Rene Daumal

Gurdjieff International Review

The Strait Gate

La Porte Étroite

by Basarab Nicolescu

René Daumal was a born Seeker of the Truth. His whole life and all his works give ample proof of  that. He devoted himself totally, with all his being, to his search. Le Grand Jeu was only one stop on his journey. Daumal was a rebel from the start. One has only to read Poème à Dieu et à l’Homme, Les clavicules d’un grand jeu poétique, or L’asphyxie et l’évidence absurde, to understand what he was rebelling against—to see his experience of the absurd and his perception of the ego (le “moi”) as a vicious circle. Later, in L’envers de la tête, Daumal writes:

… the most serious thing, and the strangest, is that we are afraid to the point of panic, not so much of seeing ourselves as of being seen by ourselves. This is our root absurdity. What is behind this great fear? … We are afraid that if we see ourselves we will not see anything very great. Our humbug self is afraid of being seen for what it is. It is fear of this awful exposure that makes us cover ourselves with makeup and put on phony facial expressions.

By 1930 Daumal was burned out. He had searched and searched and found nothing. His health was already affected by experiments that were essential but destructive. His disappointment was immense, because the only way out he could see was the dead end of negation under the sign of “the great female vampire Death, the tramp of all the ages, Lilith the Frigid.” His Nerval le nyctalope is in my opinion the text that best sums up his quest before 1930. It was not an annihilation but a preparation. Paradoxically, when a man is truly burned out, he no longer looks for a way. The way finds him. This is precisely what happened through René Daumal’s apparently miraculous encounter, by way of Joseph Sima1, with Alexandre de Salzmann, an event that marks the boundary between the burned-out man and the fulfilled one. “I have met a human being. I didn’t think it was possible. Just the same, I have had to sacrifice some very comfortable despairs. Hope is what is hard to bear,” Daumal writes in La vie des Basiles. By one of those astonishing coincidences of which life possesses the secret, Katherine Mansfield, another writer in search of meaning, had encountered this same Alexandre de Salzmann eight years earlier at the Prieuré d’Avon, where she had wanted to spend the last years of her life. In a letter of December 9, 1922, addressed to her husband, John Middleton Murry, Katherine Mansfield tells of a conversation about “poverty of the spirit” which had struck her very much: “To be poor in ideas, in imagination, in impulses, in desires—in short, to be simple.”2 This simplicity is what would suit burned-out beings like Katherine Mansfield and René Daumal.

In spite of what people have managed to write carelessly here and there, Alexandre de Salzmann was neither an alarming, peculiar being nor an unknown. Friend of Kandinsky and of Rilke, member of the Jungendstil group, Alexandre de Salzmann was a remarkable painter and a recognized metteur en scène, inventor of a new lighting technique that is still in use today.3 In 1922, on the occasion of the production of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, a periodical called Choses de théâtre hailed Alexandre de Salzmann as “one of the most remarkable contrivers of technical innovation.”4 For Daumal he was a go-between. Thanks to him Daumal discovered Gurdjieff’s teaching. Gurdjieff’s teaching was in turn the medium of Daumal’s truly life-determining experience: his encounter with himself, as a being and as an artist.

Fashionable Parisian opinion, lazy and careless, feeding on nothing but rumors, tried to spread an idea that still hangs on today; that Daumal’s involvement with this way is only a deplorable aberration that happily does not affect his work in any respect. The senseless rumors about Gurdjieff as a person were nourished by a single book, Monsieur Gurdjieff, a best-seller by Louis Pauwels published in 1954 and written in the style of a casual journalist who cared nothing for documentary rigor and knew Gurdjieff only from afar, from very far, in the corridors of the rue des Colonels Renard. A recent monograph5 reveals another Gurdjieff altogether, and all the living interest of his thought.

Fifty years after Gurdjieff’s death, and fifty-five after Daumal’s, the rumors are dying down. It is high time to undertake a serious inquiry into the relation between Daumal’s own work and the influence Gurdjieff’s teaching had upon him. The broad outlines of such an inquiry have already been sketched by Michel Random, Jean Biès, and Michel Camus. I cannot but share Michel Camus’s opinion: “One cannot confine Daumal within Gurdjieff’s teaching. No more can one separate him from a work of self-transformation that shaped the second half of his life.”6

In these brief notes, until we have a detailed study conducted in conformity with all the rules of scholarship—a desirable and necessary work that an inquirer of the coming century might accomplish—I can only sketch out my own thesis: Daumal was in search of a true science, a science that includes being. This is the science he found in Gurdjieff’s teaching. The ideas and practice of the Gurdjieff teaching, as well as his own literary and philosophical knowledge, came to be fused with his being. In this way his work was fertilized by poetic alchemy.

This assertion about science may surprise the reader who is only slightly acquainted with Daumal’s works. It is not, of course, a question of science in its technical aspects, but rather of the scientific spirit, which is probably the most important contribution modern science has made to the culture of our era.

A being as rigorous as René Daumal, who only believed what he could verify for himself and invested each of his activities with the strictest demands, could not fail to consult scientific knowledge. Many of Daumal’s writings do, in fact, make reference to science. The poet held it in high esteem as the only possible foundation for a modern mythology. In Les limites du langage philosophique (1935) Daumal, rising up against verbal philosophies taken as ends in themselves, writes:

… traditional knowledge should always be built on the foundation of a collective myth wedded to institutions and sustained by nature and the community of concrete relationships. At the present time the only thing I see that tends to answer to this definition is scientific knowledge wedded to technological development and modern economic evolution.… Maybe this is the foundation upon which a new culture could be built.

