Thomas Merton on “The Joyce Industry”

Thomas Merton is a fascination for me. He was a well-travelled not particularly religious Protestant with a degree from Colombia who became a Trappist Monk in Kentucky. He told a priest that reading Joyce had “contributed something to [his] conversion.” What about reading Joyce would make someone want to become a monk?

I’ll have to dig into that further. For now, I just want to take down some notes on Merton’s essay, “News of the Joyce Industry” which he wrote in 1969. It is a criticism of much of the scholastic study of Joyce at the time. Twenty dissertations appeared on Joyce between 1960-1963 and 5 books on Joyce had been published annually since 1960. (Just think of all that is out there now. There are endless podcasts, youtube channels and even Spotify channels on Joyce’s works!)

I am going to start at the end of his essay where he refers to an essay by William Blissett who quotes E.M. Forster on Joyce and Nietzsche on Wagner:

Forster remarked that “even the police are said not to comprehend [Ulysses] fully” (which comment still applies to those who take upon themselves the office of morally or politically “policing” Joyce’s work). But he added that when one had gone to the trouble to read one of Joyce’s big books, one will naturally tend to be pleased with his own achievement and call it “a great book, the book of the age. He really means that he himself is a great reader.” And Nietzsche said the same of Wagnerians. Lured into the mystery of Wagner, the hide-and-seek symbols, “in the midst of Wagner’s multiplicity, fullness and arbitrariness, they are justified, as it were, in their own eyes – they are ‘saved'”.

Merton says these two quotes explain the Joyce Industry. What matters is not what you say, but the ritual of saying it. Just as long as you make an effort to prove what you are saying, it doesn’t matter what it is. Nobody cares all that much because as long as you “pay enough homage to the Joyce establishment”, you can get away with anything.

Some Joyce scholars, according to Merton, “want to transubstantiate the bread of Ulysses and Portrait into the unearthly and arbitrary substance of their own fantasies.” What these scholars fail to realize is that Joyce accepted ambivalence and lived with it. He knew he had not escaped the rigidity of his Catholic upbringing, but he also knew he never would escape it. He broke with the Church and his parents subculture, but he did not renounce the ambiguities and conflicts built into Western civilization. The conscience of James Joyce:

…was the conscience of a European of the post-Victorian era, of a man in a sophisticated, complex, self-contradictory culture about to fall apart in World War I.

Freud’s Civilization and It’s Discontents helps “to understand what lay behind the comic judgment of society and its repressions in The Portrait of an Artist and Ulysses. “There is a big difference between a rigid puritanical repression of sex and “a civilized experience of ambivalence toward it.”

There are several scholars Merton does recommend:

  • William York Tindall, Hugh Kenner, and S.L. Goldberg are absolutely necessary for a full appreciation of Joyce.
  • English novelist Anthony Burgess (Clockwork Orange) called Here Comes Everybody: an Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader, the emphasis being on the healthy catholicity of Joyce (little c).
  • A collection of essays: James Joyce Today: Essays on the Major Works.
  • Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce. This was an abandoned project which was published in 1968. Merton said the unique interest lies in its imperfection and total lack of any “finish”.

From Merton:

The Giacomo notebook represents a pivotal development in Joyce’s ideas about love, from the erotic idealism of A Portrait of the Artist to the more ironic and mature realism of Ulysses. It deals specifically with the theme of spiritual seduction – and with the curious ambiguities involved in it… Joyce in Giacomo is clearly both Stephen and Bloom and, as Ellmann remarks in his introduction, the sardonic influence of Svevo is not unlikely. What comes clear in Giacomo is that Joyce, now middle-aged, has acquired the necessary ironic distance simultaneously to be in love and to see himself faking – or “forging” – his love. Giacomo Joyce is a lucid, ironic description of the involvement of art, eros, and social custom, of life, literature, and manners, of race, culture, history, in an essentially comic experience of love. It marks the crucial point at which the comic genius of Joyce emerges to full maturity and awareness.

Kenneth Wapnick Interview

In trying to get a feel for who Kenneth Wapnick was, I came across an interview with Kenneth Bok that was recorded in 2012, almost exactly a year from Wapnick’s death in December, 2013. It begins a bit rough but is quite informative. My notes follow…

Kenneth Wapnick was raised a secular Jew. He went to Hebrew school but didn’t like the language or the Jewish religion. It just didn’t resonate with him. What did interest him when he was young was music. His first real introduction into the world of classical music was at 16 years of age when his mother joined a Classical Music club. I imagine that’s one of those record clubs that existed back in the day? He was very moved by the music, especially Beethoven.

Around that same time, he read a a Primer on Freud by Calvin Hall which inspired him to read actual books by Freud. He did this while still in high school. That prompted his interest in Clinical Psychology. He never wavered from that interest and went on to get a Ph.D in Clinical Psychology. However, he would cut classes to go to the opera and to Carnegie Hall. Music was still what he most loved.

Music awakened something in him that he realized was more true than what he was studying in Psychology. It kept him spiritually honest at a time when he had no interest in spirituality or religion. He also loved great literature which functioned the same way for him, especially Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann (esp. Doktor Faustus).

He went on to get a job as a clinical psychologist, got married, and subsequently got divorced. After the divorce he decided he would become a Trappist monk. He had been reading Thomas Merton who inspired him to live a life alone with God. In order to become a Trappist monk, however, he had to become Catholic, so he was making those preparations when he met Bill and Helen.

As far as Jesus goes, he really had no conscious feelings about him but used to sneak the New Testament into his room when his was much younger to learn about Christianity. Also, in the 1960s he bought a picture of Jesus that deeply moved him. It was a powerful portrait. Had his parents known their Jewish boy was doing these things, they would have been angry.

He wrote his thesis on mysticism with a focus on St. Teresa of Avila. She had an inner experience he could relate to based on his inner experience with music. He had many dreams, not necessarily of Jesus, but of God and inner experiences. One dream was of Thomas Merton telling him that Jesus was coming. He knew the dream was somehow significant.

His Jewish parents knew nothing of his decision to become Catholic and were very upset when they found out about his work with A Course in Miracles, despite his explanations that ACIM had nothing to do with Christianity. However, when they met Bill & Helen, they felt better about the decision because they were so impressed with both of them.

