I WAS looking a long while for a clue to the history of the past for myself, and for these chants—and now I have found it;
It is not in those paged fables in the libraries, (them I neither accept nor reject;)
It is no more in the legends than in all else;
It is in the present—it is this earth to-day;
It is in Democracy—(the purport and aim of all the past;)
It is the life of one man or one woman to-day—the average man of to-day;
It is in languages, social customs, literatures, arts;
It is in the broad show of artificial things, ships, machinery, politics, creeds, modern improvements, and the interchange of nations,
All for the average man of to-day.
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.
The Auburn Philosophy and Religion Workshop will host a conference on Jan 20-21, 2017, “The Contemplative as Writer: Thomas Merton”. You are invited to attend. I will post more details soon, or you can contact me for more information.