Posts Tagged ‘the Work’
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.”
DAVID KHERDIAN’S “SEEDS OF LIGHT”
John Robert Colombo discusses a book of poetry inspired by the Work experience
If there is any other collection of poems inspired by the Fourth Way, I am unaware of its existence. It is true that some poets, like the late Kathleen Raine, have a distinct feelings for these experiences and values, but to my knowledge Raine did not explicitly write about such experiences in any of her volumes of verse. My generalization is true for the English language, but it is not true for poetry written in the French language.
The reader with a sweet-tooth for the images and the movements characteristic of intense and intuitive poetic language, who has a command of French or who is drawn to patiently prepared translations, will have his or her needs well met by the free-verse poetry and wildly imaginative prose poetry of René Daumal. He is the literary mascot of the Work in France and a creative artist endowed with persistent and penetrating powers of invention, well deserving of great respect accorded him. In past columns for this web-blog, I have reviewed current English translations of Daumal’s books. Translations of his writings add unexpected grace-notes to the leitmotif of “quest” expressed in the French and English languages.
The writings of Pierre Bonnasse, a student of the Work in Paris who holds a doctorate in Literature from the Sorbonne, has published a multitude of books of imaginative power and value, including a collection of poems titled “Dans la nuit d’Aghtamar” which exists in an English translation that no publishing house has yet offered to issue. I will say no more about Bonnasse and his work here because I described them at some length on this web-blog in October 3, 2008, under the questioning title “Fourth Way Words?” Instead I want to turn my attention to David Kherdian and his poetry.
I began this review article with these words: “If there is any other collection of poems inspired by the Fourth Way …. ” The “other collection” was composed in English by Kherdian. It is to this collection – “Seeds of Light: Poems from a Gurdjieff Community” (McMinnville, Oregon: Stopinder Books, 2002) – that I am now turning my attention. I am doing so because it was recently drawn to my attention that the book, now a decade old, has received hardly any attention – if any attention at all – from reviewers with any knowledge or interest in work-related literature. Readers appreciate the contents of the book, but reviewers know nothing of its appearance. This is a shame. No book is truly “old.” Every book is really “new,” at least until it has been read.
Question: “Who is David Kherdian?” I asked this question four years ago in this very web-blog, the occasion being the review article titled “Possible Gurdjieff-Stalin Connection with Reference to David Kherdian” which appeared here on June 3, 2008. At the time I was trying to trace the suggestion that not only were Gurdjieff and Stalin personally known to each other – highschool students in Georgia, so to speak – but Gurdjieff wrote about their association in a chapter that was mysteriously excluded from the published text of “Meetings with Remarkable Men.” I have never determined the truth (or consequences) of this statement, so I take it to be a rumour, one that is likely to lurk for decades to come, and nothing more. Here is what I wrote about Kherdian four years ago.
Answer: Kherdian is a thoughtful and productive person, an Armenian-American poet, novelist, and essayist with much experience in the Work. One of Kherdian’s books “Seeds of Light” was published by Stopinder Books and is subtitled “Poems from a Gurdjieff Community.” Another of his books is called “On a Spaceship with Beelzebub” and it is subtitled “By a Grandson of Gurdjieff.” It was praised by Colin Wilson as “one of the best accounts I’ve read of actually being a member of a Gurdjieff Group.”
I first encountered Kherdian when I subscribed to the journal that he edited decades ago from a farm in Wisconsin. “Stopinder: A Gurdjieff Journal for Our Time” was a handsomely designed publication illustrated by his talented wife Nonny Hogrogian. Each issue offered subscribers a low-key yet concentrated approach to human problems in rural and rustic settings. Over the decades Kherdian has published about two dozen anthologies, volumes of verse, collections of memoirs, and works of fiction.
Kherdian’s article “The Vanishing Master” is almost twenty years old but it is still fresh. In practical terms it offered the author an opportunity to share his views of Mr. G., whom he describes as a man formed by his Armenian background. Armenians – as well as Bulgarians, I have noted – describe themselves as being situated at the “cross-roads of the world,” the cock-pit of history and civilization. For this reason, Kheridan finds something unique about Mr. G and his message.
“He was the very first of the Eastern teachers or Masters to formulate an ancient teaching for the West – this planet’s growing point. All the others brought their religion or ideology entire – garment, beads, and all – changing the fit and form of Western spirituality into its Eastern strictures. Gurdjieff, of mixed Greek-Armenian parentage, grew up in Armenia, at the crossroads of East and West, the Armenians being the only people who belonged to neither yet were part of both. Whether he chose himself or was chosen, we do not know. We only know that he left his school, assumed a mission and devised a plan for its execution. He called it Esoteric Christianity, perhaps because it straddled East and West, as he did, being raised in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and then pushing East for his training before returning, transformed, to the West.”
Such is his view of Mr. G. This is not the place to present Kherdian’s interesting argument that there are now two generations of Gurdjieffians and that their aims are anything but congruent …. Instead, it is time that someone surveyed the writings of David Kherdian from the perspective of the Work. A start might be made by asking him for permission to reprint “The Vanishing Master” on this news-blog.
To repeat, I wrote the above paragraphs on June 3, 2008. Now four years have passed and I will try to catch up with Kherdian. He has his own website < http://www.davidkherdian.com > which is short on biographical details but nonetheless interesting. Born in Racine, Wisconsin, of Armenian background, he is “the author and editor of over sixty books, that include poetry, novels, memoirs, biographies, bibliographies, children’s books, as well as critical studies, translations, and retellings” (according to his vita sheet). He has edited a number of anthologies of poetries selected on the bases of “ethnic expression” and “sense of place” – i.e., the writer’s background, linguistic and social, as well as the writer’s place of residence. An hour-long documentary on his poetry, produced by the New York independent filmmaker Jim Belleau, was released in 1997. His latest book is an anthology of his own work in many genres, “Gatherings: Selected and Uncollected Writings” (Tavnon Books, 2011). In the fall of 2012 the University of California Press will publish his “New and Selected Poems.”
Here is an item from the author’s website expressed in the third person: “He is currently in the market for an agent to handle his retelling of David of Sassoun, the tenth-century Armenian epic, well known in the East but virtually unknown in the West.” (Publishers, take note!) So he has been dizzily busy as a man-of-letters. Enough of background. Here is a brief look at his Work-inspired poems.
To discuss Kherdian’s poetry, I want to place his poems in an unusual and perhaps idiosyncratic context, one that permits me to discuss the possibilities in our day of the straight-forward diction of his work – the common style: plain, direct, unornamented, unrhymed, unrhythmed, the one adapted by most poets and by most contemporary bards. The style is difficult to distinguish from prose except that the lines do not run to the right-hand edge of the page. There is no name for this style, though the words “free verse” probably best describe it, except that what is being heard or read is not “verse” (rhythm and rhyme) but “poetry” (highly associative language) – “free poetry” perhaps; yet those two words do not sound quite right. Perhaps the word “prayer” – or “meditation” or “rumination” or even “consideration” – sound more appropriate. In short, it is today’s vernacular.
I am tempted to regard Kherdian’s poems as prayers (which Gurdjieff calls “recapitulations”) because they are admissions of current limitations and appeals to an outside agency or force and also to the force or agency within one’s own self for enlightenment, salvation, redemption, whatever. The poems are highly personal, characteristically subjective. How essential they are is what this review attempts to probe. There are two contemporary works that I feel do convey some of the possibilities of poetry as prayer, particularly when performed by a singer with electronic backing. To this end I will discuss two compositions. Both of them may be heard with a few keystrokes on YouTube.
Whoever has viewed the 2010 film “The Tempest” directed by Julie Taymor will be bowled over by the visuals and soundtrack of its closing sequence, a sequence known as “Prospera’s Coda.” The Prospero of Shakespeare’s play is reinterpreted by the actress Helen Mirren in terms of a woman magus, Prospera. The final speech of the play is not delivered by the actress; instead, it is sung, or intoned, off-screen, by the English vocalist and lyricist Beth Gibbons. The effect is quite arresting, quite unsettling. The lines that Shakespeare wrote are pure poetry – rhythmical and rhymed verse:
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Intoned by Gibbons, they are heard not as awesome affirmation or heroic renunciation or inevitable reconciliation, but in the contemporary context as the cry of a person without craft, the outcry of a person in pain without restraint. The presentation thus goes against type. It is overpowering, in some way beyond the language of poetry itself.