Wapnick met Helen and Bill in 1972. They both had very spiritual sides, but they didn’t “look” spiritual. They were academic and professional. They did project a lot of anger onto one another, however. Helen often knew she was projecting anger onto Bill, but Bill didn’t always recognize that he was projecting anger onto Helen, which could be very uncomfortable. They only really got along when they were working on ACIM, together.

Apparently, Helen believed in past lives and thought she had once been an ancient Jewish prophet. When asked what lives Wapnick might have led, he says that was nothing he ever got into. Not that it isn’t true, but that it just didn’t seem like something he should bother with.

He wasn’t with Helen when she was scribing ACIM, but met her just as she had completed the first edition. Wapnick was given the Hugh Cayce version to read. It had been carefully edited by Schucman, but was full of inconsistencies and bits of information that clearly had not come from Jesus. Helen’s ego had gotten in the way during the first 4 chapters. After that, the information she received was much more focused and clear.

An example of the ego getting in the way: Bill was a homosexual which was a problem for Helen. She wrote, during dictation, that homosexuality was abhorrent behavior. That was definitely Helen, not Jesus. She also wrote that Jung was psychotic, also not something Jesus would have said. Not everything Helen wrote down came from Jesus, some of it was just Helen.

Helen said she didn’t “hear” an inner voice, she saw words and wrote them down. She never took the words to be sacred. The “voice” never said it was Jesus. Helen said it was Jesus. In Helen’s experience, Jesus was the form. But being form, Jesus is an illusion and should not be confused with the content. Jesus is a metaphor. Helen went to some abstract area of her mind that we all have, and out came ACIM. In that space she went into, call it abstract non-specific love, she identified with Jesus so Jesus appeared to be the source. It has nothing to do with the Biblical or Historical Jesus. It isn’t literally Jesus.

That’s why the form of ACIM is so much like Helen. It is written in English, not in the language of the historic Jesus. She was heavily influenced by Plato, Shakespeare, Freud and psychology. So is ACIM. People try and make ACIM “special” and Helen “special”, but you have to be careful about specialness. Don’t put form over content.

Backing up a bit, Helen and Bill gave Wapnick the Hugh Cayce version which Wapnick read. He mentioned the many inconsistencies to them and they agreed. People often think that Wapnick was the sole editor of ACIM, but he and Schucman went through every single word together. (There is no way Schucman would have let him edit it by himself.) The bulk of the work took place in the first four chapters of the text because there were so many gaps from the not so nice egoic stuff they had taken out (like Jung being psychotic and homosexuality being abhorrent). It didn’t read well and it was difficult to edit.

In general, capitalization was the greatest struggle. They would have to decide how to use capitalization on certain terms to make them stand out. Commas were another problem. Sometimes Helen would decide to change her philosophy on commas or capitalization and they would have to go back through the entire text and redo all the commas or capitalization.

Wapnick began teaching ACIM when he and Helen were traveling through Oregon. She would give the talks, but then decided it would be better if Kenneth told the stories about she and Bill. After one of these sessions, he was asked if he’d be willing to teach a group of people. He agreed and never stopped teaching. He says he never saw himself as a public speaker. He saw himself as a teacher of teachers, which potentially explains the denseness of his writing.

He says that ultimately, teaching the course is not teaching metaphysics, it is a demonstration. If people really understood the first principal of miracles, they wouldn’t need to read anything else. ACIM is lengthy because it is repetitive. Learning is a process.

The reason he wrote Love Does Not Condemn, a work that Kenneth Bok admitted is just a tad too scholarly for him to understand, was to help put ACIM within the context of other western traditions. People were constantly attacking ACIM as being Gnostic so Wapnick began reading some of the Gnostic texts and was blown away by how similar they were to ACIM. Much of Love Does Not Condemnis about showing where ACIM is Gnostic and where it isn’t. It also resurrects the Gnostics. Like ACIM, Gnosticism is also very Platonic. 

People often wonder how one woman could come up with ACIM, but ACIM wasn’t just written out of the blue, it comes out of a long, Western tradition. Neoplatonism wanted to now how you get from the Perfect One and end up with this world. ACIM gives us a context from which to understand that. It solves the Platonic problem.

When asked what ACIM’s role is in the evolution of Christianity on Earth, Wapnick replies that he is not a good prophet. He then goes on to say that nobody knows anything about the historical Jesus. Whatever his message was has gotten very messed up. The reason ACIM is written in Christian lingo is because we live in a Christian world. Even the East has become much more Christianized. However, Christianity isn’t very “Christian”.

ACIM is an attempt to set the record straight. It will be helpful in changing the world’s thinking, but we’re not there yet. It won’t happen in Wapnick’s time and probably not Kenneth Bok’s time, either. (I think Bok was under 30 years old at the time of the interview.) The world isn’t ready for it right now, but when it is, ACIM will be there and people will have access to it in it’s original form.

ACIM is not THE book. It doesn’t make sense to take it seriously in that way. To do so makes it “special” which is what happens in Christianity, too. Be kind to everyone and everything. That is ACIM.

Mystical Tradition: Lectures 29-35 – Sufi Mysticism

Notes on Sufi mysticism from Timothy Luke Johnson’s Great Courses lecture series,  Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam

Sufism is the dominant form of mysticism in Islam.  It is often difficult to say whether Sufism is authentically Muslim or if it just wears the garb of Islam.   No one is quite sure what influenced it, either.  There was a gnostic sect in Iraq known as the Mandians that may have influenced Sufism.  Or it could have been influenced by Neo-Platonists.  Or maybe Manichaeism which arose in Persia.  Iraq was also the center of Jewish mysticism (Merkabah Mysticism) so it could have been influenced by that.  Or, it could have been a reaction to the rigidity of the time.

Dr. Johnson thinks the most likely influence is the universal impulse for personal transformation that is seen in all religions.  This search always takes on the symbols in which it finds itself.

According to Sufis, one must move past appearances to find what is most real (al Haqq).  The empirical world is not what is most real.  It is illusory.  The goal of the path (which is understood internally) is unity with that which is most real.  Ordinary empirical existence camouflages that which is most real.  This camouflage is what is known as “The Veil”.  One must move past appearances to find what is most real.  This is what it means to “Pierce the Veil”.

The Sufis have a threefold path of self-transformation.

