Merton and Dylan: A Review of The Monk’s Record Player

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“You may think, as I did at first, that pairing a Utopian hermit monk and a demon-haunted rock star is just plain perverse or at the very least willfully paradoxical,” said David Dalton in his foreword to Robert Hudson’s The Monk’s Record Player:  Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966.  That drew me in.  Then Dalton said Merton and Dylan were “Siamese Twins joined at the hippocampus”(ix-x) and asked, “why wouldn’t two people as inventive, desperate, supernaturally talented, and aghast at the temper of the times have a lot in common?”(x)   Ok, so I was highly curious, but the clincher was this:  “Both were willful sinners, antiheroes of mysterious virtue and reluctant saints involved in issues of street-legal theology, Symbolist poetry, radical politics, morbid psychology, women (why leave them out?), the imminent spiritual crisis, and Doom—eschatology, to use theological terminology”(xii).

For serious seekers of increased understanding of either Merton or Dylan, Hudson’s book may not satisfy, but for readers who want an engaging look at possible parallels between two seemingly very different influencers of American culture and politics, it could be a good fit.   One was Trappist monk living as a hermit at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky who nonetheless wrote books that attracted the attention of both official Roman Catholic censors and the spiritual seekers the world over. The other is a Jewish singer/songwriter who “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, a performance that’s been the subject of much debate in American music history, and who won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Hudson begins his introduction with a quote from Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” (“Come writers and critics / Who prophesize with your pen . . . .”) and notes, “In the 1960s, these two were among the most outspoken writers and critics to prophesy with their pens, and they did indeed change the times they lived in” (1).

Although Hudson calls his book a “selective biography” and a “parallel biography” (7), its focus is much more on how Merton understood his own crisis in the summer of 1966 through the soundtrack of Dylan’s music. The monk, having fallen in love with Margie Smith, a nurse half his age, had to choose between her and his monastic vows, which included not only celibacy but the solitude of a cloistered life, a solitude that was always in tension with his public life as a writer and activist in the peace movement.

Claiming that “their souls were next door neighbors,” Hudson shows the “surprising parallels” between the two.  Both were

  • “cultural icons of the 1960s” and had to deal with interruptions from fans and interviewers”;
  • “prolific to the point of compulsion”;
  • “amateur visual artists” with “a love of photography, both behind and in front of the camera”;
  • “as inscrutable as they were brilliant”;
  • fiercely in “need for autonomy” and freedom, Dylan from the expectations of his fans and manager and Merton from the constraints of the Catholic Church and his monastic vows;
  • “unflagging spiritual pilgrims, perpetually restless, intense, and curious” (3-5).
  • poets, one a poet-singer and the other a poet-monk.

Perhaps their most interesting parallel was their gift of “the ability to hold within themselves beliefs entirely at odds with each other, dissonances usually more upsetting to their fans than to themselves.”  Merton explained, “We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them.”  Dylan simply said, “Chaos is a friend of mine”(5)   Hudson expresses his understanding of this ability in Merton in this statement:  “Just as he believed that he could only achieve unity with humanity by being alone, so too he realized that he could only be true to Margie by remaining true to his vows of celibacy.” (150)

Dylan fans may be disappointed that there is not more about Dylan in the book—three “interludes” that focus singularly on him—but Hudson makes up for sparse attention by doing justice to his crisis of the summer of 1966—no, not the motorcycle accident itself but the larger problem that it symbolized.  Hudson says that “if Dylan had done no more than stub his toe, a serious accident took place, one that involved the high-speed collision of his fame, his drug and alcohol abuse, and an impossible number of commitments that had been foisted upon him”(113).  His manager, Albert Grossman, was pushing him to promote his newest album, Blond on Blond, to go another tour, to write new songs, and to write a book (for which Grossman had signed a deal with Macmillan without consulting Dylan).  In addition, he simply needed to disappear from public view—from fans both adoring and hostile—“to find out what it felt like to be a family man, a patrician farmer, a father who was there for his kids.”  Hudson sees the “accident” as the beginning of “Dylan’s own search for solitude” (117), a search that in some ways mirrored Merton’s.

Merton had planned to write an article about Dylan.  Hudson says, “The core of the article would no doubt have been Dylan’s ‘prophetic’ voice . . . . For Merton, prophetic implied both a high level of truth-telling and the state of being ahead of one’s time,” and he believed poets possessed a prophetic vocation (159).  He never got around to writing it.  Merton died by electrocution in December 1968 when he touched a defective floor fan at a conference center in Bangkok, Thailand.

On July 25, 1966, at the Newport Folk Festival Dylan sang, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more . . . .”  (51)  Hudson calls that line “a chilling declaration of defiance that has resonated through the decades for anyone who has ever wrestled with authority, who has ever kicked against the oppression of society’s leveling influence.”  In The Monk’s Record Player he subtly shows how those words came to expression in Merton’s life and writing as he lived out his vocation as prophet and poet.

The Monk’s Record Player pays close attention to the influence Dylan had on Merton, documented in the monk’s journals and letters and evidenced in changes in his writing style, particularly in Cables to the Ace, in which Hudson says Merton “went electric, every bit as much as Dylan did at Newport the previous year”(139). Hudson gives reasons Dylan may have known of Merton, though the songwriter never mentions the monk in his own writings.  Nevertheless, Hudson makes a convincing case for affinities between the two men and succeeds in what he sets out to do—to write a book  “about solitude and love, originality and autonomy, and the extent to which music—functioning therapeutically—touched the life of one particularly gifted and troubled thinker in a time of crisis” (8).

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