Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998
Today I was awakened by the noise of a mechanical saw cutting lumber. I know that a neighbor is trying to fix his dormer window, but before this piece of knowledge could be of any avail, I was gripped by the thought of a saw cutting beef bone, and presto! I was again in Buenos Aires, where butcher shops are many and open early. This led me to recall that I had dreamt with my uncle Abraham, whose house was a stone throw from the Buenos Aires slaughter yards. The dream then opened up to my inspection, as dreams will do if you are lucky and care for them: the locale seemed to be in the U.S., likely some university campus because there were plenty of young people milling about, carrying signs and protesting, much as in the days of the Vietnam War. There was a huge hall and students sat around; Uncle Abraham was addressing them; they were spellbound. He shone indeed in all splendor, he looked forty-five or so, his hair was silver and his demeanor consular and philosophical.
Abraham was my father’s brother, six years younger. Of my many uncles and aunts, he was the only one who attended university, where he got a medical degree. But he had started as my father’s junior associate, back in the forties, in the business of women’s lingerie. I remember the two brothers leaving for work with their meticulous cravats, three-cornered handkerchiefs and Don-Juanic dash, in a whiff of Atkinson’s English lavender. They resembled each other remarkably, though my father was more portly: their eyes were the same pale green, their moustaches were interchangeable, and their noses were molded on the same hereditary hook. When my father’s business went kaput in the early fifties, Uncle Abraham, who had meanwhile married my aunt Chiquita, a dentist, decided to become a medical professional too. Also at about this time he became a Marxist-Leninist, a conversion my parents attributed to his wife’s influence.
On my father’s shelves there was one book by Marx, one only, worn and paperbound, titled “Miseria de la filosofía”—the misery, or the poverty, of philosophy. To my eyes, this book was a mystery, not perhaps in itself, but on account of the company it kept or, if you wish, of the context. Many, I’d say most of my father’s books were of philosophy: there was Kant’s first Critique, two volumes paperbound, with Greek peristyles and temples on the covers; there was Schopenhauer, with his ugly head on fire; there was Spinoza, bound in Spanish paste, translated by Manuel Machado, Antonio’s brother. Poetry was not represented, either by Manuel, or by Antonio, or by any other poet, modern or classic, Hispanic or foreign. My father, I imagine, stood by Plato’s banishment of the poets. But that small book by Marx stood there in opposition and defiance to the majority of philosophy books, sounding a reproach: “Clear the decks, you all, bourgeois and petit-bourgeois, lumpen or bums!” Yet Plato with his marble beard, Hume with his powdered wig, and all the other worthies, remained put, imperturbable.
Uncle Abraham’s shelves were something else entirely. Law, hierarchy and order reigned there. Uppermost, close to the ceiling, the works of Stalin; below those, the works of Lenin, and in the lower ranks, the works of Marx, of Engels, and of both. I sat in awe before that massive fortress of maybe a couple-hundred volumes, and never dared pull one of them from the shelves. According to Uncle Abraham, they contained not, to be sure, all there is to know—they were not an encyclopedia, which are, anyhow, obsolete in no time—but the right method to conduct any search for scientific knowledge, and not only that, but also the right method for attaining happiness, personal, collective and universal, in this world. The method was called dialectical materialism. My father would snort and scoff at those words, yet they impressed me as a sort of sulfurous, powerful charm. The impression cannot be conveyed by the letters, not even by the sounds: one should hear those nine syllables, dialectical materialism, coming from under Uncle Abraham’s moustache, curled up with the smoke of his black tobacco cigarettes.
During their tumultuous and, as it seemed to me, epic philosophical disputes, the two brothers would keep a bottle of whiskey, two glasses and two packs of cigarettes at hand. In Spanish, to smoke is fumar, and to discuss philosophy is filosofar: those two f-words remained strongly linked in my mind. My father smoked Chesterfields or Lucky Strikes, my uncle Particulares or Imparciales, local brands. It occurred to me, in my early innocence, that perhaps the difference lay more in the packaging than in the actual thing, and so once I surreptitiously switched some cigarettes in their packs. No sooner had the two disputants taken a puff from the wrong cigarettes that they screwed up their faces as if they had just tasted the tail end of the devil, coughed violently, and crushed the culprits on the nearest ashtray. So it turned out to be more than a fashion or a snobbish whim. The difference between tobaccos corresponded to deep-seated, visceral differences in metaphysical outlook. Or so it seemed to my senses.
