The Theosophical Society in America

Climbing Mount Analogue

Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2001 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Lachman, Gary. "Climbing Mount Analogue." Quest  89.5 ( September-October 2001): 166-171.

By Gary Lachman

Gary Lachman

Sometime in the year 1924 a precocious French poet named René Daumal had a mystical experience that became the determining event of his life.

Soaking a handkerchief in carbon tetrachloride— a powerful anesthetic he used for his beetle collection— the sixteen-year-old Daumal held it to his nostrils and inhaled. Instantly he felt himself “thrown brutally into another world,” a strange other dimension of geometric forms and incomprehensible sounds, in which his mind “traveled too fast to drag words along with it” (Daumal, Powers of the Word 164).

It was his first encounter with what he would later call “absurd evidence”— “proof” that another existence lies beyond the conscious mind. Obsessed with the mystery of death, René was determined to peek at “the great beyond.” When the anesthetizing effects of the fumes proved too great, René’s hand would drop from his face. He would then regain consciousness, his mind reeling— and his head aching— from its recent plunge into somewhere else.

René repeated his experiment many times, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, always with the same result: the conviction that he had briefly entered“another world,” one infinitely more real than our everyday reality. He may have taken his trip hundreds of times, and it is almost certain that his repeated use of carbon tetrachloride started the weakening of his lungs that led to his deathf rom tuberculosis in 1944 at the age of 36.

If all René Daumal did in his short life was to experiment with drugs and write poetry, he probably would not be remembered today, except by students of obscure French literature. But unlike so many other youthful travelers into “the beyond,” before his death Daumal managed to capture some of the insights gleamed from his dangerous interior journeys. Nowhere did Daumal come closer to communicating most clearly something of the strange “other” reality that he observed in his harmful adolescent experiments and dedicated his life to penetrating than in his last, unfinished novel, Mount Analogue (1952).

Symbolizing a “way to truth” that “cannot not exist,” Mount Analogue towers above the everyday world like a spiritual Everest. An ardent climber, by the time he tried to make this metaphysical ascent, Daumal had added a few items to his alpinist’s gear. Jettisoning the uncertain “heights” of drugs by 1939, when he first contemplated the novel, Daumal had been for many years a student of the teachings of the enigmatic Armenian G. I. Gurdjieff, communicated through Gurdjieff’s long time disciples Alexandre and Jeanne de Salzmann.

Early Life

René Daumal was born in 1908 in the forests of the Ardennes, not far from the Belgian border. Like his hero, the equally precocious boy-poet Arthur Rimbaud— with whom he shared an early death, a fascination with drugs, and an interest in the occult— Daumal was educated at Charleville. Early on he displayed two life long characteristics: a brilliant intellect and a fascination with the “beyond.” The first revealed itself fully when he completed his baccalauréat at 17; the second, even earlier, by an obsession with death starting at 6. When most boys were dreaming of cowboys and Indians— or in Daumal’s case, the French equivalent— René kept himself awake, caught in a stranglehold of “nothingness.”This early confrontation with the void led to exhausting experiments with entering dreams while still awake and strenuous attempts at “lucid dreaming,”which his fellow Gurdjieffean P. D. Ouspensky (“On the Study of Dreams”) had also made a generation earlier. It would also lead to his teenage attempts at suicide, as well as the basic themes of his first collection of poetry, Counter Heaven, for which he won an esteemed literary prize in 1935.

In his early years René found scant opportunity to discuss these deep matters. Although his paternal grandfather, Antoine Daumal, was a Mason who began his own esoteric lodge, most adults gave René’s existential concerns little thought. But during his precocious teens, René was not alone. When his family moved to Reims and entered the boy in the lycée, René met three other young mental voyagers who shared his taste for metaphysical speculation. In 1922, with Roger Vailland, Robert Meyrat, and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, René started a kind of secret society.

The Simplists, as they called themselves, became inseparable and were dedicated to retaining the spontaneity and intuition of childhood— a curious aim, given that Daumal at the time was only 14. Along with reading “decadent” poets like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and books on occultism and theosophy, the Simplists conducted various experiments in parapsychology and magic, what the group called “experimental metaphysics,” some of which included the use of hashish and opium. In one potentially dangerous experiment, Daumal walked alone for hours with his eyes closed, strangely avoiding the obstacles in his path. Other experiments included astral traveling, shared dreams, precognition, attempts to open the third eye, and a form of second sight the group called “paroptic vision.”