The same curious amalgam of art and artlessness is characteristic of the stunning finale of the final episode seen in 2005 of the HBO television series “Six Feet Under.” Sia, the Australian singer and songwriter, intones words of pleading and meaning, heart-brokenly, directionlessly. This time the words lack the Elizabethan air; instead what they have is the simplicity of the simpleton who nevertheless suffers needlessly:
Help, I have done it again
I have been here many times before
Hurt myself again today
And, the worst part is
There’s no-one else to blame.
The words are Sia’s and the presentation is true to type. It is called “Breathe Me” and it could be likened to the confession of a person who is drowning in the despair of present-day life. It is free verse and it is very effective. But, like “Prospera’s Credo,” it is about as far as possible from the common style. Redemption is not close at hand.
The visuals contrast too. The images that appear on the screen as Beth Gibbons intones Shakespeare’s words are dreamy and nightmarish. The visuals that appear as Sia seems to trip over her own words, so downtempo, so obsessive and abulic, are the images of an automobile journey across the American continent from Los Angeles to New York City. The landscape of Prospero-Prospera’s island (filmed in Hawaii) and that of the car’s journey across the Mojave desert might well be that of the moon. In both instances, whether presented against type or true to type, the visuals and electronic and acoustic effects make the work very contemporary in a direct and unmediated way. The effectiveness of the poetry or verse lies in its presentation, here aided and abetted by the media of cinema and television.
There are no trumpets or drums, intoning or appealing women, whether maguses or fallen women, in Kherdian’s poetry. Instead, there is some hope and the anticipation of self-knowledge if not power over the negative aspects of the self in David Kherdian’s “Seeds of Light: Poems from a Gurdjieff Community.” This is a trade paperback of attractive design with woodcuts by the poet’s wife, Nonny Hogrogian. It bears the imprint of Stopinder Books, McMinnville, Oregon. It consists of 202+iv pages and the year of publication is given as 2002. The effort is “Dedicated to the Memory and Living Presence of G.I. Gurdjieff.”
By my count the collection consists of 123 poems and they are arranged in chronological order in five divisions identified as “books.” I sense that book by book the poems advance from being descriptive and anecdotal to expressive and experiential. The first poems are somewhat sketchy, the last poems rather full-bodied. Yet the book is a whole and may be read from cover to cover like a log of rural experiences. The book is not like a diary – there are no personal revelations, there are no descriptive passages – so the poems have to be read for what they are, page-long, free-verse poetry. Do not look for characterization or profiles of people; they are not even noticeable by their absence.
The intelligent and insightful introduction has been contributed by Allen Roth whose name may ring a bell because he is the author of Sherborne: An Experiment in Transformation (1998). He notes that the poet and his wife, an illustrator, lived from about 1978 for nine years at Two Rivers Farm, near Aurora, Oregon, a community founded by Annie Lou Staveley, a pupil through Jane Heap of G.I. Gurdjieff. It was presumably the sole farm in the area that had and still has its own printing press. How many people have lived on these acres, how many people were weekend visitors, how many acres there are … none of this information is shared. Instead, the reader is invited to share Kherdian’s perceptions, impressions, and thoughts.
Of these poems, Roth writes, “We are given tastes, not recipes.” So there are no descriptions of exercises, meditations, or movements on these pages. It is as if the rationale for the rural retreat has been displaced or subsumed in the tasks of everyday farm life. “He is the single, full-fledged poet I know who sings of the work, although much has been written by some good writers in other forms.” Yet, as Roth notes, “These poems are noticings, of oneself in the moment of noticing: the gateway to all spiritual aspiration.” I like the plural noun “noticings.”
It is probably safe to say a reader who knows nothing about communal living and work centres will benefit from reading Kherdian’s poetry, though the reader might be puzzled by poems which from time to time conclude with spiritual affirmations that appear so to speak out of the blue: “There is a beauty in all this / beyond the telling.”
The reader can sense both the man and the poet at work in the earlier poems; in the later poem the reader can sense that they are the same being. There is an instance of this in two poems titled “i ride the red tractor.” In the first poem the “i” is identified as “a stranger to this green earth / these turbulent, thundering skies.” In the second poem the “i” is “this human form” which would “come to them” (“bird and animal / red tractor or green”) “in the halo of my love.” There is a transformation recorded here in parallel poems with the same title. It is casually presented, characteristic of Kherdian’s subtle sometimes impressionistic writing generally.
The poems are anything but innovative or subversive; they are anything but traditional or conservative. They are individual in the sense that the idiom adopted by the poet is that of modern free verse. The poet is aware of Ezra Pound who sought to introduce Modernism, which led to Post-Modernism, for Kherdian twice quotes the injunction “make it new,” a command identified with Pound. Kherdian does not make it new, but he makes it his own – here is a man here, a man in the guise of a farmer-poet – who does this and does that. Share his experiences and their meanings. In terms of the division of man in P.D. Ouspensky’s schema, it is possible to place Kherdian’s magnetic centre in his moving / instinctive centre – that is his “major” centre, his minor being the emotional.
I will not pause over the poems in whole or part that describe pigs, ducks, horses, chickens, starlings, flies, and other farm animals and fowl; here Kherdian has to contend with the reader’s remembered richness of D.H. Lawrence’s wildlife poems. Ditto for weeds, flowers, seeds, etc. Kherdian is inclined to see the wildlife that catches his eye as instances of all life:
Ah well, I tell myself, some things
just naturally resist a reasoning
mind, that’s all. And have you not
noticed how various and multiple
and mysterious everything is –
including chickens (not to mention
humans), etcetera, etcetera.
That is the ending of “the wild ones.” It is quite effective, and it would work on the podium as a spoken poem, but it tells us “a little about a little,” rather than “a lot about a lot.” Kherdian is not the poet of the big statement, but of the little insight, which is all the richer for its uniqueness. The poem “to the man or woman” is about a meditation cushion, accidentally left behind, which he then uses while shelling corn. He wonders if it will retain the impression of his body. He then ponders the act:
We want to touch everything
in this manner, with all
the parts of our bodies, consciously,
with all our feelings and thoughts,
for it is in this way
that we are trying to
awaken to The Farm
Only one of the poems is formal in the literary sense of that word. It is “mount st. helens” and it describes the feelings on the land when “the ashes fell.” It is formal because its stanzas are constructed like those of the classic French form known as the villanelle, except that there is no repetition of lines and no use of rhyme. I wish it were a villanelle. As it is, the memorability of the poem rests on the process of its thought and feeling, unbuttressed by stylishly or skillfully written lines. It ends:
We had been shocked into wakefulness, and the
certainly of that made us question again
the uncertainty of life and its meaning.
The structure of at least one other poem recalls the structure of a classic form, in this instance “poem” comes close to the three-line haiku, though its length is eleven lines. Five lines describe the sight of one of the farmers on a bicycle. Three lines are devoted to how the scene that is so far distant is so silent. Five lines move into another dimension, the last two being these:
I turn and do not see the invisible
imprint I have left on the ground.
There is a lot in these poems about close to indelible impressions. Reading these poems I occasionally thought how D.H. Lawrence would have done it better – or at least deeper – but then he was weighted down and occasionally buoyed up with deep passions and society’s restrictions against venting them. Yet every so often I also thought of Rainer Maria Rilke. The German poet would have approved of a number of Kherdian’s poem, especially the one titled “1,2,3,4, ducks in a row.” Lawrence would know what he thought of the inner life of the duck, but Rilke would have known better, especially in his period at Castle Duino in Trieste. And Kherdian too knows better. Without paraphrasing the twenty-one line poem, let me quote the last stanza about the sight of these strange creatures of creation:
As if it were my business. As if I, who understand nothing,
including myself, should be expected to understand
them, and know what they mean, or what
they SHOULD mean. Whose life am I living, anyhow?
The mundane task of keeping the birds from eating the fruit is described in the poem “they’re after my strawberries again.” The task is being poorly performed by the straw-hatted scarecrow. Is the poet better able to perform it? Here is how it ends:
What am I waiting for?
