Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

G. I. Gurdjieff's teaching, research, books, conferences

SOME THOUGHTS ON HENRI TRACOL


John Robert Colombo considers the Frenchman’s life and work


I have a confession to make about a silly little habit that I have. I like to discover the meaningful anagrams that are based on common words and peoples’ names. By rearranging their letters, I am able to change their meanings and associations. For instance, the motto on my coat-of-arms reads “Alert.” Anagrammed, the letters spell out two different words. These are “Later” and “Alter.” They may or may not shed light on my resolve to be “alert”!

Since I discovered the presence of the free “anagram generators” on the World Wide Web, I have spend less time “generating” anagrams than I once did, with the result that now I have the time to anagram more words and names! What is gained on the swings is lost on the slides.

I have long had a fascination with the name Henri Tracol. It seems so neat! Those four syllables and eleven letters look and sound so straight-forward, yet they are memorable for a number of reasons. In fact, once seen or heard, they are unlikely to be forgotten. In this way, by all reports, they resemble the man. In short, I have always felt that the Frenchman was well and intriguingly named.

I am not aware that the word “tracol” has a specific meaning in the man’s native language, but once I had anagrammed his name, I found out that it harbours a number of associations. The letters HENRI TRACOL spell out innumerable anagrams – more than one thousand of them in English alone; additional ones may be available through a French-language anagram generator. Here are four of the better English anagrams, ones that “make sense.”

Henri Tracol bulks large in the world of anagrams for he is either a CHARTER LION or a NICER HARLOT. (To be frank, these two anagrams seem to me to be non-starters, given the man’s retiring nature!) Yet there are two other anagrams over which I will pause, and these are REAL CORINTH and LINEAR TORCH. Could these words be meaningful in the circumstances. Let us see if they could.

First are the words REAL CORINTH. Whenever I think of Corinth I think of the Greek port city, second only to Athens in importance, and I recall that its inhabitants had pagan ways, which persisted well into the Christian era, as was evident in their appetite for a sense of fashion and for displays of wealth.

What also comes to mind are the First and Second Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. These are letters of instruction that Paul (or someone calling himself Paul) addressed, more specifically, to the members of the Christian church of Corinth. As epistles, now scriptures, they are suitably obscure, fraught with numerous mysteries and multiple meanings. The first epistle is the source of such memorable phrases as “through a glass darkly” and “when I was a child, I spoke as a child.”

The second epistle, although less obscure, is reprovingly moral. Its message seems to be: “Christians, let there be no backsliding!” Together these letters comprise the seventh and eighth books of the New Testament. Christianity would be different had they been lost or never written on parchment. So, in brief, the letters of “Henri Tracol” bring to mind the REAL message for CORINTH, which I take to be the need to be aware and to be aware of one’s limitations.

Second are the words LINEAR TORCH. We speak about passing the “torch of learning” from generation to another, or of carrying the “Olympic torch” from one place to another. There is a sense in which Henri Tracol is passing along a “torch,” one ignited by G.I. Gurdjieff, and that he is doing so in a linear or direct fashion; nothing here is helter-skelter. It is not “everything for everybody,” but chosen things for the select few. So it is but a short step to describe his message as a “linear torch.” Henri Tracol is indeed a torch-bearer.

So much for my taste for anagrams. I also have a taste for the writings of Henri Tracol. Having “a taste of things” – or “the taste for things” – is an expression that is never far from the man’s lips.

In his day, Henri Tracol (1909-1997) wore a rack of many hats. He died thirteen years ago and today is fondly remembered as one of the leading French follower of Gurdjieff. By profession, he was a photographer and a journalist. He sold articles and news photographs to popular magazines like Vu. Like so many other free-thinking journalists in the 1930s, he filed field-reports from Spain. It seems he was an anthropologist, as well, and wrote reports on conditions in South America for the Musée de l’Homme. For some time he was married to Henriette H. Lannes, Madame Lannes, the leader of the Work in England. In his free time he devoted himself to an early love, sculpture.

