Friday, May 09, 2014


Recently I’ve been working on the idea of the fourth part of the brain, a “virtual” part evolved after the cerebral cortex and activated by empathy that creates community.  The concepts alive in the community are a real part of individual thinking and always influence what we do, so it seems vital to reflect about this “Fourth Brain.”  There is not just one lobe to this “group think,” so I’ll make another little list.

The nuclear family’s understanding.  (If there is one.  Sometimes there is not when children are raised by alcoholics, addicts, blank persons.)

The cohort, which may or may not be “peers,” for instance in a classroom.

Media groups or platforms: most people, it seems, choose people who think as they do, so they cluster themselves around one point of view, even in one place.

Neighborhood, which might be a whole town in rural places, or just a few blocks.

The group to which one aspires and perhaps markets to.  Like fine writers who address social issues.

And there are negative groups, sometimes those with the stigmata of crime, profit, wickedness (however defined), weakness, or simple difference.   The Elite, the Famous. These are groups to fear, to punish, to suspect and destroy.  One can frame one’s standards to define them.
Sherpas taking a break in Tibet

One of the most intriguing groups is that of “Others,” those totally unlike oneself.  Some people are immediately interested and want to find out more, though it’s hard to predict what that “more” will mean to them.  Something to emulate or something to oppress?  Obscene black ghetto rappers -- are you intrigued or disgusted?  (Likely the sheer energy of such a group will attract your children, esp. if you control them too much.)  Old-time wise American Indian medicine men in full regalia with inscrutable faces?  Oh, how we love them!  A bit of a cliché, of course.

Peter Matthiessen with a snow leopard cub.

So I need a victim example and I’ll choose one who has stuck his head up by attacking the icon that is Peter Matthiessen and his sainted book, “The Snow Leopard.”  

Joel Whitney

The iconoclast is named Joel Whitney and he writes about Peter in “The Boston Review.”  He's not writing fiction, and he's not writing about fiction, but the fiction editor tells us what he looks for in writing.  I'll take that as typical for the whole publication. 

Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz, the fiction editor, is looking for writing "in which a heart struggles against itself, in which the messy unmanageable complexity of the world is revealed. Sentences that are so sharp they cut the eye.”  His example is Toni Morrison, for which we should be grateful since one editor’s sharp sentences are not the same as that of another.  It helps to know what kind of "sharp sentences" are meant.  I knew Peter Matthiessen a little, and he was no Toni Morrison, so we can assume that Joel Whitney is also no Toni Morrison since his background is quite like Matthiessen’s. The Boston Review was given an award by the Utne Reader, which I’ve always admired, so I suppose it's Left, minority-defending, and based among the East Coast liberals.

Joel Whitney was raised by his divorced mother, an East Coast wanderer as she took them from one job to another (law, art, teaching), and he is an epublisher, founder of “Guernica” emagazine, which is meant to explore the “crossroads of art and politics”.  Many prize-winners published there.   His family roots include Quakers and a “religious pacifist” father.  He received an MFA in 2004.  In other words, his “group” is the irreproachable chattering class, well-educated and well-connected.  I wouldn’t even know that he exists except for this article about Matthiessen, which is the point, isn’t it?

So the bone of contention is that Matthiessen was an imperial Orientalist who demonized his Tibetan Sherpa support team when he went with George Schaller to explore the top of the world.  (Matthiesson's wife had just died and he has been criticized for going off like that when his children needed him, though they were protected and the trip was a matter of two months, not years.)  So Whitney is stepping into a context of those who seek to unmask the saintly, especially writers about the “Other.”  Whitney seems to feel he knows about the heart of the Other, though I doubt he knows any sherpas personally.

Such people depend upon theory, which in this article is the high criticism of Edward Said, now also deceased, the author of “Orientalism” which is a take-down of the Imperial Western attitude that both elevates and oppresses Asians.  (I asked my very practical and anchored Chinese friend whether it is politically correct to say “Oriental.”  She said it was okay but pretty old-fashioned.)  All one afternoon I watched Said from about ten feet away during what the U of Chicago newspaper called “the Derrida Corrida,” about 1980 when deconstruction and post-everything was just taking hold.  The key idea is that words can mean anything, but it is possible to penetrate to the hearts of them (sexual overtone on purpose) and know what the speaker is revealing that would not be evident without clever analysis.  Said walked like a prince, wearing silk in subtle colors, as arrogantly confident as any caliph.  He was absolutely magnetic.

So Whitney is looking for evidence that Matthiessen didn’t really understand his porters and was an imperialist who demonized them, even as he sat around a campfire with them, quite like early fur traders in the far Missouri reaches, beyond the reach of any rescue, romantically facing the most horrible of horrors, like cannibals eating your companion.  But also laughing over the great joke of existence which is that to stay alive you must risk and suffer.  It’s not all liberal e-life.

When Matthiessen got back home to his context of American East Coast Buddhists (not much like the California Buddhists, I’m told) he wove the adventure through a lot of formal history of Buddhist ideas, found out through research.  Whitney is dismayed that he doesn’t include something about the Vietnam War or the carpet bombing of Cambodia, which were contemporaneous with visiting Tibet.  

Tukten was a ferocious old porter who later managed to send Matthiessen a delusion-cutting knife through the steady stream of American tourists.  Whitney objects that Matthiessen pairs Tukten . . . "with the animals, as if in a mythical rather than historical or political age.”  Whitney’s evidence for this, not mentioning the given of reincarnation, is Matthiessen wondering if Tukten once had been a snow leopard or an old blue sheep.  I feel rather that this was evidence of accepting the terms of the described person, Tukten undoubtedly being a reincarnationalist. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

You can read the article for yourself:  I do not know whether Joel Whitney can accept this analysis of his article written by someone so outside his political and class assumptions -- let’s say the granddaughter of Far West pioneers who has worked on the streets as an officer, who has supported small groups of religious idealists in Canada, who has a half-century relationship with Blackfeet.  In 1961 some of the old Blackfeet people I knew (not well) were as Other as Tukten, quite scary, though decades later it was a white guy from Boston who came to Great Falls to cannibalize little boys from his neighborhood.  (Bar Jonah.)

I find that one of my vital (very small) groups takes on writers who make their bones by deconstructing other writers who wrote about actual direct contact with the Other.  (Krakauer, for instance.)  I rather enjoy deconstructing the deconstructors, not least because it is so easy.  

They never accept the idea that the truly Other can NOT be understood, whether they are Tibetans, Egyptians, gay pornographers, homeless kids on the street, Blackfeet now dead, fellow mountain climbers, or Boston brahmins.  Which is not to say that the effort won’t do a person good and might make a writer famous if the attempt is made with enough style and picks the right target.  (It’s a little early to attack Matthiessen, though we've known he was dying for a year.)  Sentimentality will get sympathizers with the "Other" nowhere.  It is a characteristic of contemporary, prosperous, commodifying America, not stark, brutal Tibet.


The point of “The Snow Leopard,” which I should reread as soon as possible, is that quite real creatures carry mythic meaning and the search for both animal and metaphor, entwined as they are, is always an internal journey.  Murray wants it to be social action.  I almost wrote “merely” social action.  This is not a priority of Buddhists, as far as I know.  Their shtick is acceptance.

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