Martijn Boven

A promising model for constructing imaginative dialogues can be derived from Fernando Pessoa’s practice of heteronymy. The heteronymic oeuvre of this Portuguese poet was set in motion by the “emergence, on March 8, 1914, of a quartet of heteronymous poets: [Alberto] Caeiro, the Master, his two disciples, [Ricardo] Reis and [Álvaro de] Campos, and the orthonym, Fernando-Pessoa-In-Person” (Balso, 2014, p. 35; also see Balso 2011). By adopting four different authorial voices, all written by the same hand, Pessoa invented a new conception of authorship: heteronymy. In a famous letter to Adolfo Casais Monteiro from 13 January 1935, Pessoa describes the genesis of his heteronyms as follows: “the mental origin of my heteronyms lies in my relentless, organic tendency to depersonalization and simulation” (Pessoa, 2001, p. 254). The heteronym is the result of this interplay of depersonalization and simulation, both are needed to create author-personae, not just conceived as different voices but emerging as wholly different entities:

This tendency to create around me another world, just like this one but with other people, has never left my imagination. It has gone through various phases, including the one that began in me as a young adult, when a witty remark (that was completely out of keeping with who I am or think I am) would sometimes and for some unknown reason occur to me, and I would immediately, spontaneously say it as if it came from some friend of mine, whose name I would invent, along with biographical details, and whose figure—physiognomy, stature, dress and gestures—I would immediately see before me. (Pessoa, 2001, p. 255)
The emergence of a heteronym does not amount to a loss of self, an anonymity, but engenders a true multiplicity. As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben suggests, the interplay of depersonalization and simulation in Pessoa’s letter to Monteiro should be understood as a series of “subjectifications-desubjectivications.” (Agamben, 2002, p. 119) The desubjectification of Fernando Pessoa (depersonalization) coincides with the subjectification of “someone whom I instantly named Alberto Caeiro” (simulation) (Pessoa, 2001, p. 256). Rather than losing himself entirely, Pessoa submits himself to the regime of the heteronym: “my master had appeared in me” (Ibid.)  Similarly, after finishing more than thirty poems which emerged with the heteronym Caeiro, the newly constituted writer Fernando-Pessoa-In-Person re-appeared and wrote a series of six poems. “It was the return of Fernando Pessoa as Alberto Caeiro to Fernando Pessoa himself. Or rather, it was the reaction of Fernando Pessoa against his nonexistence as Alberto Caeiro.” (Ibid.)


In one of the first experiments towards the development of a pedagogy of imaginative dialogues at the Master of Education in Arts in Groningen, we used Pessoa’s heteronymy and the cycle of desubjectifications-subjectivications-resubjectiviations as a model for an imaginative dialogue. Our aim was to develop an exercise that allowed students to approach their artistic practice in a way which was no longer within the unified domain of a singular artist, but as a multiplicity in which a group of artistic heteronyms respond to each other. As an exercise for constructing such heteronyms, we first invited them to go back to important turning points in their life: an international exchange that fell through at the last moment, the birth of a child, a crush that suddenly bloomed into a long-time relationship, etc.

Our aim was to set something in motion that allowed students to re-vitalize their artistic practice and to explore new ways of making art. In our view, it didn’t matter how these heteronyms emerged, the important thing was that the domain of the singular artist was transformed into a multiplicity of heteronyms responding to each other. To this end, we invited students to push lingering versions of the self (that could have been) beyond the boundaries of memory and to give them an independent existence as fully-fledged artistic heteronyms (a rival, a master, etc.). For some students this model worked very well, others struggled with it. But in most cases, a genuine imaginative dialogue was established.  

Relevance for the pedagogy of imaginative dialogues 

From the start, Pessoa’s poetic practice has been a pedagogy of sorts. It emerges in response to the sudden emergence of the first heteronym, Alberto Caeiro, who acts as the master of all the others. It is in becoming the apprentice of a heteronymous master, that Pessoa sets the cycle of desubjectifications-subjectivications-resubjectiviations in motion. As the French philosopher Alain Badiou suggests, it is through this gesture that Pessoa’s heteronymy opens up a site that is neither marked by the identity of the one, nor by the anonymity of a ‘no one’, but that establishes “the contingency of the multiple.” (Badiou, 2005, p. 44) Pessoa’s intricate game of heteronyms can be considered an early experiment with the pedagogy of imaginative dialogues, providing an interesting model that can be utilized in various ways.


Agamben, Giorgio (2002). Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Zone Books.

Badiou, Alain Handbook of Inaesthetics. Translated by Alberto Toscano. Stanford University Press, 2005. 

Balso, Judith (2011). Pessoa: The Metaphysical Courier. Translated by Drew S. Burk. Atropos.

Balso, Judith (2014). Affirmation of Poetry. Translated by Drew S. Burk. Univocal

Pessoa, Fernando (2001). The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa. Edited and translated by Richard Zenith. Grove Press.