It’s only after a few days finishing The Snow Leopard that I have started to think of its similarities to Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. But whereas I found Eat, Pray Love largely insufferable, I enjoyed The Snow Leopard, even if Matthiessen’s journey is, in many ways, just as an earlier and more rugged version of Gilbert’s.
In the early 1970s, Peter Matthiessen lost his wife to cancer. About six months later, he joined his friend, the celebrated wildlife biologist and conservationist George Schaller (referred to in the book as simply GS), on a trek through the Nepali Himalaya to the border of Tibet. Schaller, a fit, driven, and taciturn man, was off to study the Himalayan bharal, a goatish mountain sheep or sheepish mountain goat. That was the point — the animals had not been studied enough to understand where they fit in the evolutionary tree. GS wanted to watch the rut, which takes place late in the fall or very early Himalayan winter, to help understand if the animals rutted more like goats or sheep. Matthiessen, a long-time student of Zen Buddhism, joined GS for the chance to visit a place of significance to Buddhists: the Crystal Mountain and its monastery, Shey Gompa. If GS and Matthiessen were lucky, they might also catch a glimpse of the elusive and rare snow leopard.
Matthiessen had four children, one only 8 years old, that he was leaving behind in the US, which was a huge responsibility. Would the trip be worth it? Would he meet the lama of Shey Gompa? Would he find a spiritual teacher? Would he find a place for his grief? Would he see the snow leopard? All these questions are answered on the journey, but like a Zen koan, the answers are not exactly obvious or what he expects.
Written as part travel-journal and part memoir, The Snow Leopard records Matthiessen’s physical and spiritual journey, much in the same way that Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat, Pray, Love. To be sure, Matthiessen was not gorging himself on pasta (try tough green buckwheat cakes, tea with rancid yak butter, and watery lentil soup) or canoodling with dark, handsome strangers. But the spiritual journey part that compels a civilized Westerner to embark on a journey of transformation and healing in the remote Orient — this is the part that Gilbert and Matthiessen share.
This idea of going on a journey, a spiritual quest, in search of answers and healing is probably not unique to any particular culture. But it has become commodified in the West, particularly when exotic foreignness is where answers are sought. The tribal people Matthiessen encounters travel the mountains to trade, forage, migrate with the seasons, and work. They are also Buddhists and its rituals and teachings are woven into their lifestyle and world view. Matthiessen and Gilbert looked toward the East for spiritual healing and transformation. They use something, someone, and something Other, outside of their own culture, to find their answers. Why not just attend a church? Or a Buddhist temple in Brooklyn? Or hike the Appalachian trail? To be sure, Matthiessen’s trip was initiated by GS’s study and wish for companionship, whereas Gilbert’s was entirely self-generated. Gilbert’s trip and book unleashed an army of Western women seeking various flavors of personal fulfillment on Bali and similar SE Asian islands. Just now a quick Google search turns up a package tour for a 26-day trek to Shey Gompa, “A Real Trek in Inner Dolpo, Nepal’s Wild West.” Would this trek have even been conceived of without Matthiessen’s book? Of course, the wider commodification of Asia and its people and their beliefs is not Matthiessen’s fault, but I do see his journey and the book as harbingers of the kind of cultural consumption of foreign cultures that is now rampant in the US and exemplified with the response to Gilbert’s book roughly three decades later.
So I liked The Snow Leopard — I liked hearing about the adventure, learning about Buddhism and the animals, and enjoyed Matthiessen’s lyrical writing that really painted pictures in my mind of the high, white-capped mountains, clear air, bright light, and the faces, costumes, and characters of the people he met along the way. But I do remain ambivalent about this sort of book and journey altogether. To Matthiessen’s credit, I read that he was always disappointed that he was better known for this book than for his fiction. I am going to give that a go next.