20 July 2014

'Mount Analogue'

Quite a number of years ago, when I was doing some continuing research on the stage director Leonardo Shapiro (about whom I’ve blogged quite a bit over the years of ROT), I came across a reference that I couldn’t decipher.  In point of fact, it didn’t make any sense at all at first blush.  I began to dig around and eventually came up with a hypothesis, which I was able to confirm from a reliable source.  This, with some side trips and tangents, is the tale of that deductive process (actually mostly a series of SWAG’s—Scientific, Wild-Ass Guesses).

Shapiro died in 1997, leaving behind several unfinished pieces of work, including some play scripts, an autobiographical poem, the libretto to a proposed opera about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the beginning of a show-biz novel, and, most significantly for me, scattered notes for a memoir.  After his death, Shapiro’s romantic partner, Rosalía, sent me many of these fragmentary documents and I began to pore over them, especially the sections of his memoir.  Over the months and years following that, I returned to many of those bits and pieces because, as I learned more about Shapiro’s life and work—I’d known him since 1986 but not terribly intimately—more of what he left behind came to mean things to me that I’d missed in earlier readings.  At one rereading of the memoir in 2007, I noticed a passage in the chronology he’d compiled, an entry for the year 1993:

London with Frankie, Peter James, Endgame in Calcutta, Varanasi, Bodigaya, Nepal, June: move to Mt. Antalog, Vallecito, New Mexico, summer with Rosalie, Spark and Heather, Snow White housewarming, Nov/Dec: radio script: Nothing is Lost, Dec: Mom sick with cancer, go to MN, nurse Mom.

Much of this was fairly straightforward to me: “London” was a trip he’d taken with some friends and colleagues; “Rosalie” is the name Rosalía went by in New York and “Spark” (for “Sparkie”) is his son, Spartacus, with whom he built the house in New Mexico; “Endgame” refers to a production he’d staged of the Samuel Beckett play (in Bengali) in Calcutta that February; “Snow White” was a community performance with a cast of neighborhood children he’d mounted in his back yard as a housewarming in July; “Nothing is Lost” was a radio play he’d written.  The mention of his mother being sick back home in St. Paul (where Shapiro was born) was also clear: she had lung cancer and Shapiro had gone to Minnesota from New Mexico to care for her (about a year-and-a-half before he, himself, was diagnosed with inoperable bladder cancer); Florence Shapiro died the following February.  Shapiro’d written me about most of these events and he’d sent me a copy of Nothing Is Ever Lost, or All in Good Fun with a few other scripts, including a teleplay and a play for children (which all remained unproduced).

The note that caught my attention this time, however, was the one about moving to Vallecito in June.  Now, of course, I knew where Shapiro’d gone—we were in touch and he’d even invited me to come out for a visit (though that never happened), and I’d already written a fair amount about his time there after leaving New York City (see, for instance, Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos),” 5 August 2009, and “Cheerleaders of the Revolution,” 31 October 2009).  Vallecito is the community where Shapiro built his retirement house, no more than a collection of houses outside the little town of Chamisal in Taos County, about 30 miles southwest of the city of Taos.  But what was “Mt. Antalog”?  I didn’t have a clue.  That’s when this brief journey began.

On Monday, 6 August 2007, I e-mailed my friend Kirk (now a frequent contributor to this blog) with some preliminary thoughts (I’ve fixed up the abbreviated prose a little):

A few weeks ago, when I was looking for some specific material, I went back over Leo’s memoir fragments and his chronology.  In passing, I noticed that he gave a name to the mountain on which his New Mexico house was built, but it didn’t seem pertinent at the time so I just let it go by.  Now, while I was working on that “American exceptionalism” stuff, I got myself sidetracked because I finally decided I had to recast all those present-tense verbs I had into past tense.  [I posted “American Exceptionalism,” based on that same work, on 10 December 2013.]  So, I put aside my task and just went thru each chapter to take care of all those verbs once and for all.  But as I did that, now and then something small caught my eye and I did a bit of tinkering along the way, usually a reference—or cross-reference—that I hadn’t spotted earlier, but now jumped out at me because I was skimming the whole book in order over a short time.  On Saturday, I started on the last chapter, which includes most of the material about Leo’s retirement to New Mexico and death, and Sunday afternoon I hit on the ’graph that described his move back, and I decided to see if that name he used for his mountain would be useful after all.  I went back to the chronology and found it, but it was odd enough to make me wonder if it was correct.  He called it “Mt. Antalog,” which just sounded strange.  So I looked it up.  There’s no such place, not in NM or anywhere else I could find—or any place with even a similar name that I could identify.  I was just about to drop the idea as impossible to verify when I decided to see what might show up if I tweaked the name a little.  (There is a word, or really an abbreviation, antilog: it’s short for antilogarithm, but that didn’t seem to be useful.)  I tried “Mt. Analog,” assuming that maybe Leo mistyped it (or Rosalía had—she apparently did the typing)—and lo and behold, I hit on a novel called Mount Analogue

Well, obviously, I had to look up the book, a French novel, and see if there was anything about it that lined up with what I knew about Shapiro, his epistemology, and his work.  I’d never heard of it, so I had no idea if it was a significant piece of writing or a piece of nonce junk no one ever read, so I did some exploring on the ’Net first.  My e-mail continued:

Now, it took me a little maneuvering to get this right and find out a little something about it—have you ever heard of it, by the way?  It’s not unknown and has something of a cult following.  Let me do the bibliographical history first, then do the content.  See if any of this connects up to Leo a little.  The novel is French and the author was René Daumal, who died suddenly in 1944 before he could complete the novel, so it’s a fragment.  (One account has it that Daumal was interrupted—in mid-sentence, the story goes—while writing the book and then died the next day without getting back to it.  That may be apocryphal.)  In any case, the novel was published [in French] unfinished in 1952 and then translated into English and published in 1959.  It was rereleased as recently as 1986.  Despite its unfinished state, it’s considered one of Daumal’s best works.

Daumal was a surrealist (among other things—he sounds like something of a mystic, too) and the novel is about the discovery and ascent of the invisible mountain of the title.  The book contends that “transcendental knowledge is attained through an understanding of reality and communion with others” [according to Contemporary Authors Online].  There’s more to this—it’s pretty complex from what I gather (there’s a Wikipedia page on the novel and one for Daumal as well)—and the fact that the novel is unfinished has imbued it with a sort of mystical appeal on top of everything else. 

This is where the potential connections with Shapiro began to occur to me.  By this time, after having known Shapiro for 11 years, interviewing him extensively in 1992-93 for an article in The Drama Review (which was published in the winter issue of ’93 as “Shapiro and Shaliko: Techniques of Testimony”), and continuing to do research on him even after his death, I knew quite a lot about the avant-garde director.  As I explained to Kirk:

Well, Leo said he was influenced by the Surrealists, he was into mysticism and spiritualism, and the whole atmosphere of the novel—including the fact that Daumal died in mid-sentence and so on—makes me wonder if [Leo] hadn’t read the book, maybe even when he was first in NM.  (It bears some similarities, from what I can tell, to other books I know Leo read and referred to, especially several of [Hermann] Hesse’s, and the mystical journey is a lot like some of the Native American myths with which he was taken.)  The connection to a magical mountain seems to clinch the association to Leo’s mountain home: the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where he was living, are sacred in Pueblo lore.  So I’ve concluded that Leo meant to call his new home “Mt. Analogue” in reference to the mystical mountain of the novel.  He did return there to heal and recover spiritually.  [Shapiro had previously lived in nearby Dixon in Rio Arriba County, a little over 25 miles southwest of Taos, in 1969-71.]  It seems so perfect as an explanation.  But the whole connection seems so serendipitous that I wonder if I’m not manufacturing it.

My own insecurities wouldn’t let me accept that I’d lit (so apparently easily) on an explanation to the enigmatic reference.  So I went on to check some more resources, looking for stronger links to Shapiro. 

René Daumal (1908-44) was known for writing about spirituality and perception.  In his early years, he founded a literary journal with three friends, poets known as Simplists, who took drugs and explored the psyche.  Daumal himself used carbon tetrachloride, which, while nearly fatal, inspired him to write “A Fundamental Experiment” (“Une Expérience fondamentale,” 1943), an essay he originally wrote in his youth (around 1930) on the expansion of his own “consciousness from simple awareness to drug-induced intuition to a renewed consciousness in which his perceptions were rationalized.”

The writer continued to delve into spiritual matters and altered states of consciousness in Le Contre-ciel (the title, which means “counter-heaven” or “anti-heaven,” is untranslated in the English version), a poetry collection about death, but not the death that ends life—the death that begins it.  By this time Daumal, a friend and student of Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau) artist Alexandre de Salzmann, a disciple of G. I. Gurdjieff, had taught himself Sanskrit and had translated several sacred Hindu and Zen Buddhist texts into French.  (Gurdjieff believed that most of us exist in a state of “waking sleep,” which is possible to transcend through the “Fourth Way,” his method for rousing our consciousnesses.  De  Salzmann, whom Daumal described as a “former dervish, former Benedictine, former professor of jui-jisu, healer, stage-designer,” introduced the writer to The Work, Gudjieff’s name for his discipline.  The character of Pierre Sogol, the leader of the expedition in Mount Analogue whose name is logos spelled backwards, is modeled on de Salzmann.)  His greatest achievement from the 1930s, however, was probably Le grande beuverie (“The great binge,” 1938; translated as A Night of Serious Drinking), “a satire on French society in which the author poses the ascendance of a higher spiritual plane as an alternative to a superficial life.”  

Le Mont Analogue. Roman d’aventures alpines, non euclidiennes et symboliquement authentiques (translated as Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing) describes the discovery and ascent of the mountain of the title which can only be perceived by realizing that the climber has travelled further in going over it than she or he would have by moving in a straight line, and can only be seen from a particular spot when the rays of the sun strike the earth at a specified angle.  (The novel contains the first use in literature of the word peradam, which Daumal defines as something “the unaccustomed eye hardly perceives . . . .  But to anyone who seeks it with sincere desire and true need, it reveals itself.”  In the novel, the peradam is a precious gem found only on Mount Analogue.)  The seeker in the novel sails off in the yacht Impossible in search of Mount Analogue, real and charted but concealed, which reaches unmistakably towards heaven.  “Early in the story,” Roger Shattuck, translator of the 1986 American edition of Mount Analogue, explained, “we are given a picture of the most inhuman of environments: a monastic order corrupted by mutual distrust and denunciation.  Later, on the slopes of Mount Analogue, a sense of community emerges as one of the highest forms of knowledge,” which happens to be one of Shapiro’s most strongly held principles (which he’d learned from observing American Indian societies). 

The voyage is a fictionalized portrayal of the Daumal’s own spiritual quest, and in his translator’s note, Shattuck wrote: “His journey traversed some of the most exciting countries of the mind.”  Daumal, often characterized as one of the most gifted writers of 20th-century French literature, died of tuberculosis at 36 before completing Mount Analogue.  The author’s unexpected and premature death, possibly hastened by his earlier use of carbon tet which may have weakened his lungs, lent a cachet of mystery and spirituality to the fragment he left.  Though A Night of Serious Drinking and Mount Analogue are Daumal's best-known works, many of his other writings were published, like Mount Analogue, posthumously.

I wrote again to Kirk: on 8 August:

I went back and had another look at the bio and biblio stuff I found on Daumal and Mount Analogue—to see if I could make more of it.  There are a few other details that make it a philosophical fit for Leo:

  • Daumal used mind-expanding drugs (notably carbon tet—he was pre-LSD, of course).
  • Daumal taught himself Sanskrit and translated several Hindu texts.
  • Daumal became a scholar of Hinduism and Buddhism (Leo listed Buddhism as an influence; he was studying it himself, especially just before his death).
  • Daumal had been courted by André Breton (leader of the Surrealists), but rejected them and blazed his own trail (sort of the opposite of [Antonin] Artaud, who was a member of the Surrealists, but was booted out for lack of orthodoxy).
  • Mount Analogue recounts a spiritual journey, a search for truth; Leo read Hesse’s Journey to the East which describes the same idea.  Leo saw artists as people who take a journey to another place and return to tell the rest of us what they’ve learned.  The shalako ceremony is a mirror image of this—the gods’ messengers (that’s what the shalakos are) come to earth to collect the prayers of the people and return with them to the spirit world [see my ROT article “‘May You Be Blessed With Light’: The Zuni Shalako Rite,” 22 October 2010].  (There is also some of this journey/seeking for truth in [Hesse’s] Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, and Magister Ludi/The Glass Bead Game, all of which had been important for Leo).
  • Mount Analogue is considered, at least by some critics, as a sci-fi novel; you know how much Leo was into sci-fi. 
  • The mountain is also invisible except at a certain angle (and you don’t know you’ve climbed it except by measuring the distance you’ve traveled); this suggests that there’s magic in the book, as differentiated from spirituality, another important interest of Leo’s.
  • In addition to the 1959 (or ’60) and ’86 publications, which were just before Leo went to Windsor Mountain [a progressive prep school in Lenox, Massachusetts] (‘60) and moved the second time to NM (‘92), the novel was republished again in ’96, just before Leo died.  These were all propitious moments in his life, especially in terms of his reading.  (The novel has been republished yet again, in 2004.)

I still wasn’t sure of my ground, as I observed in the same message, but I was ready to make at least an equivocal commitment:

All of this comes without my having read the book, so it’s not definitive.  (There’s no New York Public Library copy in the circulating collection, tho’ other Daumal books are available.  I may have a look at the novel when I go to HSSL [Humanities and Social Sciences Library, former designation of what’s now named the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the NYPL’s main facility at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street] next.)  But if only half of it’s accurate, it seems inevitable to me that this book would have found its way to Leo.  He said he was reading a sci-fi novel or two every day as a preteenager in Miami [where Shapiro grew up] and that he’d exhausted the local library’s collection of sci-fi books.  He’s almost bound to have come across Daumal sooner or later that way.  When he went to Windsor Mountain, he was reading all kinds of unusual things—Windsor Mountain students were precocious readers—and he was using not only the school library, but the local public library in Lenox.  Obviously, I can’t prove it, but I’m convinced it’s probable that Leo read Mount Analogue either as a kid or later and made that reference to it as a way to express his feelings about his new mountain home.  (Rosalía told me he dictated the memoir and other stuff to her and she typed it into his computer.  She could easily have misunderstood him and/or made a typo.)  If there were any listing anywhere of some mountain in NM (or anywhere else) with a name like “Antalog,” I’d have some doubt, but since there isn’t any trace of one that I’ve found (and since antilog seems like such an improbable match), I’m privately satisfied that the novel is the explanation.  (I’d check this with Rosalía, as I did with American Exceptionalism [American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, the book by Seymour Martin Lipset I posited Shapiro had read before his death because of another reference in his memoir fragments], but I can’t reach her.  My theater e-mail came back as undeliverable and I tried to send her a message at her school e-mail address where she teaches, and that didn’t get thru, either.  I wonder of she’s quit work and moved and didn’t tell me.)

As I told Kirk, I had tried to reach Rosalía to see if she knew anything about a connection between Shapiro and the novel Mount Analogue and if the mention in Shapiro’s memoir could have been an allusion to the book, but I hadn’t gotten an answer to my messages.  On 21 August, however, I did finally hear from Rosalía, and she essentially confirmed what I had come to surmise (I’ve also edited her e-mail prose a little):

Now for Leo:  I actually have the answer to your question!  I have in front of me at this moment the copy of Mount Analogue (Daumal) that Leo gave me, which was put out in a tiny format by Shambhala Press in 1992.  As I recall, he had first read it at Windsor Mountain (doesn’t it sound like something they would have had for required reading?), and considered it one of his favorite books ever.  He referred to the house as Mt. Analog as a sort of play on the analog/digital divide, which was really just beginning in the ’90s (he equated the analog/digital with the old/new, country vs. city life that he was seeking, and also with the move away from spirituality that he perceived around him in the city at that time).  (I think I also became his Bitter-Rose at some point . . . .)   Now that I work so frequently in the digital world of 21st-century film, I think of both the book and Leo’s idea of analog vs. digital life often.   Last year, in addition to the Theatre program, I ran a Film Technician Training Program (FTTP) supported by the State.  NM has become known as the 3rd coast for film production, believe it or not!  And everything is digital now . . .  hmmmm. 

Rosalía, an actress, taught and directed theater at Northern New Mexico Community College in Española, which is near Taos and Chamisal/Vallecito.  Her reference to Bitter-Rose is to a story Daumal tells within the novel, “The Tale of the Hollow-Men and the Bitter-Rose,” which describes a flower that grows on Mount Analogue: “Whoever eats it [i.e., the Bitter-Rose] finds that whenever he is about to tell a lie, aloud or to himself, his tongue begins to burn.  He can still tell falsehoods, but he has been warned.”  The “analog/digital” dichotomy Rosalía writes about was a small theme I discussed in my study of Shapiro:

Shapiro equated digital measures with the new technology, the city, artificiality, while the analogue system was the old, spiritual, country, and natural world.  Digital is concrete and discrete, specific and devoid of connotations.  It cannot be interpreted or approximated, like the time on a digital clock—precise and exact, unequivocal.  Analogue is flowing, even fuzzy.   It has parameters, but, like the hour read on an analogue clock, is open to approximation, interpretation, and manipulation.  A digital clock may be practical, efficient, and unambiguous, but there is something elegant and graceful about an analogue timepiece.

The parallel is pretty strong, as Shattuck wrote in his introduction to the novel that “Daumal’s work [exhibits] its resolve to fuse body and Spirit, speech and sleep, logic and intuition.” 

Rosalía’s reference to a “move away from spirituality” that Shapiro had seen was also a theme in my study, though his foundation for the sense of loss was the Indian cultures he’d observed around him.  Shapiro was an admirer of Western and Native American author Frank Waters, who wrote in Pumpkin Seed Point (1969; for further discussion of this writer, see “Frank Waters,” 4 May 2012):

The monstrous paradox is that while we have created untold benefits for all mankind, we have impoverished ourselves spiritually in the process.  In achieving what seems to be a complete triumph over nature, we have established a machine-made society so utterly devitalized that it is anticipating the synthetic creation of life within a laboratory test tube. 

Well, that about clinched it.  Not only was I right that Shapiro had read Mount Analogue, I’d guessed he might have read it at either Windsor Mountain School in the ’60s or shortly after he moved back to New Mexico—and it turns out he’d done both!  What’s more, he found in the novel concepts and ideas that he related to his own life and philosophy, as I suspected he might have.  When I speculated that there were similarities between Mount Analogue and other novels I knew Shapiro had read and absorbed, as well as other influences he’d spoken of frequently, such as magic, science fiction, and Eastern religions, they seemed convenient and coincidental at first, as if I may have projected my assumptions onto the little of Daumal’s novel I’d learned, but after Rosalía’s e-mail, it all seemed inescapable.  I wrote to Kirk again on 27 August, a few days after hearing from Rosalía:

The Mount Analogue idea, especially because of what Rosalía said, has blossomed.  Aside from the obvious—the metaphor of the mystery mountain for Leo’s NM home and the city-country dichotomy, which is pretty basic for Leo—I developed a small point about the analogue vs. the digital: how the latter is precise, exact, hard, unyielding, uninterpretable—like the time on a digital clock—and the former is fuzzy, open to interpretation, connotative, like the time on an analogue clock.  Digital represents science, technology, the city; analogue, spirituality, nature, the country.  I’m speaking from Leo’s perspective, of course—and figuratively.  I’m interpreting how Leo seemed to feel when he moved from NYC to Chamisal (he wrote about this sense of freedom from fear and hostility and being part of nature [in a letter to me], so I’m not entirely guessing here).

The whole matter is little more than a grace note in the overall study of Shapiro’s life and work.  It shows up in one paragraph of one chapter, the conclusion, and makes no other appearances in the work.  Nonetheless, my deduction (precipitated, though it was, by having stumbled on the right reference entirely serendipitously) seemed like a huge accomplishment.  Having found Mount Analogue, everything I guessed after that was correct.  However small, the whole Mount Analogue allusion was revelatory and a piece in the puzzle that was Shapiro’s sense of himself and his world in New Mexico, particularly the way it compared to what he’d left in New York.  I also can’t help feeling that Shapiro appreciated the implication that Roger Shattuck identified, the notion that grasping the novel’s point is itself a significant accomplishment:

I cannot help seeing Mount Analogue as itself a peradam in the stony fields of literature.  The peradam possesses such perfect transparence that it escapes the notice of all except those who are inwardly prepared and outwardly situated to catch sight of its glint. . . .  And the peradam . . . can curve and uncurve space because of its unique index of refraction.  Mount Analogue, the novel, has the force of a curving and uncurving lens for our minds. . . .  And yet it is hard to look through it, for so limpid a substance almost escapes one’s attention even when it is right under one’s eyes.  One could conceivably read every word of the book without “seeing” a thing.

[I occasionally attach a list of sources or related publications to a post, and I think that “Mount Analogue” is one that calls for this treatment.  In this instance, I’ll list the works of René Daumal and other writers which I’ve mentioned above.

  • René Daumal, Le Contre-Ciel, trans. Kelton W. Knight (New York: Overlook, 2005).
  • ---, A Fundamental Experiment, trans. Robert Shattuck (New York; Madras: Hanuman Books, 1987).
  • ---, Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing, trans. and intro. Roger Shattuck, postface Vére Daumal (Boston: Shambhala, 1986). [This is the edition from which I quoted; there are other versions in print and in library collections, including, of course, the French editions.]
  • ---, A Night of Serious Drinking (La grande beuverie), Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 2003.
  • Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (New York: Picador USA, 2002).
  • ---, Journey to the East, trans. Hilda Rosner (New York: Picador, 2003).
  • ---, Siddhartha, trans. Rika Lesser (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2007).
  • ---, Steppenwolf (New York: Picador, 2002).
  • Richard E. K*****,   “Commitments and Consequences: Leonardo Shapiro and The Shaliko Company,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Performance Studies, New York University.
  • ---, “Shapiro and Shaliko: Techniques of Testimony,” The Drama Review 37.4 [T140] (Winter 1993): 65-100.
  • Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).
  • Frank Waters, Pumpkin Seed Point (Chicago: Sage Books, 1969).]

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