In 1973 Peter Matthiessen and field biologist George Schaller travelled high into the remote mountains of Nepal to study the Himalayan blue sheep and possibly glimpse the rare and beautiful snow leopard. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, was also on a spirital quest to find the Lama of Shey at the ancient shrine on Crystal Mountain. As the climb proceeds Matthissen charts his innter path as well as his outer one, with a deepening Buddhist understanding of reality, suffering, impermanence and beauty.
We were all struck by the beauty of the writing, and Matthiessen's ability to convey complex ideas simply and elegantly. This is a book about two journeys, one physical, one spiritual, and Matthiessen interweaves the two with seeming effortlessness.We were amused by his dysfunctional relationship with the taciturn GS, but also admiring of his patience and ability to form a working relationship that deepens into friendship with this single-minded scientist and fearless man of the mountains. What jarred for most of us was the attitude the two men had towards their porters, the mixed group of sherpas and other tribespeople who carried their stores and managed the camps. Matthiessen's account is peppered with dismissive comments about these people, who to the reader's eyes generally appear courteous and loyal. There was a certain sense of imperialism about it that we found troubling.
We were also to a greater or lesser degree troubled by Matthiessen's insularity, his preoccupation with himself at all times and unwillingness to put aside his personal goals in order to look afer his 8-year-old son, left behind in America. As the boy's mother had recently died, this seemed particularly unfeeling on Matthiessen's part, although as Liz pointed out, the fact that he includes the letters and makes no attempt to hide decisions that must have left him feeling guilty suggests he thought it was important to try to present a balanced account of himself and allow the reader to judge. We discussed the fact that Buddhist monks are celiabate; they don't have wives and children because this allows them to be free to follow what is ultimately a selfish path. Ultimately none of this would have mattered if there was more of a sense that Matthiessen had gained self-knowledge at the end, but disappointingly what he seems to achieve in this book is a temporary escape into a spiritual realm, freed from the preoccupations and concerns of society. Returning to Kathmandu he writes 'I had meant to go lightly into the light and silence of the Himalaya, without ambition of attainment. Now I am spent. The path I followed breathlessly has faded among stones; in spiritual ambition, I have neglected my children and done myself harm and there is no way back. ... I have lost the flow of things and gone awry, sticking out from the unwinding spiral of my life like a bent spring.'
For anyone interested in mountains and Zen Buddhism (or Blue Sheep, come to that) this is an essential read. Although in some aspects this book seems dated, in others Matthiessen's prose comes across as freshly and vividly as the day he wrote it. Although we might not agree with Matthiessen's point-of-view, there is enough information here to inspire anyone who wishes to nurture their spiritual ambitions.
3 stars, based on the beauty of the writing and Matthiessen's achievement in conveying not just the scenery but also the concepts and ideas. But I can't give it a higher score because I didn't really enjoy reading this; although I found it immersive, I never really wanted to pick it up and dive back in.
The poetry of the language was so beautiful in parts and I thought it very honest and unfiltered and I found it educative; I learned a lot about Buddhism that was told with a very light touch. I was left with a sense of why it might matter to try and divest oneself from the obsessions and preoccupations of Western life, and that this was something to aspire to, even if one never attained it.
I couldn't give writing this good any less than four stars, even though I found Matthiessen as an individual hugely problematic. I didn't warm to his narcissm, the choices he made with respect to family and his strangely disparaging attitude towards the native people he encounters in Tibet. Perhaps it was of its time, but I found his attitude alienating and was quite unable to identify with him personally. But oh, those sentences. What a writer!
I just found this too involved. While I can acknowledge the beauty of the writing for me the density of the spiritual passages was too alienating and I found it difficult to engage with as a whole.
I thought Matthiessen a genius and his writing about both the spiritual and physical journey thrugh the mountains was phenomenally vivid. But I was exasperated by his lack of self-awareness. I found him patriarchal and solopsistic. It's as if he didn't realise there was a world around him, and that he was a part of it.
To start with I was rather sceptical about the musings on Buddhism, which (at the beginning) seemed intrusive and jarred a bit with the travel writing. But once the trek was well underway, in particular when they got to the Crystal Mountain it was much more integrated, and clearly a key part of the experience for him as he comes to terms with his grief over the death of his wife. (Though I was not terribly sympathetic over his decision to leave his 8-year-old son behind for several months while he undertook his personal pilgrimage.) I thought much of the writing was beautiful and the description of the mountains magical.
September 2017 took us to Natalie's in leafy Ealing where we dined on Shepherd's Pie and lemon possets served in teacups.