92Y / The Paris Review Interview Series: Peter Matthiessen
Posted on March 24, 2014
This conversation between Howard Norman and Peter Matthiessen, part of a collaboration between 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and The Paris Review, was recorded live at 92Y on December 15, 1997. We are able to share this recording thanks to a generous gift in memory of Christopher Lightfoot Walker, longtime friend of the Poetry Center and The Paris Review. Here is an excerpt from the full interview that ran in The Paris Review as The Art of Fiction No. 157 in the spring of 1999.
Your travels in remote regions are often perilous—New Guinea and the great white shark, wilderness, rivers and wild peoples in South America and Africa. There were larger literary risks, as well, as in The Snow Leopard.
I dislike risk and I never seek it out, but one can’t always anticipate what may occur off the beaten track. The physical risks on that journey across the Himalayas were minor, as things turned out, and as for literary risks, I understood that if that journey was to have any validity, I would have to deal with very personal matters, such as my wife’s recent death. Being a rather private person, this was sometimes difficult, but I decided to stand by what I had written at high altitude, which tends to air out inhibitions.
In The Snow Leopard you write: “In the snow mountains . . . I feel open, clear, and childlike once again. I am bathed by feelings.” Then: “Simultaneously I am myself, the child I was, the old man I will be.” There are these explosions of transcendent feeling.
Or altered realities, perhaps, induced by altitude and exhaustion. And there were peculiar time shifts as we headed northward, ever higher and farther north toward the Tibetan Plateau, walking out of the present into the past—the Middle Ages, finally. First, time dissolved, then space. It’s broad daylight, good visibility, yet mountains move. You perceive that the so-called permanence of the mountains is illusory, and that all phenomena are mere wisps of the cosmos, ever changing. It is its very evanescence that makes life beautiful, isn’t that true? If we were doomed to live forever, we would scarcely be aware of the beauty around us. Beauty always has that element of transience that is spoiled when we draw clumsy attention to it. The great haiku poet Basho wrote, “How blessed is he who sees the cherry blossoms fall and does not say, ‘Ah, time is passing.’” He has let go of all such concepts as time passing in order to enter deeply into this moment. I tried to capture some of that immediacy in Far Tortuga and The Snow Leopard, too. The first draft of that journal was written in the Himalayas as a Zen practice of close observation, and perhaps that gave it a meditative quality that otherwise it might have lacked.
Christopher Lightfoot Walker (1954-2012) served as poster director, prints director and advisory editor of The Paris Review. He also volunteered at the 92nd Street Y's Unterberg Poetry Center, making transcriptions, which were models of their kind, of audio recordings of live literary events. Chris was born in New York City, attended the Buckley School, then went west to Fountain Valley School and back east to Hampshire College. He was engaged in a number of entrepreneurial efforts (some in collaboration with his father, Angus Lightfoot Walker, longtime chairman of the City Investing Company), when, at the age of 31, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He wore his adversity lightly, retaining, in addition to his considerable wits, his sense of humor and sense of fun. Against the odds he remained a person on whom no delightful thing was ever lost. Chris was always grateful for the refuge he was able to find in the work provided by 92Y.
This post is part of 92Y/The Paris Review: Interview Series.