Posts Tagged ‘Jean Vaysse’
John Robert Colombo considers the Frenchman’s life and work
I have a confession to make about a silly little habit that I have. I like to discover the meaningful anagrams that are based on common words and peoples’ names. By rearranging their letters, I am able to change their meanings and associations. For instance, the motto on my coat-of-arms reads “Alert.” Anagrammed, the letters spell out two different words. These are “Later” and “Alter.” They may or may not shed light on my resolve to be “alert”!
Since I discovered the presence of the free “anagram generators” on the World Wide Web, I have spend less time “generating” anagrams than I once did, with the result that now I have the time to anagram more words and names! What is gained on the swings is lost on the slides.
I have long had a fascination with the name Henri Tracol. It seems so neat! Those four syllables and eleven letters look and sound so straight-forward, yet they are memorable for a number of reasons. In fact, once seen or heard, they are unlikely to be forgotten. In this way, by all reports, they resemble the man. In short, I have always felt that the Frenchman was well and intriguingly named.
I am not aware that the word “tracol” has a specific meaning in the man’s native language, but once I had anagrammed his name, I found out that it harbours a number of associations. The letters HENRI TRACOL spell out innumerable anagrams – more than one thousand of them in English alone; additional ones may be available through a French-language anagram generator. Here are four of the better English anagrams, ones that “make sense.”
Henri Tracol bulks large in the world of anagrams for he is either a CHARTER LION or a NICER HARLOT. (To be frank, these two anagrams seem to me to be non-starters, given the man’s retiring nature!) Yet there are two other anagrams over which I will pause, and these are REAL CORINTH and LINEAR TORCH. Could these words be meaningful in the circumstances. Let us see if they could.
First are the words REAL CORINTH. Whenever I think of Corinth I think of the Greek port city, second only to Athens in importance, and I recall that its inhabitants had pagan ways, which persisted well into the Christian era, as was evident in their appetite for a sense of fashion and for displays of wealth.
What also comes to mind are the First and Second Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. These are letters of instruction that Paul (or someone calling himself Paul) addressed, more specifically, to the members of the Christian church of Corinth. As epistles, now scriptures, they are suitably obscure, fraught with numerous mysteries and multiple meanings. The first epistle is the source of such memorable phrases as “through a glass darkly” and “when I was a child, I spoke as a child.”
The second epistle, although less obscure, is reprovingly moral. Its message seems to be: “Christians, let there be no backsliding!” Together these letters comprise the seventh and eighth books of the New Testament. Christianity would be different had they been lost or never written on parchment. So, in brief, the letters of “Henri Tracol” bring to mind the REAL message for CORINTH, which I take to be the need to be aware and to be aware of one’s limitations.
Second are the words LINEAR TORCH. We speak about passing the “torch of learning” from generation to another, or of carrying the “Olympic torch” from one place to another. There is a sense in which Henri Tracol is passing along a “torch,” one ignited by G.I. Gurdjieff, and that he is doing so in a linear or direct fashion; nothing here is helter-skelter. It is not “everything for everybody,” but chosen things for the select few. So it is but a short step to describe his message as a “linear torch.” Henri Tracol is indeed a torch-bearer.
So much for my taste for anagrams. I also have a taste for the writings of Henri Tracol. Having “a taste of things” – or “the taste for things” – is an expression that is never far from the man’s lips.
In his day, Henri Tracol (1909-1997) wore a rack of many hats. He died thirteen years ago and today is fondly remembered as one of the leading French follower of Gurdjieff. By profession, he was a photographer and a journalist. He sold articles and news photographs to popular magazines like Vu. Like so many other free-thinking journalists in the 1930s, he filed field-reports from Spain. It seems he was an anthropologist, as well, and wrote reports on conditions in South America for the Musée de l’Homme. For some time he was married to Henriette H. Lannes, Madame Lannes, the leader of the Work in England. In his free time he devoted himself to an early love, sculpture.
But he had little free time at his disposal, for he spent ten years in the company of G.I. Gurdjieff. With the latter’s death in 1949, he became one of the leaders of the French group, working with Madame de Salzmann and other senior members. He assisted in the French translations of Gurdjieff’s writings. He had a strong influence on many students of the work, including biographer James Moore. Tracol was eventually appointed director of the l’Institute G.I. Gurdjieff, the first of the four member bodies of the International Association of The Gurdjieff Foundations, the other groups being those in London, New York, and Caracas.
The photographs of the man that are reproduced in the literature of the Work are head-and-shoulder shots and give no indication of his height and weight. I judge him to be a short person of slight build. In those photographs, his facial features appear to be emaciated, and his physiognomy brings to mind the head of an ostrich or that of a giraffe. I do not mean any disrespect: ostriches and giraffes have big eyes and presumably see much and miss little.
A number of the man’s talks have been transcribed, collected, and published in book form. I would call them “pure gold” except for the fact that the contributions of Henri Tracol (along with those of his colleagues Solange Claustres and Jean Vaysse) represent the “platinum standard” of writings in, from, of, within, or about the Work.
