ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"An Old Man's Penumbra," an essay by Ricardo Nirenberg

If you look for "penumbra effect" in a dictionary, you'll probably find that it is something having to do with X-ray plaques.  I'd like to mean those words differently.  My penumbra is the region in space-time, with fuzzy boundaries, between a domain that is familiar and the vast realms of the undisclosed.  In old maps, beyond a detailed spread of towns, mountains, and waters, there are strewn names of nations—Scythians, Picts, Aethiops, and but little features: the penumbra—and still beyond, without contours, terra incognita, ubi leones, or Gog & Magog.  Another instance: Newton described his life experience as that of a boy playing with pebbles at the seashore, while the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before him; we may imagine that the foamy ebb and flow was for him a changing region of penumbra, of those laws still unknown yet ripe for discovery.  By the penumbra effect I mean the attraction, even the fascination, that a penumbral region has on the intelligence.

I was born a month before the beginning of WWII, when Hitler invaded Poland and Auden sat in one of the dives on Fifty-second Street and penned those famous lines.  The low dishonest decade has always had a penumbra effect on me, that region of time immediately before my first taste of the world.  My grandparents, all Jews, were rightly proud that they had left their shtetls at the beginning of the twentieth century and sailed to the New World.  It cannot have been easy for them, learning new habits, a new language, and all; it was a bit easier for the bobehs, since, being illiterate, they didn't have to learn a new alphabet.  My parents were born in Argentina, and so were all my uncles and aunts, with the exception of my oldest uncle Natalio, born in the Russian Empire.  When someone of my generation, nauseated by the decay of the Argentine Republic, expressed regret that the grandparents had not chosen the U.S.A., our parents replied that, on the contrary, we should be grateful that they had come to "our beautiful country, where we are safe, far from all wars."  Our parents were forgetting the state-sponsored pogrom of January 1919, in which about a thousand Jews were killed and many more wounded; but upon the whole they were right: Argentina had been neutral in both World Wars; the last time the country had fought a foreign war was in the 1860s.  We didn't know of any Argentine who was a war veteran, although I did have a high-school buddy whose father was a police torturer.

The proximate cause of the Argentine disaster, the initial kick, as it were, of the protracted decay into what that country has since become, was given by an army general, José F. Uriburu, when he ousted by force the civilian government on September 1930, at the beginning of the low dishonest decade.  In the photograph, we see Uriburu, as de facto president in 1931, about to literally give the initial kick to the ball at a popular soccer match.  He's the one with the large moustache.President Uriburu at a soccer match

The deposed president, Hipólito Irigoyen, was no saint: during his first presidential period, back in 1919, he had been unwilling to stop the pogrom and the shooting of striking workers.  The Bolshevik Revolution had instilled in him, as in many others, the fear of the specter of an Argentine Soviet, whose vanguard were, without any doubt, the "rusos" (Russians, as Jews were called).  The military government, on the other hand, was also anti-Semitic, followers of the corporatism of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI, and of Mussolini's fascism.  Such were the only two options left during the low dishonest decade, and not only in Argentina: either communism or fascism.  Liberalism was believed to be kaput.

Which is not to be wondered at, in view of the economic disaster that followed the stock market crash of 1929.  But I find it amazing that communism and fascism were everywhere seen as opposite options.  Here's the dogma of Mussolini and his fascists: "Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato" (everything for the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State).  And here's Fidel Castro's injunction to all Cuban intellectuals in 1961: "Dentro de la Revolución, todo; contra la Revolución, nada" (within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing).  Tell me what's the difference, other than the clearly linguistic.  In an analogous way, what's a toothpick at the diner becomes a dental pic at the drugstore, and at the gas pump they call ethanol the same thing we usually drink as alcohol.  And yet millions perished, during the low dishonest decade and its aftermath, WWII, in the name of a clearly linguistic difference.  It was not the first time; murderous logomachies have been going on forever.  The Latin word filioque (and from the son), which caused the first great rift in Christianity and the millennial hatred between Russians and Poles, Romanians and Magyars, Serbians and Croats, had more, if only ghostly, substance to boast of: did the Holy Spirit proceed or emanate only from the Father, or also from the Son?  Ghostly substance or no substance at all, it doesn't really matter, for most people love to hate, and will grab on to any shibboleth as ground and fortress for their hatred.  "What's in a name?," some have fatuously asked.  They should be reminded that quite recently Greece and one of her northern neighbors almost went to war over the use of the word "Macedonia," and a few weeks ago there were some bitter recriminations in the letters section of the TLS about the use of the word "queer" to designate gay people.  They could also be reminded of the Catalan poet: "Nosaltres, ben mirat, no som més que paraules." (Well considered, we are but words).  Liberalism and toleration forget this, or refuse to acknowledge it, at their own risk—which is our own.

