Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

The Snow Leopard

I stumbled across a reference to The Snow Leopard a year and a half ago reading something somewhere about Buddhism. I bought a copy, read it, read it again, and have continued to read it, a bit here a bit there, right up to the present day. That is a long time to spend with a book, and yet it remains as fresh to me, as extraordinarily beautiful, and as deeply moving as it did when I first picked it up.

The story it tells is simple enough. Matthiessen and his friend GS, a wildlife biologist renowned for his field research, hike from Katmandu in Nepal up (and up and up) into a remote region of the Tibetan Himalayas to observe the rut of a little understood mountain goat. If they are fortunate, they also hope to see one of the elusive snow leopards known to live in the mountains. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, would like to visit the aging Llama of the Crystal Monastery as well. Weather threatens them continually on the ascent and both supplies and the porters to carry them are limited, but the men eventually make it to Inner Dolpo on the Tibetan plateau, much later than planned but in time for the rut. GS studies the goats; Matthiessen visits the monastery. The men then descend back down into the world of the lower altitudes.

Within the frame of this simple story, Matthiessen experiences something that feels like the entirety of a life and his writing evokes that experience anew each time I read it. In this the book echoes Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps.

The foundation here is a spare taut prose with breadth and sweep enough to capture an immense natural world while also remaining grounded enough to read as the language of a particular man and of his mind’s workings. The writing is always stunningly concrete even as he moves within deeply philosophical considerations of love, death, family, friendship, the nature of reality, and the existence of the self. His mind is strong, energetic, even stubborn yet also (amazingly) open, pliable, and generous.

I’ve spent eighteen months with Matthiessen’s book, and I’m certain he was a difficult and imperfect person, but as strange as it is to say, I suspect that many of the people who knew him fell in love with him and that, if I had, I would have as well.

Posted December 6, 2018