Here’re the first paragraphs of the introduction to my new Merton paper, “Under a Doom-shaped Sky, Or Hats off to the Human Condition”. The paper discusses Merton’s book-length poem, Cables to the Ace. There are a couple of qualifying footnotes to these paragraphs, but I have omitted them.
Worship is a norm of human life. Merton knew this–knew what David Foster Wallace knew when he later commented: “Everybody worships.” Merton’s alternative title for Cables is Some Familiar Liturgies of Misunderstanding. —Liturgies because human life lives up to its nature almost always already in this one respect: it is worshipful. The question is not typically whether it is worshipful, but what is worshipped, and even more, how it is worshipped–because here the how determines the what. Merton’s poem repeats the basic structure of liturgy; it is loosely composed of litanies, entrances, hymns, homilies, etc. –Merton’s poem is familiar liturgies in two senses. First, it is largely, almost entirely in the vernacular. And, second, and more important, because what it liturgizes is modern life, our ordinary life (despite the fifty years between the poem’s publication and now). Even those parts of the poem hard to understand create the nagging feel of a song you recognize but cannot name. The words of Cables are on the tips of our tongues. –The poem is familiar liturgies of misunderstanding because the liturgies are wrong–worshipful in the wrong way, worshipful of the wrong object. And because they are, they are display the way our lives are down-destroyed instead of upbuilt by our life, our life with our language, a life we cannot avoid, even in silence. These are liturgies of deformation, not of formation. They are the bad news; they are the tidings of unhope.
Let me start by dwelling on that last point. Christian liturgy upbuilds. That is not all it does, of course. Its intentional structure is worshipful, worshipful of the triune God. Participants in it are thus ordered toward God, not toward themselves. But in virtue of participating in what is ordered toward God, they are themselves ordered toward God, and such ordering is always upbuilding. Now, this is not two different intentional structures, a worshipful one and an upbuilding one. It is one structure that has a particular effect on its participants in virtue of their participation. To the extent that we enter into the how of the liturgy, we reach toward its what, its object, but participating in the how also changes our what, what we are. Participant liturgical knowledge is connatural knowledge–and that is a bit of grammar. We become what we know and know what we become: blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
This is importantly reverse-true of what Merton takes to be our familiar, unChristian liturgies, our liturgies of misunderstanding. Cursed are the impure in heart, for they shall see UnGod, Gog or Magog, the False. Our participation in these liturgies results in our deformation. We become what we ‘know’ and ‘know’ what we become. Connatural ‘knowledge’, in this case, is damning ‘knowledge’. ‘Knowing’ nothing we hasten our own nothingness.
from the end of John Bricuth’s brilliant poem (the speaker is either God, the President, everybody’s father, or a combination of the three):
I know you’ll laugh at this, my thoughts began
To clear. I had a kind of revelation, Fish,
That burst of level lighting one associates
With several types of Eastern wisdom–
The seven ways, the twelve steps, the four
Tops, the three pigs–I don’t know…
I know it had a number in it, Fox,
And with that blinding flash I knew, boys, nothing
Quite restores the rush of vigor to
The blood, the vital fire along the veins
And in the loins to rein the wild horses
Of desire, that taste of life’s late richness,
Its ultimate bouquet, its sauce supreme
That makes you feel, Fish, you could live forever,
No, nothing quite gives back that special thrill,
Seeing we’re Americans, like going
Out and killing something, something on
Two legs that’s short and foreign, name chock full
Of consonants, or something furred or feathered,
Or failing that, with scales. Fox, don’t you
Find that so? that nothing really beats
The heady moment of sweet contrast when,
To make a phrase, they’re laid out like a lox,
And you are not. And isn’t that when all life’s
Puzzles fit, mysteries fall flat?
Tell me, don’t you find it so, Fox? Fox?
Bird? Fish? Now where did those three go?
I have been on extended blog hiatus. Various reasons for that, lately the conference on Thomas Merton I organized as part of the term’s Philosophy and Religion Workshop activities. I gave a talk on Merton’s late long poem, Cables to the Ace. I will likely share a bit of it in the next few days or weeks.
I am about to get back to work on Wittgenstein–I have a new paper I need to get back to, and a number of old ones that need a bit of dressing up before they go out. I also have to write a new short paper on him (and poetry) for a talk later this Spring. So, I am guessing that I will be back to posting about him here this term, as I work on these projects.
I have also finished the manuscript of my new book of poems, Brown Studies. More about that soon.
Mallonee creates songs
Oppen makes poetry
Rublev writes an icon
Kierkegaard ages with Regina
And all’s right in this wrong world
On the road to Solipsism–which is the doctrine not that I matter to nobody but that nobody exists but me–on the road to Solipsism there blows the same wind of loneliness which blows on the road to the house with walls of glass which none can break. In the labyrinth of metaphysics are the same whispers as one hears when climbing Kafka’s staircases to the tribunal which is always one floor further up. Is it perhaps because of this that when in metaphysics we seem to have arranged by a new technique a new dawn we find ourselves again on Chirico’s sad terraces, where those whom we can never know still sit and it is neither night nor day?
We may hurry away and drown the cries that follow us from those silent places–drown them in endless talk, drown them in the whine of the saxophone of the roar from the stands. Or, more effective, we may quiet those phantasmal voices by doing something for people real and alive. But if we can’t we must return, force the accusers to speak up, and insist on recognizing the featureless faces. We can hardly do this by ourselves. But there are those who will go with us, and however terrifying the way, not desert us.
To watch water, to watch running water
Is to know a secret, seeing the twisted rope
Of runnels on the hillside, the small freshets
Leaping and limping down the tilted field
In April’s light, the green, grave and opaque
Swirl in the millpond where the current slides
To be combed and carded silver at the fall:
It is a secret. Or it is not to know
The secret, but to have it in your keeping,
A locked box, Bluebeard’s room, the deathless thing
Which it is death to open. Knowing the secret,
Keeping the secret–the herringbones of light
Ebbing on the beaches, the huge artillery
Of tides–it is not knowing, it is not keeping,
But being the secret hidden from yourself.