ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"My Thirteenth Year", part IV of a memoir by Ricardo Nirenberg

(Continued from the previous issue, September 2017)



I'm afraid that some readers will be left with the impression that my high school teachers were uniformly a disaster.  Such is emphatically not the case: some of them—well, one at least, or perhaps two—left in me a good and dear fatherly image that hasn't been dimmed by the many years.  Abilio Bassets above all.  He was my first professor of Latin, and Latin was my favorite subject: which was the cause and which the effect must be left to sharper minds. 

His amphoral, cardinalitian shape first caught your eye; then, his Ciceronian forehead and nose, and finally, the amiability in his smile.  It was common knowledge that Bassets had been a Jesuit priest, but none of us boys knew when or why he had abandoned the Society.  In any case, he did not stray far from it, for the Jesuit church, Saint Ignatius, the oldest one in Buenos Aires, stands adjacent to the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires.  Of course, we were drilled in Latin declensions and conjugations: at that age, how easy it is to stamp those things in the mind, indelibly!  Qui quae quod, cuius, cui, quem quam quod, quo qua quo, those Donald-Duckish rants will be with me until death.  Bassets had us all standing against the walls and shot questions: "Masculine accusative plural of the future participle of the verb fero?"  A wrong answer sent you back at your desk; the last boy left standing was proclaimed princeps.  Such learning by rote is of great benefit if perchance you become an old man and lie awake on your bed at night, unable to sleep: then, trying to recall a recondite word, or case, or tense, will gently lead you into a satisfied stupor and a night-long rest. Counting sheep doesn't come close to it.

Speaking of sheep, I am reminded of the fable Vacca et Capella, Ovis et Leo — The Cow, the Goat, the Sheep, and the Lion, which Bassets had us learn. A literary theorist of my acquaintance once gave a talk in which he claimed that the animal fable is "the degree zero of narrative"; not that it is the oldest, or the most primitive necessarily; but, he said, it was "degree zero" because the author doesn't have to bother describing the appearance or the personality of the characters: everyone knows what lions or sheep are like. I'm not sure what to make of that claim, but if he meant that animal fables appeal to kids, I thing he was right. Whatever the reason may be, my most vivid memory of Bassets is of him performing another Latin fable, The Fox Addressing a Tragic Mask — Vulpes ad personam tragicam. First, he explained that our word "person," by which we now refer to any human being, originates in the Latin word persona, meaning primarily a theater mask, of which there were two strikingly different kinds: comic or tragic. The fox, as it happens, finds a tragic mask, and turns it this way and that way — so Bassets pretended to hold a mask in his hand and, looking at the contorted face and its wide-open mouth, exclaimed, like the fox: O quanta species (Oh, what beauty!); then, turning the mask over, he, with the fox, said dejectedly: Cerebrum non habet (No brains in it!).  I seem to remember that some moral advice followed, something about how being in the habit of donning a mask and not thinking your own thoughts is tragic, or perhaps comic, or both; but the only memory of which I'm absolutely certain is the image of Abilio Bassets holding up and admiring the imaginary mask, then turning it over to his disappointment.

I must have been quite impressed by that performance, for a few days later I spoke of it to Madame de la Barre, my French teacher, and she, after giving the matter some thought, told me that she knew a poem on the same theme, written by a young poet who was born in Montevideo, right across the River Plate from us, and who had died at the early age of twenty-seven.  It did not seem to me that twenty-seven was such an early age, considering how it was more than twice my own. "Cependant, il était quelqu'un de très bien", Madame assured me, and proceeded to recite in her neutral, matter-of-fact voice, free of the libertine as much as of the sentimental or the sanctimonious, three lines by Jules Laforgue:

« Je voyais que vos yeux me lançaient sur des pistes, 
Je songeais : oui, divins, ces yeux ! mais rien n'existe 
Derrière ! Son âme est affaire d'oculiste. »

In the world-wide web where all of us are caught, I find this translation by Patricia Terry, better than anything I could produce:

"I saw your eyes were daring me to dare;
I thought: Oh yes, divine! those eyes, but nothing's there
Behind them. Her soul's an oculist's affair."

The mask, the eyes, the face behind which there is nothing, no brain.  When I was twelve, the thought and the image gave me goose pimples, I don't know why.  And when I consider it now, I do find in my spirit some traces of the old fear.  Is it fear of nothingness, or an abhorrence of a vacuum, pure and simple?  No, because I'm reminded of another poem, which I discovered much later, Eugenio Montale's "Il nulla".  Here the poet, walking on a winter morning, suddenly turns his head and gets a glimpse of nothingness & emptiness:

"il nulla alle mie spalle, il vuoto dietro
di me, con un terrore di ubriaco."

