The Silence of the Mountains

I underlined so many passages in Joan Halifax’s The Fruitful Darkness that I didn’t realize how relatively short it is until I started to write about it (it didn’t help that I bought the Kindle edition, and I still can’t estimate length by the number of electrons in the book.) So, I’m hesitant to include too many passages in my discussion of it.

Halifax’s suggests there are many ways of “questioning and directly understanding our place from within the web of creation,” many ways of coping with “The World Wound.” Her table of contents provides a concise view of the many ways she discusses in her book:


1 The World Wound
2 The Way of Silence
3 The Way of Traditions
4 The Way of the Mountain
5 The Way of Language
6 The Way of Story
7 The Way of Nonduality
8 The Way of Protectors
9 The Way of the Ancestors
10 The Way of Compassion

One of the ways I was most familiar with is “The Way of Silence.” In fact, this passage seemed particularly familiar, for obvious reasons:

The poet Kathleen Raine once suggested, “It is not that birds speak, but men learn silence.” I think that it is when we learn silence that the birds speak to us. Fertile silence is like a placenta nourishing us from both emptiness and its connectedness with the greater organism of creation. Indeed, one aspect of silence is emptiness, and yes, it is often lonely. In the presence of silence, the conditioned self rattles and scratches. It begins to crumble like old leaves or worn rock. If we have courage, we take silence as medicine to cure us from our social ills, the suffering of self-centered alienation. In silence, sacred silence, we stand naked like trees in winter, all our secrets visible under our skin. And like winter’s tree, we appear dead but are yet alive.

If you’ve been visiting long enough you might remember an entry where I called myself “He Who Talks to Small Birds” accompanied by a shot of the hummingbird that hung out in my front garden and talked to me every time I came out to take photographs. Strangely enough, I considered that moment a high point in my life only paralleled by the moment when the Grey Jay flew down to take a piece of trail bar out of my hand when I was cross-country skiing on Mt. Hood.

I also identified strongly with the Chapter entitled “The Way of the Mountain” on many levels. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve spent most of my time backpacking or hiking in the mountains, whether Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier, or The Olympics. There’s always been something spiritual about spending a week alone or with a small group of people in the mountains, even more so than climbing mountains.

And, as I’ve noted before, it is the love of the mountains that drew me to many of the Chinese writers:

Before Dogen and after Dogen, in Tibet, China, and Japan, wilderness, and most particularly the greatness of mountains, has called rustic ascetics to their strength and stillness. The Chinese ideograph for hsien and Japanese sen is made up of two parts, one meaning person, the other meaning mountain. In Taoism and in Ch’an Buddhism, the hsien was a spiritual practitioner who used the mountain as a birth gate to awakening. Japan, like China, had a number of spiritual schools inspired by mountain mind. The tradition of Taoist naturalism and Esoteric Buddhist cosmology and rituals combined in the background of Shinto asceticism to give rise to Shugendo. The ascetic practitioners of the Shugendo sect are called yamabushi or “those who lie down in the mountains.”

I suspect that the silence I encountered on those hikes and backpacks was one of the main reasons I loved spending a large part of my summers there. I’ve never really identified hiking in the mountains with meditation and silence, but looking back it’s clear that most hikes in the mountain were a form of walking meditation.

Joan Halifax’s “World Wound”

Near the end of her Preface, Joan Halifax presents a rather concise summary of the elements of The Fruitful Darkness that most interested me:

The Fruitful Darkness is in part the story of the journey that took me through an encounter between the body of Buddhist practice and the body of tribal wisdom, especially shamanism. “Our own life is the instrument with which we experiment with Truth,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh. This book is a description of such an experiment. It is grounded in direct experience, practice, and intuition. My personal experiences are the main source for the text; the information and inspiration in this book are rooted in my life. This is inevitable, for neither Buddhism nor shamanism are “revealed” teachings. Both emphasize direct experience and personal realization over doctrine. In my years of practicing, working, and living with these traditions, I have discovered the profound value of truth that is directly known, directly understood, directly realized.

The book is also about the practice of ecology, an ecology of mind and spirit in relation to the Earth, an ecology that sees initiation as a way of reconciling self and other, an ecology that confirms the yield of the darkness, the fruit of suffering, an ecology of compassion.

Like Buddhism and shamanism, deep ecology is centered on questioning and directly understanding our place from within the web of creation. All three of these practices— Buddhism, shamanism, and deep ecology— are based on the experience of engagement and the mystery of participation. Rooted in the practice and art of compassion, they move from speculation to revelation through the body of actual experience. There are many roads into the territory of non-duality. I have chosen to reflect on those that I have traveled. What follows are observations, notes, stories, and realizations that point to pathways that link self and other— ways that often take one through the Valley of Darkness. I also suggest that the fruits of understanding and compassion grow in this Valley.

