ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


How Could They? Part 2, an essay by Ricardo Nirenberg

Some friends who read my essay in the December issue of Of(f)course, the one titled “How Could They?”, expressed serious doubts.  Who, they asked, really believes that truth, goodness, and beauty go together?  Who expects great artists to be good persons, or who expects them to respect the truth?  Certainly not they.  One friend mentioned Wagner, then he noted that Chopin, too, had been quite an anti-Semite.  Another brought up Céline, whose anti-Semitic pamphlets were best-sellers during l’Occupation.  Regarding Dante’s treatment of his master and tutor Brunetto Latini in Canto XV of the Inferno, a friend who knows his Dante much better than I do mine thinks that there was no other way the poet could have dealt with Brunetto, given the strictures of Thomistic theology.

Well, in the meantime I’ve tried to inspect, as with a lantern, that cozy corner of my mind, where, as I said three months ago, hides my hope that there might be some intelligible connection between truth, beauty, and the good.  When I get tired of inspecting my inner corner, I go, like the pigeons at St. Peter’s Square in Rome, in search of crumbs.  There are plenty of good souls – pilgrims, professors, parishioners, tourists – who scatter tasty bits all around.

That’s how I found Blake Leland’s article “‘Siete Voi Qui, Ser Brunetto?’ Dante’s Inferno 15 as a Modernist Topic Place,” in ELH Journal Vol. 59, No. 4 (Winter, 1992), pp. 965-986.  Prof. Leland is a poet, an expert in ekphrasis, the poetic description of visual artworks; in his 1992 article he deals with the influence of Dante’s Inferno XV on Eliot, Joyce, and Pound; his study is based on “the anxiety of influence,” a theory which exerted considerable influence – and generated anxiety – on English departments after Harold Bloom’s book of 1973, The Anxiety of Influence.  If this theory is correct, and if it can be transposed, mutatis mutanda, back into the Middle Ages, it is conceivable, and Leland suggests so, that Dante felt the anxiety of influence with regard to Brunetto Latini, who was the author of the encyclopedic Tesoretto and Li Livres dou Trésor.  This would explain why Brunetto is treated so shabbily by his disciple.

And here is another tasty morsel by an anonymous blogger who remarks, as I did in December, that Dante puts other homosexuals in Purgatory, among the lustful, so why is Brunetto, Dante’s tutor, placed in Hell?  The blogger, like me (and we are neither the first, I bet, nor shall we be the last) finds Brunetto’s placement most disturbing, and proposes the following justification based on a distinction.  The mortal sin of sodomy, he says, was different from the venal sin of homosexuality; sodomy meant rape, not consensual homosexual sex, and he ventures to advance the theory that, as a boy, Dante was raped by his tutor.  The blogger offers, as only evidence, our daily experience of reading the news of still more clerics who abused, and are abusing, boys in their ward.  I find this evidence unconvincing.  There’s the anachronism to start with, and there is also the way Dante speaks to Brunetto: “la cara e buona immagine paterna di voi...” – your dear, benevolent fatherly image... – the one that is set (fitta) in Dante’s mind.  Does that sound like the voice of one who had been raped by his tutor?  And lastly, I cannot find any evidence that “sodomy,” at any time in history, meant rape; on the contrary, trying to comfort a sinner, Robert Burton takes sodomy and rape to be different sins in his Anatomy of Melancholy, 2. 3. 7: “It will be so with thee and thine offence, it will be forgotten in an instant, be it theft, rape, sodomy, murder, incest, treason, &c., thou art not the first offender, nor shalt not be the last...”

After all is said, after all kinds of distinctions are tried, theological or philological, the episode in Canto XV of the Inferno, in my opinion, shall continue to be a stumbling block, a thorn in the throat, a philosophical drama.  Unless...

Unless you are a philosophical cynic, in which case you should be immune to humanity’s deliriums of grandeur and should not be the least perturbed when beautiful poetry happens to be morally repulsive.  I had a friend whom I admired for that quality which I like to think of as the old, refined, cynicism of the Romans.  Claudio Rea lived in Trastevere, via Alessandro Poerio, with his first wife, an Austrian aspiring pianist by the name of Erdmute.  Claudio himself was no mean musician: he could imitate, guitar and voice, Roberto Murolo, Yupanqui, Brassens, or whoever was my preference on a given day.  Fifty years later I remember most of his jokes – barzellette, as Italians call them – some of them intensely dirty, and especially one not so dirty having to do, precisely, with Canto XV of the Inferno.  The barzelletta is based on the fact that just as the present participle of the verb amare (to love) is amante (lover), so for the verb dare (to give) the present participle is dante (giver).

