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Jacques Maritain’s Farewell to America with Elizabeth Fourest
Now, 30 years later, she paints an intimate portrait of Jacques and his daily life when he used to come and stay in her parents' apartment in Paris, and she describes his farewell trip to America that took them to his old home in Princeton, and to Thomas Merton's hermitage in Kentucky. This is a wonderful way to get a glimpse of the man behind the philosopher.
Format: straight interview. A good companion to The Man Who Loved Wisdom.
Under the name of Elizabeth Manuel, she is the author of: Cette Ombre Familière/Dark Companion, translated by Judith Suther, published by Starbooks/L'Étoile, (Bilingual Editions), Fax: 704 547 3496.
She can be contacted at: Fax: 00 33 14 77 12 047
It was in Paris that Jacques Maritain, one of the greatest Catholic philosophers of the 20th century, lived out much of his life. Im Jim Arraj, and my wife Tyra and I are here to visit Elizabeth Fourest. When Jacques was in his 80s, and she was in her 20s, he used to come to Paris and stay with her parents. In 1966 he made a farewell trip to the United States and took Elizabeth with him to help him cope with its details, and to share with her some of the people and places that had made America so special to him. It was a trip that was to take them to Jacques old home in Princeton, and Thomas Mertons hermitage in Kentucky. Her vivid memory of those times gives us a wonderful way to look at the man behind the philosophy.
Elizabeth Fourest: My parents knew Jacques Maritain, not personally, but by his books, especially my father who is a converted Jew. When he was young he knew the main works by Jacques Maritain because he was in spiritual research. Then he converted. When Raissas diary was published in 62 or 63 my mother, who was the public relation in the family, wrote to Jacques Maritain to tell him how deep was the impression on her and on my father reading Raissas diary. I think the letter was a beautiful letter. I did not read it. Immediately, just a few days later, Jacques wrote and he said, "When I come to Paris next month, may I come and see you?" It was really something. Heavens were falling down on us, and in our flat in Paris. Jacques Maritain asking us to receive him as if it was OK. One or two months later we went to the Hotel Lutecian where Jacques was going when he was going from Toulouse to Paris. We were waiting for him, and we could see him coming from far away with his blanket on his arm, and the pipe in his right hand, coming, old and very young at the same time. He was coming just right to us, and it was exactly as if we knew him since always, and then we took him in our car to our home, and we had dinner with him, and really, it was not the first time he was here. Really, it was as if he knew each of us. He was looking at us, each of us, with his blue, bright attentive eyes, and asking questions, even asking questions to me. I was a really young person. He was serious and at the same time full of a sense of humor.
After dinner I remember we were in the living room, and he was sitting in a pale green armchair, and we were all sitting at his feet on the carpet. He was much more than a grandfather. He was a great, great friend always. In the summer when he was going from Toulouse to Kolbsheim he had to stop in Paris because the trip was too long and he had to rest a bit. And anyway, he had always some friends to see in Paris, and he needed to have a place to meet them. Then my father had a study in the back of our apartment, and this study was Jacques room when he was at home. I dont think I was conscious, but now I am quite conscious that it was a privilege to have this Jacques Maritain at home, and to be able for me to come and knock at his door, especially in the evening before dinner, and I could hear, "Come in, Babette, come in." He knew that it was me. He was writing with his tiny, tiny writing, and when I was entering the room, he just stopped. He turned to me and he put his pipe in his mouth, and I was sitting on the edge of the bed, and we were speaking of anything. He was always listening so deeply, and we saw such a real attention. He was really interested by what I was telling him about my studies, about my relationship with somebody, or about my music, that I was terribly shy at that time, but with him, no. That was something I was discovering. Then he just asked what I wanted to be asked. He asked the question I wished never aside just in the heart of the things, or the heart of the problem. And we were laughing together. He was so funny. He could see things with a very sharp eye, and we laughed because it was funny. He could be very severe about some people he knew. He liked them, or he did not like them, and he said why with such a sincerity. And sometimes he asked me to sing some old French songs he liked very much, and I know very many old French songs from the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. At that time I was playing the guitar, and I took my guitar, and while I was sitting near him, he was listening especially to a song he liked very much. It was "Jesus Christ is Blessing Himself Like a Poor Man." It was a song that Leon Bloy was singing, and he liked it very much, and Jacques knew of this song because of Leon Bloy. Then I sang some songs without being in a hurry, very calm, and he was listening sometimes with a sad and nostalgic light in his eyes, and I knew he was thinking of Raissa at that time. And one day he told me, "My turn. I want to sing for you." And he had small hymns he was singing with Raissa and Vera when they were the little community. It was sad enough because I could guess how deeply sad he was inside singing these songs.
