La kyrielle des souvenirs d'enfance. (Robert Dreyfus)
"Hanging Wall Pouch,"
by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts
Writing is a bush rooted in remembrance (someone wrote), but it is forgetfulness that gives it air and necessary sunlight. Many or perhaps most nights, I lie in bed trying to remember what the heck it was that I was trying to remember the night before, and if I'm lucky I find out, and with a sweet frisson of satisfaction proceed to actually try to remember it. Blessed forgetfulness, for it makes possible that supremely interesting spelunking through the nooks and crannies and sewers of the mind.
When I was twelve I had a set of radiographs taken of my guts. I remember the full glass of a milky, dense liquid they had me swallow, in preparation. It tasted like a solution of ground chalk. Or slaked lime, I mean water and CaO. Never did I taste something so disgusting—well, yes, once, when I was nineteen, in the mountains of Chubut, there was an oyster on the gravelly lakeshore, which I opened and ate and spat right out. It seems the ground chalk came first, then the enema, or perhaps it was the other way around. In any case, there I was, sitting on the toilet, obsessed by one thought. The daughter of Dr. Benzadón, the radiologist. I don't think there's a way for me to remember her given name, and maybe I never knew it; I think I only met her on that occasion, viz. before going into her father's consulting room. She was about my age, possessed of a grace I had not seen before, a self-assurance, and a type of beauty that had the incomparable virtue of being at once foreign and familiar. My parents called them "Turks." My mother used to warn me: "¡las turcas son calientes!"—Turkish girls are hot—which, as could be expected, worked for me as an inducement rather than a warning. Actually, the Benzadóns were Sephardim, descendants of the Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal, and dispersed round the Mediterranean, plus in the Netherlands, in Suriname, in New Holland, where I am writing now. They still speak, roughly, the sort of Spanish the archpriest of Hita used to. After the enema I was sitting on the toilet, ready to burst, but I dared not. I feared that the lovely Srta. Benzadón would hear the rumble or, God forbid, the explosion. Just from picturing the expression of disgust on her adorable face I dreaded my impending humiliation, and I tensed all my muscles to resist, but naturally I wasn't able to.
Whether my Sephardic angel got to hear any rumor I never found out. The medical verdict, however, was that I had redundant colon. Extra long, Dr. Benzadón explained. "Nothing to worry about, except you'll be able to stock a lot more gas," and he slapped me on the shoulder. In recollection, I blush at the thought of the doctor at his dinner table, telling his daughter that I had redundant colon. I would have rather possessed a pleonastic penis, but in those matters one has very little choice.
Then I switch, I lie on my other side, break wind, and try to concentrate on the remembrance of another episode from that year. There are powers of the mind that never rest, by day or night, and, like the force of gravity, make one idea, or one word, call for another, except that no one, I bet, will ever reduce those mental powers to a general theory. The Ladino of the Sephardim is calling for the Yiddish of my own family, and my redundant colon is calling for my sister's tokhes. My parents, too, spoke a rudimentary sort of Yiddish when they didn't want us children to understand: of course theirs was an astounding naiveté, and besides, their Yiddish sounded more like Spanish. I recall many incidents involving Argentine-Yiddish expressions; my problem is to remember if I have already told them. The one between my sister and our uncle Juan: I'm pretty sure it's written somewhere, maybe even in this memoir. But then, the mind cannot endure to return to a level which it has already passed; it has a need of constant expansion, and a retelling of a story is never the same as any previous one: it will contain some acuter impressions, or a more artistic way of arranging the old ones. We were having dinner at home, my uncles and aunts and grandparents on Mother's side, when my sister, who was ten at the time, cried out, "Uncle Juan!" —"Yes, darling?" —"Kishn tokhes arayn!" A dead silence settled over the dining room table. My sister had asked our uncle, in Yiddish, to kiss the inside of her ass. Did anyone there appreciate the originality of her rhyme, for which Lord Byron would have gladly swapped his baronage? No, our relatives were Philistines, and my sister was sent upstairs, to purge her Davidic daring. Uncle Juan, however, found his turn. He had to wait eighteen years, and it came right after my father died, in 1969. Uncle Juan and grandmother Rebeca had come to offer their condolences. Juan was sitting on the wingchair his father, my zeide, used to favor, while the Bobeh was sitting on the armchair where my father sat and listened to me playing Beethoven's Claro de luna. I was sitting on the long sofa, having arrived from Madison, Wisconsin, the day before. Mother was somewhere, maybe in the kitchen making tea. The piano was no longer there, sold years before to keep distress at bay. The bobeh, who was over ninety, asked what Guillermo, my dad, did for a living, and Juan replied: "He was a cuentenik." That word hurt.
