Peter Matthiessen


American Novelist, Non-Fiction Writer, Environmental Activist and CIA-agent, Co-Founder of The Paris Review, 3-time National Book Award Winner

Author Quotes

My anger is wasting energy I badly need, and realizing this, it is easy to put it aside.

Presented with a receipt, Dawa takes special pleasure in drawing his own name for the fist time in his life; the whole idea convulses him with laughter.

The Nepal government takes yeti seriously, and there is a strict law against killing them. But one of the Arun Valley scientists has a permit that would allow him to collect one of these creatures, and I asked him what he would do if, one fine morning, a yeti presented itself within fair range; it seemed to me that this decision should not wait for the event. The biologist was unsettled by the question; he had made this hard decision, or if he had, was not at peace with it.

There shall none learn to live who hath not learned to die.

As in fiction, the nonfiction writer is telling a story, and when that story is well-made, the placement of details and events is never random. The parts are not strung out in a line but come around full circle, like a necklace, to set off the others. They resonate, rekindle one another, stirring the reader with a cumulative effect. A good essay or article can and should have all the attributes of a good short story, including structure and design, pacing and effective placement of its parts?almost all the attributes of fiction except the creative imagination, which can never be permitted to enliven fact. The writer of nonfiction is stuck with objective reality, or should be; how his facts are arranged and presented is where his craft appears, and it can be dazzling when the writer is a good one. The best nonfiction has many, many virtues, among which simple truthfulness is perhaps foremost, yet its fidelity to the known facts is its fatal constraint.

However, I am getting hardened: I walk lighter, stumble less, with more spring in leg and lung, keeping my center of gravity deep in the belly, and letting that center see. At these times I am free of vertigo, even in the dangerous places; my feet move naturally to firm footholds, and I flow. But sometimes for a day or more, I lose this feel of things, my breath is high up in my chest, and then I cling to the cliff edge as to life itself. And of course it is this clinging, the tightness of panic, that gets people killed: to clutch, in ancient Egyptian, to clutch the mountain, in Assyrian, were euphemisms that signified to die.

In the clearness of this Himalayan air, mountains draw near, and in such splendor, tears come quietly to my eyes and cool on my sunburned cheeks. this is not mere soft-mindedness, nor am I all that silly with the altitude. My head has cleared in these weeks free of intrusions- mail, telephones, people and their needs- and I respond to things spontaneously, without defensive or self-conscious screens. Still, all this feeling is astonishing: not so long ago I could say truthfully that I had not shed a tear in twenty years.

My eye is fixed not on the ending of the book but on the feeling of that ending.

Rising painfully, the Lama hobbles out upon a stone platform that overhangs the cliff and squats to urinate through a neat triangular hole, into the ravine; as if to enjoy this small shift in his view, he gazes cheerfully about him, his tulku pee drop sparkling in the sun upon the stone.

The physicist seeks to understand reality, while the mystic is trained to experience it directly. Both agree that human mechanisms of perception, stunted as they are by screens of social training that close out all but the practical elements in the sensory barrage, give a very limited picture of existence, which certainly transcends mere physical evidence. Furthermore, both groups agree that appearances are illusory. A great physicist extends this idea: ?Modern science classifies the world? not into different groups of objects but into different groups of connections? The world thus appears to be a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.? All phenomena are processes, connections, all is in flux, and at moments this flux is actually visible: one has only to open the mind in meditation or have the mind-screens knocked awry by drugs or dreams to see that there is no real edge to anything, that in the endless interpenetration of the universe, a molecular flow, a cosmic energy shimmers in all stone and steel as well as flesh. The ancient intuition that all matter, all ?reality?, is energy, that all phenomena, including time and space, are mere crystallizations of mind, is an idea with which few physicists have quarreled since the theory of relativity first called into question the separate identities of energy and matter.

As in the great religions of the East, the native American makes small distinction between religious activity and the acts of everyday: the religious ceremony is life itself. Like the Atman of the Vedas, like the Buddhist Mind, like Tao, the Great Spirit of the American Indian is everywhere and in all things, unchanging, Even the Australian aborigines ? considered to be the most ancient race on earth ? distinguished between linear time and a ?Great Time? of dreams, myths, and heroes, in which all is present in this moment. It stirs me that this primordial intuition has been perpetuated by voice and act across countless horizons and for centuries on end, illuminating the dream-life of primitives, the early Indo-European civilizations of the Sumerians and Hittites, the ancient Greeks and the Egyptians, guarded hidden cults in the Dark Ages, emerging in Christian, Hasidic, and Muslim mysticism (Sufism) as well as in all the splendorous religions of the East. And it is a profound consolidation, perhaps the only on, to this haunted animal that wastes most of a long and ghostly life wandering the future and the past on its hind legs, looking for meanings, only to see in the eyes of others of its kind that it must die.

I am a writer. A fiction writer who also writes nonfiction on behalf of social and environmental causes or journals about expeditions to wild places. I have written more books of nonfiction because my fiction is an exploratory process?not laborious, merely long and slow and getting slower. In reverse order, Far Tortuga took eight years, At Play in the Fields of the Lord perhaps four, and the early novels no doubt longer than they deserved. Anyway, I have been a fiction writer from the start. For many years I wrote nothing but fiction. My first published story appeared in The Atlantic the year I graduated from college and won the Atlantic firsts prize that year; and on the wings of a second story sale to the same magazine, I acquired a noted literary agent, Bernice Baumgarten, wife of James Gould Cozzens, the author of a best-selling blockbuster called By Love Possessed, whose considerable repute went to the grave with him.

In the jungle, during one night in each month, the moths did not come to the lanterns; through the black reaches of the outer night, so it was said, they flew toward the full moon.

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, in the moment-by-moment experiencing of the lammergeier and the wolf, which, finding themselves at the center of things, have no need for any secret of true being. In this very breath that we take now lies the secret that all great teachers try to tell us, what one lama refers to as ?the precision and openness and intelligence of the present.? 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 bear this, mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life. To be anywhere else is ?to paint eyeballs on chaos.? 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.

Stravinsky said a wonderful thing: ?I was for a period of time obsessed with the weight of interval.? He meant, of course, the anticipation, even the anxiety, about what?s immediately going to follow.

The prayer wheel [of silver and copper] is inscribed with the same mantra, and so is the tight-rolled scroll inside it, spinning out the invocation that calls the universe to attention:

Asian traditions refer to a hidden kingdom ? Shambala, the Center ? in an unknown part of Inner Asia. (The Gobi Desert, formerly fertile, now a repository of old bones, is often cited; the desiccation of Central Asia, as broad lakes vanished in dry pans and grasslands turned into shifting sands, might have turned an ancient city into a legend. The death of a civilization can come quickly: the change in climate that dried up rivers and destroyed the savannas of the central Sahara scattered civilizations of Fessan and Tassili in just a few centuries after 2500 BC.) More likely, Shambala is a symbol for the Aryan cultures that emerged in that vast region between 6000 and 5000 BC ? the apparent source of esoteric mystery ? cults throughout Eurasia, which have echoes to this day in the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. According to one Tibetan lama, these mysteries ?are the faint echoes of teaching that existed from time immemorial in Central and North Asia.? Another believes that ?no people since the beginning ? has ever been without some fragment of this secret lore.? This view is supported by ethnologists, who find the same pattern of shamanistic practice not only in Asia and the Americas but in Africa, Australia, Oceania, and Europe. The historical diffusion of such teachings ? and perhaps the prehistorical as well ? is supported by striking consistencies in the practice of what Westerners, having lost the secrets, refer to with mixed fascination and contempt as ?mysticism? or ?the occult? but which for the less alienated cultures, past and present, is only another aspect reality.

I am everywhere and in everything: I am the sun and stars. I am time and space and I am He. When I am everywhere, where can I move? When there is no past and no future, and I am eternal existence, then where is time?

In the rain, all day, the Tibetans come to look at us, and again I am struck by the resemblances between our native Americans and these Mongol peoples. Most Dhorpatan Tibetans have the small stature, small hands and feet and noses of the Eskimo, the Mongoloid eye-fold, dark copper skin, and crow-black hair: even the low red-trimmed boots of hide and wool are very similar in appearance and design to the Eskimo mukluks. Their ornaments of turquoise and silver, on the other hand, suggest the Pueblo Indians and the Navajo, while the beads, braids, and striped blankets flung over bare shoulders evoke nothing so much as old pictures of the Plains tribes, an effect enhanced by the squalor of their encampments and the quarrelsome dogs. When traveling, these people use hide tents, children are carried papoose-fashion, and the basis of their diet is a barley or maize meal known as tsampa; no real kinship has been demonstrated between native American and Asiatic tongues, yet a similar farina of the Algonkian tribes of my own region is called ?samp.?

My letters I put away unopened, in my pack; they will not be read until I get to Jumla or Kathmandu. Today is the twelfth, and I leave on the eighteenth; even if the letters bring bad news, I could leave no earlier than the fifteenth, since Tukten and Gyaltsen have traveled hard, and must have rest. And good news, too, would, be intrusive, spoiling this chance to live moment by moment in the present by stirring up the past, the future, and encouraging delusions of continuity and permanence just when I am trying to let go, to blow away, like the white down feather on the mountains.

Such concepts as karma and circular time are taken for granted by almost all native American traditions; time as space and death as becoming as implicit in the earth view of the Hopi, who avoid all linear constructions, knowing as well as any Buddhist that Everything is Right Here Now. As in the great religions of the East, the native American makes small distinction between religious activity and the acts of every day: the religious ceremony is life itself.

The progress of the sciences toward theories of fundamental unity, cosmic symmetry (as in the unified field theory) ? how do such theories differ, in the end, from that unity which Plato called ?unspeakable? and ?indescribable?, the holistic knowledge shared by so many peoples of the earth, Christians included, before the advent of the industrial revolution made new barbarians of the peoples of the West? In the United States, before the spiritualist foolishness at the end of the last century confused mysticism with ?the occult? and tarnished both, William James wrote a master work of metaphysics; Emerson spoke of ?the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal One??; Melville referred to ?that profound silence, that only voice of God?; Walt Whitman celebrated the most ancient secret, that no God could be found ?more divine than yourself.?

But it is also true that in recent years, Western scientists have turned with new respect toward the intuitive sciences of the East. Einstein repeatedly expressed suspicion of the restrictions of linear thought, concluding that propositions arrived at by purely logical means were completely empty of reality even if one could properly explain what ?reality? means; it was intuition, he declared, that had been crucial to his thinking. And there are close parallels in the theory of relativity to the Buddhist concept of the identity of time and space, which, like Hindu cosmology, derives from the ancient teachings of the Vedas. Somewhere, Einstein remarks that his theory could be readily explained to Indians of the Uto-Aztecan languages, which include the Pueblo and the Hopi. (?The Hopi does not say ?the light flashed? but merely ?flash?, without subject or time element; time cannot move because it is also space. The two are never separated; there are no words or expressions referring to time or space as separate from each other.)

I have never figured out how women work but I do know that their skin color has no significance. Black or white, every last one is pretty pink on the inside and they are all impossible.

In the snow mountains- is it altitude?- I feel open, clear, and child-like once again. I am bathed by feelings, and unexpectedly I find myself near tears, . . .

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American Novelist, Non-Fiction Writer, Environmental Activist and CIA-agent, Co-Founder of The Paris Review, 3-time National Book Award Winner