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Lions Roar : March 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2007 97 Since earnestly practicing the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, wrote the Tang poet Po-Chu-I (772–846), I’ve learned to still the com- mon 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, might- ily but unsuccessfully, to conquer the devil of writing. A prolific and widely admired author whose early memoir, The Seven Sto- rey Mountain (1948), won him fame and a devoted following, Merton spoke often of the perils of the literary vocation, includ- ing 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 was less a noble calling than a shameful addiction. Spanning three decades and drawing from twenty-eight pre- viously 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 ad- dress 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 “an- cient selfishness was now matured and concentrated in this de- sire 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 de- bunked 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 strength- ened 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 exter- nal self ” was “one of the principal elements in the fall of Adam,” he remained acutely conscious of his public image. Looking back A Very Public Hermit ECHOING SILENCE Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing By Thomas Merton, edited by Robert Inchausti New Seeds, 2007; 214 pp.; $14 (paper) REVIEWED BY BEN HOWARD 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. PHOTOBYJOHNHOWARDGRIFFIN.USEDWITHTHEPERMISSIONOFTHEESTATEOFJOHNHOWARDGRIFFIN,THEMERTONLEGACYTRUST,ANDTHETHOMASMERTONCENTER. Merton at the writing desk in his hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky.