Pessoa on the Joys of Monotony

February 12, 2007

Everytime I read a couple pages of Pessoa’s The Book of Disquietude that bore me and make me question whether or not to finish, I come upon a gem. I can only imagine the pleasure that ensued for the one that was first allowed to examine the trunk full of poetry and texts left by Pessoa at his death. According to the back cover of this book, described as the “factless autobiography” of Bernardo Soares, the are 25,426 items in the Pessoa archive- 523 are included as part of this book.

There’s only one thing that amazes me more than the stupidity with which most men live their lives, and that’s the intelligence that there is in this stupidity.

Pessoa, in the voice of Soares, describes the lives of a couple of ordinary men that he encounters on a regular basis. Their lives are simple, common, and would be considered boring by many-

The monotony of ordinary lives would appear to be horrifying. I’m eating lunch in this ordinary restaurant, and behind the counter I see the figure of the cook, and close to my table the old waiter who serves me and who, if I’m not mistaken, has been serving in this restaurant for thirty years. What kind of lives belong to these men? For forty years that figure of a man has spent almost every day in a kitchen; he doesn’t get much time off; he sleeps relatively little; he occasionally goes to his hometown, returning without hesitation or regret; he slowly saves his slowly earned money, which he has no plans to spend… and his smile, as he leans over the counter in my direction, expresses a tremendous, solemn, contented happiness…. the old waiter who serves me and who has just set before me what must be the millionth coffee he’s set on a customer’s table… is equally happy.

Pessoa then expounds on what could be described as something of a theory of life-relativity-

Everything, finally, is given in relation to the entity that receives it. A minor incident in the street brings the cook to the front door of the restaurant and entertains him more than I would be entertained by contemplating the most original idea, by reading the greatest book, or by having the most gratifying of useless dreams. If life is essentially monotony, the fact is that he has escaped monotony more than I. And he escapes it more easily than I.

The concept seems obvious and can be applied to many aspects of life. It seems that the more that one has or experiences in life, the greater the expectation. Things that once brought great joy become commonplace. We take so much for granted. I remember the days of early marriage and stuggles of unemployment- The nightly Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for 10 cents a box with hot dogs on the side on special nights. The occasional pizza was an awesome experience- but now is a weekly expectation. An overnight trip to a nearby city that was long anticipated is now just another trip. The special times are indeed relative to the average times.

Wise is the man who monotonizes his existence, for then each minor incident seems like a marvel. A hunter of lions feels no adventure past the third lion. For my monotonous cook, a fist-fight on the street always has something of a modest apocalypse…. Monotonizing existence, so that it won’t be monotonous.

Theoretically it makes sense, but I choose to avoid the monotony.

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