“Sergei Efron in 1913, speaking about tango: ‘One can only dance like that on the eve of a global catastrophe.’” Marina Tsvetaeva, Notebooks, 1916-18, translated by Christopher Whyte.
About 1964 I stopped being seduced by the latest pop music and it began to annoy me. The twist, the cha-cha, and the Beatles, if I remember right, were my last enthusiasms of the sort. Unknowingly, I was following a general rule: once we establish a family, new pop stops resonating for us, we develop an indifference that in time becomes hostility, and we start asking ourselves how our teenage children are able to go crazy over such noisy crap. Unless, of course, we are trying to prove that we’re still cool.
Earlier though, I did go worse than crazy—I went metaphysical—over Nat King Cole’s “I love you for sentimental reasons.” Back in those days, Argentine girls had to wear through high school the white smock boys dropped upon finishing grammar school: when she was a teenager, my sister spent much time starching and ironing her smocks, on top of doing her homework. She attended the Liceo Nacional de Señoritas número 2 adjacent to Plaza Lezica, at the opposite end of which stood the confitería Plaza. I would sit there, at a window table covered by an immaculately white tablecloth, sipping a brandy Alexander (alcohol was allowed to sixteen-year-olds), listening to Nat King Cole or the Trío Los Panchos, and hoping for the appearance of the donna angelicata who would lead me through the paradisiac spheres up into the heaven of heavens, to draw the empyrean air. But she never showed up.
In the early 60s, heart cracked after my first serious love affair, lying on my bed while listening on the radio to Marcel Mouloudji sing “Un jour tu verras”, I would project myself on to the year 2000. A Parisian square, perhaps on the 20ème, where she and I would meet again of an evening, and dance, now cheek-to-cheek, now eyes-deep-into-our-eyes, « Vers une nuit profonde, vers une fin du monde… » — a cushy, bittersweet apocalypse.
Those songs from my teens, and many more like those, were a part of my sentimental education. They left their imprint, how deep I cannot tell, but they were certainly not pressed on a blank slate: my childish slate was already densely incised with tango lyrics. The first ten years of my life were lived listening to my mother’s tangos, those she had learned before she married: they had been new between about 1925 and 1935. She sang while doing her chores in the kitchen, or darning our socks.
Her singing was perpetual until, when I was nine or ten, my father made such a terrible mess of his affairs—not only those of the pocket but also of the heart & the fly, though in what proportions or combinations I’m unable to tell—that my mother started attending daily to the shop and the mill. While Dad drove his car all over the city securing—as he told everyone—fresh bank credits to cover previous defaults, Mom rode bus 112 to and from Lanús, a southern industrial town where the mill was located. In the evening she came home in a bad mood, and frowned and scowled instead of singing. This situation lasted for years; in fact, my mother never resumed her singing, which had two consequences as far as I was concerned: it saddened me, and it wrapped those early years in a cloud of nostalgia, making them appear in my mind as a paradise lost.
My language of paradise, then, was the lyrics of tango. I’m not referring to the Spanish tongue, or to the River Plate argot; what I mean is rather a web of cliché, amounting to a confused, entangled, but fantastically sticky worldview. I will offer examples in a minute, but first, a reminiscence. When my mother was old and racked by brittle bones, I would fly to Buenos Aires once or twice a year to keep her company in her tiny apartment. I’d sit on a chair next to hers, sip maté, and listen to the tango radio station. Toward the end of her life she was embittered, eyes finally opened to Dad’s many betrayals, and she often summarized her past: “I’ve been an incredible shmuck.” No chance she would burst into song. But if I brought up the subject, she offered strong opinions. The great Astor Piazzola? His were not tangos; indeed, by the time I was born, tango had died. If I mentioned Gardel, the Argentine Orpheus who became an immortal god (or “entered immortality,” as Argentines are apt to say) in 1935 after his death in a plane crash, my mother always protested that she had never liked his voice or style. Hers was heresy, of course. Gardel, and tango in general, together with football and, a bit less unanimously, Perón, are the Argentines’ passions and what gives them the feeling that life is, after all, worth living.
Mom remembered with special affection Azucena Maizani, the tango singer with a soprano voice who often dressed as a man though with heavily rouged lips and thick mascara. Now, more than twenty years after my mother’s death, I google that name, and click on the song “Vos y yo”:
“Tu vida tiene un destino:
encantar y reír y querer...
Yo marcho por el camino
del profundo y tenaz padecer.
Dejame con mi tristeza,
que estoy lejos, muy lejos de vos.
Tus ensueños recién comienzan
y yo a los míos les digo adiós...”
