When I tried to read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain while in college – a book compared (by the publishing trade) with Augustine’s Confessions – I was astounded to find the book self-promoting, egotistical, petty, and posturing, without a single elevated thought or even sentence that could place it with the Confessions. This is one of the most praised twentieth century Catholic writers; Catholic Catholics speak of “Merton” as Classicists speak of Horace, as a titan whose place in the canon needs no discussion and familiarity with whose work is a minimal requirement for polite conversation. When I spoke with one such Catholic about my intense disappointment with The Seven Storey Mountain, he agreed with me completely – and said that Merton himself would have agreed with me – and told me I had to read late Merton. I always wonder if leopards really do change their spots. While it is true that artistic quality varies tremendously over an author’s works, I react primarily to authors as people, and as such I typically find myself enjoying or avoiding the company of an author throughout all their works.
Well, another friend sent me a copy of one of Merton’s last books, Raids on the Unspeakable, at her own expense, as a book I simply had to read. I read it, dutifully but joylessly, continually flipping to the last page to find out how many pages I had left to go. There were some good nuggets in it, but in general I was thoroughly offended. I found my early judgement only confirmed: this seemed to be a man who took up the monastic life in order to dedicate himself full-time to a life of self-promotion.
First of all, the good parts: Merton is at his best when his gargantuan ego is forced to take a back seat. He can be an editor, or translator; he can react to other’s thoughts. He might have made a fine scholar. But when he is not forced to understand and transmit the thoughts of another, Merton is utterly without discipline and seems to throw himself into the bowels of a boundless egotism, in which everything he does and says and thinks deserves an audience. He shows all the failing of modern monastic life: there was nothing to force him towards reality and relationship. Love and marriage and family might have been a better school for him – as, with the Rule having been relaxed and nothing certain having taken its place, may be true for most monks today. An instinctual understanding of this fact is one of the major reasons for the eclipse of conventual life within the Catholic Church in our age.
Raids on the Unspeakable contains two essays which display Merton doing what he did well. “Readings from Ibn Abbad” contains Merton’s creative responses to a translation he had read of a Sufi master; they resemble Coleman Barks’ free translations of Rumi. Number Five is entitled “To Belong to Allah”:
To belong to Allah
Is to see in your own existence
And in all that pertains to it
Something that is neither yours
Nor from yourself,
Something you have on loan;
To see your being in His Being,
Your subsistence in His Subsistence,
Your strength in His Strength:
Thus you will recognize in yourself
His title to possession of you
And your own title as servant:
Which is Nothingness. (146-7)
I do not know whose spiritual wisdom produced that “in yourself,” Ibn Abbad’s or Merton’s, but it is pure gold.
Another essay is entitled “Rain and the Rhinoceros.” There is a fair amount of nonsense in this essay – about how much better his life is than everyone else’s – but there is also some excellent material paraphrased from Philoxenos of Syria. It is a gift to the world to merely inform it of the existence of Philoxenos of Syria, because to tell the truth, the world had forgotten him. I will quote Merton:
Philoxenos in his ninth memra (on poverty) to dwellers in solitude, says that there is no explanation and no justification for the solitary life, since it is without a law. To be a contemplative is therefore to be an outlaw. As was Christ. As was Paul.
One who is not “alone,” says Philoxenos, has not discovered his identity. He seems to be alone, perhaps, for he experiences himself as an “individual.” But because he is willingly enclosed and limited by the laws and illusions of collective existence, he has no more identity than an unborn child in the womb. He is not yet conscious. He is alien to his own truth. He has senses, but he cannot use them. He has life, but no identity. To have an identity, he has to be awake, and aware. But to be awake, he has to accept vulnerability and death. Not for their own sake: not out of stoicism or despair – only for the sake of the invulnerable inner reality which we cannot recognize (which we can only be) but to which we awaken only when we see the unreality of our vulnerable shell. The discovery of this inner self is an act and affirmation of solitude.
Now if we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth. This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive, uncontrollable dynamic of fabrications designed to protect mere fictitious identities – “selves” – that is to say, regarded as objects. Selves that can stand back and see themselves having fun (an illusion which reassures them that they are real). (14-15)
You can see Merton’s egotism in this passage – I have an identity and you don’t, because I’m a monk and you’re not – but here it is valuably employed in expressing the contrast between the self of self-regard and the Self regarded as a portion of something very, very large. Merton’s self-regard does not leave him, but his consciousness of it is useful to us. Merton’s dualism is evident here as well: he speaks elsewhere of a true self/false self. This is excessive: “large” and “small” might be more accurate adjectives.
He speaks well of simplicity, in twentieth-century language echoing the thoughts of Thoreau:
You have needs; but if you behave and conform you can participate in the collective power. You can then satisfy all your needs. Meanwhile, in order to increase its power over you, the collectivity increases your needs. It also tightens its demands for conformity. Thus you can become all the more committed to the collective illusion in proportion to becoming more hopelessly mortgaged to collective power. (16)
“I will not make you such rich men as have need of many things,” said Philoxenos (putting the words on the lips of Christ), “but I will make you true rich men who have need of nothing. Since it is not he who has many possessions that is rich, but he who has no needs.” Obviously, we shall always have some needs. But only he who has the simplest and most natural needs can be considered to be without needs, since the only needs he has are real ones, and the real ones are not hard to fulfill if one is a free man! (23)
This is all very well. But this is a tiny sliver of the book, which contains many other things. The book concludes, appropriately, with an elaborate justification of the drawings Merton insisted be included in the book – basically Chinese-calligraphy-esque doodles. The entire chapter he writes on this topic is a fine parody of all writing about modern art – which alas almost never is good enough to speak for itself – but of course Merton seems to have meant it:
Since judgements are usually based on comparisons and since opportunities for comparison in the visual arts today are so many and often so irrelevant as to be overwhelming, the viewer is not invited to regard the abstract drawings presented here as “works of art.”
