The Ogre’s Guests
Readers familiar with The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen’s dazzling travelogue of his 1973 pilgrimage to a Buddhist monastery on the summit of Nepal’s Crystal Mountain, will recognize the parable he tells through the character of Clement Olin, the central figure in his latest novel, In Paradise.
On that long-ago expedition, Matthiessen found himself acting sullen on descending the mountainside; the feeling of peace he’d experienced conversing with the gnarly old monk on high was dispersing, leaving him irascible. In his journals, he describes what he underwent then as a kind of chrysalis: his consciousness had been altered and he didn’t know how to respond. “It is difficult to adjust because I do not know who is adjusting; I am no longer that old person and not yet the new.” On the mountaintop he’d felt the immediacy of experience, a full awareness of the present moment, shorn of past and future, coupled with the responsibility “to bear this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life.” He recalls how, in the gospel of Luke, one of the thieves crucified beside Jesus beseeches him, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” Christ replies, “Today thou are with me in paradise.”
But in older translations, as Soen Roshi points out, there is no “today,” no suggestion of the future. In the Russian translation, for example, the meaning is “right here now.” Thus, Jesus declares, “You are in Paradise right now”—how much more vital! There is no hope anywhere but in this moment…
Clement Olin tells the same story from Luke, with the same elaboration about the Russian translation, in In Paradise, but he tells the story not to himself, as a kind of koan, in the wake of a spiritual vision, but to a nun he attempts seducing in the remains of a former SS barracks in Auschwitz.
Olin, a scholar of Slavic literature, has attached himself informally to a meditation retreat led by the ex-hippie, ex-orthodox Jew Ben Lama. This group, made of old Zen students, assorted academics, and camp survivors from all countries, has come to Auschwitz-Birkenau to spend their daylight hours meditating on the platform where over one million Jews saw the last of that daylight. The time is 1996.
What is the point of such an expedition, Olin asks himself. “Their mission here, however well-intentioned, is little more than a parting wave to a ghostly horror already withdrawing into myth.” Surely their time would be better spent giving aid to those still alive and suffering—the sick, the old, the persecuted.
What is one to experience on that platform, in those hours of silence, aside from an overwhelming despair, and perhaps the urge “to beat and kick those dolled-up SS pigs into a jelly”? The challenge, of course, is that “even horror becomes wearisome” and so if one is to live honestly, one must be jolted into awareness. Within living memory, cattle cars arrived without pause on those same tracks, discharged their terrified cargo, and returned to the cities for more; mothers abandoned their children; prisoners called on God “until prayers guttered in their throats.”
Should this retreat succeed, will the participants grow to adopt that gaze which Matthiessen describes so coveting on the face of his Himalayan Sherpa Tukten, a “Bodhisattva smile that would shine impartially on rape or resurrection”?
Though not registered with the group, Olin has joined them to take advantage of access to both the camp and the town. His ostensible purpose is the research he is conducting into the life of Tadeusz Borowski, the Polish writer arrested in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz. In This Way to the Gas Ladies and Gentleman, Borowski’s justly famous account of camp life, there is a passage which speaks to Sherpa Tukten’s gaze. To soothe herself, an elder of the woman’s camp dreams of the divine retribution that will await these SS butchers in the afterlife. Borowski’s narrator, a generally nihilistic political prisoner, cannot bring himself to agree. “I suppose so, unless there are some criteria of justice other than man-made criteria. You know … the kind that explain causes and motivations, and erase guilt by making it appear insignificant in the light of the overall harmony of the universe.”
“There’s no space left on that platform for interpretation,” Ben Lama tells his flock in In Paradise, “It just is.” If Christ was in paradise on the cross, then can Auschwitz be a kind of paradise too? And what does that say of Paradise? Olin quotes Catherine of Sienna, “all the way to heaven is heaven.” What, should we take such a credo to heart, does it imply for the unwriteable suffering to which these dark places have been host?
In each of his novels, since 1954’s Race Rock, Matthiessen has concerned himself with puzzling out the nature of evil, its human origins, and the often perplexing contradictions of evil men, like the charming but murderous Edgar Watson of the Watson-trilogy, or the well-meaning but disease-carying and culture-defiling missionaries in At Play in the Fields of the Lord. One can smile and smile and be a villain.
But after the 30-year endurance-composition of his Watson-trilogy and its later condensation into a single volume, Matthiessen seems to have shifted his eye. The emphasis of In Paradise falls not on the genesis of evil, but how we are to live in the world that evil has made.
At the Black Wall, a brick relic against which countless prisoners were lined up and shot, the meditators gather around a visiting Rabbi.
… candles and incense are offered to the martyred as voices rise in Kaddish, the Prayer for the Dead, in which the Lord and all his works are glorified.
(‘Death camps included?’ The hoarse whisper is ignored.)
Once they have passed again out of Birkenau, through the railway tunnel “like a mouth of an ogre’s cave” and walked back to Auschwitz I, the group assembles for Quaker-style meetings. At the first of these meetings, an Israeli professor suggests that the Jews themselves are partially to blame for the Shoah, thanks to their historical “reclusiveness.” The Germans present rise to self-flagellate (“AUSCH-vitz iss zo fockink CHERman!”). They are met with a chilly silence. The tearful daughter of an SS man pleads for her father’s humanity and is loudly derided. Arabs are denounced by some Israelis, and a brave young Palestinian rises to defend them. The trouble, one professor suggests, is that young Israelis no longer care to hear about the Shoah; “even worse,” they say, “most of the survivors had been sluts or cowards.” A Nordic primatologist (there to study “so-called human evil”) brushes this aside, declares the question of race to be irrelevant—horror is horror and “the death camp is no aberration, only an extreme manifestation of man’s fundamental nature.”
All of this goes on, night after night, until, a few nights later, something rather miraculous happens. Shortly after Rabbi Dan, the cantor who intoned the Kaddish at the Black Wall, informs the discouraged assembled that “the only whole heart is the broken heart. But it must be wholly broken,” he begins to lead them in a chant of Oseh Shalom. Among the lilting lyrics (“he who makes peace in his high places / he shall make peace upon us”) gradually, “shy smiles appear, a stifled giggle. Arms start to swing, then over swing, tossed high like the arms of children making schoolyard dances.” The group circles the room with joined hands, continues singing and swinging their arms. Clement feels no shame at this display, nor does the stern but vulnerable nun on whom he’s developed an inappropriate crush. They dance hand-in-hand, and for that moment Olin feels “wholly present,” with “no need to speak, no need to think.” It is as though, for the brief span of its passing, “dancing has sealed their acceptance of all woebegone humankind.”
But relief is short-lived. In the wake of the group’s satori, old tensions re-surface. Participants grumble about sacrilege, feel unfulfilled by their retreat experience, their breasts still hollowed-out by what has happened to their families there, or their people, or their world. There is no answer to the problem of suffering posed by Auschwitz, only reactions.
Indeed, little seems to have changed in the world outside the camp. When Olin first arrives in Cracow he encounters a young couple, Mirek and Wanda, who have lived all of their lives without once meeting a single Jew. The girl says she was born in a house that had belonged to Jews before the war. The boy teases her: he didn’t know she was Yiddish! “’Not Yittish!’ she cries. ‘Borned in old Yittish house!’” The boy had planned on training for the priesthood, but his father no longer pressures him toward it as he once did. “’Know what Papa say? He say better maybe that foolish Wanda than some dirty priest!’”
The Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandals—fresh news in 1996—have aggravated the region’s native homophobia. Oswiecim’s new priest, Father Mikal, is regarded with suspicion. “Let’s hope he’s not one of those!” cries another local; she does not mean “pedophile,” or at least not exclusively. Later, when a box of pink triangles is passed around among the Zen students, Olin chooses to pin one to his shirt in solidarity. It is not only the locals, by then, who regard him askance. We might, at any time, find ourselves “breathing the air of the Dark Ages,” anyplace on earth.
Olin himself is heterosexual, though like all of the lonely men in Matthiessen’s novels, he feels both passionately attracted to and strangely ambivalent about the object of his affection. There is good reason for these turnings-away in all of the novels, from the perspective of narrative; from the perspective of character, they often seem poorly tailored. In Raditzer, Charles Stark’s vague dislike of time spent with his fiancé Charlotte (“he was stirred by latent doubts, and felt shamed by her defenselessness”) gets him out of the house and off to the South Seas, but it doesn’t round his character. In Lost Man’s River, Lucius Watson’s failure to propose marriage to Neil Dyer, who worships him and who he worships in return, equips him with the sort of peripatetic life that drives the cross-country search for his father’s story, but it does not ring true. Of course, when the woman in question is religious, all of this makes more sense, and the careless seducer proves himself a man of quality by stopping short. When Andy, a pretty American missionary, responds to the mercenary Wolfie’s advances in the jungle bar of the Gran Hotel Dolores in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Wolfie unexpectedly demurs; sin means nothing to him but “for you a sin is different. You’d only be sorry after.” Later, “he cursed her again for making him feel weak and guilty.”
