoa explains:

"A pseudonymic work is, except for the name with which it is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; a heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama would be."

Throughout his life, Pessoa appears to have followed the ‘rules’ put together by his early English-writing heteronym, Alexander Search:

1. Make as few confidences as possible. Better make none, but if you make any, make false or indistinct ones. . . .

2. Dream as little as possible, except where the direct purpose of the dream is a poem or a literary work. . . .

9. Organize your life like a literary work, putting as much unity into it as possible.

In The Book of Disquiet, prose-writing heteronym Bernardo Soares adds another rule to this manifesto of self-sufficiency:

‘Enlarge your personality without including anything from the outside — asking nothing from other people and imposing nothing on other people, but being other people when you have need of others.’

Sane Insanity ?

Pessoa described his condition as ‘a relentless, organic tendency toward depersonalisation and simulation.’ He believed this tendency was caused by ‘a deep-seated form of hysteria,’ or ‘hysterical neurasthenia’ that entailed ‘pretended communication with diverse spirits’ as well as 'insanity made sane by dilution in the abstract, like a poison converted into a medicine by mixture.’

The latter also happened to be Pessoa’s definition of genius. In 1908, when Pessoa was only twenty, his heteronym Alexander Search wrote:

‘One of my mental complications — horrible beyond words — is a fear of insanity, which itself is insanity.’

At about the same time, heteronym Charles Robert Anon complained:

"They say I wish to be extraordinary. They neglect to analyse the wish to be extraordinary. They cannot comprehend that between being and wishing to be extraordinary there is but the difference of consciousness being added to the second.

It is the same case as that of myself playing with tin soldiers at seven and at fourteen years; in one moment they were things, in the other things and playthings at the same time; yet the impulse to play with them remained, and that was the real, fundamental psychical state."

This ability to engross oneself in play as a child while at the same time observing oneself from outside seems critical for any creative endeavour. The self-awareness of the authorial persona relieves the author’s playing person from the burden of self-observation, so that the person could engage fully in the creative process. Thus the extraordinariness becomes bearable because it is divided.

Pessoa seems to have approached his own suffering the way his heteronym Charles Robert Anon approached his extraordinariness. In a real letter to his real friend, Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Pessoa, writing as himself, describes his present state as ‘the bottom of a bottomless depression,’ and ‘one of those days in which I never had a future.’

Yet there are passages in this letter that make the complaint ambiguous:

"What I’m feeling isn’t true madness, but madness no doubt results in a similar abandon to the very causes of one’s suffering, a shrewd delight in the soul’s lurches and jolts."

Sá-Carneiro committed suicide; the depressed Pessoa outlived him by almost two decades. Obviously, Pessoa managed to dilute his insanity (or fear of insanity), to convert the poison into a potion, a pharmakon. But what was the poison, what was the thinner, and how did Pessoa fight the fire of madness with the fire of creativity ?

It can be argued that what Pessoa experienced was not a mental disorder per se but a state close to his idea of madness, an awareness of being ‘extraordinary’ and a clear wish to be so despite the loneliness this special status entailed. He was captivated by the intensity of madness but balanced successfully at its edge, concurrently a participant in this ‘unstageable tragedy’ and its observer. It seems that the pharmakon was the saudade, a feeling of inexplicable yearning and solitude that he encountered both as a man and as a man of letters.

Pessoa first experienced deep loneliness at the age of five when his father and brother died within less than a year of each other. He coped with the trauma by inventing an epistolary friend:

"I can remember what I believe was my first heteronym, or rather, my first nonexistent acquaintance — a certain Chevalier de Pas — through whom I wrote letters to myself when I was six years old, and whose not entirely hazy figure still has a claim on the part of my affections that borders on nostalgia. I have a less vivid memory of another figure . . . who was a kind of rival to the Chevalier de Pas.

Such things occur to all children ? Undoubtedly — or perhaps. But I lived them so intensely that I live them still; their memory is so strong that I have to remind myself that they weren’t real."


