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. 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 …

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