High school reading grapples with death
By Brian Caulfield
My sophomore son had some strange summer reading. I was so intrigued by the books – and wary – that I did it with him.
Perhaps many of us had to read Albert Camus’ nihilist novel The Stranger sometime in high school. But have you ever heard of The Egyptian Book of the Dead and Going Forth by Day, a hieroglyphic reproduction and translation based on a burial scroll of a man named Ani, who died some 3,500 years ago? Although the first book was for Literature class and the latter for World History, the two texts worked together to introduce a foreboding figure of death into our otherwise sunny summer.
When I read The Stranger some 40 years ago in high school, it appealed to my teenage, non-conformist spirit that was always looking for ways to frustrate the adult establishment. The book fed a desire to shape the world in my own image in a way that an introvert preferred. Not by making friends and influencing people, but by doing quite the opposite – refusing to recognize the boring norms of society which dictated that a son must mourn his mother’s death in a certain way, and a man had to pursue marriage, money and worldly reputation. The main character/narrator even kills a man he does not know for apparently no reason – blame the heat and the sun in post-war French Algeria – and he ends up rejecting even society’s right to judge and punish him.
Yet reading the novel this summer, I was struck by how dull and shallow it was. The narrator Meursault is incredibly selfish and sensitive. I pictured him constantly picking his nose, pulling hair from his ears and scratching his underarms like an insolent adolescent, obsessing with his body and physical needs in a vain effort to prove that the soul is imaginary, nothing really matters, and if you try to argue with him he could not care less anyway.
Camus propounds an absurdist philosophy, to show that life has no meaning and death is the end of everything, but his attempt comes off as comical. His lack of depth and reason become evident when you consider that he spent years carefully writing and editing this little book to show that no one can really say or do anything of meaning. It’s like the relativists of today telling us that there is no such thing as truth and you better believe it. There is an internal contradiction to anyone who claims that life has no meaning because man by his nature is a meaning-seeking creature who must choose to do something.
Then there’s Ani and The Book of the Dead. My son reasonably asked why his Catholic school is requiring students to read a pagan text of such bizarre religious beliefs and practices. I had the same thought, and told him he was reading it not for religious instruction but for historical knowledge. It could also serve as a lesson in why Jesus came, to save humanity from such distortions of religion that would have animals as gods, and jealous gods at love and war. The book comes from a scroll, buried with the mummified Ani, that tells the story of his movement through the afterlife. There is the weighing of the heart to detect sin and virtue, the appeals and prayers to many gods so he can move past them to the next stage, the deification and eventual revivification of the body that can again “walk by day” on earth.
Certain themes sounded biblical beyond the overarching hope of the resurrection of the dead. I explained to my son that the similarities don’t mean that one religion is as good as the other, or all religions are basically the same, as so many say today. No, the similarities reflect the common Creator who instills in man a human nature that yearns for truth, meaning, love and life everlasting.
Although plagued by pagan distortions, I said, the ancient Egyptians were closer to the truth than the French Algerian author who grew up in a Christian culture. At least Ani hoped for union with God and life beyond the grave, while Camus, the self-centered absurdist, went to great lengths to deny both.
That is what I learned this summer.