Perhaps the key line for me was “Like Buddhism and shamanism, deep ecology is centered on questioning and directly understanding our place from within the web of creation,” though I would be hard pressed to define any of those terms. It’s obvious, though, that Joan and I arrived at these interests from quite different directions.

Though I hadn’t heard of the term “deep ecology” until very recently, I think I’ve had a sense of “deep ecology” throughout my life, beginning with the hours spent fishing in the Puget Sound. Despite being raised a city boy, I’ve always felt more at home in nature, and that’s where I go to refresh myself.

That, in turn, led me to my “Indian” period. My first attempt at artwork was doing Indian beadwork on an inexpensive loom, something I’m starting to do again. In other words, I have been interested in Indian art and Indian culture for most of my life. It's impossible for me to separate life here on the Puget Sound from the magnificent Northwest Indian art that evolved here.

I was introduced to Buddhism through the haiku poets, who I originally viewed just as “nature poets.” That literary introduction, in turn, led me to a further study of Taoism and Buddhism. If I believed in reincarnation, I would suspect that I must have been Buddhist in a previous life because as I’ve read I’ve discovered that I’ve been leading most of my life according to some Buddhists’ values. Of course, others might argue that I’ve devoted much of my life to living some Christians’ values, too.

In the opening chapter entitled “The World Wound” I also discovered that my sense of the state of our world was very close to Halifax’s view:

The World Wound is a collective wound that we suffer simply by being born. Buddhist practice and my study of shamanism have helped me see that we are one node in a vast web of life. As such, we are connected to each thing, and all things abide in us. Our psychological and physical afflictions are part of the stream of that being-ness. On my second day in the desert, as I was walking in the late afternoon, I recalled the years of mental and physical sickness I have suffered. I asked myself then, Whose sickness is this anyway?

From one point of view, the suffering was my suffering. From another point of view, it was rooted in social, cultural, environmental, and psychological factors that were far beyond the local definition of who I am. My suffering is not unique but arises out of the ground of my culture. It arises out of the global culture and environment as well. I am part of the World’s Body. If part of this body is suffering, then the world suffers.

Recognizing the World Wound also turns us away from a sense of exclusiveness. If we work to heal the wound in ourselves and other beings, then this part of the body of the world is also healed. Each of us carries or has carried suffering. This suffering is personal. But where is it that we end and the rest of creation begins? As part of the continuum of creation, our personal suffering is also the world’s suffering. Its causes are more complex and ramified than the local self.

I also believe “we are one node in a vast web of life,” that my suffering and your suffering “arises out of the ground of [our] culture,” and that if we are ever going to alleviate that suffering we all have to work to do so, first by trying to solve our own suffering.

The questions Halifax attempts to answer in the rest of her book are vital ones for most of us.

As the environmental aspects of our alienation from the ground of life become increasingly apparent, the social, physical, mental, and spiritual correlates rise into view. We all suffer in one way or another. Consciously or unconsciously, we wish to be liberated from this suffering. Some of us will attempt to transcend suffering. Some of us will be overwhelmed and imprisoned by it. Some of us in our attempts to rid ourselves of suffering will create more pain. In the way of shamans and Buddhists, we are encouraged to face fully whatever form our suffering takes, to confirm it, and, finally, to let it ignite our compassion and wisdom. We ask, How can we work with this suffering, this “World Wound”? How can our experience of this wound connect us to the web of creation? And how can this wound be a door to compassion and compassionate action?

Most of us hope that confronting our suffering, “This World Wound,” will help us to feel less pain, but few of us think of it as a “positive” experience, one that can “be a door to compassion and compassionate action.” Fewer of us know how “our experience of this wound [can] connect us to the web of creation” and “be a door to compassion and compassionate action.” It’s a journey well worth taking with Joan.

The Fruitful Darkness: A Journey Through Buddhist Practice and Tribal Wisdom

Despite the lack of discussion here at In a Dark Time, I have been steadily reading books, just not spending the time needed to actually make sense of them or discuss them (strangely enough, I like to make sense of them before I start writing about them, and not after the comments). I’m still having a hard time deciding what it is I want to focus on now. Most of my reading has had “happiness” or “finding meaning” in life as a central theme, but I’m not sure that many of the books I’ve read have really helped me to define “happiness” or to find it any better than I could before, though perhaps there has been a gradual movement toward some conclusions.

