thomas merton`s the geography of lograire: a poem of psychotherapy

by G u r u Charan Behara
The Geography of Logmire is the most complex and most intricately designed o f all the poems o f
Thomas Merton. It is a loose alternation o f prose and poetry, whose content is derived from many times, many
cultures — the primitivism, occultism, mysticism o f Africa and Asia, including raw quotations from the
poet's reading o f history and anthropology. I t reads like a journal, sometimes like notes for an anthropological
or sociological study, at other times like a poetic reflection. Though the poem is surrealistically structured to
convey what M e r t o n calls "the first opening up o f the dreams," the sections o f the poem are v i v i d l y grounded
in particular locales. I t is i n fact a "wide angle mosaic o f poems and dreams" i n w h i c h he has mixed "what is
[his] o w n personal experience w i t h what is almost everybody else's" (p. 1). His viewpoint takes on muUiple
forms embodying the anguished reactions o f the primitive tribes against the suppression o f their myths by the
Western people. W i t h its fragments form, disjointed syntax, multiple allusions and combination o f sense and
apparent nonsense, the poem seeks to convey the poet's o w n sense o f the confusion, the violence and the
alienation o f m o d e m humans and, at the same time, the search for altemative value systems i n the primitive
The Geography ofLograire depicts the poet's mental excursions into those geographical zones w h i c h
impress h i m more w i t h their sense o f the past than w i t h that o f the present. I t is an exploration o f the interior
territory o f the m i n d whose points and zones correspond to those locales and zones o f the outer w o r l d where
primitive myths flourished. It then tums out to be an exploration, i n terms o f the geographical details, o f the
memory o f humankind encapsulated in the individual memory o f the poet. The racial unconscious is plotted
by the geographical m o t i f This is perhaps w h y Victor A . Kramer calls the poem an inner cartograph"
(Thomas Merton: Monk and Artist, p. 135.) A n d such blending o f
geographical and psychological variables by Merton to express his
unified vision o f life prompts me to term the poem "a poem o f psychotherapy." The title, as explained by Sister Therese Lentfoehr in a
note appended to the poem, shows h o w the poet's individual and
collective memories are embodied i n geographical space. The title
alludes to the French poet, Francois V i l l o n , whose real name was
Francois Des Loges. "Loges," from w h i c h Merton seems to have
created his o w n country o f "Lograire," refers to the little huts and
cabins used by French woodcutters or foresters, w i t h w h o m Merton
could be associated as the head forester o f the Trappist community
and, more importantly, as the inhabitant o f a hermitage i n the woods.
It further alludes to the original cabin or "loges" in the forest o f Saint
Germaine that had been replaced by a Catholic church. This allusion
Guru Charan Behara lives in Cuttaclc, Orissa, India. He received liis Ph.D. from
Utkal University in 1991; his doctoral dissertation was "Reality and Illusion in the
Plays of Harold Pinter." He is currently Senior Lecturer in English at P. G. Department
of English, Bhadrak College, Bhadrak. He writes short stories and criticism in his
regional language Oriya, and is currently working on a project, "Seer as Singer: The
Poetry o f Thomas Merton."
provides ironical perspective to the poem as the poet himself belongs to a Catholic order, part o f the Christian
tradition w h i c h he accuses o f ruthlessly suppressing the primitive myths. The very name "Lograire" also
sounds like a mythical Welsh kingdom w h i c h could stand for all the suppressed myths whose geography the
poet seeks to map out. "Lograire" could possibly have been coined by fusing "logogram" and "logos," suggesting a search for a new universal order based on the recognition o f the worth o f the suppressed cults. A l l
these literal, typological, symbolical and mythological significances realized at the multiple levels o f the
poem constitute the poet's outer and inner geographical exploration.
