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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Pessoa and Cavafy: What’s in a Name?

Sometimes we know that something is untrue but we decide to believe it anyway. There may be several points in its favour, clues that seem to add up to a revelation. Then one shortcoming is noted and the speculation is ruined, revealed to be utterly implausible. Yet we keep hold of the notion because it remains aesthetically pleasing.

Such is the situation with my contention that the poet Pessoa (1888-1935) was the same man as the poet Cavafy (1863-1933) I discovered the work of both these special individuals in recent years. Pessoa I knew first, I have travelled to Lisbon often, I saw his statue sitting outside his favourite café, heard his praises sung by lovers of fine literature. Then I began reading him and I found a remarkable voice, a highly original talent.

Cavafy intruded later into my consciousness. His name was bandied about in Lawrence Durrell’s wonderful Alexandria Quartet (1957-1960) and I saw a copy of his collected poems in a very curious bookshop outside a peculiar village in a remote part of an obscure region of rural England. I felt a pull to that volume but I neglected to buy it on that occasion. Only when I saw a reprint of one of his poems called ‘The City’ standing alone did I realise that he had a supreme talent for pithiness.

And so I became a reader of these two luminaries, poets who excel in embossing their subliminally potent but often wistful visions onto modern reality. They are both among the best poets I have read. But I began to see an odd congruence between the pair. I started to link them together in my mind. There were so many points in their lives and working methods that seemed to correspond closely, too closely, that I finally wondered: Might they be the same man? Was this possible?

Yes, it is possible, even if not especially practical. There are cases in the history of literature that are no less extraordinary. Sometimes one man turns out to be several men. The author Luther Blissett is a case in point. He is an amalgam, or rather a conglomeration, of several individuals and as a result he barely exists in his own right. More frequently two or more men turn out to be one man. Kurban Said and Essad Bey are examples of this situation, for both are facets or sides or masks of one person, a true enigma by the name of Lev Nussimbaum (1905-1942).

Both types of deception are intended to create mystery and to baffle investigators, to allow those who indulge in the trickery to experience the displaced objectivity that comes with the transmigration of identity. On occasion identities multiply so prolifically that it is difficult to keep track of them all, and while we may wonder who exactly is who, the individual who is the original source of the identities acquires a status akin to that of the trunk of a venerable tree. The flowers and leaves on the branches are noted while the trunk is neglected or even forgotten about. This is clearly what some trees and some authors want.

Even a hasty examination of the respective lives of Fernando Pessoa and Constantine Cavafy will throw up some intriguing parallels and a few distorted symmetries. Pessoa was born in 1888 and died in 1935 at the age of 47, still a relatively young man. Cavafy was born in 1863 and died in 1933 at the age of 70. These dates show that they are absolutely not the same man. Pessoa lived in Lisbon, at the far western end of that longish body of water called the Mediterranean. Cavafy lived in Alexandria, at the far eastern end, and on the other shore.

So they lived far apart, almost as if they wished to throw people off the scent who might otherwise have remarked on the similarity of their appearance and eccentricities. If we draw a straight line between Lisbon and Alexandria and plot the halfway point, we end up in Tunisia. Were there any poets of great skill living in Tunisia at the time of Pessoa and Cavafy? There was Mahmoud Aslan, for one, and Aboul-Qacem Echebi, for another. What does this have to do with the subject in question? Not a great deal. But if a person had two identities and had to be in Lisbon at certain times and in Alexandria at others, then to base oneself right at the midway point of those two cities is wise.

This is idle conjecture and nonsense and yet Pessoa and Cavafy both lived and breathed in the medium of enigma. Neither man submitted work for publication, preferring to share it only with a few friends, or with the darkness inside a large wooden trunk. Pessoa wrote under many different names, which he liked to call his ‘heteronyms’. A school friend described him later as “pale and thin and imperfectly developed. He had a narrow chest and was inclined to stoop. He had a peculiar walk and some defect in his eyesight gave to his eyes a peculiar appearance, the lids seemed to drop over the eyes.” He studied diplomacy but was a poor student. Then a sizeable inheritance from his grandmother allowed him to set up his own publishing house, which he named ‘Ibis’.

