Before I left my room, I put a copy of Albert Camus’s Lyrical and Critical Essays in my black carrying sack with the red letters The Tennessean marked on it. I walked across the Potomac on Key Bridge — one of the world’s loveliest vistas — to the Metro stop. The train came along shortly. On board, I took out the Camus, essays mostly from the early 1950s, and thumbed through it. I had already read most of the essays, even rereading “The Rains of New York” and “The Enigma” a couple of days previously. In fact, many of these touching essays have a special place in my heart. They describe cities I never saw around the Western Mediterranean — Palma, Oran, Tipasa, Constantine, Ibiza. I am always surprised when I miss something. More so, when I do not.
But as there was one essay that had no tell-tale marks of my pencil, I began to read it. It was called “Summer in Algiers.” I got off the Metro to finish the essay waiting at the bus stop. I kept thinking about it. Indeed, I wanted someone to read it to me, just so I would be sure it was as moving an essay as I had thought. Someone else’s voice often makes things more real than our own silent reading of the same words.
What I remembered most was this sentence: “But I can see no point in the happiness of angels.” I thought, how odd such a sentence is. Does Camus not know of Lucifer? The whole point of angels, I thought, is precisely their happiness. In the most famous discussion about angels, not all angels chose happiness, some chose themselves. St. Ignatius, in fact, almost as if their fate has something to do with us, asks us to consider the sin of the angels, not their happiness. But what did Camus mean exactly — no point to the happiness of angels? I tried to sort it out. I began to suspect that not only could he see no point to the happiness of angels, he could see no point to the happiness of men.
Another sentence thus riveted my attention. “In the Algerian summer I learn that only one thing is more tragic than suffering, and that is the life of a happy man.” Happy angels have no point, while happy men are tragic. I have often maintained that joy is a greater mystery than suffering. We are much more hard pressed to explain our delights, to explain our splendor than to explain our pains and sufferings.
The account of Christ, no doubt, hints that suffering and joy can belong to the same life. Indeed, it suggests that suffering may be a way to joy. But the life of the angels does not involve suffering, though it does involve will, and hence good and evil. Christ had to become man to suffer. And He had to suffer because of will. Joy was His original lot. Joy is prior to suffering and hence its end.
I looked more carefully at Camus’s theme. He was struck by the stark beauty of Algiers. He described the life there as intense, yet over quickly.
People marry young. They start work very early, and exhaust the range of human experience in ten short years. A working man at thirty has already played all his cards. He waits for his end with his wife and children around him. His delights have been swift and merciless.
There is only life’s living, its duty. Existence is without hope and therefore, so he wished to tell us, it is tinged with a kind of nobility, the only reward there is. Camus described the lives of the people he met. A sense of empty hopelessness pervaded his observations, but this was his thesis about all reality.
Camus wanted to think that any hint of hope or joy beyond its immediate living corrupted the experience of living itself. “For if there is a sin against life, it lies perhaps less in despairing of it than in hoping for another life and evading the implacable grandeur of the one we have.” Here again is the classic skeptical thesis, one Camus shared with Marx, that those who believe somehow cause life to be less intense, less profound, less pleasurable, less attentive. The truth is pretty close to the opposite.
Plato, to this point, is our guide here. Diotima in the Symposium maintained that the experience of a single beautiful thing — every bit as existential as Camus could want — hinted at a beauty beyond itself in each thing’s own beauty. Indeed, if it did not, the actual experience of beauty or joy would not be fully seen for what it is. Paradoxically, if the Christian experience is “unbelievable,” it is not because it promises an eternal joy but because it wholeheartedly acknowledges a present one. The Incarnation is not designed to make joy less intense but more so. In Scripture the Incarnation is described in terms of nothing less than joy, great joy.
But what is it that Camus saw in his Algiers?
Everything here can be seen with the naked eye, and is known the very moment it is enjoyed. The pleasures have no remedies and their joys remain without hope. What the land needs is clear-sighted souls, that is to say, those without consolation.
Camus sought to enhance the naked eye, the clear-sightedness. He sought to console by denying hope to joy.
Yet Camus remains a reductionist of sorts. It is not the pleasures or the sights or the joys themselves that are without hope. These remain what they are, realities whose very existence, whose mystery remains within them because they do not explain themselves. Evaporated of their unavoidable tendencies to what is their source or origin or destiny, they do not remain themselves. What Camus described was pleasure or joy, minus the “bloom” — Aristotle’s word — that made it pleasure or joy. Pleasure without hope is next to despair. Joy is most poignant when it is most joy. That we have here “no lasting city” was not intended to lessen our joys but to guarantee them as joy.
Camus wrote of his Algerians:
One can find a certain moderation as well as a constant excess in the strained and violent faces of these people, in this summer sky emptied of tenderness, beneath which all truths can be told and on which no deceitful divinity has traced the signs of hope or redemption. Beneath this sky and the faces turned toward it there is nothing on which to hang a mythology, a literature, an ethic, or a religion — only stones, flesh, stars, and those truths the hand can touch.
Aristotle said that man is a being composed of a mind and a hand. When man touches the stones, the flesh, and the stars, the truth that his hand touches is not merely the stones, the flesh, and the stars — though they are real enough, and also what grounds him in something other than himself.
In the Symposium of Plato we read, “The true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth. . . ”
The point of angels is precisely their happiness, their choosing what is not themselves. Because he missed the point about the happiness of the good angels, Camus missed the point about the unhappiness of the fallen ones.
Our joy is most poignant when it is most joy because it must be freely given and freely received. “Joy is the fruit of liberty well used.” Without this there can be no happiness. That is the point, even for angels, even for ourselves.