21. 1. 2021

English Version | The mirror of the soul

by Ana Murcho

 

In 1959 Vergílio Ferreira published Aparição, a novel that intended, above all, to “make man visible to himself.” It's to him, and to other masters of existentialist thought, that we return whenever we discover ourselves, as individuals, in front of a mirror - because this rare manifestation of human experience is a unique and unrepeatable moment in the life of each of us.

“There was, finally, since childhood, this old
question about the discovery of ourselves
and that I had also made my father one day:
- Who am I?
It was a summer afternoon, my father was reading the newspaper
near the tank, I was looking at the water, absorbed.
- Well - my father said, a little disturbed: - you
are my son, a man, a human being that thinks,
that lives and that will die just like the other human beings.
- But me, what I am?
My father chose to tell me the story of the evolution of life.
But me, who believe it today as accurate, felt, as I still do,
that something had been left to explain and that it was myself,
that living entity that inhabits me,
that obscure and virulent presence that had happened to me,
as I will also tell, when I saw her looking at me in the mirror.”

in Aparição, Vergílio Ferreira, Bertrand Editora, 1998

I was 13 years old when I got up from the couch to make sure that the epiphany reported in the pages I had in my hands was not a cheap trick, a eureka moment that after all was nothing more than a cliché, worse, that it was not the lowest lard of the snake coated into words, ones that provoked in me a profound sense of revelation. I went to the bathroom and I stood there, inert, in front of the mirror, for a period of time that I can't precise - it might have been ten minutes, but it is possible that it has been ten years, it is possible that that moment has not yet ended. "There is no apparition, because that would not be to appear, it would just be, it would be petrified", shouted that unknown man. “But the other day, as soon as I got up, I put myself where I had seen myself in the mirror and looked. Before me was a person who looked at me with an entire individuality who lived in me and whoI ignored. I approached, fascinated, and looked closely. And saw, sawthe eyes, the face of that someone who inhabited me, who was me and that I had never imagined. For the first time I had this alarmlive reality that was me, of this living being that until then had lived with me in the absolute indifference of just being and in which now I discovered something more, that exceeded and scared me. How many times later would I repeat the experience in the desire to fix that fulminating appearance of me to myself, that mysterious entity that I was and now absolutely announced myself.” And so I did.I looked in the mirror and, for the first time, I saw me with total awareness of myself - my body, my reflection, my (supposed) soul. I looked in the mirror and, for the first time, I realized that I existed - that I occupied a certain space, that my eyes were, in fact,my eyes, and that looking at them was an act of rebellion, becausethe iris was lost in the infinity of that masochistic glow and played tricks on me that I still couldn't control. I looked in the mirror and, for the first time, realized that my image could be both clear and blurred, and that the reflected person,me, was as easily recognizable as was strangely diffuse. And in no time at all, all the certainties that supported my fragile identity turned to dust. Because, after that confrontation with myself and my destiny, only nausea, fear and anxiety remained. "Who am I?"

The synopsis of what is one of the most important books by Vergílio Ferreira (1916-1996) is apparently simple. As we can read on the website of Quetzal, the publisher responsible for reissuing the work, “Alberto Soares, the central character, remembers the year he taught in Évora. And people that he knew and that, in some way, contributed to the consolidation of his theories about existence: Sofia, with whom he maintained a tumultuous erotic relationship, and his sisters, Ana and Cristina. Carolino who, out of jealousy, tries to kill Alberto, but ends up killing Sofia. Cristina, Sofia's child sister, also dies.” With this information, the less knowledgeable reader of the Prémio Camões 1992 trajectory may make the mistake of passing by a small existentialist masterpiece that has all the ingredients to be a turning point in the life of those who read it. Otherwise, let's see: Aparição was written when the ghost of the Second World War still hung over much of Europe, leaving traces of fear and desolation in a poor and divided continent, and in the middle of Estado Novo, in a period of grayness and doubt, which transformed Portugal in a backward, isolated, aimless country; the two components, separately, would be enough to question the whole of human existence - the fact that they coexist is proof that thinking “beyond” it would be something not only necessary, but also urgent, for a writer like Vergílio Ferreira, who made constant questioning his art form. More: in the middle of the 20th century, Einstein revolutionized science, dethroning dozens of ideas about the cosmos hitherto taken for granted, and Nietzsche had announced, shortly before, in a clear and tenebrous way, the death of God. Man, as has been written several times, "was completely alone, without heaven or hell", and the only thing left for him was to find a meaning for life.

That is what Vergílio Ferreira set up to do, using Alberto Soares to make a radiograph of the relationship between human being with himself, with God, and with everything around him. Aparição is not just a novel - it is an autobiographical novel, in which all the great existential questions, more or less subjective, are lived by the narrator, who will end up telling how he discovered himself in front of a mirror. It is an experience of self-discovery that, as the writer later referred to in the essay Invocação Ao Meu Corpo, “was an experience that was necessary and that is why others did it after me.” But what experience is this? It is the experience that marks the turning point between living and existing, between being alive and having a full sense of being alive, it is the experience of astonishment, reunion, restlessness, the question that detonates all questions: "Who am I?" The “apparition” that gives name to the book is, in short, that experience, that rare manifestation of conscience and soul in the face of a body that sees itself reflected and observes its contours, as if it were the first turn. "Who am I?" It is as if, until the moment of “apparition”, the man / woman who experienced it lived in a state of numbness, oblivious to his own life, in a pre-reflective state, from which he can only awaken when confronted with something greater than himself / herself - her reflection.

