Saturday, December 15, 2012

Dec 15, 2/2, David Griffith on Thomas Merton: "Letter to an Innocent Bystander": Meditation on the Possibility of Learning from the Newtown Tragedy

I had originally intended to write in praise of Ross McElwee's film-essay Sherman's March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.  I've seen it a dozen or so times now, most recently this week when I screened it for students taking my Art of the Personal Essay course.  One the options for their final project is to make a short film-essay, and so I needed to show them a representative example of the genre--to me, the representative example of the genre.

For the uninitiated, the premise of Sherman's March is that McElwee receives a grant to make a documentary on Sherman's march to the sea, but before heading south to begin work he visits his girlfriend in New York.  Upon arrival she informs him that they're done and she is getting back together with an ex.  McElwee narrates all of this through voice-over, while on-screen we see him pacing back and forth across the width of vast, gray, empty New York loft--not a stick of furniture in sight.  He paces, he half-heartedly sweeps the ridiculously empty loft space, and glance into an empty refrigerator, as though in there is the answer to all of his problems.

It only takes a few paces for us understand his heart-break, and the existential tail-spin he's been thrown into.  Everything seemed to be going so well, and then this...

As it turns out, this is a pattern in McElwee's life, and he, being a reflective soul with an essayist's spirit,   recognizes this, but he doesn't fully understand it, and he wants to--needs to.  And so, he decides to trust in this misfortune and allow it to be the lens (literally and metaphorically) through which he will see Sherman's infamous march--hence the "Romantic Love" part of the subtitle.  

The nuclear weapons part of the subtitle comes from his life-long preoccupation with nuclear annihilation borne out of a childhood memory of standing on a Hawaiian beach and watching a nuclear test hundreds of miles away beyond the curve of the earth light up the sky as though it were day.

With these troubles on his mind, he resumes his plan to re-trace Sherman's march to the sea, a route that ends up intersecting with a number of women--some new and some from his past.  What does Sherman have to do with my love life?  What does my love life have to do with nuclear annihilation?  What does Sherman have to do with nuclear annihilation?  How am I like Sherman?  All of these questions become tangled together in his mind, and ours, leading to one big existential question: How can one love deeply and meaningfully with the threat of death hanging around us?  It goes without saying that the film he is now shooting will be very different than the one he first imagined.

As I said at the beginning, this is what I intended to write about, but then yesterday afternoon I got wind of a shooting, something about an elementary school in Connecticut, and plans changed.

I began yesterday morning, like I have begun every morning this week, by dipping into Thomas Merton's book of essays, Raids on the Unspeakable.  Wednesday marked the forty-fourth anniversary of his tragic death.  Stepping out of the shower in a Bangkok hotel, he reached to adjust a fan and was fatally electrocuted.

Raids on the Unspeakable isn't my favorite of his works, but in the prologue Merton admits that it is his: ". . . Raids, I think I love you more than the rest."  He goes on: 

You are not so much concerned with ethical principles and traditional answers, for many men have decided no longer to ask themselves those questions.  Your main interest is not in formal answers or accurate definitions, but in difficult insights at a moment of human crisis.
It would be easy to discount much of Merton's writings on nonviolence, and this book in particular, as an overheated relic of the nuclear hysteria of the 50s and 60s, in which basement bomb shelters were marketed to the nuclear middle class family and children were drilled to duck and cover, as though that would protect anyone from a lava-hot wave of nuclear wind.  But Merton's work has that prophetic voice that implicates you; it has the ability to reach across decades to grab you by the shirt-front and not let you go without a fight.

"The prophetic voice has a relationship to time," writes Lewis Hyde in his introduction to Thoreau's collected essays, "but telling the future is the least of it.  The prophet does not say that the price of oil will go up in October, or that a comet will strike the earth is twenty years.  Rather, the prophet speaks of things that will be true in the future because they are true in all time" (emphasis his).

And so, last night, laying in bed reading Merton's Raids, my wife laying next to me in stunned silence as she read Facebook posts by heartbroken parents, I came to the essay at hand, "Letter to an Innocent Bystander," an open letter addressed to "intellectuals who have taken for granted that we could be 'bystanders' and that our quality as detached observers could preserve our innocence and relieve us of responsibility."

