In search of French past (3): French philosophy, Paris and fleeing the OAS

In “In search of French past (2), I described the English “effluent” in my life. I never took to things English but was drawn more to the continent. Why antipathy to English culture when my first language (the language I knew best) was English. I say English was my first language, which is not the same as mother tongue. Children of immigrants, – my parents were Yiddish-speakers – often do not speak their mother’s tongue, which is what we mean by a “mother tongue.” I can think of two reasons for my dislike of English culture.

The first reason originated during my school years at Wellington High School (Grades 10-12).  I was doing poorly at school but began to improve in the middle of Grade 10. I remained poor at English literature. I had spent my early childhood in an orphanage (ages 4 to 9) where there was no story time, and no books that I was aware of. I don’t remember ever being read a story, or reading one. The Orphanage started out as a home for orphans, but ended up as a refuge for children from broken homes. Here is an excerpt from Professor Abrahams message in Eric Rosenthal’s out-of print ”The Story of the Cape Jewish Orphanage: Golden Jubilee 1910 – 1961”. The Orphanage was demolished two or three decades ago:

“Jewish standards of philanthropic endeavour generally and the loving care lavished on orphans in particular are proverbially praiseworthy. Of Oranjia it can be said that it has maintained that tradition at the highest level.  The very name is characteristic: we do not speak of the “Orphanage,” with all the unhappy Dickensian nuances attaching to such a name. We call it “Our Children’s Home” or simply Oranjia (the name of the original house); because the little inmates are our children and their dwelling-place a home in the noblest sense of the term….it is eloquence of the Jewish spirit and influence of Oranjia that throughout the fifty years, very few of our children have gone astray.”

If only Professor Abrahams  had remembered his Bible: “All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6a). That is why we need a mediator, as we read in the rest of the verse: and the Lord has laid on him (the Messiah, the suffering Servant)  the iniquity of us all. (See The Cape Jewish Orphanage (5) – Chief Rabbi Abrahams and Dr Verwoerd: the not-so-odd couple).

When I was at home (ages 9 to 12), it was the same story; no stories, no books. In my senior school years (15-17), I preferred pubescent adventure stories like Biggles, eventually graduating to Jeffery Farnol’s “The amateur gentleman” and Rafael Sabatini’s “Shame of motley.” Swinging down from masts, swinging a cutlass; action, acting a part, to escape being; being cut off. The story of the Suffering Servant, the Lamb who was cut off (Isaiah 53 above), that’s the story of all stories, in whose radiance all other stories pale. God has redeemed and transformed my lost stories into the image of the Son he loves – and written me into the Lamb’s book of life. His story has become my story.

Cutlass

Cutlass

The second reason for my growing aversion to English culture was my early Catholicism. I entered the Catholic Church in 1960 at the age of 19, during my second year at university (see here). Most Catholics – in the 1960s at least – considered Anglicans to be heretics. Therefore, I reasoned, Englishmen are heretics. Today, of course, most Englishmen are either agnostics or “ignostics.”  [1]

The continent, especially France, was very Catholic. But wasn’t Italy (in the 1960s) just as Catholic as France, even more so? What did France have that Italy didn’t?  France was more appealing because during my First Year Philosophy, my Catholic professor of philosophy Martin Versfeld introduced me to French Catholic philosophers such as Jean Guitton, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. Gilson’s philosophy was in the Thomas Aquinas tradition. In my first few years of Catholic fervour,
Etienne Gilson

Etienne Gilson

I, like any sensitive Jewish intellectual convert to Rome, spent many hours reading Thomas Aquinas. In Catholic seminaries, three of the first four years of study are devoted to Greek philosophy, mainly Aristotle. Aristotle is central to Catholic theology because Thomas Aquinas ((1225 – 1274) built much of his theology on Aristotle.  The bulk of Catholic theology derives from the dazzling intellect  of Aquinas whose Summa Theologiae/Theologica covers almost the whole of Catholic theology. He stopped working on it the year before he died in 1274. (Thomas Aquinas: Philosophy and Education in the Middle ages).
The fifth of Thomas Aquinas' proofs of God's e...

