ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


When Astrology Works (a true story), by Ricardo Nirenberg.


My statistics are simple: my sample is only myself.  Astrology has worked for me and I have seen with my unaided eye the star that steered my destiny: isn’t that enough?  For which I had to climb up to the top of an old building when I was just eighteen, barely out of high school, having inherited from my dear parents at least a couple of vices: lying and smoking—lying in the double sense of hiding the truth and lying idle for long periods, contemplating the smoke.  I want to tell the story of how astrology has worked for me.  First of all, regarding the age of the building: that, as you know, is relative.  In Rome, Paris or Istanbul, an eighteen-century-old building may not be really old, but in Buenos Aires there are very few left of those, and then chiefly Catholic churches.  My building, whose doors were on Calle Perú, was not only very old but also very distinguished in a non-confessional, republican sort of way: it housed the University when it was founded in the 1820s.  While I was climbing the three flights of those worn iron and marble stairs and then, standing at the asphalted roof and watching the sky, I had no inkling of the importance of the moment.  Each of the students, each of the faculty and each of the cleaning and maintenance staff who were there with me that evening in that crowd, climbing or standing and watching the sky, each of them had their own particular destiny; today, in retrospect, I’m able to inspect, and celebrate or mourn, pity or envy, or simply wonder at, a number of those destinies, especially in the cases of those who have died since, which is, sad to say, a large majority; but back then nothing could have been further from my mind.  Instead, what fascinated me was the presence of Professor Julio Rey Pastor.

He was then, I’m figuring it out, sixty-nine, and seemed to me very old—to think that now I am older than that and consider myself young.  All kinds of stories were told about him.  A lifelong bachelor, his personal hygiene was not of the best, and some persons who had been privileged to visit his home reported that his bathtub was full of dusty books.  But what of it?  Often in my dreams, especially when my bladder is full, I keep looking for a toilet to pee, but all I find are toilets full of woolen sweaters or other clothes.  You must admit that that’s much worse.  Don Julio, as the other professors of math (who were mostly his students, for he had created Argentine Mathematics practically from scratch) called him, was a strong personality and a very combative one.  He was a native of Logroño, the capital city of the Province of Rioja in Spain, where the culinary specialty is pig snouts prepared with a sauce thickened with the snot.  It must go well with the local wine.  At that time, I mean when I was up in that old roof peering at the southern sky, it was my second semester at university, I was taking a course in Analytic Geometry, and I had to rotate in my mind those awful quadric surfaces—the weirdest one being the hypnotic hyperbolic paraboloid a.k.a. the saddle, where you couldn’t tell if you had reached stable or unstable equilibrium, a frightening nightmare.  Rey Pastor, Santaló and Balanzat, these last two disciples and protégés of the first, all three Spaniards, had authored the textbook we were using; it wasn’t what you might call easy going.  It even seems that that textbook could be used in writing courses as an example of the excesses of tedium to avoid.  At any rate, mathematics did not interest me much at that point, when I was seventeen or eighteen.  I was there, at the School of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires, housed in that old building which had been a regimental headquarter in colonial times, to study chemistry.  I wanted to be a second Berthelot, and live a life among retorts, not among hyperbolic paraboloids.

You must excuse me if I repeat myself, but that old colonial building is unforgettable.  Most of it was in the shape of a big rectangle, three levels of galleries or cloisters on three sides, and in the middle and a little lower, a patio built of large slabs of stone sloping down toward the center, towards a drain.  There is something sublime about the presence of this drain right at the center: all around, you found classrooms and labs; here, a professor was teaching a class of geothermics or partial differential equations, there, in the second floor physics lab, the two gold leaves of a ballistic galvanometer opened suddenly and as predicted at the presence of an electric charge; everywhere, scientists, budding or in full flower, were doing their best to save the phenomena, and to increase our human grasp of the whole—and at the center, at the very center, a drain.  Not big, no more than the laptop where I’m now writing this, yet that drain in a very clear voice proclaimed, “Go, go, my masters, do your stuff, seek for truths, do honor to the human spirit in your several and equirespectable fields: in the end, anyway, it will all flow and disappear down here, like rainwater.”  Well, you may not find this sublime, but I do.  I mean, I do now, because back then I did not pay much attention to such apocalyptics or to things like drains: the patio was always pretty crowded with students, and the girls walked back and forth with their high heels playing celestial mambos against the old flagstones.  There was one above all others, very pretty, with very high heels and a very good student to boot—her name was Clarisa or Clarita, one of the two, I’m not sure which—but unfortunately she had a boyfriend who was older and who looked down upon all others, me included, from the height of his completed courses, although in most of them he had gotten a C.  Clarisa or Clarita, however, would take us too far afield and into thickets; let us stay on my building.