If someone, somewhere, has compiled a list of Tracol’s publications in French and in English, I have yet to see that list. Here is my make-shift bibliography for books in English and French (with a few other items thrown in). I have copies of a few of these publications in my study.
George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff: Man’s Awakening and the Practice of Remembering Oneself. Bray, England: The Guild Press, 1977. [This publication is so short – a mere nineteen pages in length – it is presumably the text of a talk by Tracol.]
Rencontre avec deux hommes remarquables. Paris: Stock, 1979. [Meeting with Two Remarkable Men. The men are Gurdjieff and Oscar Ichazo The contributors include Jeanne de Salzmann and Tracol.]
Pourquoi dors-tu seigneur? Paris: Editions Pragma Vers, 1983. [Why do you sleep, Lord?] The title is based on the question posed in Psalm 44: 23: “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?” Enlarged and reissued as La vraie question demeure (Paris: Editions Eoliennes, 1996).
La vraie question demeure. Paris: Editions Eoliennes, 1996. [The real question remains] Enlarged and reissued edition of Pourquoi dors-tu seigneur? (1983).
Lord, Why do you Sleep [Expanded as The Real Question Remains (Wind Publishing, 1996).]
The Taste for Things that Are True: Essays and Talks by a Pupil of G.I. Gurdjieff. Shaftsbury, England: Element Books, 1994.
The Real Question Remains: G.I. Gurdjieff: A Living Call. Paris: Aeolian, 1996. [Preface by Jacques Lacarrière]
Buscador de Nacimiento – La llamada de G.I. Gurdjieff. Caracas, Venezuela: Caracas, 1999. [Wikipedia offers through Google Translate an oddly affecting if slightly ungrammatical translation of Spanish bookseller’s description of this book, presumably based on the original publisher’s catalogue copy. It goes like this: "It is a compilation of articles, interviews, conferences and exchanges in the group comprising more than 50 years time. Displays the hard work of a man to look sharp and bright, which above all is required to unravel and shred the apparent until closer to what lies behind, what is vital, always with humility, without ever conclusively boast about their discoveries. "The teacher (Gurdjieff) inherited a rigor that faculty had nothing, but it opened to a requirement of truth." Life, by vocation, a real search, the man, a form of birth.]
The Real Question Remains: Gurdjieff: A Living Call. Sandpoint, Indiana: Morning Light Press, 2009. [This edition is discussed below.]
In addition to these books, the texts of a handful of talks delivered by Tracol over the years to select groups have been translated into limpid English and published in Parabola and The Gurdjieff Review. The text of a major address appears in James Moore’s Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching (N.Y.: Continuum, 1996). In one of these contributions Tracol has set forth his belief that “what is unique in any path of spiritual search is its own particular way of approaching and perceiving reality. And this teaching offers us a feeling of just that: something which goes beyond suggested forms of experience and investigation.”
He has further noted of the Work that “it also allows the individual to discover and realize certain hidden possibilities, by means of simultaneous and coordinated engaging of one’s intellectual, emotional, and physical capacities toward a voluntary concentration upon the struggle which takes place within the self between one’s positive and negative tendencies.”
At last I am on firm footing because I am now in a position to describe the latest book, which is certainly his best single work in English. It is called “The Real Question Remains: Gurdjieff: A Living Call.” I find the subtitle and the sub-subtitle to be a little awkward, in English anyway, but that is about all that is awry with this book. The translators have made extra-human efforts to catch the man’s way of speaking and his insights and outlooks.
A trade paperback published by Morning Light Press in 2009, it measures 5.50″ x 7. 75″ and has xiv + 228 pages. Alas, the book is glued rather than sewn – unlike the Dolmen Meadow edition of the correspondence of René Daumal, which I reviewed recently, which is well sewn – but it is easy on the eyes and a pleasure to hold in one’s hands. (Morning Light Press’s website offers further details.)
The text consists of a Preface, an Introduction, a Foreword, and an Editor’s Note – and while this may seem a little excessive, each of these elements is informative – plus the texts of twenty-six short talks (some of which end in question-and-answer sessions). The texts are thematically presented in five sections: Disillusion and Dissatisfaction; Studies and Questions on Culture and Traditional Perspectives; The Discovery of a Teaching; An Afterword; The Real Question Remains. The book concludes with Notes (five pages of sources and notations).
Where did these talks first appear? A note on the copyright page answers that question. The majority of the talks first appeared in “Pourquoi dors-tu Seigneur?” published by Editions Pragma in 1983. The text of that book was translated as “The Taste for Things That Are True” issued by Element in 1994. Also included are portions of “Further Talks, Essays and Interviews” issued by The Guild Press in 2003, as well as selections from the columns of the periodical “Parabola.” Tracol’s texts are being lovingly collected and recycled.
