My copy of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard bears the marks of a well-used life, much like the photo of him in today’s New York Times. The cover is torn and tattered, the linen boards worn and faded, the pages yellowing at the edges. The end pages are full of scribbled notes to myself, the text scored and marked in the margins. This is a much-read book.
I’ve placed it high on the reading list of every writing course I’ve ever taught, tracing the intertwining of its parallel journeys: on the one hand, into the hidden inner sanctum of Dolpo on the Tibetan plateau, in search of the elusive snow leopard; on the other, into the mystical and equally elusive peacefulness of Zen Buddhism.
There were far more than two hands, of course, which is why I read the book so many times and never tired of it, entranced by the intense lyricism of its descriptions of landscape, and the sharp contrast with the pared-down writing about Zen practice.
I have most of Matthiessen’s other books too, both fiction and nonfiction, but this is the one I keep coming back to (in a way I suspect would have deeply disappointed him — no writer cares to be defined by one book above all the others).
I didn’t know much ‘about’ him other than what he revealed in his writing, which was carefully calibrated. I had no idea he worked a naively youthful two years for the CIA, for example, using the Paris Review as a cover, though I did know he’d become a Zen priest, that he was fiercely involved with environmental issues, and that he was… well, not exactly good-husband material. No matter: the writer was more important to me than the man.
Yet much as I love and admire his writing, I haven’t ordered my own copy of his last book, a novel called In Paradise. Instead, it’s waiting for me at the library as I write. And has been waiting a few days. I delay picking it up because even though it’s Matthiessen, something in me doesn’t want to read it. It’s set at a meditation retreat at the concentration camps of Birkenau and Auschwitz, and the very idea of such a retreat seems, at least to me, a horribly ironic oxymoron. Which may indeed turn out to be his point. I’ll find out soon enough.
Matthiessen died yesterday, at age 86. “I don’t want to cling too hard to life,” he’d said, and by not doing so, I suspect he arrived again at the place he described in this quote from The Tree Where Man Was Born, which serves as the ending of the extraordinarily timed piece on him in today’s NYT magazine. Here it is:
“Lying back against these ancient rocks of Africa, I am content. The great stillness in these landscapes that once made me restless seeps into me day by day, and with it the unreasonable feeling that I have found what I was searching for without having discovered what it was.”
What is this if not pure Zen?