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

(Subhankar Banerjee)
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“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 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,” 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 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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