Posts Tagged ‘G. I. Gurdjieff’
I have in front of me a copy of a newly published book titled “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto.” It was issued in November 2012 by Traditional Studies Press in Toronto, which happens to be the city in which I now reside. The book will be of interest to students of traditional thought and this is expressed in the wording of its subtitle: “On the ideas and practice of the teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff.”
To me the book is of especial interest because, in a limited way, a long time ago, I knew Louise Welch – Mrs. Welch, as she was always called. That was a long time ago – some fifty years ago. Memories sometimes serve as bridge-builders, connecting the past and the present. They do so in this instance.
Before I discuss the contents of this book, I will describe the volume as a physical object. It is a sturdy production, a new book designed to outlast the years, as are so many of the titles issued by Traditional Studies Press, which is the publication wing of The Gurdjieff Foundation: The Society for Traditional Studies. (The organization’s website identifies the organization as The Gurdjieff Foundation of Toronto: Society for Arts and Ideas.)
The publication has no dust jacket but the pages are bound in heavy boards covered in dark green cloth, and the pages are sewn together rather than glued together, so the book may be opened without worry that any of its pages will loosen or fly apart! The volume measures 6 inches by 9 inches, and the pagination goes like this: xxii + 181 + i. It is curious that the first twenty-two pages, which offer the reader an analytic table of contents (like those in P.D. Ouspensky’s “Tertium Organum” and in many of Colin Wilson’s books), appear without page numbers.
The typography is more practical than pictorial; the type is large and the lines are well “leaded” or spaced apart. The text is fairly short (perhaps 60,000 words) and each page is easy on the eyes. There is a frontispiece photograph of Mrs. Welch, taken in Halifax in 1984, which makes her look much older than the women I remember meeting over a period of two years in the second half of the 1950s.
In memory I recall Mrs. Welch as sharing some of the facial features of Maria Ouspenskaya, the Russian-born actress and acting teacher. Here she looks rather more like Marie Dressler, the Canadian-born, Academy Award-winning comic movie actress. I prefer the image in my memory to the portrait in the book!
Louise Welch’s vital years are 1905 and 1999 (so she is not to be confused with the similarly named Louise Welsh, the much younger, English-born, Scotland-based author of psychological thrillers). Mrs. Welch – Louise Michel Blinken Welch, to give her name in full – was born in New York City of Ukrainian background. She was raised in a dysfunctional family setting and received little formal education, but through her own efforts she found work as a journalist and editor. At one time in the 1920s, she wrote the “agony column” for the New York American. (Walter Winchell quipped about her that “Louise Michel went from bad to Hearst.”) Later in her varied career she worked as a director of a writer’s group for the WPA – the Work (or Works) Project Administration, the U.S. federal government’s employment program of the 1930s, now despised by Republications and forgotten by Democrats.
During the Depression she married and bore a son and a daughter. She was abandoned by her husband so she became their sole support. (Her daughter is Patty de Llosa, a writer and leader who is well respected in the circle of the Work, has has written warmly about her mother and her stepfather, Dr. William J. Welch, in a memoir that appears on one of the webpages of the “Gurdjieff International Review.” The information shared here is derived in part from that source.)
In the 1930s, Mrs. Welch worked with Benton & Bowles, the renowned advertising agency, and there she met and was befriended by a somewhat younger co-worker, who later trained to became a medical doctor, qualified as a cardiac specialist, and eventually became her husband. Together the Welches were what later came to be known as “a power couple.”
This is not the place to review her meetings in the 1920s with the English editor A.R. Orage or how through him she met G.I. Gurdjieff, in both Fontainebleau and New York, if only because she accomplished all of this in her finely written, book-length memoir titled Orage with Gurdjieff in America (1982). Offhand I would say her temperament had much in common with that of Orage. The two of them appreciated fine writing, they were practical people and skilled editors, they had an understanding of the emotional problems of other people as well as the social problems of their times, and they were entirely committed to being leaders in the Work.
Hardly any of the above information appears in the pages of “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto,” a fact that limits the readership of this volume to readers appreciative of the subtleties of the Work. To all other readers, the book will be seen as a tribute to a well-liked person rather than as a valuable record of transactions and experiences. Traditional Studies Press did what it set out to do; that was its aim. Perhaps a wider perspective might have resulted in a more imposing publication. Yet readers of all persuasions should express gratitude for what has been achieved.
The Toronto group was founded in 1954, the first of the ancillary groups to be recognized by The Gurdjieff Foundation in New York which had then entered its second year of operation. Its seeds were planted by Olga de Hartmann and her husband Thomas, the composer who had worked so closely with Mr. Gurdjieff on those marvellous compositions for the piano. In fact, way back in 1919, it was the de Hartmanns who had introduced Alexandre and Jeanne de Saltzmann to Mr. Gurdjieff. In the same way, while the couple were living in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, anticipating their move to the United States, they introduced the Work to Canadians in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax.
Among the prime movers of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York were Dr. and Mrs. Welch. The latter was delegated to head the Toronto group, which she did from 1955 on. I met her a year or two later, never guessing that the Toronto group was not “ages old” but “brand new.” On our first meeting, I asked her if I could join the Work, once I had moved to the city and enrolled at the University of Toronto. She delayed answering that question. Instead she asked her own question, “How did you first learn about the this work?” It was a good question because there was very little information available to the public about Gurdjieff, especially in a small city like the one in which I was born and raised. (This was well before the arrival of the so-called New Age.)
I replied that I had borrowed a copy of “In Search of the Miraculous” (published four years earlier) from the local Carnegie library, and read it cover to cover, not once but twice. Etched in my memory is her grim rejoinder: “The Table of Hydrogens is quite difficult, you know.” Then I backtracked and admitted that I had not understood all that I had read! She was happier with that reply. In general, I knew about the Priory at Fontainebleau from Ouspensky’s description, but it was months before I heard anything at all about J.B. Bennett and the foundations, institutes, and societies, not to mention the estate at Mendham. I was nineteen years old at the time.
My first meeting with the Toronto group leader took place in the upstairs bedroom of the home of Mrs. Margot Dustin and her husband Ernest whose nickname was “Dusty,” both former Theosophists, about a mile from where I now live and am keyboarding this account, and I was regular in my attendance at weekly meetings for readings and for Movements held here and there throughout the city, especially at the monthly meetings convened by Mrs. Welch. She would fly into the city from New York to conduct the sessions, on occasion with Dr. Welch, a man of genuine presence and strong voice. Once, in later years, they brought with them a 16 mm, black-and-white print of performances of the Movements in Paris, which was shown to a small group at the Ontario Science Centre.
Sometimes in attendance at the meetings were film producer Tom Daly, teacher Peter Colgrove, Dr. Paul Bura, an engineer, and his wife Sheila, who was adept in Movements, who were “refugees” from a Bennett group in England, not to mention a stunning, exotic couple: an exquisite, half-Burmese, half-French woman of great beauty (named Olga, oddly, and former wife of BBC executive Cecil Lewis) and her tall, stylish architect husband who may have come from Cornwall, where they subsequently settled. Yet in general I found the original members to be drawn from the professional middle-class of the city, almost everyone being older than I was, and it was a somewhat staid gathering of people, certainly not one given to small talk or big pronouncements. There were occasional visits from the very Gallic Alfred Etievant who would lead the Movements with lithe assurance.
Mrs. Welch’s contributions were not limited to oral instruction, for she encouraged the group to break into print. She kindled the publication of “A Journal of Our Time,” a literary and artistic “little magazine” of some deft and delicacy; she wrote a play which the group produced and staged for public performance; she generated publicity for the commercial showing at Cineplex (the world’s first “cineplex” or multi-screen movie theatre) of Peter Brook’s film “Meetings with Remarkable Men”; she served as editor-in-chief of the first edition of “The Guide and Index to G.I. Gurdjieff’s All and Everything,” which remains an invaluable resource to this day.
References to a few of these activities appear in “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto,” which is dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Dustin, the very woman in whose house I first met Mrs. Welch. According to the editorial note, “This publication is compiled from notes taken at meetings spanning the years 1955-1965 and 1973-1989.” My experiences relate directly to the first period, not at all to the second period, and I have no idea what happened between 1965 and 1973, a span of years that I assume were busy ones for the Toronto group, which eventually acquired valuable real estate both in Toronto and outside the rapidly expanding city.
When I was in attendance, each one of us was encouraged – even required – to ask questions, and to ask them slowly, so that the two note-takers would have time to record them, whether in longhand or shorthand I never knew. Apparently these scripts exist today, and they form the basis of the text of this book. From time to time the questions themselves are recorded here, but in most instances it is only Mrs. Welch’s answers that are given. The text itself begins like this: “My search is your search. We must each have a common wish to find out who we are and the direction in which we can grow to reach the truth.” (For symmetry’s sake, the text proper ends like this: “We have a little help here.”)
Reading these passages I am able to imagine myself in her presence and hear her refined, modulated American speech tones and pronunciations. The content of the presentations brings to my mind the content of the entries that appear in the five volumes of Maurice Nicoll’s “Commentaries.” Dr. Nicoll’s presentations are quite technical, whereas Mrs. Welch’s are conversational, parallelling normal thought processes. Both books are organized topically with long, analytic tables of contents. Mrs. Welch is a communicator of attitudes from Mr. Gurdjieff; Dr. Nicoll is a conveyer of detailed information from Mr. Ouspensky.
Her expositions make good use of “I” and “me,” though they do so with great care so as to generalize about the “I” and the “me” and make the words apply to each and every one of her listeners. For instance, she writes as follows: “The important thing is my inner work. My presence is important. I live without meaning because I am not here.” Imagine hearing these words: the “my” and the “I” are those of you, the listener.
In later years, in an attempt to understand the thrust and direction of the Work, I came to define its essence in a single word, a compound word that is a personal neologism. That word is “psychopraxis.” Here the discipline is psychological even psychical rather than psychiatric, but it is also physiological, for it is concerned with physical expression and practice; it is also blessedly free of religious, theosophical, and psychological terminology. Such ideas would have been regarded as novel at the time. Mrs. Welch avoids such exercises, and the introduction into the text of specific Gurdjieffian terms is minimized. One unexpected exception is this one: “Trogoautoegocrat,” from “All and Everything,” which is defined as “real sacrifice” or “I eat myself.”
Preserved are instances of the common touch: “If you tell me you cannot Work for fifteen minutes a day, I say that you don’t want to …. Five minutes of struggle is better than twenty-four hours of daydreaming.” There is no attempt here to innovate or improvise; the expressions of insight are refreshingly free of argument and cant or special pleading. The result is the exposition is effective and the prose is durable and in no sense dated. There are no potted expressions meant to impress the listener or express the private opinion or reservations of the speaker.
At the time I identified Mrs. Welch’s message with a simple, three-letter word – “aim.” It seemed to me at the time that she was always after us to define our own “aim.” I was surprised to realize how difficult it was to comply, difficult when not impossible! Not much about aim has found its way into the text at hand.
What I took away from the Work, right away, was the notion that what lies at the root of most personal and social problems is mechanicality … in “mentation,” emotion, and action. “Mechanicality” is a word that is instantly meaningful, yet is seldom heard or used in this sense by the outside world. On one occasion, she asked a provoking question: “My pet mechanicality is what irritates you. What is there in me that I am unconscious of, and need to be conscious of and know better?”
If I had more time and space I would compare and contrast the records of these meetings, as fragmentary as they are here, compiled not by an individual but by “The Editors, The Gurdjieff Foundation,” with more elaborate records kept of meetings with Ouspensky, Madame Lannes, Conge, and other group leaders. But there are readers (perhaps those who have been exposed to multiple teachers) who are better equipped to do so than am I.
The beating heart of the book lies in its most extended passage, a veritable lecture, which runs from page 66 to page 97. This passage covers most of the subjects germane to work on self. Unlike the shorter sections, which range in length from one sentence to one paragraph or to one or two pages, some dated, the narrative arc of this passage moves from one aspect of the subject to another aspect of the subject, and it builds, as dramatists like to express it. It begins, “I can be stirred into uneasiness … ” and it ends, “We rejoice in the joy of the possibilities.” The beat of this heart marks the ending of the first section of the book.
The second section, which records exchanges between 1973 and 1987, preserves the question-and-answer format – observation and discussion – so it is somewhat more digressive than the first section, but perhaps more engaging. Its heart beats faster. In many ways it may seem less exciting but it is more experienced, less promising but more polished, yet not having been there I cannot comment on how well it represents the occasions themselves. I would say that they do show a leader who is probing, more deeply than formerly, the content of the Work, perhaps because the members of the group are able to absorb more than they did formerly.
The book ends with a selection of aphorisms. Here are some of the book’s aphoristic expressions or pensées, most of them taken from the text itself and not from the selection devoted to them:
* “Our search is not for miraculous results, not to achieve a result, but to learn a process.”
