Boris Pasternak represented, for Merton, a man who had tapped into human truth and freedom as expressed by the individual, and become a “new man”. In many ways, Pasternak is the mirror image of the Zen monk. His writing is filled with Christian images, beauty, love, human emotion, the specifics of life. Merton calls Pasternak’s images: “primitive, pre-Christian”, deeply sincere and utterly personal.
Pasternak was repressed, pressured and bullied by the Communist government. In 1958 the Nobel Prize for literature was offered to him. Under Soviet pressure, Pasternak refused the prize. He also refused an opportunity to “escape” from Soviet Russia, saying that he did not feel he could be happy anywhere else.
Merton says that Pasternak was not a rebel, but a true revolutionary, like Gandhi:
“Pasternak is then not just a man who refuses to conform (that is to say, a rebel). The fact is, he is not a rebel, for a rebel is one who wants to substitute his own authority for the authority of somebody else. Pasternak is one who CANNOT conform to an artificial and stereotyped pattern because, by the grace of God, he is too much alive to be capable of such treason to himself and to life. … Though different [from Gandhi] in so many ways, his protest is ultimately the same: the protest of life itself, of humanity itself, of love …” (p.11)This seems very important to me: how to protest. - how to stand, with one’s life, in opposition to the crass materialism, violence, falsity and blasphemy that parade around as “the real world”.
Merton explored and developed the theme of “protest” throughout the 1960’s, finding the living roots of nonviolence in people like Boris Pasternak, whose vision of the world was liturgical and sacramental - life as a living mystery - and whose response to a mad world was genuinely human.