It, plus three other neighboring buildings, configured a famous city block, the only one bearing a name: since the earliest days of the Republic it had been called The Block of Lights, because the brightest minds were concentrated there.  The limits were Calle Bolívar to the East, Calle Perú to the West, Calles Alsina and Moreno to the North and South.  My building, the School of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences, occupied the NW quarter, the School of Architecture was at the SW, the Colegio Nacional at the SE, and the Jesuit church, Saint Ignatius, completed the block.  One moment, I should have revealed this earlier: that evening with Professor Rey Pastor at the roof of my building was not the first time I had been walking on the roofs of The Block of Lights.  The first time had been two years earlier, a month or so after the military coup that ousted Perón in 1955.  At the time I was a high-school student at the Colegio Nacional, on The Block of Lights’ SE corner.  The facts of this story are so unbelievable, so gross, that’s perhaps the reason I did not tell it earlier, where I should have; perhaps I was afraid I would be considered mad, or be seen, God forbid, as approving of military coups.  The facts are: the military in charge wanted a modern university, and they got it.  In Latin America that’s unheard of.  They must have been a bunch of Freemasons, I think, but I really don’t know.  They dismissed the old, incompetent rectors and named new ones: a historian was put in charge of the university, a historian of science was made dean of the School of Sciences, and a philosopher, an axiologist to be precise, was sent as rector to the Colegio Nacional, the glorious Colegio Nacional in whose gilded aula magna Einstein had explained his Relativity in 1925.

The axiologist was sent, though not admitted.  The doors were locked.  My Catholic classmates had taken and occupied the building; they preferred the old rector, a crusty, conservative, nationalist Catholic like them, to the modern axiologist, a newcomer whose values were suspected to be not in perfect agreement with those of the Catholic Church.  The conflict had, as you see, a thoroughly nineteenth-century flavor: the liberals and Freemasons against the Catholic conservatives—Settembrini and Naphta all over again.  Pope Leo XII and the Carbonari would have felt thoroughly at home.  An association of parents was formed to defend the crusty old rector and oppose the assumption of the axiologist, and my father naturally grabbed the opportunity to take in it a leading voice.  It must be said much to my regret: my father loved to talk highfalutin talk, but he was ill informed.  Somehow, someone at the University Rector’s office noticed my father’s name among those of the other members of the parents association, and thought it odd that a man with a Jewish last name would support the actions of the Acción Católica.  The Rector invited my father to his office and let him see the light, whereupon my father immediately turned coat.  Between my father and the Rector, who as I have already said was a noted historian and must have been fully aware of the historical importance of this move, a plan was hatched.  Since a group of Catholic Action students had taken the building of the Colegio Nacional, well then, a group of liberal students would retake it.  My father volunteered me.  Naturally, I was excluded from those deliberations and had no say in the matter; I was just given a stick or baton to hit my Catholic classmates in the head with, and an armband for identification: the baton was brown and the armband was white.  And so I joined my comrades-in-arms for the evening; we were a dozen or so.  The plan called for climbing up to the roof of the School of Architecture, from which one could go over to the roof of the Colegio.  The alternative, invading the Colegio from the roof of Saint Ignatius was too dangerous: if the Jesuits got wind of what was happening, they would alert the students occupying the building and we would have lost the decisive advantage of surprise.  Everything went smoothly and in accordance to the plan; we moved swiftly on the roofs, like alley cats, tacitae per amica silentia lunae.  My father, meanwhile, was strolling up and down the sidewalk of Calle Bolívar, like a field marshal awaiting the result of a skirmish.

