IN PRAISE OF RENÉ DAUMAL
The French writer’s work is considered by John Robert Colombo
René Daumal on May 19, 1944, three days
before his death, photographed
by his friend Luc Dietrich.
I have long thought of the Work as a lodestone, a meteorite perhaps, one that may have arrived from interstellar space, perhaps from beyond the Milky Way Galaxy. As a lodestone it is charged with magnetic properties so that like a giant magnet it attracts iron filings – ferrous metals, base metals like iron as well as rare metals like platinum. Its magnetic and electrical charges are very powerful and create a current which attracts filings. Now, for a few minutes, think of these “filings” as people, specifically creative people, notably literary people.
Writers have long been attracted by the magnetic or electrical properties of the Work. T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and Gerald Heard were among the dozens of literary people who attended P.D. Ouspensky’s inaugural lectures on the Special Doctrine in London or at Lyne Place. Indeed, J.B. Priestley, his request thwarted for a private interview with Ouspensky, depicted him (sympathetically ) in one of his popular novels and in one of his trio of “time plays.” He went on to praise “In Praise of the Miraculous” in one volume of his memoirs.
Between the wars, practically “anybody who was somebody” was drawn to the Priory to meet and assess G.I. Gurdjieff. He had a life-long influence on the youthful Lincoln Kirsten, the ailing Katharine Mansfield, the impressionable Denis Saurat, and the irrepressible Frank Lloyd Wright. In London and New York, A.R. Orage had no problem introducing the principles and practices of the Fourth Way to his literary friends, among them Elinor Wylie, Hart Crane, Margaret Anderson, Herbert Read, Zona Gale, etc.
It could be said that “Work ideas” appear in the writings of T.S. Eliot, but one has to strain to find any such influences in the verse of Wylie or Crane, or in the prose of Mansfield for that matter. Yet the Work has attracted a number of fine poets. Without attempting to be encyclopedic about it, here are the names of some practitioners who have fallen under the influence.
Indeed, the Work permeates the presentations and performances of the contemporary Paris-based poet and activist Bonnasse. (Curious readers should check his website for particulars.) Farming and “Gurdjieffing” (to coin a term) underscore the free verse of the Armenian-American poet David Kherdian. (Come to think of it, why is there no appreciation of his body of work written from the vantage-point of the Work?) Some of Sophia Wellbeloved’s poetry seems influenced by her early experience of the work. (She has her own web-log.) I am tempted to include Kathleen Raine among these names, but the major influence on the late poet was that of the Traditionalists rather than that of the Fourth Way. And then there is René Daumal.
Ah, Daumal! In France both the man and his body of work are identified with Surrealism and with Gurdjieffianism, but his name and his work are not widely known to English-language readers of prose or poetry. It is interesting to probe and ponder why this is so. Why is his name less familiar in the anglosphere than it is in la francophonie?
Daumal’s most ambitious achievement is a work of prose fiction (to be identified below) yet he is regarded first and foremost as a poet, one who writes highly personal essays. He is a poet with a pronounced mystical or metaphysical tendency, and this was so well before he was attracted to the Work like an iron filing. He was introduced to it by Alexandre and Jeanne de Salzmann who largely sustained Daumal and his partner Vera Milanova during the days of the Nazi occupation of France. Yet Daumal will be remembered as a writer long after his connection with literary Surrealism is set to one side.
Daumal’s work resists classification, as does the man himself, who stands apart from the restrictive but conventional categories of “writer,” “artist,” or “man of letters.” (Indeed, he once explained, “The task is to continue writing … without becoming a writer.”) Yet in his youth he considered himself a “para-surrealist,” as he had been influenced by the mainstream Surrealist movement which English-speakers are inclined to see as a visual movement, whereas French-speakers know it to be both a visual and a verbal movement and even at core as a social and aesthetic revolution.
Being memorable was Daumal’s aim and second nature, if not his first. A good instance of this occurs in his classic work of prose fiction. Here is its full title and subtitle: “Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidian Adventures in Mountain Climbing.” If I were lecturing at some length, rather than writing within the compass of a review article, I would compare and contrast Daumal’s sense of “mountain climbing” with that of Marco Pallis in Peaks and Lamas. (Hint: Daumal climbed symbolic mountains for symbolic purposes; Pallis scaled actual mountains for athletic and religious experiences.) Instead, I will focus on Daumal’s surprising ability to crystalize in a single image an intriguing impression, feeling, sensation, or idea. All of these are characteristic of the invention of the “peradam.”
I wrote “his invention” of the peradam, but I could have equally well have written “his discovery” of the peradam, for it may very well exist in its own right. I am assuming that the word “peradam” is of his own creation, his neologism – Kurt Vonnegut-style – but I trust that it has wide implications in mystical literature generally. The word was introduced in “Mount Analogue” (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1986), translated by the well-known scholar Roger Shattuck, to refer to some sort of spiritual substance, mystical material, or imaginary element that is “a clear and extremely hard stone … a true crystal … harder than diamond.”
Yet the most notable characteristic of the peradam is that it is extremely difficult (almost impossible) to see. Someone must know that it exists, where it exists, and how to find it, otherwise it will not appear as it sometimes does – as a “brilliant sparkle like that of a dewdrop.” In some way it resembles “faith” or “belief” or “the substance of things seen.” Perhaps it is like the coating of the astral body.
Furthermore, Daumal writes in the novel, “One finds here, very rarely in the low lying areas, more frequently as one goes farther up, a clear and extremely hard stone that is spherical and varies in size – a kind of crystal, but a curved crystal, something extraordinary and unknown on the rest of the planet. Among the French of Port-des-Singes, it is called peradam.”
Turn the pages of the novel for the location of “Port-des-Signes”; ignore the columns of the gazetteer for a real-world place. We are inhabiting now an imaginal world. I sometimes think we are surrounded by “peradams,” but it is only a person like Daumal, with his quasi-clairvoyant power, who “sees” such things or such essences as peradams that are able to change and enrich human lives to the degree that they are perceived.
Through the creation of the peradam, Daumal has grasped the parallel notion of the “terma,” the Tibetan term which Marco Pallis draws to the attention of Westerners in his memoir Peaks and Lamas. Daumal made the notion (or some similar notion) his very own. The peradam appears solely in Daumal’s writing. (As for the terma, here is an experiment: Ask any Tibetan you meet, whether a shopkeeper or a scholar, about that word, and he or she will look puzzled … and then beam!) I think the description of the peradam, whether an invention or a discovery, gives the reader a good indication of Daumal’s creativity and imaginative sensitivity to dimensions that are often described as mystical or metaphysical.
Here are a few details about his books that have been published in English translation. I have a number of them on my bookshelf, but this list comes from the entry on Daumal in Wikipedia. (Like Jorge Luis Borges, he would have marvelled at the scope of Wikipedia, had he lived to behold this use of the technological noosphere or 20th-century akashic record!) Here are the book titles in order of their appearance in English.
* A Fundamental Experiment. New York / Madras: Hanuman Books, 1987.
*The Lie of the Truth and Other Parables from the Way of Liberation. New York / Madras: Hanuman Books, 1989.
*The Powers of the Word (1927-1943) (Les pouvoirs de la parole). San Francisco: City Lights, 1991.
*You’ve Always Been Wrong (Tu t’es toujours trompé). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
*Mugle and The Silk (Mugle; La soie). New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.
*A Night of Serious Drinking (La grande beuverie). Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 2003.
*Mount Analogue (Le mont analogue). Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 2004.
*Le Contre-Ciel (Le contre-ciel).(Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 2005.
*Rasa or Knowledge of the Self: Essays on Indian Aesthetics and Selected Sanskrit Studies. New York: New Directions, 1982. Edited by Claudio Rugafiori, translated by Louise Landes Levi. Reprint editions of 333 copies apiece (Kathmandu, Nepal: Shivastan, 2002 & 2006).
So some of his books are available in English (on the lists of non-mainstream publishing houses), though he is the kind of author whose work may be organized and presented in many different ways to produce many different effects. His compositions resemble the shards of coloured glass in the turning kaleidoscope with three parallel mirrors which produces a seemingly endless series of patterns, each memorable and marvellous in its own irreplaceable way. In addition to his own books, a biographical study of the man and his oeuvre is available that is recommended: Kathleen Ferrick Rosenblatt, “René Daumal: The Life and Work of a Mystic Guide” (New York: SUNY Press, 1999).
There is a stage presentation of one of Daumal’s poetic essays, complete with recitation, music, and dance, that has inspired and impressed select audiences over the last few years. It is called “Holy War” or “The Holy War” (“La Guerre sainte”) translated by D.M. Dooling from the collection “Poésie Noire, Poésie Blanche” (Paris: Gallimard, 1954). The text is a meditation on the effect of violence on man and society, and while the Arab word “jihad” goes unvoiced, it is about the two struggles – the outer (and fruitless) clash and the inner (and fruitful) struggle. It begins, “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.” That is typical of Daumal.
Daumal’s staged work to one side, French critics and commentators have written about him, but English writers and reviewers have largely ignored his oeuvre and its contribution to the world of letters. I have yet to meet an a English-speaking professors of literature – and I know many of them – who knows anything more than the man’s name, if that.
There are three reasons why his work seems marginal to the mainstream in the English-speaking world. First, there is the fact that Surrealism is seen as largely pictorial, as mentioned earlier, so Daumal’s prose and poetry are held to be anomalous, even problematic. Second, Daumal writes almost exclusively as a mystic or at least as a metaphysician, and few modern literary artists work this vein in English. (The late Kathleen Raine is the notable exception among modern poets.) Third, Daumal has been adopted even appropriated as the “house poet” of the Work. If the last reason seems tangential, remember that the respect paid to Orage as literary editor and writer barely survived his decades-long association with Gurdjieff.
There are surprisingly few references to René Daumal on the Web (merely 12,200 largely repetitious or fragmentary references when I last checked), and the main Wikipedia entry itself is woefully weak. (Some sympathetic scholar should expand it, if only to honour the memory of the man.) Daumal’s dates are 1908 and 1944 so he was only in his mid-thirties when he died. In addition to his birth and death dates, there is a third “vital” date in his life, and that is the year 1930. The autumn of that year he was drawn by Alexandre de Salzmann into Madame de Salzmann’s circle of French students in Paris and then in Sèvres. Six years later she arranged for the poet to be introduced to Gurdjieff.
James Moore made an interesting point when he stated that Daumal became “G.’s first French pupil.” Up to that time pretty well all of Gurdjieff’s followers were Rusian, American or English. (The French were slow to step up to the bat, but they began hitting home runs following Gurdjieff’s death.) During the difficult years of the Second World War, and in particular during those of the Occupation, Daumal and his wife were sheltered and supported by the de Salzmanns. Vera was Jewish, and while she survived the War, her husband, never a robust person, did not. Daumal was known to rely on drugs which weakened his already precarious health. During the last months of his life he struggled to complete the manuscript of “Mount Analogue.” His death from tuberculosis at such an early age marked a genuine loss to French literature as well as to the literature of “the way.”
All of the above was brought to mind – let me credit the lodestone of the Work – by the appearance of a new book by Daumal, a collection of his correspondence, the first-ever compilation of his letters to be published in English. “Letters on the Search for Awakening: 1940-1944” has been professionally translated by Gabriela Ansari and Roger Lipsey. The first translator is responsible for the English version of “The Real Remains Invisible: Conversations with Olivier Laignel de Salzmann,” a text I have yet to see. The second translator is a well-respected art historian, authority on the contributions of A.K. Coomaraswamy, associate of the periodical “Parabola,” and trustee of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City. He has served memorably as the narrator of the “Holy War” staged productions that were mentioned earlier.
The new book, a handsome one, has been published by Dolmen Meadow Editions of Toronto. (The publisher has a website which lists this title and others in the same vein.) The trade paperback measures 5.5″ by 8.25″. It is 328 pages long. There is no index. I have two minor complaints. The first reservation is that the cover of the book, which features an apparently uncredited pencil or pen sketch of a mountain, gives the impression that the contents consist of “chinoiserie.”
