The story goes that a young Frenchman educated by the Jesuits, a good Latinist therefore, enlisted in one of the armies fighting in the Thirty-Year War. Once, in the fall of 1619, he had to stay in the town of Ulm, in Bavaria, and there, lodged in a room heated by a stove, he had two dreams which preluded and bore epochal ideas, inventions, and discoveries.
I first encountered this story in a book by Miguel de Unamuno, “Del sentimiento trágico de la vida” (The Tragic Sense of Life). I read the book when I was sixteen, and it was my first contact with existential thought, by which I mean the thinkers inspired by Kierkegaard. The book was published in 1912, when hardly a reference to the Dane was to be found outside Scandinavia and the German-speaking countries: Unamuno had learned Danish just to read Kierkegaard in the original. I was favorably predisposed to don Miguel by our common love for Cervantes’ masterpiece; in his case, however, the right word is not love but adoration: he refers to don Quixote de la Mancha as Christians refer to Jesus of Nazareth, “Our Lord Don Quixote.” The combination of Don Quixote and Kierkegaard, even though I hadn’t read a paragraph from the latter’s hand yet, had a lasting effect on me: the nature of the combination I’ll explain later, and the effect on me will become, perhaps, gradually apparent.
Unamuno relates the story very briefly as follows: the young Frenchman had to stay in Germany, and was locked in a stove — here Unamuno adds by way of explanation the French word poêle, for the Spanish word estufa (stove) did not seem to him to allow a full-grown man to be locked inside. Unamuno goes on: he, the young Frenchman, started to philosophize his method. In Germany, but locked inside a stove! And so, he says, it is a stove discourse, a German-stove method, even though the philosopher locked in it was a Frenchman who aspired to be admitted in Heaven.
Since he was, among many other things, a philologist, Unamuno may have known that stove and estufa both come from Old High German stuba, which may in turn come from Vulgar Latin extūfāre = to fill with vapor. Thus by “a stove discourse” he meant, I suppose, a discourse filled with vapor or smoke. The combination of German and stove is meant to suggest (again, I suppose) that the vapor or smoke that fills the discourse is the kind of gas that, to Unamuno’s mind, fills German philosophy. This, I realize now, is an anachronism: in the earlier quarter of the 17th century, when Descartes was in Ulm, there were in Germany many poêles or estufas, that is, rooms heated by a stove, but not as yet any philosophy proper, independent from theology. Worse, much worse than this anachronism, is to write that Descartes’ Discourse on Method is full of smoke — in other words, that its author was a fumiste, a charlatan —: it only reveals the writer’s incompetence.
Again, I became aware of Unamuno’s serious defects only later, after I became familiar with the marvels appended to the Discourse on Method — analytic geometry, and the explanation of the shape of the rainbow — but what matters here, what matters to me at least, is that as far as memory goes my adolescent love affair with Unamuno was one of the earliest instances of my intellectual oscillation and sentimental seesaw between the call of so-called indubitable, timeless truths such as “The center of a circle is unique,” and the pull of life truths, earthly truths ephemeral as life and as comical, or tragical, or both.
I’ve been on that seesaw all my life, never stopping, up and down. At about the same time, at age sixteen, I had another literary love affair: I read all the Hermann Hesse in Spanish translation I could get my hands on. Ten years later, married, a father of twin boys, and working for a PhD in math at New York University, I found that Hesse’s Steppenwolf was quite popular with people of my generation, not at all with my mathematician colleagues, needless to say, but with the early adepts of the Turn on, Tune in, Drop out movement I met here and there by chance, mostly in the Village. Memories of my own favorite Hesse, Narziss und Goldmund, written shortly after Steppenwolf in 1930, came back to me in a rush. Of two childhood friends raised in a medieval monastery, Narcissus is an ascetic seeker of timeless truth who stays there all his life, and Goldmund, who leaves the monastery as an adolescent, becomes an itinerant artist beloved by women, a sought-after wood carver of the Virgin. Goldmund is sexually initiated by a Gypsy woman, just as I was, at the time I was reading Hesse, by a Chaqueña near Retiro Park. In the end, the itinerant artist comes back to the monastery to die. Narcissus is at the bedside, and Goldmund’s last words are addressed to his old friend:
In Narziss’ Herz brennen die letzten Worte Goldmunds wie Feuer: „Ohne Mutter kann man nicht sterben“.
