Myself Is Another: Mario De Sa Carneiro, Decadence, “Extremist” art, and the Marvelous / John Allen Thomas
Mario De Sa Carneiro (1890-1916) lived his difficult life in a straight aesthetic line, never deviating from his poetic ideals: transcendence of society through destruction, transcendence through a personal rejection of convention, and above all, transcendence through Art with a capital A.
Determined to prove himself as an Artist in the anti bourgeois mold, he left his hometown of Portugal, Lisbon as soon as he turned 20 and got involved with Fernando Pessoa’s group Orpheu, as extreme in its way as Le Grand Jeu or the Surrealists.
Funding the group’s publications more often than not, Pessoa, Negreiros, Pintor, Lima and Carneiro removed their basic sense of identity through the exchange of heteronyms and role playing which often went against each member’s bookish natures. Carneiro’s other identity “Alva De Campos” was lacking in humor; indeed, a deadly solemnity developed which reveals itself in a poem sent to Fernando Pessoa on the day of his death which bears a read for its frank appraisal of basic literary nihilism and mortality:
Se te queres matar…
If you want to kill yourself, why do you not want to kill yourself? Ah, I can tell you that I who love so well death and life
Would, if I dared, also kill myself.
But if you have the courage, do it!
What use to you is the changing picture of external images That we call the world?
The cinematograph of the passing hours showing
Actors of convention and set poses,
The polychrome circus of our aimless dynamism?
What use to you is your interior world that you do not understand? Perhaps, by killing yourself, you’ll get to know it at last.
Perhaps, by ending, beginning…
And, in any case, if people bore you,
Ah, be bored in noble fashion,
And do not, as I do, sing life out of drunkenness,
Do not, like me, salute death in literature!
Are you doing wrong? O futile shadow which we call people! No one does wrong, you will not be doing wrong to anyone… Everything will go on without you.”
Orpheu and Surrealism share one definite facet. The individual’s identity must be dissociated, torn like a used bar code invented for the specific purpose of control. In this respect,
Orpheu is kin to the young artist in Nadja, palling around with a woman who has scorned these conventions, but who also has little choice in the matter. Though Pessoa was both leader and vicar of the group, he himself would receive the bulk of his success for a book celebrating the only apparently banal in everyday life called “The Book of Disquiet”.
Carneiro’s artistic output (“literary” isn’t the right term, fortunately) is incredible for a person who died so young, engaging in a awkward avant garde performance on the steps of the Hotel De Nice in Paris after having ingested strychnine.
In 1993 Daedalus Press released one of his novels—“Lucio’s Confession”, a manic, Baudelarian tale of youthful, sex addicted and mentally compromised artists in a doomed troupe) and a more personal, revealing collection of fragmented, diaristic pieces titled “The Great Shadow and Stories”, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. I was flatly unsurprised to find that “Lucio” was one of Sylvia Plath’s favorite books, or that her main squeeze Ted Hughes had translated three of his poems.
But the majority of his work is untranslated; as woeful
a state as the poet may have wanted, his work is certainly as important as some of the greatest avant-garde writers we enjoy from Europe (or his hometown, Portugal).
For all the cartoonish despair and extremity of the poet’s life, Mario De Sa Carneiro fits snugly in the canon of Poe, Baudelaire, Heym, Leopardi, Nelligan, Trakl, or Leonid Andreyev, all of whom refracted with their verse extreme trends later found in surrealism.
He is, in his monastic dedication to an ideal literary artifice, the search for some ultimate artistic experience which will free him from his circumstances, a reminder of how many artists in all mediums begin—wondering if one’s first draft is somehow a metaphysical failure, having standards sharp to form psychic paper cuts, the lack of confidence which comes from a largely unformed personality and identification with the artist’s demanding role.
Carneiro’s deep desire for authenticity is spelled out plainly by the protagonist in “Lucio”:
“Ah, but Gervasio was right. Deep down, I did hate those people—the artists. That is, those false artists whose work consists of the poses they strike: saying outrageous things, cultivating complicated tastes and appetites, being artificial, irritating, unbearable. People who, in fact, take from art only what is false and external.”
0(His travel from Lisbon to Paris did not actually change much. Even here, his restlessness was a constant.) There are even parallels to figures like Rimbaud, albeit in a darker caste.
His short, aphoristic collection has “Myself The Other”, featured in his collection of what one may call early “short shorts”, we see Carneiro’s natural affinity for unconscious imagery and almost identical to Rimbaud’s unconscious epiphany of “the wood that finds itself a violin”:
“Myself the Other”
My friends say that I have changed a lot. They say my voice is different at times, and the same with my physical appearance.
I look at myself in the mirror and to my horror and for the first
time I remember the sound of his voice..
Later, the nameless narrator decides to leave the substance for the shadow, and indeed.
The end! I have hurled myself
sucked into the porous Shadow
I am another!
The Other! The Other! The Other!
These stories are very close in spirit to Maupassant’s later work, or the now very favorably received Stefan Grabiniski, and have a gothic horror that Breton himself would have loved. Counting Carneiro as a surrealist as well is not so absurd, as his “miserabilism” is simply part of the recipe that lead to his imaginative majesty. How does surrealism maintain a constant optimism in the present day, anyway?
Is this a correct attitude in an increasingly unstable, dystopian condition?
As for the author, Mario Carneiro would never go window shopping with his mother, as the elder Rimbaud would, to the shock and disgust of his former contemporaries. His father had declined to help fund another issue of Orpheu, as his marriage to an ex prostitute had absorbed all his finances. Carneiro’s visits home were mute and uneventful. His physical dependency on opium had become severe. He had never intended to study Law. His constant suicidal notes to Pessoa had largely gone unread and unanswered.
It is likely, though, that Carneiro never wanted to return
home to Lisbon in the first place.
Speaking as a sort of late interventionist for Carneiro’s continued work, I would like to see more more translations and possibly even his acceptance into the surrealist “tradition”. How can such an extreme poetic figure be avoided?
Young’s Night Thoughts, just to name one, is “Carneioran” from start to finish, fecund with that just restrained madness Young has, full of night. As literary deviants, surrealists thrive on the discovery of a writer like Carneiro; breaking all rules, whispering what is often hushed, and doing so with a maniacal knack for style, and doing so with the refreshing enthusiasm of madness. Let us have more translations, as in 1993, for the fare of all subversives and cracked up bibliophiles.
Thinking of a washed up Presidential figure recently discarded in the U.S., this is a translation by Ted Hughes of one of Carneiro’s poems.
“The two faced, the pretender, with the lie in his marrow”0
The two-faced, the pretender, with the lie in his marrow,
Who slid through his days mask to mask,
The stucco King-moon, gaping clownish amazement—
But under all that, the inching coward.
Not a courtier, a gatecrashing boor,
His soul of snow being the sick standing vapor of old
And the masterful heart he boomed for
A winded wheedling pansy.
No guts, no spur, an empty ninny
(With maybe a metronome under his ribs)
For all his yapping out of High Ideals
Sodden and venomous, and to be spat on,
This unfrocked wizard, this fat half-cat,
This balloon belching starry Empires.