|Look Whose Birthday It Probably Isn't, in Reality
||[Jan. 13th, 2013|08:52 am]
January 13: The Annual Meditation in Praise of Mountebanks and Counterfeits|
“Counterfeits exist because there is such a thing as real gold,” Rumi reportedly wrote; but there have been many well-compounded and marketed Elixirs of Immortality, and William Gaddis devoted the whole of The Recognitions to portraying a world of falsehoods and delusions in which a knowable truth might not exist. Robert Musil devoted an even longer, intrinsically unfinishable novel to the question of whether, truth forbid, truth might exist anyway. William Butler Yeats, unconsciously paralleling Ludwig Wittgenstein, wrote that “man can embody truth but he cannot know it.”
René Daumal wrote the few pages of Mount Analogue (fewer than two hundred even in the Shambhala Press Pocket Classics edition) when he was already under sentence of death from tuberculosis; as in Dr. Johnson’s famous observation regarding Chidiock Tichborne’s poem, an observation which I shall repeat inaccurately from memory, “The sure knowledge that one is to be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind most wonderfully.”
Every time I re-read this Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing I find more sentences that seem to parallel an aspect of the real world, or at least of real experience. Less than perfectly reliable experience is all we ever have of anything; as Oliver Sacks noted in the NPR “Fresh Air” interview regarding his book Hallucinations, if there were such a thing as an actual apparition, it would be impossible to distinguish it from the solidly convincing hallucinations experienced by non-believing skeptics. All reality is neurologically as well as socially constructed reality; we never see the world whole or unmediated, and all we can do is try to reduce the fuzz factor through self-awareness.
That said, I confess that the entire middle section of the novel defeats me; I have almost no idea what Daumal is talking about in the poems and legends recounted by the explorers prior to the arrival of their ship The Impossible in Port O’Monkeys, on the coast of the island dominated by Mount Analogue. (It’s Port O’Monkeys in Roger Shattuck’s translation, which is generally superior to the subsequent English translation of Le Mont Analogue that retains Daumal’s less piratical-sounding place name, Porte-des-Singes.)
I also realize more than before that Daumal’s detailed descriptions are those of a man (though there are women as well as men in the group planning the ascent) who writes from experience when it comes to equipping a group for the climb and setting up the first base camp at the foot of the mountain trail. Beyond that, he has faith that the guides have actually been there and can be relied on to get them onto the higher slopes where they must attempt the climb themselves. He wrote only about what he actually knew and what he believed to be true beyond his immediate experience, without pretending he himself had experienced more than he had.
Daumal was an avid mountaineer, and writes vividly as he finds fictional analogies for the inner journeys of self-transformation that his own group was essaying collectively. As his 1941 essay “A Fundamental Experience” indicates, he had traversed the realms of self-conscious transformation a great deal already, and regarded everything with suspicion, including his own suspicion. (This is the first time I have noticed, from Shattuck’s introduction, the historical circumstances under which “the editor of Les Cahiers de Pléiade asked a number of writers to describe the most significant and crucial experience in their life. Most of the others agreed and then begged off; Daumal, spurred by the example of Milosz’s Epistle to Sorge, produced one of the most authentic and influential texts on extra-rational experience written in this [i.e., twentieth] century. In a bare dozen pages Daumal struggles to describe and analyze in rational terms sensations and reflections on the brink of unconsciousness and even death. ...For nearly twenty years this evidence [from his youthful experiments with carbon tetrachloride] has left him with the absolute certainty (he repeats and underlines the word) of having entered another world. It is not, he insists, the passive, backward-looking world of dreams to which he attained, but a realm of superior awareness, which he describes in visual, mathematical and acoustical detail. Is there, then, more than one form of unconsciousness?”
Thus Shattuck, who then quotes Daumal’s own observation, “It is important to repeat that in that new state of being, I perceived and understood perfectly the ordinary state of being, the latter being contained within the former, as waking consciousness contains our unconscious dreams, and not the reverse. This last irreversible relation proves the superiority (in the scale of reality or consciousness) of the first state over the second.”
We have the data of seventy-two more years of such experiments and experiences to draw upon, and we find the evidence a good deal more ambiguous in a world in which genuine profundities, far beyond the ordinary reach of the perceiver, are mingled with visions of Kermit the Frog or leprechauns from the Lucky Charms cereal box; an ambiguity that had long since been implied by the reported revelation from that famous experiment with ether that preceded (by several decades) Daumal’s with carbon tetrachloride: “A strong smell of turpentine pervades the universe.” (I am recalling from faulty memory one of the many incorrect versions of that tale; the truly determined can find the right one without having to go very far.)
I wish I could write a new version of Mount Analogue that would be almost identical to Daumal’s up to the point of the arrival at Port O’Monkeys (this part would be precisely analogous to the plot of Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”). The town, however, would present the sort of situation described by English-speakers of a certain age as akin to “the bar scene in Star Wars.” Far from containing guides who know the mountain, who live alongside merchants and other townsfolk who have no intention of climbing the mountain but do not disparage the quest, my Port O’Monkeys would be full of shysters, mountebanks, pickpockets, and purported guides working from ignorance. The town, in spite of being accessible only to those who have already made a challenging voyage that is of no interest to most people, would resemble the rest of the world most remarkably, and not least because the interior of the island on which it sits would be shrouded in a perpetual fog that has peculiar physical properties: it renders most observational instruments unreliable, or yields contradictory readings when the instruments work properly. As a result, those who are incapable of climbing mountains in the first place have no choice but to rely on the accounts of those who have climbed up into the all-obscuring fog and have returned to recite preposterous anecdotes, from which such taletellers and their hearers draw mutually exclusive conclusions. It remains impossible to be certain even that there actually is a mountain, much less one that differs from all others and/or one that has something at the top of it that rewards the effort of climbing it.
It might, however, be possible for the aforementioned unathletic types to evaluate the competing mountaineering equipment, and to decide whether the tiring but attainable trek to the base camp is a worthwhile excursion regardless of who leads you there. They could also collect and annotate the anecdotes. Some of them might even go on field trips before collapsing in exhaustion and returning to the jeers and ridicule of their fellow travelers.
This would not be very much of a novel, you would say; and so say I. But how much more frustrating would it be than a novel that breaks off in mid-sentence (due to the death of the author) just when it has reached a description of ecological balance that seems half a century ahead of its time—a novel that would then have digressed into a rollicking satire of the literary-artistic types already satirized and mercilessly dissected in the author’s earlier novel A Night of Serious Drinking?
“And you, what do you seek?” Daumal would have asked the reader in the final chapter of Mount Analogue, which would have come immediately after the tale of the failed expedition of the neo-colonialist exploiters who were convinced that the previous expedition was merely disguising its materialist motives. I think I recognize all these folks; they are with us today, and more so than they ever were seventy years ago. They, too, have gotten more clever and self-assured, if no less delusional.