Saturday, 27 March 2010

the snow leopard [peter matthiessen]

Journeys. When compiling a script report, much attention is paid to the journey of the character. The notion that something starts in one place, proceeds to another, and in that process, is altered, changed, their perception of the world shifted.

What better way to do this than through the vehicle of a journey itself? But then, as all life is a journey, how should a journey be classified? These criticisms are a kind of journey, embarked on for a reason, to come to an end for another. People go on journeys abroad all the time, and come back much the same as they started. And, perhaps, if one listens to one's inner Buddhist, there's no such thing as 'development', that holy grail of script editors, NGOs and governments. There is nothing but the realisation of our incapacity to change anything, and the acceptance of that fact, and the enrichening of our lives as a result of this acceptance.

Matthiessen is a Buddhist, and his book describes a journey he took, in 1973, across the Nepalese Himalayas to a land called the Inner Dolpo, a land as much Tibetan as Nepalese, and one which had remained essentially unchanged for as long as it has been populated by man, the inhabitants eking out a harsh living in a cruel climate. The author treks through the varying topography, the Winter accelerating the higher he climbs, with each new settlement seeming like a different world, so separated are they one from the other, with no television or internet to generate a common culture between villages only a few miles apart, but a mountain pass away. Part of the pathos of reading Matthiessen's account of his time there is the not-knowing how the last thirty years or so has treated this corner of the world. If you look on the internet, you'll find dozens of trekking expeditions advertised, but little information as to Dolpo's development. If that's the right word. Matthiessen's thesis would appear to be that its inhabitants are content with the life they live, no matter how harsh, and that this contentment is connected to the pervasiveness of the Buddhist faith.

At one point he describes visiting a hermetic monk who lives in a small walled cave, perched on the side of the mountain. The view, the view which has never changed, is of sky and mountain. He cannot see the valley below. Matthiessen asks if this doesn't become monotonous, and the monk laughs and talks of how lucky he is. In a sense this pinpoints the Buddhist's dilemma: if you've chosen (or been chosen) to live in the middle of nowhere, you either learn to love it, or you go mad. However, as the slightest awareness of Tibet's political history reveals, it's perhaps more complex when you leave (or are made to leave) your middle of nowhere, and find yourself thrown into a world where the fact of your acceptance of your lot can be turned against you.

This issue isn't really within the remit of Matthiessen's book. He's offering nothing more than his personal account of a journey, which also manages to be a description of his journey through Buddhism itself. With his rangy, easy going prose, Matthiessen succeeds in conveying the details of his religion to the reader in a way which always seems informative, never preachy. If this journey does anything, it seems to cement and root his understanding of Buddhism, as he discerns its traces and influence in the faces and habits of the men and women he meets along the way, taking his readers with him. It seems doubtful to this reader that any single book has ever truly changed or 'developed' anyone, and this book is just another stepping stone, or mountain pass, on the long journey of reading. Nevertheless, it succeeds in reminding the reader that there are other ways of living, beyond books, beyond the material, and leaves the reader feeling a mixture of jealousy and a mysterious nostalgia for this other life, which was known in another life, which lives on in us still, a lost cousin, beckoning from a mountain hideaway.

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