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Modernity and Masturbation

You could say that Modernity has a masturbation problem. Not that masturbation itself is a problem. There’s nothing wrong with masturbation as a physical practice. The problem arises when masturbation becomes a metaphysics, the only means by which the self can relate to itself, as it were.

Perhaps the lonesome and contemplative Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa can help us understand this matter. Pessoa was born in 1888 and died in 1935. He was basically unknown during his lifetime, publishing one collection of poems that no one particularly liked. Then he died, probably from alcoholism. Later, much more writing was discovered. Really, a lot more. He’d been writing and writing and writing. He just never bothered to show most of this writing to anyone else. This makes sense, since much of Pessoa’s writing was concerned with the problem of whether anything matters at all and, therefore, with worries about the act of writing as a pointless attempt to say what cannot be said, and probably shouldn’t be said if it could. Pessoa wrote the kind of writing that writes itself out of existence. Here’s an example:

This morning I went out very early,
Because I woke up even earlier
And had nothing I wanted to do.

I didn’t know which way to go,
But the wind blew hard toward one side,
And I followed in the way it pushed me.

So has my life always been, and so I would like it always to be—
I go where the wind takes me and don’t need to think.
(trans. Richard Zenith)

A lovely, if melancholy musing. But there’s another fascinating aspect of this piece of writing and its self-cancellation. The poem is signed not by Pessoa but by Alberto Caeiro. Alberto Caeiro, you should know, did not actually exist, at least not in the normal sense of the term. Alberto Caeiro is a heteronym (Pessoa’s word for it) created in Pessoa’s literary imagination. Pessoa created dozens of such heteronyms, close to a hundred by some counts. He gave them their own biographies and distinct sensibilities, and then he wrote poems and prose pieces from the perspective of each heteronym. The reason that Pessoa was a genius, and not just an insane person, is that Pessoa managed, somehow, to create great literature from each of these perspectives. Among the most prominent of these are Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Alvaro de Campos. These heteronyms often interacted with one another. The poet Ricardo Reis was deeply influenced by Alberto Caeiro. In fact, most of Pessoa’s poetic heteronyms were influenced by Caeiro. Some of the heteronyms would write critical pieces about other heteronyms, or letters to one another. One of the heteronyms, Fernando Pessoa, had the exact same name as the actual Pessoa. But Pessoa-the-heteronym, the literary figure in Pessoa’s imagination, wrote from a slightly different aesthetic standpoint than Pessoa the actual living person. Or is there even such a thing as Pessoa the actual living person?


I own a much-treasured collection of Pessoa’s poems by different heteronyms. It was published in 1998. In terms of book design and overall presentation, the volume is a mess. But the translator and editor of the book, Richard Zenith, has a deep understanding of Pessoa and a lively, non-pedantic prose style.

One of Zenith’s endnotes, in particular, caught my attention. In it, Zenith mentions that a particularly good book on Pessoa is Pessoa por Conhecer by Teresa Rita Lopes, “which identifies seventy-two fictional authors invented by Pessoa and examines more closely the ‘behind-the-scenes writing activity’ lightly touched on here. The book’s second volume transcribes Pessoa’s note equating the ‘self-division of the I’ to masturbation (p. 477) as well as the French essay on exhibitionism signed by Jean Seul (pp. 202-6).”

What exactly, then, was going on in Pessoa’s mind as he engaged in writing from the perspective of all these different heteronyms? Why liken it to masturbation? The answer, I think, is that the more Pessoa searched for himself, the more he fell into an abyss. This abyss, I’d suggest, is known to all of us in one form or another. It is the abyss that opens up when you catch yourself in the act of thinking. You think about yourself thinking. But which one of those thinkers is the “I”? Is the real me the one that was thinking, or the one that caught myself in the act? And does the act of catching myself in the act lead to another “I”, a third consciousness that now observes the other two? And does that third “I” spiral out into a fourth, a fifth, ad infinitum?

Madness lurks here. Madness and complete oblivion. Have you, dear reader, spent any time in this dark place, at three o’clock in the morning, spinning around in your own head, desperately trying to keep hold of your quickly dissolving sense of yourself? How deeply have you explored your own abyss? How closely have you touched upon the terrifying reality of both the insubstantiality of your subjectivity and the absolute certainty that it will end and that you will die?

There is no doubt that Fernando Pessoa spent a great deal of time in the abyss that is inside us all. The replication of subjects, the creation of endless heteronyms, was a way to put a backstop to the abyss. By creating more versions of himself, Pessoa was able to distract himself away from the infinite vortex of self-reflection. He created a way to play with himself in order not to lose himself. It is no great surprise, then, to find out that most of his heteronyms were, themselves, hostile to the act of thinking, or suspicious of it, or bored by it. Here’s a poem from Ricardo Reis that rather sums up the matter.

The ancients invoked the Muses.
We invoke ourselves.
I don’t know if the Muses appeared
—No doubt it depended on what was invoked and how—
But I know that we don’t appear.

How often I’ve leaned over
The well that’s me
And bleated “Hey!” to hear an echo,
And I’ve heard no more than I’ve seen—
The faint dark glimmer of the water
There in the useless depths.
No echo for me…
Just the hint of a face, which must be mine since it can’t be anyone else’s.
Just an almost invisible
Luminously smudged image
There in the depths…
In the silence and deceptive light of the depths…

What a Muse!
(trans. Richard Zenith)

The first two lines of this poem are the problem of modernity in a nutshell. The ancients invoked the Muses / We invoke ourselves. And in invoking ourselves, we invoke an empty center, a kernel of nothingness at the heart of an illusion. Or, as Pessoa wrote in his own name:

This species of madness
Which isn’t just cleverness
And which shines in the darkness
Of my muddled intelligence

Doesn't bring me happiness.
There is always, in the city,
Either clear or cloudy skies,
But in me I don't know what there is.
(trans. Richard Zenith)

I’m not sure that any other poet of the last two hundred years explored the problem of modernity and the self as powerfully and honestly and tragically as did Fernando Pessoa. He sang it, and then he died of it.


A brief coda. The saying that you should love your neighbor as yourself has an interesting corollary. It suggests in some way or other, in a manner difficult perhaps to define, that your neighbor is yourself. If you can love your neighbor as yourself, then the boundary between self and other must not be a thick one. It is penetrable. It is penetrable by love. It suggests that the blackest center of the abyss of self can only truly be backstopped by the fact that there is something else in there. Something Other. Something radically not-self. Maybe. And if so…


Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1The BelieverHarper’s MagazineThe Virginia Quarterly Review and is a contributor at The New Yorker. He won the Whiting Award for non-fiction in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at