  • knowledge
  • love
  • prayer

The Sufi’s progress is marked by definite stages (stations) and is described as a caravan. You cannot rise from one station to another until you have fulfilled the provisions of the first.  A state is a gift from Allah over which the Sufi has no control.  A state could be an ecstatic mystical experience, for instance. States are bestowed, stations are attained.

Early Sufi mysticism is similar to Jewish Merkabah mysticism – there is much referent to going into the heavenly places and receiving knowledge.   Rabi ‘a al-’Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (717-801) was an important early female Sufi and probably the most notable among all the female Sufis.  There was gender equality among the Sufis, thanks in part to Rabi’a.   The sayings of this woman resemble those of the Christian sayings of the Desert Fathers.  They are very short sayings.  Rabi’a lived a life of extreme poverty and trust in Allah.  Stories of miracles began to accumulate around her.

There was a spectacular spread of Islam in its first centuries.  With this spread came an explosion of intellectual energy and innovative speculation in philosophy and theology.  Muslims were making major contributions in every field – math, literature, science, medicine, and this contribution was far exceeding that made by the Christians of that time.  Islam’s greatest brilliance was in the 10th-12th centuries.  It took a while for Europe to catch up.

But there were also tensions in Islam.  Several questions caused quite a bit of division among Islamic thinkers.  Could ijtihad (free inquiry) be applied as much to the doctrines of Islam as to its law?  Is the Quran and Hadith internally coherent, or are they coherent with other knowledge?  Was there any possibility of reconciling the rational inquiry associated especially with Greek philosophy and the highest achievement of human intelligence, but found among idolaters and the Quran, which is directly from God and therefore must bear all truth in itself?  Were there limits to the Sufi experience for it to remain in Islam?

There was an early theological dispute between faith and works: How can Allah be all powerful but hold humans accountable?  This is especially problematic in Islam because the omnipotence of God is so stressed.  Judgment is on the basis of what humans do.  So how can God be both just and powerful?  Perhaps God must be weak and just?

There were three stances taken on this topic.  The Mu’tazila Party took the rationalists approach.  God’s justice must logically be measured by human reason and the human understanding of justice.  Therefore, the Quran is not an eternal word, but only a human word.  The Orthodox Party appealed to Allah as known through the Quran as an absolute measure.  We know justice from what Allah does, and human reason must conform itself to what Allah actually does.  The Quran is therefore eternal and not subject to eternal reason.  Abu’l Hasan al Ash’ari (874-936) applied free inquiry (reason) to faith but still made faith the measure.  He did this by distinguishing the physical Quran as a finite expression of the eternal word of Allah.  This was a compromise position for a problem that is impossible to resolve completely.

Al Ghazzali sought to resolve many of the intellectual tensions and suffered a spiritual crisis in his obsession to do so.  Deliverance from Error (1100) is akin to Augustine’s Confessions (both are spiritual autobiographies).  Al Ghazzali was a student of law, theology and philosoophy.  He was professor and Dean of Nizamiyah University in 1091 and would lecture to as many as 300 students at a time.  He wanted to find out what constitutes certainty in knowledge which eventually led him to become a skeptic for several months in 1095.  Then he became Sufi.  The certitude that al-Ghazzali finally realizes – “I saw that Sufism consists in experiences rather than in definitions and that what I was lacking belonged to the domain, not of instruction, but of ecstasy and initiation.”   His experience of the Sufi way brought him a kind of certitude.  He discovered that it is located in the heart, not in the mind.  Al Ghazzali adopts an epistemological position that resembles that of Democritus or Epicurus  which is also later adopted by David Hume – all that philosophers can actually see are atoms interacting at random, not real causation.  Philosophy does not give rational certainty because ultimately, it can only provide opinion.  For Al Ghazzali, this means it is Allah alone that causes everything.  Therefore only faith gives secure knowledge of what is real.  Mysticism is the inner meaning of the system, but the Sufi must stay within the exoteric framework of the Shari’ah (law).  The mystic is answerable to the Shari’ah because the patterns of law for the community can itself be a source of inquiry for mystic knowledge.  The Sufi mystical way is an intensification of the Shari’ah way of life.

Ibn al’Arabi is another great Sufi master (1165-1240).  He was born in Spain which was a center of Muslim culture at the time.   He compared Jesus’ ability to raise people from the dead to Gabriel’s utterance of the Quran.  It is Breathing.  His writing is reminiscent of the Kabbalah (the one and the many) and he represents a form of gnosis.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) is probably the best known of all Sufi masters.  He said that Allah is the God of all, both good and evil, and it all goes toward creating a masterpiece, a beautiful tapestry.  Rumi’s religion is one of love.  He founded the Mawlawi Sufiorder that spread throughout Turkey and played a very large role in Turkey’s culture and history.  The order is known for its singing, dancing, and Whirling Dervishes and has always been led by a descendant of its founder.

Europe launched 2 Crusades against Islam in the 13th century, but by this time they had been in Europe for a very long period of time, a time period equivalent to the American Revolutionary War to Ronald Reagan.  It was during this time period that Muslims started making their way into North Africa.  And they remained influential in North Africa for centuries (think Julian of Norwich to Thomas Merton).  It’s an ancient civilization by the time of later Sufi mystics.  The Islamic way of life is deeply entrenched in North Africa.

Among the Sufis that greatly influenced this Islamic way of life is Umar ibn al-Farid (1181-1253).  He was a member of the Shafi’i school which emphasized ijtihad – free & critical inquiry.  He was a remarkable poet who lived as a Hermit.  Ibn al-Hasan (1997-1258) founded the Shadhiliyyah Order which resembled a Third Order (lay people) in Christianity.  The Emphasis was on right thinking and right practice and it was a merging of Islam and Sufism.

Ibn Ala’illah (1250-1309) wrote The Book of Wisdom.  He said that the way of the Sufi is not one of instant gratification.  One must move through stages or stations to receive more mystical states.  One should not be longing for special psychological experiences if the fundamental groundwork has not been laid. “The Real is not veiled from you.  Rather, it is you who are veiled from seeing It; for were anything to veil It, then that which veils it would cover It.  But if there were a covering to It, then that would be a limitation to Its Being; Every limitation to anything has power over it.  And He is the omnipotent, above his servants…. The devotees and the ascetics are alienated from everything only because of their absence from God in everything.  Had they contemplated Him in everything, they would not have been alienated from anything.”  For Ala’illah the ascetic is someone who starts off being hard on himself and ends up being hard on everyone else.  The ultimate point of musticism is to be able to have compassion and understanding of all that is.  One is not simply looking at Realy.  One is looking at Reality with Allah’s eyes.

