The Book of Disquiet Archive as a Collaborative Textual Environment

Posted filed under Resource.
   |   

From Digital Archive to Digital Simulator

This article presents the Book of Disquiet Digital Archive (LdoD Archive, https://ldod.uc.pt/), a free online resource to be published in 2017. It begins with a brief introduction to the textual history of this work by the Portuguese modernist writer Fernando Pessoa and then focuses on the dynamic functionalities of the archive. The final paragraphs highlight the challenges of making such a complex textual environment intelligible and useful beyond a community of experts.

  1. What is the Book of Disquiet?

And because this book is absurd, I love it; because it is useless, I want to give it away; and because it serves no purpose to want to give it to you, I give it to you…

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet.

Translated by Richard Zenith. (Penguin Books, 2002).

Among several unfinished book projects by Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), there was a prose work begun in 1913 titled Livro do Desassossego [Book of Disquiet]. This work has been translated into many European languages during the past 30 years and is now generally regarded as one of Pessoa’s masterpieces and a major modernist work. What many readers do not know is that the first Portuguese edition only appeared in 1982, almost fifty years after the author’s death. It was only one of several posthumous works that editors have excavated (during the past eighty years) from the 30,000 autograph papers left by Pessoa and which have been in the possession of the National Library of Portugal since the late 1970s. Pessoa’s works continue to be edited (or re-edited) and studied by a new generation of scholars, at the same time that its popularity grows outside the Portuguese-speaking world.

The composition of most texts for the Book of Disquiet has been dated from two distinct periods: 1913-1920 and 1929-1934. During his lifetime Pessoa only published 12 pieces from this ongoing project in literary magazines (1913, 1929, 1930, 1931 and 1932). Currently, the National Library has catalogued 722 sheets as belonging to the Livro do Desassossego, of which 374 are typescripts, while 348 are manuscripts. Some of the documents are written only on recto, others on recto and verso. Witnesses show multiple stages of composition and revision: short annotations; brief paragraphs; multiple-page first drafts; clean corrected typescripts. Texts explicitly assigned by Pessoa to Livro do Desassossego contain the annotation “L. do D.” (hence the name we adopted: “LdoD Archive”). However, there are more than two hundred texts without the “L. do D.” annotation that also belong (or have been ascribed by editors as belonging) to the Livro. The total set of fragments in each of the four major editions has varied either because new texts have been discovered in Pessoa’s Archive, or because editors have decided to include or exclude particular texts. Another reason for variation originates in the fact that some documents have been interpreted as one single text or as more than one text.

Thus, we can offer two distinct answers to the question “What is the Book of Disquiet?”. The Book of Disquiet is an authorial project. The Book of Disquiet is an editorial construct. As an authorial project, it may be described as an unfinished and unorganised work written between 1913 and 1935, whose set of witnesses contains typescripts, manuscripts, and printed texts. As an editorial construct, it is the set of printed editions based on that authorial project. Editions vary in the interpretation of Pessoa’s intentions as inferred from textual witnesses. They vary in terms of selection, transcription, as well as division and organisation of textual units. Editions may vary also in heteronym attribution – Pessoa assigned many of his works to fictional authors, each of which had a particular style, psychology and biography. He used the word “heteronym” to describe such authorial personae. The first heteronym for the Livro (1913-1920) was Vicente Guedes, but the work was later (1929-1934) reassigned by Pessoa to Bernardo Soares, a persona described by Pessoa as a “semi-heteronym.”

When, in 2009, I conceived of the research project “No Problem Has a Solution: A Digital Archive of the Book of Disquiet”, my intention was to create a computational artefact that would allow us to examine the Book of Disquiet as both an authorial project (what I referred to as the genetic dimension of the Book) and an editorial construct (what I referred to as the social dimension of the Book). Those two dimensions would be fully integrated through a radial representation that would take any fragment (understood as the minimum textual unit of composition of the Book) as the unit of organisation of the Archive. While the authorial facet would be represented by digital facsimiles and new transcriptions of the autographs, the editorial forms of the work would be represented by the four major editions of the work published between 1982 and 2012. Each version of each text was marked up at an extremely granular level so that all types of variations became comparable across the textual corpus of each interpretation of the witnesses, but also within the structure of each edition.

