My problem has always been — how shall I put it? — coming to terms with the vast human territory lying in between these two sides, between the fields of feeling and the towers of abstraction, the human territory where we naturally belong. To the genius of Judaism we owe a brilliant solution to the problem: the Torah, supreme symbolic system, and the Talmud, both of which the Jew is encouraged to spend his life studying, are not separate from the sensual and bodily concerns of everyday life (as, for example, chess and mathematics are); on the contrary, they prescribe, to a large extent, how everyday life should be conducted.
But as a child I had no idea about the Jewish solution to that basic problem; only recently have I seen glimpses of it through my wife’s study and practice. Yet very early on, I found that printed material may offer a bridge over the chasm separating the sensual and the symbolic. Books and magazines are naturally full of symbols, and often, too, they contain much to charm the senses. In my father’s bookcase there were rows of leather bindings, some with gilded edges and ribbed spines, marvels to the eye and to the nose. Incidentally, Buenos Aires does not live up to its name: the air there is always humid, both in summer and winter, and that fact, which may be pretty uncomfortable for porteños, is wonderful for the decay of paper. I used to think of those pages sprinkled with yellow-brown spots and smelling of mold as being spread with a sort of time marmalade, but that homely image does not do justice to the complexities of aged paper. Different types of paper age differently – some may smell as sweet as a jar of jasmine jam; occasionally, when we bury our face in an old book, we may recover the sense of the Romantic forest, its rustle and murmur, hear the sound of the post horn, taste the wild mushrooms, and smell the smoke from the chimney of the witch who lives there and who, alone, knows our spring and our spell. Unfortunately, the books that smelled so wonderfully in Buenos Aires have lost most of that particular charm when transported to Upstate New York, where I live now, and where winters are so dry that when one arrives home and touches the doorhandle, a spark flies.
The books at my childhood home were all in Spanish and they were divided, like Caesar’s Gaul, into three parts: one was contained in an elegant cabinet with carved doors standing opposite my father’s desk in the room we called la salita, or “the small living room,” separated from the larger living room by a step and a couple of arches resting on a white marble column. This part, by far the largest, consisted mostly of books my father had bought through the years: few novels – yet a full collection of Dumas père in cheap paper covers –, no poetry at all, and a lot of philosophy and history, including ten huge volumes of Cesare Cantù’s 1847 Historia Universal. There were twenty volumes of a Salvat Universitas Encyclopedia intended for youth, whose insidious Francoism was invisible to my mind while the sheen and smell of its waxed paper were a delight to my senses. Ah, yes, several volumes of Shaw’s theater, and of Churchill’s history of WWII. And in the bottom shelf a row of the monthly Selecciones (Selections from the Reader’s Digest), to which Father subscribed, and in which I vaguely remember reading about the sinking either of the German battleship Graf Spee, whose captain subsequently shot himself in a hotel room in Buenos Aires, or of the Bismarck, in the North Atlantic. I remember much more neatly the Reader’s Digest ads for Menem shaving cream, with the seductively posed ladies letting it be known, “I love men who use Menem!” With the onset of puberty, I used them as masturbatory aids.
This largest part was the only one subject to changes; books were added with each of my father’s evening excursions to the Calle Corrientes secondhand bookstores, excursions in which I often joined with enthusiasm; books were seized and taken away, together with lots of other household stuff, by court officials later, in 1951, when Father went bankrupt. On a still later dramatic occasion, in 1956 or so, the cabinet itself was seized, and books were then piled up at the corners of la salita, of the living room, and elsewhere in the house. That was painfully impractical for us but impressed my friends— “I’ve never seen a house with so many books,” they’d say. But it was only an optical effect.
As for the second part of our book collection, it was a score or so of translations of European novels from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that came in two small shelves, one on top of the other. George Eliot, Eça de Queiroz, Benito Pérez Galdós, Flaubert, Lesage, and others. I remember when my father bought that collection and put it in a corner of la salita, where it looked quite handsome. I had not finished reading all those novels by 1951, when the court officials took them away. That second part of the household books thus turned out to be the most ephemeral. Finally, the third part was what we used to call “the cigarette box,” because it was kept in a deep, capacious cardboard box that had originally contained a hundred or so American cigarette cartons (my father bought Chesterfields, Phillip Morris, or Lucky Strikes wholesale). Said box had no place in la salita; it was confined to a corner of the bedroom where my bed lay alongside my sister’s, half hidden by the armoire where we kept our clothes. No one would have bothered to seize those books anyway because they were considered worthless, but in fact to me they became invaluable.
