Sunday, November 13, 2011

"an ignorance that tries to negate nothing"

It has been quite sometime since I posted anything about my dear Camus. Albert Camus, along with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Robert Spaemann, Jacques Ellul, George Orwell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Saul of Tarsus, Augustine of Hippo (Camus' fellow North African), Hans Urs von Balthasar, Luigi Giussani, Joseph Ratzinger (even prior to becoming pope), Karol Wojtyla, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Anthony Bloom, Thomas Merton, Eugene Peterson, Milan Kundera, David Foster Wallace, and W.H. Auden, is one those whose thought has not only deeply influenced my own, but has shaped and formed me. No such list is ever complete, but I think I have captured those whose contribution to my formation, for better or worse, is major and permanent, as opposed to minor and/or passing. Yes, it is an eclectic group.

Reading my opening paragraph I feel compelled to write that this is not an exercise in tedious name-dropping, but one of reflection and rumination a few days after my forty-sixth birthday. What prompted this reflection? An article by Robert Zaretsky that appears in Tablet, a magazine that claims to be "A New Read on Jewish Life." The title of Zaretsky's article is "Camus the Jew". Making all of this even more personal is the fact that Camus was born on 7 November and died in a car accident, which some have speculated was a suicide, in 1960 at the age of 46. I doubt anyone, with the possible exception of George Orwell, has influenced my political thinking more than Camus. Zaretsky also wrote a book on Camus, Albert Camus: Elements of a Life

The subtitle claims that Camus "died an atheist." I think making so bold an assertion pushes the matter entirely too far, especially when we look at the blabbering idiocy of the so-called "new atheists," such as Dawkins, Harris, and their ilk, whose philosophically sophmoric rants would not merit a passing grade in an undergraduate philosophy class. I think Camus is more accurately described as an agnostic. He was agnostic about many things, that is to say, ambivalent. I use the term "ambivalent" in a qualified and precise, or psychological, sense, meaning simultaneously occurring positive and negative thoughts and feelings s toward the same person, object, or action, having the effect of drawing a person so conflicted in in opposite directions. While he was an expelled member of the Communist party who became an insightful critic of scientific socialism that is, Marxism and its terrible spawn, he was no fan consumeristic, laissez-faire, capitalism. He was far too humane to be impaled on either horn of this vicious and false dilemma.

Camus in 1957- lifted from Zaretsky's article

Apart from the unfortunate introduction, which was may not have been written by the author, "Camus the Jew" is a very good article about Camus' life-long friendship with many Jewish people and his championing, against the cultural grain, of the rights of Jewish people. The most colorful of Camus' Jewish friends mentioned by Zaretsky is philosophy professor André Benichou, a Jew who Camus and his wife Francine came to know while living in Francine's hometown of Oran, Algeria. Apparently it was Benichou's practice to proclaim "his atheism at a local café every year on Yom Kippur, Good Friday, and the first day of Ramadan." Camus was deeply offended by the Vichy regime's anti-Semitic laws, which is partly why he was living back in Algeria at the time. He vehemently denounced Vichy's Nazi-inspired laws and defied them at every opportunity. After World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel, Camus remained a staunch supporter of the Jewish state to the end of his life.

Zaretsky notes that Camus' bond with the new state "was a political bond" due to Camus' (cherished) estrangement from the French left, which, Zaretsky notes, "had grown deeply anti-Zionist in the wake of the Suez War." This brings to my mind the stir created at the recent G20 Summit at Cannes when the French president, who is of Jeiwsh descent on his mother's side, and who is as obnoxious a political leader as there is in the world today, who, along with the rest of E.U., remains in the grips of an odd and disturbing animus towards Israel, even tilting towards anti-Semitism (one under-reported element of the surge of Islam in Europe is the resurgence of a lot of anti-Semitism, like the desecration of Jewish graveyards). What was surprising about this incident was not that Sarkozy called Israeli prime minister Netanyahu a liar, but the disappointing agreement of Pres. Obama, who is certainly no friend of Israel. Camus' reasons for supporting Israel, Zaretsky continues, "still echo today: Not only must Europe accept Israel’s existence as the only possible response to the continent’s complicity in the Final Solution, but Israel must also exist as a counter-example to the oppressive rule of Arab leaders."

Zaretsky may be correct to assert that Camus was "naïve" to hope that Israeli democracy, of which Camus would almost certainly not have remained uncritical, would serve as an example for Arab leaders. He goes on to suggest "that Camus’ attachment to Israel was existential" noting that Camus' "plea for cooperation and collaboration between Jews and Arabs in Israel echoed his pleas to his fellow pied-noirs and Arabs in Algeria." Zaretsky cites Camus' journey "to Algiers in 1956 to urge a civilian truce between Arabs and French Algerians." While he was there he noted "that Arabs and European settlers were 'condemned to live together'" as evidence of his assertion, noting that his assertion about the necessity of living together was falsified by subsequent events, noting that the parties in Algeria "instead concluded they were condemned to kill one another—a conclusion, were he alive today, [Camus] would urge both Israelis and Arabs to avoid while there is still time."

What I am most interested in is Zaretsky's application of Camus' notion of the absurd, which colored how he viewed everything. To my mind, faith does little to make the world seem less absurd. In fact, in light of Christ's crucifixion, faith arguably adds to the absurdity, something about overcoming it by embracing it. "Job and Sisyphus," Zaretsky notes, referring to the biblical book and Camus's essay The Myth of Sisyphus, "are heaved into a world shorn of transcendence and meaning. In response to their demand for answers, they get only silence. Herein lies the absurdity, Camus writes: It is 'the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together.'"


Zaretsky article ends with this fascinating insight:
We think we know how the story of Job ends: Rewarded by God for his loyalty, Job is paid back with even more children and sheep and property. But is this the ending? A number of biblical scholars suggest the Job we hear in the final chapter, the one who accepts and resigns himself to God’s power play, is not the same Job we hear in the preceding 40 chapters. Instead, he is a throwback to an earlier story that was grafted onto the otherwise perplexing account. Instead, the real Job is Camus’ Job. He is a Job who answers God’s deafening and dismal effort at self-justification with scornful silence
Every year I re-read published fragments of a talk Camus gave to the Dominicans of the monastery of Latour-Maubourg in 1948. In his remarks he asks, "By what right, moreover could a Christian or a Marxist accuse me, for example, of pessimism?" He goes on to defend his philosophical approach by asserting,
I was not the one to invent the misery of the human being or the terrifying formulas of divine malediction. I was not the one to shout Nemo bonus or the damnation of unbaptized children. I was not the one who said that man was incapable of saving himself by his own means and in the depths of degradation his only hope was in the grace of God. And as for the famous Marxist optimism! No one has carried distrust of man further, and ultimately the economic fatalities of this universe seem more terrible than divine whims.

Christians and Communists will tell me that their optimism is based on a longer range, that it is superior to all the rest, and that God or history according to the individual, is the satisfying end-product of their dialectic. I can indulge in the same reasoning. If Christianity is pessimistic as to man, it is optimistic as to human destiny, I am optimistic as to man. And not in the name of a humanism that always seemed to me to fall short, but in the name of an ignorance that tries to negate nothing
It seems to me that it is this "ignorance that tries to negate nothing" that constitutes Camus' agnosticism. While clearly not identical to Giussani's method, which teaches us to let the nature of the object and the situation determine the method, it bears more than a passing resemblance. Both seek to overcome ideology, the all-pervasive sway of the powers. What Camus took exception to in his remarks to the friars is the reduction of Christianity to an ideology. It's a good thing that the Church has taken to heart many of these criticisms and set about correcting them.

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