School was out, and father and son were driving to work for the day. They rode along silently, the boy uninterested in anything but the sleep he was missing and the friends he wouldn’t see. But the father was excited to face the hard work of the day with his son by his side. This had been their summer ritual forever, but now that the boy was just a year away from leaving for college Papi felt, nee dreaded, but left unsaid the idea that this was in all likelihood the last summer he would ever spend together with his son Mijo.
Papi began to speak; it was time Mijo fully awoke to be ready to go by the time they arrived at the job.
“Did you know, Mijo, that my grandfather was a typesetter in Mexico? You know, he set the type - rows of metal letters – by hand into pages so that books could be printed. He worked on what was called a linotype machine. Pretty good name, no? Line of type.”
Mijo just nodded as he bounced along in Papi’s old Chevy pickup truck. In Mexico, they called the old Chevy trucks “el Cheves”, the ‘ch’ pronounced hard, as in ‘Che’. It wasn’t intended as a compliment. Papi had been driving his el Chevie ever since Mijo could remember.
“I used to take him his lunch sometimes. My mother would send me with some fresh tomatoes, freshly made corn chips and tortillas, maybe an onion if the deer hadn’t eaten them all. Have I ever told you about Mexican deer? The males are magnificent animals. Unlike America, you see them everywhere in Mexico, mainly because there are so few trees to hide among. Sometimes they are grazing in the day right alongside the abandoned horses and cows, their antlers are 8, 10 even 14 points sometimes. No one has the bullets or the desire to shoot one, mainly because they have no way to carry it home and store all the meat.”
Mijo turned towards his father.
“What do you mean abandoned horses and cows?”
“Oh Mijo, you know nothing about your country. What does a horse and a cow need to eat? Yes, oats if available, but oats cost money. No, they mainly eat grass. Most of Mexico has no grass, but do you know where there is grass? Where the government has ruled that there shall be grass? In the narrow strips of land between the lanes of the federal highways.”
Papi paused; Mijo was now looking his way intently.
“That’s right Mijo, so the turistas can see that Mexico is not dirt poor, the politicians plant grass every year in the median strips of the busy toll roads, the roads the Americans and Canadians take to their Mexican vacation.”
Mijo was trying very hard to figure out where his father was going with this information.
“Did you know that here in the U.S. it is now illegal to put a horse down for money? That you can’t ship a horse to a kill factory anymore, because of the animal rights activists? They used to kill 100,000 horses a year here in America. Most of them they say are pregnant when the owners get rid of them. My grandfather used to always say ‘don’t breed what you can’t feed’. Some Mexicans still use a horse or an ass as their only means of transportation, but we never had horses. We would walk.”
“Papi, what does that have to do with Mexico?”
“Well Mijo, people are going to solve their problems in spite of the government, no? They just ship their unwanted horses elsewhere now. To Mexico. It’s become big business for some people, both Mexican and American. Transporting live bodies across the border. But for horses the guards don’t even care. They collect their import fees per horse and waive them on through.”
“But Papi . . .!”
“I’m getting there Mijo! If you were a horse transporter what would you do once you were in Mexico? Are you going to take the animal somewhere and waste a bullet? And risk getting caught by the local police, who will demand that you pay them? No, you wouldn’t do that. So you find another way. All along the federal highways, where the local police are forbidden from even driving their patrol cars because the federal police don’t trust them not to shake down the tourists, there are gas stations, plenty of abandoned buildings too. Sometimes like here in the U.S. there is a fence behind the properties, but if the property is abandoned who is going to maintain the fence? No one. So the transporter pulls behind these places in the darkness of night and simply unloads the horses and leaves. Sometimes the horses wander off into the adjoining fields if the fence is broken. But if the fence is intact, where will the horse go? It will go to find food. So it wanders across the highway and if it isn’t hit by a semi-truck in the dark it stops in the median strip and that’s where it stays. A horse won’t move unless it has to for better grazing, but it has already the best grazing spot in all of Mexico. So that’s where the horses remain. You drive down any federal highway and the horses are like beggars, just standing there for everyone to pity. Cows too sometimes, but only the diseased ones. You’ll see the cow corpses in the grass every now and then. The worst is when the mares birth. Then you see mother and child standing side by side in the middle of the grass. Most of the foals just fall over from the heat and no water.”
