Fernando Pessoa – On How to Understand Symbols

Dyas Chimica Tripartita-1625

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“To understand symbols and symbolic rituals, demands the interpreter to possess five qualities or conditions, without them the symbols will be dead for him and him a dead for them.


The first one is sympathy, not the first one according to time, but the first one according to the order I quote them by degree of simplicity. The interpreter must feel sympathy for the symbol that he ventures to interpret. The defying attitude, the ironic one, the out of place one – All, without exception, deprive the interpreter of the first of the necessary conditions to interpret it.


The second one is intuition. Sympathy may join in being its ally, if it exists before, but it cannot arouse it. By intuition, on must comprehend this sort of understanding through what is beyond the symbol is sensed, without been seen.


The third one is intelligence. Intelligence analyses the symbol, decomposes it, orders it, reconstruct it on another plan; it cannot, though, use it as is only after sympathy and intuition have been used. One of the purpose of intelligence, in the examination of the symbols, is to bring back above what is in resonance with what is below. It could not achieve this if sympathy has not given the idea of this relation, if intuition has not established it. Then, intelligence from discursive by nature, will become analogical and the symbol can be interpreted.


The fourth one is understanding, and I mean by this word, the knowledge of other subjects that will allow that the symbol will be illuminated by other lights and put into relation with other diverse symbols, because beyond surface all things are the same. I will not speak out of erudition, like I could have done, as erudition is compendium; I will not speak out of culture, as culture is synthesis; and understanding is life. Like that some symbols cannot be truly understood if we haven’t managed before or at the same time, to understand different symbols.


The fifth one is the most delicate to define. I will risk myself to say to some that it is grace, then speaking to others that it is the hand of the Higher Unknowable, and finally to others that it is the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel, and I understand each of these things, that are one and the same, in the same manner that of those who use them in speaking or in writing.”

Translated into English from the French Christian Bourgois 1988 edition of the Collected Works. Here volume II, ‘Poemes Esoteriques’, ‘Message’et ‘Le Marin’.

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