Dr Judith Crispin is a musician, poet and artist. She has written and edited a number of scholarly books and articles on music, poetry, philosophy and art and has held research fellowships from the DAAD and the Humboldt Foundation.  Judith holds a Ph.D from the ANU and has completed postdoctoral studies at Université de Paris-Sorbonne and at the Humboldt Universität Berlin. Her artworks are regularly published and exhibited across Australia and Europe. She is on the advisory boards of the International Poetry Studies Institute and the Ballarat International Foto Biennale.  Judith’s poems are published in Australian and German literary journals. She is currently an adjunct research fellow at the Australian Catholic University, the University of Sydney and The Australian National University and director of Manning Clark House in Canberra.

The guru and the poet

Understanding René Daumal in the context of Gurdjieffian philosophy

The first seeds of para-surrealism in literature were sown by the pataphysical plays of Alfred Jarry and the allegorical writings of mystic G.I. Gurdjieff. These two figures towered separately over the creative and intellectual milieu of early 1900s Paris and their influence on contemporary art across all genres cannot be overstated. French poet René Daumal (1908–1944), an admirer of Jarry and acolyte of Gurdjieff, gave flesh to para-surrealism in the avant-garde journal Le Grand Jeu that he founded with Roger Vailland, Robert Meyrat, and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte.

Since his death in 1944, Daumal has been recognised as one of the most original philosophical voices of French literature. His writing allied itself with surrealism in its overthrowing of traditional metaphysics, the ‘cadavers of thought’ to which he brought ‘storms of doubt, blasphemes, and kerosene for the temples’. Daumal’s aesthetic differed, however, from surrealism in its insistence on the irreducibility of objects and experience—the ‘absurd’ wakefulness of Jarry’s ’Pataphysics or Gurdjieffian ‘impartiality’. Where surrealism offers art as a substitute for religion, the para-surrealism, or psychonautica, of Le Grand Jeu insisted on art as a doorway to non-dogmatic religious experience.

An approach to Daumal’s literary thought can only succeed within the horizons of Gurdjieff and Jarry, the influences behind his best known novels A night of serious drinking (1938) and Mount analogue: a novel of symbolically authentic non-Euclidean adventures in mountain climbing (1952). These works provide a window into Jarry’s transcendence of metaphysics, his access to the real by way of the hyper-real and Gurdjieff’s definitions of what such a ‘real’ could actually be. Replete with pataphysical and Gurdjieffian allegories, Daumal’s writing simply cannot be understood without reference to these influences. This paper will provide an overview of Daumal’s contribution to literature in the context of these novels and the influences that shaped them.