But he had little free time at his disposal, for he spent ten years in the company of G.I. Gurdjieff. With the latter’s death in 1949, he became one of the leaders of the French group, working with Madame de Salzmann and other senior members. He assisted in the French translations of Gurdjieff’s writings. He had a strong influence on many students of the work, including biographer James Moore. Tracol was eventually appointed director of the l’Institute G.I. Gurdjieff, the first of the four member bodies of the International Association of The Gurdjieff Foundations, the other groups being those in London, New York, and Caracas.

The photographs of the man that are reproduced in the literature of the Work are head-and-shoulder shots and give no indication of his height and weight. I judge him to be a short person of slight build. In those photographs, his facial features appear to be emaciated, and his physiognomy brings to mind the head of an ostrich or that of a giraffe. I do not mean any disrespect: ostriches and giraffes have big eyes and presumably see much and miss little.

A number of the man’s talks have been transcribed, collected, and published in book form. I would call them “pure gold” except for the fact that the contributions of Henri Tracol (along with those of his colleagues Solange Claustres and Jean Vaysse) represent the “platinum standard” of writings in, from, of, within, or about the Work.

If someone, somewhere, has compiled a list of Tracol’s publications in French and in English, I have yet to see that list. Here is my make-shift bibliography for books in English and French (with a few other items thrown in). I have copies of a few of these publications in my study.

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff: Man’s Awakening and the Practice of Remembering Oneself. Bray, England: The Guild Press, 1977. [This publication is so short – a mere nineteen pages in length – it is presumably the text of a talk by Tracol.]

Rencontre avec deux hommes remarquables. Paris: Stock, 1979. [Meeting with Two Remarkable Men. The men are Gurdjieff and Oscar Ichazo The contributors include Jeanne de Salzmann and Tracol.]

Pourquoi dors-tu seigneur? Paris: Editions Pragma Vers, 1983. [Why do you sleep, Lord?] The title is based on the question posed in Psalm 44: 23: “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?” Enlarged and reissued as La vraie question demeure (Paris: Editions Eoliennes, 1996).

La vraie question demeure. Paris: Editions Eoliennes, 1996. [The real question remains] Enlarged and reissued edition of Pourquoi dors-tu seigneur? (1983).

Lord, Why do you Sleep [Expanded as The Real Question Remains (Wind Publishing, 1996).]

The Taste for Things that Are True: Essays and Talks by a Pupil of G.I. Gurdjieff. Shaftsbury, England: Element Books, 1994.

The Real Question Remains: G.I. Gurdjieff: A Living Call. Paris: Aeolian, 1996. [Preface by Jacques Lacarrière]

Buscador de Nacimiento – La llamada de G.I. Gurdjieff. Caracas, Venezuela: Caracas, 1999. [Wikipedia offers through Google Translate an oddly affecting if slightly ungrammatical translation of Spanish bookseller’s description of this book, presumably based on the original publisher’s catalogue copy. It goes like this: "It is a compilation of articles, interviews, conferences and exchanges in the group comprising more than 50 years time. Displays the hard work of a man to look sharp and bright, which above all is required to unravel and shred the apparent until closer to what lies behind, what is vital, always with humility, without ever conclusively boast about their discoveries. "The teacher (Gurdjieff) inherited a rigor that faculty had nothing, but it opened to a requirement of truth." Life, by vocation, a real search, the man, a form of birth.]

The Real Question Remains: Gurdjieff: A Living Call. Sandpoint, Indiana: Morning Light Press, 2009. [This edition is discussed below.]

In addition to these books, the texts of a handful of talks delivered by Tracol over the years to select groups have been translated into limpid English and published in Parabola and The Gurdjieff Review. The text of a major address appears in James Moore’s Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching (N.Y.: Continuum, 1996). In one of these contributions Tracol has set forth his belief that “what is unique in any path of spiritual search is its own particular way of approaching and perceiving reality. And this teaching offers us a feeling of just that: something which goes beyond suggested forms of experience and investigation.”

