Just a static present, surrounded by a wall of anxiety
Fernando Pessoa describes his depression
Portuguese poets Fernando Pessoa and Mário de Sá-Carneiro corresponded regularly between 1912 and 1916, during which time they both experienced periods of depression. In March of 1916, on an especially difficult day, Pessoa wrote the following letter to his friend and with incredible eloquence and clarity described his current struggle. Tragically, a month later, Sá-Carneiro died by suicide. Pessoa live for another 19 years.
Obviously, this is a letter about depression, and as such you may wish or need to skip it. I think it’s an incredible piece of writing. The book in which it is reprinted, The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa (edited and translated by Richard Zenith) is superb.
Lisbon, 14 March 1916
My dear Sá-Carneiro,
I’m writing to you today out of an emotional necessity—an anguished longing to talk to you. I have, in other words, nothing special to say. Except this: that today I’m at the bottom of a bottomless depression. The absurdity of the sentence speaks for me.
This is one of those days in which I’ve never had a future. There’s just a static present, surrounded by a wall of anxiety. The other side of the river, as long as it’s the other side, is not this side; that is the root cause of all my suffering. There are many boats destined for many ports, but no boat for life to stop hurting, nor a landing-place where we can forget everything. All of this occurred a long time ago, but my grief is even older.
On days of the soul like today I feel, in my awareness of every bodily pore, like the sad child who was beaten up by life. I was put in a corner, from where I can hear everyone else playing. In my hands I can feel the shoddy, broken toy I was given out of some shoddy irony. Today, the fourteenth of March, at ten after nine in the evening, this seems to be all my life is worth.
In the park that’s visible from the silent windows of my confinement, all the swings have been wrapped high around the branches from where they hang, so that not even my fantasy of an escaped me can forget this moment by swinging in my imagination.
This, but with no literary style, is more or less my present mood. Like the watching woman of The Mariner, my eyes sting from having thought about crying. Life pains me little by little, by sips, in the cracks. All of this is printed in tiny letters in a book whose binding is falling apart.
If I weren’t writing to you, I would have to swear that this letter is sincere, that its hysterical associations of ideas have flowed spontaneously from what I feel. But you know all too well that this unstageable tragedy is as real as a teacup or a coat hanger—full of the here and now, and passing through my soul like the green in a tree’s leaves.
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.
What, I wonder, is the color of feeling? Thousands of hugs from your very own
P. S.—I wrote this letter in one go. Rereading it I see that, yes, I’ll definitely make a copy before posting it to you tomorrow. Rarely have I so completely expressed my psychology, with all of its emotional and intellectual attitudes, with all of its fundamentally depressive bent, with all the so characteristic corners and crossroads of its self-awareness ...
Don’t you agree?