Only to my senses? From the cobwebbed piles of old journals and magazines in my basement I retrieve an issue of Buenos Aires Literaria, with a piece by León Ostrov, a pipe-smoking Argentine psychoanalyst whose feeble claim to escape total oblivion is that he psychoanalyzed the poet Alejandra Pizarnik. In that piece we find the following reflection about World War Two, to wit, that a very important factor in determining the end result was that Hitler didn’t smoke, Churchill and Roosevelt smoked cigarettes (Ostrov does not mention cigars), and Stalin, above all, smoked a pipe. This, written in 1953, while Stalin was being received with dread among the ghosts, seems to confirm my childish conclusion about tobacco and metaphysical outlook. And now the question occurs to me for the first time: did my uncle Abraham know Ostrov? He must have. Ostrov was professor of Psicología Profunda at the University, deep psychology—in other words, Freudian theory—at the time my uncle was studying for his medical degree, with a specialty in psychiatry. Not only that: my uncle Abraham and Ostrov shared a devotion to Stalin and, paradoxically, an ambition to fuse Marxism and Freudianism into a general theory of humanity. That devotion and that ambition, however, were quite widespread among the university educated at the time in Argentina.
Once he got his medical degree, Uncle Abraham got a job as a psychiatrist at Gas del Estado, the government natural gas company, and he stayed there for the rest of his life. I don’t know if he saw any patients other than Gas del Estado employees; my hunch is he did not, for he didn’t keep a private office; but that was no impediment to his framing general conclusions about the nature of man. I keep a twenty-five-page essay, a typed carbon copy dated 1951 and titled, “El Existencialismo,” that my uncle must have given to my father about that time; my father never mentioned those pages to me; I found them in his desk after his death. I translate the first sentence: “The existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre is the atomic bomb of philosophy at the present time or, more precisely, the exact expression of the old individualistic philosophy that is disintegrating before the impact of contemporary events, of historical evolution, and of the latter’s consequence: materialistic science and philosophy.” The initial metaphor betrays where the highest glory of materialistic science and philosophy lay in my uncle’s eyes: the atomic bomb. Sartre is an atomic bomb, but an atomic bomb not quite in the right hands: he contributes powerfully to the disintegration of the bourgeoisie, which is all to the good, but not as much as he should to the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is bad. Indeed, Sartre speaks of anxiety as a condition of man, that is, of all mortals. But, says my uncle, “that is obscure nonsense; how much clearer is the language of materialism: anxiety appears in a person when he is a victim of economic, political and social uncertainty.” Anxiety is not a condition of mortals, according to my uncle Abraham: the bourgeois suffer from anxiety because they know they are doomed; the proletariat does not, because it knows victory is sure and close. We are reminded of the 1971 Chomsky-Foucault debate, in which the French celebrity declares that for him, as for Chairman Mao, there is no such thing as a single human nature, but rather two: a bourgeois nature and a proletarian nature. Such distinctions, I may add, help make extermination easier: we kill other-natured humans as if we were killing vermin.
I haven’t mentioned yet the name that dominated us all, General Perón. Although he claimed he was no Marxist (neither Marxist nor capitalist, in fact, but in “the third position”), he was always ready with that same trinity on his lips, “economical, political and social.” His Argentina was “economically free, socially just, and politically sovereign.” I absorbed those words together with the multiplication tables. The remarkable thing, though, is that two years before my uncle Abraham typed his Marxist critique of Sartre, Perón had done something analogous. In 1949 there was an international congress of philosophy held at the Universidad de Cuyo, in the western city of Mendoza. Distinguished visitors came to the event, among them Gadamer from Germany, Abbagnano and Pareyson from Italy, and even Heidegger sent a paper, excusing himself from appearing in person because the Allied Occupation authorities refused him the permission to travel. To that choice audience, Perón delivered a two-hour speech, in which he traced the whole development of Western philosophy, from its origin in the Presocratics to the Peronist New Argentina, its consummation. General happiness was the rule and no contradictions were to be found in the New Argentina; above all, there was no place and no occasion for nausea—nausea had been eradicated, like cholera or the plague. Although Perón did not mention Sartre by name, the implication was clear: the abyss of Pascal and the anxiety of Kierkegaard, Baudelaire’s gouffre, Heidegger’s Sein zum Tode, Sartre’s nausea and similar absurd paraphernalia was not allowed to get through Argentine customs. In Argentina the Revolution had triumphed.