(Your life has a purpose: to charm, to laugh, to love… I must walk the rounds of deep, tenacious pain. Leave me to my sorrow: I’m far, too far apart from you. Your dreams are just beginning, but to my dreams I bid adieu…)
I read those lines and two flares shoot up from the bottom of my mind: first, I remember the music and the words quite precisely even though they have not visited my consciousness in any shape or form since I was a child. And, what’s more surprising, I recapture the vague, childish thoughts that went with listening to my mother singing that song: I suspected that she was expressing her own true feelings in a veiled way, and that her words were addressed to me, her son. She was telling me she was in love with me and only with me, but that it was an impossible love, alas, since she was married to Dad.
But let’s go back to my mother’s tiny apartment. We sat next to each other, her gnarled, shaking hands pouring hot water into the maté gourd, while she explained that she preferred Azucena Maizani to Carlos Gardel, but that, all things considered, the tango artist she really liked was Francisco Canaro. I objected that he wasn’t a singer but a composer and a bandleader, so it didn’t make sense to compare him to Carlos Gardel. In fact, I recalled that on occasion Gardel had sung with Canaro’s orchestra.
“Yes, of course, in ‘Madreselva’,” my mother said. She had kept her memory intact, which made me happy, and her visibly proud. “You know,” she whispered as if telling me a secret, “it was while they were dancing ‘Madreselva’ that Juan popped the question to Anita.”
I had heard the story before. Juan Brodesky was one of my mother’s brothers; he had married Anita Bobroff. I had not seen him for twenty-something years, but I had talked with him on the phone once, during a previous visit to Mom a couple of years before: he seemed happy to hear my voice, and wanted to know if I could dance the lambada. I had never heard or seen that word before, but told him that yes, of course I could dance the lambada. That made him even happier. Now that I think of it, my uncle Juan was an exception to the rule, an example of an old man who kept abreast of the latest pop for as long as he lived: he was naturally cool, I guess.
“Pobre Juan…” my mother sighed. It seemed to me it was because my uncle had died recently; actually he had died while talking on the phone with my mother: at a certain point he went silent and Mom kept saying, “Juan, Juan, Juan…” but his heart had stopped. “Pobre Juan,” Mom repeated; “he never liked to hear me speak on the phone about what an incredible shmuck I’ve been all my life, and the times your father cheated on me, and I always believed his lies. He never liked me speaking of that. I don’t know why.”
I could have told her that I didn’t like it either, and I could have told her why. But I didn’t, and I must finally come to the tango “Madreselva”, whose lyrics are the object of this story. The name, ‘madreselva,’ means honeysuckle, the climbing bush with sweet, strongly scented flowers. Together with the showier santa rita or bougainvillea, it is the plant most commonly associated with walls, especially with poetic walls. Honeysuckle hangs from the front wall of Wordsworth’s ruined cottage, and in the text “Sentirse en muerte,” a piece in El idioma de los argentinos of 1928, J. L. Borges claims to have found the meaning and the feeling of eternity while contemplating a suburban wall and smelling the “provincial smell of honeysuckle.” The pair wall / honeysuckle is felt by him to be a carrier or witness of eternity (the physicist Erwin Schrödinger tells of a similar experience before the grander spectacle of the Austrian Alps). Now, a little later, in 1931, the pair wall / honeysuckle was thoroughly coopted in the popular porteño mind by the tango “Madreselva”, and Borges, who despised tangos of the sentimental kind, a class that includes this one and all the other tangos my mother sang, must have felt plagiarized. The tango lyrics, written by Luis César Amadori, contain a plea for immortality, a notion that lies not far from eternity:
“Si todos los años
tus flores renacen,
hacé que no muera
mi primer amor...”
(Since year after year / your buds are reborn, / keep safe from death / my first love…)
Thus Borges’ humble metaphysics was turned into clumsy sentimentalism.
His reaction was to repeat the 1928 story, verbatim, as the first piece of his Historia de la eternidad of 1936, and then again in 1944 as an article in the journal Sur, collected in Otras Inquisiciones of 1952. Those highly unusual reiterations, I submit, were motivated by Borges’ wrath at Amadori’s theft: the great Argentine writer was trying to remind people that the honeysuckle-and-eternity conceit was his. I offer this insight to scholars and literary historians free of charge and with no obligation to cite me. They may add a bit of piquant by recalling that Amadori then turned into a fervently opportunist Peronist.
My childish mind was not up to the mysteries of eternity, immortality, or first love, but was naturally inclined to dwell in the sweet arcana of words. “Madreselva” is a compound, as the Spanish Academic Dictionary does not fail to point out. It is madre (mother) plus selva (jungle). A meaningful combination, I felt. After I encountered the word “madreperla” (mother-of-pearl), I was able by analogy to construe “madreselva” as mother-of-jungle, a sort of goddess. Cybele might be a good candidate. But I inclined to construe it rather as mother-is-a-jungle, because all those texts, the lyrics of my mother’s songs, inhabited a region of my mind that was like a jungle, so dense and devilishly entangled that even Derrida, were he to resurrect just for that, would be at a loss to deconstruct it. The knots of meaning and meaninglessness are endless, beginning with:
“Vieja pared del arrabal,
tu sombra fue mi compañera.
De mi niñez sin esplendor
la amiga fue tu madreselva.”
(Old wall in the low-class suburb, / your shade was my companion. / Your honeysuckle was the friend / of my childhood without splendor.)
The splendor bit was, I think, the first serious obstacle. How could a person who had the shade of an old wall for a companion and a sweet flower for a friend say that his or her childhood was without splendor? My parents were born to poor immigrants—my mother only completed grammar school and my father did not finish high school—but they never complained about their childhood. Much later I came to understand that one of the set motifs of tango lyrics is that only people who are struggling working class or downright poor, or simply outcasts or compadritos, can be simpatico enough for the role, and then I’ve observed something similar in American universities, where early privation, or belonging to the first generation to attend college, is taken now to be a badge of honor—reminding us that “snob” is said to come from the Latin sine nobilitate.
A harder nut to crack comes in the middle section of the tango, when the singer comes back as an adult and addresses in confession the old wall:
“Pasaron los años
y mis desengaños
yo vengo a contarte, mi vieja pared...
que hay que fingir
que amor y fe
y del dolor
se ríe la gente...”
(Years went by and now I’ve come back / to tell you, old wall, my disappointments… / Meanwhile I learned that one must fake / if one wants to have a decent life; / I learned that love and faith are lies / and that people laugh at other people’s pain…)
This was hard to crack because children are far more willing than adults to suspend their disbelief. Listening to my mother sing that we must dissemble and be fakes made my moral ground shake. She was always saying that her love for Dad was indestructible, and her love for my sister and me unfathomable, and then she goes and says that love is a lie, that I should not put any faith in her love or anyone’s love because faith is also a lie, but then perhaps when she says this, that love and faith are lies, that too is a lie. And how can she say that people laugh when someone is in pain: does that mean that when Dr. Mindlin put a long needle inside my ear, which was the worst pain I ever suffered by far, Mom was laughing—ha, ha, ha—behind my back? Speaking about cognitive dissonances, this whole thing was like playing all the notes, with sharps and flats, simultaneously and fortissimo.
My uncle Juan and my aunt Anita, I reckon now, were irresponsible to agree to tie the knot under the auspices of such a song. But then, they were like the young fishes in the story: they had no idea that what was all around them was water. Indeed, a good number of tangos, and the state of mind that fits with them (which was, and perhaps still is, quite dominant in Argentina), are a mixture of sentimentality and cynicism. “Volver”—to return—is the title of a Gardel-Le Pera composition (1935) and of a fine film by Almodóvar (2006), but it is also a basic underlying theme of many tangos. After a long absence the singer comes back to the scene of his or her childhood or youth —this provides the sentimental element. Then he or she tells of the bitter, joyless years in between, of the cruel, loveless world, and this provides wide scope for cynicism. The poetic theme of the return is at least as old as the Odyssey, but although Odysseus suffered much, he had wonderful stories to tell and a faithful and beautiful wife to return to. Or looking at it in poetry without words, when J. S. Bach repeats the original Aria at the end, after thirty Goldberg Variations that are as rich as Odysseus’ adventures, we do not feel that those variations are a disappointment; on the contrary, we feel that they are wonderful, and that without them we would never be able to experience the ecstatic peace of the da capo.
Here I had written the following passage: Tango is unique in shrinking the years of pilgrimage, the long voyage away from home and finally back to it, into cynical nothingness. One cannot imagine any other culture where those lyrics, ‘I learned that love and faith are lies / and that people laugh at other’s pain…,’ could be taken as a plausible description of the world. I had written those words, as I said, when some good daemon froze my computer. I had to reboot it, and was saved from embarrassment by the pause and by being reminded in the meanwhile of something that made me delete that rash, imprudent statement. The something was Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach”:
“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
So the Argentines got from the Brits not just football and a lot of other ball games, but also the spirit of tango lyrics: Arnold’s “darkling plain” is not far from the pampas. For me, it is the pampas.