Rene Daumal

Gurdjieff International Review

The Holy War

by René Daumal

translated by D. M. Dooling

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.

It will not be a real poem, because if the real poet were here and if the news spread through the crowd that he was going to speak—then a great silence would fall; at the first glimpse, a heavy silence would swell up, a silence big with a thousand thunderbolts.

The poet would be visible; we would see him; seeing him, he would see us; and we would fade away into our own poor shadows, we would resent his being so real, we sickly ones, we troubled ones, we uneasy ones.

He would be here, full to bursting with the thousand thunderbolts of the multitude of enemies he contains—for he contains them, and satisfies them when he wishes—incandescent with pain and holy anger, yet as still as a man lighting a fuse, in the great silence he would open a little tap, the very small tap of the mill of words, and let flow a poem, such a poem that it would turn you green.

What I am going to make won’t be a real, poetic, poet’s poem for if the word “war” were used in a real poem—then war, the real war that the real poet speaks about, war without mercy, war without truce would break out for good in our inmost hearts.

For in a real poem words bear their own facts.

But neither will this be a philosophical discourse. 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. And that is the aim and the end of the war; and the war has hardly begun, there are still traitors to unmask.

Nor will it be a work of learning. For to be learned, to see and love things as they are, one must be oneself, and love to see oneself as one is. One must have broken the deceiving mirrors, one must have slain with a pitiless look the insinuating phantoms. And that is the aim and the end of the war, and the war has hardly begun; there are still masks to tear off.

Nor will it be an eager song. For enthusiasm is stable when the god stands up, when the enemies are no more than formless forces, when the clangor of war rings out deafeningly; and the war has hardly begun, we haven’t yet thrown our bedding into the fire.

Nor will it be a magical invocation, for the magician prays to his god, “Do what I want,” and he refuses to make war on his worst enemy, if the enemy pleases him; nor will it be a believer’s prayer either, for at his best the believer prays “Do what you want,” and for that he must put iron and fire into the entrails of his dearest enemy—which is the act of war, and the war has hardly begun.

This will be something of all that, some hope and effort towards all that, and it will also be something of a call to arms. A call that the play of echoes can send back to me, and that perhaps others will hear.

You can guess now of what kind of war I wish to speak.

Of other wars—of those one undergoes—I shall not speak. If I were to speak of them, it would be ordinary literature, a makeshift, a substitute, an excuse. Just as it has happened that I have used the word “terrible” when I didn’t have gooseflesh. Just as I’ve used the expression “dying of hunger” when I hadn’t reached the point of stealing from the food-stands. Just as I’ve spoken of madness before having tried to consider infinity through a keyhole. As I’ve spoken of death before my tongue has known the salt taste of the irreparable. As certain people speak of purity, who have always considered themselves superior to the domestic pig. As some speak of liberty, who adore and polish their chains; as some speak of love, who love nothing but their own shadows; or of sacrifice, who wouldn’t for all the world cut off their littlest finger. Or of knowledge, who disguise themselves from their own eyes. Just as it is our great infirmity to talk in order to see nothing.

This would be a feeble substitute, like the old and sick speaking with relish of blows given and received by the young and strong.

Have I then the right to speak of this other war—the one which is not just undergone—when it has perhaps not yet irremediably taken fire in me? When I am still engaged only in skirmishes? Certainly, I rarely have the right. But “rarely the right” also means “sometimes the duty”—and above all, “the need,” for I will never have too many allies.

I shall try to speak then of the holy war.

May it break out and continue without truce! Now and again it takes fire, but never for long. At the first small hint of victory, I flatter myself that I’ve won, and I play the part of the generous victor and come to terms with the enemy. There are traitors in the house, but they have the look of friends and it would be so unpleasant to unmask them! They have their place in the chimney corner, their armchairs and their slippers; they come in when I’m drowsy, offering me a compliment, or a funny or exciting story, or flowers and goodies—sometimes a fine hat with feathers. They speak in the first person, and it’s my voice I think I’m hearing, my voice in which I’m speaking: “I am … , I know … , I wish …” But it’s all lies! Lies grafted on my flesh, abscesses screaming at me: “Don’t slaughter us, we’re of the same blood!”—pustules whining: “We are your greatest treasure, your only good feature; go on feeding us, it doesn’t cost all that much!”

And there are so many of them; and they are charming, they are pathetic, they are arrogant, they practice blackmail, they band together … but they are barbarians who respect nothing—nothing that is true, I mean, because they cringe in front of everything else and are tied in knots with respect. It’s thanks to their ideas that I wear my mask; they take possession of everything, including the keys to the costume wardrobe. They tell me: “We’ll dress you; how could you ever present yourself properly in the great world without us?” But oh! It would be better to go naked as a grub!