That is what Vergílio Ferreira set up to do, using Alberto Soares to make a radiograph of the relationship between human being with himself, with God, and with everything around him. Aparição is not just a novel - it is an autobiographical novel, in which all the great existential questions, more or less subjective, are lived by the narrator, who will end up telling how he discovered himself in front of a mirror. It is an experience of self-discovery that, as the writer later referred to in the essay Invocação Ao Meu Corpo, “was an experience that was necessary and that is why others did it after me.” But what experience is this? It is the experience that marks the turning point between living and existing, between being alive and having a full sense of being alive, it is the experience of astonishment, reunion, restlessness, the question that detonates all questions: "Who am I?" The “apparition” that gives name to the book is, in short, that experience, that rare manifestation of conscience and soul in the face of a body that sees itself reflected and observes its contours, as if it were the first turn. "Who am I?" It is as if, until the moment of “apparition”, the man / woman who experienced it lived in a state of numbness, oblivious to his own life, in a pre-reflective state, from which he can only awaken when confronted with something greater than himself / herself - her reflection. “An act of presence is not defined, it does not fit in words. I AM. Jet of myself, intimacy with me, me, the person who is in me, the absurd necessity to be, the absolute intensity on the threshold of my appearance in me, this thing that is me, this individuality that I do not only want to see from the outside as in a mirror but to feel this categorical affirmation of being that cannot imagine being born, because what I am has no limits in the pure act of being, this evidence that terrifies me when a ray of light emerges from the thickness that covers me. And these hands, these feet that are mine and are not mine, because I am them, but I am also in them, because I live them, they are my person and yet I also see them from above, from outside, as the pen I'm writing with.” After this moment, which Vergílio Ferreira / Alberto Soares remembers again and again as a harbinger of turning point, nothing will be the same.

There are many thinkers who question, and who have questioned, the place of the human being, using existentialism to ask questions that often do not offer any possible answer: Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gabriel Marcel, Kierkegaard ... Machado de Assis (1839-1908), the biggest name in Brazilian literature, dedicated himself to this theme. In his short story O Espelho, originally published in the newspaper Gazeta de Notícias, in 1882, he uses the mirror as a metaphor for the transformation brought about by the main character, the apparently dull and insensitive Jacobina, who finds himself face to face with his reflection and, in an instant, frees himself from the prison that he felt for just being himself: “It reminded me to put on the ensign's uniform. I put it on, got ready all over; and, as I was in front of the mirror, I looked up, and ... I tell you nothing; the glass then reproduced the integral figure; no less lines, no different contours; it was myself, the ensign, who finally found the outer soul. That absent soul with the owner from the site, dispersed and escaped with the slaves, here he is collected in the mirror. Imagine a man who, little by little, emerges from a lethargy, opens his eyes without seeing, then begins to see, distinguishes the people of the objects, but does not know each other individually; in short, he knows that this is so-and-so, that is John Doe; here is a chair, there is a sofa. Everything goes back to what it was before sleep. So it was with me. I looked in the mirror, went from side to side, stepped back, gestured, smiled and the glass expressed everything. He was no longer an automaton, he was an excited being. From then on, I was another. Each day, at a certain time, I dressed myself as an ensign, and sat in front of the mirror, reading while looking, meditating; after two, three hours, I undressed me again. With this regime I was able to go through six more days of solitude without feeling them...” It is possible that neither Jacobina nor any of us who go through the same experience of "apparition" will achieve anything greater, or more valuable, than the common mortal who lives untouched by such trials. However, neither Jacobina nor any of us who go through the same experience of “apparition” will remain the same.

A single difference, however, unites and separates the two sides of the barricade of this process of "seeing oneself", as Vergílio Ferreira called it - those who live it, and those who are not even aware of them: it is accessible to everyone. Theoretically, everyone can experience it. Because, at bottom, the “apparition” is the negative and positive, it is the before and the after, it is life and death, it is the past and the future, it is the moment that distinguishes the states of dormancy and awakening. The "apparition" is the beginning and the end, at the same time, because it does not contemplate a return - after it, no one will ever be the same. The "apparition" is what differentiates being here and knowing that we are here, is to become aware of (our) existence with all its limitations and faults. It is to realize that everything ends at the exact moment it begins. It is to face the absurd, which we think can be infinite, and to ask all possible questions, without waiting for an answer. It is to assume that we are gods, knowing that we are dust from the stars, or neither, nor more than that, or anything like that. It is to face a mirror ten minutes, ten years, permanently, and to ask, without fear: “Who am I?" And transform the tragedy of our finitude into an asset for other appearances. "This is your body," says the mirror. “But there will certainly be much more than the body that you cannot show me,” replies the soul.

Translated from the original on Vogue Portugal's The Mirror issue, published january 2021.