In Argentina, the 1930s decade was abysmally low, shamelessly dishonest.  Elections were fraudulent as a matter of course, and bribes were involved in every transaction; yet few cared.  People celebrated, instead, the monumental changes in the city.  An obelisk was erected, at less than half the height of the one in Washington, signifying nothing.  Well, perhaps they were signs of the two nations' phallic meshugas.  An avenue, said by locals and guidebooks to be the widest in the world, was built to hold the obelisk midway.  A large indoor stadium, the Luna Park, a site for boxing, wrestling, catch-as-catch-can, basketball, etc., as well as pop concerts and entertainment of various kinds, helped keep minds off the smell of rot.  In 1936, Carlos Gardel's obsequies were held at the Luna Park, and thousands walked by his coffin, weeping as they recalled the star tango singer in his recent blockbuster film, "El día que me quieras"—"The day you love me, all shall be harmony, the dawn shall be luminous, and the sources murmurous."  In 1938, at the same venue, a huge crowd celebrated, amid swastikas and sieg-heils, the annexation of Austria to Hitler's Reich.

Although 1945 may fall outside my penumbral zone, it is worth adding at this point that the military then in power forbade all public celebration of the Allies' victory over Germany.  My family had to keep it private.  This is a photo of a very private celebration at Uncle Natalio's textile factory: he is sitting at the head of the table, a woman to his right (all the women present must have been his employees), and to his left a man leaning toward him.  He wears a moustache and a carnation in his lapel.  On the other side of the leaning man sits my maternal zeide Gregorio, strikingly resembling Natalio, his oldest son.  My uncles Juan and Isaac stand nearby.  My father sits at the long side of the table, facing a pair of flags, of the USA and of Denmark; he wears a moustache, too, and is showing the Churchillian victory sign.  Among the many little flags on display, of the U.K., the USA, France, Brazil, and Mexico (the last two being the only Latin-American countries that sent troops to fight the Axis), there is not a single one of the Soviet Union.  No one on my mother's side of the family had any sympathy for Stalin; Abraham, my father's younger brother, did, and how, but he was not invited, and of him I've written elsewhere in this journal.  The absence of the Soviet flag may have been due to fear: the military government had recently jailed the Communist Party leaders; but we may wonder why the Danish flag—white cross over red background—, until we remember that in October 1943 the Danes had succeeded in shipping most of their Jews to Sweden, in the teeth of the Führer's order to send them to their death.

celebration of Allied victory 1945 Buenos Aires

Most remarkable is the absence of my bobeh, my mother, and all my aunts. Was that due to fears of a police raid?  But then, why is my cousin Hugo, not yet eight, against the upper right-hand margin, to the right of my mustachioed and bespectacled uncle Isaac, holding a Danish flag?  And what is my cousin Davel, the blond, ten-year old kid, doing there, in front of Isaac?  No, it cannot have been for fear of a raid.  It must have been because ladies—ladies as opposed to factory girls, maidservants, and washerwomen—were not supposed to participate in this sort of event.  One should remember that women's suffrage was not achieved in Argentina until four years later, under the Peronist government: one of Perón's three undoubtedly beneficial measures (the others were to grant inheritance rights to those born out of wedlock, and to name Martha Argerich's parents to diplomatic posts in Austria, so the girl could study under Friedrich Gulda). 

Back to the remote part of my penumbra.  The year before the Nazi takeover, in 1932, a distinguished German linguist and philologist visited Buenos Aires.  Karl Vossler was a specialist in Romance literatures and languages.  He wrote volumes on Dante and the Middle Ages and on Leopardi, but also on French language and culture, and on Racine; he wrote much about Spain and her poets, as well as on Portuguese literature. Nihil romani a se alienum putavit can be said of him with more justice than of anyone else.  In Buenos Aires he gave popular conferences on Goethe, and had much to talk with the members of the Instituto de Filología Hispánica and its director, Amado Alonso, who had translated one of Vossler's books into Spanish (the Institute was closed, and its director banished, when Perón came to power in 1946).  I don't know whether Vossler had read any of the books by the illustrious Argentine Domingo Faustino Sarmiento before his 1932 trip to South America, or he first read him while there; the fact is, as soon as he was back in Munich he took up his Tintenkuli and wrote to his friend Benedetto Croce, in Naples, about Sarmiento's Facundo.

