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Raids on the Unspeakable (New Directions Paperbook) Paperback – January 17, 1966
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This small collection of Merton's essays presents the Trappist monk at his most bracing. Among other things, it sheds great light on that phenomenon we call the 1960s, which is when this book was first published. Even while writing about topics as diverse as Adolf Eichmann, Flannery O'Conner, and Prometheus, the essays engage the complicated history of those days head on, even while they explore the underlying spiritual issues. Above all, the essays celebrate the vigorous energy of life itself, uncontrolled, spontaneous, and natural--what Merton here calls the festival of rain: "all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees." Idiosyncratic, full of humor and poetic energy, these raids, as Merton himself says, "are not so much concerned with ethical principles and traditional answers ... but in difficult insights at a moment of human crisis." --Doug Thorpe
“Merton's wisdom literature has taken me into the ultimate cause of things.”
- Sue Monk Kidd
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This collection of eighteen essays ranges widely on subjects from his reflections on the work of fellow Catholic writers Flannery O’Connor and Julien Green to comments on the inspiration of his Eastern-influenced drawings that separate each jotting. None of the essays is more than a few pages in length, but each offers something to educate the reader. Perhaps my favorite of the collection is his discussion on the evolving perception in Greek mythology of the Titan Prometheus. As the figure who brought man fire, he was originally perceived as a figure of hubris who doomed man to suffer alongside him for his folly, but in the later centuries of paganism he began to be perceived as a figure of redemption and resurrection much like Christ. It was a parallel that continued through time and resonated with authors as divergent as Milton and Shelley. To Merton, Prometheus’ pursuit of fire becomes a task representative of man’s own attempt at salvation.
Another essay is a reflection on the nature of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Expounding on the then-popular theme of the banality of evil that originated with Hannah Arendt, Merton believes that while in former times a man perceived as morally deficient was also mentally deviant, the modern era of warfare illustrates that a man can act in a completely rational manner while still being capable of acts of unspeakable brutality. One final essay I found enjoyable were his reflections on art given in an interview with an Argentine periodical. In it, he remarks that the average artist of the United States is now confined by the very expectation that he defy popular convention, and provides as his example, in a none-too-sly dig at Andy Warhol, the artist who paints in exacting detail an ordinary beer can. All of the essays, if we were assign them an underlying theme, is that modern Western society is rudderless and without a universal guide. Although technology has rendered us capable of producing the apocalypse at the push of a button, people places less of a priority on their lives and doing something of value than ever before. In answer to this quandary, Merton simply replies that each must embrace a voice higher than himself.
Looking at these essays today, some come off as slightly dated. The emphasis on what Merton perceived as transgressive art and the perils of war would leave him blushing at today’s environment. His critique that our society seems devoid of meaning strikes me as still close to home. I think most people feel that even if they themselves have a purpose (e.g. providing for their family, performing their job well, etc.), the society writ large is defined by an absence of anything all Americans believe in. I am not sure that we can find an answer to our culture’s challenges now, but perhaps Merton’s suggestions offer a step in the right direction.
"[People] demand that I remain forever the superficially pious, rather rigid and somewhat narrow-minded young monk I was twenty years ago, and at the same time they continually circulate the rumor that I have left my monastery. What has actually happened is that I have been simply living where I am and developing in my own way ..." (p 172)
"Raids" is hard to classify. It is a collection of essays, poems, parables, and other forms. It is at turns blunt, scathing, poetic, mystical, obscure, inscrutable, and nearly incomprehensible. But always, as with all Merton writings, it is nakedly honest, penetrating, and challenging.
The book contains 13 brief reflections -
1. Asks the question, what do we need?
2. Explores mercy versus determinism.
3. Interpretation of Flannery O'Conner's work, focusing on the idea of "respect".
4. Asks, upon reviewing the career of Adolf Eichmann, what is sanity?
5. Challenges us on the hazards of moral neutrality.
6. On the emptiness of modern society.
7. On Prometheus as hero and villain.
8. On the tension between myth and modern reality (I think).
9. Similar to #8.
10. "Notes for a cosmic meditation."
11. Exploration of the thought of a Sufi contemplative.
12. The modern poet's response to modern absurdity.
13. On what artistic freedom really means.
Each of these, one way or another, forces us out of our comfort zone, to grapple with issues we'd prefer to ignore. Here, Merton seems far more concerned with what we are doing than what we are thinking or feeling. The spirit of the book is summed up well in this passage -
"The true solutions are not those which we force upon life in accordance with our theories, but those which life itself provides for those who dispose themselves to receive the truth ... For since man has decided to occupy the place of God he has shown himself to be by far the blindest, and cruelest, and pettiest and most ridiculous of all the false gods. We can call ourselves innocent only if we refuse to forget this, and if we also do everything we can to make others realize it." (p 61)
The modern world is what it is ... unless we rebel. "Raids" is calling on us to do just that, in just about every way possible. Uncomfortable, but hard to ignore.