The Operating System

4th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 8 :: Hune Margulies on The Zen of Fernando Pessoa

VII-1[box]notes from my conversation with fernando pessoa, poet: never does a hand hold another without being held at that same moment. we forget poetry, and this is our fault. we invent gods to compensate, and that’s ok too. we stumble to old age having learned nothing of what we already knew only too well: poetry is not in the writing if it is not in the living. poetry we write in poetic deeds, and at times we may scribble some words too. beautiful words spoken in moments of between. poets are the eternal unrequited lovers of words. and vice-versa. reality does not exist outside of the relationship, for we create reality as we relate to each other and to the world. i told pessoa what the poet martin buber explained: the type of relationship we enter into, either i-thou or i-it, will determine the type of reality we will apprehend. pessoa smiled and said “yes my friend guardador de rebanhos! i wrote those same words in my fact-less autobiography” [/box]
the portuguese, part-marrano poet fernando pessoa wrote what i call “primordial zen”. he said: “i realize that i was all error and deviation, that i never lived, that i existed only in so far as i filled time with consciousness and thought”. to want to live one’s life with something other than the interminable and inexhaustible contents of one’s mind, is to want to live life in accordance to the existential understanding of the buddah’s concept of sunyata.
pessoa made this clear with these singularly zen lines in one of his poems:
[articlequote]”…why call water my sister if water isn’t my sister?, to feel it better?, i feel it better by drinking it than by calling it something, sister, or mother, or daughter, water is beautiful because it’s water…or, better yet, not to call it anything, but to drink it, to feel it on my wrists, and to look at it, without any names…”[/articlequote]
this is all the wisdom we need to know: we proclaim the primacy of the immediacy of the encounter with a being, over the subsequent intellectual or religious processing of that experience. pessoa asks for the acceptance of the phenomenon as it presents itself to us, which is the confirmation of its “otherness” and the embrace of its “thouness”.
emmanuel kant explained that there is no possibility of direct perception of reality “as-is”. the mind cannot perceive the noumena, for it can only approach the world through its own pre-determined categories of phenomenal perception. that is to say, we cannot know what reality is “in-reality”. whatever it is we perceive, it is nothing other than internal contents of the perceiving mind. in kantian terms, direct unmediated perception of reality is an unexamined delusion of the mind. “no-mind” is not a concept kant entertained, and i presumed he’d be amused by the recklessness of that verbal construction. but if we read pessoa’s zen intuitions, the dichotomy of perception and reality does not arise. the key issue is not apprehension, but relationship. in other words, the immediacy of the between of i and thou is the place of reality, and we use the term reality not in an ontological sense, but strictly as a dialogical project. we create reality as we relate to the world, and as martin buber explained, the type of relationship we enter into, be that i-thou or i-it, will determine the type of reality we will apprehend.
similarly the poet g. k. chesterton reflected on the same exact idea:
[articlequote]”i do not think there is anyone who takes quite such a fierce pleasure in things being themselves as i do. the startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me: the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud.” [/articlequote]
this is the zen of g.k. chesterton. allowing the phenomenon to name itself to us is the deed of refusing to say “it” to it.
there is nothing within, nothing behind, nothing above or nothing below the phenomenon itself, “this is it”, as thich nhat hanh says, and it is a beautiful thing because it is just “this”. similarly the sanscrit concept of “tat tvam asi” “thou art that”, is an important principle of hindu philosophy. alan watts once wrote about listening to the sound of a bell and hearing the gong, and he said: “to this sound we will not give it a name.” master dogen spoke of the “teachings of insentients”. in other words, we allow the world to teach us what it is, rather than us naming it after what we are. naming is owning, and owning is not i-thou.
pessoa was the poet-master “futilist”. and this deep recognition of the futility of life cannot possibly fill one’s heart with happiness, although sadness, if that’s the opposite of happiness, is not what pessoa’s heart felt either. what did pessoa feel? why give it a name? in other words: to deny a moment of happiness for it is impermanent, it is to understand little about happiness and even less about the nature of time. eternity is in this one moment of impermanent time. it depends on whether we say thou to the presence. poets know that. to accept an uninterrupted succession of sadness, that is to say, to close the open windows precisely at that fleeting moment when the sun shines through in an otherwise dark and cloudy sky, it is to become oneself a cause of this darkness. it is to accept fate rather than freedom. it is to let “it”, whatever that “it” might be, make us its willing collaborators, and to let it do it again.
pessoa tells me that all life is vast existential futility. we think, we feel, we know, we pretend to know, we feign, we pretend to feign that this is better than that. (at least preferable). but then, when we look closely, this is not this. in fact, there is no this! and that was only an illusion. this does not exist, not this and not that. and that is so, because there isn’t anything except for this! this is it! nothing at all exists except for this. and how do we know this? because the pain of this is real. and we pray to god (the gods?) because we know it (they) does not exist. that is why we pray. but then we feign offense when we hear god (the gods?) insist ad-nauseum that we do not exist. he is no nihilist, fernando pessoa, the portuguese also-marrano-jew-futilist poet is mad. mad as a shepherd in love. especially during the nights.
