The Plurality of the Subject in Nietzsche and Pessoa

Bartholomew Ryan

Sponsered by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) - EXPL/MHC-FIL/1514/2013

Visit the project's website here.

This project’s theme, “The Plurality of the Subject”, is one of the most fundamental and pertinent issues in modern philosophy and literature which Friedrich Nietzsche and Fernando Pessoa penetrate and embody most deeply and whose paths cross over in various ways and aspects. Nietzsche’s critique of the subject, or man’s subjectivity, and in what sense man’s identity can or cannot be understood in terms of the concept of an “I” or “subject” has had a massive influence on certain thinkers (Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida) in the second half of the twentieth century that ended in the debate of “the death of the subject”. However, what is only now being acknowledged in the last two decades in Nietzsche research is that the critique of the subject or subjective thinking in Nietzsche’s philosophy, rather than being dead, is itself a plurality. 

Nietzsche’s critique of the subject implies the rejection of the “Cartesian theatre” and suggests a more complex conception of consciousness and a subject that embodies plurality and multiplicity. What is especially important and new in this project is the juxtaposition of Nietzsche with the twentieth century Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. In exploring subjective thinking as plurality, juxtaposing Pessoa with Nietzsche is an incredibly productive way to exploring this theme for a number of reasons.

First, Pessoa, like Nietzsche, is always preoccupied with the issue of the subject in both literature and philosophy and which he tries to transpose and transfer more than any other writer onto the page. As the infinite, self-multiplied traveler, Pessoa wrote on a scrap of paper in the same year that he created his three most famous heteronyms (Caeiro, Reis and Campos) to “be plural like the universe”, and his “will to power” was manifested in his endless creating of various personas and styles.

Second, there are various points of convergence under the project theme of “the plurality of the subject” between Pessoa and Nietzsche that today demand research and study in order to understand more deeply these two very complex writers, such as in their abiding interest and exploration of consciousness, the relation between genius and madness, truth as metaphor, the various forms of travel, the mask and/or the artist as liar, the boundary between philosophy and poetry, becoming what you are, the question of identity (remembering the opening two words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Who’s there?”), the relation between fate and free-will, and creativity as multiplicity.

Third, as part of the first generation after Nietzsche in Europe, Pessoa thought about and appropriated Nietzsche and even incorporated some of Nietzsche’s thinking and styles into his own work which is yet to be fully explored. Obvious examples are in Álvaro de Campos' manifesto of Nietzschean parody - “Ultimatum” (1916), his intoxicated and emancipated epics - “Triumphal Ode” (1915) and “Maritime Ode” (1915). Campos (as Pessoa’s super-ego) shares his birthday (15th October) with Nietzsche, which is taken very seriously by Pessoa. Also, we witness the shadow of Nietzsche in Ricardo Reis’s reflections on paganism, fate, and the problem of Christianity, António Mora’s “Return of the Gods” and writings on Germany culture and metaphysics; and the “superior God-man” and “poet of nature” in Alberto Caeiro.

With the orthonym Pessoa himself, we discover the influence of Nietzsche in Pessoa’s  reflections on the “Will” in modern German philosophy, the concept of creativity in the artist, the problem of epistemology in his philosophical writings, and his fervent votary of a spiritually bombastic political ideal that subverts Old Testament mythology (in this case, the Book of Daniel, chapter 2) such as his doctrine of the “Fifth Empire” which will be an “imperialism of poets” led by a community of great souls. Finally, Pessoa’s cultivation of his solitude and loneliness especially in his final years harks back to the life-philosophy of solitude and the higher man in Nietzsche’s last years.

Fourth, in investigating the “plurality of the subject”, it is vital to show why Nietzsche and Pessoa are “fingidores” or feigners par excellence in their highly conscious endeavor to continually deceive and surprise the reader, to reveal the problem of truth which is a “dynamic void” (Campos) and “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms” (Nietzsche). If there is any chance of finding this elusive self as subject, we must lose that self first, in the total dilution of the self as subject in the quest for the self as subject. This project will explore the idea that Nietzsche and Pessoa’s desire is to create forms which would capture a multiple self, the self as process rather than product.

The Plurality of the Subject in Nietzsche and Pessoa brings together leading international specialists in Nietzsche and Pessoa studies for the first time. Consultants committed to this project and who will deliver seminars during the project range from decorated Pessoa specialists such as Richard Zenith, António Feijo and Eduardo Lourenço; and top Nietzsche experts such as John Richardson, Robert Pippin, Glenn Most, Guiliano Campioni and Ken Gemes. Other members and consultants committed to the project include Bartholomew Ryan, João Constançio, Maria Filomena Molder, JD Mininger, Nuno Nabais, Fernando Ribeiro, Maria José Branco, Pietro Gori, Paolo Stellino, Benedetta Zavatta, Katia Rodgers, Mariana Gray de Castro, and Luís Sousa. The goal of the project alongside the monthly seminar is to hold an international conference in 2015 and edit a volume on Nietzsche and Pessoa both in English and in Portuguese on the plurality of the subject, as well as generate further links and research in the project’s theme along the borders of philosophy and literature in modernity including also the analysis of writers such as Kierkegaard, Pirandello, Leopardi, Yeats and Joyce.

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