The Monk’s Record Player:
Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966
In the window seat of an airplane above the vast American West I am alone, seeking familiarity outside my window. Mountains with snowy shoulders stretch below, their size giving the illusion of closeness. The white horizon they break into zigs and zags eases upwards into blue sky, and dilutes the sharpness of the most distant peaks. Just as the landscape is wrapping me into itself, blocky cartoon letters painted on the wingtip of my plane snap me back behind the three-paned glass and molded grey plastic of my window. “HOWDY,” it says in a yellow found mainly on toy dump trucks. I don’t reply.
There are few places I feel more alone than in the window seat of a crowded airplane. There, in a lumpy seat, stuck between a mass of disgruntled strangers and the vast unfamiliar landscape far below, I fold in on myself. As someone who builds energy in alone time, this is enjoyable. For those strangers next to me, I’m sure I come across, unfortunately, as less than amicable.
Peace, like what I find when jammed into an airplane seat, can be an expression – of being, of life, of relationship – that emerges best from some collaboration of solitude and turmoil. It is in this particular kind of peace that Robert Hudson is interested in The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966.
Really, this is a Merton book. The parts specifically on Dylan are sporadic, framed as interludes that break up the larger narrative of Merton’s ‘66-’67 affair with Margie Smith, the nurse he met when hospitalized in March of 1966. Dylan, for Hudson, is both a lens to see Merton through, and a foil with which to contrast him. It is through Dylan’s music we view Merton’s own writing and experiences. Highway 61 Revisited and John Wesley Harding were in the rotation on the record player in the monk’s hut in the woods in Kentucky, along with such artists as Joan Baez and John Coltrane.
But Dylan is more than just an influence. In the summer of ‘66, as Merton was flirting with breaking his monastic vows for love, Dylan was going through his own crisis: after a seemingly violent motorcycle crash he retreated to his home near Woodstock, New York. After a while with family and friends he would appear later changed, with the see-if-it-sticks collaboration of The Basement Tapes and the country stylings of John Wesley Harding to offer the world.
On July 29,1966 Dylan and Merton were both strangely at the doctors on the same day for back issues (Merton even called the poem he wrote that day a “sort of Bob Dylan Thing”). Hudson reports this with a writer’s wink; he can’t say there is a mystical connection between these two men, but he seems not to mind if we think it. Strings like this, connecting Merton to Dylan, are found throughout The Monk’s Record Player. Hudson uses them to join the shifting lives of the poet-monk and the poet-singer as they each search for real peace from solitude, albeit in different ways.
Perfect isolation was always Merton’s desire. Even as a hermit at Gethsemani in Kentucky – where much of the book is concerned – he felt dissatisfied with the extent of his seclusion. Dylan’s solitude was of a different sort – at home with family and away from the raucous pressure of concert tours. As different as they were, they ways these two men retreated from the world around them affected their lives. Their solitude was a pebble dropping into the middle of a lake. Standing of the shore we see the effects and guess at what truly happened.
Merton, we know from his letters and journals, saw his inner conflict over his relationship with Margie Smith reflected in Dylan. Dylan’s songs mingled with the Camus and Rilke Merton was reading at the time and shaped his situation into holy absurdity. He was a priest, monk, and hermit who was in a relationship with a woman less than half his age. He could let go of neither his calling as a hermit and his infatuation with Margie. Their relationship, it seemed, made him more whole and brought him closer to the love of God; and yet the life of a hermit-mystic was his calling. He placed his vows and his love into delicate, balanced contention, tearing himself apart inside as he could give neither all of himself. Hudson captures the “synthesis” Merton found in this balance well: “Just as he believed that he could only achieve unity with humanity by being alone, so too he realized that he could only be true to Margie by remaining true to his vows of celibacy.” (150)
Merton thought life together was not just bearing one another’s burdens, as scripture instructs, but also, drawing from Camus, bearing one another’s alienation. To him, the root of sin in the world was shared isolation from the Creator and from the human community. Bridging the gap of isolation to share the human experience of lostness and the absurdity of life creates universal hope. Our “priest with a woman” latched onto this in Dylan’s music and poetry, “[He] has a better intuitive realization of [this] than the bishops or the clergy,” Merton wrote. Dylan played the role of Pastor to the monk lost in his absurdity, reassuring him that all things lost are found eventually.
Meeting the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh in 1966 punctuated Merton’s inner crisis over Margie. This encounter seems to shift the tone of Hudson’s book. The visit came on the heels of several Buddhists burning themselves alive in protest of the Vietnam war. Merton was profoundly affected by these protests, but inherently opposed to them. Christianity places too much value on the uniqueness of an individual life for him to have been comfortable with what he saw as abandonment of the world. Interacting with The Buddhist may have given him a new perspective. Nhat Hanh had previously said (in a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) that, “To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance.” To Nhat Hanh, self-immolation was a potent form of self-expression that blossomed from moral rightness.
We don’t know if Merton ever reacted directly with these thoughts from his religious contemporary, but we do know that he viewed his relationship with Margie as sacrificial, a burning (to reference one of his poems about her) deconstruction rife with absurdity that emerged from his core expression of himself. Hudson suggests that Merton was daily immolating himself for her. It threw him into constant conflict. He was living broken, split between two parts of himself that felt too much “him” – and maybe even too Holy – to abandon.
Hudson finds the core of The Monk’s Record Player here. He posits that Merton (and Dylan, our erstwhile foil) experienced profound brokenness, and found healing in their own particular solitudes. It seems that in the depths of their conflict, they were able to interact with a profound and mystical imagination. In the space of this imagination they glimpsed new creation. “…From this poverty springs everything…Infinite Zero. Everything comes from the desert Nothing,” Merton wrote. Out of the clarity of the Infinite Zero springs a new perspective on truth and beauty. Merton terms this “New Consciousness.” To find it “There has to be clean water in the mind for the spirit to drink.”
Unity in solitude, light in darkness, celibacy in romance, fame and family, newness from nothing – contradictions are central to the experiences of Merton and Dylan in the years surrounding 1966. Like the bright yellow wing of an airplane scoring the blue horizon, the stark contradictions in their lives jarred them out of normalcy. For Merton, the music of Dylan sharpened the silence of his isolation. It helped to push him, with often rough hands, into New Life.