Peter Matthiessen’s “In Paradise”

I have just finished my first reading of this last novel by Peter Matthiessen, and I came online to see what others found and experienced in reading this powerful book.  Most of what I found tells well the subject matter and impact – best described in the various summaries of the work.

What I did not find, and missed not finding it, was a discussion of the questions raised and answers given.  Most reviews seemed to feel the novel gives no answers, and certainly it has that effect upon one in the last pages where one would expect an answer to be found.  But it is a truly beautiful work, and I think it a great shame that the internet seems not to contain, at least so far, meaningful discussion of what it might mean – most reviews found it a stark though compelling compilation of the frailties of the human character and the inadequacy of religion to address such frailties in any meaningful way.  While these are indeed subjects within the text, I find so much more therein that none of the reviews I have found so far have adequately addressed.

I am beginning my second reading.  It is not a long novel – can be read in one night really.  On this forum we’ve discussed many of the issues raised, and they are harsh issues indeed.  To begin with, have a look at ‘Lady with an Ermine’.


The novel begins and ends with this Leonardo Da Vinci painting.

As I explore it for the second time, I would so love to have company on this journey.  It takes us into the mind and heart by means of a mindless, heartless place – Auschwitz.  If that was not hell, then we do not know what hell is.

Come with me and see where we end up.


23 responses to “Peter Matthiessen’s “In Paradise”

  1. it sounds like a wonderful journey, juliania. i did poke around to see if there were an online version of the book, but i didn’t find one.

    as to the questions he’d posed not being answered: i don’t know much about zen, but isn’t the consideration of the questions…really at the heart of them? and yes, there are loads of sites with quotes from the book, and discussion of it.

    yes, hell. and millions are fleeing genocide in south sudan as we speak; so many hells that paradise must be carried within us somehow. i reckon that if we can create and maintain one corner of almost-paradise we can retreat to in the midst of bearing witness to the evils afoot…that’s not a small thing.

    for me, it’s most often in my dreams, but i do keep trying to build it into my everyday consciousness (and failing all too often).

  2. That’s a great point, wendye, because zen is certainly at the heart of it, and I’m not an expert by any means. I looked around for interviews and such, and there are quite a few going back, some recent as well. I like the idea of questions raised and not answered – Dostoievski had that about his writings also – he wanted to raise the arguments, set them side by side, and not reach a ‘final solution’ – sorry for the pun; came out of midair so would be relevant as the importance of the moment is part of the process.

    Thank you for putting up the image of the painting. I’m sorry there isn’t an online reading yet – I was amazed to find it in my library already and I am the first reader. Also, I put the post up yesterday, on Sunday, and I see that the novel begins on a Sunday and is following through a week of meditation, so I thought last night, that is what we can do also.

    You have also provided a first clue to its genesis – with your posted exploration of the Clinton Papers. Peter’s original journey to Poland takes place in 1996, some fifty years after the time of the Shoah. So, there is something about going back to that era that struck his consciousness as a subject for now meditation, his last word. Point to ponder, eh?

    Here I’ll end for today with a quote that I found in a Los Angeles Times obituary piece:

    “It is its very evanescence that makes life beautiful, isn’t that true? If we were doomed to live forever, we would scarcely be aware of the beauty around us. Beauty always has that element of transience that is spoiled when we draw clumsy attention to it.”

  3. I hasten to add, the quote above is of course the words of Peter Matthiessen himself.

  4. Now that’s zen writ large. as in: the eternal now (or something). taste the fullness of the grape as…you live in the moment, not being driven by ego into the cares of an imagined future. but a somewhat related quote i saved was this:

    ““When we are mired in the relative world, never lifting our gaze to the mystery, our life is stunted, incomplete; we are filled with yearning for that paradise that is lost when, as young children, we replace it with words and ideas and abstractions – such as merit, such as past, present, and future – our direct, spontaneous experience of the thing itself, in the beauty and precision of this present moment.”

    He apparently saw the eyes of a child’s pure awareness cloud over with words and other abstract notions as we ‘educated’ the child to our reality.

  5. Zen ve should begin meditating on our Own TRE$PA$$E$ against a Half MILLION beautiful little LIVES: ;
    and later, under BushCObama, the truncated and dislocated lives of their parents, relatives and countrymen, continuing to This DAY! (And because It Bears REPEATING), Today, we are the PNACis und WIR HABEN SCHULD!

  6. To go back to your comment, wendye, while it is fresh in my mind, the book links to the painting in the following way. As described in the wiki, the painting has been altered at some point by having the background of a deep turquoise blue overpainted in black.

    The book cover itself is that lovely blue, with suggestions of tiny white globes throughout, overlaying a photograph of the triforked train tracks of Birkenau. It struck me too, that the pages within are roughly cut, a corrugated effect to the exposed right edge of the book.

  7. Yes, what happens to the children is the sorrrowful legacy, and the book cover dimly shows the footfalls, the tracks on either side of the regimented ones where families and now the pilgrims (who were children then, some of them) made their marches to death.

    Also, the tracks are distant at the top of the cover,dimly seen as three, but snake large and close at the bottom and fuse into one.

    It is a Divine Comedy of sorts – the three Dante poems fused into one.

  8. They look like the Inferno truncated questions (here seemingly enamored of) Y? , to me. The ANSWER is inhuman DEPRAVITY.

  9. That’s one answer, Bruce, if I understand you. Ironic in part that the novel is titled ‘In Paradise’ – but not entirely. I put this poem on another thread in conversation with mafr – it’s the first page of the novel, so I’ll repeat it here:

    Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold.
    Death’s great black wing scrapes the air,
    Misery gnaws to the bone.
    Why then do we not despair?

    By day, from the surrounding woods,
    cherries blow summer into town;
    at night the deep transparent skies
    glitter with new galaxies.

    And the miraculous comes so close
    to the ruined dirty houses —
    something not known to anyone at all
    But wild in our breast for centuries.

    –Anna Akhmatova, 1921

    [I only just noticed, thank you, that there is before the poem a title page which has a photo of a snowy field with blurred trees in the background and one right foreground tree, clearly a birch, behind two close black strands of barbed wire.]

  10. thank you for the history of the painting. it must be that experts can see the blue beneath, eh? still, it is a humdinger as all of da vinci’s are, well, save the ermine, perhaps… the velvets and embroideries are luscious. just enlarged it and saw the unibrow effect paralleling the forehead circlet. ? when i’d seen the book cover, i hadn’t given a thought to the meaning of the graphics and colors; fascinatingly representational of such tragedy and evil.

    some of the books i’d read about camp survivors told of the gentleness and gads, so hard to understand, forgiveness of those who committed such evil toward them. i can’t begin to imagine that sort of forbearance myself.

    thank you for the wee journey, and the homage to peter matthiessen, juliania.

  11. I would suppose that once he had his diagnosis of leukemia there were not a lot of choices as to the subject for his final writing – this had to have been pretty much in storage since the time he took the journey back in the day.

    As I am rereading, the links to Dante keep occurring to me. Matthiessen is midfifties at the time of the writing – pretty sure Dante was also. And the comparison of having a guide through hell is there in the first chapters – for Dante it is Virgil, ancient Roman poet – and I suppose this being Romania and the Roman church figuring prominently as well are modern connections to Dante’s poem.

    The latter is peopled with the villains of Dante’s time, and we are being introduced to our own selves as villains as ‘In Paradise’ progresses, which is hard to absorb at first, but Matthiessen is unsparing even of himself. Only those little occupants of the tiny shoes, he says, could really be considered guiltless, and even they as members of the human race, have a problematic presence.

    Like Dante’s poem, the saving influence on the world appears to be the luminously blue heaven with stars – although nothing of that appears in the winter landscape in which the novel is set. Even the birches are stark and leafless – he asks, is it always winter here?

    But the Akhmatova poem has spring in it – that’s what I am looking for, and what I suspect the author too is seeking.

  12. Thank you for sending me back to the portrait’s two lines of enclosure to the hair – I take it that she has a fine gauze bordered by the lower line that holds her coiffure in place – a bit like the two barbed wire lines in the photo I was mentioning, if that is not too far a stretch. I don’t think it is, for what completely unnerves the pilgrim Olin as he contemplates objects set behind glass in the museum is finally, the hair that has been shorn from victims, collected and even woven into garments. Unimaginable that such garments could be actually worn! The shame of it is overwhelming.

    Olin has not been able to view the painting at the beginning of the novel – I erred in saying Romania; this is Poland of course.
    He carries with him a postcard representing the painting. It is the final, or almost final, place he goes as he departs. To me, this is another reminder of Dante, who has a vision of a loved woman, Beatrice, ahead of him on his journey through hell.

    And Dante’s topology has hell on the inside of the mountain of Purgatory, which is the second part of his poem, where lesser sinners suffer to gain redemption. Then it is through fire that entry is gained to Paradise. At Auschwitz most of the buildings have been burned, the crematoriums bombed. The pilgrims come as to a vanishing memory, to witness and record.

    The woman in the painting is looking back.

  13. i do reflexively push back at the notion that even the children ‘have a problematic presence, as they are members of the human race’, i admit, partially because the idea of children and sin (as born to) is not something i concur with at all. interesting comparison to dante, though.

    i saw the jagged pale line more as a sort of makeup, rather than a coiffure taming band, but it’s of small matter, eh?

  14. Last night I counted pages to where the physical midpoint of the novel would be. Throughout the Auschwitz pilgramage, the participants walk from the SS barracks where they are quartered into the camp itself via a railway tunnel to the platform at the end to meditate.

    Midpoint in the novel, one of two nuns in the group, Ann-Marie, has an emotional breakdown and is prostrate on the platform, while her companion nun, Catherine, and Olin, our protagonist, attempt to raise her. Here is part of the narrative:

    “…the two bump foreheads in the act of lifting.

    ‘I’ve never bumped heads with a nun before,’ Olin whispers. He laughs quietly, and she bites her lip, then gives in to a bright peal of girlish mirth that charms him –”

    Might this be where joy first enters the narrative? Later on, after exhaustion and misery in the contemplation of the ruined crematoriums, the pilgrims suddenly, unexpectedly, begin to dance.

    Here are some clues to what, midpoint, is happening in the novel.

    “Observing them, Ann-Marie decides she is being mocked – ‘Oh!’ – and is instantly up there on the Cross with Jesus; twisting free, she rushes off the ramp and across the snowy tracks, bound for the fence and the nearest gate that might lead to a place of refuge in the women’s compound.”

    One icon that I have painted more frequently than others is called ‘The Descent from the Cross’. That is the image that comes to my mind. All the participants are engaged, with the help of a slanting ladder, in carefully removing the lifeless body of Christ from the cross. Joseph of Arimathea is at the top of the ladder, with Nicodemus, assumed to be the young man who came asking what shall I do to be saved? and went away after hearing he must sell everything he has. Mary the mother of Christ is standing and upwardly embracing her son. Peter and John sit at the foot of ladder and cross, receiving his feet. It is tricky to paint, since each of the persons is differently engaged, interlocking limbs with the straight lines of ladder and cross.

    The novel gives us this image in reverse. Ann-Marie has attempted to draw a ‘crude’ cross in the frozen gravel, perceived as a desecration by the author, or by Olin since we are in his mind all the way through, and she is harshly judged and described by him internally as she falls to her knees.

