In what was one of his last interviews before he died on April 5, Peter Matthiessen discussed his novel “In Paradise” with Smithsonian Magazine.
Matthiessen, a Zen Buddhist, went on three retreats to Auschwitz, where he prayed, meditated and ruminated on the human capacity for evil. Those experiences became the basis for his final novel about an American academic who goes on a retreat Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp that exterminated more than 1 million people. In Ron Charles’s review of “In Paradise” for The Post, he wrote, “One gets the sense that Matthiessen is speaking directly through his narrator.”
Ron Rosenbaum, who conducted the interview for Smithsonian, asked, “Was Auschwitz a quintessence of something intrinsic to civilization in a terrible way?
Matthiessen answered, “I feel and I think most biologists — I have some training, but I’m a very amateur biologist — I feel we’re all capable of this.”
“You feel we’re all capable of genocide?”
“We are all capable if you press the right series of buttons,” Matthiessen noted. “Your grandmother can turn into a genocidaire. Most of us, we’re lucky enough to never hit that combination of circumstances. But if we’re pressed hard enough and we think our children are getting not enough food or whatever the triggers may be, then it’s his people, it’s their fault.”
Matthiessen, who was dying of leukemia, lost his breath during the course of the interview. Rosenbaum writes, “This is a man with Stage 4 leukemia, recall, 86, talking about ultimate things, about the embodiment of death—no, the embodiment of mass murder in human nature.”
The full interview will run in the May 2014 edition of Smithsonian.