Mijo had a look of horror on his face. Papi looked quickly at his son and decided he better change the subject. They drove in silence for a few minutes, then Papi resumed.
“So my gran papa, he would sit all day, sometimes with a young, eager apprentice by his side paying him a few pesos to learn, in front of this huge machine which took up almost the entire area of the room off an alley in town which was his work place. He would type away at the machine, one finger at a time but so quick he was like a piano player, never looking at the keys but at the handwritten words which he was setting into lead. I would just stand there and watch him sometimes, his lunch in my hands, fascinated at what was going on, hidden away so that no one even knew what he was doing, the machine whirling with what seemed like a hundred moving parts and thousands of possible outcomes, click-clacking away as molten lead – melted by the heat generated by a foot pedal that gran papa never stopped pumping - poured from the melting bottom half of a lead bar - into forms of precisely chosen letter shapes in reverse optic – like holding a book’s page to a mirror - but when set on the thin lead spacer would transform themselves into no truer vessel of revelation. Gran papa always remarked to me when he caught my fascination, ‘These are the words of men’s minds. We are lucky to be their caretaker’.
“I remember that he once made a present of a lower-case shelf of reverse type letters to my Grandmother. Did you know that lower-case letters – the uncapitalized ones – derived their name from the fact that the typesetters would store them in the lower drawers or shelves of the typesetter letter case? The uppercase letters – all capitals – were stored in the upper drawers. Gran papa had spelled a puzzle or saying of some sort in optic reverse in the drawer he gave to gran mama. It took her a few minutes to figure out what he had composed. The she only frowned before belittling his sentimentality. This was not long before he left her, to live in a tiny room above his shop. I remember other gifts from him to her, always art of some sort that he would make with his own hands. Sometimes a wood carving, or a cross. Later, before he left the home we all shared – mama, papa, my grandparents, my brother and sisters, eight of us altogether - he began to paint scenes from the vantage point of his little workroom. He would sit outside while he took his lunch and quickly paint what he saw up and down the alley. Sometimes the cobblestones, sometimes the backs of people, a few of the sky. Once he painted a bird sitting on the ledge across from him. He would always give what he made to grandmother, never on time as in a birthday or holiday, but when he did gift it was such that she anticipated and acted disappointed if the occasion passed without new art, but I for one was entirely certain that she like most had not the slightest inkling of what a gift of art entails. I think he finally left her because she could not or would just refuse to appreciate the meaning of his gifts.”
Papi went on, his mind lost in his memories. Mijo was no longer the object of his concern.
“My grandfather was not a reader per se, and certainly not a philosopher. He was a romantic, however, if there ever was one, and I learned to cry from his soft-side, even if I never saw him cry. At some point in the course of their relationship I began to question what exactly were the ties that bind people to each other – lazos de amor - or that snap and let them leave each other essentially without a trace, certainly no physical residue remaining of my grandparents ever having been one in the eyes of the law, or in the eyes of God, or in my or anyone else’s eyes. But I know that he was lonely in that little room, on the ground floor during the day, and then up just a few outside stairs to his little night room, barely big enough for a cot and a chest of drawers he hauled up himself somehow. And a hot plate, where he would warm tortillas and sometimes conchas, a sweet bread unlike anything else. You’ve had conchas, Mijo.”
“Yes Papi, I know.”
“But your great gran papa was an intelligent man. Sensitive to God but also of the great questions that God left for man to decide. I often would find him reading – in reverse no less – the pages that he had set in type. I can’t know for certain, but I have a sense that the words he was setting in lead were heavy in meaning, for he would read so intently. Someone said to me – an old man who introduced himself at his funeral as one who sent gran papa work, that gran papa was one of the finest typesetters of German translations into Spanish in all of central Mexico. That he was a genuine craftsman in his trade, yes, but also had developed the nuance of an interpreter, and often would edit and correct the translator’s meaning. The same man told me years later, right before I left Mexico, that the German works that gran papa was working on were the writings of the great German philosophers. It has taken me almost 15 years, but I have read most of the philosophers gran papa must have worked on. I wanted to know what my gran papa knew, or at least thought about.”
