Podcast / Start Making Sense / Aug 17, 2023

Right-Wing Attacks on Small-Town Libraries—Plus, The Snow Leopard

Right-Wing Attacks on Small-Town Libraries—Plus, “The Snow Leopard”

On this episode of Start Making Sense, Sasha Abramsky on the culture war, and Pico Iyer on Peter Matthieson’s spiritual journey through the Himalayas.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Right-Wing Attacks on Small-Town Libraries; plus “The Snow Leopard” | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

Public Libraries are often wonderful places, but they have become targets of right-wing attack in the culture war. On this episode of the Start Making Sense podcast, Sasha Abramsky talks about his reporting on the battle in one small town in Washington state. 

Also on this episode: Peter Matthiessen’s exploration of suffering, impermanence, and beauty in his book “The Snow Leopard,” an account of his trek in the Himalayas. Pico Iyer, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics paperback edition, is on the show to talk about the book. The conversation with Iyer was recorded in 2008.

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Public libraries are often wonderful places, but they have become targets of right-wing attack in the culture war. On this episode of the Start Making Sense podcast, Sasha Abramsky talks about his reporting on the battle in one small town in Washington state. 

Also on this episode: Peter Mattheson’s exploration of suffering, impermanence, and beauty in his book The Snow Leopard, an account of his trek in the Himalayas. Pico Iyer, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics paperback edition, is on the show to talk about the book. The conversation with Iyer was recorded in 2008.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Democrats vs. Billionaires, plus Hamas vs. Fatah | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

The issues and the language that win for Democrats: research shows it’s not just “jobs,” but attacking the rich. Bhaskar Sunkara, President of The Nation and author of The Socialist Manifesto, explains.

Also: why did Hamas decide to provoke massive Israeli retaliation now? Hussein Ibish, who writes for The Atlantic, the New York Times, and Daily Beast, says Hamas had a clear political goal on October 7: to defeat the Palestinian secular nationalists of Fatah and the PLO.

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener. Later in the show, from the archives, one of our favorite segments, talking about a trek in the Himalayas. We spoke with Pico Iyer about Peter Matthiessen’s exploration of suffering, impermanence, and beauty in his classic book, The Snow Leopard. It’s available now in paperback from Penguin Classics. But first, how right-wing culture warriors are trying to close the public library in one American small town. Sasha Abramsky will report – in a minute. 

[BREAK]

JW: Public libraries are often wonderful places, but they’ve become targets of right-wing attack in the culture war. For that story, we turn to Sasha Abramsky. Of course, he writes regularly for The Nation. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Village Voice and Rolling Stone. He’s written many books including The American Way of Poverty and The House of 20,000 Books. His new cover story for The Nation is titled The Small-Town Library That Became a Culture War Battleground. We reached him today at home in Sacramento. Sasha Abramsky, welcome back.

Sasha Abramsky: It’s good to be on, Jon. 

JW: Libraries: they’re often indispensable places for lots of people. They’re not just repositories of books. In a lot of poorer neighborhoods, they’re often the nicest and the safest place a kid or a family can go. Kids can get help with homework. They and their families can use the computer. People can learn English. They can get help with official documents, immigration and citizenship, unemployment and Social Security. I’m reading here from the Los Angeles Public Library website, but lots of public libraries do this sort of thing. There’s one other thing, it’s all free. It’s for everybody provided by the city or county. It’s like an island of socialism in the middle of dog-eat-dog capitalist America. One friend told me, “If you want to find the socialist in Fargo, go to the library.” Of course, libraries also have books, including children’s books, and those are the books that have become the targets of attack by Republican culture warriors, for example, attacks on the library and the librarians in Dayton, Washington. That’s what you wrote about for The Nation. First of all, where is Dayton, and how did this all start?

SA: Dayton’s a tiny little community in the southeast corner of Washington state. It’s about as far from any of the big cities in the region as you can get. It’s about a four-and-a half, five-hour drive east of Portland, Oregon. It’s about a four-hour drive from Boise, Idaho. It’s in the middle of nowhere, got a few thousand people and it’s got this lovely library. It’s a New Deal library. It was built in the 1930s after a huge amount of fundraising in the community. It’s had this really good run for 75 years, but as you said, now it’s under attack by a group of cultural warriors who don’t like the content of some of the books and have reached for a nuclear option of shutting down the entire library or trying to shut down the entire library.

JW: Now I understand from your piece that the attacks on the library in Dayton, Washington are part of a national campaign inspired by an organization called Moms for Liberty. What is Moms for Liberty and how big is it?

SA: The Moms for Liberty started in 2021 in Florida, and it grew out of parents’ rights movements around the pandemic, essentially; people who didn’t want their kids out of school, people who didn’t want their kids to be vaccinated, people who didn’t want to have to wear masks and so on. It’s morphed and grown over the last two, three years. So now it’s this organization with hundreds of chapters around the country, and it’s very influential in school board elections and the Republican Party presidential hopefuls make homage to the Moms for Liberty, going to attend their conferences and so on. It’s morphed from being just about the pandemic to being about the great cultural war issues at the moment around race and around gender and around sexuality.

So basically, what they do is they go around looking for “offensive books” that talk about issues of sexuality to young kids and talk about issues of race in a critical way. Then they highlight these books, and they go after the libraries and the librarians, and they work to get those books removed from the bookshelf or marginalized by being put out of a reach of children in the libraries. More nefariously, it’s one thing to have a debate over the books, but more nefariously, these anti-library groups have morphed into really personalized attacks against librarians. They accused school librarians and public librarians of being pedophiles or grooming children. They use this very loaded, very guaranteed-to-stoke-outrage kind of language.

That’s what I found fascinating in Dayton, that it’s this little community with a ginned-up culture war basically. It’s got a few books in the library that talk about sexuality that deal with issues of transsexual identity in particular. Those books have caused such a brouhaha that you now have this organization that’s led by a young woman called Jessica Ruffcorn. You now have this organization of locals that, as I said, it reeks of the nuclear option. They’ve basically said, ‘Look, if you’re not going to remove these books, we’re going to try and put forward a citizen initiative to be voted on to defund the entire library district.’ This is extraordinary. Imagine having the hubris to think that you have the right to shut down your community’s library simply because it’s stocking books that you view to be a little bit offensive.

JW: In your piece, you point out that there are forces on the left that also target some books and some authors. Some authors are accused of cultural appropriation or ethnic stereotyping or other offenses. But you say there’s a difference between the left efforts to target and ban some books and what the right has been doing. What is the difference?

SA: Yeah, well, let me be absolutely up front on this. I have no truck with book banning. I don’t care whether it comes from the left wing or the right wing. It’s misguided, it’s bigoted, and it impoverishes us culturally. We shouldn’t be a community that’s so fragile that if we don’t like a book, our immediate solution is to ban that book or to cancel the author. So I’m not in any way, shape or form defending left-wing book banning. I think it’s just as toxic as right wing book banning. But I do think there’s a structural difference. The structural difference is that the Democratic Party as a whole has not bought into book bans; whereas, the Republican Party as a whole now is using this to whip up an electoral base.

So when you have an entire major political party that is on board with the project of banning books or limiting what can be taught in schools, you look at the way in which the curricula has been restricted in Florida and in various other states, that’s a whole different ballgame. So that’s why I think that when the right goes after books at the moment in America, it’s far more dangerous than when the left goes after books. So there is another difference as well. Generally, when the left goes after books, it’s because those books contain fairly inflammatory racial language. That’s been the major provocation leading to book banning efforts on the left. Now, I don’t think those books should be banned, but I do think there’s a difference between being offended by racial language and in the right wing’s case, just being offended by marginalized communities.

So the right has gone after deeply vulnerable, deeply marginalized communities, the transgendered community, the teenage gay community. They’ve gone after racial minorities. They’ve gone after basically not groups with influence but groups already on the margins. Now that’s the quintessential definition of a bully. When a strong person or a strong group goes after a weak person or a weak group, that’s bullying and that’s being institutionalized and legislated on by the Republican Party at the moment. That’s why there’s a difference, and that’s why I think it’s worth focusing more on what the right wing is doing around censorship because it’s far more toxic, and it’s far more destructive.