The last type of experiment was often conducted under the supervision of their lycée professor, René Maublanc. Maublanc had himself conducted experiments with the author Jules Romain, who in 1920 published a book entitled La Visionextrarétinienne et le sens paroptique. In it he argued that, if the eyes were closed or blinded, a kind of sight could develop in the epidermal cells of the fingers, an idea that the Italian scientist Cesare Lombroso had put forth some years earlier.

In these experiments, René revealed an uncanny ability to determine theidentity of objects with his eyes closed in a darkened room while wearing tight-fitting, thick, blackened glasses, rather like underwater goggles. During these sessions Maublanc would hypnotize René, who would then hold his hands near the objects, or place them on a specially covered box containing some item. Daumal could also “see” the images on book covers and even sense colors by the temperature they gave off.

Le Grand Jeu

In 1925 René entered the prestigious Lycée Henri-IV in Paris, to prepare for examinations to enter the École Normale Supérieure. One of his professors was the philosopher Émile Chartier, better known under the pen name “Alain.” Along with his work in mathematics, philosophy, science, and medicine, Daumal also studied Sanskrit, mastering the language in three years, composing a grammar and beginning several translations. Daumal also read the works of the Traditionalist René Guénon and wrote a series of essays on Indian esthetics, posthumously published as Rasa (1982).

At the time of Daumal’s studies in ancient traditions, however, Paris was a hotbed of modernism, and no group was more vociferous than the Surrealists, who shared with him and the other Simplists a fascination with the occult and paranormal. As a consequence of a fall in 1927, Daumal had a period of amnesia, which prevented him from taking his entrance examinations, so he began a course of “free studies” in philosophy at the Sorbonne. There he met the Czech painter Joseph Sima and the Siberian-born, naturalized American Vera Milanova, who would later become his wife. With the poet André Rolland de Reneville and the other Simplists, the nineteen-year-old Daumal embarked on the short-lived literary review for which he is most remembered in France today, Le Grand Jeu (The Big Game).

The wild blend of Guénon, Alfred Jarry’s Pataphysics, occultism, and arcane scholarship in Le Grand Jeu posed a threat to Surrealism. When the first issue appeared in 1928, Surrealism had been around for a decade, but had lost momentum in endless squabbles over politics and egos. The young poets, scarcely out of their teens, calling for a “Revolution of Reality returning to its source” and claiming to speak the same word as “uttered by the Vedic Rishis, the Cabbalist Rabbis, the prophets, the mystics, the great heretics of all time and the true Poets” (Daumal, Powers of the Word 6) were bound to attract the older group’s attention. Overtures were made to bring them into the fold, but Daumal firmly declined. The Surrealist André Breton, deep into Marxism, retaliated by openly criticizing Le Grand Jeu for its ideological failings. Daumal, unfazed, answered that Breton should beware of “eventually figuring in study guides to literary history.”

Daumal emerged from this skirmish intact, but he and Le Grand Jeu were not in good shape. By 1929, his childhood friend Roger Gilbert-Lecomte had succumbed to the drug addiction that would eventually kill him. Daumal himself was barely scratching out an existence, living in poverty, losing his teeth, and feeling the ravages of his various experiments. The third issue of the review would be its last. If Daumal rejected the solicitations of the pope of Surrealism, it was not from lack of need for a father figure. He was merely waiting to meet a more remarkable man.

Alexandre de Salzmann and Gurdjieff

Daumal’s meeting with a remarkable man occurred in November 1930 at the Café Figon on the Boulevard St. Germain. Sitting at a table drinking calvadosand beer, and drawing odd Arabic and Oriental designs, was a man that Joseph Sima recognized from a previous collaboration. Sima approached and introduced the famous artist Alexandre de Salzmann to his young friend. But a different story seems more in line with the kind of legends one associates with the Gurdjieff “work.” In the latter account, de Salzmann, a world-renowned authority on theater lighting and set design, approached the young bohemians and engagedthem in conversation. After a few minutes, he proposed a test: he asked the group to hold their arms straight out at the side for as long as they could. Several minutes later only Daumal’s remained in the air. De Salzmann smiled and said, “You interest me.” However the event happened, Daumal had met his remarkable man.

Alexandre de Salzmann was born into an aristocratic family in Tiflis,Georgia, in 1874. Like Gurdjieff, he had a colorful past, part of which included being kidnapped by brigands as a teenager. He claimed to have lost his teeth when falling from a mountain while in the service of a Russian Grand Duke. Also like Gurdjieff, de Salzmann was a trickster who enjoyed frequent leg-pulling, so we should be wary of believing all his claims. But de Salzmann certainly shared another character trait with his master. He was a remarkably versatile man,enthusiastic about everything. When Daumal first encountered him, he described de Salzmann as a “former dervish, former Benedictine, former professor of jiu-jitsu, healer, stage designer” (quoted by Roger Shattuck in the introduction to Mount Analogue 13).

After studies in Moscow, de Salzmann headed for Munich, where he got involved in the Art Nouveau movement, becoming friends with the poet Rilke and the painter Wassily Kandinsky and contributing illustrations to important journals like Jugend and Simplicissimus. In 1911 he went to Hellerau, where he developed a new system of stage lighting. Among others, the poet and playwright Paul Claudel was captivated by his work. It was also there that he met his wife, Jeanne Allemand, a teacher of Dalcroze Eurythmics, who, after Gurdjieff’s death in 1949, became the central living exponent of “the work.” After a brief return to Moscow, the couple settled in Alexandre’s home town of Tiflis, and it was there, in 1919, that they met Gurdjieff.

Escaping from a Russia thrown into madness by war and revolution, Gurdjieff had brought his band of followers to the Georgian capital. Two of his students, Thomas and Olga de Hartmann, a celebrated composer and singer, became involvedwith the Tiflis Opera, and it was there they met de Salzmann, whom Thomas knew from Munich. De Hartmann introduced de Salzmann to Gurdjieff, and the remarkable man was impressed. “He is a very fine man,” Gurdjieff is reported to have said.“And she [Jeanne] is intelligent.” Thus began a lifetime relationship for all three.

De Salzmann’s relationship with Gurdjieff was ambiguous. At the time of the former’s death from tuberculosis in 1933, Gurdjieff had apparently cut off his student of fifteen years, refusing to visit him as he lay dying in a hotel room.When the weak, sickly man finally summoned the strength to confront Gurdjieff, his master all but ignored him. On his death bed, de Salzmann is reported to have said, “I’ll know on the other side whether he’s a Master or a demon.” As James Webb remarks in The Harmonious Circle (435 -6), whatever “esoteric” meaning may have been behind Gurdjieff’s behavior, this incident must remain one of the darkest in the complicated legends surrounding “the work.”

When the twenty-one-year-old Daumal met de Salzmann, he had no doubt that his moment of destiny had arrived. Gurdjieff had been in France since 1922, directing the activities at his famous prieuré in Fontainebleau, where, ironically, another young writer, Katherine Mansfield, also died of tuberculosis. But by 1924, Gurdjieff had seemingly lost interest in his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man and was laboring at the monumental Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1950), gaining inspiration from copious amounts of black coffee and armagnac.

When Daumal met de Salzmann, the artist was making a living as an interior decorator and antique dealer. Still thirsting for the absolute, Daumal now drank greedily at one of its living wells. René and Vera spent endless nights talking with de Salzmann about Gurdjieff and “the work,” and eventually de Salzmannappeared in fictional form in two of Daumal’s allegorical novels, A Night of Serious Drinking (1938)— started during his brief stay in New York while working as a press agent for the Indian dancer Uday Shankar— and Mount Analogue. After Alexandre’s death, the two threw themselves into “the work” with a dedication that troubled their former friends, and it was during his time with Jeanne de Salzmann that Daumal’s first sightings of Mount Analogue began.

In a house in Sevres, a suburb of Paris, Jeanne de Salzmann set up a kind ofmini-prieuré, a communal home dedicated to “the work.” There, with theorientalist Philippe Lavastine and a few others, René and Vera pursued the difficult task of “awakening.” They struggled through Gurdjieff’s “movements,”incredibly complicated physical exercises designed to tap unused energies and overcome “sleep,” and investigated the effects of music on the human organism. René and Vera were also involved in a similar “work house” set up in Geneva. All during this time Daumal’s health deteriorated— his rotting teeth were pulled and he became deaf in his left ear. He kept his failing body and growing soultenuously together by contributing to L’Encyclopédie Française and through freelance translation. Among other works, he translated D. T. Suzuki’s three-volume Essays on Zen Buddhism into French.

In 1938 Daumal began working with Gurdjieff directly, attending the famous dinners in Gurdjieff’s tiny flat on the Rue de Colonel Renards, a turning point in his life sadly paralleled by another: in the same year he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Typically, Daumal rejected treatment and flatly refused to enter asanitarium. Throughout his life, Daumal showed a consistent disdain for the flesh, as manifested in his dangerous drug adventures, his psychic experiments, and now his total commitment to “the work.” The essence of that “work” is“struggle,” and at this point Daumal certainly found himself in the right place for it.

In 1940 Germany invaded France. Vera was Jewish, and for his remaining years, Daumal eked out an increasingly precarious existence, constantly on the run from the Gestapo and the Vichy government. At one point he and Vera were reduced to drinking hot water to stave off hunger pangs. In 1941 tubercular arthritis developed in his left foot. Two years later a synovial tumor erupted and the resulting infection caused excruciating pain. Like his hero Rimbaud, for the last six months of his life Daumal was unable to walk. In the end malnourishment and a punishing habit of chain-smoking Gauloise cigarettes killed him. In April 1944 Daumal died. An uncompleted sentence in the manuscript of Mount Analogue marks the point at which his quest for the absolute ended.

Mount Analogue

Subtitled A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing, like all good parables, Mount Analogue resists final interpretation. A riveting adventure story, it is also a modern day Pilgrim’s Progress. The plot is simple. Led by the Professor of Mountaineering, Pierre Sogol (de Salzmann), eight adventurers board the yacht Impossible to discover the invisible but “absolutely real” Mount Analogue. Though it is hidden from ordinary eyes, Sogol pinpoints its location through a series of supra-logical deductions involving the curvature of space.

Convinced of the necessity of Mount Analogue’s existence, the crew eventually arrive, set up camp, and begin the ascent, along the way discovering the strange, nearly invisible crystals called “peradams.” These symbolize the rare and difficult truths discovered on the spiritual path, and reflect Daumal’s own lucid, limpid prose. There are insightful studies of the different voyagers— embodying Gurdjieff’s classification of types— a fascinating portrait of de Salzmann, and penetrating analyses of Western civilization.

Although the book’s fragmentary character is in keeping with Gurdjieff’s “work”— Ouspenksy’s own masterpiece In Search of the Miraculous was originally titled Fragments of an Unknown Teaching— the fact that Daumal did not live to complete it is a tragedy. And yet, when we look at Daumal’s brief but eventful life, it somehow seems fitting that this spiritual voyage of discovery would be cut short. There is no question of Daumal’s dedication to his goals or the integrity of his pursuit. But his approach to the higher regions took more perilous routes than were necessary.

Of his youthful drug experiences, Daumal (Powers of the Word 169) wrote that, if “in return for the acceptance of serious illness or disabilities, or of a very perceptible abbreviation of the physical life-span, we could acquire one certainty, it would not be too high a price to pay.” In scaling Mount Analogue, Daumal was as courageous as any terrestrial climber, yet there is a strain of spiritual and physical masochism in his credo. Others who followed Gurdjieff’s Spartan path were similarly neglectful of the flesh.

For Daumal, the idea that the absolute was some inaccessible region started early. That a teenage Daumal would make “crazy” attempts to reach “the beyond”is understandable, but that he should persist in later years suggests immaturity and an irresponsible attitude to his health. The fact that the heights of Mount Analogue are invisible, and the yacht his adventurers board is named Impossible, argues that even after Daumal had moved beyond his dubious experiments with drugs, he continued in the same mind. In choosing a mountain as the locale of his last, great effort, Daumal certainly had the rigors of Gurdjieff’s “work” in view. Sadly, it may have been precisely this punishing attitude to attaining the spiritual heights that helped bring about his tragic,untimely death.

Yet such considerations should not prevent us from appreciating his work.Since its rediscovery in the 1960s, Mount Analogue has remained one of the classics of “metaphysical adventure,” a spur to thousands of spiritual travelers, prodded out of their armchairs by its surprisingly restrained account of Daumal’s last conscious excursion into the unknown. Perhaps aware that he would soon be taking an even more mysterious voyage, Daumal made sure that he left as clear a trail as possible for those who followed.

Before his death, he left an outline of the novel’s remaining chapters. “At the end,” he said, “ I want to speak at length of one of the basic laws of Mount Analogue. To reach the summit, one must proceed from encampment to encampment. But before setting out for the next refuge, one must prepare those coming after to occupy the place one is leaving. Only after having prepared them, can one goon up” (Mount Analogue 104). The title of this last chapter was to be “And You,What Do You Seek?” For all his detours and wrong turnings, with Mount Analogue Daumal undoubtedly left a valuable way station for all who would comeafter him.