The poem is structured on a compass m o t i f South to north, east to west not only invoke the memory ^
o f ancient navigation and suggest a sense o f journey, but also chart out the epic scale in w h i c h the poem is §
conceived. The prologue serves to present the framework, outline the major themes, and set the tone o f the j
poem. I t opens w i t h allusions to Wales and England and the poet's personal Celtic origins:
Should Wales dark Wales slow ways sea coaltar
Green tar sea stronghold i n Wales my grand
Dark my Wales land father it was green
W i t h all harps played over and bells, (p. 3)
Disruption i n conventional syntactical order is akin to the stream o f consciousness technique o f
another Celtic writer, James Joyce. The poem representing the poet's immersion i n the myth-dreams o f other
peoples naturally needs relatively loose lines free from logical order and grammatical control. O n an objective
level, this also projects the poet's vision o f the disjointed life o f society. It demands from the reader some
intellectual exercise turning them into active participants i n the journey through the labyrinth o f history and
myth. The pieces, when put together, build Wales as a land darkened by the hard sea voyages o f the past, by
slavery (the Tarhead captain), by slag heaps and exploitation. The idea o f quest suggested by allusions to
Arthurian legend is continued by reference to Odysseus: " H o l d Captain home to Ithaca" (p. 5). The moral and
metaphysical quest o f the mythical, medieval captains is set i n contrast w i t h the materialistic search o f present
day captains for land and gold. When the former aims at love o f mankind, the latter results i n suppression o f
primitive tribes, and thus it is "the same struggle o f love and death" that informs the whole poem. "The Cain/
A b e l " m o t i f implicit i n the old w o r l d sea captains is intensified in the depiction o f fratricidal c i v i l war:
Pain and A b e l lay down red designs
C i v i l is slain brother sacred w a l l w o o d pine
Sacred black brother is beaten to w a l l . (p. 5)
The pun on Cain and pain indicates fratricide as the source o f the pain o f humankind. Significantly,
the woodthrush's song, w h i c h along w i t h the "green," "harps," "bells" o f mythical Wales symbolize natural
harmony and joy, forms the background against w h i c h all the disorder and violence is depicted. Here, the
woodthrush, k n o w n as a "hermit b i r d " or a "prophetic bird," suggests M e r t o n himself, a hermit o f prophetic
vision. I n the last couplet, M e r t o n suggests, through pharmaceutical symbol (R for R x ) , a religious cure
through love o f Christ for the disease o f modem society:
Sign Redeemer's " R "
Buys Mars his last war. (p. 6)
A m o n g the places i n "South," the first canto, are Kentucky (site o f Merton's monastery), Florida,
Africa, M e x i c o , and Central America. A l l u s i o n to Cain introduces the theme o f violence and fratricidal strife.
A ghastly picture o f Kentucky is presented through disjointed images and vignettes o f violence, racial tension
and militarism, combined w i t h materialism. L A M B A D M I T S TIES T O C A I N refers to the violent imposition
o f Christianity on tribes and the pent up anger o f blacks against the white raiders. The second movement o f the
canto speaks o f the way to Louisville and concludes w i t h "a ghost dancer walks i n a black hat through the
gates o f horn" (p. 14). The ghost dance movement that originated among Native Americans near Walter Lake
in Nevada anticipated a time when Indian dead w o u l d return and white people w o u l d die or disappear. The
poem contains a number o f such instances o f tribal neurosis, probably stimulated by extreme deprivation and
dislocation. References to "the m i l l e n n i u m " not only express the suppressed collective unconscious, but support the poem's emerging vision o f a new age. The third movement H Y M N S T O L O G R A I R E is a collection
o f hymns celebrating the new w o r l d o f the poet's dream. This is immediately followed by a critique on the
mechanization o f life i n the modem age i n M I A M I Y O U A R E A B O U T TO B E SURPRISED. The poet
describes himself as a "gourmet w i t h a mouthful o f seaweed" who wams against the interference o f the
machine i n the private affairs o f humans, "to register your secret desires/ w h i c h are never secret and always
fooHsh"(p. 18).
T W O M O R A L I T I E S is about the ways i n w h i c h primitive people form their o w n moralities through
confrontation w i t h death. T H O N G A L A M E N T (Africa) tells about the belief o f the Thonga, an African Bantu
tribe, i n ancestor spirits:
L o o k the blue oxen
Came down from the altars
To our cavern O Fathers, (p. 19)
H A R E ' S M E S S A G E (Hottentot) is about the Nagama tribe's belief that a hare sent by the M o o n God
to tell humans that "they shall rise again as I also rise after each d y i n g " changed message and told the Nagama:
" y o u must die . . . just as I do" (p. 20). Invocation o f the spirit for the wellbeing o f the l i v i n g and belief in the
possibility o f rising "after each D y i n g " "enact the participation o f the l i v i n g and the dead" (p. 2). Likewise,
the "woe doctor" i n S O U T H V I I who was apparently a Z u l u prophet and healer could transform himself into
a medium and use dreaming as a channel o f communication. The final geographical point o f South is Yucatan,
locale o f C H I L A M B A L A M and D Z U L E S . M u c h o f the material is taken from The Book of Jaguar Priest: A
Translation of the Book of Chilam Balam ofTizinin w h i c h is the Mayan version o f the conquest. I t is about the
Mayan priests who destroy themselves because o f the injuries done to their people (p. 33).
