ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Shop of Soul Making" by Ricardo Nirenberg.


For Marta Erlijman

From those happy days of our youth at the School of Sciences on Calle Perú you might remember Héctor Pirosky, a newly minted engineer who used to teach the math introductory course.  He was a good-looking young man with delicate, sensitive features, some four years older than I, and the son of Ignacio Pirosky, a distinguished biologist who was the Director of the Instituto Malbrán (among other frightful activities, Pirosky Sr. extracted the venom from snakes and spiders).  Héctor’s mother was Rosa Rabinovich, a biologist too, and like many educated women at that time, also a translator: there was a scientific or philosophical book in my father’s shelves translated into Spanish by her.  Around 1959, when I became acquainted with Héctor, his father had left Rosa and was living with a French woman called Germaine in a flat high up in the Kavanagh, then the highest building in Buenos Aires.  I think Héctor lived with his mother.  But all those details came to my knowledge only after Héctor’s death.

The kind of math Héctor enjoyed was Euclidean constructions with compass and straightedge, like drawing the triangle with given median, height and bisector: they may take ingenuity, no doubt, but it’s the sort of thing that has been left behind by history and now may surface occasionally as a high-school exercise.  His classes, however, were unusually clear and beautifully organized, somewhat like the classes on classical mechanics of “Stout” Staricco, except that every semester ninety percent of the girls fell in love with Héctor.  His melancholy air plus the elegance of the ancient geometry brewed an irresistible aphrodisiac.

He and I talked mostly about music.  Our most glorious evening was when we booed Wilhelm Kempff at the Teatro Colón.  Two words and one incredulous look were enough for us to agree that the interpretation we had heard of the Les Adieux sonata was unacceptable.  Worse: insufferable.  Our boos and catcalls were, in addition, a revenge for the countless times that old jester had sat at the piano after performing the Nazi salute before the public.  The crowd around clapped as loudly as they could and threw at us murderous and horrified glances.  Poor idiots, applauding no matter what.  Another evening, Héctor came to my house with his flute and I accompanied him at the piano.  It was Telemann, I think.  My sister was there.  I don’t know if she enjoyed the music, but it is likely that an image of the ideal beloved was made clear and manifest for her, perhaps for the first time.

Pirosky was highly unpredictable.  One evening he, Miguel Herrera and I were walking on Calle Lavalle, the city blocks with all those movie houses, when, without a word, Pirosky disappeared.  Miguel and I were quite disconcerted: was it because we had been talking about some problem of higher math?  Mere speculation.  Back in those times, people who suffered from certain anomalies of the Principle of Sufficient Reason were called neurotic; nowadays I don’t know: there seem to be many more narcissists than neurotics.  About Pirosky everyone agreed: he was neurotic, and were he alive today, he would be unanimously diagnosed a narcissist.  His self-definition, however, was more prolix: “my three passions,” he used to say, “are the three m’s: math, music, and women” (mujeres in Spanish).  Of all my conversations with Héctor, that is the phrase of his that I remember most strongly, even though when I first heard it I thought it banal and not quite truthful.  For I thought, if he had really felt a passion for math he could have advanced in it a little more, and if his passion for music were genuine, he could have become a professional musician, like my partner in First Year Inorganic Chemistry Lab, who quit science and became a cellist.  Anyway, that’s how I thought back in those days, when I was certain I was on the right route.  As for women, with the many who were, as I could see, more than willing, I never saw Héctor reach for one.

The three-m’s bit impressed me strongly because of something that I learned afterwards.  When, years later (I had finished my PhD and was living in the U.S.), someone told me that Héctor had killed himself, he added a detail: Héctor had done it on his mother’s bed.  Behind Héctor’s three m’s there was then, hidden, a fourth and possibly more genuine one: mom.  At that moment I decided I wanted to write a story based on Pirosky, but my plans and drafts led to nothing.  The fact that there is a fourth, hidden m behind the three manifest ones, is no doubt enough for Lacan to bullshit a whole seminar, but it is not nearly enough for a good story.  For a while I toyed with the idea of a female character, a girl desperately in love with Héctor, and a death pact that she had betrayed at the last moment, so that she survived her beloved only to creep forever on this swamp of tears, haunting the neighborhood of the Aula Huergo, where Pirosky taught his Introductory Math class.  That idea was suggested perhaps by literary souvenirs, like the death pact between Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel, who rest together in a lovely tomb on the shore of a lovely lake near Berlin.  But the idea, I felt, had nothing to do with my Pirosky, I mean, with the one who is free of his own anguish and is alive in mine.  And it is only now, my dear Marta, after fifty years of not hearing of each other, now that we have begun this correspondence and you have shown me your own drafts of stories of incest and suicide, that I stop to consider in what ways my Pirosky fits into my life, and why it is he touches me.

