In his song, Desolation Row, Bob Dylan creates a narrative world where Cassanova gets poisoned with words, and a not-so-humble Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot bicker with one another. The entire song’s scope notwithstanding, these images could raised an interesting question to me? Can skilled writers actually poison their readers with words? So much of Christian mysticism hinges on shedding one’s ego, holding oneself accountable to larger, universal principles and a tradition of practice and ethics. But what if a contemplative poet or mystic were to follow no path but his own whims. Would there be an unfortunate, shadow side to this? Thomas Merton, a poet himself, wrestled with that task of honoring both words and silence, framing subjectivity inside an objective religion. He seems to think checking one’s ego is a healthy and essential part of the purification process. He writes in New Seeds Of Contemplation about hermits:
Not that all writers and mystics are hermits, but the idea is the same. When the self is forced to be checked in the world of others, it is less likely to mutate into its own eccentricities, carrying off in an entirely subjective path that may not lead to universal Oneness. Likewise, mystics and writers answering to no higher ideal, could do the literary equivalent: produce words that carry in them not presence, but a poisonous imbalance, shaped to the patterns of their own unhealed wounds. In other words, it helps to set our sights on something beyond us, more powerful than us, a “higher power,” or, in the case of Christians, Jesus Christ. Development and growth cannot happen in a vacuum, or, as another Merton tome is titled, No Man Is An Island.
For sure, I feel a bath in something greater when I read Rumi. His books often lead us to an Abrahamic God that is at once imminent and transcendent. His line in the poem “Be Melting Snow” sums up most of the purification process:
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