On the Death of Peter Muryo Matthiessen

by Norman Fischer | May 08, 2014 at 1:47 PM

I was at sesshin at Mar de Jade in Mexico when I learned of the death of Peter Matthiessen. I knew him as Muryo, Zen priest. Sad. I am sorry I won’t see him again. As always you think "why didn’t I call or write or visit that one last time?" Now I can't. But Peter was 86, had had a good full long life, had cancer, was battling with it, knew what was in store for him and was OK with it. So as these things go, he was lucky, and there is nothing to regret.

I had called him not long ago and he told me about his recent, and he knew his last, book, about his trip to Auschwitz with Bernie. (Peter and I had practiced together with Bernie Glassman at Zen Community of New York in the mid-1980's, where we met). He said it was a tough book, and a tough book to write. I think it’s just out, and I don't remember the title, but I told him I'd get it and now certainly will. Coincidentally a New York Times mag piece came out on Peter just around the day he died. That article mentioned the novel, and said it wasn't a nice or a pleasant one. That in it Peter had no solution to the problem of the Holocaust, no way to cope with or digest the evil stuff we are all capable of. And I think this was the problem of the novel, as I recall it from our conversation and the article: that we did this,we do this, it seems as if we will not stop doing this, and the Zen teachings that he and I are both devoted to don't really — and no teachings do — provide a neat answer to this. You are just left with the raw ache and the shock and confusion. Anyway, this is me talking, I haven't read the novel yet. But, I guess, a sad note to go out on, if a realistic and, to me, an admirable one. Answers never as good as questions, and sorrow.

Peter had done and seen so much. His naturalist adventures were truly fantastic. The last of his I read some years ago was his book about cranes. Kathie and I have gone many time to see the Sandhills here in California, so I am interested in cranes. I think I got particularly interested in migrating birds when I was writing Sailing Home and tried to do a little research. I admire research. I wish I could do it. I try a little. But never can pull it off. And am stuck writing out of my own sad stupid head. Anyway, Peter tracked cranes of all species around the world and wrote about them. Marvelous book. I have a Chinese crane scroll. Big wide empty space and a few cranes zooming down into a deep mountain canyon, the bright red, tiny, on their heads, the only color in the big long scroll. When I look at that I feel a lonely feeling and think of Peter.

Someone reminded me that the Snow Leopard book, for which he was most famous, does not include a single view of a snow leopard. That Peter goes to great lengths to search for one, as he grieves for his deceased wife and begins his Zen practice, out of desperation to cope with that terrible grief, and that he sees traces but never the animal itself. This reminds me of Zen practice! And life. Desperately seeking and seeing traces but never finding. Until you realize that the traces are the thing itself. Which is in itself, otherwise, a fiction. 

The Times mag piece also mentions that Peter had been a CIA agent in Paris early 1950's and had founded Paris Review as a cover for this. When years later he revealed this truth to Plimpton (an old prep school friend), Plimpton hit the roof. But this reminded me of those marvelous years before 1965 when it was still possible for an intelligent and reasonable American young man to simply believe, without even having to think about it, that his government was good, its policies just, and that it was a good thing to support it. I believed that, too, at the time. Since then mistrust of US and all governments is only common sense for any intelligent person. But this is bad. Not trusting your government is bad. It leaves you cynical and despairing, however much such mistrust is justified. It's a shame really. We were talking about this this morning as the sesshin in Mexico ended. It's of course even worse there. Mistrusting the government means there's a general mistrust and a general cynicism. This makes for a terrible society. Somehow you have to trust something, otherwise life is too tough. By 1953, and McCarthy, Peter had seen the light and quit the CIA.

Peter was an immensely kind and unpretentious person, although he couldn't get away from his refined way of speaking and thinking, which was his family heritage. But he was a prince of a man, and I was lucky to have made his acquaintance. We are losing so many of the great ones! The world is a poorer place. 


Norman Fischer