The self is unique, the self is one. Consciousness is unitary and indivisible, that’s a textbook statement. And yet, not everyone has accepted it. In the 20th century, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa challenged the notion that the writer and the authorial self are indivisible entities. Through ‘indirect communication’, Kierkegaard spoke to the reader via a multitude of personae, which the writer both subsumed and yet transcended. Pessoa’s heteronymity spawned a gallery of authorial figures and scribal stand-ins that never quite lead to the voice behind the text.
Who speaks when Kierkegaard and Pessoa write in the name of a Constantin Constantius, Johannes Climacus, Bernardo Soares or Álvaro de Campos?
We are not one, the Dane and the Portuguese tell us. We are legion, shards of self looking at each other in a hall of broken mirrors. The only way to elude bad faith is to multiply the self, to de-centre the ego, to split the atom, so that rivers of energy and authenticity might flow.
The same constructive ambiguity was espoused 600 years ago, long before both Kierkegaard and Pessoa. We may think of the Divine Comedy as authored by Dante Alighieri, one Dante, one poet under the Italian sky. But in fact, there were several Dantes, the Dante of lyrical poetry, the Dante of the Convivio, the author of the Commedia, the pilgrim in the Commedia, all communing and clashing on the page. If Dante the author of the Commedia can engineer a situation where, by means of palinodic retractions, Dante the metaphysical pilgrim learns that Dante the author of previous works had got things wrong and had held incorrect views, it is because Dante the fractal architect isn’t so much concerned with vocal unity and authorial integrity than with the seismic potencies stirring underneath his own name. And as the poet begins to unravel the yarn of his alloyed identity, he feels, like Pessoa, that casting himself in different roles is a redemptive act. But, unlike Pessoa, Dante didn’t accept that if people ‘knew how to feel the thousand complexities which spy on the soul in every single detail of action, then they would never act— they wouldn’t even live.” He felt, he acted and he lived. And his soul, scattered like paper in the wind, is, to use a genuinely Dantean image, ingathered at the edge of time and space:
“In its profundity I saw—ingathered
and bound by love into one single volume—
what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered:
substances, accidents, and dispositionsParadiso 33
as if conjoined—in such a way that what
I tell is only rudimentary.”