The last North African Sufi Master mentioned by Dr. Johnson is Ibn ‘abbad of Ronda (1332-1390).  He said that the knowledge that comes from the mystic way is diametrically opposed to the Law in the Shari’ah.  Therefore, those who get caught up in the specifics of the Shari’ah are missing the point of the Shari’ah which is the mystic way – the internal transformation of the person.

Then there are the Sufi Saints of Persia and India…

Islam was in Persia from the start.  Khwaja Abdullah Ansari (1006-1089) was extremely conservative intellectually and spiritually.  He was a member of Hanbali, a 9th century conservative legal school that only recognized the Quran and Hadith.  He wrote against the use of ijtihad and was actually imprisoned for a time because he was such a hyper-literalist.  “If the teacher says Allah has a hand, then Allah has a hand.”  He wasn’t capable of great poetry, but there is no mistaking his poetry for the longing of God.  He provides a mystical counter example to Sufism.

At another extreme is Fakhruddin Iraqi (1213-1289) who was a child prodigy that traveled widely.  He actually met Rumi and several other famous Sufis.  His primary interest was esoteric gnosis.  He wrote remarkably gorgeous poetry.  As with Teresa of Avila claiming to be a speck of foam in a vast ocean, Iraqi used the ocean to denote unity with God for waters merge and become One.

Nizam ad-Din Awliya (1242-1325) grew up in intense poverty and down-played the miraculous in favor of humanitarianism.  There is a repeated emphasis in his teaching on directed service and sharing of material possessions amongst people.  There is also a strong emphasis on hospitality and paying attention to manners.

Sharafuddin Ahmad ibn Yahya Maniri (1263-1381) was known as the Spiritual Teacher of the Realm.  He left his wife and children to pursue a life of celibacy.  He found a teacher and escaped into the woods.  After many years, he was persuaded to be a teacher.  He built a center where he taught until his death. The Sufi movement had an internal progression.  It was said to start with Adam and all the prophets were Sufis who wore the cloak that had been bestowed upon them by their predecessors.  Moses and Jesus were in this sense Sufis.

Sufism in the 20th century has been directly affected by modernity, just as Jewish and Christian mysticism.  Sufism, to rationalists, represented everything backwards about Islam.  It appeared way too otherworldly and out of touch with the modern world.  At the same time, it was very threatening to conservative Muslims because Sufism advocated a conversation between Islam and philosophy and science.

Conservative Muslims attack what they consider to be the pantheism of Sufism.  Islamic reform has been constantly moving toward the Exoteric and away from the personal transformation advocated by the Sufis which has made it very difficult for Sufism to find a place within Islam since modern times. It has become quite popular among non Islamic western spiritualists, however.

Fatimah al-Yashrutiyya (1891-1978) was born when her father, the Shaykh Ali Nur al-Din Yashruti was 100 years old.  She was orphaned at the age of 8 but her father had encouraged her and many other girls to follow the way of Sufis and she dedicated herself to the Sufi path.   She was invited to submit a paper on Sufism at a conference in Houston, which she did.  It was subsequently published and provides an example of how Sufism has made it’s way into the wider world.

Idries Shah (1924-1996)  was born in India and has traveled world wide as a Sufi Master.  He presents Sufism as a cognitive mastery that predates and transcends Islam.  In a sense, he de-Islamicized Sufism.   Inayat Khan (1882-1927) was also born in India and claimed Sufism transcended all religion.  He is the Founder of Universal Sufism and the Sufi Order International.

Thomas Merton had read Alawi and was deeply fascinated.  Huston Smith saw Sufism as the key to a philosophia perennis which priveleges spirituality over religion.  The idea is that religious convictions divide people but spirituality unites them and Sufism offers an appropriate candidate for a world embracing spirituality.

Rashomon (1950)

I borrowed Rashomon from Netflix after having read about it in the letters between Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz (Striving Toward Being).
Milosz writes: There is a Japanese film Rashomon, where 4 subjective versions of one event are given. I practice Rashomon too much so I am sometimes afraid of that delectatio morosa. (Delectatio Morosa is a latin term which means “peevish delight”. Wikipedia: In Catholic theology, a pleasure taken in sinful thought or imagination, such as brooding on sexual images. It is distinct from actual sexual desire, and involves voluntary and complacent erotic fantasizing, without any attempt to suppress such thoughts.) Our perception is just that – our perception. If we delight in our perception, then we are certain to fail to recognize reality.
So far I have absolutely loved everything I have watched by Akira Kurosawa. Rashomon takes the same event and shows it through the perception of four different characters. It is clear as each perception is presented that each individual has certain images of themselves that they are trying to protect. The only thing we know, for certain, is that the husband has been killed. But we even get his perspective of what happened through a medium. It’s fantastic!!
We, the viewers of the film, are the judge and jury. (The stories are told before a judge but we never see the judge – it is always from the viewer of the film’s perspective.)
How can we ever know the truth? Each perspective, including our own, distorts reality.

Merton’s Essays on Camus

Merton came to grips with his problems within Westernized Christianity through Buddhism and Solomon thinks it is very likely that Camus would have come to grips with his problems as an atheist through Buddhism had he been allowed to make the trip he was planning to India to study Buddhism rather than being killed in a car accident.

It’s not that Buddhism is “the answer”, but it provides the missing link in Western man’s understanding of himself. Buddhist philosophy bridges the vast divide that has been created over the centuries in Western thought between lived experience and reason. Building the bridge doesn’t require that we become Buddhists. Merton remained a devoted Catholic. All that is required is a shift in perception.