Nor is he urged to seek in them traces of irony. Nor need he read into them a conscious polemic against art. These signs lay claim to little more than a sort of crude innocence. They desire nothing but their constitutional freedom from polemic, from apologetic, and from program. [Precisely what Merton cannot give them.]
If the viewer is not encouraged to judge these drawings in terms of familiar categories, he is also urged not to consider himself in any way, implicitly or otherwise, judged by them. For it must be admitted that the ambiguities of abstraction tend to set some people on edge… (179-80)
Blah blah blah. This goes on for four full pages – four full pages of explanation for something whose very nature, he insists, is that it requires no explanation. In its own way, it’s actually very sad. It is parodically sad: “These abstractions – one might almost call them grafitti [yes, Italicized] rather than calligraphies – are simple signs and ciphers of energy, acts or movements intended to be propitious…. In a world cluttered and programmed with an infinity of practical signs and consequential digits referring to business, law, government and war, one who makes such nondescript marks as these is conscious of a special vocation to be inconsequent, to be outside the sequence and to remain firmly alien to the program.” The saddest part of course is that you can find writing like this in almost every modern art gallery in the world today.
But it is really inexcusably immature in a celebrated man of letters. And there are giant chunks of the book which are unreadable drivel, the flights of fancy which Merton apparently felt justified in foisting on his public. Much of it circles around some kind of “Myth of Atlas,” but it is so obviously not worth deciphering I will merely quote bits of it. Readers who love it will be pleased to hear that Merton goes on like this for dozens of pages at a time:
From the four sides of the wind there came together in trolleys a set of delegations in the name of Dad. “Not forgetting Mom,” they blowed, “we come to hail the Fatman in the name of Dad.” And old Dad sat up high in the memories of the police, a nineteenth-century legend, a corncob angle measuring the west. A piece of trueblue oldgold faked-up fortune. True Dad is all fixed up in the mind like a piece of Real Estate, but Mom (cries the Fatman) Mom is real heart and all soft in the easies. Mom is fat from toe to toe, and slimmer than an ankle. Good old American Maw is Father’s boast on wedding-cake afternoon, in the days of Coca-Cola. Maw is safe in the new car and Paw cares for corners. The eyes of the innocent sergeant salute Maw with pride as they draw Negro blood. And we will have a clean America for our boys, clean as the toy toughs punished in rugged Lux. Tomboy Maw is the magic of Fatman’s perpetual boast. (98)
Meanwhile I migrated from the scenic wonders and honeymoon cathedrals of antique overseas and settled in a fast-moving new continent where I developed a unique voice, the voice of the friend. I became a warmly trusted consultant of adult women and was kept so busy I developed bad eating habits. Yet I still loved pets. I became a seasoned traveler with an unpredictable schedule. I was a connoisseur of versatile mixtures and occult taste-bud formularies, not to mention medicines! I was air-conditioned from stem to stern, a smooth sport, loving the surge of power under the pedal. I sent the no-risk reply-card to the jolly meat packers and re-read my own complete plays as an introductory gift. I married two eligible prospects simultaneoulsy and we three walked hand in hand into the glorious but uncertain future. (117)
But did you know the whole world was once held prisoner in a bank?
Yes, it was on Cotton Street, and it was called the Lotus Bank.
All the gold-barred windows used to jig with small-town tunes. (These were the inmates’ beau ideal.)
As to the police world, it wore a cowboy hat (to hide the bald head of finance and thoughts of impotence, together with the velleities of clever mechanical war). The inmates were all white-haired juveniles with smooth repugnant chins; weak-eyed economic wizards whom I refused to acknowledge as friends.
I made myself a black man so as not to be one of them. (128)
I know some people are titillated by senselessness, but I am not; at the very least, senselessness is emphatically private, and art and literature are by definition public – private “art” should go back to its old name, therapy. My own private senselessness I will keep to myself, where, to tell the truth, it has some sense; there it is part of a larger pattern to which God and I alone have access. Reading Merton’s is, to reiterate, offensive to me; I feel it as part of a massive egotism, which horrifyingly saw even his monastic retirement as a strategic part of his self-promotional program. I know little of Merton’s life, but his end seems somehow appropriate in this regard. He was a Trappist monk living in Kentucky; but the comforts of nature and the monastic life were somehow not for him – not really. He died in Bangkok, electrocuted by an electric fan getting out of a bathtub. What a Trappist monk living in Kentucky was doing with an electric fan in Bangkok is, to me, a fair question. What he was doing writing paragraphs like the ones above is a good question as well. Until I have some answers to these questions, I do not foresee myself giving too much more time to the writings of Thomas Merton.