Argentine Ashkenazim call a cuentenik (from Spanish cuenta, meaning account, plus the Slavic-Yiddish suffix nik, like in beatnik or nogoodnik, a wandering peddler who sells stuff on the installment plan. Later, when we were alone, I told my mother, and she said: "But it is true, your father was a cuentenik." As if I didn't know. He'd drive his Rambler over city and pampa, with a suitcase full of watches, rings, and other trinkets, until on November 20 1968, on national route 205, he was driving back from the town of Lobos, 60 miles SW from Buenos Aires, and couldn't avoid a tractor left standing on the middle of the road. Mother was in the car, and was not badly hurt; Dad broke his pelvic bone, and four months later an embolism killed him, at fifty-six. I was about to object that Dad called himself a jeweler, as printed on his business cards, not a cuentenik, but stopped myself, realizing that it was a childish objection. Anyway, I felt that describing Dad as a cuentenik was downright rude, and it hurt.
At thirty, I was still in a state of childhood innocence in all that regarded my father. Or rather willful blindness, in which all evidence of my father's irresponsibility, if presented directly to me, caused a seismic shock. In my heart, Dad and I were not independent: we were destined to be saved or damned together. I had already gone through half my life, and I would sob at the sounds of Dante meeting Brunetto Latini in Hell. Brunetto, he of the good and dear fatherly image, he who taught the poet how mortals become eternal by thinking through eternal thoughts, was condemned to Hellish fire by his pupil, who, meanwhile, harbored good hopes regarding his own salvation. For me, whose worth was mysteriously entangled with my dad's, nothing could be clearer proof of Dante's genius, and of his fierce and proud independence.
But somehow we've ended up far from the frame of this memoir. Let's go back to the time when my father was still alive and I was twelve, learning from him how to think through universal thoughts. The time when I had the good fortune of witnessing the gigantomachy about Being between Dad and Uncle Abraham. I was never one to watch sporting spectacles, and always detested soccer for its unavoidable presence and noise. The battle between the two brothers, Father and Uncle, was at the farthest remove from soccer; it wasn't about scoring goals, but about the most important questions one can ask, and they defended completely different, even opposite, views. At that time, when I was beginning high school, Perón's government had instituted mandatory religious instruction for all Catholic kids, for which non-Catholics could substitute a class called "Morals," which, therefore, I had to take. Professor Angulo, unlike my seventh-grade teacher Señor Martínez, did not teach us to respect women; no, he put all his energy on logically proving the existence of God. Everything must have a cause, he began, quite airily, and then proceeded on well-trod paths to argue that the chain of causes implies an infinite regress, which was to him, for some reason, absurd—unless, le voilà: Godzilla. Or, as Aristotle used to put it, the Prime Mover or the Prime Cause. I don't know how many times Angulo repeated this argument, as if it could become more persuasive by being repeated.
None of that obvious cheating and empty blah-blah was displayed in the battles between Father and Uncle, and I listened in awe as Dad invoked Fichte and Uncle countered with Marx—both atheists, thank God—, the one deriving everything from the conscious ego, and the other from dross. I often wondered, as a boy, how the two brothers, who were so very much alike in body and gesture, could be philosophically so opposed. I have written about it in a piece titled "Uncle Abraham" (Offcourse #52, September 2012), but since then I have changed my mind. I have realized that, contrary to what I believed for a long time, my father and my uncle were not on opposite metaphysical camps. If I look at them from a slightly different angle, they look like beans from the same metaphysical pod. And so were Fichte and Marx. Now, you might say that's crazy, since Fichte was an idealist philosopher, a Prussian patriot and a founder of German nationalism, while Marx was a dialectical materialist, a cosmopolitan and a fierce critic of German idealism and ideology. But consider their views on the human condition. Or, to speak more accurately, on the best possible human condition (for most humans are not as rational as philosophers). Here is Fichte in his 1794 Jena lectures "The Vocation of the Scholar," delivered to wildly enthusiastic youths:
"The ultimate characteristic feature of all rational beings is absolute unity, constant self-identity, complete agreement with oneself."