Interesting quotes from the rest of Merton’s essays on Camus

Camus: Journals of the Plague Years

  • “This is the source of Camusian anguish: Cartesian man, the detached subject, who is because he thinks (and thinks because he is Cartesian man), having started out with the assumption that everything thinkable is comprehensible, suddenly finds out that everything thinkable is absurd. Why? Not because of a metaphysical flaw in objective existents but because there is something the matter with the relation of the thinking subject to the object of thought. And what is wrong seems to be the relationship itself, to which Cartesian man has condemned himself by making it the ground of all his certitudes, including the certitude of his own existence.”
  • “Camus is, if anything, a classic moralist on the stoic pattern rather than an existentialist thinker.”
  • “To prefer abstractions to life is to end in absurdity and despair. Suicide is the collapse of the individual in the presence of the absurd. Murder – mass murder, war, genocide, and even capital punishment – is a moral collapse of society under pressure of the absurd.”
  • “The whole point of his first novel, The Stranger, is that innocence begins with the refusal to say what one does not and cannot mean, but that society demands of us that we repeat a whole series of prescribed declarations which we could not possibly mean if we reflected on their full implications… This is more than a judgment that society tends to be absurd: society will kill the man who refuses to be absurd along with it. Lucidity is punishable by death… The revolt is itself the beginning of authentic existence.”
  • “Clamence [from The Fall] is perhaps a kind of “saint without God”. He is activated not by life giving grace, but by the self-scrutiny of an ironic and hatefully lucid mind that is incapable of love. To be so activated is to be purified and damned at the same time, a kind of extreme Augustinianism in which to be judged is not a final end but only an endless fall into the void, a fall for which there is no ultimate landing. The only possible relationship with another is the relationship of subject to object, of judge to penitent – proving to the other that all have sinned and all are in despair, that all must condemn each other; proving that we are all in the void, that if God is dead all is permitted and all is meaningless… In such a universe, Love does not exist… Whether Nemesis or plague, The Fall represented a dead end beyond which there was no further progress possible in Camus’ artistic development. He had to take another course.
  • ” ‘The Absurd’ is not an object. It has no metaphysical existence of its own. It is not there until you put it there. You put it there by standing outside reality and looking in. You make life absurd by holding it at arm’s length. Once you step over the boundary line between subject and object, void and the absurd are no more. There is only that fullness which we begin to experience when we realize that “lucidity” is the light itself – the light we look not at, but with; the light that we not only have, but in some way are; “the true light that enlightens every man that comes into the world.” What Camus needed still to discover was that this light is pure mercy and pure gift and not the reward for a subtle, ironic. and self-conscious ethical concern.”


Terror and the Absurd: Violence and Nonviolence in Albert Camus

  • “Absolute liberty becomes a prison of absolute duties” – including the duty to exterminate thousands of one’s fellow men in the name not of a happy and life affirming present but of a hypothetical happiness in the future. The “death of God” means in the end an imperialism of the spirit that seeks world hegemony and total control at the price of unlimited murder and terror.”
  • “God is regarded somehow as a need of man’s mind and heart; and indeed a certain kind of apologetic in the past has been all too ready to advance this distorted and inadequate view of God. Here God is seen simply as the projection of man’s need for clarity, for rationality. The act of faith, then becomes a determination to convince oneself that no matter how absurd things may look, they are in fact quite reasonable because God must make them reasonable. One believes because one refuses to despair of an absolute and infallible reason… But this assumes that God is merely called in to our lives as a kind of logical Deus ex machina and that he is little more than a convenient hypothesis. Is this what is really meant by God in Christianity?”
  • “…The vision of a St. Francis is not the vision of an abstract and purely transcendent God dwelling in eternity, but the immediate, overwhelming, direct, tangible confrontation of “God who is” simply in the “is-ness” of every day reality. The belief of a Franciscan in eternal life does not determine how he lives – it flows from his life and is part and parcel of that life. If Camus had been able to follow this through he would have realized that the abstract God he could not believe in was not, and never had been, the living God of authentic Christianity.”
  • Camus’ ethic was exactly that of Franciscan poverty. Camus writes: “If someone here told me to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank. On the last page I should write ‘I recognize only one duty, and that is to love.’ And as far as everything else is concerned, I say no.”
  • “The logic of revolt demands dialogue, openness, speech. Therefore revolt protests against the conspiracy of silence which, everywhere, both under totalism and under capitalism, seals men’s lips so that they do not protest against organized murder but approve it.”
  • “The question arises why Camus so easily identifies nonviolence with silence, submission and passivity when authentic nonviolent resistance is active and should be highly articulate, since, if it is understood in the Gandhian sense, it demands much more lucidity and courage than the use of force does… In any case, Camus refuses to accept absolute nonviolence. His Rebel may take up arms, and may indeed by compelled by duty to do so, but with one most important reservation: “Authentic action in revolt will consent to arm itself only for institutions which limit violence, not for those that give it the force of law.”… This is all very fine – but what war-making institution does not in practice claim to be limiting violence and fighting for peace? The escalation of the Vietnam War by the Pentagon is all, allegedly, in order to limit violence!”


Prophetic Ambiguities: Milton and Camus

  • Merton compares Nietzsche’s “Superman” to Milton’s Satan which makes me think he’s probably completely misread Nietzsche. He was writing in the 1960s so that’s not surprising. It’s taken a long while to weed out the truth from fiction about Nietzsche – especially since his “Will to Power” became heavily and falsely associated with Nazism thanks to his sister who edited his texts in favor of Nazism without his knowing.
  • Paradise Lost: “The title itself states the problem: man is created for peace, delight, and the highest spiritual happiness. In traditional language, he is created for contemplation. Not a loss of self in mystical absorption but self-transcendence in the dynamic stillness which, as the Zen Masters said, is found not in rest but in truly spontaneous movement. But man’s weakness and superficiality, his inordinate love of a self metaphysically wounded with contingency, makes the Paradise life impossible. And yet here too was no solution, only a kind of despair. What for Milton was a blind alley has become in modern consciousness, an obsession with illusory vitalism.”
  • “Though Camus may have started with Sisyphus, a figure somewhat similar to Milton’s Satan, he soon distinguished between liberty and anarchy, authentic rebellion and totalist nihilism, and in the end rejoined the kind of classic view of liberty which was the one Milton himself really held.”
  • “All these contradictions are symptomatic of one truth: our seemingly well-ordered and well-functioning society is a nihilist city of pandemonium, built on hybris and destined for cataclysm…But our future depends above all on this: the recognition that our present nihilistic consciousness is fatal and the development of a toally new state of mind, a whole new way of looking at ourselves, our world, and our problems. Not a new ideology, not a new formula of words, not a new mystique: but as Tillich said – a new man.”


