The Monk's Record Player
Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966
- ISBN: 9780802875204
- Published By: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- Published: March 2018
On December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and in fear of military conscription, Thomas Merton became a Trappist monk. It was a decision reached after several years of thought and study, driven by his adult conversion to Catholicism and his desire to find silence and solitude upon what he called “this miserable, noisy, cruel earth.” When Merton took his vows at Our Lady of Gethsemani outside of Louisville, Kentucky, he committed himself to a monastic life that would both nurture and frustrate his deepest desires. Robert Hudson’s The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966 is about this tension.
If other biographies relay the entirety of Merton’s life and times, Hudson is focused specifically on moments when the monk’s more worldly interests ran up against his order’s consistently rigid rules. Through a series of “interludes,” Merton’s (mostly) obedient monasticism is cast against the various rebellions of the young Bob Dylan, with whom Merton became increasingly absorbed. As the book progresses, Dylan provides the free-spirited foil to Merton’s religious asceticism. Though Hudson identifies points of congruence between his subjects, these are less compelling than the general contrast.
In particular, the Merton-Dylan pairing demands some reflection on the nature of commitment. Merton’s developing interest in Dylan’s innovative work is traceable, it seems, to his own repeatedly stifled ambitions—to live alone, to travel, to write without censors, and to marry a woman. Again and again Merton makes requests that his abbot denies, in part to protect his vows and—perhaps in larger part—to retain his very lucrative pen. Though he grumbles about these rejections, Merton honors them as attendant to the promise that he freely made and to which he is eternally bound. The effect is at once impressive and a little annoying. At the time, certain of Merton’s friends wanted him to flee the suffocating monastic life and fulfill his significant potential—to rebel, in other words, like Dylan. Instead, Merton stays put, fulfilling his obligations at the expense of his desire—submitting, that is, like Merton.
Merton’s fidelity is undeniably impressive. Like marriage vows, monastic solemn vows restrict certain behaviors en route to a higher order of being. Made while young, they remain binding long after they have lost their initial charm. At that point, the vow may be broken or merely endured if it is not persistently renewed. In Merton’s case, the temptations were strong and—from the present vantage—persuasive. You only live once, we often reason, so suppressing desire is a terrible waste. Each time Merton considers leaving, it seems like a sensible thing to do. When in each case he stays, his dedication is moving.
It starts to get annoying when these vacillations are not resolved. Though committed to his order, Merton is not so committed as to avoid the things that tempt him. The most glaring example concerns Margie Smith, the twenty-five-year-old nurse who Merton meets while recovering from surgery in a Louisville hospital. Margie is attractive, lively, Catholic, and more than a little star-struck when she finds the famous writer in her care. Merton is smitten too, and the couple soon begin a complicated romance that seesaws across his celibacy, enriched in part by their shared interest in musicians like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. It is a period defined by sneakiness and subterfuge, in which Merton enlists his increasingly uncomfortable friends in a secret campaign of car rides, letter deliveries, and phone calls. Even when he is inevitably caught, Merton persists in contacting Margie, professing both his undying love and his firm unwillingness to see it through.
In all of his writing from this “perilous” summer of 1966, Merton insists that he is in love, and Hudson is generous enough to take him at his word. Still, Merton’s newfound passions for a younger woman and for rock and roll bear at least some of the hallmarks of a simple midlife crisis, casting doubt on Merton’s preferred narrative. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that fascinations like these have arisen in men like him. When Merton breaks Margie’s heart, as he was bound to, the star-crossed lover pose feels disingenuous. When he writes it all up in a journal marked for posthumous publication, your patience is exhausted.
It is only in the end, when Merton refocuses on his anti-war activism, that he returns to respectable form. Peripheral throughout the text, Dylan has by now faded almost entirely from view, and Merton has been granted the liberty to go on tour. He visits the American West, Hawaii, Japan, Thailand, and India, finally in his element. He gives speeches, meets the Dalai Lama, and condemns the imperialistic Vietnam War and the Catholic Church for its complicity. He becomes a monk-statesman, taking his prophetic voice finally into the world. His first trip to Asia will be his last trip anywhere, as we know, but by then all has been forgiven.
For all of its virtues, there is something unfulfilling about the story Hudson tells, something that can only be called a lack of consummation. Much like his relationship with Margie Smith—which smolders for two years without taking flame—Merton’s relationship with Bob Dylan never culminates in anything tangible. Merton fawns on Dylan, meditates on and mimics his work, even reaches out to him in the hope of forming some kind of firsthand connection. But Dylan never responds to these entreaties, leaving Merton jilted, pining, frustrated—like Margie.
And yet, because Dylan never responds, the comparison should be amended. Though Margie must suffer the torment of Merton’s love across the boundary of his sacred vow, Dylan never even acknowledges that Merton exists, if indeed he knows. In that sense, Merton is not the Dylan to Margie’s Merton. He’s just a fan, if a famous one, unused to being ignored, and suffering only the indignity of his failure to be noticed.
As the book nears its conclusion, the reader assumes that the parallel narratives are headed toward some kind of satisfying climax, a cathartic closing moment at which the two icons will finally collide in some way and so justify the frame: Merton and Dylan, together at last. Since that moment never comes, neither does the afterglow. So the reader, too, is jilted. We are Margie, or Merton, and the book is our Dylan, grabbing our attention and stringing us along before leaving us, finally, a little unsatisfied.
Of course, it is not the biographer’s job to provide satisfaction in every case. The world is rarely as satiating as we would like. If it were, then Thomas Merton would not have died suddenly at the age of fifty-four, electrocuted by a malfunctioning floor fan in a Bangkok guesthouse. Lives are not bound by narrative arcs—they are free to move or to end in unexpected ways that may be defensible only for being true. But that doesn’t mean that Merton and Dylan should headline the same volume. Pitched as a dual treatment, Hudson’s book has far more to say about the one man than the other. Readers of The Monk’s Record Player will find Thomas Merton as transparent as Bob Dylan is, as ever, illusive.
Eric C. Miller is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University Pennsylvania.Eric C. MillerDate Of Review:September 12, 2018