* “My body knows what it wants, not what I want. I must teach all of my parts what I want.”
* “My Gurdjieff said, ‘I don’t bring you a system of morality, but how to find conscience.’ We must find the outlines of a structure that is more valid.”
* “Only when I have a certain level of being can I be open to a certain level of knowledge.”
* “I remember Mr. Orage saying, ‘I love you,’ said the man. ‘Strange that I feel none the better for it,’ said the woman.”
Readers of the book today may find the presentations of procedures of “the work” and the attitudes that are described in these pages less engaging than did listeners at the time. Some of the passages are more than a half century old; others have aged by at least a quarter century. Much water has passed under the bridge since then, and truisms and oral teaching techniques that were once novel are now found in best-selling books and courses on the human potential movement, leadership training, self-motivation, cognitive therapies, mindfulness training, and on the TED Lectures on the Web. Many of the formulations are indebted to Mr. Gurdjieff, who gave gifts of insight to the world, few of them acknowledged. Nevertheless, here are some of Mrs. Welch’s formulations that struck me as still valid, informative, or interesting:
* We want to go on repeating what belongs to another period. “Mr. Gurdjieff said that he wasn’t interested in anyone over five or under fifty-five.”
* “Gurdjiefff said one third of one’s life should be spent in pondering. Why was I born? Who am I? What is meant by waking sleep?” [This statement comes from the second section. I recall no earlier instances of the use of the word “pondering” in the earlier period, or any references to the importance of “sittings,” now staples of the de Saltzmann period.]
* “To me it is such an extraordinary thing that a Way exists in which one does not have to leave one’s life.”
* “In Movements we have enormous help. We have a taste of what it means to be close to attention.”
* “We are all members of the human race in a bigger way. All this is common to us. If you see this enough you can’t even hate Hitler. He was just a biological mutation of the wrong sort.”
* “When I first went to Mr. Gurdjieff’s apartment, I couldn’t bear the thought of where he was living. After I was there for ten minutes it was the whole world.”
* “Madame Ouspensky said we always have time for a love affair. This is the human condition.”
* “Mind is the greatest thing we have – excuse me, we do not have it. It is there. How do we find access to it?”
* “If wish doesn’t exist, the wish to wish does exist.”
I will end this appreciation of “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto” with one oft-repeated remark of Mrs. Welch’s. It is a favourite of mine and I distinctly recall her uttering it on at least two occasions.
She said, “Your aim is to find your aim.”
John Robert Colombo is a prolific author and anthologist with a special interest in offbeat Canadiana and traditional studies. His latest publication is the Foreword to Paul Beekman Taylor’s book “The Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff” (Eureka Editions). Colombo was recently honoured as one of the “100 Graduates of Influence” of his alma mater, University College, University of Toronto. He holds the Harbourfront Literary Award, an honorary D.Litt. From York University in Toronto, and Bulgaria’s Order of Cyril and Methodius (first class). His website is . If you wish to be informed of forthcoming reviews and commentaries on this website, send him an email. His email address is email@example.com .
Gurdjieff: drawn from life by Kiril Zdanevich in 1920 (*see note below)
Real Worlds of G.I.Gurdjieff”n
ins, “About nine months ago.” That one should be retained.n
About nine months ago, out of the blue, I received an email from Paul Beekman Taylor. It came as a surprise because I had never met the scholar and historian of the Work, although in the past I had reviewed a number of his books for this website. In his email Dr. Taylor mentioned that he was completing another book and hence he was writing to inquire whether or not I would consider contributing a Foreword to the work-in-progress.
I was, frankly, flattered, as I have long appreciated the man’s knowledge, grasp, and approach to the history of the Work. One learns much from reading his prose. But why me? (I have not been able to answer that question. Some of us are lucky, I guess!) I replied in a positive way and asked to see a few of the chapters of the book. I read them as soon as they arrived, I responded with some editorial reactions, and I agreed to contribute a biographical foreword, as long as the author felt he was free to accept or reject the text or suggest modifications.
Here is that foreword. There were no modifications. I hope it helps to draw readers not only to Dr. Taylor’s current book and also to his past publications. As I write, “Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff: Chapters in the Life of a Master” is about to be issued by Siebold and Patricia Tromp-Guégan, proprietors of Eureka Editions, an ambitious publishing house with an interesting history based in Utrecht.
Foreword / John Robert Colombo
This book is about G.I. Gurdjieff. But this foreword is about Paul Beekman Taylor.
In common with the majority of the readers of this book, I have yet to meet its author, if only because he lives and works in Geneva and I live and work in Toronto. Even thought we have not enjoyed a face-to-face meeting, that does not mean that we do not see eye-to-eye. I think we do see eye-to-eye, though he might have some qualms when I resort to the use of a tried-but-true phrase to characterize him. That phrase is “a scholar and a gentleman.”
Paul Beekman Taylor is certainly a scholar; there is no questioning that. He is a scholar in a number of fields, in addition to his role as a student and chronicler of the life and work of G.I. Gurdjieff. But let me make a few general points before considering the scholarship and the gentlemanly nature of the man.
If I may generalize, readers of this book will be people who belong to one or two groups. One group consists of people who know next to nothing about what has been variously called the “special doctrine,” the “system,” the “Fourth Way,” “the work,” or more explicitly “the Gurdjieff work.” The other group consists of people who are widely and perhaps even deeply read in the “literature” of the work; they may even be members of groups or centres that put into practice its principles. In my own mind, I dub any member of the first group a cheechako or “tenderfoot,” and any member of the second group a sourdough or “old hand.” Here I am employing words that were popular during the Yukon Gold Rush of 1898, words that were popularized in the ballads of the “Bard of the Yukon,” Robert W. Service. What the cheechako and the sourdour have in common is that each person has been drawn to the work by its enchanting features or driven to the work by the disenchanting features of man and his world.
Both the “tenderfoot” and the “old hand” will find in the pages of this book fascinating information, little if any of it of public knowledge. It is information that will expand one’s understanding of the everyday life of Mr. G., and extend one’s sympathy for this enigmatic man and the problems he faced on a daily basis. No reader will reach the last pages of this book without evincing an admiration of the man and his mission … the work of self-styled “Teacher of Dancing.”
Every reader will then begin to ask for more information about “the scholar and the gentleman” who wrote this study of Mr. G.’s life and times. Some biographical and bibliographical information about Paul Beekman Taylor should certainly help the reader to appreciate the unique qualifications of its author and how it seems he has been “tailor-made” to research and write this book. Here goes ….
Taylor was born in London, England, on 31 December 1930. He describes the unusual nature of his upbringing in one of these chapters much better than could anyone else. His childhood in Mr. G.’s extended family is indeed a remarkable biographical fact. In brief, he was raised by a lively mother within an enchanted circle of men and women involved in the work and somewhat later he was raised by a leader of the work in the United States.
He earned his bachelor’s degree from Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, in 1954; his master’s from Wesleyan University, Middleton, Connecticut, in 1958; and his doctorate from Brown again in 1961. Among his many academic honours is the fact that he has served as a Fulbright Scholar and a Fulbright Lecturer. Thereafter he taught in Departments of English at Brown University, University of New Mexico, and Yale University, as well as at universities in Oslo, Ireland, Tel Aviv, Lausanne, Fribourg, Zürich. He is now an Emeritus Professor of the University of Geneva and retired from teaching but not from searching and writing. He has been thrice married and has seven children. People whom I respect speak very highly of him; indeed, with considerable respect for his personal qualities as well as for his scholarship. He is truly a gentleman.
In academic life, Professor Taylor’s speciality is Old Norse; indeed, his 1963 doctoral dissertation bears the title Old Norse Heroic Poetry. Among his many scholar papers and book-length works are three volumes of translations from the Old Norse which he undertook with the great poet W.H. Auden. In addition to Old Norse, he is a specialist in both Old English and Middle English; he has also taught courses on modern American literature and Chicano writing.
Taylor has contributed mightily to “the Gurdjieff field.” He is one of the founding members of the All & Everything International Humanities Conference, a group of independent scholars and thinkers who have been meeting annually in various cities since 1996. He has researched and written six studies of interesting and important aspects of the work:
* Shadows of Heaven: Gurdjieff and Toomer (Weiser Books, 1998)ohn
* Gurdjieff and Orage: Brothers in Elysium (Weiser Books, 2001)
* Gurdjieff’s America: Mediating the Miraculous (Lighthouse Editions, 2004) reissued as Gurdjieff’s Invention of America (Eureka Editions, 2007)
* The Philosophy of G. I. Gurdjieff (Eureka Editions, 2007)
* G.I. Gurdjieff: A New Life (Eureka Editions, 2008)ohn
* Gurdjieff in the Public Eye 1914-1949 (Eureka Editions, 2011)
His biography of Gurdjieff takes its place alongside James Moore’s classic Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth (Element Books, 1991). Gurdjieff’s Invention of America is the product of prodigious scholarship. If The Philosophy of G.I. Gurdjieff is a little diffuse, Gurdjieff in the Public Eye is right on the ball! There is no real precedent for the present book, Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff , which consists of the discoveries made following a lifetime of immersion in the work and a half-century of research conducted with primary materials in private hands and public institutions, as well as with the ever-expanding “literature” of the work. The literature is vast for it embraces a multitude of books (patiently annotated by J. Walter Driscoll) and published and unpublished memoirs in the languages of Eastern and Western Europe and the anglophonie. In the process of researching and writing the present book, which is essentially a collection of essay-length studies, he has revealed most surprising and interesting aspects of the social and personal life of Mr. G.
For instance, new light is shed on members of his family in the Caucasus and on his meetings with members of the artistic community in Paris, creative people like Ezra Pound and Lincoln Kirstein. Then passages are quoted from the transcripts of secret intelligent reports from the dossiers the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. (These are eye openers!) How was Beelzebub’s Tales written? How was its publication financed? Is there a ur text in Russian? The answers appear here in more detail than ever before. Unexpected light is shed on the man’s deep love of children and the way he would tweak them to remember him, his message, and themselves. This relationship resonates with the author – and by extension with the reader – because in his childhood he benefited from the largesse of Mr. G. I could go on. The final chapter is remarkable for its insight into the life that Mr. G. kept secret, and the insight into why he did so. All in all, this is a remarkable book for cheechako and sourdough alike. It gives everyone the flavour of the man and his times.
I have no idea where Paul will next “strike” … what part or aspect of the work that he will stake out in order to unearth its termas, its buried treasures. But from the correspondence that we have intermittently conducted, I am led to believe that future forays will take him into archives and personal records that will bring to light further hitherto hidden material – on Gurdjieff’s Caucasian roots, specifically the connection with the Mercourov family in Armenia and Russia, on the Russian years in general, and on the man’s role as a “Teacher of Dancing.”
I look forward to rereading the present work, now that it is appearing in print, and to reading forthcoming essays and books written by Paul Beekman Taylor … in the same way that I look forward to meeting the scholar and the gentleman in person.
Note from SW:
the info captioning the image of the cover came from the book’s author Paul Beekman Taylor via John Robert Colombo.
There is a also a wiki page about Kiril’s older brother:
and an article by Jennifer Walker in the online Artes Magazine- click on link below
‘The Forgotten Modernists: In Search of Georgia’s Avant-Garde’, which establishes cultural links between Russia, Tiflis and Paris, and where you can read more about Kirill’s life as an artist.
John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist with a special interest in Canadiana, the mysterious, and Sax Rohmer. His latest books are “Jeepers Creepers” (a collection of accounts of psychical experiences) and “Fascinating Canada” (discussions of little-known facts about a very-big country). Earlier this year he was honoured by his alma mater, University College, University of Toronto, as one of “University College’s 100 Graduates of Influence.”
Remembering Lord Pentland
Not too long ago there was an uproar over James Moore’s biography of Lord Pentland, with Moore expressing exasperation with the man he had met on one or two occasions, and with readers (and non-readers) of his biography who rushed to the defence of the man who was their teacher. For those who missed the catcalls and the catfight, here is some background information.
Henry John Sinclair (1907-1984), 2nd Baron Pentland, was appointed by G.I. Gurdjieff to lead the Work in North America. He became the first head of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York, leading that centre from its establishment in 1953 to the time of his death. As well, he oversaw the founding of the Gurdjieff organization in San Francisco, and over the decades he addressed countless study groups and met innumerable students throughout the United States. I am not aware that he ever ventured across the Canadian border.
He was said to be selfless in his devotion to the Work. A rule of thumb – my thumb – is that those people who knew the Baron personally, whether colleagues or students, were quite attached to the man and most protective of him – he does look frail in photographs, almost cadaverous – whereas those who knew him impersonally or peripherally, or not at all, were less disposed to be appreciative or even generous about him and the role he played.