I n Merton's cosmography. South is immediately followed by North. This contrapuntal technique
allows the qualities o f each o f the t w o geographical, cultural and psychic worlds to appear i n sharp r e l i e f I n
the style o f Whitman, the prologue ends w i t h the celebration o f the epic journey o f the multitudinous self
through vast geography:
I am all (here)
There! (p. 42)
Merton came from " N o r t h . " The long movement, Q U E E N ' S T U N N E L , relates memories o f the
tunnels o f London, N e w York and L o n g Island. The tunnel stands for the encircling gloom that closes i n upon
human beings, a hell on earth that characterizes technological civilization. The tunnel physically resembles
and recalls the "cavem" i n w h i c h the Thonga invoke the spirits o f their ancestors and into w h i c h the Mayan
priests enter. But, i n terms o f significance, there is an ironic contrast between the ancient meditation w h i c h
aims at transcendence and m o d e m mechanization w h i c h implies degradation. This connects the parts o f the
geography and weaves the sections o f the poem into a pattem. Towards the end, there is s note o f hope w h i c h
echoes W i l l i a m Blake: "There is a grain o f sand i n Lambeth w h i c h Satan cannot find/ While deep i n the
heart's question a shameless light/ Retums no answer" (p. 62).
T H E R A N T E R S A N D T H E I R P L E A D S is based on and quotes from Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of
Millennium, a history o f the Chiliastic religion o f the Free Spirit. This movement flourished i n one form or
another i n Europe from the twelfth through the fourteenth century and revived i n England i n the seventeenth
century. I t attacked the established Church, the Bible and the clergy, and urged people to listen only to the
voice o f Christ w i t h i n them. Merton laments that the sect was suppressed and its significance ignored. I n the
next section, N O R T H I V " K A N E R E L I E F E X P E D I T I O N , " is based on Dr. James Laws's journal o f Kane's
expedition to rescue Sir John Franklin, lost somewhere i n the Arctic. The movement is again a critique, this
time on the senseless Christianization o f the Eskimos. I t seeks to identify Kane w i t h Cain.
E A S T is made entirely o f historical and anthropological meditations w i t h no sections that might be
termed personal. The historical context for this, Merton mentions h i m s e l f is Travels in Asia and Africa by Ibn
Battuta (p. 145). The M u s l i m m y t h dream w i t h its prayer, ritual, mysticism and deep sense o f oneness w i t h the
environment stand i n strong contrast w i t h the naked aggression o f Kane and the Puritans.
The E A S T section moves on to Melanesia. Merton appropriately quotes from anthropologist Bronislaw
Malinowski's A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. M a l i n o w s k i is what Merton describes i n Hagia Sophia
as "doubly alienated," alienated from his o w n w o r l d and alienated from the land o f strangers. The Cargo Cults
of the Pacific become points o f reference i n the succeeding sections. Merton sums them up as reactions to the
impact o f European culture: " I t is a way in w h i c h primitive people not only attempt by magic to obtain the
goods they feel to be unjustly denied to them but also and more importantly a way o f spelling out their
conception o f the injustice, their sense that basic human relations are being ignored and their hope o f restoring
the right order o f things" (p. 149). The Cargo Cults were messianic, mystical, eschatological movements
which tried to explain not only the primitive people's subservience to the whites i n terms o f their o w n guilt but
also their attempt to transcend their fear o f the whites. After the whites took over, a native o f M i l n e Bay,
possessed by a tree-spirit, warned o f giant waves and told natives to throw away all goods (i.e., cargo):
Destroy houses k i l l all pigs
Withdraw inland
Wearing only long narrow leaves
"To show entire repudiation o f the white man." (p. 92)
Movements E A S T I I I - X refer to dreams, rituals and practices among Kanaka tribes. Like the Z u l u
prophets, the Cargo leaders tried to communicate i n dreams w i t h the spirits o f their ancestors. Various rituals
were observed to resurrect the dead. The natives went inland and awaited the m i l l e n n i u m and the return o f the
dead: "They [the missionaries] reached the boats just i n time. The dead arrived in the village w i t h a cargo o f
flashlights" (p. 93). I n their fantasy, they attacked the white men i n order to restore social order and psychic
meaning to their lives.
