Doesn't it often seem that people and ideas we most respect usually contain a certain amount of breadth? And to be clear, breadth is not merely a large dose of variety. Perhaps it is a deepness incorporated into breadth that makes breadth comprehensive. Truth has often been described as light; and, as most of us can appreciate, some people seem to see more of the spectrum as it were, and thus ascertain more “truth.”
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.