By two different roads Perón and Uncle Abraham had reached the same conclusion, which ought to reinforce its validity, just as in physics we can be pretty confident about the value of the Avogadro constant, reached at by a dozen independent ways. But my father would have none of that. Matter and its constant necessities, objectivity, exteriority and its many bumps, nothingness and its terrors, were as nothing to Dad. The world was his secretion. And as some of us take a gob of snot and roll and rub it on our fingertips until it acquires solidity, he would solidify his desires with his fantasy until they seemed to him actual enough. In his business ventures, women’s lingerie as well as all the others, my father was like the girl of the fable—“Perette sur sa tête ayant un pot au lait”. He would multiply his earnings in his mind, with the help of the formula for the sum of a geometric progression, paying no attention to things or signs around, until the milk pot fell from his head and broke into a thousand pieces, meaning he went bankrupt. This happened several times. His personal philosophical system, accordingly, was German Romantic Idealism, more precisely Fichte.
Each advancing behind their own smoke curtain, the two brothers would join in metaphysical battle, Uncle Abraham trying to soften the enemy positions with massive bombardment and the heavy artillery of dialectical materialism, and my father counterattacking with the piercing energy of his Ichstrahl, the Fichtean I-radiation. “Your vaunted I would be nothing, nothing at all,” objected Uncle Abraham, “if it weren’t for the society, the political system and the economic relations that pre-existed its coming to life.” And Father would rejoin, “No: your society, your political system and your economic relations would not exist without the individuals who establish them. Moreover, without the conscious I, the subject of all awareness, what would one be able to say of your society, your politics and your economics? Nothing, absolutely nothing.” And so it would go, back and forth, indecisively, for hours on end, until the whiskey bottle was empty. As for me, the witness of these battles, I couldn’t help being reminded of the ancient problem of the chicken or the egg.
Years later, perhaps in 1958, during one of their last philosophical battles, I was called to decide between their conflicting claims. I had taken some math courses at the university, and my father and my uncle were discussing the Hegelian dialectics: they asked me whether mathematicians utilized them in their work. I had to answer, no. Father beamed triumphantly and Uncle Abraham was beating a retreat into sullen skepticism, when I added that perhaps in the Soviet Union, where there were many excellent mathematicians, the dialectics were being used in math, for all I knew. This pleased my uncle. After all, hadn’t the Soviet Union proved to be far superior in science and technology, with that Sputnik and all? This was to be credited, no doubt, to the dialectics.
I go back to my basement, and from another pile only slightly less cobwebbed, I pull out an old issue of Médico Moderno, with a photo of my uncle taken only a few months before he died. He is seen with his typewriter and a cigarette in his right hand.
On the left margin, a statement that, even if I had found it inside an anonymous jar buried in the Nubian sands, I would without hesitation attribute to my uncle Abraham: “Experience proves to me that the patient who is able to receive the news of his own death is the one who has lived well.” How wide was his experience? How many death prognostications had he announced? What did he mean by the good life? Not what Aristotle or à Kempis meant, to be sure. Actually, he gives a hint in the interview: the heroic Vietnamese fighter is not afraid to die.
When Uncle Abraham suffered a heart attack, it was decided that his only hope was an open-heart operation to be performed by Dr. Michael E. DeBakey. I don’t know how the money was found for the trip north, the procedure and the hospitalization. My uncle’s means were modest, and my father was broke. There were other relatives of course, though no one to borrow from. Perhaps the DeBakey organization gave my uncle a special price; I don’t think the Communist Party helped in any way; if my uncle had been a party member, I don’t see how he could have gotten a visa to get into the U.S. In any case, the open-heart operation was performed and declared successful. When my uncle came back from Texas, he had scornful words for the city of Houston—“They keep saying what fantastic houses those Texan millionaires have built, but I don’t see what they brag about. In our country, in Mar del Plata, in the Barrio Los Troncos, there are bigger and more beautiful mansions.”
I lost contact with my uncle Abraham after that. I had gone to New York to get a doctorate in math, there I got married, had children, tried to adapt as best I could (which was not well, but that is for another occasion) to the new roles of father, husband, and academic professional. Until, at the end of March 1969, my father died at fifty-six. If it was hard to live through my father’s disappearance, it was even harder to cope with what came up to the surface after his disappearance. A huge, unpayable debt was held by a couple of loan sharks, one of whom, by means of friends highly placed in the Federal Police, had my mother held in a precinct for a while, until she managed to escape, and went into hiding. Women appeared out of the woodwork: my father’s ancient, recent, or current flames. Lies, old and new, popped up on every side: my father’s image turned to ashes, burnt by the anger in my heart. That, however, didn’t last. Now nothing in Dante touches me more deeply than those lines where he is surprised to meet his teacher Brunetto Latini in hell; like the poet, I could cry, “Siete voi qui, ser Guillermo?” Guillermo was my father’s name.
