In his great work Homo Viator, Gabriel Marcel reflects on the problem of despair, the threat of meaninglessness and absurdity, and the stance of defiance against reality as we find it (and whomever is responsible for it). He discusses the philosophy of the atheistic absurdist Albert Camus in a chapter entitled “The Refusal of Salvation and the Exaltation of the Man of Absurdity.”
Marcel regards this kind of absurdist approach not so much as a real philosophy, or a solid position that can actually be defended, but rather as a “contagion” and an “infiltration by which evil can reach our very foundations.” But, if there are no rational foundations to such an attitude, how does it reach us? How do we get infected with it?
Marcel points to “three main ways by which this evil thing can reach us.” One way is by suffering through traumatic, negative events that seem to upend and mock the hierarchy of values and thus threaten to twist our minds. I submit that one such event—to some—might be the feast which we celebrate today: the feast of the Holy Innocents, the senseless slaughter of infants. As Marcel says, “The events which assail us can at any moment devastate our existence in such a way that we no longer see anything stretching around us but the undefined no man’s land of universal inanity…[and] absolute nihilism.”
Another way in which this evil can reach us involves a tedium vitae, a “boredom and disgust with living, …encouraged by inhuman conditions.” Especially over much time and experience of life, when we see so much potential wasted, so much good twisted, so much of the triumph of evil in this world, life can gradually wear us down so that we are tempted toward—or even just gradually fall into, without even noticing or deciding—a sort of cynical negativity about human affairs. This involves not just one overwhelming event that knocks us for a loop, as above, but an ongoing series of many reversals, disappointments, and sadnesses that may gradually overwhelm after many years. I submit that yesterday’s feast and the long life of St. John the Evangelist might represent—to some—this danger. From such a perspective, John could be seen as a mere lowly fisherman, never married, persecuted, tortured, exiled, and finally such a feeble old man that he could hardly walk and talk. Such events can lead to a “rupture, or more exactly a loosening, of the ontological bond which unites each particular being to Being in its fullness…an ontological traumatization.”
A final danger that Marcel describes is a stubborn refusal to accept the possibility of any answer to the difficulties, sufferings, and crosses of life—as if to do so would be to blind oneself to the reality of the evils and therefore superficialize them and no longer do them justice. Thus the absurdist wants to stand defiantly against any possibility of an answer to his assertion of meaninglessness, despair, and absurdity: even to stand defiantly against the possibility of a Saviour. Marcel says, “we have here, first and foremost, the claim not to allow oneself to be consoled: this claim implies a pride…[which] accounts for the refusal to consider the signs, numerous enough for whoever takes the trouble to notice them, of a supernatural intervention….” The feast of St. Stephen Protomartyr on the first day after Christmas seems to correspond to this temptation.
It is the reality of the unseen world—which Stephen saw as he died—which gives us the only perspective from which to overcome these temptations to meaninglessness and despair, to giving up on life as we near its end, to allowing ourselves to be twisted by traumatic reversals. St. Stephen rejoiced at his death (and entrance into eternity), begging forgiveness for his murderers. St. John never “gave up” in his enfeebled old age, but in the light of Christ—and only strong enough to mumble one sentence—kept repeating “Little children, let us love one another!” In the liturgy of the Church on this feast of the Holy Innocents we rejoice in the “infant Martyr flowers…Beside the very altar, gay with psalms and crown, ye seem to play; All honor, laud, and glory be.” Such attitudes, a scandal to the worldly soul, have their justification only in the reality of the unseen world and the humble acceptance of our need for penance and for help. Truly, as we sing all week in the octave of Christmas, “Today is born a Savior, Christ the Lord.” He is indeed the Son of God made man, the entrance of eternity into time, the answer to the temptation—whatever its source might be—to meaningless, absurdity, despair, and defiance.