Tag Archives: existentialism

A Very Happy Death

Albert Camus, 1957.

Disclaimer: this is probably a very unfair synopsis of Camus’s early novel, A Happy Death. But I will synopse (is that a word?) it anyway. Another disclaimer: I am more irritated with Camus’s publishers than with Camus, who never meant the novel to be printed.

Enter Act One. Patrice Mersault is a young man who is very dissatisfied with his life. But he likes his girlfriend Martha. Make that he likes showing off with his girlfriend Martha. Or that he likes showing off with his companion—interest—image—Martha whatever. Then he finds out (gasp!) that his girlfriend has a past. The mirror smudges. He wants a list of boyfriends. Martha gives it to him. He doesn’t know one person on it. He wants to meet him. Boyfriend is a very thoughtful amputee. Mersault likes talking to him enough to come back and shoot him. Curtain.

Enter Act Two. Mersault visits Europe to find happiness. He hates Europe. Mersault visits friends to find happiness. He gets bored. Mersault goes home to find happiness. He buys a house in the country and achieves a new sense of reality. He gets sick and dies. He feels connected to Martha’s boyfriend as he is dying. Curtain. Applause.

Camus’s writing style and imagery are remarkable. And the first part of the book is fairly good—the death of Zagreus, Martha’s boyfriend, feels real. But the second part of the book feels disjointed, and Mersault becomes extremely irritating—walking around trying to achieve a higher level of reality while writing off his murder to “innocence” since it doesn’t disturb him.

The only other time that I have rooted for the death of a main character is in Macbeth. I first saw the play done as a staged reading, and all the characters wore such similar costumes that by the time I figured out who Macbeth was, he had gone bad. So I spent the rest of the play enjoying my anticipation of his death. And Shakespeare did not disappoint me.

Maybe I simply have a different personality than Camus did and therefore cannot take Mersault seriously. (Thought leaks from all corners of the novel, which does not help.) But I doubt that a personality difference is the only reason I find Mersault’s meditations (read: self-absorption) annoying. I really, really wanted him to die an exceedingly painful death—perhaps not physically painful, but painful in that all his illusions are stripped away.  But no. Mersault never suffers as a result of his murder; rather, he succeeds because “he had created his life with consciousness, with courage.”

Camus’s existentialism permeates A Happy Death in a frankly ugly way. In Camus’s later book The Plague, he suggests that fighting human suffering is the way to find meaning in a meaningless world. A Happy Death is the opposite scenario—finding meaning in a meaningless world by making choices centered around yourself. Existentialism, without a basis for morality, has room for both scenarios.

The young Camus wrote this end to his book: “The ascent stopped. And stone among the stones, he returned in the joy of his heart to the truth of the motionless worlds.”

But here is an alternate ending—if not poetic justice, the justice that suits, at any rate, this very amateur poet.

“And when Macbeth awoke from the dead, he crossed the sea to North Africa and thought to commence haunting the living. Upon looking in the phone book he came upon Patrice Mersault’s name and decided that, since it began with the same letter as his own, he would pay him a visit. The ghost found Mersault sitting at his kitchen table, breathing shallowly.

“’I will be conscious without deception, without cowardice,’ gasped Mersault. ‘I shall be the blood brother of Zagreus. I who have inflicted death am going to die.’

“’Oh?’ said Macbeth. ‘What did you do it for—power? Or money? Maybe a woman? Did the witches come to you, too?’

“’I did it in the innocence of my heart,’ said Mersault.

“’You are an idiot,’ said Macbeth. ‘Have you had last rites?’

“’I wish to return to the motionless worlds in the joy of my heart.’ Mersault laid his head down on his elbows. Unfortunately as he did so his moving elbow accidentally flung a glove that had been lying on the table into Macbeth’s face.

“’Oh, so you wish to die fighting?’ asked Macbeth. ‘Good man!’ And he promptly knocked Mersault on the head.”

If only.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 14, 2012 in Realistic Fiction


Tags: , , , , ,

A World Beyond Healing?

Once upon a time, in a land not very far away, the thought of the Black Plague did not give me the creeps. But then one day there came The Evil Educational Technology Project. The project that I unwisely chose to do on the Black Plague. The project that required a main character (mine was a plague doctor wearing a creepy beaked mask). The project that also required a video attachment (I did not use the one that robbed me of sleep and sanity). By the project’s end, my skin crawled whenever I worked on it. If my reaction sounds extreme, I have only two excuses—an overactive imagination and the creepiness of the material itself. Few diseases have wiped out 70 to 80% of a population, as the plague did in medieval Italy. Cases of plague are today nearly unheard of, partly in thanks to better sanitation. But plague can pass from person to person as well as through fleas, and there is no absolute guarantee that it will never break out again.

Albert Camus, the French existentialist philosopher, capitalized on that terrifying prospect in his novel The Plague, in which the disease strikes the French-colonized city of Oran in North Africa. For a year the plague ravages Oran. Cut off from outside help, the people struggle in an aloneness that Camus uses to represent a universe without God. Camus suggests that God must not exist because of the human suffering and death that the plague symbolizes.  And earth’s people, like the people of Oran, are left to decide their response. The moral of the story? Be a healer. No matter how terrible the world is, do not lose your humanity. The moral sounds very good, of course—but in a world without any secure standard of goodness, defining what true good is impossible. How can we prove that the looters aren’t right? What reason is there to heal when the world is beyond healing.

The priest Father Paneloux tells his parishioners about Abyssinian Christians who, during a time of plague, wrapped themselves in the garments of the plague-stricken to show their self-surrender. Appreciate their zeal, says Paneloux, but do not go to their excesses. Yet, contrary to Camus, Someone has already done that. Someone wrapped Himself in the filthy garments of our plague, taking it upon Himself. Isaiah 53 says he bore our “griefs,” which can also be translated “diseases.” Jesus Christ suffered with out plague, and then He died.

