Rain and the Rhinoceros by Thomas Merton
Introduced by Steve Consilvio
It is 2:00 AM and the morning’s early hour weighs heavily upon my eyes. I can hardly keep them open. I type with a newly revived energy, watching my words unfurl on the lonely glow of my artificial sun.
I have discovered with a few quick clicks a lost old friend, an essay both remembered and forgotten from my freshman year. Many times I have sought it out, only to fail again and again. This evening, while putting my middle child to bed, we spoke at length as we often do. The rain of this long holiday weekend rapped casually upon the roof. I told her how whenever I hear the rain, I think back to my long lost friend, “Rain and the Rhinoceros.” She laughs, puzzled, “What does a rhinoceros have to do with rain?” I can’t explain, it is lost in a grey fog of memory that goes back over twenty years.
Some time later, PowerBook on my lap, I type “rain rhinoceros” into Safari’s google window. In a wireless moment, links to my long lost friend appear. I recognize instantly that my long search will soon be over. A third investigative click brings me the full text of the long lost article. I am overjoyed. I read the first paragraph aloud to my unsuspecting wife. She has no idea that I have reconciled with my long lost friend. She smiles and affirms its sentiment. She asks if I wrote it. Flattered, I say, “No, this is the article I have been searching for all these years.” Surprised, she asks, “How?” “I don’t know” I say. “I just typed it in, and suddenly it appeared. Maybe I never searched here, I don’t know, I know I have before. I can’t remember when last, but finally someone has posted it.”
I read it first as a freshman in my first and only semester of business college. It was part of a whirlwind few months of love and growth and discovery. I left that college to become an English major and a writer, a degree that instead became History. And my writing was lost to a life of commerce and everydayness.
Almost two years ago, I bought an iBook, my fifth or sixth Mac, but my first laptop. It changed my life. Freed from my desktop, computing and curiosity merged with convenience. Projects long abandoned were reborn. Eighteen months later, a 12″ PowerBook upgrade was needed. Since its arrival, I have rekindled the flame to write. It is all I truly want to do, despite all the irons in the fire that I must attend to.
Here, in its entirety, is a masterpiece. A few simple words that were among a small select group that changed my life. I bow my head in thanks for its rediscovery. For its author, it is a small work of a prolific volume of prose. If only we could live so long to share all our wisdom and insights with each other, then how truly complete life would be. The circumstance of my original discovery can not be repeated, but perhaps you will find in it your own special joy, as it has given me. Undoubtedly, if it is new to you, it will make you richer in some small way.
The rhinoceros is a reference to a play, where the characters turn into a thick-skinned unthinking herd, charging blindly ahead. I suspect I understand this essay much better now than when I first read it. The SAC is the Strategic Air Command…keeper of the nuclear weapons.
Rain and the Rhinoceros by Thomas Merton
LET me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.
The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with inconsistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer.
I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!
Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.
But I am also going to sleep, because here in this wilderness I have learned how to sleep again. Here I am not alien. The trees I know, the night I know, the rain I know. I close my eyes and instantly sink into the whole rainy world of which I am a part, and the world goes on with me in it, for I am not alien to it. I am alien to the noises of cities, of people, to the greed of machinery that does not sleep, the hum of power that eats up the night. Where rain, sunlight and darkness are contemned, I cannot sleep. I do not trust anything that has been fabricated to replace the climate of woods or prairies. I can have no confidence in places where the air is first fouled and then cleansed, where the water is first made deadly and then made safe with other poisons. There is nothing in the world of buildings that is not fabricated, and if a tree gets in among the apartment houses by mistake it is taught to grow chemically. It is given a precise reason for existing. They put a sign on it saying it is for health, beauty, perspective; that it is for peace, for prosperity; that it was planted by the mayor’s daughter. All of this is mystification. The city itself lives on its own myth. Instead of waking up and silently existing, the city people prefer a stubborn and fabricated dream; they do not care to be a part of the night, or to be merely of the world. They have constructed a world outside the world, against the world, a world of mechanical fictions which contemn nature and seek only to use it up, thus preventing it from renewing itself and man.
