Friday, May 02, 2014

Peter Matthiessen: An Appreciation

In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen 

Peter Matthiessen died at age 86 last month, just a few days before the release of his new novel, In Paradise. I met Matthiessen about 10 years ago at a book signing--I believe it was for End of the Earth: Voyage to Antarctica. The audience was a rather odd one: There were no women. Half of those in attendance were book dealers who each had a large number of Matthiessen titles in tow and wanted them inscribed, while the rest of the audience members were rough and grizzled-looking older men--pre-Counter-Culture leftists, perhaps. I imagined they had all come down from mountain retreats, solitary pilgrims and seekers who had abandoned the modern world to its own devices, and who shared Matthiessen’s social and spiritual concerns. The lean and craggy Matthiessen was interested in everyone’s story, and was kind to everyone.

Peter Matthiessen produced in his lifetime a formidable body of work in a broad range of literary genres. This made him unusual as a writer, but perhaps the range of his interests made him a man representative of his times. His humanitarian and environmental concerns were intimately linked. He was a co-founder of the Paris Review with George Plimpton and Donald Hall, and his fiction included At Play in the Fields of the Lord and the “Watson Trilogy” (Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone by Bone). Matthiessen reworked the Watson Trilogy in 2008 into a single volume, Shadow Country, which won the National Book Award. The Watson Trilogy was a brilliant and satirical retelling of the American dream, a critique of the predatory nature of American social and economic development. Matthiessen was deeply interested in issues of American social justice, and was instrumental in Cesar Chavez’s rise to fame, producing a series of articles for the New Yorker that later became the book Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution. He also wrote a controversial book about the case of American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.

Matthiessen is likely to be best remembered for his chronicling of the vanishing world of indigenous peoples, traditional ways of life, and mythic species, in books such as the National Book Award-winning Snow Leopard, The Tree Where Man Was Born, African Silences, Tigers in the Snow, and The Birds of Heaven. This part of his work has often been referred to as "travel writing" or "environmentalism," but those characterizations seem inadequate. Matthiessen was an elegist. He wanted us to understand what we were losing, to consider what complacency and a seeming reconciliation to this loss said about who we were and what we valued. His work had impact because his engagement was always, at bottom, about the big questions: What are our lives about, how are we to live with each other, and what is the nature of man? Those were the concerns that unified all of his work.


The setting of In Paradise is a retreat conducted at Auschwitz in 1996. (Matthiessen actually was on three different Zen retreats in Auschwitz, and had long had some ambivalence about using the experience in his writing.) Matthiessen’s protagonist is one of the multidenominational visitors at the retreat, Clement Olin, a gentile Polish American scholar, who has come to Auschwitz to try to understand something more about the life of Tadeusz Borowski, the Polish author he is researching. Borowski had survived the death camps, but later committed suicide--at the peak of his fame, and only three days after the birth of his daughter.

Olin’s aristocratic family had escaped Poland just before the German invasion, and their baronial lands were in the countryside just outside of Auschwitz. At the time Olin’s family left Poland, his mother, he has been told, chose to stay behind because of concerns for her parents. She disappeared, and her fate was unknown. The unraveling of this mystery draws Olin from his role of observer into the emotional heart of the Holocaust and into a different relationship with the others who are attending the retreat. This dynamic of the plot creates a certain poignancy in the story, but this book is also moving in that we know it is a final summing up by Matthiessen of what he believes to be the nature of human existence, as he confronts us with a powerful meditation on the history and meaning of the crime that has come to represent the depth of man’s capacity for evil. The tensions and hatreds, the endless arguments and conflicts among the guests at the retreat show us the dark currents that, even as they pay witness to this heinous crime, yet flow in the hearts of men. And while this is a deeply somber novel, one feels that Matthiessen has come to some peace with this life, that the worst he has seen is in some mysterious way reconciled with the miracles he sought and experienced in the natural world. The poem by Anna Akhmatova that he chose as an envoy to In Paradise embodies the very essence of the vision he illuminates in this, his final book:

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold

Death’s great black wing scrapes the air,

Misery gnaws to the bone.

Why then do we not despair?

By day, from the surrounding woods,

cherries blow summer into town;

at night the deep transparent skies

glitter with new galaxies.

And the miraculous comes so close

to the ruined dirty houses----

something not know to anyone at all

But wild in our breast for centuries.


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