Mijo, the burgeoning intellect, wanted to hear more.
“Which philosophers have you read Papi? And what have you learned?”
“Well, Hegel the most Mijo. The young at the time German said many things, some of which seem opposed. For example, he said that in his present time – the 1790s through the 1820s - the idea of what the highest embodiment of being human is constitutes itself around the concept of freedom. In that sense he foreshadowed modern mankind’s obsession with the ideal of freedom. You will study about that time this year in school perhaps. It was a volatile time in the world: the U.S. revolution in 1776, the French revolution in 1789 that didn’t go well and ended in Napoleon coming to power as France’s dictator, who then promptly invaded Hegel’s Germany! Hegel wrote about how he saw Napoleon ride a white horse into his town on the eve of battle and felt in awe of the man who was about to conquer Hegel’s own people. It was an odd sentiment, then and now, to put a man on a pedestal right before he sets out to destroy you. But Hegel was nothing but an odd man. Also during those years Poland had attempted numerous times to revolt against all the various countries occupying Poland’s previous territories but kept getting beaten badly. Then of course the Haitian slaves revolted in 1792 against their French oppressors, shocking and horrifying the world – and the international sugar trade - such that England and Spain, who were already fighting France in Europe, and some say the U.S., sent troops to Haiti, along with some Polish troops who were already in Haiti as sort of indentured soldiers of the French, disguised as mercenaries, or mercenaries disguised as indentured servants. Haiti became a mess for 10 years, until Napoleon finally gave up, leaving behind some 5000 whites, who were immediately slaughtered by the black Haitians. Ironically, Haiti’s constitution, written by blacks and mulattos many of whom had lived and been educated in France – some as lawyers even – contained a clause stating that any citizen of Haiti was now declared black, and outlawed white’s from owning property or even remaining on the island without the government’s permission. Many widowed white women were forced to marry Haitians and change their racial status to black.
“The Haitians reaction to their brutal white oppressors was certainly understandable, but nonetheless a confusing response, to fight for liberty and then become a brutal fascist yourself. Of course, much of African history, even current events, is exactly just this pattern of one oppressor replacing the last. It is rather ironic in many ways that Haiti to this day remains one of the poorest, corrupt, and vile places to live. For a while it led the world in new HIV infections.”
Mijo muttered, almost under his breath, “That’s something I never even heard of; the revolution and massacre part.”
“Well, Mijo, the white people write the histories no? To this day.”
Papi stopped speaking for a few minutes. Then he resumed.
“But Hegel was a philosopher of history first and foremost, trying to rationalize in hindsight that the history of mankind had to be exactly as it was, because of many reasons which he invented. And he began his reasoning within individual humans first, prior to a human entering society or being controlled by governments or nature or even God. Hegel developed a system of how people think and act, stating that people certainly have tendencies as human beings, but that those tendencies only come to realization as historical facts – events that actually happen – when people engage with other people. This idea Hegel called Recognition. He didn’t invent the concept entirely, but he carried it forth into something called his “Master-Slave” dynamic. Essentially what Hegel said is that only because someone else recognizes me as a unique conscience do I exist sub-consciously for myself, other than as a body. Outside of or without these moments of recognition I simply do not exist. Confirmation of being human to Hegel comes only from the outside – from Others, from the separation and recognition that exists between two people.”
Mijo was following closely. He was understanding his father so far without much trouble. He asked, “So between two people, one is always the Master and one is always the Slave?”
Papi almost screamed in delight, “Yes Mijo! Exactly!! You are a brilliant scholar already! Ahh, how gran papa would be beaming with pride!”
Mijo hid a huge grin as he turned to look out his passenger window at the beautiful manicured lawns floating by their el Chevie.
Papi finally quit beaming himself and added, “Thus to Hegel, ordinary living is seemingly as unfree as it gets. We are always looking for justification from another for even our most basic actions, while living in resentment of those with the power.”