The Marxist-Engelist-Leninists, on the other hand, required the same absolute unity, the same complete agreement with themselves and their comrades. That's why none of my uncle's heroes—Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and later, Castro—ever relinquished power until death hauled them away: that's constant self-identity for you. Montaigne used to say the opposite: l'homme est divers et ondoyant. But have you ever caught a modern dictator reading Montaigne? Besides, Marx and Fichte had other characteristics in common. Not only were they atheists both: they both hated the Jews. For Fichte, the Jews were the enemies of humanity; for Marx, they carried with them the highly contagious pest of bourgeois capitalism.
The period of Dad's decadence began about that time, in 1952. In my mind, the beginning was his bankruptcy and the legal seizure of our furniture and books, which happened that year, and it reached its nadir a couple of years later, when Dad went to jail, apparently for having sold his Cadillac '47 to two different buyers—I say apparently because that's what the newspapers published: Dad never bothered to explain. I always thought that Fichte's doctrines were somehow involved in those misfortunes, although it could be argued that my father was the way he was from the day go, and when he reached what many are pleased to call the age of reason, among the philosophies for sale he naturally picked Fichte's. Simply put, Fichte provided a theoretical underpinning for Dad's irresponsibility.
If this sounds too strange to be believed, compare Fichte's characterization of the idealist philosopher with a couple of my father's actions I either witnessed directly, or for which I have documentary proof. First, from the German philosopher's Wissenschaftslehre:
"His [the idealist philosopher's] belief in his own self-sufficiency is based upon inclination, and it is with passion that he shoulders his own self-sufficiency. His belief in himself is immediate. … That cancels his belief in things."
Uncle Abraham would have poo-pooed the above quote by Fichte, and quoted Hegel in the Phenomenology instead: "The slave remains attached to things, while the master is only so mediatedly." In my blindness, the meaning of those two phrases are practically the same: unbeknownst to them, Father and Uncle were saying the same. Let's zero in on Father's self-sufficiency: he always said that he detested working for someone else and always wanted to be his own boss. Yet, his lackadaisical approach to business and his luftmenshlich lack of attention to concrete details made such independence all but impossible. When I last saw him in 1966, I had lived for three years in New York, and because the state of his cuentenik gesheften oscillated from precarious to dire, we would sometimes talk about the possibility of my parents emigrating to the U.S. and the advisability of their learning some English. "But I wouldn't want to work for someone else," Dad objected. And it was in vain that I tried to make clear to him that C.E.O.s of great companies don't "work for themselves," but for the stock holders and the trustees, yet are very influential and wealthy. Father's business accounts either did not exist, or were incredibly sloppy: I still have a small piece of paper detached from the letter C of his addresses booklet, on which he scribbled, "Caccace says he paid me $300". By the time he died in March 1969, he had accumulated unpayable debts, many times his annual income: he had borrowed from many, including a couple of usurers. Worse still, he had my sister sign some of those documents, making her responsible for part of that debt. And there were still other imbroglios and affairs, not the least of which was another woman, who showed up, grieving, at Mother's door after Father's death. His Fichtean self-sufficiency had canceled his belief in things, and things collectively returned the compliment, hitting back hard and leaving him no other issue: he had to die.
I keep jumping ahead. It is a force like Freud's Todestrieb that pulls me toward those years about 1969, when Father turned his face away, and mourning began to hang over the Earth in full. It is unlikely that I'll ever write a memoir of those years, even if the Delphic temptation, the promise of achieving self-knowledge, Hellenic equivalent of the Biblical serpent's promise to become like gods, pushed me into attempting it. The state of my mind was so fragile that when Mother visited us in Pisa about a year after Father's death, we were sitting and talking about this and that, when Mother asked, out of the blue, "Do you believe Dad was intelligent?" Now I can see why she asked. She had always believed, and didn't fail to press it on her children, that Dad may not have been a shrewd businessman, but that he was, nevertheless, indisputably intelligent. After what she had already gone through after his death, though —the constant harassment by usurers, the revelations of Dad's numerous infidelities and secret life (and more was still to come)— she could not reconcile the notion of being intelligent with that of being the direct cause of so many disasters.