This way there would be no single dominant hierarchical structure in the Archive, but only a series of dynamic perspectives offered by various possible structures that would allow users to move from authorial view to editorial view or from one editorial view to another editorial view. Users could thus see how the book (as a conceptual and material entity that instantiates a given idea of the work) had emerged from the archive in various shapes, according to specific editorial models of what the Book of Disquiet was or should be. Each edited book could be seen in the context of the authorial archive and in the context of other possible edited forms of itself. The modularity of the Book of Disquiet as a series of discrete texts, which could be assembled and ordered according to multiple criteria, was ideally suited for experimenting with the modularity of digital objects as programmable entities.

In 2011, this project was selected for funding by our national research agency (FCT – Foundation for Science and Technology), and it has been developed by a team of literary and computer scholars since then. Close collaboration with António Rito Silva, who designed and programmed the system, was essential for giving technical expression to the conceptual development of the model as our research advanced. In 2012, I realised that the dynamic features of the LdoD Archive could be expanded beyond the initial concept of comparing multiple versions of the Book in order to turn the archive into a participatory and socialised space for editing and writing. This was the moment when the technical and conceptual development of the archive gradually morphed into an experimental textual environment. From the original intentions of using Pessoa’s work as a research probe into the modernist imagination of the book, we came to this innovative notion of the Book of Disquiet as a textual place for literary simulation.

Because the editorial process of constructing the Book of Disquiet by its editors (which we had represented through its four major editions) could continue in the virtual space of the archive itself, we added a virtual editing functionality. Because the writing process of the Book of Disquiet could be not only observed at a very granular scale but also expanded as a writing process, we added a virtual writing functionality. The possibility of experimenting with the processuality of editing and the processuality of writing through actual editing and writing acts emerged as a reconceptualization of the digital archive as a model of literary performance in which interactions could take the form of role-playing. So the self-description that future users of the LdoD Archive will find on the website sums up the history of the project briefly outlined in the previous paragraphs.  

  1. What is the LdoD Archive?

    The current description of the Archive reads as follows:

The LdoD Archive is a collaborative digital archive of the Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. It contains images of the autograph documents, new transcriptions of those documents and also transcriptions of four editions of the work. In addition to reading and comparing transcriptions, the LdoD Archive enables users to collaborate in creating virtual editions of the Book of Disquiet. It also includes a writing module which, in the future, will allow users to write variations based on fragments of the Book. Thus the LdoD Archive combines a representational principle with a simulation principle: the first is expressed through the representation of the history and processes of writing and editing the Book; the second is embodied in the fact that users are given the possibility of playing various roles in the literary process (reading, editing, writing), using the flexibility of the digital medium for experimenting with the Book of Disquiet as a literary machine. (https://ldod.uc.pt/about/archive)

As you can see, the simulation function has been explicitly articulated as one of the guiding principles of the archive. The inadequacy of the “Archive” designation was already clear in presentations and articles about the project written in 2013. I now believe that a more appropriate designation would be LdoD Simulator, since we have gone beyond the remediation rationale that has determined digital archival projects developed during the last twenty years, such as the Rossetti Archive, The William Blake Archive, Dickinson Electronic Archives, The Walt Whitman Archive, Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscript Project or the Shelley-Godwin Archive, which we took as our initial models. Providing a combination of documentary editing with critical edition, integrating image and text in the same environment, often with the added value of aggregating many invaluable resources for the study of the remediated texts and books, those archives had redefined scholarly editing in digital media as a complex hypermedia network.

In its current textual, socialised and dynamic instantiation, the LdoD Archive would be more accurately described as a textual collaborative environment, where reading, writing, editing, collaborating and publishing are theoretically and functionally integrated. I have decided to retain the name LdoD Archive, because of the familiarity of the concept “archive” in digital scholarly editing, but I am well aware that the categorization implied by the established form of the concept is partially inadequate for the ensemble of functionalities that we have implemented. So our insolvable problem has turned into a problem of communication: how can we convey a new concept and new technical construct using familiar concepts but without submitting it to earlier frames of perception?

This question takes us to what is perhaps the most challenging aspect of any project that attains this level of complexity: how can we make it understandable and usable by different kinds of users – from the layperson who knows nothing about the Book of Disquiet, to students of Pessoa’s work at various stages of their experiencing the work, and to scholarly experts in the Book of Disquiet itself? These are questions that have to be addressed by any digital scholarly editing project, but which are often impossible to solve in any satisfactory way – either because the complexity of the digital textual apparatus is impenetrable for beginners and general users alike, or because the editors have not designed interfaces that avoid making the initial approach a daunting task.

We have tried to address this problem by structuring the archive into six different interfaces, each of which encapsulates only one dimension of the LdoD Archive, allowing access to functionalities related to that particular dimension:

  1. Reading: reading the work according to different sequences;
  2. Documents: listing of all fragments and information about sources;
  3. Editions: visualising autographs and comparing transcriptions;
  4. Search: selecting fragments according to multiple criteria;
  5. Virtual: creating virtual editions and their taxonomies;
  6. Writing: writing variations based on the fragments [functionality under development, which will only be available in a later release].

We have also carried out several usability tests for each set of functionalities using mixed groups that included both users with no knowledge of the Book of Disquiet and users with various levels of knowledge and expertise. These tests have provided invaluable insight into strategies for designing the interactions with the textual database, but also about the need for various levels of granularity in the meta-information provided about each menu and each set of tools (from short mouse-over prompts to detailed explanations of the editorial principles by means of FAQs). A step-by-step guide (with video aids) is being made for the virtual editing function, which was the most difficult concept for beta users to grasp. Of course, even these strategies are no guarantee that the LdoD Archive will become the multipurpose collaborative textual environment that we wanted it to be: available for leisure reading, for teaching and learning, for creative writing experiments, and also for advanced research, including future critical editions of the work.

Once the LdoD Archive is published,  we will work closely with two reading-editing-writing communities (one at a secondary school and the other at university level) to learn more about the actual uses of the textual environment and about how we can improve its design and make the concept of digital literary simulator intelligible for everyone. We also want to expand the archive into a multilingual textual space, but this will take a few more years of development. In the first release of the LdoD Archive (scheduled for September 2017), Pessoa’s text will be only in Portuguese, although the interfaces for the various sections of the archive as well as all meta-information are already presented in three languages: Portuguese, English, and Spanish. In future releases, we intend to include a multi-language version of the Book of Disquiet itself in which a selection of fifty texts will be translated into as many languages as possible.

If successful, the LdoD Archive will facilitate the construction of multiple reading paths that explore the modularity of the Book of Disquiet; it will enable the construction of narratives about the composition of the Book of Disquiet, based on the observation of images and transcriptions of the autograph documents; and it will also enable the construction of narratives about the editions of the Book of Disquiet, based on the comparative analysis of four critical editions as possible versions for this work. More importantly, it will create a collaborative textual environment that models literary processuality through the simulation of the acts of reading, editing and writing as dynamic constituents of the literary experience of text and language. Once this digital experiment goes live, only time will tell if it will catch the imagination of readers and scholars of the Book of Disquiet, or if it will become one more future evidence of a failed solution to an imaginary problem.

Manuel Portela (University of Coimbra, Portugal. Editor of the LdoD Archive: A Collaborative Digital Archive of the Book of Disquiet, 2017, URL: https://ldod.uc.pt [forthcoming])