Later, in an important letter of 1943 that is curiously omitted from the third volume of his correspondence edited by Gallimard, Daumal declares that science “is less corrupted than philosophy, art, or religion.”7 At the same time, Daumal sees very clearly what is lacking in contemporary science. In the same 1943 letter he writes:

The error lies in disconnection from the source, and hence from the sister branches of knowledge, and this doctrinal disconnection finds its reflection in the psychological disconnection one notices only too often in the scientist as an individual. While the scientific mind is progressing toward its destiny, the scientist’s mind is usually very disappointing.

In Sur le scientisme et la révolution he states his thought precisely: “… they were offering us a ‘knowledge of man’ that turned out to be nothing but the sum of fragmentary information provided by the sundry scientific disciplines—a knowledge unworthy of the name.” It is “edification of being” that interests Daumal, and not “dead theories.” Thus the central importance he accords to education. And it is precisely this edification of being that he finds as a practical path in Gurdjieff’s teaching, as he himself explicitly states in Le mouvement dans l’éducation intégrale de l’homme, Lettre de Paris, La vie des Basiles, and in Têtes fatiguées.

One of the central ideas in Gurdjieff’s cosmology is that the inner universe and the outer universe are interdependent. They sustain each other. Consideration of the one without the other amounts to a mutilation of knowledge. An idea like this, incarnated in the practice of Gurdjieff’s teaching, could not but attract René Daumal. He already had a presentiment of this true science in Clavicules d’un grand jeu poétique: “Science should be based on the same strict necessity. The progress of true science lies in its gradual extension to the objects of the kind of knowledge by which the subject perceives himself.” Gurdjieff’s teaching was in fact the culmination of Le Grand Jeu, because it actually puts the Great Game of being into play.

Daumal is not interested in “the ghost of truth” but in truth itself. He scorns “the vacant place of unity.” He wants to realize unity itself. “The highest art is created by the man who has attained to being and unity,” Daumal said to Lanza del Vasto in their Dialogue on Style. He is looking for the “seed” from which the light is born, the silence that allows the Thing-to-be-said itself to be expressed, and this “then appears at the inmost core of oneself as a timeless certainty—known, recognized, and hoped for at the same time—a luminous point containing the immensity of the longing to be” (Poésie noire, poésie blanche). He wants to experience that sound, taste, savor of oneself that is a “moment of consciousness” (Pour approcher l’art poétique hindou).

So what was he really looking for in Gurdjieff’s teaching? Is it possible to answer such a question? I will take the risk of answering: In it Daumal was seeking the incarnation of la poésie blanche, which Michel Camus calls, in the context of today, ‘transpoetry’ (‘transpoésie’),8 a poetry beyond all poetry and all language but nevertheless expressed through the resources of art—life as poetic exercise, the life of consciousness in the midst of life itself, here and now.

There remains the problem of bearing witness. “Should I never speak of the Unknowable because that would be a lie? Should I speak of the Unknowable because I know that I come from it and I am bound to bear witness to it?”—Daumal asks himself in Réponses aux questions de Luc Dietrich. René Daumal chose to bear witness through his whole oeuvre and above all in two astonishing works which are read but not recognized for what they are: La grande beuverie [A Night of Serious Drinking] and Le mont analogue [Mount Analogue], two books that will help us live our lives in the century now at our door.

Notes and References

Author’s Note: All the quotations from Daumal are found in Chaque fois que l’aube paraît, Paris: Gallimard, 1953; “L’évidence absurde,” Essais et Notes, I (1926–1934); and “Les pouvoirs de la parole,” Essais et Notes, II (1935–1943), Paris: Gallimard, 1972. To avoid burdening the text, they are not indicated as separate references.

1 Michel Random, Le Grand Jeu, 2 volumes, Paris: Denoël, 1970.
2 Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Mansfield’s Letters to John Middleton Murry, 1913–1922, London: Constable, 1951.
3 Alexandre de Salzmann, Notes from the Theatre, San Francisco: Far West Press, 1972; “Light, Lighting and Illumination,” Material for Thought, No. 4, San Francisco: Far West Press, Summer 1972, pp. 22–24.
4 H.-R. Lenormand, Pelléas et Mélisande au Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Choses de Théâtre, No. 4, Paris: January 1922.
5 Bruno de Panafieu, comp., Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, L’Age d’Homme, les dossiers H, Lausanne: 1992; English translation: Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching, New York: Continuum, 1996, English version edited by Jacob Needleman and George Baker.
6 Michel Camus, “Le grand tournant de 1930,” in René Daumal, L’Age d’Homme, les dossiers H, Lausanne: 1993, dossier conçu et dirigé par Pascal Sigoda.
7 Letter to Geneviève Lief of September 3, 1943, Cahiers Daumal, No. 2, Cairo: Ganésha et Société des Amis de René Daumal, 1988.
8 Michel Camus, The Paradigm of Transpoetry, text available in French, English, and Portuguese on the International Center for Transdisciplinary Research (CIRET) internet site.

Copyright © 1999 Poésie 99 and Basarab Nicolescu
English Translation © 1999 Martha Heyneman
This webpage © 1999 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Summer 1999 Issue, Vol. II (4)
Revision: January 1, 2000