Climbing a Symbolic Mountain With a Surrealist Writer

Long out of print, Mount Analogue, René Daumal’s cult classic, offers a tale of renunciation and self-acceptance.

Mount Analogue by René Daumal, published by Exact Change

Our hero’s quest to arrive at the pinnacle of human enlightenment begins with a work of criticism he doesn’t remember writing. The story’s protagonist is much like the author: a young man kicking about in the intellectual circles of mid-20th-century Paris, authoritatively writing on a few scattered subjects while his larger metaphysical yearnings remain unprobed. When an appreciative reader writes in praise of his work, it is probably thanks to the freelancer’s hustle that he need be reminded what exactly he claimed in the Revue des Fossiles some months before, and he is unconvinced of his own convictions therein. The narrator is concerned that he has been taken too seriously.

“I reread the article. It was a rather hasty study of the symbolic significance of the mountain in ancient mythologies. The different branches of symbol interpretation had for a long time been my favorite field of study; I naïvely believed I understood something about the subject.” Our man discovers he had compiled these different symbols into a speculation on “the ultimate symbolic mountain,” comprising all the mythic qualities of Sinai, Nebo, Olympus, and Everest, and then proposed a treatise on what this ur-mountain would look like: “For a mountain to play the role of Mount Analogue, I concluded, its summit must be inaccessible but its base accessible […] It must be unique and it must exist geographically. The door to the invisible must be visible.” All purely symbolic, of course, even the point about existence.

Yet, as he read the appreciative reader’s ecstatic response, “Here was someone taking me at my word, and talking about ‘attempting an expedition’! A lunatic? A practical joker? But what about myself? I thought suddenly; didn’t my readers have the right to ask the same questions of me […] Am I a lunatic or a practical joker? Or just a man of letters?” It’s a reminder, humorous yet sobering, that to critique or speculate is not just a matter of sport –– some day we may be asked to put our money where our mouths are, and to seek the ideals we claim exist. Our hero’s intellectual bluff has been called, and the quest for enlightenment begins.

René Daumaul (1944) (photo by Luc Dietrich) 

The book is René Daumal’s unfinished opus Mount Analogue, originally published in 1952. One of Paris’s most scintillating spitfires in his time, Daumal was well-established as an editor and translator when he died in 1944, at 36, of tuberculosis. Mount Analogue was published in its incomplete form eight years later. Now Exact Change has released a new edition of the original English translation by Roger Shattuck, which has been out of print for some time.

Mount Analogue is something of a literary cult classic; many of its early editions are now rare. Its reputation was enhanced greatly by Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose 1973 film The Holy Mountain loosely adapted Daumal’s allegory. Exact Change hails it as a “touchstone of Surrealism,” though Daumal clashed several times with that notoriously cliquey group in the late 1920s, when he was a young editor of Le Grand Jeu and the Surrealists were elder statesmen of the Paris literary scene. Compared to the idle jests or outré provocations of writers like André Breton, Georges Bataille, and Raymond Roussel, Daumal’s work is a far more straightforward allegorical satire in the style of Swift and Voltaire. Daumal and his colleagues at Le Grand Jeu called themselves Simplists, and his imaginative writing is inspired less by the formal playfulness of modernist literature than by the religious mysticism of Hindu texts (he was an ardent reader and translator of Sanskrit) and the writing of Bharata, “who felt that the dramatic form was the most perfect fruition of aesthetic creativity […] the embodiment of feeling in sensuous tissue.” Mount Analogue may read as whimsical, humorous, and absurd, but only for the sake of imparting wisdom, and waking the reader up to everything that masquerades as such.

One of the mountains that goes unmentioned in the narrator’s symbolic compilation is Mount Purgatory, which is surprising given that his quest for a synthesized physical/moral ascent reads much like Dante’s in the second book of his Divine Comedy. Like that great poet, Daumal’s other major work is something of a descent into hell: a glorious roast of the Paris literary community (including the Surrealists) is compiled into the tripartite La Grande Beuverie (1938; published in the United States under the title A Night of Serious Drinking), which finds its narrator — also unnamed and autobiographical — on a sotted bender through the streets of town. Through his drunken haze, he comes to realize that everyday life is nothing but one long intoxication, he renounces the useless constructs of high art, and he burns all his belongings to step out, sobered, into the light of day.

Mount Analogue picks up where La Grande Beuverie left off. Instead of merely aiming to touch on great truths by looking at their undersides, the book promises to outline a virtuous path on the climb to higher being. Daumal’s narrator and his enthusiastic respondent, the preposterously patrician Father Sogol (‘logos’ spelled backwards), encounter Mount Analogue on an island previously undiscovered because those who found it never left. Before ascending its slopes, we are given a sketch of the island’s politics and monetary system, which reflect the path of enlightenment. Those who live at the mountain’s base take orders from those who have made their way higher, and the currency of the island — though operating on a token-based system for laypeople — is backed by the standard of peradams, diamond-like stone “so perfectly transparent […] that the inexperienced eye barely perceives it”; these increase in abundance with the altitude.

Daumal was aiming for a total metaphor, one in which the narrative’s concern with pocket money and alpine equipment retain their relevance in transcendental allegory, the way that small material preoccupations often keep us from seeing the big picture. In dramatizing the ascent toward self-actualization, Mount Analogue succeeds on many levels, including, ironically, the fact that Daumal did not live long enough to let his characters reach the summit. The book ends mid-sentence, shortly after our heroes arrive at base camp. It’s only too fitting that this work, intended as a layperson’s guide to reaching nirvana, should instead consist mostly of calculations, acquisitions, and musings in preparation for the disciplined travails of soul-searching — a path of renunciation and self-acceptance that is both esoteric and meditatively simple.

Daumal wanted his adventure story to do for metaphysics what Jules Verne had done for physics: to provide a general audience with something that could enlighten as well as entertain. That he was unable to accomplish this before his untimely death preserves the great promise of that mission, while perhaps safeguarding us from the disappointment waiting at its peak. (As Dante couldn’t help but reveal in his infamously disappointing Paradiso, sublimity is boring.) Nevertheless, Mount Analogue still succeeds on its own terms, in reminding us that we all have a higher being to aspire to; whether we attain it is not the point of our ascent. In this sense, “art is here taken to mean knowledge realized in action,” Daumal wrote in his notes while planning the final chapters of the book. “You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have 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.”

Mount Analogue by René Daumal is published by Exact Change and is available online and in bookstores.

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