At the back of the book of letters between Lax and Merton, “When Prophecy Had A Voice”, there is an interview between Lax and Arthur Biddle. Throughout this interview, Lax brings up, in different contexts, the notion of “pure act”. Without being too confusing, I would like to lift these allusions to “pure act” from the interview.
The friends clustered around Lax and Merton at Columbia University in the late 30’s and early 40’s listened to the jazz music of the times. Occasionally they have their own jam sessions. When Lax reads Merton's early poetry, he senses that Merton is echoing bajan or calypso songs:
“… a lot of the these little poems that Merton writes including the one about Our Lady of Cobre, but especially the little funny ones, I think are intentionally echoes of bajan or calypso songs. I think the rhythm in a lot of them and the way they trail off at the end is just the way ---
“I just realized that nobody has mentioned it, but I always took it for granted too because we used to play those things all the time. When we weren’t playing jazz, we were playing calypso records. … that business we were talking about with “act”.
“I think that goes for me, it goes together with all this business about jam sessions too. At the top of a jam session when things are really going good, it’s as near as a group like that can get to being perfectly in act, perfectly in realization, not IN POTENTIA, but right there. A real jam session is likely to start at three in the morning and get good by five, and by that time all the customers have left, it’s only the musicians playing for each other, to each other, with each other, and they are just astonishing each other by these felicitous turns they find in music.
“With their instruments, they’re talking and they’re playing and it isn’t a competitive thing except in the very best way. All of this is an approach to this idea of complete act, pure act. (p. 435)
“It has all the business about the sun coming out and Mogodor coming down the field and they way he said hello. Completely casual – hello. They didn’t leave any doubt that they were pleased to see me. They took me right into the family. Mogador and I would go out on the trucks all night and talk. He enjoyed talking. He suggested calling my book “Unfolding Grace.” He had been reading some mystic and he was getting good ideas. He said the thing about a performance or anything like it was throwing everything away. What you’re doing is getting rid of everything by every gesture and everything you do. And then you’ve got this pure thing left.
“… even a somersault on horseback, for example, after it had gotten to be everything you might think it was – like a test of your strength, a test of your power, or a good way to amaze the public – everything it might be except just this thrill act itself – is what you’ve thrown away. It is like a mystical thing.
“… I think it’s what Merton is saying about prayer, - whatever it is, anything in it that is an impurity, that is anything but the act itself, which is practically unnamable. And if it is what it should be, then the poetry is prayer, the acrobatic act is prayer.
“Pure act, I think it’s a metaphysical concept starting with Aristotle and flowering in St. Thomas that God is pure act and that there is no POTENTIA in Him. But that almost everything else in the universe is IN POTENTIA, it’s on its way to being pure act, on its way to unity with God. But only God is pure act. And that made me think about a lot of things. One of them is that business of the purity of an acrobatic performance, of any performance, at the point where it becomes really pure, is at its closest to the divine and closest to that unity.”
“Throwing everything away except the act itself, and I think at that point it also joins with the ideas of Zen, that everything is right here in this moment, and all those same things are being thrown away in what they describe as the Zen act. So if you were living in that kind of purity or call it action, it would be close to the kingdom of heaven. (p. 437-438)