For some time I have been wanting to write on the work of Alexandra David Néel. While in her writing, she appears to be one of the most rational, and certainly one of the most courageously sceptical of women who, like Madame Curie, was prepared to put herself on the line in order to discover the truth, each time I approached the topic I discovered mystery.
So finally, the story-teller triumphed over the essayist and I wrote the following Imaginary Interview. It is intended to be a tribute to this wonderful, intrepid woman. It is a work of fiction and I hope it will be read as a mystery confronting a mystery – for that is what I intended. Within my small scope I have tried to tell the truth of her beliefs, while adopting the style, but not the content, of M. de Maupassant.
As ever, I am grateful to Wikipedia for a couple of lovely photographs. The first of these is specifically referred to in the text.
An Imaginary Interview
It was in early September 1970 when I arrived in the small French town of Digne les Bains and took a room at the Hotel de Provence not far from the well-known bar called Le Casino. I had taken the opportunity of a few weeks leave from my work as translator for the small French publisher Libre Thé, to travel down to the South East of France intending to do some hiking in that most picturesque part of the country, and at the same time – if I was lucky – arrange an interview with a woman whom I had for a long time admired: Alexandra David-Néel.
You will appreciate my pleasure when, after writing to Mme. David-Néel, I received the following reply by postcard delivered directly to my hotel. It stated, “Interview granted. 10.00am to 10.45am. Week days only, except Wednesday. Please advise date of arrival.” The card was signed with a large letter A. I was amused to observe that that the wording was reminiscent of the phrases used to advise the opening hours of a shop.
I knew some of Alexandra David Néel’s works already, and had greatly enjoyed her description of her brave journey under disguise to Lhasa, and the extraordinary experiences she revealed in Magic and Mystery in Tibet – which is, I venture to say, her most famous and her most popular book. However, interesting as her works are, it was a photo of her as a young woman which I had discovered in the course of my research, that had captured my attention. In the photo she was wearing strange extravagant clothes and beads. Her hair was long and braided, and her face suggested both innocence and boldness. However, it was the eyes that held me. They were brilliant, Their combination of vulnerability and ravenous curiosity, almost seemed to speak. Nor was I unaware of the strong and forceful chin that was the foundation of her face.
So, as quickly as I could I penned a brief note in reply, stating that I was deeply grateful for the opportunity to meet Mme. David-Néel and would call on her on the coming Tuesday – that was in two days time. Much as I was impatient, I filled the intervening time by exploring the town and planning the questions I wanted to ask.
On the Tuesday morning, I found the address easily. It was in a quiet street with widely-spread houses that maintained their privacy behind high walls topped with ornate spikes in the form of a fleur de lys. I could not help but notice that the black paint on the gate and railings outside her house was peeling, that the bushes that poked through the railings were in need of a trim and that the brass numbers on the letterbox were tarnished. At the same time, I was aware that these things gave no indication of what I might find beyond the gates. The French, like the Italians, possess an ability to make an art of decay. The brick work of the walls, crumbling in places, has been mellowed by centuries of sun. Stone steps are worn to a hollow. The sloping wooden panels of a staircase may frame Renaissance treasures. And the carpets which muffle your tread, may never have known a vacuum cleaner and could have made the journey from Turkey on the backs of mules. No. Buildings age gracefully in France… as sometimes do their occupants.
And so it was on Tuesday morning that I presented myself at the gate. I pulled a short rope with a Turks-head knot and was rewarded by the tinkle of a bell somewhere beyond the gate. Moments later a door opened and closed. Footsteps approached quickly and quietly. A key rattled in the lock and the gate opened a few inches.
I saw a short woman, dressed in black and with a shawl that covered her hair and shoulders. Her eyes were black also, and bright as beads
“Ah Monsieur Mann,” she said before I could speak. “Madame Néel regrets she is not able to meet you today. Please arrange another day. Not tomorrow.”
“Thursday then, “ I said hurriedly, before she could close the gate.
“Perhaps,” she replied and the gate closed.
Being something over six feet tall, I did at least manage to see over her head and enjoy a glimpse of the garden within. It was luxurious with banks of flowers, the yellow and blue and red. A small fountain sparkled in the sunlight. And beyond this, almost lost in the deep blue shade beneath a magnolia tree, I saw a bench upon which a single dark figure sat, watching us.
I heard the key turn and the footsteps retreat.
There was nothing more to be done, so I in my turn retreated to the Bar Casino and the consolation of black coffee. That I was disappointed was natural, but at the same time I was excited for in those few moments I had glanced something rare in the beauty and peace of the garden. Monet at his finest could not have captured a place of greater tranquillity. I was certain that the seated woman I had seen was Mme. David-Néel in person. What is more, I detected a kind of ritual in what had happened. I knew from my reading that in Tibet a request is often not granted instantly. The postulant must wait, apply again, sit at the gate if needs be and for as long as is necessary, attending the pleasure of the one who dwells within. Thus, as in the mountain-shrouded valleys of Tibet, so in a quiet backstreet of Digne les Bains. If wait I must, wait I would.
On Wednesday I explored the hills surrounding the small town, wondering how Mme. David Néel felt about them after dwelling so long amid the gigantic shadows of the mighty Himalayas. Perhaps her adventurous spirit now appreciated the peaceful warmth of her native France. Perhaps I would know the following day.
And so it was.
At 10.00am sharp I again rang the bell, and again I heard the approach of slippered feet and the turning of a key in the lock. This time the gate opened wide.
“Monsieur Mann?” It was the same dark clothed lady speaking.
Which I did. The gate was carefully locked behind me, and then I was led directly down a flag-stoned path to the front door of the house. Though the flowers were as bright as on my earlier visit, the bench I had observed in the corner of the garden was not occupied. I had hoped the interview might take place there. But no… my guide hurried me inside the house as though she did not like the daylight. I was then guided down a narrow corridor the walls of which were decorated with sepia photographs. I had no opportunity to observe them in detail but I could see that most of them depicted dark figures in a snow-bound landscape with high mountains or gaunt buildings behind.
We came to a door and my guide knocked discretely and then turned the handle, pushed the door open and stood back gesturing for me to enter.
I found myself in a dark room. The shutters were almost closed and only sharp edged lines of light falling across the floor told of the sun that was shining outside. This gloom did not surprise me. I have been in many French houses, and frequently the French exclude the daylight. I do not know why. Perhaps it is just to protect the fabric of sofas and carpets which otherwise might surely fade.
My eyes began to adjust. In front of me was a round table covered by a heavy tasselled cloth and with a single white flower, a lily, in a tall white vase. Seated to one side of the table was a figure whose hands rested on the table but whose face was turned away from me. The servant who had led me in guided me to a chair, and then after a short and respectful bow, departed. I heard the door close with a click.
Silence. My eyes adjusted further to the gloom. The figure turned to me slowly. A woman – of course – an old woman with wrinkles and a face that expressed nothing but with eyes that seemed to stare right into me. I have been in the presence of Lamas before, and this is a technique they have, of looking within; but what they are seeing I do not know.
My first impression was that I was seeing a face of stone. I do not mean that to sound impolite. The high cheekbones and the forehead and the jaw all seemed so firm and chiselled. Immobile almost. Faces like this, grim at first, can suddenly transform like the green grass on a hillside which seems almost to be lit from within when the sun comes out. Such faces, when they smile, do so with a completeness that can dazzle you. But this woman did not smile; just studied me. I studied the lily. And then, after a slight clearing of the throat, she said, “Well, young man, what do you want of me?”
“To meet you,” I replied. “To ask questions. To hear your voice. You have led such an interesting life. I suppose I want to know more. I am not a journalist.”
“I have written books. Is that not enough?”
“Books often leave the most interesting things unsaid. I think you know that better than I.”
For the first time I saw the glimmer of a smile, a slight softening of the face.”
“So, ask me a question.”
I opened my note book and glanced at the questions I had prepared. I decided to be provocative. “Women have been called the weaker sex,” I began. “What qualities enabled you to undertake the incredible journeys you made?”
She did not reply immediately, but looked at me steadily. Perhaps she was remembering, but my fear was that she was weighing me in some mental balance, that I had overstepped an invisible mark and that she would suddenly rap on the table with her knuckles, summoning her maid to escort me to the door. Then, without a change in her expression, she asked “How old are you?”
She nodded. “Old enough to know that it is not physical strength but mental strength that counts. I am a hundred and one. Terrible, isn’t it? But in those days, long before you or your father was born, I was young. And yes, I was strong for a woman, and yes I had a woman’s skill and charm… and yes I used them when I had to. But inside me, in here, (she tapped her head) and in here (she tapped her heart) I was possessed of a ferocious curiosity. It consumed me and kept me warm and made me bold. I wanted to know everything… to see and touch everything… especially those things which are scarcely to be known, difficult to see and dangerous to touch. I was then, and still am, a very rational and brave woman… and as for weak. Ha! I have unyielding will power. I went looking for the truth about what is real.”
“But why Tibet? One of the most inhospitable counties on the…”
“Have you been there?
“Well. Perhaps you should reserve judgement. In any case, how do we ever progress except by facing difficulties? Tibet is no more inhospitable than any other country: your native England for example with its slums and dirt can seem quite hostile. Tibet is home to an ancient civilization, and while it may not be palatable to the fastidious in some ways, it possesses more wonders per square metre than I can ever describe. I only touched the surface.”
“I meant in climate. I was not…”
“In any case, I fear you may have missed your chance now. It is a world that was passing even when I was there. I may even have contributed to its decline by provoking interest in its mystery. And the Tibetans can put on a good show. Do not be fooled by appearances. But at the end of the day, we all seek what we need, whether we know it or not. Your being here, for example, at this very moment.”
Again her gaze fixed on me. I sensed she was waiting for something. Some response. “I do not understand,” I said. A weak and foolish reply!
“Oh come, come. I mean that we spend our lives looking for something. If you look hard enough and are hungry enough you will find your own Tibet, or it will find you.” She paused and looked at her hands. “But make no mistake, when I travelled there, I knew what I was doing. I was not a fool and I only took risks when there was no alternative. And I had a plan…”
“I believed that aspects of Tibetan Buddhism had never been explained properly in the West. I wanted to know about the different beliefs that one finds in Tibetan Buddhism and that meant I had to experience those beliefs in an active way. You can know with the mind, but you must also know with the heart. The only way to know about mysticism is to tread the path of the mystic. I was lucky that I was able to do so. I was lucky in those I met and who taught me. I was lucky in learning the language. I was lucky that I had a strong constitution, that I had servants who could cook. And… ” She learned forward. “I am a quick learner.”
“Is it true that you once walked for nineteen hours without stopping?”
“There were no buses in Tibet.”
“And you slept on the frozen ground?”
“Often. No hotels either, you see.”
“You are making fun of me.”
“Yes. You do seem so incredulous. Don’t make me too special. The truth is that you could do exactly what I did, if you wanted to… if you are prepared to… if you are not too afraid or at least can hide your fear.”
“I think you have a way of charming people.”
“Ha!” She laughed at that, and as I prophesied, the face of stone came alive and slightly roguish. ”Come on, ask me some more questions. Time is passing.”
“Tell me about the Lamas you met who can run like the wind for days on end without tiring?”
“I saw them. I would like to have stopped one and questioned him. But I was warned not to interfere with them as they were in a deep trance. It could be fatal. And they weren’t really running. It was more like bounding. Quite extraordinary.”
“Did you try to do that?”
“It requires very special training. I any case, I was not there for the Olympics.”
“What about keeping warm in the snow?”
“That was a matter of survival. The motivation can be very strong when you are caught in a blizzard and the tent not rigged. So I needed to learn how to keep warm. When my teacher knew I was ready, he sent me up into the mountains with instructions to find a peaceful lake far from prying eyes. There I was to strip off and bathe in the cold water, and then sit and meditate without drying myself.”
“And did you succeed?”
“Well I’m here, aren’t I? In fact I meditated all night, and didn’t even catch a cold.”
“That’s a miracle.”
“NO.” This was said very forcefully. “It was not a miracle. I had the training. I used it. ”
“I have heard of Lamas who can dry sheets that are wet and melt snow just with their body heat.
“Yes, they have very special skills.”
“Would it have mattered if someone had seen you bathing?”
“It would have mattered to me. Not that I am prudish, but it would have spoiled the concentration. What it might have done to the spy I shudder to think.” She smiled again, remembering. “But solitude is necessary, and it is so beautiful. If you want to discover something, be alone.. Be walled up or surrounded by stones and snow and mountains. When you are alone you face yourself. It is nothing to be afraid of. It is when you are with others that the trouble starts, unless they are very special people. I travelled with very special people. But I was master of myself.”
She turned away and her lips moved but I heard no sound. I saw her breathe deeply. I could imagine her in her solitude: performing exercises, examining the changes in herself. Finally she turned to me again. “You have more questions?”
“I’d like you to tell me about the tulpa that you made… the short fat jolly monk that you created with your imagination and who became a real being? Were you master of him?”
“Oh that. You have read my book to the end! Well I was the master at the beginning, but then things started to get out of hand, so I had to dissolve him.”
“What do you mean?”
“It is hard to explain.”
“Was it difficult?”
“It took six months and a lot of concentration.”
“Was it hard to create him.”
“Easier than you might think. But don’t try it.” The face became stern. “Luckily there are many stages before manifestation occurs, so you are not in danger. Why are you so interested?”
I did not reply. She leaned forward, staring directly into my face. “Why are you so interested?” she murmured. “Tell me why?”
Those eyes. I can see them now, even as I write. They looked right through me. I felt transparent. There were no secrets she could not draw from me. “I had a strange experience once,” I began.
“We all have those. It usually means that you are learning.”
“When I read your book I was reminded of it. I was writing my first novel. It had alien creatures in it and they all seemed very real to me. Sometimes, when I was writing, I would hear their voices in my head. Well, it was one evening. I was getting towards the end of the book. I was sitting in my room, typing, and with my back to the door when suddenly I was aware that someone had entered the room behind me. I knew who it was. It was a character from the book called Jet. A giant, lizard like creature, but very clever and able to speak. I turned round, but there was nothing to see, but still I could feel the presence. It wanted to talk to me. But I didn’t want that so I got up and walked out of the room. On another day, some of the other characters from the same novel arrived – Cook and Winterwind were their names – and they were really interrupting my writing. They were arguing about what I should put into the novel. I could hear them. They too were marvelling that they could see and speak.”
“So what did you do?”
“I told them to go and live in the garden… that I did not want them worrying me… I was very emphatic, and I think I was quite rude. But they did move. And I finished the novel without any more interruptions.”
“Could you see them when they were in the garden?”
“Sort of. Through my study window, but only if I wanted to, and then only hazily. But I didn’t want to. And gradually they faded away. But I know that if I wanted to I could bring them back.
“And do you want to bring them back?”
“No. I think they are happy at home in the garden.”
Mme. David Néel laughed when I said that. “Yes well, you are obviously not as green as you look. I suspect the kind of thing you experienced takes place quite often. Imaginative work takes a lot of concentration. People don’t know what is happening and so they invent theories. People start to believe in magic and miracles. But there are no miracles and magic is mainly a matter of following the rules. It is the mind that matters. Consciousness. Ignorance is a real problem. The people I knew in Tibet had trained their minds to a fine point of concentration. If you want to know more, read the life of Milarepa. He suffered and triumphed. It is all in the wishing. All in the wanting. All in the will. All in the persisting. One day your scientists will discover this. They will be amazed and the world will become simpler… and stranger… and everything will change. We have gifts beyond our knowing. Hush now.”
She turned away from me. I knew that she did not want me to speak. Even if I had wanted to, I doubt that I could have broken that silence.
“And now,” she said finally, “I have had enough of questions. Sit still for a moment and put down your pencil. We are going to meditate.”
I did as she wished. And as I did so, I felt a twinge of fear mingled with excitement. This was not what I had wanted or what I had expected. I was like a swimmer who, having walked deep into the sea, is suddenly lifted off his feet by a wave. This serious woman had seen and done and experienced things of which I had no knowledge. She was a far beyond me in understanding as I was from a cupcake in a shop window. Then, as if she had read my mind, she said. “Don’t worry, I am not going to turn you to gingerbread. Now. Close you eyes. Imagine you are in the high mountains of Tibet. Everything is silent. It is just after dawn, but last night there was snow and now the snow is all about you, untrodden, pure and white. You are sitting on a rock and it is comfortable and you are warm. You are facing a valley and a lake. Here is a little verse for you to repeat.
“The mountain rock behind.
The mountain lake before.”
And I did. It was as though a camera had been turned on in my mind. The rock behind me was reality: solid, dependable and strange. The lake in front, mirrored the sky, the creative will which informs all things: calm, deep blue and very still. It reflected the crescent moon, the fading stars and the first sharp rays of the sun touching the mountain peaks. I felt a deep stillness steal into me. A joy in the moment….
How long I stayed there I do not know, but eventually I heard the silvery tinkle of a bell. And when I opened my eyes I found I was alone, and the door was opening. The woman who had met me at the gate was waiting for me.
“Time to go, Monsieur.”
The passage. The front door. The path. The garden….
I looked across and there, seated on the bench in the shade was the bright-eyed young woman I had seen in my photograph, with her beads and necklace and long woven hair. She lifted a her hand and waved. I would have waved back and crossed to see her, but my guide was at the gate, and the gate was already open. “Time to leave, M’sieur.” It was an order.
“May I come tomorrow, at the same time?” I asked.
And the gate closed and was locked.
It was only when I reached my hotel, somewhat in a daze, that I realized I had left my note-book behind. How silly… not that I had taken many notes… and I could remember most things… but I should have been more mindful. “Tomorrow,” I thought. “Tomorrow. I will collect it. That will be best. Today is full. Today is closed. And I am in need of a pastis.”
The following morning when I approached the house in the quiet street, I was astonished to see that the gate had been re-painted. It was now a deep and royal blue. The hedge had been trimmed back but the trees seemed larger. The number on the door had been polished too and shone bright and golden in the morning light. Everything looked neat and tidy and cared for. At least the bell-pull was the same. I pulled it and heard the familiar ring.
There was no response. So after a few moments I rang again and this time I was greeted by a strong male voice shouting. “J’arrive. J’arrive.” I heard the front door slam, and then the heavy tread of boots approaching. The gate swung open – it had not been locked.
“Monsieur?” Facing me was a tall, bearded, scholarly looking man wearing glasses. I judged him to be some ten to fifteen years older than myself. “I was at the back of the house when you rang,” he explained. “How can I help you?”
“I have come to see Madame Alexandra David-Néel. I had an appointment for 10 o’clock.”
The man looked at me strangely. “Madame David- Néel, she…. She no longer lives here. I am sorry to tell you M’sieur that Madame Néel died almost exactly a year ago. She reached a good age. A hundred and one I believe, and had led a full and active life. I never met her personally.”
“But…” I began, and stopped. I did not know what to say or what to think.
I still do not… I believe I thanked him. And then I made my way slowly back to the Bar Casino.
Alexandra David-Néel in Lhasa in 1924