A wake-up call was James Moore’s book “Eminent Gurdjieffians: Lord Pentland” which gave the man and the leader no quarter. I reviewed this stylishly written biography upon publication for this website, and it remains the sole biographical inquiry of any length devoted to the man and his work. On another occasion I summarized some of Lord Pentland’s published talks. I will not repeat here what I wrote there. I think readers may view the present publication “Remembering: Being with My Teacher” as an attempt to re-right the wrong, to re-balance of scales, to set the record straight, by offering at least one former student’s emotional tribute and appreciation of Lord Pentland at work and at play. On that level the publication succeeds.
Now that Lord Pentland and James Moore have been identified, the only other person to describe is Ashala Gabriel, the author of the publication. She is a woman in her early seventies, who has for many years worked in New York as an independent literary agent, copywriter, and psychic (or mystic, as she prefers). Ms. Gabriel is a graduate of Brown University, with a Master’s degree in TESOL (teaching English as a second language) from Hunter College, and a Doctor of Divinity degree or certificate from The College of Divine Metaphysics.
In 2002, Simon & Schuster published her illustrated book for young children, Night Night Toes. Ms. Gabriel has her own website, HeartReadings, where she writes, “I am a natural mystic. Even in my crib days, I was a frequent flier to far-off worlds – worlds as clear and close as the nose on my face.” (This detail brings to my mind the Ontario-born “natural medium” named Dorothy Maclean who with her “green thumb” grew those giant cabbages at Findhorn in Northern Scotland. In passing, Ms. Maclean’s own volume of memoirs, “To Hear the Angels Sing,” is well worth reading. I think Ms. Gabriel and Ms. Maclean are kindred souls.)
Never before have I heard of anyone who bore the name Ashala, so I checked the website Quick Baby Names where I learned the following bits of information. The website states that the name is a variant of Ashley which was popularized in the movie “Gone with the Wind.” The website continues: “As a baby girl name, Ashala is currently not a popular baby name in the USA.” The website concludes, interesting, that the name describes “a professional woman with good tastes and values, but is quite shy.” Whether or not this is true of the author Ashala Gabriel, I do not know, never having met her. But reading her prose, I do not judge her to be particularly shy, though, yes, she is somewhat tentative and certainly a sensitive woman.
Ms. Gabriel is the author of “Remembering: Being with My Teacher” published by CreateSpace in New York and her book is available through Amazon and Indigo. The trade paperback measures 6″ x 9″ and is 154 pages in length. One unusual feature of the publication is the pagination. Printers customarily reserve the number 1 for the first page, the one on the right. In this publication, the number 1 appears on the left-hand page (which means there should be a page 0)!
The text is set in a sans-serif typeface, though the typeface is generally reserved for headings, as they slow the reader down, lacking as they do readily recognizable serifs, thick and thin shapes, etc. However, the lines are well “leaded,” i.e., spread apart, so each page is quite spacious and easy to read. There are about 40,000 words here, divided into 44 chapters, so each chapter is in extent under 1,000 words long. Each chapter is a self-contained reminiscence which describes an interaction with Lord Pentland (who is referred to as “LP”). The author calls these chapters “stories,” and so does Barbara Wright George who supplies a friendly foreword in the form of a letter in which she notes, rightly, that “these stories” reveal “a teacher in action.”
A curious point about the 44 chapter headings is that they appear in lower case and systematically hyphenated – “the-invisible-cloak,” “unconditional-invitation,” “st.-george-of-the-jigsaw,” “death-and-breath,” etc. This creates a sense of breathlessness which is also characteristic of the text itself, as Ms. Gabriel enjoys hyphenating words, perhaps influenced by the neologisms of “All and Everything.” In one story, she describes how she elaborately packaged some baked goods for Lord Pentland. He observes this and draws this feature to her attention as a teaching lesson: “I was able to take in a strong impression of my tendency to always embellish everything I was asked to do.”
LP is described as “my teacher for all times” and as “a tall, stately, bushy-eyebrowed man” who is always asking “those question-less questions I’d learned to listen for but was rarely in the sort of state I was prepared to hear.” The episodes involving the two of them take place in California and New York State. Some of the encounters are entirely anecdotal, like the one called “elevator-antics.” An elevator operator responds to LP’s question about how life was treating him by saying that life has been taking him “up and down … up and down.”
The chapter “bookmark-re-marks” demonstrates how LP could be very direct in dealing with situations like the one created by the “bookmark people” who were always entering bookstores and inserting their own bookmarks in books by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. He had his followers continue to remove the bookmarks and bring them to him, and in his own handwriting he replaced the printed telephone numbers with his own phone number. “Now, don’t get caught … and don’t let any of the others at the Foundation know what we’re doing.”
The story I liked the most – because it tells us as much about Ms. Gabriel as about LP – is “cans-and-cabs.” It describes how LP set Ms. Gabriel a number of tasks to be completed in record time in downtown Manhattan a few hours before they were ticketed to fly from New York to San Francisco. Suitcases had to be claimed, delivered, etc., and she was ordered to arrive by cab outside the Waldorf Astoria to pick up LP: “Now be exactly on time, and not a minute too early.” The author describes how she conscientiously and breathlessly accomplished all of this, at one point trusting the good will of a New York taxi driver to safeguard a trunk full of reels of films of the Movements. As the cab pulls up with her and the trunk with its valuable consignment, LP descends the hotel’s steps. She had arrived at the hotel precisely on time. “Well done,” LP smiled, rather like the Cheshire cat.
LP’s remarks are hardly quotable but they are thoughtful and hence memorable. When Ms. Gabriel went grocery shopping for a group function, she returned with the exact change from the purchases. LP was pleased. “Always remember, the Work is in the details.”
On other occasions he offered these remarks: “Real doing is on the inside.” “It’s not just what you’re looking at, it’s where you’re looking from.” “Sooner or later you have to decide if you want to be visible or invisible.” He took the long view of life: “Try to look at your life in seven year increments. Then perhaps you’ll be able to see something about the larger patterns behind the events which have occurred.”
On occasion I have found that the first and last words of a book may be used to summarize its theme or content. This is so with the present book. Its first word is “my,” and its last word is “legacy.” Indeed, “Remembering: Being with My Teacher” is the author’s legacy, a tribute to Lord Pentland.
John Robert Colombo, author and anthologist, contributes the occasional book review to this website. He is known across Canada as “the Master Gatherer” for his compilations of lore and literature. He is currently collecting for publication the non-fiction writing of Sax Rohmer (the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu). The text of Colombo’s speech titled “Fantastic Elements in the Fiction of Sax Rohmer” appears on his website < http://www.colombo.ca >>.
THE NEW AGE OF RUSSIA: OCCULT AND ESOTERIC DIMENSIONS
edited Birgit Menzel, Michael Hageneister and Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal
SLCCEE, Volume17, – Berlin,Verlag Otto Sagner 2011
Hardcover, 451 pages,
Select Bibliography Michael Hagemeister
This volume is divided into four sections:
Prerevolutionary Roots and Early Soviet Manifestations, (five chapters)
Manifestations in the Soviet Period (1930 – 1985) (four chapters)
The Occult Revival in Late and Post Soviet Russia (1985 to the Present), (seven chapters)
Comparative Aspects, Continuity and Change (two chapters)
Birgit Menzel provides a comprehensive introduction, especially useful in addition to her summaries of individual chapters are some of the reasons she gives why the borders between science, religion and the occult in Russia have differed from those in the West, and at other difficulties for researchers in these fields. Some, as may be imagined, are due to the search for scattered material, some arise from language and translation differences between scholars. Others which must pose considerable problems are due to differences in terminology:
The terms Occult and New Age have been rejected by most Russian members of, what I will call here the occult underground, (p 18).
Terms defined in Western scholarship need modification, or further explanation when applied to Russian material, (p 19).
Specialist and General Readers
My own reading of The New Age in Russia is from the perspectives of of both the specialist and general reader. I fit into both categories, having some specialist knowledge of G. I. Gurdjieff and Fourth Way teachings, but little background in Russian studies.
Although primarily a book for the specialist reader in Russian 20th century studies in relation to occultism and esotericism, this collection of essays which examines the origins and influences that formed the kaleidoscope of changing networks of esoteric and occult teachings, their interaction with changing political establishments, together with the prevailing political and international geo-political conditions, will also be of value to the general reader.
There are two factors which, without in any way lessening the value of individual essays, may cause the non-specialist reader to take things slowly. The first is because the time indicated in the first three sections starts in the late eighteenth century and ends in ‘the present’, that is 2012, however; the essays could not be expected to form a sequential series. Most of the scholars need to establish what is happening before the period they focus on, and as the author of the introduction tells us some overlapping is inevitable. The effect of this on a reader who starts at the beginning and continues on sequentially is a kind of dizzy slippage as time seems to moves forwards, backwards and then forward once more. This displacement of the reader is intensified by the change in focus from essay to essay. Some offer a wide lens view of their subject matter whilst others present more of a close up.
The second factor is that much of the subject matter, the influence of esoteric and occult teachings, their sources and backgrounds, the lineages of esoteric and occult teachings together with their relation to cultural influence, political actions and reactions, occur throughout most of the essays, and some of the same people occur in one, two or more essays albeit from differing perspectives and emphasis. For example, my own area of interest as mentioned above, is in Gurdjieff studies and the accounts given here have usefully expanded and repositioned my own understanding, placing him and his ideas in a common context relating to life in Russia before the flight to Europe and America. But these references occur in a number of different essays. Although there are some useful pointers within essays to related chapters, an index would have helped me to navigate this and other subject matters.
New Age and New Identity
The overall impression given by these essays is that Russia was seeking a ‘New Age’ and a new identity for itself during the whole of the period covering at least the century from the 1880s to the 1980s, which saw almost continual turmoil, revolt, and repression manifesting in ways which often ran counter to uninformed Western assumptions. Russians faced a continuing need for redefinitions of interrelated forms of identity: at individual, local, national, and international levels, together with the simultaneous and contradictory need to preserve, hide or obliterate these identities. All of which makes for a tendency towards multiple, separate, blurred, ambiguous or contradictory personal and ideological identities in Russia.
For example Jeffrey Kripal in his On Reading Russian Mystical Literature Upside Down (pp 421 – 431) reminds us of:
‘the multiple censorship of the mystical,’ [citing the] ‘almost total annihilation’ of members of the secret society the United Workers’ Brotherhood shot during the Great Terror 1937 – 38′, (p 427).
This might accord with stereotyped Western expectations. However: we learn from Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal that:
In the 1920s and early ’30s, the secret police worked with the occultist Barchenko [of the United Worker's Brotherhood] and the government funded Roerch’s search for Shamhala. In the 1960s and ’70s, the government denounced yoga as spiritual contraband, even while studying yogic breathing techniques, that could help astronauts, and it supported research on parapsychology, (Occultism as a Response to a Spiritual Crisis, p 400).
The activities of Barchenko and Roerich are each the subject of essays. Barchenko in Oleg Shishkin’s The Occultist Aleksandr Barchenko and the Soviet Secret Police (1923-1938)(pp 81-100), and Nicholas Roerich in Markus Osterrieder’sFrom Synarchy to Shambhala: The Role of Political Occultism and Social Messianism in the Activities of Nicholas Roerich(pp 101-134)
The illustrations are a welcome and instructive addition to the text. Two of the images in colour are Married by Satan (1917) p 47, and KonstantineTsiolkovskii. A Polish lacquer miniature, ca. (1980) p 150. Both suggest a close association between the erotic and the occult/esoteric.
The first, a poster for the film Married by Satan looks more like the sexual assault of a naked helpless woman by demons than a marriage, and appears in Julia Mannherz’s The Occult and Popular Entetainment in late Imperial Russia (pp 29-51). She explores ambivalent attitudes to the supernatural which nevertheless appeared as commercial attractions in newspapers.
Even instruction manuals and occult journals mirrored the same ambivalent attitudes … the boundaries were even more blurred in the circus arena, on stage or on the silver screen. In the performing arts, the rational and the mysterious merged within single productions, (p 38).
KonstantineTsiolkovskii [Artist Kukulieva Kaleriya Vasillievna b 1937]
The portrait of Tsiolkovskii (1857-1935), regarded as the father of space travel, was made forty-five years after his death when ‘he had been made intro a hero by Soviet propoganda’. See Michael Hagemeister’s essay Konstantine Tsiolkovskii and the Occult Roots of Soviet Space Travel (pp 135-150) which shows that Tsiolkovskii ‘s scientific resaerch into space travel was but a means to his esoteric ends which while they aimed for cosmic evolution leading to imortality demaded the horrifying notion of the destruction of all imperfect human beings, animals and most plants. Hagemeister writes that ‘The magical-esoteric understanding of science and technology is still prevalent in today’s Russia’ p 148).
