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Thomas Merton and the Counterculture: A Golden String Paperback – February 8, 2016
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About the Author
Ron Dart is a highly respected author, teacher, and human rights advocate. He has taught in the Department of Political Science at the University of the Fraser Valley since 1990. Ron has published more than twenty-five books, was on staff with Amnesty International in the 1980s, is on the national executive of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada, and has written extensively on George Grant, Stephen Leacock, and Canadian Red Toryism.
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Thomas Merton and the Counterculture: A Golden String
(St Macrina Press, 2016) is a collection of essays and illustrations by many of North America's top Merton scholars, including Leah Cameron, Stephanie Redekop, Russel Hulsey, Ross Labrie, Robert Inchausti, Lynn Szabo and of course, Ron S. Dart. The book also features sketches by North Van artist, Arnold Shives.
Two elements set this booklet (123 pages) apart. First, it not only speaks of the counterculture historically; it gives one a feel for the counterculture because a good number of the authors lived in the thick of it and arguably never 'sold out.' In some ways, the book then feels less like a retrospective and more like a time machine, enabling me to relive by proxy some of the highpoints of the counterculture ideals that I was insulated from as an elementary school child.
The other great strength of this book is that so many of the essays relate Merton to other major figures of that age. Some he knew or corresponded with personally, while others were parallel figures climbing and converging on common peaks by other trails and approaches. So we not only get more of Merton the monk, but Merton becomes a posture from which to view the likes of Mark Van Doren, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Everson, Denise Levertov and Henry Miller. Some of these names were familiar to me among the great 'Beat Poets,' but I did not know that many related to Merton directly. Others were unknown to me but the book provided an initial introduction.
For Merton and counterculture poetry aficionados alike, the book is well worth the read, not just as nostalgia, but to give a personal inside scoop on the abiding value of that important epic. Indeed, there's an urgent need to remember their wisdom in these dark days.
Breadthy or comprehensive people seem to be the ones who can see that larger spectrum: they can see more of the colours. Thomas Merton, most of his readers would happily attest, was just one such of these breadthy individuals. But more than that, he was able to express what he saw in ways that allowed for his readers to share in this expanded – enlightened? – view. Thus, when imbibed of, Merton the prophet also provides us with more than the diagnosis, but also, in part a cure.
The Beats will be a familiar name for those interested in mid-20th century North American counter-culture. Names like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, William Everson and Laurence Ferlinghetti, among others, will be recognized for the breadthy ideas that they explored, expounded on and expressed. Then there are those other individuals who might not be directly connected with the Beats, but who also contributed meaningfully in their own form of counter-culture: folks like Denise Levertov, Mark Van Doren (a teacher of both Merton and many other pioneers of independent thought) as well as Henry Miller. Not surprisingly, Thomas Merton was not only aware of such individuals, he was very often in communication with them. Thomas Merton and the Counter Culture: a Golden String is a book of essays about the interplay of communication and ideas between Merton – either directly or indirectly – and these various individuals.
Because Merton’s world encompassed such a broad horizon, his readers nearly always find it helpful to look through his eyes: as through them, they can see a larger horizon too. Each pertinent essay in this collection skillfully compares and contrasts the ideas of a particular individual alongside Merton’s own observations on the issue. From perspectives on the relationship between ecology and the environment with the sacred, the power of poetry (with an emphasis on William Blake), and the proper place and foundation of protest in our society, the thoughts of Merton and others have been collated and strategically unfolded in an accessible and informative way. Throughout this work readers will also brush up against integral aspects that both Merton and others assumed integral to a suitable way of living life: knowing the correct balance between the intellect and the heart and also acknowledging – taking a cue from Blake – that the doors of perception must be actively kept clean.
In addition to the breadth of topics that Merton is known for exploring, he was also noted for his way of graciously relating to both persons and concepts. In a manner befitting Merton’s gentle spirit of inquiry, each contributing author deals generously and graciously with her or his subject. This is no small task since the variety of individuals covered could make the scope of such an anthology a daunting one – yet rather than overwhelming, it is very welcoming and expansive.
And while some of the names herein might be associated more for their particular associations or foibles, each had something important to say. Merton saw this too, and thus we appreciate his breadth.
In addition to this anthology being written about a broad group of cultural influencers, a telling diversity is demonstrated in the authors too, as each of the essays contains not only breadth of knowledge about a particular individual, but also is written from a variety of perspectives. Thus, for anybody interested in Merton and the contemporaries of his in the important work of counter culture, this anthology is sure to bestow an additional vantage point that is elsewhere is hard to come across.