As part of that process, I have just finished reading The Fruitful Darkness: A Journey Through Buddhist Practice and Tribal Wisdom by Joan Halifax that comes closer than any book I can remember reading to reflecting my overall values, though Halifax’s experiences in both Buddhism and Shamanism go far beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, or, perhaps, quite believe. The book gathered together at least three different strains that I’ve touched on repeatedly in this blog: Buddhism, Shamanism, and deep ecology. In my mind I tend to separate them, but Halifax does an excellent job of exploring each and showing how they are interrelated.

I’ll spend several upcoming entries discussing the book, but for the first time I think I’ll begin with the last pages of the book, the appendix, where she lists the Precepts of the Order of Interbeing which she apparently took from Thich Nhat Hanh, another writer I’ve discussed earlier.

Consciously, or unconsciously, I have followed these precepts most of my adult life, with a couple of notable exceptions, as indicated in parenthesis after the precept.

The First Precept: Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones.

The Second Precept: Do not think that the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth.

The Third Precept: Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threats, money, propaganda, or even education. (One of my central tenants all those years I taught. I found it difficult to team-teach with teachers who pushed their beliefs on students, particularly if they used their beliefs as part of their grading criteria.)

The Fourth Precept: Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. (Hard to do that when you spent most of your adult life as a caseworker and teacher.)

The Fifth Precept: Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. (See the above entry.)

The Sixth Precept: Do not maintain anger or hatred. (This is a hard one; I preferred to think of my anger as “righteous indignation,” but I also worked at eliminating that anger, too.)

The Seventh Precept: Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. (I need to explore in more detail what is meant here.)

The Eighth Precept: Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break. (Some parents objected rather vociferously to the “liberal” textbooks and novels that I often taught in my classes.)

The Ninth Precept: Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people.

The Tenth Precept: Do not use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit, or transform your community enjoyed political party. (Since I don’t have Buddhist community per se there’s no temptation here.)

The Eleventh Precept: Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. (Some students seemed to believe that education was harmful, but I never really believed that.)

The Twelfth Precept: Do not kill. (I don’t think I ever did, but it’s hard to tell when your government has you spraying machine gun bullets into the underbrush to suppress enemy fire.)

The Thirteenth Precept: Possess nothing that should belong to others. (See above, again.)

The Fourteenth Precept: Do not mistreat your body. (I try to believe that all those years I spent playing basketball were actually good for my body.)

I’ve only taken the first sentence from each of the precepts, but it might be worth buying the books just to read them in their entirety. If you don’t want to get the book, this site presents a more thorough discussion of each point, though not exactly the same discussion provided in Halifax’s book.

Final Thoughts on The Seven Storey Mountain

I enjoyed reading Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. Personally, I would rate it higher than Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It gave me insight to Merton’s life, insight I didn’t get from just reading his poetry and non-fiction. At times it was hard to believe that the Merton portrayed in the beginning chapters could ever become the Merton I knew through his later writings. That said, I might not have gotten through the book if I hadn’t previously read some of Merton’s later works and hadn’t been prepared by this disclaimer

He was happy to replace the doubts and uncertainties of his past with the unquestioned and unquestioning certitude of the Catholic Church of the mid-twentieth century. Confident in his belief that he belonged to the "one true" church, he all too often speaks disparagingly about other Christian churches— mirroring the church's complacent triumphalism himself. Even fifty years ago this triumphalism proved a problem for some readers of other religions, who sensed the book's power but were bewildered by its narrow religiosity. One young woman, although obviously moved by her reading, lamented: "Why is he so vituperative about Protestants? Are they that bad?" Readers today will be better able to put this narrowness in historical perspective and thus be less bothered by it.

in the preface. Truthfully, I still had a hard time with several of his statements about other religions; they undermined much of what he had to say. At times he reminded me of one of those people who Eric Hoffer described in The True Believers (a book I discussed years ago) — and that’s definitely not a good thing.

Luckily, I had forgotten most of that by the time I reached the last chapter entitled “America is Discovering the Contemplative Life” where he summarizes what seemed to be his most influential ideas.

But Saint Thomas also comes out flatly with a pronouncement no less uncompromising than the one we read from "Umbratilem." Vita contemplativa, he remarks, simpliciter est melior quam activa (the contemplative life in itself, by its very nature, is superior to the active life). What is more, he proves it by natural reason in arguments from a pagan philosopher— Aristotle. That is how esoteric the question is! Later on he gives his strongest argument in distinctly Christian terms. The contemplative life directly and immediately occupies itself with the love of God, than which there is no act more perfect or more meritorious. Indeed that love is the root of all merit. When you consider the effect of individual merit upon the vitality of other members of the Mystical Body it is evident that there is nothing sterile about contemplation. On the contrary Saint Thomas's treatment of it in this question shows that the contemplative life establishes a man in the very heart of all spiritual fecundity.

Though I’m afraid I’m more apt to be convinced by, “that pagan philosopher” Aristotle than by Saint Thomas, contemplation does seem, at the every least, a spiritual act, and is seen as such in nearly every religion I’ve read. No wonder Merton would later find such common ground with the Dalai Lama.

I wish Merton had done more than just briefly outlining the steps in reaching a state of contemplation and defining contemplation,

First comes the active life (practice of virtues, mortification, charity) which prepares us for contemplation. Contemplation means rest, suspension of activity, withdrawal into the mysterious interior solitude in which the soul is absorbed in the immense and fruitful silence of God and learns something of the secret of His perfections less by seeing than by fruitive love.

Yet to stop here would be to fall short of perfection. According to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux it is the comparatively weak soul that arrives at contemplation but does not overflow with a love that must communicate what it knows of God to other men. For all the great Christian mystics without exception, Saint Bernard, Saint Gregory, Saint Theresa, Saint John of the Cross, Blessed John Ruysbroeck, Saint Bonaventure, the peak of the mystical life is a marriage of the soul with God which gives the saints a miraculous power, a smooth and tireless energy in working for God and for souls, which bears fruits in the sanctity of thousands and changes the course of religious and even secular history.

With this in mind, Saint Thomas could not fail to give the highest place to a vocation which, in his eyes, seemed destined to lead men to such a height of contemplation that the soul must overflow and communicate its secrets to the world.

but contemplation as he defines is certainly a tantalizing prospect, tantalizing enough that I added his New Seeds of Contemplation to my Amazon wish list. Is “contemplation” just a different name for “meditation” or are the two traditions different? Interesting, too, that contemplation seems tied so closely to his lifelong ambition to be a writer, one whose “soul must overflow and communicate its secrets to the world.”

I suspect the climax of The Seven Storey Mountain can be found in this passage:

This means, in practice, that there is only one vocation. Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to a deep interior life perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others. And if you cannot do so by word, then by example. Yet if this sublime fire of infused love burns in your soul, it will inevitably send forth throughout the Church and the world an influence more tremendous than could be estimated by the radius reached by words or by example. Saint John of the Cross writes: "A very little of this pure love is more precious in the sight of God and of greater profit to the Church, even though the soul appear to be doing nothing, than are all other works put together."

It’s hard to know whether Merton’s main purpose was to convert his readers to Catholicism or to convince them of the importance of Contemplation. I decided to read his book because several people I admired said that they had converted to Catholicism because of it. It obviously didn’t have that effect on me, and I doubt it would have even as a teenager.

On the other hand, as I noted it did enhance my interest in contemplation. Although I’m sorely tempted to download Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation on my Kindle immediately and begin reading it, I’m going to avoid that because I need to finish writing up some of my ideas on other books I’ve recently finished before I forget them entirely. One of the ways I’ve avoided writing lately is by picking up a new book and reading it instead. Maybe I’m just saving my brain for the many “brain games” I’ve been playing lately.

Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain

Way back in April I briefly discussed Merton’s portrayal of Robert Lax in The Seven Storey Mountain, the reason I originally decided to read it, and mentioned that I was also intrigued by Merton’s references to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but would have to come back to them. Since I had just finished Joyce’s book before I started reading Merton’, I might have made more of this connection than I otherwise would have, but Merton’s early life and the style of the book reminded me an awful lot of Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist, though in a rather twisted way.

Joyce and Merton seem to have arrived at a critical point in their lives from very different paths. Joyce was educated in a strict, if not rigid, Catholic institution, while Merton was raised as a "free spirit,” with very little discipline. Joyce was drilled in Catholic beliefs while Merton was barely exposed to religion at all since his parents seemed determined to let him choose his own religion. Strangely, they almost seemed like mirror images of each other at one stage in their lives.

I think this passage where Merton described his feelings before entering the monastery is where it really struck me that Stephen in Portrait and Merton seemed quite similar.

What did I care about monks and monasteries? The world was going to open out before me, with all its entertainments, and everything would be mine and with my intelligence and my five sharp senses I would rob all its treasures and rifle its coffers and empty them all. And I would take what pleased me, and the rest I would throw away. And if I merely felt like spoiling the luxuries I did not want to use, I would spoil them and misuse them, to suit myself, because I was master of everything. It did not matter that I would not have much money: I would have enough, and my wits would do the rest. And I was aware that the best pleasures can be had without very much money— or with none at all.