The letter is to be found in the book Carteggio Croce-Vossler (1899-1949), Bari, Gius. Laterza & Figli, 1951, the two friends' correspondence, entirely in Italian.  Before I get involved with Vossler's enthusiasm for Facundo, a word about those two singular personalities, Sarmiento and Croce.  Sarmiento, who was president of Argentina between 1868 and 1874, was born in 1811 into a poor family in San Juan, an Andean province; after his elementary schooling, and having learned Latin and other essentials under his uncle José de Oro, he was largely self-taught.  At the age of fifteen or sixteen, behind the counter at his aunt's grocery store, interrupted now and then by a customer in need of yerba mate or sugar, he read voraciously.  The historical novels of Walter Scott, the political philosophers Montesquieu, Rousseau, Constant, Tocqueville, Volney, the historians Gibbon, Lamartine, Michelet, Guizot, the wondrous boy read them all, and much more, in English or in French.  I must single out Volney.  Never fear though: this is not a digression; it goes straight to the heart of my matter.

Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney (1757-1820), was made a count by Napoleon, and assumed the name Volney, a fusion of Voltaire and Ferney, the small French town near Geneva where Voltaire spent his old age, and which is today called Ferney-Voltaire.  Volney travelled in Egypt and desertic Syria in the 1780s, learned Arabic, and in 1791 published his most famous book, Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires.  The ruins of the title are the remains of the very ancient city of Palmyra, before which the young man felt the outburst of black bile and the pang of cosmic sadness caused by each new realization that all greatness is destined to oblivion.  Long rows of columns, many with their cornices or even with their whole pediments, were still standing, in sharp contrast to the desolation all around.  Volney describes, at the very beginning, the desolation:
« J'entrais dans les villes, et j'étudiais les mœurs de leurs habitants ; je pénétrais dans les palais, et j'observais la conduite de ceux qui gouvernent ; je m'écartais dans les campagnes, et j'examinais la condition des hommes qui cultivent ; et partout ne voyant que brigandage et dévastation, que tyrannie et que misère, mon cœur était oppressé de tristesse et d'indignation. »  (I went into the cities, and studied the customs of their dwellers; I entered the palaces and observed the conduct of the rulers; I removed myself to the countryside and examined the condition of the peasants; and seeing all round but robbery and devastation, tyranny and destitution, my heart was heavy with sadness and indignation).

In those melancholic meditations Sarmiento found the thematic structure of his Facundo of 1845.  The parallel oppositions between city and desert, civilization and barbarism, democracy and tyranny, ethnic variety and "purity of blood," world-wide commerce against feudal isolation, are all there.  We should add that Sarmiento was not the only statesman to be impressed by Les Ruines: when Volney visited the US in 1795-6, Thomas Jefferson undertook an English translation of the book, and did translate the first twenty chapters before he became the third president.  The golden ruins of Palmyra surrounded by desolation were thus incorporated into the liberal imagination of both countries, Argentina and the USA.  But that image of the passing of greatness, being itself great, was also destined to oblivion.  When the know-nothing, juvenile forty-third president of the USA invaded Iraq, he set the stage for the latest outburst of apocalyptic barbarism in that region, and the Salafist cut-throats blew up a good part of the ruins of Palmyra (or, according to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, just a small part).  I don't know if anyone thought of Volney when that wreck appeared in the news not long ago.  I suspect not, if I recall Walter Benjamin's quotable phrase: "For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably."  Images of the past are none of the present generation's concern: history is not their business.  And history not being one's business is, I dare say, the definitory mark of the barbarian.  That's why that other Benjamin's phrase, "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism," a sentence that lies very close to the first one in the same piece, and which today is fashionable among intellectuals, is patently false, for there are no documents of barbarism, barbarians don't write documents, nor do they preserve them, but do their damn best to destroy them.  Documents of barbarism are the work of civilization.

It is time to attend to the letter Vossler wrote to Croce in 1932, and to preface it with some words about the latter.  The long-lived Benedetto Croce was, together with Henri Bergson and Edmund Husserl, the most celebrated and influential philosopher of the first third of the twentieth century.  All three, in their very different ways, opposed the previously prevalent positivism, and Croce did so by blowing new life into German idealistic systems, particularly that of Schelling, with its emphasis on art and esthetics, and that of Hegel, of whom he claimed to have taken "what is alive," and discarded "that which is dead."  But Croce wrote about everything under the sun, that legendary and melodious Neapolitan sun.  I remember myself as a young man scrutinizing his Storia del Regno di Napoli without finding a single reference to what's arguably the best-known gift of Naples to our modern world—I mean pizza—even though Alexandre Dumas, he of D'Artagnan and Chicot , had explained pizza to the French already in 1843, in his travel book Le Corricolo, as the winter fare of the Neapolitan poor, the lazzaroni (their summer fare was the watermelon).  My conclusion was that Croce was always an idealist, even as a historian, something Dumas was clearly not.

