In search of French past (1)

Marcel Proust in 1900

Marcel Proust

In this part of my story, I focus on the French influences in my life.   In “Of Hebrew Remnants and Greek Republics,” I mentioned that after failing my medical supplementary exams in February 1960, I registered for a B.A. I wanted to start “pure” philosophy courses straight away, but these could only be taken in the second year of the B.A. My first year subjects were Psychology I, Sociology I, Hebrew Special, Greek, and Roman Literature-and-Philosophy.   I was having lunch with some friends in the cafeteria. The cafeteria was on the ground floor of the distant building in the picture. Its windows faced the side with the white pillars. Jameson hall is the large building on the left.


Jammie steps (Jameson Hall)

Jammie steps (Jameson Hall)


English: A la recherche du temps perdu In Sear...

English: A la recherche du temps perdu In Search of Lost Time. My thoughts went to that great work by Marcel Proust when I came across this scene. One wonders what hopes and ambitions went into this place, now gone for ever, lost on the edge of a modern housing estate. People have to live somewhere. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the students at the table was studying French Elementary. His French textbook (Brooks and Cook) was lying (French gisait) on the table in front of him like a dead thing. Something stirred within the bowels of my being. I picked it up, opened it at random and began to declame in francais (?). I was amazed when someone said, “very good.” Comment est-ce possible! (“How was that possible!” Comment if you think that is possible).I knew less French than Peter Sellars. And he only knew “minkey” and hotel phrases like “Have you got a rhume?” Flu?). Was some kind of anamnesis (remembrance of things past) going on. It was the Greek philosopher, Plato, who said you don’t learn anything new; you knew it all the time. It’s all recall.  I am reminded of living Jews who believe that in some mysterious way they were also present with Moses at Sinai. If they were not brought up in this tradition, this does not mean, according to this view, that they were not “at” Sinai but merely that they have no recollection of being there; they have merely forgotten and need to recollect. Is some kind of reincarnation involved? (Reincarnation and Anamnesis (recollection) in Judaism).

The following year (1961) – my second year BA – I registered for courses in pure philosophy: ethics I, logic and metaphysics I (which went together) and political philosophy I. The second-year courses in these subjects were regarded as Majors (where the usual Major consisted of three courses). I added Hebrew “Special” (see here) and French Elementary to the academic year.

In the 1960s, foreign language courses were grammar based as they had been in the past. In the grammar approach you learn the elements of the language to build up sentences and progressively bigger chunks of language. Nowadays, foreign language courses are much more communicative where you start with using the language and then home in on the grammatical elements. The grammar approach is a much quicker way to learn a language but it has a major drawback: you have to learn lots of rules, which – without a well-oiled noggin – can be taxing. If, however, you’ve got a high EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient) you can still learn a foreign language – if not as well with a high IQ; it may just take a little longer, which is fine, because if you have a high EQ, you won’t mind waiting a little longer for your sweeties. 

I threw myself into Brooks and Cook’s  two French books for beginners; the green, volume 1, and the red, volume 2. The green was for “go; you can do it,” the red for “hmmm, are you sure French is your thing? Both books had to be completed in a single year.

Because my focus is on the French influences in my life, I shall omit unrelated events.  At the end of 1961, having passed all my courses and the second year of the B.A. (I write about my first-year medicine here), I decided to go to Europe for a year. I would finish my B.A. when I returned in 1963. My parents, Issy and Fanny, were baffled about what I was doing the previous two years. But Issy kindly continued to pay my fees. They knew I was doing “Feeloshofie”. So, they possibly reasoned, maybe it’s possible to get a qualification in the philosophy of life at university, and work myself up, and maybe own the university one day. But isn’t it a bit meshugah (crazy) to have to pay for such a qualification? Issy put up with my meshugas. At least his son was at university. Issy did many kind things for me that I never appreciated enough. For one thing, he let me change my university course from Medicine to Philosophy, he not having much idea what Philosophy was except that it didn’t sound like you could make a good living from it. And now, he was paying – asking no questions – for me to go to Europe. I planned to spend six months in England and nine months in France. Issy would pay for the fare and give me a small monthly allowance of 25 British pounds, which I would need to supplement with jobs in Europe. I departed in December.

The South African Airways fare from Johannesburg to London was expensive. The Overseas Visitors Club was offering a much cheaper fare. There was also the option of returning home by ship on the Union Castle Line. There was a snag though. In the Overseas Visitors Club option, you couldn’t fly Cape Town-Johannesburg-London but had to take a much more round-about route from Lourenço Marques (now called Maputo) in Mozambique to London. Included in the fare was a two-day train trip from Cape Town via Johannesburg to Lourenço Marques (Maputo) a distance of about 1800 kms The plane to London was medium-size grey propeller plane. The cabin was much narrower than modern planes with two seats on either side of the passageway. We made a stopover in Chad.

In the Chad airport terminal, I saw a Chadian in flowing robes with two women in tow, who could have been his wives or daughters. I’d never been to a Muslim country before, or been out of South Africa. I was warned that one thing you never do is stare at the women. The two “wives” were covered from head to foot in flowing peacock blue. Only their eyes were showing. One of them had the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen. I couldn’t stop staring at her. She was also staring at me; pleading for me to whisk her on to my white horse to escape her cruel husband – who was too busy to notice. It must have been a fleeting moment but seemed forever. Suddenly I swept her into my arms and onto my Arab stallion and made a dash for the exit, her father/husband in pursuit, slicing the air with his pearl-handle scimitar. We wrenched our eyes away from each other. 

After a few hours wandering like a Jew round the markets outside the airport feeling blue, peacock blue, I boarded the plane for the next stage from Chad to London. The flight over the Sahara took half a day. I arrived in London in the middle of a very cold winter. The first thing I did was buy a dark blue duffle coat. 


Related:  In search of French past (2): English Effluence



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