Peter Matthiessen's Lifelong Quest for Peace | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
(Subhankar Banerjee)

Peter Matthiessen's Lifelong Quest for Peace

In one of his final interviews, the award-winning writer talks about what inspired him to travel to the farthest reaches of the globe

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Peter Matthiessen died on April 5, 2014. His interview with Ron Rosenbaum was among his last before succumbing to leukemia at the age of 86.

Trudging through the snow that blankets the old whaling village of Sag Harbor and the tiny nearby hamlet of Sagaponack, up to Peter Matthiessen’s porch, you confront a flat white fragment of a giant whale skull. It’s affixed to the outer wall beside the front door. A slab of bleached bone that inevitably conjures up the Moby-Dick aura of this place on the eastern end of Long Island that juts out into the Atlantic.

That ghostly whale fragment can’t help suggest Peter Matthiessen as modern American literature’s Ahab. Not raging across oceans in search of revenge but scouring the far ends of the earth and its seas for something different, but equally hidden from the surface: a mystical oneness with the world. A glimpse not of a White Whale but of something beyond the White Veil of the mystics, the veil Matthiessen believes separates him—all of us—from True Knowledge of infinitude.

Matthiessen has trekked nearly impassable Himalayan passes and hacked his way to dangerous outposts of shaman-haunted Andean tribes, searching the far reaches of the planet for the oceanic peace that lies beneath the choppy surface of the mind. All of which he’s chronicled in stunning works such as The Snow Leopard and Shadow Country, two books that made him the only American writer to win the National Book Award for both nonfiction and fiction, respectively. “A unique body of work,” William Styron called it, “the work of a man in ecstatic contemplation of our beautiful and inexplicable planet.”

And let’s not forget Matthiessen’s other contribution to American literature: He founded (with George Plimpton) the legendary Paris Review, which has nurtured several generations of literary stars. Matthiessen is a sui generis giant whose work has spanned the entire stretch of post-World War II American literature, yet one who’s moved through it with the stealth grace of a snow leopard. No bombastic Maileresque self-promotion or pompous Franzenian polemics. No wild, glitterati-strewn Plimptonian parties.

Now, at 86, after a remarkable career (and enduring chemotherapy for Stage 4 leukemia), Matthiessen has chosen his most daring and controversial subject yet: Auschwitz. Not only that, but a Zen retreat at Auschwitz.

The novel is called In Paradise—a deeply ironic title, based on an apocryphal biblical story about the hell of separation from heaven.

It’s an act of courage because, in striding into the minefield of debate about the appropriate response to the death camps, Matthiessen is taking on a subject that has exposed those who treat it in fiction, nonfiction and film to fearsome critiques for failing to do justice to the dread imponderables of that horror.

***

Inside his sprawling, shingled retreat, the first thing one comes upon is a wall of Michael Rockefeller photos, stunning images of Stone Age New Guinea tribes at war, which the Rockefeller heir and Matthiessen traveling companion took before he disappeared, rumored to be the victim of cannibals. [For more on this mystery, see “Journey Into the Kingdom of the Spirits” in Smithsonian’s  March 2014 issue.]

Matthiessen’s wife of some three decades, Maria Eckhart, a soft-spoken woman, offers me tea and cookies and he and I settle in at a sturdy wooden table next to the kitchen. Outside, a deer pokes its nose into the snow and stares at us through the dining room window. Inside, Matthiessen is a tall blue specter—blue sweater, blue eyes, blue blood. Yale blue.

In fact it is in asking him about his experience in the Yale English Department that I elicit what turns out to be a fascinating tale about the entanglement of postwar American literature and cold war espionage.

It’s mainly espionage historians who know this, but the Yale English Department was a hotbed of spies and future spy masters from the 1930s to the ’50s. Among them William F. Buckley Jr. and the most notorious spy master in American history, James Jesus Angleton.

But perhaps the most effective intelligence operative there was Norman Holmes Pearson, a Le Carré-esque prof who was a founder of the wartime OSS and its successor, the CIA. It was Pearson who recruited Matthiessen into the Company in 1951, after his graduation, when Matthiessen was living the expatriate writer’s life in Paris.

“My cover was writing a novel called Race Rock,” Matthiessen recalls. “It was Paris, the height of the espionage world and everybody’s coming through, stolen passports, etc. But my CIA superior in Paris said my cover as a novelist was ‘feeble,’ and at that time I ran into a man called Doc Humes. He was running something called the Paris News Post and he signed me on as fiction editor. I thought if I could go into an office, that would be a little bit better cover. But Doc was making a mess of it; he had a mutiny on his hands with that magazine. I’d gotten a short story from Terry Southern [the brilliant comic satirist, later author of The Magic Christian and the Dr. Strangelove screenplay] and said ‘Doc, that story is kind of wasted on your magazine, let’s make our own magazine, just fiction for young writers.’ After a while he just couldn’t handle it so that’s when I remembered this guy I’d gone to [prep] school with in New York, at St. Bernard’s, named George Plimpton.”