(In Narcissus’ heart Goldmund’s last words burned like fire: “Without Mother one is not able to die.”)
Aged twenty-six and in New York, married and the father of twin boys, that phrase at the very end of Narziss und Goldmund still smoldered like embers in my own heart, even though I couldn’t understand their deeper meaning — I hadn’t read any Jung yet. But it was clear to me that I had already chosen a road of life, and that it was the arid, ascetic road of Narcissus, the seeker of timeless truths like the ones I was seeking in my doctoral dissertation. A road devoid of life, since free of earthly, vital contradictions. I was so distraught that I did something I’ve never seen in any mathematical text: I interspersed, here and there in the text of my thesis, quotations from Don Quixote.
The story of Descartes’ dream in his German stove came back to mind, with the choice between two Latin phrases. One was a verse by Ausonius, a question: “Quod vitae sectabor iter?” (Which road of life shall I choose?); the other was, “Est et non est.” (It is and it is not). The twenty-three-year-old Frenchman rejected in his dream the second phrase, and by doing this, he automatically answered the first question. This may sound paradoxical and require a bit of explanation.
When we examine what I call life truths or earthly truths, statements such as, “I love you,” or, “I have nothing but contempt for that book,” we find that even when sincere, they cannot be purely true but for brief moments; soon they are mixed with or replaced by very different feelings: love with or by impatience or ill will, and contempt for that book with or by envy for its record sales. The nature of earthly truths is to be and not to be, esse et non esse. By rejecting that phrase, Descartes was choosing a way of life, the way of the seeker of eternal, pure, numerical truths, those truths which pre-modern thinkers thought of as being celestial or heavenly, as opposed to earthly or sublunar. It was a fateful choice: Descartes, together with Galileo, Newton, and Spinoza, was a 17th-century founder of modernity, the epoch when the All became One, because everything was subject to the same mathematical laws.
My infatuation with alchemy-flavored chemistry seen now seems like a childish way to play at marrying numerical and earthly truths, a kind of pretend game, similar to the games of boys who play at being Captain Marvel or Superman. I was in the fifth year at the Colegio, and for the first time I would have a professor teaching me chemistry. Reinaldo Vanossi was said to be among the top Argentine chemists, a specialist in quantitative analysis, so I had entertained high hopes for his class: it was a disappointment. A man of about sixty, he was bored and boring in equal measure; I imagine he much preferred to be in his lab, facing his Bunsen burner rather than a bunch of yawning teenagers. The only task he imposed on us was to sketch the design of an apparatus to produce acetylene gas (C2H2), commonly used for welding, from the reaction of calcium carbide (CaC2) with water (H2O), but I never learned anything from that task, for Vanossi never bothered to comment on our sketches, much less to compare them as to their advantages or defects.
He was, as I said, a disappointment, mitigated by his rather odd given name, Reinaldo, which reminded me of Reinaldos de Montalbán, one of the Twelve Pairs of France, described by don Quijote in the First Chapter of the Second Part. That disappointment left a scratch in my mind regarding the question of which road of life to choose, a scratch which would with the years become an open wound.
Perhaps as a way to soothe the mental scratch that was already bothering me, I spent some afternoons in the kitchen, since Mother was away for most of the day. I don’t mean cooking food, but performing chemical metamorphoses. I went to the pharmacy a block from home and got potassium bromide, a common sedative, and pure acetone nail polish remover; with those and with my divine sulfuric acid — for remember that with it everything is possible, as happens, so say some theologians, with God — I succeeded in preparing a liquid whose vapor made me cry: it was tear gas. Encouraged by this success I embarked on a more ambitious project: I was going to prepare, right there in the kitchen, the lapis philosophorum, the philosophers’ stone. If it sounds crazy, it will sound, I hope, more reasonable after I explain.
My uncles Brodesky, Mother’s brothers, had a broad and insipid sense of humor. They’d ask me what I wanted to be as a grown up, and I’d say, “Químico” (Chemist), upon which they’d say in mock surprise, “¿Quí mi cointas?” which in mock-Yiddish accent represented the normal Spanish “¿Qué me cuentas?” (What are you telling me? In other words, “No kidding!”). Needless to say, I didn’t feel it was funny, the less so as it was repeated. To think that it was from my eldest uncle Natalio, born in the shtetl, that I had inherited my chemistry book, my glorious Langlebert! I must be that education, no matter how excellent, cannot bear fruit on an arid brain. To be fair, I must say that Natalio Brodesky had married an exceptional woman, my aunt Rosa, who had an uncanny sense of what was good for me. It was she who recommended the French private teacher she had hired for my cousin Alberto, Marguerite de la Barre, the old lady born in Blois, come to the River Plate as a young woman in 1910, with whom I fell in love at age eight, a love that survives today And it was Aunt Rosa who gave me, on my thirteenth birthday, the small book with the Mendeleev table that I promptly learned by heart.
In that small book, an American chemist is in his lab, working on synthetic rubber improvements during WWII; he is tired, falls asleep and has a dream. Hennig Brand, an alchemist who lived in Hamburg in the wondrous 17th century, appears in the 20th-century U.S. lab and most of the book consists in the American scientist telling the old alchemist some of the chemical achievements during the intervening centuries. Brand had become famous as the discoverer of phosphorous. Seeking for the philosophers’ stone, he had distilled and re-distilled his urine, until a residue was left in his retort that shone in the dark: that feat had captured my attention so powerfully that a few years later I resolved to repeat the experiment. I had succeeded in producing tear gas; why not try distilling pee? Especially since in the previous couple of years I had saved enough money to purchase flasks, tubes, supports, and a Graham condenser, all the elements of a distilling apparatus.
An so it was that on a night serene, estando ya mi casa sosegada — I mean that at home everyone was asleep —, I took my distilling apparatus down to the kitchen, proceeded to pee into the retort, and after connecting that which had to be connected, turned on the kitchen faucet, struck a match and lighted the gas burner. I soon noticed that the condenser wasn’t working as it should, for a lot of uncondensed urine gas was coming out at the end. Perhaps my condenser wasn’t long enough, or else the water from the faucet wasn’t enough, or cold enough? I tried to fix the problem but didn’t succeed; I opened the kitchen window wide and covered my nose and mouth with a wet napkin. It would have been necessary to don a full-face mask respirator, however, to cope with the mephitic vapors; I held out as long as I could, but finally was forced to give it up. I turned off the gas and the water, and just then I heard a hair-raising scream and Mother appeared at the kitchen door, followed by my sister, and my father in the back. — You’re trying to kill us all! she bellowed.
— A fine mess! said my sister, and my father said, It’s a sewer!
I mumbled, half choked, half embarrassed, that I was trying to make phosphorus.
— What!? exclaimed all three at the same time, and then, He’s crazy! Meshuga af’toyt! as their eyes shifted from me to the marble top and back.
I followed their eyes and understood: they were looking at the matchbox, they thought I had said I was trying to make matches: in Spanish, fósforo means both phosphorus and match. I laughed and explained that I had been trying to make the chemical element phosphorus, an essential component of every cell in our body and of all life on earth, and that the first time the element had been isolated was by way of distilling urine, almost three centuries ago. Whether it was because of my historical and biological explanation or by the opening of all windows and the clearing of the air, I got off with the promise that I would not use the kitchen again for scientific experiments.
* * *
I needed some clean air figuratively speaking too, for as Ficino, the Renaissance trailblazer, used to say, “Bisognammo un po’ d’aria fresca”. The scholastic life had exhausted my lungs, and I longed for the day when I would leave the Colegio and enter the adjacent School of Exactas. The thought of still another full year of all-male, Jesuitic-style discipline darkened my days and kept me awake at night. It wasn’t only the Professor Vanossi disappointment and the trouble it left in my mind about my future: there were other troublesome events. You may remember Ramón Falcón, whom I mentioned three chapters back, the boy who was captivated by Professor Monner Sans’ personal style, so much so that he masturbated during the latter’s class. I had some contact with him during the subsequent years: a couple of times I went to his house to play cards. Ramón lived with his father, no mother ever mentioned, as did Urruty; the difference was, there was no sister either, and I never met Ramón’s father, although I heard that he was a big honcho in the Federal Police. Alone in the house, Ramón and I would sit on the cool tiled floor and play siete y medio, a game similar to blackjack but with the forty-card Spanish deck.
Just as he had been captivated by Monner Sans’ tyrannical manner, subsequently and perhaps paradoxically, he became a big fan of the trisaccharide boleros recorded by the Trío Los Panchos, especially “Contigo” and “Mar y Cielo”. Ramón would strum his guitar, raise his eyes to the sky, and sing as if to the angels atop the clouds. Once Piru, one of my sister’s classmates, was having a dancing party; I don’t recall the occasion, but I do recall that she, like all girls who attended girls-only schools and had no brothers of the right age, had trouble finding enough boys for dancing parties: I volunteered Ramón. As it turned out, he was stricken by Piru so severely that from then on, he would sing two bolero lines, like, “I can swear to you before an altar my sincere love / you can go tell the whole world that, yes, I love you,” and then stop, sigh, and complain in pure pastoral style, “Ah, Piru, cruel Piru! You don’t care for my song, you will drive me to death!” And so on, or da capo. Piru, bless her soul, never gave Ramón the time of day.
That year, my fifth at the Colegio, was the first time we got some female professors, one of the liberal changes introduced by Risieri Frondizi. If you think that the previous situation was incredibly paleolithic, please remember that Emmy Noether, a founder of modern algebra, was not allowed to teach at Göttingen, which exasperated David Hilbert — “This is a university, not a bath house, for God’s sake,” he said —, and that when she emigrated to the U.S. in 1933, escaping the Nazis, she had to teach at Bryn Mawr, a girls-only college. The only female professor I had at the Colegio, however, was no genius like Emmy Noether, nor was she a Scheherazade like my adored Marguerite de la Barre; I don’t recall her name, nor would I be able to describe her; I can only say that she was supposed to teach us psychology, and that she was extremely boring. The only reason why she appears here has to do with Ramón.
One morning, in the psychology class, all of a sudden we saw an object fly like a missile into the classroom through an open transom window; we saw it missing our professor by a few inches and end up hitting the blackboard behind her with a big splash. The professor got up from her chair and left the room. Upon inspection, the object turned out to be a condom filled with pee or something, and upon investigation, the perpetrator was determined to be Ramón. I never saw him again. Some years later, my old classmates told me about Ramón’s subsequent deeds: he had become, they said, a serial killer of women, a new Landru. I felt a cramp of horror. Not at Ramón-turned-Landru, who provoked in me rather repugnance, but horror at myself. I recalled in a flash that I had taken Ramón to Piru’s dancing party: how could I be so irresponsible? And the time I had engaged Ramón and his guitar for a serenade at night to honor my sister on her birthday. She was already in bed, and Ramón and I were less than ten yards away from her, standing on the terrace, singing “Contigo a la distancia.” How could I bring such a monster home with me, and how could I bring him so close to my sister’s bed?
There seems to be something wrong, even perverse, in the way I chose my male companions after the falling out with Mattarollo. Perhaps I had felt that failure so deeply that I said to myself, I’ve tried to be friends with an exquisitely musical soul, and it was a flop; well, then why not try the opposite? But at times I’ve wondered if on each occasion I was trying to ingratiate myself with the ever-present beastly boys, like the ones who had tormented me in grammar school, or those at the YMCA summer camp, by showing that I could sympathize with them and even join them in their beastliness. Prove to them that I was not as my seventh-grade teacher had described me on my report card, “Muy culto, caballero, y dedicado” (Very cultured, courteous, and dedicated); no sir, I too was one of them beasts, so they had no reason to gang up on me. A despicable, cowardly guile, I agree. I was trying to go further than Walter Benjamin, who asserted that every document of civilization is also, and at the same time, a document of barbarism: I wanted to show that a thoroughly civilized person can also be a perfect barbarian. Of one thing I am certain: this kind of situation could only occur in a boys-only context, and I was doubly determined to get out of it as soon as possible by skipping my final year at the Colegio, the sixth.
The way to do it was to take — and pass — the final exams of all the subjects of the sixth year without going through the courses, and those exams could be taken in December of 1956, or in March of 1957, at which point I could enter the promised land, Exactas, a whole year earlier than expected. In July I resolved on that expedient, so I had less than five months to prepare for seven or eight exams. Those months were the most chaotic period of my adolescence as far as I can recall, and my recollections of it are imprecise and wan, as if illumined only by a blackened sun.
Till then, I had never experienced the feeling of fear as one that’s paralyzing; I had always imagined that, on the contrary, fear makes one hide, or run away and try to escape, or else fill one’s lungs with air and one’s heart with resolve to fight, or jump over a gap, as I had done recently during the liberation of the Colegio from the Catholic Action boys. However, something befell me in that month of August which taught me differently. There was no one else at home: Madame de la Barre was coming down the stairs after our weekly French lesson, and I was coming down behind her, when the old lady tripped and fell three or four steps down to the living-room floor. I saw her lying there, her head bare, sans chapeau. In my mind, time froze. That vision — which in clocked time may have lasted four seconds at most until I managed to move, to lift my teacher, help her to her feet, and retrieve her hat — in my mind became forever present and forever active: Madame lying on the floor; her hair, which I had never seen before, light gray, almost white, exquisitely arranged in ringlets and held with pins. Since my private time was frozen, I moved unconsciously, robotically; I could deduce later by the effects that Madame had put her hat, adorned with fruits since spring hadn’t arrived yet, back on her head, and that I accompanied her, perhaps holding her arm, to the sidewalk, where we said good-bye. Then I went back into the house.
Once I had recovered somewhat the realizations of my omissions became a hole of darkness oozing horror and guilt. I should have asked her to sit and rest for a while, I should have ascertained that she was able to move her limbs and walk without pain; I should have offered her something to drink, and finally, if she was okay, accompanied her at least all the way to the bus stop, or better still, taken the bus with her all the way to her place, since I had no money for a cab. But none of those things had occurred to me, no idea could enter my mind, seized by paralyzing fear. And now I was sitting on the living-room sofa, head in my hands. The vision of hatless Madame lying right there on the floor held on to me tenaciously, until another thought came as if to complement it, a story she, always full of stories, had once told me: the young Chevalier de la Barre, who had failed to take off his hat at a Catholic procession, for which fault he was tortured and burnt on the stake, as Voltaire reports. And then a third thought: Voltaire and his motto, Écrasez l’infâme! — L’infâme, c’est moi, I concluded bitterly.
That was the first time in my life when fear paralyzed me: it would not be the last. Years later, I discovered that far from being an exception, paralyzing fear was the rule among our ancestors. Take Lot’s wife: she looked back at fearfully burning Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt. Or take those poor souls who looked into the eyes of the Gorgon and were turned into stone. Or take the Spanish, French, and English word formidable: it originally had a double meaning, namely, marvelously strong and powerful, but also fearful, terrible. This corresponds to its etymology, for the word comes from Latin formido = I feel fear, which is believed to come from the Proto-Indo-European root *dʰer- = to hold, to support, whence also the Latin firmus = firm, solid. So, the fear I feel when I say formido is a fear that makes me firm, solid, rigid. Rubén Darío is not a poet I admire, yet we must admit that his use of the word formidable is exactly right in his sonnet “Caupolicán”, about the Mapuche chief who walked day and night, through mounts and valleys, with a large tree trunk on his shoulders. Here are the first two lines of the sonnet:
“Es algo formidable que vio la vieja raza;
robusto tronco de árbol al hombro de un campeón”
(It’s something formidable old generations witnessed; / a thick tree trunk on a champion’s shoulder).
The spectacle was fearsome and awesome because of the great weight the champion was carrying. In Greek a similar semantic situation occurs with the adjective δεινός: it means both marvelously strong and powerful, and also fearful and terrible; thus, in Sophocles’ “Antigone” the chorus chants (lines 332-3; in the literal translation below I leave the word δεινός untranslated):
πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν
ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει...
(Many are the things that are δεινά, and nothing / is more δεινός than man...)
English translations, however, often neglect the twofold meaning of δεινός:
Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none
More wonderful than man...
(This one is by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, no less.)
The words “wonders” and “wonderful” are wrong here, both in regard to the spirit of the Greek tragedians and to the spirit of our own times, when mankind is revealed as fearfully and terribly destructive as well as full of wonders. The true tragic sense of life is not what my dear Unamuno took it to be — a struggle between reason and faith, between the crushing evidence of death and the mad desire for immortality — no: that’s rather a Christian sense of life, Tertullian’s credo quia absurdum. Tragic, instead, is the struggle to maintain a balance, so that we can admire and appreciate the marvelous productions of the human mind — the music of Monteverdi or Descartes’ analytic geometry — while at the same time being terrified by its destructive powers and proclivities.
I pause and reread the above page: amazing how far afield I let myself be pushed by paralyzing fear. Pulling back now to the vision of my old French teacher lying on the floor, it was the last I saw of her. I’m not able to tell why or how — my memories of that period are quite chaotic, as I said before —, but likely it was the result of two lacks: lack of courage on my part to overcome the shame of my omissions, and lack of money at home, even the little needed to pay for my French lessons. The effects of that last vision of Madame, however, did not diminish with time; on the contrary, whenever I saw a woman trip and fall, I felt as if my soul wanted to quit my body and kneel on the ground to adore her and consecrate itself to her. This effect was much stronger when the accident occurred on a stairway, and simply irresistible if, in addition, the woman was French. It happened to me once, years later, and I was brought to the brink of destroying my marital happiness. But enough of that.
Having decided to take all the sixth-year exams in December, there was no time to waste, in spite of which I didn’t suspend my frequent visits to the old Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) on Calle México, to read material having nothing to do directly with my school subjects. Now, bereft of my dear French teacher and remembering that she had mentioned Paul Groussac, whom she had met about 1920, as the greatest Frenchman in Argentina at that time, I wanted to read some of his work. When I placed my request, I was told by the librarian to go to the Sala Paul Groussac, and I was glad; till then I had always sat with my books in the main reading room (it was not a lending library), so this was a first, and the Sala turned out to be cozier and delightful. Back then, in 1956, Jorge Luis Borges was the director of the Biblioteca, and now I learned, among many other things, that Groussac had occupied that position from 1885 to his death in 1929. He had arrived in Buenos Aires from his native France in 1866, still a teenager, a year after the death of Amédée Jacques, the great French pedagogue who died while being the admired rector of the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires — the hero of Miguel Cané’s Juvenilia, a book you may remember from Chapter 10. It is as if Groussac had come to the River Plate to continue the work of Jacques — and as if my teacher, Marguerite de la Barre, had come to continue the work of Groussac.
The difference was that Jacques left France as an adult with several academic degrees and rich credentials, to escape the illiberal regime of Louis Napoléon, like Victor Hugo, Edgar Quinet, and Alexis de Tocqueville; but what could have motivated Groussac to leave France at age eighteen, with no degree and no credentials, and sail to distant shores? Was he escaping the Second Empire too? And for that matter, what had brought my dear French teacher to my native city at the dawn of the twentieth century? I was astonished, and still am, at my own thoughtlessness, at not having asked her directly why she moved to Argentina; instead, I webbed my own story, based on her signature, Marguerite de la Barre de Luna, indicating that she had been married to a man named Luna. I fancied that Luna, a landowner in the Pampas and heir to a big fortune, travelled to France as a young man, where he met Mlle. Marguerite, courted her, and got her to marry him. It was he who brought the young wife to Argentina. Señor Luna turned out to be what in Spanish is called un calavera and in French une crapule: in short, a rake. He spent his fortune on loose women, gambling casinos, horse races, cock fights, debauches, and crazy business deals, and died young, leaving his wife to survive as best she could. You can tell I felt jealous of the dude.
Under the glass on my desktop, other than the map of Paris and the portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrées and her sister, I had a postcard Mme. de la Barre had sent me from Le Havre, dated March 19, 1952, and addressed to me:
“Querido Ricardito: J’espère que vous préparez une entrée brillante au Collège Bs. As.” (Dear Little Ricardo: I expect you are preparing a brilliant entrance to the Colegio Bs. As.).
And now, while I was trying to unveil the intricacies of Constitutional Law, one of the sixth-year subjects I was to be examined on — to start with, which national constitution will they ask me about? Must be the one imposed by Perón, currently and officially called “the deposed tyrant,” in 1949, since the subsequent one of 1957 was not yet available — or trying to disentangle the marvels of polygons on the sphere in another sixth-year subject, Trigonometry and Cosmography — while I was into that, I would now and then turn my eyes to Madame’s postcard and mentally reply:
“Chère Madame : Je prépare une sortie assez terne du Collège Bs. As.” (Dear Madame: I prepare a grey enough exit from the Colegio Bs. As.)
Come December, I took the final exams on every subject, although I have forgotten in what order, and most details regarding the questions I was asked to answer. I do remember how nervous I was before the Constitutional Law exam, whose professor, Julio “Julito” de Vedia, had a ferocious reputation, whose edges he liked to sharpen by whistling Chopin’s Funeral March as he walked down the hall toward the exam room. I should add that His Ferocity belonged to the illustrious family of the founder of the Colegio, Bartolomé Mitre, married to Delfina de Vedia and President of the Republic between 1862 and 1868. My nervousness was compounded by the fact that I have never felt any attraction or curiosity for law, I mean for the type of law handled by lawyers, not by chemists and physicists. As it turned out, however, I passed the Law exam. Nothing to write home about, but I passed, which was all I cared about, and anyway there was no need to write home about it since Father had come with me and waited in the hall till I was finished.
As I found out that morning, my ex-friend Rodolfo Mattarollo had had, like me, the idea of skipping the final year at the Colegio and was taking the Law exam, and passed, like me — but what a difference! At the end of his oral exam, Professor de Vedia was dazzled and asked Rodolfo if he planned to study law; when the young man said Yes, old Julito said, — Se le ve en los ojos (One can tell by your eyes).
Fortunate is he, I thought, who knows since an early age which road he must choose in life, and whose choice is celebrated by others who have travelled on the same road! As for me, Reinaldo Vanossi, my chemistry professor, had never praised my sketch for an acetylene apparatus, nor anything else I might have done — I say “might have done” because I don’t remember anything else from that course. On the other hand, I was congratulated, quite to my surprise, by the philosophy professor, whose name I have forgotten, after the oral exam in which I was asked to explain the empiricist doctrines of Locke and Hume. He asked if I was planning to enter Filosofía y Letras (the School of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Buenos Aires), and I replied that I was planning to enter Exactas, to study chemistry. The reason I knew about the British empiricists, I added, was that my father used to teach me those things when I was a seven- or eight-year-old boy. My father, who again was waiting for me in the hall, seemed very pleased when I told him about that dialogue.
The one exam I failed was Trigonometry and Cosmography. In the written exam, whenever I had to look up a sine or a cosine in the trig table, I looked it up instead in the table of logarithms of sine and cosine. Hard to believe. I passed that exam in March, and immediately applied to Exactas.