Thursday, March 06, 2008

Mount Analogue

IN 1968 I BOUGHT, second-hand, spurred by what information I no longer recall, a copy of the Vincent Stuart edition of Roger Shattuck's translation of René Daumal's Mount Analogue: An Authentic Narrative. It came to mind again a few weeks ago in a conversation with grandson Simon, 18, who has been climbing mountains in Ecuador. I'm no mountain climber: the closest I've come to the sport was an ascent of Chamechaude, in the French pre-Alps, back in 1976: but mountains are in mind right now, as I'm contemplating a stroll in the Alps this summer.

Chamechaud.jpgChamechaud, seen from the north, 1976

So I took Mount Analogue down from the shelf the other night and read through it again. It's such a strong, brilliant, clear book that virtually every detail I'd recalled from 1968, as well as the general quality of the book, came right back into focus. Daumal was, some think, the finest French author of his time; certainly the most promising. Born in 1908, possessed of a brilliant mind, he was publishing by the time he was twenty. By then he'd experimented with all sorts of drugs, had internalized everything the Parnassiens and Symbolists could offer him, had begun serious study of Indian thought and literature. From then on his principal physical battles were with tuberculosis, and he died in 1944, only 36 years old, in mid-sentence: Mount Analogue is incomplete.

Perhaps it could never have been completed. The mountain of the title is enormous, dwarfing Everest, situated in the South Pacific, unknown because of its capacity of bending space, thus rendering it both invisible and insensible to instruments. It provides the link between Earth and what one could be forgiven for calling Heaven, and its difficult ascent, available only to superbly conditioned adepts, has a physical property of reinforcing an egoless desire for Transcendence.

The novel describes the plans of the author and, even more important, one Father Sogol to outfit an expedition to the mountain. Eight explorers meet to discuss its probably location, then set out, with four crewmen, on the yacht Impossible, to find it. Sogol combines science and logic to succeed in the search; we visit the island; we learn of the unique communities that have grown up on its shores; we begin the ascent — and then the manuscript fails us.

But it doesn't matter. Sogol is so striking, the descriptions so detailed and winning, and the mood and humor of the book so serene and, in a word, good, that in its imperfect state Mount Analogue is perfect enough.

Several online reviewers have mentioned Jules Verne in describing this book. Oddly, Verne never came to my mind, though I enjoyed Verne hugely when I was a boy. Instead I thought of Melville's Mardi, similarly philosophical and idealistic; and of Raymond Roussel's Locus Solus, whose central figure, Martial Canterel, may have inspired aspects of Daumal's Father Sogol.

I thought of Duchamp, too: the artist's language-play and absurd physics — think of infra-mince, the impossibly small values like the weight of sighs — prefigure Sogol. (And, of course, draw on Roussel.) Daumal was a ’pataphysicien, often a very amusing one; but he was also extraordinarily earnest, without ever lapsing into sermonizing.

My edition of Mount Analogue carries a fine introduction by its translator, who notes
[Daumal] had to struggle with the temptation to which poets are prone: the tendency to conceive of life and reality entirely through language. Mount Analogue, in its simplicy of expression and universality of meaning, probably represents Daumal's ultimate reckoning with the problem of language, vehicle and obstacle.
And in fact, early on, Daumal refers to the subject:
The different branches of symbol interpretation had for a long time been my favourite field of study… Furthermore, I had an alpinist's passionate love of mountains. The convergence of these two contrasting areas of interest on the same object, the mountain, had given certain passages of my article [a study of the symbolic significance of the mountain in ancient mythologies] a lyric tone. (Such conjunctions, incongruous as they may appear, play a large part in the genesis of what is commonly called poetry; I venture this remark as a suggestion ot critics and aestheticians who seek to illuminate the depths of that mysterious language.)
The description of Father Sogol's studio is meticulous and striking: it's festooned with hanging scraps of paper on which are written
a veritable encyclopedia of what we call "human knowledge". A diagram of a plant cell, Mendeleieff's periodic table…, the keys to Chinese writing, a cross-section of the human heart, Lorentz's transformation formulae,…
and so on for an entire paragraph. Sogol thinks and speaks while pacing among these pendant notes, with
an exceptional faculty for seeing ideas as external objects and for establishing new links between ideas which appeared totally unrelated.
Daumal reveals certain laws and principles: that of considering a problem as solved, in order to get sufficiently past the problem to be able to deduce its solution. And the "chameleon law," according to which behaviour is governed by "inner resonance to influences nearest at hand."

Daumal got up from his writing-desk, we're told, in the middle of that final incomplete sentence, to answer his door: a friend was visiting to encourage him (knowing of his illness and likely impending death) to draw up some notes describing his plans for the book's conclusion. They are included in this edition, and one of them answers the perennial question, Why climb?
Just this: what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. In climbing, always take note of difficulties along the way; for as you go up, you can observe hem. Coming down, you will no longer see them, but you will know they are there if you have observed them well.

When you strike off on your own, leave some trace of your passage which will guide you coming back: one stone set on another, some grass weighted down by a stick. But if you come to an impasse or a dangerous spot, remember that the trail you have left could lead people coming after you into trouble. So go back along your trail and obliterate any traces you have left. This applies to anyone who wishes to leave some mark of his passage in the world.
A delicious book, firm and thoughtful and detailed, humorous and poignant (without intended poignancy, bien entendu!), exceptionally wise, aware of its antecedents and careless (and innocent, as far as I know) of followers. I can't imagine being without my copy.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


I have continued the story "Mount Analogue" that was started by Rene Daumal.... Look here:

Thinking allowed....

Arthur von Boennighausen