Sunday, January 31, 2010

the success (or not) of Lax

Photo by Nicolas Humbert

During the mid 1940s, while Merton was settling into the monk’s life and writing his autobiography, Seven Story Mountain, Bob Lax was trying to figure out how to be a writer.    He had short and unsatisfying stints in New York writing for Time, Life, Parade, and the New Yorker.  He went to Hollywood where he spent two years in the script department at Sam Goldwyn studios.  He wrote to Merton that Hollywood made him feel unholy, how could the good life be this idle?!

Lax followed his own inner callings, bumbling around in poverty for years, and ending up as a quasi-hermit on a Greek island. There were certain things central to his soul that he would not compromise. For one thing, he did not want to do anything that required "effort", and he refused to fly on an airplane. (I don't think the airplane phobia had to do with fear as much as to the confusion flying did to his sense of space and place.)

Whether or not Bob Lax was a "success" is anybody's guess, and probably depends on what you mean by success. He never did anything to court publicity or expand his literary career or reputation, but he sure became a writer to be reckoned with.

The following, rather glum entry, is from his journal dated January 5, 1945:

your whole trouble, Charlie, and we may as well talk about your whole trouble as anybody elses, because you won’t be able to fix anybody elses until you are able to fix your own which you know better than anybody elses, your whole trouble is not being able to stick to anything long enough to get good at it. …

writing, I figure, is what you ought to stick to, it’s the one thing you’ve got a pretty good start on and sometimes have done o.k. with.  drawring is maybe ok to kid with.

one thing about writing is ideas of silence. …

second is a feeling that if you aren’t writing a letter or a book on charity you aren’t doing what you ought to do.

third is a feeling that because M V D [Mark Van Doren] and Slate said once are you still writing the journal you ought to be still writing the journal. …

fourth is the idea that unless you are writing noel cowed plays, movies, new Yorker articles, note comment or cole porter songs, you are wasting your time.

fifth is the idea that unless you are travelling from county to county with a guitar singing spirituals and preachin the gospel you are wasting your time.

sixth is the idea that you are never wasting your time, but yes you are.

seventh is the idea that unless you are doing whatever somebody asks you to, you are doing something silly on your own hook.

eighth is the idea that unless you are eating or sleeping you are wasting your time, unless you are exercising.

ninth is the idea that when you are eating or sleeping you are wasting your time, unless you are getting an idea for a novel (you don’t know what it is because you’ve never read one).

tenth is the idea that anybody who isn’t either dead and in heaven or horizontal and on a psychoanalyst’s day bed is wasting his time.

eleven is the idea that waking or sleeping, alive or dead you are just the nicest little fellow you ever met.
[Incidentally, today is Merton’s birthday.  louie blog entry regarding Merton’s birthday: a certainty of tread, happy birthday father louie!]


  1. Happy Birthday Tommy baby you gone daddy! I think of celebrating his birthday with scotch and jazz recordings. I wrote a comment on Jim Forest's review of the new Merton book on Jim's new blog by the way. That Lax stuff is pretty funny, some of it. I e-mailed my mother and some other family members about this success stuff. My mom's comment was to look at Salinger, whose literary success enabled him to live as a hermit, but whether that was indeed being a successful person was up for debate. What the hell is it we're supposed to be doing anyway? I get that sense from this Lax entry, which I am completely in sympathy with: be a dandy, float along, drop out and farm, be a success, by a house, write a novel, join a religion, quit religion, make a movie, eat a lot of macaroni.....

  2. I don't know quite what to make of Salinger's retreat. There's an article in today's NYTimes that says he couldn't take the criticism of his later works. He may be like Harper Lee, who after she wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, never came up with anything near as good. Everything she wrote after, was compared to her masterpiece, and came up short.

    Jim Forest always has a good sense of Merton, I think. There's a lot of writing out there that just seeks to make a profit by using Merton's name. Which makes me wonder about the latest book about John Edwards ...

    I find Lax to be nothing but cool, cool, cool.

  3. Hello Beth -

    Another wonderful post. I find Lax to be a very mysterious figure. I have read his poetry - it is very deep. I can image sitting in conversation with Lax, Merton, and all the other characters from Columbia U. I wouldn't understand one word!

    PS: You mentioned that you are not sure what an "Acolyte" is - check out this site >

    God bless!

  4. I'll have more on Lax, Brian. He's really not deep as much as he is supremely simple! He breaks life down into its simplest form. Just what is before you.

    Glad to know about the acolytes!



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