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J. S. Porter

"Still Buming" Brightly

Heretic Blood: The Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton, Michael W.Higgins, Stoddart, 1998, ($29.95).

Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk whom Michael Higgins aptly describes as an extraterritorial writer, was born in Prades, France and died by accidental electrocution in Bangkok, Thailand in 1968. Now, on the thirtieth anniversary of his death, Higgins has written a retrospective on Merton's life and work, which nimbly manages to entice the novice and satisfy the aficionado. The CBC broadcasted parts of the book in a Merton tribute in December of 1998 on Ideas.

Merton seems to be the sort of writer many people want to hang onto in some way, even though Daniel Berrigan's comment is probably a just one: "When Merton was alive, it would have been a service to say whoa! at times. He needed a Pound, to cut him to size." Merton is the silent monk who never shuts up; the solitary who clings to the world. He's the poet, to complete Berrigan's phrasing, who wrote "an enormous unpruned lifelong diary of everything; trial and error and mood and conquest and pratfalls. And now and again, the midair triple somersault cannons into our hands."

Merton has been painted and photographed, quilted and embroidered, sculpted and bronzed; he has been put into plays and poems and songs and music and notebooks and non-fictional works. Can coins and stamps be long in coming? Allen Ginsberg even dreamt about him. Famous Americans, so the saying goes, are not supposed to have second acts. But Merton's play goes on Shakespeareanly without any sign of fizzle, his endless journals the rough equivalent of Hamlet's soliloquies.

Private notebooks continue to tumble out of Merton's grave which, in many cases, would have been better kept interred. Despite the plethora, the number of Merton indispensables remains comparatively few. James Laughlin, Merton's New Directions publisher and friend, knew and published the Merton core: The Collected Poems, which includes Emblems of a Season of Fury and poems from The Way of Chuang Tzu, The Literary Essays, New Seeds of Contemplation, Raids on the Unspeakable, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, and The Asian Journal.

That's about as much Merton as anybody needs, or can bear, though you might, depending on your taste, want to add Ishi Means Man, Conjectures of a Guilty By-Stander, even the pious Seven Storey Mountain and a good volume of his letters. Say, The Hidden Ground of Love.

Of Merton's sixty books and rising, you only need a dozen or so in your rucksack. Of the scores of critical commentaries and biographies, you need even fewer works. Higgins' Heretic Blood, though, is one book you'll want to own: for its illuminating thesis, for its fidelity to accuracy, for its fine photographs, several of which were taken by the CBC's Bernie Lucht, for its appreciation of Merton's poetry. Not since George Woodcock's Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet has Merton the poet been given such full attention.

Higgins makes two intuitive leaps in his book about Merton. The first is that you can't read Merton's work without simultaneously reading his life. The second is that a writer as broad and deep as Merton needs a template - Higgins chooses a Blakean covering - over his life and work in order to be read well.

Unlike a Faulkner, say, a novelist about whom Merton wrote perspicaciously, whose characters stand independently of his person, Merton's body of work is best read within the body of his life. In this way, you can liken him to another Protestant heretic whom he read lifelong: D.H. Lawrence. In Merton, as in Lawrence and perhaps in Blake himself, it is always profitable to know what is going on in his life to appreciate more fully, at any given moment, what is going on in his work.

You read Merton and Lawrence twice: once by chronology in their temporal-spatial continuum and once by the particular mood-driven and time-sculpted work. Merton is one of those writers in whom the body of his work and the body of his personhood meld like chiaroscuro. His own inimitable way of putting it in A Vow of Conversation, which serves as Higgins first Merton quote, is:

 I am aware of the need for constant
 self-revision and growth ... My ideas
 are always changing, always moving around
 one center, and I am always seeing the
 center from somewhere else. Hence, I
 will always be accused of inconsistency. 
 But I will no longer be there to hear the
 accusation (Higgins, 3).

When reading any book by Merton, it's always wise to have in hand a good biography. Higgin's Merton, though it is not exclusively or even primarily a biography, serves the purpose well. He is particularly insightful on less commented-on works such as Merton's poetic drama, The Tower of babel, on synthesizing a wide range of divergent opinion on Merton, and on his Blakean struggle for wholeness.

I admire Heretic Blood too for its care with small details. Merton, a very literary monk, used Swiftian satire, for example, a good deal in his poetry, particularly visible in "Epitaph for a Public Servant," "Original Child Bomb" and "Chant to be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces." Higgins, to my knowledge, is the first writer to make this point publicly.

He also selects details from other writers' comments judiciously. For example, James Forest is quoted as saying that Merton's "usual way of responding to something or someone was first of all to fall in love." This seems absolutely spot-on about Merton, both in his passion for new authors and in his relationship with a Louisville nurse.

Sometimes Higgins too generously shares the spotlight in his own script with other Merton commentators. His is the master-voice. But the book is very chatty, very dramaturgical. No one voice predominates. At times I found myself wanting more Higgins and less of his sources, more personal things than he was prepared to tell. For example: How did he fall in love with Merton? How has he sustained his love for nearly thirty years? That said, I'm very glad that Higgins has paid close attention to Canadian writing on Merton, a contribution which American Mertonians are inclined to underestimate.

