Merton’s margin

In a perceptive article titled “Merton’s Margin,” Maciej Bielawski identifies the grand paradox of Thomas Merton’s life, ensconced within the monastery within the Catholic Church, established as its mouthpiece or, at least, its informal and unofficial representative, defender of its institutions and traditions, while ever struggling to assert his own voice. Merton was always drawn to the polis, while acutely, even painfully, aware of the wilderness behind him, its freedom and autonomy, its space, always luring him. And yet Merton was never fully within the polis, the world, nor fully in the wilderness, while nevertheless speaking to or on behalf of both. Merton was always at the margin.

Bielawski describes marginality as resulting “from the sense of non-meaningfulness and lack of sense; it is the consequence of being brushed by death.” In Merton’s case, he lost faith in the world, in secular society, and discovered the possibility of monasticism in an age when hope, in a new post-World War West, encouraged a revival of not mere faith but of devotion in a generation of young intellectuals. This Merton embraced. But the sacrifice did not absorb or take into account his restless need for construction of self and purpose. There was not time. Instead, having decided on his path, he immediately began to chafe at the possibility of a wrong decision, and so he began to travel, restlessly, rebelliously, to the margins of whatever confined him. Bielawski puts it thus:

A worldly person becomes a monk, a monk becomes a writer, a writer becomes a hermit, a hermit becomes a lover and a traveller … Merton was stubbornly and instinctively moving away to the margin of everything that had at first seemed significant to him. He was doing so in the belief that he is searching for an absolute, unquestionable centre.

This tension makes the gifted writer like Merton a poignant searcher, an engaging autobiographer of the soul. Sometimes he is so intimate in his confessions and prayers that he seems saturated in unwavering faith, asking only for more. And yet having moved (and moved readers with him) to that point, Merton abruptly but subtly shifts and heads into the wilderness, the insecure, the margin.

Merton had touched upon the center, the Absolute, in his devotional life, or had he? As a reflex, he coils back from supposed light and seeks out darkness, death, ambiguity, at least in his private writings and in his hard dealings with monastic life. At the meaningless periphery or margin, Merton discovers or conjures a new center, a new angle on the Absolute, and wants to shift his life and mind from externals to that margin. More specifically, Merton wanted to station himself, like the artist, writer, or sage, to a margin that exempts him from complicity in society, the Church, monasticism, to speak purely, openly, and with wisdom. Bielawski compares Merton’s stance to those of classic writers: Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Kafka.

But he was destined not to stay there for long, for new margins, more attractive because newer, more isolating, like temptations to Saint Antony, rear their heads. Merton deftly negotiates his way out of all of them, all the way up to the absurd end.

Merton argues that God’s call to a person already summons that person to the margin of their previous existence. There, on the margin, faith is built or reconstructed. A new center is created. But even this margin, once it becomes a comfortable center, and its faith a comfortable faith, can be false. Conversion (the first call to the margin) cannot endure doubts, and the new struggle undermines the past, and requires purification. The centrality of God has moved to a new place, and the person is bereft of past centralities, past comforts. Now there are only new uncertainties. One must explore anew the meaning of life, existence, God’s purpose, what it means to live between the world and wilderness, between center and margin. Merton skirted along the fine border that exposed the Church and monasticism and theology as falseness, and eked out a persona that only revealed itself after his death.

Bielawski quotes Merton:

We are not justified by any action of our own, but we are called by the voice of God, by the voice of that ultimate being, to pierce through the irrelevance of out life, while accepting and admitting that our life is totally irrelevant, in order to find relevance in Him. … The kind of life that I represent is a life that is openness to gift; gift from God and gift from others.

Merton realized that his marginality, while leading him to different feelings and experiences, had no logic or rationale of its own. He lived dangerously, but not in the intellectual or even individual sense had he been a layperson. But then he would not have had or shred his many insights. Merton brought monasticism and eremitism to popular audiences and rehabilitated his religion’s spirituality. For himself, Merton required the margins in order to be honest. He gloried in the prospect that other people — but really referring to himself — would ever dare

to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk.

Eidetic vision

The term “eidetic” refers, in psychology, to the extraordinary clarity or sharpness of vision retained in the mind, whether referring to images or mental constructs. Thus, eidetic memory is considered photographic in its clarity, and a mental skill in its conceptualization. Alan Watts extends the term to great import in his book Tao The Watercourse Way.

Watts considers the manner of expression in classic texts such as the I Ching, which today is often dismissed as a divination device, much like the tarot. However, the manner of expression in the I Ching is intended not to forecast the future in some gross way but to conjure images appropriate for the reader to take into account when pondering a decision with import on the future. This is a very different interpretation than modern skeptics, and not only richer but closer to the probable understanding of the contemporary compilers of the I Ching (and similar “divination” devices).

Watts presents a hexagram, the textual judgment and the textual image — but the particular hexagram does not even matter, for each is constructed in the same way. What is important is the manner of communication, the intuition evoked by the compiler, and the consciousness of the reader in being attuned to the ways of nature and life, in short, the Tao. Watts notes of the hexagram and accompanying text:

The comment is invariably oracular, vague, and ambivalent, but a person taking it seriously will use it like a Rorschach blot and project into it, from his “unconscious,” whatever there is in him to find in it. This is surely a way of allowing oneself to thinking without keeping a tight guard on one’s thoughts, whether logical or moral. The same sort of process is at work in the psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams and in eidetic vision, whereby we descry faces, forms, and pictures in the grain of wood or marble, or in the shapes of clouds.

Here there is no logical barrier to protect an iconic view of reason or logic or tradition or definition of power. Rather, the subjective insight of the viewer or reader is specifically evoked in order to engage the person into participation with surroundings, environment, mental disposition, atunement to self and moods, emotions, and spaces where needs or fears may dwell. It is in this sense that Watts means neither logic nor morals should obstruct self-examination, for logic and morals will emerge from the interpretation of the environment and nature.

This sense of eidetic vision is what links all art and philosophy with self. One looks at a work of art or reads philosophical investigation or deliberation and at first may dismiss them as ink blots, as torpidly designed nonsense. That is logic speaking (initially). Delving further into the work of art or philosophy we can discern patterns that either resonate within us, confirming a direction of thought, or give us an inkling of danger or subterfuge, of being misled.

What is the touchstone for how we interpret the inkblot? The touchstone is whether our interpretation, built of intuition, emotion, and well-being, conjoins with nature and a more powerful and overarching engagement with our immediate environment emerges, and ultimately engages with nature and the universe. Falling short of this, perhaps we appreciate the artist’s or thinker’s efforts, bold but short, interesting but insufficient, sincere but not adequate to the depth of our need for insight. If that is the way with art and creativity, how rich our eidetic vision must be that it can encompass so much and syncretically build a relationship with the universe.

Thus Watts argues that the oracles of the I Ching are the predecessors of the artist’s ink or paints on a canvas in the most primitive sense of offering “forms to be contemplated absentmindedly until the hidden meaning reveals itself, in accordance with one’s own unconscious tendencies.” Eidetic vision means that we apply ourselves, with effort, to discern a meaning or a relevancy, an import, to not only a work of art or thought, but to nature itself. We can gather a great deal of information but we are often left with a hexagram-like fragment bidding us to say “yes” or “no.” This is neither superstition nor science, for neither seems to govern.

Rather, we are left with wu-wei, with non-action, as the wisest course, the watercourse way of the Tao. The course of non-action is not paralysis, indifference, or indolence but wise discernment always attentive to the mutually arising forces before us. This is the course of the solitary, the method of the solitary. It redefines eidetic vision as the application of clarity to the objects, images, and forces around us.