JW: So tell me a little bit about the people who are leading this effort, first of all, to censor and now to close the libraries in this one little town in Eastern Washington. Who are the people?

SA: It’s a small group of people religiously motivated on the whole. It’s led by a woman called Jessica Ruffcorn who actually worked in a library in the recent past. She’s a young mother. She volunteers for the little league. She’s perfectly pleasant. I met her on the stoop of her house, and we talked for a while. She’s perfectly pleasant when you have that conversation except when you start talking about the idea of book banning and suddenly, you have this absolutely no compromise approach to book banning that it is unfathomable to me. Jessica Ruffcorn and her group of fellow book banners have ginned up this manufactured crisis. They identified a handful of books that were fairly sexually explicit, not in a titillating way. There was nothing pornographic about it, but they were sexually explicit in an educational way, and they looked at these books and they said they were inappropriate for children.

Now you can have a perfectly legitimate argument as to whether or not that’s true. I certainly wouldn’t say all of these books were 100% perfect and all of these books I’d be happy with kids of any age reading. Seems to me that there’s legitimate room for having a conversation as to whether or not those books should be on kids’ shelves in libraries. But it’s one thing to have that debate internally, it’s another thing to say, ‘Well, unless you agree with our demands to move these books, we are going to try and shut down the library.’

That’s when you end up in a deeply authoritarian moment, and that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing it in Idaho as well, just across the state line in Meridian, Idaho and a few other places. We’re seeing it in Michigan, and we’re seeing it in a handful of places around the country now, this notion that libraries are the enemy and that librarians are the enemy, and that we are so vulnerable to books on library shelves that our default response has to be to close down the library. So I think you asked who these people are. They start from a place of a legitimate debating point around what sorts of books should be in libraries, but they finish in this absolutely authoritarian position about defunding libraries and shutting down the choice of other people as to what books they should or shouldn’t be able to access.

JW: This little town, of course, has a library board that governs the library. Who’s on the library board? I assume these are college grads and professionals?

SA: The chair of the library board is a very interesting guy called Jay Ball, and he’s a mechanic, an auto mechanic. He runs a car repair store in Dayton. He’s a lovely guy and he’s been reading books his whole life, and he loves library culture. He’s absolutely committed to the principles of free speech and free expression. So Jay Ball, of course, has also aroused the wrath of the pro-censorship movement because he said, “Look, it’s not a matter of left wing, right wing, this is just a matter of freedom, of access to information.” He stood firm and he supported the librarian. To me, this is what libraries are about.

They’re not about elites, they’re about ordinary people who realize the importance of knowledge and realize the importance of a free spread of ideas. Someone like Jay Ball to me is a really important figure in a story like this. It’s what I love doing when I’m doing my journalism. This nonsense, this absolute nonsense that libraries are the purview of an intellectual elite, they’re not. Libraries are a democratizing force. Only in a library do you get people of all different classes, all different backgrounds, all different ages coming together and seeking to acquire knowledge. It’s a wonderful thing. The idea that you would shut down a library because you disagree with the content of a few books, to me, that’s just unfathomable.

JW: You met a fascinating person in this little town of 5,000 people, Regina Weldert, tell us about her.

SA: So Regina Weldert is a transgendered woman in her 70s. She had been, I believe a fishery scientist and then retired and in her 60s transitioned and was now running a coffee roasting company in this little town of Dayton. Regina Weldert said to me, “Look, I’ve never had trouble. Nobody’s attacked me for my identity before in Dayton.” “In fact,” she said, “I’ve had more trouble when I go to the big cities like Seattle where people heckle me and insult me.” But then she said, “Now I feel scared because suddenly, there’s this cultural war going on in Dayton and suddenly, intolerance is bubbling up to the surface.” Regina Weldert said to me, “Well, look, if you marginalize the voices of people like me,” she said, “or if you marginalize the voices of young people exploring their sexual identity or their gender identity, what you do is you push people into the closet.” 

People who are already marginalized, already psychologically vulnerable, already at risk for abuse, already at risk for homelessness, all the things that transgender youth are disproportionately at risk of, if you invisibilize them, you make it more likely that at the end of the day, there are going to be bad outcomes, that psychologically bad things are going to happen, or that they’re going to end up on the streets with no resources to help them. So Regina Weldert said, “Look, I’m in my 70s, but I’ve got to fight against the censorship movement because it’s trying to invisibilize people like me,” she said. 

I think there’s this concept that all the issues around gender identity and sexual identity, that that’s a big city thing. That’s absolutely not true. You can go to any small town, any small community anywhere in this country, and if you look, you’re going to find people exploring those same issues about who they are and how they want to portray themselves to the world. It’s not a big town/small town thing, but I think there’s this idea among conservatives, among hyper conservatives in a place like Dayton, there’s this idea that if we can just get rid of a few books, everything’s going to go back to the 1950s and everything’s going to be easy to understand. Again, that’s absolutely nonsense. You can get rid of those books, but life is going to be just as complicated and just as messy and just as ambiguous today as it was yesterday. We’ve just made it harder on already vulnerable people.

JW: One of the people they made it harder on was the librarian of their town, Todd Vandenbark. What happened to him?

SA: He had been attacked again and again and again for defending the right of the library to pick and choose books. He’d been called a groomer. He’d been called a pedophile. He’d had violent threats against him online. He’d been told he should be in prison, he should be in jail. He’d been heckled at public meetings, and he stood firm. He stood firm for over a year of this conflict, and he made sure the library still had those books. At the end of the day, though, he had enough and a few months ago, earlier this summer, he packed up and left. He accepted a job somewhere else. He said, “I’ve done it. I’ve done everything I can here. I don’t want any more of this, and he left Dayton. He said to me, “Look, frankly, I’ve got no real interest in going back to Dayton.” I felt terribly sad about this because this was someone who had stood firm, and he had faced some really quite gruesome personal insults for standing firm. But at the end of the day, he just felt it was too much.

I think this is the danger that even if groups don’t succeed in defunding libraries, and it’s quite likely that that initiative will be defeated in November because even conservatives in Dayton, many of them are very uncomfortable with getting rid of their library. But even if the library remains in place, at the end of the day, the librarian was driven out of office, and the interim director who came in and succeeded him immediately moved some of those books that had created such a foray, immediately moved some of those books away from the kids’ section. Well, that’s bowing to pressure from really authoritarian intimidatory movement, and that’s an ugly harbinger of what’s to come. I think that that’s a real risk that you go around the country from place to place to place, and as these censorship wars heat up, even if they don’t formally work, they create enough soft pressure that librarians say, “You know what? This isn’t worth it. Let me compromise on free speech just a little bit. Let me bow to these demands just a little bit,” and that’s a really slippery slope.

JW: One last thing, what was it like for you to go to this small town in rural Washington and talk to these far right-wing activists whose actions you find so reprehensible?

SA: Yeah, I find it fascinating, and I’ve spent quite a lot of the last few years doing this kind of reporting where I find these movements in these communities, and I go in and I talk to a lot of people. This is, to me, what makes journalism worthwhile. It’s okay to just talk to people that you agree with, but it’s boring. It’s far more interesting and far more productive, and it’s far more honest intellectually to talk to people from an array of different backgrounds. It helps you understand where we are. Look, if you want to understand where America is in 2023, if you want to understand the potency of these cultural war issues, look, if you want to understand why Donald Trump is still electorally competitive, despite facing 640 something years in prison, if you want to understand all of those things, you’ve got to understand these kind of cultural war conflicts that are going on. So I love going to these places.

JW: But surely they see you as the enemy.

SA: It depends. I have a lot of times people saying, “I’m not going to talk to you.” Jessica Ruffcorn originally said to me, “I’m not going to talk to you.” I persisted, and I just kept asking questions and I kept talking. If you talk long enough and if you show an interest in what people are saying, people will talk to you, not everybody. You can have some people who just will not talk to the media come what may, but you’re going to have a lot of people who after a while do. One of the things that has increasingly struck me as being important about this moment is the dangerousness of our levels of polarization.

That we are so confined to our own echo chambers, and we’re so willing and able to see a political opponent as the enemy, and that’s really dangerous. We live in a democracy, and we’ve got to have an ability to at least have some conversations across ideological divide. So no, I don’t agree with these censorship movements. I think they’re really dangerous, and I profoundly hope that they don’t succeed. But I think it’s really important to talk with people who do buy into those movements and try and understand where they’re coming from. 

JW: Sasha Abramsky, his article for The Nation, The Small-Town Library That Became a Culture War Battleground is the cover story in the magazine this week. It’s in-depth reporting at its best. You can read it online at thenation.com. Sasha, thank you for your work on this, and thanks for talking with us today.

SA: Jon, I always love talking with you. It’s a pleasure. 

[BREAK]

Jon Wiener: A naturalist treks high into the Himalayas into a world of snow and silence, wind and blue. The book about that trek called The Snow Leopard has become a classic, and the author, Peter Matthiessen is one of our greatest writers. Now, that book is being reissued by Penguin Classics with a wonderful new introduction by Pico Iyer. He is the author of many books. He’s written about Tibet for The New Yorker, The New York Review, and The New York Times, and now he has his own new book out. It’s called The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Llama. Pico Iyer, welcome back.

Pico Iyer: Thank you. It’s nice to be here, Jon.

JW: Who was Peter Matthiessen when he went into the Himalayas in 1973, and what was he looking for?

PI: He was a 45-year-old man accompanying his great friend George Schaller, one of the country’s great biologists. Peter Matthiessen was already, as you’ve mentioned, a naturalist who was used to going to remote places in the world. But I think the two things that really animate this journey are first that his young wife had just begun to introduce him to Zen Buddhism, and he was beginning to think about what lies behind our thoughts and what lies behind our words. Secondly, that young wife had just died of cancer a few months before. So even as he’s going on this trip ostensibly to look for the mating habits of the blue sheep in the Himalayas, and also hoping to spot the famously rare and elusive snow leopard, but I think what he’s really carrying along with him are his dawning understandings about Buddhism and his haunted memory of his young wife’s recent death.

JW: The place he went to, I even now don’t know anything about it, Inner Dolpo. What was Inner Dolpo in 1973?

PI: No, you’re right. I’ve spent a lot of time around the Himalayas and I’ve barely heard of it and certainly, never met anyone else who’s been there. It’s a very, very remote area, almost unvisited to this day by people. So in that sense, it’s probably similar today to the way it was in 1973. So it’s really just these two adventurers from New York and they’re sherpas and the huge snow mountains and wildness and emptiness all around them.

JW: So you have visited some of the high plateaus of the Himalayas. What are they like? What do you see there?

PI: They’re as exalting and magical, I almost say to my shame, as you would expect. I remember the first time I went to Tibet was in 1985, and I was a writer on World Affairs for Time Magazine. So I was really determined not to be enchanted. I was a hard-nosed kid, worldly-wise reporter as I saw it. I was determined not to be taken in by the images of Tibet that transfix us all. But almost my first day in Lhasa, I remember climbing up to a mountain or rather actually to the Potala Palace in the shadow of the snow caps and just stepping out on terraces under this intense cobalt sky with shards of sunlight coming into these little dusty rooms where monks were marching their prayers. I really felt carried out of the world I knew and carried out of the self I knew, actually. I think it’s got to do something with the thin air and the high environment, probably culture shock, probably jet lag too, but it’s a strikingly powerful and transporting area.

JW: So you’ve written a new introduction to Peter Matthiessen’s classic book, The Snow Leopard. In that piece you quote Thoreau, who, in the conclusion to Walden, wrote a very now famous sentence: “It is not worthwhile to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” I’m sure Peter Matthiessen is familiar with that sentence. Why did he go around the world to count the cats in Inner Dolpo?

PI: Well, I think part of the uniqueness of Peter Matthiessen, which is also the uniqueness of this book, is that he’s on the one hand, a very, very serious naturalist whose first book was Wildlife in America, and who genuinely does have a scientific curiosity about species and places that he’s never seen before. On the other hand, he’s also a novelist, and so he’s interested in the inner nature, in the invisible nature and what takes place inside us. So I think he went on the journey as a naturalist thinking this was a rare chance to see a part of the globe he’d never seen, and creatures that he would never see otherwise. Yet, as he took that first step, he also realized that he was going to go into those places in himself that perhaps he’d always shy away from at home.

