Late in the summer of 1914, before the Western Front settled into its long stalemate, the French army suffered staggering losses at the Battle of the Frontiers and the First Battle of the Marne. Desperate inquiries flooded the Red Cross information service in Paris. Its newly arrived director was a twenty-four-year-old philosopher and playwright, Gabriel Marcel. His job was to track down information about soldiers missing at the front and then relay it to inquirers. In his autobiography, Marcel wrote of this daunting task: “For me it was a question, as much as possible, of taking every particular case that was handed to us by an anguished mother, wife, fiancée, or sister and of gathering the necessary evidence that would allow me to shed light upon the disappearance of a soldier.” Marcel worked with the information service for only a short time, but in a way he spent the rest of his life responding to those anguished inquirers, trying to do justice to their loves and losses.
Marcel would later become a prominent figure in the French literary scene, the “Christian existentialist” (a label he disliked) who sparred with Jean-Paul Sartre. Marcel’s Paris flat, where he regularly hosted Friday night salons, would become an intellectual hotspot. His work would influence writers and philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic: Emmanuel Mounier, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricœur, Iris Murdoch, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Henry Bugbee. His philosophical writings would also find a large popular audience despite their wandering style. As Murdoch wrote in a review, Marcel’s “argument rambles around in an impressionistic manner, and he tends to let one special concept lead us on into another one, without either having been sufficiently defined by the examples.” Yet Murdoch also pointed to passages and concepts of great “revelatory power.” She was drawn to Marcel’s reflections on openness and self-enclosure, on mysteries and problems, on being and having, reflections that were shaped by Marcel’s time in the information service.
The service required Marcel to operate on two levels. On one level, the missing soldier was a “problem” that was solved when Marcel discovered the soldier’s status. To solve this problem, Marcel developed a “catalogue of the mind” based on field reports. The missing soldier became a variable in a formula derived from catalogue data. On another level, though, Marcel’s position entailed personal encounters. Whenever Marcel told parents their son was dead, it was painfully clear that the soldier was not a variable but a singular human being. Marcel had not solved the problem of the missing soldier for the parents. Even if his news brought an element of closure, the loss remained a “mystery” that would last for the rest of their lives.
The distinction between problem and mystery is central to Marcel’s philosophy. A problem is something external to us. It can be solved with the proper, generalizable technique. A mystery, on the other hand, is something from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Marcel called a mystery a “problem which encroaches upon its own data.” It has roots in the depths of our being, but it also reaches beyond us. There is no general technique for addressing a mystery. It can only be lived out with a wisdom responsive to the particulars of the situation and the people involved. Birth, love, and death are central mysteries for Marcel. The death of a child involves a parent in all three.