I just finished reading Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, winner of the 1978 National Book Award, about the author’s 1973 trip into the Himalayas with a mountain-climbing field biologist who was studying an ancient breed of goat. Matthiessen, who was a Buddhist, went along on the journey partly because his friend’s destination was also the site of the isolated Crystal Mountain monastery and partly because he wanted to see, with his own eyes, the elusive snow leopard. One of the most descriptive books I’ve ever read, The Snow Leopard melds together the author’s experiences in those frigid mountains with considerate discussions of life, religion, and anthropology, as well as some interspersed backstory about his wife’s recent death and his eight-year-old son, who is waiting on him to return.
Among these side discussions, about a hundred pages in, Matthiessen is waxing philosophic about life and freedom, and writes this: “The absurdity of a life that may well end before one understands it does not relieve one of the duty (to that self which is inseparable from others) to live it through as bravely and as generously possible.” He ties this idea both to Buddhist “crazy wisdom” and to the French existential philosopher Albert Camus— some things just don’t make sense but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to abide them. Matthiessen was writing about hiking through Nepal, in a place that bore no resemblance to the late twentieth-century world around it, but this sentiment from his book could just as easily be applied to living in the Deep South.
For a cognizant person living in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the culture and accompanying politics of the Deep South are perhaps most remarkable for their absurdity. Tax rates are regressive, public administration is spotty, and social ills abound. State and local leaders augment our outdoorsy tourist economy with testaments to our difficult past, while making simultaneous efforts to suppress, ignore, or deny that past’s current manifestations. Meanwhile, the people of the Deep South express near-constant chagrin at the everyday facts that rank us near the bottom in most measures of quality-of-life, as the majority of us continue either not to vote or to vote for the same kinds of leaders who landed us in this predicament. We lament the consequences but refuse to alter the method . . . which is absurd.
Near the end of the book, Matthiessen is returning to civilization to make his way home and is pondering what this perilous experience will mean to him. He never did see the snow leopard, though it came near enough to leave tracks around their camp. By this point, he is glad to be out of sub-zero temperatures and away from the discomfort of tent living, though he is also sad to see that simple, unencumbered life be put behind him. He asks himself, ambivalently: “have I learned nothing?”
Sometimes I ask myself the same thing, here in the Deep South. After reading so much Southern history, after examining the problems and listening to various perspectives, after traveling around and interviewing people, after keeping up with who-is-who and who-did-what, have I learned nothing? No, not nothing, but just this: that I no more see what is over the horizon than that man who never even looks up from his dalliances. However, despite any bitterness that fact may periodically bring me, I agree with Matthiessen that we must still behave bravely and with generosity toward the facts of our situation.
Near the end of the book, Matthiessen is reminded of the advice he was given on the day they embarked: “Expect nothing.” That’s good advice, but hard to follow. A few sentences later, he writes about “that aching gap between what I know and what I am,” acknowledging his failure (to see the snow leopard) and the resources expended in that failure. Any progressive person in the Deep South knows how Matthiessen felt. We make preparations followed by great efforts to climb and traverse our cultural and political mountains, then at the end of each journey, we find ourselves exhausted and humbled by the fact that the mountains haven’t moved or changed one bit.
“Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige,” a weekly column published every Tuesday afternoon, offers a Deep Southern, Generation X perspective on life in the 21st century.
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