The second and more serious reservation is the size of the type area versus the size of the page area. The outer margins are 1.25″ wide, whereas the inner margins are 0.5″ inches wide. The double-page spread may be held open easily by two thumbs, but two eyes have to strain to read the text at the inner margins.
Putting such material matters to one side, I wish I had the time to review this book in detail, as it deserves a detailed analysis. There is much in it, a plentitude of termas and peradams. It consists of the edited texts of some of the letters that Daumal wrote between 1930 and 1944, the last third of his life,. The texts were taken in the main and translated from the second and third volumes of the three-volume set of the “Correspondance” published by Gallimard in Paris in the 1990s.
Reading these letters, one is left with the thirst for more letters. Roger Lipsey’s Introduction is a model of its kind. He notes: “Once encountered and well encountered, Daumal becomes a permanent companion.” This collection of correspondence proves his assessment to be true.
The poet could be exact in his word-plays and inexact in his spellings (having trouble at first spelling Madame’s name as “Saltzmann,” for instance). My sole criticism of the Lipsey’s Introduction is the misuse of the word “unique” – twice in one sentence! (Alexandre de Salzmann is described as ” … virtually unique, just as René’s intent embrace of what he taught was, in its time, virtually unique.” Something is unique or it is not unique, never partially or “virtually.”
Daumal accepted the need to communicate his sense of awakening from the fitful sleep of the world. “One hasn’t understood,” the poet wrote two years before his death, “unless one has transmitted one’s understanding – however small – if one hasn’t realized it in an action, in an undertaking of some kind. And each new understanding awakens new questions.” He is most modern in that he is most comfortable asking rather than answering questions. He finds he must bear witness to “the co-existence of states.”
There follows a chronological selection of seventy-six letters grouped by the years from 1930 to 1944. In point of fact, the Table of Contents identifies that many letters, but successive letters to recipients are often grouped together under one heading, so the total number of epistles probably exceeds one hundred. The letters are beautifully translated and they convey the fact that “we have certainly had in our lives flashes of higher consciousness.” The editorial footnotes, which identify correspondents and references, are unobtrusive.
Scholars with an interest in literary matters will pause over the letters addressed to editors Jean Paulhan and Max-Pol Fouchet; readers with an concern for his marriage will pause over those addressed to Véra Milanova; and students curious about the Work in those days will pay particular attention to the ones addressed to Jeanne de Salzmann and Luc Dietrich.
Daumal’s writings are both frustrating and fascinating to read because so much of his writing is so immensely suggestive of enriched sensations, feelings, and thoughts, as well as states of awareness. It is life itself, both inner and outer, that grants him both psychological highs and physiological lows. Here is what he wrote to Geneviève Lief, a pharmacist friend, in 1942:
“We would have to approach the other with entirely new eyes, as if each time were the first time. The sky is blue – but that isn’t so because it was blue yesterday, no, at this moment it’s blue for the first time, and as if through a unique miracle. Look: the sky is blue! And it’s not because yesterday I had certain feelings for a person (or that person for me) …. ”
The letter that he wrote to his friend Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes in 1941 includes the following sentence: “There are still many things I would wish to tell you – ” Indeed, I too could go on …. Daumal is like one of those “iron filings” that has been drawn to the lodestone of the Work. He in turn has become a conductor of its magnetic charges and electrical currents which now empower “Letters on the Search for Awakening” which will in turn attract new readers to Daumal and “the search for awakening.”
John Robert Colombo has many interests, among them Canadian lore and literature, consciousness studies, poetry, and the fiction of Sax Rohmer (the creator of the arch-villain Dr. Fu Manchu). Being published this fall are Colombo’s editions of two new Rohmer titles: “The Sumuru Omnibus” and “Tears of Our Lady.” About once a month Colombo contributes a review or a commentary to this web-blog. If you would like to be notified of forthcoming contributions, email him to this effect at jrc @ ca. inter. net