So when Clement Olin finds himself attracted to the young novice Catherine, longtime readers of Matthiessen may suspect his better angels will prevail. But who knows that we may not be mistaken? Their mutual flirtation develops slowly—the odd tease or shy smile—so that we barely realize what’s been going on until Olin begins to upbraid himself for its impropriety. It’s shameful enough to try to seduce a woman of God from her calling, but to do so in a death camp…
All of this raises again the question posed by that of the Sherpa’s smile, or the flare-up of that dance. How can one transcend the tyranny of emotion to see things plain? On the other hand, how can one hope to remain human at Auschwitz without love in one’s heart? Viktor Frankl famously wrote of how the strong love he felt for his wife (who, unbeknownst to him, had already died in the gas chamber) persuaded him not to lose hope. Tadeusz Borowski’s own survival was emboldened by his devotion to his fiancé Maria, who he was able to visit from time to time at the women’s camp. Without any trace of love for others, we have only self-protection to fall back upon, which, in conditions like those of the camps, can quickly turn to shame, or to cruelty. “I fought hard to save my soul!” cries one survivor when another participant marvels that she survived the camps so long, “And yes—if this is what you wish to hear, sir—yes, I was defeated. My very soul, it was defeated.”
“Not so fast, madam,” Olin thinks to himself, “Pray tell us, how did you manage to survive so long? And at what cost to others?”
Olin himself has been equipped by Matthiessen with a frightening familial history. His paternal forebears were an aristocratic Oswiecim family, who fled the country shortly after the Nazis had taken it. His father Alexi was a cavalry lieutenant (Auschwitz was built on the site of a rotting cavalry barracks) and his mother a local schoolteacher who did not flee the country, but who managed to smuggle Alexi’s son to the exiled Olins in America. Following his father’s recent suicide, Olin discovers the first picture he has ever seen of his mother and, we gradually discover, has chosen to attend this retreat for reasons not wholly literary, but rather “sentimental, or at least too personal, too likely to invite the wrong sort of attention.” Olin had been raised with a German-speaking disregard for Polish peasants and for Jews as well, which he struggles now to understand. In his exploration of the town, many of the questions he had wanted to pose his family are reviled, as are hugely dark and terrifying things about his Mother and her relations. The climax of this search, which takes place in the burned-out cellar of one of the old death houses, contains some of the most frightening and passionate writing of Matthiessen’s long career. I’ll resist quoting any out of context because it deserves to be read whole.
There is superlative writing elsewhere too of course, as in all of Matthiessen’s books. Olin sarcastically asks himself, at one point, what a new set of eyes on the old camp and museum can possibly add “that has not, long since, with lacerating eloquence, been flayed upon the page?” But many of Matthiessen’s own observations do enrich our understanding of a book-buried subject, from a note about how high the cattle cars sat above the platform (“the children, he thinks, and the elderly and the disabled must have landed hard”) to his angry description of camp commander Rudolf Hoess’ house with its “military row of hard tight evergreens and its dog pen of a garden.”
It’s easy to sneer at the sort of earnest spiritual seekers on that platform, and the “ghostly voices” they hallucinate. It’s also easy to deride the usefulness of “bearing witness,” or to fall back on a passivity bred of cynicism. But 1943 is the blink of an eye from 1996, and 1996 is the blink of an eye from 2014. I well remember the time one of my aged relatives made what could have been interpreted as an anti-Semitic remark. It was during Thanksgiving dinner. My grandfather, who toured the camp at Ohrdruf as a member of General Patton’s staff only one week after its liberation, leaned across the table and said, “Had you seen some of the things I’ve seen, you know, you might not be so quick to say those things.” He held her eyes.
But this was a decade ago or more, and those with direct experience of the camps grow scarcer with every day that passes. Already the list of victims’ names, read aloud during Olin’s meditation, “holds no more reality than forgotten faces in old photo albums.”
The day is not far off [Olin reflects] when commercial interests will circulate a protest stating that these old pasturelands, having outlived their usefulness as an exhibit of the state museum, are a shocking waste of real estate and taxes … In time the weather will transform the ash pits to lily ponds, and fresh meadows will be suitable once more for butterflies, wildflowers, children’s voices, Sunday strolling, picnics, trysts, walked dogs, escaped balloons, and all manner of municipal occasions. Even its picturesque old name, Brzezinka, can only enhance the marketing potential of the grand development to follow. The Birches? Birchwood Estates? River Meadows? And what will happen to its strange power?
With In Paradise, Peter Matthiessen has created philosophical and moral cacophony of lasting worth and, indeed, of a strange power. It belongs on the shelf beside At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Far Tortuga, and Shadow Country. Of how many books can that be said?
John Cotter is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly and author of the novel Under the Small Lights (Miami University Press, 2010). He lives in Denver, where he co-founded the Denver Poets’ Theater and teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop.