René Daumal (1908 – 1944)

January 31, 2009

“I am the great inside – out man…”

René Daumal was one of the most gifted literary figures in France in the early part of the twentieth century, René Daumal was a genuine seeker of truth. He was a philosopher and poet. In the later part of his life, he had the good fortune to meet and work with G I Gurdjieff.

Rene Daumal

René Daumal


I first came across his work while I was reading William Blake for my honours thesis. I was struck by the similarity of their outlook even though they lived a century apart. They both shared a vision rooted in a sense of the real that was not dependent on the consensus reality they were embedded in. They were both spiritual in their own idiosyncratic way without recourse to traditional religious structures of church or temple. René Daumal speaks to me in a clearer way, maybe because he lived closer to my own present moment. 


 Daumal’s unfinished novel, “Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidian and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures” is a story about a group of people who are on a journey to visit a mountain that connects heaven with earth. They sail on a ship called “Impossible”  encountering their “soft pillow of doubt” and the “relatively real.” He uses the universality of the Mountain symbol to convey the sense of ascending towards Truth in a non religious way. One of the themes is that advance can only happen in a one step up, two steps down way. It is a spiritual approach that is connected to a secular and a modern sense of the sacred. In Erik Davis’  words, “In his [Daumal] life and mind, we can trace the prophetic outlines of a genuine ‘mystical modernism’, a mode of spiritual practice that is experiential, anti-religious, and counter-cultural — even to the point of being counter-modern.”


I believe the challenge for us in the 21st Century is to somehow feel a sense of the sacred in a community that no longer has belief in an anthropomorphic God. The battle is against ALL fundamentalist belief structures – whether they’re informed by religion, science, economics or apparent rationalism. Mount Analogue points towards an approach that is both universalist and uniquely individual. 

A diagram from Mount Analogue

A diagram from Mount Analogue

The book is an allegory of creative practice, the skills required to bring something into existence from nothing, the process of work.

The end of the book was completed mid sentence when he passed away. His wife, Vera Milanova, included the following poem in the Post Script of Mount Analogue.


This poem has fed me ever since I first came across it:

Mount Analogue book cover.

Mount Analogue book cover.



 I am dead because I lack desire,
I lack desire because I think I possess.
I think I possess because I do not try to give.
In trying to give, you see that you have nothing;
Seeing that you have nothing, you try to give of yourself;
Trying to give of yourself, you see that you are nothing:
Seeing that you are nothing, you desire to become;
In desiring to become, you begin to live.









Another Poem


 One cannot stay on the summit forever –
One has to come down again.
So why bother in the first place? Just this.
What is above knows what is below –
But what is below does not know what is above

One climb, one sees-
One descends and sees no longer
But one has seen!

There is an art of conducting one’s self in
The lower regions by the memory of
What one saw higher up.

When one can no longer see,
One does at least still know.


Another Poem : Skin of Light


The skin of light enveloping this world lacks depth and I can actually see the black night of all these
similar bodies beneath the trembling veil and light of myself it is this night that even the mask of the
sun cannot hide from me I am the seer of night the auditor of silence for silence too is dressed in
sonorous skin and each sense has its own night even as I do I am my own night I am the conceiver
of non-being and of all its splendor I am the father of death she is its mother she whom I evoke
from the perfect mirror of night I am the great inside-out man my words are a tunnel punched
through silence I understand all disillusionment I destroy what I become I kill what I love.




Some René Daumal quotes :


“Each time dawn appears, the mystery is there in its entirety. “

from “Poetry Black, Poetry White,” no. 19-20, Fontaine (Paris, March/April 1942)

The Lie of the Truth

“Art has a double face, of expression and illusion, just like science has a double face: the reality of error and the phantom of truth. ”

from Vol. 2, Essais et Notes

“Man is head, chest and stomach. Each of these animals operates, more often than not, individually. I eat, I feel, I even, although rarely, think…. This jungle crawls and teems, is hungry, roars, gets angry, devours itself, and its cacophonic concert does not even stop when you are asleep. ”

from Vol. 2, Essais et Notes

“Truth is one, but error proliferates. Man tracks it down and cuts it up into little pieces hoping to turn it into grains of truth. But the ultimate atom will always essentially be an error, a miscalculation. ”

from Vol. 2, Essais et Notes

La grande beuverie (A Night of Serious Drinking)

“Words are made for a certain exactness of thought, as tears are for a certain degree of pain. What is least distinct cannot be named; what is clearest is unutterable. ”

“It is still not enough for language to have clarity and content … it must also have a goal and an imperative. Otherwise from language we descend to chatter, from chatter to babble and from babble to confusion.”

“Common experience is the gold reserve which confers an exchange value on the currency which words are; without this reserve of shared experiences, all our pronouncements are cheques drawn on insufficient funds.”



 From the Publisher of  “You’ve Always Been Wrong”.

A fitful interloper among the Surrealists, Daumal rejected all forms of dogmatic thought, whether religious, philosophical, aesthetic, or political. Much like the Surrealists (and French theorists of more recent decades), Daumal saw in the strict forms and certainties of traditional metaphysics a type of thought that enslaves people even as it pretends to liberate them. These “cadavers of thought”, Daumal wrote with youthful bravado, “must be met with storms of doubt, blasphemes, and kerosene for the temples”. Daumal tied Surrealism with mystical traditions. A devoted student of Eastern religions, philosophy, and literature, he combined his skepticism about Western metaphysics with a mystic’s effort to maintain intense wakefulness to the present moment and to the irreducible particularity of all objects and experience. Such wakefulness, according to Daumal, leads inevitably to an overwhelming (and redemptive) “vision of the absurd”. Daumal’s important place in French culture of the late 1920s and 1930s has been assured by both his writings and his role as cofounder of the avant-garde journal Le Grand Jeu. Written between 1928 and 1930, You’ve Always Been Wrong reveals Daumal’s thought as it was coalescing around the rejection of Western metaphysics and the countervailing allure of Eastern mysticism.






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