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Letter to Pessoa and Vishvarupa: The Other as Self, The Self as Other

By Harold Legaspi.

‘There can be no tyrants where there are no slaves.’ ~ Dr. José Rizal

‘I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities that I have visited, all my ancestors… ‘ ~ Jorge Luis Borges

​Michelle Cahill’s fiction collection, Letter to Pessoa and her second book of poetry Vishvarupa bring the reader to the only possible world. A world that evokes Borges’ labyrinthine mirrors, of colonisers and the colonised, of loners in their own void, of protagonists with mixed ancestries, refugees, migrants, mothers or exploited workers, in communal yet democratic systems, war-torn yet contemplative, global yet local, queer yet normative; a world paying credence to marginalised voices, meditative, formulaic and imperfect.

In this world, the Other becomes the Self, and the Self becomes the Other. So we must question. Is there a sense of Self? Who is the Other? What do we see when we look at into the mirror? How do others perceive us?

In order to validate my argument that Letter to Pessoa represents the Other as Self and vice-versa there are characteristics about Cahill that require attention. First, she is of Anglo-Goan descent, a Hindu-Buddhist, who practises Vispassana. The theoretical underpinning of Cahill’s work may be understood by reading Dennis Hudson’s paper ‘Bathing in Krishna’, which speaks of reverting to Hindu scriptures of the ‘Sanskrit Veda’, and the ‘Tamil poets, the ālvārs with their poetry’. Of particular revelation is the idea of Vishvarupa, translated as ‘Omni-form’ or ‘Universal form’, which maintains an expression of ‘the extreme graciousness of Nārāyana, the primal form of Vishnu, who reaches out towards all beings entangled in the manifest, sensual and transitory realm, samsara’ (i.e. the end of suffering). In other words, Vishnu, the supreme deity, is considered to contain in him the whole universe.

According to Hudson, the Sri Vaisnavas of South India’s beliefs are ‘embedded with the essence of the Upanishads’, and ‘through it the Lord Vishnu will bathe his devotees with grace and unending delight.’ The Sri Vaisnavas sect is a major religious tradition in South India, which recognises Vishnu in his various forms as supreme lord of the universe, and its name signifies that it worships him together with his consort Śrī or Lakshmī.

It is a joy to learn of Cahill’s work, thinking that the verses are embedded in the Vedas, which in itself was ‘without authorship’, and in the past was strictly ‘inaccessible by women’ (Hudson, 1980). It is my humble opinion, that women should be entitled to write (let alone access) such verses, for it is their minds and bodies which are the closest to the God(s), with their ability to fulfil humanity’s highest aspiration to harbour the seed to create consciousness: Selves, Others.

Coincidentally, Cahill has published Vishvarupa, comprising fifty-one poems, itself a collection both avant-garde and modernist, in that it moves Australian poetry forward by bringing us back into the metaphysical rather than the existential realm. The existential realm is more commonplace in Asian-Australian poetry. According to Paul Hoover in his book Postmodern American Poetry, instead of ‘eternity being driven out completely, and therewith Being, it is to be replaced by the unrelenting reign of Becoming…eternity reduced to ethernity.’ Cahill’s poems posit ‘post-political’ world conditions, including a Shakespearean inter-textual prose poem ‘Kissing Hamlet’, and reveres Hindu Gods like ‘Vāyu, God of Wind’, the Hindu and Buddhist god of fortune Ganesha, and Sarasvatī, Hindu Goddess of knowledge, music, art and wisdom.

With Letter to Pessoa and Vishvarupa’s theophanies, perhaps Cahill, when she looked in the mirror saw duality, not only women but men, not only Gods but humans, who manifested themselves as ‘strong candidates for that combination of divisibility and invisibility, of heteronymity and anonymity,’ likened to the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, ‘among the first of whose seventy-five heteronyms was C. R. Anon’ (Mundoon, 1990).  ‘For Fernando Pessoa, the idea of “personality” must have played on his mind from early on, since the Portuguese word pessoa means, of all things, “a person”. Pessoa was predisposed to thinking in terms of being “a person,” if not multiple “persons”’ (Mundoon, 1990). Pessoa’s heteronyms parallel the primal form of Vishnu, reaching out towards all beings. On paper, ‘the essence of this doubtlessly perplexing, exasperatingly ambiguous concept of self-image, this fragment gives substance [similarly] to the metaphor for [Jorge Luis] Borges’ own; ’a game with shifting mirrors (Yates, 1973).