    It is one incident among many, but midpoint. The joyful moment is momentary, followed by anguished awareness. And a fragment of the ensuing exchanges between Olin and Catherine perhaps makes the point:

    “…but really, how /alive/ she looks in her distress…” [I’ve used the slant lines to indicate the italics of the text.]

    It is how I feel about the figures in the icon. How alive they look in their distress.

  15. Yes, of small matter, wendye, but it is in the details (I won’t say ‘the devil’) that I think meditations take flight – sometimes into emptiness, sometimes into tangible mysteries. There’s that admonition against a clumsy attempt to describe beauty that is always hovering nearby, and I’m often guilty of going way out on a limb. Layers of confinement were on my mind in supposing a transparent gauze covering overlaying the inner black band that binds the hair.

    You remind me, though, that I meant to give another touchpoint on the subject of hair. When we first meet the nun Catherine she is described as wearing a blue beret, which when she removes it has covered hair that has been awkwardly cut. So, to your first point, not only are all perhaps as humans responsible for the atrocities of humanity, but they are also the victims of the atrocities, and also, even, as innocently victim (and lovable therefore) as the dear children.


  16. i’ll need time to consider these comments later, juliania, when my mind is more quiet.

  17. This morning I am stepping back from the midpoint of the novel, to the previous evening/morning, the first meditation at the platform. During the night, unable to sleep, Olin has visited the empty home of Rudolph Hoess outside the compound, and he has described the difference between Hoess and Eichmann – the former exemplifying to himself in his writing, extreme obedience; the latter to Olin the decadent passion of enjoyment of evil, that which distinguishes man from beast.

    In contrast and comparison next morning, it is the two nuns conducting their first prayer service on the platform who give a similar (if opposite) impression of obedience and passion. Olin finds their service beautiful. The nun Catherine shows him her notebook, and he discovers she, as he, ‘has already been swarmed by those imaginary multitudes.’

    My third impression this morning is that added to fragments of description reminding me of the painting, comes this:

    “Her hazel eyes search his face until he finishes, It’s those brows that curve down around the eyes that bring a wistful caste to her expression, a shadow of sadness, he decides. He extends the diary again, nodding judiciously. ‘Well said, Sister Catherine. Rather beautiful, I think.’ Braving that gaze, he insists, ‘And please believe me, Sister, I do not feel hostile. I’m just troubled by the whole idea of papal infallibility –‘”

    Olin is being duplicitous. He has revealed his inner thoughts to us in the novel, and he does not, indeed think she has written well, but rather fatuously of seeking to console the wandering spirits, when he considers them imaginary, long gone.

    Outside of the painting, someone stands on the right side, and the woman in the painting is looking at him with that same gaze. Is it the person who has given her the ermine to hold?

  18. It is now the Friday of a wintry week. Warmth is promised for the weekend.

    Beside the morning services at the platform, the pilgrims have an evening conversation at the SS barracks in which participants are urged to step forward and tell the group something of themselves and why they are present for this retreat experience.

    Olin finally reveals he is not a disinterested academic but of ‘dual citizenship’ and intimately connected to the Holocaust victims. This confession has been coming in short bursts – we as readers are more aware, less shocked than the pilgrims themselves at the final revelation.

    * * * * * *

    A revelation of my own. Yesterday I made a personal journey outside the novel (as Olin goes outside the camp to retrace his personal ancestry). I returned to some links online at the Vineyard of the Saker – to a Russian series (in 12 parts) of “The Karamazov Brothers based on Dostoievski’s novel” and spent the day on ten of the segments.

    At first it was so gloriously Russian, the characters so wonderfully right, the scenery fabulous, the adherence to the intricacies of plot and dialogue perfectly staged. I was enthralled. Each episode had subtitles in English, not very accurate, but a link to the Russian rapidly spoken. It came to the Grand Inquisitor central anecdote, well presented, all good. Expectations were next would come the counterpoint of the Russian monk, his conversations and life story and understandings of man’s role on earth … nyet, nyet, nyet! There was no counterpoint. The message of Father Zossima on his death bed, several chapters of the book, was completely missing.

    This was hugely puzzling. For the series was done in 2008 – had they really misunderstood so completely Dostoievski’s message? It was as if the Communists had won – in the space of their rule it was automatic to repress religious ideas, and that was still going on. All the monastic intellectual conversations had been dumbed down to a purely visual encounter, the only arguments those of Ivan. This was a TBK divorced from the answer to Ivan’s poem that is the true center of the great novel.

    How could they do this???

    Perhaps, for the Russian series, it was not the just Communist influence that dumbed down Dostoievski’s pro and contra intellectual conversation, but the Western influence overlaying that. An influence Russia is finally beginning to shun. I look forward to a full version of this complex artistic masterpiece some time in the future. This came so close, but fell so far short.

    * * * * * *

    The novel, this novel, ‘In Paradise’ has a major theme about forgetting, how quickly generations forget that come after worldshattering events that families live through as in crucibles of fire. The events themselves strip pretensions naked – how to learn from them if they are so easily forgotten?

    Writers try to tell us of the dangers inherent in forgetting. Those who have already forgotten feel free to ignore at their peril. Writers keep at it – Come! Look! See!

    * * * * * *

    [No worries, wendye. You have much on your plate, and I did think I would probably make this journey forward on my own. That is not an indictment – it is what happens in the novel as well. Peter Matthiessen presents it as an interior journey, so it is, clumsily for me to be sure, his concept of beauty that sets the tone for any meditation on his theme.]

    Just two more days to go.

  19. the ‘wandering spirits’ are those killed in the death camps, juliania? and do i suppose sister catherine spoke of ‘obedience to god’?

    or is it a person from whom she is protecting the ermine? :)

  20. our comments passed. i’ll need to take care of a few things before i read your new one more than cursorily, but haven’t we been given to understand that the orthodox church now enjoys the de facto protection of the kremlin?

  21. In the two days that are left, with limited time and space, I will touch on the passage, the final sentence of the book, the message it brings to me. Here it is:

    “In the wavering of candles, he sits motionless, broken-brained and wholly brokenhearted.”

    There is a passage I hope I can find, past midway, that this final sentence reminded me of. But first, in my own psalmody, from the readings for Saturday night, this short phrase came to mind:

    “A crushed and humbled heart God will not spurn.”

    Here is the passage from the book. It comes after a passage I will return to tomorrow, and before the dancing. I’ll give it in its entirety, as it speaks to the final sentence of the novel:

    * * * *
    FOR WANT OF WITNESS BEARERS, Ben Lama himself goes forward. Looking exhausted, he extends his opened hands for a long moment, then lets them fall again. Before the retreatants can retire to insomnia and nightmares, he tries to dispel the murk and rancor by relating the strange parable from the Old Testament that Christians call the Dark Night of the Soul.

    //And Jacob, grappling in the night with the dark angel of the Unknown, cries out, I cannot let you go until you tell me your true name!//

    “In this place we are all struggling with our dark angels,” Ben suggests. When the parable finds no resonance among them, he summons Rabbi Dan the cantor, he of the indomitable good cheer.

    Joining Ben onstage, the cantor tells an ancient tale about a man in great sorrow who worries that he does not suffer enough. “And the rabbi comforts this man in his sorrow, saying, ‘The only whole heart is a broken heart. But it must be //wholly// broken” Smiling enigmatically (Indigestion, Olin wonders: Too many meals of cabbage soup or goulash, hard dark pickles, unrelenting bread?) Rabbi Dan raises his hands palms outward and repeats in a hushed whisper, “//wholly// broken,” but to judge from the perplexed faces, this teaching, like Ben’s parable, is not wholly understood.

    * * * *

    And then they dance.

