Richard Price’s recent self-outing as Jay Morris, the unknown author behind a forthcoming series of detective thrillers, is a reminder that aliases can sometimes be more about artistic autonomy than anonymity. But if public pen names are used with the same self-mocking playfulness as Halloween attire, then Fernando Pessoa’s rolodex of “heteronyms” can be better understood as a costume closet for a sold out Broadway extravaganza.
Not satisfied with just one creative alter ego, the Portuguese writer actually developed 72 independent aliases — from the sociologist and philosopher Antonio Mora to Thomas Crosse, a critic and scholar of pastoral poet Alberto Caeiro da Silva (who was yet another Pessoa heteronym) — through which to explore a range of philosophical, theological, and ideological vantages in his writing. Whether you choose to approach these pen names individually or as a conjoined entity, here’s a look at the diversity of Pessoa’s oeuvre via the lives and writings of his four most prominent personas.
Eat your heart out, Mr. Price.
Ricardo Reis Ricardo Reis spent most of his life living as a Portuguese expat in Brazil, where he practiced medicine and wrote poetry. Although Nobel laureate Jose Saramago’s novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis suggests that the physician-cum-poet returned to his native country in the final year of his life, the story is set in the year after Pessoa’s death, making the head-spinning inference that a given heteronym could live beyond its creator. Reis’ poems primarily consist of formal odes influenced by the Roman lyric poet Horace, and are characterized by the clinical austerity and melancholic fatalism of his professional practice.Philosophical outlook: “Wise is the one who does not seek. The seeker will find in all things the abyss, and doubt in himself.”Recommended reading:Odes of Ricardo Reis
Alvaro de Campos Based primarily in London, Alvaro de Campos worked as a naval engineer but was also known for his bisexual dalliances and dandy persona. Best described as a hyperbolic version of Pessoa himself, de Campos is the most emotionally varied of the heteronyms: his sentiments waver between nihilistic isolationism and a desire to experience everything in the world, while his literary influences fall somewhere between Walt Whitman and the Italian Futurists.Philosophical outlook: “I am nothing. / I will never be anything. / Bar that, I have in me all the dreams in the world.”Recommended reading:The Poetry of Alvaro de Campos
Alberto Caeiro da Silva Caeiro was Pessoa’s first great heteronym, but also his most short-lived. Born in Lisbon in 1889, he spent most of his brief 26 years in the rural village of Ribatejo before returning to the Portuguese capital in 1915 where he died of tuberculosis. In his introduction to The Keeper of Flocks, Reis claimed that “Caeiro’s work is truly a manifestation of the pagan mind,” while his fellow heteronym de Campos described him as being “medium tall, [with] blue eyes, fair hair, and fair skin, with a strikingly white forehead” and having once loved a woman who did not reciprocate the sentiment. Caeiro’s lack of education and preferred pastoral setting play a prominent role in his poetry, which is characterized by a lifelong view of the world with childlike wonder.Philosophical outlook: “To be a poet is not my ambition, / It’s simply my way of being alone.”Recommended reading:The Keeper of Flocks
Bernardo Soares Often excluded by scholars from the aforementioned trinity of heteronyms, Bernardo Soares was even described by Pessoa himself as a semi-heteronym: “his personality, although not my own, doesn’t differ from my own but is a mere mutilation of it. He’s me without my rationalism and emotions.” That said, Soares is credited as the author of Pessoa’s cult classic tome The Book of Disquiet, a collection of piecemeal entries and diary scrawlings that were abandoned in a trunk and assembled as a collage of navel-gazing existential angst after Pessoa’s death. Soares was pretty much the original emo kid.Philosophical outlook: “These are my confessions, and if in them I say nothing, it’s because I have nothing to say.”Recommended reading:The Book of Disquiet