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REVIEW OF DAUMAL’S ‘HOLY WAR’


John Robert Colombo Page

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A review of the Toronto production of Daumal’s ‘Holy War’ by JRC

A great deal of respect is paid in Work circles to the memory of René Daumal. The poet and philosopher is honoured both as a literary artist and as a human being. His personal circumstances were such that he struggled more than most people must with life, health, and art. His own struggles bring to mind analogous circumstances and struggles experienced two decades earlier by Katherine Mansfield, the New Zealand-born fiction-writer, who is also remembered with affection in Work circles.

Parallels in their lives are striking. Both died of tuberculosis, Mansfield at the age of thirty-five in 1923, Daumal at the age of thirty-six in 1944; Mansfield at the Priory in the presence of Mr. Gurdjieff, Daumal in the company of Madame de Salzmann. There is one major difference and it concerns their art: Daumal incorporated the insights of the Work into his poetry and fiction, whereas Mansfield was no longer writing fiction (only correspondence) when she moved for the last time to the Priory at Fontainebleau-on-Avon. Mansfield’s short stories are widely read to this day, especially by feminists. Daumal has a presence on the periphery of 20th-century French poetry and prose.

In the literature of post-war France, Daumal’s writings occupy an odd place. The “odd place” is the “simplist” position he defined for himself between the extremes of Dada and Surrealism. As well, his poetry and fiction make strong use of allegory, a neglected literary device in 20th-century literature, a literature largely given over to irony. Finally, his later work and last years were much influenced and enriched by G.I. Gurdjieff. All of this has endeared him to francophone readers. Yet among anglophones readers, despite the best efforts of an array of talented translators, his poetry, fiction, and essays are not widely read.

There is always the sense that whatever the nature of Daumal’s subject matter, he is also writing about something else. (His basis is his anabasis.) The problem for English readers is that he has no direct equivalent as a writer, though right now I am going to argue that there is an English poet whose temperament up to a point reflects that of the French poet.

A comparison-and-contrast of Daumal with Edward Thomas is rewarding. René Daumal (1908-1944) was a French writer, philosopher and poet. His alter ego is that of Edward Thomas (1878-1917), the Anglo-Welsh poet. Both are poets who go beyond the world we know. Daumal found a way “behind the beyond” (to use Stephen Leacock’s felicitous expression!) whereas Thomas encountered no teacher (though he was personally and artistically close to Robert Frost who lived close by on a farm in Hampshire).

Daumal’s life was cut short at the age of thirty-six by tuberculosis in the midst of the Second World War. Thomas’s life was cut short at the age of thirty-nine during the First Battle of Arras. There is the sense about both writers that they were under siege for much of their lives and that their finest works lay ahead of them.

Edward Thomas did not find a way out of the human predicament. He did not live long enough. The oldest road in Britain is known as the Icknield Way, and Thomas walked its path and wrote evocatively about the pilgrimage that he made along it in 1913: “Today I know there is nothing beyond the farthest of the ridges except a signpost to unknown places.”

Such unvisited places intrigued him. In the poem “I Never Saw that Land Before,” he wrote as follows:

I should use, as the trees and birds did,

A language not to be betrayed;

And what was hid should still be hid

Excepting from those like me made

Who answer when such whispers bid.

In the poem “Lights Out,” he alluded to the limits of knowledge about the human predicament, “the terror of the situation,” when his life was about to be cut short:

There is not any book

Or face of dearest look

That I would not turn from now

To go into the unknown

I must enter, and leave, alone,

I know not how.

So Edward Thomas entered the registry of the war poets and the war dead. Indeed, his epitaph reads as follows: “And I rose up and knew that I was tired – and continued my journey.” It was no “holy war” for Corporal Thomas.

René Daumal’s journey never ended, and in a sense it will never come to an end, thanks to his questing spirit and his questioning mind. Indeed, he waged the “holy war” of the Sufi all his life. He felt he had imaginatively encompassed the evidence of the known world and hence had a handle or even a purchase on the evidence of the unknown world. He could go to work on his personality and character and he did.

I must resist the temptation to write at length about Daumal’s prose, poetry, and fiction, as I have at hand the two biographies of the man and the three English-language collections of his writings. When I reviewed Pierre Bonnasse’s “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way” (Inner Traditions, 2008), I stressed Bonnasse’s indebtedness to Daumal’s “magical” writings and visions. I know of no finer or deeper contemporary tribute to the worth of Daumal’s life than Bonnasse’s words.

I assume the readers of this review will have a sense of the parameters of Daumal’s life and work and involvement with the Madame and the Mister, so I will concentrate on the present event, an occasion of genuine interest, which takes the form of a stage adaptation of his short prose poem “Holy War.”

