ECHOING SILENCE: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing
By Thomas Merton, edited by Robert Inchausti
Shambhala, 2007; 214 pp.; $14 (paper)
Reviewed by Ben Howard
Since earnestly practicing the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, wrote the Tang poet Po-Chu-I (772–846), I’ve learned to still the common states of mind. / Only the devil of poetry I have yet to conquer.
Freely translated, Po-Chu-I’s lines could speak for the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915–1968), who also struggled, mightily but unsuccessfully, to conquer the devil of writing. A prolific and widely admired author whose early memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), won him fame and a devoted following, Merton spoke often of the perils of the literary vocation, including the “seductions of publicity,” the “preoccupations of success,” and the deceptions of language itself. Though he produced more than fifty books in his lifetime, he did so with a divided, guilt-ridden heart, as though the writing of books were less a noble calling than a shameful addiction.
Spanning three decades and drawing from twenty-eight previously published books, the present volume gathers Merton’s contrasting and sometimes contradictory perspectives on the vocation of writing. Grouped under such thematic rubrics as “Advice to Writers” and “Writing as a Spiritual Calling,” these selections from Merton’s books, letters, poems, and journals address subjects as varied as modern poetry, Zen, the Cold War, the “evils” of advertising, the moral example of Boris Pasternak, and the survival of the human spirit in a “world of war, riot, murder, racism, tyranny, and established banditry.” Through his selection and arrangement of these diverse texts, editor Robert Inchausti purports to show “how Thomas Merton progressed from an inwardly-divided modernist to a stylistic innovator who used language reflexively to construct a critique of itself.” More conspicuous than Merton’s spiritual progress, however, is the persistent quarrel in his psyche between the ambitious, ego-driven author, who assumed an increasingly public presence in the culture of the 1960s, and the self-effacing contemplative, who longed for a life of solitude, poverty, prayer, and silence.
In his youth, Merton’s most urgent desire was to see himself in print. In The Seven Storey Mountain, he wrote of how his “ancient selfishness was now matured and concentrated in this desire to see myself externalized in a public and printed and official self which I could admire at my ease.” In years to come, Merton’s desire would be gratified many times over, and his externalized self would take multiple forms, most notably those of lyric poet, cultural critic, and Catholic thinker. Invited to comment on the social issues of his time, Merton willingly obliged, and often with panache, as when he excoriated “the supermarket culture,” or debunked Ayn Rand’s philosophy as “moronic,” or dismissed the Beat poets as “infantile.” In so doing, the poet-monk enhanced his reputation and added cubits to his stature. But he also strengthened a sense of himself as separate and morally superior, a man at odds with the “war-making” society in which he lived. And though he knew that for St. Augustine “fixation upon the external self” was “one of the principal elements in the fall of Adam,” he remained acutely conscious of his public image. Looking back at The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton viewed the narrator of that book as the “superficially pious, rather rigid, and somewhat narrow-minded young monk I was twenty years ago.” Harshly negative though it is, that judgment typifies Merton’s continuing concern with his public persona, which had been fashioned primarily through the printed word.
Little wonder that he often thought of writing less—or of giving up writing altogether. As early as 1949, he spoke of “deliverance” from writing, and as late as 1965, he voiced the hope that the urge to write would die of its own accord. In part, these recurrent renunciations express a writer’s frustration, but their origins lay deeper than that. For Merton, the practice of writing was culpably suspect, insofar as it glorified the writer and amplified the “ego-self.” By its very nature, the act of writing clashed with the practice of quiet worship, in which “the entire ego-self silences and abases itself in the presence of Invisible God…” Moreover, in his later life Merton came to distrust both the polluted medium of language and the dualistic thinking it embodied. “We are all wound up in lies and illusions,” Merton wrote to James Laughlin in 1961, “and as soon as we begin to think and talk, the machinery of falsity operates automatically.” How much better to be silent:
No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is “heard” when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say when there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.
Significantly, those poignant remarks appear in Merton’s preface to the Japanese edition of his Thoughts in Solitude (1966). With their overtones of the Zen koan (“the Hearer is No-Hearer”), they reflect their author’s gravitation toward Asian culture in general and Zen in particular. Merton’s embracing of the Zen tradition, which he saw as entirely compatible with Christianity, may well have been a matter of temperament, but it also reflected his moral and philosophical outlook. In Asian culture Merton perceived the much-needed qualities of “patient waiting” and “silent wisdom.” In Zen art he found a refreshing absence of “self-display,” the Zen artist being “empty, invisible, and incapable of being displayed.” And, most centrally, in the lives of Zen poets and philosophers he found examples of a “unified existence,” in which such ordinary actions as eating and walking become “philosophical acts which grasp the ultimate principles of life in life Itself and not in abstraction.” From such an existence come “the aphorisms of great Asian contemplatives or Christian saints—and the poems of Zen masters.”
Though earnestly sought, a truly unified existence would elude Thomas Merton. Yet in the concept of writing as a spiritual calling, as in the image of himself as a “writing hermit,” he found ways to frame his dilemma. In 1948, in a letter to Evelyn Waugh, he recognized that writing was in some way “tied up with the whole process of [his] sanctification.” And in 1964, in a letter to Dom Jean-Baptiste Porion, he looked back on his life as writing hermit:
As I reflect over the past and over God’s grace in my life there are only two things that are more or less certain to me: that I have been called to be at once a writer and a solitary. The rest is confusion and uncertainty.
However tentative, this represents at least a provisional resolution. Writer and monk were of a piece, if not quite one and the same. And perhaps for Thomas Merton, as for Po-Chu-I, the general direction was not really so uncertain. Of the making of many books there would be no end.
Ben Howard is professor of English Emeritus at Alfred University in western New York state. His most recent collection of poems is Dark Pool. He conducts the Falling Leaf Zazenkai, a Zen sitting group in Alfred, New York.