An integral part of Croce's idealism, or spiritual monism, as René Wellek has called it, was his brand of liberalism and his sharp refusal to stamp the seal of equality on all manners of people and cultures ("cultures" here taken in its anthropological sense).  Like Sarmiento before him, Croce thought that it was the duty of civilization to protect itself against barbarians; but, of course, the difference is that Croce, unlike Sarmiento, was a first-hand witness to the low, dishonest decade, and the capture of highly civilized nations by barbarians far more formidable than Attila the Hun or Facundo Quiroga.  At the end of a letter to Vossler, in April 1943, Croce wrote:
"Chi ci avrebbe detto, caro Carlo, di dover vivere, nei nostri vecchi anni tra gli orrori che si moltiplicano intorno a noi e di vedere in rovina il mondo che conoscemmo così bello, ordinato, laborioso, così internazionalmente unito in noi, uomini di cultura?" (Who would have told us, dear Karl, that we would have to live our old age among the horrors that multiply around us, and to see fallen into ruin the world we knew, so beautiful, ordered, industrious, so internationally united in us, men of culture?)
If this, which in my old age I find moving, strikes you as merely the ranting of a dead, plainly elitist white man, a slumlord lamenting the passing of a world which was neither ordered nor beautiful, but deeply unjust, in which millions labored as slaves and suffered hunger, that, gentle reader, is your prerogative.  

Stop the admonitions, stop the bitterness.  Nicht diese Töne!  Almost all of Croce's work was published by one publishing house: Gius. Laterza & Figli, founded in Bari (Puglia) in 1901.  The patriarch, Giuseppe, and his five sons, Vito, Pasquale, Giovanni, Luigi, Francesco, were linked to Croce by mutual friendship and trust.  I have included this photo, and fancy the Whistlerian title, "Harmony in Black Moustaches," only because Laterza and his sons black moustaches seem to be an inseparable part of my penumbra.  The house of Laterza is still going strong, led by another Giuseppe, a great-grandson of Vito. Croce's prestige, however, was eclipsed after the war by the éclat of the anti-liberal tenets of Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, both abhorred by Croce and Vossler (as can be seen in their letters).  Germania capta civilem victorem cepit.  Political scientists fell in love with Schmitt, and humanities departments with Heidegger and the deconstructionists, self-proclaimed demolishers of the edifice of Western metaphysics—how's that for a barbarian's project.  Philosophers were too busy putting the final touches to the logical construction of their worlds to be bothered by the barbarians at the gate, or by the world's spiritual disease.  It was unavoidable that college graduates would finally forget that liberalism used to mean, as in Croce, much more than economic laissez faire, that it was not what the word now vaguely and vulgarly means in the US, i.e. "the left,"  that it had to do with the perennial questions: What am I?  What are my duties?  What can I hope for?

Incidentally, not only have college graduates forgotten Croce and his liberalism, but if you look him up in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (an excellent scholarly Internet tool), you will find an article on Croce that restricts its scope and his importance to his esthetics of expression, and that only because it influenced R. G. Collingwood's widely-read theory of art; but the article ignores all recent work on Croce's liberalism, in particular by the Italian political scholar Giovanni Sartori, a professor at Columbia University who was influenced by the Neapolitan sage.  Sartori's short, inspiring book, La corsa verso il nulla (The Race Toward Nothingness) from 2015, has yet to be translated into English.

Plenty of old men and women, more distinguished than I, have been or are mad at this and other failings of education.  Marilynne Robinson has recently noted that "the new hermeneutics," the way our new university graduates interpret the past, "see context as special pleading."  History is definitely not their business.  Saul Bellow in his preface to Allan Boom's The Closing of the American Mind: "The commonest teaching of the civilized world in our time can be stated simply: 'Tell me where you come from and I will tell you what you are.'"  Seventy-three years before Bloom's book, José Ortega y Gasset, in his Meditaciones del Quijote, penned his most quoted pronouncement: "Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia, y si no la salvo a ella, no me salvo yo."  (I am I and my circumstance, and if I don't save it, neither will I be saved).  Bellow's "commonest teaching" is, then, a savage amputation of Ortega's teaching: liberty, the very mystery of the self, has been discarded, and only the measurable circumstance has been saved.  Another old man, Harold Bloom, holds a similar view: "There is no method except yourself, and this is what they refuse to learn.  Ideologists of every description hate the self.  They all deny that there can be such a thing as an individual."  Liberalism cannot breathe such air, because its primary concern is the development of the self, its unity, and its autonomy.  For my own part, I suspect that the decay of liberalism we are experiencing may be a consequence of advertisement and the way the self is presented by marketing professionals, demagogues, and clueless teachers: not as something we must encounter, receive, and shape—a lifetime task, the most difficult of all (as Kierkegaard told us)—, but as some sort of constitutional right.

