Alexan­dra David-Néel

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Joshua J. Mark

The nine­teenth cen­tury is of­ten as­so­ci­ated with the Vic­to­rian era of Eng­land (1837-1901) noted for its strict ad­her­ence to ‘tra­di­tional val­ues’ and be­liefs. ‘Vic­to­rian Moral­ity’ to­day is a by-word for prud­ish­ness and the pe­riod is fre­quently re­ferred to as ‘strait­laced’ and con­ser­va­tive even though the nine­teenth cen­tury also saw re­mark­able in­no­va­tions in thought and cul­tural progress pro­vid­ing many new op­por­tu­ni­ties for per­sonal ex­pres­sion. These new-found free­doms, how­ever, were re­served for men. In the value sys­tem of Vic­to­rian Europe and the USA the ex­pec­ta­tions for a young woman were very clear: one mar­ried as re­spectably as pos­si­ble, had chil­dren, and main­tained a home.

Against this back­drop a woman was born who re­jected the val­ues im­posed upon her and chose to live her life ex­actly as she pleased: Alexan­dra David-Néel (1868-1969). Although not as well known as her con­tem­po­rary Gertrude Bell, Alexan­dra David-Néel was equally ac­com­plished and her in­flu­ence as sig­nif­i­cant. In the al­most 101 years she lived, David-Néel would travel over 30,000 kilo­me­tres (18,641.136 miles) on foot, by horse, yak, don­key, sedan chair, boat, plane, and any other conveyance, au­thor over thirty books, be­come the prima donna of an opera com­pany, run a casino, sit at the feet of philoso­phers and oc­cultists such as Aurobindo and Madame Blavatsky, and be the first Euro­pean woman to visit the city of Lhasa in Ti­bet.

She was born Louise Eu­ge­nie Alexan­drine Marie David in Saint-Mande (a sub­urb of Paris) on 24 Oc­to­ber 1868, the only daugh­ter of protes­tant freema­son Louis David (a rel­a­tive of the painter Jac­ques Louis David) and Alexan­drine Borgh­mans, a Catholic from Bel­gium. Her par­ents, of dif­fer­ing re­li­gious be­liefs, had lit­tle else in com­mon and their mar­riage was largely one of con­ve­nience; Alexan­drine had money but no rights with­out a hus­band and Louis was a poor school teacher look­ing for a wealthy woman to marry.

As a young child, David-Néel was cap­ti­vated by the works of Jules Verne and en­ter­tained her­self imag­in­ing the fan­tas­tic ad­ven­tures she would some­day have. She be­gan try­ing to turn these dreams into re­al­ity at a young age and ran away from home when she was five years old. Her mo­ti­va­tion may have been the birth of her brother Louis Jules (who would die within six months) or her par­ents’ de­ci­sion to move from their Parisian sub­urb back to Brus­sels.

What­ever her mo­ti­va­tion, her early flight from home would be­come her sig­na­ture char­ac­ter­is­tic. She once wrote that she was home­sick for a land which was not her own and could never set­tle for the com­fort­able and pre­dictable life her par­ents, and later her hus­band, hoped to pro­vide her with. When she was fif­teen, and the fam­ily was on va­ca­tion in Os­tend, David-Néel walked into the Nether­lands and booked pas­sage to Eng­land. She had be­come in­ter­ested in the oc­cult from a young age and had writ­ten to an English woman, Elis­a­beth Mor­gan, for lit­er­a­ture.

The book­let fas­ci­nated her and she de­cided to go and meet Mor­gan and talk with her. Mor­gan was a mem­ber of the So­ci­ety of Supreme Gno­sis, an off­shoot of Madame Blavatsky’s Theo­soph­i­cal So­ci­ety, and was very im­pressed with the young girl who showed up at her door. She made David-Néel re­turn to her wor­ried par­ents but a re­la­tion­ship had been forged in their brief meet­ing which would have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on the rest of David-Néel’s life.

The Theo­soph­i­cal So­ci­ety, founded by Blavatsky, was among the many in­tel­lec­tual in­no­va­tions of thought in the nine­teenth cen­tury. Dar­win’s 1859 chal­lenge to ac­cepted re­li­gious truth al­lowed peo­ple to ex­plore other av­enues of spir­i­tu­al­ity be­sides Chris­tian­ity with­out be­ing branded “heretics”. Theos­o­phy claimed that all hu­man be­ings were one fam­ily and all re­li­gions sim­ply dif­fer­ent ex­pres­sions of a sin­gle truth. David-Néel was in­stantly en­thralled by this con­cept and would have a life-long as­so­ci­a­tion with dif­fer­ent chap­ters of the group. The op­pos­ing per­son­al­i­ties of her par­ents - a lib­eral protes­tant and con­ser­va­tive Catholic - had shown her that both re­li­gious views were equally valid and equally in­com­plete; Theos­o­phy was a nat­u­ral fit for the young girl.