I should say right away and before I’m mistaken for a pedantic show-off, that the Latin phrase above means something like “through the friendly silences of the noiseless moon” and is found in Vergil’s Aeneid.  That chunk of Latin is entirely appropriate at this point because it was very much in my mind back then, when I was a student at the Colegio, where Latin was a required subject all six years.  My Latin teacher, incidentally, had told my father no more than three months before the events I’m telling here that I was on the way to becoming a good Latinist.  I think my father was pleased but not overly—what could a boy from a poor family do in life with a knowledge of Latin?  Become a Catholic priest?  God forbid.  This same Latin teacher of mine, barely a month after the events I’m telling here, said to me in the tone of voice Cicero must have used to address Catilina: “Your father is a traitor.”  Much later, fifty years later in fact, I heard from my old high-school friends who live in Argentina that the same Latin teacher had been an informant of Perón’s police all along, something that had been recently found in old official records: no wonder he was against the new military government and its representative, the axiologist.  Which reminds me that I still have to tell the end of my story, the result of the assault on the occupied building.  There is nothing to tell, or almost nothing: we entered the Colegio through a hatch, went down the stairs brandishing our sticks and batons and came upon the five or six boys who were there for the night; they were terrified, offered no resistance and left meekly through the main doors, whereupon the axiologist, who had been waiting on Calle Bolívar with my father and an escribano or notary public, came into the building through those same doors and took notarized possession of the rector’s office.

I am not reproaching my father for his lack of enthusiasm about my Latin exploits: I would like to make that clear.  He had in mind nothing but my future wellbeing, as corroborated by the fact that he was quite worried when, upon finishing high school, I became a chemistry student at the university.  “Why not engineering?” he suggested.  And when I replied that I had never felt much liking for engineering, and I asked him to remember that as a child I was much more interested in my chemistry set than in my erector set, he then suggested, “Well, then why not medicine?”  Indeed, at that time, before the advent of the computer and the need for programmers, the only so-called liberal professions that were supposed to be profitable were medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, engineering, veterinary, and the law.  I reassured my father by telling him that, if necessary, I could become a chemical engineer.  I wouldn’t have minded being in charge of a large sulfuric acid plant, with lead-lined chambers towering like medieval castles and hissing like medieval dragons.

It took no more than a year at the university to wear off the enchantment of chemistry for me.  It became clear that what I had liked was not the balancing of chemical equations, adding an atom here or an atom there, but rather names like potassium perchlorate and images like the print showing Moissan’s apparatus for the production of fluorine.  Indulging in some exaggeration, one might say that what had attracted me as a child was alchemy rather than chemistry; at the university, whenever I asked why some reaction happened the way it did and not in some other way, I was told, “For that, you will have to wait until you learn quantum mechanics.”  So naturally I came to the conclusion that it was more expeditious to study physics first, rather than chemistry.  My father audibly shuddered when I made the switch.  That was in 1958; by 1959 I had switched again, from physics to math, and my father had given up all hope of my ever finding gainful employment.  Poor Dad, he didn’t have the chance, as I did, of being justified by the stars.  The skies had not revealed to him, as they did reveal to me, that all manner of sciences, including all exact, physical and natural, were going to be fine, and that all sorts of scientists were pretty soon going to be in high demand.

But let’s go back to my story, with me and a crowd of students, faculty and maintenance staff standing on the roof of the School of Sciences on Calle Perú, that October evening, scrutinizing the beautiful sky.  “There!” cried one, pointing at the zenith, roughly.  “In my opinion,” said the unmistakable voice of Professor Santaló, a grave voice, at once reflective and self-assured, a soft yet weighty voice steeped in a wisdom that must have had its roots in the Cabbalistic traditions of medieval Gerona, the city where that professor was born, and must have been tested and tempered during the Spanish Civil War, in which he was an aviator for the losing side.  “In my opinion, that is the star Canopus,” said Professor Santaló.  Whether he was right or wrong I am not in a position to decide; all I can say is that Argentina could have benefitted much more from the wide availability of sharp minds in search of a safe harbor during that terrible decade, but Perón and his regime were favorable to Franco and the Axis, and preferred to grant asylum to fugitive SS.  In spite of which, the School of Sciences and several provincial universities had acquired a few distinguished European refugees.  It was then, right at that point, that we all heard Santaló’s mentor, Professor Rey Pastor, quip, “In my opinion, we should ask Sadosky.”

