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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Philosophers Share Their Solitary Pursuits

STRIVING TOWARDS BEING. The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz. edited by Robert Faggen. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $21, 178 pages

June 13, 1997|THOMAS FRICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1958, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk residing in a monastery in Kentucky, wrote a direct, inquisitive letter to Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet self-exiled in France. Milosz's poetry was then unknown in the United States, but five years earlier, his book "The Captive Mind" had been published in this country. In it he undertook a subtle dissection of the attractions and psychological effects of communism through a series of allegorical portraits of contemporary Polish writers. It provoked much discussion in a West struggling to comprehend the meaning of the communist revolution, "the God that failed" in Arthur Koestler's striking formulation.

Merton recognized the book as a sophisticated and nuanced analysis that went far beyond the often simplistic arguments of the Cold War period. He also recognized in it the rigors of a search for spiritual truths in an age filled with horrors. That such a search must be carried on in solitude yet not deny one's worldly involvements was an issue close to Merton, already seen as something of a renegade during a time of increasing activism within--and outside of--the Roman Catholic Church. His letter inaugurated an intense, if sporadic, correspondence that continued until Merton's death in 1968.

Despite their differences--Merton's unswerving commitment to Catholic practice versus Milosz's disillusionment with the church; Merton's monastic ingenuousness and Christian optimism versus Milosz's world-weariness and irony--they found each other to be kindred spirits and sensed they had much to offer each other.

Without preliminaries, they addressed each other quite frankly and with a startling absence of chatter. Even when touching on mundane concerns--Merton's request for the Polish magazine containing one of his poems translated by Milosz; Milosz's need for "a good and honest literary agent"--the letters are taut and to the point. For the most part, however, the colloquy is profound, though shot through with an irony about their own moral positions that keeps the letters from becoming ponderous.

The writers wrestle with theological concepts. When Milosz shows skepticism that divine providence is ever expressed in historical terms, Merton responds (without necessarily agreeing): "The glib cliches that are made about the will of God are enough to make anyone lose his faith. Such cliches are still possible in America but I don't see how they can still survive in Europe, at least for anyone who has seen a concentration camp."

There's much sharing of books, as well as recommendations and criticisms of numerous writers and thinkers.

Though both men were widely published, they shared a feeling that the important things could not be said and thus harbored misgivings about writing itself. "I doubt whether writing and publishing can go together with purity of heart. Writing is after all a constant masquerade and a constant revenge of our ego, even if we have better intentions," wrote Milosz. Merton replied, "I still do not share your scruples about writing, though lately I have been thinking of giving it up for awhile, and seeking a more austere and solitary kind of existence."

Neither man hesitates to express bafflement or dissatisfaction in response to something the other has written or recommended, an aspect of the correspondence that reveals the dynamics of their thinking.

They met only twice--Milosz visited the Kentucky monastery in 1964, and Merton stopped off briefly in Berkeley, where Milosz had become a professor, in 1968. These encounters, intriguing though they must have been to two men who had already shared so much, hardly make an appearance in subsequent letters. What mattered was the shared discourse, and letters allowed them an intimate form of conversation that didn't invade their essential solitudes.

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