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Poet & critic Bette Richart declines to review Thomas Merton's ORIGINAL CHILD BOMB - Catholic Worker odds & ends
February 6th, 2007
11:46 am

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Poet & critic Bette Richart declines to review Thomas Merton's ORIGINAL CHILD BOMB
Letter to Robert Steed, April 1962


Dear,
You are going to be called upon to practice charity on an almost supernatural level; under separate cover I am returning the Merton book for someone else to review. I hadn't expected to agree with his position, which, of course, I already knew, but I hadn't expected to be infuriated either, but I was, and my review just wouldn't be suited to the Worker. I've been ever so disturbed, feeling or fearing that you might not love me after this, but you know how passionate conviction will sometimes outweigh even love.
First, I don't agree that men are fatigued by the etude in horror that the bomb represents; at least, no man I know is. (I've often wondered what Merton really thinks of humanity, and now, I think I know.) So much of what he writes is marred by this arrogantly harsh condescension to all humanity. I could multiply instances, but lacking energy, I'll just give one. He is describing his journey to Louisville for his citizenship papers, and alas, he caught a glimpse of the slums. They offended his scholarly sensibilities; he thought of the bare immaculacy of Gethsemani, and wondered why those hapless poor men didn't go there. "One reason might be," said my mother rather snappishly for her, "that they love their children." I like Merton at his metaphysical best, but think he should be silenced forever on political and social topics.
Second, it ill-becomes a monk to be heavy-handedly ironical about public figures of the caliber of Admiral Leahy and Harry Truman. At least they saved us for a while, and that may be as much as anyone, even a Trappist, could have done. Why ridicule Admiral Leahy for sharing the universal uncertainties, including those of the scientists who built it, about the accursed bomb? And I don't believe for one moment that Harry Truman would be happy to see the destruction of humanity, although I don't deny he has a jaunty step, and would have, I think, were marching to his own death.
Third, this book is not the austere minor masterpiece that I imagine Merton envisions it to be; it is an over-simplified bright college kid's essay about the most complex problem of man's destiny so far. It is bootless to think how to undo Hiroshima; it is consummated. We must think, not how to clear our guilt (after all, we did it first) but how to spare the whole world such a fate. The question of our guilt is irrelevant; the nature of our responsibility is the problem. That is the problem I think our president is trying to solve, love and power to him. So you see I'm incorrigible, and you will have to forgive me. I could be wrong, you see. I have a frightening feeling no one yet has been at all brave or wise or adequate on this topic.
My health is quietly, undesperately fading. I cannot predict how much longer I can make even the efforts I do make; I shall make them, of course, as long as possible. New portentous problems arise daily, but so far Teresa of Avila has kept my spirits flying like confetti: the stern tendresse of Teresa! And the much less stern tendresse of......who has shown a doctor's ultimate form of concern: he no longer charges me at all. If he did, I couldn't possible make it.
Easter wishes from Johnny, all possible love from
Bette
Oh, thanks for the O'Gorman and Kerouac poems; the latter excellently surprised me.

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