Almost 40 years ago, on Dec. 10, 1968, Thomas Merton was electrocuted by an electric fan as he stepped from his bath in Bangkok, Thailand. Judging from his books, from the many photos of him I’ve seen, from biographies, and from Guy Davenport’s reminiscences, written and in conversation, Merton was an earthy, deeply human man, not a sanitized saint. In photos, particularly those taken by his friend Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Merton resembles Eric Hoffer, the writer and longshoreman. They share a working man’s slouch, animated eyes, powerful smiles and the impression of physical strength. Meatyard wrote of Merton that he “dressed like a stevedore and reminded me of the look of Picasso.” Here are photos of Davenport, Meatyard and Merton taken by the late Jonathan Williams (thanks to Dave Lull).
I recommend Father Louie: Photographs of Thomas Merton, the Meatyard collection published in 1991. The volume includes a preface by the editor, Barry Magid; an essay by Davenport (later collected in The Hunter Gracchus); a reminiscence of Merton by Meatyard (who died in 1972); and a selection of the Meatyard-Merton correspondence. What I especially prize, however, is the brief eulogy Meatyard wrote about his friend. It was published three days after Merton’s death in The Kentucky Kernel, the student newspaper at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where Meatyard and Davenport lived. Meatyard, one of our best photographers, was not a professional writer but his words are precise and filled with earned emotion:
“I am a Protestant. Father Louie, Thomas Merton, was closer to God than anyone I ever met in my life. He exuded goodness and graciousness. He was not a holier-than-thou religious person. He was not out of this world, but very much with it.”
I was leafing through Father Louie again Thursday morning after mowing the lawn. It occurred to me, almost as a surprise, that Merton, Meatyard and Davenport are dead, and I envied the brief, intense friendship they shared for less than two years, in 1967-1968. These brilliant men shared something else: an immense capacity for enjoying life on their own terms. How many people do you know with this gift? For some, I suppose, it means casinos and Coors, but I’m referring to those who find amusement and pleasure, not numbness or distraction, in engaging the world.
I met such a person on Thursday. I had volunteered to help at my second-grader’s end-of-year party at his school, and ended up scooping ice cream. The teacher’s husband, Kevin Shannon, was also there. He’s general manager of Scarecrow Video in Seattle, which bills itself as the largest video store in the Northwest, though Shannon claims it’s probably the largest in the Western Hemisphere. For an hour we talked about movies and he knew every one I mentioned – among others, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Stevie, One-Eyed Jacks, Cockfight, Utu, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Ulysses’ Gaze and the great Westerns Budd Boetticher made with Randolph Scott. Shannon calls himself a “film geek” but what impressed me was less his encyclopedic knowledge than his enthusiasm: he still loves movies and gets excited talking about them. He’s not burned out or jaded and, by nature, he impresses me as a natural-born celebrator. Meatyard, in his eulogy for Merton, was describing a guy like Shannon:
“Tom this past summer [1968, when Merton was 53] was re-examining Camus, Joyce, Blake and concrete poetry. His favorite of his own books was The Way of Chuang Tzu. I think his best was Cables to the Ace. I hope Tom spreads Mars bars (his name for the good things of the material world, especially a drink with friends, which his poverty denied him) from one end of Heaven to the other. If such a place deserved to exist, it deserves it for Tom Merton to be free in.”