In his own life, Matthiessen found a home in Zen. As he writes in “The Snow Leopard”: “In the longing that starts one on the path is a kind of homesickness, and some way, on this journey, I have started home. Homegoing is the purpose of my practice.” And yet, in “In Paradise,” Matthiessen takes even that consolation away. The evil that Olin encounters at Auschwitz is so terrifying that spiritual practice can’t mitigate it. Olin reflects on Solzhenitsyn’s observation that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” and then decides to show it to one of the retreat leaders — who responds with a Buddhist bromide about eliminating “all self-lacerating partial truths while good and evil fall away.” It is correct doctrine, but Matthiessen makes it sound like claptrap. Of spiritual practice in general, with which he has a casual and conflicted relationship, Olin wonders: “How long would such delicate attainments have withstood the death camp’s horrors?” It is another way of asking the question we all ask of ourselves: How would I have fared?
The book is grim, but Matthiessen isn’t. Earlier that morning, I watched as he said goodbye to a guest who stayed over the previous night. They were business associates, friendly but maybe not friends, and as the guest was at the door, he good-naturedly offered optimistic advice about radical experimental measures that Matthiessen might take. Matthiessen smiled and said: “I don’t want to hang on to life quite that hard. It’s part of my Zen training.” In preparing for our interviews, having read “In Paradise,” I wondered whether the Buddhist teachings were providing him any more consolation than they did the characters in his book. I hoped so. “The Buddha says that all suffering comes from clinging,” Matthiessen said. “I don’t want to cling. I’ve had a good life, you know. Lots of adventures. It’s had some dark parts, too, but mainly I’ve had a pretty good run of it, and I don’t want to cling too hard. I have no complaints.”
The characters in “In Paradise” cling too hard and are full of complaints, which is one reason that the book doesn’t feel like any kind of “final word.” The novel lacks the beautiful and affirming moments so much more present in Matthiessen’s nonfiction, moments more beautiful even than the dancing at Auschwitz, because they don’t come with the same complications. When Matthiessen was happy, as a writer and as a traveler, he always let us in on it; most often, he found that happiness in reverence of the natural world and in a hard-won, if fleeting, acceptance of his own uncertain place in it. “Lying back against these ancient rocks of Africa, I am content,” he writes in “The Tree Where Man Was Born.” “The great stillness in these landscapes that once made me restless seeps into me day by day, and with it the unreasonable feeling that I have found what I was searching for without ever having discovered what it was.”
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