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?
Beautiful post. What I want to know: why aren’t these talented, perceptive men better husband material? Any theories? Yours sincerely, Lisa Kane
Sent from my iPhone
Interesting question. I’ve always thought writing is a very strange thing to do, which is probably part of why I do it. But since I’m not good wife material, any speculation from me on good husband material might be unintentionally self-damning…
We find what we are searching for when we gain the realization that is has always been right before us. Right here. Right now. Bows.
His time ended like many others and ours still ticking. Most valuable thing we have in this life is “time”. I feel restless after every sun set. There is a lot to be done to reach my full potential to perfect my moral character, act like a prophet Mohammad, talk like him, walk like him. We came from Allah and we will all return to Him.
I am the person who complimented you on the lovely book : The First Muslim.
The more I read you, the more I am convinced that you are such a deep believer – in such a deep manner – and such excellent wife material for somebody who can see this !
My “wife” moved on with her two dictionaries I. I shall still study the meaning of : agnostic, but I know DEPTH when I “see” it.
“To read books” list updated. Thank you.