"I arrive at my desk as at a bulwark against life," wrote Bernardo Soares. His work as a bookkeeper was often meaningless and at times exploitative. But it was meaningless and exploitative in predictable ways, easier to handle than life elsewhere. And it was a choice, which gave Soares a sense of agency and control:
"...since in life we must all be exploited, I wonder if it’s any worse to be exploited by Vasques [the boss]... than by vanity, by glory, by resentment, by envy or by the impossible."
And so, Soares saw work as a place of comfort. "In the same way that others return to their homes," he wrote, "I retreat to my non-home: the large office." But the office was not really a place for Soares to hide from life because Soares didn't really exist. He was the fictional creation of another person who worked in an office, the Portuguese author and poet Fernando Pessoa.
"Fictional" does not do Soares justice. He was not merely a character in a book. He was what Pessoa called a "heteronym," a full-fledged persona with its own history, style, handwriting, relationships with real people. Pessoa has dozens of heteronyms, and three, in particular, had full-fledged personalities and bodies of work. They even wrote letters to each other and to other, real people and published reviews and critiques of each other's works.
Was Soares a way for Pessoa to complain about his own time as an office worker? In real life, Pessoa's boss was also called Vasquez. But his work was less repetitive than Soares's. As Richard Zenith, Pessoa's biographer, points out:
"whereas Soares was condemned to the drudgery of filling in ledgers with the prices and quantities of fabric sold, Pessoa had a comparatively prestigious job writing business letters in English and French, for firms that did business abroad. He came and went pretty much as he wanted, never being obliged to work set hours."
Living in Lisbon in the 1920s and 30s, Pessoa was an early version of what we call a "knowledge worker," a man who makes a living doing non-repetitive, creative work. Still, the work was done for the benefit of a commercial endeavor.
Soares and Pessoa existed at the same time — one was the creation of the other. But their critiques of life at the office are a century apart. Soares epitomizes the 20th Century. He did not work in a factory, but his office was quite factory-like. His work did not require him to think or express his creativity and personality. It was structured and so devoid of life that Soares found solace in its protection against the emotional pressures (and meaninglessness) of real life outside the office.
Pessoa, on the other hand, epitomizes the 21st Century. He could work whenever and wherever he pleases. His employers allowed and required him to be creative and express himself — to bring his whole self to work. He could not leave life when he stepped into the office, and he could not leave work when he stepped back out. In that sense, Pessoa's work was all the more oppressive and exploitative. It did not simply ask Pessoa to do more than he was paid for; it asked for everything.
This explains the force of Pessoa's protest. Unlike the imaginary Soares, Pessoa did not simply complain or come up with ways to cope. He invented a whole new persona — dozens of them — in order to separate his office-work-life from his real life.
Having alternative personas did not just make it easier for him to write his poetry outside of work. It also made it easier for him to bring his creativity to the office.
As human work becomes more creative and personal, everyone will need to have multiple personas, and these personas will be increasingly elaborate. This has implications for NFTs, Facebook's vision of a virtual reality office, and more. But we'll have to discuss all this at a later date (subscribe, so you don't miss it).
In the meantime, have a great weekend. And if you're celebrating, happy new year!
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