Do not become impatient if you don’t get the sense of Rey Pastor’s quip right away.  It is all easily explained.  Apparently, Professor Manuel Sadosky had been in his youth something of a Communist, and since the object we were trying to find up in the sky was the Soviet satellite, the first Sputnik—well, you see the point.  Rey Pastor had a sharp tongue and a malicious bent; I must hasten to add that Manuel Sadosky was, to the best of my knowledge, not a Communist in 1957 nor later, when I got to know him, nor even later, in the 1980s, when he became President Alfonsín’s Minister of Science and Technology.  But as Montaigne used to say, que sais-je ?  I only know that after not a few sightings and refutations, someone remarked a faint point of light roughly at a place in the sky where the Sputnik should have been expected to appear according to the best projections.  It was hard to see, as I said, and it could have been a high airplane; the general consensus was, however, that it was the Sputnik.  What else could it have been?

I am far from suggesting that I was able to appreciate, back on that October evening, the importance of the new star for my destiny.  I am pretty sure I was not.  Yet, it was through the strong influence of that star that I was enabled to escape the disasters that a few years later overtook the world that had been mine.  I mean the military coup of 1966, when the School of Sciences was disbanded and its professors and students clobbered by the police: these  generals were not Freemasons like the ones of the decade before; no, they were nationalist Catholics, like the boys we had routed on that memorable storming of the Colegio Nacional.  I should have exclaimed, like the Emperor Julian, νενίκηκάς με, Γαλιλαῖε—you got me, Galilean, you have won!—but I was so angry I didn’t think of it.  Things in Argentina had a tendency to go in circles, Settembrini and Naphta alternatively on top, but those circles got narrower and more anguishing.  For the new military government, the battle against the exact, physical and natural sciences was part of a larger campaign for the improvement of public and private morals: it was forbidden for couples to sit on public benches after dark, and the police was sent to hotels to catch lovers not carrying the official marriage papers.  By then I had spent three years in the US, far from my parents, getting a doctorate in math, and I was horrified to hear that my father was in sympathy with the military coup.  In his view the disorder and the numerous strikes that had pestered the previous, elected government were worse.  The military, he said, should bring in a little discipline.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming my father: when you see no alternative to staying where you are, in the country you were born and where you’ve spent your life, you naturally tend to put the best face to whatever happens there, you force yourself to keep a hopeful attitude.  Those same military, a little later—I don’t remember if my father was already dead or not—knocked down the old building of the School of Sciences on Calle Perú, and in its place they opened a parking lot.

But by then I was back in the US for good.  The terms of my original US visa were such that I had to go back to Argentina and stay there for at least two years, but this requirement was waived when the US Department of Defense sent a letter to the US State Department declaring that I was important for the defense of the country.  Certainly, we have heard other ridiculous and irresponsible statements coming from the same source, especially at that time, I mean during the Vietnam War—all the same, how absurd—me, who my parents called a pintl putz—being important for the defense of the United States of America.  Actually, this had nothing to do with my scientific talents: it was purely the influence of my lucky star, the Sputnik glimpsed at from the roof of my dear old building on Calle Perú 222.  In my case, you see, astrology worked.  And if you object that my sample is irresponsibly, preposterously small, I will let you into a secret: I personally know about two dozen cases similar to mine, all coming from the same country.  Still too small a sample?  And how many others, worldwide, were blessed by the same star?  I’ll let you guess, I bid you to reflect and mind your horoscope.



A Letter from Gerardo Razumney, after reading the above:

"... I read When Astrology Works (a true story) and I remembered that I too was there, both times, when we took the Colegio National's building and when we went to see the Sputnik. The first time, we were trying to find a way to get into the Colegio, and I remembered there was a beam, about 4" thick and 12' long which went from the roof of the Ciencias Exactas building to the roof of the Colegio. I walked straight over the beam, about 90' above ground (those were old building with very high ceilings), but the rest of the group decided I was crazy —how true— and found another path."

(Note from the Eds: Gerardo still likes mountain climbing!)


In a followup letter, G.R. writes:

"... the military — los milicos— did not have a moment of lucidity when they gave us control of the University. This is what happened: as they were planning the coup against Perón they needed a group of anti-peronist civilians who could serve a shock troops in case of civil resistance — the military rebels could take care of any military resistance but I think they did not want to send tanks against groups of civilians & for that purpose they preferred civilian shock groups. I think the future University leaders decided that offered a chance to negociate their support for the military coup in exchange for control of the U. afterwards: exactly what happened. I know there were civilian groups ready to take to the streets if it had been necessary: luckily it was not."


To Ricardo Nirenberg bio notes

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