You are well aware that the School of Sciences we knew wasn’t simply, not even mainly, a place where people taught and learned chemistry, physics, mathematics, meteorology, geology and biology; it was far more: a vale of soul-making, as Keats said, a shop where souls were fashioned.  Some scientific knowledge is an important element of the soul, no doubt – some geometry, or math, as the ancient Platonists required.  But it is not enough, oh no!  At the Aula Magna, where calculus was taught by day, by night we watched for the first time “October,” “Alexander Nevsky” and those strange McLaren shorts, and one night I came out transformed and shaken by Bergman’s “Sawdust and Tinsel.”  You may remember that in that movie a circus owner, Albert, suffers a series of humiliations, each one worse than the previous one.  As I write this, I realize why I was so shaken: Albert was fat and mustachioed and something of a hypocrite, much like my father, whose humiliations, each one worse than the previous one, deeply marked my puberty and adolescence.  In the Web I find that the actor who played Albert was Åke Grönberg, who died in 1969, aged 55.  Father also died in 1969, aged 56.

And literature, of course: how can a soul be made without literature?  We got books and lent them around.  Ferdydurke, Ubu Roi, Roberto Arlt, the frightful Lovecraft…  For a while we would repeat, with reason or without it, their esoteric expressions: “the staff of finance,” “Your Ferocity,” “Sub ziggurat!”…  There was, too, a small classroom up in the third floor, with a window looking on Calle Alsina, where we would read to a friendly audience our limping verses.  But before I forget: how can a human soul be complete without an unattainable love, l’amor de lonh of the troubadours, Dante’s Beatrice, Don Quixote’s Dulcinea?  I remember Clarita Rubinstein, whose father had a toy store near Plaza Italia, and on January 5th I and other friends went there to help sell toys – Clarita, who would climb up and down the steps of the Aula 2, her high heels chipping at and peeling away the plaster from my heart.  But she was engaged to be married, which allowed me to place her on die ferne Geliebte pedestal.  I remember, too, Zulema Gampel’s knees, on which I rested my head, unforgettably, at a campfire of the Chemistry Camp, down in the mountains of Chubut.

Finally, no soul can be strong if it has not been exposed to the fires of systematic stupidity, and there was no lack of that at our Facultad.  Communists, Trotskyites, Catholics, all determined to seek for truth no more, convinced that they already possessed it entirely, with their positions, sent from a central bureau, about each and every thing that happened or should happen in the world.  I was the treasurer of the CEFMyM, the student center of physics, math and meteorology, when in 1959 I was forced to give all our money to the vice president for her trip to Cuba, to a youth congress set up by Fidel.

Dear Marta, you must have your own treasure of memories from that soul shop located at Perú 222, which, like all that was good at any time in Argentina, was abruptly and violently swept off.  But you must acknowledge that the shop betrayed a number of those souls, forcing them to specialize and become professionals at twenty, willingly or not.  Among my friends there were resolute souls and sure vocations who always knew what to do with their lives and who were happy devoting themselves to chemistry, or math, or physics: those who died (they are, alas, a majority) did so with the laws of thermodynamics or the Zermelo axioms on their lips.  O fortunati nimium.  A girl I knew well (I still dream of her) had, at seventeen, very precise plans: when to stop being a virgin, when to become a licentiate, when to get married, when to get a doctorate, how many children to bear…  Einstein writes in his Memoirs that early in life he reckoned in which way a man’s lifespan could have the deepest effects on the world, and he concluded that by doing physics.  Yes, plans sometimes work very well, but we mustn’t forget that reality is sarcastic, not just crafty.  Heinrich von Kleist, it seems, had a very precise Lebensplan, yet he killed himself at thirty-four, like Pirosky.

You told me you were never sure about a career in science, but that you finished your degree in physics so as not to feel bad about not having done it.  I imagine, dear Marta, that something similar happened to many of our friends.  I entered the Facultad at seventeen, planning to study chemistry, yet after a year I realized that what I had liked with such enthusiasm at twelve rather resembled alchemy, with its “blind experiments and auricular traditions and impostures,” as Francis Bacon used to say.  When I heard that to really understand chemical reactions it is necessary to know quantum mechanics, I switched to physics.  But as soon as tensors made their entrance, there was a problem.  What’s a tensor? I asked.  The physicists replied that it is something that under a change of coordinates is transformed like this and that.  But what sort of something?  A chrysanthemum, a cow?  I didn’t get any more clarity from the physicists, but among the mathematicians my question had a simple and clear answer, not in vague terms such as “something that behaves in this or that way,” but based, like everything in math, on the axioms.  The need I felt to be able to inspect the mental construction down to its foundation may be considered ontological snobbism, but at least it saves you from falling into believing that “two and two is four” is an eternal law, and other such Platonic superstition.  Erich Heller, a German-speaking Bohemian Jew who was for many years a professor at Northwestern University, had a theory, called COI – the Creed of Ontological Invalidity – according to which our unhappiness, the disenchanted world that is ours and the orphaned spirit of our era, are caused by the present impossibility, following Bacon and the successes of experimental science, of asking what something is, but only how does it function.  My experience with tensors confirms it: the physicists’ explanations, limited to how tensors function, left me unhappy, orphaned, disenchanted, but when the mathematicians told me what tensors are, it was plenitude!