It is good to have so much material between the two covers of a single book that is in print as an affordable paperback. Here there is, as the saying goes, “material for thought.” In a short review it is impossible to do this work justice, and Tracol does not help the reviewer, for he is in no way a flashy writer. In fact, he is not much of a stylist at all, certainly no literary artist like René Daumal. Nor is he much of a philosopher or historian, though he is something of a sociologist.
As an inveterate quoter, I find myself lost in his fields of words. Very seldom does he find or even search for the “bon-mot.” (No bon-bons for him!) Instead, he is a thinker and a feeler. You can almost feel him thinking as he is speaking or writing, and he does have a distinctive voice: curiously hesitant yet surprisingly assertive.
Gurdjieff in “Meetings with Remarkable Men” talks about Brother Sez and Brother Ahl. The sermons of these travelling monks affect their audiences in decidedly different ways. Listeners stand in awe when Brother Sez speaks, but thereafter remember nothing of what he has been saying. But when Brother Ahl speaks, listeners are embarrassed for him and at a loss to figure out what he is trying to say, but later they find that they participated in his process of exposition, were deeply moved, and are able to recall much of what he said that they did not know they knew. Tracol is Brother Ahl – not that he is the model for this travelling monk. (I will show restraint and forbear the identification of any Brother Sezes among us!)
Let me offer a synopsis of the preliminary matter. The Preface is signed by Michel Peterfalvi who expresses “a certain awe in speaking about a man of great spirituality whose influence continues after his death.” He goes on to say there is “the impression of a great inner strength emanating from him in contrast to his frail appearance, and a great simplicity in his relations with other people.”
The Introduction, signed Jenny Koralek, makes the point that Tracol’s “only currency is conscious effort.” No sooner has she said this than she hedges her bet by qualifying it with a passing reference to “the grace of God.” Now grace is considered to be “unmerited love,” so it may or may not be directly related to “conscious effort.”
The Foreword is contributed by the author himself who admits to the influence of Elie Faure, the distinguished art historian and philosopher who is as well the author’s uncle. Tracol distances himself from authorship. Indeed, the texts in this book consist of addresses, articles, essays, interviews, talks, questions and answers, and “writing.” It is a mixed bag, what the Ojibwa of Ontario call “a nunny bag” (with full knowledge that a sacred “nunny bag” is a “medicine bundle” with undisclosed contents and unfathomable powers).
The unsigned Editor’s Note discusses the notion of “the master,” a term that is familiar in the East, relatively unfamiliar in the West, which Tracol uses to refer to Mr. Gurdjieff. A “master” is not so merely the teacher but also the embodiment of the teaching. (I could not help thinking that the words “life coach” express the outward but not the inward part of what is meant, and that the vogue in the 1990s for “practical philosophers” suggests the need for the inward part.)
So much for the preliminary matter. I said earlier that Tracol is not given to telling instances, but he does retell a story that I find characteristic of all of his work. The story is used to illuminate the notion of the search: “This cannot but remind me of my last meeting with an aging friend who was about to undertake what he sensed would be his last journey to sacred places and wise men of the East. Bidding him good-bye, I said, ‘I hope you will find what you are seeking.’ He replied with a peaceful smile, ‘Since I am really searching for nothing, maybe I shall find it.’”
Like his aging friend, Tracol is searching for nothing. Instead, he is living his life now, entering into the experience of how all of us really live through the harmonious balance of our centres or faculties. “It is not something to be spoken about, it is something to experience.” He adds, “I am reminded of what I have been granted to experience – for a purpose.”
In another essay he states, “We are much more concerned by the relationship between mind and body, feeling and body, and by the presence of that which bears witness to their unity.” On these foundation stones he offers his views of the world at large in two remarkable addresses, “Individual Culture: Its Possibilities and Its Demands,” delivered in Mexico City in 1961, and “In Search of a Living Culture: Present Perspectives of Culture and the Problem of Universality,” delivered in Axe-en-Province in the same year. They are remarkable as critiques of Western values.
In “Individual Culture,” the Mexico City address, he discusses the “natural authority” of one’s family and society, but also “how indispensable it is to awaken in everyone, from childhood on, that movement of withdrawal, of standing back to question and ponder what is proposed, in order to counterbalance adequately the tendency to passive acceptance and blind conformity.” He sees culture as a controlling mechanism that turns us into creatures who are incapable of the act of “self-interrogation.”
The influence of Western culture on the world’s traditional peoples has been disastrous: “For the sake of transistors and pocket calculators they exchange what was most precious to them – a way of living duly adapted to the specific conditions of their natural environment, in harmony with their own culture and their sense of taking part in the life of the universe.” Here he speaks like a Traditionalist, before the publication of Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations,” is such that these days the more traditional the society, the more it is mired in poverty, disease, and strife.
In his sociological and Traditionalist analysis, Tracol focuses on the pre-emptive effects of cultural conformity, but in this essay he fails to fix his attention on the possibly redemptive power of civilized values. Everyone participates in one culture or another, but not everyone embraces civilized values. Rather than the Highest Common Numerator, people are encouraged to settle for the Lowest Common Denominator. To do otherwise takes effort. Instead, in the passage here, he is anxious to note their equivalence or mutual dependency:
“Here lies the reconciliation between authority and search: they need each other. They attract one another mutually in this movement of unending renewal through which the life of culture perpetuates itself.” Elsewhere, as if to drive this point home, he discusses sleep and waking consciousness. “Such is the law of this equivocal situation: without sleep, no awakening; without oblivion, no remembering.” I will add that it seems the human condition mirrors the cosmic condition: As above, so below. No sun without shade. Dualism under the Sun.
In an interpolation, Christian theologians discuss the Fall of Adam in terms of “the fortunate fall” (for without it there would be no need for the Incarnation) and “Good Friday”in terms of what is necessary (what is “good” about it is that Friday’s Crucifixion sets the stage for Sunday’s Resurrection). In one of his novels Samuel Beckett suggests that what we need to do is “fail better.”
Elsewhere Tracol explains that “the born seeker” cannot “escape from the labyrinth” of this world. Salvation (if the Christian term is not amiss in this context) comes from the individual’s realization that the most the seeker can do is to be “moving further toward the center of his own mystery.” This action alone confers meaning upon the individual’s search.
In concluding this address, Tracol describes the individual’s aim as “to work always according to his being, in order to affirm himself at each movement, in constant submission to the demands of the life of the universe.” He calls this “the authentic art of living.”
In the address “In Search of a Living Culture,” delivered in Aix-en-Province, he returns to the negative aspects of culture, including its “periodic decay” and its “sclerosis.” Here he raises the deferred notion of “civilization,” mentioned earlier, but he does not distinguish its individualized values from culture’s generalized values. Instead, he examines the nature of knowledge and how it swamps us, despite the fact that there are parallels between the physicist’s discoveries about the characteristics of subatomic particles and what Buddha said about the states of the human individual after death, an insight that he derived from the writings of the atomic physicist Robert Oppenheimer.
If Tracol has found an ideal man, it is the person of A.K. Coomaraswamy, “the great Orientalist,” son of an English mother and an Indian father, who was an outstanding curator and is regarded as one of the pillars of Traditionalism. He quotes with approval a remark made in 1932 by Coomaraswamy: “In all its diversity, Asia remains nevertheless a living spiritual unity which embraces, at the very least, half the cultural heritage of humanity … without some knowledge of Asia no civilization can reach maturity, no individual can consider himself as ‘civilized’ not even be clearly aware of what properly belongs to him.”
Tracol calls this “absolutely true” because it calls into question the “advanced” views that are held in the West: ignorance of the cyclic rather than the linear character of time; the illusion of an indefinite progress; the conviction of belonging to the most “advanced” period in history; holding on to a “superiority complex”; and equating people outside this matrix “uncivilized.”
He supports these points with references to Sir J.G. Frazer, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and Ruth Benedict. He paraphrases the remark of his Orientalist friend Paul Mus and writes, “We can say that the balance between culture and civilization is broken and that the most salient characteristic of our time, this subordination of pure science to a program of absolutely dizzying technical ‘achievements,’” is alienating ourselves from ourselves. In effect, data is dumbing us down.
Tracol concludes, “The man who is in love with real culture aspires to a transformation of _himself_ through knowledge. All knowledge seems pointless to him if it is not first and foremost _self-knowledge_. For it is only inasmuch as he knows himself that he knows how to choose his nourishment according to his real needs.”
I have now reached page fifty-one of “The Real Question Remains.” That is about one-quarter of the way through. I am afraid I would tire the reader of this review if I carried on in this fashion. So far Tracol has hardly mentioned Gurdjieff, but the name of the “master” appears frequently in the last three-quarters of the book. If there is interest I am prepared to summarize the rest of the author’s argument, to the degree that it may be summarized without being reduced to platitudes, as Tracol’s writing forms a whole and is addressed to people immersed in the Work. To read a little is to gain a lot. I urge the reader to share this experience with him by reading this book, and not with the present reviewer who is reviewing that book. Tracol needs only a translator – not an interpreter.
One final point: Tracol is not a seeker so much as he is a finder, a man who sought nothing outside himself that he could not first discover within himself. In this way he resembles his “aging friend” who yearns to go on more pilgrimages. Yet Tracol was assisted on his non-way by finding and receiving a “master.” I will conclude this account by quoting one sentence from the last essay, the one titled “Some Reflections on What Is Specific to Gurdjieff’s Teaching.”
Here Tracol is discussing the “adventure” of the Work: “It keeps alive in us the evidence of a _secret continuity_: consciousness never ceases to offer itself to us.”
John Robert Colombo is known as “the Canadian Bartlett” for his dictionaries of quotations. Two of his recent publications are “Richard Maurice Bucke: The New Consciousness” and “Walt Whitman’s Canada.” He is co-editor of a publication to appear this fall: Volume 14 in the series of annual Canadian science-fiction anthologies called “Tesseracts.” If you want to receive notice of forthcoming reviews on this blog, email the reviewer < jrc @ ca . inter. net >.
The writer Simson Najovits who bears a distinct resemblance to actor Michael Caine.
I have known Simson Najovits for at least forty years and I feel I know him quite well, despite the fact that over those years there have been no more than half a dozen face-to-face meetings. Between meetings we have exchanged first typewritten letters, then computer-printed letters, and now email letters. Our meetings have taken place in Toronto and Paris, though never in Montreal, where he was born in 1937.
Simson has lived in Paris since 1962. Although many of his short stories, poems and essays have been published, and he is the author of a critically acclaimed two-volume history of ancient Egypt which has been acquired by most of the major university and public libraries throughout the world, his many long prose works remain unpublished. I would read his fiction and marvel that no publisher worth his salt has ever decided to publish these works, which bear some resemblance to those philosophical memoirs written by Henry Miller. But Simson is a hyper-intellectual Miller and a scholarly one, much concerned with intellectual thought and its expression.
For years I knew Simson as an expatiate Canadian writer who made his home in Paris. Gradually I realized that he had enjoyed a long-time involvement with the Work. This association began in Montreal, where he attended Sir George Williams University, now part of Concordia University, a city university now infamous for its illiberal student activism.
JRC: What did you study at Concordia? Who influenced you the most – students or faculty?
I studied literature and political science. My biggest influence was my main literature professor, Neil Compton, who knew more about both Joyce and Shakespeare than any other person I’ve met since and convinced me that nothing could be more important than being a writer as long as one was a surly writer.
He was the only person I know who had a specific insurance policy against getting polio and he got it, and taught from a motorized wheelchair until the day the elevator he was in didn’t stop exactly at floor level and his chair tipped-over and he died. And there was my psychology professor, James Winfred Bridges, a giant of a man but somehow he projected the image of a merry, malicious elf and he instilled in me a love of Freud which has been enduring, and he was the author of what I think is one of the most impartial, neutral books ever written about psychology, Psychology, Normal and Abnormal.
JRC: Who introduced you to the Work? When and how did that come about?
From a very young age, perhaps as early as five years old, I was intrigued by what things were all about and I was a voracious reader. As a young man, I got all wrapped up in what can be called consciousness development and I came across Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum and New Model of the Universe and from there I went to In Search of the Miraculous … and from there I sought contact with the Fourth Way Work and found it with Tom Daly in Montreal, a marvelous man for whom I still have a fondness and who was terrifically patient with my impatience and romanticism; I was still a Beatnik in those days, even if in civilian life I was a staff writer for the Canadian Press News Agency, and Tom Daly was not the sort of person attracted to that kind of shenanigans, yet he nevertheless treated me with considerable forbearance.
JRC: You are Jewish in background. Were did your parents hail from? Were they Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or Ultra-Orthodox? Do you find parallels between Judaism and the Work?
My father was born in Hungarian Transylvania (now in Romania) and my mother in the Ukraine. They came to Canada when they were very young, about twelve or thirteen. My father was a decorated war hero in the Canadian Army Engineering Corps and my mother was a pious and delightfully superstitious woman. They were Orthodox and they tried to bring-up my brother, my sister and me in the Orthodox tradition and I reluctantly went through the motions (sometimes with a bit of humorous twisting) until just after my Bar Mitzvah, but I was always something of a born-atheist and it’s many years now that I’m a good practicing atheist.
Nevertheless, I’m also something of a paleo-Hebrew, you know a bit of that fire and brimstone stuff, a bit of that tsadaquah and rachmonnes stuff, righteousness and compassion, and a bit of that romantic, erotic Song of Solomon stuff. For me, standard Judaism, despite its historical importance, and like all the other residually surviving modern religions, lacks any pertinence in modern life, but paradoxically, too, Judaism, like all the major religions, is a cornucopia as well as a can of worms … and if I dearly love and have learned a lot from the Bible – both Old and New Testaments – I think the Talmud contains a huge amount of horseshit and I think the modern Hasids (contrary to the original Baal Shem Tov Hasids) are frequently detestable people with no sense of live and let live. …
As to standard Judaism, I see very little resemblance with the Fourth Way Work, but there is considerable resemblance with esoteric Judaism, with Kabalism – there is a clear similarity in Gurdjieff’s system of centers and the Kabalistic sefirot, and Gurdjieff in In Search of the Miraculous lists Hebraic esotericism among the four “fundamental” esoteric “lines.”
JRC: Aside from the obvious attractions of the City of Light, why did you settle in Paris, considering that English is your mother tongue? How did you support yourself?
I settled in Paris because it was the world center of the Work … and also because I was always attracted to France; when I was a child I read all the Horatio Hornblower novels and it would enrage me that the Royal Navy always, but strictly always, defeated the French Navy … and also because I had a tendency to live with or marry French women ….
