Friday, September 01, 2006

Posers and Hypocrites

They devour books of piety indiscriminately, not stopping to consider how much of what they read applies, or can be applied, to their own lives. Their chief concern is to acquire as many externals as possible, and to decorate their persons with the features they have so rapidly come to associate with perfection. . . . If they do their job thoroughly, their spiritual disguises are apt to be much admired. Like successful artists, they become commercial. After that there is not much hope for them. . . They have become satisfied with their own brand of sanctity, and with the perfection they have woven for themselves out of their own imagination.

Such “sanctity” may perhaps be only the fruit of mutual flattery. The “perfection” of the holy one is something that reassures his neighbors by confirming them in their own prejudices, and by enabling them to forget what is lacking in their own communal morality. It makes them all feel that they are “right,” that they are on the right way, and that God is “satisfied” with their collective way of life. Therefore nothing needs to be changed. But anyone who opposes this situation is wrong. The sanctity of the “saint” is there to justify the complete elimination of those who are “unholy” — that is, those who do not conform.

So too in art, or literature. The “best” poets are those who happen to succeed in a way that flatters our current prejudice about what constitutes good poetry. We are very exacting about the standards that they have set up, and we cannot even consider a poet who writes in some other slightly different way, whose idiom is not quite the same. We do not read him. We do not dare to, for it we were discovered to have done so, we would fall from grace. We would be excommunicated.

A clever kind of insolent servility, a peculiar combination of ambition, stubbornness and flexibility, a “third ear” keenly attuned to the subtlest modulations of the fashionable clichés — with all this you can pass as a saint or a genius if you conform to the right group. You will be blamed in a way that gives you great pleasure, because the blame will come from an out-group by which to be blamed is praise. You may not be enthusiastically praised, even by your own friends. But they know exactly what you are driving at. They full accept your standards. They dig you. You are canonized. You are the embodiment of their own complacency. (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation [New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1961] 110–103)