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The Keeper of Sheep and the Tobacconist

Submitted by Niels Noot

It is on a warm spring evening that we see a well-dressed man of average height entering a pub in the centre of Lisbon. With his dark eyes, made darker by his brows, he looks through his round glasses for a spot to rummage his mind. The name of this particular pub is of no importance to us, neither is the name of the man described, but for the sake of clarity we willrefer to him as F. We see that he finds an empty table and after taking off his black hat and grey coat he adjusts his bowtie. He notices two gentlemen sitting at another table, not too far away, but nevertheless he places his chair a bit closer to them, without making the eavesdropping particularly obvious. The names of these two gentlemen we know, Alberto and Álvaro, shepherd and sailor. F. is immersed in listening to the conversation the gentlemen have, perhaps it can be of any value to him, because we know F. to be a poet. Let us join F. in his eavesdropping, mayhap we too will get some inspiration.

‘’Let me tell you something. Sometimes things just come easy to people, I see it everywhere. If you need examples just look around you, they are everywhere. Observe the cattle as living proof. You know, my grandmother lived on a farm. My motherwould tell me how the old lady just pulled the heads offchickens so that they could use them in their broth, and sometimes the chickens would walk on for a bit afterwards. What she did not see was that my grandmother was one of those chickens, just a bigger one, without a head, walking on for a bit. I would call that the literal forming and reforming of our reality. Take the head but leave the life. If only she would have seen it, perceived it, the simplicity that comes with life. Look at it all through the objectivity of nature and you will know the meaning.’’

‘’Getting to, and creating, that meaning is not as easily done as saying it. There is a thin line – very blurry, I know thatAlberto – between meaning and superstition. Before you know it you are here believing in a faith of some sort. The thought of faith is peculiar to me: everything being made ready for you in advance, and every delay only resulting in an acceleration afterwards. Would you want to believe in that? Being able to attach a meaning, or to fantasize it, to just create it, would that prevent man from going insane? No man I know had it, connecting the meaning, freeing him from guilt. Becoming at last an ecce homo ad infinitum.’’

‘’In that same village my mother and grandmother were born, there was a young man, who welcomed the voices of all great poets. Blessed with that knowledge I visited the one blessed with knowledge. Naturally he was talked about by the people.‘’He knows all,’’ they said. Among many other things, theremissed a person to proclaim this young man his prodigy, his savant, to make him his Ireneo Funes. Upon our meeting I found him younger than I had expected. One burdened with knowledge shall be oldened in his soul. But not him, for he knew all and everything but one. The essential he was deniedwas sight. Seeing the meaning of it. You talked about creating, but you are wrong. It is seeing. Our only wealth is seeing. Behold! Everything is already there! Conceive quiddity, materialize quiddity, perpetuate quiddity. I tried to convey his potential to him, but no master could have gotten through, as he cherished his quaint farm life. He remained at his farm, the loss. Reciting García Lorca and Luís de Camões till death did him part. Believe, es verdad!’’

‘’I cannot see it, and it costs me such sorrow, wanting it as I want it, that is why I resorted to creating instead of seeing. With seeing it all hurts me, the air we breathe, my beating heart, even my linen hat. It is like they all deceive me, wanting meaning like I want meaning. And you say it is to be found in nature, you who thinks as the colours of a million flowers? You sound like you succeeded in seeing it all, you know objects are rarely equal, so you write about that. But what comes after this? Will we be remembered as manifestations of insanity, or as manifestations of genius? You tell me, as I cannot say, because I do not even know what I am, let alone what I shall be. Your mistake in seeing is your proclaimed objectivity, the one you seek in nature. It is not there. The meaning seen was different for your Ireneo than it was for you. Only in nature, you say, is objectivity, but we cannot see that. Only in our absence is it there; when we are present the fallacy that is us distorts it all. Nonetheless do we attempt to touch upon that light, and as one comes closer to that moon or sun, to that light, one’s shadow only enlarges immensely due to the diminishing distance. And all who try, all who think of reaching it, have the desire to be the same, but do you agree that of that desirous being there cannot be all that many?’’

‘’Álvaro, what you tell me is true. However, remember this: The colours that I want to think like are brilliant, they are perfect. That perfection I lack, for I cannot be only external in nature. And that moon. It is so small. Look at my watch for example, and then at the moon. They attempt to reach the same goal, to fill the enormous darkness that is night. One with a futile reflection of light, the other with the futile reflection of passing time. Do not try to reach the light, as your shadow will only cast more darkness. You would only abate the efforts of moon and time. But let us stop wandering, the essence of our discussion is getting forlorn, dying away the moment it is born. As is most conversation anyway by choice of subject. Did you see what Ricardo Reis wrote about the sad truth that decay starts as soon as life is commenced? Roses, he wrote, roses that die the day they are born in Adonis’ garden. But love is there. Dying red roses synonymous to the love of Lydia.’’