The image shows him sitting with his feet on plans for space rockets, behind him a table of scientific equiment, and behind that again a dark sky with a suggestion of constellations and of the zodiac, his male sexual power has been emphasised by the use of phalic imagery (the rocket, his leg, the drapery). The image unites his career in both rocket science and esotericism, although, as we learn from the essay referred to above, he ‘condemned sexual reproduction as ‘humiliating’, p 139).
Two black and white portraits emit extremes that express the times they belong in. The first on page 23 showing Gleb Ivanovich Bokii (1897-1937) in 1918, so thirty-nine or forty years old, looks more like a painting than a photograph and seen on the page it combines extreme contrasts between black and white to show the left side of the image with a dark face against a light halo shaped background and the right side of the face bright against a dark background, the ear seems to be pointed, the eyes glance upward showing white rims underneath in a way that, for those familiar with them, are remeniscent of images of Gurdjieff. This seems a staged image of occult/esoteric power but is of a member of the OGPU (the principal secret police agency responsible for the detection, arrest, and liquidation of anarchists [...] in the early Soviet Union, who was nevertheless attracted by esotericim. This image suggests the crossover, and/or interconnections between notions of political and occult power. See Note
The second striking image on p 178, is that of “Tosha” (Vladimir Shuktomv (1957-1987)), this is most probably a photograph which has a degenreating grainy surface quality that is also clearly of the time when dissidents transfered their allegence from political ideology to the rock music of Boris Brebenshikov and the couter-culture (see p 178). I’ve given attention here to some of the illustrations because in my view though valuable additions, these are mostly underused and undervalued in academic texts.
Russian culture was influenced both by esotericism and occultism, and by politics throughout the periods examined in The New Age of Russia, and I have not attempted a summary of what are in effect a series of summaries of the complex inter-relation of these influences. In brief, areas looked at include medicine, academic institutions and classifications, science, space travel, interplanetary travel, utopia, technology, science fiction, novels, popular culture, theatre, cinema, Shamanism, Tibetan Buddhism, Neo-Hinduism, Eastern mysticism, Theosophy, parapsychology, and Transpersonal Psychology, amongst others.
Occult and New Age Movements in Russia from the 1960 s to the 1980s (pp151-185)
Birgit’ Menzel’s essay enables us to trace the complex paths taken from the first of these dates to the second, to acknowledge Russian connections with the East, and on the way to revise general Western assumptions about the New Age in Russia.
Although there were some similarities with the New Age in Western countries: an interest in changing states of consciousness, experimentation with psychedelic mushrooms,(Castaneda’s writings arrived in Russia) and a love of rock music, this overview shows that there were also major differences and that these are worth understanding. She writes that the state system supported research into the occult or paranormal which would not have been regarded as science in the West, that the Russian New Age was mostly a province of the predominantly male intelligentsia, while in the West it was transmitted via popular culture. Western interest in sexuality and in perfecting the body, via diet, yoga, homoeopathy, and sexual expression. did not occur in Russia where the occult underground was more cerebral, with a stronger emphasis on theory than practice, ‘the ultimate goal was ridding oneself of the body rather than unifying, body mind and soul’ ( p 185).
Comparative Aspects, Continuity and Change.
In the first essay of the fourth section of the book Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal writes about Occultism as a Response to a Spiritual Crisis, (pp 391-420), covering a series of spiritual crises causes by the loss of faith in specific ‘myths’, or ‘all encompassing ideas’ to live by during the period from prerevoutionary and early Soviet Russia, through to Late and Post-Soviet Russia. When agrarian socialism, Marxism, Symbolism, and Futurism each failed in turn interest in occultism surged, in Theosophy and Theosophically influenced teachers amongst others.
The United States has seen a similar series of crises aroused by ‘the fading appeal of the American civil religion, also known as the ‘American Dream’ (p 403). War, fears of nuclear war, the revelation of Nazi death camps, and a recognition of social injustice induced a refusal to accept the restrictions of prevailing cultural norms and were some of the factors that contributed to the counter-culture of ‘hippies’ and ‘beats’. This became an unprecedented surge in occultism from the 1960s to the present. She concludes that the uncertainties current in Russia and the USA that are likely to encourage a continued interest in occultism.
In the second essay of this section Jeffrey J. Kripal’s On Reading Russian Mystical Literature Upside Down (pp 421 – 431), observes the globalisation of esoteric movements which unlike religions are usually ‘very bad at maintaining stable communities, p 421). He wonders if:
a mystical event may not only be culturally or politically dissident: it may also be cognitively and epistemologically dissonant, (p 424).
and raises a number of issues that face the scholar of esotericism. These include the ‘censoring and suppressing ideologies of the modern-day academy, p 425), and he goes on to write that in this volume only Natalia Zhukovskaia in her Shamanism in the Russian Intelligentsia (Post Soviet Space and Time) (pp 328-3470, has been willing to recount her first hand experience as researcher-scholar, and in doing so shows the reader:
Russian anthropologists and intellectuals taking on the practices and roles of the shaman themselves, in essence, going native, (p 430 431) emphasis added.
Kripal’s use of the poetic and archaic phrase, ‘going native’ is a telling one. With it he refers to outdated notions of an abandonment of ‘civilised values’, a descent into an irrational and inferior way of life. These are familiar nineteenth, if not eighteenth century attitudes, all of which we must assume are not his own attitudes but those of the ‘suppressing ideologies of the modern-day academy‘ (p 431 ).
These are almost the final words in The New Age of Russia, and bring this intricate and detailed overview of a century and more of academic study firmly into one of the major contemporary academic debates.
Acknowledgements and thanks are due to the editors who brought this valuable contribution to esoteric and occult studies to publication. It offers evidence of the human refusal to obey or stay within defined boundaries, while simultaneously longing for security. In Russia during the 20th century these conflicting desires were expressed by politically repressive boundries, serially accompanied by a refusal to accept or to be bound by fixed, enprisoning ideologies. The two unbounded areas that continued to defy definition and which remained open for exploration during the whole century were those of the inner life, and outer space.
I found this photograph of Gleb Bokii on Google images, and it is clearly the source image for the painting shown above.
Here are a couple of definitions of terms and some initials used in the text which may be of use to fellow non-Russianists, (retreived from Wikipedia (5.6.2012).
Samizdat(Russian: самизда́т; IPA: ) was a key form of dissident activity across the Soviet bloc in which individuals reproduced censored publications by hand and passed the documents from reader to reader.
Tamizdatrefers to literature published abroad (там, tam, “there”), often from smuggled manuscripts.
The OGPU (1922-1934) was responsible for the creation of the Gulag system. It also became the Soviet government’s arm for the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Greek Catholics, the Latin Catholics, Islam and other religious organisations [...] The OGPU was also the principal secret police agency responsible for the detection, arrest, and liquidation of anarchists and other dissident left-wing factions in the early Soviet Union.
NKVD stands for The People’s Commissariatfor Internal Affairs, Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del), abbreviated NKVD (1934 – 1954).
from the entry for State Political Directorate Wikipedia retrieved 29.5. 2012
“There is not a page of this book that will not surprise and instruct every one of its readers, including even the most knowledgeable of readers.”
John Robert Colombo Reviews Paul Beekman Taylor’s Latest Book
The first introduction that I had to what is now called the Work was not the result of reading a copy of “In Search of the Miraculous.” That was my second introduction to it. The first introduction was finding a second-hand copy of “God Is My Adventure” in a bookstore which no longer exists in Toronto and buying it and avidly reading it from cover to cover. The book, published in 1935 and frequently reprinted, was written in a lively and irreverent manner by Rom Landau, a British or Polish-born journalist (Wikipedia says British, Taylor says Polish) with a special interest in such offbeat and exotic subjects as the dozen or so spiritual leaders who are the subject of “God Is My Adventure.”
Landau was a first-rate reporter and lively raconteur, and in this regard he resembled his contemporary, the American journalist and adventurer William Seabrook who also wrote about what became known as the Work. Among the spiritual leaders described by Landau in vivid detail are Count Keyserling, Stefan George, Rudolf Steiner, Krishnamuri, Meher Baba, and Frank Buchman, not to mention P.D. Ouspensky and G.I. Gurdjieff. It is a motley crew to be sure. Landau’s descriptions of the latter two leaders in action constitute the first such accounts to appear between the covers of any book, as distinct from the columns of daily newspapers and other periodical publications.
I will not take the time to discuss Landau’s understanding of traditionalist teachers or try to characterize his account of the lecture delivered by Ouspensky which he attended in London or his account of a lunch and a meeting with Gurdjieff in New York City. But I was reminded of Landau and the impression that he had made on me about fifty years ago while I was turning the pages of Paul Beekman Taylor’s latest book. It is called “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye” and it includes references to both Landau and Seabrook. Indeed, it would be incomplete if it had failed to do so.
First let me offer a description of this new book and then a brief account of its author before I turn to the text itself. “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye” is subtitled “Newspaper Articles, Magazines and Books 1914-1949.” It takes the form of a sturdy trade paperback which measures 6.25 inches by 9 inches and has 246 numbered pages. The pages are not stitched but glued. The textual apparatus includes a foreword, an introduction, a select bibliography, and a nominal index, along with 16 pages of dimly reproduced images of Mr. G., dancers, Movements demonstrations, program notes, newspaper clippings, the Priory, etc. The soul of the book is the seven chapters devoted to excerpts and commentaries – but more about such matters later.
The publisher is Eureka Editions in Utrecht in The Netherlands, and the year of publication is given as 2010 (though it seems the book has just appeared in the present year of 2011). Eureka is the publisher of over fifty Work-related books, including numerous new or reprinted volumes by Bob Hunter, Maurice Nicoll, Beryl Pogson, J.H. Reyner, Paul Beekman Taylor, and other group leaders, participants, and observers. The website of Eureka Editions is well worth examining for many reasons.
The story of Eureka’s founding and founders is given, along with its mission and defining characteristic: “Eureka Editions is not connected to any Foundation, Institute, Fellowship, Church or other form of organization, however useful they may be.” The publishers then quote Maurice Nicoll: “The Work is not a building, a place, a book, a system, dogma or tradition. The Work is something that lives in the hearts of men and women – if they can find it.”
The author of the present work is Paul Beekman Taylor who as a youngster “knew Gurdjieff.” Born in London in 1930, he and his mother spent some time at the Priory at Fontainebleau-Avon. Thereafter he became a scholar of Old Norse and Old English and taught for many years at the University of Geneva. He is now a Professor Emeritus of that institution. Books that he has researched and written include the very useful and detailed volume titled “Gurdjieff’s America” (2004), reissued as “Gurdjieff’s Invention of America” (2007), and “G.I. Gurdjieff: A New Life” (2008). The latter biography rises to the heights of James Moore’s classic work, “Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth” (1991); and, by incorporating the results of recent research, Taylor’s surpasses Moore’s biography in numerous particulars.
It is my guess that Taylor sees himself as the historian of the Work, and I assume that no one will deny that he is ideally equipped as a scholar to trace its trajectory and that no one will doubt his “feel” for the Work. When I learned of the imminent publication of “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye,” what flashed before my eye was the composition of the collection and the construction of the commentary, as well as the conviction that Taylor was the man for the job. I was more or less familiar with the ancillary literature because what also flashed before my eye was the following name: J. Walter Driscoll.
I have yet to meet J. Walter Driscoll. despite the fact that he was born in Toronto, where I live, and that he now resides on Vancouver Island, off the West Coast of Canada. I hope one day we will meet. Users of the Internet will be grateful to him for there is much for everyone to peruse on the website “Gurdjieff: A Reading Guide” edited by J. Walter Driscoll (third edition, 2004). Here is how the website describes itself:
“This edition of the ‘Gurdjieff Reading Guide’ contains a retrospective anthology of fifty-two articles, some originally published here, and others dating as far back as 1919. These provide an independent survey of the literature by or about George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866?-1949) and offer a wide range of informed opinion (admiring, critical and contradictory) about him, his activities, writings, philosophy, and influence.”
In effect, Driscoll’s “Gurdjieff: A Reading Guide” is the backbone of Taylor’s “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye.” Yet for its body and soul we have to turn to Driscoll’s magnum opus. This is the tome titled “Gurdjieff: An Annotated Bibliography” which was undertaken with the Gurdjieff Foundation of California and published in a hardcover edition by Garland Press in 1985. This standard work consists of some 1,700 entries full of delicious bits of information and iotas of insight.
Many researchers (like the present writer) have used Driscoll’s bibliography as a checklist for items to find, photocopy, read, and digest. I hope Driscoll continues to collect and annotate the ever-expanding body of knowledge about the Work. Yet the arrival of the Internet has probably stamped “paid” to future editions of Driscoll’s “Annotated Bibliography” at least in print form.
I am devoting all this attention to J. Walter Driscoll because the librarian, teacher, and archivist has contributed the foreword to the present volume. The foreword is short, only two pages in length, and it dwells entirely on the capacities and credentials of Taylor. It could but does not make the case that the “Annotated Bibliography” is the body and soul of “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye.” Driscoll seems very scholarly and endearingly self-effacing.
In his introduction, Taylor describes the present book as “an anthology of all printed materials about Gurdjieff during his lifetime.” He credits the work of “definitive” bibliographer Driscoll, of musician Gert-Jan Blom, and of historian Michael Benham, a specialist in twentieth-century Russian history. He discusses what is included because there was not enough space to reproduce every article from every newspaper or magazine in whole or in part or even at all. (That sounds like a job for the Internet.) But major articles quite often appear in full, and all the articles are succinctly and authoritatively annotated.
The years from 1921 to 1935 corresponded to a period of wide-spread public interest in Gurdjieff and his activities at the Priory, subsumed under the heading “the forest philosophers.” In all, I counted 126 articles from all periods, reproduced in whole or part, and they cover the years from 1914 to 1950. They range from the five-paragraph, anonymous notice about a hitherto unknown “Hindu” who had written “a most curious ballet scenario” called “The Struggle of the Magicians,” which appeared in “The Voice of Moscow” five months following the outbreak of the Great War and was read by Ouspensky, to the appearance of obituary notices in “The Times of London,” “The New York Times,” and “The New Yorker” in the late fall of 1949.
Taylor’s table of contents gives a good idea of the chronological arrangement of the material. There are seven chapters: 1. Early Notices; 2. What the French Press Reported on Gurdjieff and His Colony; 3. The English Press; 4. American News of the Institute; 5. The American Tour of 1924; 6. Gurdjieff’s Press 1924-1939; 7. Last Notices. The two chapters devoted to the American press are the longest, as they benefit from Taylor’s own research and editorial concentration on this period.
I am going to resist the temptation to discuss individual articles on the principle that one does not have to drink the entire ocean to know that it is salty – one drop will do; as well I will observe the injunction that it is difficult to eat just one salted peanut – and not a second and then a third. Having said that, let me suggest that worth the price of admission alone is the article reprinted from “The New Republic” (June 1929) written by Carl Zigrosser (who was subsequently appointed curator of prints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art). He knows his “prints” and offers his readers – and us, courtesy of Taylor – an engaging and lively account of a summer visit to the Priory as well as a notable pen-portrait of its founder.
It is interesting to read what non-Gurdjieffians have to say about Mr. G. Indeed, I find what Gurdjieffians have to say about the man and his manner somewhat predictable, and hackneyed because readers of the literature on the Work are already quite familiar with the formulations of Ouspensky, J.G. Bennett, members of The Rope, and other contemporary commentators. Independent journalists can often be irreverent and amusing, instructively so, as they fail to understand Mr. G. and his manner and method. Yet there is one editorial decision that was made with “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye” that surprises me.
What we have here is the material that should comprise an anthology, yet the text is presented not as an anthology or as a casebook of fully formed “pieces,” but as an historico-critical analysis that proceeds more or less decade by decade, in effect, a history. I wonder if the book would not have been more compelling and engaging had it been arranged in the form of an anthology, with independent contributions, each one introduced with a short preface followed by a source note and a critical commentary. The volume was not organized in this fashion, but I believe it would have found more readers had it been allowed to proceed along this trajectory.
According to the publisher’s webpage, one hundred copies of “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye” have been printed. (The statement about the press-run does not necessarily preclude reprints of the first edition.) Are there so few – or so many – collectors and “completists” who buy serious books about the Work? One would think there are more readers than one hundred who are interested in the interwar period, in journalism, in the sociology of belief, in the psychology of gurus and leadership, in comparative religion, in early twentieth-century philosophy, in New Age formulations, in Traditionalist thought, etc. Perhaps so, perhaps not!
I began this review with a reminiscence about Rom Landau’s “God Is My Adventure.” Taylor summarizes Landau’s contribution quite well, identifying times and places and people, and he concludes it by quoting Landau’s evaluation: “I have been unable to perceive in the man George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff the harmonious development of man.” That is the last sentence of the second-last paragraph. What Taylor does not quote is the first sentence of that paragraph: “I could dimly discern that the essence of Gurdjieff’s teaching contains a truth that everyone in contact with spiritual reality is bound to preach.”
Wallace Stevens wrote about 13 ways of looking at a blackbird. There are 32 short films about Glenn Gould. Hokusai painted 36 views of Mount Fuji. Paul Beekman Taylor has now offered us an anthology of 126 articles about Mr. G. There is not a page of this book that will not surprise and instruct every one of its readers, including even the most knowledgeable of readers.
John Robert Colombo is known across Canada as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of the lore and literature of the country. His current books include “Fascinating Canada” (a book of questions and answers) and “Jeepers Creepers” (a collection of told-as-true ghost stories). He has also published three volumes devoted to the life, work, and writings of Denis Saurat (who also “met Gurdjieff” and is discussed in “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye”). Colombo’s website is < http://www.colombo.ca >.
John Robert Colombo Reviews James Opie’s biographical study of Michael Currer-Briggs and the Gurdjieff Teaching
Some books may be described in a relatively straight-forward fashion. Other books, not so easily summarized, require much foreground and background information before they may be appreciated at all. “Approaching Inner Work” falls into the latter category. It requires information up front. But before providing that information, permit me to describe the physical appearance of the book itself.
A handsome publication, “Approaching Inner Work” bears the subtitle “Michael Currer-Briggs on the Gurdjieff Teaching.” Its author, James Opie, is a long-time student of the Work. The publisher is Gurdjieff Books & Music, an imprint and a distributor for Work-related materials. It is located in Portland and operated by the Gurdjieff Foundation of Oregon. The website is < info@gurdjeiffbooksand music.com >. The trade paperback measures 5 inches wide by 7.5 inches high, and it has xii +148 pages. The ISBN is 978-0-615-47529-5. The text consists of thirty-eight short chapters of commentary and interview, followed by an Appendix and an Acknowledgments. If I may risk a pun, this volume “speaks volumes.”
So much for the easy part. Now for the detailed part! First, the Author. Second, the Subject. Third, the Book.
The Author: James Opie
The “Opie” name is a respected one in literary circles, especially for the contributions of the well-loved, husband-and-wife team of English folklorists, Peter and Iona Opie. But the Opies are (as “Time Magazine” used to say) “no kin” to James Opie who describes himself as “a merchant and writer.” He was born in Sandusky, Ohio, in 1939, and is a graduate of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.
Despite his birthplace and residence in Portland, Oregon, he has become a recognized authority on Persian tribal rugs and the origin of tribal rug motifs – both of which sound like demanding undertakings! His two books in the field are “Tribal Rugs of Southern Persia” (1982) and “Tribal Rugs: Nomadic and Village Weavings of the Near East and Central Asia” (1992). The latter title has been translated into French, Italian, and German.
Opie was introduced to the Work in the mid-1960s when a musician friend loaned him a copy of “All & Everything.” He joined a group under the leadership of Donald Hoyt who became a member of the Gurdjieff Foundation under Lord Pentland and then served as president of the Gurdjieff Foundation of California. Lord Pentland himself was Opie’s teacher from 1974 to 1988. For fourteen years Opie was associated with Annie Lou Staveley of “The Farm,” later “Two Rivers Farm.” Mrs. Staveley was a direct student of Gurdjieff in Paris during his last years and also an associate of Jean Heap in London. Opie is now involved with Gurdjieff Books & Music in Portland.
It was while he was in Afghanistan dealing in rugs that Opie met Peter Brook and Madame de Salzmann who were in the midst of filming “Meetings with Remarkable Men.” On the set he also met Michael Currer-Briggs. Briggs is credited with being of material help at a critical point in the production of this major motion picture through his extensive contacts in the fields of film-making and finance. “Meetings” was released by Remar Productions (“remar” is short for “remarkable”) and Briggs was granted screen credit as the film’s executive producer.
The Subject: Michael Currer-Briggs
Opie refers to him as “Mr. Briggs” but I will shorten his name even further by referring to him as “Briggs.” He was born in 1922 in Leeds, Yorkshire, and died in 1980 in London, England. Briggs made his reputation in television production in the United Kingdom. He is credited as producer or director of over sixty-five television productions, largely episodes of popular mystery series. These were telecast between 1955 and 1970, so British viewers of a certain age might cast their memories back to such popular fare as “Boyd Q.C.,” “ITV Television Playhouse,” “ITV Play of the Week,” “Fraud Squad,” “Aces of Wands,” and “The Mind Robbers.”
Briggs reminds me of Fletcher Markle, the distinguished Canadian television personality, who was once married to the actress Mercedes McCambridge. Markle’s skills as producer and director overshadowed his abilities as creator and artist. In other words, Markle and perhaps Briggs excelled as “arrangers” or “packagers” of other men’s ideas. Unlike Briggs, Markle had no special interest in spiritual psychology.
These days Briggs is not remembered for those British series, but for his role as executive producer of “Meetings with Remarkable Men,” which was released in 1979, thirty years following Gurdjieff’s death and one year before Briggs’s own death. Briggs had a background in the Work that took root in London in the 1940s where and when he met Jane Heap. As the result of Opie’s book on him, Briggs will have, additionally, a future in the Work.
The Book: Approaching Inner Work
The text of the book consists of a series of short chapters which consist of Briggs’s commentaries on “inner work.” They are based on interviews conducted by Opie with Briggs over the last years of the latter’s life. There are thirty-eight of these and they cover a range of interests. Each chapter of commentary is titled, and some of these titles are straight-forward and descriptive (“John Bennett,” “Madame de Salzmann and a Question about Money”), whereas others are analytical and work-related (“Self-study and Seeing,” “Like and Dislike”). Overall they bring to mind – to my mind, at least – the “commentaries” that comprise Maurice Nicoll’s “Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky,” a much-neglected, five-volume work that is a gold-mine (I almost keyboarded “gold-mind”) of aspects of the Work which now seem to be called “inner work.”
These “commentaries” are Briggs’s words, taken from conversations and interviews that have been deftly edited and sensitively arranged by Opie to cover subjects of current and continuing interest. In a way the arrangement reminds me of a book of “table talk.” It begins with a rhetorical question posed by Briggs: ” … what can I do? What is it, precisely, that does not happen automatically, but requires my intentional efforts? Doing depends on intentionality. Intentionality depends on sincerity. It depends on the presence of I.” The book is in effect a meditation on these words.
The friendship began in 1977 in Central Asia, aka Afghanistan, where Opie was pursuing his trade in Oriental rugs and Briggs was visiting the set of “Meetings with Remarkable Men” then being filmed by Peter Brook under the tutelage of Madame de Salzmann. It seems Briggs with his industry contacts had a hand in ensuring the flow of funds from Lord Pentland, President of the Gurdjieff Foundation, to the production crew, no simple matter. History has a habit of repeating itself. Some decades earlier, Briggs was among the first visitors to Gurdjieff in newly liberated Paris to arrive with cash (presumably the first payment of Gurdjieff’s oil-well royalties!).
One night over dinner in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, Opie raised the subject of miracles. Briggs described them in terms of the two rivers or streams. “There are two fundamental streams, an automatic stream moving downward, toward multiplicity, and a conscious stream flowing upward, toward unity and the source of all life. Highly unusual experiences which seem to be miracles may involve merely, if one dares use that word, a lawful and transitory merging of the two streams at a particular point or event.”
Briggs gave an illustration of a “miracle” in terms of a carrot growing in a garden. To the carrot the appearance of the gardener is miraculous; to the gardener the appearance of the carrot is mundane. Points of view and levels of being are relevant to miracles. This novel illustration brought to mind P.D. Ouspensky’s example of the baked potato being more “intelligent” than the raw potato. The discussions between Opie and Briggs reverberate with references to be found in the canon of the Work. This particular conversation on the subject of miracles concludes with Briggs’s caveat: Because of “habitual patterns” of thought and feeling and response, he wrote, “I dare say ‘miracles’ have been the ruination of some people.”
Another caveat is based on the effectiveness of effort when based on full knowledge and complete understanding, and its ineffectiveness when based on faulty knowledge and limited understanding. “The exercise of listening to those who would build professional careers around certainty can be helpful. How misguided are those politicians and other public figures who wish to impress others with their certainty.” This can be very instructive, Briggs reminds Opie. “Initially, our work is not to change what is seen, but to open to a new quality of seeing, wherein we directly experience the force of automaticity in our reactions.”
These thoughts lead to a discussion of the differences noted by Madame de Salzmann between the servant and the slave. When we shirk our own burdens, we increase the loads that need to be carried by other people; when we shoulder our own, we lighten their burdens. Briggs states that we should not be overawed by the immensity of the known universe because it is matched by the unknown worlds within man. “Here our small physical size, as human beings, can be deceptive. Within us are many potential levels, many possible hierarchies. The universe is not altogether an outer arrangement.”
