In the work of Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa, heteronyms proliferate. Heteronyms are not merely pseudonyms. They are fictional characters who have independent lives, fully realized identities, opinions, tastes, horoscope charts, business cards, signatures, and literary styles. Of the seventy-two fictionalized personae that are known, Pessoa’s most important heteronyms were: Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, and Pessoa-himself (the latter being an orthonym, the alterity that is utterly intimate).

The heteronym Álvaro de Campos “is Walt Whitman with a Greek poet inside.” In “Triumphal Ode” (March 1914), “Maritime Ode” (1914), “Salutations to Walt Whitman” (June 11,1915) and “Passing of the Hours” (May 5, 1916), Campos’s desire for ecstatic oneness with Walt Whitman, plays out Pessoa’s wish to reformulate an idea of possession, both spiritually and erotically.

It is, perhaps, not surprising to note that Pessoa’s most important heteronyms “appeared” to him around the time that he was practicing mediumistic writing, between 1912 and 1916. This period includes the time when Pessoa lived with his aunt Anica in Lisbon. Anica was a Spiritualist and adept at automatic writing. And she frequently organized family séances at her home.

Reflecting the precipitous rise of transatlantic Spiritualist movements in the later part of the nineteenth century (in France, England, the United States and Brazil), Pessoa developed an intense practice of communication with dead and fictional spirits. There were heteronyms contemporary to Pessoa, like Ricardo Reis or Álvaro de Campos, and there were also those who spoke to Pessoa from another time, including the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonist Henry More and the eighteenth-century voodoo spirit Joseph Bálsamo. Spoken primarily in English, though occasionally also in Portuguese, French and even Latin, these séances combined Pessoa’s aptitudes as a writer with more practical matters of life.

Literary ambitions tend towards the logic of the séance and Pessoa’s ambitions found common cause, perhaps even erotic charge, in the practice of mediumship. Pessoa’s long-standing bachelorhood and, in particular, his obsession with masturbation, were often the source of spiritual attention, even ridicule. In a 1916 séance, the spirit Henri More “exhorted him to lose his virginity,” reproaching him as “a masturbator! … a self-swallower’s barren touch of time.” Later, in a moment of stoic determination, the spirit went so far as to recommend:

You must take my wife, reborn as mistress

She is the great masturbator, your charts

Will flow, kindle her balsamic moon

Here’s her horoscope—note Libra rising

Sapient lust will empty you both into day.

On still another occasion that year, the spirits raged at him: “You man without a man’s prick! You man with a clitoris instead of a prick,” and warned him that “he was not cut out for a monastic existence” and that “chastity would be ultimately prejudicial to his literary ambitions.” Rather than convince, the force of these spirit injunctions allowed Pessoa to see his masturbation as beneficial if not absolutely integral to his art of heteronomia. As he declared at some point, “the multiplication of the I is a frequent phenomenon in cases of masturbation.” But “how,” the spirit would ask in verse, “can an onanist engender, truly inhere the identities of all your bloodless ticking selves?”

Fernando Pessoa was fascinated with disintegration of the idea of the self under the force of heteronomy—dissolutions of possessive individualism that had been in vogue during the Romantic period. Like Whitman before him, Pessoa figured the will as a paradigmatic case of heteronomy. For Pessoa, as for Whitman, the fragmentation of the self was intimately and perhaps inevitably associated with technological conditions and imaginings of empire. But there was a strange inversion here, an odd-angled reflection of spirituality in the American grain.

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