Hungry Ghosts and the Work of Peter Matthiessen

Ingrid Norton

In Review | Books
Works of Peter Matthiessen:
In Paradise. Riverhead Books, 247 pages, $16 paper
Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals 1969–1982. Shambhala Publications, 304 pages, $29.95 paper
The Snow Leopard. Penguin Classics, 368 pages, $17 paper.

Illustration for Ingrid Norton's Hungry Ghosts and the Work of Peter Matthiessen

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu


A group of people gathers in a candlelit circle on a platform. They seat themselves on cushions and cross their legs. Around them stretch railroad tracks. In the distance “high skeins of barbed wire,” “winter fields,” and “a low horizon of rooftops, power lines, a steeple” are visible (57).1 The nearby museum features “midden heaps of humble things—grayed toothbrushes, tins of cracked shoe polish, tangles of wire spectacles”; two thousand little shoes, taken from children; and bins of hair “hacked from the heads of mothers, lovers, daughters” (32–33). Half a century before, prisoners disembarked from packed cattle cars here, and SS doctors stood on this long railway ramp, selecting which prisoners would immediately be sent to the surrounding gas chambers and crematoria, and which had “enough strength left to be worked to death” (56).

It is 1996. Auschwitz, and Poland at large, have only been open to Western visitors for a few years. Many survivors of the Holocaust who were adults in the 1940s are still alive. The Bosnian genocide has recently ended with the Dayton agreement but still smolders in the background: “the year before . . . paramilitary gangs drunk on plum brandy . . . had yanked back some seven thousand heads and slit the bared throats of every Muslim boy and man in a detention pen in the town of Srebrenica” (236).

Those gathered in the circle on the railway platform include some 140 pilgrims from all over the world who have come to Auschwitz to meditate, pray, and bear witness: “most seem to be here on painful missions incompletely understood, by themselves perhaps least of all” (44). The observation is made by Clements Olin, a poet and scholar of the Holocaust whose own knotted family history compels his presence and whose perspective is at the center of In Paradise, the late Peter Matthiessen’s extraordinary 2014 novel about complicity and cultural memory.


Peter Matthiessen died the year before last. A slew of unlikely vocations trails after him, rehashed in obituaries—scion of an East Coast whaling family; Paris Review founder; explorer of wild places; incensed chronicler of government abuses against migrant farm workers and Native Americans; devoted Zen practitioner; author of eloquent travelogues to East Africa, New Guinea, and South America, serialized in The New Yorker; author of elliptical novels like Far Tortuga, about Carribean turtle fishers; author of an epic three-volume novel about a renegade land speculator in the Everglades, Shadow Country; author, finally, of a poetic novel about a most foreboding subject—the impossibility, and importance, of reckoning with monumental suffering, cruelty, and pain.

Throughout his work, Matthiessen has written sentences that are as clear and sharp as cut glass. His Zen practice provides a key to his finely wrought prose. Matthiessen has written about how working on one of his most famous books, The Snow Leopard, started as a journaling exercise, to maintain the Zen practice of close observation of the present moment, and close observation is one of the most remarkable aspects of his writing. The kind of heightened detail and vibrant sense perception associated with mindfulness practice pervades his prose. The Snow Leopard, published in 1978, is a beautiful, death-haunted account of an expedition to sacred mountains in the Himalayas. The book also tells the story of Matthiessen’s deepening immersion in Buddhism.2 He takes the journey the year after his young wife’s death from cancer. Before she died, she had become involved in Zen and he had begun to practice with her. On his trek he carries with him “a small bronze Buddha, green with age” that had been placed on an altar in her hospital room the previous winter.

In addition to charting his journey and describing the environment of the Himalayas, the history of Tibetan Buddhism, and encounters with animals like the high-altitude Tibetan blue sheep (“short-legged, strong, broad-backed animals, quick and neat-footed, with gold demonic eyes” [SL 196]), The Snow Leopard charts Matthiessen’s own spiritual journey. The book is full of his musings on Buddhist teachings, and his growth as a meditator forms a vital subplot:

Near my lookout, I find a place to meditate, out of the wind, a hollow on the ridge where snow has melted. My brain soon clears in the cold mountain air, and I feel better. Wind, blowing grasses, sun: the dying grass, the notes of southbound birds in the mountain sky are no more fleeting than the rock itself. . . . The mountain withdraws into its stillness, my body dissolves into the sunlight, tears fall that have nothing to do with “I.” (SL 244)

In the same passage he reflects on rising from this meditation:

My foot slips on a narrow ledge: in that split second, as needles of fear pierce heart and temples, eternity intersects with present time. Thought and action are not different, and stone, air, ice, sun, fear, and self are one. What is exhilarating is to extend this acute awareness into ordinary moments. . . . The purpose of meditation practice is not enlightenment; it is to pay attention even at unextraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bring this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life. . . . When I watch blue sheep, I must watch blue sheep, not be thinking about sex, danger, or the present, for this present—even while I think of it—is gone. (SL 245)

Published the same decade, Far Tortuga was an audacious attempt to write from within, rather than about, this extraordinary heightened awareness. Distilled, lyrical descriptions of the Caribbean (“Parting the water, the great mantas catapult into the sky, spinning white bellies to the sun”) alternate with long line breaks, blank space, and the region’s patios (“Dis a bad trip, mon . . . Dis wind gettin me”).3 In a 1999 author interview with the Paris Review, Matthiessen said the novel had been influenced by his Zen training more than anything else he’d ever written: “The grit and feel of this present moment, opening out into the
oceanic wonder of the sea and sky.”4

But Matthiessen’s relationship to Buddhism, and to Buddhism and writing, was not all eloquence and revelation. In the Zen journals he kept from 1969 to 1982, published as Nine-Headed Dragon River in 1987, Matthiessen muses on the beauties of Zen practice, but also on the ways it reveals his own limitations: refusing accommodations, he sits for hours in painful positions causing injury to his knees, something he realizes “is no evidence of grit or dedication but only ineradicable male vanity,” and of his inability to “relax my fierce grip on the ego” (DR 60–61).5 He disparages the notes he writes about participating in Zen sesshin, “with their hoarding of miraculous states and ‘spiritual attainments,’ with their contaminating clinging, their insidious fortification of the ego” (DR 130). The rigorously ritualized, hierarchical nature of Zen makes him acutely aware of his “stubborn resistance to authority and a notable lack of proper devotional attitude” (DR 180). Zen is a path to awareness and discipline, but, he reflects, “if I had found an American Indian teacher . . . willing to work with me, I might well have chosen a North American tradition over an Asian one” (DR 180).

Nine-Headed Dragon River provides a brief, eloquent history of Zen’s lineage as a school of Buddhism, from India to China to Japan, as well as observations from Matthiessen’s own visit to Japan. His searching introspection also chronicles the beginnings of contemporary American Zen. The Japanese monks who visit his wife at the opening of the journals in 1968 were some of the first to come to the United States; at one point, he explains offhandedly that his teacher Bernard Glassman, or Tetsugen, one of the first Americans to be ordained a Zen priest (the retreat leader in In Paradise, Ben Lama, is based on him), has started calling his teisho teachings “Dharma talks,” a term that is now ubiquitous (DR 133). As Matthiessen becomes more involved with Zen, he is acutely aware of the way that it clashes with other elements of his life, such as raising a family and the need to make money, and with the way that American Zen organizations absent themselves from involvement in “politics or world affairs” or “any cause which sets one group against another” (DR 188). He is ambivalent about how his growing commitment to Zen squares not only with his literary ambitions, but with his activism: “Since from a Zen point of view, the absolute and the relative are not different, I cannot dwell in the absolute calm of my black cushion and ignore the chaos of the relative world pounding past the zendo doors” (DR 188).

These journals provide insight into the tensions between ego, action, and enlightenment that, four decades later, animate In Paradise. The protagonist, Olin, is an atheist and seasoned meditator but, beyond a brief reference to a meditation center he belongs to back in Cambridge, his commitments are left unplumbed. The overt religious questions of the novel concern tensions between Christians and Jews. But though it remains in the background, the novel is suffused with Zen. After meditating on the railway ramp, Olin reflects, “What if here at the terminus, the final destination, his feelings laid open by this silence, he no longer experiences the victims as ciphers separate from himself, but as terrified creatures clamoring for water and some word about their whereabouts or destination . . . ?” (53). The present moment—seeing the inseparability of all being—is a treacherous practice in a place like Auschwitz. What does it mean to “be of the present” when the present contains the reverberations of immense death and suffering?

Detail of illustration

Detail of illustration by Yuko Shimizu.


Olin is a complex protagonist, cerebral and anguished, self-contained and stifled (“it can’t be good for you, bottling things up the way you do,” his stepmother tells him. “It’s a little scary” [115]). He is fifty-five years old, childless, and inarticulate about emotions, with a brief, busted-up marriage and a string of unsatisfying relationships behind him. And when he sleeps, he often dreams about the spirited, beautiful mother he never knew: she was probably Jewish, and may have died in Auschwitz after an affair with his father, the child of Protestant aristocrats who escaped to America.

Olin’s complicated relationship to this past—his tetchy, resigned intellectual energy—is set alongside the pain of his fellow retreatants, who include a priest, two nuns, academics, Buddhist meditators, survivors of the Holocaust, and the children of Nazis. By slowly unfurling the overlapping histories of these people and their relationship to the past, Matthiessen unforgettably examines the corrosive effect of exposure to brutality and suffering. The conversations at the retreat are often rancorous and painful. When a frail, white-haired Holocaust survivor named Eva protests that there were kind acts amid the horror of the death camps, a Jewish evolutionary biologist marvels that she survived for five years in a Slovenian camp. “ ‘I fought hard to save my soul . . . ,’ she whispers as tears come. ‘And yes—if this is what you wish to hear, sir—yes, I was defeated. My very soul, it was defeated’ ” (96). Again and again, with finely wrought yet unsparing language, Matthiessen suggests that the attempt to confront evil, in oneself and in others, may lead to growth, but that being wounded, broken-hearted, and even scarred is an indissoluble and binding part of that growth.

Matthiessen finished In Paradise while he was dying of leukemia. (“The Buddha says that all suffering comes from clinging . . . I don’t want to cling. I’ve had a good life, you know,” the eighty-six-year-old told a New York Times reporter not long before his death in 2014.)6 It is hard not to think of his death while reading In Paradise, for the novel is preoccupied with concerns not entirely of this world—the difficult legacies of the past and the even more elusive, and metaphysical, afterlife of atrocity. What forms do the pain and guilt unleashed by the Holocaust take now that decades have passed since the event itself? Where do so many brutally extinguished lives go, and what is owed to the dead? Olin is an atheist, but he believes in the past. History is not static to him; he continually feels its breath on his neck. When Olin looks back at a tunnel on his way to the crematoria and a train emerges, it is “as if that phantom transport through the forest were just now arriving, a half century late” (48). From a distance, watching his fellow retreatants trudge toward the crematoria he thinks, “seen through the gauze of a light snowfall, those dark amorphous figures trudging in that same direction might be the prisoners of long ago, herded toward the wood” (146). Passing “the liver-colored bourgeois house” of the brutally efficient camp commandant Rudolf Hoess and his wife, who were waited on by emaciated Jewish slaves, Olin reflects, “The house is silent, its windows dead, yet in some dimension it is still inhabited . . . by fat old Widow Hoess” (79).

In many ways, the novel is about our fraught commerce with that dimension, about the reverberations of suffering and malevolence. Olin is haunted by his awareness of the dead. “During meditation, breathing mindfully moment after moment, his awareness opens and dissolves into snow light. But out of nowhere, just as he had feared, the platform’s emptiness is filled by a multitude of faceless shapes milling close around him. He feels the vibration of their footfalls” (82). Yet Olin balks at this apparition and is disdainful of the spiritual import his fellow retreatants give to their own sense of the dead. When Catherine, a young novice nun, shows him her journal, he is repulsed by her theology:

Just as he feared, she has discovered that the atmosphere in Birkenau is still swarming with “lost souls.” Oh Lord, he thinks, all those poor wandering souls! Many retreatants, he suspects, share her belief that the unburied dead—“the hungry ghosts,” as Ben Lama’s Buddhists call them—still haunt this emptiness, unable to find rest because they were forsaken. The more devotional go further, seeking to console through prayer the keening spirits that their mission has stirred up like a wind of bees. How fatuous, he thinks. Those multitudes are gone forever into a disappearing past beyond all healing, leaving no trace more tangible than the near-dust of all that hair in the museum. (85–86)

Olin and the nun’s tacit, unconsummated affaire de coeur will shape the plot. Later, when she shows him another entry about the souls of the dead—“I hear faint voices. They are singing . . .”—he is again repelled, and feels the urge to separate himself from Catherine and the other pilgrims: “Oh Lord, those wandering souls again, with their infernal singing! . . . As metaphor, her voices from on high might have some merit if so many of their companions weren’t also tuning into them in their platform meditations” (132). He is aware of the potent and problematic nature of our language of ghosts and souls and fights it even as he is drawn to it. Squatting in a decayed, cavernous crematorium, Olin tries to staunch his receptiveness to the spiritual dimension of Auschwitz: “He retreats into his parka hood and pulls its throat cord tight against the cold, against the phantasms and spirits—the ‘wandering souls’ of Sister Catherine, the hungry ghosts (Ben Lama and his Buddhists), the horde of the lost inhabiting the emptiness of this flat river plain in Poland” (151).

But the attempt is futile. During the past day, Olin has found his mother’s familial house and received confirmation of her Jewishness and of her death. He succumbs to a vision—a horrible avalanche image of her in the crematorium: “In the death struggle for the last exhausted air, the strongest clamber onto piles of weaker, and the young woman shrieks back as her voiceless sister Peek is drawn beneath the human biomass that wipes her stare, the round hole of her mouth from the earth” (152). Olin is undone. Feeling as if he had blacked out, he staggers back to the mess hall.

It is the nadir of the retreat. “After these long days in the camp, depression has descended on the witness bearers like an inversion of the coal-soot fog that hangs in the outer dark of the night prison. The tension is pervasive in the hall, as ominous as an undying echo” (161).

Yet, from the bleakness of everyone’s guilt, pain, and disillusion, a moment of joy arises, a moment so ineffable that Matthiessen’s description of it is brief and elliptical. At the end of their nightly meeting, the retreatants join hands to sing a Hebrew song of peace. They begin to dance in a great circle through the hall. Some refuse to join while others break away from the circle. Many of those who stay and dance—including Olin and Catherine—feel a strange, deep-seated sense of release: “He moves with it, into it, and now it is moving him as the bonds of his despair relent like weary sinew and gratitude floods his heart. . . . Still softly singing, the remaining dancers cling to their momentum lest they lose the lift of this unholy exaltation like night insects spent in mating orbit” (164).

Afterward, the dancing polarizes the retreatants, setting apart those appalled by it from those who praise it. Matthiessen sometimes capitalizes the word—“the tension dispelled by the Dancing has been seeping back”—to underscore the event’s unworldly, inexpressible quality (201). Olin muses that what happened may have been the manifestation of a presence he has felt while meditating on the ramp, “a shifting of forces, ancient and unknown,” that surround them (167).

Detail of illustration

Detail of illustration by Yuko Shimizu.


In Matthiessen’s novel, joy and despair are strange, irresolvable forces that endlessly shift in and around us. The book’s title comes from an apocryphal saying attributed to Christ, which Olin quotes to Catherine. When a thief asks to be taken to paradise, the crucified Jesus replies, “No, friend, we are in paradise right now.” (“No Trinity, no resurrection. All Creation right here now,” Olin presses on. “That is not our idea of things,” the nun replies [132].)

The tension between a sought paradise that lies beyond our flawed, violent world and the embrace of this world as a paradise—the tension between an event like the Dancing and inhabiting the tense moments that follow it—is something Matthiessen struggled with in his own spiritual life. One of his initial obstacles as a Zen practitioner was moving beyond an early experience of kensho, or transcendence—in which “ ‘I’ had vanished and also ‘I’ was everywhere”—into less dramatic “moment-by-moment enlightenment in everyday life” (DR 21, 41). Reflecting on the sage Bodhidharma in Nine-Headed Dragon River, Matthiessen writes:

But when we are mired in the relative world, never lifting our gaze to the mystery, our life is stunted, incomplete; we are filled with yearning for that paradise that is lost when, as young children, we replace with words and ideas and abstractions . . . our direct, spontaneous experience of the thing itself, in the beauty and precision of this present moment.” (DR 8)

In Paradise plunges its readers into the “beauty and precision of this present moment,” however difficult it can be to bear, suggesting that any enlightenment or refuge must be found there. The book’s style is the fruit of Matthiessen’s extraordinary acuity, honed during decades of writing and meditation.

Given the way that In Paradise exemplifies art’s power to illuminate difficult subjects, it is perhaps fitting that one of the signal events of the novel is a meeting with an artist. Toward the end of the book, Olin visits the home of Malan, an elderly man whose wrist displays a short serial number in faded blue ink that indicates he was one of the first prisoners at Auschwitz. After decades of silence, Malan had a stroke and, in his old age, returned to the town next to the death camp. He has been working on an enormous mural in a dank, earth-floored basement, a mural meant to record and re-imagine the horror he and fellow prisoners experienced. The painting unsettles Olin: “this black-and-white mural with no beginning and no end is a pure hallucination of fragmented images and symbols across which hole-eyed specters drift in eternal nightmare. ‘My God,’ says Olin. Here they are, he thinks, all the hungry ghosts, the silenced voices, not descending from the heavens but arising from the dark” (188–89). The image is all the more disturbing because it echoes traditional Buddhist representations of hungry ghosts, spirits who are simultaneously emaciated and glutted, with thin gullets and overstuffed stomachs, endlessly hungry and never sated. The insatiable quality of these ghosts comes not only from their own cravings but because they have been starved of compassion.

Like Malan’s mural, In Paradise calls the dead back from the dark. Malan explains that he believes that the creation of art “is the one path that might lead toward apprehension of that ultimate evil beyond all understanding” (189). Through Matthiessen’s luminous prose and searching, painful insights, the path to enlightenment and the path of creating art fuse together. Matthiessen’s novel is an enormous achievement, a shadowy and difficult transmission to his readers.

At the end of the book, when Olin and Catherine fitfully bid each other farewell, she suggests that the emotions of their week in Auschwitz are “too large for one simple soul to understand.” She tells him that the two of them may have mistaken the volatility of transcendence for romantic love. She is still thinking of the lost souls that pervade the air around them. “And still they are singing in me, Mr. Olin. In you also?” Olin answers, “I suppose so, Catherine,” but he is thinking of the hole-eyed specters arising from the dark of Malan’s mural, and from the depths of his own memory (212–13).

Notes:

  1. Page references are to In Paradise unless otherwise indicated.
  2. The Snow Leopard (Penguin, 2008; originally published by Viking Press, 1978).
  3. Far Tortuga (Vintage Books, 1988; originally published by Random House, 1975).
  4. “Peter Matthiessen, The Art of Fiction No. 157,” interview by Howard Norman, The Paris Review, Spring 1999.
  5. Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals 1969–1982 (Shambhala Publications, 1987; Zen Community of New York, 1985).
  6. Jeff Himmelman, “Peter Matthiessen’s Homegoing,” The New York Times Magazine, April 3, 2014. Matthiessen died two days after the feature was published.

Ingrid Norton’s essays and reportage have appeared in publications such as Dissent, The Guardian, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is assistant editor of the Bulletin and a second-year master of theological studies student at HDS, where she studies religion and literature.

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