He has further noted of the Work that “it also allows the individual to discover and realize certain hidden possibilities, by means of simultaneous and coordinated engaging of one’s intellectual, emotional, and physical capacities toward a voluntary concentration upon the struggle which takes place within the self between one’s positive and negative tendencies.”

At last I am on firm footing because I am now in a position to describe the latest book, which is certainly his best single work in English. It is called “The Real Question Remains: Gurdjieff: A Living Call.” I find the subtitle and the sub-subtitle to be a little awkward, in English anyway, but that is about all that is awry with this book. The translators have made extra-human efforts to catch the man’s way of speaking and his insights and outlooks.

A trade paperback published by Morning Light Press in 2009, it measures 5.50″ x 7. 75″ and has xiv + 228 pages. Alas, the book is glued rather than sewn – unlike the Dolmen Meadow edition of the correspondence of René Daumal, which I reviewed recently, which is well sewn – but it is easy on the eyes and a pleasure to hold in one’s hands. (Morning Light Press’s website offers further details.)

The text consists of a Preface, an Introduction, a Foreword, and an Editor’s Note – and while this may seem a little excessive, each of these elements is informative – plus the texts of twenty-six short talks (some of which end in question-and-answer sessions). The texts are thematically presented in five sections: Disillusion and Dissatisfaction; Studies and Questions on Culture and Traditional Perspectives; The Discovery of a Teaching; An Afterword; The Real Question Remains. The book concludes with Notes (five pages of sources and notations).

Where did these talks first appear? A note on the copyright page answers that question. The majority of the talks first appeared in “Pourquoi dors-tu Seigneur?” published by Editions Pragma in 1983. The text of that book was translated as “The Taste for Things That Are True” issued by Element in 1994. Also included are portions of “Further Talks, Essays and Interviews” issued by The Guild Press in 2003, as well as selections from the columns of the periodical “Parabola.” Tracol’s texts are being lovingly collected and recycled.

It is good to have so much material between the two covers of a single book that is in print as an affordable paperback. Here there is, as the saying goes, “material for thought.” In a short review it is impossible to do this work justice, and Tracol does not help the reviewer, for he is in no way a flashy writer. In fact, he is not much of a stylist at all, certainly no literary artist like René Daumal. Nor is he much of a philosopher or historian, though he is something of a sociologist.

As an inveterate quoter, I find myself lost in his fields of words. Very seldom does he find or even search for the “bon-mot.” (No bon-bons for him!) Instead, he is a thinker and a feeler. You can almost feel him thinking as he is speaking or writing, and he does have a distinctive voice: curiously hesitant yet surprisingly assertive.

Gurdjieff in “Meetings with Remarkable Men” talks about Brother Sez and Brother Ahl. The sermons of these travelling monks affect their audiences in decidedly different ways. Listeners stand in awe when Brother Sez speaks, but thereafter remember nothing of what he has been saying. But when Brother Ahl speaks, listeners are embarrassed for him and at a loss to figure out what he is trying to say, but later they find that they participated in his process of exposition, were deeply moved, and are able to recall much of what he said that they did not know they knew. Tracol is Brother Ahl – not that he is the model for this travelling monk. (I will show restraint and forbear the identification of any Brother Sezes among us!)

Let me offer a synopsis of the preliminary matter. The Preface is signed by Michel Peterfalvi who expresses “a certain awe in speaking about a man of great spirituality whose influence continues after his death.” He goes on to say there is “the impression of a great inner strength emanating from him in contrast to his frail appearance, and a great simplicity in his relations with other people.”

The Introduction, signed Jenny Koralek, makes the point that Tracol’s “only currency is conscious effort.” No sooner has she said this than she hedges her bet by qualifying it with a passing reference to “the grace of God.” Now grace is considered to be “unmerited love,” so it may or may not be directly related to “conscious effort.”

The Foreword is contributed by the author himself who admits to the influence of Elie Faure, the distinguished art historian and philosopher who is as well the author’s uncle. Tracol distances himself from authorship. Indeed, the texts in this book consist of addresses, articles, essays, interviews, talks, questions and answers, and “writing.” It is a mixed bag, what the Ojibwa of Ontario call “a nunny bag” (with full knowledge that a sacred “nunny bag” is a “medicine bundle” with undisclosed contents and unfathomable powers).

