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The Great Game

A Night of Serious Drinking

by René Daumal, translated by David Coward, by E.A. Lovatt
Shambhala, 121 pp., $8.95

La nuit de la vérité coupe la parole
—René Daumal

René Daumal, aged four or a little older, having just learned to read, is supposed to have asked his sister what a dictionary was. She told him it allowed one to know the meaning of words, and Daumal, in high excitement, ran off to tell his mother, shouting, “Then I’m saved, I’m saved.” The story is no doubt too pointed to be entirely true, but it does suggest a major preoccupation in Daumal’s brief life: the charms and limits of language, the promises it can and cannot keep.

He was born in the Ardennes in 1908, went to school in Rheims and Paris. He took a degree in philosophy, studied Sanskrit, and, with friends, founded a review, Le Grand Jeu, which ran for three numbers and attracted the ambiguous interest of André Breton and the Surrealists.1 The review set out to be “primitive, savage, antique, realist”—its second number carried a questionnaire asking readers whether they would agree to sign a pact with the devil and why—and it was determined not to be confused with ordinary “literary, artistic, philosophical or political” journals. Its youthful editors—the three issues appeared in 1928 and 1929—saw themselves as “technicians of despair,” instigators of a “massacre of hopes.” They wanted nothing less than “the essential.” The great game, one of Daumal’s collaborators wrote, spelling out the implications of the review’s name, is played only once.

André Breton liked the bravura of all this, but worried about its religious coloring, and wondered why these young men kept using the word God. Daumal, challenged by the condescension lurking in Breton’s attention, replied with an Open Letter accusing Surrealism of falling into “confusion, trompe-l’oeil and clumsiness” and of betraying the quests it had claimed to be ready to undertake. “Beware, André Breton,” he wrote in a ringing conclusion, “of figuring later in the handbooks of literary history, while if we were to seek any honor at all, it would be that of being inscribed for posterity in the history of cataclysms.”

This particular cataclysm was averted by lack of money for a fourth number of the review, and by the break-up of the group of editors. Daumal meanwhile had met a man who changed his life: Alexandre de Salzmann, a disciple of the much-discussed Gurdjieff, the magus of Fontainebleau and founder of the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. Like a character in Kafka miraculously transferred to a kinder country, Daumal found through de Salzmann a door that was still open: “narrow and difficult of access,” he wrote of de Salzmann as saying to him, “but a door, and the only one for you.” He seems never to have been close to Gurdjieff himself, but the shadow of that extraordinary man flickers through all Daumal’s later work. De Salzmann, who died in 1933, had mixed feelings about his overwhelming mentor, and is said to have exclaimed, on his death bed, “And now, on the other side, I shall find out whether he was a master or a demon.” 2

Daumal visited America, got married, translated Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon into French. He wrote articles on philosophy and ancient Indian texts (“The essential thread of my thought, of our thought, of thought itself,” he said, “is found in the sacred books of India”), and won a prize for a book of poems called Le Contre-ciel (1936). The jury for the prize included Gide, Valéry, and Giraudoux, and the volume displayed a marked virtuosity. It was closer to a cry than to a song, Daumal himself said, although at this distance it seems closer to an exercise than to either, a matter of flexing lyrical muscles and taking rhetorical stands: “I have burned my fields of corn,—I have famished my Babylon,—I have set fire to the granaries—and I have cut the aqueducts.”

In 1938 Daumal published La Grande Beuverie, the second and last of his books to appear during his lifetime,3 and here translated, soberly enough, as A Night of Serious Drinking. In his last years, in failing health and constantly in need of money, he worked at, but did not finish, the book by which he is known, if he is known at all, to English and American readers: Le Mont analogue (published in French in 1952, translated into English by Roger Shattuck, City Lights Books, 1959). He died of tuberculosis in 1944.

La Grande Beuverie—a less elegant translation would be The Great Booze—is a philosophical text in the form of a farce. It evokes the controversies and festivities surrounding Le Grand Jeu, as well as Daumal’s encounter with de Salzmann. A group of people—“Whether we were ten or a thousand, no one knew. What is certain is that we were alone”—is seen drinking desperately, in a haze of smoke and excitement. A wise old man smashes a guitar by pronouncing a particular sequence of words. Jokes, dreams, and arguments are exchanged, and a central metaphor begins to emerge. Thirst is a virtue. Those who wish to be drunk at least understand that something is lacking. Delinquent children of Socrates and Rimbaud, they have intuited the extent of their ignorance. The trouble is that there seems to be no way out of this chaotic party. Or rather, the narrator is told, there are exits only into madness, death, and an uncommonly widespread delusion: that of imagining you’ve escaped when you haven’t.

The narrator is taken on a tour of this kingdom of mock escapees, otherwise known as the sick bay, which is a cunningly distorted mirror of our own world, complete with colonies, empires, businesses, railways, and sporting competitions. Here, for example, is the infirmary version of international politics:

Around a roulette table, a hundred or so men of every race and color, each with his national flag stuck in his skull, were playing for very high stakes. The croupier was a sort of Janus with a head like one of those projected double-hemisphered world maps, each hemisphere a face but arranged rather differently from those that hang ordinarily in classrooms. On one were grouped all the mother countries and on the other were all the colonies.

They were playing loser-take-all…..

Here are the artists, defined as fabricators of useless articles:

Some live in houses made entirely of glass which they call ivory towers; some in concrete boxes which they call glass houses; large numbers in photographic dark rooms which they call Nature; and many more in dog-headed baboon cages, vampire caves, penguin parks, performing-flea circuses, and puppet theaters which they call the world or society….

The sick bay’s scientists are described as “failed cannibals.” They chop man into a thousand perspectives, and the hero of this realm is a vast cranium suspended over the body and legs of a little cloth doll. His tiny right arm is held up by a wire, and his index finger rests on his temple “in the gesture of one who knows.” Above his throne runs a banner bearing the inscription: “I know everything, but I don’t understand any of it.” The translation, here and throughout the book, is impeccable, and I don’t seriously mean to complain even about the sobriety of the title.

Daumal’s masters in this genre are Rabelais and Alfred Jarry, but his tone is closer to that of Swift on the subject of the islands of Laputa and Balnibarbi. He doesn’t have Swift’s malice or invention, though, and there is a good deal of flatness in the book’s central section, the visit to the “artificial paradises” of the sick bay. Poets and critics, for instance, appear as Pwatts and Kirittiks (these words are the same in French, where novelists, romanciers, become Ruminssiés, nicely rendered in this English version as Nibblists), the French Academy is offered as a parody of Olympus, and there is a general air of targets so wide they can’t be missed and aren’t worth hitting. There is nothing in this section which has the life of the opening scenes of drinking and drunkenness, although there are still one or two remarkable moments. The narrator runs into a friendly character who says he is in the sick bay only to gather material for a book. It is to be called La Grande Beuverie, and bears a striking resemblance to the work we’re reading. The narrator mentions this fellow to an orderly, and comments, “That chap’s not ill at all.” “They all say that,” the orderly replies.

This engaging self-satire mitigates the book’s increasing solemnity, and the same note sounds again in a fierce passage on the measures taken by the masters of this mirror world to keep the population down. First they get poets to recommend various brutal forms of suicide. Then other poets sing the praises of opium, hashish, cocaine, and ether. “This was a great success and it has lasted. The manufacturers of drugs and the drug trade are still flourishing, and the volumes of verse which stimulate them are selling like hot cakes.” Other men of letters adapted Oriental doctrines and diets and exercises designed to promote “the art of rapidly becoming neurasthenic, neuropathic, cachectic, demineralized, phthisical, and finally a cadaver.” None of this is enough, though, and the matter is turned over to the men of power, who quickly invent patriotism and war. Daumal himself had tried suicide, drugs, and was still, at the time of writing, racking himself with Oriental exercises. It is characteristic that he should not think of sparing himself or his practices.

