I did not have the room in my life for another compelling writer. I don’t mind more books and authors. I hope you understand that, but I did not need another one who would stare at me through the pages of his writing, who would draw, baffle, distress, please, and lure me into his world. There are too many writers that have already pushed and shoved their way into my life, leaving me little time to do much else than read them, try to think like them, teach them, and be dominated by them.
Shouldn’t it be enough for there to be a Faulkner, Melville, Dostoevsky, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Twain, Dickens, Eliot, Frost, and Solzhenitsyn in literature? Add to that, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, Greene, and O’Connor to blend literature and Christianity. Add to that a whole world of thought contained in those incredible Dutchmen like Groen van Prinsterer, Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, and Bavinck. Of course, there are the historians such as Christopher Dawson, Max Hastings, Thomas Fleming, David McCullough, and others. I won’t even bother to mention those people of whom dozens of biographies are written.
The case has been made and plenty of evidence has been given. Besides, I have to focus on American and British literature with a bit of Russian literature added in. There are no openings for Frenchmen. Nor for existentialists. Nor for writers whose books exude a depressing tone.
And yet, like a stray dog that shows up and woos the family, Camus has done the same with me. But it didn’t start that way.
Several years back, I read James Hilton’s delightful novel Goodby, Mr. Chips. It really is a fine story and is heart-warming, full of humor mixed with a few sad notes, and a book to return to often. The old 1939 movie version of the story was quite good also. With no set goal in mind, I then read Albert Camus’ book The Stranger. Both novels were published within ten years of each other–Chips in 1934 and Stranger in 1942. Both were short works–novellas, we might say.
The differences were stark, however. Chips is enjoyable, affirming, beautiful, and lyrical. It is a feel good book and is well written. Maybe it is the school teacher in me (with the added fact that I was a bachelor school teacher for many years), but Goodby, Mr. Chips never fails to delight me as a book to read or remember. The Stranger left me feeling cold and empty. The world it presented was cold, meaningless, empty, and ugly. I am not adverse to a strong, bitter taste of reality in reading, but this was over the top. I rejoiced only in that it was a short novel because reading hundreds of such pages would have caused a major internal breakdown.
Beyond seeing Camus as a good example of what I perceived as Twentieth Century philosophies of despair, I did not have much of a reason to pursue the man or his writings. It was later when I unexpectedly came across this quote:
“The World expects of Christians that they will raise their voices so loudly and clearly and so formulate their protests that not even the simplist man can have the slightest doubt what they are saying. Further, the world expects of Christians that they will eschew all fuzzy abstractions and plant themselves squarely in front of the bloody face of history. We stand in need of folk who have determined to speak directly and unmistakably and come what may, to stand by what they have said.”
The quote showed up in Os Guinness’ book The Dust of Death. Guinness, by the way, is always worth reading just for the many quotes, anecdotes, and literary, historical, cultural, and theological references he makes.
This led to the thought: Could it be that Camus was a Christian, culturally or otherwise? Or was he one of those insightful unbelievers who sees the Christian worldview–in part–in some ways more clearly than believers?
I wish I could say that I pursued those questions at that time (2013), but I didn’t. At the same time, I did not forget Camus either. The next actual step was when I got a set of books called The Nobel Prize Library. I really wish this set would be redone and updated with a special first edition sent to me free of charge. The set came out in 1971.
Each volume consists of selections by two or three winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, along with the Nobel Prize addresses each made. One of the volumes combines Camus (who won the prize in 1957 when he was only 44 years old) with Winston Churchill, who won the prize in 1953. In the spring of this year, I pulled the volume down and began reading the speech and the selection, which is Camus’ novel The Plague.
My next task was tackling a book titled Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism by Camus. This work was done as a part of Camus’ studies to receive a Master’s Degree. He was young and his ideas were still forming and the writing was technical. He covers the topics of Evangelical Christianity, Gnosticism, the contributions of Plotinus, and then the work of Augustine. The key issue is the confrontation of the Greek worldview with Christianity.
I must confess this about my first reading: I felt like I got pushed into the deep end of the pool. I thrashed around a bit and finally made it to the side where I could hold on. It took a second and more careful reading to begin appreciating this book more.
While this book won’t appeal to all or even many readers, I would like to make a few notes in regard to its importance:
First, the issues that Camus confronts are central issues to all of life and thought. The interaction of the Greek world and thought with that of Christianity is one of the great battles for the mind of all times. If, as has been said, all philosophy is but footnotes to Plato, then it is vital to see not just how the old dead white guys running around the beaches of the Mediterranean thought, but how such thinking still impacts us. Christian thinkers such as Herman Dooyeweerd and Cornelius Van Til (both contemporaries with Camus) dealt with Greek thought. The Christian runs into it on every page of the New Testament. So, whether Camus’ treatment is adequate or useful, it must be noted that he was dealing with the issue for the thinking Christian.
Second, the book is worthwhile reading for all students of Camus and modern literature. While much might be said in criticism of modern literature–and I am thinking primarily of the post-World War I writers–they came out of the last phases of classical education. They were in line with the great traditions and saw themselves as the heirs to the Great Conversation, to use Mortimer Adler’s world. These writers (meaning, men like Camus and T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, James Joyce, and others) may appear as being rootless, undisciplined, and overly cynical people, but they worked with care and precision. They knew the Greeks, the knew the Church Fathers, they knew the literary canon, and if they rebelled, it was on the basic of knowing and disagreeing rather than on the basis of ignorance.
This edition has ample footnotes that connect things Camus says with his essays and novels. As one who is working on my Camus Kindergarten certificate, I can only nod and hope to look up the passages later. The point is that Camus’ thoughts here are later brought out in his fuller works.
Third, Camus is a powerful figure in the modern, or post-modern, or pre-post-anti-modern, or confused world we live in. Being a student of American and British literature, I have not crossed paths with him much until recently, but that only speaks to my limits and not Camus’ influence. Sometimes the impression is given–in some circles of the modern and secular age–that Christianity has been relegated to the museum of antiquity. Camus was not a Christian (or at least not when he was writing), but he confronted Christianity in a different way than the usual skeptic or angry agnostic. He said, “I often read that I am atheistic; I hear people speak of my atheism. Yet these words say nothing to me; for they have no meaning. I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”
Was this just a profound sounding bit of muffle and puffle? Is this just another version of “Truth is the sound of one hand clapping” or other such idiocies? I think not. I think Camus was a rootless and faithless man who experienced bad health, brilliant thinking, and World War II in occupied France. As current Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan said or sang, “Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts….” But, to borrow from Dylan again, Camus always seemed to be wanting to wake up to what was real. He was a searcher and a seeker.
And this leads me to the next book: Albert Camus and the Minister by Howard Mumma. This account was written by a Methodist pastor who was preaching in Paris during the 1950s. He got acquainted with a quiet man who began attended worship services. Mumma and Camus began meeting and discussing the Christian faith. It is surprising how often Camus was asking the most basic and simple questions. (We often think that thinkers live in an alternate universe.) It is comforting how Mumma was giving basically solid biblical answers. (Yes, there was a time or two when I cringed over Mumma’s theology, but I was surprised at how sound it was.)
In recent weeks, I have picked up copies of The Fall (a novel) and Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (essays) and a biography of Camus by Oliver Todd. I’m afraid I’m hooked. I don’t have time for this, and who will ever pay me to talk to them about Camus? But here I go nevertheless.