Gandhi and the Unspeakable: His Final Experiment with Truth
James W. Douglass
Orbis Books, 2012
168 pp., $24.00
Interview by John Wilson
Gandhi and the Unspeakable
A few weeks ago on Twitter, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove mentioned that he had an early candidate for Book of the Year: Gandhi and the Unspeakable: His Final Experiment with Truth, by James W. Douglass (Orbis). I sent Jonathan a message asking if he wanted to review the book for Books & Culture. Turned out he had already sent a review to Sojourners; that piece is now published (free registration required). Following is an email conversation with Jonathan about the book and why he regards it so highly.
Jonathan, what attracted your attention to this book in the first place?
In short, Jim Douglass. Leah and I met Jim on the way to Baghdad in 2003 and immediately knew we had met a saint. I am, of course, using "saint" in the common sense. He was one of those people who seemed to exude God's love. It was a tumultuous time to be in Baghdad, but being with Jim made us feel like, whatever happened, we were going to be OK. He made a deep impression on us.
When we got back from Baghdad, I picked up a few books Jim had written back in the '60s and '70s. They were books about Christian nonviolence that took seriously both theological conviction and practical application. I liked Jim as an author as much as I'd liked him as a person. I wrote to ask if he was still writing. Over the next several years, Jim introduced me to his meditation on what hope means in the face of the Unspeakable. I hadn't known Thomas Merton's notion of the Unspeakable, but it helped to name the forces I'd seen at work in Baghdad and in my neighborhood, in America's prisons and in our political systems. The people who help us to name the Unspeakable, Jim showed me, are the people who've followed Jesus' way of the cross to death, unveiling its power. They are, in Jim's words, "martyrs to the Unspeakable." So, this book on Gandhi is a deeply Christian reading of history. It is, I think, because Jim has a deeply Christian vision of the world.
Could you say more about what is meant by "the Unspeakable," and how Gandhi's story sheds light on this?
Merton wrote his Raids on the Unspeakable in the midst of the turmoil of the '60s. He was corresponding with friends around the world about the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the threat of nuclear disaster. He'd become a spiritual counselor to activists (including Jim Douglass). And yet, at the same time, Merton's superiors forbade him to write on political issues. In a fascinating way, this forced him to explore the spiritual dynamics of activism.
So, the notion of the "Unspeakable" emerges as a way of naming what can't be spoken—those powers that lurk in the silence, defying description and so paralyzing us all the more. Raids on the Unspeakable reads like an apocalypse. It's a prose poem, really. Out of context, it almost seems crazy. But it is a prayer at the heart of the world's dark night. In the midst of it, Merton names a bedrock truth: "Christian hope begins where every other truth stands frozen stiff before the power of the Unspeakable."
As a leader of the Catholic peace movement, Jim understood the importance of this hope. His book Resistance and Contemplation invited the movement to hold onto Christian hope, even as it was unraveling in so many ways. It's an important book. But even more important, Jim kept this hope alive in his life and work. He cultivated a practice of radical gospel nonviolence. This practice, more than anything, is what brought Jim back to Gandhi over and again.
What's fascinating, looking back, is that Merton's contemplative confrontation with the Unspeakable brought him to Gandhi as well. When he was working on Raids on the Unspeakable, he was also editing a collection of Gandhi's writings, poring over the extensive collections of a man who, like himself, wrote almost every day of his adult life. What Merton did in an anthology, Jim has done in a fascinating biography—to hold Gandhi's witness up as a mysterious icon of Christian hope vis à vis the Unspeakable.
From what you've said so far, a reader might not guess that more than half of the text of Douglass' short book is given to the central section, "Gandhi and His Assassins." In no small part, this is a detective story, akin to Douglass' previous book, JFK and the Unspeakable, offering a revisionist account of Gandhi's assassination. How does this project connect with the theme of the Unspeakable, and to what extent does a reader's reception of Douglass' book stand or fall with his narrative of state-sponsored murder?
Jim's first book on JFK was a book that almost never saw the light of day. Despite the fact that it was thoroughly researched for over a decade and skillfully crafted as a riveting tale, it faced the simple challenge you're suggesting: the synopsis sounded like another conspiracy theory. And conspiracy theories are, by definition, bad history.