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the writer and the spy
A Tale of Two Men
The book review I just finished repeatedly asks, “What endures?” The author offers one possible answer: “Spaces in the heart that accommodate the absent.”
When I read this, I had just learned of the deaths of Peter Matthiessen and Thomas Polgar. Matthiessen was the prolific writer and author of a multitude of books, including The Snow Leopard, his account of a grief-stricken journey to the Himalayas. Polgar was a legendary CIA officer and the last station chief in Saigon. His final cable from Vietnam quoted Jorge Santayana that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. Both lived full lives that few of us can comprehend. Although their journeys were on different tracks, these two men frequently found themselves in many of the major dark and threatening blind alleys of the twentieth century.
And in the midst of hell’s a poppin’ lives, these were reflective men who wanted to see what was on the other side of the door. They were realists who sought answers, who didn’t pretend the false was true and did not buy into fantasy. Most importantly, they were not afraid to look in the mirror and take a measure of the value of their lives, their legacy, what would endure from their stay on this rock. Not surprising, there are even reports of some attempts at atonement for sins real or imagined.
Although both of these men were just old enough to have been my father, they were nothing like mine or other fathers I knew when I was growing up. The men I saw but never really talked with as a boy growing up in the 1950s were WWII or Korean War veterans, mostly hard-working blue-collar types anxious to put their encounter with violence behind them and to get back to whatever they defined as “normal.” They were the quiet ones, who wanted to forget and chose never to talk of their war-time closeness with sudden and violent death.
Matthiessen and Polgar were cut from a different cloth from these men. As his New York Times obit stated, Polgar was born on July 24, 1922, in Budapest. His parents were Jewish and moved the family to the United States in 1938 to escape Nazi oppression. In the 1950s, he helped lead spying operations in Berlin. Alec Leamas from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold could easily have worked for him. After spending the 1960s based in espionage-filled Vienna, he moved in 1970 to Buenos Aires, where the next year he helped end a hijacking by boarding the plane and talking with the hijacker. Although I never knew Polgar personally, I was well aware of his reputation during my professional life. He operated in a nether world and was the formidable opponent of legions of unsavory characters from the demimonde of international politics. He was also the exemplary leader we all wish to be, protecting his troops and seeking the honorable exit from the inextricable. I salute him posthumously.
In Matthiessen’s obit, the biographer William Dowie wrote: “Perhaps the power of Matthiessen’s writing in part derives from his ability to tap into his dark side, his Jungian shadow. If so, it would explain at least one similarity between him and the writers to whom he is sometimes compared in his major fiction: Melville, Conrad and Dostoyevsky.” For a taste of the kind of fear that someone like Cormac McCarthy can conjure up in Blood Meridian, one has only to read Matthiessen’s Shadow Country to pull the covers up over your head. The story uses the life and death of the fearsome Edgar J. Watson to address issues of race, environment and power in some particularly gruesome ways. You can never visit that part of Watson’s southwestern Florida again without looking over your shoulder for his vengeful ghost.
Not surprising, Matthiessen also had a religious side and became a Zen Buddhist priest. His obituary says that his spiritual hunger and the death of his wife from cancer in 1972 lay behind his decision to travel to Nepal in 1973. The trip inspired the book, The Snow Leopard, a chronicle of a spiritual journey and a pilgrimage of mourning. When I first read The Snow Leopard in the early 1990s following the death of my wife Lilian, I felt I was walking in his footsteps trying to understand that which has no understanding.
Matthiessen was born to privilege in New York City on Fifth Ave, served in the Navy at Pearl Harbor and afterward graduated from Yale where he majored in English but also studied biology, ornithology, and zoology. When he moved to Europe in the early 1950s he helped found The Paris Review. At the same time, he too was working for the CIA in a period when the agency was covertly financing magazines and cultural programs to counter the spread of Communism.
Both men seemed to have been drawn to their own special kind of adventure and danger. I like both of these men, but doubt I could have kept up with either, no matter how fast I ran. My life has been peripheral, at best, to these two larger than life warriors. As with most of us, their lives were overshadowed at times by sadness. Unlike most of us, however, they knew better perhaps from their life experiences that the cup of sorrow is always full. They knew that life can be disappointing and sorrowful and sometimes transcending, and the sooner people realize it, the better. At the same time, they pushed on because they knew they couldn’t learn before they set out. They learned by going where they had to go.
So the question asks itself of what will endure from their lives. I’m not sure I know, except that I sense a kind of absence in their passing. Oscar Wilde perhaps had a clue when he said:
“When one has weighed the sun in the balance, and measured the steps of the moon, and mapped out the seven heavens, there still remains oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?”
- Polgar photo courtesy of the CIA; Matthiessen photo courtesy of Miami Dade College.