And in spite of this "terrore d'ubriaco", his drunken terror, I, for my part, reading the poem felt no fear, no shiver.  It is likely that by that time, already in my thirties, I had become inured to the terrors of nothingness and emptiness per se, since I used to be a mathematician, and math is a vast and vastly harmonious construction built on no material entity, only on—the empty set.  It would be as out of place and ridiculous for a mathematician to be in terror of emptiness as for a professional chess player to be gripped by terror in the presence of a chess board.  Hence, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the mask, the eyes, or the face had an essential role in giving me the goose flesh, not just nothingness alone.

Some smarty pants, no doubt, will object that there is no such a thing as "nothingness alone, or nothingness per se."  Nothingness inevitably wears for us the mask or the face of some thing.  Look, he says, at the very word in English: "nothing" is "no thing."  See?  Your Italian and Latin "nulla" is from "ne una (res)," not even one (thing)," or perhaps from "ne unulus," not even one little thing.  The same can be said of "niente": not even one entity.  And your Spanish "nada" comes from "not even one born thing (cosa nata)," and so on in other languages.  See what I mean?

Yes, I see it, but it's all beside the point.  What I concluded before smart pants interrupted me, was not that nothingness without a word to name it leaves me unaffected, but that naked nothingness, without a human face or simulacrum of a human face to disguise it, does not scare me.  Now, perhaps I should also explain that normally I don't feel scared or in any way uncomfortable when I see a mask, and I don't feel disappointed if, like Bassets or the fox, I turn it around and find that it's got no brains.  Why, even when I read Poe's "The Mask of the Red Death," I don't react with fear when the murderous masked character is unmasked and there proves to be nothing underneath —, but I wonder if that's because the author insists, throughout, that we ought to be terrified at the red disease and its allegorical masked figure: I suspect such insistence is counterproductive.  Remains to examine the question whether my fright reaction is provoked by an actual human face, and not by a simulacrum or an allegory.  But how, or when, could one perceive an actual human face behind which there is nothing, no brain?  It seems impossible.  Figuratively, yes: there are always plenty of fools alive of whom one says, he's got no brain, or, there's just a void between those ears.  But literally?  I don't see how. But wait!  Years ago, I remember being terrified by something Wittgenstein wrote, one of the last things he wrote.  It was in his Remarks on Certainty.  I fetch the book and find this: he asks whether one can possibly doubt the proposition, "I have a brain."  "Everything speaks in its favor, nothing against it," he says.  "Nevertheless it is imaginable that my skull should turn out empty when it was operated on," he concludes.  Those last few words still fill me with terror.



Last night Isabel and I went to a concert at Union College; Llyr Williams, a young Welsh pianist, played a lot of Liszt and a Beethoven sonata of the middle period.  Liszt never was my cup of tea, but one can trust the public to go wild at the fireworks.  Later, in bed, in the dark, I couldn't get the sounds of Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody out of my mind.  That often happens: some tune, especially if it is very simple, and most especially if it is familiar from childhood, behaves like a pesty mental mosquito; I try to think of something else to shoe it away, but in a moment the tune comes back and starts buzzing, not, of course, after my blood, but cruelly suppressing any better or more interesting thoughts.  An old memory, nevertheless, is able to break the buzzing barrier and visit me: the memory of those piano recitals by Alexandre Brailowsky at the Teatro Colón.

As far as I know, my parents never went to the Teatro Colón.  It was my aunt Rosa, the one who had given me the book about the alchemist Henning Brand, who took me to the Colón several times, and always to listen to Brailowsky.  She must have admired him as an artist, although by the early fifties, when I attended his concerts, his playing was said to be quite decayed, and Aunt Rosa would whisper in my ear, and in the ear of my cousin Alberto, that lately Brailowsky had been drinking too much.  It is also possible that her faithfulness to the pianist was based less on his playing skills than on his being a Ukrainian Jew, like all our relatives, whose name was quite close to Aunt Rosa's married name, Brodesky.  None of such possibilities would I put past anyone in my extended family.

But enough speculation; the fact is, or was, that Brailowsky often played Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody, one of his pièces de résistance, and as an encore, invariably, Liszt's "La campanella", based on Paganini's final movement of the second violin concerto.  The audience vociferously demanded it, and the pianist always obliged. At the end, the roar of bravos was almost comparable to the city-shaking, unanimous scream that follows an Argentine goal in the World Soccer Cup.  But, unlike Williams, the pianist I had heard a few hours before at Union College, I never heard Brailowsky playing Beethoven.  Perhaps I forget that he did.  Perhaps he never did: it wasn't his genre.  Memories, as we all know, call other memories.  Not like masses, which attract each other by the force of gravitation, something that can be measured and computed; memories, thank God, cannot be measured or computed, and their way of calling other memories is blessedly unknown.  Be that as it may, it was at that point that I recalled talking about the Brailowsky recital, shortly after, to Madame de la Barre, and, to my surprise, she said she had met the pianist in Paris, in the nineteen-twenties, au temps des guêtres



Spats and their time will have to wait.  Another memory requires immediate attention, and I rush to it like a midwife who leaves a newborn in the hands of a nurse—a scribbled memorandum on a white page—, and rushes to another delivery.  I was recounting my reveries of last night, or rather my souvenirs of Brailowsky playing Liszt, when another, deeper memory came suddenly, that of a Beethoven sonata I used to play around that time.    

My father had, as I have said before, a very fixed and restrictive taste in music, and one of his favorite pieces was the first movement, Adagio sostenuto, of the "Moonlight sonata."  He liked to tell how once he was sitting in the waiting room of a Buenos Aires bank, anxious about a credit line on which his business depended, when he heard, through some window or transom, the sound of a piano: it was that piece, "el Claro de luna", and in a few moments, as if by miracle, all his anxiety vanished, and serenity and hope returned.  I had been taking piano lessons for five years, and Father thought it was high time for me to play the Claro de luna for his listening pleasure, since it was he, after all, who footed the bill.  He must have felt like Don Giovanni: "Giacché spendo I miei danari, io mi voglio divertir."  Father found no fun at all in the pieces I did play, whether parts of Bach's French Suites, or Schumann's Album for the Young—not to speak of the exercises for the hands, like Hanon or Bertini.  So he announced he would ask my piano teacher to teach me el Claro de luna.

I was very much against it.  My reasons were many, all of them rather obscure, yet weighty.  For me to try to play a Beethoven sonata seemed pretentious, hubristic, even though I didn't know that word when I was twelve; to limit myself to the relatively easy Adagio and not try the Allegretto and totally avoid the Presto agitato, seemed like a cowardly insult to the memory of the great composer and to the art of music.  It was necessary to ascend step by step—gradus ad parnassum—to the point where I would be able to attempt a Beethoven sonata, and I was certain that my teacher would completely agree with me that I was not yet at that point.  Soon the day of my weekly lesson arrived, and my teacher too.  My father had been adamant, he called me "silly" several times, and stayed at home just so he could speak to her.  I could not bear being there, in the living room, and ran upstairs.  It was one of those moments of shame in which my thirteenth year abounded: like a scared cat, I ran to the children's bedroom; my sister was there, listening to Radio Excelsior lying on her bed, but, without a word, I hid, crouched, in the narrow space between the armoire and the chest of drawers.

Soon, my sister reported that they were calling me from downstairs; she needn't have bothered: I heard perfectly well our father's and mother's calls.  Then my sister rebuked me.  "How can you be such an idiot.  Pie Face will teach you 'el Claro de luna' and that'll be the end of it.  What are you afraid of?"  "Pie Face," "Cara de pastel", was how we called our piano teacher, perhaps because her face was invariably unexpressive — her real name I don't remember.  Of course, my sister was right: my fears were quite irrational and my shame out of season; if it turned out I wasn't up to learning 'el Claro de luna', well, then I would have some reason to be ashamed, not now.

My sister usually had a clearer head than mine.  When Mother started working eight or more hours a day at Father's fabrics store, and later at his textile factory in Lanús, I was inconsolable.  At the time, I was ten, and my sister eight.  We lay on the rug under the dining room table, and she tried to argue with me that our mother's absence was actually a good thing for us, something to be glad about: "We can do anything we want while she's not home, you silly."  I would counter that I missed Mom, I missed her too much.  Yet, perhaps what made me so unhappy was not only that I missed Mom, and not just the fact that nowadays, even when Mom was home, I missed her singing, which in the past had been tango after tango non-stop, but my fear of that freedom my sister found so desirable.  Scientists say that the amygdalae are the fear center of the brain, and that the size of the right amygdala correlates with how fearful we are: if my sister and I were given a brain scan, I bet my right amygdala would be shown to be twice as large as hers.  For much of my life I've been afraid of monsters, mainly of the monsters that I suspected were hibernating within me, whom freedom was likely to waken.  She, instead, still today, likes to read roman noir.  Anyway, in that occasion my sister was right; there was no reason to be afraid of Pie Face or of Beethoven's ghost, and so I came out of my hiding place and went downstairs to meet my fate.