Merton’s description of wanting to “live life to the fullest” seemed almost like a parody of Stephen’s declaration at the end of The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

Merton makes many literary references throughout The Seven Storey Mountain, also making it clear he admired Joyce’s works, not surprising since Joyce was hailed as one of the greatest contemporary artists of the time. Anyone who had read Joyce’s Ulysses “twice or three times” must have thought Joyce was a major literary force.

And here is a strange thing. I had by now read James Joyce's Ulysses twice or three times. Six years before— on one of those winter vacations in Strasbourg— I had tried to read Portrait of the Artist and had bogged down in the part about his spiritual crisis. Something about it had discouraged, bored, and depressed me. I did not want to read about such a thing: and I finally dropped it in the middle of the "Mission."

Merton focuses on how his reaction to the priest’s sermon on hell was entirely different than what Joyce had intended:

Strange to say, sometime during this summer— I think it was before the first time I went to Corpus Christi— I reread Portrait of the Artist and was fascinated precisely by that part of the book, by the "Mission," by the priest's sermon on hell. What impressed me was not the fear of hell, but the expertness of the sermon. Now, instead of being repelled by the thought of such preaching— which was perhaps the author's intention— I was stimulated and edified by it. The style in which the priest in the book talked, pleased me by its efficiency and solidity and drive: and once again there was something eminently satisfying in the thought that these Catholics knew what they believed, and knew what to teach, and all taught the same thing, and taught it with coordination and purpose and great effect. It was this that struck me first of all, rather than the actual subject matter of their doctrine— until, that is, I heard the sermon at Corpus Christi.

Merton even tries to smooth over his differneces with Joyce while explaining that Joyce’s descriptions of Catholic life actually inspired him, perhaps because his early life lacked precisely those elements.

So then I continued to read Joyce, more and more fascinated by the pictures of priests and Catholic life that came up here and there in his books. That, I am sure, will strike many people as a strange thing indeed. I think Joyce himself was only interested in rebuilding the Dublin he had known as objectively and vitally as he could. He was certainly very alive to all the faults in Irish Catholic society, and he had practically no sympathy left for the Church he had abandoned: but in his intense loyalty to the vocation of artist for which he had abandoned it (and the two vocations are not per se irreconcilable: they only became so because of peculiar subjective circumstances in Joyce's own case) he meant to be as accurate as he could in rebuilding his world as it truly was. Therefore, reading Joyce, I was moving in his Dublin, and breathing the air of its physical and spiritual slums: and it was not the most Catholic side of Dublin that he always painted. But in the background was the Church, and its priests, and its devotions, and the Catholic life in all its gradations, from the Jesuits down to those who barely clung to the hem of the Church's garments. And it was this background that fascinated me now, along with the temper of Thomism that had once been in Joyce himself. If he had abandoned St. Thomas, he had not stepped much further down than Aristotle.

Merton seems to quietly dismiss Joyce’s dissatisfaction with the Church with the phrase “peculiar subjective circumstances,” even if it’s not entirely clear what that means. He suggests in the last line that even if Joyce had rejected the Catholic Church, his underlying beliefs were still quite similar, as other critics have also noted. For Joyce, Art seemed to replace the Church while his basic underlying beliefs remain the same. Merton who had grown up admiring Catholic Church art in Italy with his parents must surely have felt that the two vocations could complement each other.

There’s no doubt that Joyce’s description of the priest’s sermon affected Merton when Merton describes his first personal encounter with a similar sermon:

When the sermon on hell began, I was naturally making mental comparisons with the one in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist and reflecting on it in a kind of detached manner, as if I were a third and separate person watching myself hearing this sermon and seeing how it affected me. As a matter of fact this was the sermon which should have done me the most good and did, in fact, do so. My opinion is that it is a very extraordinary thing for anyone to be upset by such a topic. Why should anyone be shattered by the thought of hell? It is not compulsory for anyone to go there. Those who do, do so by their own choice, and against the will of God, and they can only get into hell by defying and resisting all the work of Providence and grace. It is their own will that takes them there, not God's. In damning them He is only ratifying their own decision— a decision which He has left entirely to their own choice. Nor will He ever hold our weakness alone responsible for our damnation. Our weakness should not terrify us: it is the source of our strength. Libeuter gloriabor in infirmitatibus meis ut inhabitet in me virtus Christi. Power is made perfect in infirmity, and our very helplessness is all the more potent a claim on that Divine Mercy Who calls to Himself the poor, the little ones, the heavily burdened. My reaction to the sermon on hell was, indeed, what spiritual writers call "confusion"— but it was not the hectic, emotional confusion that comes from passion and from self-love. It was a sense of quiet sorrow and patient grief at the thought of these tremendous and terrible sufferings which I deserved and into which I stood a very good chance of entering, in my present condition: but at the same time, the magnitude of the punishment gave me a special and particular understanding of the greatness of the evil of sin. But the final result was a great deepening and awakening of my soul, a real increase in spiritual profundity and an advance in faith and love and confidence in God, to Whom alone I could look for salvation from these things. And therefore I all the more earnestly desired Baptism.

