A Spectrum of Dualisms

Merton Against Himself
“The sun comes out,” Merton wrote, “and so does the typewriter.” (Image courtesy of Creative Commons CC0).

 

 

[This article was first published in the October 17, 1969 issue of Commonweal]

Himmler, October 4, 1943, in a speech to S.S. Generals: “‘Most of you must know what it means when 100 corpses are lying ride by side, or 500, or 1,000. To have stuck it out and at the same time––apart from exceptions due to human weakness––to have remained decent fellows, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written.” 

“Pardon, Herr General,” wrote Thomas Merton, “I cannot refrain from writing it.” 

Merton had complained bitterly about his writing from the beginning of his monastic life in the Kentucky hills at Gethsemani in 1941, but he wrote prolifically for the next 27 years of his life, until he died in Thailand in December, 1968, 27 years to the day that he had knocked on Gethsemani’s doors. He was ordered to by his abbots, but also, it seems reasonably clear, he could not refrain, partly because he was an artist but also because he was increasingly concerned with being in meaningful contact with the “world” which, in his youth, he had been rather finicky about. 

Nevertheless, from the beginning Merton wrote and wrote, though Seven Storey Mountain and The Sign of Jonas are filled with complaints and self-recriminations about both his orders to and his desire to write. Not only did he write more than three dozen books of poems, meditations, history and spiritual investigation, but, he carried on a voluminous correspondence with people all over the world. His publishing career is not over at his death: an early novel, My Agreement With the Gestapo, written before he entered the Trappists, was published by Doubleday in the summer of 1969; and a mosaic of poems and dreams has just been published by New Directions, called The Geography of Lograire

And I have no doubt that his career is far from over now, or that what is to come will show us more about where this extraordinary man, this extraordinarily gifted writer, was going, or thinking of going. He had in later life become interested in Buddhism and had written a book called Mystics and Zen Masters and other items on Eastern mysticism. He had, also, he told us in his autobiographical best-seller Seven Storey Mountain, ransacked the shelves of Columbia University library in 1937 and 1938 for books on the spirituality of the East. In a number of ways he seems to come full circle, and in others one can see a straightforward and exciting line. He was of a number of minds about a lot of things. I thought him annoying when I had the impression that he was elitist and condescending toward the world outside the monastery’s walls. Well, he made no bones, he was frequently at odds with the world inside the monastery, too. 

His attitude with regard his writing points to the nature of Merton’s temptations toward a spectrum of dualisms. He tells us in Seven Storey Mountain of his earliest misgivings about a writing career. When he first got ideas about writing (Merton was, after all, already a writer on entering the monastery; aside from the just published novel, he had destroyed three-and-a-half works of fiction, but preserved his poetry), he spoke about them to his abbot, who was not slow in taking the hint. 

It was a time of great activity, since somewhat lessened, for Gethsemani. The monastery was attracting many candidates, establishing numerous daughter houses, getting a lot of attention from the lay world, and being asked a lot of advice. So the pamphlet racks at Gethsemani guest house began to fill up with booklets called, “A Trappist says…,” “A Trappist declares…,” “A Trappist implores…,” “A Trappist asserts…,” –– occasionally, Merton remarks ironically, even something about the contemplative life. As for himself, his first book, Thirty Poems, was published at the end of 1944. Then Merton, the publishable monk poet and writer, becomes Merton the exploitable asset, and is ordered to write; now Merton the writer (because writing is not contemplation, and writing is what the old Merton, the worldly Merton, had wanted to do) becomes Merton the enemy. 

“So it is not hard to see,” he writes in Mountain, “that this is a situation in which my double, my shadow, my enemy, Thomas Merton, the old man of the sea, has things in his favor. If he suggests books about the Order, his suggestions are heard. If he thinks up poems to be printed and published, his thoughts are listened to. There seems to be no reason why he should not write for magazines…” 

In his own heart, he did not think it was God’s will. But Father Abbot had said, “I want you to go on writing poems,” and further exhorted him to write something “to make people love the spiritual life.” So he continued writing; the record is public, except for thousands of letters in recipients’ possession the world over. With the publication of Seven Storey Mountain, he became an international celebrity, the most popularly read spiritual writer of his time. After the book was clearly on its way, he complains: “I caught myself thinking, ‘If they make it into a movie, will Gary Cooper be the hero?’“

In his own heart, he did not think it was God’s will. But Father Abbot had said, “I want you to go on writing poems.”

It is certain from the early journal, The Sign of Jonas, that both the command and his drive to write continued to disturb his peace. He was, at the same time, struggling to find what his vocation as a contemplative implied, thinking about leaving the community to join the more eremitical Carthusians, and struggling to find or figure out how he could get the solitude he knew was the pre- requisite for the communion he sought with God. 

He was giving conferences, writing poems, preparing official Gethsemani publications, compiling a history of the order, translating, directing novices, scratching out letters, keeping the journal that tells us about all this conflict, and writing on the meditative life, Seeds of Contemplation. “The sun comes out,” he wrote, “and so does the typewriter.” It made for a busy and distracted day for someone whose thoughts revolved around a desire for solitude (he read voraciously too, it’s clear from his writing) and who at the same time was trying to hold off or push out the world with both hands. 

“Delightful darkness, delightful sun, shining on a world which, for all I care, has already ended.” Take care not to be poisoned by the world, by your own writing. In 1947 there was the Platonic notion that the real, the only important action, was that which was advertently removed or snatched from the world (solitude, even in the monastery, was stolen time). In the journal that was to be published as The Sign of Jonas and which covers his early life in the monastery, Merton wrote that “even my contacts with the outside--with the world of writers and of people who publish and of people who insult one another for the sake of art have their advantages. To see how seriously men take things and how little they profit by their seriousness.” 

This business over his writing was surely a great conflict and, I think, one aspect of a search for his identity as a contemplative and, as well, a striking figure for Merton’s always pervasive thought ultimately modified the dualist notion that there were two distinct cities, one for God and one for Them. This dualism stood him one foot in ecstatic quite and the other in the noisier and problematic world of Us, those for whom he wrote. 

Nonetheless, these early writings betray the writer’s habitual self-consciousness. September, 1949: “If I were more immersed in the Rule of St. Benedict, I would be a better writer.” He talks about his writing as if it were not just a predilection but, he seems later to realize, his particular monastic vocation. April, 1949: “But when I tell myself, ‘I am no writer, I am finished,’ instead of being upset I am filled with a sensc of peace and of relief perhaps because I already taste, by anticipation, the joy of deliverance. On the other hand, if I am not delivered from writing by failure, perhaps I may go on and even succeed at this thing, but by the power of the Holy Ghost––which would be the greater deliverance.” 

Very annoying and contradictory, at first, but I would suggest that Merton’s monastic life eventually bore fruit in a process that would try to close this gap for himself as well as for us others. Having stared at the gap between the world and God as if it were an uncrossable chasm (“one of us has got to die,” he said of the two Mertons), he jumped and lived to share the fruits of his contemplation with other men, learned to know the Christ, in his own words, of “the burnt men.” 

There were still, even much later, these remarks, these attitudes, in Merton’s writing that could stop one short. Michele Murray, in an insightful review of Raids and Confessions of a Guilty Bystander, in The National Catholic Reporter, points to Merton’s habit of sliding toward exhortation that tended to become abstract and was out of touch with the actual situation of those who must cope with “the world”; e.g. “the realm of politics is the realm of waste.” 

Merton complained about machines; Mrs. Murray suggested that they relieved some workers of back-breaking labor; Merton said the offending machine at Gethsemani which harvested all the corn did work that was hard but healthy and that, apparently, he himself enjoyed. An aesthetic answer to a political problem. Merton pointed out that this hard labor, and the wood-chopping that had wrecked his back and which he also missed, was “the kind of work the poorest farm hands do.” It’s hard to see anything but a symbolic connection; symbol for the monks. Also, she was, I think, correct in stating that some of Merton’s political analyses were more in the way of a poet’s metaphorical expression and tended not to be realistic or helpful to us. 

Still, Confessions of a Guilty Bystander, which lends itself to comparison with The Sign of Jonas, since it is, though more loosely, based on Merton’s journals, is quite a different proposition. It contains, to put it mildly, more humor; and as the title suggests most strongly, it is the work of someone who lives in this world of ours with us and is responsible to it even though he is in a monastery. (He had always suggested that he was responsible for the world; in the sense that the sinner is culpable for the evil in the world.) Nevertheless, Merton became, monk, solitary and all, a man of his times. A radical, a revolutionary, a religious anarchist, an inspiring pacifist, even an activist. 

It is the work of someone who lives in this world of ours with us and is responsible to it even though he is in a monastery.

Martin Marty, who had written a critical review of Seeds of Destruction when it was published, wrote Merton an open letter three years after, in which he remained critical of Merton’s apocalyptic tone, but admitted Merton’s degree of accuracy in his predictions of what might happen when the civil rights struggle became a matter of black versus white power, and not any longer the easy- to-love non-violent movement of Martin Luther King. (Merton much admired King, of course, as a man of religion and as a fellow pacifist.) Dr. Marty, nevertheless, found Merton’s scenario not helpful to the world-bound. 

Merton had written in “Letter to a White Liberal”: “I visualize you, my liberal friend, goose-stepping down Massachusetts Avenue in the uniform of an American Totalitarian Party in a mass rally where nothing but the most uproarious approval is manifest, except, by implication, on the part of silent and strangely scented clouds of smoke drifting over from the new ‘camps’ where the ‘Negroes are living in retirement.’“

The point of Marty’s letter to Merton was that the apocalyptic tone is shrilly pessimistic. Marty suggested that Merton’s tone, and ours, could not accomplish anything in the real world if it was shrill and moralistic, condescending at one moment and apocalyptic at another; that the Christian needs a program for the world, not to recoil from the world. This was Merton’s old dualism: “…the most creative thing to do is to sit on the curbstone and weep.” It is a rejection of the world as inherently evil. Three years after that essay had been published in Seeds of Destruction, Melton answered Marty’s letter, and he indicated clearly that he was realizing more and more the great problems of the world had better be tackled fight there––a fact which makes Merton increasingly important to us. It was one thing to shudder at the world from within the monastery, or sit on the world’s curbstone and weep. It was quite another, to hear Merton say in his letter to Dr. Marty, in September, 1967, that we must bear in mind that the world’s “order” is disorder, and that we must explore the ways of Christian violence. How about a white non-violent response to Negro violence? The Christian anarchist may not have a neat program but he does commit himself to others, in the world, and holds himself to be, with them, on the spot. Merton was on the spot with us, most marvelously then. 

Coincidentally, I have just read the first book of Merton’s extant, the recently published novel, My Argument with the Gestapo, and the most recently published book of poems, The Geography of Lograire. They bear striking resemblances as well as striking contrasts. The novel, written just before he entered Gethsemani, while he was teaching at St. Bonaventure, is a fantasy, as are the late poems, and they both show an exuberance of language that seems somehow to have been suppressed in some of his middle writing. 

In the novel, a young man who is Merton, returns to London during the first days of the Second World War, and is under suspicion because he will not admit to being a citizen of any place in the world and because he is writing something that is variously held, by the English and French police, and the German Gestapo, to be traitorous or obscene. This book, hilarious and sardonic, is full of macaronic passages that mock the poor, stupid, sinful citizens of the warring world and at the same time is filled with melancholy and self-accusation because the poet holds himself fully guilty for the bloody logical end of his own sinfulness and its equivalent, worldliness. 

The young poet yearns to write and communicate and to understand: “I will have a hundred books, full of symbols, full of everything I ever knew or ever saw or ever thought.” The citizen of nowhere on this earth, who talks about “the world’s wide prison,” who is “an exile all over the earth,” writes, “double-talk under the aspect of a kind of vow of science,” and puts down his Esperanto prayers, his “vow of silence non-commercial speeches,” his “cheap pearls of double-talky witsdom.” “I am so unpublished,” he remarks, “I am a kind of Trappist, in my own way.”

The novel is both awkward and sometimes brilliant, but it captures Merton in the springtime of his Platonic view: the City of God was private, non-communicable; the City of Man was separate and, as he was to say years later, he didn’t care if he woke up one morning and found it gone. 

The Geography of Lograire is also witty but in spite of the sardonic descriptions of the world, much more humorous. It is, in fact, the most humorous of his works. It is divided into sections, North, West, East, South. It is a poet’s dream, but it is the dream of a poet who knows that this world is at once his and everybody’s, though it cannot be fully communicated. Geography is in trouble all over Lograire, but here the poet’s prayers are not turned in on himself, or against the world, but are filled with compassion. “My prayers are all torn out of the mourning paper,” whereas, “the mystics sit down to eat/Each from his private bowl.” 

The bitterness is against the world’s institutions but not the world: “Pain and Abel lay down red designs,” but Miami is amusing and to be treated tenderly rather than dismissed with despairing contempt. Con Edison and Queens are monsters, and revolution is called for, and all the Cains are white; it’s funny and hard. But Merton warns us: “If you have heart failure while reading this, the poet is not responsible.” 

He had said when he was very young that he wanted to write, like Blake, for the angels. He wrote and wrote, and he wrote for us. 

Alice Mayhew was a longtime Commonweal contributor and board member. She was a prominent editor at Simon and Schuster. She died on February 4, 2020. 

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