Heaven’s intervention? Childhood’s return?
A permanent summer sun and no villains?
Perhaps I’ll just sit back and wait
for a better poem, a better scarecrow,
and all the luck in the world,
plus a little bit more.
Everyone can use “the luck” and “a little bit more.” The expectations for the scarecrow were high, for the poet not so high, for the poem, it was the luck of the draw and the presence of perseverance and talent.
So far the poems that have been discussed and quoted come from the first half of the book. If I gave equal representation to the poems of the book’s second half, this appreciation would have to be much longer than it already is. Instead let me suggest only the following – that the later poems differ from the earlier in that the “noticings” of peculiarities and anomalies and unexpected emotions noted in the lines take on greater depths of meaning and significance in the later poems. What were sketches are now sculptures; what were two dimensional are now three dimensional.
This process of deepening and heightening is a consolidation of the poet and the process, of the man and the meaning, and it may be sensed by the reader in an occasional poem like “the cat” which describes movements of Tessie the tom cat. The description is neat and it “inscapes” the spirit of the animal, to use the verbal form of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ noun. Here is the three-line ending to the eighteen-line poem:
The hollow inbreath,
sensed but not seen,
between be and become.
The poet delves deeper or scales higher in “the death / life thing”:
when what we call life
and what we call death
join in their wholeness.
This Taoism or Buddhism or what-ism can go too far, as in the composition titled “the poet addresses his double” which looks at answers, organization, death, balance, and control, only to conclude:
Enter your life, only that.
Thank God, and be yourself.
Rather than leave it on a low note, I want to take this review to a high note and listen to what Kherdian has to say in what is obviously one of his major poems. The poem is “celebrating gurdjieff’s one hundredth,” and it is subtitled “January 13, Aurora, Oregon.” It is only seventeen lines long, seventy-two words of text (plus the nine-word title and subtitle, to make it 81 words in all). It is not a miniature literary work but in a way it is gem-like.
The poet imagines that the headlights of cars penetrating the fog are “candles in procession / walkers in Asian mountains / chanting as they come to prayers.” The mythic is contrasted with the ironic: “Here their descendants arrive / in shields of tin and glass / over mended gravel roads.” In a melange of imagery, the poet imagines “brothers, our fathers” – people in the present, people of the past – “our drum the silent wheel” – the prayer wheel apparently, but also the automobile wheel – “our prayer beads” too – “that hums under the hood.” There is the notion of poetry as prayer here too. The poem ends (if it truly ends) with three words separated by two spaces:
We Affirming Come
In its quiet way and not quite clear way, it is quintessential David Kherdian.
I could continue to discuss other poems in “Seeds of Light” and in the poet’s subsequent collection “Letters to My Father” in light of this author’s earlier prose work titled “On a Spaceship with Beelzebub By a Grandson of Gurdjieff” which Colin Wilson praised as “One of the best accounts I’ve read of actually being a member of a Gurdjieff group.” That book alone deserves to be described, but that is a subject for another review-article, perhaps one that I will write when, later this year, the University of California Press issues David Kherdian’s “New and Selected Poems.”
John Robert Colombo
John Robert Colombo, based in Toronto, is a Member of the Order of Canada and holds an honorary doctorate from York University, Toronto. His latest books are “A Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore” (a volume of aphorisms) and “Less of Light” (the poems he wrote during the year 2011 plus a dream diary). Check his website for more details. < 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 > .
JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO REVIEWS
JAMES MOORE’S NEW BOOK
I distinctly remember the sensation that I experienced when I first saw in print the name “Lord Pentland.” What I sensed was a loftiness of person and of purpose. What I felt was the emotion of being wafted away from my usual, classless moorings: “Whoever is this fellow?” What I entertained was an heretical thought upon seeing his name in the context of the Work: “Was an English lord actually chosen by Mr. Gurdjieff to head the Work in America?”
I was late in the game. I first encountered the name and title in the early 1960s in the pages of a newly published book of radio talks. Its table of contents listed the contributors of talks and interviews broadcast on Pacifica Radio in California. I have long forgotten the names of the other contributors to this series of addresses, all of them public intellectuals familiar to me at the time. But I remember the name of this English baron who was completely unknown to me at that time. Curious!
I never met Lord Pentland or Henry John Sinclair or just plain John Sinclair, of course, but over the decades I have met with groups of men and women who knew him, attended his talks, and studied under him. They were unanimous in their admiration and respect for the man. I would ask each in turn, “What was his dominant characteristic? Why was he so admired and respected? What made him a dedicated teacher or leader?” People seemed to like the man but there was seldom a feature, chief or not, which I could identify or with which I could identify.
After all, the photographs of the man that I saw reproduced in public print, or at least those taken during his later years, showed a gaunt figure of a man with steel-rimmed glasses and querulous eyes. I once wrote, “To judge by photographs, John Pentland was a cadaverous figure of a man, toweringly tall, with skeletal skull, bushy eyebrows, and beady eyes. He resembles an ascetic, say a Cistercian monk …. “
As well, he seemed quite forbidding, almost formidable (if not slightly comic or ironic). I never could discover what psychological feature or features were so impressive, though every once in a while someone would glance around and mumble about the man’s patrician bearing, the slight condescension in his attitude and manner, etc. But then some people are never satisfied; they will accept the Sermon on the Mount only if delivered by Jesus Christ in person.
Over the years I watched out for references to Lord Pentland in the literature of the Work, especially in the “Gurdjieff Review.” I bought and read a copy of the book “Exchanges Within” which is subtitled “Questions from Everyday Life Selected from Gurdjieff Group Meetings with John Pentland in California, 1955-1984.” It was published by Continuum in 1977, and its prose captured some of the qualities of the man, which I take to be a general thoughtfulness or mindfulness coupled with directness and authority.
I found his manner of writing and speaking to be more elusive than evasive, and to this day his prose, whether transcriptions of the talks or of the sessions of questions and answers, continues to remind me of the opaque styles of J. Krishnamurti and Rudolf Steiner. The opacity could be that of some level of being: a disembodied intelligence, perhaps. The texts of the talks themselves read like … radio scripts.
The other day I checked Wikipedia’s entry and I learned a little about the man Henry John Sinclair, but next to nothing about his personality and purpose, his mission and message. He was born in 1907, but where? (The biography says London.) He died in 1984, but where? (The biography says New York City.) He was the 2nd Baron Pentland and a man of means; his wife Lucy was also titled and well-to-do. His daughter, son-in-law, and their child are contributors to the Work.
In the 1930s and 1940s he worked with P.D. Ouspensky in London, and in 1948 he spent about nine months with Mr. Gurdjieff in Paris, who thereupon appointed him to lead the work in America. (“America” means the United States; while he did visit Canada, it was for business meetings in Toronto before he had met Mr. Gurdjieff and for a visit to the rodeo in Calgary afterwards.)
At one point he worked out of an office in Rockefeller Center, representing British-American commercial interests, like an earlier neighbour, spymaster Sir William Stephenson (known as “the Quiet Canadian” before turning garrulous and acquiring the title “the Man Called Intrepid”). I recall reading a warm and memorable description of Lord Pentland at work in his office. The account was written by the youthful William Patrick Patterson who visited the baron there, was much impressed with the man, and studied under him for all of eleven years, before finding another mentor. Patterson went on to establish the Gurdjieff Studies Program and describes himself to this day as a student of Lord Pentland.
Lord Pentland served as president of the Gurdjieff Foundation from its inception in 1953 to his death in 1984, and also as president of the Gurdjieff Foundation of California from its inception in 1955 to his death. He also served as executive editor of Far West Editions from 1969 to his death. I sense that the year of his death marked the end of a phase of the Work in America, as phases of the Work in France and the rest of Europe and the United Kingdom were marked by the death in 1990 of Madame de Salzmann and eleven years later that of her son Michel de Salzmann.
Talks delivered by Lord Pentland at Esalen and on the campuses of American colleges and universities were delivered alike to veteran students and newcomers to the Work and printed in semi-limited editions. In print they seem somewhat abstract or at least abstracted from experience. Indeed, I reviewed three of these publications and summarized their contents for readers of this blog in 2008, where they remain archived for reading or reference.