OF course the festival of rain cannot be stopped, even in the city. The woman from the delicatessen scampers along the sidewalk with a newspaper over her head. The streets, suddenly washed, became transparent and alive, and the noise of traffic becomes a plashing of fountains. One would think that urban man in a rainstorm would have to take account of nature in its wetness and freshness, its baptism and its renewal. But the rain brings no renewal to the city, on to tomorrow’s weather, and the glint of windows in tall buildings will then have nothing to do with the new sky. All “reality” will remain somewhere inside those walls, counting itself and selling itself with fantastically complex determination. Meanwhile the obsessed citizens plunge through the rain bearing the load of their obsessions, slightly more vulnerable than before, but still only barely aware of external realities. They do not see that the streets shine beautifully, that they themselves are walking on stars and water, that they are running in skies to catch a bus or a taxi, to shelter somewhere in the press of irritated humans, the faces of advertisements and the dim, cretinous sound of unidentified music. But they must know that there is wetness abroad. Perhaps they even feel it. I cannot say. Their complaints are mechanical and without spirit.
Naturally no one can believe the things they say about the rain. It all implies one basic lie: only the city is real. That weather, not being planned, not being fabricated, is an impertinence, a wen on the visage of progress. (Just a simple little operation, and the whole mess may become relatively tolerable. Let business make the rain. This will give it meaning.)
THOREAU sat in his cabin and criticized the railways. I sit in mine and wonder about a world that has, well, progressed. I must read Walden again, and see if Thoreau already guessed that he was part of what he thought he could escape. But it is not a matter of “escaping.” It is not even a matter of protesting very audibly. Technology is here, even in the cabin. True, the utility line is not here yet, and so G.E. is not here yet either. When the utilities and G.E. enter my cabin arm in arm it will be nobody’s fault but my own. I admit it. I am not kidding anybody, even myself. I will suffer their bluff and patronizing complacencies in silence. I will let them think they know what I am doing here.
They are convinced that I am having fun.
This has already been brought home to me with a wallop by my Coleman lantern. Beautiful lamp: It burns white gas and sings viciously but gives out a splendid green light in which I read Philoxenos, a sixth-century Syrian hermit. Philoxenos fits in with the rain and the festival of night. Of this, more later. Meanwhile: what does my Coleman lantern tell me? (Coleman’s philosophy is printed on the cardboard box which I have (guiltily) not shellacked as I was supposed to, and which I have tossed in the woodshed behind the hickory chunks.) Coleman says that the light is good, and has a reason: it “Stretches days to give more hours of fun.”
Can’t I just be in the woods without any special reason? Just being in the woods, at night, in the cabin, is something too excellent to be justified or explained! It just is. There are always a few people who are in the woods at night, in the rain (because if there were not the world would have ended), and I am one of them. We are not having fun, we are not “having” anything, we are not “stretching our days,” and if we had fun it would not be measured by hours. Though as a matter of fact that is what fun seems to be: a state of diffuse excitation that can be measured by the clock and “stretched” by an appliance.
There is no clock that can measure the speech of this rain that falls all night on the drowned and lonely forest.
Of course at three-thirty A.M. the SAC plane goes over, red light winking low under the clouds, skimming the wooded summits on the south side of the valley, loaded with strong medicine. Very strong. Strong enough to burn up all these woods and stretch our hours of fun into eternities.
AND that brings me to Philoxenos, a Syrian who had fun in the sixth century, without benefit of appliances, still less of nuclear deterrents.
Philoxenos in his ninth memra (on poverty) to dwellers in solitude, says that there is no explanation and no justification for the solitary life, since it is without a law. To be contemplative is therefore to be an outlaw. As was Christ. As was Paul.
One who is not “alone,” says Philoxenos, has not discovered his identity. He seems to be alone, perhaps, for he experiences himself as “individual.” But because he is willingly enclosed and limited by the laws and illusions of collective existence, he has no more identity than an unborn child in the womb. He is not yet conscious. He is alien to his own truth. He has senses, but he cannot use them. He has life, but not identity. To have an identity, he has to be awake, and aware. But to be awake, he has to accept vulnerability and death. Not for their own sake: not out of stoicism or despair-only for the sake of the invulnerable inner reality which we cannot recognize (which we can only be ) but to which we awaken only when we see the unreality of our vulnerable shell. The discovery of this inner self is an act and affirmation of solitude.
Now if we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth. This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive, uncontrollable dynamic of fabrications designed to protect mere fictitious identities– “selves,” that is to say, regarded as objects. Selves that can stand back and see themselves having fun (an illusion which reassures them that they are real).
SUCH is the ignorance which is taken to be the axiomatic foundation of all knowledge in the human collectivity: in order to experience yourself as real, you have to suppress the awareness of your contingency, your unreality, your state of radical need. This you do by creating an awareness of yourself as one who has no needs that he cannot immediately fulfill. Basically, this is an illusion of omnipotence: an illusion which the collectivity arrogates to itself, and consents to share with its individual members in proportion as they submit to its more central and more rigid fabrications.
You have needs; but if you behave and conform you can participate in the collective power. You can then satisfy all your needs. Meanwhile, in order to increase its power over you, the collectivity increases your needs. It also tightens its demand for conformity. Thus you can become all the more committed to the collective illusion in proportion to becoming more hopelessly mortgaged to collective power.
How does this work? The collectivity informs and shapes your will to happiness (“have fun”) by presenting you with irresistible images of yourself as you would like to be: having fun that is so perfectly credible that it allows no interference of conscious doubt. In theory such a good time can be so convincing that you are no longer aware of even a remote possibility that it might change into something less satisfying. In practice, expensive fun always admits of a doubt, which blossoms out into another full-blown need, which then calls for a still more credible and more costly refinement of satisfaction, which again fails you. The end of the cycle is despair.
Because we live in a womb of collective illusion, our freedom remains abortive. Our capacities for joy, peace, and truth are never liberated. They can never be used. We are prisoners of a process,, a dialectic of false promises and real deceptions ending in futility.
“The unborn child,” says Philoxenos, “is already perfect and fully constituted in his nature, with all his senses, and limbs, but he cannot make use of them in their natural functions, because, in the womb, he cannot strengthen or develop them for such use.”
Now, since all things have their season, there is a time to be unborn. We must begin, indeed, in the social womb. There is a time for warmth in the collective myth. But there is also a time to be born. He who is spiritually “born” as a mature identity is liberated from the enclosing womb of myth and prejudice. He learns to think for himself, guided no longer by the dictates of need and by the systems and processes designed to create artificial needs and then “satisfy” them.
This emancipation can take two forms: first that of the active life, which liberates itself from enslavement to necessity by considering and serving the needs of others, without thought of personal interest or return. And second, the contemplative life, which must not be construed as an escape from time and matter, from social responsibility and from the life of sense, but rather, as an advance into solitude and the desert, a confrontation with poverty and the void, a renunciation of the empirical self, in the presence of death, and nothingness, in order to overcome the ignorance and error that spring from the fear of “being nothing.” The man who dares to be alone can come to see that the “empitness” and “uselessness” which the collective mind fears and condemns are necessary conditions for the encounter with truth.
It is in the desert of loneliness and emptiness that the fear of death and the need for self-affirmation are seen to be illusory. When this is faced, then anguish is not necessarily overcome, but it can be accepted and understood. Thus, in the heart of anguish are found the gifts of peace and understanding: not simply in personal illumination and liberation, but by commitment and empathy, for the contemplative must assume the universal anguish and the inescapable condition of mortal man. The solitary, far from enclosing himself in himself, becomes every man. He dwells in the solitude, the poverty, the indigence of every man.
It is in this sense that the hermit, according to Philoxenos, imitates Christ. For in Christ, God takes to Himself the solitude and dereliction of man: every man. From the moment Christ went out into the desert to be tempted, the loneliness, the temptation and the hunger of every man became the loneliness, temptation and hunger of Christ. But in return, the gift of truth with which Christ dispelled the three kinds of illusion offered him in his temptation (security, reputation and power) can become also our own truth, if we can only accept it. It is offered to us also in temptation. “You too go out into the desert,” said Philoxenos, “having with you nothing of the world, and the Holy Spirit will go with you. See the freedom with which Jesus has gone forth, and go forth like Him-see where he has left the rule of men; leave the rule of the world where he has left the law, and go out with him to fight the power of error.”
And where is the power of error? We find it was after all not in the city, but in ourselves .
TODAY the insights of a Philoxenos are to be sought less in the tracts of theologians than in the meditations of the existentialists and in the Theater of the Absurd. The problem of Berenger, in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros , is the problem of the human person stranded and alone in what threatens to become a society of monsters. In the sixth century Berenger might perhaps have walked off into the desert of Scete, without too much concern over the fact that all his fellow citizens, all his friends, and even his girl Daisy, had turned into rhinoceroses.
The problem today is that there are no deserts, only dude ranches.
The desert islands are places where the wicked little characters in the Lord of the Flies come face to face with the Lord of the Flies, form a small, tight, ferocious collectivity of painted face, and arm themselves with spears to hunt down the last member of their group who still remembers with nostalgia the possibilities of rational discourse.
Where Berenger finds himself suddenly the last human in a rhinoceros herd he looks into the mirror and says, humbly enough, “After all, man Is not as bad as all that, is he?” But his world now shakes mightily with the stampede of his metamorphosed fellow citizens, and he soon becomes aware that the very stampede itself is the most telling and tragic of all arguments. For when he considers going out into the street “to try to convince them,” he realizes that he “would have to learn their language.” He looks in the mirror and sees that he no longer resembles anyone . He searches madly for a photograph of people as they were before the big change. But now humanity itself has become incredible, as well as hideous. To be the last man in the rhinoceros herd is, in fact, to be a monster.
Such is the problem which Ionesco sets us in his tragic irony: solitude and dissent become more and more impossible, more and more absurd. That Berenger finally accepts his absurdity and rushes out to challenge the whole herd only points up the futility of a commitment to rebellion. At the same time in The New Tenant (Le Nouveau Locataire ) Ionesco portrays the absurdity of a logically consistent individualism which, in fact, is a self-isolation by the pseudo-logic of proliferating needs and possessions.
Ionesco protested that the New York production of Rhinoceros as a farce was a complete misunderstanding of his intention. It is a play not merely against conformism but about totalitarianism . The rhinoceros is not an amiable beast, and with him around the fun ceases and things begin to get serious. Everything has to make sense and be totally useful to the totally obsessive operation. At the same time Ionesco was criticized for not giving the audience “something positive” to take away with them, instead of just “refusing the human adventure.” (Presumably “rhinoceritis” is the latest in human adventure!) He replied: “They [the spectators] leave in a void-and that was my intention. It is the business of a free man to pull himself out of this void by his own power and not by the power of other people!” In this Ionesco comes very close to Zen and to Christian eremitism.
“IN all the cities of the world, it is the same,” says Ionesco. “The universal and modern man is the man in a rush (i.e. a rhinoceros), a man who has no time, who is a prisoner of necessity, who cannot understand that a thing might perhaps be without usefulness ; nor does he understand that, at bottom, it is the useful that me be a useless and back-breaking burden. If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art. And a country where art is not understood is a country of slaves and robotsÉ.” (Notes et Contre Notes, p129) Rhinoceritis, he adds, is the sickness that lies in wait “for those who have lost the sense and the taste for solitude.”
The love of solitude is sometimes condemned as “hatred of our fellow men.” But is this true? If we push our analysis of collective thinking a little further we will find that the dialectic of power and need, of submission and satisfaction, ends by being a dialectic of hate. Collectivity needs not only to absorb everyone it can, but also implicitly to hate and destroy whoever cannot be absorbed. Paradoxically, one of the needs of collectivity is to reject certain classes, or races, or groups, in order to strengthen its own self-awareness by hating them instead of absorbing them.
Thus the solitary cannot survive unless he is capable of loving everyone, without concern for the fact that he is likely to be regarded by all of them as a traitor. Only the man who has fully attained his own spiritual identity can live without the need to kill, and without the need of a doctrine that permits him to do so with a good conscience. There will always be a place, says Ionesco, ” for those isolated consciences who have stood up for the universal conscience ” as against the mass mind. But their place is solitude. They have no other. Hence it is the solitary person (whether in the city or in the desert) who does mankind the inestimable favor of reminding it of its true capacity for maturity, liberty and peace.
It sounds very much like Philoxenos to me.
And it sounds like what the rain says. We still carry this burden of illusion because we do not dare to lay it down. We suffer all the need that society demands we suffer, because if we do not have these needs we lose our “usefulness” in society-the usefulness of suckers. We fear to be alone, and to be ourselves, and so to remind others of the truth that is in them.
“I will not make you such rich men as have need of many things,” said Philoxenos (putting the words on the lips of Christ), “but I will make you true rich men who have need of nothing. Since it is not he who has many possessions that is rich, but he who has no needs.” Obviously, we shall always have some needs. But only he who has the simplest and most natural needs can be considered to be without needs, since the only needs he has are real ones, and the real ones are not hard to fulfill if one is a free man!
THE rain has stopped. The afternoon sun slants through the pine trees: and how those useless needles smell in the clear air!
A dandelion, long out of season, has pushed itself into bloom between the smashed leaves of last summer’s day lilies. The valley resounds with the totally uninformative talk of creeks and wild water.
Then the quails begin their sweet whistling in the wet bushes. Their noise is absolutely useless, and so is the delight I take in it. There is nothing I would rather hear, not because it is a better noise than other noises, but because it is the voice of the present moment, the present festival.
Yet even here the earth shakes. Over at Fort Knox the Rhinoceros is having fun.