PESSOA AND ASPERGER’S
On October 17, 2017, during a guest appearance in a course on Fernando Pessoa at Brown University—a seminar under the direction of Onésimo Almeida—I suggested at the end that it might be useful to consider the possibility that Pessoa was a high-functioning autistic being, someone who remarkably fulfills the criteria for locating him on the spectrum for Asperger’s syndrome. I expected some push-back from the students and other visitors in the seminar, but was surprised when there wasn’t a single demurer. On the contrary, my suggestion that someone or other might take up the suggestion to investigate the matter further was accepted with not only obvious approval but enthusiasm.
As I went along I referred to the six categories listed on this chart, making brief comments on how one might view certain aspects of and events and incidents in Pessoa’s life and work in their context. Singly and cummulately, I sugested, they indicate that Fernando Pessoa has his place on the Asperger spectrum.
Category 4. "Speech and language peculiarities," e.g. "formal pedantic language" and "odd prosody"—pessoa’s use of out-of-date language and concocted syntax in, say, 35 Sonnets and other early English-language poems.
Category 5. "Non-verbal communication problems" e.g. repeatedly imitating the ibis, standing on one leg and crossing the other in public, "clumst/gauche body language and "limited facial expression," "peculiar, stiff gaze"; awkward stance, never smiling in photographs.
To these may be added his prolectivity for "social imitation," living out aspects of his life by imitating others (who lived in the past), e.g. Poe’s drunkenness as a way out of commitments, his love for and marriage to his 13-year col cousin, Ernest Dowson’s infatuation for the 13-year-old waitress-daughter of an indiffrent restaurant-owner who served bad food and the 31-year-old Pessoa (playing it safe) with a 19-year-old clerk and the baby-talk he affected in letters to her. His Hamlet complex and his casting away his Ophelia. Pessoa’s use of masks (heteronyms). His interest in mechanical devises (e.g. trains and trying to invent a ranslation typewriter). His weakness for paradoxes, riddles (charadas), horoscopes and interest in the arcane overall, as well as his defense of secret societies. Consider, too, his tendency to perseverate, particularly in frequently repetitous poems of self-investigation, even in short poems like—to choose two of many—"Domingo irei para as hortas" or "Não: devagar."
There’s more evidence to indicate that Pessoa was more than casually Aspergerish, but this account of a conmpilation put together off the top of my head for the purposes of a class discussion, will give the reader some sense of the thinking that led to the conclusion that it would be fruitful to recognize that Fernando Pessoa’s life and works were not free from Asperger’s.
George Monteiro is a lifelong student and teacher of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, contributing to the scholarship on numerous writers, including Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Adams, Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot and Bob Dylan. His latest book is Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A Poetic Career Transformed (McFarland, 2012).