In other words, this letter addresses someone like me (a professor and writer) who believes that his politics will, in the long-run, prove to put him on the right side of history.  Merton's letter/essay implores such people to stand up to a monolithic "them." It's unclear exactly who "them" is.  He refers to "them" as "those special ones who seek power over 'all the others,' and who use us as instruments to gain power over others."  These "powerful ones" attend to the "machinery," those whose job it is to convince us that "their way is 'inevitable.'"

The vagueness is frustrating, but intentional.  "There are three groups I am thinking of," Merton writes, "'they,'  'we' and 'the others.'  We, the intellectuals, stand in the middle, and we must not forget that, in the end, everything depends on us." 

And while I'm uncomfortable with his sense that the intellectuals will save the world (working at a college or university for any length of time will cause you to second guess this possibility), laying there in bed I was reminded of Ginsberg's Moloch, the insatiable beast to whom the Phoenicians and the Canaanites sacrificed their children.

It's terrible--I'm sick to my stomach as I write this--to discover these resonances--the way that Merton's prophetic utterances ring so keenly true, where just two days ago they would have sounded dull.

Reading Merton's essay now in full, glaring light of the the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut--27 dead, 20 of them children between the ages of five and ten--I am reminded how an essay, a preoccupation relentlessly chased, an attempt to articulate--to assail--the unspeakable, written decades ago with no thought of Newtown, Connecticut or gun control laws, can implicate us and charge us--and here I mean "everyone"--with a mission: "Our duty," Merton writes, "is to refuse to believe that their way is inevitable."

I will not explicate Merton's entire essay, because the prophetic voice loses its poignancy, its claim upon our consciences, in explication, but I do need to give you the ending of the essay, in which he uses a well-known tale to illustrate his larger point:
You know it, of course.  It has been referred to somewhere in psychoanalytical literature.  Tailors deceived a king, telling them they would weave him a wonderful suit which would be invisible to any but good men.  They went through all the motions of fitting him out in the invisible suit, and the king, as well as his courtiers claimed to "see" and to admire the thing. In the end the naked king paraded out into the street where all the people were gathered to admire his suit of clothes, and all did admire it until a child dared to point out that the king was naked. 
You will perhaps find that my thought has taken on a sentimental tinge.  But since the times have become what they have become, I dare to blurt this out.  Have you and I forgotten that our vocation, as innocent by-standers--and the very condition of our terrible innocence--is to do what the child did, and keep on saying the king is naked, at the cost of being condemned criminals?  Remember, the child in the tale was the only innocent one: and because of his innocence, the fault of the others was kept from being criminal, and was nothing worse than foolishness.  If the child had not been there, they would all have been madmen, or criminals.  It was the child's cry that saved them.
For Merton, a Trappist monk, and for those familiar with Christian faith, this last line has, of course, a literal and a latent meaning, especially during this time of Advent, and I do not wish to complicate the Newtown tragedy even further by dragging theodicy into it, and yet there it is, staring us in the face.

At the very least, it can be said that essays like McElwee's and Merton's, different as they are, and tragedies like the one in Newtown, assert that we must allow ourselves to be guided by tragedy and misfortune, because they will often lead us back to ourselves and to our senses.

But I would like to think that in a time such as this we will not be satisfied with the very least, and instead take up the most pressing question: What does love require of us?

Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America.  He lives in foothills of the Blue Ridge with his wife and two children.  He teaches at Sweet Briar College.  He blogs at


  1. One aspect of pointing out the naked king is to observe that the President/Commander-in-Chief who so eloquently and tearfully expressed the feelings of the nation at the American school shooting is also the single person by whose orders more children have been killed with weapons than any other person alive. Where are the tears for those thousands of victims?

  2. I admire the difficult question you end with, David Griffith. It demands that we honor the various ways we process and mourn these deaths--in anger and empathy, grief and provocation. Certainly such senseless events bring out the best and worst in us. May we use the intensity of this happening to recognize collective tendencies to cast blame outward and away from us as if it will ease suffering.

    I haven't read this collection of Merton's so I'm grateful for the reference. Thank you.

    Re your final question, I turn to Merton's "Pure Love" from New Seeds of Contemplation, in which he says there are three possible beginnings, the third of which is to contemplate a love so pure it infuses "an atmosphere of dark, breathless clarity in which God, though completely defeating and baffling all your natural understanding, becomes somehow obvious."