So, Dante arrives at the bottom of the seventh circle and, to his horror, watches the punishment a battalion of demons inflict on the sodomites: each demon carries a long club spiked all round, with which it impales a sinner.  Wrapped in his long cloak, glorious laurel wreath around his head, Dante watches.  Suddenly he hears a noise behind him, turns around, and sees a demon coming straight toward him.  “Ma che fai?” he screams, “Io sono il Dante!” (Hey, what you doing? I am Dante!)  “Dante o ricevente”, the demon screams back, “a me non frega niente.” (Giver or receiver, it’s all the same to me).

That is how a true cynic deals with the episode in question: he catches the ugliness behind the beautiful façade, the poet’s diabolic pride and proud pretentiousness, which is a graver sin by far than his tutor’s sexual transgressions; the true cynic senses the infinite superiority the poet assumes with respect to his old teacher, and with a couple of witty words, without affirming or denying the greatness of the poet as a poet, puts him back into his proper place among men and the other animals.


With all my admiration for Claudio and my veneration for the ancient, civilized cynicism of the Romans, I cannot follow them there.  Something in that cozy or crazy corner of my mind pulls me elsewhere.  The seed of that something was planted in my boyish mind by my father.  I could call him Father, or Dad, but I’d rather follow Dante here and call my father the way others called him, don Guillermo.  I was seven, or eight at most, when don Guillermo sat me next to him and began instructing me on the vocation of man, and about knowledge and feeling.  It’s hard to retrieve the fine detail of his lessons and no doubt I have forgotten much, but I think I can confidently say that he was not quite teaching me how man becomes eternal, “come l’uom s’eterna,” that which Brunetto taught Dante.  No, not quite.  For Aristotle (in De Anima), it was only the reasoning (as opposed to feeling), “apathic” part of the mind which survives after death, and together with so much more from Aristotle, the expression had become a topos by Dante’s time.  As late as in Spinoza’s Ethics, at the threshold of Enlightenment, we read that our mind is eternal insofar as (Latin quatenus) it thinks from the viewpoint of eternity.  All those expressions – eternal or apathic mind, eternal thoughts, viewpoint of eternity – meant, in effect, thinking more geometrico, from common notions and axioms to propositions, theorems, corollaries, etc.  They meant thinking mathematically, and although it is true that don Guillermo taught me some math, he was not of the opinion that those mathematical thoughts were eternal or that they made their thinker eternal, with or without quatenus; nor did he believe that any part of our soul survives the death of the body.

At this point, I can’t resist a physical need: I must offer some examples of the mathematical instruction I received from my father, because it provides a profile of his personality.  His foolhardiness was such that, having quit school for good at fifteen to get a job as a barber, he felt free to criticize the most basic concepts of math.  Three of them he looked upon with a jaundiced eye: the number zero, imaginary numbers, and infinitesimals; each of those raised a ruckus when they were introduced, but that was centuries ago; don Guillermo was far behind his times, or rather, he was a reactionary.  Anyway, he used to say that zero is the symbolic expression of nothingness, but argued that nothingness cannot exist, for it is unimaginable.  As for the imaginary numbers, he wanted to get rid of them and replace them by some real stuff, so he created a third sign in addition to + and –; this new sign he called # and decreed that just as +1 times +1 is +1, and –1 times –1 is also +1, well then, #1 times #1 will be –1.  Therefore, he said triumphantly, the square root of –1 will be #1: no need of the imaginary i.  About ten years later I had learned more math and could explain to him that what he had done was merely devising a different notation for the imaginary i, calling it #1 instead.  But by that time don Guillermo was well past his prime.  He had gone bankrupt, been humiliated, incarcerated, and much that he possessed had been sold as payment for his debts, including, to my chagrin, some of the books I loved most.  He was no longer up to a discussion about imaginary numbers.

Math was not the main subject of his lessons, though.  Einstein’s Special Relativity was more important, and he explained it well as far as I can tell; Einstein was his hero, which is not surprising in a Jew of his generation who never went to shul – just as Einstein’s hero was Spinoza.  Nonetheless, don Guillermo’s main subject was not so much physics as philosophy, and not the ancients, not Plato or Aristotle, but rather Hume, Kant, and Fichte.  The latter was his metaphysical hero.  This fact, unlike don Guillermo’s predilection for Einstein, is quite surprising; he didn’t read German: the only language he read was Spanish.  I should have asked him when, where, and how had he learned about Fichte’s thought (among his books at home there was no work by Fichte), but as usually happens with those questions which are the most important for self-understanding and for the conduct of one’s life, they are never asked.