It was clear that my parents had bought some of those books in the cigarette box and promptly abandoned them, like the one titled “How to Eat While Losing Weight” (Cómo adelgazar comiendo), chucked away when they decided to forget about diets and counting calories and to go on getting rounder and heavier to their hearts’ risk and content. Or like the war book by Ernest Glaeser, Jahrgang 1902, translated from the German into Spanish as Los que teníamos doce años (in English, Born in 1902), a best seller back in 1929, in which I was delighted to find a passage where a boy and a girl play doctor on the grass of the German countryside.
The most interesting of the books in the cigarette box, by far, were the oldest ones that came from the distaff, the Brodesky side of my family. Natalio, my oldest uncle, was born in 1902 or 3 in the Russian Empire and moved with his parents to Argentina in 1905; he must have entered high school at some point between 1914 and 1916: some of the books in the box were his high school texts, but I never learned how they devolved to my mother, who never went to high school, and how they ended up in our house. Back in the early twentieth century French publishing houses like Garnier frères produced and exported Spanish translations of the classics: Virgil and Verlaine, for example, translated by Manuel Machado. Argentine high school textbooks were mostly Spanish translations, made and printed in France, of French textbooks, true masterpieces of the pedagogic art. The epoch of the Second Empire and then of the Third Republic saw a flourishing of those French masterpieces; the works of Pierre Larousse and of Claude Augé facilitated the learning of the French language and culture and made of it a pleasurable, memorable adventure. An adventure in which I participated eagerly under the guidance of Mme. Marguerite de la Barre, an old lady born in Blois who had arrived in Argentina in 1910 and started coming to our house once a week to teach me when I was eight or nine. I’ll return to her later.
Going back to Uncle Natalio’s textbooks in the cigarette box, there were two history books by Albert Malet, of course in Spanish translation: History of the Orient and History of Rome. From the former I got vivid pictures of the military prowess and the cruelty of Assyrian kings, who gouged out their war prisoners’ eyes, as well as of the suffering of the slaves who built the Egyptian pyramids and the colossal statues of the pharaohs. I also remember the admirative account of the deciphering genius of a fellow Frenchman, Champollion. Two illustrations dominate my recollection of Malet’s History of Rome: the strikingly modern face of Hannibal the Carthaginian general — stubbly like the male models in today's magazines — and an Alinari photo of an ancient bronze, a gladiator whose helmet subsequently showed up in my nightmares, and which later likely inspired Darth Vader’s look: it was supposed to be a mirmillion who has vanquished a retiarius and turns toward the public, awaiting a further order from the Imperial thumb. In spite of his age — he was fifty — Albert Malet volunteered at the outbreak of the Great War, and was killed in battle in 1915, a lieutenant of the French Army. I hope he found that les boches were not as cruel as the Assyrians.
Naturally there was a geography textbook. Titled La Tierra, based on a French work by Victor Levasseur, thanks to which I filled my mind with exotic names, such as they were at the apogee of the French colonial empire, although I had little or no idea of how they sounded. The textbooks that awoke my interest most keenly were the Chemistry (Química) and the Physics (Física) by J. Langlebert (1817-1894). Multiple editions were published of those two, starting in the early 1850s, and revised to include new discoveries (at least French ones); a terminus post quem for the one I used to have and have no more: 1886, the year Henri Moissan isolated fluorine.