Camus and the Church

  • “If there is to be a choice between faith and the absdurd, his [Camus’] stoic consciousness will, in the end, dictate the choice of the absurd. And the “absurd man” of Camus remains strangely isolated, even though, if he is consistently faithful to his steady view of the absurd, he should proceed to a revolt that joins him in solidarity with other men of his own kind. But this solidarity lacks human validity unless it is in the service of life and humanity. In otherwords, revolt is legitimate only if it refuses all complicity with mass murder and totalitarianism of whatever kind, whether of the right or the left.”


Three Saviors in Camus: Lucidity and the Absurd

  • “The Augustinian concept that the love of God was the ground of true communion among men because the caritas for God and man was one love, not two, apparently never struck Camus, though he knew Augustine up to a point. One of Augustine’s most characteristic doctrines is that the love of God is worthless if it does not imply communion with our brother: and the living unity of those united in charity forms one body, the Mystical Christ, “the city of God.” Here, one would imagine, was a basis for the kind of communication and solidarity Camus was really looking for. But we cannot question the sincerity or the reality of his repugnance for the pseudo Christianity that has so deformed the veritas caritatis and the caritas veritatis of Augustine!… Instead, Camus comes out with a rather feeble maxim of liberal and humanist morality. One respects his intention. Yet in reading the story, one feels that the ending is inconsistent with what the story itself has told us about the people he claims to love.”


The Stranger: Poverty of an Anti-Hero

  • “Neither for Milton nor for Camus is the mere fact of rebellion sufficient to justify either Satan or Mersault. (Of course it is clear that the utter poverty and in some ways the helplessness of Mersault, and above all the total refusal of rhetoric and declamatory self-justification set him apart from the Satan of Paradise Lost.) But students and critics have habitually fallen into the temptation of thinking that the Satan figure is justified by his own rhetoric and by his own revolt.”
  • “Acceptance of the absurd, in Camus’ terms, does not justify life, does not give it meaning; it is the lucid acceptance of unmeaning. Furthermore, this is not the end, only the beginning: for to live in meaninglessness and absurdity is not an end. That would be simple nihilism and Camus was completely opposed to nihilism. But when one can face a life that is “without justification”, one is, according to Camus, prepared to go beyond to that solidarity in revolt and ultimately to that unity in love which he intended to explore in his later works. One starts, in other words, by renouncing the desire to be justified – one renounces hope of a consoling sense of one’s own clarity and rightness – in order to go on to that lucid solidarity in action and resistance that are conscious of their own limitations and respectful above all of life.”

Merton on Albert Camus’ The Plague

I broke down and bought The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton. I was going to wait until the summer but because I I’ve been so obsessed with Camus and would prefer to just move not to something new, I decided to make my way through it now.

There are seven essays in this collection on Camus and supposedly these are among his best (and also what made him so well-known in the 1960s).

The first essay is on The Plague. The essay is excellent and well-worth reading. Here is a cryptic (but lengthy) summary based on what I highlighted…

In 1936, Camus wrote his thesis at the University of Algiers on St. Augustine. He specifically attempted to explain Augustine’s attitude toward evil which he found repugnant. It’s this idea of original sin that he presents in The Plague. Like traditional Christianity, Camus solves it in terms of human freedom, but where Christianity likewise introduces grace as the higher form of liberty, Camus refuses to recognize it because he doesn’t understand it. Merton says Camus has has been deceived by a distorted notion of grace because so many Christians have a distorted notion themselves. Nevertheless, there are elements in Camus where clearly the undistorted view of Christian grace and liberty have contributed unconsciously to the formation of his “austere and compassionate ethic”.

According to Camus, he attempts to show men how to “fashion an art of living in times of catastrophe, to be reborn by fighting openly against the death instinct at work in our society” in all of his works. Merton says he does this most convincingly in The Plague.

The reason that Camus has the story take place in Oran is because it is an entirely European story. He needed a new city that was made up of French colonialists and didn’t have a Kasbah. That’s why there are no Arabs in the story. The idea Father Paneloux presents, that the plague is a punishment for sin, echoes the ideas of the French Catholic Priests and Bishops after the fall of France during “the great penitence of Vichy” (1940-1944). Paneloux revises his ideas after watching a child, injected with a serum taken from the victims itself, suffer greatly. The reason the child suffers so horribly is because the serum was actually helping him gain strength to fight against the plague. The child eventually dies anyway and Paneloux is changed by the experience and likewise changes his attitude from one of judgment and punishment to self-abandonment and sacrifice. He joins the sanitary squad with Rieux and Tarrou which represents the French resistance units. (Many French Catholic priests joined the French resistance movement after France fell.)

Merton says “The Plague is the most positive and conclusive of all Camus’ novels. The real drama of the book is found in the treatment of the theme of evil on two levels: The Plague as physical evil and the Plague as a deficiency in the human spirit. Merton writes, “Camus summons the Plague to bear witness to the fact that no systematic thinking can be fully realistic if it excludes the radical absurdity of an existence into which evil or irrationality can always break without warning. Yet we seem to assume that human affairs can be laid out neatly in reasonable patterns, as if everything were always in order and as if this order were completely accessible to any mind that carefully studied causes and their effects.”

Modesty is a key word in the book. It implies a capacity to doubt one’s own wisdom. This hesitancy to trust our own wisdom is created by the presence of doctrines and systens that have already explained everything for us and far too conveniently. These systems justify evil as a kind of good. Modesty is a lesson to be learned int he school of the absurd. For instance, modest people like Rieux and Tarrou are willing to do their job without trying to prove anything. They are willing to lay down their lives without insisting that there is something to prove by this action. They don’t feel the need to justify what it is they do.

Merton suggests that one of the reasons for Camus’ modesty is that he distrusts success. He is repulsed by the idea that material success is an implicit reward for virtuousness. (This is definitely one of the more complacent myths that abounds in bourgeois society.)

“Comprehension” is another key word in The Plague. The word comes up when Tarrou tries to explain what would motivate him to create the sanitary squads. It would seem he has a code of morals but can’t define what they are so uses the inadequate word, “comprehension” instead. This implies that what is “good” about Tarrou isn’t that he is doing something courageous. It’s a comprehension that sees and loves the goodness in his fellow man. Ignorance, on the other hand, is the lack of comprehension. It ignores the absurd and prefers its own values to the values that are worth defending.

Camusian modesty and comprehension are antiheroic. To call Sisyphus the hero of the absurd is really to say he is a non-hero. What Rieux and Tarrou do is non-heroic in the same Sisyphean sense. At times their task seems hopeless but they continue anyway, not in order to prove themselves better than the Plague, but because they are alive and want to help others to stay alive, too. To act in the Sisyphean spirit is to act not on grounds of moral good or evil. Nor is the act a means to receive a reward or avoid punishment. It’s simply a witness to human truth.

For Camus, modern day virtue is a sort of social disease. It’s a matter of talk, conventional attitudes, and cliche thinking. It has nothing to do whatsoever with the classic ideas of virtue. It’s more about obtaining compliance in order to keep the machine running. But in the face of something like the Plague, the automatic functioning of society ceases and there arises a new order of freedom and love in which everyone who takes part does so by choice rather than by default of being a part of society. This choice is based on two motives that Camus approves: revolt against the absurdity and arbitrariness of an evil destiny and determination to give their lives in the affirmation of man, of life, and of love. Those who do not manage to arrive at this solution are either passive and helpless victims of the Plague or its accomplices.

Often what society preaches as justification of man’s existence turns out to be an almost satanic repudiation of that existence. What society calls “the good life” is in fact a systematically organized way of death. It is built on the death of the noncomformist, the alien, the odd ball, the enemy, the criminal. While life, joy, love and peace are theoretically extolled, what keeps the machine running is murder, greed, violence, hatred and war.

The first step toward freedom is the affirmation that though the reasons which are supposed to justify existence don’t justify anything at all, there is reason to affirm life as a matter of stubborn Sisyphean choice. This revolt against the absurd sets man on the right path. Existence is a fundamental value in itself. It needs no justification. One must live in constant revolt against an absurd social philosophy which is nihilistic and based on murder. One must live in solidarity and love with those whom one is ready to defend against the attacks of “the absurd” – against the death drive built into the structure of social existence. We must build a new order of love to confront the false order of hate. But how do we go about building this new order?

Camus doesn’t answer this question. Christians would answer this through an understanding of Grace. But Camus has rejected the notion of Grace. He sees it as simply another form of justification – in this case, justification for the existence of God and proof of the righteousness of the Christian establishment. But this is a greatly distorted understanding of grace. The truth is that an act which springs from grace is purely gratuitous and seeks no justification other than its own gratuitousness. Grace seeks freedom from any limitation and any need for explanation other than itself. Without realizing it, Camus put himself in the thick of a very old argument of grace versus the law and is on the side of grace.

Merton notices the same problem of Original Sin that Solomon does in Camus. (Solomon said that Camus attempts to drop God but maintains original sin.) Merton says The Plague draws its real power on the death wish and the destructiveness that is built into man’s own life. It’s power is based on an indifference to life and to authentic values. On this, Merton writes:

The power of a dictator and of an authoritarian and violent party is made possible by the attitudes and dispositions already present in the people who submit to them, because in the depths of their hearts they want to submit. That is why, in Camus’ eyes, the sermon of Paneloux urging people to submit to the Plague as a just punishment is – like the sermons of French clerics urging acceptance of Nazi rule – simply a form of collaboration with the evil in man, an act of obedience to the innate fury of pestilence and of death. But how can Rieux believe this if he does not also, in some form or other, believe in something remarkably like original sin? This Camus fails to explain.

But then again there is Tarrou’s ethic of comprehension which demands constant attention (although it continues to maintain an idea of original sin) …

“We can’t stir a finger in the world without the risk of bringing death to somebody.” But does that not make all life unlivable? Once again innocence is equally impossible whichever way you look at it. But Tarrou reaches certain practical conclusions. First: it is possible to refuse all conscious and deliberate co-operation in any social action, any doctrine, any policy, whether revolutionary or conservative, which justifies murder in order to exploit it freely. In other words, though one cannot avoid all implication in some form of violence, one can at least refuse to co-operate with the social machinery of systematic and self-justifying violence. One can reject specious ideologies which permit massive killing in war, in pogroms, in nihilistic violence on the grounds of race, religion, class, nationalism and so forth.

Merton says that this is a form of the monastic spirituality of exile because he who refuses to cooperate with the establishment can no longer be considered a part of the establishment. It’s a Christian attitude. Also, Merton says that Tarrou’s desire to be a “saint without God” is not as anti-Christian as it sounds. St. John of the Cross, for instance, wrote: “You should do your actions in such a way that, if it were possible, God himself would not know you were doing them.”

Of course, Merton contests Camus’ conclusion that a Christian must inevitably by someone like Paneloux. He says Camus assumes that grace is that which gives one the ability to submit to a God who acts like an aribtrary tyrant. That it gives one the power to submit to a will one does not understand and even to adore and love what appears horrible. Camus finds this idea revolting and Merton says he is absolutely right to find it revolting. But Camus is wrong to assume that this idea is central to Christianity. Merton calls Paneloux a spiritual profiteer. His form of spirituality exists in symbiotic unity with the establishment which creates a sort of false supernaturalism. If you try to divert man’s capacity to love and turn it aside from concrete human reality to the purely abstract and spiritual, this deadens and distorts man. The Christian theologian Teilhard de Chardin writes: “The capacity to love cannot with impunity be dissociated from its object: if you try, mistakenly, to cut off our affectivity from love of the universe, are you not in danger of destroying it?”

Merton, like Solomon, concludes that Camus’ “modesty” might lend itself to too much desperation. But Camus still managed to have scruples over the murder of an innocent child. “He refused to justify that death in the name of God. He also refused to justify it by an appeal to history, to evolution, to science, to politics, or the glorious future of the new man.” Merton says this is at least a step in the right direction.

Merton – Prayers and Letters

I finished Merton’s book of prayers, Dialogues with Silence, tonight. It’s a lovely book of very personal prayers and line drawings that were collected from his journals, letters, poetry and books. It’s interesting to follow the progression. At first there seems to be a sort of desperation in his prayers – he wants to find God but God keeps escaping him – to a much more grounded, less desperate expression of experience and communal understanding. Interestingly, his line drawings progress in the same sort of way – from representational art to abstract Zen-like drawings. It’s a beautiful book. No highlights to post – the link above is to Google Books where you can find many of the prayers and line drawings.

