Merton and the Beats  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For today's commemoration of Thomas Merton, I combine a longstanding interest in his life and writings with a slightly more recent preoccupation with the Beats.  The two had more in common than a superficial knowledge of either would suggest, as pointed out by Ron Dart in a perceptive essay on the site Clarion Journal of Spirituality and Justice. 

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There is little doubt that the American Beats such as Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg were in search of a deeper and more meaningful way of knowing than the frantic and driven American work ethic.  This is why all of them turned to the contemplative East in search of a more nourishing way...

The Orient, particularly India and Japan, became meccas and sites of inspiration and wisdom for the American Beats that birthed the counter culture of the 1960's.  The interest in the East was, in principle, a quest for a deeper way of knowing the self and living a more contemplative, integrated, ecological and holistic life.  Merton had many an elective affinity with many of the American Beats and their subversive questioning of the American establishment and mainstream way of thinking.  Merton's definition of a monk was that of a person that was on the margins of power and privilege, and, in this sense, many of the counter culture were monks.  This more metaphorical  read of the monastic way placed Merton much more on the same trail as the Beats...

Many of the American Beats called into question both American foreign policy and much American domestic policy when the contemplative vision was translated into public action.  The politics of the Beats tended to be, for the most part, protest and advocacy politics...It was this anarchist tradition that held high social criticism and activism that Merton had some affinity with also.  The retreat to the country by many Beats had im portant points of convergence with the monastic tradition.

The American Beats...had three important things in common that Merton shared.  Both sought to return to the depths of the contemplative way, both sought to engage the hard questions of American injustice at a variety of levels, and both tended to resort to anarchist politics as a way of being political and prophetic...

Merton's attempt to think through and live forth the tensions of the contemplative-active had less in common with those in his Cistercian order such as Bernard of Clairvaux and his Abbot General, Gabriel Sortais, than with the insights of the American Beats and Roman Catholic anarchists.  Merton was a reformer within the monastic tradition...

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 10, 2011 at Saturday, December 10, 2011 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

5 comments

Joe thanks for this. I've returned again to exploring the Beats as well because of their sense of the emptiness found in the hustle of dollars and industry. It makes sense Merton is of this milieu.

December 18, 2011 at 5:30 PM

Joe thanks for this. I've returned again to exploring the Beats as well because of their sense of the emptiness found in the hustle of dollars and industry. It makes sense Merton is of this milieu.

December 18, 2011 at 5:36 PM

Joe, I tried to send an email to you using the address on your blog (since I am now off of FB) but it bounced back.
Bill Dilworth

December 22, 2011 at 6:57 AM

Bill, my e-mail address is joerawls@cox.net. Keep in touch.

December 22, 2011 at 9:13 PM

Bill, my e-mail address is joerawls@cox.net. Keep in touch.

December 22, 2011 at 9:13 PM

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