Father said, "See, I told you. Your teacher says you are perfectly able to tackle 'el Claro de luna'."

Pie Face, who was sitting on a chair, smiled at me benevolently, inviting me to sit on the piano bench next to her, something so very unusual that it spoke volumes, except that I wasn't sure that anything much was in those volumes, other than her possible sympathy with my shame and my predicament.

Three weeks or so after those events, scented October was abloom.  Mother spent an hour each day caring for her rose bushes, trimming whatever grasses threatened to grow over in their direction, cleaning the ant guards and making sure they were filled with water, spreading powder against the aphids.  "Remember when Don Baldomero stood there on the sidewalk to admire the roses?" she asked me.  Mother was proud of the fact that Baldomero Fernández Moreno, the well-known poet and our neighbor across the street, often stopped in his walk to contemplate her flowers.  "He was such a nice, frail old man…", she reminisced.  Don Baldomero had died the year before, at the age of sixty-three, fully fifteen years younger than I am now.  "His poems are so simple, and yet so deeply felt," Mother sighed.  It was early on a sunny Sunday morning, before breakfast, and I was helping her moving the heavy hose to water our exiguous garden.  At noontime, after Father had completed the Sunday crossword puzzle of "La Nación", and wrapped himself in his smoking jacket, he wanted me to play 'el Claro de luna' for him: "I'm in the mood for some good music."

He sat on the armchair and I sat on the piano bench.  The living room window was open and the breeze swelled the light curtains.  I began playing the adagio, taking care that the triplets were pianissimo, and that the higher notes of the melody, played with the little finger of the right hand, sounded a little louder but not too loud, making them, as far as possible, ressemble suppressed sobs.  The hardest thing was to use, but not to abuse of, the right pedal.  When I reached the part where I was supposed to slow down a bit and gradually decrease to pianissimo, a scream was heard, and I stopped playing.  The scream came from upstairs.  Mother was upstairs.  Had anything happened to her?

Soon we found out.  Mother came rushing down the stairs, screaming, into the living room.  Now I could make out the words she was screaming.  "¡Asqueroso! ¡Asqueroso!"—"Creep!  You creep!"  She ran toward Father and grabbed him by the hair, screaming all the time, "¡Asqueroso! ¡Esas gomas!"—"You creep!  Those rubbers!"  She shook Dad's head up and down, side to side, and he let her do it; strangely, he opposed no resistance.  His head was limp as Mother shook it—like a mop or a dishcloth, was the first simile that came to my mind, promptly modified to a rag puppet.  I had no idea what Mother was screaming about, what Father had done, or what could be the significance of "those rubbers," but the sight of my father's face being shaken the way I had seen Mother shake the kitchen doormat was too much to bear, and I fled the house.

All those memories were precipitated like crystals out of Lethean water touched by a beam of moonlight.  Brailowsky and Beethoven brought out my moment of shame, and the image of Mother shaking Father's inert head.  Whatever was in my mind after watching that scene remains blurry.  I do remember clearly that I walked for quite some time, trying to postpone the unavoidable: going back home.  And while I walked, two words kept popping up in my mind: trapo (rag) and títere (puppet), un títere de trapo (a rag puppet).  I don't remember having, at that time, consciously made the association between a puppet and a tragic mask or a face hiding the void, or having remembered professor Bassets and his little classy act, while I was roaming aimlessly.  Yet now, after so many years, it seems to me beyond a doubt that the terrible scene at home played an important part in making me forever afraid of masks without brains and faces that hide the void.

The following day, when our parents were not at home, my sister and I held a conference under the dining room table.  She had been upstairs when the whole thing happened, and she knew for a fact that Mother was occupied in cleaning Father's pockets and preparing a change of his suit and clothes.  "She found something in Dad's pockets, and that's when she started screaming," my sister said.

"She was screaming about rubbers," I told her. "Maybe rubber bands, or rubber erasers, I don't know.  But why did she get so upset?"

