The Pastor, the Penseur and the Infidel

  In School years after the Orphanage: Wellington. I mentioned the influence of Andrew Murray. Here is Murray in front of the Dutch Reformed Church, Wellington (South Africa).

andrew murray closeup

Andrey Murray – Dutch Reformed Church, Wellington           

  The next photo is Auguste Rodin’s Le Penseur, The Thinker.  

rodinRodin’s Le Penseur

What a strange connection to make! –  a brooding naked Penseur and a soul-searching man of the cloth. If you strip away the form from the substance, not strange at all. They both had an obsession: Rodin’s obsession was to transfigure stone into flesh; Murray’s obsession was to exchange stone for flesh: “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). For Rodin, the heart of stone must come alive; for Murray, it must be replaced. Le Penseur was originally attached to Rodin’s larger work, the Gates of Hell. Perhaps Murray, sitting on his chair in front of the church,  is studying the busy faces of people wandering by, wondering how many were on their merry way to Hell. Very unJewish! How was a sensitive Jewish non-intellectual to have any inkling that half a century later Murray’s statue would spring to life and feed my hungry soul?  There is more: it was Andrew Murray’s grandson, Professor Andrew Murray, of the University of Cape , who, less than a decade later, was to become my professor of political philosophy. Murray’s explanation of Plato’s levels of reality, between rancid puffs of pipe, remains etched forever in the minds of his students: “There’s the real (shadows, images, things), the really real  (understanding) and the really really real (intuition) – and so forth.”  (My brackets). The reals and really reals were spoken in a thick Afrikaans accent, but the “and so forth” was plum “Oxford.” Professor Murray studied for his Doctor of Philosophy degree at Oxford. Let me say something more about Auguste Rodin: When I was in Paris in the 1960s, I visited an artist. Finished and half-finished paintings covered the walls. Easels, brushes and twisted tubes of paint were scattered everywhere. A scruffy sofa and other soft furnishings hinted that the room was once a lounge. The artist had a son called Jean-Baptiste. He was about 14 years old. Jean-Baptiste and I went to visit the Rodin Museum. When we came upon “The Thinker”, Jean-Baptiste stood very still in front of the marvelous sculpture. I asked him what he was thinking. What else would you ask somebody gazing in rapture at “The Thinker”? Jean-Baptiste replied in a quivering voice: Ça me donne le cafard “It gives me the blues.” I was surprised that such a young person could be so affected by this kind of art. But I was forgetting that Jean-Baptiste was from an artist family. We walked around the museum and looked at other Rodin sculptures.  Jean-Baptiste limbered along. I tried to cheer him up, but it was no use.  He had, it seemed, lost all hope, all belief; in retrospect, he had – already at 14 years of age -lost the desire to live. I was also quite down in the dumps. Years later, I heard that he had killed himself. He was in his early twenties. I thought back to the cluttered “salon” that was his home. Did it have any connection to Jean-Baptiste’s turbulent soul? I often think of Jean-Baptiste, looking so limp and sad. Ça me donne le cafard. Expressions are always interesting, whether of faces or words. The French word “cafard” is of particular interest. It derives from the Arabic word kafir “miscreant, unbeliever, infidel.” “Infidel” is the figurative meaning of kafir. The literalmeaning is “cockroach.” A Muslim calls an unbeliever a cockroach. When, however, Jean-Baptiste said Ça me donne le cafard, he didn’t mean that he felt as depressed as a squashed cockroach. Cockroaches just don’t get depressed, and seldom squashed. No nuclear bomb under his butt can rattle a cockroach’s peace of mind. So then, what is the connection between cafard and cockroach? Le cafard has its origin in the French colonies of Algeria and Morocco, where soldiers of the French Foreign Legion suffered acute boredom stuck in their stockades. For entertainment, they took pot shots at the enemy within – cockroaches, les cafards. In the old South Africa, kaffir was a term used by whites to describe black people. When I was at the Orphanage and in Wellington, I hardly saw any black people. Most of the non-whites in Wellington were mixed raced “coloureds” (black-white progeny). The only black man I knew was the one I used to visit at the back of the Homestead in Wellington. I knew that “kaffir” was a derogatory term, but I would never think of my black friend as a “kaffir.” Of course, no white person – unless he was an etymologist – had any idea that the root idea of “kaffir” was cockroach. Most people know more about cockroaches than about the origin of words; they know more about entomology than about etymology. For this reason, during the Apartheid era, South African whites, in general, would’ve had no idea that kaffir meant not only an infidel but also a cockroach. But, even if they had known the dual meaning, that would not have stopped them from using the term; rather, it would have added a laugh.

3 thoughts on “The Pastor, the Penseur and the Infidel

  1. Hi Raphael,
    I have just spent several hours reading all you have written ab out your life and Oranjia, the Jewish Orphanage. I also grew up there and would like to make contact with you. Please email me at the above email address.

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