I suspect many of us who read widely subconsciously interpret reality though the eyes of author’s we’ve read, but I can count on a single hand the number of times I’ve consciously been aware of something I’ve read while experiencing an important event. Joyce had obviously made a major impression on Merton, even if his reaction to the sermon on hell was quite different from Joyce’s final reaction.

Perhaps Merton’s response to Joyce could have been overlooked if it had only been mentioned it at the beginning of his conversion, but Joyce is also mentioned a the climax of the book, when Merton is about to enter the monastery:

And then he turned to Father Master and said: "Father, here is a man who was converted to the faith by reading James Joyce." I don't think Father Master had heard of James Joyce. I had told the Carmelite that reading Joyce had contributed something to my conversion.

While the statement that Merton had been “converted to the faith by reading James Joyce” seems a humorous exaggeration, he obviously rejected Joyce’s viewpoint. Perhaps, despite Joyce’s undeniable power as a writer, Merton wanted to avoid the life Stephen was living. Perhaps he saw where he himself seemed to be headed when he thought “The world was going to open out before me, with all its entertainments…”

Perhaps this book should have been entitled “The Portrait of the Monk as a Young Man. “ In many ways, The Seven Storey Mountain seems to be the next generations’ answer to the Lost Generation. Instead of rejecting the values of the Catholic Church as Joyce had described doing in Portrait of the Artist, Merton rejected his liberal childhood and embraced the Catholic view of life.

Best Novel of the 20th Century?

I spent far too long attempting to read and understand James Joyce’s Ulysses to simply let it pass without comment, but I’m not going to attempt a literary analysis because I couldn’t come close to sources already online unless I were willing to devote a few more years to it, which I’m surely not. I merely want to address one of the questions I consistently hear about the novel and constantly asked myself as I struggled through it: Is this really the greatest novel of the 20th Century?

Stylistically, Ulysses was definitely a groundbreaking novel. It’s hard to believe Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, one of my favorite “modern” novels, published in 1895 and Joyce’s Ulysses published in 1922 were only published 30 years apart. Joyce’s Freudian, stream-of-consciousness approach changed the modern novel forever. Hardy’s omniscient viewpoint seems archaic compared to Joyce’s viewpoint, though admittedly today’s best-sellers still seem rooted in the more traditional narrative style.

Joyce’s exploration of Leopold Bloom’s mind, his Freudian analysis, as it were, was unprecedented as far as I know, though it seems to have become de rigueur in “serious” modern novels. Judging from graduate school readings, modern protagonists in serious novels more often than not suffer from the same despair and alienation that Bloom and Stephen do.

As Josh Rahn notes in his essay on modernism:

Modernism introduced a new kind of narration to the novel, one that would fundamentally change the entire essence of novel writing. The “unreliable” narrator supplanted the omniscient, trustworthy narrator of preceding centuries, and readers were forced to question even the most basic assumptions about how the novel should operate. James Joyce’s Ulysses is the prime example of a novel whose events are really the happenings of the mind, the goal of which is to translate as well as possible the strange pathways of human consciousness. A whole new perspective came into being known as “stream of consciousness.” Rather than looking out into the world, the great novelists of the early twentieth century surveyed the inner space of the human mind. At the same time, the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud had come into mainstream acceptance. These two forces worked together to alter people’s basic understanding of what constituted truth and reality.

Joyce offers a brilliant portrayal of Leopold Bloom. We not only discover the causes of Leopold Bloom’s despair; we also begin to see the world differently through his eyes. Shown as a victim of a pervasive anti-Semitism, he’s the perfect outsider who, as a result, sees more clearly what is invisible to those who blindly accept their culture. What a brilliant strategy for Joyce who himself had become increasingly alienated from his Irish culture to choose a protagonist who was alienated from Irish culture while at the same time claiming an Irish heritage.