Back then I wasn't able to see into my mother's bitter feelings, or take them into account. My job was on the balances —by which I mean that the question of my tenure at the U. of Wisconsin, Madison, was due to come up soon, and that implied a judgment on my intelligence, which, as I saw it, and just as I saw my salvation or damnation, was entangled with my father's. That might have contributed to my distress at Mother's questioning, which was such that I had to leave our apartment and sit outside on the marble stairs, where I wept long and bitterly.
However, there was more to it. Often, during my thirteenth year, Dad would wistfully say, "I used to be like a god to you, but now, since my commercial failure, you've cast me down from the pedestal." I would tell him that his commercial failure had nothing to do with it (but abstained from telling him that being shaken like a puppet by Mom on account of some "rubbers," might be more relevant). Still, his commercial failures, as Dad called them, may have played their part in the development of my disillusioned iconoclasm. The failures began, at least in my memory, quite spectacularly.
Three court officers showed up one morning, with a judge's order to seize our furniture. When Mother realized what was going on, she was seized by fury, and wanted to fight. She was told that they would take her away, too, for resisting and threatening judicial authorities, and she quieted down and sobbed while things were taken away. The hardest for me was to see many of our books go: a multi-volume Spanish encyclopedia for young readers, Universitas; Cesare Cantù, Universal History, in ten or eleven hefty tomes; a shelfful of novels translated into Spanish, Flaubert's Sentimental Education, George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, and The Illustrious House of Ramires by Eça de Queirós among them. A bronze cast of Orpheus with his lyre sat for as long as I could remember on top of the book cabinet: it was totally undistinguished as pieces of sculpture go, but I did not perceive that, and mourned its loss. I remembered the story my father had told me of the teraphim Rachel stole from the house of her father Laban, and I was conscious of the power of those familiar gods, and of the fearful consequences of their being taken away. Aeneas fleeing the burning city, carrying his old father Anchises on his shoulder, his son Ascanius by one hand, in the other carrying a heavy load of Trojan penates: that story was also one of Dad's favorites, and he often told it, no doubt because he wanted to impress on me why Aeneas is always said to be pious: viz. because of his respect and sense of duty, in equal degrees, toward both the gods and his old father.
Sometimes I find myself surfing the Internet, searching for the old images that were lost to me when our books were seized. The Universitas encyclopedia was a mid-twentieth century product of Franco's Spain, luxuriously illustrated in full color on glossy paper; some of the articles had an obvious fascist tendency, which, given the time and provenance, is not to be wondered at. But what mostly interested me in the encyclopedia were the illustrations. Those going with the allegorical romance Cœur d'amour épris, composed by the good Count René of Provence, Duke of Anjou, King of Naples, of Sicily and of Jerusalem, etc., etc., provided my first pictorial amazement, one I feel I am reliving now, miraculously fresh, thanks to the Bibliothèque National de France, the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, and their web pages. At age twelve my previous experiences with pictures were of a very limited nature, almost totally from commercial ads and from comic magazines or books, or the 19th century chemical engravings of my Langlebert; that is not to say that I didn't enjoy those, but what I found in my fascist encyclopedia was on a totally different level, and it may have been the cause of my lifelong fondness for quattrocento art. As long as I surf the Web, I might as well take a look at what some famous art critics have to say on the special qualities of that art, what makes it tick and tug at my heart, and I find that, in the opinion of many of those critics, painters like Jan van Eyck, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, and the other great artists of Early Renaissance art, have "rationalized space."
What may be the meaning of that, if not that previous artists depicted space in ways that didn't stand to reason, until the quattrocento painters found ways of closing the gap between reason and depiction? We can already guess at one of those ways of closing the gap. Linear perspective had all the prestige of old Euclidean geometry, and there was nothing, it was felt, that deserved the palm of rationality with stricter justice. Then there was a new way of enhancing the three-dimensionality of bodies: let light come into the picture from just one source, and by means of the play of lights and shadows on a face, a mantle, a pair of hands, the painter could give the impression that his subject was a real, three-dimensional sitter. Such procedures, as well as keeping the figures in the picture bearing to one another approximately the same proportions as they reasonably bore in actuality, merit, in the mind of the critic, to be called "rational," and this in spite of some famous major deviations from those rules, as in Jan van Eyck's Madonna in the Church, in Berlin. Still, what most captured my imagination in the miniature of King René lying on his bed was not the geometry of the tiled floor, nor the chiaroscuro on the King's clothes and on the canopy bed hangings. It was that the King was dreaming, and that the viewer contemplated both the dreamer and his dream. Both dwelled in the same space. It was that which intrigued and enchanted me, although I doubt it could be fairly characterized as part of a general rationalization of space. More likely it could be described as the remnant of an older, more generous, open-armed conception of space.
My memories of Cesare Cantù and his Historia Universale are not as colorful, except metaphorically. First published between 1840-47, the work became a huge success; the eleven hefty volumes that were taken away from us were a Spanish translation published in Paris by Garnier in 1866. My father had purchased them at one of the many second-hand bookstores on Avenida Corrientes; I was six or seven, and relished accompanying him in those book hunts, just as, among goyim, boys relish going out into the woods with their father to shoot critters. When it comes to illustrations, Cantù could not compare with my fascist encyclopedia: it only had monochrome engravings. Yet, some of them, unfortunately few, have remained engraved in my mind. First things first, though: let us open one of the books. The address of Garnier, the publishing house, is printed on the title page of each volume:
6, rue des Saints Pères, 6
That reiteration held a strange fascination, which never, till now, have I tried to elucidate. In a Buenos Aires address the number comes after the street name; where I live now, in the US, the number comes before. So, could it be that this Parisian address, encompassing both systems, seemed more universal, inclusive, and worthy of the cradle of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité? As a reason for my fascination, this would be silly as well as anachronic: when I was reading Cantù, I still hadn't left Argentina. Later in life, when I got to know Paris, I delighted in the dignity and elegance of the entrances to many of the buildings. Eventually, I acquired the hobby of photographing the ever-varied massive objects, mostly of stone, but often enough of wrought iron —les chasse-roues or guard stones— which symmetrically grace so many of the entrances wide enough to let a vehicle go through. The cheapest type is two bent pipes, with one end set into the wall, the other into the ground. And when I remembered my delight in the chasse-roues I understood, all of a sudden, that in my memory they correspond to the virgules, the commas, at both sides of rue des Saints Pères.
As for the engravings, they tended to be of the pathetic genre. The Jacques-Louis David 1781 historic painting of Justinian's general Belisarius, blind and begging for alms in the streets of Byzantium, occupied much of my attention, an eloquent indictment of the cruelty and ingratitude of emperors and absolute rulers. Desiderius in his city of Pavia impressed me no less, but I have not been able to find the name of the artist: it depicted the King of the Lombards, standing on top of crenellated ramparts in full armor, looking into the distance where the countless armies of the Franks were approaching, and taking a hand to his helmeted brow. I thought I could hear his groan and his heavily accented "Oy vey!" And one could think that Cantù, being himself a Lombard, naturally assigned too extended a place in his universal history to this juncture; but when one figures that it cemented the alliance between Charlemagne and the Pope, and formed the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire, it begins to seem fair. On the other hand, I found his discussion of Cola di Rienzo's popular insurrections extremely long and hard to follow. The name itself, Cola, I felt was full of charm; his humble origin, the son of a Roman washerwoman and a tavern keeper, made me sympathize with him; and the picture of the young man contemplating the ruins of the old imperial city and dreaming of awakening its incomparable glories made me think how many such young men must have dreamt similar dreams in the previous thousand years, yet Cola di Rienzo or Rienzi was the first to attempt it. But his fight to clean the cloacal corruption of the city deserted by its Popes ended in failure, and the same Roman mobs who raised him to power murdered him. Cantù, however, spent many more pages on Cola than on the Black Death which arrived from Asia in Cola's tail, and killed about half of Europe's population. That, I thought, was unfair.
