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).

Silence, Poetry & the Salvation of Seamus Heaney

In the spirit of “telling it slant,” I offer my friend Alex Joyner’s review of poet Christian Wiman’s new book. I especially like this quote from Wiman: ” What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety. (94)”

Heartlands

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 A Review of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light

The poet Seamus Heaney paused in the middle of dinner and leaned over to make a confession to Christian Wiman, who was, at the time, the editor of Poetry magazine. Knowing Wiman to be a Christian not only in name, Heaney admitted that he “felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up with in Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged. That was trying to emerge.” (88-9)

Wiman still wonders at his response to the confession:

What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities…

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That Attracting & Sustaining Divine Love: A Review of Evolving Humanity & Biblical Wisdom

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Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley

My review of Marie Noonan Sabin’s Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdom: Reading Scripture Through the Lens of Teilhard de Chardin [Liturgical Press Academic: 2018] is up on the Englewood Review of Books:

Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist and Jesuit priest (1881-1955), wrote about evolutionary science, spirituality, and the expansion of human consciousness.  Although the Vatican suppressed his writings during his lifetime, today his vision continues to be appreciated by scientists, religious scholars, and spiritual seekers.  In Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdom Marie Noonan Sabin brings Teilhard’s vision into conversation with scripture texts related to wisdom. With an interdisciplinary background in literature and theology, Sabin uses her interpretative skills in intellectually challenging ways that will fascinate some readers with knowledge of academic biblical studies but may mystify those without such a background. Though prior knowledge of Teilhard’s complicated thought would increase appreciation of Sabin’s work, her clarity and conversational style could well inspire Teilhard beginners to delve deeper into his thought. Continue reading

Immigration Songs

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Photo by BICAD MEDIA on Unsplash

Today I received a FaithLink assignment to write about asylum and found I needed to listen to some music before I started reading the news.  Some of these are old favorites and others I’ve turned up today.   I offer this list of songs, in the words of Finley Peter Dunne’s (no relation) Mr. Dooley (an Irish immigrant) “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” He was talking about the role of the press, but songs can have the same function.

There’s no better place to begin than with  Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, which I first heard at my high school.  It gave me chills then, and it still does.  The lyrics are from the poem “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus to raise money to construct a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.   The poem was cast into bronze plaque, which was mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal.  Set to music by Irving Berlin, here it is performed by the Zamir Chorale of Boston.

No list of immigration songs would be complete without Woody Guthrie’s Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) after a 1948 plane crash in Fresno County, CA, that killed 32 people including 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported to Mexico.  National radio and newspaper coverage failed to give the victims’ names, referring to them as “deportees.”  Although the Fresno Bee had reported some of the names, Guthrie, who was living in New York, didn’t know about the local coverage and responded with this poem.  It was later set to music by Martin Hoffman, a school teacher.  Here it is sung by  Peter, Paul, and Mary along with Tom Paxton.

Noel Paul Stookey‘s Familia de Corazon  is, in his words, about “the promise that sits out there in New York Harbor to all people who want a fresh start, who believe in equality, who are seeking justice and equity.” I find this song particularly poignant at this time when so many children have been separated from their families at the border.  Stookey has also has replaced two verses of America the Beautiful  (2011) with newer ones, one of which recognizes that we are a “nation of the immigrant.”  Both are on the 2015 CD, “At Home:  the Maine Tour.”

Will You Harbor Me?  was written by Ysaye Barnwell, a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock and is on their album “Sacred Ground” (1995). One of their albums “Raise Your Voices” (2007) has the cover shown at the beginning of the video.   Here’s another immigration song by Sweet Honey in the Rock in a video featuring Yonas–We Need a Nation (2010).

These Shoes  (2008) by Andrew McKnight shows the vulnerability of an immigrant woman from Central America. In his introduction he asks,  “What would it be like to grow up in Guatemala or El Salvador and feel so desperate that the only thing you can decide you can do is to leave behind everything you’ve ever known and loved and make this journey . . . .”   The song is on his CD  “Something Worth Standing For.”  I’m delighted to learn about this singer/songwriter who lives in the northern Blue Ridge of Virginia and has a heart for the marginalized.

Nanci Griffith is joined by Emmylou Harris on Griffith’s Good Night, New York, which is recorded on her album “Winter Marque” (2002).

Bruce Springsteen‘s American Land   (2006) recalls the stories of many immigrants who came to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries who discovered that not everyone who worked hard could make their lives better.

P.S. on July 13, 2018

Since I made this post, several people have suggested other songs about immigration:

Neil Sedaka’s  The Immigrant

Ry Cooder’s  Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right

JTF

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Is On-Demand Culture Changing Us?

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Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

“Back in 2011, comedian Pete Holmes announced to his audience on the Conan show that he had an iPhone, adding, ‘I have Google on my phone now. . . . It’s ruining life because we know everything, but we’re not a lick smarter for it.'”

Ministry Matters has posted the essay from my latest FaithLink:
https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9052/is-on-demand-culture-changing-us