Aber Vater und Mutter sind lange tot
J. v. Eichendorff
Besides our dreams, our memories from early life are our innermost experience of fragmentation. A balloon on the floor (it was before the time of easily available helium); me sitting on a high chair being fed; me sitting on the potty with my mother’s round, moon-like face hovering above mine, her expression and her voice exhorting, even threatening: “push, push, push!” Sometimes there is a clear thread linking two or more of those images: I was sitting on the high chair, being fed, while watching the balloon in a corner, and this happened repeatedly, day after day, the balloon shrinking, losing air. For the most part, though, those early memories are isolated like shoals in a forgotten ocean; they do not form a spatial or temporal sequence, nor is there a hint of cause & effect.
Nevertheless, either there is in those fragments, or we later impose on them, some sort of unity, both thematic and stylistic. I had a reluctant gut and gullet when I was very young, and Mom was controlling and impatient to the point of violence; perhaps because of that, the dire goddess of fate and necessity, Ananke, presides over my otherwise disjoint earliest memories. The shrinking of the balloon is accompanied by a feeling of helplessness: I would have liked to stop it, to keep the balloon big, bright, and tense, but I could not. At the same time, a prisoner on the high chair, I turned my head left and right, trying to avert my mouth from the full spoon Mom, regularly, implacably, thrust into it. Nothing would avail: I had to eat, or be slapped in the face; and velis nolis, I had to shit. My mother wouldn’t let me rise from the potty until I did.
I cannot have been more than ten when I was playing Für Elise on the piano in the living room, and my father was sitting on the tall wing armchair, where he liked to sit while listening to music. It was a summer Sunday morning, the living-room window was wide open, and the breeze blew and played on the voile curtains. All of a sudden Mom came down the stairs, threw herself upon Dad and started screaming, “¡Asqueroso!”—“You filth!” I turned around and saw Mom holding Dad by the hair, shaking his head the way one shakes a rag or a pillow. “¡Asqueroso!” she screamed, and all the while my father was utterly passive, slack and silent, like a puppet. “¡Las gomas”—“The rubbers!” she shouted, without letting go of Dad’s hair.
“¡Las gomas!” That cry was the key that, later on, allowed us—my sister and me—to unravel the mystery, after some deliberation under the dining-room table. Our conclusion was that upstairs in their bedroom, while preparing Dad’s suit for the dry cleaner, Mom had found condoms in the pockets; our parents, apparently, did not use those devices in their—how should we say? — overflows.
The explanation, anyway, did not add anything to, or subtract from, the effect that marionette theater scene had on me. Right off the piano, I went out and walked around the block: up Rivera Indarte Street to Directorio Avenue, then down Pedernera to Francisco Bilbao, and back to Rivera Indarte. I had no thought of where to go; I only wanted to be out of the house, to shake off the image of Dad’s head being shaken like a rag puppet. But both the image and the word, títere—puppet—were unshakable. I went round the block again and again, I don’t know how many times, aware only of my own disorientation. Finally, as often happens, chaos congealed in one image. I had seen it in a history book, or perhaps an encyclopedia: it was an etching of Charles Henri Sanson, the Paris executioner, holding high, by the hair, the bleeding head of Louis XVI for the mob to gloat.
I almost forgot about the bathtub. Once (I’m not sure if it was before or after Für Elise, but likely it was around that time) I walked up to the bathroom door and noticed that the bathtub faucet was running at full throttle and the bathtub was overflowing: this caused in me a total paralysis, and I was seized by dread. No way I could go in and turn the faucet off. I ran away and didn’t stop until I was out on the street.
The outdoors, the vast city, indeed, was the domain of freedom, where dreadful Ananke handed her scepter over to Tyche, and Necessity bowed before Chance. In the streets you could be bitten by a dog, mugged by thugs, or hit by a tile falling on your head, but those were accidents, not done on purpose or produced by design, and so the cosmos preserved its innocence.
There was unsurpassed poetry in those streets, which means poetry of the geological sort that crystallizes chance back into necessity. I went up or down Francisco Bilbao—up East toward downtown and the river, down West in the direction of the infinite Pampa—or sat for rest and solace on the curb, looked into an iron drain grate and listened to the deep down running and gurgling of the sewer. My favorite drain was on Francisco Bilbao up between Rivera Indarte (with my house on the corner) and Membrillar. All those names are not only conventional but accidental as well; I am certain that neither the City Council, nor the Mayor nor anyone ever in municipal charge, had any notion that the name Bilbao—which happened to belong to a nineteenth-century Chilean liberal, anti-clerical intellectual—would express so perfectly, with the rilling sound of its first syllable and the depth of the a-o hiatus, the essence of my drain and sewer, and not only that, but also and simultaneously, the fragrance of the tiny flowers of the Chinaberry trees and the Chinese smell of their berries. Even so, the connection and unity of all those perceptions turns out to be necessary by the agency of our poetic brain, which crystalizes chance into necessity—not into the dire necessity personified by the old hag Ananke, but into the inner necessity of the newly formed, still immature I.