The narrator finally falls through the floor of the sick bay, and finds himself in an empty room littered only with the traces of a party. Daumal wonders aloud whether he should use the literary device of having his character wake from a dream, and plays briefly with the idea that wakefulness in fiction is itself only another layer of sleep. Then all lightness of touch vanishes for good, and the narrator undergoes, in a clanking bit of allegory, a severe stripping down of the self. He burns his chairs, he burns his books, he burns his clothes, and just in time the dawn begins to glimmer at the window, intimating a new life. The wise old man from the first part of the book shows up—in fact, he seems to have been talking the whole time, since the narrator hears him at one point through the floor of the sick bay, “still discoursing down there”—and murmurs a few words of good cheer. “What could be more comforting than to discover that we are less than nothing? It’s only by turning ourselves inside out that we shall become something.” This sounds like cold comfort, even if it does echo all kinds of conventional religious teaching, and one has the distinct impression of wine being changed into water.

Still, Daumal doesn’t expect us simply to believe him. By now we have either caught the bouquet of the true beverage or we haven’t. And if we have (and if we haven’t), the words don’t matter. The wise man, who formerly asserted the power of language over the material world—the smashing of the guitar with words—now points to the complementary fact of language’s emptiness. It means nothing unless you make it work. One cannot cure a disease, as Daumal says elsewhere, by reciting a medical treatise. The dictionary won’t save us after all.

Daumal was unfailingly lucid, and as Roger Shattuck says, never “took cover behind the convenient shrubbery of the ‘ineffable.’ ” But his lucidity was a burden as well as a gift, and his work is haunted by phantoms which seem to have sprung up from language itself. Like that something in the wise man’s flaccid precept quoted above, where a simple logical contrast (something is the opposite of nothing) is converted into a magical consolation. Or like the “real being” which Daumal, in an essay on “The limits of philosophical language,” conjures up out of the sleeves of his vocabulary. No philosophy has its end in itself, he argues. Logic looks toward knowledge, aesthetics toward feeling, ethics toward action. This scheme already seems hopelessly arbitrary and simplified, but I am interested in the movement of Daumal’s thought here. He now asks what the aim of “general philosophy” is, and all he needs is a word, since his question assumes that it must have an aim, and that the aim must be specifiable. The word he settles on is “being,” which he immediately adorns with a fine romance of totality:

…real being [l’être réel], which thinks, feels and acts at the same time; which unifies, or should unify these three functions of human life. I say should unify because this unity doesn’t exist; this being doesn’t exist, as long as we need to philosophize….

There is a genuine pathos here, as well as a muddle. Daumal, who wishes to “go beyond language” (dépasser le discours), who understands all that language cannot do, does not seem to understand all that language has already done for him in providing him with a name for his philosophical longing and a semblance of reality for his ghostly ideal.

The philosopher is the cartographer of human life,” Daumal says in the same essay. “Discursive philosophy is as necessary to knowledge as a geographical map is to a journey: the great mistake, I repeat, is to believe that in looking at a map one is taking a journey.” An even greater mistake is skulking in this argument, one that is astonishingly close to the sick bay delusions of La Grande Beuverie: that of marking on the map countries which don’t exist, or which exist only as names. Daumal, like Gurdjieff, believes the human mind has unused capacities, fabulous riches we have not even begun to exploit. This seems at least plausible, and no doubt we should leave room on the map for these possibilities. But leaving room is quite different from drawing in the possible countries, just as the exploration of an unknown world is quite different from the assumption of a “hidden knowledge” (Daumal’s phrase) which awaits the hardy explorer at journey’s end. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, but it is a sizable step from there to the notion that there is another philosophy, possessed by a handful of initiates, which specializes in just those things.

The religion in question here is a religion of man—“all roads lead to man,” Daumal says in La Grande Beuverie—but it has the structure of an old theology: our needs are rewritten as unfulfilled promises. What is most attractive about Daumal’s Le Mont analogue is its exposure of this machinery for our inspection. I imagine believers (of almost any kind) may find treasures in the book that I don’t; but belief is in no way required for an enjoyment of it.