A n d now we are going to fix you clapcott five men
W i l l come and you w i l l not hear them come
Since you are deaf
You w i l l be shot and parts w i l l be cut o f f
Parts also eaten
Because o f w h i c h
Our dead shall rise
Black shall be white
Cargo shall come to Santo
Ancestors come home i n white ship
From where you sent them y o u sonofabitch
W i t h all your papers, (p. 113)
A l l these messianic cults, as we observe, spring from the tension between technological and primitive worlds.
The references to "Ghost W i n d " and divine possession i n the last movement o f EAST, titled A N D A F E W
M O R E C A R G O SONGS, bring into focus the ghost dance culture mentioned i n the prologue and prepare us
for its celebration i n the fmal movement o f the last canto, WEST.
The subject o f W E S T is America, past and present, as a civilization w h i c h M e r t o n views w i t h deep
misgivings. D A Y S I X O ' H A R E T E L E P H A N E fuses various impressions and suggestions o f primitive and
technological worlds i n a complex, surrealistic manner. D A Y S I X recalls the Mayan way o f recording dates.
O ' H A R E , w h i c h obviously refers to the Chicago airport, relates to the Hare or "death." This neatly tallies
w i t h 6 August 1945, the date o f the bombing o f Hiroshima. O n a surface level, this movement presents a
grotesque picture o f the Chicago airport which, i n itself, is a reflection on the sordidness, violence and divisiveness o f the technological w o r l d . But, on the level o f suggestion, it holds two geographical and psychic worlds
in tension: the primitive idea o f death as a gateway to a new life is set o f f against unredeemable doom i n the
technological w o r l d . Underlying all these contrasts and tensions are such lines as "Christ — W h e a t / . . . w h i c h
could also be/ Square o f Buddha. Rice/ Or Square Maize about those pyramids" (p. 123). They express the
poem's central theme o f the oneness o f all existence. The second movement o f WEST, entitled A T T H I S
PRECISE M O M E N T OF HISTORY, is about power struggles i n history w h i c h caused endless human misery.
I t continues the Cain and A b e l m o t i f
The third movement, G H O S T D A N C E : P R O L O G U E , and the last one, G H O S T D A N C E , presents
the cult o f the ghost dance among the Sioux as similar to cults among South Africans and the Kanakas
mentioned i n earlier cantos. The elements that recall earlier sections are the belief i n the return o f the dead
w i t h the simultaneous end o f the w o r l d and the importance o f dreaming as a channel o f communication w i t h
the spirits. That these elements exist i n the Christian w o r l d is an assertion o f the interconnectedness o f Merton's
psychogeography. A s a complicated series o f interacting cults, this is the climax o f the poet's series o f dream
observations. But the last stanza marks a sharp departure from the climax and is almost bathetic i n nature:
"After a while the dreaming stopped and the dream Dance turned into a Feather Dance. I t was just a fun dance.
I t was mostly a white man's show" (p. 137).
The reference is obviously to the commercialization o f the ghost dance that has reduced it to a mere
tourist attraction. A t one level, as Walter Sutton puts it ("Thomas Merton and the American Epic Tradition:
The Last Poems," Comparative Literature 14:1 [1973], p. 55), the poem "ends w i t h the end o f the dreaming
and w i t h a sense o f the failure o f civilization and its victims." But Virginia F. Randall ("Contrapuntal Irony
and Theme i n Thomas Merton's The Geography ofLograire"
Renascence 20 [1976], p. 202): "The other side
o f this bitter irony, the end o f dreaming is the beginning o f some kind o f reality
The poem is the dreaming,
and when it is finished, becomes a part o f the reality o f the poet's life and a part o f the reader's experience."
M y contention here is that the ghost dance, as it is presented today in the modem w o r l d , has lost its primitive
mystery and vitality and has become an artificial entertainment designed for and controlled by white persons.
The Geography of Lograire, apparently meant to highlight the value o f the suppressed cults o f the primitive
tribes, was shaped and designed by Merton, a white man. So it is a white man's show, a m o d e m day ghost
dance show. Thus the poet questions his o w n sincerity and authenticity i n pleading for the tribes. The irony o f
the whole poem is widened and deepened here as the perspective tums to self-questioning and self-examination. I t is a pleas to all white people to search their souls.
The Geography of Lograire does not end w i t h solution, but rather points towards new directions,
further exploration and continuing inward joumey. I t becomes part o f an unending joumey, an attempt to
answer questions w h i c h raise more questions. The psychogeography tends to move from the poem to the poet
and from the poet to the reader. I t remains, as M e r t o n himself put it, "a purely tentative first draft o f a longer
w o r k i n progress" and "a beginning o f pattems" (p. 1).