Many people were calling at home to see him, and I dont know how they could know that Jacques was there, and Jacques asked my mother to be severe, a guardian, not to let anybody enter at all to visit him. And when he said yes to somebody he did not know, maybe he had received a letter and he had been moved by this letter, he said to my mother, who was his secretary at that time, helping him, he said to my mother, "Please just a quarter of an hour. When these people come, you look at your watch, and just a quarter of an hour. I am too tired. I dont want anymore to meet new people. A quarter of an hour." OK. Then my mother welcomed these people, and entered Jacques room, and after a quarter of an hour my mother came to the room and just opened the door, and said it was the end of the meeting, and Jacques said, "No, no. Please. Thats OK." Then one hour, or sometimes more, people were there, and one day I could see one of these people with their hands in Jacques hands, and it was not the only time I could see that. Jacques always had a violent primary reaction before meeting people, but he in front of these people he was moved. He had to give them what he had to give them, and what they were expecting from him.
I was not very happy in my studies. I studied. I was learning Russian for my pleasure and doing some music for my pleasure, everything for my pleasure, and I did not know what to do exactly in life. Jacques could see I was not comfortable in my skin. One day in 66 he was at home, and at dinner he suddenly told me, "Babette, I never dream, but last night I dreamt that you were coming with me to USA for my last trip to USA because I have to do it next fall. Do you think this dream could be true, really?" It was a nice and very delicate way to ask me. Really, it was a dream for me, of course. Then I told him, just directly like that, "But of course. Yes, yes, it would be wonderful. When?" He said, "OK. You will help me. I am too old to do a trip by myself, and you will be my secretary and my eyes and my ears, and above all, I wish you to meet some American friends of mine because I think the French people dont know enough of how the American people can be splendid, great, wonderful, and I want you to be able to speak about these American people that you will see to speak about them in France." OK. Then October we left Paris together. Really, I dont think I was really conscious. Now I am really conscious of this extraordinary thing to be with Jacques in a plane, and to be with him en route to the United States. It was the first time I was flying to the United States. This month with him I thought each day that Jacques was younger than any young man I could have met during my life, and it was such a refreshing relationship. We lived in Princeton in Arthur Loires home it was before the Maritain home but Arthur Loire was financially in a very bad situation, and when Jacques and Raissa came back to France they gave their house to Arthur. Then Arthur was still living, but half living, half dying at that time because he was very ill, and he was in the hospital and he died just two days after we arrived in the USA. It was very sad for Jacques. It struck him, and we were welcomed by Nini Borgerhoff, of course, and by Arthur Loires wife, Ella Loire, and it was all the Russian atmosphere. Jacques was afraid of the Russian side of Ella Loire. Ella was a very nice person, but very Russian, and he had a crowd of cats, a sea of cats, and Jacques did not like that at all. I dont remember, but I think generally speaking he did not like cats. But these ones were terrible because they were climbing up the tables and trying to drink out of Jacques glass, and climbing on Jacques lap, and no, no, he did not want to touch them. "Please, Ella, take these cats out." He was really unhappy.
In the evening when Ella was going to bed and Jacques was going to his room, and I accompanied him to his room, he was sighing like that. We had two rooms on the first floor, and from my room I could hear him singing in a very, very low, low voice, the canticles that he was singing before with Raissa and Vera. It was very sad, and it was a very old, tired man, sad because he had lost everything because he had lost Raissa. It was something hard. I could see the paintings on the walls, and it was extraordinary. Jacques told me that when Raissa entered the first time in this house painted by André Girard, one of their dear friends, and she saw the painted paper on the walls on the first floor, she told Jacques, "I cannot live here. It is impossible for me to live in this abundance of flowers and butterflies. I cannot." I can understand her. I need white walls. But then she lived there, of course, and with these paintings on the walls, of course, because André Girard had painted them with so much love for them that it was impossible to do otherwise. I remember when we were in Princeton and he wanted to go to the cemetery to find Veras tomb, and we could not find it. We spent one hour walking along the alleys, and I could feel Jacques near me. He was full of anguish, and full of anger. He was angry because he told me, "I was always sure that it would happen. Veras tomb. Nobody is here to take care of it, and then it has disappeared. And now nothing. It is so awful." I could see Jacques talking more and more in a loud voice. There was a poor little sister there, and he ran to her like a violent wind, and he told her, "Where is Veras tomb? You know. It is Vera Oumansoff. Where is her tomb?" And the poor little one was completely of him. Probably she did not know at all who he was. She said, "Please. We will find it." And at last we found it. It was in another place very far from the place where we were. Really, I could see at that time how angry and violent Jacques could be. But it was rare.
Physically Jacques was very beautiful, and I think when he was young we have some photographs and we could see that he was really a beautiful man, the sort of beauty outside and inside. In 63-66 we could see he had been a tall man, but he was a bit bent because he was old, but wonderful white hair, and first of all the eyes. For me his eyes were something unique because his blue eyes could be very full of tenderness, and sweet, and welcoming, and it could become very, very hard in some occasions. Very hard when he was reading something that he thought was not true. Then I think the love for truth was in him, even for little things in life. His eyes were changing when he was answering you on a subject or a problem. Suddenly you could see him going inside, and the external world did not exist anymore just for a few minutes. He was reflecting, he was thinking. I could guess the movements of his thinking during the silence because he was silent before speaking, and then he closed his eyes, and he was speaking with his eyes closed when it was a difficult problem and he had to be very concentrated. Then no blue eyes any more. He was just speaking like that. It was very impressive. It was the movement of his thought.
He had always a blanket because he was cold, and he had to have something to be warmer. And the pipe, of course. And eating. Oh, I remember him just one day going to the kitchen and telling my mother, "Its me. Its not you. I would just like to do some scrambled eggs." Then he did some scrambled eggs with a white apron on him. He always had a brown velvet jacket, and generally he was buying this sort of peasant clothes. It was like a jacket like the farmers have in the country. In the evening when he was in bed, he was reading sometimes some detective stories to go to sleep. He loved that. He had a whole collection of detective stories.
We met John Howard Griffin, and it was great meeting him, really, and I could see how deep was the friendship between the two men. And with John Howard Griffin and with Msgr. Eden, I think, we went to Kentucky to see Thomas Merton. He was waiting for us at the gate of the monastery. It was a splendid fall with colors, the fall colors of the trees and the whole nature. It was something extraordinary. And then it was the most brilliant, the most joyful, the most witty visit that we had during this month in the USA. Thomas Merton took us to his hermitage. It was a small house, not in the convent, but in the fields. We went by car through the fields, no roads, just a small path. Then this house with two small rooms, a fireplace, a working table, photographs by Thomas Merton on the walls, book, many books, and fields and quiet and peace and silence, and sometimes deer passing in front of the windows. And then Thomas Merton welcomed us there, and Jacques was sitting in an old armchair near the fireplace, and John Griffin with his eternal camera photographed everybody, and Thomas Merton speaking about everything, about Vietnam, about American mentality, about God, about eternity, about the Holy Trinity, about drugs, about everything. Life. Life in its totality. And it was brilliant. And Jacques was suddenly younger than ever in front of this Thomas Merton, who was really a natural force. Thomas Merton read for us some poems from Bob Dylan, and then we could hear the songs. And it was really extraordinary, because Jacques, Merton, John Griffin in this hermitage with splendid nature around, and this tiny little house in which the whole world was concentrated.
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