Merton on his conversion to communism . . .
I had a long way to go. I had more to cross than the Atlantic. Perhaps the Styx, being only a river, does not seem so terribly wide. It is not its width that makes it difficult to cross, especially when you are trying to get out of hell, and not in. And so, this time, even though I got out of Europe, I still remained in hell. But it was not for want of trying.
It was a stormy crossing. When it was possible, I walked on the wide, empty decks that streamed with spray. Or I would get up forward where I could see the bows blast their way headfirst into the mountains of water that bore down upon us. And I would hang on to the rail while the ship reeled and soared into the wet sky, riding the sea that swept under us while every stanchion and bulkhead groaned and complained.
When we got on to the Grand Banks, the seas calmed and there was a fall of snow, and the snow lay on the quiet decks, and made them white in the darkness of the evening. And because of the peacefulness of the snow, I imagined that my new ideas were breeding within me an interior peace.
The truth is, I was in the thick of a conversion. It was not the right conversion, but it was a conversion. Perhaps it was a lesser evil. I do not doubt much that it was. But it was not, for all that, much of a good. I was becoming a Communist.
Stated like that, it sounds pretty much the same as if I said: “I was growing a moustache.” As a matter of fact, I was still unable to grow a moustache. Or I did not dare to try. And, I suppose, my Communism was about as mature as my face—as the sour, perplexed, English face in the photo on my quota card. However, as far as I know, this was about as sincere and complete a step to moral conversion as I was then able to make with my own lights and desires, such as they then were.
A lot of things had happened to me since I had left the relative seclusion of Oakham, and had been free to indulge all my appetites in the world, and the time had come for a big readjustment in my values. I could not evade that truth. I was too miserable, and it was evident that there was too much wrong with my strange, vague, selfish hedonism.
It did not take very much reflection on the year I had spent at Cambridge to show me that all my dreams of fantastic pleasures and delights were crazy and absurd, and that everything I had reached out for had turned to ashes in my hands, and that I myself, into the bargain, had turned out to be an extremely unpleasant sort of a person—vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene, and proud. I was a mess. Even the sight of my own face in a mirror was enough to disgust me.
When I came to ask myself the reasons for all this, the ground was well prepared. My mind was already facing what seemed to be an open door out of my spiritual jail. It was some four years since I had first read the Communist Manifesto, and I had never entirely forgotten about it. One of those Christmas vacations at Strasbourg I had read some books about Soviet Russia, how all the factories were working overtime, and all the ex-moujiks wore great big smiles on their faces, welcoming Russian aviators on their return from Polar flights, bearing the boughs of trees in their hands. Then I often went to Russian movies, which were pretty good from the technical point of view, although probably not so good as I thought they were, in my great anxiety to approve of them.
Finally, I had in my mind the myth that Soviet Russia was the friend of all the arts, and the only place where true art could find a refuge in a world of bourgeois ugliness. Where I ever got that idea is hard to find out, and how I managed to cling to it for so long is harder still, when you consider all the photographs there were, for everyone to see, showing the Red Square with gigantic pictures of Stalin hanging on the walls of the world’s ugliest buildings—not to mention the views of the projected monster monument to Lenin, like a huge mountain of soap-sculpture, and the Little Father of Communism standing on top of it, and sticking out one of his hands. Then, when I went to New York in the summer, I found the New Masses lying around the studios of my friends and, as a matter of fact, a lot of the people I met were either party members or close to being so.
So now, when the time came for me to take spiritual stock of myself, it was natural that I should do so by projecting my whole spiritual condition into the sphere of economic history and the class-struggle. In other words, the conclusion I came to was that it was not so much I myself that was to blame for my unhappiness, but the society in which I lived.
I considered the person that I now was, the person that I had been at Cambridge, and that I had made of myself, and I saw clearly enough that I was the product of my times, my society, and my class. I was something that had been spawned by the selfishness and irresponsibility of the materialistic century in which I lived. However, what I did not see was that my own age and class only had an accidental part to play in this. They gave my egoism and pride and my other sins a peculiar character of weak and supercilious flippancy proper to this particular century: but that was only on the surface. Underneath, it was the same old story of greed and lust and self-love, of the three concupiscences bred in the rich, rotted undergrowth of what is technically called “the world,” in every age, in every class.
“If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh and the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life.” That is to say, all men who live only according to their five senses, and seek nothing beyond the gratification of their natural appetites for pleasure and reputation and power, cut themselves off from that charity which is the principle of all spiritual vitality and happiness because it alone saves us from the barren wilderness of our own abominable selfishness.
When someone feels empty or lost, she will turn to almost anything that will fill her up. People. Food. Drugs. Sex. Politics. Literature. Poetry. Some of the items in that list are better, healthier choices than others. Nobody has ever overdosed on Billy Collins. And the only thing that overindulging in Trumpism will do is prove that you are naive, stupid, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or xenophobic. (Okay, you're ALL of those things. ALL of them.) However, overeating can lead to all kinds of health issues. Too much indiscriminate sex these days will catch you a case of Covid-19 AND an STD. So, Merton's attraction to communism is not surprising. In fact, I would say that it's completely and totally human and understandable.
As a Christian, I know that the kind of ennui Merton describes here is a kind of spiritual hunger. A forty-days-in-the-desert fasting. There's a reason that nothing satisfies it. Drug addicts need more drugs. Sex addicts need more sex. Poetry addicts need more poetry. Those kinds of hungers just don't go away. Hope, which I think is a spiritual state, is like aloe on a burn. It soothes and heals.
Humans need to belong, be attached. It gives them hope, even if that hope leads to ruin. Addicts hope for that next fix. Poetry lovers, for that next Sharon Olds poem. Political junkies, for that next election cycle. Hope makes a person feel larger. Not isolated. Because there are others out there who share your desires and wants. People who understand you. And that hope can be positive or negative, depending on what you are hoping for.
I woke today with hope in my heart. It's Monday. The beginning of another week. I'm not working today at the medical office. After a week of being with my son, shuttling him to doctor's appointments, helping him get caught up on missed schoolwork, making sure he's taking his medications, I return to my normal work schedule tomorrow.
I won't lie. I'm more than a little anxious about what's going to happen with my son. He seems to be doing better. His mood has definitely lightened. He isn't hiding behind his hair so much, and his homework is getting done with minimal grumbling. (It's homework. I expect a little grumbling.) Tomorrow will be a test. I'm hoping (there's that verb again) that things will go well. It's school picture day tomorrow, and, in five year's time, at his graduation party, I want to be able to look at his seventh grade photo and think, "He is amazing."
So, I am filled with weird hope and optimism today, even though it has been raining all morning long. Perhaps it's because I'm sitting across from my son at the kitchen table and seeing him smile. Perhaps the universe has shifted, and I'm no longer in a perpetual Mercury retrograde. Or maybe something good is coming my way, some unknown happiness, and I'm feeling its approach, like a warm air happiness front. Or a God front, as Merton would say.
For that miracle of hope, Saint Marty gives thanks.
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