Matthiessen, Peter 1927–
Matthiessen is an American novelist, naturalist, short story writer, essayist, and editor. He is deeply concerned with man's dangerous violation of the natural world, and strives, in his words, to "identify a sense of man's fate on earth and instill it in both fiction and non-fiction." His experience as explorer and anthropologist is evident in his work. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Peter Matthiessen is one of the important wilderness writers of our time. His The Tree Where Man Was Born … is a masterpiece of understated prose and exacting description. Matthiessen has clearly trained himself to see as a naturalist….
The Snow Leopard is based on the journal Matthiessen kept during his trek with the field biologist George Schaller to the Crystal Mountain, in upper Nepal, in 1973…. The purpose: to observe the November rut of the Himalayan blue sheep in order to determine whether this little-known species is related to the extinct common ancestor of the goat and the sheep. They also hoped to glimpse another animal, so rarely seen that it is almost a myth: the snow leopard, which comes to stand in Matthiessen's mind for a grail of fulfillment.
For Matthiessen's journey out of time is not only a naturalist's venture into one last wilderness but also an attempt to come to terms with a spiritual longing that had taken possession of him several years earlier … and reached a climax when his wife, Deborah, became ill with cancer and suffered for several terrible months before dying…. By using the journal form, Matthiessen keeps his reader anchored in this weave of impressions and events; the Himalayas, and Matthiessen's way through them, unfold not as a story but as a filled space of perceptions.
Yet Matthiessen is not content to observe. Repeatedly he strains to see...
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Peter Matthiessen has made [in "The Snow Leopard"] another of his epic trips for us—epic in the sense that he writes about them so much better than anybody else who has been undertaking journeys such as his in recent years. (p. 1)
Usually Mr. Matthiessen's companions have been a scruffy collection of shabby hirelings and rich macho playboys who were footing the bill. So—with his friend and with the noble Sherpas—there is a lightness to this walk for him. What is confusing from time to time is that, as well as this worthy company, he feels the presence of Buddha—the Awakened One—here in high Buddhist country, having lately, in America, become a committed convert himself. Also, his wife has died of cancer, and so memories of her are interjected throughout this radiant but rather fragile, flickering book. (p. 20)
[Twenty] years' experience at note-taking on the trail, of bird study and anthropological reading is at work here. Yet, still, the blue sheep, gentle leopards, wolves, yaks, foxes, ponies and "exalted," "berserk" village mastiffs that threaten to rip him limb from limb are more exact and vivid as natural history for all of this adjoining mysticism. And most of us know, really, that in their airiness, the best of the holy men of the great world religions are probably right, even if we don't choose to invest enough of our time in readying ourselves for enlightenment of that type. So, Mr. Matthiessen's paeans and sutras, his plum-pit amulets and "oms" are not without justification, especially in this huge skyscape where the most awesome...
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The best places are not on any map, or so Melville once remarked, and Peter Matthiessen would surely agree…. Most of his work has grown from first-hand experience in distant places…. To judge from references in his work, there seems no place on earth Matthiessen has not at least passed through.
From journeying of this kind have come marvelous books, Under the Mountain Wall and The Cloud Forest for example, but so too have come the "worlds" of his fiction, At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Far Tortuga in particular, novels which more than deserve the praise they have received (the latter is an outright masterpiece), but which could not have been written without Matthiessen's uncanny talent for at-homeness in cultures other than his own, and his rare ability to command what anthropologist Clifford Geertz has called "thick description," meaning the dense texturing of detail, the build-up of a world's essential presence through masses of particulars, which can come only from living in what one might then hope to record.
Given these credentials, it is important to keep in mind that Matthiessen is not an adventurer, nor have his voyages been impelled by some silly man-against-the-elements ideal. His central thrust has been to celebrate the virtues of lost cultures, to praise the excellence of life apart from human life, to bear witness to creation vanishing. And in this pursuit he has been quietly obsessed with one of the uglier truths of our age: that nothing lasts, that no place, culture, bird or beast can survive in the path of Western—and now Eastern—greed. (p. E1)
The Snow Leopard is Matthiessen's attempt to stand altogether beyond modern time, and the extreme beauty of this radiant book lies in the fact that he fails. (pp. E1, E4)
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The Snow Leopard is an heraldic book, full of ghosts, demons and unfamiliar mythologies; a well-veiled, lower-case buddhist text set in the virtual top of the world, the Himalayas…. Like all good books it is about death, and the imminence of death is fresh and lively, if you will, because we are drawn hypnotically along into a landscape where neither the beasts nor men are familiar….
Peter Matthiessen must be our most eccentric major writer; his eccentricities are those of thought, not language. His style is not exotic and owns a studied Brahmin grace and wit, though the wit is rather more discomfiting than funny. He writes cleanly and beautifully….
Running concurrent to the outward journey in The Snow Leopard is an equally torturous inward journey, and the two are balanced to the extent that neither overwhelms the other. Matthiessen for the first time becomes utterly candid about his life without being "confessional." (p. 250)
In The Snow Leopard Matthiessen makes the best run I've ever read at explicating Buddhist and Tantric terminology and hagiography. He has a curious talent for clarifying and dismissing the aura of the secretive and arcane….
Beyond my own clumsy and tentatively stated framework Matthiessen has written a magnificent book: a kind of lunar paradigm and map of the sacred for any man's journey, where the snow leopard itself sits grail-like at the edge of consciousness, an infinitely stubborn koan in beast's clothing. (p. 251)
Jim Harrison, "Ten Thousand Octobers," in The Nation (copyright 1978 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), September 16, 1978, pp. 250-51.
Most impressively dramatic [in The Snow Leopard] is Matthiessen's account of [his] passage through the Himalayas. In images that are intensely kinesthetic as well as visual, he recreates its magnificent vistas and terrors, its unspeakable otherness and sublimity. Finally, The Snow Leopard is such a mixture of various things as to make it difficult to name its literary kind. However, there is no doubt that it is profoundly unified in the day-to-day tribulations and wonders of the expedition and in Matthiessen's sensibility—the poetry of voice, his intelligent simplicity, and his obsessions.
In regard to the obsessions, The Snow Leopard is reminiscent of Walden and The Pilgrim's Progress where the oppressive complexities of intimate human connections are also violently repudiated in a determination to see snow leopards. For this, Matthiessen risked his life and subjected himself to enormous discomfort and pain. (p. 33)
It is then our good luck that he fails to see his snow leopard, that he isn't "ready" to see it, and that his expedition is finally a metaphoric death trip, for now we have the product of his failure, a fascinating and beautiful book, as haunted by funeral resonance as it is by life—the very thing he records, pristine, undefiled by human presence—and also by life, the other thing he records, a vile infection, carried by the human beast, that destroys and pollutes the original manifest goodness of creation….
[Something in] Matthiessen is less good, and therefore better, than Bunyan and Thoreau. In his spiritual ambition, he did gamble with his life and he confesses to not having lost it. (p. 34)
Leonard Michaels, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 23, 1978.
[The Snow Leopard is a kind of book] with which we are becoming familiar lately; it is part travelogue, part autobiography, part historical discourse, and predominantly lay sermon, in the shape of a quest narrative…. [The] bias of the lay sermon is toward Zen Buddhism; and to the eye of a layman, the exposition of Buddhism seems straightforward, nicely written, but not very new. One certainly need not have slogged through the snows of Nepal to discover it. There is of course no reason to anticipate novelty in the explanation of an essentially quietist philosophy which is, by now, at least a thousand years old; but the curious reader might understandably ask whether, if he'd been in full possession of his own...
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For a long time, [Matthiessen's] writing has been vigorous, metaphoric, exact, luminous, coherent, and resolved. If one sensed that something was lacking, one did not know what to call it. In The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen's newest and best book, he tells us: "Not so long ago I could say truthfully that I had not shed a tear in twenty years." When I read this sentence, I suddenly knew: his older books—for all their elegance, for all their correct passion for land and wilderness, for all their steady intelligence—lacked the tribute of Matthiessen's tears….
The Snow Leopard is a serious book, as few books are serious, because it arises from a death, and returns to death itself and...
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