Peter Matthiessen’s Orientalism

Joel Whitney in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_607 May. 07 19.52When Peter Matthiessen died of leukemia on April 5, The Snow Leopard was one of the standout books of his career. Published in 1978 to wide acclaim, it was twice awarded the National Book Award. But while Matthiessen’s dive into Buddhist lore is fascinating, it is also troubling.

On September 28, 1973, Matthiessen sets out from Pokhara, Nepal for a two-month trek in the mountains, accompanied by the cranky field biologist George Schaller. They plan to observe the blue sheep’s fall rut and, if they’re lucky, glimpse the very rare snow leopard. In truth, though, Matthiessen and Schaller, like hordes of explorers before them, are searching for more than the elusive cat: a nebulous native authenticity, an encounter with pure life, whether in wilderness or in “the country folk,” as Matthiessen calls them.

When Matthiessen turns his gaze on some of these country folk—the Sherpa porters traveling with him—the book’s difficulties begin. He repeatedly projects apprehensions and urges onto them. He imagines that they wish him hurt or dead and fantasizes about holding them by their pigtails, beating them into bloody submission.

Much of this could be written off as an attempt to leaven the book’s Buddhist mystique with a bit of Western muscle. But it is an incessant thread that bespeaks deeply woven cultural tendencies. The porters are fellow Buddhists who, by Matthiessen’s own account, do their tasks well, with hospitality and good cheer. Yet he dubs one in particular a “red-faced devil,” a “yellow-eyed” “evil monk,” a “sorcerer.” The rest are “childlike” or “unsophisticated.” Matthiessen reveals himself as part of a long tradition of Orientalist writers who see themselves as gods, saviors, and knowledge bearers.

More here.