Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Ecclesiastes 9:1-10) transports me back again to the 1940s city of Oran, Algeria. I’ve long been fascinated with this north African city, largely because of the stories my dad told me of the time he spent there in WWII. And I’m periodically drawn back to the works of Algerian writer Albert Camus, who used Oran as the setting for his novel, The Plague. The book is a perfect vehicle for Camus’ philosophy of Absurdism, a school of thought that reflects on the dissonance inherent in humanity’s incessant search for meaning in this patently meaningless universe. The book begins with Oran becoming infected with the bubonic plague; the city is eventually quarantined from the rest of the world until the epidemic can run its course. Various characters in the novel make an attempt to discover or make meaning of their lives as they confront the chaos of random suffering and their own mortality. I especially love the character of the eccentric municipal worker Joseph Grand, whose name suggests that even though he is stuck in a dead-end job, he harbors grand plans for his life. His hidden dream is to be a great writer and wow some publisher, who will react to his first novel by heartily exclaiming to his editors, Hats off, gentlemen! Grand eventually divulges his secret, revealing to his friend that he is working on a novel, but confesses that he can’t get past re-working and re-arranging the first sentence; he has spent months trying to get the prose perfect. We get to see a draft of that opening line: One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne. Though his work may seem eccentric and frivolous to some, Joseph Grand is in many ways Camus’ hero. His odd but whole-hearted attempt to forge meaning and find elegance in the midst of meaningless life and inelegant death perfectly illustrates the Absurdist way, a way that is opposed to both the nihilism and the delusional life that other schools of thought offer.
I thought of Camus and The Plague when I read today’s passage in the Nuevo Versión Internacional, which ends verse 9’s mandate to enjoy your life with the love of your life during all these meaningless and fleeting days with the exclamation ¡cada uno de tus absurdos días! – every one of your absurd days! The truth is we are all suffering, the sage of Ecclesiastes reminds us, from a fatal disease, an absurd plague of sorts. It’s called life. Every last one of us is gonna die from it, no matter how we live. We are all – the good and the bad, the just and the unjust, the religious and the atheist, the sane and the mad – on a journey with the same destination: the cold clay from which we came. There are various “therefores” that different philosophies offer in response to this existential crisis we all have to face. One is nihilism – give up and commit suicide. Another is escapism – create a fantasy world and live delusionally, resisting the reality that the world is indeed chaotic and absurd. That is the course of many (but certainly not all) practitioners of religion.
The third course, the one advocated by Camus and the sage of Ecclesiastes, is to live life to the fullest, in spite of the absurdity. ¡Anda, come tu pan con alegría! ¡Bebe tu vino con buen ánimo, the wise poet tells writes. Go, eat your bread with joy! Drink your wine with good cheer. And whatever work your hands find to do, he adds, do with great gusto. That counsel holds true, whether you’re a village priest struggling to offer a nourishing word to people starving for grace, or a doctor desperately trying to ameliorate the suffering of the dying, or a writer wondering whether sorrel is the best way to describe a horse and whether the avenues of the Bois de Boulogne are indeed flowery. What a defiantly absurd and yet elegantly beautiful expression of faith, one that certainly seemed to have appeal for Jesus as he dealt with the meaningless margins of an occupying empire by offering the plague-ridden community his version of a loaf of bread and a jug of wine and thou, and by putting his hand to the plow with more gusto than either the nihilists or escapists of his day could handle.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.