pessoa wrote:
[articlequote]”everything that man explains or expresses is a note in the margin of a text that has been entirely erased. more or less, from the sense of the note, we hit upon the sense that the text must have had. but there always remains a doubt, and the possible senses are numerous”.[/articlequote]
in other words: pessoa is bemoaning the futility of existence. this is not nihilism, it’s futilism. in the text of life we only write on its margins, that is, we are essentially marginal to existence itself. and life itself, which is the text on which margins we scribble the story of our lives, by the time we get around to understand it or manifest it, it’s no longer there… (more or less…)
pessoa said: “whether they exist or not, we’re slaves to the gods”. true: submission is our sad fate, and giving birth to gods, or proclaiming their death, makes no existential difference. and yet, (with pessoa there is always an “and yet”) we are free to give birth and to proclaim freedom if we wish to. pessoa also wrote his own “factless autobiography”. think of it, only a fact-less autobiography can possibly tell the truth. we are not “facts”, there is nothing to tell.
three poems by fernando pessoa
today someone read me st. francis of assisi.
i listened and couldn’t believe my ears.
how could a man who was so fond of things
never have looked at them or understood what they were?
why call water my sister if water isn’t my sister?
to feel it better?
i feel it better by drinking it than by calling it something –
sister, or mother, or daughter.
water is beautiful because it’s water.
if I call it my sister,
i can see, even as I call it that, that it’s not my sister
and that it’s best to call it water, since that’s what it is,
or, better yet, not to call it anything
but to drink it, to feel it on my wrists, and to look at it,
without any names.
the mystery of things – where is it?
why doesn’t it come out
to show us at least that it’s mystery?
what do the river and the tree know about it?
and what do I, who am no more than they, know about it?
whenever I look at things and think about what people think of them,
i laugh like a brook cleanly plashing against a rock.
for the only hidden meaning of things
is that they have no hidden meaning.
it’s the strangest thing of all,
stranger than all poets’ dreams
and all philosophers’ thoughts,
that things are really what they seem to be
and there’s nothing to understand.
yes, this is what my senses learned on their own:
things have no meaning: they exist.
things are the only hidden meaning of things.
the washwoman beats the laundry
against the stone in the tank.
she sings because she sings and is sad
For she sings because she exists:
thus she is also happy.
if i could do in verses
what she does with laundry,
perhaps i would lose
my diversity of fates.
ah, the tremendous unity
of beating laundry in reality,
singing songs in whole or in part
without any thought or reason!
but who will wash my heart?
meditations on pessoa and language:
god hides behind nothing at all because when we say thou to the neighbor, god is everything that exists. in the between of i and thou god is all things and is in all things, and also behind them and in front of them. god is words too, so how can words possibly not be able to express the nature of god? the nature of god is “this” and that essential presence is found everywhere and always.

we talk about the i and thou and poetry. here’s the difficulty with the proposition “words cannot express”: is it the case that there just aren’t any words, or that i, my own creative self, have ran out of them and am unable to find any? some argue that there is a difference of essence between language and experience and therefore the meeting between these two realms of being can only take place only at their peripheries, never any deeper. but if that is the case, isn’t the poet’s task to create new words to express that for which there might not be any existing ones? in zen they say “mu” and there you have it! a word that express “that”. it does not need to be a new sound, it only needs to be what poetry does: to write a word as if this was the first time it has ever been uttered.
words therefore are not inherently unable to express, it all depends on the source from which they emanate. if true poetry is a language that emerges in the between of i and thou, what emerges from the i-it is the vocabulary of loneliness and alienation. therefore words emanating from the whole-of-being will express the full poetry-of-existence, and words that emanate from the periphery of being will only delineate limitations and partiality.
there are two existential possibilities: from the between of i and thou a whole-being language emerges, and that language may include words or exclude them. from the transactions of i and it no language can emerge, but only a mere vocabulary, and the words it includes are those that are unable to express the nature of being. therefore we should make a distinction between the poetry of the in-between and the vocabularies of loneliness. as an example: the word “god” describes the between of i and thou, and in that sense, it is a wonderful word.
if we follow wittgenstein, we know that our words are the limits of our universe. if there is no word for “it”, “it” does not exist. he actually used the term “language”, which is a term broader than words, but he meant “words”. so if the famous widely accepted notion that “words cannot express” is true, then we know we have reached the outer and inner limits of what exists.
what is the difference between the terms universe and existence? we know, from kant, that existence is not a predicate. therefore universe is all there is. i, for once, know absolutely not a thing about anything at-all that is transcendent. wills and minds are things of our own realm, and therefore i can only hope to gain some understanding as to what those words seek to describe. and i will do that by employing both words and direct intuitive experience. and for that, all i can do is look at my here and my now and ask my mind to tell me what the will of my being is at both this present moment, and on these, my four spans of land. and that’s not very easy to do.