In any case, I switched to math.  Math had an additional advantage: most of my friends were there.  Nor did I give it any further thought: my destiny was math.  Hard math: phooey with history, philosophy or logic of math, those were for sissies.  For me and my friends, math was a sublimate of machismo.  At full, blistery gallop, I got my degree at twenty-one, and two years later I went to New York to get a Ph.D.  Willful blinders on, I became an alienated professional, till the whole thing collapsed when I turned thirty and my father died: no, I could not go on like that.  Go on like what?  Go on without my I.  Setting aside the issue of whether or not my life up to that point had been normal compared to other professionals of my generation, and dismissing vain attempts at objectivity, I felt a vast, dense sense of mourning, from which math could not distract me, as it distracted Pascal from his toothache.  Math only made it worse.

Having written the above, my dear Marta, I fell asleep, and in a dream saw three of my teachers, illustrious and respected figures, who were reproving me.  “I cannot recognize you.  I never would have thought I’d hear you speak of math as a distraction, when you well know that math is the one thing that is not a distraction, that math is our essence and télos as rational animals.”  Thus spoke one teacher, then another raised his voice: “What?  Your father died?  Or a teacher, or a lover died?  Very well, dedicate a theorem to him, and move on to something else!”  Then a third: “You spoke about your ‘I’ as if, besides the I who thinks about Banach Algebras, there was another I – a weasel’s I, maybe?”  When I awoke I was sweating.

At that time, when mourning had settled on my soul, I learned about Pirosky’s suicide, and my Pirosky started to take form, unconsciously, as the witness or martyr of a cause that from that moment was mine too.  He had felt and resisted the overwhelming weight of professionalism, the glances and whispers of pity, the taunts and accusations of being a neurotic and a useless idiot.  He had resisted because he wanted to keep his soul whole, he had tried to avoid the unexplored treasures of its parts being atrophied for the benefit of a single, monstrous tentacle, fit, no doubt, and ready to further the development and power of mankind.  His had been an heroic stance, yet doomed to defeat.  Poor Pirosky!  History, psychology, philosophy, the whole realm of the spirit was raised against him, and its spokesman, Hegel, had already coined some fitting sarcasms: die schöne Seele – the beautiful soul, like Snow White’s stepmother looking at herself in the mirror on the wall; die unglückliche Bewußtsein – the unhappy consciousness, feeling itself exiled and trapped in this world.  Poor Pirosky!

I interpreted his suicide, somehow, as a defense of poetry in the style of Novalis or of Shelley, both of whom had also died young since for some reason it is impossible to defend poetry as one ought to and live to a ripe age.  I had never heard Pirosky talk about poetry or recall a poem – his passions all started with m, not with p – but it didn’t matter, for doesn’t true poetry sprout from the integrity of a soul and the flowering of all its parts?  True poetry is an exploration of the countless pathways of the soul, which reach down all the way to the land of the dead and beyond.  Whether math is a distraction or not depends on your personality; some may forget their mourning, or be distracted from it, thanks to math; but it is certain that mourning has never been perfected by math.  The poem or the song, instead, complete the work of mourning and give the dead the chance of being transformed, of finding other habitations, a new voice.

You, who love the French language, probably remember Mallarmé’s « Tombeau d’Edgar Poe », and its celebrated alexandrine: « Tel qu’en lui-même enfin l’éternité le change. »
That subtle, Parisian Parmenides, with a drooping moustache, goatee and shawl, thinks that when they die souls become marble, since all true being must be marble or bronze.  But Poe, or rather Poe’s soul, never became self-identical; on the contrary, it went on changing, always changing, inhabiting the souls of Baudelaire, of Mallarmé, of Borges, yours and mine, of anyone who reads Poe carefully.  The same happens with Héctor’s soul: I know it is alive in mine, and don’t get the impression that it slumbers, or that it is tamed and subject to my will.  Any day I may utter some ingenious stupidity, or I may imagine some knowledge certain and total, and my Pirosky gets mad, and, without a word, leaves me alone.


Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse.

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