Papi let Mijo think about that for a few blocks, navigating his truck through the twisting streets of the neighborhood by memory. He then continued.
“Rudolph Steiner was another philosopher I liked. He was the last of the so-called Hegelian Idealists, but he also incorporated German romanticism – our senses - on his path to an odd form of spirituality. Steiner wrote that mankind’s thinking is a spiritual activity that leads to freedom by its conscious awareness of our own natures within the world nature. A person can only be free if capable of thinking one’s own deepest, most essential and most spiritual thoughts, not the thoughts of others or of society. To Steiner a person is free only to the extent that she can obey herself in every moment of her life. He acknowledged Hegel’s theory of Recognition but argued that mankind must break through Hegel’s dynamic.
“Spinoza was another, a Dutch Jew who wrote long before the Germans, but I found his ideas on freedom unique. He held that freedom is not freedom of decision but freedom of necessity. That a person must be free to act necessarily within her life or otherwise not be in charge of herself. But isn’t necessity a relativism? Isn’t your necessity perhaps my loss? Aren’t necessities opposed to each other as a matter of course, not as a matter of choice? If so, necessity becomes contingent, dependent, on the object of its necessity and on the subjective, personal, needs of every person acting in the world, even in its most necessary and basic forms - father and mother to child, God to man - because there can be no necessity without existence, and there can be no existence without other existence, sometimes contingent one way, sometimes the other. But always in lock-step relativity to the other, never isolated, or living in a vacuum.”
Mijo was now hanging on his father’s every word. He had no idea that his father was so . . . eloquent in his thought and speech. Mijo felt a new-found respect for his father descending upon himself. He watched his father as he passionately went on.
“Fitche, Hegel’s older contemporary and ultimate rival, was a pure idealist; our sensory perceptions are overridden by logic and thus false inputs. Fichte argued that self-consciousness was a social phenomenon — like Hegel, and a necessary condition of every subject's self-awareness, again like Hegel – but also that recognition of the existence of other rational subjects is just as important because these others call or summon the subject - or self - out of its unconsciousness and into an awareness of itself as a free individual. Fichte's account proceeds from the general principle that I must set myself up as an individual in order to set myself up at all, and that in order to set myself up as an individual I must recognize myself as it were to a calling or summons by other free individual(s) — called, moreover, to limit my own freedom out of respect for the freedom of the others. The same condition applies, of course, to the other(s) in their development. Mutual recognition of rational individuals turns out to be a condition necessary for the individual 'I' in general. In Fichte's view consciousness of the self depends upon resistance or a check by something that is understood as not part of the self yet is not immediately ascribable to a particular sensory perception either, because Fitche didn’t believe in the information that our senses deliver to us. I would call that something God, but none of these Germans believed in God anymore by this point, the end of the Enlightenment!
“And then there was Kant, writing before Hegel, and generally thought to be the greatest German philosopher of all in his time, mainly because he wrote about what is thinking: how do we know anything at all. Kant didn’t try to cram the history of the world into a system like Hegel, but he did draw many conclusions about mankind’s ability to formulate proper – human - thoughts and behavior. One was that “normative” acknowledgement of oneself by others is an achievement, the highest social achievement we can reach. Kant also held that we will only follow laws, rules, principles, and ethics, if we buy into the idea that we self-created them for our own appropriation. We have to believe that we made up the belief, so to speak.
“But if both of Kant’s assertions are valid, how do we proceed? Do I need to create a new principle for me first, then seek society’s normative endorsement? Or do I act from what I know is normative, and thus self-limit myself to new principles that I know are within certain prescribed limits of range and effect? If limits are thus being limited, are they not regressive, as opposed to progressive? Isn’t imagination giving way without a fight to non-essential, non-artistic, non-creative, desireless reality?! Isn’t normative then the death of freedom? How are we not free to ignore the summons to respond, but we are free in the response, which includes to ignore?