Briggs has a bent for vivid imagery. He suggests that there should be founded a new organization called “The Society for the Study of Self-love and Vanity.” He suggests that this kind of odd-fellows group could bring untold benefits to its members. As an aside he explains, “This is precisely what Mr. Gurdjieff outlined in his description of a ‘real group,’ which, he said, represents an exceptional level of achievement.”
He then traced the subsequent history of this impulse and how, over the years, it would metamorphose into its opposite. “Viewed from the outside, the buildings housing the Society may grow more impressive. But inside the buildings, decade by decade, the teaching descends to a level that is all-too-human.” This section of the book – about the devolution of this society and the impulse behind it – is called “The Unusual Society.” Although it is only a few pages long, it includes more than I can easily convey here. In fact, each of the chapters is quite expressive of the modulated expression of genuine insights.
The chapter titled “Madame de Salzmann and the Question of Money” deals broadly with values and evaluations and quotes Madame as making a pointed observation. “If students of Mr. Gurdjieff do not make a film based on this appealing title – Meetings with Remarkable Men – someone else will surely do so. We would then have to live with the consequences.” It is in Kabul that Briggs takes Opie to meet the Madame (a little drama all its own) and “the need to prepare a real question.” They chat with her on the film set and at one point Madame says, “When you first come, you hear and repeat ideas, with limited understanding. Later the ideas begin to live in you, and you have real questions. Now, your interest is superficial. But in time, perhaps it grows.”
The subject of money is broached. Opie suggests the ability to make it is “dirty.” Madame disagrees. “Money, a talent for making money, is not a dirty thing. Money is the blood of society. Everything is touched by money, every relationship. No part of life is without this connection, and it brings reality to your life. When money is needed it is no longer just … idea.”
This chapter, although short, reminded me of the comprehensive talk that Gurdjieff delivered on the subject of “the Material Question.” It seems everything everywhere is material and that it really matters. Madame gives it a spin: “Your life has a pattern. You don’t see it yet, but little by little it begins to appear. Seeing the pattern of your life helps very much. If you work with a talent, it develops. Later you can teach what you have learned to someone else who stands where you stand now. Then, perhaps, you will go on to something else.”
Briggs and Opie meet some months later at The Farm overseen by Annie Lou Staveley in Portland, Oregon. Here Briggs talked about the plan, subsequently abandoned, to cast some Work personalities as leading characters in the film. Apparently Henri Tracol was to play Father Giovanni. Briggs: “We attempted this briefly and the experiment totally failed. We saw that what each of these people had was their own. Nothing was acted. What they possessed, while genuine, was not what was needed. Films involve acting. Also, none of these senior people in the Work could take directions!”
The next two chapters deal with the dangers inherent in the transmission of oral teachings and how the Work has proceeded following Gurdjieff’s death. Madame de Salzmann met with the leaders of the various groups and the influx of new followers and attempted to create a single approach. There were disputes. “These disputes could have disrupted relationships within and between groups. Madame de Salzmann listened more than she spoke, and, like Mr. Gurdjieff, became a still point in the center of activity. Her efforts with previously existing groups, with new centers, and with hundreds of individual members, helped clarify more advanced approaches to inner work.”
The chapter titled “Roses and Thorns” looks at the opposites and how they must be accepted and how each person must accept responsibility. “Interest in this inner study begins to connect us with the stream of intentionality. At the outset, an impartial view of our manifestations may elude us. We have not yet learned to take the necessary step back to hear our own voices, to sense habitual bodily postures, or to experience repetitive emotional and mental patterns more immediately and viscerally. Others see much of this in us, but we do not. Yet, little by little, we begin to learn.”
Subsequent chapters consider the power of identification and the need for “self-study.” We must learn to distinguish between what is automatic and what is authentic. Briggs: “The primary change is the seeing and accepting what is seen, in the midst of our manifestations. Seeing without judging, with impartial interest, is a feature of consciousness and the stream of intentionality.” This is “a gift” that requires “preparatory work.”
“Wish and the Role of the Mind” is the first chapter in a series of chapters that deal with the role of “wish” (or “aim,” as it used to be called) in the Work. Gurdjieff’s words are quoted: “Wish can be the strongest thing in the world.” The role of man’s centres is discussed and Gurdjieff is quoted as saying that thoughts are “thinking in me.” The difference between justification and explanation is discussed.
Briggs: “When both my mind and feelings are identified with justifying or explaining, word-producing functions in the mind readily cooperate. But when there is real work to be done, this automatic part is silent. Will is called for, something intentional. A quite different part of the mind needs to appear.” Man is machinery. “Our work is to not attempt to withdraw from contact with this current. It is to learn, little by little, to relate to it with greater awareness.”
“Emotions about emotions” is a new formulation for me and perhaps for some other readers as well. Briggs: “When my awareness of an emotion is sidetracked by an automatic reaction, by an emotion about the emotion, is it too late to work? For Jane Heap, it was never too late. We begin from precisely where we are. We come into awareness now, rather than waiting for a better moment, or the arising of more positive attitudes. Looking back at lost opportunities with regret rarely helps us. The moment to begin is now.”
A chapter is devoted to “the multiplicity of I’s” and it describes how during an afternoon Briggs assumed one identity after another, one set of responses after another set, with hardly a sense of any segues. He prefers or defers seemingly like an automaton, assuming one identity after another. Readers will find the experiences that he describes appropriate to their own everyday lives. What to do about this situation? “At every step we need peers …. Peers-without-quotation-marks can keep a person honest.”
“Risks in group work” is not the title of a chapter but it is the subject-matter of one interesting chapter, and it goes into detail about the tactics that people devise or evolve to deal with the natures of groups or schools and the natures of the people who attend them. “Jane Heap once said that Mr. Gurdjieff could see into the dark corners of all of us because he saw into all the dark corners in himself.” Briggs distinguishes between “remarkable attainments” and “unfortunate crystallizations.” At this juncture the role of “shocks” is discussed.
Here I felt the discussion was skating on thin ice, for Ouspensky had gone into much more detail, distinguishing, as he did, between the tramp and the lunatic. The former could not hold any single thought for any appreciable time while the latter could not entertain any thought but the one that currently obsessed him. However, Briggs does quote Gurdjieff: “Learn to like what ‘it’ dislikes.” There follows is a brief discussion of the role of “charm” and how it harms.
Students of the work will find the next two chapters to be of special interest – the chapter on Jane Heap of biographical and bibliographic interest, the chapter on Jean de Salzmann relevant to ongoing discussions of the drift or the direction taken by the Work since the 1960s. As Briggs explains, “Mr. Gurdjieff did not instruct Madame to continue everything in fixed and dogmatic ways. Her task was to sustain the clarity and expand the influence of the teaching, while helping relatively small numbers to experience a deepening inner engagement. Aside from exercises for beginning levels, such as you and I have discussed, Mr. Gurdjieff introduced approaches to silent work to a few people who had been with him for many years, and to others he considered prepared for this work. First among these was Madame de Salzmann.”
As Briggs expresses it, Asian teachings were making inroads in the West. “Madame de Salzmann needed to understand and assess these new influences in Western culture in relation to the Gurdjieff teaching, even as she responded to the demands of her special role. She never resisted speaking with teachers of established traditions, even traveling to meet them in their own institutions and behaving externally not as a teacher, but as a student. But the course of her work had been set long before, by Mr. Gurdjieff.” Elsewhere it is said that Madame attended the Bollingen lectures on Jung’s thought at Ascona and even journeyed to Cairo to meet the Traditionalist thinker René Guenon.
Quite enjoyable are occasional references to Mrs. Staveley and the chapter devoted to the scalawag Fritz Peters. Briggs quoted Jane Heap on the latter personality: “In and out of groups, personal qualities are often mistaken for sincerity and truth.” A later chapter considers the special case of John Bennett, despite Briggs’s feeling that “it was difficult to discuss a figure possessing such useful skills, a great storehouse of intensity, and, from the viewpoint of those whom he influenced, a special and profound understanding of the Gurdjieff teaching.”
Bennett is seen as a man who placed “action” before “self-questioning” and risked the inadvertent mingling of all the traditions with which he was familiar with whatever one was at hand. Willem Nyland is also discussed. Had Nyland “gone off on his own” or had the rest of the followers “left the path”? As Briggs had little first-hand knowledge of Nyland, the point is not pursued.
The chapter oddly titled “Rolling the Triangle” refers to the Law of Three, in general to the Active, Passive, and Neutralizing principles, with specific references to the Three Centres in man. Jane Heap introduced the notion to Briggs who explained how the “triangle” is “rolled” in the sense that each “role” is changed or rotated to create other bodily impressions through attention and wish. He concludes, “Inside us, potentially, are many orders of triangles.”
Later chapters refer to E.J. Gold, Idries Shah, Jan Cox, and Alex Horn, who tried to take the Work or at least its followers in directions of their own devising. A chapter is devoted to the so-called Fellowship of Friends led by Robert Burton. At one time his followers were dubbed “the bookmark people” because they were tasked to visit metaphysical bookstores and insert their own bookmarks into copies of books by Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, and kindred writers. The bookmarks (handsomely produced; I own a couple) list telephone numbers of local groups. If there are still “bookmark people,” their bookmarks probably now include websites and email addresses. Briggs is surprisingly long-suffering and philosophical about these leaders and their groups: “Possibly a few people in centers led by such people sense something wrong and then look for more reliable sources.”
The chapter “The Yen to Teach” is one of the few discussions of the role of the teacher or group leader that I have encountered, and it considers the responsibilities that leadership entails and the misconceptions that it generates. The discussion is brief but Briggs quotes a suggestive insight from his own teacher Jane Heap: “When you grab hold of something too tightly you press your own fingerprints into it.”
The chapter “Our Final Face-to-Face Exchange” and the next one titled “Letters” describe Briggs’s failing health before he succumbed to cancer in England. They also include Opie’s importuning for guidance on how to regard the various centres, how they should relate to one another – not man’s inner centres, but the Work centres in the United States and in London and Paris. There was also what might be called the changing nature of the Work, or at least the change in direction or emphasis initiated by the Paris centre.
Briggs takes a long-range view of the effects of time and tide. “Few realize how much the Work moved during Gurdjieff ’s time in Europe in so far as he changed the way of passing on the Ideas a number of times. One period was all Movements, another his period of writing, another the intense work at the Prieuré, another work with very small groups, another a period of preparation during the war, and the last a period when in his declining years he himself had no more need and only cared for the people who came to him for their own sakes.”
Such changes or interchanges require greater efforts at cohesion. “Now we are coming to face a loneliness, where we have to take the responsibility, we have to draw closer together. This can only be done by exchange – by sharing – by watching – by remembering – in true openness. Relaxed and free and clear in our heads and hearts. What we do now we must do together and not alone. We are too weak to go it alone.”
The last chapters describe some of the ways in which Opie’s own life was affected by his friendship and fellowship with Briggs. Through Briggs, Opie grew close to Lord Pentland before the leader’s death in 1984. Then there is the almost elegiac sense that for efforts to take effect people must work together. This is expressed most clearly in one of the last letter that Pentland addressed to Opie: “I begin to see more clearly and without judgment or hostility that there is some chief weakness in our minds, in each of us, which so far we have all failed to conquer and that the Work’s future really does hang on some of us facing and sharing this individual difficulty with each other.”
It is reported that Briggs’s dying words were appropriate: “It’s all one.” And Opie’s book “Approaching Inner Work” is a work that is all of one piece. I have quoted substantially from the book, principally Briggs’s words and not Opie’s, because the latter is more than willing to step back to grant his subject the main speaking part. The book is very readable, very agreeable. In its pages I found a few facts and formulations new to me, and they may be new to other readers as well, but the principal value of this book lies not so much in what it reveals as in the demonstration of the fact that “inner work” continues, as long as we ask, in a heartfelt way, “What can I do?”
John Robert Colombo, a Toronto-based author and anthologist, is mainly known for his work in the field of Canadiana. But he has a long-standing interest in mysteries and the paranormal. His forthcoming book (from Dundurn Group) is called “Jeepers Creepers” and it consists of fifty told-as-true paranormal experiences of Canadians with psychological commentaries. He is an occasional reviewers of books about the Work for this blogsite. For information on Colombo’s other books, or to be alerted to the appearance of forthcoming reviews and commentaries, email him at his website: < www. colombo. ca > .
ALL & EVERYTHING NEWSLETTER—CALL FOR PAPERS, CALL FOR SEMINARS
ANNOUNCING THE 16TH INTERNATIONAL HUMANITIES CONFERENCE IN 2011
VENUE: Hotel Extol Inn, Prague, Pristavni 2, Prague 7, 17000, Czech Republic Wednesday,
DATES: 6th April – Sunday, 10th April 2011
A Gathering of the companions of the book, ‘All and Everything, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: A Totally Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man,’ G.I. Gurdjieff
THE ALL & EVERYTHING CONFERENCE:
Our Aim: the conference was originally conceived in 1996 as a meeting of the “Companions of the Book” and it has developed into a world forum for the presentation and discussion of recent writings, themes and music associated with the Work.
The conference provides an open, congenial and serious atmosphere for sharing research and investigation of G. I. Gurdjieff’s legacy. The conference seeks to keep the study of the teachings of Gurdjieff relevant to global, scientific, spiritual and sociological developments. This gathering is open to all serious students of All & Everything and is not under the auspices or sponsorship of any ‘Gurdjieff Group’ or umbrella organization. The conference is not intended to be a ‘Group Work Event’ and thus does not include Work on Movements or Exercises that are related to personal or group Work.
The conference includes the presentation of papers focused on the whole or part of this teaching, seminars on chapters, themes in All & Everything and cultural events. The program is scheduled so as to encourage time for dialogue and the developing of personal relationships outside the structured meetings.
DRAFT PROGRAM FOR ALL & EVERYTHING 2011
Wednesday Evening: Getting to know you session Thurs. Morning: Presentation of two papers, followed by discussions Afternoon Seminar: A chapter from Beelzebub’s Tales
Evening: Cultural Event
Friday Morning: Presentation of two papers, followed by discussions Afternoon Seminar: A chapter from Beelzebub’s Tales
Evening: open social evening
Saturday Morning: Presentation of two papers, followed by discussions Afternoon Seminar: A chapter from Meetings with Remarkable Men
Evening: Conference Banquet
Sunday Morning: Seminar: TBC
Closing Session: Where do we go from here? A conversation providing direction to the Planning Committee for future conferences.
CALL FOR PAPERS
ABSTRACTS – We are currently requesting submissions of abstracts for the papers that will be given at our next conference. Abstracts of accepted papers will be published in advance on the conference website so that delegates can prepare questions/comments. Writers who would like ongoing feedback should contact the Reading Panel.
Examples of previous papers as an indication of the variety of topics can be viewed here: http://www.aandeconference.org/reading-panel
The website is where all the contact and submission information is
The submission form can be downloaded at:
and then submitted by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com?subject=Paper_Submission>
CALL FOR SEMINAR FACILITATORS FOR CHAPTER DISCUSSION
At each conference we hold seminars (questions, conversation,
dialogue) on chapters in The Tales and Meetings and other work related subjects. Our experience is also quite remarkable as we bring our questions and understandings to the group at the conference that is made up of various lineages in this teaching. This provides all in attendance to have an opportunity for a respectful and useful exchange of our understandings and experiences.
Facilitators need to have a working familiarity with the chapters or subjects that will be discussed. These facilitators are also responsible for the transcriptions of the seminar that they facilitate. The chapters for
2011 are 29, 32, 33, 34 in The Tales and in Meetings chapter 7, “Prince Yuri Lubovedsky.”
The website is where all the contact and submission information is
The submission form can be downloaded at:
and then submitted by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com?subject=Seminar_Submission>
“Thanks to this, even the isolation of the inner life of each individual man is increased, and as a consequence what is called the “mutual instruction” so necessary to people’s collective existence is always more and more destroyed.”
- Beelzebub’s Tales, “From the Author,” page 1214
Five day conference registration fee for Wednesday to Sunday is: £55 (approx CZK 1696, €67, $86) and due by March 1, 2010.
One day registration Fee is £14, (approx CZK 454, €18, $23)
The conference registration fee is payable directly to the A & E Conference and it is in addition to the hotel costs.
To make our administration much easier, please, if possible, register on-line with a credit card at our website: www.aandeconference.org/register
If this is not possible for you, you may register by post. Contact us at:
firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com?subject=Register> and we will provide you a mailing address.
Please make checks payable to “All & Everything Conferences” with the form below or a photocopy.
MAIL-IN REGISTRATION FORM – ALL & EVERYTHING 2011
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5 Day Registration for person(s) @ £55, approx CZK1696, €67, $86
1 Day Registration for person(s) @ £14, approx CZK454, €18, $23 TOTAL (£) The Conference Registration Fee and Form are due by March 1, 2011.
Registrants will receive confirmation by email or post.
“…I was composing in my thoughts the scheme and sequence of the ideas destined by me for publication and did not know then how to begin either?
“This sensation then experienced I might now formulate in words only thus: “the-fear-of-drowning-in-the-overflow-of-my-own-thoughts.”
“To stop this undesirable sensation I might then still have had recourse to the aid of that maleficent property existing also in me, as in contemporary man, which has become inherent in all of us, and which enables us, without experiencing any remorse of conscience whatever, to put off anything we wish to do “till tomorrow”.
- Beelzebub’s Tales, “The Arousing of Thought”, pages 4-5
HOTEL RESERVATION INFORMATION
Please state that you are booking for the All & Everything Conference.
It is not too early to make reservations with the Hotel, and delegates are asked to book them early and directly with the hotel.
The A&E Conference cannot make reservations for delegates.
Extol Inn Hotel
Reception tel./fax: +420 220 876 541
Reservations tel.: +420 220 802 549
Reservations fax.: +420 220 806 752
Contact Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
HOTEL ROOM RATE ALL INCLUSIVE 4 NIGHTS (WED. EVE TO SUN. NOON)
single occupancy 3 star *** standard – CZK8685, £349, €286, $441 single occupancy 2 star ** – CZK7155, £236, €288, $364.
single occupancy 2 star ** economy-shared bath, CZK6415, £212, €258, $326 double occupancy 3 star *** – CZK 6585 per person, £ 217, € 265, $ 334 double occupancy 2 star ** – CZK 5815 per person, £ 192, € 234, $ 295 double occupancy 2 star ** economy – shared bath, CZK 5255 per person, £173, €211, $267
All options above include: “the postage,” conference facilities, breakfast, midmorning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea, three course dinner, and banquet dinner on Saturday evening.
NON-RESIDENT DAY ATTENDEES – HOTEL RATE PER DAY
Non-resident Day Attendee Hotel Conference Package Fee is: CZK 748, £ 25, € 30, $38 includes: mid-morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea. (This is in addition to the day attendee registration fee listed above, and is payable directly to the Hotel, by the day attendee, when they sign in at the hotel front desk.)
The PDF eBooks versions of the 1998 and 2001 Proceedings are now available from our website at:
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ALL & EVERYTHING CONFERENCE MAILING LIST
If you lead or facilitate a Gurdjieff group and would like to recommend any colleagues to receive a copy of this newsletter and subsequent invitations, please email your request to us. If you wish to have your contact information updated, please email your request to us at:
IF YOU WISH TO UNSUBSCRIBE FROM A MAILING LIST,
JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO
looks at the publications of SEYMOUR B. GINSBURG
The thought of G.I. Gurdjieff comes to mind whenever I drive into a shopping plaza where there is a sign that says Toys “R” Us. There are almost two dozen of these toy supermarkets in the Greater Toronto Area, where I live, all of them “reminders” of the man and his message. Canada alone has a total of seventy outlets at the present time. If you live in the United States, there are 860 occasions to remember Mr. Gurdjieff, but only seventy-six if you live in the United Kingdom. Non-U.S. outlets around the world offer an additional 716 opportunities for remembering.
All of this may seem a little sly or silly but for the fact that Toys “R” Us acts for me as a reminder to remember myself and it could do the same for other people too. The reason it comes to mind is that there is an interesting connection between the toy store chain and Seymour B. Ginsburg, whose contribution to the Work is an important one. As unlikely as it might seem, Ginsburg was the co-founder of the parent company and the first president of the company we know as Toys “R” Us. That was decades ago so I assume that he is no longer involved with running the highly successful chain of outlets.
Here is some background on the man, all taken from published sources. Sy Ginsburg (as he is usually greeted) was born in Chicago in 1934 and studied accountancy and law at Northwestern University. In addition to his success in the world of commerce, he has made his mark in at least five related fields of endeavour.
First, he served as President of the Theosophical Society in South Florida. Second, he was a co-founder of the Gurdjieff Institute of Florida. Third, he and his wife Dorothy Usiskin have been mainstays of the series of annual All & Everything Conferences, now in their fifteenth year. Fourth, he has drawn attention to the spiritual contribution of a modern-day Indian guru known as Sri Madhava Ashish. Fifth, he is the author of a number of books that are not only interesting but significant.
There is no way for me to survey all of these fields of accomplishment. Instead, I will describe Sy’s publications and focus on Sy Ginsberg’s relationship with “Ashishda” (as he is known). I will do so out of chronological order; I will also note that I met Sy at the A&E Conference held in Toronto in April 2009 and hence took the opportunity to observe him in action. I found him, unlike many students and practitioners of the Work, to be direct and dynamic. He knows his own mind and he understands precisely what he is doing.
These features are characteristic of his most important if overlooked publication, the one titled “Gurdjieff Unveiled.” There is a subtitle “An Overview and Introduction to the Teaching” as well as a sub-subtitle “For the beginning student, for the inquiring seeker, and for the simply curious.” The sub-subtitle covers a lot of ground, as does the text itself. It is a short work, not more than 150 pages in all, and the paperback copy that I purchased was published in 2005 by Lighthouse Editions, and is still in print on demand format ISBN 1-90499801 0.
From time to time I am asked to recommend a book on the Work. When that happens I automatically nominate P.D. Ouspensky’s “The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution,” for it is short, straight-forward, and uncompromising. Along with its companion book “The Cosmology of Man’s Possible Evolution,” it certainly captures the essence of the Work in Europe in the interwar period. Knowledgeable people often recommend books that convey the “taste” of the spirit of the Work since the 1950s, memoirs written by participants like Henri Tracol.
From now on I will recommend Sy’s “Gurdjieff Unveiled” as not only an introductory work but also as a “continuing” work. I recommend it despite its title which I assume reflects the author’s interest in Theosophy, and while I may yearn to behold “Isis Unveiled” (the reference is to H.P. Blavatsky’s major book written prior to “The Secret Doctrine”), I have never lusted to see Mr. Gurdjieff “unveiled.” It certainly offers information on the ins and the outs of the Work in clear and contemporary prose. Indeed, it is something of a handbook.
The work is dedicated to Nicolas Tereshchenko, “A serious seeker, a true scholar, a friend.” In addition to tables and diagrams and four appendices, it offers the reader six chapters, quaintly called “Lessons.” For general interest, I will list the titles of the chapters so the experienced reader will see at a glance where the book begins and ends.
Lesson 1: Who am I?
Lesson 2: The Expansion of Consciousness
Lesson 3: The Transmutation of Energy
Lesson 4: The Conservation of Energy
Lesson 5: Meditation
Lesson 6: Gurdjieff Groups
In these chapters I found considerable information with insights that I had not encountered elsewhere, at least in this form. Fresh material also appears in the four appendices. The first appendix tries to answer the question “Who are you Mister Gurdjieff” and includes detailed information on how the Mahatma Letters, identified with the Theosophical Society, were edited at the Priory at Fontainebleau. The second appendix breaks new ground in relating “the study of dreams” to the Work and offers techniques for remembering dreams, approaches that do work.
The third appendix examines the Exercises in genuine detail and in doing so offers lists of words for human concerns and failings keyed to passages in “Tales.” This is a feature that I have not seen elsewhere in the Canon. As well there are Notes, Bibliography, and a detailed Index. The book is quite a handful, hence I call it a Gurdjieff handbook.
On another occasion I may draw attention to some of the insights that appear in the pages of “Gurdjieff Unveiled,” but on this occasion I want to note Sy’s other books. But even they deserve more time and space than I have at hand. Here goes. The author’s first book bears the daunting title “In Search of the Unitive Vision” and is subtitled “Letters of Sri Madhava Ashish to an American Businessman 1978-1997).” It is a compilation with a commentary and it appeared in a handsome, trade paperback published in 2001 by New Paradigm Books of Boca Raton, Florida.
The text of almost 300 pages consists of the above-mentioned letters but also descriptive passages, narrative accounts, diary entries, personal essays, and a series of questions and answers about spiritual matters. In fact, the book is indexed and I assume that pretty well every subject of interest to the student of consciousness studies is mentioned at some point in these pages.
Sy spent almost twenty years in contact with Madhava Ashish, making annual visits, beginning in the year 1978, to Ashishda’s ashram at Mirtola, near Almora, in the Himalayan foothills of Northern India. Indeed, it was Ashishda who directed the young “American businessman” to seek out the teachings of Gurdjieff. The book is a record of their friendship, not so much between equals as much as it was and remains between fellow-seekers, one of whom was in a position to inspire and direct the other.
To confuse matters a little, “In Search of the Unitive Vision” has been reprinted with another title and subtitle: “The Masters Speak: An American Businessman Encounters Ashish and Gurdjieff.” This is brand-new edition, well printed, published in 2010 by Quest Books: Theosophical Publishing House of Wheaton, Illinois. The differences between the two editions seem minor, mainly matters of presentation.