At first I supported myself by wacky jobs of all sorts and then as a correspondent for Canadian magazines and American radio networks and then as a journalist at Radio France Internationale where after several years I became the Editor-in-Chief of the English Service.
JRC: You married and raised two children, though in later years you have lived as a bachelor. Were your wife and children ever in the Work?
My first wife was and is still in the Work nearly fifty years later and my son participated for a time in the children’s activities of the Work. Both my later wife (my main ex-wife so to speak) and our daughter can certainly be described as spiritually concerned people, but they have never participated in the Work despite discreet efforts now and again from me to get them interested.
JRC: I assume you met the Madames – de Hartmann and de Salzmann. What did they look like? How did they impress you?
Look like? Both were very handsome women, Madame de Salzmann with a solemn, wistful allure and Madame de Hartmann with a haughty allure. But it’s of course what they were which counted most. It’s redundant to say that Madame de Salzmann was an extraordinary person, but that’s what she was, even if she was not the saint that some people have tried to make her out to have been.
I saw her a couple of times a week for about ten years and she directed the quiet work meditation class I participated in, usually came out to our countryside work place every Sunday and would often visit our group meetings and movements classes where her mere presence changed everything, electrified the atmosphere.
She came across as being utterly and tirelessly devoted to the Work goals both for herself and for others, and as Gurdjieff said of her, “She knows everything,” but I think her outstanding achievement was as a master of the movements. And all that said, it also has to be said that she was capable of losing her temper, she could sometimes prudently lie when I at least didn’t think it was necessary and sometimes her answers to questions were clearly routine answers and repetitions of what she had already said many times and she had an austere side, including being a vegetarian.
And all that said, too, of course, she was the most stunning illustration of what somebody could achieve with Gurdjieff’s methods, achieve in their own way, with their own essence, so to speak, and her essence was not at all like the lusty, eccentric essence of Gurdjieff. …
As for Madame de Hartmann, she too was great person, but she didn’t play ball in the same league as Madame de Salzmann and while she had a fine critical sense, which could often hit the bull’s-eye, she also dismayed me with what was quite simply an overdose of arrogance.
JRC: You must also have met Henri Tracol and Jean Vaysse. Were you impressed? Who else influenced you? Madame Lannes? Peter Brook?
Tracol didn’t impress me, despite the fact that he was Madame de Salzmann’s right-hand-man, but Vaysse, Conge, Pauline David, Michel de Saltzmann and several others impressed me immensely – they belonged to what was perhaps the most outstanding generation of Gurdjieffians ever produced, they certainly did develop something inside them which was strongly evident on the outside and by their words and behavior they certainly influenced many people, including myself.
I knew Peter Brook well and he encouraged me in my writing and understood what I was doing; he (together with somebody named John Robert Colombo) was instrumental in my being awarded Canada Arts Council and Quebec Arts Council grants.
JRC: You have travelled much in Morocco. Did you find traces of the Work in that region of the world?
A bit of Sufism, a bit of trance-inducing gnawa musicians, lots of magical marabouts, lots of vendors flogging amulets and ingredients for casting spells, but nothing spectacular. The spectacular place for the survival of esoteric traditions, including some with resemblances to the Work, of course remains India, and concerning the movements and sacred dances, Dervish groups in Turkey and central Asia.
JRC: Your two-volume history of Ancient Egypt is a work of considerable scholarship. Did you find any earlier elements of the Work in “pre-sand Egypt”?
Certainly not! The notion of a “prehistoric, pre-sand” Egypt with immense achievement, esoteric knowledge and fabulous architecture is a loony fantasy, an historical, archaeological and climatic impossibility which is only believed by the loony wing of Egyptologists. And Gurdjieff’s statement that some of the Egyptians were “the direct descendants” of the Atlanteans and the wise extra-terrestrial beings, “the Akhaldans” with the “pyramids and sphinx [being] the sole, chance surviving remains erected … by the most great Akhaldans and by the great ancestors … of Egypt” is in the same vein and its only redeeming quality may be that just as in Plato’s original Atlantis myth, in Timaeus and in Critias, in which Plato’s purpose was to describe a great, wise ideal which could serve as the model for the Greece of his time, Gurdjieff might have been metaphorically hinting at the same thing for our modern times.
On the other hand, if Gurdjieff’s idea that many of the origins of Christianity were “taken in a ready-made form from Egypt, not only from the Egypt we know, but from the one which … existed much earlier” is also loony, it’s not loony to see some key aspects of Christianity, and notably what Gurdjieff called “the form of worship in the Christian Church” indeed owing something to what he called Egyptian “schools of repetition,” but of course in historical Egypt and not in an imaginary “pre-sand” Egypt. As for direct links between Egypt and the Work, or at least similarities, the Egyptian description of “the silent man” found in many of the sebayt, the so-called Wisdom Texts, does bear a resemblance to what happens in quiet work meditation.
JRC: Name six contemporary writers who are especially meaningful to you. How have they influenced your own life and writing?
