Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Snow Leopard, Laddakh, loneliness and today's books


In today's post were yet more books - one day I may come to terms with my addiction - amongst which was 'Chasing the Phantom: In Pursuit of Myth and Meaning in the Realm of the Snow Leopard' by Eduard Fischer (published by my friend's excellent imprint 'Singing Dragon'). I ordered it first, I think, because I liked the audacity of a travel writer incorporating snow leopard into his (sub) title given that 'The Snow Leopard' by Peter Matthiessen is one of the greatest travel books ever penned and it has (as does Fischer's book), at its heart, the search for spiritual transcendence.

But second because like Matthiessen (and we may see Fischer), I have been tantalisingly close to a Snow Leopard in its wide ranging habitat. In my case, this was in Tuva, the Russian republic, bordering Mongolia. Here one early evening, I stood in the bed of a stream flowing into the great Yenisei river, accompanied by the head of the Tuvan National Park service and two of his rangers, and beheld leopard foot prints. The elusive animal was probably hunting Siberian mountain goats, themselves rare, that I did see hopping improbably from distant rock to distant rock on what appeared a virtually vertical rock face across the river. Sadly, the only snow leopard I did see was a pelt hung in the National Park Service office, resonantly beautiful, that had been confiscated from poachers (one can imagine a suitably temporary Buddhist hell where the said poachers are themselves stalked, repeatedly, by leopards).

Fischer's geography, however, was at the other end of the Snow Leopards' (vast) patch; namely Ladakh and in one of those moments of synchronicity another of the books to arrive today was a replacement copy of Helena Norburg Hodge's 'Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh' where Helena explores the complex transition from a traditional to a modern society (that she witnessed in Ladakh). One of the stories she tells is explaining to her friends in Ladakh the notion of a 'psychotherapist' to whom one goes to relate one's difficulties. The Ladakhi are incredulous for do not people in the West (and I think Helena's example was describing a person in New York) have friends?

Apparently, and increasingly not, if a report, widely carried today, in the UK media, is to be believed. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/lonely-britain-10-of-population-does-not-have-a-close-friend-9662509.html

It is a strikingly sad picture of a world put asunder without community, communion, where relationships have been sacrificed to the ever moving economy, where we fantasize that things, actual or virtual, might compensate for any lack. They do not, and indeed as we increasingly know act even against our physical health, as this description of the famous Roseto study in the United States aptly demonstrates (with thanks to Morris Berman, the cultural historian, for this excellent precis).

"The Roseto Study: This is an examination of an Italian-American town in eastern Pennsylvania that was found to have had a very low mortality rate for heart attacks during the first thirty years it was studied, as compared to two nearby towns. Citizens of all three towns smoked, ingested cholesterol, and in general exhibited the same physical behaviors that would be expected to impinge on human health, at roughly the same rates. But what Roseto had that the other two towns didn’t was close family ties and very cohesive community relations, including a host of traditional values and practices (religion included). However, in the late sixties and early seventies, all of this broke down. Roseto saw a loosening of family ties and a fragmentation of community relations. Concomitant with this was a substantial increase in death due to heart disease. The mortality rate rose to the same level as that of the two nearby towns."

That brings us by a roundabout route to the last book to arrive today (yes, they often, like buses, come in threes); namely, Alastair McGrath's recent biography of C.S. Lewis.

From Lewis' life one thing you can learn is the practice of the art of friendship and how the art, in his case, came to be miraculously deepened in time, widening out from a circle of male peers and students to famously incorporate Joy, a woman and an American, who became yet more than friend precisely at the point at which Lewis could offer himself in his mystery, rather than in his many portraits.

In Matthiessen's 'Snow Leopard' the elusive, not seen animal becomes a symbol of the ungraspable nature of truth. Matthiessen learns to rest in that which cannot be grasped, that can only be known in unknowing, that can only be known in the surrendering to whatever is given, which perhaps too captures the nature of friendship. We cannot possess a friend - we can only reveal ourselves to one another out of our aloneness - but if secure in that aloneness there is nothing that we cannot offer for we offer our selves rather than our personalities.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Girl who sang to the Buffalo

The final volume in Kent Nerburn's moving trilogy of books built around his relationship with an Indian elder, Dan, whose life commi...