THERE IS A CERTAIN bizarre and unreasonable attraction about the existentialists — as if amidst all the ridiculous and fatuous statements they made, there was here and there a phrase in which, while utterly inexplicable, one can nonetheless find some deep resonance. This is especially true of Camus, who (for me) is instantly the most convincing of that lot, and – perhaps because of that – the one most naturally separable from them.
Camus, I read somewhere, had a particular phrase or concept or perhaps even idée fixe that constantly resurfaced in several of his works: the morning of the world, or les matins du monde (as Camus rendered it in plural). In La Mort hereuse, “this morning of the world” appears, and in L’Été we find “in the morning of the world”, as well as saying of Algeria that “The world began there every day.”
Ever the son of Algiers, Camus was unwilling to pretend that those Algerians who were fighting to divide their country from the French mother which had both nurtured and oppressed it were heroes, nor was he willing to turn a blind eye to the inhuman terrors often unleashed by his fellow pieds-noirs in reaction to terrorist outrage. Camus understood the words later enunciated by Solzhenitsyn that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.” The simplistic divide between good-guy and bad-guy (today so easily made from the suburban comfort of Washington, D.C.) was apparent to Camus in its falseness. So, to the outrage of his intellectual confreres in Paris and elsewhere, he leaned towards the side of the colons.
One of the most convincing and forthright things Camus ever said was following his acceptance of the Nobel prize: “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before I will defend justice.” Camus’ nourishing mother was Algiers, the city in whose streets he observed the beauty of the mornings of the world. He was willing to stand up for justice, but when maman is threatened, how could he not abandon Justice to defend her? Wouldn’t you do the same?
One feels for Camus in that his entire world, with its in-built frames of reference, was destroyed. He was forced, by circumstance, into exile in the very country which his fellow French Algerians proclaimed their patrie – their fatherland.
It brings me to curiously inspect my own condition, being born and raised in New York but certainly most at home, at comfort, and at ease in Scotland (and England and Ireland). I am, when you strip me of all the addendums of circumstance, a Celt, and these islands have been our home since time immemorial (at least so far as I am concerned).
Our family name, however, is not Gaelic-Irish but Norman-Irish, pointing back to the region of La Guyenne and the town of Cussac-le-Vieux from whence two brothers came forth seeking fame and fortune in the subjugation of Ireland. History often provides those amusing and unexpected turns, and while the Normans found favourable conditions in Ireland it turned out to be Ireland who was conquering them rather than they who were conquering her. In short, it was the Normans who became Irish, rather than Ireland becoming Norman, and so nous, les Cussac today bear the name of Cusack instead.
From time to time, some people (who wish to either flatter or insult me) accuse me of not being American. I dislike it precisely, because I am American, a fact redolently plain to me but which defeats the minds of simpletons. If I can confess a bit of egotism, because of my brief-but-formative experience in Argentina as a teenager, I sometimes feel that I am even more American than most Estados-Unidenses. I have had an experience of the America outside the United States – a vast and oft overlooked world: nos otros Americanos.
Of course the Irish are even in Argentina. I was chatting the other day with a Cork-born woman and we were discussing that the Irish have crossed the globe and ended up pretty much anywhere worth going to, and if it wasn’t worth going to before, it is now since the Irish are there.
Can we really divide the inherent from the incidental? I doubt it. It all goes into the pot, and just you try sorting it out again. And yet, my American-ness, inherent and ineradicable as it is, still seems but an addendum to the blood that flows in my veins.
Romanitas is thrown into the pot as well, since the Empire of Rome survives in that most ancient yet ever-new of institutions, the Church. Rome’s imperator has been replaced with a pontifex maximus, not the one who commands, but rather the Servant of the Servants of God, today a curious little man from Germany whose very appearance at a window sends our hearts just that littlest bit aflutter.
No matter how depraved or sinful the Catholic may be, somewhere deep down he is still touched by the grace of baptism. He will commit the most revolting adultery against a sick and dying wife, and leaving the garret of his latest paramour he retraces his steps through the streets back to the woman to whom he committed his all, and, passing the church along the way, the door of which he has not darkened for some years, he unthinkingly makes the Sign of the Cross, and for one moment the veil is lifted — all the accidents stripped bare — and he is exposed for who he truly is.
Some Catholics, however, are not content unless they feel the perpetual weight of oppression, continually warning us of the latest threat or lurking menace and attempting to convince us to be wary of everything. These people perhaps view worry as their calling in life, and indeed even for the rest of us there is much to worry about. There are — as there have always been and will always be — serious men who wish to do harm to faith and morals, and have significant resources they intend to devote to that destructive task. But bathing ourselves in perpetual doom and gloom accomplishes little except the surrender of our temperament to the control of our enemies.
I hope I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist but a realist. If worry is a vocation for some, I know it is not mine. Like Camus, I always return to the mornings of the world. I find myself continually taking refuge in beauty. It reassures me, tempers me, encourages me. Sometimes, when I least expect it, it even wounds me, but then it succours me in reparation. It’s a painting in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in La Rochelle, viewed just once, but haunting the mind ever since. It’s the humiliating jest, well-crafted by a good friend and delivered at just the right moment. (We should be grateful for every humiliation dealt us by our friends, lest we have humiliation dealt us by our enemies). It’s most of all evident in people, who in both their individuality and their community reflect the most mysterious God: the Holy Trinity.
We ought to take heart from the beautiful things of this world, which undoubtedly point to the even deeper splendour of the next world. Even when they are abused or perverted or obfuscated, there is something deep within, that innermost thing that attracts, which somehow points us back to the Eternal, else we would not be so drawn to it.
Others, those who think only of this world, will worry or despair. As for me, so long as the Lord allows me to take pleasure in the simple but striking beauty of a freckled face resting on the green grass in the sun — dans les matins du monde — I will be happy and grateful.