To go back to your last question, I think the most striking thing for me about the Himalayas is it’s very barren and it’s very sparse, and you lose all sense of complication and distraction, and you really return to yourself up in those high mountains, especially where he was, because that was very obscure, and there’s nowhere to hide. You have to look head on at your anger, your fear, your pain, and I think that’s one thing that he knew that he would get to do when he went on the trip.

JW: Today, of course, there’s a lot of organized hiking in the Himalayas and hikers today, of course, make sure they have the very best high-tech hiking, hiking boots. There’s a lot of cult boots now. Is that what Peter Matthiessen did?

PI: No, he likes roughness and he likes difficulty, and he likes challenge, I think. So, although he had this group of porters, sherpas that were helping them along on this trip, interestingly, one of these sherpas he regards almost as a demon. The trip is into the opposite of comfort and the opposite of security, which I think is exactly what appealed to him as a Zen student and later, somebody who is ordained as a Zen priest. I know like many of us, I’ve read this book five, six times I think since it came out, and each time it changes and grows as I do. I used to think it was just a beautiful kind of quest allegory about somebody going into these radiant mountains and finding truth, and it is that.

But what struck me rereading it this time was that it’s so unvarnished and tough and rigorous, a vision of what you find in the mountains. He gets intimations of great clarity and beauty at 18,000 feet. But also what he’s getting at every moment is reminders of his own imperfection. Even after he comes down from the mountain, it’s not into a happy ending. He’s still impatient, and he’s still greedy by his own reckoning, and he’s still scared. In some ways, I think it’s a very enlightened view of enlightenment because it doesn’t suggest that everything’s going to get sorted out.

JW: We’re speaking with Pico Iyer. He’s written the introduction to a new addition of Peter Matthiessen’s classic, The Snow Leopard. It’s being published by Penguin Classics in paperback. One of the other fascinating things about this whole project is that Peter Matthiessen was a staff writer for The New Yorker. Wasn’t it The New Yorker that sent him to 18,000 feet?

PI: Yes, it was I think it’s The New Yorker that really schooled him in meticulousness and position, which I think he had already. But the beauty of this book is that on the one hand, it’s a transporting spiritual allegory. On the other hand, it’s full of details. At every moment, just like any scientist, he records the temperature, the altitude, the terrain, what he’s passing. I think when we think of spiritual books, we often think of books that fly into the clouds, that leave the everyday very quickly behind and tell us what we dream of in our Shangri-La visions.

But the beauty of this book is that because it was written for The New Yorker, Peter Matthiessen couldn’t take any shortcuts, and he had to bring that repertorial eye and close observation to everything around him, which means that when he does describe transports here, they’re very grounded ones. They’re ones that are going to be fact-checked by teams of colleagues back in New York. So there’s a great solidity to his writing that I think is really rare. You can feel that every sentence he’s run through his mind again and again to make sure it’ll stand up to the scrutiny of professional researchers as well as to the truth of the experience.

JW: So on the one hand, this is a book about rare and elusive and exalted landscapes and experiences, but in The Snow Leopard Peter Matthiessen also tells us that he has an eight-year-old son who he left behind, a boy who has already lost his mother. That certainly makes him look bad, looks like he’s a bad father. Why do you think he put that in the book?

PI: Well, I’m so glad you mentioned that because that’s one of my favorite moments in the book, and I’ve had many discussions with people about it over the years. Just as you say, he includes this letter from his son saying, “I miss you and I’m lonely. Please, will you come back.” He tells the son, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back before Thanksgiving.” As the trip goes on and the days keep mounting, he realized that he’s not going to be back before Thanksgiving, and he’s going to have broken his promise to this eight-year-old son. Just as you say, that does show him in a bad light. What impresses me so much is the fact that Peter Matthiessen chose to include that letter. All of us every day in our lives have things happen that show us in a bad light or show us not at our best.

If we’re writers, nearly always, we’re trying to win over the reader and show her how brave and selfless and heroic we are. So I know as a writer myself, when something shows me in a bad light, my first inclination is to keep it out of the book. The very fact that Peter Matthiessen puts that incriminating letter in the book tells me that this is a book about candor and about not glossing anything over and in fact, about going into the difficult parts of yourself. I know many readers are alarmed to witness the letter and then to realize that the father is not going to be able to honor his promise. But I know most of the great travelers that I read have lots of secrets when they travel. They have companions that they never mentioned. They have secret girlfriends here and there. Many of the great travelers can’t even drive while they’re portraying themselves as heroic adventurers. But Peter Matthiessen, by including that letter is saying, ‘I’m going to be upfront with you, and I’m going to look at the things that even I would rather not see in myself probably.’

JW: You’ve already mentioned the sherpa, one of the porters who’s a central character in the book. In fact, in many ways, the most powerful character in The Snow Leopard is not the author. It’s another guy, this sherpa, who’s one of the porters, tell us about him, please.

PI: His name is Tutken, and he’s a very haunting character. You feel that he’s got a lot of secrets, that he’s probably a little dishonest. He’s always fighting with the other porters. There’s something shadowy and dark and unsettling about him. Yet Peter Matthiessen, again, with that same honesty, looks at this man, and he says, “Well, he’s almost my familiar. It’s almost like looking at a reflection of myself.” Of course, one of the beauties of the book, The Snow Leopard, is Peter Matthiessen is determined to see the snow leopard. He never actually sees it. He’s determined to go into the Himalayas to meet a lama or a wise man in a remote monastery. In fact, he walks right past that wise man and doesn’t even recognize him. When he does talk to the wise man, he finds this pretty down-to-earth soul who’s very hardy, but doesn’t seem to be offering wisdom.

At the same time, in his own group, he has this very slippery, shadowy character whom nobody really trusts. As the book goes on, Matthiessen almost begins to suggest that the real teacher is this slippery sherpa, and that in fact, one way or another, he can learn more from this guy than he can from all the wise men that he thinks he’s seeking. Partly because this slippery man, this Tutken is so undiluted. Peter Matthiessen has a wonderful line in which he says, “You feel that this man would look unconcerned upon rape or resurrection.” In other words, he’s like a Zen wild man, mountain hermit sage who’s attained some kind of position in himself when nothing that happens in the world is going to fluster him. Almost against his wishes, Peter Matthiessen realizes, “Well, this odd guy may in spite of himself be a teacher.”

JW: So in the end, Peter Matthiessen never sees the famously rare and elusive snow leopard. The wise man he went to find doesn’t impress him very much. Would you say that the book has a happy ending?

PI: Yes. It’s a typically Zen, which means complex and paradoxical and contradictory ending. But really, I think it’s about working your way through ambition among other things. All of us have intentions, destinations, when we set out, even when we set upon our day, ‘I want to achieve this, I want to see this and this.’ What this book suggests is not finding them, is actually a richer and more spacious kind of conclusion. If Peter Matthiessen had seen The Snow Leopard, he’d have an ending for the book, and it would be a diminishing ending. But what he understands as he makes this fairly rigorous austere ascent, is that he doesn’t have to see the snow leopard. It’s more important to see himself. It’s more important to think through his obligations to his late wife and his son, that the snow leopards really a pretext for looking at those things that maybe he would never be able to see if he was at home.

So I think by shirking the obvious, happy ending, he’s taking us into something that’s much more lifelike and in some ways, much more fulfilling. I think it speaks to anyone who’s on a spiritual path who at the outset may think, ‘I want enlightenment, I want wisdom. I want to find the teacher.’ Probably the more he proceeds along that, the more he sees, well, enlightenment probably just takes the form of appreciating this thing along the street, or the wise man is whoever happens to be around you at the time, and you get stripped of your lofty notions, I think. I think that’s one reason why The Snow Leopard has been such an enduring book and will continue to endure because it’s about not finding the snow leopard, and it’s about in that sense, disappointment and coming to peace with imperfections.

JW: Pico Iyer – his introduction to a new edition of Peter Matthiessen’s classic book, The Snow Leopard has just been published by Penguin Classics. Thank you, Pico.

PI: Thank you, Jon. Always a delight to talk to you.

JW: We spoke with Pico Iyer about Peter Matthiessen’s book, The Snow Leopard in September 2008. 

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

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