Lives Well Lived

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.

Belgian medievalist Henri Pirenne

Belgian medievalist Henri Pirenne

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.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin postmark

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin postmark

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.

Stamp commenorating Josephine Baker

Stamp commenorating Josephine Baker

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.

Artist interpretation:  Albert Camus

Artist interpretation: Albert Camus

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.

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8 Responses to Lives Well Lived

  1. Roger Hansen says:

    I need to add Edif Piaf to this list.

  2. Roger Hansen says:

    And also writer and pilot: Antoine de Saint Exupery. His “Le Petit Prince” is a masterpiece of children’s (and adult) literature. He died during WWII.

  3. Roger Hansen says:

    Another person that should probably be on my list is Belgian artist James Ensor. “An isolated and splenetic man, contempous of both authority and the human herd, always feuding with the world and licking his wounds.” His artwork is truly different. “The son of a transplanted Englishman, Ensor spent almost his entire life in the Belgian seaside resort of Ostend, working in an attic studio above his family’s souvenir and novelty shop . . .” Time Magazine, July 27, 2009

  4. Roger Hansen says:

    Samuel Beckett is another person who’s work I admire. In a French lit class at BYU we read his play “En attendant Godot” (or in English “Waiting for Godot.” Beckett was an Irish ex-pat who lived in France and wrote in French. The original French version of “Godot” was written between October 1948 and January 1949. It is one of the most significant plays of the 20th century. I think the play is currently being performed in NYC.

  5. Roger Hansen says:

    Another Frenchman I greatly admire is John Francois Millet, the 19th century painter of the rural poor.

  6. Roger Hansen says:

    According to Steven F. Peck in Dialogue (Spring 2010, p. 14):

    “One of the first theologians to attempt to address these concerns (reconcile evolution, God, and Christianity) was Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). He engagement with evolution was personally costly, since his church put considerable institutional pressure on him for his insistence on a theological engagement with evolution.”

    And on p 15:

    “While his (Teilhard’s) attempt to reconcile these disparate fields has not endured as a solution to the problem of an evolutionary theology, his efforts were significant in raising questions about how to fully embrace both evolution and theology in inventive and imaginative ways.”

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