She fol­lowed her fa­ther ev­ery­where through the streets of Paris, and later Brus­sels, and into the coun­try­side with his hunting dogs. When she was not on these ex­cur­sions she was read­ing Au­gus­tine, Kierkegaard, Plato, and other sim­i­lar works. She was drawn to the writ­ings of the stoic philoso­pher Epicte­tus and sub­jected her­self to the stoic dis­ci­pline of eat­ing sim­ply, liv­ing sim­ply, sleep­ing on only boards for a bed. Her spir­i­tual quest at last led her to Bud­dhism and the dis­ci­pline of the EightFold Path.

At the age of fif­teen she be­gan to study mu­sic and voice and was con­sid­ered a great nat­u­ral tal­ent. Her ob­ses­sion with travel for the sake of travel, how­ever, got the bet­ter of her and, at seven­teen, she went out for a hike and kept walk­ing on up through the Alps and into the Ital­ian lake coun­try; her fran­tic mother had to re­trieve her from Mi­lan when her money ran out. In an ef­fort to ap­pease her mother, David-Néel tried her hand as a clerk in a cloth­ing shop but failed. She en­tered the Royal Con­ser­va­tory of Brus­sels study­ing pi­ano and mu­sic the­ory but left when she re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion from Elis­a­beth Mor­gan to come to Lon­don.

Hav­ing com­pleted her stud­ies in Lon­don she then moved to the Sor­bonne, which would not ac­cept her as a full­time stu­dent be­cause she was a woman, and spent her spare time among the fin-de-siè­cle Parisian philoso­phers and oc­cultists who em­pha­sized fe­male em­pow­er­ment. Her fa­ther had been friends with the an­ar­chist Elisée Reclus and the writer Vic­tor Hugo, both of whom also rec­og­nized the equal­ity of women, and she was nat­u­rally drawn to the at­mos­phere she had been raised in. She suf­fered from de­pres­sion at this time (as she would fre­quently through life) and strug­gled with thoughts of sui­cide but took strength from the stoic be­liefs of Epicte­tus and the teach­ings of Bud­dha.

In 1891 Elis­a­beth Mor­gan died and left David-Néel a sig­nif­i­cant in­her­i­tance. Her par­ents pressed her to in­vest the money in a small shop but she in­stead left to travel for a year through Cey­lon (mod­ern day Sri Lanka) and In­dia. She only re­turned to Brus­sels when she ran out of money. Back home she wrote her first book, a long an­ar­chist es­say, pri­vately pub­lished by Elisée Reclus a few years later. It was in­creas­ingly dan­ger­ous to be known for left­ist be­liefs in Brus­sels and so she ac­cepted a po­si­tion as singer at the Hanoi Opera House in In­dochina (Viet­nam) from 1895-1897 star­ring as their premiere chanteuse un­der the name Alexan­dra Myr­ial. She con­tin­ued singing opera for L’Opéra-Comique in Athens and then Tunis where her voice be­gan to fal­ter and she ac­cepted a po­si­tion as lounge singer at the Euro­pean casino.

In 1900 she met Philip Néel, a wealthy rail­road en­gi­neer, and they be­came a cou­ple. David-Néel took the po­si­tion of artis­tic di­rec­tor and ran the casino in 1902 and the cou­ple were mar­ried in 1904. Much like the mar­riage of her par­ents, David-Néel and Philip had lit­tle in com­mon other than mu­tual need: she wanted money for travel and he re­quired a wife for re­spectabil­ity. That same year her fa­ther died and David-Néel re­turned to Brus­sels; the next year Elisée Reclus would also die. David-Néel con­tin­ued try­ing to live a life of re­spectabil­ity with Philip but the strain of pos­ing as some­one she could never be was tak­ing its toll. She gained weight and pho­tos from c. 1910 re­flect an ex­tremely un­happy woman try­ing to play a part never writ­ten for her. She asked Philip for his leave to travel alone and he agreed; they would not see each other again for the next four­teen years.