In the passage I extracted from a 1943 letter, Croce and Vossler were two old men who fancied themselves as men of culture uniting in themselves different linguistic and literary traditions.  This will to unity was in itself good, the good old harmony of contraries.  Their belief that, through their philological ministrations and translations, the documents of one civilization could beneficially influence the destinies of another, was liberalism at its best.  Compare, by way of contrast, the 1559 decree of Phillip II, King of Spain and of Naples and Sicily, forbidding his subjects to teach or study abroad, for fear of intellectual contamination.  So, Vossler returned from South America in 1932 and wrote to his friend Croce from Munich—two months before Hitler took power—that he would like to translate Sarmiento's Facundo into German:
"Tra le molte cose che s'imparano laggiù c'è anche questa che si vede la nostra Europa con occhi più limpidi, chiarificati per la gran distanza, e che si viene a comprendere quel che è in realtà la barbarie a la quale anelano e aspirano tanti di noialtri come a un bagno di ringiovanimento: un misto di desolazione, noia e terrore.  Avrei voglia, si avessi il tempo, di tradurre per esempio in tedesco il 'Facundo' di D. F. Sarmiento, per dimostrare ai miei compatrioti la 'verdadera naturaleza de los hijos de la Pampa' e della autentica barbarie".  (Among the many things one learns down there, one sees our Europe with sharper eyes, clarified by the great distance, and one apprehends the true nature of the barbarism vehemently wished for by so many of us as a rejuvenating bath: a mixture of desolation, boredom, and terror.  If I had time, I'd like to translate for example D. F. Sarmiento's 'Facundo', to show my compatriots the 'true nature of the children of the Pampa' [in Spanish in the original] and of authentic barbarism).

The above passage requires some explaining.  That may account for my repeated delays in presenting it.  "Children of the Pampa" in Sarmiento does not mean—or not primarily—aborigines who dwelled in the Pampas, like the Puelches or the Ranqueles, nomadic nations whose ways were detested by Sarmiento, but the gauchos, who were poor peons in the estancias, and whose best literary model is José Hernández' Martín Fierro (two parts: 1872 and1879).  Martín Fierro suffered the fate of many gauchos who were detained at taverns or brothels, impressed into the army, and sent to defend the frontier against the Indians.  He rebelled and became a deserter, a murderer, an outlaw.
"Si uno aguanta, es gaucho bruto—
Si no aguanta, es gaucho malo—"
(If one puts up, he's a dumb gaucho / If he doesn't, he's an evil gaucho).
You will hardly find a literate Argentine who doesn't know some sextaine of the Martín Fierro by heart (I cannot tell you, though, how many literate Argentines are left at present).

Such "gauchos malos" formed most of the troops of the caudillos, the local feudal lords who ruled the disunited provinces of the new Argentine Republic.  Facundo Quiroga, caudillo of La Rioja, was the most noted of them for valor and brutality.  In 1827, when the governor of San Juan, the province directly south of La Rioja, had signed a treaty with the British Crown, whereby San Juan would tolerate the practice of cults other than the Roman Catholic, Facundo gathered his gauchos and invaded San Juan.  His banners carried the motto, "Religión o muerte" (Religion or death).  The shade of Phillip II of Spain cheered him on from neutral Hades.  Sarmiento was sixteen, and saw the killings, the plunder, and the rapes; for him and from then on, Facundo and his gauchos would be the allegory of barbarism, and the Gibbon and Volney and the other books he read behind the counter at his aunt's grocery store, the epitome of civilization.  The experience of the author of the Martín Fierro was very different.  Born in 1834, thus twenty-three years younger than Sarmiento, he was well read, and had, in addition, an early and non-traumatic familiarity with the ways of the gauchos.  Hernández' poem was not against their barbarism, but to defend them in the tight spot into which Sarmiento's policies of Europeanization by immigration and openness to the world had pushed them.