Of the languages known to me, only French is so unnatural as to call the color yellow by a word with no l’s, no liquid consonants: jaune. In Spanish the word membrillar is as yellow (amarilla) as its meaning, a place where quince (membrillo) trees grow. The street was named for a battle in Chile; fifty yards into it from Francisco Bilbao lived Jorge Bergoglio, the present Pope, then a boy about three years older than I; we attended the same grammar school on Varela street, without however any direct contact, given the difference in ages. Yet he must have been enchanted as I was by Francisco Bilbao street, perhaps by the same drain, and it is far from far-fetched to conclude that the poveraccio from Assisi was not the only reason for Bergoglio to choose the name Francisco when he was enthroned.
In the opposite direction, West, a hundred or so meters from my house ran Pedernera Street. There was a streetcar going up Pedernera toward the main avenue in our neighborhood, Rivadavia, and beyond to far-away Villa del Parque, a place I have never visited and which my imagination presented as some medieval hortus conclusus, with a fountain at the center, ladies wearing tall pointed san benito hats, and a unicorn roaming about. Streetcars started with a spiraling crescendo metallic moan and stopped with the same, decrescendo; often, from the grooved wheel at the high end of the trolley pole fell a rain of sparks that impressed me greatly and, incidentally, went to show the power of the pre-established harmony governing my outdoor world, especially street names. Pedernera, I found out in later years, had been an Argentine long-serving general, but to a child the name had obvious connections to pedernal, which is Spanish for flint, which explained the sparks, bigger yet similar in kind to those produced by my father’s cigarette lighter when it was low on fuel.
Turning right on Pedernera and walking up half a block, Tandil Street opens to the West; facing this nascent essence (for in an essential city each street has its own essence) there was a coal and potatoes depot, where once and only once I went in, and thought myself transported to the interior of the earth, like in Jules Verne’s voyage. In the midst of dust and darkness stood the old platform scales, like the ones I had seen at railroad stations, but dirtier.
Samuel Beckett did write lyrically about an elegant steelyard; he had a point; but maybe I can slip in a word for the majesty of old platform scales, and I’m pretty sure that he, Beckett, must have admired them, too, in those old Paris shops bearing the sign “Bois et charbons”—wood and coal. But coal, I mean hard, real coal, anthracite or coke, has more in common with underground potatoes than with wood, so here’s one instance (perhaps the only one) where Argentines are more logical than the French.
“Faggot! Jew!” I turned my head and saw them coming, a hundred yards away. I saw four bullies from my fifth grade class. I saw Noguera, Páez, Peralta, all wearing, like me, the white frock, short pants and knee socks of the state schools uniform. I walked faster, pretending I hadn’t heard, but they were gaining on me. “Faggot Jew!” Now I recognized Gastaldi’s voice. Gastaldi, the kid who sat next to me in Señorita Cortina’s class, who had that very morning asked for my math homework and then had thanked me, and said I was a really good friend, a true friend, a once-in-a-lifetime friend. That same kid was now shouting “judío puto.”
I dodged into Pedernera Street and started running as fast as I could. To help my running rhythm I recited under my breath, “Hidrógeno, helio, litio, berilio, boro, carbono, nitrógeno, oxígeno,” and so on. I had hoped to put more distance between us, but when I looked back I saw them getting closer, chanting at the top of their voices a running march, to the tune of von Suppé’s Light Cavalry Overture. The faster the rhythm, the faster they ran. This terrified me so that as I was passing the house of the kid who was sick with diphtheria, a little before the coal and potatoes depot, I tripped, fell on the tiled sidewalk and skinned my knees. I scrambled up and kept running. They were catching up, now less than thirty yards behind. I could hear them laughing —“¡Te tenemos, maricón!”—“We got you, fag!” That was Páez’ voice. He was the biggest, the tallest of the four, a complete beast, his father a sergeant in the Federal Police. “No use running, we got you faggot Jew!” I saw, to my right and just ahead of me, an open door. I pushed it and got inside, then closed it back.
Having written the above, I brushed my teeth and went to bed, whereupon I had the following dream.
After closing a door, you find yourself in a luminous place. You would call it a square, perhaps, if it hadn’t been round in shape. At the center there is a fountain: ten marble basins, decreasing in diameter toward the top, where the jet, supreme, surges, sways, splays and splashes. Except for the splashing, there reigns a marvelous, peaceful silence; all there is luxe, calme et volupté. Ratzinger happens to be there too, his white zucchetto bright over his bright white hair, explaining the Christian symbol to a group of his compatriots. You draw near, and hear him say: „Es ist ganz bezaubernd, nicht wahr?“
Who hasn’t been enchanted by a fountain jet? It goes up until its energy is spent, then it comes down with all sorts of coquettish curlicues, just like you, elderly phrasemonger. But it keeps jumping up, ever reborn. It flows yet it is always the same, and the merry purl celebrates at once both death and rebirth. Amen; but, as far as you’re concerned, this particular jet stands too high. You cannot fully appreciate it without a crick in the neck, and the large difference in levels detracts from the identification needed for the esthetic effect. On top of which, water must overflow each basin to come upon the next one down, something you really don’t care for. Overflowing water is not your cup of tea. In fact, if you were to walk into a bathroom and see the white tub or the white toilet bowl overflowing, you wouldn’t know whether to go in and turn the faucets off, or run away. Water overflowing terrifies you, especially in large volumes. Greenland’s melting icecap is your nightmare, and the ocean lapping the white walls of Sacré-Cœur.
And what’s worst, the fountain with overflowing basins is the model for the transmission of all priestly truth and authority, descending from the lofty jet of God’s Word, down to angel, to prophet, to apostle, to ayatollah, to bishop, to mullah, to— a justification of hierarchy before the world. A model, too, you may be inclined to add, for trickle-down economics. To your mind, however, truth and authority come from no one, and most especially not from anyone who has the effrontery of claiming to be their dispenser. Truth is the manifest energy of oneness; it is like the spark in Cavendish’s eudiometer, where hydrogen and oxygen were for the first time synthesized, by us humans, into dew.
You must have said the above words loudly enough, because His Holiness replies: “To judge by your spiritless, strictly literal interpretations, you sound like an Israelite. You should learn that overflowing water is but a symbol of overflowing love. Truth, you see, remains true only when confined to its just boundaries, but charity has no boundaries, charity is infinite, like God. That is why charity is superior to truth.”
In your view, however, and with all due respect for the Vicar of Christ, if overflowing water is bad, overflowing love is still worse and more frightening. No one can possibly believe that overflowing love is good for you unless possessed of a Christianly depraved cast of mind. Love overflowing from one basin and pouring into the next: such is, indeed, the terrifying hydro-mechanical cosmic scheme Christians borrowed from the Neoplatonists.
“And yet your Hebrew sacred poetry, too, speaks of overflowing love,” Benedict pronounces solemnly to the general approval of the faithful.
“‘My cup runneth over’ is a bad translation from the Hebrew of Psalm Twenty-three,” you retort with just the right touch of pedantry. “Cosí rvaiah does not mean ‘my cup overflows,’ but only ‘my cup is well filled’ or ‘my drink is abundant.’ Jews show more concern for tablecloth and table than you Christians.”
“Ah, there you go again,” says the sixteenth Benedict. “Literal, deaf and stiff-necked. Love does not soil or wet the tablecloth; love does not stain the table. No one, Christian or Jew, should refuse an overflow of love; and if he does, it could only be because the wretch is possessed by an overflow of pride.”
“Rather by the right dose of wisdom. King Lear was seduced by Goneril’s and Regan’s overflow of love, and hurt and offended by Cordelia’s just measure: she loved her father, sweet Cordelia replied to his questioning, ‘according to my bond; no more nor less.’ The rash king insisted on an overflow, not content with a cup well filled. Need I say more, Euer Heiligkeit?”
At a sign from Benedict, you now find yourself mobbed by the Opus Dei, the Acción Católica, the Jesuits, the Trappists, the whole Cardinal College, and the Swiss guards. They go at you with stones and sticks, as well as crosiers, ferulae, thuribles, missals, reliquaries and chalices. Loudly they threaten you with fire and faggot. It all sounds so familiar, those overflows of love!
A stone hits you on the shoulder; you run for your life. You try to lose the papists by turning into lateral roads, but the overflowers faithfully follow. Then you notice a path leading into a steep hill, and up you go, climbing with unsuspected speed, as if you had suddenly grown wings in your feet, like Hermes of old—no, even faster, as if you had developed jet propulsion through your tokhes.
Your persecutors have not perceived your move: like a swollen torrent they rush by, shouting their slogans: death to the heretics, death to the Jews, long live the Pope! From up high they look like insects, their tumult bearing meaning only among some species of insects unknown to you. A storm has been gathering right over them; lightning strikes now on all sides, and the mob is fulminated and dispersed.
Some clouds bring to you whiffs of incense and charred flesh.
But those are merely accidents, neither perpetrated on purpose nor produced by design. The cosmos preserves its innocence.
Dad and Mom are long dead.