All life is a dream

If I have no other virtue, I at least have the permanent novelty of free, uninhibited sensation.

Today, walking down the Rua Nova do Almada, I happened to gaze at the back of the man walking ahead of me. It was the ordinary back of an ordinary man, a simple sports coat on the shoulders of an incidental pedestrian. He carried an old briefcase under his left arm, and his right hand held the curved handle of a rolled-up umbrella, which he tapped on the ground to the rhythm of his walking.

I suddenly felt something like tenderness for that man. I felt the tenderness one feels for common human banality, for the daily routine of the family breadwinner going to work, for his humble and happy home, for the happy and sad pleasures that necessarily make up his life, for the innocence of living without analysing, for the animal naturalness of that coat-covered back.

My eyes returned to the man’s back, the window through which I saw these thoughts.

I had the same sensation as when we watch someone sleep. When asleep we all become children again. Perhaps because in the state of slumber we can do no wrong and are unconscious of life, the greatest criminal and the most self-absorbed egotist are holy, by a natural magic, as long as they’re sleeping. For me there’s no discernible difference between killing a child and killing a sleeping man.

This man’s back is sleeping. His entire person, walking ahead of me at the very same speed, is sleeping. He walks unconsciously, lives unconsciously. He sleeps, for we all sleep. All life is a dream. No one knows what he’s doing, no one knows what he wants, no one knows what he knows. We sleep our lives, eternal children of Destiny. That’s why, whenever this sensation rules my thoughts, I feel an enormous tenderness that encompasses the whole of childish humanity, the whole of sleeping society, everyone, everything.

It’s an immediate humanitarianism, without aims or conclusions, that overwhelms me right now. I feel a tenderness as if I were seeing with the eyes of a god. I see everyone as if moved by the compassion of the world’s only conscious being. Poor hapless men, poor hapless humanity! What are they all doing here?

I see all the actions and goals of life, from the simple life of lungs to the building of cities and the marking off of empires, as a drowsiness, as involuntary dreams or respites in the gap between one reality and another, between one and another day of the Absolute. And like an abstractly maternal being, I lean at night over both the good and bad children, equal when they sleep and are mine. I feel for them with an infinite capacity for tenderness.

I tear my gaze from the back of the man ahead of me and look at all the other people walking down this street, and I embrace each and every one of them with the same cold, absurd tenderness that came to me from the back of the unconscious man I’m following. The whole lot is just like him: the girls chatting on their way to the workshop, the young men laughing on their way to the office, the big-bosomed maids returning with their heavy purchases, the delivery boys running their first errands – all of this is one and the same unconsciousness, diversified among different faces and bodies, like marionettes moved by strings leading to the same fingers of an invisible hand. They go on their way with all the manners and gestures that define consciousness, and they’re conscious of nothing, for they’re not conscious of being conscious. Whether clever or stupid, they’re all equally stupid. Whether old or young, they’re all the same age. Whether men or women, all are of the same sex that doesn’t exist.  

Fernando Pessoa,
Bernardo Soares, ''The Book of Disquiet'' 
(Text 70) 

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