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Alexandra David-Néel (born Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie David; 24 October 1868 – 8 September 1969) was a Belgian–French explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist and writer.[a][b][c] She is most known for her 1924 visit to Lhasa, Tibet, when it was forbidden to foreigners. David-Néel wrote over 30 books about Eastern religion, philosophy, and her travels, including Magic and Mystery in Tibet which was published in 1929. Her teachings influenced the beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, the popularisers of Eastern philosophy Alan Watts and Ram Dass, and the esotericist Benjamin Creme.

She was born in Saint-Mandé, Val-de-Marne, only daughter of her father, Louis David, a Huguenot Freemason, teacher (who was a Republican activist during the revolution of 1848, and friend of the geographer/anarchist Elisée Reclus), and she had a Belgian Roman Catholic mother. Louis and Alexandrine had met in Belgium, where the school teacher and publisher of a republican journal was exiled when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte became emperor. Between the penniless husband and the wife who would not come into her inheritance until her father would die, the reasons for disagreement grew with the birth of Alexandra. In 1871, appalled by the execution of the last Communards in front of the Communards' Wall at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, Louis David took his daughter of two years, Eugénie, future Alexandra, there to see and never forget, by this early encounter with the face of death, the ferocity of humans. Two years later, the Davids emigrated to Belgium.[4] Since before the age of 15, she had been exercising a good number of extravagant austerities: fasting, corporal torments, recipes drawn from biographies of ascetic saints found in the library of one of her female relatives, to which she refers to in Sous des nuées d'orage, published in 1940.[5] At the age of 15, spending her holidays with her parents at Ostend, she ran away and reached the port of Vlissingen in the Netherlands to try and embark for England. Lack of money forced her to give up.[6] At the age of 18, David-Néel had already visited England, Switzerland and Spain on her own, and she was studying in Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society. "She joined various secret societies – she would reach the thirtieth degree in the mixed Scottish Rite of Freemasonry – while feminist and anarchist groups greeted her with enthusiasm... Throughout her childhood and adolescence, she was associated with the French geographer and anarchist Elisée Reclus (1820–1905). This led her to become interested in the anarchistic ideas of the time and in feminism, that inspired her to publish Pour la vie (For Life) in 1898. In 1899, she composed an anarchist treatise with a preface by Elisée Reclus. Publishers did not dare to publish the book, though her friend Jean Haustont printed copies himself and it was eventually translated into five languages."[7] According to Raymond Brodeur, she converted to Buddhism in 1889, which she noted in her diary that was published under the title La Lampe de sagesse (The Lamp of Wisdom) in 1986. She was 21 years old. That same year, to refine her English, an indispensable language for an orientalist's career, she went to London where she frequented the library of the British Museum, and met several members of the Theosophical Society. The following year, back in Paris, she introduced herself to Sanskrit and Tibetan and followed different instructions at the Collège de France and at the Ecole pratique des hautes Etudes (practical school of advanced studies) without ever passing an exam there.[8] According to Jean Chalon, her vocation to be an orientalist and Buddhist originated at the Guimet Museum.[9]

At the suggestion of her father, David-Néel attended the Conservatoire royal de Bruxelles (Royal Conservatory of Brussels), where she studied piano and singing.[10] To help her parents who were experiencing setbacks, David-Néel, who had obtained a first prize for singing, took the position of first singer at the Hanoi Opera House (Indochina) during the seasons 1895–1896 and 1896–1897 under the name Alexandra Myrial.[d] She interpreted the role of the Violetta in La Traviata (by Verdi), then she sang in Les Noces de Jeannette (by Victor Massé), in Faust and in Mireille (by Gounod), Lakmé (by Léo Delibes), Carmen (by Bizet), and Thaïs (by Massenet). She maintained a pen friendship with Frédéric Mistral and Jules Massenet at that time.[12] From 1897 to 1900, she was living together with the pianist Jean Haustont in Paris, writing Lidia with him, a lyric tragedy in one act, for which Haustont composed the music and David-Néel the libretto. She left to sing at the opera of Athens from November 1899 to January 1900. Then, in July of the same year, she went to the opera of Tunis. Soon after her arrival in the city, she met a distant cousin, Philippe Néel, chief engineer of the Tunisian railways and her future husband. During a stay of Jean Haustont in Tunis in the Summer of 1902, she gave up her singing career and assumed artistic direction of the casino of Tunis for a few months, while continuing her intellectual work.[12]

