(Kinda) Book Review Wednesday: Disputed Questions by Thomas Merton

16 May 2007

One of the odder and more disparate Merton books I’ve read.  He begins with a long essay (really two essays and a brief intro) on the Pasternak affair, the situation Boris Pasternak was in when he was forced to refuse the Nobel Prize.  Merton goes on to discuss Mount Athos, an Renaissance hermit, the Primitive Carmelite Ideal, absurdity in sacred art, a philosophy of solitude, the relationship and antagonism between Christianity and totalitarianism, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux.  It’s a little all over the place.

I read this book during my school break last month, and I wanted to do a Book Review Wednesday on it, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t decide whether it was a good book or not.  I’ve decided that it really doesn’t matter.

Not only is this feature not really a book review in the traditional sense, but the book is enough of a miscellany that it seems a bit impossible to say, “axios” or “ou” (or is it “meh”?).

One thing that has struck me lately as it has languished in a pile of library books to be returned, is his philosophy of solitude.  This essay, which is a series of numbered statements and elaborations regarding the vocation of solitude (i.e., living as a hermit, whether literally or metaphorically), discusses how humans today are surrounded by diversions.  It is safe to say that this essay —written in the 60s— refers to an atmosphere of constant amusements and distractions foreign to us.  In an era where cable was unknown, what does it say to us now when over 75% of homes have cable, satelitte, or some other kind of myriad-channel entertainment system working in their homes?

This essay has been prominent in my mind since my computer went dead last week.  It’s main logic board shot, I’m personal computer-less.  Sure, I use my wife’s computer some mornings for about ten or fifteen minutes, and I can use a computer at school for two hours a day or at the library for 60 minutes a shot twice a day, but there’s something quite different now.  There’s no computer I can call my computer.  There’s no computer I can go to when I’m bored and fritter away two or three hours obsessively checking email, checking the handful of internet fora I lurk, and reading ‘blogs. 

But as Merton points out, diversion keeps us from encountering ourselves.  People resort to nearly constant entertainment and amusement because they do not want to spend time with themselves.  In the last week, I’ve been more solitary, and all I’ve changed is the fact that I don’t have a “go-to” computer.  My computer tasks and chores have to be planned out in advance, time for these things has to be chiseled out, and my computer use has become much more intentional.  I use a computer because I need to, and not just because I have nothing better to do.

Being solitary —even though I haven’t doe anything more than give up my computer— is hard.  I’ve encountered myself as the annoyed and annoying, frustrated and frustrating, lazy and yet demanding person I am if I don’t think about it.

And that’s the point, isn’t it.  If I’m not self-conscious (in a good way), I end up behaving badly.  If I’m really deliberate in how I act and what I say, I realize that ultimately I’m a lot happier and a lot more content with who I am.

This realization would’ve never happened without this rather uneven, somewhat dated, otherwise still relevant and eerily prophetic Merton volume around.

If you’re interested, pick it up, but don’t feel bad if you skip Pasternak’s 60 pages and dabble in most of the other essays.

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3 Responses to “(Kinda) Book Review Wednesday: Disputed Questions by Thomas Merton”

  1. Jason Says:

    Interesting timing with this post (for me, anyway). I just started my second Merton book on Monday (Sign of Jonas), and I’ve been thinking lately about my wealth of diversions, specifically music. I went to meet a friend for a bike ride on Saturday, and I couldn’t decide whether or not to bring my iPod. I wouldn’t wear it while we were riding together, but there was the 5 minute ride to our rendevous point and another 5 minutes or so I might have to wait for him to show up. What would I do in those ten minutes?

    I didn’t bring the iPod, but it really pointed out to me the absurd point I’ve reached with my many entertainments. I listen to the thing when I’m biking to work, and I listen to it when I’m reading on the train (to drown out other people’s iPod leakage and cell phone conversations). When I get to work, I switch to the work-computer iTunes collection I have and listen most of the day while alternating between work & web-browsing. I’ve subscribed to two services online that give me cheap music, and now I might listen to a new album twice before I get another one. Again, absurd. Snowballing.

    So, as of yesterday, I’m fasting from music for a few days, at least I’m fasting from the gluttonous way I’ve been consuming it. There’s nothing wrong with music, of course, but I’m driving my iPod like its a Hummer. We’ll see how it goes. I can’t imagine what would happen if my computer went down. Might be a good thing.


  2. Good for you, Jason.

    It’s not that you should toss music altogether —as you said, there’s nothing wrong with it— but sometimes we don’t realize how cluttered our lives can become.

    And losing the computer is not for everyone. Beth, for example, is on her computer probably close to 6-8 hours a day, and I’d say that almost all of that is meaningful creative work or income-earning work. Her computer goes down, and that’s way different from me, who only needs a computer to check email occasionally and type up a test/handout/class material.

    Unplug your home computer for a few days, Jason. See how it feels.


  3. […] 24, 2007 in Monasticism, Metanoia I wrote earlier about solitude according to […]

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