My discovery of Langlebert’s Chemistry coincided, by one of those happy turns of events that are like a kiss of a fairy, with my finding a chemistry set on my shoes on the morning of January 6, 1947, Three Kings Day. I have written about the opposition I felt strongly for the first time at the seashore, I mean the opposition between my sensory and my chess-playing selves, between bodies and symbols. Here, playing with chemistry (I should rather say, with what I took then to be chemistry), I found to my delight that those two selves or aspects of myself were sometimes able to coincide and collaborate with each other. I sniffed, of course, each of the chemicals that came with the set, and I sniffed many others I got hold of later. Indeed, I sniffed so assiduously that one day I was smelling a flask of sweet-smelling xylol when I sneezed and spilled the liquid on my eyes: the pain was excruciating, and no amount of running water seemed to appease it. Yet it was no small consolation to have learned from Langlebert that the xylol molecule contains a hexagonal benzene ring, which looks like the proverbial snake chewing its tail, and that such molecules belonged to the part or division of organic chemistry called “aromatic.” That information explained, on purely geometric grounds, my being seduced by the smell of xylol, and made me feel that my suffering had a rational ground and that I was able to grasp it: nothing else is needed to reconcile us to suffering, and I imagine Adam and Eve were not overly sorry when they were expelled from Eden, for they had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, and therefore they knew the nature of the evil which had befallen them. What remarkable piece of work is Man, for whom knowledge is a consolation.
Thinking about the formulas, equations, and sequences of transformations which I found in Langlebert was in a way similar to thinking about chess moves: in both, conventional symbols are manipulated according to fixed rules. But while it would be hard to persuade anyone that a certain piece in chess, say a knight, evokes the blue of lapis, or that a certain sequence of chess moves exhales the aroma of jasmine, here, in chemistry, those were undeniable facts, not just fancies. Chemical symbols have their sensorial correlates, and CuSO4 plus 5H2O, for example, is as blue as the sky in Titian’s painting of Bacchus and Ariadne. Conversely, the smell of jasmine can be related to benzyl acetate, another “aromatic” molecule containing a benzene hexagonal ring.
That in itself, perhaps, would have been enough to make me love the stuff. I had little idea of the Torah and the Talmud, and back then I read no poetry; but here in chemistry I had found a whole system of symbols one could devote one’s life to understand and increase, symbols intimately related to the ecstasies of the senses. When I reflect on it now as an old man, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé comes immediately to mind, who complained in 1886, the year Moissan isolated fluorine, that when he said, “Une fleur !” (A flower!), the word, the musical idea, was something you would not be able to find in any bunch or bouquet. There was, for him and for many French poets who followed after him, a doleful, impassable ditch between the word and the thing. Or rather, when they considered it further, there were two doleful ditches: one between the word “flower” (the signifier) and the concept of flower (the signified) — “flower” is arbitrary, or only historical, circumstantial; Germans say “Blume” instead —; and another ditch between the concept, which depends on the individual mind, its culture and its experience, and the actual thing, which is supposed to be still there when mind is taken away. I reflect on it and conclude that Mallarmé should have looked with profit into Langlebert’s Chemistry, which was widely available in his time.
These days I cannot dispatch a single paragraph about poets and poetry, I have to add two more. The American poet Robert Hass, in “Meditation at Lagunitas” (1979), incorporates Mallarmé’s complaint, changing “flower” into “blackberry”:
“Because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.”
Soon, however, Hass dismisses such talk:
“After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I.”
Yves Bonnefoy, the French poet I met in 1982 when he visited Albany and who died in 2016, greatly admired Mallarmé but disagreed with the Mallarméan complaint, like Hass; he went further and claimed for art — music, the plastic arts, architecture, and the literary arts — the possibility of achieving “presence,” which for Bonnefoy, if I’m not mistaken, is the exercise of an intuitive faculty which above all shuns conceptual thought; it is a capacity that enables a body-mind to coincide in space-time, let us say, with another body-mind or with another object — you may also call it love. On the opposite side, Jacques Derrida built a meteoric career on deriding the “metaphysics of presence,” as he called it, and was quite happy to understand that as a consequence, as Hass observes, everything dissolves. Perhaps all of them would have profited from a perusal of my Langlebert.
For there was also the beauty of the names. If I remember right, I was more taken by relatively modern terms such as “potassium nitrate” or “perchloric acid,” although I did like, on occasion, those quaint older names with an alchemic aura about them, like “oil of vitriol,” “Glauber salt,” or “blue precipitate of Vienna.” I see now that there is no less of a quaint aura in the modern names, but rather more. Consider, for instance, words like “sodium,” “potassium,” or “nitrogen,” all of everyday use today. “Sodium” comes from “soda,” a name for the salt carbonate of sodium, derived from the name of a plant in Arabic, but why is its chemical symbol, Na? Good question. There was a mineral in ancient Egypt, from our point of view a mixture of sodium salts none of which contained nitrogen; they used it for many purposes, most notably for mummification and for preserving human organs in canopic jars; it was called natron, a word derived from the Egyptian verb ntrj, which meant to make divine or to become divine. Apparently, the Egyptians believed that mummification made its subject immortal, divine. Anyway, from natron, through Ancient Greek, and then Latin, comes our symbol for sodium, Na. But somehow niter, a doublet of natron,came to be the name for another salt, potassium nitrate, which does contain nitrogen, and that’s the origin of our words nitric, nitrate, nitrogen, etc., and of the symbol, N. This confusion between two entirely different salts, natron and niter, lent itself to dangerous misunderstandings in medical practice, but poetically, it was a shining example of one of the seven or eight types of ambiguity.
“Potassium” pops up everywhere, from banana stickers and juice cartons to mail-order catalogues, yet all jejuneness is peeled off from that word when we remember it comes from “pot ash,” a word that sends us deliciously back to our great-great-grandmother’s wood-burning range and blackened pots. And how about our chemical symbol for potassium? The Arabic word al-kali means plant ashes, whence our word alkaline to design the metals in the first column of the Mendeleev table, where both sodium and potassium live, and their hydroxides. And from al-kali comes the symbol for potassium, K. Pot ashes, plant ashes — “ashes, ashes, we all fall down,” as in Ring Around the Rosie.
There’s no end to the poetry of chemicals. And no less charmingly, Langlebert’s book had plenty of lovely woodcuts: glass retorts, for example, sitting on a small furnace, their neck connected to a tube leading into a three-mouthed flask, which was connected to another such, and from the middle mouth of each of those “gas washing flasks” (the tantalizing idea that a gas could be washed like a shirt!) rose, like a transparent tulip, a vertical tube ending in a rounded small cup, which, I imagined, was there to help pour the washing liquid into the flask. Finally, the second flask was connected to a tube that turned sharply down, then up again into a gas receiver, which worked by displacement of either water or mercury.
I looked long at the illustrations; I read and reread the text. It was organized with Gallic method, each chemical explained under six headings: history, physical properties, chemical properties, natural state, preparation or extraction, uses. The preparation sections were for me the most interesting, because I wanted power, and power is the capacity to effect transmutations. Moreover, we are not content like the other animals; it is not enough for us to transmute inhaled air into less oxygenated exhaled air, food into energy and excrement, energy into preservation and reproduction; no, we hope to be reborn from the ashes, transmute base metals into gold, men into women and vice versa, mortals into gods or into devils, Menschen into Übermenschen, and heavy elements into atomic bombs. Perhaps there’s a simpler explanation in my particular case: my gut and my metabolism having largely been colonized by my mother, to establish my power I had necessarily to turn to purely exterior types of transmutation.
In any case, I wanted to find out what else could be obtained from the few chemicals that came with my chemistry set. After much turning pages back and forth, I reached this conclusion: it all boiled down to getting hold of sulfuric acid. That was the bottom line. With sulfuric acid, absolutely anything in the world could be prepared, even if it took long, circuitous processes. Without sulfuric acid, next to nothing.
And so, for me the whole science of chemistry was reduced to a single, very specific question: how could I prepare sulfuric acid, that miraculously powerful substance whose symbol is SO4H2? I had some sulfur in my chemistry set, and bars of it could be easily procured; there were lots of oxygen in the air, and lots of hydrogen in water: what could stand in my way to absolute power? The answer was: just an atom, a single atom of oxygen. Whenever I burned sulfur in the lumber room (something I did quite often), Celia, the maid, whose room was in the northeast corner of the terrace, would cross herself and say a paternoster: “What have you been doing? It smells like the Devil was just here!” Well, just you wait until I get just a little, just a few drops of sulfuric acid, then the Devil will really be here! Then you will really cross yourself, then you will really hold your breath! That’s what I said under my breath. The maid was very ignorant, remember she had told me that if one lets orange peel dry long enough under the sun and then puts a match to it, “one gets an explosion worse than the atom bomb.” She didn’t know, either, that the gas with a hellish smell, the smoke that came out from the little window from burning sulfur, is sulfur dioxide; she didn’t know that when sulfur dioxide is dissolved in water, it gives sulfurous acid, SO3H2. Now, there is a world of difference between SO3H2 and SO4H2, sulfurous and sulfuric acids. The first is weak, good for nothing; the second is strong, powerful, and the key that opens up matter to transmutations. Yet the difference between their symbols is minimal: that single atom of oxygen, the difference between a 3 or a 4 right after the O, between an “ous” or an “ic” after “sulfur.”
Such monstruous disparity had me intrigued. The seemingly minimal differences between sequences of letters and numbers, corresponding to a maximum difference in reality, as huge as between all and nothing. Like when getting life or getting death depends on how you pronounce “Shibboleth.” Or when you get only one guess at the numerical combination which will open a chest containing a cherished treasure. Of course, at that time we still didn’t know about DNA and the genetic code, of switching genes on and off, of the surprisingly small genetic difference between a man and a mouse. But if I could effect the transmutation from SO2 to SO3, from timid, ineffective dioxide of sulfur into the omnipotent trioxide, I felt, confusedly perhaps, that I could make myself into somebody else: from one the kids called Jew and faggot and maricón, to a strong, fearless fighter everyone would respect. In my opinion, the Jungian psychology of alchemy contains no more than a similar, childish insight.
In any case, I decided I needed a place to work on those problems — the relations between symbols and the senses, numbers and letters coding souls and bodies, books being of the same substance as the author’s mind, but mostly the problem of adding one oxygen atom to my sulfurous vapor—and this place could be no other than the lumber-room. This was a four-by-seven, six-foot high, brick-and-mortar (in Buenos Aires wooden buildings are very rare), flat-roofed hut against the southwest corner of the terrace, diagonally opposite the maid’s room. A pile of red quebracho firewood used for heating the house leaned on the free side wall, and inside the room there were crates of old rags and old papers, old comics magazines. There was no electricity, no gas in the lumber-room, and there was only a minuscule opening for a window; nevertheless, I painted with big blue letters on the rickety door: “Laboratorio y Taller” — Lab and Workshop.
Going back to sulfuric acid, Langlebert mentioned three methods — no less! — for preparing it. In the first one, nitrogen dioxide (quaintly called in the book, “dioxide of azote”) and sulfurous acid are simultaneously introduced into a big glass balloon whose walls had been previously humidified. Thereby my problem was reduced to this: how does one get hold of nitrogen dioxide, let alone of a big glass balloon? Very simply: by having nitric acid act on copper filings. And how does one obtain nitric acid? Ah! By the action of sulfuric acid on a nitric salt. It was infuriating: things were going in circles! The second method was the industrial one, carried out in enormous lead chambers flanked by two formidable towers. It was the subject of the most complex illustration in the book, one that I inspected assiduously. But it would have been easier for me to rent the Leads of Venice, that ancient prison, for a while, or to acquire a castle on the Loire or on the Rhine than to get hold of such lead chambers. As for the third method, it consisted in making sulfurous dioxide, that is to say, the smoke of burning sulfur, somehow or other gain another oxygen atom by forcing it to go through a catalyst mysteriously named “platinum moss” or “platinum sponge.” But where could one get such a thing? In my dreams, the platinum sponge was akin to the Golden Fleece, and I was willing and ready to sail in search of it; but where was the ship Argo? And in what direction Colchis?
In spite of all those labyrinths, those obstacles to my desire and the constant frustration, until age twelve I did not abandon the quest. For four years I kept burning sulfur, and to encourage more atoms of oxygen to join the fray, I blew my breath into the burning sulfur. I blew and blew while reciting prayers to the gods who govern atoms, but since I didn’t know the prayers of any organized or disorganized religion, I would whisper a string of Russian words (or perhaps just nonsense words) that my grandmother used to say, while drawing circles with her crooked finger on the palm of my hand: “Saróke, Baróne, Nitinkáshke, Stanabéle, Baréle…” Then, bending each of my fingers, “Atzimúdale, Atzimúdale, Atzimúdale, Atzimúdale, Atzimúdale…” But those prayers didn’t help. SO2 stubbornly remained SO2 and did not turn into SO3. I could tell because it didn’t burn or feel oily on my fingers, as a normal solution of sulfuric acid should.
