When some forty years ago I started writing about my childhood, I first tried to capture, in draft after artless and unfinished draft, the essence of our dining room table. A Marxist like my uncle Abraham would have said, “Very simple: its essence is wood and labor—wood which in Greek is called hylē and in Latin materia, hence ‘materialism’—wood that has been transformed, that is, carved and joined by human ingenuity and labor, hence ‘historical,’ into this piece of furniture.” My uncle Abraham would have been right up to a point, but this point did not include, and in fact had little to do with, the reason I was trying to capture, draft after unfinished draft, the essence of our dining room table. As important as the indubitable fact that it was carved out of wood was, for example, the fact that the superb polish of its upper surface had been, in my childish view, wasted labor, since it was never visible, always covered by a baize tied down to the underside, and protected by a plastic sheet. If Father pushed the plastic away so as to play his card solitaire on the baize, Mother raised hell—“You’re wearing out the felt, can’t you see?” I cannot imagine what she would have done if he, or me, had dared remove the baize and bare the splendid wood to our avid sight and filthy touch.
So it was over baize plus plastic that Father instructed me, from age six until I started high school, on manifold theoretical subjects. In my memory Einstein came first. Pencil on paper, Father sketched the famous experiment of Michelson and Morley showing that the speed of light does not depend on the speed of the source, then went on to demolish the encrusted notion of simultaneous events. There was, too, the elevator whose upward acceleration could not be distinguished from a gravitational pull, and the incredibly flexible fabric of space-time. Yes, Father trusted Einstein, but he was otherwise extraordinarily skeptical. Not even Newton was to be believed, and Leibniz far less. Indeed, there had been some serious cheating going on between those two. I remember Father drawing a square with side x, then incrementing the side by dx, showing me the two long, slim rectangles with sides x and dx, and pointing to the little square in one corner with side dx. “And guess what happens to this tiny square in the corner?” he said, tapping on it with his pencil, inquiringly. “It disappears. Gone,” he inhaled deeply from his Lucky Strike and exhaled like a dragon, then inveighed, “True, it is small. But it’s not zero, by God, it’s not nothing!”
“Ghosts of departed quantities,” quipped George Berkeley about Newton’s Calculus, and my father agreed; he also agreed with the Bishop of Cloyne’s esse est percipi, although not precisely in those terms because my father had no Latin: he had quit high school early to apprentice as a barber and from that point on he was self-taught—how he had learned about Einstein and the rest I’ll never know. Perhaps in the barbershop. “This table,” I remember my father telling me more than once, “is only a bundle of associated perceptions in your mind. Just in your mind. To posit an exterior object as the material cause or carrier of those perceptions is completely superfluous, and thus it shouldn’t be indulged in, by Ockham’s razor.”
The mysterious razor, designed to shave concepts, not hair, nevertheless appeared to my childish mind as a pitiless instrument that mowed away the whole solid, liquid and gaseous world out there to leave only minds standing, or rather just one mind: mine, utterly lonely. La navaja de Ockham: those were terrible, unforgettable words. The sharp edge of the razor, el filo in Spanish, constituted the first half of filosofía, which could not be just a coincidence. Posit, setzen or postular was another unforgettable word, which my father used mainly in connection with Fichte, one of his favorite philosophers. To my childish ear the name Fichte sounded, because of the initial f and the German ch in the middle, like the sharp edge of a razor too—one more coincidence! But I had some trouble distinguishing Fichte’s doctrine from Berkeley’s. “The I posits itself for Fichte, just as for Berkeley,” Father explained, “but for Fichte the I then proceeds to posit the not-I, something that doesn’t happen in Berkeley, do you get it?”