The only weapon I have against these armies is a very tiny sword, so little you can hardly see it with the naked eye; though, true enough, it is sharp as a razor and quite deadly. But it is really so small that I lose it from one minute to the next. I never know where I stuck it last; and when I find it again, it seems too heavy to carry and too clumsy to wield—my deadly little sword.

Myself, I only know how to say a very few words, and they are more like squeaks; while they even know how to write. There’s always one of them in my mouth, lying in wait for my words when I want to say something. He listens and keeps everything for himself, and speaks in my place using my words but in his own filthy accent. And it’s thanks to him if anyone pays attention to me or thinks I’m intelligent. (But the ones who know aren’t fooled; if only I could listen to the ones who know!)

These phantoms rob me of everything. And having done so, it’s easy for them to make me feel sorry for them: “We protect you, we express you, we make the most of you, and you want to murder us! But you are just destroying yourself when you scold us, when you hit us cruelly on our sensitive noses—us, your good friends.”

And an unclean pity with its tepid breath comes to weaken me. Light be against you, phantoms! If I turn on the lamp, you stop talking. When I open an eye, you disappear—because you are carved out of the void, painted grimaces of emptiness. Against you, war to the finish—without pity, without tolerance. There is only one right: the right to be more.

But now it’s a different song. They have a feeling that they have been spotted; so they pretend to be conciliatory. “Of course, you’re the master. But what’s a master without servants? Keep us on in our lowly places; we promise to help you. Look here, for instance: suppose you want to write a poem. How could you do it without us?”

Yes, you rebels—some day I’ll put you in your place. I’ll make you bow under my yoke, I’ll feed you hay and groom you every morning. But as long as you suck my blood and steal my words, it would be better by far never to write a poem!

A pretty kind of peace I’m offered: to close my eyes so as not to witness the crime, to run in circles from morning till night so as not to see death’s always-open jaws; to consider myself victorious before even starting to struggle. A liar’s peace! To settle down cozily with my cowardices, since everybody else does. Peace of the defeated! A little filth, a little drunkenness, a little blasphemy for a joke, a little masquerade made a virtue of, a little laziness and fantasy—even a lot, if one is gifted for it—a little of all that, surrounded by a whole confectioner’s-shopful of beautiful words; that’s the peace that is suggested. A traitor’s peace! And to safeguard this shameful peace, one would do anything, one would make war on one’s fellows; for there is an old, tried and true formula for preserving one’s peace with oneself, which is always to accuse someone else. The peace of betrayal!

You know by now that I wish to speak of holy warfare.

He who has declared this war in himself is at peace with his fellows, and although his whole being is the field of the most violent battle, in his very innermost depths there reigns a peace that is more active than any war. And the more strongly this peace reigns in his innermost depths, in that central silence and solitude, the more violently rages the war against the turmoil of lies and numberless illusions.

In that vast silence obscured by battle-cries, hidden from the outside by the fleeing mirage of time, the eternal conqueror listens to the voices of other silences. Alone, having overcome the illusion of not being alone, he is no longer the only one to be alone. But I am separated from him by these ghost-armies which I have to annihilate. Oh, to be able one day to take my place in that citadel! On its ramparts, let me be torn limb from limb rather than allow the tumult to enter the royal chamber!

“But am I to kill?” asked Arjuna the warrior. “Am I to pay tribute to Caesar?” asks another. Kill, he is answered, if you are a killer. You have no choice. But if your hands are red with the blood of your enemies, see to it that not a drop splatter the royal chamber, where the motionless conqueror waits. Pay, he is answered, but see to it that Caesar gets not a single glimpse of the royal treasure.

And I, who have no other weapon, no other coin, in Caesar’s world, than words—am I to speak?

I shall speak to call myself to the holy war. I shall speak to denounce the traitors whom I nourished. I shall speak so that my words may shame my actions, until the day comes when a peace armored in thunder reigns in the chamber of the eternal conqueror.

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.

—Spring, 1940

Copyright © 1954 Editions Gallimard, Paris
This webpage © 2000 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2000 Issue, Vol. IV (1)
Revision: October 1, 2000

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Translated by D. M. Dooling from the original French text, “La Guerre Sainte,” in the collection, Poésie Noire, Poésie Blanche by René Daumal, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1954. Reprinted with permission of Editions Gallimard and J. Daumal. This translation was first published by Parabola, Vol. VII (4), New York, and is reprinted with their kind permission.

D. M. Dooling (1910–1991) was the founder of Parabola Magazine and the Parabola Books program. In addition to serving as the editorial director of the journal, she also edited many books including A Way of Working: The Spiritual Dimension of Craft and The Sons of the Wind: The Sacred Stories of the Lakota, and she abridged and translated Louis Charbonneau-Lassay’s The Bestiary of Christ. A collection of her essays and poems, The Spirit of Quest, was published in 1994.