Why only six? I could name dozens. There’s Richard Powers, a genius of plot and style and meandering in the seemingly meaningless web of our world and who is one of the few contemporary writers who coherently weaves science and technology into his novels; I think/feel that his The Goldbug Variations is a near-masterpiece.
There’s Paul Auster, who obviously takes great pleasure in writing, which has perhaps led him to write too many standard novels, but he’s done some very fine things like The Music of Chance and Mister Vertigo. There’s Pascal Quignard, who is on the cutting edge of what can be called a new way of writing, a near-plotless mix of narration, retelling of old tales, stark emotion and straightforward views about what goes on in us and in the world, as in the five volumes of his Dernier royaume.
There’s Haruki Murakami, who is a wizard of the oddball story, especially in A Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There’s Michel Faber and his Crimson Petal and the White which burns your brain with how familial tragedy repeats itself. There’s Gunter Grass whose entire work is one long confession and what it’s like to be born with a cultural deficit and how he built himself into a man.
There’s Umberto Eco and especially Foucault’s Pendulum which delightfully fools about with esotericism and religion without falsifying history as some others do. And there’s Marie Drarieussecq, a fine writer of the humanistic intimate as in Bref Séjour chez les Vivants (A Brief Stay with the Living) and of the bizarre magical as in Truisimes (Pig Tales), and if she ever succeeds in combining these two elements she could become one of the greats.
And now I see that I’ve broken the Marquis of Queensberry rules and have already named eight contemporary writers, and I’ve got to admit, too, that had you been just a wee bit less arbitrary and asked not only about contemporary, living, authors, but extended your question to include recently croaked authors, I would have talked about Sam Beckett, surely one of the finest writers in the 20th century, surely somebody who best described lack of meaning and the absurd nature of life while seeing how it was so necessary to care and to “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” … and I would have talked about John Fante and especially his Brotherhood of the Grape, and Bohumil Hrabal and especially his I Served the King of England … and Jorge Luis Borges, I.B. Singer and Thomas Bernhard and Saul Bellow and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Marguerite Yourcenar …
And had you been still more generous and asked me to name the writers of any epoch who were meaningful to me, then I would have had to write a long tome like Henry Miller’s The Books in my Life. In any case, reading has always been one of my great pleasures – both as an aesthetic and hedonistic joy and because if it can’t replace direct experience of all kinds nor the lessons of science, it is nevertheless one of the key vectors which tell the truest lies about our unraveable self and unraveable world. There is more philosophy in fiction than in philosophy.
And I must also say that if you had framed your question otherwise and spoken not only about contemporary writers who have influenced me, but of contemporary or near-contemporary people in all walks of life, I would have mentioned being equally influenced by Rothko and Giacometti, by Miles Davis and Leonard Cohen, by Igmar Bergman and Woody Allen, by Einstein and Heisenberg, by John Dewey and Richard Rorty ….
JRC: For the last two decades or so, you have devoted considerable time and energy to writing your reflections on life on this planet as well as on the illusions and delusions of spiritual practices. What conclusions have you come to?
I call it Niatpra – nihilism, atheism, pragmatism, art, the overall shift in attitude begun with the Greek Pre-Socratic philosopher-scientists in the sixth century B.C., who opted for rational, experimental, natural explanations rather than magical, religious, supernatural suppositions, who opened a war against God.
This war was unwittingly accelerated in the 17th century by Newton who despite his official belief that God had created everything demonstrated that the universe was run by mechanical laws of motion and gravity and in so doing left no space for anything but a deistic God, a God who created the universe and then withdrew from its operation, took early retirement so to speak.
And the Pre-Socratic war against God was renewed and developed during the 18th century Enlightenment and began culminating from the late 19th century with implacable science and plausible descriptions in psychology, art and philosophy which in one way or another owe much to Darwin and his “great, unmistakable principle of evolution” and his postulation of “natural and sexual selection” and to Nietzsche’s “there is simply no true world,” Einstein’s relativity and Freud’s view of our state as “essentially conflicted.”
Standard religion and standard esotericism and the notion that something called the soul have been ruined. There has been a virtual elimination of the possibility of any fundamental answer to any fundamental question. Our only lucid choice seems to be nihilism – no absolute truth, no absolute purpose – atheism – no God or gods, no metaphysics – Pragmatism – not the so-called pragmatism of crass self-interest, but the philosophy of Pragmatism, of “experimentalism” in the realm of the possible, of the search for the least imperfect answers, the answers with the best “effects” in an unknowable world – and art – art which is always glad when we come to visit its probing, its description and sometimes its celebration and which with true lies tells us more about what is, what ought to be, but what can’t be than any other medium ever invented by us Homo Sapiens.
All this doesn’t mean that it’s five minutes to the end, it is a lucid acknowledgement, a tabula rasa which can be painted on, a beginning, a passage to a new stance which may one day also be seen as a mythology, but which today comes the closest to what we believe, to the truth of no truth in which much is nevertheless possible. In other words, the world makes no sense, but a world of sense can be made, we can create sense, we can create meaning, we can live splendid, awesome lives, we can slice through the shoddy and maybe earn a tie-game.
JRC: You eventually left the Work, “not with a bang but a whimper,” I gather. When did this happen? What were the reasons for your departure? What do you see to be the future of the Work?
I wouldn’t say that it was either with “a bang” or with “a whimper”; it was in the early seventies and it was because I concluded that the Work not only doesn’t, but can’t deliver the promised goods; it can’t deliver the goods of being and understanding, of a radical transformation, of a real, central “I am” and the unfortunate truth – as far as I can make-out – is that no esotericism in the history of mankind has ever been able to deliver the goods, and that all of them in one way or another, including G.’s system, are ultimately religious, they fall back on the fairy tale of religion, on supernatural pie-in-the-sky, and to mention only a single, significant example, that’s what G.’s “Our Almighty Omni-Loving Common Father Uni-Being Creator-Endlessnes” is all about, pie-in-the-sky.
That doesn’t mean that we need over-focus on the many weird things in G.’s Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson which can’t possibly be valid no matter how one casuistically twists and turns Gurdjieff’s supposed intentions or metaphorical riddles, and it doesn’t mean that the book is not understandable as some people claim; it is not only understandable, it is a fabulously new way of writing mythology and it does provide very plausible postulations concerning the “machines” we humans are, how “everything happens” and “no one does anything,” our state of waking sleep and the nature of human nature.
G.’s system is pie-in-the-sky, the transformation he postulated can’t happen, but that doesn’t mean that nothing happens, there is meaningful trickle-down, there is a development of some consciousness and above all there is the development of a pedestal of perspective on oneself and on the world.
My years in the Work have marked me, they count enormously for me, and I still practice self-remembering and quiet work meditation, I still frequently dip into G.’s and other Gurdjeffians’ writings and I have written abundantly about the Work in essayistic, allegorical and fictional forms.
But the bottom line – about radical transformations, enlightenments, Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I am’ and all the other esoteric fundamental, wishful, magical hopes – is what the Buddha told a novice when he asked him what he would give him and the Buddha replied, “I will give you old age, sickness and death.” …
I think that historically the esotericism which has lied least, or pretended least, about so-called enlightenment has been Zen; when the 8th-century Chinese Zen master, Zhaozhou, was asked by a disciple to teach him satori, enlightenment, Zhaozhou asked, “Have you eaten your dinner?” and the disciple replied, “Yes,” and Zhaouzhou said, “Then go wash your bowl ….”
As to the future of the Work, like the future of other esotericisms, I think it will stumble along and be beneficial to some, and if ever a guru of the stature of a Gurdjieff or a de Salzmann again arises in the Fourth Way then it could temporarily flourish but basically, I think that we have to keep in mind the context in which Gurdjieff operated – in my mind, he was unquestionably the outstanding guru of the 20th century and he emblematized the hope of a renovated esotericism, a possibility that a radical transformation of our being and understanding was not a pipe dream, but he was also emblematic of the failure of this hope, a magnificent failure, but a failure … and while it would be silly to deny that the Work can enhance the lives of some people in it – in it for a few years, many years or their entire lives – the most that can be expected, and only rarely, is magnificent failure.
JRC: Are there any questions that remain unasked that you think our readers would be interested in asking?
Yes, you didn’t ask me if I’m glad to be alive! My answer is the final paragraph in the book I’m now finishing called Modern : YOU KNOW, despite all the crap and corruption, all the mischaracterization and misconstruing, all the puzzlement and absurdity, all the embranglement and failures, all the cruelty and wars, the sweetness of living is such that it’s just too damn bad that an afterlife doesn’t exist, that it’s as charmingly nonsensical as The Owl (that “elegant fowl”) and the (“lovely”) Pussy, but if it did exist, if we could really travel to “the land where the Bong-tree grows,” get “married by the turkey who lives on the hill” and “dine on mince and slices of quince,” which we would eat “with a runcible spoon,” then I think the ancient Egyptians naively concocted the best option – wehem ankh, repeating life and gamboling about in an ideal state of youth.
The Egyptians ardently wanted to be one step ahead of the game, one step ahead of the scandal of death, even after the usual warranty for wear and tear had expired.
JRC: Thank you! Chimo!
John Robert Colombo is known across his native Canada as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana. He writes occasional reviews and commentaries on Work-related subjects, particularly when they have Canadian context or content. To watch a video of Colombo’s banquet speech at the last All & Everything Conference, held in Toronto in April 2009, check his website: www. colombo-plus. ca. Simson Najovits’s study of ancient Egypt, which is mentioned in this interview, was published in two volumes in 2003 and 2004 by Algora Publishing, N.Y. The general title is “Egypt, Trunk of the Tree” and Volume I is subtitled “The Contexts” and Volume II is subtitled “The Consequences.” For more details, check the website for Algora Publishing: Nonfiction for the Nonplussed.