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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

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 Matthiessens porch, you
confront a flat white fragment of a giant whale skull. Its 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 cant help suggest Peter Matthiessen as modern
American literatures 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 himall of usfrom True Knowledge of
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 hes 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 lets not forget Matthiessens 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 whos 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 Paradisea deeply ironic title, based on an apocryphal
biblical story about the hell of separation from heaven.
Its 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 Smithsonians March
2014 issue.]
Matthiessens 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.
Its 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 Carr-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 writers
life in Paris.
My cover was writing a novel called Race Rock, Matthiessen recalls. It was
Paris, the height of the espionage world and everybodys 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.
Id 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, lets make our own
magazine, just fiction for young writers. After a while he just couldnt handle it
so thats when I remembered this guy Id gone to [prep] school with in New
York, at St. Bernards, 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 Mailerthe 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 Id 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 Id 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 Ive 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 couldnt play for the
team anymore.
I ask Matthiessen how much awareness there was then in postwar Paris of the
Not much, before the Eichmann trial, he says. France was still engaged in the
mission of denial documented in the Marcel Ophls film The Sorrow and the
Pity, evading the countrys complicity in deporting Jews and mythologizing the
Resistance to paint a picture of national heroism.
People couldnt take it in, Matthiessen recalls. In part they couldnt 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 partnow that the
last Holocaust eyewitnesses are dyingin 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 Ive 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 wouldnt shave, put on old clothes. We didnt
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 somebodys 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 ofa 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 its 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
wintera bad season, bad weatherand 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.
Ive 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 Matthiessens
attemptby a Buddhist, Zen master, mysticsuch an extraordinary venture.
Matthiessens 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 Borowskis 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
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 andin the novel, at
leastnoisy 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 Matthiessens new novel.
Something happened?
Something happened.
He was not the only one who felt it. Maybe two people out of three said theyd
experienced it. Im not going to go into it because its taken me six years to try to
find the words for it. And I still havent.
What was it? Heres how Id describe it: a kind of frenzied possessiona
feverish tarantella, a fever dream dance of death. I wont 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 allembedded 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. Its a challenging
work, but one you cant 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?