Peter Matthiessen's Orientalism
May 7, 2014
20 Min read time
The late Peter Matthiessen’s dive into Buddhism is fascinating, but also Orientalist.
Peter Matthiessen in Saint Malo, France, May 1992.
When Peter Matthiessen died of leukemia on April 5, The Snow Leopard was one of the standout books of his career. Published in 1978 to wide acclaim, it was twice awarded the National Book Award. But while Matthiessen’s dive into Buddhist lore is fascinating, it is also troubling.
On September 28, 1973, Matthiessen sets out from Pokhara, Nepal for a two-month trek in the mountains, accompanied by the cranky field biologist George Schaller. They plan to observe the blue sheep’s fall rut and, if they’re lucky, glimpse the very rare snow leopard. In truth, though, Matthiessen and Schaller, like hordes of explorers before them, are searching for more than the elusive cat: a nebulous native authenticity, an encounter with pure life, whether in wilderness or in “the country folk,” as Matthiessen calls them.
When Matthiessen turns his gaze on some of these country folk—the Sherpa porters traveling with him—the book’s difficulties begin. He repeatedly projects apprehensions and urges onto them. He imagines that they wish him hurt or dead and fantasizes about holding them by their pigtails, beating them into bloody submission.
Much of this could be written off as an attempt to leaven the book’s Buddhist mystique with a bit of Western muscle. But it is an incessant thread that bespeaks deeply woven cultural tendencies. The porters are fellow Buddhists who, by Matthiessen’s own account, do their tasks well, with hospitality and good cheer. Yet he dubs one in particular a “red-faced devil,” a “yellow-eyed” “evil monk,” a “sorcerer.” The rest are “childlike” or “unsophisticated.” Matthiessen reveals himself as part of a long tradition of Orientalist writers who see themselves as gods, saviors, and knowledge bearers.
• • •
Much of the first half of the journey crosscuts between Matthiessen’s anguish over the passing of his wife Deborah nine months or so before and his selective recounting of Buddhist history. He makes large claims about Buddhism: “Dharma is the great wheel of Universal Law set in motion by Sakyamuni Buddha.” A zealous new convert, Matthiessen is open to learning from a variety of traditions and peoples, a quality he maintained throughout his career. Against the pain of his loss, he takes comfort and encouragement in local stories about grief and dying:
Mila[repa] discovers the decayed corpse of his mother, no more than a mound of dirt and rags in her fallen hut; shaken by grief and horror, he remembers the instruction of his guru . . . to embrace all that he most fears . . . . And so he makes a headrest of the sad remains of the erstwhile White Garland.
At times the waves of grief even seem to recede, and he is grateful: “As if awakened from a bad dream of the past, I found myself forgiven, not just by [Deborah] but by myself, and this forgiveness strikes me still as the greatest blessing of my life.” The book’s Buddhism is often lovely to read:
Such concepts as karma and circular time are taken for granted by almost all native American traditions . . . As in the great religions of the East, the native American makes small distinction between religious activity and the acts of every day: the religious ceremony is life itself.
Gradually Matthiessen leaps into a mode of retelling that incorporates, as Jung would say, his shadow. His thoughts get more elastic, the mountain landscape at one moment bending around the horn of a sheep, as if he is tripping or observing the world through a wide-angle lens. But then his awestruck visions and mini-kenshos are balanced by the recognition that Zen is a discipline, and its perceptions, like everything in this world, fleeting: “To strive for permanence in what I think I have perceived is to miss the point.”
Matthiessen draws on an ancient type, but it comes from his own culture: the Westerner who views the Oriental as ahistorical and apolitical.
As Matthiessen veers into mysticism, the tenor begins to change. First, via Western sources he recalls from days past:
Hamsun and Hesse, with the authority of failure, warned of the fatal spell of the mystical search—so did Kierkegaard, who declared that too much ‘possibility’ led to the madhouse. But when I came upon these cautionary words, I already had what Kierkegaard called ‘the sickness of infinitude,’ wandering from one path to another with no real recognition that I was embarked upon a search.
His mystical search triggers flashbacks; the language gets wilder. “My head is the sorcerer’s skull cup full of blood, and were I to turn, my eyes would see straight to the heart of chaos, the mutilation, bloody gore, and pain that is seen darkly in the bright eye of this lizard.” Matthiessen can find no satisfactory outlet for his newfound grief and lifelong restlessness, so, as with Hamlet, much of what he sees and touches becomes his objective correlative, a repository for emotional detritus.
Soon, he and Schaller, referred to in the text by his initials, begin to see signs of the snow leopard—prints, and the unabashedly scatological: “‘Isn’t that something?’ GS says, ‘To be so delighted with a pile of crap?’”
But Matthiessen accepts his Zen teacher’s advice—“expect nothing”: “If the snow leopard should manifest itself, then I am ready to see the snow leopard.” The very search is inverted, so that it is the animal watching them: “That the snow leopard is, that it is here, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountain—that is enough.”
• • •
A boy escorts him through a village he must cross; it is an act of hospitality, yet Matthiessen perceives a threat. “One day this boy and others will destroy [the] forest, and their steep fields will erode in rain, and the thin soil will wash away into the torrents, clogging the river channels farther down so that monsoon floods will spread across the land,” he writes. Matthiessen has a plainspoken recommendation, and the degree to which his advice was taken is largely to his credit:
In Asia more than all the places on earth, it is crucial to establish wildlife sanctuaries at once, before the last animals are overwhelmed. As GS has written, ‘Man is modifying the world so drastically that most animals cannot adapt to the new conditions. In the Himalaya as elsewhere there is a great dying, one infinitely sadder than the Pleistocene extinctions, for man now has the knowledge and the need to save these remnants of his past.’
The environmental message of the book is its most lastingly urgent plea, and it is deftly woven into the personal grief and the Buddhist history. But it is told almost entirely without Asian voices, even though the Sherpa porters, more than any characters in the live action of the book, fascinate Matthiessen in a very peculiar way: “As GS says, ‘When the going gets rough, they take care of you first.’ Yet their dignity is unassailable, for the service is rendered for its own sake—it is the task, not the employer, that is served.”
This is a Buddhist way of saying they are good at their jobs. Perhaps to establish his expertise in observing people, Matthiessen adds, “The generous and open outlook of the sherpas, a kind of merry defenselessness, is by no means common, even among unsophisticated peoples; I have never encountered it before except among the Eskimos.” He wonders “if this sense of life is not a common heritage from the far past.”
Matthiessen is onto something, but he has it backwards. He is drawing on an ancient type, but it comes to him from his own culture’s recent past: the Westerner who views the Oriental as ahistorical and apolitical. Therefore, not environmentalists. They are all spirit, as if from another time. On a well-worn trail he writes:
These resting places are everywhere along the trading routes, some of them so ancient that the great trees have long since died, leaving two round holes in a stonework oval platform. Like the tea houses and the broad stepping stones that are built into the hills, the rest walls impart a blessedness to this landscape, as if we had wandered into a lost country of the golden age.
Just where Matthiessen finds humanity and community, a travelers’ commons of sorts, a kind of universal politics, he begins to push the travelers, the porters, the Asians back into a type. It is hinted at here with that uncontextualized phrase “the golden age,” suggesting a magic that Western writers have long located in the icons and architectures of the East.
The Sherpa who most fascinates him is Tukten, “a wiry small man with Mongol eyes and outsized ears and a disconcerting smile.” Matthiessen is perplexed by his own fascination. “I wonder why this Tukten is a porter,” he writes. “Tukten radiates that inner quiet, which is often associated with spiritual attainment, but perhaps his attainment is a dark one.” Matthiessen takes this projection very far.
More often than I like, I feel that gaze of his, as if he were here to watch over me . . . the gaze is open, calm, benign, without judgment of any kind, and yet, confronted with it, as with a mirror, I am aware of all that is hollow in myself, all that is greedy, angry, and unwise.
Matthiessen again is onto something. Something is making him think these thoughts of cultural guilt, but it is not Tukten’s dark magic. It is something much closer to home, and we find it buried within his words if we look hard enough. Instead of acknowledging his cultural and historical inheritance—his responsibility, as the Vietnam War rages to the southeast and the carpet bombing of Cambodia is well under way, he pairs Tukten with the animals, as if in a mythical rather than historical or political age:
One day I will ask this yellow-eyed Tukten if, in some other incarnation, he has not been a snow leopard, or an old blue sheep on the slopes of Shey; he would be at no loss for an answer.
Matthiessen is caught between not knowing enough about the particular case, a porter named Tukten, with whom he can hardly speak, and the body of knowledge he derives from the past, if not the golden age of Western incursions into Asia and the Middle East.
“What can our evil monk be doing now?” he asks. He can’t trust his own eyes, since dark powers must be at work. “Whatever this man is—wanderer or evil monk, or saint or sorcerer—he seems touched by what Tibetans call the ‘crazy wisdom’: he is free.” Matthiessen both wants Tukten’s magic power (his own invention) and fears it. The strangest thing is that he can’t give a single example of it, except that he broke a walking stick and was then almost attacked by a dog. He recounts the occasion as though Tukten had mesmerized him.
At times he lightens up, or seems to, as when watching Tukten with another solitary porter:
Weathered faces crusted with white paste, they hunch like specters over the fire stones and blackened pot; perhaps they will rise and, in dead silence, perform the slow dance of the sennin—wild mountain sages of the ancient days in China and Japan who give no formal teaching but redeem all beings by the very purity of their enlightenment.
His tableau of Buddhist magic goes much further. First, invisibility:
Yogic command of the physical body might account for the ‘invisibility’ achieved by advanced yogins, who are said to still their being and its vibrations so completely that their corporeal aspect makes no impression on the mind or memory of others; and also for the recrystallizing of energy into other forms, as when Milarepa, to confound his enemies . . . transformed himself into a snow leopard at Lachi-Kang (Mount Everest).
Beyond invisibility and turning into carnivores, Buddhists not unlike these magical Sherpas can, of course, fly:
It is related that Sakyamuni once dismissed as of small consequence a feat of levitation on the part of a disciple, and cried out in pity for a yogin by the river who had wasted twenty years of his human existence in learning how to walk on water, when the ferryman might have taken him across for a small coin.
How long has it been since Americans seriously claimed one of our number could use magic to, say, walk on water, turn invisible, or fly? Salem, 1692? Westerners reading this get a distorted mirror image of their own magic spirituality, even if Matthiessen is careful, at least here, to cite St. Joseph of Cupertino, who, “it is related,” also flew. But is St. Joseph flying the first, or even the tenth, thing he thinks of when he meets Italians on the road?
• • •
The stories of ancient Buddhist lore were undoubtedly meant(in a pre-printed universe) to travel, to serve as advertisements, to be passed along, to attract and beguile, and large swaths of them are obvious bunk. But they are “invented” and “discovered,” century after century, by Westerners ourselves. Matthiessen is clearly reading outside his teachers’ lessons, and pairs his own belief in magical dharma with a view of his Sherpas that infantilizes them or shrouds them in mystique.
Heunderstands the power dynamic: “The sherpas accept his reprimands in good spirits, since GS is faithfully considerate of their feelings and concerned about their welfare, and rarely permits their childlike natures to provoke him.”
Matthiessen imaginatively lashes out to protect his birthright: he knows that he is destined to be in charge.
The incidents of flying and invisibility have no source in the footnotes, but they appear in a section swarming with Western explorers and chroniclers of the “Orient.” Matthiessen is writing on their backs, doing Joseph Conrad as nonfiction, Heart of Darkness as autobiography. In these bits of The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen is working in the classic Orientalist vein, offering a Rudyard Kipling for the new American century—Kipling who urged that Europeans and their descendents take up the white man’s burden on behalf of “new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child."A month into the trek, Matthiessen writes in frustration, “These Red-faced Devils have us at their mercy, and all know it.” This echoes Conrad’s “red-eyed devils,” and that is probably where it comes from. But Matthiessen goes further, since Conrad was arguably describing imperialist impulses themselves as the “devils,” while Matthiessen is referring to the people helping him find the snow leopard.
Matthiessen imagines he is at the mercy of the red-faced devils in other paranoid moments as well: “Each time we strip off boots and pants, the Ring-mos [other porters] cheer in simple-hearted hope that the strangers will crack their skulls on the slick rocks or fall into the frigid water.” Some hunch tells Matthiessen that because he is Western, he should be in control. In the absence of that control, he projects violent motives onto the locals with whom he can hardly speak.
He goes from powerlessness straight to colonial aggression: “Perhaps we should adopt the imperial methods of dealing with unruly Tibetans, as described at the turn of the century,” Matthiessen writes. He quotes a violent passage from In the Forbidden Land, by the British painter and traveler A. Henry Savage Landor:
Throwing myself on him, I grabbed him by his pigtail and landed in his face a number of blows straight from the shoulder. When I let him go he threw himself down crying and implored my pardon. Once and for all to disillusion the Tibetan on one or two points, I made him lick my shoes clean with his tongue . . . he tried to scamper away but I caught him once more by his pigtail and kicked him down the front steps which he had dared to come up unasked.
It is precisely when the red-faced devils have GS and Matthiessen “at their mercy” that Matthiessen imaginatively lashes out to protect his birthright: he knows from the canon of Orientalist writing that he is destined to be in charge. The fight Matthiessen imaginatively reenacts was Landor’s response to a challenge against British claims in Tibet. “The British soil I was standing on was Tibetan property,” Landor writes. “The British, [the Tibetan] said, were usurpers and only there on sufferance.” This prompts the pigtail beating, which prompts Matthiessen’s imperial fantasy.
How to understand the baffling inclusion of Landor? It is perhaps not surprising that Matthiessen read as many accounts of the region as he could. Nor is it surprising that, having understood that fear, anger, grief, frustration, and Buddhist history weren’t enough, and finding himself dissatisfied with dutiful versions of that history, he would reach for something. Writers draw on their intuitions. Nor is it, finally, surprising that he finds himself in the forbidden land, as it were, since we write out of the traditions we hail from. But to include Landor in his book requires a certain audacity, blindness, or blunt awareness of writing in that tradition. Which one of these tics was Matthiessen’s?
In the Forbidden Land has all sorts of moments like the one Matthiessen cites. The gist is English conquest. After Landor refuses to bow before a Tibetan governor called the Pombo, the governor shows the author, as a threat, a man being whipped. “He was bleeding all over,” Landor writes. “Each time that a lash fell on his wounded skin it felt as if a dagger had been stuck into my chest; but I knew Orientals too well to show any pity for the man, as this would have only involved a more severe punishment for him.”
Edward Said sees an established trope of Orientalism in the notion that Orientals only respond to physical power and domination. And of course Landor “knows” the Oriental by his type. “To say simply that Orientalism was a rationalization of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism, rather than after the fact,” Said writes. It “had been years, even centuries in the making.” So, yes, “you” know “them.” Said also writes: “From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.”
Landor writes, “The Pombo, an effeminate, juvenile, handsome person, almost hysterical in manner, and likely to make a splendid subject for hypnotic experiments (I had reason to think, indeed, that he had already often been under mesmeric influence), remained with his eyes fixed upon mine as if in a trance for certainly over two minutes” (emphasis added).
You see? Landor knows.
“The Oriental is irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, ‘different,’” Said writes, “thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, ‘normal.’” Said adds, “Knowledge of subject races or Orientals is what makes their management easy and profitable; knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control.” These are the tropes Matthiessen is working with, too, even if he is doing so to an ostensibly different end.
As much as I would like it to be the case that Matthiessen wrote an otherwise beautiful text about grief embedded within a straightforward Buddhist history, with just an Orientalist note or two slipping in, it is not so. Matthiessen enacted a genre—the Orientalist travel chronicle—and tipped his hand with that reference to Landor. That worst moment may mark a touch of parody, it may be a persona, it may not be how he really feels. But he went into that violent, paranoid persona, wrote it down, and every time he went over drafts with his editors he left that beating, and all that magic, in a book he sold and won a major award for—twice—as nonfiction.
He needs the wonders—the flying, the invisibility, and the bad juju stares—because they are what the reader wants.
He probably even thought it was for aesthetic rather than political reasons that he indulged Orientalist tropes. Since his was a modern enactment of the Oriental travel study, an update, he needed his biographical persona in it. But since the book also gets into sadness and grief, he needs that macho moment of beating down, or pretending to beat down, a porter. Indeed, the genre itself demands such violence. It is a genre built on the Western projection of power, whether in the form of a literal incursion (as the United States was doing in nearby Vietnam and Cambodia) or of knowing experts there to help. Matthiessen’s is a self-justifying interventionist fiction: using everything it can, including well-intentioned environmental concerns, it is all the more convincing for its posturing as truthful and helpful.
He needs all those threads—and especially the wonders: the flying, invisibility, and Tukten’s bad juju stares—because they are what the reader of this kind of text wants. It is the classical Orientalism Said delineated, the genre of Western conquest, at least subtextually. It commodifies the savory offerings and wonders of the East as spices and perks of the power dynamic, as performances of the difference between us and them.
None of this is about the novels or short stories, or Matthiessen’s other nonfiction. Nor do I intend to besmirch wholesale the rest of this book. Nor should this little brief be read as a broad judgment on Matthiessen’s work or person. It is merely an attempt to footnote something Matthiessen and his editor could have corrected.
And while Said’s Orientalism was published only the same year as The Snow Leopard, we nevertheless see signs all over the book that Matthiessen knew better than to exoticize the East, to build the reader’s pleasure around a false and harmful centuries-old Western projection. For instance, Matthiessen obviously knows the work of the Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa, whom he cites twice in The Snow Leopard. When asked about Tibetan Buddhism in the West, Matthiessen tells the Lama at Nepal’s Crystal Mountain Monastery about Chögyam, who “teaches in Vermont and Colorado.” One of Chögyam’s main efforts during this period was to push against lazy, popularized, and exotic images of Buddhism in the West. In his 1973 Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, which a student in Matthiessen’s position would surely have read, Chögyam denounces “the exotic” as an illegitimate expression of Buddhism and equates it with the work of the ego. Again and again in his works he contrasts Western Buddhists’ attraction to the exotic with the real work of the dharma.
But even discounting Chögyam’s lessons, since he was a notorious drunk who turned off and finally lost many of his students, there was embedded throughout the culture—from the Civil Rights movement to worldwide postcolonial uprisings to the multiculturalism movement taking place in universities—enough to teach Matthiessen better than to write about “red-faced” monks or his vicarious fantasies of yanking them by their pony tails and beating them bloody. Just one essay, “An Image of Africa,” by Chinua Achebe, might have been enough. In it, Achebe writes of Conrad, “When a writer while pretending to record scenes, incidents, and their impact is in reality engaged in inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery, much more has to be at stake than stylistic felicity.” Indeed, Matthiessen practically confesses to such trickery at the end of the acknowledgments, where he writes, “A number of inconsistencies doubtless remain, but I like to think these will not matter very much to those who understand why this book was written.”
May 07, 2014
20 Min read time