Don Guillermo and Fichte will have to wait.  I need some relaxation, a few tasty crumbs provided by the truly learned, having to do with the subjects dealt with in the first part of this essay.  Regarding my excursion into comparative literature where I drew a specific parallel between Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal and Hitler’s Mein Kampf, here again some friends of mine who are lovers of French poetry expressed displeasure; in the interim I discovered a book, The Roots and Flowers of Evil in Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Hitler, Open Court, 2006, by Claire Ortiz Hill, which I find interesting on several counts: the author has worked on the subject of Husserl and the philosophical foundations of mathematics, which is not unfamiliar to me; hers is a polyglottal sensibility, having lived in different countries, as I have; and in this book she deals with the esthetics of evil, linking Baudelaire and Hitler, as I did in the first part of this essay.  Those links between the two of us, however, are less significant than the religious dogmas which divide us.

Ortiz Hill is a devout Catholic; she lives as a hermit, I gather, in or near Paris, and has attempted to prove in print that Pope Pius XII did all he could to save lives of Jews during the war.  Returning to her book on Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Hitler, and evil, the main problem with it is the tertius quis who doesn’t belong there: Nietzsche.  To make things worse, it’s Nietzsche who gets most of the author’s attention and opprobrium.  We can see why: of the three, Nietzsche was the one true enemy of Christianity, and he’s therefore (but I will emphasize and return to this “therefore”!) looked upon by Ortiz Hill as especially and most dangerously evil.

Famously, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, and in The Genealogy of Morals I.15, almost as famously, he brought up, as palpable proof of the Christian vocation for hatred, resentment, and sadism, Thomas Aquinas’ passage where the sainted theologian assures us that:

“And therefore (ideo), the blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned, in order that their bliss be more delightful for them and in order that they be still more thankful to God.” (Summa Theologica, Third Part, Supplement, Question XCIV)*1 .

It is hard to imagine a persuasive defense of Aquinas against Nietzsche’s attack and accusations; many have attempted it – theologians, clerics, hermits, and friars –, so it is not to be wondered at that the author of Zur Genealogie der Moral has been thrown in by Ortiz Hill together with the authors of Les Fleurs du mal and of Mein Kampf.  I feel it is far more surprising that Baudelaire’s infamous poem “Les Sept vieillards”, which, as I pointed out in the first part of this essay, offers the same anti-Semitic images and the same scene as Hitler’s Mein Kampf, goes unmentioned in Ortiz Hill’s book.  But then, her main source for Baudelairean scholarship seems to be the 1989 book Baudelaire, by Claude Pichois and additional research by Jean Ziegler, where the French poet’s anti-Semitism is denied, trivialized, or ignored, as it is in the 1975 Pléiade edition of Baudelaire, edited by Pichois, who should have been nominated for Le Prix du Livre Négationniste.  Enough said about Claire Ortiz Hill’s book.

But I will stay with Aquinas, Nietzsche, and the “therefore” a while longer: no one, after all, has fed the pigeons of San Pietro as generously as the Doctor Angelicus.  Right after having penned the above passage of his Summa, the following objection dawns on him, but goes unmentioned by Nietzsche: the bliss of the blessed may turn out to be in fact less than delightful when they watch the torments of the damned, for the blessed, being perfect, must be charitable, benevolent, and must feel grievous pity for their unhappy former fellow human beings.  Aquinas answers that objection in the following way:

“But in the future state it will be impossible for them (the damned) to be taken away from their unhappiness: and consequently (unde) it will not be possible to pity their sufferings according to right reason. Therefore (ideo) the blessed in glory will have no pity on the damned.”*2  (My italics).

According to Aquinas, should we then assume, Job’s friends were justified in their uncharitable attitude?  No, the Universal Doctor replies, for there is a big difference between the viators or wayfarers, as he calls them – those who walk on “la diritta via”, or “la verace via,” as Dante, his faithful Florentine disciple, calls in the vulgar tongue the road leading to beatitude – and those who have actually attained beatitude at last, whom Aquinas calls the comprehensors, because those souls have achieved universal knowledge, since they see God in Paradise.  It is indeed proper for the wayfarers to feel pity if they see someone suffering, and Dante feels it in Inferno often enough: Aquinas agrees with that, but he insists that the comprehensors cannot possibly feel pity for the damned because it would not be according to right reason.  Here’s why, literally: pity is an affection, a passion, but in the comprehensors there can be no passion that doesn’t strictly follow the dictate of reason.*3   Reason dictates that one should not feel pity for those who cannot escape their sufferings.  Therefore...

Aristotle, Aquinas’s master, is partly behind those inhuman, cockamamie arguments.  First, as the author of the Metaphysics and the Organon, he provided the logical principles, e.g., the Principle of Non-Contradiction, and the tools of “right reason,” so-called precisely because it is based on those principles and employs those tools.  He taught how to handle the syllogisms and those impressive words, “therefore,” “whence,” “implies,” and so on, or in Aquinas’ Latin, “ideo”, “unde”, “ergo”, etc.  And then, perhaps more importantly, “il maestro di color che sanno” and author of On the Soul separated the soul or mind into a material, pathic or passive part and a separate, active, reasoning and apathic part, impervious to passions.  The latter is superior to the former and is the only one that survives the death of the body (On the Soul, 430a).  Aquinas, as we have seen, has attributed Aristotle’s apathic soul to the blessed, the comprehensors, who are pitiless, since their love is rational, “amor rationalis.”  But if the damned suffer forever in hell, they must possess, it seems, a mind which is able to suffer, they must be pathic souls, and this is contrary to Aristotelian teaching.  Aristotle could not have taught the existence of a post-mortem suffering spa and be consistent.  Hence Nietzsche’s dossier against Aquinas does not touch the pagan Philosopher.

One care I want to dismiss from my mind, a possible misunderstanding: I am not suggesting that every Christian looks or should look upon Nietzsche as an enemy.  A shining counterexample is W.H. Auden.  Auden’s Christianity contains no hell; the notion of hell, for him, is 
“morally revolting and intellectually incredible because it is conceived of in terms of human criminal law, as a torture imposed upon the sinner against his will by an all-powerful God.”*4

Auden’s Christianity consists in agape, in the injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  To be sure, that formula lends itself to endless interpretation and theologians have long busied themselves at it, but a poet’s power is to express feelings in words, and here we have Auden about his experience of agape:

“One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself…. My personal feelings towards them were unchanged—they were still colleagues, not intimate friends—but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.”*5

As regards Aquinas, Auden might have peeked into the Summa for all I know, but in his “Letter to Lord Byron” he pretends not to:

“All youth’s intolerant certainty was mine as
I faced life in a double-breasted suit;
I bought and praised but did not read Aquinas...”

And how about Nietzsche?  Not only did Auden read him, but he picked a Nietzsche epigraph for his collection of prose, The Dyer’s Hand:

“We have Art in order that we may not perish from Truth.”

This is from The Will to Power, §822, and since it is Nietzsche’s partial answer to our initial question – is there a relation between beauty, truth, and goodness? – I’ll translate a more complete paragraph:

“It is unworthy of a philosopher to say, ‘the Good and the Beautiful are one’; if he adds to those, ‘also the Truth’, then we should beat him up. The truth is ugly. We have Art, so that we don’t perish from Truth.” *6

I said the above is a partial answer because it leaves unanswered the question about the possible identity of truth and goodness: we will return to it later on.  I agree with Nietzsche insofar as he considers “the Good and the Beautiful are one” an imbecility, and, for the same reason, I disagree with him when he says, “the Truth is ugly.”  When we talk about esthetics, assertions at that high level of generality are invariably false, and especially so when the subject is Truth, as when one says, “the Truth is ugly.”  For if that statement was true, then it would be ugly, yet who can deny that the discovery of such a fundamental fact about reality and about our being in the world would give anyone who really thinks about it a feeling of beauty joined to power, or rather of the sublime?


