'True originality,' Cocteau Pessoa's contemporary, wrote, 'consists in trying to behave like everybody else without succeeding.' It was once characteristically modern to idealise originality, and to conceive of it as a form of failure. The fittest as those who didn't fit. If there is nothing more compliant now than the wish to be original - to find one's own voice etc - it is also assumed that originality and success can, and should, go together. But for the European Modernist writers of Pessoa's generation - he was born in Lisbon in 1888 and died there in 1935 - the question was still: what has been lost when words like 'success' or 'originality' become ultimate values, when lives and writing are judged by these criteria? The Romantic concept of genius, after all - the apotheosis of originality - was itself a kind of elegy for a lost community. All the solitary, disillusioned moderns - Baudelaire, Kafka, Eliot, Beckett - are preoccupied by their sociability: its impossibility, its triviality, its compromises, its shame. For these writers ambition without irony flies in the face of the evidence; a successful life was a contradiction in terms, because the Modernist revelation was that lives don't work. A certain revulsion was integral to their vision.
LRB 17 July 1997 | PDF Download