Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Esse est percipi

            Most of my readers are probably familiar, vaguely, with the name of George Berkeley.  Berkeley (1685-1753) was a philosophical Anglican bishop who developed an odd metaphysical theory summed up by the Latin maxim esse est percipi—“to be is to be perceived.”  If your scholastic Latin is getting rusty you may prefer to recall the problem of the tree falling in the remote and uninhabited forest.  Since no one is there to see it or hear it fall, since indeed no one will ever know the slightest thing about this putative tree, is it even possible to say that the tree has ever existed?
The Right Reverend George Berkeley

            This argument fascinated me in Philosophy 101 half a century ago.  Much longer ago than that it seems to have infuriated my culture hero Sam Johnson who, kicking away a small stone that lay on his path, said “Thus I refute Berkeley”—a remark I find more baffling than “Esse est percipi,” actually.
            Berkeley was laying the groundwork for his religious metaphysics, of course.  What guaranteed the existence of the universe, in his view, was its constant perception by the mind of God. 
Berkeley’s hypothesis makes various appearances in English literature.  I seem to remember it, for example, in the opening chapter of The Longest Journey, to my mind the best of E. M. Forster’s novels, which would have to mean that it is very good indeed.  Nor should we forget the contribution of Monsignor Ronald Knox, a clerical wit of an earlier generation, who wrote a splendid limerick on the theme.
There was a young man who said "God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there's no one about in the quad.

Brilliant, but perhaps upstaged by its anonymous riposte:

Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by
--Yours faithfully,

Well, anybody who ever writes anything and sends it out alone in search of a public is likely to face a certain amount of Berkeleian anxiety.  Maybe God knows about it, but does anybody else?
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
That of course is Thomas Gray, another formidable eighteenth-century English gent, in one of the great and gloomy poems of our tongue, the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”.  We know that Keats wanted a single simple inscription on his tombstone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”  But what about under water, those “dark unfathom’d caves of ocean”?  Have I spent my professional life reforesting a remote and unvisited wilderness?
            My first “major” publication, which cost me months of work, was a long essay on the Old English poem usually called “The Dream of the Rood”.  It was published in 1966 in an obscure but erudite Jesuit-edited journal called Traditio.  According to my argument, which I am still prepared to entertain, “The Dream of the Rood” is not merely a poem written in a monastic milieu—that seems obvious—but a poem allegorically about the monastic life.  My essay received the usual academic guerdon.  It was “cited”.  It “appeared” in bibliographies.  Do not indict me for undue cynicism if I tell you that neither of those facts is in itself convincing evidence that anybody ever read it.
Thomas Merton, O. Cist.

            Well.  One of the great Anglo-American religious writers of the last century was Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, and the author of The Seven Storey Mountain and other influential books.  I read a couple of them in my youth; but I never met him, nor indeed knew much about him.  A few years ago I did have one strange “encounter,” when I was in the early stages of writing The Anti-Communist Manifestos.  Thomas Merton, it turns out, was an undergraduate at Columbia right in the middle of the Red Decade.  He knew Lionel Trilling slightly and was a kind of protégé of Mark Van Doren, one of the famous English professors of his age (yes, there are some) and a mentor to various literary eminences.  During this period Merton very briefly participated in the Columbia cell of the Young Communist League.  It turned out that the cell for which he was destined was of another sort.
            In 1968 Merton died by electrocution in a freak accident in Bangkok, where he was participating in an ecumenical meeting with Zen Buddhists. I read about it in the press.  That may have been my last conscious thought about Thomas Merton until about two years ago.  I was at the concluding “social hour” of some large academic conference, wearing the obligatory name-tag, and desperately trying to fight my way through to the hors d’oeuvres.  The guy next to me says, “You’re not the John Fleming who wrote about the ‘Dream of the Rood’ by any chance?”
            The very same.  Well, he explained, he was writing a biography of Thomas Merton.  And?  Well, he had read all of Merton’s private diaries, which apparently are housed in a large archive of Mertoniana at Bellarmine University in Louisville.  One of the last entries in the last of the extant notebooks preserves the careful notes he was making on an essay that had caught his fancy: John V. Fleming’s “The ‘Dream of the Rood’ and Anglo-Saxon Monasticism.”  One of the most famous monks of the twentieth century had been reading my article about monastic life just before he died!

The opening section of the "Dream of the Rood" in its unique text in the Vercelli Book.  How an Anglo-Saxon vernacular manuscript ended up in northern Italy is an unsolved mystery.  My guess is that it had been in the possession of a dying English pilgrim.  The poem begins with the majuscule letter: HWæt, ic swefna cyst secgan wille... "Listen!  I shall tell you the best of dreams..."