Was it because of those hardships that I turned to faith in universal salvation? Or was it the Vietnam War, the campuses turmoil, and the world-wide revolutionary fervor? Perhaps it was both or something else entirely: there is no way to know. The fact is, I became a radical, a Marxist. For two or three years, in far away Wisconsin, I read into much of the same dreary material my uncle Abraham kept on the shelves in his house near the slaughter yards, and acquired the same astonishing assurance that most problems in the world could be solved using the solvent called dialectical materialism. This didn’t last long, but while it lasted, and while I was numbly mourning for my father, it made a lot of sense to write a letter to my uncle. I told him about my confusion, my mourning and my struggles—after all, wasn’t he a psychiatrist? And as such, wasn’t he a source of meaning, which is to say, a source of hope?
Uncle Abraham replied in a kind, avuncular tone. I was on the right path toward healing, he reassured me. As for my father, he had been “un niño grande”, which I took to mean that his body was big but his judgment was small. I couldn’t reasonably object to either of those estimations, but I was surprised by the proofs my uncle adduced. I would have expected him to bring up my father’s attachment to Fichtean egocentric idealism and his inability to appreciate the power of the dialectics, but no: Uncle Abraham invoked my father’s musical tastes. I had never heard the two brothers discuss music, only philosophy, and furthermore, what my uncle wrote in his letter to me was true enough: my father “had never progressed from Chopin to Bartók’s string quartets.” Yes, Father’s three favorite classical pieces were the Adagio of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, Chopin’s piano concerto in F minor, and Bruch’s cello arrangement of the “Kol Nidrei.” He detested twentieth-century music, including jazz. I could not quarrel with Uncle Abraham’s judgment of my dad, but at the same time I couldn’t help asking myself, Is that a decent way of summing up a brother’s life? Isn’t he a monumental snob?
Perhaps he was. And perhaps he wasn’t, for Uncle Abraham could play a tune on the piano by ear quite well—music must have been more important to him than I imagined. It might have been the epitaphic brevity of his assessment that shocked me—“never progressed from Chopin to Bartók’s string quartets.” Well, I could sum up my uncle’s life quite briefly too: “never got free from Stalinism.” And I could let it rest there, and be confident everyone will agree that, if both are true, my epitaph of Uncle Abraham is shorter and more damning that my uncle’s epitaph of my dad. Only that now I am not so sure. It does look foregone: a lack of appreciation of Bartók is an esthetic fault, while love of Stalin is a moral one, and the word “damning” applies to moral, not to esthetic faults. But, at the risk of appearing to be more monumentally snobbish than my uncle, I’d like to suggest that even though there is no circle in hell for people with arrested taste in music, nor are they sentenced to go to jail or to pay a fine, nor are they usually accused of moral turpitude, still—still, there might be something wrong, morally wrong I mean, with someone who likes music, like my father, but refuses to make the effort to learn how to appreciate something new, be it Bartók or Benny Goodman.
So, perhaps Uncle Abraham was right in his summation of my father’s life. Was he indelicate or unfeeling? Not if you go by Voltaire—« On doit des égards aux vivants ; on ne doit aux morts que la vérité». Be that as it may, my uncle died at the same age as his brother, fifty-six. He had never stopped smoking, though I imagine he must have been advised by Dr. DeBakey, back in Houston, that it was bad for him. One day, I was told, he was at his job in Gas del Estado, suddenly vomited blood, and dropped dead. My father, too, had smoked until the day his heart stopped. In that respect, as in many others, they were like two peas in a pod.
Having read the above, my sister Olgui skyped me from Buenos Aires to correct me on an important point. There is no question about how Uncle Abraham paid for his trip to Houston and his heart operation, she said: it was our father who paid. Seeing how Abraham didn’t try to repay the money, and did not even say much by way of thanks, Mother kept reproaching Father for having been a shmuck and a putz; what most impressed my sister is that Father never replied to those reproaches by word or gesture. Since at the time I was living in the US, I wasn’t a witness. I trust my sister’s account, hard as it is to imagine how Father could have come up with that kind of money: it surely contributed to his falling into the hands of usurers. Harder to believe is that in his letter to me where he diagnosed his older brother as a niño grande who failed to appreciate Bartók, Abraham did not add that the niño grande had saved his life.
Author Bio: Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse.