From Surrealist States of Mind to a State of Being
The French writer René Daumal engaged in a unique form of experiential metaphysics, revealed in his writings and his life. In the 1920-30s, he and his youthful band of poet mystics known as Le Grand Jeu actively explored every para-psychic avenue, in order to experience super-ordinary dimensions of reality.
These young men shared an obsessive aim with the Surrealists: to transform their bourgeois existence through the pursuit of the radically unconventional; to meld life and art, the dream world and the quotidian; to impact society socially and politically, and to seek out super-sensory states. These initial surrealist impulses continued to inspire Daumal throughout his life.
Through his own psychic experiences, Daumal soon realized that it was not automatic writing and the probing of the unconscious but rather deliberate disciplined focus and conscious effort that was needed. More than anything, non-attachment and self-abnegation were necessary to attain a state more intensely spiritual in character than that described in the surrealist manifestos.
Early on, while exploring typical surrealistic avenues, he began a parallel track of studying Sanskrit. We will see how Hindu metaphysics and the writings of the Hinduist René Guénon inspired him to differentiate between true and false metaphysical states. Daumal then probed the essence of Hindu philosophy and poetics himself, and applied these concepts to his own essays, poems, novels, and translations.
Finally, Daumal became an active participant in the rigorous life teaching of the modern philospher, G.I. Gurdjieff. As a result of these influences and his own personal exploration of de-personalization and non-attachment, he no longer sought an “other-worldly state” but a more intensely conscious state of being in the here-and-now.
In my book, I provide a biographical profile and describe in detail Daumal’s Surrealist exploits, focusing on the subtle contrast with poet/leader André Breton and his followers. I highlight the salient points of his Hindu studies and his affiliation with the Gurdjieff Teaching. Finally, the book examines Daumal’s collected poetry, Le Contre-Ciel and his two novels, La Grande Beuverie [A Night of Serious Drinking] and Le Mont Analogue, in light of these influences and his aim of being more conscious in the moment.
I was invited to lecture in French at René Daumal’s seven-day centennial conference. Patti Smith was hosting a party for René in the same café where he had been introduced to the Gurdjieff teaching in 1931. Patti was having an exhibit of her photographs at Tiffany’s, black and white chiaroscuro images of famous writers’ effects. I went prepared with a copy of my book and a letter & CD about 9/11. She immediately recognized me, expressed her shock to see me, exclaimed that she loved my book and had read it to tatters but had just had it fed-exed over. She loved my political work and apologized for her over-enthusiasm. Then she played guitar, I red his poetry in French, and thus we entertained a café full of celebrants. What a night!