The Egyptian bird chosen for this business venture is perhaps a clue that I have seized on too eagerly. Alexandria is in Egypt, of course, and Cavafy worked his entire life in an office, as Pessoa had expected to do. Both men travelled when young because of family commitments, Pessoa to Africa and Cavafy to England, but after their return they preferred to remain exactly where they were and never travel again. Pessoa lived in a series of cheap rented flats, Cavafy lived in one cheap rented flat, each man pretending to be unaware of the other, partly because it would have been very difficult for Pessoa to have access to Cavafy’s poems, and vice versa, but also in order to preserve the illusion they were different men? I am clutching at straws, I know, but straws can thatch roofs, and roofs are what best protect us from the elements.

Pessoa enjoyed setting puzzles for his readers and swathing himself in clouds of obscurity while hiding in the passages of a labyrinth. Cavafy on the other hand appears less mischievous on the surface but certainly was also interested in transformations of identity, in particular the way that an individual in the present can absorb some of the sentience, attitudes, even wisdom of those who are long dead. Both poets are considered loners and yet their work yearns for connection. Was isolation necessary in order to continue with the elaborate deception?

No, of course not, and yet I wish that was the answer. If Cavafy was really one of the heteronyms of Pessoa, I would regard the trick as surely the greatest ever played in the history of literature. But Pessoa died first. So might Pessoa have been a reverse-heteronym of the older but longer-lived man? We tend to believe that a subset must exist inside the set it belongs to. Perhaps Cavafy was a heteronym that was so realistic it came alive and hopped off the page into the world. He might have been a tulpa, one of those mythical entities brought into life by an act of sheer thought. A wish made true.

None of this speculation has any place in serious poetic studies, but I am not here to be serious, I am here to scratch an intellectual itch. Habits can be shared by men, talent too, but if we look closely at photographs of Pessoa and Cavafy we see the same elusive quality in their eyes, sadness and strength mixed together, interiority without inferiority, a deep ironic wisdom. They are figures who exist outside the time that frames them, a pair of warped mirror images, somewhat neglected during their lives but always with the promise of greater recognition later. And that recognition came in a surge and lifted up their reputations to such a high point that we now acknowledge them both as obvious geniuses and find it very difficult to believe they were ever unappreciated.

Pessoa employed at least seventy-two heteronyms, identities not only with individual names but distinct signatures, temperaments, biographies, ambitions and destinies. And if Cavafy was the secret seventy-third of the heteronyms? Is there any evidence for this wild proposition? Consider the Cavafy poem entitled ‘Nero’s Deadline’ and the essential function in the text of that same number, seventy-three.

Nero wasn’t worried at all when he heard
the utterance of the Delphic Oracle:
“Beware the age of seventy-three.”
Plenty of time to enjoy himself still.
He’s thirty. The deadline
the god has given him is quite enough
to cope with future dangers.

Now, a little tired, he’ll return to Rome—
but wonderfully tired from that journey
devoted entirely to pleasure:
theatres, garden-parties, stadiums…
evenings in the cities of Achaia…
and, above all, the sensual delight of naked bodies.

So much for Nero. And in Spain Galba
secretly musters and drills his army—
Galba, the old man in his seventy-third year.

Spain is not Portugal but it is an adjacent country. Cavafy was not an ancient Roman, but he was an adjacent sort of fellow, a modern Greek. It is very unlikely that he was a heteronym but would he have been willing to admit it if he was? None of Pessoa’s other heteronyms were especially keen to reveal themselves as fictional. Nero thought that the oracle was a reference to himself and his own age whereas in fact it alluded to the age of the man who soon succeeded him.

And why is seventy-three a magical number? It is a prime number and Pessoa died in the prime of his life. In binary it is written as 1001001, the neat symmetry of a line with one end in Lisbon, one in Alexandria and a middle in Tunisia. In octal it is written 111, three men or the same man in different positions? It is a star number, a centred figurate number that can form a regular hexagram, and both Pessoa and Cavafy were stars. It is an emirp number, meaning that written in reverse it is also a prime. It is used by radio operators as a substitute for “best regards” because when written in Morse Code it is also a palindrome and sounds the same forwards as it does backwards, another mirror image.

Shall I continue in this fashion? It is unnecessary.

I will finish by pointing out that 73 is the atomic number of tantalum and that both poets remain tantalising. At no point do I really believe that Pessoa and Cavafy were the same man.

Yet there is something satisfying about the idea.

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Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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