If you can,
With no anguish, no rush.
And the steps you take,
On that hard path
Of the future,
Do take them freely.
Until you achieve
Do not repose.
Of no fruit be content with half.
And, never satiated,
Go on gathering
Successive illusions at the orchard.
The adventure’s deceit.
You are a man, forget it not!
Madness is yours
if yourself you lucidly see upon it.
Miguel Torga , Diário: Vols. XIII a XVI. Lisboa: D. Quixote, [s.d.], p. 20. Translation for this website by Sara Leite.
This poem should not have been forgotten because it helps those who read it to understand that there is nothing wrong with starting all over again, quite the opposite, and also because it suggests that madness might be the sanest way of being human.
By addressing a second person, who might be the poet himself, or the reader, who is thus implied in the text, this brief poem recalls the myth of Sisyphus to compose a sort of hymn to life as most of us know it: a quest filled with vicissitudes.
However, this is a rather melancholy hymn, which is understandable since from the most obvious myth stems another: the punishment of Tantalus, who was condemned to spend all eternity attempting, with no success, to reach the fruit that would satiate his hunger. Thus, the poet advises us to «gather / Successive illusions at the orchard». This fruit may not be forbidden, but it is certainly appealing, although not entirely satisfactory: much as we collect it, «no fruit» can be exempted from its falsehood. Hence, the poet/reader/human being is «never satiated».
One could say that what happens in this poem is similar to what we can observe in the short story “Cegarrega”, also by Miguel Torga: a classic narrative is revived and examined under a light that tends to question hastened or prefabricated interpretations that we may have grown accustomed to. The short story from Os Bichos recuperates Aesop’s fable and praises the perseverance of the cicada, with which the poet is identified, while pointing the finger at the mean, insensitive ant, who is unable (or unwilling) to appreciate the triumph that the deafening song of the cicada represents, even if the noise “makes one dizzy”. The poem “Sisyphus” in its turn revisits the myth of the king of Ephyra, doomed to push a rock uphill in Hell for all eternity, as the rock would inevitably roll back down before it reached the top.
In this Greek legend (as in Tantalus’s punishment), being destined to «start over», is thus a terrible fate. In the poem, however, beginning again is more like a wise piece of advice given by someone who suggests facing the task with ease and tranquillity («If you can, / With no anguish, no rush»). And we may well conclude that there is an intention to mitigate the hardship , and the likely frustration involved in fastidiously repeating a process, through a more optimistic attitude that highlights the positive aspects of the effort: the «man» whom the poet addresses is encouraged to see himself as the master of his own fate, and to make the most of the consecutive opportunities that life offers him, as he walks the path towards fulfilment.
So, here, the verb to (re)start is alleviated from its negative weight that the two Greek myths impose upon it, and is converted into a powerful way to exert one’s will, which makes it possible to reach personal and moral value through autonomy («And the steps you take / […] Do take them freely»), perseverance («Until you achieve / Do not repose»), demand («Of no fruit be content with half»), wisdom («Realizing / Awake, / The adventure’s deceit») and dignity («You are a man, forget it not!»).
This «adventure» is nevertheless a trap filled with «deceit»: the «orchard» is full of fruit that, even if wholly enjoyed, will leave an aftertaste of falsehood in the human mouth. The «Successive illusions» are to be gathered, yes, but it is crucial that they be identified as such. That is, as it were, the first level of lucidity.
Given that we are limited by all sorts of restraints, frauds and chimeras, we might as well be proud of the «path» we choose, as long as we are wise enough to accept (or acknowledge) ourselves, regardless of how senseless our route seems to be: «Realising / Awake, / The adventure’s deceit». We may feel unhappy, but we can still find within ourselves the satisfaction of knowing that we are free and healthily insane. That would be the second level of lucidity.
«You are a man, forget it not!», that is, humanity is not just about consciousness, it is also about free will. It is through lucidity that one acquires the right to own one’s own madness: «Madness is yours / if yourself you lucidly see upon it ». And in this apparent paradox lies the highest form of human freedom, of humanity itself – the distinct feature of our species. After all, thanks to the gift of consciousness, we are the only being capable of acknowledging our own insanity. And let us not forget that, without madness, man would be no more than a rational being. Or, in the words of king Sebastião, as written by Fernando Pessoa, a «healthy beast, / Delayed corpse that breeds».
Sara de Almeida Leite
Sara de Almeida Leite is a full-time professor at ISEC Lisboa. She studied at the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), where she started her teaching career in 1995. She has published several books about Portuguese language, as well as articles and papers about good practice in teaching language and literature. She also writes fiction for teenagers (a series called “O Mundo da Inês”, published by Porto Editora), and occasionally works as a translator and an illustrator.