Such were my mumblings and grumblings as I tried to unravel that medieval story, shortly before the three sbirri took the whole wonderful caboodle away, and put an end to my cavils about Cantù's Rienzi for a long time. Now, at long remove, having read a little about Cantù himself—about Cantù the man, el hombre César Cantù, as the great Unamuno would have said—I think differently. The Austrian police suspected the twenty-eight-year-old author of being a sympathizer of patriotic rebel groups such as the Carbonari or Giovane Italia, and in 1833 Cantù was jailed for about a year and all writing equipment was forbidden him; the legend goes that he managed to compose a novel writing on rags with a tooth-pick and candle soot. I find that beyond belief, but there's no denying the verisimilitude of the toothpick detail, since our historian was so extremely fond of spaghetti alle vongole. Cantù, whose life, allowing a little stretch, covered the nineteenth century, was quite typical of his generation and literary calling, and much of my pleasure in reading his heavy tomes was of the same kind as the heady pleasures I had felt reading Scott's Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward; King Desiderius' castle in Pavia was conflated, in my mind, with that of Front de Bœuf. Before being thrown in jail, the young Cantù had written a little book on Lord Byron, and there can be no doubt that he remembered vividly the latter's hail to Cola di Rienzo:
"Then turn we to her latest Tribune's name,
From her ten thousand tyrants turn to thee,
Redeemer of dark centuries of shame
– The friend of Petrarch – hope of Italy –
Rienzi, last of Romans! While the tree
Of Freedom's wither'd trunk puts forth a leaf,
Even for thy tomb a garland let it be –
The Forum's champion, and the People's chief –
Her new-born Numa thou!"
(Byron, Childe Harold, canto iv, stanza 114).
"Redeemer", was Rienzi called by Byron; and when we recall Heinrich Heine's characterization of the German Romantic movement as a reaching back to, a longing for, the Middle Ages, we start to understand the strange fascination Cola di Rienzi exerted on the Romantic European mind. The original sin, man's first disobedience, had lost importance, not so much because Christ had died on the cross to redeem us from it, but because too few remembered or remotely understood what the disobedience and the expulsion from the Garden had been about. Now it was, instead, the present state of man, guiltless yet everywhere in chains (or so Rousseau claimed), that demanded urgent attention, remedy, and redemption. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ! —went the cry— Unione, Forza, e Libertà!
The Freemasons took up those insurrectional cries, as they marched and conspired against the upholders of the primacy of original sin and of absolute subjection to Church authority, and that meant, chiefly, the Jesuits. At the time, when our books were taken away, I had yet to read Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, with the unforgettable duel between Naphtha and Settembrini, and that even less forgettable chapter titled Walpurgisnacht. But, although I did not then know it, I was already personally involved in the unending duel, covertly since birth, openly since I had entered the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. On occasion, the two sides seemed sharply divided and my choice was obvious, as in the old Dreyfus affair my father liked to spatiate on, or as in my spats with Diego Luis Molinari, my first-year history teacher. Molinari was authoritarian, anti-liberal, nationalistic, and above all, anti-British, and taught that fabric dyes were unknown in fifteenth-century Europe —Early Renaissance painters must have been lying through their brushes! Yes, especially where anti-Judaism was concerned, my choice was clear: besides being a brute, Molinari was an anti-Semite. Just like Pope Pio Nono, who had a young Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, taken away from his parents, all because the Mortaras' shiksa told the Pope that she had secretly had the boy baptized: Pio Nono was also a brute and an anti-Semite. And even when the Jews were out of it, as when Pius X declared tango dancing immoral and off-limits to Catholics, and, withal, one of the dullest things imaginable, my choice could be quite clear.
But most of the time choices were not clear. Abilio Bassets, in first-year Latin, had been a Jesuit, and was the ablest, gentlest teacher; Monner-Sans, on the other hand, known as a member of the Socialist Party and a partisan of universal equality, was the biggest bully who ever stood on a pulpit. My musical friend Rodolfo Mattarollo was the first who openly challenged me to a duel —the duel, always the same damned duel— because I, the skeptic liberal, had mocked his Catholic piety. After missing each other for fifty-five years, like magnetic poles deprived of their opposite, we met again in 2007, and by then he had been a Marxist utopian, a guerrilla fighter, a follower of Roby Santucho and Che Guevara, and a political refugee in the France of Mitterand. Naphtha the Jesuit had morphed into a fiery Trotskyite. And yet, all remained the same. Each of us was the same, he the man of unshakable faith and me the doubting cynic, both of us proud and stubborn, so that we were not able to complete our last project, the joint composition of a Ronsardian ode.
They tell me that nowadays the students at the Colegio Nacional divide themselves into two opposite camps, the progres or progressives and the fachos or fascists. Different by nature, ne'er the twain shall meet. Nor is there a third or middle camp. From a purely logical point of view, the progres are inconsistent, since they stand for universal equality and fraternity, yet they would be horrified to consider any facho their equal or their brother. During the French Terror, one could read on Paris walls: Fraternité ou la mort, which Chamfort, with bitterest wit, slightly changed into: Sois mon frère ou je te tue —be my brother or I kill you. But the problem is much worse than a logical one. Whoever has lived, even from a safe distance, like me, through the Argentine Terror and its long aftermath, cannot in good conscience hold to an opinion about human nature any more sanguine than Jonathan Swift's, for whom "the bulk of mankind is as well qualified for flying as for thinking." Whoever has listened to the voices of the torturers justifying their cruelty in the name of Liberty facing communist subversion, and the voices of the leftist guerrillas justifying their violence in the name of Equality —der frecher Gleichheitsschwindel, the impudent swindle of equality, as Heine used to call it—that person has gathered enough experience to realize that for the most part we humans use language no better than parrots, but those at least can fly.
When I look into myself as I was at twelve, I find both a thoroughly modern mindset, individualist, selfish, in love with its self-image, its autonomy, and its will to know, and a primitive mind, attached to the household lares and penates, superstitious, believing that the fates had linked father and son and dispensed the same portion to both —in other words, obsessed with original sin. I was at once a progressive and a reactionary, and I don't seem to have changed much since. Statistically, of course, that's not much of a sample; but it may well be that those who claim to be exclusively of one mind, be it progre or facho, must make a constant effort, while parroting their chosen litany as an incantation, to help them suppress the other side, the opposite litany, in themselves.
Well, Cola di Rienzo, who appeared, like a specter from former times, when I was trying to locate the beginning of my father's precipitous fall in one event and on a single day, the spectacular seizure of Orpheus and the books, Cola seems to have been left far behind, pressed into oblivion between the foxed leaves of Cesare Cantù. But that's not the way with specters: they only seem to disappear because they get fused with other specters and acquire different names, just as two beams of light, one red and one green, if shone together fuse into a yellow beam. No: the specter of Cola di Rienzi, who had tried, unsuccessfully, to redeem Rome shortly before the arrival of the Black Death in 1348, never disappeared: half-a-millennium later, shortly before the failed revolutions of 1848, it shines again in the famous "A specter is haunting Europe – the specter of communism," at the beginning of Marx's and Engels's Communist Manifesto. However, it would be hard to recognize Cola's specter in the specter of communism if we did not know that in 1841 Friedrich Engels had written the draft of a drama titled Cola di Rienzi.
A year later, in 1842, Wagner's opera Rienzi was premiered in Dresden. When the sixteen-year-old Adolf Hitler listened to a 1905 performance of the opera in Linz, he was so deeply moved he told a childhood friend that he, like Rienzi, would be a redeemer of his Volk. The overture to Wagner's Rienzi was regularly performed at the opening of the Nürnberg Nazi rallies.
When I was learning to read, at four and five, it was on the Argentine newspapers, whose titles brimmed with words I couldn't figure how to pronounce—Kursk, Smolensk, Minsk, Kharkov—, whose referents I could not imagine. In spite of that, I knew, obscurely, that my family's destiny was linked to what was going on over there, where Gog & Magog, the Nazi and the Communist armies, fought for the life of one specter and the annihilation of the other.
All of which brings me back to those gigantomachies, the metaphysical battles between my father and my uncle Abraham, whose objective correlative was the battle of the cigarettes. Father's white burley American cigarettes and Abraham's black caporal Argentine cigarettes burned constantly between their fingers, but differently: the ashes and the smoke were different, yet the ashes were collapsed and mixed in the brimful ashtray, and as for the smokes, they diffused into each other so that what I, the akousmatikos boy, breathed in, was a blend of both. The smokes of German Idealism, crazily poisonous.
After the seizure of our Universitas Encyclopedia and of the History of Cesare Cantù, I missed those books keenly, but the only person I talked to about them and the pictures that had impressed me was my French teacher, Madame de la Barre. When she heard of my fondness for the portrait of Blanche de Castile that opened the volume of Cantù where Cola de Rienzi was dealt with, she interrupted and said:
La reine Blanche comme un lys,
Qui chantait à voix de sirène.
