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🦎 Chameleon

Here's an excerpt from a long-form essay I'm writing on identity & social media. I don't have an intro yet, so I'm dropping you straight into section 1 (nine in total). Under "Related Writings" above, you'll find some other writings around similar ideas.

Michael Dean
Michael Dean
5 min read

Pessoa, the man with a thousand voices

The ghost of Lisbon (01a)

Social media's savior comes from an unsuspecting place and time. Bring yourself back to the streets of a pre-war Lisbon. Bring yourself back one hundred years: before "likes" and feeds, before phones and nuclear bombs, and before a kid accidentally invented a billion dollar hypnosis machine in his Harvard dorm room.

Somewhere in these streets, lined with ceramic tiles and Spanish fountains, is a hard-to-see writer who unknowingly holds the key to our crisis. He's the overlooked saint of the Creator Economy. He would never admit to it either. On the outside, he's masked as a put-together accountant. But on the inside, he floats through a psychedelic dream world that bleeds out through his pens. He was half-man, half-ghost, and did whatever he could to not draw attention to himself. Basically invisible, like the heat rising from a hot road.

Cloaked in shyness, and often lost in a plume of smoke, he always refused to have his photo taken. He would've been a natural on SnapChat. Legend says his face would disappear when he looked into mirrors. Imagine a real-life Inspector Gadget, with a thousand exotic pens in the inner-lining of his trench-coat, each one enabling him to twist like a chameleon into any writer he dreamed of. The man was a shape-shifter, and his output was delirious.

Like a secret-agent seeping acid into the town water supply, he puzzled the locals. As he walked down the streets, paper scraps would spray out his bag, travel through wind, and find their ways to different parts of town. Normal folks would bend over, pick up a page, and without expecting it, get ransacked by the glowing musings of an unnamed madman. Lisbon was suddenly littered with gold. The streets were lined with invented languages, bizarre ramblings, critiques of local governors, detailed descriptions of clouds, and fake journal entries from historic writers. Has Walt Whitman been resurrected, or is there a new literary movement bursting out?

What seemed like a group of pseudonymous writers was eventually all be traced back to a single man: Fernando Pessoa

He might be the weirdest and most self-sabotaging writer in history. By no means is he an obvious candidate for the poster-child of a new social media, but stick with me. Despite Pessoa being an outlier, his story taps into one of the most fundamental puzzles of our nature: identity.

I've been getting more and more obsessed with Pessoa as I dive into my journey of online writing. There's an egg to crack in his perspective, that is, to me, more important than brand building. Back in an analog era, he figured out how to short-circuit his identity, letting him tap into a realm of unfiltered imagination. Beyond figuring it out for myself, there's a much larger potential here. Pessoa can scale. What if we built a social network that's designed so people don't get locked up by expectations?

Despite my chores and sleep obligations, I've been getting sucked into Pessoa's wormholes every other night, often at four in the morning, like a three-legged camel basking in quicksand.

The literary giant no one's ever heard of (01b)

"If he's so good, how come nobody's ever heard of him?" Will wasn't buying into my hype.

He's read way more literature than anyone I know, and holds encyclopedic-knowledge of all history's great writers. Pessoa's "magnum opus" is the "Book of Disquiet," a non-linear collage of 500 "atomic essays" that were stitched together by a team of quarreling editors after Pessoa died. The dude never even wrote a novel. But from the 45 pages I've read so far, I'm entranced.

Steiner calls him "one of the evident giants in modern literature." C.K. Williams praised his "amazing audacities, his brilliance, and his shyness." (Let's pretend we know and care about literary critics). Bloom even ranked Pessoa in the top 25 writers in the Western Cannon, up there with Shakespeare and Dante, Virginia Woolf and Proust.

How did Pessoa get associated with this fleet of legends? It's as if he never showed up to his class photo, never turned in any assignments, scribbled absurd sketches in his friend's yearbooks, and somehow earned the title of valedictorian.

There's a clear reason why Pessoa went undetected through history:

He wrote to "write himself out of existence."

The man with a thousand voices (01c)

Throughout Pessoa's fifty years of existence, he wrote under 73 different pen-names. Let that sink in for a second. Imagine the nightmare he would've faced while managing Zoom accounts. I can barely manage two, and often blow my cover.

He was the alter-ego's alter-ego. I thought I was crazy for birthing "second-layer" pseudonyms. But Pessoa took the rouse farther than anyone could have imagined. If you write under a pseudonym, or even if you're just pseudonym-curious, this is a writer you need to know about.

Pessoa had this instinct since he was a kid. He wrote poems and stories, signing them as one-off fake characters. But the processes materialized and set the course for his career when he self-published a newspaper as a teenage daydreamer. It was a pre-war Portugese version of "The Onion." It had satires, spoofs, riddles, and fake news. The difference is Pessoa's Onion didn't have an army of college writers. Pessoa pretended to be a whole staff of journalists, each one with their own voice, biography, and opinion.

A realization hit him. He had the ability to house not just one or two writers within himself, but as many as he wanted, simultaneously. Whether you chalk his gift up to imagination, talent, or a strange brain chemistry, the man was a chameleon.

Pessoa wasn't trying to build a name for himself. He wasn't trying to write novels and make it into the literary hall of fame. He had no manifesto, no vision, and no message to hypnotize the world with. He flat out says, "I'm nobody, and I have nothing to say." Bleak shit. But to Pessoa, the most captivating thing was to jump in and out of his own skin, to try on different identities like clothing, and to see how they resonated in his soul. When something felt right, he summoned a new being into the world like a magician. He gave them a voice. Through publishing poems and stories, his imagination became shockingly real, and no one in Lisbon had a clue.



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