Try to guess when the following was written, and by whom. Answer below the fold:
Ever increasing frenzy, tension, explosiveness of this country. You feel it in the monastery with people like Raymond. In the priesthood with so many upset, one way or another, and so many leaving. So many just cracking up, falling apart. People in Detroit buying guns. Groups of vigilantes being formed to shoot Negroes. Louisville is a violent place, too. Letters in U. S. Catholic about the war article. -- some of the shrillest came from Louisville. This is a really mad country, and an explosion of the madness is inevitable. The only question -- can it somehow be less bad than one anticipates? Total chaos is quite possible, though I don't anticipate that. But the fears, frustrations, hatreds, irrationalities, hysterias, are all there and all powerful enough to blow everything wide open. One feels that they want violence. It is preferable to the uncertainty of 'waiting.'
According to Sonya Roberts on Merton, "we can readily identify with his journey of faith."
Oh can we just? Well, I, for one, most certainly do not identify with anyone displaying Merton's level of mental confusion and sheer erotomania.
This is a bozo who, at the age of 51 and sworn to monastic vows, got the blathering hots for a nurse half his age (with whom he almost certainly had full sexual relations: why else did he destroy the correspondence that passed between him and her?). He'd already fathered an illegitimate child. And perhaps worst of all: by the time he had his Close Encounter of The Electric Fan Kind, he seems to have had only the vaguest awareness that Catholicism might differ from Buddhism.
There'll probably always be a market for Merton, just as there's notoriously always a market for Che Guevara T-shirts. But Holy Church in 2015 needs Merton (and Che) about as much as She needs the proverbial hole in the head.
As nasty and uncharitable as this comment is, Reeves is right that Merton often in his writings displays very little understanding of Catholic doctrine and how it differs from that of Buddhism and other religions.
We'll start with murder. David Dalton (Who Is That Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan, Hyperion 2012, pp. 28-29, hyperlinks added!):
Most folk songs had grim, murderous content (and subtext). In Pretty Polly a man lures a young girl from her home with the promise of marriage,and then leads the pregnant girl to an already-dug grave and murders her. In Love Henry a woman poisons her unfaithful lover, observed by an alarmed parrot that she also tries to kill. So it was a bit bizarre that these songs should become part of the sweetened, homogenized new pop music.
[. . .]
The original folk songs were potent, possessed stuff, but the folk trios had figured out how to make this grisly stuff palatable, which only proved that practically anything could be homogenized. Clean-cut guys and girls in crinolines, dressed as if for prom night, sang ancient curse-and-doom tales. Their songs had sweet little melodies, but as in nursery rhymes, there was a dark gothic undercurrent to them -- like Ring Around the Rosies, which happens to be a charming little plague song.
The most famous of these folk songs was the 1958 hit Tom Dooley, a track off a Kingston Trio album which set off the second folk revival [the first was in the early '40s with groups like the Weavers] and was Dylan's initial inspiration for getting involved in folk music. [I prefer Doc Watson's version.] And it was the very success of the syrupy folk trios that inspired Dylan's future manager to assemble one himself: Peter, Paul and Mary. They would make Dylan, the prophet of the folk protest movement, a star and lead to consequences that even he did not foresee. Their version of Blowin' in the Wind would become so successful that it would sound the death knell for the folk protest movement. Ultimately there would be more than sixty versions of it, "all performing the same function," as Michael Gray says, of "anesthetizing Dylan's message."
Be that as it may, it is a great song, one of the anthems of the Civil Rights movement. Its power in no small measure is due to the allusiveness of its lyrics which deliver the protest message without tying it to particular events. It's topical without being topical and marks a difference between Dylan, and say, Phil Ochs.
And now for some love songs.
Gloria Lynne, I Wish You Love. A great version from 1964. Lynne died at 83 in 2013. Here's what Marlene Dietrich does with it.
Ketty Lester, Love Letters. Another great old tune in a 1962 version. The best to my taste.
1. Keith Burgess-Jackson quotes Jamie Glazov on the hatred of Islamists and leftists for St. Valentine's Day. Another very interesting similarity between these two totalitarian movements. Recalling past inamorata of a Saturday night while listening to sentimental songs -- is this not the height of bourgeois self-indulgence when you should be plotting ways to blow up the infidel or bring down capitalism? But we who defend the private life against totalitarian scum must be careful not to retreat too far into the private life. A certain amount of activism and engagement is necessary to keep the totalitarians in check.
2. On Thomas Merton: “All the love and all the death in me are at the moment wound up in Joan Baez’s ‘Silver Dagger,’” the man wrote to his lady love in 1966. “I can’t get it out of my head, day or night. I am obsessed with it. My whole being is saturated with it. The song is myself — and yourself for me, in a way.”
Don't sing love songs, you'll wake my mother She's sleeping here right by my side And in her right hand a silver dagger, She says that I can't be your bride.
All men are false, says my mother, They'll tell you wicked, lovin' lies. The very next evening, they'll court another, Leave you alone to pine and sigh.
My daddy is a handsome devil He's got a chain five miles long, And on every link a heart does dangle Of another maid he's loved and wronged.
Go court another tender maiden, And hope that she will be your wife, For I've been warned, and I've decided To sleep alone all of my life.
A merton is a person who doesn't distinguish between studying a subject and writing a book about it.
Cf. The Journals of Thomas Merton, vol. III, 136: "Thought of writing a book on Columbia under Spain . . ..") In his short life Merton published some 60 books, some of them good, some of them but attempts to work his way into a subject.
An outstanding essay by Robert Royal on the many Mertons and their uneasy unity in one fleshly vehicle. There is of course Merton the Contemplative, the convert to Catholicism who, with the typical zeal of the convert, took it all the way to the austerities of Trappist monasticism, and that at a time (1941) when it was a more demanding and rigorous affair than today. In serious tension with the Contemplative, the Scribbler:
It did not help that Merton the Contemplative confronted Merton the Writer. Even for a man not vowed to silence, Merton's several dozen books would have been an extraordinary output. But adding the journals -- four volumes have now appeared and the whole will run to seven volumes totaling about 3,500 large pages -- we begin to glimpse a serious conflict. Can a man committed to the wordless apophatic way and a forgetting of self be preoccupied with recording-and publishing-every thought and act?
I live that tension myself very morning. For me it takes the form of a conflict between Athens and Benares, as I like to call it. Denk, denk, denk, scribble scribble, scribble from 2 AM on. But then at 4 AM, no later! I must tear myself away from the discursive desk and mount the black mat of meditation, going into reverse, as it were, moving from disciplined thinking to disciplined non-thinking.
Also in tension with the Contemplative, the Bohemian:
There were also other Mertons, among the more troublesome: the Bohemian. This Merton felt a constant need to be an outsider. When Merton lived in the world, it took the usual forms. He had aspirations to being an experimental writer and poet (his Collected Poems, which show real innovation but great unevenness, run to almost 1,000 pages). He listened to jazz, dabbled in leftist politics, hit the bottle pretty hard, smoked heavily, had his share of girlfriends, and did a bit of drawing. All relatively harmless, but some incongruous holdover bedeviled Merton the monk. Should a Trappist be interested in Henry Miller? Or follow Joan Baez? Or Bob Dylan? As late as 1959 (after eighteen years in the abbey), Merton was reading books like James Thurber's The Years with Ross, an account of life under Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker. The New Yorker of the fifties was more staid than its current incarnation, and Merton often claimed the chic ads reminded him of everything in the world he had fled. But there was something odd in a monk even being interested in a magazine like the New Yorker.
Also battling with the Contemplative and Quietist (in a broad sense of this term), a fourth Merton, the Social Activist who aligned easily with the Writer and the Bohemian:
In the 1960s that world [the world outside the monastic enclosure, the 'real' world in the parlance of the worldly] came to the fore in his work. The Contemplative who fled the world, however, was not always a good advisor for the Activist. The Contemplative had not fared well in European or American society, and had taken this as proof that those societies were not doing well either. This led him to a number of mistaken or exaggerated judgments. During the fifties he accepted a theory of the moral equivalence of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Vietnam War abroad and the civil rights struggle at home, he came to believe, revealed a totalitarian impulse in America and he wrote of the possible emergence of a Nazi-like racial regime in the United States. (Emphasis added)
Royal has it exactly right.
The frequent tendency of Merton the Activist to overstatement is telling. Merton was by background mostly a European. And lacking any experience of the moral realism and decency of most Americans, he tended to judge all of American society through the lens of heated political controversies and the usual intellectual complaints about the bourgeoisie. His essays on civil rights, for example, are heartfelt and penetrating, but are not even a very good description of the predicament of the American liberal. The kind of moderation Merton showed in spiritual and moral questions rarely appears in his social commentary. He was angry about political issues in the early 1960s. (Emphasis added)
Spot on, once again. Merton was in many ways a typical leftist intellectual alienated from and unappreciative of the country that allowed him to live his kind of life in his kind of way, as opposed to, say, being forced into a concentration camp and then put to death. The Commies were not all that kind to religion and religionists. You may recall that Edith Stein, another Catholic convert, became a Carmelite nun, but was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz. She was, by the way, a much better thinker than Merton.
Merton the Man is the uneasy unity of these four personae. His edifice is four-storied rather than seven, and I suppose 'story' could also be read as 'narrative' or 'script,' the Contemplative, the Writer, the Bohemian, and the Activist being as much multiply exemplifiable life-scripts as the competing personae of one particular man.