‘’Do you know anything about love Alberto? You simple keeper of sheep, keeper of thoughts. I know Ricardo knows love, but do you? Ah, do not let me bore you with this, you wouldn’t know. And besides, neither do I, I am not interested in love. Only Ricardo is romantic enough to indulge in love with his vanity. I prefer the discontinuity of truth as it appears in many and before some. Too abstract, too abstract, my apologies. I am overcome by this feeling that when we exchange our words the abstract becomes so fruitless, there is never any deductible meaning to it, is there?’’

‘’For a man clever enough to integrate the truth in his dialogue, trifling Ricardo seems rather foolish. He sees life, and he asks nothing, let us leave him to adore his gods. As you say it, I do know only little about love. I know I love but not why, not even what. To call what I love the untouched would dissolve the very thing. Love is presence and the untouched is that which has not been caressed by presence yet. When I was still young, I was pondering through the trees in Ribatejo, between the disemboguement of the Rio Zêzere and the Tagus River. After several nights of frost the forest had transformed beautifully, covered with a phantasmagoric white cloak. A condition the woods rarely take on. And this truly appeared untouched, but I am not fooled by appearances, for it can never be. I returned to my sheep and my great aunt. She was regarded as an educated woman, but she was never kind enough to pass all her wisdom on to me, so I had to find it myself, and some of it I have found, but never all. Never all. I talked to her about the forest’s cloak, and how devoid of life it appeared to be. Do not be fooled, she said, nature never obscures itself entirely, you just need to know where the veil is lifted. So have I found my way of discovering the veil’s opening.’’

‘’While you speak to me about nature, I light my cigar, drink like a sailor and think of the sea. For I am a sailor! The sea is the truly veiled nature you seek. Every ship that sails it is in search of something long lost, they are fuelled by nostalgia, which is induced on the land. Have you ever set sail? No? If you ever will, do not be surprised by the melancholia that dawns you when distances increase. For me the sadness came because when you look out over the perennial blue plains and you know nothing is real. Your eyes will deceive you, you will see what is there, and you realise that you might not reach your sheep-filled Ithaca again. Frightening yes, but have your peace with it. Having not a single certainty in life surrounded by blue provokes the ataraxia Ricardo can only dream about. But please, have another drink with me before you depart.’’

‘’Your drinking reminds me of a story of a man I once heard. He was regarded as a funny figure, known for his glasses and dark brows. He adored spending his nights drinking in pubs, and while often alone he was known by everyone in the Bairro Alto in Lisbon for his drinking, and writing. One evening, when enjoying the effects of excessive drinking, one onlooker said to him, ‘’you are drinking like a sponge.’’ As witty as he was drunk he uttered a response to the onlooker, ‘’more like a sponge-selling establishment!’’ Now you watch out with your drinks, the man in question is said to have died of failure of the liver.’’

‘’Shepherd, are you deceiving me? What of your stories is true? What is a lie? You claim to be uneducated, yet you speak with wisdom. You claim to be a simple argonaut of nature, herding woollen thoughts, yet you sound well-travelled in your tales. You seem to be looking for the truth in your fiction. But your fiction is readymade, you know what you will say and it will reveal nothing to you, nor to me. Your tales of the absurd and the magnificent have the purpose of getting stuck in my head, filled with hope to portray some deeper understanding later. In the morrow I will have already forgotten the glassed man and your Ireneo, you tell these trivial tales in vain, and I am too sedated already to change anything about it.’’

‘’Álvaro, mind your words. You and I know each other, we go a long way back. Do you only now realise I am a liar, a fortune teller for the tame? And we are not different from each other. You asked me whether we would be remembered as manifestations of insanity or of genius. Neither, of course, we will not be remembered at all. We are born and we will die, we have history and future but both of us are just concoctions of one man’s megalomaniac mind, only here to remember him.Man deems himself sane in his own insanity, and does not care about anything else. In that Ricardo is perhaps the most real ofall of us. But come now, let me shepherd you to your home.’’

After Alberto and Álvaro go home we see that F. remains seated for some time, maybe he is processing the ramblings he just witnessed, but we cannot know for sure. These three men prove to be not some ordinary drunkards, and that was known to the people in Lisbon. Years later many wondered what became of these men. Some say Alberto Caeiro passed away in 1915, because his simplicity had become too complicated. What we know is that Alberto Caeiro really died in 1935, along with him Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis and many others passed. At the same time, at the same place, in the same mind, the one that belongs to F.

F. was a witty man, one who was fond of speaking to the people in his hometown, and his neighbourhood of the Bairro Alto. He was a poet, and a drinker, known to be solemn but talkative when drunk. Naturally, I know F.’s entire name, unlike you, but perhaps you have guessed it. If you haven’t guessed it yet, let me reveal it to you, and enjoy this tale to be an allegory of the poet’s mind, a flâneur to himself, searching for words, for poetry, and creating lives out of the inner voices speaking within him. Fernando Pessoa.


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