Heaven All the Way

In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen Riverhead Books 250 pp $16.00

Peter Matthiessen’s final novel—it was published right around the time of his death in 2014—concerns a group of people who come together to do a meditation retreat at Auschwitz. Matthiessen’s Zen teacher, Bernie Glassman, conducted such a retreat, perhaps more than one, and I don’t know whether Matthiessen actually attended it and based his novel on the experience, or just got the idea and imagined what might happen.

I would think that those who would come together for such an event—to bear witness to one of the most horrific acts of genocide in human history—would be a peaceful, compassionate, mindful group, but for much of the novel Matthiessen’s characters are anything but. They maintain all the old sectarian divides, arguing with people because they’re Jewish or German or Polish, blaming living people for things that happened before they were born. A more contentious group of people I’ve seldom encountered, especially a powerfully obnoxious secular Jew named G. Earwig, who mocks absolutely everything, refuses any spiritual or philosophical consolation. In that way the novel doesn’t seem realistic to me. Why would such a man show up on this retreat? Why would all these people attend just to hash over the same old arguments?

The novel’s protagonist is an academic poet and historian named Clements Olin, who is both on the retreat and not quite of it. He’s doing research on his own, so he sometimes attends meditation sessions, sometimes doesn’t. The title comes from a conversation he has with a nun named Catherine after he shows her a poetry anthology he’s worked on; she mentions that her namesake, St. Catherine of Siena, was also a poet, and Olin quotes the woman’s most famous teaching, “All the way to Heaven is Heaven.”

That calls to mind for Olin an apocryphal parable that he had once heard. The thief who was being crucified beside Jesus said to him, “I beseech you, Jesus, take me with you this day to Paradise!” and in the traditional Gospels, Jesus replies, “Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise.” But in older texts, perhaps the Apocrypha, he replies, “No, friend, we are in Paradise right now.”

Olin gives a strange interpretation to that parable. ‘“No hope of heaven,” he says gently. “No Trinity, no Resurrection. All Creation here right now.”’

I can’t imagine where he gets such an interpretation, which to me distorts the whole message (and is also, in the way he delivers it, quite condescending). It seems to me that what Catherine of Siena, and this parable, are both saying is that all of existence—rightly seen—is heaven, our time on earth, our time after death: the whole thing is heaven. That is more or less the Buddhist teaching that Samsara is Nirvana; it is like words from the Gospel of Thomas: “The Father’s Kingdom is spread out on the earth, and people don’t see it.”

The people on this retreat sure as hell don’t see it, at least for the first half of the book, which makes for some mighty unpleasant reading. But there is a moment past the midway point where they have had a particularly difficult meditation session—for Olin, it was as if he could see or hear the footsteps of people being sent off to the gas chambers—and that evening, the group comes together and spontaneously holds hands to do a kind of dance. It is a moment of elation; it’s as if they have taken in all this horror and still seen that, nevertheless, the core spirit of life is good. Various grouches in the group refuse to take part, deny that anything happened—people are free to refuse grace—but people who went through the moment swear there was some kind of transformation. They are not interested in arguing anymore. They’ve seen something that transcends even the holocaust.

There are a couple of subplots concerning Olin’s ancestry and also a weird, rather adolescent affection he has for the nun Catherine; I found those things—which in some way represent the primary thrust of the novel—of little interest. But that parable, and the moment of elation—people dancing at Auschwitz?—seem brilliant to me.

Many readers find the whole novel unpleasant. I would guess that the problem isn’t so much the grim subject matter as the way characters rehash the same old arguments. One reviewer suggested this was a draft that Matthiessen got out rapidly, knowing he was dying. I didn’t feel that way at all. The novel seems finished to me, as well written as all his work. It just tackles a difficult subject.