"Vous savez, c'est du François Villon: la Ballade des dames du temps jadis".
The title of Villon's poem, pronounced by her with a touch of sympathy and a dash of piety, had a strange effect on me: I thought she was including herself into that sacred circle of ladies of former times, and that perhaps she had noticed, or guessed, that I already viewed her as belonging to such company. And when I mentioned to her King René's Cœur d'amour épris and its beautiful illustrations, she explained that Blanche de Castile, wife of Louis VIII, king of France, was the mother of Louis IX the Saint and of the younger Charles I of Naples, duke of Anjou, from whom the whole house of Anjou, as well as the kings of Naples, directly descended, including le bon roi René. In Madame's opinion, there was a noticeable physical resemblance between the latter and the Castilian Blanche, "sauf qu'il était bien plus gros".
Even the plebeian Cola di Rienzi was caught in my teacher's genealogical nets. Joanna I of Naples was the direct descendant of Blanche de Castile too, and of Charles I of Naples (he of the Sicilian Vespers), but Madame was afraid she was not a good person. Joanna was married to her second cousin Andrew when both were about six, but eleven years later, when she was crowned Queen of Naples, her young husband was excluded from authority in Naples, and was told to rest contented with the title of Duke of Calabria. This, however did not satisfy him, and a power struggle ensued, which ended, at least for Andrew, with his murder in 1345 at the hands of Joanna's followers. Madame de la Barre was convinced that it was with Joanna's connivance. "She was married four times and all her husbands died in suspicious circumstances," she said, and added that, be that as it might have been, Andrew's older brother, King Louis the Great of Hungary, was convinced that Joanna was his brother's murderess, and immediately resolved to invade Naples. "Imaginez donc: l'Hongrie, c'était un pays de gens presque sauvages, et assez lointain du golfe de Naples. Ce fut à ce moment-là que votre ami Cola de Rienzi parut sur la scène".
According to Madame, Cola was the only Italian magnate who actively supported and supplied the invading Hungarian army; that was why, before Joanna fled by ship to her Comté de Provence, she made sure that her blackguard followers, perhaps the same ones who, two years earlier, had murdered her husband and kinsman Andrew, went by stealth to Rome and, by intrigue, dagger, and gold, engineered the fall of Cola. Those cowards, my teacher said, found it was so much easier to topple the last Roman tribune than to fight the Magyars.
I didn't know, and still don't, whether Madame's appraisal of queen Joanna and her goons was historically accurate or not, and I lack the opportunity and the energy for finding out. All I can say is that Madame's way of looking at the past and describing it seemed to me most natural and most fun. In retrospect, I'm aware that such preference can easily be attributed to my childhood innocence and my reading habits, I mean my fondness for the novels of Dumas père and Walter Scott; and I know I'll be expected to have grown into different preferences —more rational— in my old age. Could Madame, with all her genealogical erudition, explain why things happened the way they did, and not in some other way? Well, no, of course not. But if you tell me that Hegel or other German Idealists, or Marx and his school, could do so; that they dived deep below the surface of events —marriages, battles, crimes, and revenge— and got to describe the competing undercurrents which rationally determine that the world, at any stage, is the way it is and never otherwise, I will reply that the overriding obsession of those philosophers was not to find the truth, but to save and protect men from evil and meaninglessness, and science from scepticism. They were, briefly put, ideal redeemers.
Madame had no such ambitions. She looked at all things with the serene eye —not cold!— of matter-of-factness. I have told in Part II §9 about the time when tiny worms were dropping all over my table, and Madame picked one up, inspected it, and pronounced: "C'est un ver de chair" (It's a flesh worm). She said it the way she might have said, beholding a rose: "It's a rose." With the same attitude she looked upon Villon, Madame de Sévigné or Joanna of Naples, not judgmentally, but as concrete, unique individuals; listening to her, I felt as if I had met the poet, the letter writer, and the queen, and got to know their quirks to the same extent that I knew those of my uncles and aunts. And I could not but compare her way with the way Father and Uncle Abraham looked at the world: a scene of specters, a dance of ideologies melting with or annihilating each other, a verbose danse macabre attracting millions of real flesh and blood, so that the competing ideas could devour them and so acquire some semblance of substance.
(To be continued)
R. Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse: