Peter Matthiessen. A name known to me for years as a writer I should read, but until this past Friday, unread. Spurred by this article in the NY Times, driven really, I bought The Snow Leopard, not as an ebook, because it wasn’t available online, but instead in paperback (a form I still find more satisfying to hold and read and savor).
All Friday and Saturday I stopped my wife and children and read them passages, in awe of the beauty of his writing and his outer and inner journey through the Himalayas. Then, Saturday night while reading a passage over Skype to my daughter studying writing at NYU, news of his passing popped up on my screen. And this passage from The Snow Leopard, read just prior to news of his death, seemed immensely appropriate:
Man is the matter of the cosmos, contemplating itself, ” a modern astronomer has said; another points out that each breath we take contains hundreds of thousands of the inert, pervasive atoms that were actually breathed by the Buddha, and indeed contain parts of the ‘snorts, sighs, bellows, and shrieks’ of all creatures that ever existed, or will ever exist. These atoms flow backward and forward in such useful but artificial constructs as time and space, in the same universal rhythms, universal breath as the tide and stars, joining both the living and the dead in that energy that animates the universe. What is changeless and immortal is not individual mind-body but, rather, that Mind which is shared with all of existence, that stillness, that incipience which never ceases because it never becomes but simply IS.
Peter Matthiessen led a full and interesting life. Co-founder of the Paris Review, a Cold War spy for the CIA before his politics moved away from the Right, experimenter of LSD and other psychedelic drugs, and Zen priest and teacher, he is the only person to have won the National Book Award for both fiction and nonfiction.
For me, only one hundred pages into The Snow Leopard, there are years of discovery, enjoyment, and illumination ahead thanks to a prolific career in which he produced over thirty works.
Finally, this story and interview on NPR remind me that his energy is not gone, for energy cannot be destroyed, and the beauty of his words and stories lives on.