Thursday, April 2, 2009

Camus and Gaia

The village of Lourmarin is today famous as the home of Peter Mayle, chronicler of life in Provence. Before Mayle another writer had a home there: Albert Camus. Since the reason for this stay in France is to research Camus, it was natural to visit his gravesite.

Camus and Mayle may both be writers who had homes in Lourmarin, but there the similarity ends. Mayle humorously describes local customs. His works float on the surface of things. The challenges of contracting local help to build a pool is about as deep as it gets. Camus’s works, on the other hand, take us to the depths of what it means to be human. More than anything, he was a searcher, writing to explore fundamental questions. Although Camus was a foe of organized religion, his fellow Nobelist François Mauriac referred to him as a typical homo religiosus, someone concerned with questions of ultimate significance.

Who was Camus? He is a Nobel Prize winner (1957) whose first novel The Stranger was an international best seller. He envisioned a three-tiered cycle of works. The first was to focus on what he called the “absurd.” The second would be built around the theme of “revolt.” The third was to explore “love.” The cycle was never completed. On January 4, 1960 Camus was killed in a car crash. He was 46.

Such an early demise left much unfulfilled promise. Camus’s works all revolve around three pivots: the natural world, the gods, and human beings. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the three realms were intertwined. Nature was full of portents, symbols, meanings. The gods were not only plentiful but a real presence in the nature of things, like Helios, the sun, Poseidon, the ocean, and Gaia, the earth. Humans, somewhere between, felt connected to both nature and the gods. Life may have been hard, but this was our home and if only we would read aright the signals from nature and the gods, things would go well.

In modernity, the intertwining fell apart. Nature, described by natural science, became a realm of impersonal forces, mere matter in motion. The gods became God the outside designer, a kind of clockmaker who fashioned his invention and then let it run on its own. Later, this god was dispensed with altogether. Humans, now alienated from both other dimensions, felt like strangers in a strange world. This situation was what Camus highlighted by the term “absurd.”
Camus's works experiment with what it might mean to alleviate the absurdity by embracing fully one of the three realms. His play Caligula explores the ramifications of taking on the role of the missing gods. Caligula, the emperor, is all-powerful. The result: random murder and continuous suffering for his subjects. In The Stranger, Meursault aligns himself with the indifferent working out of things characteristic of the natural world. He is a decent enough sort, responsive to simple pleasures (“I like café au lait”), and subject to whatever causal influences come his way. At home in the world, he is a stranger to society and its artificial ways. He is also incapable of love (unknown in nature’s realm of indifferent causal relations) and capable of murder (if the right causal forces are at work).

It is in The Plague that the human need for meaning and purpose is embodied in the “revolt” of the main character. Unlike Meursault, who lets himself be drawn completely into the natural realm, Dr. Rieux’s slogan is “I work against creation.” Relief of suffering is his goal. He is the most sympathetic of Camus’s characters. Still, in the end, Dr. Rieux admits having no real reasons for choosing to help people. With no guidance from either the gods or from nature, we are left with gratuitous, groundless resolve. For a heroic figure like Dr. Rieux, this works well. As a general motivating context for doing good, this leaves much to be desired.

Camus thus leaves us with stalemates. So long as nature, the gods and humans remain disconnected this is inevitable. Dr. Rieux is a hero, but there are no deep reasons for choosing, as he does, to heal pain. In the early 21st century when science itself has returned to the ancient language of Gaia, it may be that the ruptures defining the “absurd” will themselves begin to be healed. Then, perhaps, working reasonably with creation, not against it, will once again define good.

No comments:

Post a Comment