I think if someone asked me to name the most influential novel of the 20th Century I might very well answer Joyce’s Ulysses. After all, I doubt that two novels I actually prefer to Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury and Catch-22, would ever have been written if Ulysses hadn’t broken ground first. Even a writer like Thomas Merton who superficially seems to have little in common with Joyce seems to have admired and been influenced by his work.

Stylistically it’s undeniably a masterpiece. Given my druthers, I prefer to read a novel that seems new, that surprises me. Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse were great reads and made a real impression on me when I first read them. Unfortunately, they haven’t stuck with me nearly as long as more traditional novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, certainly one of the 10 best novels of the 20th Century, and one whose definition of courage I’ve held dear all those years.

Style is undoubtably an important aspect of any work, but, for me, content still trumps style. At least in a serious novel that I’m going to spend time studying, it’s the author’s vision of the world that most interests me. Perhaps if I had lived in Ireland in 1922 I, too, would have seen the world from Joyce’s viewpoint and would have regarded Ulysses as the best novel of the 20th Century. It was definitely a time of deep alienation. Darwinism and science had undermined many religious beliefs. World War I had laid waste to Europe. This was the “Lost Generation,” and It’s no coincidence that T. S.Eliot’s “The Wasteland” was the most acclaimed poem of the time. In the end, though, Joyce’s vision is too close to Eliot’s Wasteland and Pound’s schizophrenic view of the world for my taste.

Joyce reminds me of psychiatrists who study the sickest people in society and then use their findings to generalize about human nature — possibly because his portrayal of Bloom seems so Freudian. I can empathize with Joyce’s Leopold Bloom and admire the way he helps Stephen when he realizes he’s in trouble. But I’ve read the original Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom is no Ulysses. He reminds me more of Eliot’s Fisher King than he does Ulysses.

As many critics have pointed out, Leopold Bloom is so ordinary that it’s hard to take Blooms comparison to Odysseus seriously. Odysseus represented the ideals of Greek Culture. Bloom is anything but ideal; he’s certainly not “heroic” in any way I would define the word. He’s a victim of society who still manages to be a better person than most of those who discriminate against him, but that doesn’t make him “heroic,” or worth emulating. I’ve got enough of my own problems without wanting to emulate Bloom. To be “heroic” Leopold, or Stephen, would have to find a way to stand up to those forces that are destroying them, and there’s no indication of them being able to do that.

Some might claim that Ulysses’ emphasis on alienation as a defining characteristic of modern life and the victimization of the individual makes it a seminal work, but I didn’t find Stephen’s reaction against Irish society particularly new or particularly revolutionary. Society has always pressured people to conform, probably more in the past than in modern times. From what I’ve seen of small-town-life, there is more pressure to conform in villages then there is in large cities. Emerson argued convincingly nearly 100 years before Joyce that “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” The difference between Emerson and Joyce is that Emerson offered “self-reliance” as an alternative to those pressures, whereas Joyce suggests no alternative.

Ulysses has forced me to consciously examine what it is that I look for in a novel and, in turn, decide how important various elements of a novel are to me. This is one of the hardest blog entries I’ve ever written and has required far more thought than I usually put into an entry. It’s even made me appreciate the novel more than I originally did.

Having to reconsider your criteria for judging a book probably makes the novel worth reading, even if you decide in the end that it's not even close to the best novel of the 20th Century. While trying to discover who was in the Modern Library group that decided what the greatest novels of the 20th century were, I found another list called the “Readers List” that said that ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand was the best novel of the 20th Century. In fact, Ayn Rand and L Ron Hubbard dominated the top ten novels. Given those options, I would have to concede that Ulysses was clearly the greatest novel of the 20th Century.

Call It “Rest and Recreation”

I suspect only someone as stubborn as I am would insist on continuing to write about a novel read last year before commenting on more recent readings, but A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man struck some deep chords with me, though they’re probably not the same chords that Joyce intended to strike when he wrote the novel.

The novel got me thinking about Sin and prostitution in ways I haven’t thought about them in many years. Since I didn’t attend church regularly as a youth, I’ve never considered many things “sinful,” seeing them, instead, as moral issues. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” always served as my life’s guideline, and I’ve done my best to follow that rule throughout my life — which is not to say that I have always managed to do so.

Although the Catholic Church would definitely think otherwise, I feel like I’ve only sinned once in my life, and apparently most Churches don’t even consider what I did a “sin.” On the other hand, I’ve slept with a prostitute once and didn’t consider it a sin then, even if, in retrospect, it seemed like a mistake, one I wouldn’t commit again and wouldn’t have done then if I’d known more about prostitution in Thailand.