On 4 August 1904, at age 36, she married Philippe Neél de Saint-Sauveur,[13] whose lover she had been since 15 September 1900. Their life together was sometimes turbulent but characterized by mutual respect. It was interrupted by her departure, alone, for her third trip to India (1911–1925) (the second one was carried out for a singing tour) on 9 August 1911. She did not want children, aware that motherhood was incompatible with her need of independence and her inclination to education.[5] She promised to return to Philippe in nineteen months, but it was fourteen years later, in May 1925, when they met again, separating after some days. David-Néel had come back with her exploration partner, the young Lama Aphur Yongden, whom she would make her adopted son in 1929.[14][5] However, the spouses began an extensive correspondence after their separation, which only ended with the death of Philippe Néel in February 1941. From these exchanges, many letters by David-Néel remain, and some letters written by her husband, many having been burnt or lost on the occasion of David-Néel's tribulations during the Chinese Civil War, in the middle of the 1940s. Legend has it that her husband was also her patron. The truth is probably quite different. She had, at her marriage, her own personal fortune.[15] Through the embassies, she sent her husband powers of attorney in order to allow him to manage her investments.

At 78, Alexandra David-Néel returned to France to arrange the estate of her husband, then she started writing from her home in Digne. Between 1947 and 1950, Alexandra David-Néel came across Paul Adam – Venerable Aryadeva, she commended him because he took her place on short notice, at a conference held at the Theosophical Society in Paris.[50] In 1952, she published the Textes tibétains inédits ("unpublished Tibetan writings"), an anthology of Tibetan literature including, among other things, the erotic poems attributed to the 6th Dalai Lama. In 1953, a work of actuality followed, Le vieux Tibet face à la Chine nouvelle, in which she gave "a certain and documented opinion" on the tense situation in the regions once visited by her.[38] She went through the pain of suddenly losing Yongden on 7 October 1955.[4] According to Jacques Brosse, Yongden, seized by a strong fever and sickness, which David-Néel attributed to a simple indigestion, fell into a coma during the night[l] and died carried off by kidney failure according to the doctor's diagnosis.[51] Just having turned 87, David-Néel found herself alone. Yongden's ashes were kept safe in the Tibetan oratory of Samten Dzong, awaiting to be thrown into the Ganges, together with those of David-Néel after her death.[38] With age, David-Néel suffered more and more from articular rheumatism that forced her to walk with crutches. "I walk on my arms", she used to say.[38] Her work rhythm slowed down: she didn't publish anything in 1955 and 1956, and, in 1957, only the third edition of the Initiations lamaïques.[4] In April 1957, she left Samten Dzong in order to live at Monaco with a friend who had always been typing her manuscripts, then she decided to live alone in a hotel, going from one establishment to the next, till June 1959, when she was introduced to a young woman, Marie-Madeleine Peyronnet, who she took as her personal secretary.[38] She would stay with the old lady until the end,[4] "watching over her like a daughter over her mother – and sometimes like a mother over her unbearable child – but also like a disciple at the service of her guru", according to the words of Jacques Brosse.[38] Alexandra David-Neel nicknamed her "Turtle". At the age of a hundred, she applied for renewal of her passport to the prefect of Basses-Alpes. Alexandra David-Néel died on 8 September 1969, almost 101 years old. In 1973, her ashes were brought to Varanasi by Marie-Madeleine Peyronnet to be dispersed with those of her adopted son into the Ganges.

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