A NEW BOOK ABOUT ROBERT LAX HAS JUST BEEN PUBLISHED. TITLED,
"THE WAY OF THE DREAMCATCHER," IT IS WRITTEN BY STEVE
T. GEORGIOU. IT IS A FABULOUS READ. ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS I HAVE READ
IN YEARS. CLICK HERE FOR A FULL REVIEW.
REVIEW BY DAN KENNETH PHILLIPS,
INTERNET EDITOR OF THOMAS MERTON--MONK AND POET
Prophecy Still Had a Voice: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax
Biddle, Arthur (ed), (Lexington
University Press of Kentucky, 2001) ISBN 0-8131-2168-x (HB) $39.95
the summer of 2001, at the International Meeting of the Thomas Merton
Society, I had the opportunity to sit on the front porch of Merton's Hermitage
and talk with Arthur Biddle.
Our discussion ranged from how he became
interested in Merton and Lax to his general feelings about Lax. Much
of what we shared is in the final pages of When Prophecy Still had
a Voice. But a couple of his comments stuck with me.
In trying to figure out his initial interest
in Merton and Lax he said, "God does make accidents!" His reference
of course meaning that God's hand was in the encounter. (And haven't
we all had that experience a times when dealing with Merton?)
And then I asked him his impression
Lax. He thought for a long time and said, "A saintly (long pause)
then "NO WHAT A GREAT SOUL!" And those words may be the best description
of Lax by someone who had walked similar paths with him during the last
days of his life.
WHAT A GREAT SOUL!
What a treasure Arthur Biddle has given
to us and we thank God for that meeting has enriched all of our lives.
I first became acquainted with Robert Lax
through Catherine Pearson and Richard Raspa's book, "Discovery in
Literature," produced in 1970.
Lax's poem, The Morning Stars, from
Circus Days and Nights, was exciting and meaningful to me
in 1970, and even more meaningful now.
(Note: If you really want religious inspiration, compare The Morning
Stars from Circus of the Sun with Job 38. I believe you will be
Lax was one of Merton's oldest and
dearest friends. They met while both were students at Columbia University
in New York City in 1935. They spent time together as part of the Jester
staff at Columbia and for two summers were in Olean, New York, at a
cottage where, with other writer friends, they spent writing.
The book is in 5 sections, each with
a brief introductory note by Biddle.
Section one (1938-1941)
This section deals with the pre-monastery
days. Many of the letters seem to have been written in a secret code
between Merton and Lax. The language is frustrating, a lot of double
talk, and a rising sense of futility, especially since both are searching
for the right employment and a meaning for their lives.
Section 2 (1942-1951)
Beginning with Merton's entrance into Gethsemani,
this section covers the years 1942-1951. I like Merton's style during
this time. He is still enthusiastic about the monastery, has become
a successful author with Seven Storey Mountain, and has published several
books of poetry.
Lax, on the other hand, struggles with
vocation. Lax goes from screenwriting, to teaching, to becoming a part
of a circus--which eventually amounts to his book Circus Under the
Merton, realizing Lax's struggle, writes,
"Pray to him and ask him for a definite vocation, that is important
and I would do that." That Lax heard
his friends advice is evident a page later (p.104) when he says, "I'll
continue to pray for a vocation. Please Pray for us."
Section 3 (1952-1960)
This period has few letters to
begin the first portion. It picks up considerably in 1956 when Merton
becomes Novice Master. In 1959 Lax's Circus of the Sun was finally published.
To celebrate the importance of this publishing
event, Merton for once forsakes the double talk language so often used
between him and Lax, to say,
"Before I begin with the double talk....I would
prefer to say in serious tones what I would say about the Circus book,
which, with measured looks and profound surmise I take to be one of
the first if only religious books of any value that has skidded off
the slides in these United Steaks for many years." (page 182)
Lax returns the compliment by noting
in a letter to Merton that his The Solitary Life, printed by Victor
and Carolyn Hammer, is a "magnificent and eloquent masterpiece."
(Note for editor: I have finally been struck
by the Merton-Lax hex. Most of the times these letters are perplexing,
at times totally unreadable, and leaves one sitting on a broken limb.
BUT ALAS, I think I know what is happening. Both of these screwballs
are writing subconsciously a pre-literary form that pre-supposes
their greatest works.
For example, Merton's story of the crazy
nuns (p.195-198) is like finding a pre-historic Merton or the Dead Sea
Scrolls. It is fantastic. Merton in a creative tizzy. Alert, responsive,
crazy, searching for words from the monastic vaults. Great! This is
not great literature, it is fantastic literature that shows Merton's
prehistoric literary mind working.
And Lax, on page 200, works similarly.
Read between the lines and see the creativity and how he and Merton
stimulate each other. Every literature major should be forced to read
these diatribes in earnest as a way to show them where seminal literature
begins in creative minds .)
Section 4 (1961-1964)
In this period Merton is moving
toward more time at the hermitage and he has become increasingly involved
in a larger world filled with hate and violence. Lax, at this time is
becoming more interested in retreat and silence, eventually ending up
in Greece for most of the rest of his life.
These letters are for the most part
unreadable. Merton mentions his meeting with Suzuki and Lax mentions
the misfortunes of Jack Kerouac. Lax seems
to be getting use to Greece. "I have the consolations of a solitary
life," he says.
Section 5 (1965-1968)
"The letters in this period are perhaps
the most linguistically playful of the entire collection," says Biddle.
Merton now lives in his hermitage, falls
in love with M, a student nurse, and begins a literary magazine named
Lax is still living on Kalymnos and
experimenting with poetry. He becomes poet in resident at the University
of South Dakota in 1967. In the spring of 1968 he visited 5 days with
Merton at Gethsemani.Merton died December
10th of that year.
Deaths of friends, health problems for Merton,
including surgery, and Lax complaints of bursitis for which he takes
vitamin C 5 times a day. (p.336)
Many of the letters share a common grief
of several of their Columbia friends who die this year. Their own invincibility
Concluding letters mention Monk's Pond,
Merton's literary magazine, and Lax writing from South Dakota while
teaching there. Merton writes of his exciting trip to Asia and Lax sends
one last letter to Merton on December 8th which Merton never read before
Many memories are covered in these letters.
Memories of over 30 years of consistent friendship. Maybe they are at
times unreadable but mostly they give an indication that some friendships
do last forever.
Concluding the book is an intensive interview
with Lax in Patmos. Covering several trips to Patmos by Biddle, it covers
20 pages, having been reduced from hundreds of pages of interviews.
Dan Kenneth Phillips
JAN. 18, 2002
WEB SITE LINKS RELATED
TO THIS ARTICLE
Merton and Robert Lax: A Friendship in Letters by Arthur W. Biddle
Garland's Introduction to Lax's poetry and technique.
Robert Lax to receive St. Bonaventure University Arts Award
Poets - San Francisco. Includes article about Kerouac.
Merton - Monk and Poet