Every raid on the life of Merton turns up valuable booty. For Merton the Zen-hippie, you read Edward Rice, his friend and fellow student at Columbia University. For a close reading of the matemal influence in his life and his letter-relationship with Rosemary Ruether, you read Monica Furlong. For good pictures, an understanding of his dream life and the significance of the feminine, it's hard to beat James Forest's brief pictorial biography. For how a life gets transformed into a symbol, you might turn to Anthony Padovano'sHuman Joumey. And for the most thorough treatment of fact, Michael Mott's The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton remains the standard against which all other biographies are measured and judged.

What Higgins has contributed to the collective Merton biography is to provide a lens through which to view it. The lens is William Blake, the poet about whom Merton wrote his master's thesis at the beginning of his writing life and to whom Merton returned at the end of his life in his very Blakean final myth-dreams: Cables to the Aceand The Geography of Lograire. The choice is salutary not only because both Blake and Merton were poets, mystics and visual artists, but also because Blake's mythological framework imposes coherence on Merton's sometimes topsy turvy life. Higgins writes:

 My exploration of Merton's life and work
 is based on Blake's FourFold Vision: Intellect
 (Urizen), Emotion (Luvah), Instinct (Thannas),
 and Wisdom (Urthona), a 'geography' of the
 spirit and of the imagination ... (I 0).

You can of course see Merton by other lenses. You can see him by Freud or by Jung, by Cixous or by Kristeva. You can see him through and by any number of systems or any number of thinkers and poets. Blake works well because Merton sought what Blake sought: wholeness. Like Blake, Merton wanted to unite contraries, and marry, in Blakean metaphor, his songs of innocence with his songs of experience, his heaven with his hell.

As Higgins says, "Merton's effort to unify, to balance the Contraries, in his life and work was his supreme Blakean task. He wanted to be genuinely Catholic, excluding nothing, including all." Higgins goes on to quote from Conjectures in the same context:

 If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by
 denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant,
 Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find
 that there is not much left for me to affirm as
 a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the
 Spirit with which to affirm it (259).

To Higgins's credit, the Merton in Heretic Blood is well-balanced. Zen-Merton receives as much attention as Catholic-Merton; Merton the poet has equal footing to Merton the joumal-keeper. What emerges from Higgins' portrait is a deeply human monk - changeable as the wind, frisky as a filly - a striver for integration and a battler for his own spiritual and psychic calm.

Merton, like Blake, is also fundamentally concerned about language and vision. He rails against what Blake railed against: partial sight and incomplete vision. Blake has his Newton, Bacon and Locke, the one-eyed Kings of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; Merton his twentieth century equivalents in Eichmann and the builders of the bomb. With searing vision, Merton corrals his century:

 Western industrial culture is in the
 curious position of having simultaneously
 reached the climax of an entire totalitarian
 rationality of organization and of complete
 absurdity and self-contradiction ... But the
 majority persist in seeing only the rational
 machinery against which no protest avails:
 because, after all, it is 'rational,' and it
 is a 'fact.' So, too, is the internal
 contradiction ... It might be good to open
 our eyes and see (Higgins, 257).

Is this not Blake speaking, albeit a twentieth century BIake, clad in a cassock or in a denim jacket?

In this age of abstraction in which scientism and rationality have eroded, or put into question, the words we need to talk about what we love, Merton wants to return to early man in very much the same way Blake returned to the child. "It is to the ancient peoples that Merton turned - the Maya, the Zapotec, the Yana - to discover a program for seeing," Higgins informs. In Merton's words: "[These people] had inherited an archaic wisdom which did somehow protect them against the dangers of a merely superficial, wilful and cerebral existence" (265). According to Merton in Ishi Means Man, a powerful but often neglected work:

 The primitive is at the point of intersection,
 where phenomena and the nuniinous, the divine
 and the human, commingle ... The individual is
 at the crossroads ... between the visible and
 the invisible ... One's identity was the
 intersection of chords where one 'belonged.'
 The intersection was to be sought in terms of
 a kind of musical ... synchronicity - one fell
 in step with the dance of the universe, the
 liturgy of the stars (Higgins, 265-266).

This very holistic vision centred on the interdependence of all persons and all life-forms is vanishing. It was vanishing even in Merton's time; cultural diversity has gone the way of biodiversity. Neither the Blakean "child" nor the Mertonian "primitive" is paid much heed by society's movers and shakers. Nevertheless, in the dance of number and in the liturgy of the machine, Higgins lucidly sets down Merton's Blakean agenda:

 Merton's poetic and spiritual vision
 consisted of his own 'mythdream' as he
 called it: the disunity of the word/world
 and its reparation by the poet; the role
 of silence in this lifelong act of
 reparation; the tyranny of intellection and
 its dethronement by archaic wisdom'; the
 ultimate realization of that Four-Fold Vision
 which is imaginative and spiritual
 integration/wholeness (71).

In no other book about Merton - perhaps in no book by him - have I so clearly understood Merton's mission.

All quotations are from Heretic Blood and use the pagination of that text.