The Mountain and the Meaning of Life: René Daumal’s Alpine Allegory of Courage and the Measure of Wisdom
By Maria Popova
Since long before Dr. King proclaimed “I have seen the mountaintop!” mountains — like rivers — have been among our richest nature-drawn metaphors for making sense of our human lives and values. When the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan was asked in a television interview who the most important person she ever met was, she answered without hesitation: “A mountain.” She meant a non-metaphorical mountain — Mount Tamalpais — out of which she carved her exquisite philosophical-poetic meditation on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence.
But no one has explored the existential through the metaphor of the alpine more elegantly than the French surrealist poet, philosopher, and novelist René Daumal (March 16, 1908–May 21, 1944) in his allegorical novel Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidian and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures (public library), posthumously published and translated into English by Carol Cosman — a novel quite possibly inspired by and almost certainly subtitled as a wink to Edwin Abbott Abbott’s iconic 1884 allegorical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, yet a novel entirely and uncommonly original.
Daumal — who taught himself Sanskrit, translated some of the great Buddhist texts into French, and saturated his writing with philosophical reflections drawn from the liminal space between the scientific and the spiritual, between physical fact and poetic truth — begins by defining his “analogical alpinism”:
Alpinism is the art of climbing mountains by confronting the greatest dangers with the greatest prudence.
Art is used here to mean the accomplishment of knowledge in action.
Upon this conceptual foundation Daumal builds his alpine allegory of life. In a passage evocative of that splendid Seamus Heaney verse — “On your way up, show consideration / To the ones you meet on their way down. / The Latin root of ‘condescension’ / Means we all sink.” — he writes:
You cannot always stay on the summits. You have to come down again…
So what’s the point? Only this: what is above knows what is below, what is below does not know what is above. While climbing, take note of all the difficulties along your path. During the descent, you will no longer see them, but you will know that they are there if you have observed carefully.
There is something profound that the alpine shares with the telescopic: the gift of perspective — a gift that, once granted, cannot easily be revoked; once we have seen, once we have known, we cannot easily unsee and unknow, and so we cannot easily lose our position in space and sense. Daumal writes:
There is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up. When you can no longer see, you can at least still know.
Echoing his equally brilliant, equally underappreciated compatriot and contemporary Simone Weil’s notion of the highest mountain-view of the mind, Daumal adds:
Keep your eyes fixed on the way to the top, but don’t forget to look at your feet. The last step depends on the first. Don’t think you have arrived just because you see the peak. Watch your feet, be certain of your next step, but don’t let this distract you from the highest goal. The first step depends on the last.
In what may be the most elegant articulation of the essence of responsibility, applicable to everything from our smallest personal acts to our grandest generational choices that shape posterity’s social and ecological inheritance, Daumal writes:
When you take off on your own, leave some trace of your passage that will guide your return: one rock set on top of another, some grass pierced by a stick. But if you come to a place you cannot cross or that is dangerous, remember that the trace you have left might lead the people following you into trouble. So go back the way you came and destroy any traces you have left. This is addressed to anyone who wants to leave traces of his passage in this world. And even without wanting to, we always leave traces. Answer to your fellow men for the traces you leave behind.
In an admonition against the twin hazards of hubris and self-pity, he adds:
Never stop on a crumbling slope. Even if you believe your feet are firmly planted, while you take a breath and looking at the sky the earth is gradually piling up under your feet, the gravel is slipping imperceptibly, and suddenly you are launched like a ship.
If you slip or have a minor spill, don’t interrupt your momentum but even as you right yourself recover the rhythm of your walk. Take note of the circumstances of your fall, but don’t allow your body to brood on the memory.
Couple Daumal’s strange and wondrous Mount Analogue with Rebecca Solnit’s indispensable Field Guide to Getting Lost, then revisit the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd, writing at the same time as Daumal, on the life of the living mountain and Vita Sackville-West’s early love letters to Virginia Woolf about mountain-climbing and the meaning of life.
Published September 2, 2020