Michelle Cahill, Vishvarupa (UWA Publishing, reprint 2019)

Cahill’s art is immersive, the intensity of her indeterminacy is experienced dynamically, and participates in the ‘hyper-corporeal, spatiotemporal configurations of its omni-sweep’ (Nechvatal, 2001). Her stories traverse borders in time and space; play with the universe. In ‘Borges and I’, the narrator’s ability to transcend the ‘secret apertures of time’, is ‘more than a palimpsest of the cardinal enumerations of a Borgesian allegory’—‘reflections of history’s shifting mirrors’ (Nechvatal, 2001). Cahill questions time and space, tracing her ‘encounter with time travel from Borges’:

‘Who is to say that Euphorbus was not by marvellous coincidence the ancestor to a descendant of Hamid’s from Denver, Colorado…whose father was a civil engineer in retirement and whose grandfather was a cleric born in Abadan near the fluvial border with Iraq?’(Cahill, 2016).

In Cahill’s story, the protagonist ‘sends a message’ back in time, ‘faster than the speed of light’ using ciphers from varied symbols (resh, ooph, yin and ha) from the ‘Unicode of Arabic’, to alert her political affiliate, Hamid (from Denver Colorado), of the ‘impending arrest after the Physics symposium at the University of Tehran,’ so he could flee without being captured. ‘The experimental success’ having Hamid read the cipher, leads to ‘alternative existence’ via ‘cryptographic transfer’, changing the course of time (i.e. time ‘not erased’, but ‘skipped’). The ‘self-referentiality [of time-travel] follows an anti-mechanistic, semi-formalist, demystifying approach,’ thereby producing a ‘level of meta-awareness’ (or thinking about thinking) (Nechvatal, 2001). This led me to question, what does Cahill think of matter and anti-matter? Black holes and gravitational fields? What is her perception of appearance, the future, the past? Though, perhaps I should caution, that the truth (if there is one) to these questions, would unfold life’s mysteries, rendering it as static. Cahill’s stories shift perception, from ‘seeing and/or seeing the unseen’, itself a process of seeing, in a transaction ‘somewhere between the texts and the reader’ (Nechvatal, 2001).

Similar to bell hooks’ understanding of antithetical liberational learning as a process of exciting exchanges of ideas that never end, or of an innumerable amount of people’s lives whose stories are told in a kind of ‘aesthetic-informational excess,’ (Nechvatal, 2001) one is lead to a particularly liberating posture; ‘as Brian Massumi tells us, ‘if there were no escape, no excess or remainder, no fade-out to infinity, the universe would be without potential, pure entropy, death’. Cahill’s work paradoxically breathes life.

More than anything, Cahill’s work is a ‘decolonial project’. Through the characters’ experiences, Cahill suggests that “identity is always in process and ‘not yet’” (Alarcon, 1996), completely determined but leaves chance to Destiny. For Cahill ‘there is not a singular definition of racial identity. There are multiple and complex ways of being racial’ (Garcia, 2009). ‘The characters empower themselves and learn to act their agency as they transform the ways in which they see their family, peers and community, thereby redefining themselves in their own terms’ (Garcia, 2009).

Moreover, Cahill’s Letter to Pessoa depicts stories of characters from marginalised backgrounds, among different places, which the mainstream has ignored. In ‘Finding the Buddha’ there is Mai Cee Pit, the graceful Buddhist nun in Wat Ram Poeng, and Azima the refugee from Rohingya with a mental illness who subsequently shaves her head, and Noi, the Thai masseuse, who came to the monastery to mourn for her dead husband; Sundeep from ‘The Sadhu’, who lived in a Hare Krishna ashram for two years; the ghost-writer from ‘Sleep Has No Home’, who ‘is not going to save us’ by writing behind a mask; in ‘Aubade for Larkin’ a post-queer fable tells of a man abused by his uncle, in bed with his partner Prem, in a delicate embrace, lying still. The cosmopolitics are expressed through a post-colonial discourse. The discovery of previously ignored perspective or unheard ‘voices’, [are] a means of breaking through the artificial confines of ‘national’ literatures (Cordingley, 2018). Indeed it is also used to contextualise places as liminal and explore representations of the Other as idiosyncratic (Johnson, 2010). In a sense, by acquainting the reader with the characters’ flaws and vulnerabilities, one may sympathise or relate, thereby question hierarchical privilege or the universal rules that determine destiny or fate.

In writing about them, Cahill demands their presence in our reality, calling into question their subjectivity, challenging ontological beliefs about their limits, of their perceived notions of Self, thereby constructing a narrative to fulfil her dialectical ideals as art of the Othered.

