Rene Daumal

Gurdjieff International Review

“The Holy War” by René Daumal

Commentary by Kathleen Ferrick Rosenblatt

René Daumal was born a warrior poet. As one of the early revolutionary metaphysicians of our century, the teenage Daumal wanted to pillage and burn all the scaffoldings of our rigid, outmoded western thought patterns. In the 1920s, he was one of the first nineteen year-old iconoclasts to shout: Down with political imperialism and capitalist greed!

But even more passionately, he channeled this firebrand energy into the subtler battlefields of the human psyche. He and his youthful band of poet mystics actively explored every parapsychic avenue in order to experience superordinary dimensions of reality. Early on, Daumal realized that this higher state of illumination could only be experienced through a perpetual “metaphysical suicide”—a voluntary destruction of the outer covering that surrounds the inner man. Because our soul becomes so mired in the material dimensions of ordinary existence, it loses its connection to the larger cosmic dimension. This comrade-in-arms fought the external battles for authenticity and truth in society amidst the avant garde of Paris, and the interior battles within himself against ego, laziness, and self-imposed emotional turmoil.

His early intuitive perception of this need for battle was substantiated by his long study of Sanskrit and Hindu metaphysics. Yet the most convincing affirmation of it came through the gift brought to him by Alexandre and Jeanne de Salzmann: the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff. From 1931 onward, these teachings provided Daumal with a real battle plan and a unit of committed soldiers that he could join. During this decade, he ceased to write poetry altogether, even as he received some prominence from his publications and was awarded a prestigious literary prize. Now with the guidance of Gurdjieff’s teaching, he knew he had to “unlearn daydreaming and learn to think, to unlearn philosophizing and learn to speak—that is not accomplished in a day.”

“The Holy War” is the work of an old soldier, the thirty-two year-old Daumal. Although the two world wars and his own burning fuse were compressing his lifetime into a few intense years, he is still a warrior and the fire of his youth is now burning with a steady flame. A poem in prose, it is a fiery call to arms to join the Moujahada, the war against the complacent traitors of dream and convenient illusion. He shares with us an intimate record of his own struggle to find a truer, more authentic voice. With a direct conversational tone, his “I” speaks to “you” the reader. He attempts to discuss the issues of life’s meaningless agitation in a detached objective manner, but his desperation comes through in the plaintive plea to us, the readers, to push our consciousness to the limit: to feel ourselves alive, to watch ourselves breathe.

This poem only makes sense to a reader who is doing just that while reading it: feeling the friction inside, as the mind reads the words and attends to the sensation of the breath flowing through the body. This is the battle of which he speaks. Read passively, the text is an allegory of an inner quest; read “consciously,” the reader can feel the actual inner war as he experiences the words on the page. This is the way to break through the barriers of our narrow discrete perception of time and space, and achieve freedom from the wheel of suffering: we must wield a double-edged sword and exercise a double attention as we read. This is a concurrence of focus: one eye of attention that attends to the nuances of Daumal’s thought processes, the cross currents and eddies that swirl out from the main stream; the other which follows the main river current of the poem as it overflows and floods our heart, mind, and body. We feel the overall impact of Daumal’s heartfelt message: Wake up!

The poem is loosely divided into five sections, each beginning with a single short sentence as a statement of intent. He first presents the mythical “ true poet.” This is the Hindu kavi—the poet/priest described in Daumal’s essays, who faces his baser instincts before he can alchemically transform lead into gold to share with others. Later in the poem, he describes the enemy—“phantoms … carved out of the void,” all the self absorption and self deceptions. He speaks to them and gives them voice. The war strategy to fight them is simple: “I turn on the lamp,” “I open an eye.” His irony comes through as he describes the terms of the enemy’s proposed armistice: close your eyes to the crimes of vanity and irritation, continually agitate yourself, add a bit of laziness and daydreaming and always blame others for your weakness.

Finally, in the last section, he explains most precisely the nature of the war and presents the valiant warrior, whose interior peace extends to his fellows, even while he carries on the holy war. He also calls upon Arjuna, the warrior of the Baghavad Gita, who submits to his duty and takes part in battle without any thought of gain.

At the end of the poem, Daumal alludes to the timeliness of the theme of war. In fact, “The Holy War” is dated Spring 1940, precisely at the moment when the inevitability of France’s defeat was becoming painfully clear. Gurdjieff and the de Salzmann family were evacuating Paris. René was arranging to leave as well, greatly concerned about his Jewish wife’s safety. The Germans invaded Paris in June. (Gurdjieff and the de Salzmanns returned to Paris in the autumn. Gurdjieff appreciated how war creates special conditions conducive to self-awareness, just as he had experienced in the Russian Revolution and earlier wars.) In 1917, when P. D. Ouspensky complained to Gurdjieff that nothing could be accomplished amidst “the mass madness” of war, Gurdjieff replied, “It is only now that it is possible, and events are not against us at all.” While Daumal spoke of the “convulsing planet,” he felt that one lives in the era that one chooses: “Whether one lives in the time of Hitler or Attila or Napoleon, there always exist concurrently a Golden Age that is maintained by certain rare individuals. The challenge is to acquire the power and ability to find them.”

After reading this poem’s graphic description of the human plight, we see how truly personal the poem is, not only as it reflects René Daumal but as it reflects us all. The poet directs the rallying cry back at himself. “I shall speak to call myself to the holy war.” “I shall speak so that my words may shame my actions.” Three years later, when his health was seriously declining, he wrote to Jeanne de Salzmann,

Concerning my “concentration of thought,” there is also a change in the sense that, if the battle is harder and more frequent, it seems to be a sign that I have a bit more force myself. A taste and a need for battle is developing. An answer from M. G. [Monsieur Gurdjieff] on the necessity of thwarting one’s body in all that it likes or dislikes has recently made this clearer to me. In my case, I can no longer follow this rule to the letter (regrettably indeed, for when I did in the past, it gave me so much).

Three times throughout the poem, Daumal states, “the war has hardly begun … the war has hardly begun … the war has hardly begun,” reminding us that it is a ceaseless war and we are always only foot soldiers. Until the end, René Daumal, this warrior poet, continued his unrelenting quest to find awareness in the flow of time and illumination in the very immediacy of life. On with the war.

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Kathleen Ferrick Rosenblatt is the author of René Daumal: The Life and Work of a Mystic Guide, (1999) New York: State University of New York (SUNY) Press.

Copyright © 2000 Kathleen Ferrick Rosenblatt
This webpage © 2000 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2000 Issue, Vol. IV (1)
Revision: October 1, 2000