In his Open Letter Daumal quoted Breton’s famous remark about “a certain point” where “life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low cease to be perceived as contradictory.” Le Grand Jeu was seeking that point too, Daumal said, and in Mount Analogue he creates a brilliant image, not for the point, but for the dream of the point. The narrator has published, in the Revue des Fossiles, an article on the mythology of mountains, from Mount Sinai to Olympus, from the Himalayas to Golgotha. The “ultimate symbolic mountain,” he suggests, must be inaccessible to “ordinary human approaches,” which means that earthly mountains, once climbed, lose their “analogical importance.” On the other hand, a purely mythical mountain is not much better, since it cannot represent “a way of uniting Earth and Heaven.” His conclusion is this:

For a mountain to play the role of Mount Analogue, its summit must be inaccessible but its base accessible to human beings as nature has made them. It must be unique and it must exist geographically. The door to the invisible must be visible.

The narrator is surprised to receive a letter which takes seriously what he thought of as a “literary fantasy,” and calls on his correspondent, one Father Sogol (“a childish anagram, and somewhat pretentious,” the owner of this name says), an ex-monk who is currently, among other things, a professor of mountaineering. The two of them combine their fantasies into a single faith—“the very fact that there are now two of us changes everything”—and begin to organize an expedition in search of Mount Analogue. Joined by the narrator’s wife, they become a group “for which the impossible no longer existed.”

Other friends take part in planning the trip, but some drop out when it becomes a reality. Sogol meanwhile, by means of a witty application of the notion of the curvature of space, has figured out how Mount Analogue can exist geographically without ever having been seen. The light bends around it, making it seem not to be there. Less amusing calculations lead Sogol to believe that the mountain is situated in the South Pacific and the expedition sets off. The mountain is found and the team start the ascent; Daumal’s death left them on the lower slopes.

There is a certain amount of sententiousness in the book—“The path to our highest desires often leads through the undesirable”—and, as in La Grande Beuverie, a good deal of uninspired allegory. But there are also fine touches of visionary realism—when photographs are taken on Mount Analogue, no image appears on the film—and an authentic austerity and humility speak in the following lines, where the explorers wonder what they will be able to offer as payment on the mountain:

Each one of us kept making his personal inventory, and each one of us felt poorer as the days went on. For no one saw anything around him or in him which really belonged to him. It reached the point where we were just eight beggars, possessing nothing, who each night watched the sun sink toward the horizon.

It is easy to sympathize with the frustration which led Breton and Daumal to dream of a point where logical contraries would collapse into a common reality. “Logic is doubtless unshakable,” as Kafka said at the end of The Trial, “but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living.” It is harder to sympathize with Daumal’s bland assertion that the notions of abstract and concrete “have no great significance” because “a thing either is or is not.” The power of the idea of Mount Analogue was that it preserved the notions of abstract and concrete, hypothetical and actual, while asking questions about their relation. If these notions are not significant, all our dreams will come true because there is nothing to stand in their way, and the “method” of Father Sogol (which is to regard a problem as solved and deduce from the solution all the steps he needs to take—hence the implication of inversion in his name) becomes the merest charlatanism. The mountain must remain an invention, a picture of possibly negotiable limits, because it is as an invention that we need it. As a location, however spiritual or metaphorical, the mountain can only be a hoax, a trick of words, the dictionary’s last laugh.

  1. 1

    All three numbers of Le Grand Jeu were reprinted, in one volume, by the Cahiers de l’Herne, Paris, 1968.

  2. 2

    I take this story, as well as the one about Daumal’s sister and the dictionary, from Michel Random’s thoughtful Les Puissances du dedans (Denoël, Paris, 1966).

  3. 3

    A good deal of Daumal’s multifarious writing has been published recently in book form, most notably the essays and reviews brought together in Bahrata, (Gallimard, Paris, 1970); L’Evidence absurde (Gallimard, 1972); Les Pouvoirs de la parole (Gallimard, 1972).

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