Eventually we agreed that the rubbers in question must have been those resembling exhausted balloons that were frequently found discarded in street gutters.  I had never held one in my hands, but I had heard that they were called prophylactics.  Clearly, then, those rubbers were not used by our parents, and so Mom concluded that Dad was sexually involved with other women.  In any case, no explanation or mention of the violent scene was ever offered by either parent or solicited by either of us.

With all that, it seems to me that I have not succeeded in conveying the true nature of my despondency, as I was walking on those sidewalks lined with blooming chinaberries.  The scene just witnessed undermined the unquestioned security that the domestic situation, the relative harmony in which we had lived so far the four of us—Mom and Dad, sister and I—was rock solid, eternal.  That much is obvious.  But there was more: my father was my fountain of wisdom.  Macrocosm and microcosm, the infinitely large and the infinitely small, the shrinking of rulers moving at speeds near the speed of light, the mysteries of zero and of the imaginary i, British empiricism, German idealism: all that and much more—the ways of making man into something eternal—, all that Father stood for in my mind, had been shown to be nothing but illusion, emptiness, all foul rags and no bones.



A couple of days ago I had dinner with old friends.  They had invited a man they thought I'd find congenial: an American novelist—let's call him Jeff—who had spent some years in France.  Before the meal, between the olives, the humus and the glasses of wine, we talked about nineteenth-century French novels.  To my surprise, his favorite was Hugo's Les Misérables.  I asked Jeff, what about Flaubert?, and he replied that Madame Bovary was too depressing, although no one can deny that it is well written.  Well, how about Bouvard et Pécuchet, Flaubert's last work?  He said he had only read a small portion of it, because he found it too boring.  I sipped some wine, cleared my throat, and launched into a pointless and pedantic lecture, roughly as follows:

"I have enormous respect for Hugo as a rhetorician, somewhat less as a poet, and none as a novelist.  He was, like Comte, Renan, and Taine, a priest at the altar of Progress and Science.  Hugo prophesized that thanks to the marvelous scientific advances in his lifetime, the century to come, the twentieth, would be one of enduring universal happiness.  Imagine!  The century of gas chambers and nuclear weapons.  Flaubert, on the other hand, used to read Comte's Course of Positive Philosophy just to laugh at its absurdities, which he found "Aristophanic." His Bouvard et Pécuchet, which you find boring, is a heroic effort by the literary artist to discipline science, an effort that's supremely noble, even if destined to fail."

Jeff interrupted, "Excuse me: I still find it boring," and right away I felt my face redden, flooded by shame.  I had said that Comte was Aristophanic, but it was me, me, who had proved to be far more Aristophanic, lecturing a guy I hardly knew on what he should not to find boring.  For the rest of the evening, I kept my mouth shut, and didn't drink any more wine.  Now and then, Jeff's eye would cross mine, and he essayed a little smile, too obviously forced. 

That night, back home, I tried to put some order in my thoughts, and, as usual when one tries to do that, I got entangled into knots of causes and effects, whys, sinces, and therefores.  Where did that irresistible impulse to dwarf Hugo and heroicize Flaubert come to me from?  It is so irresistible that it has to come from something very basic: of that I can feel no doubt.  The only basis for that kind of impulse must be in the personality, those traits which make us adopt one type of philosophy rather than another: my own, let me say it simply and right away, is cynical skepticism, or skeptic cynicism.  Since I'm a skeptic, I have a knee-jerk reaction to knock down any dogmatic proposition, and since I'm cynical, I can't stand those who flaunt the angel and try to hide the beast.  You have a guy like Jean-Paul Sartre, who became a Marxist and adopted Marx's axioms as his own; in other words, he became dogmatic.  But, of course, Sartre was a French homme de lettres first of all, and as such, he felt he had to contend with Flaubert, who was at once a peak literary model and an enemy of all dogmas, hence the enemy of any brave new worlds.  Sartre, therefore, spent the last ten years of his life writing a monstrously detailed biography of his ideological enemy: three thick volumes, left unfinished.  Near the beginning, in a section titled Naïveté, he tells us this about Flaubert:

"As a child, by his early incarnation in Don Quixote, he installs in himself unknowingly the general principle of all incarnations: he knows how to identify himself with another, how to live his own life as if it were another's."