Intimately interwoven with these four Mertons is someone we are forced to call Merton the Man. This Fifth Business never entirely settled down. The Contemplative, as may be seen in painful detail in the journals, is constantly vacillating, though in his public work Merton displays spiritual mastery. The Writer is gifted, but so much so that he has a tendency toward glibness. The Bohemian Merton got the others into any number of scrapes, and the Activist Merton often got carried away by currents in the sixties that-in retrospect-were not entirely fair to American society. Yet when all is said and done, Merton remains one of the great contemplative spirits of the century.
Merton died young in Bangkok in 1968, at the age of 53. He was there for a conference. Those of us who have attended and contributed to academic conferences know how dubious they are, and how destabilizing to a centered life. I tend to think that it was the Writer, The Bohemian, and the Activist who, in the synergy of an unholy trinity, swamped the Contemplative and caused him to be lured away from his circumscribed but true monastic orbit.
If he had lived on into the '70s would Merton have remained a monk? Who knows? So many men and women of the cloth abandoned their vocations and vows at that time.* In his Asian journal he writes that he intended to return to Gethsemani. It is nevertheless reasonable to speculate that he would not have lasted as a monk much longer. The Zeitgeist would have got to him, and the synergy of the unholy trinity just mentioned. Not to mention the transports of earthly love:
The mid-1960s brought him to the brink of disaster. Merton had a back problem requiring an operation at a Catholic hospital in Louisville. When he recovered from the anesthesia, he was anxious that he had missed daily communion. He began making notes on Meister Eckhart. His long- desired hermitage awaited him back at Gethsemani. To the eye, it was business as usual.
But a pretty young student nurse came in. A Catholic, she knew of Merton from a book her father had given her. Something erupted between them- even though she had a fiance in Chicago. On leaving the hospital, he wrote her about needing friendship. She wrote back, instructed by him to mark the envelope "conscience matter" (lest the superiors read the correspondence). Under "conscience matter," Merton sent a declaration of love. Thus began a series of deceptions, and Merton only narrowly avoided the shipwreck of his monastic vows because of the impossibility of the whole situation.
*I think of the Jesuits and others who had jobs in philosophy because they were assigned to teach it at Catholic colleges back in the day when such colleges were more than nominally Catholic, and how they left their religious orders -- but kept their jobs! Nice work if you can get it.
I'm reading volume 5 of T. Merton's journal. He's a flabby liberal both politically and theologically, but there is a good line here and there. "When will I learn to go without leaving footprints? Along way from that: I still love recognition . . . ." (p. 33)
Those who crave recognition would do well to consider the moral and intellectual quality of those destined to do the recognizing.
I read the seventh and final volume of Thomas Merton's journals, The Other Side of the Mountain, in 1998 when it first appeared. I am currently re-reading it. It is once again proving to be page turner for one who has both a nostalgic and a scholarly interest in the far-off and fabulous '60s. But what a gushing liberal and naive romantic Merton was! Here is but one example:
Yesterday, quite by chance, I met Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and his secretary . . . . Chogyam Trungpa is a completely marvelous person. Young, natural, without front or artifice, deep, awake, wise. [. . .] He is also a genuine spiritual master. (October 20, 1968, p. 219, emphasis added)
Unfortunately, the 'spirituality' of many 'spiritual masters' is of the New Age type, a type of spirituality that fancies itself beyond morality with its dualism of good and evil. One of the worst features of some New Age types is their conceit that they are beyond duality when they are firmly enmired in it. Perhaps the truly enlightened are beyond moral dualism and can live free of moral injunctions and prohibitions. But what often happens in practice is that spiritual aspirants and gurus fall into ordinary immorality while pretending to have transcended it. One may recall the famous case of Rajneesh. Chogyam Trungpa appears to have been cut from the same cloth. According to one report,
. . . Trungpa slept with a different woman every night in order to transmit the teaching to them. L. intimated that it was really a hardship for Trungpa to do this, but it was his duty in order to spread the dharma.
With apologies to the shade of Jack Kerouac, you could say that this gives new meaning to 'dharma bum.'
That Merton could be taken in by the fellow says something about Merton. A phrase such as 'genuine spiritual master' ought not be bandied about lightly. But perhaps Trungpa's excesses were not in evidence at the time.
Herewith yet another indication of why philosophy is essential to balanced thinking and living. Jerusalem and Benares are both in need of chastening, and Athens wields the rod. Although I maintain that philosophy needs completion by what is beyond philosophy, that maintenance is not a license to abandon rational critique. Every sector of life requires critique, including Philosophy herself, and Philosophy is the Critic.
As for putative 'spiritual masters,' run as fast as you can from any such 'master' or 'guru' who has something to sell you or is not in control of his lower self.
Thomas Merton, Journals, vol. 4, p. 57 (10 October 1960):
The superb moral and positive beauty of the Phaedo. One does not have to agree with Plato, but one must hear him. Not to listen to such a voice is unpardonable, it is like not listening to conscience or nature.