Fernando Pessoa’s Alberto Caeiro as the wise fool: the beginning of an approach

1. O Guardador de Rebanhos and the figure of the fool

Caeiro is figured by other heteronyms as their master, their pontifex. He is on the vertex of the architecture, even above Pessoa himself, perceived as just another poet among several others. How does this happen? His mythification begins with the story of an ignorant man who has always lived in the countryside. According to one of his biographers and co-heteronym, Ricardo Reis, Caeiro “nasceu em Lisboa […]. A sua vida decorreu quase toda numa quinta do Ribatejo. […] Nunca teve profissão [...] e a sua educação limitou-se ao básico” [2]. Pessoa does not resist the temptation of building this romantic frame for his character and the purity he represents, hidden away from the socially corrupted man.

Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos, the other two main heteronyms, see him, first of all, as this intuitive ignorant, by his own nature distant from manly and worldly wisdom. Thus, as the pauper spiritu, he is prepared to receive the influx of divine wisdom. In Reis’ words:

Ignorante da vida e quase ignorante das letras, quase sem convívio nem cultura, fez Caeiro a sua obra por um processo imperceptível e profundo, como aquele que dirige, através das consciências inconscientes dos homens, o desenvolvimento lógico das civilizações.[…] Por uma intuição sobre-humana, como aquelas que fundam religiões, porém a que não assenta o título de religião, por isso que repugna toda a religião e toda a metafísica, este homem descreveu [??] o mundo sem pensar nele, e criou um conceito do universo que não contém uma interpretação[?]. [3]

When the others realise this, they feel they have been saved by just hearing him and being near him. That is what happens in the Notas para a Recordação do Meu Mestre Caeiro, signed by Campos, a kind of gospel that narrates the way the heteronyms met him and asked him questions to test his endless though beatific ignorance.

Though close to the pauper spiritu or maybe even to the stultus, Caeiro is, however, very distant from the fool-idiot or from the mocking and merrymaking of traditional fools, without their usual tendencies towards derision. He is embedded in what we would call an Olympian serenity. Only on one occasion or another do we find in him a fool-like behaviour, a spontaneous and unprovoked laughter, an image that suits the fool’s profile:

Acho tão natural que não se pense
Que me ponho a rir às vezes, sozinho,
Não sei bem de quê, mas é de qualquer coisa
Que tem a ver com haver gente que pensa… [4]

In fact, Caeiro personifies a pure self-reflexive discourse and could never be anywhere near the fool’s usual babbling.

And now a crucial issue in Caeiro’s poetics that establishes a deep connection with the wise fool: the issue of knowledge. One might say, as it has been said, that Caeiro is essentially a gnoseological problem in Pessoa’s poetry. He is the mentor of Pessoa’s heteronyms because he is the one who knows, and his knowledge goes much the same way as Socrates’ famous saying: he only knows that he knows nothing. One could say that Caeiro shows an intimate connection with the archetypal figure of the master, whose life is no different from his words or knowledge. In a sense, the traditional fool acts in the very same way. However, as the reader of his most important book of poetry, O Guardador de Rebanhos, easily verifies, this is an extremely rational poetry, but a poetry that fictionalises in a rational way a descent from reason. Fernando Pessoa wants to create a poet who can account for what it would be like to be a fool who perfectly acknowledges he is one himself. This is the reason why critics have referred to internal contradictions in his poetry. But the main issue in Caeiro is more focused on the fiction of a voice that is constantly expressing the desire that words, knowledge and life be the same thing and less about a philosopher caught in serious contradiction between what he says and what he is [5]. As a matter of fact, Caeiro’s wisdom is not innate: it is acquired. He is constantly undergoing a process of unlearning:

Procuro despir-me do que apprendi,
Procuro esquecer-me do modo de lembrar que me ensinaram,
E raspar a tinta com que me pintaram os sentidos,
Desencaixotar as minhas emoções verdadeiras,
Desembrulhar-me e ser eu, não Alberto Caeiro,
Mas um animal humano que a Natureza produziu. (XLVI, p.97)

An ongoing process of self-emptying, of becoming a kind of pauper spiritu of sensations. He has to remind himself to be constantly present only by means of his sensations. The self-induced mental kenosis (the Greek word for emptiness used by Paul in Corinthians) enables an access to fundamental spiritual truths that form the basis of the new religion he is founding:

Foi isto o que sem pensar nem parar,
Acertei que devia ser a verdade
Que todos andam a achar e que não acham,
E que só eu, porque a não fui achar, achei. (XLVII, p.98)

And then, in praise of his own luminous and beatific ignorance, he solemnly says:

Bendito seja eu por tudo quanto não sei.
é isso tudo que verdadeiramente sou.
Gozo tudo isso como quem está aqui ao sol. (XXVII, p.77)

In my view, one of the most important moments of Caeiro’s proximity to the wise fool is the curious parable narrated in the eighth poem of O Guardador de Rebanhos- a strange one in the overall context of his work. An imagistic oasis in the middle of his harsh metaphysics, it narrates the visitation the poet was provided from the infant Jesus. He has escaped from heaven and gone to meet the poet. The poem is simultaneously a parody of religion (where one can see the famous humour of the fool finally arriving on the scene) and a kind of initiation, the moment when he receives his wisdom: here he will learn, as Paul, to refuse human wisdom and receive a divine one:

Esta é a história do meu Menino Jesus.
Porque razão que se perceba
Não há de ser ela mais verdadeira
Que tudo quanto os filósofos pensam
E tudo quanto aos religiões ensinam? (VIII, p.57)

As we can see, there is an explicit use of the same reversibility of terms as in Paul’s Corinthians 1: the child teaches him that philosophers are madmen and also to laugh at kings who are not kings, the Heavenly Father being one of these himself, here represented as a minor god that has nothing to do with the world he created. Heaven itself, from which Jesus escaped, is seen as a fool’s or buffoon’s theatre, where the boy Jesus has to pretend he is the second person of the Trinity. When abandoning Heaven, he leaves a crucified dummy behind him to play that role.

In conclusion, Caeiro reveals aspects that relate to these three figures that, put together, can form the figure of the wise fool: the «fool», «the pauper spiritu» and the «master» or even the redeemer (especially on an inter-heteronymic level). Concerning this last role, it has already been implied that the other poets see him as the Messiah of a new religion. In fact, in a preface to Caeiro’s poetical works, Reis refers to him as the unveiler of reality, its great liberator, and even announces that he would be that for many others. It is also as great liberator that Campos refers to him in an unfinished ode, where he declares himself freed from the chains of thought, though confessing not to have attained the transcendental peace of his master. António Mora, an essay-writer heteronym, devised by Pessoa to write solely on the issue of Neo-Paganism (a rebirth of Paganism devised by Pessoa), sees Caeiro as the founder of that religious tradition that would be the return of old paganism vanquished by Christianity.

2. The wise fool’s strategies

The well-known sentence from Paul [6] is the mainstay of the wise fool tradition: the fool is wise and the wise is foolish – a duality in a constant reversibility, a continuous game that reflects and changes images and meaning. It is a mundus inversus reading, where the fool can be a very serious personage for God or for the gods, but a caricature for men. Let us now explore the ways in which Caeiro’s poems seem to act in close connection with Paul’s lines.

We find it significant that Pessoa, in his first critical essay, published in 1912, already exposes a programmatic paradox very similar to the one underlying the dichotomy «fool/wise»:

A suprema verdade que se pode dizer duma coisa é que ela é e não é ao mesmo tempo […]; uma afirmação é tanto mais verdadeira quanto maior contradição envolve. Dizer que a matéria é material e o espírito espiritual não é falso; mas é mais verdade dizer que a matéria é espiritual e o espírito material. [7]

This specular inversion of sense is also present in the tradition of Everyman vs. Niemand or Nemo and seems to yield a kind of double ontological meaning to the fool: he is Nobody, Nemo, but at the same time, the only one who exists: he is and he is not, because in a sense Nemo and Everyman are the same.

In a drawing by Pieter Bruegel called Elck, at the British Museum, Everyman or Elckerlijc searches for himself amongst heterogeneous objects lying on the floor whilst Niemant or Niemand (Nobody) looks at himself in the mirror. The former is trying to find himself amidst the world’s dissipation, whilst Niemand has the gift of being present to himself. But in another, rather mystical sense, Niemand represents the medieval mystical conception of poverty, of nothingness, as in Meister Eckhart: nothingness that can be everything, the reverse of creation. As in the Tarot card «The Fool», representing vacuity, absoluteness or nothingness, the fool or Niemand hides himself behind the several phases and movements of manifestation. That card is significantly numbered either as 0 or as 22, meaning that he is the sole subject of the metamorphoses represented by the other 21 cards, all the aspects of cosmic manifestation and the major archetypes in Everyman’s consciousness. [8]

Several critics have insisted on negative processes at work in Caeiro’s poetry. Caeiro represents, in fact, a mostly negative discourse. First of all, his basic strategy is much like that of the fool: everything we take for granted, our mental representations of things, is nothing – only a lie: everything is nothing:

«Constituição intima das cousas» . . .
«Sentido intimo do Universo» . . .
Tudo isto é falso, tudo isto não quer dizer nada. (V, p.48)

Based on this maxim Caeiro disposes of philosophy, culture, politics, etc. This negative metaphysics can be condensed into two of his best known mottos: “Há metaphysica bastante em não pensar em nada” (V, p.48) and “O unico sentido intimo das cousas/ é ellas não terem sentido intimo nenhum.” (V, p.49). As in negative theology, he wants to get rid of all attributes of things. Critics have called him the poet of negation and of the assertion of that negation. In his words, one of his most curious assertions:

Que pensará isto de aquilo? Nada pensa nada. (XXXIV, p.84)

Let us hear an important comment by Reis, one of Caeiro’s best interpreters:

And whereas Walt Whitman’s sensations are immensely various and include both natural and artificial, and the metaphysical as well as the physical, Caeiro’s persistently exclude even the more «natural artificial» things and are only metaphysical in that extremely peculiar negative manner which is one of the novelties of his attitude. [9]

His other disciple, Pessoa himself, expresses similar things, when he says that the master “feels as positive what to that historical point could only be felt as a negative feeling”. [10] That is, he feels the vacuum of meaning in everything as something positive. He feels negative as positive and positive as negative, a mundus inversus reading. The Portuguese philosopher José Gil has stated, in an attempt to synthesise Caeiro’s discourse, that:

Dois discursos tecem incessantemente o fio da sua poesia: um discurso positivo e um meta-discurso negativo. O primeiro enuncia – ou finge enunciar - tautologias: o sol é o sol, a Natureza é a Natureza. O segundo afirma que os metafísicos são doentes, que não há metafísica nas sensações, que é falso dizer-se que uma flor é mais do que aquilo que dela se vê. E o primeiro discurso apoia-se exclusivamente no meta-discurso negativo. […] é na tensão entre um discurso positivo e uma meta-discurso negativo que Caeiro faz nascer a aparência de uma ausência de metafísica. [11]

Tautology, as the most common discursive process in Caeiro, is then the basis of his positive discourse, that states things like «flowers are only just flowers» or «stars are nothing more than stars». But this positive discourse made up of tautologies has its own value in the overflow of negative discourse that covers the whole body of the poems and is, in fact, the ultimate instrument of affirmation. The positiveness of a thing is only obtained through the negation of everything it is not. The emptiness of a thing has its reverse in the continuous and positive affirmation of that same emptiness:

A única coisa que uma pedra lhe diz é que nada tem para lhe dizer. […] O facto estupendo acerca de Caeiro é que produz poesia a partir deste sentimento, ou, antes, ausência de sentimento. [12]

We could add that that stone has, at the same time, nothing and everything to tell him. That everything (that fills his poems) is that very nothing. So, at the same time, a thing is and is not, it is made up of what it is and is not:

Mas para mim, que não sei o que penso,
O que o luar atravez dos altos ramos
é, além de ser
O luar atravez dos altos ramos,
é não ser mais que o luar atravez dos altos ramos. (XXXV, p.85)

It is thus discursively imitating the fool’s ontological strategy that the mundus inversus installs itself. Thus, to be and not to be seems like the paradoxical and at the same tame tautological assertion that draws the figure of Caeiro’s wise fool. He is a consciousness in self-denial that would like to be just an empty place for things to happen, a place of empty contemplation. But his voice, as Gil states, appears precisely in that abyss that lies between subject and object, deepening it even more. His art of negation is useful even to create his self-figuration that becomes destroyed, as the reader finds that the first verse of O Guardador de Rebanhos reads: “Eu nunca guardei rebanhos.” He institutes and destroys at the same time the founding lie of his own authorial image and also the persona he uses to walk through his own poems.

Some critics have insisted on the notion of «void» or «emptiness» in Pessoa, and that it is crucial to understand the heteronymic phenomenon. From where do heteronyms appear? What subject is behind them after all, since Pessoa talks of himself as just another poet? They come from that very nothingness, that emptiness that delivers itself through countless substantial ways, or from that «Absence» that has also internally shaped the poetical voyage of another major Portuguese poet: Teixeira de Pascoaes. In the words of Eduardo Lourenço:

A Ausência (em que Pessoa pensa é uma) espécie de abismo primordial como o dos Gnósticos, aquém e além de toda a compreensão […] Se podemos alcançar um qualquer «sentido» […] é apenas no horizonte dessa Ausência e como o signo próprio desta ausência. […] Foi com a invenção dos heterónimos, esses poetas-outros destinados a incarnar a pluralidade dos sentidos que o eu como ausência não podia assumir, que Pessoa se lançou numa verdadeira busca de um sentido positivo. [13]

In conclusion, heteronyms are insubstantial personae as much as absence is substantial in Pessoa. Literary and ontological manifestation is thus a sign of a pre-existing Absence. The Caeirian fool is a major sign of that absence inside Pessoa, one of the major answers to Pessoan emptiness, as the fiction of a discourse that would simultaneously be the emptiness of the subject that is looking at things, and the vacuity of things themselves. As Bernardo Soares, his half-heteronym, as he has been described, says in the Livro do Desassossego: “Posso imaginar-me tudo, porque não sou nada. Se fosse alguma coisa, não poderia imaginar.” [14]


[1] For readers unfamiliar with Pessoa, here is a brief presentation of the poet, in the words of his English translator, Richard Zenith: “It is sometimes said that the four greatest Portuguese poets of modern times are Fernando Pessoa. The statement is possible since Pessoa, whose name means ‘person’ in Portuguese, had three alter egos who wrote in styles completely different from his own. In fact Pessoa wrote under dozens of names, but Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos were – their creator claimed – full-fledged individuals who wrote things that he himself would never or could never write. He dubbed them ‘heteronyms’ rather than pseudonyms, since they were not false names but “other names”, belonging to distinct literary personalities. Not only were their styles different; they thought differently, they had different religious and political views, different aesthetic sensibilities, different social temperaments. And each produced a large body of poetry. Álvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis also signed dozens of pages of prose.” In http://portugal.poetryinternationalweb.org/piw_cms/cms/cms_module/index.php?obj_id=7051 [accessed 23 August 2007]. Regresar

[2] PESSOA, Fernando. «[Ricardo Reis: Alberto Caeiro]», COELHO, Jacinto do Prado and LIND, Georg Rudolf, Fernando Pessoa. Páginas íntimas e de Auto-Interpretação, Lisboa, Edições Ática, 1972, pp.329-330. Regresar

[3] PESSOA, Fernando. «[Ricardo Reis: Alberto Caeiro]», Páginas íntimas, pp. 330-331. Regresar

[4] «Poem XXXIV» in PESSOA, Fernando. Poemas Completos de Alberto Caeiro [Transcription and notes by Teresa Sobral Cunha], Lisboa, Editorial Presença, 1994, p. 84. All citations of O Guardador de Rebanhos refer to this edition. The number of the page will hereby appear at the end of the citation. Regresar

[5] Vide GUSMÃO, Manuel. «Apresentação Crítica», A Poesia de Alberto Caeiro, Lisboa, Comunicação, 1986. Regresar

[6] “20: Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 21: For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. 22: For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: 23: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; 24: But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. 25: Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” I Corinthians 1. 20-25 (King James Version), http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccernew2?id=Kjv1Cor.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1 [accessed 24 July 2007]. Regresar

[7] PESSOA, Fernando. A Nova Poesia Portuguesa, Lisboa, Editorial Inquérito, 1944, p. 23. Regresar

[8] Vide BORGES, Paulo. «Heteronímia e Carnaval em Teixeira de Pascoaes», MORãO, Paula and Sá, Maria das Graças Moreira de. Encontro com Teixeira de Pascoes, Lisboa, Edições Colibri, 2004, pp. 45-66. Regresar

[9] REIS, Ricardo. «Alberto Caeiro – Translator’s Preface», Páginas íntimas, p. 369. [originally in english]. Regresar

[10] REIS, Ricardo. «Caeiro e Pascoaes», Páginas íntimas, p. 347. Regresar

[11] GIL, José Gil. Fernando Pessoa ou a metafísica das sensações, Lisboa, Relógio d’Água, 1987, p.121. Regresar

[12] REIS, Ricardo. «Caeiro e Pascoaes», Páginas íntimas, pp.346-347. Regresar

[13] LOURENÇO, Eduardo. O Lugar do Anjo, Lisboa, Gradiva, 2005, pp.42-43. Regresar

[14] Vide BORGES, Paulo. «Posso imaginar-me tudo, porque não sou nada. Se fosse alguma cousa, não poderia imaginar» - Vacuidade e auto-criação do sujeito em Fernando Pessoa», http://www.pauloborges.net/textos/Posso%20imaginar.pdf .Regresar