Although Alexandra David-Neel spent 25 years of her life in Asia, and although she was the first European woman to go to the forbidden city of Lhasa, her travels did not make her just an explorer. They inspired a work of considerable density and force, and they opened up early twentieth century Western thinking towards entirely innovative perspectives, which we can now see are in touch with a growing need for spirituality and the continuous emergence of Buddhist philosophies.
The impact of her exceptional life is still very present today, both in artistic circles (an opera is being written, her writings inspire visual artists, comic book authors, photographers walking in her footsteps, film directors, etc.) and philosophical circles, as shown by the fact that numerous research articles are published on her texts and her explorations.
It was therefore normal that a homage should be paid to her in the very place that embodied this extraordinary wealth, a symbol of the great coherence of her life and her thought, a place she conceived and created from scratch, and where she chose to die, but above all a tribute that to be up to the standard of a work recognized throughout the world.
Therefore today, with this approach, far from the clichés and approximations of which she was often the object, we show the formidable diversity and the modernity of her work, to grasp its striking topicality, and to better understand how it projects us into a future that she wanted to be marked with freedom, knowledge and wisdom, in the image of the life she had chosen with courage and obstinacy.
Born near Paris, she died in Digne-les-Bains in 1969, bequeathing her property, archives, collections and copyrights to the city.
Therefore, in 2018, we shall celebrate the 150th anniversary of her birth by an exhibition inaugurating the overall project of redevelopment of Samten Dzong – a name chosen by the writer – at the same time a Residence for Reflection, a place for living and a place for writing.
One piece of writing, taken from her correspondence, is particularly eloquent:
“I am invited to Buddhist monasteries where the rule of silence is said to
be austere. It’s a start! But it is not enough for the ears to be at peace:
the eyes must also be at rest, they must escape the whirling of beings,
jigging about awkwardly, spoiling the serenity of landscapes, soiling the
earth and sky with their industries, their factory smoke, destroying all
beauty by making «useful» things. It is so beautiful, a river flowing as it
can, clearing its way alone, and unpruned trees, unmanaged plants that
live their natural life of struggle, defeat and triumph among their fellows
and mountains that are not transformed into shelves to support hotels or
pedestals for lighthouses or wireless telegraph systems!”
15 January 1917, Singapore. Correspondance avec son mari [Correspondence with her
husband], Paris, Plon, 2000.
The surname Néel is written with an acute accent, but Alexandra asked her publisher to write hers without the accent and to pronounce it ‘nél’ (or ‘nelle’).