In 1964 I took my first university course in philosophy at the University of the Americas in Mexico City. My professor was Ramón Xirau Subias. I learned to love him for his passion, erudition and his gentleness. I attended almost two years of Xirau classes. He had come to Mexico in 1939 with his father, the Catalonian philosopher Joaquín Xirau Palau in exile from Franco’s Spain. We had the unconfirmed story that deep in a philosophical conversation with his father, while walking on the street on April 10, 1946, they had not heard the clanging of the coming streetcar and Xirau père had died instantly.
While I was never Xirau’s star student (that X is pronounced sh), my enthusiasm for the man helped me keep up and understand what he tried to expose us to. We would often have to interrupt him when he would start lighting his cigarettes from the filter side. His examination method consisted in giving us 10 questions a week in advance. On the day of the exam he would put 10 numbered papers in a box and someone in class would pick two. Of all that he taught us, what most remained was his explanation on Epicurus and his concept of death. “Death,” Epicurus wrote, “is nothing to us because at the moment we die — the instant we cease to exist — we experience nothing.” Xirau then told us, “So you see, there is no reason to fear death.” Looking into Xirau’s smiling eyes when he said that, has left me with no doubt that when I see death in the face it will be Xirau.
With all that philosophy under my belt I decided that patriotism was important so I did not try to avoid the Argentine draft. After all, Socrates had happily served in the Greek army (they say to escape his shrewish Xanthippe). My “patriotism” was rewarded with a two-year stint in the Argentine Navy instead of a shorter year in the army. Philsophy did not help me through the ordeals of bootcamp. During a rest period, while I was reading Aldous Huxley’s Mono y Esencia the corporal caught me. He yelled at me, “That little finger that sticks out while you read that useless book, you can stick it up your…. The only monkey here is you,” and he tore my book to shreds. For days I had to do extra running and pushups. Bootcamp over, and with tears in my eyes, I lined up with my fellow sailors to swear allegiance to our flag and to protect our country’s constitution. A few months later we were ordered to surround the Casa Rosada during a coup. The president, Arturo Illía, went home in a cab and the next day we had no constitution. “So much, for patriotism, “I thought.
The first military decree, after eliminating the constitution and political parties was to specify the exact watts-of-light-per-square-meter in Buenos Aires nightclubs (notorious for their lack of light) so that “our youth will not be led into base morals and at the same time be able to count their money.” The only way I could fight the military system I now loathed, was to refuse to have my hair cut or to plainly disobey orders. A rear admiral, one of my bosses, called me to his office and told me, “In war time I could have you shot. I could also send you to Antarctica where the only females you will see will be penguins. But since I need you to translate documents you will spend nights in the brig for a month and you will work here in my office. The first thing you will do is to go out, right now, and get a haircut.”
I went to get my haircut and visited Pygmalion, the English bookstore on Corrientes Avenue. There I purchased, in preparation for my locked up nights, 1. The Philosophy of Hegel edited by Carl J. Friederich. 2. Markings by Dag Hammarskjöld translated by Leif Sjöberg and W.H. Auden. 3. The Philosophy of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin I can safely say that almost all of Hegel that went “in”, rapidly went “out” undigested. Chardin impressed me in that he was a Jesuit who managed to write a whole book without mentioning God until the end. It was Hammarskjöld who has been with me always. When I try to imagine what he looks like he always looks like Xirau. My favourite quote from Markings is:
He was a member of the crew from Columbus’ caravel — he
kept wondering whether he would get back to his home
village in time to succeed the old shoemaker before anybody
else could grab the job.
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.