The country that I left as a young man, in 1963, has not, even now, outgrown that tearing polarity.  The fact that the two masterpieces of Argentine literature in the nineteenth century are Facundo and Martín Fierro is not reducible to literary history, but overflows and floods all aspects of that nation's life and politics.  The penumbra effect helps, or at least helps me, to understand the nature of that phenomenon.  The gaucho's space was penumbral in the sense that it was intermediate between the city (the town, the civitas that is the cradle of civilization) and the desert.  Having deserted from the forts that guarded against the attacks from the nomads, they could not return to the city proper, where they would be court-martialed and likely shot, so they were caught in the in-between.  Neither city nor desert.  At the end of the first part of Hernández' poem, Fierro and his friend Cruz decide to escape to Indian territory, to the desert.  So they cross the frontier:
"Y cuando la habían pasao,
Una madrugada clara
Le dijo Cruz que mirara
Las últimas poblaciones
Y a Fierro dos lagrimones
Le rodaron por la cara."
(And when they had crossed it, / on a clear dawn, / Cruz told him to take a look / at the last settlements; / Fierro did, and two large tears / rolled down his face).
The two gauchos are forced to abandon civilization and, to their regret, cross into wild country.  Today—I'll spare you the long story in between—the bitter, paralyzing rift, ideologically similar to the one between barbarians and Europeanists, is between Peronists and "liberals."  The former do not mind a country plagued by official and judicial corruption, where official statistics are known to bear no relation to reality, and they don't mind a country isolated from the world economy, so long as the state subsidizes services, lets squatters be, and distributes free food to the urban-peripheral poor who have replaced the gauchos.  The "liberals" deplore the corruption of the Peronists, and promise to take the country out of the "third world."  Unfortunately, those "liberals" are astonishingly inept: again and again they fall into the trap of following the strictures of the IMF (International Monetary Fund), in exchange for credit.  But the IMF is like chiropractic or snake oil: one formula must fit all, and it does not take into account the idiosyncrasies of different countries.  If liberalism is dying, as is being announced everywhere today, it is because it fell into the hands of the economists, who, blinded by Nash equilibria and other mathematical marvels, pretend that theirs is a science like physics, that it is universally valid.

Jorge Luis Borges was a sworn enemy of the Peronists; his hatred was so vehement that it blinkered him to the savagery of the military regime that terrorized the Argentines between 1976 and 1983.  His literary work, however, is a marvelous synthesis, the only one to my knowledge, of the two sides, irreconcilable in the real world, of the Argentine imagination.  Borges' work is as steeped in European literature and philosophy as that of Croce or Vossler, but it is also steeped in the deeds and language of the gaucho epics.  A playful example of that Borgesian dipole is the very short story titled "La trama" (the plot, the web, or the woof), in which the assassination of Julius Caesar and the assassination of a gaucho somewhere in the Province of Buenos Aires are compared and judged to share the same plot, with only this difference: seeing the man who he thought might be his son among the stabbers, Caesar exclaimed, "Et tu Brute" (You too, Brutus!); two thousand years later, seeing his godson among the stabbers, the gaucho exclaimed, "¡Pero che!"  "¡Pero che! " is untranslatable. As Alberto Manguel wrote somewhere, it is one of those local expressions whose sense depends on the tone and the gestures with which it is spoken.  Once I tried to give some idea of it to a French-speaking friend, and came up with this: imagine the father who finds the son peeking into the bathroom where the mother is bathing, so he says to him, "Mais quand même !"  But I admit that the similarity is tenuous.

In logical harmony with his double vocation, for Western wisdom and for gaucho lore, Borges keenly felt the fascination of the penumbras, which he usually called "orillas" (borders, margins), and its dwellers "orilleros".  His own home turf, as he defined it, was the city block in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires limited by these four streets: Guatemala, Serrano, Paraguay, Gurruchaga.  His frequent walks, the occasion of many of his poems, stories, and metaphysical lucubrations, took him well beyond that city block, beyond the sewerage and the paving stones, to regions where streets were muddy and farther apart, and where the low houses were built high above street level to avoid the floods: those regions were penumbral.  Still beyond, there was the indefinite pampa.  In one of those stories, "Nueva refutación del tiempo" (New Refutation of Time), Borges tells us of a walk he took in 1928.  It led him to one of those penumbral streets, where a low, humble house, a pink wall made of pressed mud and lime, a fig tree, a climbing honeysuckle, enchanted him by their tender, simple beauty.  Looking at this scene, he felt the certainty that it was the same, numerically the same, as it had been thirty years before, in the eighteen-nineties.  This certainty led him to conclude that the interval of time in between had no real existence, that those thirty years had not passed, that he had discovered eternity.  Leaving aside the question of whether this conclusion was warranted, we will only observe that the eighteen-nineties were, for Borges, the decade before his birth, his penumbral time, and that this story knots penumbral space and time together as remarkably as relativity theory does with physical, measurable space and time.