That's Sartre's one and only reference to Don Quixote, Flaubert's favorite book, in this biography almost three-thousand pages long, L'Idiot de la famille.  But mind you: that's the only one I could find — if you care to look for more in those three-thousand pages, I'll declare you're an angel.  We need nothing else to gauge Sartre's stupidity and his total lack of psychological insight — unless you want to add a shiny pearl about Proust that I recall reading in an issue of Les Temps modernes from shortly after the war: what could Proust know of love (Sartre asked dismissively) when he was homosexual?  But no reproach has more force, in my opinion, than the psychological malpractice of neglecting to draw any diagnosis from the fact that Don Quixote was Flaubert's favorite book, since a list of poets and novelists showing the same symptom is known and quite significant.  Keats, Leopardi, Heine, Flaubert's own friend Turgenev, just for starters; and as for Dostoevsky, in his Writer's Diary, September 1877, he wrote of Don Quixote:

"I don't know what is now being taught in courses of literature, but a knowledge of this most splendid and sad of all books created by human genius would certainly elevate the soul of a young person with a great idea, give rise to profound questions in his heart, and work toward diverting his mind from worship of the eternal and foolish idol of mediocrity, self-satisfied conceit, and cheap prudence."

But Sartre would have replied that all those writers were indeed affected by the same disease, one he was pleased to call bourgeois false consciousness and mauvaise foi.

Phew, I got it out of my system!  Last night I felt much better, having lambasted Jean-Paul Sartre.  My shame at my performance at the dinner party is now partly if not totally eclipsed by Sartre and his idiotic magnum opus, more than three-thousand times longer and more pedantic and Aristophanic than the impertinent lecture I delivered to the novelist Jeff.  Nor were the more important questions about the origins of my cynical skepticism left wholly unanswered, for I discovered some of its roots in the events of my thirteenth year, precisely the ones I've been recollecting in this memoir.  Indeed, when Mother, my momma, of whose eye I was the apple, whose cheek was, for many years, my sweetest, most tender human contact, could not contain her violent temper; when Dad, my oracle and fountain of wisdom, proved to be a spineless puppet, how could I have avoided being suspicious of all claims to truth, except for the kind that consists of placing your finger on your nose and saying, "Here's my nose"?  And how could I have avoided fearing that under every softness there lurks the sharpest claw?

Both my parents were reckless: that was the soul-shaking discovery of my thirteenth year, and I like to call it my bar-mitzvah, even though it was an event far superior in importance.  For a bar-mitzvah is supposed to bind you to a religion or a tribe, or in any case, to a community, while my discovery turned me into a cynical skeptic, a cosmopolitan whose only community is the solitude of the whole humanity and the whole of history.  The discovery shook my soul; a bar-mitzvah would have simply shored it up: which is the more important?  When my father, about the time he was pushing me to play 'el Claro de luna', noticed that I was spending long whiles reading Cervantes's masterpiece, instead of celebrating it, or encouraging me, he would argue along the following lines:

"I don't know what's the matter with people like Unamuno or Ortega y Gasset, and many others who are always fathoming great depths in Don Quixote.  But isn't it obvious that it is a comic book and that its main purpose is to make us laugh?"

But perhaps Dad was wiser than these lines taken out of context would lead one to surmise; he did not believe much in the educational value of profuse praise; his method could be characterized as education by provocation; it made my mind stay on the qui vive and avoided the dangers of self-satisfied conceit.  I don't remember my father ever offering more than passing, perfunctory approval; yet I am sure, by multiple, wordless signs, that he was proud of me.  

And if it weren't for Mother and her uncontrollable violence, there's just no way I would have been able to understand Rilke's Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich: Each and every angel is terrible.

I'm grateful to the fates, and I never wished I had other, different parents, or more gentle and talented teachers like Martínez, Bassets, or Madame de la Barre.  How could I, anyway, being a cynical skeptic, conceive of any better fate than my own?  How could I desire to be someone else?  Aside from the question of whether that would make any logical sense, it just wouldn't square with my cynicism.  Diogenes of Sinope, who is credited with being the first Cynic, was living in a large earthen jar in Corinth, and was lying on the ground, enjoying the sun like a dog, when he was visited by Alexander of Macedon, or so the story goes.  When the future conqueror asked Diogenes, "What wish should I grant you?", the philosopher replied, "Move a bit out of my sun."

"If I were not Alexander, I should wish to be Diogenes," said the admiring prince.  To which the great Cynic replied, "If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes."

There are countless victims in the world, but I'm not one of them.


(To be continued)

Ricardo Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse.

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