The rest is literary history. “We had Kerouac,” he recalls. “We had the first English story by Samuel Beckett.” They also had Philip Roth, Adrienne Rich, Norman Mailer—the whole lot of postwar literary eminences. The magazine, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary, has been hailed for decades for its waves of new talent and extraordinary “writers at work” interviews.

“What did you actually do for the CIA?” I ask him.

“You know, if I told you I’d have to be taken out and shot,” he answers, laughing. Mostly, he says, it was just running errands and carrying messages and false passports between agents in Paris.

I wanted to know because I’d read allegations about the Paris Review being founded with CIA money as part of “soft power” cold war cultural outreach.

No, he says, “the Paris Review was not...This is a canard I’ve always been trying to settle.”

He says the CIA involvement in the origins of the Paris Review was more an accident than the result of a deliberate cold war strategy.

In any case, Matthiessen says he soon came under the influence of French leftists and quit the CIA after two years. “I just told them I couldn’t play for the team anymore.”

I ask Matthiessen how much awareness there was then in postwar Paris of the Holocaust.

Not much, before the Eichmann trial, he says. France was still engaged in the mission of denial documented in the Marcel Ophüls’ film The Sorrow and the Pity, evading the country’s complicity in deporting Jews and mythologizing the Resistance to paint a picture of national heroism.

“People couldn’t take it in,” Matthiessen recalls. “In part they couldn’t believe it. It was so horrifying, in fact, that it finally got to the point of actual Holocaust denial,” he says.

One reason he wrote this book, he says, was to play a small part—now that the last Holocaust eyewitnesses are dying—in the Resistance against denial.

“Tell me the story of how this book came to be. When did you start to focus your attention on Auschwitz?”

“I am a Zen teacher,” he says. “And I’ve been a Zen master for nearly 50 years. I had Japanese teachers for a long time and then a terrific teacher named Bernard Glassman, who is probably the most respected Zen teacher in America. And he started working with poor people, people with AIDS, people who were discriminated against, as part of our practice. We started these street retreats. We purposely chose people who were really up against it, most in need of help, so that took us into the shelters, flophouses. And finally it just seemed that the only way to really do this was to live on the street.”

“What city was this in?”

“We started in New York. And we wouldn’t shave, put on old clothes. We didn’t fool anyone for a second, but they appreciated the effort. And what they really appreciated was that we wanted to look ’em in the eye like this and talk to them, as if they were people and not some stuff on the sidewalk. I remember I heard a woman say, ‘You know what we are to you people?’ She said, ‘We are like a piece of Kleenex that somebody’s blown their nose into and thrown on the rainy sidewalk. Who wants to pick that up?’

“So we began with that and now Bernie has this organization called Zen Peacemakers and they go to troubled spots all over the world. We went to South Africa, Rwanda, Palestine, Israel.”

Then he went from people “most in need of help” to a people beyond help. To a remains of a mass murder factory at Auschwitz, Poland. A place where nearly a million Jews (along with Poles, gypsies, gays and other “undesirables”) had been murdered and cremated.

“Somebody, some English group did it first as an experiment, kind of—a retreat to bear witness” at Auschwitz.

“To bear witness?”

“Well, we did it the first time in 1996. And it was extraordinary. We had 140 people. Bernie wanted to use it as a training for Zen masters.”

“Because?”

“Because it’s a Buddhist thing that goes way, way, way back. Poor people, you get next to them. All the churches are supposed to be doing that. We went in the winter—a bad season, bad weather—and we were eating food out of bowls, just soup and gruel. No spoon or fork, just a bowl. And we meditated all day long on the selection platform.”

The selection platform was the first of the horrors those entrained to
Auschwitz endured when they arrived. It was where Nazi “doctors” and soldiers selected those they thought too unhealthy to work, those who were therefore destined to be murdered immediately.

I’ve never been to the purpose-built industrialized death factory that was Auschwitz, but I have spent time at the Dachau concentration camp, where tens of thousands were murdered. And realized: Everything the mind seeks out as a response, the heart knows is inadequate. Which is what makes Matthiessen’s attempt—by a Buddhist, Zen master, mystic—such an extraordinary venture.

Matthiessen’s book is in a way about this impossible dilemma of addressing the unaddressable. There is a fierce literature over the question of how to approach the Holocaust, and fault is found with almost any approach. Matthiessen, deeply influenced by Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Borowski’s searing stories, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, chooses representation over explanation—representation of what it felt like to be in the presence of a horror that defies explanation.

