Thomas Merton and the Dual-Voices of Autobiography

Autobiography is always negotiating two or more voices, speaking from separate and distinct moments in time. We can see this in what is perhaps the earliest example of modern autobiography, St Augustine‘s Confessions, where a present-day narrator attempts to reconstruct a previous life. In this way, autobiographical writing attempts to collapse the distance between childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience, and past and present. 

As I continue to read Thomas Merton‘s excellent memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), I find that the young literature teacher has converted to Catholicism and made up his mind to join a monastery. As this event comes closer, there are uncanny moments when I recognise that I am catching up with Merton, catching up with the Merton who will soon write the book that I hold in my hands. Suddenly, the author’s present-day surroundings interrupt the linear, chronological flow of the narrative. The memoir jumps forward in time, and the reader finds themselves in strange and unfamiliar territory:

(From where I sit and write at this moment, I look out of the window, across the quiet guest-house garden, with the four banana trees and the big red and yellow flowers around Our Lady’s Statue. I can see the door where Dan entered and where I entered. Beyond the Porter’s Lodge is a low green hill where there was wheat this summer. And out there, yonder, I can hear the racket of the diesel tractor: I don’t know what they are ploughing.)

This brief passage is presented in parenthesis, and describes nothing more than a silent moment of observation. But it is significant. Merton is remembering his arrival from a present-day vantage point, suddenly alert and aware of his immediate surroundings, his specific place in time. He is reflecting, in some small way, on the culmination of a life’s journey.

For the reader, this brief digression in the text raises uncertain and contradictory feelings. On the one hand, the reader is brought forward in time to an event that feels immediate and close-by. But as I recognise that Merton’s present-day does not coincide with my own, I am suddenly aware of my inevitable distance from this briefly recounted moment, of how long ago it occurred, and of the way language draws attention to its loss.

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