Pico Iyer Journeys

The Snow Leopard

It can be so startling–such a breath, quite literally, of fresh air–to enter this world that is at once as real as this blister and an allegory of sorts (when he takes leave of GS, all Matthiessen can see as he moves away is “the black emblem of a man against the sun, as in a dream”) that it is easy to overlook the extraordinary care and craft that underlie the book. And that is fine. William Shawn’s New Yorker, which sponsored most of Matthiessen’s natural expeditions, including this one, trained the writer in drawing attention to the world he was reporting, not himself; Zen does much the same, making the ego seem small and laughable in the context of the natural facts around it. The point of The Snow Leopard is, much more than in most books, to lose sight of the author and his language so as to feel the silver light of the mountains, the blue sky opening above, the silence and the clarity.

Yet look more closely at the text, and you enjoy a different kind of wonder, akin to the one the author feels in reading every fig tree and macaque. Early on in the narrative we read of how rain “comes and goes.” Roughly fifty pages, and many lifetimes later, the sun “comes and goes.” This stands, we realize, for the changeable condition of the elements in the high mountains; everything is ephemeral. Yet we also note, if we’re paying attention, that the phrase itself keeps coming and going through the book and, a little later, “tears and laughter come and go.” It hardly matters that “coming and going” is almost the first principle of Zen, the phrase you find in every Zen master’s haiku; the point is that the words themselves tell us not to take the mood too seriously. “I don’t trust my inner feelings,” as Leonard Cohen writes in a late song, having lived as a Zen monk on a lonely mountain, “inner feelings come and go.”

“There is no wisp of cloud–clear, clear, clear, clear,” Matthiessen writes at another point on the high mountain, and one realizes that a less confident writer would have tried to decorate or vary the sentence, would never have had the courage to repeat the same simple word four times, as if to take us to a place where all words give out. “It is the precise bite and feel and sound of every step that fills me with life,” Matthiessen writes elsewhere, and the reader might notice how it is the precise monosyllables–the strict bark of “bite and feel and sound”–that fill the prose with life and bring us very close to the earth.

You can enjoy The Snow Leopard without responding to any of this, and yet, if you are so inclined, The Snow Leopard offers a kind of handbook on how precision and modesty work, and how contemporary, immediate language can echo the sounds of ancient verses. Perhaps my favorite moment in the entire work comes when Matthiessen writes, “I grow into these mountain like a moss. I am bewitched.” and then, after the two short, simple sentences beginning with “I,” there comes a great, rolling sentence that takes in the “blinding snow peaks and the clarion air, the sound of earth and heaven in the silence, the requiem birds, the mythic beasts, the flags, great horns, and old carved stones, the rough-hewn Tartars in their braids and homespun boots, the silver ice in the black river, the Kang, the Crystal Mountain.”

In the very language, in other words, the “I” is subsumed in all the great forces around it, and everything becomes a single breath, in which the I disappears. Better yet, none of the immemorial presences that swallow up the I are without their shadow sides (the “requiem birds,” the “black river,” the Crystal Mountain, which has just been described as a “castle of dread”). We recall how, in the midst of his transports, Matthiessen writes of a “doomsday sun,” a “silver bird of night,” even the “whisper of the shroud,” so that we never forget that one of his main companions on the journey is Death. The sentence enacts the very fading of the I into the mountain.

As the book concludes, I think the reader has learned something about the nature (you could say the folly) of expectation and the beauty of that truth that all expectations and ideas often cover up. We see the snow leopard’s prints, we feel its presence everywhere, but we realize that the sighting of the rare animal isn’t important at all (the author has, in some ways, sighted the rare animal, more germane to his purposes, that is himself). We see that teachers may come where you don’t look for them–in yellow-eyed men who seem to be demons–and that the temples that are full of all wisdom in ancient lands are locked. We realize–and this, I think, is the most important point of The Snow Leopard, and begins to bring us back to Alex–how much every trip that really sustains us is in fact a journey home. The author, setting out, feels constantly the presence of some “inner garden” to which he’s lost the key; by the time he comes down, something has been put to rest–or clarified, if only for a moment–and the author has, perhaps, something to bring back to his boy that probably he could never have shared with him if he’d stayed home, more conventionally “good.”

Most of all he–and surely we, too–have learned that there are no happy endings, or endings at all; everything is in constant movement, we can’t cling to any truth and even the understandings that seemed so immortal near the Crystal Mountain are soon forgotten as “I trudge and pant and climb and slip and climb and gasp, dull as any brute” (every word a monosyllable again, one realizes). Matthiessen seems to have learned nothing at all, as he descends, relieving himself on a dog who had attacked him a month before, failing to recognize a family he’s already met, still cursing at others, not only himself. The people around him “hawk and piss and spit” and as he wanders back through the seasons, from winter to autumn and then into summer, back into the world of clocks, he is greeted by “fresh frog mud” and “sweet chicken dung.”

And yet something has been registered, one feels, if only a deeper meaning in the enigmatic koan his Zen teacher had given him before he book up: “All the peaks are covered with snow–why is this one bare?” The trip in search of the elusive animal that the author keeps just missing has taught us something that, for some readers at least, becomes a place, or a truth, they can never leave. And just before the end, at last, the story of Deborah Love’s death is fully told, and in the telling is accepted. In the precious days Matthiessen spent close to the Crystal Mountain, sitting still, the “sound of rivers comes and goes and falls and rises, like the wind itself.” And in the years since, readers and leaders and books have come and gone and fallen and risen, ceaselessly, and yet beneath all that, the mountain, the image of the leopard, the beauty of this tough-minded pilgrimage classic continue, quietly, to endure.

Scroll to top