She left for In­dia in 1911 and trav­elled through the coun­try stay­ing at Bud­dhist monas­ter­ies. In 1912 she met the Dalai Lama who sug­gested she learn Ti­betan; so she did. She was con­tin­u­ing her stud­ies and travel when, in 1914, she met a young

man named Aphur Yong­den, fif­teen years old, at a monastery in Sikkim. She felt an in­stant spir­i­tual bond with the boy and adopted him as her son. She felt she had learned enough from con­ven­tional teach­ings and so, with Yong­den, hiked into the Hi­malayas. Be­tween 1914-1917 the two would live in a cave 4000 me­tres (13,123 feet) up a slope on the bor­der of Ti­bet. They med­i­tated and found what food they could, trav­el­ling in dis­guise twice to­wards the for­bid­den city of Lhasa (‘the place of the gods’). It was il­le­gal at this time to cross into Ti­bet, even more so to visit Lhasa, and when they were dis­cov­ered af­ter their sec­ond at­tempt they were ex­pelled from Sikkim in 1917.

World War I had started in Europe and so, in­stead of head­ing west for home, the pair went east to Ja­pan and then Korea. Leav­ing Korea, they ar­rived at the Kum­bum Monastery in China where they stayed for two years trans­lat­ing Ti­betan holy books and liv­ing the aus­tere life of the monks. Here she had many mys­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ences in­clud­ing the cre­ation of a

tulpa, a phan­tom fig­ure con­jured through in­tense psy­chic con­cen­tra­tion.

In spite of the mys­ti­cal ben­e­fits of the monastery, David-Néel could never stay in any one place very long and left to try for Lhasa again. She and Yong­den trav­elled to the Gobi Desert and then south through China and on to Ti­bet. They walked through un­named jun­gles, crossed deep chasms on sway­ing bridges of vine-rope, nav­i­gated moun­tain paths and flooded roads, en­dured the harsh Chi­nese and Ti­betan win­ter, were in con­stant dan­ger from hu­man, wolf, or bear at­tacks but fi­nally reached Lhasa in 1924. The city was no more open to for­eign­ers than it had been in 1916 and the pair were dis­guised as pil­grims. They toured the Po­tala Palace and even man­aged to take some pho­to­graphs but were even­tu­ally dis­cov­ered be­cause of the one habit David-Néel could not break: bathing. Ev­ery­where she went she car­ried a portable bath­tub and re­quired a hot bath daily.

The pair left Lhasa be­fore they could be ap­pre­hended and went to Gyantse, Ti­bet where they asked for help from David Mac­don­ald, the Bri­tish Trade Agent sta­tioned there. David-Néel and Yong­den were pen­ni­less and in rags. They had been forced to boil and eat the leather from their shoes on their jour­ney and needed a place to stay and a loan to re­turn home. David-Néel’s name was al­ready known through her work as an ori­en­tal­ist and from ar­ti­cles she had pub­lished but was bet­ter known to au­thor­i­ties as a pos­si­ble spy for the French govern­ment. Mac­don­ald most

likely thought the best way to deal with the sit­u­a­tion was to send the woman home and so ac­com­mo­dated her.

In 1925 David-Néel and Yong­den ar­rived in France. She sep­a­rated from Philip, who had clearly moved on with his life in the past four­teen years just as she had, and be­gan work on her first ma­jor book, My

Jour­ney to Lhasa, which was pub­lished in 1927. She bought a small house in Digne-les-Bains, Provence in 1928 which she named Samten-Dzong (‘fortress of med­i­ta­tion’) and where she would write many of her other works. In 1937, again feel­ing rest­less, she left for China along with Yong­den, and wit­nessed first hand the Sino-Ja­panese War. They trav­elled through Ja­pan, China, and into In­dia. Philip Néel died in 1941 and David-Néel had to re­turn home to set­tle his es­tate. How­ever, it took her five years to reach a place where friends could ar­range her pas­sage and she fi­nally left the East in 1946 and re­turned to France.

She was now a fa­mous au­thor and trav­eller, ‘The Lady of Digne’, and younger travellers would make a point of stop­ping at her home to meet her. David-Néel was

no­to­ri­ously bad tem­pered and had lit­tle pa­tience for poseurs who claimed to know the East from read­ing about it in books. One of her favourite ex­pres­sions was, “Who knows the flower best? The one who reads about it in a book or the one who

finds it wild on the moun­tain­side?” There were many peo­ple world­wide, how­ever, who were learn­ing about Bud­dhism, Ti­bet, and all the mys­ti­cal and prac­ti­cal as­pects of the East from her books. DavidNéel in­spired and in­flu­enced travellers, po­ets, and writ­ers the world over, most no­tably those of the Beat Gen­er­a­tion such as Jack Ker­ouac, Al­lan Gins­berg, and the philoso­pher/writer Alan Watts.

In 1955 Yong­den died of ure­mia. He was un­able to adapt to the Euro­pean life­style and de­vel­oped a habit of drink­ing and smoking to ex­cess in the cafés. David-Néel was stricken at the loss of her adopted son and be­came more reclu­sive. She went through a num­ber of house­keep­ers and as­sis­tants in the fol­low­ing years – all of whom left be­cause of her im­pos­si­bly high stan­dards and bad tem­per. Among these was Jeanne Denys who pub­lished a scathing work on David-Néel in 1972 claim­ing her life story and trav­els were all a hoax be­cause no woman could have ac­com­plished what David-Néel claimed to have done. In 1959 a young woman named Marie-Madeleine Pey­ron­net took the po­si­tion and be­came a kind of daugh­ter to the old trav­eller, car­ing for her un­til her death.

In 1968, at the age of 100, David-Néel re­newed her pass­port, plan­ning on trav­el­ling to Ger­many, then driv­ing across Rus­sia, and leav­ing from there for New York. Marie-Madeleine re­fused, how­ever, claim­ing she could not en­dure so long a car ride. David-Néel aban­doned her plans and seemed to con­tent her­self with giv­ing in­ter­views and en­ter­tain­ing the many guests who made her home a point of pil­grim­age. She was ter­ri­bly lonely, how­ever, and of­ten depressed, wish­ing only to travel again. In 1969 she was el­e­vated to the high­est or­der of the French For­eign Le­gion and re­ceived con­grat­u­la­tions from world lead­ers, au­thors, and even the Dalai Lama.

She was in­ter­viewed by fa­mous writ­ers such as Lawrence Dur­rell and the French govern­ment cast a medal in her hon­our.

She was the sub­ject of tele­vi­sion and ra­dio in­ter­views and Dignes named their school af­ter her. All of this meant lit­tle to the woman who had spent her en­tire life trav­el­ling. She yearned to see Ti­bet again and walk among the moun­tains, the wind tear­ing at her, hav­ing to forage for food, never know­ing what a day would bring.

Her health be­gan to de­cline and she died 8 Septem­ber, 1969 shortly be­fore her 101st birth­day. Marie-Madeleine Pey­ron­net be­came her ex­ecutrix and tried her best to fol­low the in­struc­tions of the will, to keep David-Néel’s col­lec­tion of books and arte­facts to­gether, whether as do­na­tions to li­braries or mu­se­ums or at the house, but many were lost. Alexan­dra David-Néel’s legacy con­tin­ues, how­ever, through her books and those of the many she in­spired to live their lives truly and pur­sue their dreams at any cost.

Her de­ter­mi­na­tion to live her life ac­cord­ing to her own com­pass con­tin­ues to in­spire and al­most fifty years af­ter her death, in­sti­tu­tions, con­sulates and schools carry her name in tribute.

They walked through un­named jun­gles, crossed deep chasms on sway­ing bridges of vine-rope, nav­i­gated moun­tain paths and f looded roads, en­dured the harsh Chi­nese and Ti­betan win­ter, were in con­stant dan­ger from hu­man, wolf, or bear at­tacks but fi­nally reached Lhasa in 1924

Left, top left: Élisée Reclus and top right: Vic­tor Hugo. Above: Covers from Alexan­dra’s books and Alexan­dra in Lhasa in 1924 Right: Prayer wheels from the Rumtek Monastery, one of the most fa­mous in Sikkim

Far left: David-Néel as a teenager, 1886 Above: Por­trait of Alexan­dra David-Néel, Ti­bet 1933. Pho­tog­ra­pher Elis­a­beth Meyer. Orig­i­nally cap­tioned: ‘One of our great­est fe­male ex­plor­ers, Alexan­dra DavidNéel’ Left: He­lena Blavasky, founder of the...

Left: The Po­tala Palace, Lhasa, Ti­bet (Image: Yiq) Below: A gen­eral view of Dig­nesles-Bains (Image: Jean-Christophe Benoist, CC BYSA 3.0) Right: DavidNéel at home in Dignes-les-Bains

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