There are several individuals I wished I’d have met and had lengthy conversations with. Unfortunately all are now deceased. They include: Henri Pirenne, Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Josephine Baker, and Albert Camus. All have strong ties to France and Walloonia, although Baker was born in America. I guess that makes me a bit of a francophile. I served an LDS mission in the Franco-Belgian Mission in the 60s and fell in love with France and the French.
While I was on my Mormon mission I read several of the works of Henri Pirenne (1862-1935), a leading Belgian medievalist. But Pirenne was more than an historian, he was a Belgian patriot and a man of deep convictions. During World War I he was arrested by the Germans and subsequently incarcerated, denied access to books. During this period, he wrote his opus — A History of Europe — which is a broad-brush study of the social, political, and economic trends of the European Middle Ages. At the conclusion of WWI, Pirenne stopped writing on his prison masterpiece. After Pirenne’s death, his son discovered the manuscript and had it published. The English translation appeared in 1956. The two volume oeuvre stands as an incredible intellectual achievement, given his lack of access to written references.
I recently came upon references to the work of Jesuit priest, paleontologist, and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). In an effort to reconcile his Catholic belief structure with the truths of science, particularly evolution, Fr. Teilhard developed a particularly noteworthy creation theory, one that jettisoned the Book of Genesis in favor of a more scientific explanation of the earth’s development. In a posthumously published book (1955; English 1959), he suggested that the Earth is evolving toward self-consciousness (sentience?); that collectively we and our technology are that process. For Fr. Teilhard, as mankind organizes itself into increasingly complex social networks, the Earth will increase in awareness until it reaches the Omega Point, which he saw as the apex of history. He is today highly regarded as the patron saint of the Internet.
The most flamboyant individual on my list is Josephine Baker (1906-1975), an African-American born in St. Louis. Baker dropped out of school at age 12 and lived for a time as a street urchin. Her street-corner dancing attracted attention, and at the age of 15 she started appearing in vaudeville shows. She eventually headed to New York City where she was in the chorus of popular Broadway revues. In 1925, whe opened in Paris, where she became an instant success for her erotic dancing. She became a French citizen in 1937. Josephine lived a life that in many ways was stranger than fiction. Her accomplishments included: (1) being the first African American to star in a major motion picture; (2) being a noted leader of the civil rights movement in the United States; (3) assisting the French Resistance during WWII; (4) being a muse to Earnest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior; and (5) adopting 12 multi-ethnic orphans, whom she called the “Rainbow Tribe.” In 1951, she was refused service at New York’s Stork Club. Actress Grace Kelly, who was at the club at the time, rushed over to Baker, took her by the arm and the entourages stormed out. The two women became fast friends.
Another book I read on my mission was The Stranger by Albert Camus (1913-1960). It made a lasting impression on me. Perhaps it described my deep alienation from everything including the conservative aspects of LDS doctrine. Perhap I related to the lack of emotion in the main character. Perhaps it was the general ennui of the book. In any case, I came to respect the author. In 1997, while in southern France, I visited the Camus’ grave, he died at a relatively young age in an automobile accident.
Camus’ politics were all over the place, but always on the left. He was a communist for a time, an anarchist, an anti-totalitarianist, an existentialist (sort of), a pacificist, just to name a few. He was the second youngest writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. An honor he beat compatriot and fellow writer Jean-Paul Satre to.
These 4 individuals all lived life flat out.