“We had prayer service in the Hebrew and the Christian and the Muslim prayer liturgy,” Matthiessen recalled, “and we chanted and offered hymns and prayer at the crematoriums.” There was much silent communion and—in the novel, at least—noisy debate over why they were there, what purpose they could serve. (One of the virtues of the novel is that it contains its own critique of its impossible mission.)

And then, during one of their sessions, something happened, something that became the fictionalized heart of Matthiessen’s new novel.

“Something happened?”

“Something happened.”

He was not the only one who felt it. “Maybe two people out of three said they’d experienced it. I’m not going to go into it because it’s taken me six years to try to find the words for it. And I still haven’t.”

What was it? Here’s how I’d describe it: a kind of frenzied possession—a feverish tarantella, a fever dream dance of death. I won’t spell it out further, not so much because it would be a “spoiler,” but because it can only be understood—to the extent it can be understood at all—embedded in the context of the novel. Matthiessen is the kind of skilled novelist who also offers a spectrum of skeptical viewpoints about the “something” that happened. It’s a challenging work, but one you can’t soon forget.

Matthiessen went on three retreats at Auschwitz. Can you imagine? There are no answers, but you have to give credit to those like him who keep asking. They pay respect to the Big Question, perhaps the biggest question about history and human nature there is: Why? Primo Levi, one of the wisest memoirists of Auschwitz, wrote that within Auschwitz “there is no why” (“Hier ist kein warum,” an SS officer told him). But outside of Auschwitz, we cannot let that SS edict rule our questioning souls.

***

“What does it say about civilization?” I ask Matthiessen. “Was Auschwitz a quintessence of something intrinsic to civilization in a terrible way?”

“No,” he begins to reply, before momentarily losing his voice entirely, which he attributes to the effect of chemotherapy. This is a man with Stage 4 leukemia, recall, 86, talking about ultimate things, about the embodiment of death—no, the embodiment of mass murder in human nature. Until then the only hint of his personal ordeal has been in the faintness of his voice, which has led me to hold my tape recorder next to his mouth.

“It just takes me a minute to get my breath and then I come back,” he says, and returns to the question of the human capacity for genocide. “I feel and I think most biologists—I have some training, but I’m a very amateur biologist—I feel we’re all capable of this.”

“You feel we’re all capable of genocide?”

“We are all capable if you press the right series of buttons. Your grandmother can turn into a genocidaire. Most of us, we’re lucky enough to never hit that combination of circumstances. But if we’re pressed hard enough and we think our children are getting not enough food or whatever the triggers may be, then it’s his people, it’s their fault.

“In a way, yes,” he continues. “You get behind that, you get the state behind it and propaganda machines, and then you demonize the people, that’s the first step—you demonize them and pretty soon they’re not people anymore, they’re meant to be despised. It’s exactly what happened in Nazi Germany. The Holocaust was simply a very big manifestation of it. And a very efficient one.”

“As for human nature...?”

“I think it’s an aberration of it. It’s pathological. It’s something that’s gone awry. But it’s something that we all have to watch out for.”

I ask him if in his exploration of the savagery of the natural world, “nature, red in tooth and claw,” he’d found any equivalent.

“I can’t find a single thing in nature where one animal, on purpose, tortures or is cruel. But human beings can be cruel, especially cruel to their own kind. Why? Somewhere along the line that had to be a useful evolutionary advantage. Maybe when we were living on the savanna and competing with other kinds of humans, Neanderthals or whatever.”

“And our brains got too big?” (meaning big enough to think up ideologies like Hitlerism or Stalinism).

“Our brains got too big. We have all this incredible technology. But our brains aren’t big enough to handle our...whatever...so we get amused by cruelty and corruption. For some reason it is very important to do this.”

“Amused by cruelty and corruption...” He trails off, not presuming to have an answer. Which is one of the most important things about his
Auschwitz novel—he doesn’t presume to explain.

“Was there one particular place in the whole vast Auschwitz-Birkenau complex that you felt drawn to?” I ask.

“An actual physical place?”

“Yes.”

“Yes,” he replies. “There’s a big buffer zone between the camp and the nearest town. And in that place they just tore out all the housing and they kicked the people out of the houses. But somewhere out there I knew that they had the original platform for the unloading of the prisoners. It’s called the Judenrampe, Jew ramp. That’s where I discovered this rail junction that pulled the rails inside the camp beneath the famous tower, ‘the gate of death.’”

That’s the gate with the notorious death camp slogan: Arbeit Macht Frei—“Work Will Make You Free.”

“But before that was built [the railway] ended a mile short of the gates, so no matter what the weather, these poor folks had to...they’re dragging all their stuff they were told to bring, in terrible shape anyway, and they had to drag themselves across the marshy flat to get to the gate. I knew that somewhere out there, there must be this huge railway platform, Judenrampe. So I tramped through the back of the woods and I found it. I followed the old tracks.”

The cover of In Paradise features a bleak image of a railway junction branching off toward the “gate of death.”

“Then I walked out, way out beyond the camp, where, according to the maps, they had a great, huge pit for bodies when the crematorium got overflowing. They were taking people out and bulldozing them into these enormous pits. I just wanted to see, sort of sense...identify that whole experience to the degree one can. And, of course, you can’t at all.”

“What was your religious tradition growing up?”

“I grew up in a WASP-y, Episcopal, Anglican tradition. But very, very casual.”

“What about spirituality?”

“Yes, I do believe there’s something there. There’s a creation, a creating force. But whatever it is is in everything we see. It’s in that log, in that stone. It’s just the power. And I’ve had many experiences with it. Certain circumstances bring it out, which all the mystics know. That is part of our Zen training too. It’s called an ‘opening.’”

An opening through what he calls a kind of “gauzy” veil that separates us from the spiritual realm.

“For a second, you see what the world is. It is a whole other way of seeing, which is horrible, terrifying, and extraordinary and a great blessing to have.”

“Was it a mystical experience that brought you to Buddhism?”

“Well, I’d had a number of semi-mystical experiences, mainly through psychedelics. I’ve never said it before, but the trouble with the drugs is that you can have experiences very like mystical experience. But there’s always a gauze screen, always something separating you. You never are really at one. You’re still an observer.”

“So you have been able to access the ungauzed, unfiltered awareness that you were seeking through Zen?”

“I’m not going to claim that I have. There are varying degrees of opening. But I’ve found a more profound opening than anything I’ve ever had.”

And soon we are back at Auschwitz again, but this time from a different—troublingly paradoxical—perspective. And question: How does one respond to the appearance of life amid a realm of death?

“One time we went in nice weather in mid-June. And it was very different. At the ash pits, where they dumped the ash, where people died, the vegetation was trying to come back. Even at the height of winter, I was astonished the first time I saw it. There was snow on the public crematorium. And you see little deer prints. And little lichens, mosses, ferns, coming back in the bricks right in the gas chambers. Life is coming back. You cannot help but recognize the extraordinary life force that will crop up virtually anywhere. They’ve found it even on the bottom of the seafloor, where the tectonic plates shift—sulfurous burning, totally toxic, way down in the darkness—and there’s life there.”

“Do you somehow feel that there’s a kind of unity in all vital phenomena?”

“I do think there is unity. Because it’s hard to imagine that we didn’t all come originally from whatever that life miracle was, in the water or wherever. The whole plant and animal kingdom—everything. We were all part of the same blast. So yes, I feel a connection to it. With life. And death. Because that’s part of it too.”

“What’s your sense of the afterlife?” I ask him.

“I have a bit of trouble with the afterlife. My own instinct is that once you’re gone, you’re gone.”

“Really? Does that comport with the Buddhist view?”

“Now that’s a rude question,” he says. I can’t tell whether he’s joking or serious. “No, the Buddhists believe in reincarnation. But I have...you know you always try to verify your own experience, subjectively...and I’ve never had that strange sense of meeting...reincarnations. I had an experience I described in The Snow Leopard where I saw my father’s hands. Strange. And I felt there was somehow an overlapping of generations there. And you do have the feeling sometimes that somebody you meet, you know them very well. There’s somebody there that you knew. But by and large, I don’t.”

I tell him I have two more questions and I’d be gone myself. First, why he chose a poem by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatnova for the new novel’s epigraph. In particular the closing passage:

And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses—

something not known to anyone at all
But wild in our breast for centuries.

***

“What is that about?”

“That comes as close to anything I’ve found to expressing that thing that happened to us. Something not known, you’ve got to figure it out.” The people in the novel, when that mysterious “something” happened, “they can’t even say what it is,” he says. “But they know it’s true, it’s ‘wild in our breast for centuries’! Wow! Damn! I wish that line wasn’t so long, I would have made that the title. I think it’s one of the great lines of poetry and almost perfectly expresses things.”

My final question: “After all the amazing variety of adventures, experiences, you’ve had, is there something that you regret, that you have not experienced?”

“You mean other than the Nobel Prize?” he says, half joking. (Not inconceivable—or undeserved.)

“Yes, there is,” he says. “Sometimes I see something that delights me and I say, I wish I’d been around early enough to enjoy that. And that’s kiteboarding.”

I left shortly thereafter, nodding goodbye to the whale skull and thinking, well, that speaks of a vast life, doesn’t it, if your only regret is missing kiteboarding?

“Once you’re gone, you’re gone,” Matthiessen said. But I think he’ll always be with us.           

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