The unsigned Editor’s Note discusses the notion of “the master,” a term that is familiar in the East, relatively unfamiliar in the West, which Tracol uses to refer to Mr. Gurdjieff. A “master” is not so merely the teacher but also the embodiment of the teaching. (I could not help thinking that the words “life coach” express the outward but not the inward part of what is meant, and that the vogue in the 1990s for “practical philosophers” suggests the need for the inward part.)

So much for the preliminary matter. I said earlier that Tracol is not given to telling instances, but he does retell a story that I find characteristic of all of his work. The story is used to illuminate the notion of the search: “This cannot but remind me of my last meeting with an aging friend who was about to undertake what he sensed would be his last journey to sacred places and wise men of the East. Bidding him good-bye, I said, ‘I hope you will find what you are seeking.’ He replied with a peaceful smile, ‘Since I am really searching for nothing, maybe I shall find it.’”

Like his aging friend, Tracol is searching for nothing. Instead, he is living his life now, entering into the experience of how all of us really live through the harmonious balance of our centres or faculties. “It is not something to be spoken about, it is something to experience.” He adds, “I am reminded of what I have been granted to experience – for a purpose.”

In another essay he states, “We are much more concerned by the relationship between mind and body, feeling and body, and by the presence of that which bears witness to their unity.” On these foundation stones he offers his views of the world at large in two remarkable addresses, “Individual Culture: Its Possibilities and Its Demands,” delivered in Mexico City in 1961, and “In Search of a Living Culture: Present Perspectives of Culture and the Problem of Universality,” delivered in Axe-en-Province in the same year. They are remarkable as critiques of Western values.

In “Individual Culture,” the Mexico City address, he discusses the “natural authority” of one’s family and society, but also “how indispensable it is to awaken in everyone, from childhood on, that movement of withdrawal, of standing back to question and ponder what is proposed, in order to counterbalance adequately the tendency to passive acceptance and blind conformity.” He sees culture as a controlling mechanism that turns us into creatures who are incapable of the act of “self-interrogation.”

The influence of Western culture on the world’s traditional peoples has been disastrous: “For the sake of transistors and pocket calculators they exchange what was most precious to them – a way of living duly adapted to the specific conditions of their natural environment, in harmony with their own culture and their sense of taking part in the life of the universe.” Here he speaks like a Traditionalist, before the publication of Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations,” is such that these days the more traditional the society, the more it is mired in poverty, disease, and strife.

In his sociological and Traditionalist analysis, Tracol focuses on the pre-emptive effects of cultural conformity, but in this essay he fails to fix his attention on the possibly redemptive power of civilized values. Everyone participates in one culture or another, but not everyone embraces civilized values. Rather than the Highest Common Numerator, people are encouraged to settle for the Lowest Common Denominator. To do otherwise takes effort. Instead, in the passage here, he is anxious to note their equivalence or mutual dependency:

“Here lies the reconciliation between authority and search: they need each other. They attract one another mutually in this movement of unending renewal through which the life of culture perpetuates itself.” Elsewhere, as if to drive this point home, he discusses sleep and waking consciousness. “Such is the law of this equivocal situation: without sleep, no awakening; without oblivion, no remembering.” I will add that it seems the human condition mirrors the cosmic condition: As above, so below. No sun without shade. Dualism under the Sun.

In an interpolation, Christian theologians discuss the Fall of Adam in terms of “the fortunate fall” (for without it there would be no need for the Incarnation) and “Good Friday”in terms of what is necessary (what is “good” about it is that Friday’s Crucifixion sets the stage for Sunday’s Resurrection). In one of his novels Samuel Beckett suggests that what we need to do is “fail better.”

Elsewhere Tracol explains that “the born seeker” cannot “escape from the labyrinth” of this world. Salvation (if the Christian term is not amiss in this context) comes from the individual’s realization that the most the seeker can do is to be “moving further toward the center of his own mystery.” This action alone confers meaning upon the individual’s search.

In concluding this address, Tracol describes the individual’s aim as “to work always according to his being, in order to affirm himself at each movement, in constant submission to the demands of the life of the universe.” He calls this “the authentic art of living.”

In the address “In Search of a Living Culture,” delivered in Aix-en-Province, he returns to the negative aspects of culture, including its “periodic decay” and its “sclerosis.” Here he raises the deferred notion of “civilization,” mentioned earlier, but he does not distinguish its individualized values from culture’s generalized values. Instead, he examines the nature of knowledge and how it swamps us, despite the fact that there are parallels between the physicist’s discoveries about the characteristics of subatomic particles and what Buddha said about the states of the human individual after death, an insight that he derived from the writings of the atomic physicist Robert Oppenheimer.

If Tracol has found an ideal man, it is the person of A.K. Coomaraswamy, “the great Orientalist,” son of an English mother and an Indian father, who was an outstanding curator and is regarded as one of the pillars of Traditionalism. He quotes with approval a remark made in 1932 by Coomaraswamy: “In all its diversity, Asia remains nevertheless a living spiritual unity which embraces, at the very least, half the cultural heritage of humanity … without some knowledge of Asia no civilization can reach maturity, no individual can consider himself as ‘civilized’ not even be clearly aware of what properly belongs to him.”

Tracol calls this “absolutely true” because it calls into question the “advanced” views that are held in the West: ignorance of the cyclic rather than the linear character of time; the illusion of an indefinite progress; the conviction of belonging to the most “advanced” period in history; holding on to a “superiority complex”; and equating people outside this matrix “uncivilized.”

He supports these points with references to Sir J.G. Frazer, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and Ruth Benedict. He paraphrases the remark of his Orientalist friend Paul Mus and writes, “We can say that the balance between culture and civilization is broken and that the most salient characteristic of our time, this subordination of pure science to a program of absolutely dizzying technical ‘achievements,’” is alienating ourselves from ourselves. In effect, data is dumbing us down.

Tracol concludes, “The man who is in love with real culture aspires to a transformation of _himself_ through knowledge. All knowledge seems pointless to him if it is not first and foremost _self-knowledge_. For it is only inasmuch as he knows himself that he knows how to choose his nourishment according to his real needs.”

I have now reached page fifty-one of “The Real Question Remains.” That is about one-quarter of the way through. I am afraid I would tire the reader of this review if I carried on in this fashion. So far Tracol has hardly mentioned Gurdjieff, but the name of the “master” appears frequently in the last three-quarters of the book. If there is interest I am prepared to summarize the rest of the author’s argument, to the degree that it may be summarized without being reduced to platitudes, as Tracol’s writing forms a whole and is addressed to people immersed in the Work. To read a little is to gain a lot. I urge the reader to share this experience with him by reading this book, and not with the present reviewer who is reviewing that book. Tracol needs only a translator – not an interpreter.

One final point: Tracol is not a seeker so much as he is a finder, a man who sought nothing outside himself that he could not first discover within himself. In this way he resembles his “aging friend” who yearns to go on more pilgrimages. Yet Tracol was assisted on his non-way by finding and receiving a “master.” I will conclude this account by quoting one sentence from the last essay, the one titled “Some Reflections on What Is Specific to Gurdjieff’s Teaching.”

Here Tracol is discussing the “adventure” of the Work: “It keeps alive in us the evidence of a _secret continuity_: consciousness never ceases to offer itself to us.”

John Robert Colombo is known as “the Canadian Bartlett” for his dictionaries of quotations. Two of his recent publications are “Richard Maurice Bucke: The New Consciousness” and “Walt Whitman’s Canada.” He is co-editor of a publication to appear this fall: Volume 14 in the series of annual Canadian science-fiction anthologies called “Tesseracts.” If you want to receive notice of forthcoming reviews on this blog, email the reviewer < jrc @ ca . inter. net >.

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