  22. wendye, yes, those would be the spirits of the dead that both have felt present, though at this point Olin thinks of them as imaginary. (Later they become more present to him.) Sister Catherine, rather, images to him passion and independent thinking – it is the sister who has fallen to her knees here described by Olin as naturally predisposed to obedience. Catherine has a problem with obedience – not obedience to God; rather, obedience to church ‘authority’. He discovers a kindred spirit in her.

    I think you are correct about the Russian Orthodox church and its ties to the Kremlin, within whose walls are magnificent golden cupolas. However, what strikes me is something I observed in an encounter with visiting iconographers in Santa Fe a few years back. The Russians, after a long siege under communism when only babushkas found it safe to worship, are relearning their faith, and it has somewhat an artificial look, an over Disneyfication if you like. I, for instance, find it alarming that there is such a plethora of gold and embellished vestments outshining the icons themselves in the videos I’ve looked at. So, there is a period of adjustment underway; more overcompensation than anything more sinister, and too much state involvement is probably not the best thing for any faith.

    My next post will be my last on the book itself, and I’m leaving out most of the narrative on purpose because it is a powerful read that will be spoiled if I dissect it. Best to read the book itself start to finish, and I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone. Much is hidden in the empty spaces between passages, very zenlike!

  23. Here is my Sunda meditation text from the novel. It comes under the Chapter heading ‘NINE”, and I will give it, the first part of it, in fulll:

    * * * * *

    At her request, Olin shows Catherine the proofs of his new anthology of verse by Herbert and Milosz and Szymborska and other great modern writers of her country: as a group, he says, only the Polish poets rival the modern Americans as the finest in the world today.
    In their discussion of the poems, Catherine mentions that her namesake, St. Catherine of Siena, that gentle Dominican of the fourteenth century, had been a poet.
    “‘All the way to Heaven is Heaven,'” Olin smiles, and she raises her brows in pleased surprise, gratified that a nonbeliever can quote St. Catherine’s sublime teaching. And though he fears he may be making a mistake, he can’t help mentioning the apocryphal parable that seems to express St. Catherine’s teaching in a darker way.

    Christ crucified is importuned by a penitent thief, in agony on his own cross on that barren hillside. “I beseech you, Jesus, take me with you on this day to Paradise.” In traditional gospels, Jesus responds, “Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise,” but in older texts — Eastern Orthodox or the Apocrypha perhaps? — Christ shakes his head in pity, saying, “No, friend, we are in Paradise right now.”

    She stares at him.

    “No hope of Heaven,” he says gently. “No Trinity, no Resurrection. All Creation right here now.”

    “That is not our idea of things,” she says evenly, retreating among his pages. And when he asks if while she reads he might glance over her notes from yesterday’s meditation, she passes him her diary without looking at him.

    // . . . the prisoners are hurrying in fear of death, yet I hear faint voices. They are singing . . .//

    * * * * * *

    Olin has indeed muddled his Eastern Orthodox reference, although the phrase, “we are in Paradise right now” is a fitting one. His negative interpretation, however, is not. At the beginning of the Sunday service, the congregation of a small Orthodox church, in concert with its choir, sing three antiphons (early practice had them sung antiphonally – that is, from different sides of the church.)

    The first begins “Bless the Lord, O my soul…and all that is within me, bless his holy name…”

    The second continues “…Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men in whom there is no salvation…”

    The third wonderfully combines the request of the thief on his cross with the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes:

    “In Thy Kingdom remember us, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom.
    Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven…”

    There are nine “Blessed”s. The one that I particularly note this morning is this one:

    “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.”

    I shall just close by saying that the final words of the novel, which I gave you in my previous post, are not the final words of the book. Without separating it from the text, Peter Matthiessen gives a thank you to all who have helped him write it. Here are then the final words of the book itself:

    “The generosity of spirit shown by all three in a hard year has been astonishing.”

    Rest in Peace, Peter Matthiessen; Peter, son of Matthew, son of God.

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