“At last there was Kierkegaard, the forerunner of the 20th century’s only, and mankind’s last great, philosophical idea - existentialism. Kierkegaard wrote that to be a self is the greatest concession made to mankind, but at the same time it is eternity's essential demand upon us. Kierkegaard does not deny the fruitfulness or validity of abstract thinking - science, logic - but he does deny any superstition which pretends that scientific logic is a sufficient concluding argument for human existence. He holds it to be unforgivable pride or stupidity to think that impersonal abstraction can answer the vital problems of human, everyday life. Logical theorems, mathematical symbols, physical-statistical laws can never become patterns of human existence. To be human means to be concrete, to be this person here and now in this particular and decisive moment, face to face with this particular challenge. Existential freedom is always about being free in situations. Existentialism, so said Kierkegaard – although he never used the word existentialism - is the philosophy that best enables us to do this, because it concerns itself so deeply with both freedom and contingency. It acknowledges the radical and terrifying scope of freedom in a person’s life, but also the concrete influences on that person that other philosophies tend to ignore: history, the body, social relationships and the environment.
“Existentialism is also impossibly anti-everything else, and short of utilizing the imagination to invent new experiments in existence, leaves the imagination, and art, and love for that matter, utterly abandoned.”
Papi was suddenly like a person Mijo had never seen before. His father was a brilliant man, or at least one who understood the thoughts of other brilliant people. In his entire life Mijo had never thought of his father in any manner other than as a Mexican immigrant who worked with his hands. A hard worker and a loving father, if not somewhat of a man harboring a mystery. But now all those thoughts were shattered. Mijo sensed that there was even more to his father.
“Papi, tell me more of what you know.”
“Mijo, I don’t know anything but what God puts in front of me.”
“But you’re smart papi.”
The two drove on a bit. They were almost to the job.
“For now, I will tell you one last thought, Mijo. But only because to me it is such a perfect thought.
“The Jews have the concept of Tsimtsum, which is a mystical doctrine that says a person must withdraw from another to let that person in. Sort of the opposite of the German idea that people need other people, the Jews believe that other people need one only, and the enlightened person becomes humbled, or withdraws his personality in a relationship so that the other one, the beloved one, can flourish in their personality. The concept, like all things Jewish, flows from the idea that God withdrew from mankind to permit us to have free-will, to be freed from being consumed by His always present presence – pantheism - and given finitude, life itself, by Him as the delimiting space – the space between one logical process and the next - to continue God’s will, or to redeem the world by finishing His creation. By living as God’s will, or human beings.
“That’s an easy concept which I get. But here is the beautiful and serendipitous, even providential - which means from God - part to me. The typesetters called their delimiters – the actual blank pieces of wooden block that went between words to ensure that the left and right margins of the final page were flush, or fully justified, and which were equal in width to the width of the chosen letter font – ‘tapered spacebands’, and the rectangular metal mold which was the size of a book page that held the set type, a ‘matrix’.”
Mijo couldn’t help himself and yelled out “Matrix, like the movie?!”
Papi smiled and nodded, continuing.
“The linotype machine automatically filled each line of type with enough spacebands so that the final matrix of set lines was perfect. The machine, invented in 1888, sensed and calculated how many spacebands to drop to fill the line. The typesetter only chose the proper letters to convey the accuracy of the message within the vessel – the matrix, line by line - being formed. He never selected a spaceband. The vessel itself was self-constituting. The matrix created itself, so to speak, at least finally – after the typesetter’s work was complete.”
Mijo screwed up his forehead but said, “I think I understand . . . the machine was like a computer. But in 1888?!”
“It was just a simple machine Mijo, but it was an intelligent machine.
“To me, if man could invent that machine without knowing anything that we know today, how is it even possible for people, for all those so-called smart Germans especially, to believe that God can’t do anything, or doesn’t even exist, when God has already done the exact same things that mankind can do – God has done everything that mankind can do - but He has done them first, and infinitely better and more perfectly?! What my gran papi the typesetter was doing in his human task to help people read and get smarter about themselves was simply imitating the work of God!
“There is nothing really mysterious about the Jewish concept at all. God was a typesetter. And then He sat back and let people sit in their little spaces and create their world.”