Thursday, June 2, 2011

Notes on Daumal's Mount Analogue

If there’s a more often-cited remark or passage about mountaineering than Mallory’s famous “Because it’s there” it may be René Daumal’s

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 . . . . One descends, one sees no longer but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.

If my opening observation isn’t true, it should be. Daumal’s lines come from his “novel,” Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidean and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures, a book well known to cultish group of hippie-mountaineers in the early 1970s. Intermittently hard to find over the years, today it’s a few clicks away in a relatively new translation by Carol Cosman in a Tusk Ivories paperback.

If the book retains a cultish following, it’s due to its eminently quotable prose as well as to the cult of personality following Daumal himself. Daumal died of tuberculosis in 1944 at the age of 36 and the story is that he was working on Mount Analogue the day he died. It’s a better excuse than Coleridge had, but one has the sense that it would have been a hard book to finish. The text proper ends in mid-sentence:

“Without them [wasps!], a great many plants that played an important role in stabilizing the shifting earth, . . .”

Undoubtedly here Daumal was to deliver an early lesson in ecology and species interdependence, which is not what one might expect from a tubercular Sanskrit scholar on his deathbed in the waning days of World War II in German occupied Paris.

I used the term “text proper” because many of the memorable lines about mountaineering, including the lines cited above, are from a postscript including an outline that his wife Véra appended to the novel. The reader is left with the sense that if only Daumal could have finished! We would have become so enlightened! Not likely, but isn’t it pretty to think so? Which reminds me that Daumal translated Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon into French—worth another look in his light.

It’s said that Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 cult film The Holy Mountain is based of Mount Analogue; maybe so, but tempered with massive quantities of psychedelics. They’re both allegories I suppose, but you’ll have better luck synching up Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon to The Wizard of Oz.

The premise of the story concerns a group of seekers who believe that there is an unknown mountain on earth that is higher than Everest and which connects earth to heaven, a symbolic mountain like Mt. Olympus, that they must find and ascend. Most of the extant five chapters describe the organization of the expedition and travel to the peak. We never get to the actual, make that symbolically authentic, mountaineering.

The prose is somewhat reminiscent of the great French alpinist Gaston Rébuffat who wrote gorgeous romantic (i.e. purplish) prose extolling the fraternité de la corde–brotherhood of the rope–at about the same historical moment. In fact, structurally, Rébuffat’s Starlight and Storm resembles Mount Analogue in that its appendix lays out the author’s philosophies in more exacting and memorable prose than does what precedes it.

Daumal included a few simple drawings, not unlike yet another great French romantic, Antoine St. Exupery. I’m particularly fond of the cosmos portrayed in chapter two and pictured above.

The last chapter was to be titled “And You Reader, What Do You Seek?” Maybe it’s a cheap rhetorical trick, but I’ve always fallen for these moments of direct address by great artists, such as Melville: “What are you reader but a fast and loose fish too?” or as appended to the famous eponymous Gauguin painting, “Where Do We Come from? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”

Mount Analogue is at once sweet and wise and enigmatic. When I first read it many years ago it appealed to me because I liked to think that mountaineering was in fact a spiritual pursuit. I suppose I still do. But I love more than ever that the story ends in mid-sentence and we are left forever wondering not only how the story might have ended but, as Daumal has asked, what is it that we seek?