I’ve mentioned Striving Towards Being previously, the letters of Thomas Merton and Cseslaw Milosz that I finished several days ago. It was absolutely fascinating to read these letters! Milosz is a poet from Poland who lived in self-exile in France and then later became a professor at Berkeley. The correspondence lasted 10 years – between 1958 (when Thomas Merton wrote a letter to Milosz telling him how much he admired Milosz’s book The Captive Mind) and 1968 (when Thomas Merton unexpectedly died – was murdered/committed suicide/had bizarre accident??) They discuss the influence of American-mass culture, the Cold War and ideology on both sides of it (they wanted a third way), their own literary endeavors and those of others, spiritual positions, etc. Both were often critical of the other’s views, but they maintained a mutual respect throughout.

A few highlights:

  • On Jan. 17, 1959, Milosz mentions the Japanese film Rashomon, where 4 subjective versions of one event are given. He says he practices Rashomon too much so is sometimes afraid of that delectatio morosa. I looked that up. It’s the pleasure taken in a sinful thought or imagination even without desiring it. (I also went to see if I could add Rashomon to my Netflix queue and amazingly, it was at the top of its recommendations for me because I gave 5 star ratings to Sunset Boulevard, Spirited Away, Lawrence of Arabia, A Clockwork Orange, Being John Malkovich, Lost in Translation, Apocalypse Now and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Awesome!)
  • On May 21, 1959, Merton responds to Milosz’s criticism of Merton’s thoughts on Prometheus and “Promethean theology”: About Prometheus – I wonder if you interpreted it correctly? I have nothing against fire. Certainly it is the fire of the spirit: my objection is that it does not have to be stolen and that it cannot be successfully stolen. It has been already given, and Prometheus’s climb, defeat and despair is all in his own imagination. He had the fire already.
  • On Sept. 12, 1959, Merton writes: “You are right to feel a certain shame about writing. I do too, but always too late – five years after a book has appeared I wish I had never been such a fool as to write it. But when I am writing it I think it is good. If we were not all fools we would never accomplish anything at all. As to people of good grain and bad grain, I do not have any answers, but again I think a great deal depends on love, and when people are loved they change. But what is happening in the world today is a wholesale collapse of man’s capacity to love. He has been submerged under material concerns, and by the fantastic proliferation of men and things all around him, so that there are so many of everything that one lives in a state of constant bewilderment and fear. One cannot begin to commit himself to any definite love, because the whole game is too complex and too hazardous and one has lost all focus…The answer – the only answer I know – is that of Staretz Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov – to be responsible to everybody, to take upon oneself all the guilt – but I don’t know what that means. It is romantic, and I believe it is true. But what is it? Behind it all is the secret that love has an infinite power, and its power, once released, can in an instant destroy and swallow up all hatred, all evil, all injustice, all that is diabolical.”
  • On Nov. 28, 1960, Milosz writes: “We live through a time when Manichaeism is particularly strong and one could enumerate many reasons for it – though we do not grasp as yet all the causes. I do not know to what extent a sort of despair at the sight of ruthless necessity in Nature is justified. Yet it exists while it was not known until quite modern times. The distance between man and the rest of Creation was so great that for Descartes too the animal was a machine. Some old Manichaean elements started to revive perhaps in the Reformation but they were mitigated. You can say that overstressed compassion for millions and billions of creatures crushed every second makes part of the modern schism which destroyed quite real barriers between man and animal. But the bitter taste of necessity colours the style of our contemporaries and if Simone Weil is such a force and if she counterbalances many modern follies, it is because she was une Cathare. Albert Camus called her (in a letter) “the only great spirit of our time” and Camus undoubtedly was a Manichaen. By the way, I would like to convince you to comment upon La Chute (The Fall), a very ambiguous book, which is a cry of despair and treatise on Grace (absent.) [Manichaeism is one of the major dualistic religions.]
  • On May 6, 1960 – Merton: “I enjoy and respect Camus, and think I understand him. What you said about La Chute struck me very forcibly when I read it: it is a fine piece of Manichaean theology and very applicable to this (Trappist) kind of life. In fact I was able to use it to goo effect, perhaps cruelly, in teh spiritual direction of a narcissistic novice. But the thing of Camus that really “sends” me is the marvelous short story about the missionary who ends up as prisoner in the city of salt. There, in a few words, you have a superb ricanement, in theology! And a very salutary piece for Trappists to read, because for generations we have been doing just that kind of thing. I was deeply saddened by his death. In politics I think I am very much inclined to his way of looking at things, and there is in him an honesty and compassion which belies the toughness of his writing….I do not have much interest in Sartre, he puts me to sleep, as if he were deliberately dull: assommant is a much better word. He shaves me, as the French say. He beats me over the head with his dullness, thou Hui Clos (No Exit) strikes me as good and somewhat puritanical play. The other thing of his I have tried to read, Nausee (Nausea), is drab and stupid.
  • Also on May 1960, Merton warns Milosz about moving to America. “…the atmosphere of this country is singularly unstimulating. Why live among lotus eaters and conformists, and such conformists. Never was there a place where freedom was so much an illusion…But for the rest you find here no imagination, nothing but people counting, counting and counting, whether with giant machines, or on their stupid fingers. All they know how to do is count.”
  • On Nov. 9, 1960 Merton writes: “Certainly there are enormous problems and difficulties about the life of an intellectual in America. There is the awful shame and revolt at being in this continual milkshake, of being a passive, inert captive of Calypso’s Island where no one is ever tempted to think and where one just eats and exists and supports the supermarket and the drug store and General Motors and the TV. Above all there is the shame, the weakness which makes us hesitate to associate ourselves with what has become the object of universal scorn and hate on the part of the intellectuals in Europe.”
  • On Mar. 30, 1965, Merton writes: “But the fact of the South that nobody seems to pay any attention to at the moment is that nothing is being done for the sickest and most morally impoverished of them all, Southern whites. Their stupidity and ferocity are, on the contrary, simply being driven to the extreme: of course they invite it. It would be too good not to let them ruin themselves and make fools of themselves but in the end our blissful charity will make perfect Nazis of them. They are that already, without any of the skill of the German types.”