I tried fanning the burning piece of sulfur with a Captain Marvel comic magazine, on the implausible assumption that, having passed through such vivid images of power, the air coming out should be more powerful too.
Finally, I decided to pray to the child god. I nailed a rod to a square base and attached to the rod a dozen wooden clothes pins: the ensemble looked like a schematic Christmas tree, and in the privacy of the lumber room I prayed, while burning sulfur. “Child God, I know you know I never prayed to you before, but I also know I never had any gift from you, like Emilita does. Today, just make another oxygen atom attach itself to SO2, and I promise I will always pray to you, and will require no further gifts from you, and I will even deck a tree for you every Christmas, o Child God!” I prayed in vain: two oxygen atoms, SO2, was all I got.
Enough about Uncle Natalio’s high-school textbooks, although I feel guilty about not including a few paragraphs about Langlebert’s Physics. Oh well, perhaps later. As for Cervantes’ Don Quixote, whose three volumes were also in the cigarette box and are now in a bookcase beside my desk, ready to hand and often in my mind, it also came from the Brodeskys. Like the great novel itself, the story of its acquisition is both funny and sad. It was during the First World War that devastated Europe; my grandparents Gregorio and Rebeca ran a country store in the National Territory of La Pampa. Once when my grandfather had to travel to Buenos Aires on business his two sons, Natalio and Juan, asked him to bring some good book back from the capital. We must remember that in those days there was no television – why, there wasn’t even radio to pass the time; I don’t know if there was any local newspaper out there back in those days, and the boys needed some fun. Once in Buenos Aires, my grandfather walked into a bookstore and said he was looking for a good book. The salesman recommended Cervantes’ masterpiece, and my grandfather bought the three volumes, orange covers, published by “Biblioteca de La Nación” and dated Buenos Aires, 1909. When Natalio and Juan saw what their father had brought them, they tried to read a page, declared it unreadable and never touched it again. For years afterward they made fun of the Zeide, who had been duped by a book salesman.
Uncle Natalio was clever to a fault and a very good businessman too, but his sense of humor lacked all refinement. “Open the door, Richard, open the door and let me in,” he sang whenever he saw me, and when he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, químico (chemist), and he replied with feigned Yiddish-Spanish accent, quimicointas? (qué me cuentas, which can be translated as “don’t tell me”, expressing surprise). I never found that funny. One may ask, perhaps, of what benefit were all those French high-school textbooks in the case of Uncle Natalio, but other than the sample being too small, I have no idea how seriously he studied those books, or whether he read them at all.
French pedagogy was a good thing while it lasted. But like all good things, it didn’t last long — yes, I mean all good things, unless you believe, with Goethe’s Mephistopheles, that it is right and good that all good things should turn to dust. The superb quality of French pedagogy barely survived WWII, but in Argentina it disappeared sooner. There were locally grown nationalistic groups, at least since the Bolshevik Revolution, groups that were corporatist, authoritarian, militaristic, and anti-Semitic, and indeed in 1919 they carried out a bloody pogrom in Buenos Aires. With Mussolini’s march on Rome, they became fascist, and a decade later they were rooting for Hitler and Franco. When I entered high school in 1952, I found that some of my professors professed or spat out that sort of ideology: I will turn to them in a later chapter. Here I want to mention only one, a professor who never taught me, whom I never met, yet had a deep influence on my life, Ricardo Rojas (1882-1957). He wrote a voluminous history of Argentine literature and created the first chair of that subject at the University of Buenos Aires; calling himself a cultural nationalist — mind you, not the kind described above — no, one who just wanted Argentine culture to be autonomous and independent from any European culture (other than the Hispanic), he advocated replacing the French high-school textbooks by local products, and in the 1920s the decay was launched. That his sogenannt cultural nationalism was inspired by a German philosopher, J. G. Herder and his Volksgeist, did not seem to trouble Professor Rojas.
His major influence on my life, however, was that he conceived, designed, and built the house where I lived between the ages of five and twenty-four. To which I now turn.