Of Saul Bellow's novel Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970), a critic said that the author had abjured his liberalism to produce the first neoconservative novel.  This is as good an example as any of the brutally simplified conceptual toolkit of vulgar contemporary ideology.  Rather, Bellow took his own shot at the difficult dialectic of civilization and barbarism.  We have seen that he was not the first to do so; the problem goes as far back as liberalism itself, as far back as colonialism and the wearing thinner of its justification, originally, that it was providing eternal salvation to savage souls, after which it was replaced by the benefits of conferring civilization on those same souls.  At the beginning of the novel, Bellow's Mr. Sammler conceives of barbarism in too simple a way:
"The thing evidently, as Mr. Sammler was beginning to grasp, consisted in obtaining the privileges, and the free ways of barbarism, under the protection of civilized order, proper rights, refined technological organization, and so on.  Yes, that must be it."
But Mr. Sammler did not get it quite right.  The barbarian's "privileges and free ways" consist in rejecting, in practice, the notion of private property.  That part is right.  Fierro and Cruz, before they crossed the frontier, stole a herd of cattle from an estancia; no wonder that for Sarmiento a key element of civilization was wire-fencing around private lands.  But it is wrong to say that the barbarian seeks to be "under the protection of civilized order, proper rights, refined technological organization, and so on."  The barbarian, in Mr. Sammler's case an African American man who's a pickpocket, has been put there not by his will, nor with his consent.  He is a penumbral creature, and what I have called the penumbra effect is what Mr. Sammler felt as fascination for the pickpocket.

I cannot finish this essay without some reflections, sketchy and grumpy as they will be, on the rejection of history and context by the recent generations of college graduates.  Imagine a typical one, call her Sue, looking at a glass of water.  She is perfectly aware, although it might not be right now on her front burners, that what she sees is only surface deep, that the clear-looking water will prove to be, under a microscope, teeming with various creatures who live there and which she may be able to identify, if she has taken microbiology.  Sue knows that at the molecular level this water is mostly H2O, but that there are plenty of other molecules there, which if she has taken enough chemistry, she may be able to analyze.  And she knows that behind or under the molecular level there are still other levels, harder and harder to explain, or even to imagine.  Yet, when it comes to her own self, Sue is stuck on the surface.  Not that she hasn't heard of superego, ego, and unconscious, or of the several brain centers and their different functions; no, I mean that Sue is stuck at the level of herself at the present time, that she has no use for the past—her own past life and the lives of her numberless ancestors.  Her own previous opinions now may appear all wrong and she prefers, out of shame, not to remember them; of her ancestors she knows very little, almost nothing: in my own experience as a college teacher and advisor, most students were not able to name or locate the place where their grandparents had been born, or tell what their occupation was.

In respect to ignorance about ancestors, there is little difference between those students and me.  I know the names of my four grandparents, but there my knowledge stops; of my eight great-grandparents I can name only one: Wolf Nirenberg, my father's paternal grandfather, and I only know that he lived in some shtetl in the Ukraine, probably.  I, too, alas, neglected to submit my grandparents to a minute interrogation about their memories.  Like those students, I had no curiosity for such details.  The difference is that now, as an old man, I don't think such indifference for the past is natural, qu'elle va de soi, as the French say.  It suffices to read any of the many memoirs written by aristocrats of the Ancien Regime to see that it could be called natural only among us plebeians.  François-René de Chateaubriand's Mémoires d'outre-tombe were posthumously published in 1848, well after the French Revolution and Napoleon's empire; that superb piece of French prose starts with a lengthy account of the author's noble ancestors, from the Middle Ages to his own times, which may seem prolix and pretentious to us plebeians, but there is no doubt that for M. de Chateaubriand those ancestors were an essential part of his own self.  For Sue, the typical American college graduate who from humble, undocumented origins was able to ascend to the ranks of the middling classes, an essential part of her self is that she is "self-made."

Needless to say, there is no such thing.  Nothing in the universe is self-made, or causa sui, except for the Biblical God or Aristotle's Prime Mover.  Right before the anagnorisis that precipitates his fall, King Oedipus proclaimed himself a child of his own deeds, that is, a self-made man; in the eyes of Sophocles and his public that was a no-no, a peak of impiety and punishable hubris.  Sue would not agree with my interpretation of Sophocles' tragedy (a few academic Americans I have consulted did not).  At this point I see a divergence between Sue and myself.  Our origins are similarly humble, undocumented, our ancestors are unknown to us, even though perhaps not as unknown as they were to Oedipus.  I made a choice, however, different from Sue's.  She will go her way as an orphan, I mean, deprived of a history of her own self, a self-made woman.  When I was thirty and my father died, I read these lines by Hölderlin again and again and wept:
"Als der Vater gewandt sein Angesicht von den Menschen,
Und das Trauern mit Recht über der Erde begann"
(When the father turned his face away from us humans, / And as it should, over the earth mourning began).
After a while I felt I could not go on doing what I had been doing till then, trying to prove mathematical theorems.  Math did not fill the historical void — my personal historical void, though I have known others for whom it did.  In those days I frequented Walter Rudin, a mathematician born in Vienna.  Being a Jew, he had fled at the Anschluss and, after fighting with the Brits in WWII, came to the USA in 1945; he used to say that math was his true and only fatherland.  I found that statement impossible to understand, which may have been just because I didn't have his talent for math.  More than twenty years later I read a talk Rudin had delivered at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in which he said something remarkable about the difficulties involving the history of math as a discipline.  To be a good historian of math, he said, one has to know a lot of math to start with; but who, knowing a lot of math, would be content with doing history instead of the real thing?  Such attitude toward history may seem more surprising in a man who had a widely known great-grandfather, Aron Pollak, a wealthy Bohemian Jew, a successful manufacturer of wooden matches who, being knighted in 1869 by Emperor Franz Joseph, took the name Aron Ritter Pollak von Rudin.  Perhaps Walter's early experiences with the cruel contingencies of history left in him a dislike for it and a preference for mathematics, whose edifices, unlike those of Palmyra, never fall into ruin.

