I have always viewed Christianity as a thorn in the side for Albert Camus. He was constantly fascinated by it, but also critical. As far as anyone can tell he was never willing to completely accept its profound truth, although he came much closer to this prior to his death. With this in mind, Ronald Srigley’s dynamic translation of Camus’s Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism is the true starting point for anyone interested in studying Camus’s complex relationship with Christianity.
In this book, one of Camus’s earliest works, he examines Christianity with respect to ancient Hellenism and the advent of modernity—a topic he revisited frequently throughout his academic career. Yet in this work, Camus specifically studies the profound characteristics of the Greek world and Greek philosophy, the ways in which Christianity was at odds with these elements, and how this separation contributed to the origins of modernity. The book is divided into four chapters, each tracking a particular development in the “Greek-Christian-modern” movement. In the first chapter, Camus examines Biblical texts and early Christian writings in order to ascertain the novel aspects of Christianity in comparison to Hellenistic thought. In the second chapter, Camus puts forth the new thesis that Gnosticism was an attempt to reconcile Greek ideas of reason with the emotional and mystical aspects of Christianity. In the third chapter, Camus engages in extended analysis of Plotinus’s Enneads as he further elaborates on both the longing for God and the need for rationality. In the fourth and final chapter, Camus offers his analysis of Augustine’s writings as an attempt to fuse Greek thought with Christianity.
Overall, Camus’s book is a thoroughly innovative and candid endeavor. It directly appeals to the struggles of the “modern person.” As such, Camus echoes the sentiment whereby in “learning to see once again the sacred in everything around us we may find relief from both the elsewhereness of our religious hopes and our modern, willful attempts to realize them” (xiv). But is this the type of hope the “modern person” is really searching for? Or is it a merely a band-aid for the time being?
When studying works of literature, particularly poetic works, it is tempting to issue labels—modern, postmodern, nihilist, reactionary, formalist. Yet many works cannot be cleanly categorized; they transcend and overlap their purported labels. It is with this sentiment that James Matthew Wilson, in his monograph Timothy Steele: A Critical Introduction, approaches Steele’s poetry. Steele has been publishing since the 1970s and is the author of four poetry collections. He is typically considered a prominent “New Formalist” poet. However, as Wilson makes clear, that label does not encompass Steele’s work. Wilson notes that Steele “consistently rejected the label of formalism, old or new, preferring to be called a ‘metrical poet.’” Wilson argues that, “Far from merely pushing modernist formal experiments ad absurdum, or undercutting with a nihilistic irony the often esoteric, sometimes reactionary, theoretical principles of modern art, Steele’s work has embraced the enduring contributions of modernism to literary culture, while also seeking to help our age recover from its errors and excesses.” In other words, it is far too simplistic to consider Steele’s poetry a repudiation of modernism. His poetry “must be understood as a sustained engagement with modernism.”
Wilson’s monograph is largely a vindication of Steele’s poetry, but it also is a critical examination. His approach is thoughtful and systematic. He discusses Steele’s contribution to American poetry, presents a biographical picture, provides a critical analysis of selected poetry, and even includes a brief interview with the poet. According to Wilson, when appreciating Steele’s contribution to letters, we must “first list the evident weaknesses of modernist art, and then note the ways in which Steele, as the heir of a marginalized but important line of modernist poet-critics, diagnoses and seeks to redress them.” In order words, Steele’s poetry is neither an acceptance nor rejection of modernism, but really a reckoning with modernist poetry. This is also why Wilson believes that we must “consider how he continues the more positive legacy of modernism … [and] address how his work contributed to the rise of the New Formalism, even as we acknowledge Steele’s disavowal of that label.” As such, Steele accomplishes an unlikely task: he simultaneously elevates the use of meter while also engaging in meaningful substantive reflection.
Alexis Carra is an assistant editor for the University Bookman.
Brief reviews of a new translation of Albert Camus’s Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism and James Matthew Wilson’s monograph on the poet Timothy Steele.