Book Review Part II: Rene Daumal, The Life and Work of a Mystic Guide

Here is the second half of a review of the English version of my book, Rene Daumal: The Life and Work of a Mystic Guide, SUNY Press, 1999. The review is by Lee Irwin Associate Professor, Religious Studies, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC (IrwinL@CofC.Edu). The original French version was entitled: Rene Daumal: Au-dela de l’Horizon, published in Paris by Jose Corti, 1993.

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Rosenblatt presents the middle stage of Daumal’s life as influenced by eastern thought, particularly Hindu religious and aesthetic texts, and his study of Sanskrit. His reading of the Bhagavad Gita made a lasting impact on him and reinforced his natural bent toward asceticism, renunciation, non-attachment and the mystical quest for transcendence. Increasingly, Daumal viewed the material world as “poison ” (p. 91) and symbolizing a higher world that had been falsely reduced and controlled by religious institutions and various professional classes of church authorities. He interpreted the classic Hindu codex (The Laws of Manu) as a repression of the lower classes (varna) by self-glorifying Brahmans.

In general, Daumal was adamant in his rejection of organized religion and particularly the Judeo-Christian bourgeois institutional structures. Increasingly, Daumal gravitated toward a more “gnostic” orientation based on a direct personal search for spiritual knowledge. Influenced by themes of correspondence, Baudelaire’s “forest of symbols,” and such ideas as Swedenborg’s’s “universal analogy,” Daumal sought a coherent theory of relationship between the material and spiritual worlds. Reading Schopenhauer, the Theosophists, and finally Rene Guenon’s history of the decline of Western thought, Daumal sought to align himself with European esoteric traditionalists that looked to Islam and Hinduism as the only authentic representations of spirituality in the face of western materialism.

Rejecting the Freudian unconscious, Guenon emphasized the “supraconscious” sought by Yogi and Sufi masters–a teaching consistent with Daumal’s concept of the Beyond (l’au-dela). However, while Daumal agreed with much of Guenon’s writing, he apparently found him too exterme in his views. Rosenblatt’ s review of Guenon’s philosophical writing is particularly good and well worth reading as is her review of Hindu aesthetic theory; these were high points in the book for me.

In the final phase of Daumal’s life, he came under the influence of two followers of Gurdjieff, Alexandre and Jeanne de Salzmann. While the latter became his personal teacher, he also studied with Gurdjieff during his visits to Paris. The stage was set for Daumal to meet a teacher who could fulfill the role of spiritual director and the de Salzmanns and Gurdjieff filled that role to his complete satisfaction. A heightened “self-remembering” had long been part of Daumal’s practice and this was key to Gurdjieff’s “Work”–a breaking down of the automatisms of conditioned learning and unreflective habitual response.

Another of Gurdjieff’s teachings was the importance of suffering and sacrifice, both of which appealed to Daumal’s ascetic nature as a means for breaking down the “imaginary” nature of internalized beliefs, ideas, and socialized attitudes. The “awakening from sleep” prompted by the de Salzmanns through a variety of practical techniques such as breathing exercises and group practices with movements, song, and music, had a powerful, transformative effect on Daumal.

Further, Gurdjieff’s theory of “objective art” was compatible with Daumal’s belief in the importance of art as a way of confronting social malaise and as offering alternative pathways toward more authentic spiritual values. His prose works clearly reflect these ideas, synthesized with influences from his early poetic works, Hindu religious traditions, and Guenon’s attitudes toward the sentimental decline of European culture.

By 1938, Daumal learned he had advanced tuberculosis in both lungs. While he continued to write, he and his Jewish wife Vera were forced to constantly move about during the war years, often living in conditions of poverty. By the time of his death, Daumal had thoroughly internalized the struggle for spiritual authenticity and his later prose works, also discussed by Rosenblatt, show his deep commitment to an ongoing process of self-development, often in the face of social chaos. Today, Daumal stands out in the French cultural landscape as a true forerunner of an emergent global esotericism and this work is central for understanding how his struggle reflects this continuing search among many contemporary authors, artists, and scholars.

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One comment

  1. Kathleen Rosenblatt’s books on Rene Daumal bring to light the pilosophical path of an individual committed to finding Truth — The reviews of her books themselves are edifying as well as inspiring. Thank you, Kathleen! — Carol Soucek King

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