These two events converged during a five-day leave in Thailand at the end of my tour of duty in Vietnam. When my tour of duty was about over, I was eligible to go on R&R to Thailand. I argued that it should go to those who had another 6 months of duty, but the officer in charge insisted that I’d “earned” the leave. So, in the end, I took it because I’d been relieved of my command and didn’t have much to do otherwise.

The trip didn’t start very auspiciously. When we got on the plane we were handed a very large bottle of Thai Beer. No one bothered to tell me it wasn’t the usual American 3% alcohol, but a strong 10% brew. I suspect by the time I got off the plane I was already drunk and managed to stay that way most of the time I was in Bangkok, especially since it was the custom to offer a beer in nearly every shop we stopped at.

There was only one other officer on the plane, a Captain whose name I don’t think I even remembered by the end of the trip, though I remembered his actions quite vividly. We had been given adjoining rooms at the hotel, and he took charge almost immediately. I was only a 1st Lieutenant, had never been on R&R before, and had never been in a foreign country, so I wasn’t opposed to letting him set things up. Before I knew it we had hired a taxi to be at our beck-and-call throughout our entire stay, the driver sleeping in his taxi in case we wanted something. Soon our entire five days were booked, and I toured some of Bangkok’s greatest treasures, including the Golden Buddha and the Reclining Buddha. We had an “authentic” Thai feast at an up-scale officer’s club, bought Thai silk for presents and toured the rivers where people lived as they had throughout time.

One night in the middle of drinking, the Captain told our taxi driver we needed a couple of prostitutes. I was either too drunk or too intimidated to protest. Besides, I wasn’t married, and it certainly seemed like a Thai custom. After all, the lobby of the expensive hotel where we were staying had been lined with Thai girls dressed as Indian maidens and cheerleaders when we signed in — and it wasn’t even Halloween. Hell, it was nearly Christmas.

Unlike Stephen in the Portrait of the Artist, I ended up finding the whole experience particularly repugnant and needed a whole lot more beer to spend the night with someone who could barely speak English, so much beer that the evening was barely a memory by morning, though I vaguely remember looking up at the skylight early the next morning and seeing, or perhaps imagining, a giant lizard crawling across it.

As if that night wasn’t bad enough, the next night as we were getting ready to return to Vietnam the Captain, who was Catholic, panicked in the middle of dinner and started asking where he could find a Catholic Priest so he could go to confession before returning to his unit in Vietnam, suddenly afraid he would die in mortal sin and end up in Hell.

I wanted no part of that. I sobered up instantly, wondering why anyone would commit what they thought was a mortal sin knowing death was a daily companion where we were going. I never did find out if he found his priest. As I’ve thought it over, both immediately afterward, months later, and even years later, I thought what we were doing in Vietnam was a greater sin than sleeping with a prostitute for one night, no matter how others might view it.

Even though I didn’t come close to committing any atrocities and don’t think I even managed to kill a single Viet Cong, despite constantly shooting back at snipers who haunted our nights, fighting that war against a people who simply wanted self-rule seemed to me, particularly in retrospect, to be a Sin, one I’ve spent much of my life trying to redeem. There are undeniably “Just Wars” and I am certainly no pacifist, but Vietnam simply wasn’t one of them. I still suffer from a collective guilt that most Americans won’t admit, a guilt that many of my fellow Vietnam vets seemed unable to recover from.

When I read years later how Thai prostitutes were procured, often sold at a young age by poor rural families to earn much-needed money, I regretted that I managed to contribute to that injustice, but it seems to me that the greatest sin belongs to the Thai people who allow that practice to continue. Knowing what I know now, I would certainly never consider having sex with one of them, but I knew nothing of that when I was first there.

My short experience with prostitution makes it impossible for me to identify with Stephen when he chooses “life experiences” over Church doctrines. Hell, it even makes it impossible for me to identify with Ulysses’ Bloom, who’s twice as appealing as Stephen, even if he seems to visit the whorehouse because he’s being cuckolded by his wife and because he’s unable to have sex with her after the death of his son. It’s hard for me to believe that sex without love isn’t just plain wrong. It’s ironic, to me at least, that my views of prostitution are much closer to the Catholic views than to Joyce’s views, despite my refusal to see it as a mortal sin. I don’t think I believe in Heaven or Hell, but it seems to me that using people to satisfy your own personal needs without considering its effects on them leads to personal, if not eternal, damnation.