Whichever edition is used, the portrait that emerges of Ashishda is one that is “in the round.” Judging by the descriptions and photographs that are reproduced in these pages, Sri Madhava Ashish was Central Casting’s ideal guru: tall, dark-haired, handsome … and English. Ashishda was born Alexander Phipps (1920-1997) and educated in English public schools. On a trip to the subcontinent he met and became a disciple of Sri Krishna Prem (1898-1965), another Englishman, this one born Ronald Henry Nixon, a Theosophist in background.
Prem and Ashishda, both sannyasins of the Vaishanava tradition of Hinduism, became influential spiritual leaders, thinkers, and practitioners with much to offer to those Westerners who were drawn to their ashrams. They themselves had been influenced by Theosophy, as is apparent when one reads the essays in “What Is Man?”
“What Is Man?” is subtitled “Selected Writings of Sri Madhava Ashish.” This is another handsome publication, issued in 2010 by Penguin Books, New Delhi. It is also about 300 pages long and begins with a Foreword contributed by Dr. Karan Singh who goes unidentified (but whom Wikipedia informs me was “the last ruler of the princely state of Kashmir and Jammu” and served as India’s Ambassador to the United States in 1990-91). It is a perfunctory Foreword.
The Preface, anything but perfunctory, was written by Sy along with three other compilers: Satish Datt Pandey, Seán Mahoney, Pervin Mahoney. They quote a passage from one of Ashishda’s letters to Sy: “Give me all the teachings about man and the universe and I will accept them only if I can be shown one man who embodies and validates these teachings. One follows the teachings back to their source in the man whose truth affirms the truth of the teachings.” I am sure that most people instinctively feel the same way: validation of the tradition lies in its embodiment and expression in the human being. On this basis, Ashishda is one such embodiment and expression.
The texts are organized in four parts. Part I, called “Introduction,” consists of Ashishda’s appreciative memoir of his teacher, Sri Krishna Prem. Part II is titled “The Path” and it collects seven essays on such subjects as “The Value of Uncertainty” and “The Sadhu in Our Lives.” Part III has been titled “The Inner Inquiry” and contains of eight miscellaneous essays including one called “Big Dreams” and another intriguingly titled “Quacking Oranges and Cloned Einsteins.” Part IV, “The Doctrine,” brings together five essays that will be familiar to Theosophists, notably “‘The Secret Doctrine’ as a Contribution to World Thought” and “The Fifth Race.” Finally, there is an two-page appendix of some historical, textual interest devoted to Madame Blavatsky’s “The Stanzas of Dzyan.”
The well-written copy on the back cover of “What Is Man?” notes how unusual is the message in this book: “It has little to do with conventional religions, but can be called secular spirituality. It points out the folly of viewing the cosmos in material terms alone, encouraging us to open our minds and see that our lives are not restricted to the closed box of purely physical existence.” The copywriters mercifully avoided the words “New Age.”
There is a clarity to Ashishda’s prose is reasonable and at the same time reassuring. He composes the sort of prose that I can imagine Aldous Huxley enjoying or Gerald Heard writing. At times it verges on being a sermon; at times it reminds me of the inspired and inspiring “talks” of J. Krishnamurti. It is a prose addressed to man’s best nature and it resists quotation; there are no high moments, for there is a general level of elevation. It is timeless prose if by that description is meant that it is sounds somewhat old-fashioned.
The essay “Man, Son of Man” sounds this note: “Columbus would never have discovered the Americas had he not disbelieved in the flatness of the world, nor shall we discover this other New World if we do not challenge the equally ‘flat’ world view of our present-day science and set out on a voyage of discovery in a direction and dimension where science sees nothing to discover.”
In summary: Seekers and readers have reasons to be grateful to Seymour B. Ginsburg for his many-fold contributions, including writing a spot-on introduction to the teaching called “Gurdjieff Unveiled” and for introducing readers in the English-speaking world to the traditional yet timely message of Sri Madhava Ashish. Driving past a Toys “R” Us outlet brought all of this to mind!
John Robert Colombo, known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana, reviews books for this blog on “consciousness studies.” Scheduled to appear in the fall is “The Sumuru Omnibus,” his compilation of the five novels written about the villainess Sumuru the English mystery-story writer Sax Rohmer.
This is the draft of a review to be published in the forthcoming Volume 5 of JASANAS: Journal of Alternative Spiritualities and New Age Studies
Tamdgidi, Mohammad H., GURDJIEFF AND HYPNOSIS: A HERMENEUTIC STUDY,
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Appendix J Walter Driscoll ‘The Textual Chronology of Gurdjieff’s Life’ pp 237-252
Bibliography and Index
Foreword: J Walter Driscoll
First, some background information about the author’s academic interests. From his website I found that Mohammad H. (Behrooz) Tamdgidi is Associate Professor of Sociology, teaching Social Theory at UMass Boston. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Sociology (in conjunction with a graduate certificate in Middle Eastern studies) from SUNY-Binghamton and a B.A. in Architecture from U.C. Berkeley. His fields of theoretical specialization include Sociological Imaginations, Self and Society, World-Historical Sociology, Sociology of Knowledge, Social Movements, and Utopias.
Tamdgidi’s research and teaching are framed by an interest in understanding how personal self-knowledges and world-historical social structures constitute one another. His continuing research on liberating social theory in self and world-historical contexts is pursued via critical comparative/integrative explorations of utopian, mystical, and scientific discourses and practices.
This book about Gurdjieff’s writings in relation to hypnotism is in part an extension of a theme occurring in his doctoral thesis, Mysticism and Utopia: Towards the Sociology of Self-Knowledge and Human Architecture (A Study in Marx, Gurdjieff, and Mannheim), 2002, SUNY-Binghamton Universtiy.
Tamdgidi’s sociological approach addresses two important issues in relation to Gurdjieff’s teachings. The first, evident from his title, is the centrality of hypnosis in Gurdjieff’s teaching, the second is his focus on hypnotism in relation to Gurdjieff’s four published texts. Both these are large themes and difficult to condense into the page limit that the author writes that he was confined to by his publishers. Because of this his text is densely complex as are the intricate diagrams, and this makes a prior knowledge of Gurdjieff’s teaching and texts a necessity, so this is a book for the specialist, rather than the general reader.
In relation to Gurdjieff Tamdgidi writes that he will examine only the written texts (not the oral teachings) and that the aim of this study is to show how, ‘Gurdjieff’s “objective art of literary hypnotism is devised and works.’ fn p.xvi. His interpretive method will be to make ‘an indepth textual analysis and interpret the text using ‘it’s own symbolic and meaning structures’ p. xvi. (author’s emphasis). These we can understand to be Gurdjieff’s cosmological teachings given most succinctly in P. D. Ouspensky’s ‘In Search of the Miraculous’, (1949) and in the symbol of the enneagram, familiar to Gurdjieff students and to a wider readership through more popular books which explore the enneagram in terms of a typology of personality. This method, of employing Gurdjieff’s own terms as a method of interpretation or explanation is also carried out by many Gurdjieff students who look to his texts as a help to explain the cosmology, and call upon the cosmology to illuminate Gurdjieff’s published writings. This does lead to a circularity in making any interpretation of Gurdjieff’s difficult, intentionally confusing and contradictory texts. It also ignores the primary interpretation, the world view that each reader already has already formed and already holds, even if unconsciously. I will give an example of this later.
The author has purposely preserved independence from any formal Gurdjieff organisations, but also writes that he has augmented his intellectual enquiry with helpful meditation practice drawn from other traditions that complement the experiential dimensions of Gurdjieff’s teaching, fn 8 p.16. It would be interesting to know what these practices were but he does not identify them nor tell us how they augmented his analysis of the text.
In relation to his use of the term hypnosis, Tamdgidi acknowledges that there are definitions of hypnosis that he could have referred to, for example in the works of Milton H. Erickson, but he does not wish to enter into these or any other definitions. Instead there is an unstated acceptance that Gurdjieff’s writing and teaching were governed by ‘hypnosis’ in what might be generally understood by the use of the term. For example he refers to the reader of Gurdjieff’s ‘Meetings with Remarkable Men’ ( 1978) as ‘mesmerised’ by curiosity about Gurdjieff p.188. His thesis is that the writings are intentionally hypnotic and thus capture the reader. Given the importance of hypnotism to his whole project it would have been useful if he had dealt with his definition of hypnotism more fully.
As referred to above, Tamedgidi argues that his hermeneutical method is one in which he will interpret the texts by using the text’s own symbolic and meaning structure. One consequence of his interpretative method is that Tamdgidi necessarily takes the stance of a compliant reader. There are difficulties in seeking to be compliant, not least because Gurdjieff makes many contradictory demands of his reader who must be compliant yet not passive,
There are anomalies and contradictions in the texts that Tamdgidi recognises, he interprets and explains these in conjunction with his overall thesis and this makes for a closely argued text. Problems arise for the analysis of any text, let alone Gurdjieff’s symbolic and multivalent texts, that aim to exclude all other possible readings, and though Tamdgidi’s interpretation is largely supported by reference to his own publications, here again, these tend to intensify circularity.
In his usefully contextualising Foreword J. Walter Driscoll gives a definition of hermeneutics and writes that at its highest levels it ‘involves the search for meaning via numinous interpretation, be it of poetry, scripture, philosophy, literature, music, art, law or architecture’ and that ‘Tamdgidi draws for inspiration on all of his relevant hermeneutic options in search of meaning in Gurdjieff’s ideas and writings, p. xii, (Driscoll’s emphasis). Perhaps this aim would be impossible to achieve, but the limitations Tamdgidi has set himself in referring only to Gurdjieff’s own terms, have caused problems for him. He records an experience (before he began writing his book), of awakening to his own hypnotic conditioning to the ideas of Gurdjieff among those of other academic and cultural traditions and as this being ‘deeply shocking’ p. xxi. Anyone involved in sustained exposure to and immersion in Gurdjieff’s writings is highly likely to be hypnotised, and there is, in the general sense that he uses the term, a hypnotic element in Tamdgidi’s text, and in his diagrams.
There are errors arising from a misunderstanding of the narrative structure of the Tales which initially might seem slight or insignificant. For example, according to Tamdgidi, Beelzebub having been pardoned and spoken his last words at the end of the Tales is:
‘on his way to eventually unite with His Endlessness via a transitional stay in the Planet Purgatory to
deal with certain remorses of conscience’, p. 8.
But Beelzebub had already been pardoned before the narrative of the Tales begins, pardoned and returned to his home planet Karatas where he meets his grandson Hassein. The tales of the title begin and are told on another spaceship flight from his home planet to and from a conference on a distant planet. The visit to the Planet Purgatory takes place on the return journey to Karatas. There is no suggestion within the text that Beelzebub’s visit to Purgatory is ‘to deal with certain remorses of conscience’, and it would be impossible for Beelzebub to ever be united with His Endlessness, because according to the narrative His Endlessness dwells on the Sun Absolute which is now unreachable by any being other than himself.
There is nothing in Gurdjieff’s text to say that Beelzebub will be united with His Endlessness but we can see that this mystic notion of union might be adopted if ‘His Endlessness’ is regarded as a synonym for God, (and he is referred to as God by Tamdgidi) and also if the notion of divine union was familiar to the writer. In this case the concepts of Purgatory and of ‘union with God’ are ones that have come from Tamdgidi and not from within the text. In my view this is bound to happen as it is quite impossible for anyone to banish their own world view including what may be largely unconscious assumptions. Many authors, (and here I do not exempt myself) who have written about the ‘Tales’ have I think wrongly assumed a conflation of God and his Endlessness. It is true that His Endlessness is represented as the creator of the universe, which suggests this, but he makes mistakes, mistakes with tragic and dreadful consequences one of which is the permanent separation from himself of all beings in the universe, except those on Purgatory whom he visits in order to alleviate their unending suffering.
Tamdgidi concludes, in accordance with Gurdjieff’s own teaching on multiple selves, that Gurdjieff was ‘afflicted with a legion of selves, some high and some low in character’ but that it is possible to ‘cherish the teachings of one Gurdjieff self, while being critical and uncompromising toward another self’, p 235.
This conclusion leads to a possible validation for the many differing interpretations of Gurdjieff and his texts, because each critically uncompromising reader will also be afflicted by similar legions of selves, some choosing certain Gurdjieff selves to cherish and be critical of, and yet other readers choosing differently. But, however readers interpret Gurdjieff’s writings Tamdgidi should be applauded for having focused on a unifying scheme for all of Gurdjieff’s texts, and on hypnotism in relation to Gurdjieff’s writings, a subject which as he rightly says, has been largely ignored by other scholars.
G. I. Gurdjieff, ‘First Series: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man or Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson’. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950
‘Second Series: Meetings with Remarkable Men’. Trans. A. R.Orage, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul,
P. D. Ouspsensky, ‘In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching’, New York, Harcourt Brace and World, 1949.