Sunday, August 2, 2009

Part 1, Chapter 4: The Children in the Market Place

His education incomplete, Merton entered Columbia University in New York and there met a professor who would become one of his most trusted friends, Mark Van Doren. Merton admired Van Doren's teaching, and for an intellectual and contemplative like Merton, that seems to be a key to fast friendship.

While at Columbia, whatever religious sentiment he had was drowned or converted by communism, which seemed an increasingly popular philosophy. During this time, Merton's reading turned to Freud and Jung. He attended communist student group meetings and even joined demonstrations, but the conversion to communism never took deep root and he eventually lost faith in the promise of a new, perfect, communist society.

Merton started devoting much of his time and energy to Columbia student publications—the Jester, the Spectator, and the Columbia Review. They were all housed on the fourth floor of one of the campus buildings and so the "fourth floor" came to represent the people and experiences he most enjoyed at Columbia.

In the fall of 1936, Pop died. Bonnemaman followed in the summer of 1937, which was expected, but Merton prayed for her to live, which was another step in his progression of faith.
This chapter includes a mention of Merton's brief career on the varsity light-weight crew at Columbia as well as a stint on the cross country running team. Throughout the book, Merton mentions athletics but always declares his ineptitude at them. Still, he kept trying. This could either show a love for sport for which he didn't have a matching aptitude, or a modesty about his natural athletic ability.
In almost every case, though, it seems that the struggle and pain of practice and exercise is what drove him away from the sport, which could reveal a lack of fortitude in the face of hardship. In fact, that theory is played out later in the book with Merton's decision to file his draft papers as a non-combatant (not on entirely moral grounds).
One of the last things mentioned in this chapter is a "love affair" with an unnamed girl which fizzled because of her lack of interest and caused Merton to be wounded. This is also part of a larger pattern in the book. Though it's hard to distinguish since he never gives a name to any of the girls he loved, Merton mentions at least three or four girlfriends throughout his life.
However, he seldom gives any detail about their relationships and never gives any detail about the girls themselves. Were they pretty? Where were they from? What did they have in common? Were they tall or short? Smart or dull? Catholic or Protestant or Hindu?

Much as Merton is silent on the particular sins that darkened his soul while crawling the bars and burlesques of New York, he is also mute on his relationship with women—romantic or otherwise. In fact, there are only three women in the entire book that receive much more than an offhanded mention—his mother, his Aunt Maude, and the Baroness from Friendship House.

Of course, it may be the case that Merton felt his bastard child represented his greatest moral failure and was, therefore, a subject he didn't want to approach even remotely. Still, of all the discussion of the destiny of Merton's heart and the worldly pursuits that tried to seduce it, discussion of this one seductress is noticeably absent.

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