Monthly Archives: December 2016

War and the Crisis of Language

This is actually the title of an essay by Thomas Merton, written in 1968, the last year of his life, and published only after his death. It was written during the height of the Vietnam War, and it belongs to a whole collection of Merton anti-war writings. As was often the case, in this instance Merton articulated something broader and more deep than just a policy disagreement with the government. Using such resources as Gandhi, Orwell, James Joyce and so many others, he delves into the abuse and degradation of our communication by means of language. This denatured language then becomes an instrument for obfuscating or just plain excusing the atrocities and injustices that we commit. Recall Orwell’s 1984, the slogans, “War is Peace,” “Freedom is slavery,” “Ignorance is strength,” and so on. Recall the sign at the gate of Auschwitz: Arbeit macht Frei, Work makes one free. Maybe it’s not THAT bad in modern America, but it’s pretty close. Merton loved the example of the American military commander who actually said, “In order to save the village, it became necessary to destroy it.” He thought the following pretty much summed up the attitude and the language of those who supported the war:

“The Asian whose future we are about to decide is either a bad guy or a good guy. If he is a bad guy, he obviously has to be killed. If he is a good guy, he is on our side and he ought to be ready to die for freedom. We will provide an opportunity for him to do so: we will kill him to prevent him falling under the tyranny of a demonic enemy.”


Merton of course saw that this war language was only the end-result of a long process of a degradation of language as a bearer of meaning. This took place in advertising, in pop culture, and in political discourse. Decades before folks such as at Adbusters critiqued modern discourse at all levels, Merton had nailed down the vacuity and triviality of pop culture, this vacuity which then colonized all our thinking. In this essay he uses the example of a perfume ad from a magazine, and then comments:

“Now let us turn elsewhere, to the language of advertisement, which at times approaches the mystic and charismatic heights of glossolalia. Here too, utterance is final. No doubt there are insinuations of dialogue, but really there is no dialogue with an advertisement, just as there was no dialogue between the sirens and the crews they lured to disaster on their rocks.[Reference to the Odyssey] There is nothing to do but be hypnotized and drown, unless you have somehow acquired a fortunate case of deafness. But who can guarantee that he is deaf enough? Meanwhile, it is the vocation of the poet–or anti-poet–not to be deaf to such things but to apply his ear intently to their corrupt charms. An example: a perfume advertisement from The New Yorker (September 17, 1966).

I present the poem as it appears on a full page, with a picture of a lady swooning with delight at her own smell–the smell of Arpege. (Note that the word properly signifies a sound–arpeggio. Aware that we are now smelling music, let us be on our guard!)

For the love of Arpege . . .

There’s a new hair spray!

The world’s most adored fragrance

now in a hair spray. But not hair spray

as you know it.

A delicate-as-air-spray

Your hair takes on a shimmer and sheen

that’s wonderfully young.

You seem to spray new life and bounce

right into it. And a coif of Arpege has

one more thing no other hair spray has.

It has Arpege.


One look at this masterpiece and the anti-poet recognizes himself beaten hands down. This is beyond parody. It must stand inviolate in its own victorious rejection of meaning. We must avoid the temptation to dwell on details: interior rhyme, suggestions of an esoteric cult (the use of our product, besides making you young again, is also a kind of gnostic initiation), of magic (our product gives you a hat of smell–a “coif”–it clothes you in an aura of music-radiance perfume). What I want to point out is the logical structure of this sonata: it is a foolproof tautology, locked tight upon itself, impenetrable, unbreakable, irrefutable. It is endowed with a finality so inviolable that it is beyond debate and beyond reason. Faced with the declaration that “Arpege has Arpege,” reason is reduced to silence (I almost said despair). Here again we have an example of speech that is at once totally trivial and totally definitive. It has nothing to do with anything real (although of course the sale of the product is a matter of considerable importance to the manufacturer), but what it says, it says with utter finality.”

One can read the whole Merton essay online here:


Now I am not about to rehash the Vietnam era or launch into a general critique of our culture. It’s just that we have recently had this miserable election, and it was full of the kinds of things that Merton et al. were talking about way back then: not just the usual political lies, but now much more sophisticated “fake news,” sloganeering, myths and images for our consumption that are totally unreal. You see the only thing that has changed since the Vietnam era is the amazing speed and immediacy of all this unreality: cell phones and texting, twitter and social media, etc. The general populace is drugged with mindless entertainment, with pain killers(an epidemic in our country right now–one of the pharmaceutical giants shipped over 750 million pain-killing pills just to West Virginia, a town of just over 390 got 7 million pills alone), with mind-numbing and dumbing education that stifles critical thinking, with narcotics of all kinds. And the whole thing is wrapped up in this package of language that disguises the unreality of it all. “I am a consumer; therefore I am.”

Now I want to emphasize that in many ways this is nothing new in American history. It is actually our history which is more and more focused on the unreal as we move into technological modernity and postmodernity. This is a history that is awash in blood, in genocide, in slavery, etc.; and it’s all covered over by a language of myth, fantasy, not just “fake news” but even “fake history.” We have simply gotten very, very good at producing this fakery and feeding it to the general population. From the “advance of civilization” that was used to justify the annihilation of Native Americans to the “Gulf of Tonkin incident” that was manufactured to justify our invasion of Vietnam to the “weapons of mass destruction” and the “war on terror” that all our leaders signed on to (including Hillary Clinton–but not Bernie Sanders, almost alone in this regard), all our history is loaded with “fakery” and manufactured propaganda. The effectiveness of all this was demonstrated when we invaded Iraq and there was absolutely no war protest at all in this country. All the big media players like the New York Times and the Washington Post joined in the parade toward this destruction. You are being manipulated in ways that you are hardly aware of. So Obama is portrayed as a “progressive,” Clinton as a “protector of children and minorities,” and you are invited to “Make America Great,” etc., etc. You will hear about “free trade” and the “free market,” but there ain’t no such animal in this zoo. The deck is stacked; the game is rigged for the benefit of maybe 1% or so. Financial institutions that are “too big to fail,” etc. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been talking about this, but most of the populace is so drugged out on the toys and games of our culture that they can hardly understand the implications of what they are told.

Chris Hedges, as usual, has written powerfully about this in a recent piece. Its title is “’Fake News’ in America: Homegrown, and Far From New.” Here is the link to the whole piece:


It’s interesting that Hedges was a Pulitzer Prize winning international journalist with the New York Times decades ago when he was forced out because he was reporting on how Israel was treating the Palestinians in graphic detail. So he is one who knows the modern news biz…..and as he says, it is more a business than a service of fact and information. Here is an extended quote from that piece:


“The media landscape in America is dominated by “fake news.” It has been for decades. This fake news does not emanate from the Kremlin. It is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that is skillfully designed and managed by public relations agencies, publicists and communications departments on behalf of individuals, government and corporations to manipulate public opinion. This propaganda industry stages pseudo-events to shape our perception of reality. The public is so awash in these lies, delivered 24 hours a day through electronic devices and print, that viewers and readers can no longer distinguish between truth and fiction.

Donald Trump and the racist-conspiracy theorists, generals and billionaires around him inherited and exploited this condition, just as they have inherited and will exploit the destruction of civil liberties and collapse of democratic institutions. Trump did not create this political, moral and intellectual vacuum. It created him. It created a world where fact is interchangeable with opinion, where celebrities have huge megaphones simply because they are celebrities, where information must be entertaining and where we can all believe what we want to believe regardless of truth. A demagogue like Trump is what you get when you turn culture and the press into burlesque. 

Journalists long ago gave up trying to describe an objective world or give a voice to ordinary men and women. They became conditioned to cater to corporate demands. News personalities, who often make millions of dollars a year, became courtiers. They peddle gossip. They promote consumerism and imperialism. They chatter endlessly about polls, strategies, presentation and tactics or play guessing games about upcoming presidential appointments. They fill news holes with trivial, emotionally driven stories that make us feel good about ourselves. They are incapable of genuine reporting. They rely on professional propagandists to frame all discussion and debate……… The 20th century’s cultural and social transformation, E.P. Thompson wrote in his essay “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” has turned out to be much more than the embrace of an economic system or the celebration of patriotism. It is, he pointed out, part of a revolutionary reinterpretation of reality. It marks the ascendancy of mass culture and the destruction of genuine culture and genuine intellectual life.

Richard Sennett, in his book “The Fall of the Public Man,” identified the rise of mass culture as one of the prime forces behind what he termed a new “collective personality … generated by a common fantasy.” And the century’s great propagandists would not only agree but would add that those who can manipulate and shape those fantasies determine the directions taken by the “collective personality.”

This huge internal pressure, hidden from public view, makes the production of good journalism and good scholarship very, very difficult. Those reporters and academics who care about the truth and don’t back down are subjected to subtle and at times overt coercion and often are purged from institutions.”



If you are in the world of religion, don’t think that you are immune from all this or that you are “above all this,” or that this has nothing to do with you. In fact religion produces its own linguistic obfuscations galore, and certainly Christian church history has its own mirages and delusions written all over it. All religions have participated, more or less, in the deceptive abuse of language for the purpose of self-aggrandizement and gaining power. Just compare for example, all those religious and spiritual books about the “glories of the Church” with the real history of the Church. No wonder it is understandable that some people have this intuitive aversion to anything religious these days! Consider this example from Church history: the Doctrine of Discovery–this allowed the taking of lands from Native Americans and if they resisted we were allowed to kill them. This was government policy, law and civil practice. But the roots of this injustice lay in religious language, in various papal bulls from the 15th Century that literally allowed “Christian” European nations to enslave, dispossess and/or kill all indigenous peoples in the New World who were not Christians. Several popes have asked forgiveness on behalf of the Church for this incredible moment in history, but not one, not even Pope Francis, has rescinded or rejected any of these papal bulls. Papal language, I guess, is considered sacrosanct, and a pope can never be caught saying something that has to be denied later, no matter how outrageous. If the language is couched in religion, then it seems untouchable. (Something like this occurs among evangelical Christians and their use of the Bible–Biblical language cannot be critiqued.) A more complete treatment of some of this matter can be found in a series of stories done by the National Catholic Reporter:






Another Potpourri of Comments

A. Wendell Berry, who had a few friends among the Amish and some interactions with them, has this interesting contribution: a list of Amish social principles.


“1. No institutions except family and church. The church is the community.

  1. The one community institution–the church–is not an organization: no building, no building fund, etc.
  2. The only chosen leaders are church leaders, and those are chosen by lot.
  3. They don’t have specialization in the pure, modern sense. Their craftsmen, ministers, etc. are also farmers. Agriculture is a norm, like binocular vision.
  4. They all work with their hands.
  5. They force the issue of community dependence; won’t buy insurance or accept government help.
  6. They vote on technological changes. For adoption, the vote must be unanimous.”

Berry goes on commenting: “This last rule I learned from Randy Wittman. If there is even one dissenter, he says, they assume the Devil is with the majority! This would make ‘progress’ very slow–but, I think, probably fast enough….. What impresses me is that, though the community is seen as a positive good, most of these principles are negative in intent or bearing. Unlike modern American government which is snarled in many rules prescribing what to do, Amish government consists of a few rules saying what not to do.”

B.  The influence and role of the news media in the election. Just a hint of how it goes: The Tyndall Report analyzed all the media in their political coverage during the primary season of the election year. In a span of 1000 minutes of coverage, Trump got 327 minutes; Bernie received just 20 minutes. Hilary got 121 minutes of campaign coverage, six times the amount Sanders received. ABC World News Tonight aired 81 minutes on Donald Trump compared with just 20 seconds for Sanders. This is just the tip of the iceberg in how the media distort our awareness of real things. Trump was a media icon; Bernie was an unknown delivering a serious message that needed some real thinking about. But we are more and more a people that thrives on slogans and simplistic solutions to our problems.

C.   January is the month of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. MLK Day is celebrated in January; and the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination is January 30th. Here’s a few quotes to celebrates these giants of our era:

Martin Luther King: “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many White Citizens Councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’”


This, of course, is thoroughly in the Gandhian tradition, and perhaps one might want to say it is too idealized. But if we don’t have those kinds of ideals we are lost as human beings. Speaking of Gandhi, here are a few quotes from him:

“If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.”

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

D.   Standing Rock. As I write this the protestors at Standing Rock seem to have won some kind of victory as the Army Corp of Engineers has denied the permit for the company laying the pipeline. It is a victory for nonviolence, for resistance, for the Native American people….though it is a very fragile victory which the Trump Administration might unravel. Long before Standing Rock, Pope Francis wrote the following which sums up very clearly what was at stake in this situation:

““In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best.”

Here is a lovely website showing the various people involved in this action:

E.   Chris Hedges has another acute commentary on our situation, entitled “The Mafia State”:

F.    The New Monasticism Revisited. In a more spiritual vein, I was rummaging through some older Merton material, from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Amazing how so much of that stuff feels so dated; it reads at times as if you were in a stuffy old room. There are a few exceptions, like the essay “Philosophy of Solitude,” for example. But it is also amazing how different Merton begins to sound after 1960 or thereabouts. One of the essays I stumbled on was something I had not read before, “The Christian in the Diaspora.” It is a lengthy reflection on the post-Vatican II Church and the modern theologians, like Karl Rahner, who were trying to address the Western modern world in which the Christian was going to be surrounded by a mass of unbelief and in which the Christian was going to be a true minority. How to live in such a situation, and what should the Christian’s attitude be toward such a situation? Somehow those don’t seem to be our concerns today–a lot of what he describes has happened, or we have simply gotten numb to our situation, or these have been transformed into other questions, and we are dealing with various consequences of all this in one way or another. But there is one whole section of this essay that still has a direct importance for us today in its urgency and its insight: “The Monk in the Diaspora.” Here he tackles the question of monastic identity in this situation of modernity and now we would say post-modernity. Merton: “The effectiveness of the monk’s presence in the world and of his monastic witness to the Gospel of Christ will depend on his ability to see his own place in relation to the world correctly. He too must learn to understand his monastic calling in the general diaspora situation of the whole Church.”

The felt need for reformulation and revitalization of the monastic charism was long experienced and is somewhat still with us. The two major problems that have plagued monastic renewal and still do: a fossilization of monastic identity into a kind of medieval theme-park with a fortress Church institution, or a re-structuring of monastic life by people who do not have a deep experience and knowledge of monastic tradition. It is the latter which is, in my opinion, a more serious problem because it can seem like a really new monasticism is being born. The other stuff is so obviously wrong that there is no need to comment.

Merton tosses this all around, and a lot of this material is familiar to those of us who have read his monastic writings; but then he touches ground with something that you hardly hear about or know much about: the Russian Orthodox monasticism as envisioned by Russian theologians and writers in their own diaspora in Europe in the middle of the 20th Century. Interesting that Merton finds them an intriguing guide for perhaps some radical aspects of some new monasticism. A few Merton quotes:

“Modern Russian Orthodox writers who live literally in a diaspora (mostly in France) have carefully taken stock of the monastic movement and have traced the beginning of a new outlook back to the last century which was in fact the golden age of Russian monasticism. Leon Zander, regarding the monasticism of the Russian 19th century through the eyes of Dostoevsky, feels that the author of The Brothers Karamazov was speaking in some measure prophetically when he described the person and doctrine of the ideal staretz in Father Zossima. It is well known that Zossima is supposed to have been a life portrait of Staretz Ambrose of Optino…. According to Zander, the portrait of Zossima is not psychological or historical, but is a piece of ‘iconography.’ Zossima embodies and typifies not the 19th century monk but Dostoevsky’s own view of the inner meaning of monasticism. Indeed this Staretz is a ‘prophetic’ type of what the monk of the future should be. Zossima is, in other words, what Dostoevsky thought the monks of the twentieth century needed to become.”

“…Zander quotes Rozanov and other writers who see in the clash between the Staretz, Zossima, and the fierce ascetic, Ferrapont, a contrast between two forms of monasticism, the traditional and the ‘new.’ In fact, the Startzi were much criticized and attacked in their own time. They were by no means looked upon with unanimous favor in the monasteries. Their charismatic openness to the world, was reproved and they were criticized for the marginal life they tended to lead in relation to the traditional monastic framework. Ferrapont…is convinced that Zossima is an imposter, a relaxed monk, undermining the ancient fabric of monasticism….”

Merton then quotes Rozanov: “Dostoevsky has formulated an eternal truth, reaching down into the most essential reality of monasticism. It is the truth of a conflict between two ideals: one which speaks a benediction and one which passes sentence of damnation, one which embraces the world and one which spits on the world, one which accepts pain (for itself) and one which plunges others deeper into pain.”

Merton continues: “Ferrapont stands for the full authority of the powerful and venerable monastic institution with all its medieval Byzantine traditions, all its hieratic observances, its sacred order, its security, its regularity, and its prestige. His ascesis is part of a mighty religious institution organized for power, manifesting that power in the inexorable condemnation of all that does not conform absolutely to its hieratic demands. It rejects as evil and damnable all that does not submit to the claims of a formidably organized body of traditions, in thought, morality and worship…. Zossima on the other hand is no ascetic, no ritualist, and his monastic practice is, by the standards of Ferrapont, lax and inconsistent. His observance…is not austere and, what is worse, he is in free spontaneous communication with the wicked world, since sinners crowd to his cell for advice and blessing. Yet Zossima is in no sense merely an activist, on the contrary he is, according to Dostoevsky, Rozanov, Zander, and modern Russian Orthodox writers, the ‘ikon of the true monk.’ He is truly solitary, fully dedicated and forgetful of self, a genuine man of God, totally converted to God yet perfectly aware of his own weakness and limitations, humble, merciful, and totally submissive not merely to law but to truth.”

All of the above then leads Merton to a striking conclusion: “The monk of the diaspora is, then, the charismatic man of God, distinguished from the world only by his humility and his dedication, by his fidelity to life and to truth, rather than by his garments, the cloister in which he lives, by his hieratic gestures and ascetic practices. He does not live a strange life that makes him a wonder to the rest of men. In Dostoevesky’s novel we read that old Karamazov, the scoundrel and blasphemer, has nothing good to say to any of the monks except Zossima but moved by the Staretz’s simple words, he confesses: ‘Talking to you, one is able to breathe.’”

Merton continues: “The modern Russian theologians writing in the Paris diaspora are all keenly aware that this was a prophetic insight into the needs of our own time, for which they are now developing the idea of ‘monasticity of the heart (monachisme interiorise’). This is not merely a conventional notion of ‘an interior life for the layman’ but the idea of the lay-monk, hidden, solitary and unprotected, without the benefit of distinguishing marks and outward forms, called to deepen his monastic vocation ‘beneath the level of forms’ and penetrating to the ‘ontological roots, the mystical essence’ of the monastic life….”


Very, very interesting. A fascinating historical embodiment of this phenomenon, not mentioned by Merton in this essay, is the example of Anthony Bloom, son of Russian emigres. He lived a double life of sorts for years. He earned his living as a doctor while secretly being a monk and spending long nights in prayer and worship. Later he was asked by his spiritual father to “come out of the closet,” as it were, because no one knew he was a monk, and to serve the Russian community as a bishop. There were a number of other such examples in Europe at that time, men and women. These were the original “new monks”!!

As marvelous as this sounds, it has a very limited application, and I am afraid that not much of that survives into our day in Europe, though, of course, by its very nature, it is a “hidden reality” and hard to estimate its real impact. Suffice it to say that the monastic movement benefited from these people greatly and still does today, and who knows what goes “unseen” by the mass media…. What’s important is that these people are like a monastic compass, always pointing to the “true north,” that which is the real essence of the monastic charism. Interestingly enough, Abhishiktananda lived in this era with these people, and in his own way was calling for something along these lines. His approach was to recognize the “namarupa” of not only Christian monasticism but also of Christianity itself, and to recognize what is relative and what is essential.