i say this, owing a great deal to the poet g. k. chesterton, that simply because i’ve had an experience of something, it does not follow that i necessarily believe in it. nor can i necessarily describe it so that someone else might get a glimpse as to what for me was immediate and direct. i must rely on the fact that what i experience as being my love for you, is the same experience you describe as being your love for me. that is to say, that despite the fact that even if words are unable to convey the full nature of the presence, both of us know it to be the same whole-being experience.
but “mu” is a word! so it helps. and we have given it a meaning, even if we don’t agree with it. and for that our conversation might be less utilitarian than it might have otherwise been. but utility is not the point of every conversation. so the question to go back to is if this is a problem with a universe which is just too-wide to be contained within a narrow language, or is it that we keep language intentionally narrow so as to make room for the concept of ineffability? it can always be the case that our minds are not creative enough to burst the artificial limits of a limited vocabulary. i suspect we need the ineffable, and we intuit that words get in the way. even mu.
i think we can do “better” with language. take the case of the word “god”. we invented a word to express the ineffably infinite and eternal. why stop at that? language, as were most cultural creations we inherited form the past, conformed to the intellectual and spiritual proclivities of those who controlled its use and its structure. words were created to convey cultural meanings, and as they evolved, these meanings became embedded within the consciousness of everyday speakers. a language is a narrative, and some cultures have created words to express as much of existence as they were able to discover, while others chose to create a fence around them.
but here’s a proposal: i was thinking of writing a poem and then i read gregory orr’s question: “do words outlast the world they describe?” good to think of this because yes, they do, of course they do, and that’s the melancholy of life. words are sometimes the only thing that remains, like the visible light from a star long dead. like with god for example. it’s all passings and remainings. but it’s not all necessarily in vain. think of it: could you live without the ten thousand things of the sky? alive or dead? sometimes it’s not only from the dead that all it remains is words.
to pessoa. a poem
all year long i was under the impression
that there were such things as afternoons.
but here is the funny part:
there are no such things!
every time i look
it is always now.
and i’m disappointed.
i loved afternoon teas.
even though i never have one.
i loved afternoon walks.
especially to show off my new sandals.
i loved afternoon love making.
even if it was at night.
nights are beautiful too.
without afternoons
it would be interminable mornings.
imagine that!
but this year i realized
there are no such things as afternoons.
i think i will miss them.
and the interminable mornings.
but now i drink alone.
as my ancestors did.
with a thoughtful tango poem
and a very silly kleizmer tune.
i love this snowy winter afternoon.
afternoons are beautiful.
the best spring i’ve ever had
was in the middle of winter.
i remember every little detail.
especially of things which never happened.
i decided to be in love.
in the middle of winter.
i mixed seltzer in my dad’s wine to fake it last longer.
dad was really pleased.
pan con manteca three meals a day.
how sweet it felt!
and how many dreams spread over that bread!
kind of sad when the seltzer ran out.
i remember the names of every girl.
i hope they remember mine.
my mom was always right.
oh god, how right she always was.
speaking of god
he came early into my life.
i asked for more seltzer for dad’s wine.
but i guess somethings he just can’t do.
but i did love my winters and springs.
how can i not be sad for what i lost forever?
but the word god still hovers around me.
i think that’s a good thing.
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image]Hune (RainMaker) Margulies, Ph.D, is the founder and director of The Martin Buber Institute For Dialogical Ecology. Hune is also president and founder of Community Development Partners For The Americas. Dr. Margulies teaches Religious Studies at Iona College. Dr. Margulies is the director of the Concentration on Dialogical Ecology at Prescott College. Hune practices community and economic development in various indigenous and poor communities across Latin America. Hune also organizes and leads groups to travel to indigenous and rural areas of Latin America for study, cultural, solidarity and ecological tours. A native of Argentina, Hune moved to Israel in 1974, and has lived in the US since 1980. Hune received a Ph.D. from Columbia University, an M.A. in Philosophy from Fordham University, an M.A. in Urban Affairs from Hunter College, CUNY, and a B.A. in Business and Communications from Adelphi University. Hune is also a rabbinic candidate at the Academy For Jewish Religion in Riverdale, New York. Hune is presently writing a book on the philosophy of Martin Buber, Zen Buddhism and Quaker religiosity. Dr. Margulies served as deputy commissioner of housing in the state of New York and was executive director of several NGOs dealing with low-income housing and community development. Hune speaks at UN forums on religion and peace and lectures frequently on religion and philosophy. A friend for many years via the rhizomatic community of change agents of which I’m lucky to count myself a member, Hune’s post originally appeared on his site, Dialogical Ecology : Buberian Essays, and is reprinted with his permission.
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