By reading Nechvatal’s paper, ‘Towards an Immersive Intelligence’,  one gets a sense that our immersion in Cahill’s characters, is a ‘post-Hegelian consciousness, which has ‘no fixed meaning or no form of understanding an unchanging validity, challenging our distinctive ontological beliefs about the limits of the Self… through transference’, i.e. through the Other. The ontological Self ‘ceases to think of itself as a substance or thing and instead perceives itself as a continuously changing process…of events…in search of ever more well-being. That is to say it conceives of itself as a process of becoming well-being in all directions,’ i.e. omni or universal, where boundaries disappear (a Buddhist principle), ‘surpassing limitations and lazy assumptions’, i.e. by immersing in the Other.

In Hinduism, ‘to gain intimate nearness to the Lord, the nityasuris (those who always live in Vishnu) have descended as gopis’ (those in charge of herding cows, principally women). Hudson suggests a ‘hidden dimension to the events’ … ‘part of an interlude in the eternal relation(s)… an interlude which reverses the usual Hindu ideal: the eternally free Selves are themselves “freed” from Freedom (moksa) in order to experience intimate entanglement with the Lord in the bondage of samsara.’

Hudson writes: ‘these nityasuris are now gopis, however, which means that like all other embodied Selves they are fully entangled in the deluding world of the senses and do not know their true identity as servants (sesa) eternally and completely dependent upon the Lord (sesi). Lord Krishna has come to ‘wake them up’ from sensual entanglement to a knowledge of this identity, and this he does by providing an entanglement in himself to counter the entanglement of samsara, thereby causing them to experience the śesa-śesī relationship’ (Hudson, 1980)…‘between the soul and the deity; the cognisant of which is vital for salvation’ (Carter, 1992).

Michelle Cahill, Letter to Pessoa (Giramondo, 2016)

The participation of these variations, however also requires (and is) what Soren Kierkegaard calls passion. According to Kierkegaard, ‘all existential problems are passionate problems.’ Kierkegaard asserted that ‘in passion the existing subject is rendered infinite in an eternity of imaginative representations’ even while staying the same person. Through passion, a ‘particular individual is able to realise existentially a unity of the infinite and the finite which transcend existence.’ This theory unites Cahill’s characters with the ethereal, Gods, the divine, and represents them also not just as Godly creations, but as its image repertoire of them (or him, or her, they or them), an embodiment that is both ‘self-referentially conscious and unconscious… enhanced and connected through passion’ (Kierkegaard, 1944).

This positions Cahill’s stories beyond ‘contained artificial’ means. Self-identity exhibits rhizomatic qualities, ‘in that a rhizome is a rich labyrinthine ensemble of relations, diversities, connections, heterogeneities, breaks and unexpected links which interconnect—a ‘magnanimous self-connectivity’ (Nechvatal, 2001).

In my reading of Patricia Johnson’s, ‘Deconstructing the Cosmopolitan Gaze,’ I found that Cahill’s aesthetic universalism lends itself to her plight to do as such. The “I’’s of the narrator, which appear in many of Cahill’s stories is ‘distinguished from the “eye” cast over the view to reveal how different “scapes” attract different gazes and narrative voices.’ Cahill uses ‘scapes and scripts’ to ‘explore how imaginings of Self and the Other are constructed.’ She uses metaphors (e.g. time-travel as a metaphor for colonisation, food as sex, high-rise buildings as the phallus, letters as biographies, et al.), but mistrusts them: ‘Don’t get me wrong. I’m mistrustful of metaphors. They are like hoaxes. Metaphors appear to cross boundaries. They inspire you to believe things that aren’t plausible or true’ (Cahill, 2016). Perhaps the constrains of the ‘rhetoric’ formulated in metaphors, impedes ‘real meaning’, like a code we must decipher to get to the truth. The notion of ‘seeing things as they really are’ is practised in Vispassana meditation, itself a ‘remedy for universal ills, i.e. the Art of Living,’ an artform Cahill espouses.

Reading Paul Mundoon’s ‘In the Hall of Mirrors’ has influenced my reading of Cahill’s texts. I sense a voice that wavers, yet is stern; one that is easy to grasp yet is ambiguous. I imagine Cahill to be someone who is ‘different every moment’. I sense an insecurity, something harboured by all people, which is vital for our suffering. A person who suffers, who ‘disdains their surroundings’ is not the same as the ‘self who suffers or takes joy in them’ (Muldoon, 2002). The kaleidoscope of consciousness exhibit a vast array of thought and feelings. In a way, Cahill’s metafiction engages with the ongoing narrative of writers she reveres, dead or alive, she asserts a difference that cannot be dismissed. I feel Cahill’s emotions, register her symbolism, am alert to her pains, but am conscious that she might be faking it. Cahill’s approach to writing ‘letters’ to literary heroes: Derrida, Genet, Woolf, Larkin, Borges, Nabokov, Coetzee, Tadeusz Rózewicz, may be her cheeky gesture to ‘fake’ the ‘reality’ of colonised narratives, “set ‘reason’ and ‘heart’ against each other, ”her texts rendered as ‘Autopsychography’, with its ‘round and round’ embodiment of imagery of ‘the colony’ and ‘a profusion of selves’ (Muldoon, 2002).

Cahill taunts me, forcing me to question my ‘notion(s) of person(s) as discrete, individual, independent being(s), self-governing and “autonomy(ous)”’ (Muldoon, 2002). I question, how ‘true’ these stories are of people suffering. How could they suffer if they are just words on a page? The texts are only as real as the pages in which it is bound. What is the real relationship between the writer, the reader, and the world beyond the texts? Perhaps reality is a construct of our collective imaginations, then again perhaps not.

The phenomena of Pessoa ‘seems to suggest that each and every poem [or story] invents both its writer and its reader, and that both writer and reader are engaged in an endless round of negotiations from which no true peace may ever result’(Muldoon, 2002). Is Cahill waging a war with her readers? I question Cahill’s autonomy as the author of the announced texts, because it is the reader who has to decipher its meaning. Could it be that Pessoa (who is no longer with us) wrote Letter to Pessoa via Cahill? Could Cahill pronounce herself as a self-governing whole, the ‘true’ author of her texts, or should the people she engaged with in writing the stories form part of authorship? Had Cahill written ‘something other than fiction’, we ‘might have more than the sketchiest sense of her’ (Muldoon, 2002). She does, in fact, acknowledge others who helped her to write her books, but then why does she get all the rewards?

In revering Cahill’s style, Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquiet: ‘To live is to be other.’ ‘I created various personalities within myself. I create them constantly. Every dream, as soon as it is dreamed, is immediately embodied by another person who dreams it instead of me.’ Pessoa, in some sense is the ‘embodiment of the “possessed” country, which undergoes a personality change’ (Muldoon, 2002). In a response to a question on the future of Portuguese people in 1923, Pessoa wrote:

The future is for us to be everything. Who, if they’re Portuguese, can live within the narrow bounds of just one personality, just one nation, just one religion? What true Portuguese can live within the sterile limits of Catholicism when beyond it there are all the Protestant creeds, all the Eastern religions, and all the dead and living Paganisms for us to experience, Portuguesely fusing them into Superior Paganism?

Let’s not leave out a single god! Let’s incorporate them all! We conquered the Oceans; now we must conquer the Heavens, leaving Earth for the Others, the Others who are eternally Others from birth, the Europeans who aren’t Europeans because they aren’t Portuguese. Let’s be everything, in every way possible, for there can be no truth where something’s lacking! Let’s create Superior Paganism, Supreme Polytheism! In the eternal lie of all the gods, the only truth is in all the gods together.

Is one’s future therefore embodied in being the Other? Or will our ‘freedom [be] the possibility of isolation?’ Pessoa wrote: ‘You are only free if you can withdraw from men and feel no need to seek them out for money, or society, or love, or glory, or even curiosity, for none of these things flourish in silence and solitude. If you cannot live alone, then you were born a slave…you are nothing more than a noble slave or an intelligent serf, you are not free. But that is not your tragedy, for the tragedy of being born like that is not yours but Destiny’s.’

This led me to exalt Cahill for gifting us prose and poetry. Cahill in ‘Letter to Tadeusz Rózewicz’, perhaps said it best when she wrote that ‘writing sustains (me), it enslaves me—because writing is the most ethical relationship I’ve known; because writing is non-violent and doesn’t ask for the concessions required by people, the kind that results in diminishing who you are.’[1] These words speak my truth. I see my reflection and Others’ in the texts. I see her when I look in the mirror.


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[1] Cahill (2016), op.cit. pp. 229.

Harold Legaspi is a Sydney based writer. His first book, Letters in Language was the runner-up in the inaugural Puncher & Wattmann Prize for a First Book of Poetry, to be published in January 2021 in the Flying Islands Pocket Books of Poetry series with Cerberus Press. He is the Founding Editor of Lite Lit One, a bi-annual online journal of fiction and poetry.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 13th, 2020.