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The Plurality of Gods and Man, or "The Aesthetic Attitude in All Its Pagan Splendor" in Fernando Pessoa

From: The Pluralist
Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 2010
pp. 73-93 | 10.1353/plu.0.0044

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I. Introduction or a Poetic Encounter Between Man and the Gods

Following a lengthy period in which they were glorified and worshiped, several illustrious personages led a seemingly miserable and almost forgotten existence for two thousand years until they appeared sporadically in nineteenth and twentieth-century literature, philosophy, and poetry. Apart from a brief moment during the Renaissance, the ancient Greek gods only managed to emerge from their existential shadows at the time of Romanticism, when few poets failed to provide these gods with a fleeting haven in some of their verse, even if this favor was often nothing more than a form of tautological self-identification as their being poets (Calasso 11-12). Subsequently, the gods generally played a merely more or less decorative role with little vitality in the literary vocabulary, and a return to Olympus meant nothing more in many cases than a poetic conceit or metaphorical habit. The poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who in 1802 felt truly "struck down" and dazzled by Apollo in Bordeaux, seems more the exception than the rule. Friedrich Nietzsche is practically the only philosopher who saw in ancient Greek polytheism a new form of objective knowledge.

However, we come across in the Lisbon of the 1910s—a rather quiet and provincial city at the time—a group of poets and philosophers who had personal encounters on a daily basis with the gods of Greek and Roman mythology and tried to link the plurality of gods with philosophical ways of understanding the world. In varied and sometimes contradictory ways, the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) and his heteronyms Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, and António Mora left numerous posthumous poems and fragmentary writings that show the physical return of the Greek gods and a fresh attempt to modernize polytheism into a system of knowledge. Considering the renaissance of the gods in Pessoa as no mere atavism, the Portuguese poet achieved a unique place in the canon of world literature.1 A real poetic encounter between man and the gods, as well as an epistemological concept based on the complexity of the ancient pantheon, occurred simultaneously in Lisbon, a somewhat forgotten city at that time on the map of European literature and philosophy.

This text aims to make a short—but systematic—presentation of these two aspects in the work of Fernando Pessoa: that is to say, explain both the original poetic as well as philosophical defense of modern plurality whose roots Pessoa found to be mainly in ancient Greece. On the one hand, Pessoa spoke about a neopaganism movement—the Programa geral do Neo-Paganismo Português—where all his main heteronyms would gather and convey a specific worldview that refers to a renaissance of the ancient gods. On the other hand, Pessoa develops at a philosophical and artistic level an independent form of knowledge that is based on a transformation of an external plurality into an internal multiplicity, which is described as sensationism.2 In other words, this article tries to explain the internal and external aspect of Pessoa's plurality.

II. Different Perspectives with Regard to the Ancient Gods

Although Pessoa never referred to Nietzsche with a great deal of sympathy, the Portuguese poet and the German philosopher demonstrate—beside their obvious rejection of Christianity—a common conviction that could be resumed as a modern interpretation of the polytheism of the ancient Greeks. Bearing in mind that Nietzsche wrote in his gaya scienza that "the free spirit and the plural spirit" were already sketched out in polytheism (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft 490-91) and that Pessoa wondered some years later about "the inner meaning" or "subjective essence" of polytheism, we can imagine that the two of them followed, at least in epistemological issues, a very similar path. In relation to the metaphorical return of the Greek gods, the German philosopher and the Portuguese poet argued almost identically for a pluralistic intellect. It is hardly surprising then that some of Nietzsche's thoughts could almost be understood as a theoretical introduction to Pessoa's works and seemingly presage and speculate on a way of life that was to be practiced some years later in Portugal.3 Nietzsche...

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