Like his literary hero the poet Arthur Rimbaud, René Daumal was a native of the Champagne-Ardenne region of north-eastern France. His brilliance and tragically early demise, were also shared by his predecessor. In the seventy years since his death, Daumal has become a cult figure, with his influence evident in the works of other ideologists and truth seekers, notably the legendary Chilean film maker and guru, Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Hailed as ‘a hallucinogenic daydream’ by The New York Times, the underlying cinematic inference of Jodorowsky’s psychotropic creation, The Holy Mountain (1973), is in fact far more numinous and esoteric than such a description implies. The film can be viewed as an extension of Daumal’s remarkable vision, for as the French writer and poet believed, and Jodorowsky himself has suggested, the irrefutable reality of human existence is that, ‘Every one of us lives in a different world, with different space and different time.’
Above: Trailer for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973)
Born on 16th March 1908, in the village of Boulzicourt, Daumal’s childhood was an unsettled one, given his parents’ propensity to routinely uproot the family. The most stable figure for the young boy was his paternal grandfather Antoine, a bee keeper whose interests included freemasonry and spirituality.
Moving to Reims in 1921, Daumal befriended a group of fellow students, and their shared bond would provide each of them with an enduring source of personal and professional inspiration. Originally known as the Phrères Simplistes, Daumal along with Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, Roger Vailland and Robert Meyrat would go on to form the collective, Le Grand Jeu.
Drawing upon the philosophy of pataphysics – defined by the French writer and symbolist Alfred Jarry as ‘the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments,’ the group strove to inhabit the metaphysical realm by using astral projection and lucid dreaming, with the aid of ancient scriptures and the use of narcotics and hallucinogens. Consequently, Daumal began to experiment with substances such as the anaesthetic, carbon tetrachloride, an experience he reported as being ‘thrown brutally into another world.’ His yearning to seek ‘another world’ and to discover the ‘great beyond’ would perpetually haunt Daumal, and lead to several suicide attempts during his teens.
After re-locating to Paris in 1925, Daumal enrolled at the Lycée Henri-IV, where he studied under the philosopher, René Maublanc, and participated in the Professor’s research into sensory perception. Daumal failed to pass his exams and transferred to the Sorbonne in 1927, receiving certificates in psychology, and ethics and sociology. At the same time, Le Grand Jeu had expanded to include the poets Pierre Audard, André Delons, Maurice Henry, Pierre Minet and Robert Desnos, the critic and essayist André Rolland de Renéville, the Czech painter Josef Šíma, and the photographer Artür Harfaux.
By 1928, the group had also founded their own journal of the same name, with the first volume (there would only be three in total) proclaiming that, ‘The Great Game is irretrievable; it only plays once. We want to play in every moment of our lives.’ Additionally, Daumal wrote, ‘A man can, according to a certain so-called mystical method, attain an immediate perception of another universe beyond his senses and understanding; knowledge of this universe marks and intermediary stage between individual consciousness and the other one.’ Reactions to the publication varied, but its dismissal by the Surrealist André Breton came as a devastating blow.
Le Grand Jeu was struggling to maintain its reputation, and its members their finances. Roger Gilbert-Lecomte had developed an addiction to morphine, which left him virtually penniless, and Daumal’s fruitless efforts to make a living began to cause his health to suffer. Yet, as his biographer Kathleen Ferrick Rosenblatt has emphasised, for Daumal, material possessions were trivial, and he was inclined to neglect his physical well-being in his quest for spiritual fulfillment. Between 1928 and 1930, Daumal worked on numerous poems and a collection of essays, later published as Tu t’es toujours trompé, and taught himself Sanskrit, so he could understand the sacred texts that might unearth his coveted other worlds.
Daumal often claimed to have recurring dreams about the woman he would one day marry, and he showed little interest in the opposite sex, considering it to be a pointless endeavour until he encountered this woman in his waking moments. She arrived in the form of Vera Milanova, the Siberian-American wife of Hendrik Cramer, a Dutch poet and supporter of Le Grand Jeu, and she became instantly smitten with Daumal after they met in 1929. Milanova and Cramer divorced in 1930, leaving her free to wed her French lover in February 1931.
In October 1930, Daumal made the acquaintance of the Georgian painter and theatre designer, Alexandre de Salzmann, an associate of the Russian spiritual teacher, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff taught that ‘A man may be born, but in order to be born he must first die, and in order to die he must first awake,’ and his discipline was referred to as ‘The Work,’ as it required its followers to work on themselves in order to achieve a higher state of consciousness. An introduction by de Salzmann resulted in Daumal and Milanova becoming devotees of Gurdjieff, an affiliation that would bring about the gradual dissolution of Le Grand Jeu.
Early on in their marriage, Daumal and Milanova chose to spend time apart, and he travelled around America with the Indian dancer Uday Shankar from December 1932 until April 1933. Daumal’s return was prompted by his enlistment in the French army, although his deteriorating health meant he was discharged by July that year. Daumal found work as a translator, and produced the first French language versions of the Buddhist Tripitaka: The Pali Canon, Essays on Zen Buddhism by D. T. Suzuki, and Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. He also took the post of science editor for the newly-formed Encyclopédie Française in 1935.
Tuberculosis had claimed the life of de Salzmann in 1934, leading Daumal and Milanova to move in with his grief-stricken widow Jeanne for several months. Ignoring his own health problems, Daumal lost most of his teeth and also the hearing in his left ear, before he too was diagnosed with the disease in late 1937. It has subsequently been argued that Daumal’s use of carbon tetrachloride permanently damaged his lungs, impeding his ability to fight the infection.
Nevertheless, he began the novel, La Grande Beuverie in 1938, and though his affliction made daily living increasingly problematic, Daumal refused to feel any self-pity, writing to a friend in May 1939, ‘Lately my eyes have been aching; I’m cross-eyed, I see double, I see smoke rise up before me, I fall asleep while I’m unlocking my door. I pull my hair to wake myself; my feet burn and I have trouble keeping my breakfast down in the morning. But I would be an idiot to complain because all this is eclipsed by the fantastic luck to have found a path (difficult as anything is that is real) that I have searched for all these years – a real possibility to get out of the vicious circle that we are in naturally.’
The outbreak of war and the surrender of France in June 1940 further worsened Daumal’s condition. Milanova was Jewish by birth and the couple lived in constant fear that she would be arrested by the Nazis, prompting Daumal to write the prose poem, La Guerre Sainte, in which he declared, ‘For to be a philosopher, to love the truth more than oneself, one must have died to self-deception, one must have killed the treacherous smugness of dream and cozy fantasy.’ Food shortages caused the pair to become severely malnourished and Daumal developed painful arthritis, which at times left him unable to walk.
Contemplating his present circumstances, Daumal began Le Mont Analogue: Roman d’aventures alpines, non euclidiennes et symboliquement authentiques. The allegorical novel featured six characters of differing nationalities and professions, all hoping to ascend a mysterious mountain, visible only to the few whose eyes were truly open.
Integral to the story was the ‘peradam,’ an object that, like the mountain itself, could not be seen by everyone, for as Daumal explained, ‘The clarity of this stone is so great and its index of refraction so close to that of air that, despite the crystal’s great density, the unaccustomed eye hardly perceives it. But to anyone who seeks it with sincere desire and true need, it reveals itself by its sudden sparkle, like that of dewdrops.’
Writing to Pierre and Kathleen Granville on 3rd May 1944, Milanova confessed her concerns for her husband, however, she noted his lack of despondency, telling them, ‘I find him covered with sweat and torn apart by coughing; but he, he remains sweet, calm, patient – never a word or gesture that betrays his interior grandeur. His words are always noble.’ René Daumal died only weeks later on 21st May.
Le Mont Analogue was left unfinished, and unpublished until 1952. Daumal had been working on it the very day of his death, and planned to entitle the ultimate chapter, for which he had left a rough outline, And you, what do you seek?
Ravaged by tuberculosis, Daumal’s last days were spent at his Parisian home, where he reflected upon the things he himself had sought and found, finally concluding, ‘You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.’
La Guerre Sainte – René Daumal (1940)
Le Mont Analogue – René Daumal (1952)
You’ve Always Been Wrong – René Daumal: Translated and Introduced by Thomas Vosteen (1995)
René Daumal: The Life and Work of a Mystic Guide – Kathleen Ferrick Rosenblatt (1999)
The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky: The Creator of El Topo – Alejandro Jodorowsky (2008)