Whatever the case may be with other mathematicians, I found I could not go on as a self-made man; I felt the void under my self too scary, and math was made of a substance too thin, infinitely thinner than ancient ether, to be able to fill it solidly.  I recalled my father's turns of phrase, for example, "te voy a bajar el copete" (I'll take you down a peg or two), when he wanted to play chess with me, his infuriating way of whistling low when he had reached a winning position, and his critique of Newton's Calculus, uncannily close to that of the Bishop of Cloyne: these memories and many others seemed solid enough to fill the aforesaid void, and I began to try my hand at grinding them into poems or short pieces of prose in Spanish.  And I did something else to avoid feeling like an orphan: I provided myself with stepparents.  In the early seventies, ancient Greek was still taught at the University at Albany.  As a child, I had found that learning a new language under a beloved teacher could provide one with ancestors galore; of the dear old lady who taught me French at home, Marguerite de la Barre, I have written on other occasions.  From high school I fondly remember only my Latin teacher, Abilio Bassets, ex-Jesuit, and pleasantly though not really fondly my German teacher, Herr Probst.  The long and the short of it, at age thirty-three, nel mezzo del camin, I reverted to childhood; I mean, I decided to learn ancient Greek.

Donald Wilson Prakken, who taught the elementary Greek courses at Albany, was a Pennsylvania Dutch, a tall and very formal man of about sixty, who smoked cigars and, when in his office, lunched on warmed-up Campbell soup.  All I know about his past I learned long after his death, for we did not touch on personal matters: in the five years I studied under him, we were always mister to each other.  After the first year, just the two of us in his office, I read Plato in the original.  I had not before read Plato in any language: to put it mildly, I was a barbarian.  There is another important distinction to be intercalated here: for Plato in the Laws, whoever doesn't know why the square root of two is a surd is a suckling pig, not a human being; I knew that, so I was not a suckling pig, but since I hadn't read Plato, I was a barbarian.  On the other hand, most people in the humanities today, as far as I can tell, have no true notion of surds or math proofs, so they would be suckling pigs for Plato, although they may not be barbarians: tough nut to crack, this nut of our present intellectual era.  Afterwards I read Homer, and was entranced by the music of the hexameters, new to me; Mr. Prakken, for his part, made sure I could tell the mood, voice, tense, person, and number of each irregular verb we encountered.  The last thing we read together was Clouds, and Birds, of Aristophanes, unless I'm forgetting something.  I missed the chance of saying good-bye to him before his death, of a brain tumor.

Last night, after writing the above, I dreamt I was daringly driving a Cadillac on roads piled up with snow.  I have never driven a Cadillac; the one who drove a 1947 hydramatic-transmission model was my father, and it was his nemesis: in 1953 he wound up in jail for allegedly selling or trying to sell his car to two different shmucks.  As for my father, he never saw a road piled up with snow, for he never left the Province of Buenos Aires.  The only time I remember him referring to his brief imprisonment was to say that it had been a misunderstanding; whatever it was, it happened roughly at the time when I would have been bar-mitzvaed, had we been practicing Jews.  The way I see it, instead of a bar-mitzva I had a pagan initiation, twenty years later.  The important thing is to fill the terrible void of our past, it matters less whether with Athens or with Jerusalem.  To fill it intelligently, not dogmatically, not with the hot air of hatred, the freezing air of resentment, or the damp of self-pity.

When I think of those days when Greek was still taught at the university where I taught math, a detail that seems trivial comes to mind, a piece of paper on the bulletin board of the Classics Department, with the phrase Samuel Johnson said to Boswell: "Greek, sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can."  Lace, how quaint!  What man, nowadays, wants lace?  When I was a boy, there was a store on the widest avenue in the world, no more than a city block from the Buenos Aires obelisk, "Al Encaje de Bruselas" (At the Brussels Lace).  It's long since gone.

Ricardo Nirenberg is an editor of Offcourse.

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