"This tendency to create around me another world . . . began in me as a young adult, when a witty remark that was completely out of keeping with who I am or think I am would sometimes and for some unknown reason occur to me, and I would immediately, spontaneously say it as if it came from some friend of mine whose name I would invent, along with biographical details, and whose figure — physiognomy, stature, dress and gestures — I would immediately see before me."

Besides revealing the spontaneous nature of the heteronyms’ creation, this recollection is a testimony to the peculiar orderliness of Pessoa’s creative mind. It may seem paradoxical that ‘the man who never was’ had such a strong sense of his personality that he would find certain thoughts incompatible with his own pessôa, or person.

This paradox, however, is only apparent. Pessoa possessed a common sense of consistency of thought and plausibility of character. Unlike ordinary people, however, he did not reject whatever occurred to him in contradiction to his prevailing vision of himself. Instead of unconsciously reducing his consciousness in order to make it cohesive, he reordered it to create room for different kinds of minds and talents. Thus, Pessoa did not lose his identity — he developed an identity that consisted of a number of personalities, or a multiple identity of sorts.

Multiple identity may sound like a contradiction in terms because, traditionally, identity is associated with wholeness and consistency as well as with oneness and unity. Dissociative identity is not considered to be identity in the strict sense of the word but, rather, lack of stable identity, a dysfunctional mental condition.

Individuals with dissociative identity disorder could become aware of their alternative personalities by keeping a journal. To such individuals, however, writing would be a tool, a kind of memory support. Pessoa, conversely, became an individual with multiple personalities through his heteronymic writing. Therefore, a suitable name for Pessoa’s condition would be Multiple Personality Order, or a self-aware depersonalization.

Multiple Personality Order

Pessoa seems to have been thrilled by this existence on the edge of madness, smoothened by the joys of creativity — and of wine, which eventually led him to cirrhosis and death. As an artist, he did not try to curb his imagination. His aesthetic system did not — and could not, by definition — include an opposition between reality and fiction. He even managed to turn the real Fernando Pessoa into a kind of heteronym, thus creating the illusion of an independent, self-sufficient, self-organizing world without a mastermind.

How did the physical man, Fernando António Nogueira de Seabra Pessoa, handle his condition so successfully without controlling it ? Such a question makes sense only if we assume that mental equilibrium is more or less synonymous with self-control and that a lack of such control leads to chaos. Self-control, however, is not an absolute good, nor is chaos merely disarray and confusion. At the heart of the urge to control lies a vision of perfection, which is reductionist by nature as the perfect must be complete and changeless.

Thus, metaphorically, perfection is ultimate loneliness. Pessoa would indeed have had a severe form of dissociative disorder if he had tried to control the creation and existence of his heteronyms. Instead, he let them emerge, in an organic way, from the undefined realm of his constant, creative betweenness. He let his heteronyms simply be, simultaneously. (...)

Pessoa’s specific form of Multiple Personality Order could thus be defined as an interactive arrangement of multiple creative personalities generated spontaneously in the chaotic domain of the psyche, in response to the limitations of his self-imposed monadic existence.

To attain the self-confidence necessary for social realization, most people focus only on experiences and thoughts that accord with who they want to be. Thoughts, emotions, and other experiences that do not fit are remembered in a repressed or modified form. By contrast, impersonation relies on the multiple dimensions of an artist’s personal experience, no matter how Escheresque it may seem. Consequently, artists might develop the ability to live with incongruent subjective perspectives in order to preserve experiences in their original, fluid form, without judging or sorting them.


Undoubtedly, there is a price to be paid for containing multitudes — mental breakdown, depression, and suicide mark the lives of numerous artists. But the magnificent achievements resulting from artists’ ability to depersonalise and impersonate — an ability most of us had in childhood and blocked later in order to grow up — should make us reconsider the understanding of mental wellness as a clear-cut self-identity.

Finding oneself, especially finding oneself too early, might have a negative impact on one’s creativity."

* * *


The Pessoa Syndrome, by Katia Mitova
Télécharger PDF • 311KB


PayPal ButtonPayPal Button
bottom of page