Sailing through the monotony of oneself


Heraclitus is quoted famously as saying that “the road up and the road down are one and the same”. This morning, I read a similar sentiment in Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet:

‘Any road,’ said Carlyle, ‘this simple road to Entepfuhl, will lead you to the end of world.’ But the road to Entepfuhl, if followed right to the end, would lead straight back to Entepfuhl, which means that Entepfuhl, where we started, is that ‘end of the world’ we set out to find in the beginning.

It has to be said that, on the face of it, The Book of Disquiet feels like one of the most pessimistic books you’ll ever read. But, for me, there’s an underlying optimism, something that reminds me of the Albert Camus’ discovery that, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” While not a Stoic, there’s nevertheless a sense in Pessoa that joy and satisfaction can be found in the details of life. 

In fact, Pessoa cannot understand the desire to travel abroad to see the sights, when everything you need is either inside oneself, or readily available in the immediate physical environment:

Someone who has sailed every sea has merely sailed through the monotony of himself.

This is a really interesting way of looking at the world, and one echoed in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. Given that wherever you go and whatever you do, you have to take yourself with you, you’re better off getting your internal life right first.

Condillac begins his famous book with the words: ‘However high we climb and however low we fall we never escape our own feelings.’ We can never disembark from ourselves. We can never become another person, except by making ourselves other through the sensitive application of our imaginations to our selves.

Of course, this perfection of the inner life is something that is never-ending. What I think Pessoa is driving at with the metaphor of ‘sailing through the monotony’ of oneself, is that if you take the same (undeveloped) version of yourself to different physical environs, you haven’t really learned anything new:

Like history, experience of life teaches us nothing. True experience consists in reducing one’s contact with reality whilst at the same time intensifying one’s analysis of that contact. In that way one’s sensibility can widen and deepen since everything lies within us anyway; it is enough that we seek it out and know how to do so.

When I used to travel more than I do now (i.e. when others were control of my schedule) people used to think it was ‘glamorous’ that I’d have to go to the US for 48 hours. Nothing could be further than the truth:

There is an erudition of knowledge, which is what we usually mean by ‘erudition’, and there is an erudition of understanding, which is what we call ‘culture’. But there is also an erudition of sensibility.

This ‘erudition of sensibility’ means being able to ‘appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic infludences’. Although Pessoa can’t be counted as a Stoic philosopher, there is certainly more than an element of Stoicism in his writing. Today I’ve learned not to year for far-off places, but to be happy with exploring my inner and local environs. 

Photo by Hugo Kerr