   Which brings me back to my childhood experience with my father and Fichte.  I call it like that for short, but my father’s lessons did not begin with Fichte: Fichte was the apex of a philosophical enterprise which began, according to my father, with the British empiricists, was developed and transformed by Kant, and culminated in Fichte.  As I said before, don Guillermo was a reactionary at heart; perhaps the easiest way to explain what I mean is by confronting him to his younger brother Abraham, as I did almost ten years ago (“Uncle Abraham,” of(f)course #50).  My uncle was a progressive, a Marxist, an orthodox believer in the Hegelian holy trinity of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis: the bound, complete works by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin were the pride of his bookshelves.  In contrast, for don Guillermo all things went through four stages: a beginning or germ, a flowering, an apex, and then a decay so sad and unbearable that it was best to ignore it completely if one could, and try to stay in or near the apex.  Thus, in his view, classical music began with the baroque, which was nothing to write home about – I remember him, having listened to J.S. Bach’s “Magnificat,” saying, “What’s magnificent about this piece of junk?” – then music went through its flowering with Beethoven – the “Moonlight” sonata was one of his favorite pieces, – and finally reached its apex with Chopin.  What came later was best avoided: he ignored Brahms, detested Wagner, and somehow never graduated from Beethoven’s moonlight to Debussy’s, but there was one exception: Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei” for cello and orchestra.

   It strikes me that this quadruple division goes deeper than I thought at first, that it applies not only to don Guillermo’s view of philosophy, music, and other human constructions, but also to the course of his own life.  I know next to nothing about his beginnings or his flowering, as I said before, but he reached his apex, as it seems plain to me, in his mid-thirties, nel mezzo del cammin, when I, his son, was between the ages of six and eight, learning from him come l’uom s’eterna.  It was then that he found himself in a dark forest, bereft of guide or divine favor, and took a crooked, fallacious life path; he, whose talents were for abstract speculation, began dedicating all his efforts to lucrative speculation, he dreamt no more of philosophical systems but of vast emporiums and chains of stores with thousands of employees who owed their livelihood to don Guillermo.  Vain dreams.  Toward the end of his life, bankrupt, he inherited his father’s business and became a solitary travelling salesman, a cuentenik (to use an Argentine Yiddishism) who visited the small towns around Buenos Aires to sell watches and jewelry in monthly installments.  Like my zeide, my father fulfilled his destiny as a wandering Jew.  After his death at 56, upon inspection of his bags, I found, thrown together, a pack of business cards – Guillermo Nirenberg, Joyero (jeweler) – an old-fashioned ring sizer and other instruments of the trade, and some account booklets that gave me a frightful idea of his accounting methods, especially an undated piece of paper where he had written, “Caccace says he paid me $250 last month.”

I remember a story my father told me when he taught me to play chess.  A powerful king of the Orient was bored, and he announced a magnificent prize to anyone who would cure him of that fatal disease.  Sri Villi, the inventor of chess came forward, and the king was so taken by the game that he offered its inventor anything he might wish under the sun.  Sri Villi asked for the following: one grain of wheat for the upper left corner square of the board, two grains for the next square to the right, four grains for the next square, and so on, each time multiplying the number of grains by two, until he came to the last square of the board.  The king was amazed at what he thought was the modesty of the request, until his ministers concluded that there wasn’t enough wheat in the world to provide that number of grains (two raised to the power sixty-four).  Don Guillermo  employed the same method as Sri Villi to calculate future profits: he used geometric sequences, also called exponential growth, regardless of the multiple, unforeseen contingencies of life, technology, and the markets.  His will to exponential growth fought singly and vainly against the outer world.

Don Guillermo’s fallacious path led to other related fallacies – perhaps the word should be spelled phallacies instead, but I fear that would be rude and unfilial.  I’ll return to the other related fallacies in a minute, but first a few words about him who was, in my father’s view, the pinnacle of philosophical speculation, Johann Gottlieb Fichte.  As I said, sadly, several pages back, I don’t know which works by Fichte my father read; as for myself, I prefer the set of lectures Fichte delivered when he arrived as a professor at the University of Jena, starting in May 1794; to me, those hold a special attraction because, as I read them, I try to imagine their effect on those young poetic-philosophical geniuses who were in attendance.  That effect was so powerful that one of them, Friedrich Hölderlin, described Fichte in a letter to Hegel as “a titan fighting for humanity.”

What had Fichte come up with to deserve such hyperbole from one of the greatest German poets?  To sum it up in two words: a new archē, a new beginning.  Philosophers had been proposing diverse beginnings to Being since the birth of Greek philosophy: the Ionians had started with water (Thales), air (Anaximenes), fire (Heraclitus), the apeiron (Anaximander: material stuff with no internal boundaries); the Pythagoreans number, the Eleatics the One, eternal and changeless, Plato a demiurge and eternal Forms, Aristotle his Prime or Uncaused Mover, Plotinus and the Neoplatonists reached back for the One but made it emanating and prolific.  For Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers, at the beginning was El, Eli, or Allah.  Descartes started with his cogito only to prove that I, at the very least, exist, but then rushed to put God at the beginning; Spinoza declared that the only thing whose existence doesn’t depend on other things is the All: Deus sive natura; for Kant, the human mind is unable to think anything of value or substance about beginnings or other such metaphysical questions.  Fichte, however, dared to put the I – your I, my I, anyone’s I – at the beginning.  How does it all start, he asked.  Answer: I posit I.  “Das Ich setzt sich selbst.” I never received a religious education, but I imagine that hearing those words on my father’s lips – “El yo postula el yo” – what I felt was similar to what a catechumen feels when first listening to “Our father who art in heaven.” 

Ever since, I’ve been convinced that Fichte’s placing the I at the beginning had a bearing on my father’s missing the right path.  Freedom was the governing idea: if God is at the beginning, then God determines me, or has determined me from the beginning of time by a fated and unchangeable concatenation of everlasting order.  But when I am the beginning, I am not determined: I’m free, whoopee!  Jean-Jacques Rousseau had written at the beginning of his Social Contract: “Man is born free and he is everywhere in chains,” and people took him seriously.  Fichte didn’t have a reputation as a Jacobin for nothing, for he gave Rousseau’s declaration a metaphysical basis, something that at the time was considered important, and he gave don Guillermo the metaphysical grounds for absolutely refusing to become an adult, grounds that he, too, considered important.  Some brief reminiscences will clarify what I mean.

In 1965 I was living in Manhattan, across the street from Union Square, with Isabel and our two babies; a new Hispanic store had opened on West 14th Street, and I went there in search of yerba mate.  The man behind the counter recognized me: we had been neighbors in Buenos Aires, lived in the same block for many years.  “Oh, boy,” he said, “your dad, do I remember him, all spiffed up, and when he saw a pretty woman walking down the sidewalk, how he would stick his chest out then, oh boy,” and the man made a complicitous gesture, pursing his lips and rolling up his eyes.  Those words, and especially the final gesture, perturbed me greatly: it was the first time I heard of my father as a ladies’ man.  But it was not to be the last.  Four years later, after his death, a sort of Leporellian catalogue came to light: don Guillermo had love affairs with many women in the neighborhood, some of them mothers of boys I remembered playing with, and in the end he left two widows; I mean, a week after his death, a woman rang the doorbell, asked about don Guillermo, and when my mother informed her that he had died, the woman was disconsolate; between sobs, she managed to say to my mother, “You, at least, have the children... I’m left with nothing.”

Yet I don’t blame him so much for his profligacy, adultery, cheating those who trusted him as well as those who didn’t – Dante, the self-appointed Last Judge, would have put the great majority of Argentine males in hell for those same sins –, as I blame him for the spiritual sin of declaring that someone, be it Chopin, Einstein, or Fichte, or perhaps Hegel, Marx, or whoever, is the apex, the pinnacle, and not making the effort to inspect further and beyond.  Had he done so just a wee bit, he would have come upon the work of those young geniuses who attended Fichte’s lectures in 1794, the Jena Romantics a.k.a. the early Romantics (Frühromantiker) – Hölderlin whom I quoted earlier, Novalis, the Schlegel brothers, Dorothea von Schlegel, Tieck, Schleiermacher, Hülsen.  My father’s understanding of Fichte might have profited from reading the notes Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel had taken of his lectures; above all, my father might have found it possible to re-posit or re-postulate his own I, so that instead of holding the Principle of Non-Contradiction as its highest law, as Fichte advocated here among many other places:

“Man’s highest drive is the drive toward identity, toward complete harmony with himself, and – as a means of staying constantly in harmony with himself – toward the harmony of all external things with his own necessary concepts of them. ”

Instead of that, which sounds like the wished-for self-image of an imbecile, Father might have attained the more interesting and intense stage of the ironic I, the I who is able to be the serene subject of contradictory drives, the thinker of contradictory judgments, equanimously and without reaching for the lethal methamphetamine of synthesis.  Again, this might require an example.

In don Guillermo’s opinion, often voiced to me, Cervantes’ Don Quixote is a comic book, written for laughs, which seemed to him a fact so obvious and beyond dispute that he couldn’t understand, he would say, why so many literati from around the world consider it a serious, even tragic work, philosophically relevant.  I guess he had in mind Ortega y Gasset’s Meditaciones del Quijote, or perhaps Unamuno’s blasphemous Nuestro Señor Don Quijote, which raise Cervantes’ masterwork to the level of Scripture.  If my father had not been dead for this long time, I would now show him something that might have changed his mind, hence his life.  Ludwig Tieck, a leading figure among the Jena Romantics, published a German translation of Don Quixote in 1799, and August W. Schlegel, the translator of Shakespeare, promptly proclaimed it “a perfect masterpiece of high romantic art.”  I often use Tieck’s translation to practice my reading German, because since I remember much of Cervantes’ book by heart in the original, I am not forced to go to the dictionary.  Well, there’s a Spanish word, hazaña, derived from the Spanish verb hacer, from Latin facere = to do, just as English deed comes from to do, or German Tat = deed, comes from the verb tun.  There’s a difference, though: in Spanish hazaña is not said of any deed, but, unless sarcastically, only of glorious, heroic feats, precisely the kind knight errants were supposed to do.  As he was translating Don Quixote, Tieck ran into a problem: could the word hazaña, which often appears in the original, be translated with a single German word?  Tat or That (old spelling) would not do, nor would T(h)atsache (matter of fact).  Tieck came up with Thathandlung, and so Don Quixote’s famous battle against the windmills, or the beheading of the wineskin which he took for a usurping giant, those and many other Quixotic deeds became Thathandlungen (Handlung = action, act).

And here comes the best part.  I didn’t know until recently and discovered it by chance in a paper by a young Germanist, Henrik S. Wilberg *7, that the word Thathandlung is a neologism coined by Fichte to designate exclusively the primordial deed, the foundation of all, including Fichte’s system and my father’s life: the I in the act of positing itself.  As the philosopher put it in his Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre: “Ich bin, Ausdruck einer Thathandlung” (‘I am’ is the expression of an act-deed”).  Now Tieck’s choice acquires an unsuspected sense, suffused with irony.  It is a complex thing, this irony arising from the confrontation of two works of the spirit, one by Professor Fichte, aspiring to logical and systematic consistency, therefore devoid of irony, and the other by Cervantes, the most ironic literary masterpiece.  My father, like Tieck, had been Fichte’s student, but, unlike Tieck, had missed the irony of Don Quixote and thought it was merely a book to laugh with.  He did not notice that his own dreams of a worldwide commercial empire, a harem, and a fleet of late-model Cadillacs were isomorphic to Don Quixote’s dreams of immortal fame or the Empire of Trebizond.  Both don Guillermo and don Quixote wanted to live and act on their own crazy terms, oblivious to reality, and to the astonished witness or the idle reader, neither is merely a laughingstock nor merely a tragic character, but both.  


I almost forgot about the original question.  We have seen some examples proving that truth and beauty are not necessarily related, nor are beauty and the good; we still should say something about truth and the good.  Must they go together?  Leibniz, the great philosopher and mathematician, taught that the harmony of the universe is such as to provide the best deal for all things in it and for all our fellow creatures.  Good and truth must go together, therefore.  I will recount a personal experience to show that they don’t.

After my father’s death on March 31st, 1969, I started writing short poems and prose reminiscences usually beginning, “Under the dining room table...”  It was the table upon which don Guillermo had instructed me on how man makes himself eternal, the table upon which they laid him in his coffin before burial, and under which now I lay, in my imagination, as a still younger boy, about five, like Adam before the Fall, eternal already and with no effort.  As I might have expected but did not, such a theme, too hard even for the seasoned writer, was well out of reach for a greenhorn like me, and so my reminiscences never got off the ground.  But one day the idea hit me: instead of trying to write about my early life maybe I should write about my after-death.

Indeed, it was much easier.  I imagined my soul or shade leaving my dead body behind and travelling through junk and scrub toward the Plain of Lethe, which was, it turned out, pretty much like the pampas near my native city.  Once there, my shade saw a few houses, the largest one bearing the sign, “Café-Bar La Academia.”  I mention this for the benefit of gringos: in those regions “La Academia” was a common name for establishments where you can order an espresso and a glass of Holland gin, and play billiards, card games, etc.  My shade walked in, said hello to the bartender, kept going until it saw, in a back corner, my father’s shade, alone, sitting at a table, shuffling dominoes.  My shade did not say, “Siete voi qui, don Guillermo?”, but sat facing his shade, the tiles were dealt, and Father opened with the double blank.

I have to pause here and smile at how much more effective, how much simpler and better the above few lines of prose are than the long and tiresome poem in Spanish, a silva I composed as a young man; pause and think about how pleased I was with it and how embarrassed I am now when I remember some of those verses.  Anyway, I put that poem, together with two shorter ones of mine, and a brief note introducing myself in an envelope and mailed it to Jorge Guillén in Málaga, Spain.  Jorge Guillén, as you may know, is a rare example of a great poet who was a very good person, a great heart: he was in his early eighties when he received my poems, and replied after a couple of months, a very kind letter where, even though he made no reference to any of my verses, he encouraged me to follow my calling and persevere in my poetic travails.  I did so for a while.  Then I switched to English, thinking that it should be easier for me to write poems in the language most people spoke around me: foolish thought.  I should have remembered that both Guillén and his friend Pedro Salinas were writing the most lyrical Spanish poems during their long exile in the USA.

The last poem I wrote – hard to believe it was coincidentally – has to do with our question about truth and the good, since it deals, with the little irony I could muster, with Leibniz’s pre-established harmony; it would not have been published if it were not for Michelle Edwards, who was a student of mine in the early 1970s, and who then became an artist, an author of children’s books, and a dear friend; she designed and printed a book with my poem*8 .  And roughly at that time I came upon the following poem by Jorge Guillén, which gives a clear, unambiguous answer to the question about truth and the good.  I have appended my English translation, for though I stopped composing poems I haven’t stopped translating them.

“Querido amigo

Amigo: no querrás que te confíe
todo mi pensamiento,
porque te dolería inútilmente
cruel veracidad.
Simple rasguño hiere al delicado.
Una sola palabra acabaría
con la dulce costumbre
de entendernos hablando entre fricciones
evitables, silencios.
Ocurre a veces que algún alma clara
sin dolor no podría oscurecerse,
y resiste y se opone a la tan íntima
discordia entre vocablo y pensamiento:
“Verdad a toda costa.”
¿Lujo quizá imposible?
El embrollo diario es más complejo
que la verdad, acorde simplicísimo.
La sutil, la difícil vida impura
va con el corazón. Vivamos. Hombres,
y aquí. ¿Drama fatal?
Querido amigo...”

Dear Friend

My friend, you wouldn’t want me to unveil
all my thought:
such cruel candor
would uselessly hurt you.
A sensitive soul suffers from a mere scratch.
A single word might put an end
to the sweet habit
of understanding each other,
talking, avoiding frictions, pausing with prudence.
Some clear soul
may feel dark untruth is too painful,
so it resists and rejects any inner discordance
between uttered word and thought:
“Truth no matter what.”
Impossible luxury perhaps?
The daily clutter is more complex
than truth, that simplest chord.
The subtle life, difficult, impure,
follows the heart.  Let’s live.  Men,
right here.  A fatal drama?
My dear friend...


Isabel, finally, showed me a passage from Jane Austen whose sense parallels, or perhaps coincides, with the sense of Guillén’s poem:

“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where – as in this case – though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material.”  (Emma, Vol. III, Ch. XIII).

1 “Et ideo, ut beatitudo sanctorum eis magis complaceat, et de ea uberiores gratias Deo agant, dantur eis ut poenam impiorum perfecte intueantur.”

2 “Sed in futuro non poterunt transferri a sua miseria; unde ad eorum miserias non poterit esse compassio secundum electionem rectam; et ideo beati qui erunt in gloria, nullam compassionem ad damnatos habebunt.”

3 “Sed in comprehensoribus non potest esse passio, nisi consequens judicium rationis.”

4 See Arthur Kirsch, Auden and Christianity, Yale U. Press, 2005, p. 3, and its review by Edward Mendelson, “Auden and God”, NYRB, Dec 6, 2007. 

5 Cf. Kirsch.

6 „An einem Philosophen ist es eine Nichtswürdigkeit zu sagen, ‚das Gute und das Schöne sind Eins‘; fügt er gar noch hinzu, ‚auch das Wahre‘, so soll man ihn prügeln. Die Wahrheit ist häßlich. Wir haben die Kunst, damit wir nicht an der Wahrheit zu Grunde gehn.“

7 Henrik S. Wilberg, “Translation as Subversion: Ludwig Tieck’s Don Quixote and the Poetic Logic of Jena Romanticism”, Monatshefte, Vol. 108, No. 1, Spring 2016, pp. 42-68.

8 Ricardo Nirenberg, Pisces, Poem, Bat Simcha Press, 1981.


Ricardo Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse

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