Thomas Aquinas

I so wished I could read these French writers in the original, a wish that came true when I renounced the intense desire for friends, but never for neighbours, when I caught the French fever. “Grammaire” gave me goose bumps. With French and neighbours, I was the richest man in town. There’s a  hit song of the  1950s called “Friends and neighbours.” Mine was “French and neighbours.” Here are my lyrics adapted from “Friends and neighbours.”

When you’ve got French and neighbours

All the world is a happier place

French and neighbours

Put a smile on the gloomiest face

Here is Billy Cotton’s version.

Besides philosophy, Professor Versfeld also knew what was cooking. One of his memorable stories was how to make a seafood chowder. In his Food for thought – a philosopher’s Cookbook, we learn all about “the art of slow cooking, thinking about what you are cooking, and—most importantly—thinking while you are cooking:

“The art of preparing and eating food is inextricably intertwined with the meaning of life. There is nothing better than preparing, talking about, philosophizing over, and finally partaking in a slow and languorous meal, especially once the the mind set is adopted that making time for something is an expression of love. The Philosopher’s Cookbook is the manifesto of one of the great minds of today: a cookbook, a philosophical enquiry, and an essay on the human predicament.” (The blurb of the book).

versveld

Another cookbook that had a big influence on my life was a French one: Brooks and Cook’s “French Elementary,”  my first French grammar. There were two of these books: 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 for you? Both books had to be completed in a single year. At the beginning of 1962, after the second year of my B.A., I decided to go to Europe, especially France. I would finish my B.A. when I returned. My father offered to pay for my ticket and give me an allowance of 25 pounds. After three months in London I took the ferry to France (See In search of French past (1).

I arrived in Paris in February, 1962.  and booked in at a youth hostel. Paris was in turmoil because of the mayhem caused by the “OAS”  Organisation de l’armée secrète –Secret Army Organisation,” who were planting bombs all over Paris.

The bombing campaign was a reaction to President Charles de Gaulle’s declaration that Algerians had a right to decide their own destiny. As a result, he proposed a referendum for the Algerians. Algeria had been a French colony since 1830 and became independent in 1962.

A few days after my arrival at the Youth Hostel, several cafes were bombed and people were killed.  After watching the TV of one of these incidents, I pulled out my map of France looking for a safe haven far from Paris. I chose Strasbourg, in Alsace, on the Eastern border with Germany. I don’t know why I chose to go East; it may have had something to do with the name “Alsace,” which I associated with the Alsatian dog of my childhood. My brother, Sammy called him Mannetjies (little man) after the Springbok rugby player of the 1950s, Mannetjies Roux. I was fleeing the centre of French language and culture, Paris-Isle-of-France, for a region where the locals’ cultural language was, it seemed to me, a  Yiddish patois, but was in fact a low Alemannic German called Alsatian German – Elsässerditsch ; French – Alsacien. Alsace has switched between French and German control several times.

I enrolled at the University of Strasbourg in a French course for foreigners.


[1]   Here is a comment from a Jewish admirer of her rabbi. “Why is what is definitely not a new story “a big deal”? Not only has Humanistic Judaism been around for quite some time, but I remember decades ago a hooraw [a commotion] about a self-proclaimed “ignostic” rabbi .. He refuses to call himself “agnostic” because he thinks it is IN PRINCPLE possible to know whether or not God exists, just that we do not know. (A distinction constantly elided in the sacrosanct Popular Usage of “agnostic”).” I thought that the “agnostic” simply believes that he doesn’t know; not that he claims that it is not possible to know. Most atheists claim there is no God because they claim to know that they can never know. If they go up in a space ship, will they find God! NOOOO. Zilch. That settles it.

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