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Lewis Thompson and Alain Daniélou: poetry, music and levels of perception, by Adrián Navigante

Adrián Navigante: FIND research and intellectual dialogue

Lewis Thompson
Lewis Thompson

The history of the artistic and intellectual European diaspora at the time of World War II gravitating on the Indian subcontinent (and to a great extent between the two symbolical points of Shantiniketan and Varanasi) remains a challenging task for future research. Unfortunately no comprehensive study has hitherto been published with an eye to reconstructing the context and exposing the principal traits of each one of the actors – varying from the artistically refined to the spiritually eccentric – involved in this singular Indian adventure. The list of names is at first glance quite heterogeneous and includes spiritual seekers of Vaishnavite affiliation like Ronald Henry Nixon (who after serving as a British pilot in World War I became a saṃnyāsin and changed his name to Krishna Prem), artistically and intellectually talented Buddhists like Ernst Lothar Hoffmann (better known as Lama Anagarika Govinda after his conversion to Tibetan Buddhism), female painters and dancers with a radical bent to Hindu arts and religion such as Alice Boner and Stella Kramrisch (the latter being perhaps the only Western woman to have experienced the drastic Aghori test of śāvasādhanā), spiritually multifaceted personalities like Blanca Schlamm (an Austrian Jewish aristocrat who was involved in Theosophy and the Krishamurti school and later on became a devotee of Anandamayi Ma, being renamed Atmananda), the eccentric “Danish sadhu” Alfred Sorensen (who named himself Shunyata and claimed to have been initiated after receiving a telepathic message from Ramana Maharshi) and the poet Lewis Thompson, whose inner voyage from the ego to the Self was dramatically expressed not only in his own writings but also in the different stages of his short life (1).

Alain Danielou
Alain Daniélou

It wouldn’t be exaggerated to say that a lasting symbolic trace of this intellectual and artistic diaspora was the Rewa Kothi palace at the center of Varanasi, where Alain Daniélou and Raymond Burnier lived from 1937 to 1954. This place was on the one hand impregnated by the Indian spirit of wandering monks who were permanently welcomed (2), while on the other it had an artistic significance because of the combination of activities incarnated in the figures of Daniélou and Burnier: music, literature, photography, painting and the presence of Shaivism permeating the whole specter of their artistic and intellectual enterprises. It might be an exciting task for future researchers to establish the manifold connections among all the abovementioned figures of this pioneering diaspora in India, most of whom shared a sojourn at Rabindanath Tagore’s college Visva Bharati (today a University) and a deep immersion in the main aspects of Hindu or Buddhist religion and way of life. One of these connections, to which we shall refer in this article, is the one between Lewis Thompson and Alain Daniélou.

There is no denying that the lives of these two eminent artists differed from each other to the extent that they even appear as opposites: Thompson was an Englishman of Protestant upbringing – which left negative traces in his soul throughout his whole life – who became fascinated with the combination of Neo-Hinduism and Christianity, chose to follow the way of tapas and vairāgya and went through a Rimbaudian “season in hell” of self-discovery and self-purification up to the end of his short life; Daniélou was a Frenchman who grew up in a conservative Catholic milieu, freed himself early enough from it, embraced the particular ethos of orthodox Hinduism in its manifold aspects (āśrama, varṇa, jñāna, etc.) – rejecting as a result of that the influence of Neo-Hinduism (especially its ascetic message) on the Western spirit –, lived a long and very productive life and succeeded in developing an ars vivendi integrating what he had learned in India with aspects of the Western pre-Christian (Greek and Roman) heritage. Taking this image of opposites as a starting point, one is almost forced to ask what might have brought these two personalities to a certain point of time in the “City of Light” . But what at first sight seems surprising turns out to be evident and even a kind of logical consequence if one goes beyond the surface of convention and takes a look at the deepest layer of artistic commitment (where “commitment” and “existence” become indistinguishable): Lewis Thompson was a poet, Alain Daniélou was a musician, and they shared a singular intuition concerning Hindu metaphysics and its consequences on the level of artistic performance. Such intuition can be articulated in many ways, by different methods and with varying intensities, but we can summarize it in a few words: there is an aesthetics of the Indian spirit with which Western culture is not familiar, and there is a concrete experience to be gained from this type of aesthetics, an education of the spirit whose very conditions usually escape the modern Western mind.

Although Lewis Thompson’s two-volume journals do not abound in references to Daniélou, they do contain entries that enable the reader to reconstruct not only concrete circumstances concerning their lives (for example the fact that, due to his extreme austerities, Lewis Thompson – often undernourished and ill – had to be assisted by Daniélou when he was in need of food, medicine and shelter (3)) but also affinities related to the experience of poetry and music. Perhaps the most interesting point of these affinities revolves around the notion of perception, its different fields and manifold levels, especially with regard to music. Two journal entries from Lewis Thompson (dated 17.II. and 27.II.1944) are of particular relevance in this respect, because they concern shared experiences with Daniélou. In the first they listen to a Barcelona gipsy canto by Manuel Villejo and the first and second movements of César Franck’s violin sonata in A major. The poet’s impressions on Franck’s sonata after a dose of bhāṅg are not precisely benevolent: “every note was in fact flattened, and degraded, half-muted, the vertical column of overtones stifled and distorted, and these mutilated resonances knotting in the air into an ugly, damping, almost sinister tangle” (4), and he adds an interesting comment: “Daniélou says that after his practical and theoretical work on ‘traditional’ music he normally perceives this now” (5). In the second entry Thompson comes back (ten days later) to his experience with Franck’s sonata: he listens to it once again – this time without bhāṅg – and concludes: “I find exactly the same monstrous distortion and impurity” (6).

These impressions seem to confirm intuitively what Daniélou elaborates in his study of musical scales, a book published in London a year before Thompson’s journal entries (7). According to Daniélou, one of the main problems of Western music is the generalized use of equal temperament, which led to an over-simplification of musical structures and a complete disregard of the most elementary acoustic realities. Daniélou’s verdict on this aspect of Western music reminds us of Thompson’s impressions upon listening to Franck’s sonata, since he says that it “rendered the meaning of chords vague and unclear” (8) and adds by way of general comment: “The result is that Westerners have more and more lost all conception of a music able to express clearly the highest ideas and feelings. They now expect from music mostly a confused noise, more or less agreeable, but able to arouse in the audience only the most ordinary sensations and simplified images” (9).

Daniélou’s reference to the pitfalls of Western music is likely to be misunderstood if it is taken in a simplistic way. In fact, when he speaks about the clear expression of the highest ideas and feelings, he actually points to something quite different from what Western readers might be prone to interpret, something that is at the antipodes of an expressionist affirmation of sublime intensity (10). A possible key to understanding this aspect seems to be given in Daniélou’s explanation of the two main approaches in the Indian theory of sound: mārga (directional) and deśī (regional): the first is a “systematic application of the universal laws of creation common to sound and other aspects of manifestation”, whereas the second is based on “the empirical usage of physical peculiarities in the development of sound” (11). The expression of human feelings and passions belong to the second type of approach. The mārga approach is based on a very complex metaphysics of vibration and sound according to which the perceptible quality of sound – a quality audible to the rudimentary ears of normal human beings – is only the gross level of a much ampler spectrum. This very aspect of the Hindu metaphysics of sound is related to Daniélou’s affirmation of the higher expressive value of modal over harmonic music. The reason for his affirmation concerns the absence of physical frictions between different sounds (something that make all types of musical relations possible) and of course the expressive value of intervals. Although the modal system offers a more limited number of possibilities of producing considerable sound masses, it turns out to be much more powerful than the harmonic system because of the infinite combination of expressive intervals it allows. In spite of its magnificent descriptive and architectural capacity, the harmonic system reduces intervals to a few neutral scales and loses in this way a kind of “magical power” still present in modal music (12).

In his epoch-making book The Golden Bough (1922), the Scottish ethnologist James George Frazer defined magic as “a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct […], a false science as well as an abortive art” (13). Understandably enough, his judgment was based on the positivistic conviction that the principles applied by the magician in the practice of his art in no way correspond to any other realm than the human psyche of that very individual (the magician himself). Inanimate nature (matter in general) appears from this perspective as something absolutely separated from and alien to energetic processes (a frequency, a vibration, an idea). Almost a century after the publication of Frazer’s book we can declare that we have gained not only some historical distance from the virulent scientific reaction of positivism against any theory challenging the logic of reductive causality, but also deeper and clearer glimpses into the complexity of reality (including a drastic revision of the notion of matter in Western classical physics). In this sense we can say that scientific denial of meta-empirical correspondences has proven to be almost as unilateral and prejudiced as the superstitious expansion of physical phenomena beyond every logical and coherent frame. Daniélou’s recourse to the integral approach of Hinduism can be seen as an attempt to avoid extremes (unbounded superstition and scientific dogmatism) and try to understand the enigmatic tissue of being called “reality”, beyond the veil of prejudice. In this sense mythology, metaphysics, aesthetics and science are not to be seen as separate compartments with no connection whatsoever. Quite the contrary: human beings should work on the interstices of those seemingly independent fields and find analogies and correspondences. In Daniélou’s view, there is a phenomenological side to the magical power of music which can be described quite accurately, for example by considering the effect of modal music on the human ear: expressive intervals belong to the same tone during the execution of a rāga. The human ear associates the tone with the corresponding expression, since it is permanently affected in the same way. What from the point of view of harmonic music might be seen as monotonous and boring – i.e. the establishment of a fixed sound or tonic to which all the sounds of the melody are bound (14) – turns out to be something very powerful on the level of a perceptive and emotional effect. How far can this effect extend in the case of human reception and how transformative can it be for the listeners?

In his treatise on musical scales, Daniélou gives an answer to that question: “Our ears can apparently be satisfied by a very approximate accuracy. Yet a perfectly accurate interval not only acts on our ears but also produces a transformation in all the cells of your body – a slowing down or an acceleration in the movements of every molecule in ourselves and in the surrounding matter” (15). Lewis Thompson seems to confirm this view when he writes (after listening to a 5th on Daniélou’s vina): “I now understand that there is a physiological base for the remark of Hindus about the confused nature of Western music” (16). Confusion means for Thompson subjective (mental) projection, whereas the physiological aspect refers to an ability to refine perception and thus avoid falling back into emotional abstractions, since refined perception goes far beyond limits considered to be “empirical”. In a similar fashion Daniélou quotes an Indian mystic of the XV century, Kabir, when he introduces the subject of “pure sounds” in his treatise on musical scales: pure sound is absolute, “inaudible music”, as Kabir points out. It “cannot be perceived by our ears”, but it may “be perceptible for more delicate musical instruments” and is at the same time “one of the stages in the practice of yoga” (17). The last aspect of Daniélou’s remark is central, since it relates on the one hand the highest speculative exposition of the manifested order of the universe as a mutual correspondence between a principle of naming (the praṇava ōm) and a principle of forms (the generation of the world as jagat – “that which moves”) (18), and on the other hand the highest stage of perceptual experience within the yogic path, that is the moment when the yogi surpasses the limitation of sound perception in terms of the effect (i.e. separated result) of a previous movement or friction on the level of matter (19). Sound is in this sense not only a perceptible quality, but something intrinsic to the primordial level of vibration. From this perspective of the mysterious intertwining brahman-shakti, the dynamics of the universe appears as something different from a multiplicity of fragmented beings in permanent and chaotic expansion, and the evidential aspect of a harmony of the spheres alluded to in Indian classical music lies in the refinement of perceptual experience. Music appears in this sense not only as the possibility of bridging the gap between the physical and the metaphysical, but also as a particular form of spiritual education, whereas yogic sādhanā reveals itself as belonging to the sphere of arts and restitutes an aesthetics of the spirit beyond mere subjectivation techniques. This particular kind of aesthetics encompasses many levels and even goes beyond what is normally understood as “artistic existence”; it includes the sphere of spiritual self-realization. That was both Thompson’s and Daniélou’s view, as the former writes in a journal entry dated 22.II.1944: “[…]as Daniélou agrees, a poem that is more than cerebral condenses into seed or yantra from almost endless possibilities for whose truth it is the key; and the poet need only have felt one of them directly. If he fully knew what worlds or beings fulfill or represent themselves through his work, he would be a yogin, not a poet at all” (20).

Lewis Thompson’s sublime drama is directly proportional to his ambition: being a poet, he wanted to become a yogi. He knew that this could be attained only by absolute perception, and that any other way was a mutilation of Nature. This was the paradox of his artistic life: to know that the human experience of perception involves – to a greater or lesser degree – an interaction with the “faculty of division” called mind (manas), and at the same time to be aware of the “demonic character” of every method of suppression aiming at neutralizing the exercise of division, the fragmentariness of experience itself – including Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta (21). The way to absolute perception can sometimes block the very capacity to perceive and render any expansion dynamics impossible. Within the sphere of objective arts, this mutilation can be observed in those orderly and integrated constructions whose essence contains nothing other than convention, which fall apart at the very moment in which they collide with the intensity of life. As opposed to this, organic poetry must be – according to Thompson – “pure mantra” (22): a form retracing its steps to the source of all meaning – prior to the very division between substance and form, between sense qualities and ideal patterns. The similarities of this conception and Daniélou’s remarks on absolute sound in his work on musical scales are evident. However, there is a difference in their attitude toward the problem: Daniélou points to the constitutive (and paradoxical) value of the imperfect constitution of both the world and human beings in experiencing creation as a kind of perception – and testimony – of diversity: “if the world were perfect it would immediately be reabsorbed into the infinite perfection. The heart is not in the center of the chest, the axis of the earth is oblique, and the solar year does not coincide with the lunar year […]. In the same way the development of twelve fifths, instead of bringing us back precisely to the octave, leaves a difference – the comma – with which we shall have to negotiate. This will complicate every calculation and prevent us from formulating those rigid and simple laws, attractive but inaccurate, in which our vain reason delights. This comma […]represents […]the essential difference between what is finite and what is infinite” (23).

Thompson’s quest for self-realization prevented him from accepting the existence of the “musical comma” – even if he could permanently feel it –, and that is perhaps one of the reasons for his tragic end: he was consequent with his conviction that the problems of poetry can never be literary, because “Poetry in its roots nature belongs to the Spirit, and to Yoga” (24), but this sense of belonging required an exercise of self-denial and even self-annihilation as individual – even when the only channel for the energy to reveal the real nature of reality to reality itself is the imagination as the “natural flexibility of the psychic” and “continual renewal” (25). One wonders whether Thompson could have followed the direction of playful imagination and accepted it at the same time as the “seed of enlightenment”, doing justice to what he calls his “own nature”. This might have been a lesson in Daniélou’s practical philosophy of life, as the poet himself confirms in an entry dated 30.IX.1944: “I should learn the fundamentals of Indian music. […]This would give form, presence and consciousness to something in my nature, too, a psychic sonority, which already, sometimes, is inclined to sing and dance, the element, perhaps, that made Daniélou say I look like a minstrel, but which at present only, so to speak, floats around me and remains oblique” (26).


(1) Thompson died in 1949 – at only 40 years old – of sunstroke in the scorching summer of Varanasi.

(2) ”Sometimes wandering monks would ask us permission to stay in the lower rooms of the palace, directly facing the Ganges. They usually remained a few days, meditating. One of them, a young man from the south, stayed nearly two months. We used to take flowers to him for his puja; he would go out and beg for his food“ (Alain Daniélou, The Way to the Labyrinth. Memories of East and West, New York 1987, p. 126).

(3) ”Alain Daniélou brought me medicine, found me unbathed in a dusty room (no water, no servant) and took me off to Rewa Koti”. Richard Lannoy (ed.): Integral Realist. The Journals of Lewis Thompson, Volume Two: 1945-1949, Virginia 2009, p. 112.

(4) Lewis Thompson: Journal of an Integral Poet, Volume One: 1932 to 1944, edited with an introduction by Richard Lannoy, Virginia 2006, pp. 391-392.

(5) Lewis Thompson, Ibid., p. 392.

(6) Lewis Thompson, Ibid..

(7) Alain Daniélou: Introduction to the Study of Musical Scales, London 1943.

(8) Alan Daniélou: Music and the Power of Sound. The Influence of Tuning and Interval on Consciousness, Rochester: Vermont, p. 121.

(9) Alain Daniélou: Ibid., p. 122.

(10) Which is what Thompson connected with the gipsy canto of Manuel Villejo: “Pure passionate intensity, direct as seed or blood“ (Lewis Thompson: Journal of an Integral Poet, p. 391).

(11) Alain Daniélou: Music and the Power of Sound, p. 59.

(12) Alain Daniélou: Origines et pouvoirs de la musique, Paris 2003, p. 48.

(13) Sir James George Frazer: The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion. Part 1: The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, Volume 1, London 1936, p. 53.

(14) Alain Daniélou: Origines et pouvoirs de la musique, Paris 2003, p. 57.

(15) Alain Daniélou: Music and the Power of Sound, p. 8.

(16) Lewis Thompson: Journal of an Integral Poet, p. 392.

(17) Alain Daniélou: Music and the Power of Sound, p. 4.

(18) In this respect Daniélou relies on Swāmī Karpātrī’s essay on the fundamental interdependence of sounds and forms, Śabda aur Artha (in: Siddāhnt, 1. 45, Varanasi 1941), cf. Alain Daniélou, Ibid., p. 3-4.

(19) One cannot avoid thinking of the meaning of the expression nāmnānāhatasaṁjñakaṁ in the description of anāhata chakra belonging to Purnananda’s Ṣatcakranirūpaṇaṁ, verse 22, where an allusion is made to śabda-brahmamaya, that is “sound whose substance is brahman”, produced by no cause (ahetuka) (cf. Arthur Avalon (ed.): Tantrik Texts, Volume II: Shatchakranīrupana and Pádukápanchaka, edited by Táránátha Vidyáratna, Delhi 2003, p. 30.

(20) Lewis Thompson: Journal of an Integral Poet, p. 393.

(21) Few testimonies are so sincere and radical as the following reflection contained in the entry of 25.VIII.1940: “it is only the cruel, demonic mind (Buddhism, Advaita as philosophies) that would override the heart’s love of charm and beauty. But this abstract equality prematurely forced upon a hierarchical manifestation only blasphemes the whole meaning of creation, and by sterile spiritual pride would seek to deny one’s place in it” (Lewis Thompson: Journal of an Integral Poet, p. 229).

(22) Lewis Thompson, Ibid.

(23) Alain Daniélou: Music and the Power of Sound, pp. 7-8.

(24) Lewis Thompson: Journal of an Integral Poet, p. 229.

(25) Lewis Thompson: Journal of an Integral Poet, p. 449.

(26) Lewis Thompson: Ibid., p. 446.