Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Un cri d'oiseau sur les recifs ...

Photo by Thomas Merton
Merton's 30-page essay, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude is his clearest articulation of his thoughts on solitude, representing a refinement of earlier arguments defending monasticism and eremiticism.  Notes extends the philosophy of solitude to lay people, that is, to all his readers.

The essay is prefaced with a line from a poem of St. John Perse:

Un cri d'oiseau sur les recifs ...

[the cry of a bird over the reefs]

"Why write about solitude in the first place?  Certainly not in order to preach it, to exhort people to become solitary.  What could be more absurd?  Those who are to become solitary are, as a rule, solitary already.  At most they are not yet aware of their condition.  In which case, all they need is to discover it.  But in reality, all men are solitary.  Only most of them are so averse to being alone, or to feeling alone, that they do everything they can to forget their solitude.  How?  Perhaps in large measure by what Pascal called "divertissement" -- diversion, systematic distraction.  By those occupations and recreations, so mercifully provided by society, which enable a man to avoid his own company for twenty four hours a day.

"...  for the function of diversion is simply to anesthetize the individual as individual, and to plunge him in the warm, apathetic stupor of a collectivity which, like himself, wishes to remain amused.  The bread and circuses which fulfill this function may be blatant and absurd, or they may assume a hypocritical air of intense seriousness, for instance in a mass movement.  Our own society prefers the absurd.  But our absurdity is blended with a certain hard-headed, fully determined seriousness with which we devote ourselves to the acquisition of money, to the satisfaction of our appetite for status, and our justification of ourselves with the totalitarian iniquity of our opposite number.

"In a society like ours, there are obviously many people for whom solitude is a problem or even a temptation.  I am perhaps in no position to resolve their problem or to exorcise their temptation.  But it is possible that -- knowing something at least of their interior solitude -- I might be able to say something of it which will reassure those tempted ones.  At the least I can suggest that if they have not been able to rest in the fervid consolations which are lavished upon them by society itself, that they do no need to seek such rest as that.  They are perhaps perfectly capable of doing without such reassurance.  They ought possibly to realize that they have less need of diversion than they are told, with such dogmatic self-complacency, by the organization men.  They can confidently detach themselves from the engineers of the human soul whose talents are devoted to the cult of publicity.  Such an influence in their life is truly, as they tend to suspect, as unnecessary as it is irritating.  But I do not promise to make in unavoidable.

"Nor do I promise to cheer anybody up with optimistic answers to all the sordid difficulties and uncertainties which attend the life of interior solitude.  Perhaps in the course of these reflections, some of the difficulties will be mentioned.  The first of them has to be taken note of from the very start:  the disconcerting task of facing and accepting one's own absurdity.  The anguish of realizing that underneath the apparently logical pattern of a more or less "well organized" and rational life, there lies an abyss of irrationality, confusion, pointlessness, and indeed of apparent chaos.  This is what immediately impresses itself upon the man who has renounced diversion.  It cannot be otherwise, for in renouncing diversion, he renounces the seemingly harmless pleasure of building a tight, self-contained illusion about himself and about his little world.  He accepts the difficulty of facing the million things in his life which are incomprehensible, instead of simply ignoring them.  Incidentally it is only when the apparent absurdity of life is faced in all truth that faith really become possible.  Otherwise, faith tends to be a kind of diversion, a spiritual amusement, in which one gathers up accepted, conventional formulas and arranges them in the approved mental patterns, without bothering to investigate their meaning, or asking if they have any practical consequences in one's life." - Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) pp. 176-180

Perhaps of all of Merton's writings, this essay is the one that most directly speaks to me.  Like the Cloud of Unknowing, he is reaching for those who already have an inkling of this calling to interior solitude.  I will be excerpting from the essay over the next few days.


  1. It reads like a shaft of light penetrating the mists..

    Thank you for sharing this, Beth

  2. seems like a good thing to explore a little more closely these desert days of Lent, J.

  3. Perfect for Lent for sure and reminded me I've been too much with the noisy world of politics, and the world too much with me lately. REading this was like a Zen bell ringing to remind me to be aware and to reflect on how and why I get so hooked in the "collectivity" and all the hurley burley I drift into without thinking about it and asking myself to what benefit it is to me and my soul or anybody else's. Love the "bread and circuses" line but the whole excerpt is so typically sweeping, unique and original with the Merton stamp all over it.

  4. Somebody said that Merton wrote about solitude to be a solitary. (I think this was written by one of the editors of his journals.) I'm glad he did.

    Merton's thoughts on solitude have become maps for us who have dared to enter into our own inner solitude, which, by the way, is not an easy thing to do. In Merton's words there are times when solitude confronts us with "an abyss of irrationality, confusion, pointlessness, and indeed of apparent chaos."

    But unless we take the courage to confront ourselves as we really are, we won't be able to be our true selves and find true peace of mind. We will just spend our lives evading and escaping from what is Real, and find ourselves living hollow and empty lives...

    ~ Matt

  5. In one of his journals, Merton says that he had to go back and re-read the Notes on a Philosophy of Solitude essay, because he had to keep reminding himself of what he wrote.

    I am very grateful that Merton has provided this map for us - other than the Cloud of Unknowing, I don't know of any other writer who has done so in a way that I could relate to. I could never quite understand John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila.

    This journey to the true self does indeed involve going against the status quo and conventional "wisdom" of the day.

  6. Thank yo so much for that post. That has to be his very best essay. I bought it as an electronic book from Amazon and can now savor it on my iPad. Once again, your website rocks and rolls my interior life to sheer bliss.


God speaks

God speaks, and God is to be heard, not only on Sinai, not only in my own heart, but in the voice of the stranger. — Thomas Merton, Emble...