I wasn’t sure I got it; what I gained was the impression that Fichte must have been, if possible, even madder than Berkeley. If the latter tried to persuade us that our individual minds are the only reality, the German idealist maintained that it is our mind that creates—well, okay, posits—the whole universe out there. One was a solipsist, the other a megalomaniac. Today, like the lees of a heady wine, a fear has been left at the bottom of my mind, that perhaps all philosophy is solipsism and megalomania. And no sooner do I think this fearful thought, that another thought follows immediately: the memory of the uncounted times my father said or wrote the words, toda filosofía, “all philosophy.” Each of his philosophical drafts, which I knew by heart—the one against the notion of zero, which he identified with nothingness and death, the one against the imaginary numbers in which he always smelled a rat—as well as each of his philosophical gestures, were all directed not to a particular problem or to a single theme but to, or against, toda filosofía, a totalitarian practice in which he emulated his most admired thinkers, from Descartes of the Regulae to Kant in his Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik, and beyond, to Fichte and Schelling (Hegel he left to his brother Abraham).
On a holiday morning, if Father was away—gone perhaps to La Torinesa to buy fresh pasta for lunch—and I was left behind at home, with mother, sister and the maid, I would lie down on the rug under the dining room table, and speculate. Here, before my eyes but more importantly at my fingertips, was the underside, the necessary mechanical substratum of the glorious light that was the top, ever invisible. I touched joists, beams and pegs, and I caressed the feet, those lion claws clutching an orb. That underworld felt like a cozy, peaceful refuge, and I tried to imagine I was dead. Father told me that some ancient philosopher had called philosophy a preparation for death; well, then, philosophy should be practiced not only on top of a table, but also under it. But it was very, very hard, to imagine oneself dead. One of the main difficulties was to avoid falling asleep.
From the kitchen came the sounds of Mother chopping on the wood board and singing. Listening to the changing rhythms of her chopping and the alternation of muffled and percussive chops, I could tell what she was cooking, whether it was estofado or stew, the beef and squash croquettes invented by her mother Rebeca, baked fish cakes, or my favorite dish, niños envueltos. Her songs were always tangos dating from her girlhood and youth, roughly from between 1925 and 1935, the year of the death of Carlos Gardel. Many of those lyrics have left deep, active furrows in my brain: they are, stricto sensu, my mother tongue. It matters little that now, toward the end of my life, I go over them and wonder at their poetic drag and inner, dreary void; that I go over them and shiver at the singleness of their thematic repertoire. It’s always a man apostrophizing a honeysuckle climbing bush, or the 11 AM mass, or the bells of the church of La Merced, or the flickering lights along the shore of the River Plate, and reminiscing about an early love of his, its innocence and its immaculate purity. Meanwhile, he’s been around, and now, beaten, defeated, white haired, he tells us that he has finally learned the bitter truth: there are no such things as love or faith, hope is an illusion, and people laugh when they see others in pain.
Why those lyrics reached enormous popular success in Argentina in the 1920s and 30s is a question I often asked myself; I have no global answers, only punctual impressions, hunches. It may have been Schadenfreude, that is, enjoyment hearing of the misfortunes of others—in which case the tango lyrics are proven true by their success: people (at least in Buenos Aires) enjoy seeing others suffer. Or it may be a case of no ser gil, in the idiom of that city, or n’être pas dupe, as the French say: anything rather than to appear an easy prey. And if you don’t believe in love or generosity, not even in fair play, chances are you will not be too easy a prey. The fact remains that the most successful authors of tango lyrics went on, in the 40s and 50s, to compose hideous paeans to the Peróns, the governing couple.
Anyway my mother sang, and having done chopping, now delicious smells wafted down to where I was trying to imagine death. Sooner or later, I thought, Mother would notice my absence and would start calling my name. No answer, of course, since I was dead. More and more frantic, she would look for me all through the house, until she’d find me here, unexpectedly, under the dining room table. And then, you should see the grief, the screams, the desperation, you should see Mother pulling her hair and cursing herself for the numerous occasions when she was cruel to me. When she slapped me on the face every time I refused to eat. When she washed my mouth with yellow soap because my cousin Polo told her I had said “culo” (ass), which was false. Ah, her bitter regrets! But it was too late. I was dead.