Like Albert Camus, G. K. Chesterton centered one of his novels around the problem of suffering. Unlike The Plague, that novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, is a detective story. Gabriel Syme is commissioned to infiltrate a group of anarchists—a difficult problem enough. But not all the anarchists are what they seem, and Syme faces fear, confusion, and betrayal before the real anarchists are uncovered. Near the end of the story Syme demands to understand why events were allowed to unfold as they did. The only answer: “Can ye drink of the cup I drink of?”

Yahweh is hardly immune to suffering; rather, being a larger personality than any of us, he has experienced more of it. Given his knowledge of all things, His presence everywhere and in all times, and His deeply sensitive nature, perhaps it is more accurate to say that He has experienced all of it. Can we imagine? Do we want to?

In the end, Yahweh’s answer to our questions is found in his name—“I AM.” Toward the end of his life, even Camus found that his former answers could not satisfy him, and he began to seek the Christianity that he had previously turned away from. Some have tried to stop suffering—and have failed. Others have attempted to approve of suffering—another failure. And still others, like Camus for much of his life, have tried to transcend suffering on their own. They, too, have failed. In a world that desperately needs healing, the only solution is for us to seek our Healer.

Leave a comment

Posted by on October 31, 2012 in Realistic Fiction


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Becket and Becket: To Know the Truth

I often have to be careful to keep my self from conflating the names of Samuel Becket and Thomas á Becket. Part of the reason for my easy confusion is that, while I’ve heard about St. Thomas since high school, Samuel Becket isn’t quite as well known. That sounds odd—Samuel Becket, one of the most famous playwrights of the 20th century, not well known. But St. Thomas is hard to avoid, whether learning about English history, world history, or ecclesiastical history. Or T.S. Eliot.

A medieval seal showing the murder of Thomas á Becket.

Like Becket—Samuel, that is—Eliot was a modernist, and inclined to question whether meaning could be found in the changed world of the 20th century. But Eliot ultimately found very different answers. He joined the Anglican Church. Eventually he wrote a play about Thomas á Becket’s death called Murder in the Cathedral. (American author Flannery O’Connor read it while in the hospital, and the nurses concluded that she was a mystery fan. Not quite.)

It was largely the coincidence of last names that brought Eliot’s play to mind after reading one of Samuel Becket’s, Waiting for Godot. To summarize Waiting for Godot is difficult, even ludicrous—two men are waiting beside a country road for a third man, Godot, who is supposed to be coming. As they wait, another man comes by with his human beast of burden on a rope. He stays. He leaves. He comes back. He leaves. Godot does not come. The two men continue waiting. And the play ends.

Becket’s play is notoriously difficult to interpret–in fact, that obscure quality is among the reasons for its success. (Warning to young writers–please don’t try this at home. It doesn’t work for most people.) Is it autobiographical? Political? Focused on ethics? Some have attempted a Christian interpretation, based on the play’s religious references and imagery of a hill and a tree. Becket himself was not at all forthcoming about the play’s meaning. He freely admitted that he was very familiar with the Christian “mythology” and that he used it in his works, but if Waiting for Godot was intended as a Christian allegory, Becket never admitted to the fact. Perhaps there were so many elements that went into Becket’s writing of the play that it isn’t possible to settle on one interpretation. One of the philosophical interpretations–that of existentialism–seems to most easily encompass the others.

Existentialism, to my limited study, involves the belief that there is no inherent meaning in the universe–or, if there is, humans are incapable of finding it. One response to this belief is nihilism–denying meaning altogether. Existentialists reject nihilism and thus, in a universe without meaning, must create their own meaning. And this meaning must be found through living–theory alone is useless.

Becket’s two waiting men, Vladimir and Estragon, are trapped in a pointless world. They have no apparent goals beyond meeting Godot. At the play’s end they consider suicide, but they find that they have no practical way to kill themselves. They talk about leaving, but do not leave. Godot has sent a boy as a messenger, but he has not come, and there is no sure sign that he will come. Yet Vladimir and Estragon continue to stand on the hill, seeming to derive their personal meaning from waiting for Godot, whether or not he comes.

Eliot’s Becket lives a very different existence. Faced with the choice between being faithful to the Church and being friends with the King, Thomas á Becket chooses the Church, and the death that comes with it. St. Thomas, like Samuel Becket’s characters, is doing something that does not entirely make sense. There is no sensible reason for Vladimir and Estragon to wait for a man who clearly isn’t coming. And St. Thomas seems to be risking his life for no benefit, even in the eyes of his fellow clergy.

“You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown….
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent.”

On the surface, St. Thomas’s actions appear similar to those of Becket’s characters. He behaves in a seemingly irrational way for the sake of protecting the meaning in his life. Yet there is a difference. Becket seems to have believed that knowing truth is not possible. St. Thomas, on the other hand, believed that truth was knowable because God is knowable. Rather, it is the future that is unknown. And because the future is unknown, we should base our actions on what is knowable–truth. It’s a very opposite way of looking at things compared to our postmodern culture.

I would say that if existentialism were true, then we ought to follow it. The way of Vladimir and Estragon would become necessary. But how can something that denies truth be true itself? It’s a tautology without a solution.

While Becket’s characters waited, Eliot’s Becket acted. He opened the door of the cathedral, refusing to hide behind the physical buildings of the Church. He knew the truth and, as Christ said in the Gospel of John, became free. In the words of the play:

“It is the just man who
Like a bold lion, should be without fear.
I am here.”

Leave a comment

Posted by on September 4, 2012 in Plays


Tags: , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: