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“Where Are We Really Going? Always Home”: Thomas Merton and Hermann Hesse

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Abstract In 1968 Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, made a journey to the Far East to study Eastern monastic religions. Merton’s contemplative prayer life was enhanced by his literary imagination, which was fueled by the reading of a broad spectrum of novelists and poets. During his trip eastward, Thomas Merton read three Hermann Hesse novels and recorded notes in his journal regarding two of them: Journey to the East and Steppenwolf. This essay examines Thomas Merton’s enigmatic quotations and observations about the two aforementioned novels within the context of each of the respective volumes. Further clarification of Merton’s notes is rendered through a presentation in parallel fashion of other journal entries and recorded conferences made by the monk primarily during his eastward journey. The discussion of Journey to the East reflects Thomas Merton’s own spiritual quest as he traveled to Asia revealing his attraction to the “feminine mystique” as well as his sharing of both Hesse’s disdain for the herd instinct of illusory communities and his alternative portrayal of enlightened communes seeking aesthetic excellence. As Merton read Steppenwolf, he identified with Harry Haller’s propensity for self-contradiction and a tendency to vacillate between the polarities of holding the bourgeoisie at arm’s length and his eventual compromise with the conventions of the bourgeois society.

Affiliations: 1: Shrewsbury, Massachusetts


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