Poscia, più che ’l dolor potè il digiuno. I crawled out from my grave when it was time to get ready for lunch. A second plastic sheet was spread on half the table, the half opposite to the one on which Father played solitaire and taught me about Einstein and stuff. On top of this plastic went a tablecloth, a total of four protective layers interposed between our plates and the immaculate and inconceivably gleaming surface. Mother, who had done only grammar school, knew instinctively that, as Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologica, “We cannot be enlightened by the divine rays except they be hidden within the covering of many sacred veils.” The four of us, Father, Mother, Sister and I, and sometimes Father’s father, the Zeide Marcos, would sit to a big midday dinner of beef stew and tallarines in which Mother had mixed a good deal of grated hard cheese, and it gave her great satisfaction that the Zeide didn’t notice the transgression of kashrut he was incurring, which would have grieved him had he known. We, of course, paid no attention to such superstitions; we enjoyed pork and sea food, and all sorts of abominations. My sister and I paid some attention, rather, to the Zeide’s way of slipping pasta into his mouth: he had a protruding lower lip which left wet streaks on our cheeks each time he kissed us, and now the tagliatelle hung from his lower lip like water from an overflowing gutter.
Marcos must have stood for Mordechai: the Argentine authorities did not accept first names not in the Catholic catalogue of saints, and upon hearing from an immigrant an unfamiliar name, they wrote down something else that they thought sounded similar. Mordechai became Marcos, Moshe Mauricio, Mendel Emilio, Rukhl Rosa, and I am pretty sure that my father, Guillermo, was meant to be called Gershom, on the strength of which I would like to be called Gersonides, like the medieval sage. Mother talked with her father-in-law mostly about that year’s new potatoes, or about cabbage and turnips, but Father and the Zeide hardly ever exchanged a word. When we finished eating, Father went upstairs to take a nap, and the Zeide and I sat at the opposite half of the table and played dominoes. His wife, Olga Finkelstein, had died when I was a baby, and my sister was named Olga after her.
One morning Father and I were sitting at the side of the table reserved for solitaire, dominoes and philosophy; Father, if I remember right, was recommending I should read Schopenhauer if I wished to understand Kant, and also if I wished to understand Nietzsche. Then he wondered why someone like Schopenhauer, who repeatedly professed the belief that in all cases truth shall prevail, is called a pessimistic philosopher. “On the contrary,” Father warmed up as he realized that he was exploding a received notion, “he should be considered the most optimistic of all! Not even Leibniz, he of the pre-established harmony, would have dared affirm that truth will always out!” At that point something like a whirlwind descended upon us.
Mother had come down the stairs at a speed no one imagined her capable of. Ignoring me, she went straight to Father, grabbed him by the hair and shook his head up and down, right and left, every which way, all the while screaming, “Filthy cheater! Liar! The rubbers! Liar! Filthy! The rubbers!”
That happened in my thirteenth year. It must have been during the pleasant season, because I went out as I was, without a coat, and walked the streets for a long time, neither clear nor distinct ideas in my mind, but only a thick, mournful fog. Little by little I reached the conclusion that while cleaning her husband’s pockets as she usually did before she took a suit to the dry cleaner, she found some condoms, something my parents didn’t use in their intercourse, and which she called “rubbers.” Not for a moment did I judge them, either my father for his rubbers or my mother for her scene. No judgment, nor pure nor practical reason, could I entertain or hold on to; only a persisting image, too painful to be distinct, of my father’s head, like a large, pathetic puppet being shaken and hanging from my mother’s hands.
I feel I must include here, if no more than as a coda, the last time I came in contact with the dining room table of my childhood. I was twenty-nine when Father died. As soon as I received the phone call from Buenos Aires—my sister telling me that Dad had died—I booked a flight from Chicago and got there three days later. Jews dispose of their dead with severe celerity: Father was already buried when I arrived at the house on Rivera Indarte street; I was told that he had been there, in a casket, for a night and a day; the table, the half reserved for solitaire and speculation, had served as catafalque. Mother and I ate as usual at the opposite half, in silence, the habitual steak. All the while I pictured Father in his casket, dead yet not completely unaware that we were there, and each time I cut into the meat I heard him say, “Hoc est corpus meum” in a tone of voice that sounded pained, but which could also be pleading. He could be uttering his last sophistic hocus-pocus, or perhaps he was trying to persuade me to continue on my own the important task of exploding crusted and unexamined notions.