The sponsor of the stage production is Toronto’s Seven Arts Study Centre (a group registered in 2006). The promotional copy that appears on the poster – which advertises the event which was held at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, December 6, 2008, George Ignatieff Theatre, Toronto – has been so well composed, will reproduce its words in their entirety:

“The prominent poet and novelist of avant-garde French literature wrote this prose poem as the Nazi armies were crushing Western Europe and approaching France. “Holy War” takes the battle inside. Daumal endows the words “holy war” with their truest meaning, as he evokes with ruthless honesty and rich humour the inner struggle toward consciousness and conscience. This is the unseen warfare that many spiritual traditions regard as the surest basis for peace.”

The George Ignatieff Theatre at Trinity College, University of Toronto, is a handsome, wainscotted space, suitable for guest lectures or small musical or theatrical ensembles, and there are seats for close to 200 people. The house was almost filled on a snowy night. Few if any of the members of the audience (who paid $25 for adult admission or $20 for student admission) will have reason to disagree with the appraisal that Daumal wrote with “ruthless honesty and rich humour” about “the inner struggle towards consciousness and conscience.”

This production is described as marking the centenary of Daumal’s birth. It is chastening to think that if he were alive today the poet would have reached the ripe old age of one hundred years! There was no printed program, but here are the details from the poster.

The text was spoken (recited and at times enacted) by Priscilla Smith. The dancer (an enacter too) was Dolphi Wertenbaker. The oud-player was Chris Wertenbaker. The string-player was Jeff Greene. Roger Lipsey introduced the work and led the discussion afterwards.

The sole surprise for me is that Professor Lipsey has no Wikipedia entry. He has taught art history and classical literature at the State University of New York in Potsdam, N.Y. One day I will examine his three-volume collection devoted to the life and work of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (compiled for the illustrious Bollingen series in 1977). I have long wanted to read his book titled “An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art (Shambhala, 1988). Any Wiki entry devoted to Mr. Lipsey would need to stress his essays and his contributions to Gurdjieffian studies, at once scholarly and appreciative.

“Holy War” is indeed a prose poem. The entire text of the work of some 2,000 words is available on Google. (Type in Daumal’s name and then click on “Holy War.”) The original French text was published as “La Guerre Sainte” in the collection “Poésie Noire, Poésie Blanche” (Editions Gallimard in 1954). The translation here is the one titled “The Holy War” which D.M. Dooling translated into English for an early issue of “Parabola” (7:4). The Internet text is that of the Fall 2000 issue of the “Gurdjieff International Review.” With slight changes, it is the Dooling translation that served as the basis of the production.

Characteristic of Daumal’s writing is his thinking or pondering. (I like to pun that his writing is “ponderful.”) He is not given to visual imagery or verbal concision, but the reader or listener feels that the man is responding both as an artist and as a human being. The text begins riddlingly enough: “I am going to write a poem about war. Perhaps it will not be a real poem, but it will be about a real war.” A little prankishness goes a long way!

The prose poem ends on a thoughtful but elliptical note: “And because I have used the word ‘war,’ and because this word ‘war’ is no longer, today, simply a sound that educated people make with their mouths, but now has become a serious word heavy with meaning, it will be seen that I am speaking seriously and that these are not empty sounds that I am making with my mouth.”

Daumal’s “guerre sainte” refers to the inner war, or striving, rather than to the Islamic “jihad,” yet the “jihad” (the word is not used) is seen to be the outward expression of an inner conflict and confusion. Daumal’s warfare might be described as a “crusade” – to use the word no U.S. President after George W. Bush will ever use again – because the battleground lies between the head and heart of man rather than amid the society of men.

The poem is not a dramatic work at all but a brooding meditation with insightful asides and rich reflections on man’s “inner struggle,” the one he has with himself. Nowhere in the text do the words “conscience,” “consciousness,” or even “presence” appear – any more than does the word “evolution” appear in the first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”

The stage was evenly lit and decorated with five Oriental carpets, one of them hanging from the ceiling as an eye-catching backdrop. Seated on the stage were (from left to right): Priscilla Smith, the speaker; Jeff Greene, string player; Chris Wertenbaker, oud-player; Dolphi Wertenbaker, dancer.

Professor Lipsey appeared, sat on a bench, and spoke accommodatingly to the audience for twenty minutes. He is balding, black-bearded, spectacled, and has a gentle manner. He sketched in Daumal’s literary background, stressing that he was “a seeker of truth” as well as “a writer of great exuberance,” whose abilities were quickly noted by Jean Paulhan, the Paris editor and publisher. Daumal found himself divided between literature and spirituality, until he had a chance meeting with Alexandre de Saltzmann, who recognized his predilection for spirituality and introduced him to his wife Jeanne who introduced him to Mr. Gurdjieff.

Professor Lipsey noted, “In the world of spirituality, originality is not regarded highly. Here was an opportunity to see what an art would be like if shaped by higher ideas.” Daumal wrote about “jihad” which to him meant “extreme striving,” rather like the Christian notion of the “unseen warfare.” Lipsey surprised me by not referring to the “Bhagavad Gita,” the Eastern world’s pre-eminent epic poem of warfare, inner and outer, but the Hindu dimension was explicit in the production itself.

Dolphi Wertenbaker, dressed in orange and black, jewelry on her head and brow and ears, red cast marks on her hands and feet, danced with bare feet. With her fingers she recreated the classical mudras of bharatanatyam which she learned first in Ceylon and later in Madras, India, where her father, James George, was the Canadian High Commissioner.

Ms. Wertenbaker moved her limbs with genuine purpose, conveying a great range of emotions. She possesses quite distinctive looks. I was finally able to connect them with the equally distinctive and noble looks of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, who also taught the Movements. She danced throughout the recitation and at various points echoed the words of Priscilla Smith.

Ms. Smith bears a striking resemblance to Adrienne Clarkson, the last Governor General of Canada. The two women carry themselves with ease and assurance. Ms. Smith was dressed in blue and black and spoke with clarity and purpose. She is a New York-based actress and a special favourite of director Andre Serban. She had committed the script to memory and combined the words with appropriate movements and gestures, by turns bringing forth the text’s humour, irony, sacrcasm, indignation, lyricism, mimicry, and drama.

I will long remember her declaring with desperation “And the war has hardly begun” and affirming “I am I know I wish” and informing “There is only one right, the right to be” and concluding “He who has declared this holy war with himself is at peace with his fellow man.” At one or two points she rose out of the sea of the text as an actress, rather than as a speaker reciting lines, but not for long, but just long enough to prove that the text embraced acting as well as witnessing, as she was intent on giving a “reading,” so it was the feeling behind the words that was to be the point of interest, not any single dramatic interpretation of it.

The two musicians performed intermittently and improvisationally behind the words. There was no electrical amplification. Mr. Greene played a variety of long-stemmed stringed instruments, and Mr. Wertenbaker (the dancer’s husband) strummed the oud and various other smaller instruments. The performance ended with the last lines of the text being recited in both English and French to great effect (especially in an officially bilingual country).

The performance lasted a little over thirty minutes. The audience was appreciative but afraid to applaud and resisted doing so until Professor Lipsey joined the performers on stage. Then there was enthusiastic applause, followed by the discussion that he led. Again, the audience was reluctant to ask questions, so I posed the first one.

I noted that we had learned about the genesis of the poem from the introductory comments. I then asked, “What is the genesis of this production?” It turned out that Professor Lipsey was familiar with the text, and after the shock of the events of September the Eleventh, turned to work on it to concentrate the confusion that he and so many other Americans had felt and were feeling. Here was a way to contain the confusion and frustration and deal with it.

I pursued the question of the genesis of the production afterwards. I learned that the first production (with the same speaker and dancer and the oud-player) was held in a church in Garrison, a hamlet in the Hudson River district of upstate New York in 2003. Since then it has been performed in colleges, institutions, and theatres. The Toronto production is the ninth in the ongoing series.

When there was a lull in the questions and answers, Professor Lipsey threatened the audience: “If you don’t ask questions, I’ll read you another of Daumal’s letters.” Questions again flowed, including one that was directed to the speaker and the dancer. “What goes on inside as you perform.” Both Ms. Smith and Ms. Wertenbaker smiled inscrutably. There was some talk of how difficult it is “to keep a moment of lucidity, with a scalpel to cut through the tissue of lies.”

Ms. Smith said that the text on paper is one thing of importance, but what is more important is what lies beneath the words. Ms. Wertenbaker said that she had read Daumal’s essays on Indian theatre and was startled to learn that there is no distinction in Hindi between “theatre” and “dance.” It seems the same Sanskrit-derived word is used for both forms of expression.

Ms. Smith studied acting and vocal expression in New York with a group that was directly influenced by Peter Brook. For one of their productions, they spoke with the sounds of a number of Asian languages that they did not understand. “Sanskrit has no connectives and is almost hieroglyphic.”

The audience was interested in the instruments and Mr. Wertenbaker explained that the oud that he played was a Turkish instrument (“constructed in Boston”). “The oud is the father of the lute and the grandfather of the modern-day guitar.” Among the other instruments played were Chinese cymbals, thumb-piano, ayala tambur, and sato – all of them exotic-looking and exotic-sounding.

Then there was a low-key reception of wine, mineral water, and canapés, and suddenly it was nine o’clock on a snowy Toronto Saturday evening. My wife Ruth and I left the Ignatieff theatre, which is informally known by the students of Trinity College as the “jit.” It formally bears the name of George Ignatieff, the diplomat and father of Michael Ignatieff, essayist and biographer of Isaiah Berlin, who is currently deputy leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. We left pondering the thought that in the midst of battle we must wend our way from the fort of war to the palace of peace.

In other words, we must find a peace within the warring elements within ourselves and only then attempt to establish a cease-fire for the world at large. So the tragic deaths of Edward Thomas and René Daumal, both of whom were victims of world wars, took on new meaning amid the evening of music, dance, and spoken word.

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto author and anthologist who has published some 200 books. These are listed on his newly reworked website . His last review for this blog was devoted to concert by Charles Ketcham and Casey Sokol at the Glenn Gould Theatre, Toronto.

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