Monday, June 24, 2013

"Thomas Merton + James Laughlin: Selected Letters": Review

"One begins to wonder about this realm, then. What is being prepared for it?": so reflects Merton amidst the death of many prominent figures, on 12/7/63. The gradual shift of this Trappist monk towards re-engagement with the world's suffering, by one who in his mid-twenties sought to flee the secular temptations and to devote himself to seclusion needs no introduction; it's well-known and a fascinating study in itself. Twenty-two years had passed between his entrance into the monastery and the time he wrote these sentences to his agent and friend, the well-off, well-educated James Laughlin. He shared and furthered Merton's connections with the New York literary realm and worldwide intellectual currents that a cloister could not block off. Laughlin founded New Directions, publisher of avant-garde novelists and the modernist poets whom Merton reflected in his own verse. Merton grew increasingly confident by the mid-1950s, taking on the Cold War's military-industrial complex.

So did his essays. As this collection edited well by David D. Cooper frames, in about one-fourth of the extant correspondence between 1945 and Merton's odd, premature death in 1968, we see the independent streak in Merton endure. The initial immersion into asceticism and denial understandably shook Merton up: he fears in early letters that being on the same roster as Henry Miller (whom he resembled and later struck up a friendship with) and Jean Genet might shake up Catholics. He wondered if his own inclusion in an anthology aside Genet or such might indirectly lead some young man into homosexuality; Merton scrupulously asked Laughlin if his own works for New Directions that funded the publication of less successful authors could make him (a term I employ but he does not) what used to be called a near occasion of sin.

However, by 1956, a change comes. As the Beats and rock stimulated the culture, so Merton might have been jolted. He begins to read Buddhism and ask about Zen. He no longer signs his monastic name in the very same letter where first he raises this interest, intriguingly. Laughlin must have labored well to assist Merton in obtaining books; consider this is but one of a series of volumes where Laughlin writes at length and in depth to such as W.C. Williams, Rexroth, Schwartz, Pound, and Miller at the same time. There's an affection on the page, even as the contents tend as the years go on to fill with worries over censorship by Merton's Order, the tensions of the superpowers, the war in Vietnam, and the pull of a nurse with whom Merton fell in love in 1966 (discreetly and sensitively handled by the editor and both correspondents; an afterword includes Laughlin's letter to her, tracked down over a year after Merton's death), and Laughlin's nimble recollections of his friend.

I agree with Laughlin that once one reads Merton, however imperfect some of his verse could be, one keeps on. His voice, approachable, ironic, sensitive, intellectual, compassionate, admonitory: it expresses insight and acuity. He's intellectual without posing as an academic, a committed priest who learned to let go of the narrowness of his call in its remote setting, so as to embrace the wider community. He gently early on encourages Laughlin towards faith, reminding him how a ritual rewards the body, which needs its own satisfaction along with the tug of the mind or pull of the soul.

Ultimately, the message Merton by the mid-50s articulates places him in the progressive movement's vanguard. His list of what he reads, who he writes to, what he knows, shows his curiosity and his drive to not cut any ties with society even as he seeks a hermitage to retreat to within the monastery's expanse. This energy, as he burrows down there in Kentucky even as he travels now and then before his final journey to Asia, compels him, and the need to resort to a mimeographed form of transmitting what the Order feared when they stopped him from publishing in print political anti-war, anti-nuclear content demonstrates his decision to address the "pestilence" of a dark time as a priest who had to act.

One passage stands out. On 11/26/63, Merton tells of the reaction in the monastery to JFK's murder. While he sympathizes with his family, he feels "more sorry for the national dance of death." That is, he reminds Laughlin of what I have never before seen publicized. The speech to have been delivered by Kennedy in Dallas was read in the monastic refectory. It's a "symptom of our whole condition," and revealing. "Strange thing: he lists all the increase in our weapons, missiles, bombs, polaris submarines etc. etc., and after doing so says that this would put a stop to any sinister plans of aggressors and.  .  . assassins. With all those missiles and submarines, all it took to do him in was a rifle and two bullets--one extra for the Governor of Texas." (234) Merton suggests this "angle" has "unconsciously unnerved people" and it unsettled me when I read his take on this mythic event. As far removed as he was from the non-stop media coverage that blanketed the nation then, he pinpoints the larger problem, and he refuses to idolize one who after all was responsible for some of the violence. One again sees the boldness of Merton's vision, and why he remained outspoken in his wisdom in a confusing age: he helped some of us react to it differently than did more popular media.

The contents show Laughlin's support and Merton's quest as it unfolds over more than twenty years. True, it's necessarily bogged down sometimes with details about what to print next, what needs editing, who wrote what, but this shows the passion with which Merton and Laughlin sustained their mutual support to connect him with a readership that at New Directions might not otherwise be open (then or now) to reading a Catholic convert's works. I also noticed how publications did not accept all of his articles or poems after his fame; you do get the sense Merton produced an enormous amount, and he seems to have an eye on practically publishing it all, even if not all of it during his lifetime.

Merton grows up to accept his burdens that he thought once might be relieved of him as a monk. He takes on more, willingly, and while he chafes at some of his adopted home's strictures, he loves the place and you read this collection understanding how he depended upon Laughlin to negotiate his intellectual journey as his mediator and yearly visitor, who enabled Merton to find us as his audience. Navigating between solitude and engagement, isolation and intimacy, Merton's again worth reading.
(Amazon US 5-18-13)


conner43 said...

While a college freshman, Thomas Merton became my conscience, and led me to the Peace Movement. Am embarrassed to admit that despite a Catholic education, my understanding of my Church had not changed much since Confirmation as a youngster. Merton, along with my Jesuit teachers led me to a new, grown-up Catholicism that proved to be at once foreign, and liberating.
This was certainly not a unique experience in those days, many of my peers found that same fork in the road and took it.
A form of liberated doctrine in many faiths is taken for granted now, but was quite a struggle at the time, as has always been the case with so many issues that beg for change.
At the time, hair length was debated almost as hotly as peace or social justice, it had the advantage of being less complicated, but not necessarily less contentious.
So much more has been written on the same subjects that Merton tackled in the forties and beyond, that he no longer may be viewed viewed as extraordinary, but for his era, his was a revolutionary voice.
p.s. A mysterious death indeed, electrocuted by a damn fan ?

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

My growth parallels yours. Christian Wiman in his new memoir avers if you have the same beliefs at 15 as you do at 50, you have not tested them or truly lived. Merton guided me away from a childhood fascination with war; I was astounded at 12 (!) reading "Seven Story Mountain" that there were WWII C.O.'s. I joined at my own Jesuit (at least in theory, as there were as many ex-Jesuits as Jesuits and surely few now) university a Social Justice Committee at the time of the Evil Empire and contras. When later that decade Michael Mott's biography appeared, I admired Merton's courage in sticking with his vocation when reading the nurse revelations, and while I reckon if he endured he would have gone truly hermit, his sudden end is odd. Some claim CIA.