I have gone into all this detail – peeks at Lord Pentland from a distance – for the reason that many if not most readers of this review will share experiences similar to mine, being one or two steps removed from the man and the manner. Not everyone in the Work has had a first-hand experience of the man. Savour those experiences and conceptions of the man before encountering him in relief in the pages of James Moore’s biography, which has a four-word title: “Eminent Gurdjieffians: Lord Pentland.”
This biography is a handsome volume published by Gurdjieff Studies Ltd. in England. The website is < www . gurdjieff . org. uk >. The book has an attractive dust jacket (designed by Linda Edmonds), card covers, matching coloured endsheets, and well-designed pages which measure 6″ x 9.5″ and which run from xx to 108. There are eighteen black-and-white illustrations. There is also a nominal index (i.e., restricted to personal names, not places or references) and a bibliography best described as sketchy. I wish the pages had been stitched rather than “perfect bound,” i.e., glued, but there are headbands, and the pages once opened almost lie flat on their own. It is a nice edition to hold and to read.
But before I do review its contents, I want to comment on the first two words of the book’s title: “Eminent Gurdjieffians.” Serious readers will catch the significance of the word “eminent,” which was not coined by Lytton Strachey but was certainly trademarked by him. “Eminent Victorians” is the title of this influential composite biography of four leading figures in Victorian England (Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Matthew Arnold, and General Gordon).
The lady and the three gentlemen were and are indeed “eminent,” though not necessarily pre-eminent for reasons of morality. The book’s appearance in 1918 coincided with the end of the Great War, and as the latter dealt the deathblow to the Kaiser’s designs on Europe, the former ended the idolatry and exposed the morality of leading public figures in Queen Victoria’s England.
Today, “Eminent Victorians” would be regarded as a hatchet-job, but for the fact that Strachey wrote well, researched deeply, and refused to moralize. Indeed, the composite biography appealed to the sceptical Bertrand Russell who read it while imprisoned for civil disobedience. In a letter he described the literary work in these words: “It is brilliant, delicious, exquisitely civilized.”
Do Lord Russell’s words describe the book at hand? I will answer that question but first here is another digression. The digression concerns the author James Moore. His entry in Wikipedia and his own detailed and informative website < www . jamesmoore . org . uk > are so interesting that I could write about the author at some length. Instead, I will write concisely and somewhat cursorily.
Moore, born in Cornwall in 1929, seems to be something of an autodidact, but one who worked with the Admiralty until retirement in 1980, who holds fellowships in at least two Royal Societies, and who is the author of four books of substance and many articles of importance which have appeared in serious journals and as entries in encyclopedias.
As for his Work experience, he studied with Henriette H. Lannes from 1957 to 1978, and thereafter with Henri Tracol and Maurice Desselle. He was closely associated with the Gurdjieff Society in London from 1981 to 1994 when, it seems, he was expelled, if that is the word to use, though “excommunicated” is the one that he himself prefers. (Query: Do Gurdjieffians “shun” like Mormons?) That might be the second-best thing that has ever happened to him, his induction into the Work being the first; the jury is still out on that. Anyway, he renewed himself as an independent scholar and presumably as an independent Gurdjieffian, his status to this day.
I have read his four books: “Gurdjieff and Mansfield” (1980), “Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth” (1991), “Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered” (2005), and now “Eminent Gurdjieffians: Lord Pentland” (2011). His chef d’oeuvre is the second of these books, a biography rivalled only by John Beekman Taylor’s “Gurdjieff: A New Life” (2009), a sturdy and substantial work. I am still divided on the merits of the third of these books, as it adopts the tone of the tabloid press in its whining and winging, though as a human document it is full of fascinating detail.
If anyone in the Work is in a position to write short biographies of Work personalities and their essences, it is James Moore. On an earlier occasion I referred to this biographer as a precisian, an uncommon proper noun for someone who is strict and precise in observing the rules, his own or others’. I suspect that he gives a lot of thought before writing down a word. He is as stylish and exacting as Flaubert, who, it is said, worried so much over his prose that he would spend a morning inserting a comma followed by an afternoon erasing it. Moore is a writer who has to be read closely, and watched.
I have the feeling – it is an idea, really; perhaps a dream – that “Eminent Gurdjieffians” marks the first volume in a series, a series that may set a high watermark for scholarship in the literature of the Work. Such a series is long overdue. Where is there a short biography of Sophie Grigorievna Volochine (aka Madame Ouspensky)? Or a long biography of Jeanne Allemand (aka Madame de Salzmann)? Perhaps these and other biographies are waiting in the wings.
Yet in these pages Moore writes, plangently, “This book is my literary swan-song.” If so, it is sad news. Earlier I quoted Bertrand Russell’s words about Lytton Strachey’s book: “brilliant, delicious, exquisitely civilized.” Do these words apply to Moore and this book? Yes and no is the short answer. The long answer follows.
Moore writes with a stylistic brilliance that is coruscating and hence sometimes blinding. His prose is delicious in the sense that the reader wants to consume more and more pages, though with full knowledge that some passages are going to be hard to digest. But is the work “exquisitely civilized”? The author is certainly a cultured man, but I would not immediately describe him as civilized, at least in terms of what he has written here. He is very hard on his subject and for these reasons one would have to read between the lines.
There is a telling anecdote about a beautiful but impressionable society lady who one day accepted a luncheon invitation from W.E. Gladstone. Asked about the experience, she replied, “I realize that I was in the presence of the most brilliant man in all of England.” The next day she lunched with Benjamin Disraeli. Asked how that lunch had gone, she replied, “I realize that I am the most brilliant woman in all of England.” Reading Moore’s prose I feel that Moore is the most brilliant writer in all of England.
He monopolizes his subject, but to demonstrate this I would have to lead the reader through the book page by page to review Pentland’s life and that would take a great many pages (or “screens”). It is an interesting life that he led, but not a very convincing one, at least to the degree that Pentland was a late developer, and it begs the question whether he developed at all; that makes Moore’s task all the harder.
Medical historian Michael Bliss had the same problem as Moore when he wrote the now-standard biography of Sir William Osler, the clinician and Regius Professor of Medicine, who had no secrets, no scandals, and no enemies. That presents a problem. How does a biographer make decency attractive in its own right? Instead of pursuing this line of inquiry, I will make a few general points.
* Moore devotes no pages at all to Pentland’s talks and interviews, even those that were published in “Exchanges Within.” So the subject’s “take” on the Work is not discussed. Pentland presided over an interesting period in the evolution of the Work – what with the introduction of all of those “sittings” – but while they are mentioned, they are certainly not considered in any detail.
* Moore has hardly anything of an interpretive nature to say about the appeal of P.D. Ouspensky’s “system” to Pentland. There is no speculation as to what Mr. Gurdjieff saw in Pentland’s spirit, mind, or manner. Possibly what he saw in his “American lieutenant” was a respectable man with the ability to relate to men and women on all social levels, which it seems is what Pentland did do.
* Moore devotes no paragraphs at all to Pentland’s business interests, a point he himself makes, as if to exculpate himself. These details would be of some social and intellectual interest. His “war record” seems to be one of evasion rather than duty, but that is not conclusively shown.
* Moore devotes no sentences at all to interpreting the man’s psychology. I am not now referring to “the psychology of man’s possible evolution” but to the dynamics of the man’s personality, his image of himself. For this reason the biography seems to me to be pre-Freudian: the subject is more a mannikin than a man in Moore’s hands.
* Moore seems uncomfortable dealing with the characteristics of the English class system, both its strengths and its weaknesses. Whenever possible he brings Gilbert Harding into the narrative. I found this interesting, but only because I have long been curious about this English broadcaster and polemicist (who spent some time making mischief in Toronto); Moore is always about to compare and contrast the two men whose lives seem to have been lived at cross-purposes.
* Moore might see himself as a social historian, offering brief histories of the decades. For instance, I learned that the year 1957 “was in some senses a funny year. Jack Kerouac published “On the Road”; Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” was translated into Eskimo and staged in a Perspex igloo …. ” Fascinating tidbits, à la John Dos Passos, but hardly part of Pentland’s world. For a short book, it is long on potted history.
* Moore is a careful researcher. I spotted no errors of consequence; two inconsequential ones are the spelling of the New Brunswick port where Madame Ouspensky disembarked (it is Saint John not St. John’s, New Brunswick); and the indecision as whether or not to hyphenate Rodney Collin-Smith’s name.
* Moore is good on the dissection of imagery. He offers a brilliant comparison of Pentland’s gaunt appearance with that of the elderly farmer in Grant Wood’s classic painting “American Gothic.” He also comments on the surprising photograph taken by Dushka Howarth which catches Pentland and Mr. Gurdjieff at lunch at a roadside café in 1949, the baron gazing into the distance, the “teacher of dance” digging into the food before him.
* In dealing with that photograph, I believe Moore tips his hand when he describes Pentland in terms of his “depthless earnestness.” These two words might well be his final insight into the man and interpretation of his contribution to the development of the Work. It is an most revealing phrase.
Earlier I mentioned in passing that I had no occasion to meet Lord Pentland. In the introductory pages of this book, Moore mentions that he did meet this “eminent Gurdjieffian,” once, almost accidentally, long before the notion of writing the man’s biography occurred to him. After reading his book, I feel that had I had an occasion to meet Pentland, I too might – like Moore – sense the man’s “depthless earnestness.”
JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO REVIEWS
JEANNE DE SALZMANN’S “THE REALITY OF BEING”
A page from one of Jeanne de Salzmann’s notebooks
‘Madame de Salzmann’s Testament’
I have in front of me, as I keyboard this review, my prized copy of “The Reality of Being.” The copy is prized, despite the fact that it has not been autographed by its author; despite the fact that it lacks any association with an individual person, place, or incident; despite the fact that it was not given to me by a specially sensitive well-wisher; despite the fact that it was purchased through the Internet and arrived unheralded; despite the fact that it is the trade edition of the book that was published in thousands of copies in May 2010 and this is already October. The reasons why it is prized lie elsewhere and herein.
I prize it because of the quality of its contents, and so I have reserved a space for it on the bookshelf in my study where I display the spines of a limited number of select volumes about the Work that were published over the last three-quarters of a century. This brace of books includes the three volumes of G.I. Gurdjieff’s “All and Everything” series, four books written by P.D. Ouspensky, “The Harmonious Circle” by James Webb, and perhaps a dozen slender volumes composed by people whose last names are Claustres, George, Ravindra, Tracol, Vaysse, Welch, etc.
Before I attempt to convey the extent and limits of the contents of the present volume, I want to praise first its publisher and then its editors. It is a handsome piece of book-making. It measures 6″ x 9″ and has a substantial, dark blue cloth cover embossed in gold; it has end-sheets and an inspired and atmospheric dust-jacket which features an image that combines the horizon of the earth with the stars of the heavens which was created by an artist who goes unnamed but is nevertheless intriguingly referred to as “the author’s great-granddaughter.”
The typographical design of its pages appears at once casual and classical. The volume is published by Shambhala of Boston and London, which ensures it will be widely distributed and kept in print, and it is very reasonably priced at CDN $32.00. The publisher even had the signatures of the book sewn – most books these days have their pages glued together, a process euphemistically described as “Perfect Binding.” As well, they have added, like a sovereign crown, a bright yellow-orange headband. The book is a durable and handsome product, worthy of the muse or saint of printing and publishing, if there is one. Thank you, Shambhala, for taking pains!
I hope I do not sound like a claque because, as well, I will praise in extravagant terms the editors of this book. On the mundane level I did not find a single misprint, and that rarely happens these days, even with scholarly texts issued by university presses. I did note, in passing, that there are discrepancies between the birth years of its subject and its author. The copyright page, which includes the by-now standard Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data, gives G.I. Gurdjieff’s year of birth as 1872, whereas the text gives it as 1866. The same page gives Madame de Salzmann’s year of birth as “1889?” whereas the text gives the same year but without the droll question mark. But these are matters of amusement and no consequence, unlike the text of the book itself.
The text is well organized, indeed super-organized, with a Foreword, an Introduction, twelve main sections, a Biographical Note, a list of the four Gurdjieff centres (Paris, London, New York City, Caracas), and an Index. Let me pause over the latter item, the twelve-page, double-column index, as indices are often overlooked, despite the fact that the attentive reader may tell a lot about a book from a cursory examination of its index.
After perusing it, I thought, “The only personal name in this index – and hence in the text of the book itself – is that of G.I. Gurdjieff.” Then I looked closer and found three other names, those of Christ, Buddha, and Mohammed. Illustrious company indeed! Added to them, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, I found that of Ashiata Shiemash. So it is apparent from this index that the reader will not turn the pages of this book in order to be entertained by stories, anecdotes, or descriptions of the men and women who participated in the evolution of the presentation of Work principles and practices from Ouspensky’s “Special Doctrine” to Madame de Salzmann’s embodiment of the Fourth Way.
The present volume is about as far from a gossipy book as it is possible to be. In fact, the book is about how it is “possible to be,” and in doing so, I find I want to describe the text as a collection of homilies. A homily is a commentary on a passage of scripture, and during a church service a homily is delivered following the reading of the specified passage of scripture. It is basically a sermon with a practical application of the general principles found in the day’s passage. Hence a homily deals more with practice and not directly with principle. It is hortatory.
If I am right when I claim that what we have here is a series of homilies, it is also true that the thrust of the texts is towards the harmonization of the three centres of man. There is next to nothing about the speculative nature of this system of thought at least of the sort identified with the expositions of P.D. Ouspensky. The sections about the Law of Three and the Law of Seven are perfunctory in the extreme; indeed, they are credited by the editors to legitimate sources outside Madame de Salzmann’s notebooks, the source of these texts.
Instead of regarding thought, feeling, and sensation as separate subjects, we have an integration of them within the human body. The index, once again, gives an idea of what is being emphasized, with entries such as these, each of which has a dozen or more page numbers: being, body, consciousness, contact, crystalization, efforts, energy, existence, feeling, instrument of knowing, mind, nature, order, perception, reality, relation, seeing, sensations, shocks, teaching, tensions, understanding, vigilance, voluntary suffering.
There is an abstract quality to the exposition, certainly the quality of selflessness, so it is a relief that the texts themselves are surprisingly short – one page, two pages, three pages – seldom more. If they were any longer, they would be somewhat tedious to read; if they were any shorter, the expositions would be reducible to maxims, like the pages of sentence-long quotations that introduce each of the twelve sections. Two instances of these mantras are “We struggle not against something, we struggle for something” and “I have to maintain a continual sensation in all the activities of my daily life.” In his memoir of Madame de Salzmann called “Heart without Measure,” Ravi Ravindra made exceptional use of such expressions of experience.
The structure of this book as a collection of meditations or a passel of ponderings is such that it may not meet the needs of the novice in the Work, but by its nature it will address the deep-seated needs of people experienced in the ways and words of the Work, people who are in need reminding. In a way the present book reminds me of Maurice Nicoll’s multi-volume set of “Psychological Commentaries” in which each short essay concentrates on one particular element of the teaching. Whereas Nicoll is intellectual and philosophical, Madame de Salzmann is physical and functional..
Each of Madame de Salzmann’s texts illuminates an aspect of the Work, what used to be called “the practice of the presence of God” and what is now recalled by the words of the title of Patty de Llosa’s fine book “The Practice of Presence.” As Nicol was indebted to Ouspensky, Madame de Salzmann is indebted to Gurdjieff. Over the last fifty years or so, I have watched as the word “religion” has been replaced by the word “spirituality” and how that word is now passing out of style in favour of such words as “being,” “presence,” “consciousness,” and “awareness.” Who knows where it will end (to pose a Zen-like question!)?
Let me pause over the arrangement of the contents of the book. Each of the twelve sections is neatly divided into three sections, and each of these three sections has four subsections. This would create a book of 144 texts of homilies, except for the fact that four of the subsections have not four texts apiece but three. That makes 140 texts. (These short subsections are “A Sense of the Whole,” “Ego and Illusion,” “Voluntary Attention,” and “Voluntary Suffering.” It might be worthwhile, at some future time, to pause to wonder why this lack of symmetry is so.)
If the sign of a fine translation is that the reader hears the sound of the voice of a person whose words are being rendered into another language, this translation is sound indeed! I have never heard words spoken by Madame de Salzmann, but as I read these words I feel I am hearing her speaking her own words in her own way. She owns them. Her use of words is measured, they are masterfully chosen, and they are rhythmically arranged. There is a flow of language to match the flow of the teaching. The English translation from the French seems amazingly fine. Yet there is no way to ensure that this is so because the French originals of the notebook are not in print. Indeed, it seems that this English edition is the “editio princeps,” as the French text has never been published. A world first.
Who edited this book? Who prepared the translations from what are described as the “notebooks” kept by the author over the last half-century, from the death of Gurdjieff in 1949 and the death of Madame de Salzmann in 1990 at the age of 101? (Both the Library of Congress and the text of the book agree on these years!) “This book was edited by a small group of Jeanne de Salzmann’s family and followers.” Thus reads the last paragraph of the Foreword. This is a self-effacing sentence, so I wish I knew more, so I could credit the collective effort of family and followers.
Maybe I do know more. I have heard that the positive force behind the book’s appearance originated with the author’s daughter Nathalie de Salzmann de Etievan, who died in 2007. The project was carried out by a couple, Nathalie’s daughter Anne-Marie and her husband Stephen Grant, a retired New York lawyer, supported by the author’s grandson Dr. Alexandre de Salzmann. The labours of Anne-Marie and Stephen, to use their first names without leave, were no doubt augmented by those of other unnamed contributors. Their efforts “have surpassed expectations,” as M.B.A.s in business schools are wont to say these days.
The organization and presentation of the Work that is currently overseen by the four Gurdjieff centres would seem to be based on the efforts of preservation, continuation, elaboration, and extension led by Madame de Salzmann and continued by her son Dr. Michel de Salzmann until he died in 2001.” The text reads, “Before Gurdjieff died he charged Mme. de Salzmann to live to be ‘over 100’ in order to establish his teaching.” She certainly succeeded in more ways than one!
What is her message? Here any reviewer has to make a decision. He can either report on what the author says in the order of the excerpts from the notebooks that appear here, and thereby write at considerable length; or he can summarize the approach that the author takes, and thereby risk sounding somewhat platitudinous. After pondering the matter, what I have decided to do is offer the reader two sentences, no more, on each of the twelve sections of the text. They will give the flavour of the whole and a sense of its direction.
The first sentence is my summary of the argument of the section, expressed in language that sidesteps the terminology of the Work. The second sentence is taken from that portion of Madame de Salzmann’s text and represents an idea or a formulation that struck me as a novel in expression if not new in insight. The book is so arranged as to lead the reader from the simple to the complex, yet at the same time the text resembles a hologram, for which every portion is a portal to the whole.
1. “A Call to Consciousness.” Man does not know himself, but he may through self-knowledge become a conscious being. “Everything comes from the wish, the will.”
2. “Opening to Presence.” We sense ourselves in a passive way, but it is possible to have an active impression of ourselves. “At every degree of awareness my response is in the way I exist at the very moment, and the kind of action in which I am engaged.”
3. “In a Common Direction.” Attention must be paid to the feeling of being alive. “In order for my being to change, I must understand my state emotionally.”
4. “The Work to Be Present.” There are moments of awakening and we need to aim at these, to concentrate on these. “Only one thing counts: ‘I exist.’”
5. “With Others.” Man is a living organism and it is necessary for living organisms to meet and learn and work and move together. “This is why the most important condition, the necessary condition, is to work with others of comparable experience and understanding, who are capable of upending the completely false scale of values established by personality.”
6. “To Be Centered.” Through concentration, through will, and through breath-work, I may find my inner center. “I need to know myself as a whole and to express myself as a whole, that is, to be a whole.”
7. “Who Am I?” The real self is consciousness itself. “No movement from the periphery toward the center will ever reach the center.”
8. “Toward a New Being.” Man has various centres and these need to be sent shocks in order for man to collect himself. “Our work is to understand better the collected state, a state in which I engage in a new order.”
9. “In a State of Unity.” If all my sensations, feelings, and thoughts were in alignment, I would be a conscious being. “Seeing is an act.”
10. “A Presence with Its Own Life.” There are very special energies and subtle forces and man has to experience them in quietude to be truly alive. “To come to this state, I need a right posture, an attitude in which I am grounded, maintaining an inner center of gravity.”
11. “The Essential Being.” Forces pass through us and we must learn to sense those vibrations that are subtle and submit to them. “I need to have a force in me coming from a higher level of the cosmos. It must become part of what I am.”
12. “To Live the Teaching.” We live in two worlds and with our bodies we may feel a Presence. “With consciousness, I see what is, and in the experience ‘I Am,’ I open to the divine, the infinite beyond space and time, the higher force that religions call God.”
These twelve chapters take the reader from a concentration on the ego through schools with practices to a sense of the cosmos, not really step by step but all at once. Hologram-like, these homilies repeat the main thesis that change in level of being is possible and they treat the reader to an array of approaches to the central existence of gnosis or the “knowledge of being.” The book is rightly named “The Reality of Being” for it deals with what is most real in us and in the world in which we live. This is Madame de Salzmann’s predominant testament, one that is to be prized.
John Robert Colombo, Toronto-based author and anthologist, has recently published “Poems of Space and Time,” a collection of 360 poems written over the last half-century and inspired by “the fantastic imagination.” Watch and hear him read some poems on YouTube. Listen to his podcasts on topics of the day on his website: www. colombo -plus. ca. He writes regularly on Fourth Way subjects for this blog.
Barbara and James in Colorado
I am sitting in front of my computer in North Toronto and Barbara Wright is sitting in front of her computer in downtown Toronto, a distance of perhaps eight kilometres. We are twenty minutes apart by car, yet our communication is via the a geostationary satellite, with the signal travelling back and forth perhaps 500,000 kilometres in one or two seconds.
I reside with my wife Ruth in our three-bedroom suburban house in the city’s North York district, which is unequally divided between the Italians and the Jews, to such an extent the district is locally known as the “Kosher Nostra.” (The New York essayist Richard Kostelanetz once called our place “Colombo Central.”)
Barbara Wright – I’ll call her Barbara, as she is quite direct in manner – lives with her husband James (Jim) George in their suite in a highrise in the city’s downtown area. The balcony offers a sweeping view of the city’s exclusive Rosedale district, which Jim has known since his childhood.
The view is new to Barbara who was born in Colorado. She made California her home state for decades, at least until her late marriage, four years ago in San Francisco, to Jim. They make a formidable couple and their surroundings are awesome. The suite is richly decorated with works of Buddhist and Hindu art: statues, mandalas, rugs, paintings, etc. There is even a framed photograph of the smiling couple with a giggling Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, taken last year during a private session at the time of his last public visit to the city.
Perhaps I should recall that Jim served as Canada’s High Commissioner to India from 1967 to 1972. During his years in New Delhi he befriended two youthful spiritual leaders of the Buddhist-Bon tradition: the Dalai Lama and Chögyam Trungpa. The American disciples of the latter “crazy wisdom” lama accompanied him when he shifted his ashram from Boulder, Colorado, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he established a thriving centre for Shambhala studies. Today Jim is regarded as one of the elder statesmen of the Work in Canada, a group that includes Ravi Ravindra and Tom Daly.
As for their ages – Barbara is in her seventies, Jim is in his early nineties – think nothing of it. Both are healthy and look great. Together they generate more energy than do the hydroelectric power turbines at Niagara Falls, an ninety minutes south of Toronto by car.
Barbara and James with HH the Dalai Lama
Barbara has kindly agreed to my request to reproduce this photograph taken with the Dalai Lama who, years earlier, contributed the foreword to Jim’s recently reprinted book, Asking for the Earth: Waking Up to the Spiritual / Ecological Crisis. Jim’s current book is “The Little Green Book on Awakening,” a kind of primer on the climate crisis and work on consciousness. She has also agreed to answer one dozen questions. So here are my statements and questions, with her responses and answers.
Q. Three cities: Boulder – San Francisco – Toronto. Although I could connect these three cities with a straight line on a map, it would not occur to me to do so, but for the fact that you have an association with these three North American cities. Let’s begin with Boulder, which by synecdochy I associate with the rest of Colorado. I understand that you were not born in Boulder, a spiritual centre in Colorado, but that you were born in the city of Grand Junction. Were you educated there? Do you see yourself as a “midwesterner”?
Boulder is important because it’s in Colorado and my younger daughter lives there. Also, there is a Gurdjieff group there which I have visited regularly for over twenty years, and during that time, I have gotten to know the people in the group very well, and value them very highly. It’s true that Boulder is a kind of spiritual center, and we are very aware of that. In fact, by coincidence or whatever arranges such events, my visits often coincide with special Buddhist gatherings. For example, the Dalai Lama was in Denver once when we were having a special weekend; and last year, the new Karmapa was there at the same time that the Boulder group worked together over a four-day period of time.
Last May, since some of our people were interested in studying Chogyam Trungpa’s ideas on work in life — and since the Gurdjieff Work is described as “a work in life” — invited several friends of mine, who live in Boulder and practice Buddhism, to join us. That made for an interesting time. So we feel very lucky to be in such a place, which is not only a spiritual center, but very beautiful. In only a few minutes, we can be walking uphill on a mountain path. My husband, Jim, sometimes goes with me to Colorado, and he loves the mountains; even though he was born in Toronto, he has climbed the best and highest mountains. Of course, I love the mountains because they are an essential part of me. I was born at an altitude of a little over 5000 feet.
I was born in the city of Grand Junction, which is on the other side of the mountains from Boulder, on the Western Slope of the Rockies. Though it has about the same mile-high altitude, it had a different feeling from Boulder, Denver, or Colorado Springs, which are located on the Eastern Slope and are related to the Great Plains in the central part of the United States. It felt a little less sophisticated and possibly more genuine. A little more desert prospector or sheep herder and less like the gold or silver barons. This is in the process of changing now as the powerful homogenous force erases those kinds of differences. Now, Grand Junction is becoming well known for its wineries; the thought of which would have horrified the members of the twelve to fifteen Protestant churches in the city when I was growing up. (I believe that the members of the one large Catholic church did have a glass of wine from time to time, and probably more Protestants than we knew of did also.)
Grand Junction is high-desert country, only a few miles from Utah and its fantastic canyons and rock formations. Two rivers meet there, and the valley they form is fertile and known for its warm climate. It’s also quite a beautiful valley, surrounded on three sides by completely different and completely amazing landscapes. In fact, on a recent visit, I felt quite strongly that the beauty and grandeur of that valley somehow comprise my heritage.
My education in Grand Junction gave me a pretty good start in life. We lived close enough that I could walk to and from school and come home for lunch each day, so the 3 schools I attended from grade 1-12 seemed like an extension of home life. Many of my teachers were highly educated in the now old-fashioned classics, probably similar to a Canadian education. And, I read a lot and was outdoors a lot.
For a town of around 28,000 people there many riches. For example, growing up in Grand Junction at that time provided special opportunities for anyone to study classical music that probably don’t exist now. Every elementary school, and the junior high and high school had an orchestra, a concert band, and a marching band, with very good teachers — several just back from WWII and one at least, a veteran of the Paul Whiteman orchestra that played for silent movies. I started piano lessons at five and violin at ten, and by the time I was in high school, I was taking violin lessons at the local college, playing in two symphonies, and performing chamber music in a string trio.
As to being a “midwesterner.” Very early in U.S. history, my ancestors moved from the British Isles, Germany, and Switzerland to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and points farther east, and then to Missouri and Iowa and finally, just after the Civil War, to Colorado, leaving the southern part of the Midwest behind. Like them, I was and am a Westerner. Quite a different animal. Although I lived for six months in Iowa once long ago — and Iowa is definitely the Midwest — and I live now in Toronto — and Toronto is definitely the East — I remain a Westerner.
Q. Where and how did you first encounter the Work? Could you describe how its ideas and emotions initially affected you? Did it suddenly seem to you to answer your questions about life or did it gradually meet your inner needs?
I first encountered the work ideas in Grand Junction. A friend lent me a book by Kenneth Walker and I happened to notice the name Gurdjieff in it. Noticed and was galvanized. That’s the one, I thought. There was no reason; I simply seemed to recognize his name, just as I simply seemed to know that the ideas were true when I read them later on. The first work book I read was “Venture with Ideas” by the same Kenneth Walker, and while reading it, I really learned that I was asleep. While I was reading in the living room, too completely engrossed by new ideas and new possibilities, the water had been used up in the vaporizer I’d left running in my daughters’ bedroom, and it was beginning to overheat and starting to smoke. That was a definite shock. A wake-up call.
Another strong moment I remember was reading “In Search of the Miraculous” while waiting to have surgery the next morning. That book, and the particular passage I read that evening, also served as a call for a new way of living. Curiously, Jim and I are reading through “In Search of the Miraculous” with a small group of people, and a few weeks ago we read that very same passage. Again, a strong moment.
And I was lucky that my introduction to “Beelzebub’s Tales” was oral. The same friend who lent me the Walker books read the first chapter, “The Arousal of Thought,” out loud to me while I was ironing. It was amazing. To hear the words first rather than reading them was a very lucky event. Of course, I then read the book, as fast as I could, unintentionally reading it the way I would ordinarily read any book, in fact as Gurdjieff suggests.
Those books changed my life. The ideas seemed completely familiar, as if they spoke to my own experience and knowledge that had been forgotten. So many of my questions about my own and other’s behavior were addressed and the grandeur of creation and the living universe, which I had experienced myself in special moments, was evoked. I would describe the experience of reading these books as the experience of coming back to life. Of course, as the years went along, I discovered other needs within myself because the work gave me something in relation to those needs.
Q. San Francisco is the next city. What year did you move there? Did you raise your family there?
San Francisco was my home for forty-five years. It was there that I joined a group, met Lord Pentland and many other remarkable people, and of course, made many close friends in the work community there.
I moved to San Francisco in 1961, after going back to college in 1960 — I was one of two single mothers with kids, a rarity at the time — and getting a teaching certificate. My two young daughters and my twenty-one year old sister went with me. I was twenty-eight. In early September, we pulled a small trailer from Grand Junction to San Francisco across the desert and the Sierras, crossed over the Bay Bridge while reciting a little Hart Crane, and stayed the first night in a motel right on the beach south of San Francisco.
In the next few days, we found a place to live, a school for my older daughter and a babysitter for the younger one, and a job for my sister. I began my teaching career in a 6th grade classroom and felt very close to that class. We went to our first meeting on October 10th, with Lord Pentland and the leaders of the San Francisco work. Some notes from that first meeting are in the book Exchanges Within. That was the beginning of my work with the group in San Francisco.
Hopefully, my daughters were helped by our connection to the work. I had remarried, to an older man in the work, and we were very busy with groups and work activities. There were many people in and out of the house, and we were away a lot. But, we had music and crafts at home, and two dogs. Also, the city of San Francisco offered many cultural opportunities. There were many interesting people around our dinner table during those years. They never had what they considered a “normal” family life, but as adults they’ve realized that there is no such thing as the ideal, perfectly normal family. I’m hoping now that they feel their lives were very special, in good ways.
Q. I know you are a woman who cherishes family connection. Tell us the names of your children and grandchildren. Where do they live? Were they surprised when you informed them that you and Jim would live in Toronto?
My older daughter, Claudia, still lives in San Francisco and, along with her husband, is quite active in the Gurdjieff Foundation there. She is quite a good pianist and also quite a good poet. They have two daughters, Anne, just receiving her MSW from UC Berkeley in May, and Clara, an artist / poet who lives in Santa Cruz and is very active in community organizations. My younger daughter, Kristine, lives in Boulder with her husband. She is a healer, and uses flower essences, Jin Shin Jyutsu, and psychic healing to great and good results. Her daughter Jessamyn is finishing her third year of college and studying international law.
I do very much cherish family connections. After my mother’s death, I remembered conversations we’d had and after finding notes she had made in various books, I realized that my life, which had been so much about a search for meaning, was a continuation of hers. As is my sister’s. Now, as I get older and watch my daughters, and their daughters, becoming more and more wise, this continuity seems even more apparent. And, I wish for them all, wish that their own lives and their inquiries into the purpose of life can bring more freedom, wisdom, clarity, daring, and so on. The good things.
There were various reactions to my announcement that I was thinking of marrying Jim George. Surprise, certainly, because it all happened very quickly. Reactions ranged from excitement to opposition. A very positive Tarot reading from one granddaughter, a “Go for it, Grandma” from another, and a “You’ve got to be kidding!” from my younger daughter. Now, five years later, we’ve visited them and they’ve each have visited us in Toronto, and I think everyone agrees it’s been a good arrangement.
Q. Was it in San Francisco that you began your work as a Feldenkrais instructor? Are you still a practitioner?
In the late 70s and early 80s, Lord Pentland began using Feldenkrais lessons as part of his teaching. I believe that he could see that without real changes in the body, self development was mostly mental. Moshe Feldenkrais had been influenced by Gurdjieff and his teaching is highly appropriate for Gurdjieffians or for anyone interested in the development of the whole person. Those first lessons were astounding. I still remember the whole sensation and feeling of myself, of my whole self, as I walked down the hill after the first one.
About the same time, with his encouragement, I began to have lots of body work, which continued into the 90s. There was a double motive for this. Partly for deepening awareness and partly to improve a bad back that was the result of an early fall off a horse.
In 1992, I started my career as a free-lance editor, not only making a decent amount of money but also setting my own hours. By 1994, it seemed the time and the funds were right for me to take the Feldenkrais training in the Bay Area north of San Francisco. Again I was lucky. My trainers were excellent. They were Buddhists and tuned to the awareness aspect of the work. After four years more or less on the floor at least once a week and for longer periods several times a year, my back was many times better. Hopefully, the awareness was better also.
I graduated from the four-year training in 1999, and had quite an active practice, teaching classes in several locations, with a good number of private clients up until the time I moved to Toronto, but it’s been difficult to keep it going here. It takes time to be married! I taught some classes that met here in our condo for several months, substituted a bit at the Feldenkrais Center, and taught one at the Institute of Traditional Medicine on the Art of Sitting, in which I combined lessons for the body and sitting quietly together. I have had a few private clients, including a man who comes regularly when he’s visiting from San Francisco. Eventually I would like to be teaching more. The Feldenkrais Method is amazing.
Q. How long were you associated with the work in San Francisco? By the way, do you know Jacob Needleman, the philosopher who has published many work-related books?
I was associated with the Work in San Francisco for forty-four years — from 1961 to 2005, and I still travel to San Francisco and attend group meetings there when I can. I will probably always be related to the work in San Francisco. The San Francisco groups were begun by Lord Pentland around 1954 to 1957, shortly after Gurdjieff’s death in 1949. He continued almost monthly visits to San Francisco from New York, where he lived and where he headed the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York, the primary North American foundation.
The New York foundation had been organized by Gurdjieff himself during his last visits to the United States. Especially in the 60s and 70s, most of the leaders in the New York foundation were pupils of Gurdjieff. At the same time, there was a frequent exchange between New York and Paris, and Madame de Salzmann, and other pupils of Gurdjieff. Several times a year, some of us made trips to New York at Pentland’s invitation, usually when Madame de Salzmann was there. Often when he came to San Francisco, he brought people along with him from other work centers, like New York or Los Angeles, London or Paris. It was easy to feel part of a great, living organism, complete with a thriving circulatory system. The years until his death in 1984 were rich with opportunity to learn, study, explore and engage along with a group of like-minded, and like-hearted, people.
After 1984, at least once a month and for longer periods in the summer, Paul Reynard continued to visit San Francisco, until his death a few years ago, bringing his sensitive inner work in movements and with the ideas. He had worked as a very young man with Gurdjieff in Paris and has led the movements work in North and South America under Madame de Salzmann’s direction since the late 60s. I feel that the groups in San Francisco were given more than most of us can ever really make our own, and probably much more than we can share with others. This seems to be a theme of mine: we received many riches.
Jacob Needleman has been a friend since 1965. I value any opportunity to work with him, and admire him deeply. He has been able to find ways to bring finer, higher ideas into the main stream of life through his books and talks, and I know he continues this effort.
Q. The third city in your life is Toronto. I know why you came to this city: the catalyst was your marriage to Jim in 2006. Did you meet him in San Francisco at a Work function?
We were married on January 1, 2005, and it took me about six months to get things together for a final move to Toronto. As the third city in my life, as you put it, Toronto is very important to me, because this is the city where I live now, where my husband was born and grew up. It provides me with the opportunity to know a different set of human beings and to explore the ways they are the same and yet different from the people who live in San Francisco, New York, or Colorado. I have met some wonderful people here — especially some outstanding women, who are bright and intelligent — and have had the opportunity to widen my friendships to those not in the Gurdjieff work, which has been very good for me.
I had noticed Jim at various work functions and conferences over the years, but we had hardly had a conversation until 1999 when we were at the same conference in New York and had an opportunity to talk. Perhaps he noticed me earlier, but I wasn’t aware of it. Later, two of our granddaughters got to know each other and it was through this that Jim and I got better acquainted.
Q. You would expect that Toronto, a multicultural city with a population of more than three million people, close to half of its residents born somewhere else, would be particularly receptive to new ideas. In the 1920s it was hospitable to Theosophy. A Gurdjieff group was founded in the city in the early 1950s under the personal direction of Madame de Hartman. It was responsible for the publication of an index to “All and Everything” and also the Russian-language edition of that mammoth text. In the 1960s the city was recognized as the intellectual home of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. Currently groups like Theosophy and Anthroposophy are languishing here. It is common knowledge that in the city the Gurdjieff work, like Caesar’s Gaul, is divided in three parts, if not more than three. Did this scattering of energies take you by surprise? Can you offer any reason for it? Is the situation likely to remain fragmented in the future?
Because the last split happened so soon after I moved here, it did take me by surprise. It also makes me sad whenever and wherever a separation takes place — and it does take place too often within work groups — and within many other groups, even one as small as two people, such as in a marriage. There is a small, sad statement about human beings in “Beelzebub’s Tales,” in the chapter about the destruction of Ashiata Shiemash’s labors: “And gradually, as it also usually happens there, almost everywhere beings became divided into two mutually opposing parties…. ” I’m reminded of a brilliant Aldous Huxley essay entitled “Usually Destroyed” that speaks to similar human proclivities.
Also, one could talk about the problem of the ego, and I’m tempted to talk about the male ego in particular. But, having a philosophical bent, I would have to say that the underlying reason for divisions, in the Work or in religions or families or nations, is the inexorable quality of the great laws of “world creation and world maintenance,” which must govern all of life. Implicit in these laws is the fact that everything happens, and no intentional result comes about automatically. In a simple way, one can see that effort is almost always required in order to carry out any real intention. Anyone who’s married knows this, at least if they are interested in keeping their marriage intact and thriving. It takes work.
A Gurdjieff group is not immune to the pulls and pushes of life. Individual initiatives can become all important. Individual power can become all important. The need for recognition, for place, and so on — all the ordinary desires that we know too well — all that becomes important. Surely every one of us can speak about that from our own experience in many different situations, but I hope that some of us have some experience of intention, and really working toward something.
Will it ever change here in Toronto? Each of the three groups has many wonderful people, and many wonderful initiatives. In my experience with each group, I could say that the work is alive in each one. Most separations remain separations. Some separations were obviously meant to be, just as some marriages seem destined for divorce and some for a fifty-year anniversary. One hopes that areas of mutual co-operation or mutual need might arise, and this might happen someday. I hope it doesn’t require a great emergency for this to happen. However, it’s important to remember that, in my experience, the movement toward unity is always uphill. It’s neither easy nor automatic. At the same time though, the tastes we have of wholeness or unity begin to reveal to us that this work is in fact a great service. That realization helps in the ongoing attempt to struggle with the arising of individual initiatives, in myself and in others.
Q. Over the years has there been a single teacher or a specific book that has been particularly meaningful to you? Is there a musical composition that you find yourself humming in tense moments – if you have tense moments?
There have been several teachers who have been meaningful to me, starting with my fourth grade teacher and going on through college. In fact, I consider myself pretty lucky in this respect. As a college freshman, I enrolled in three consecutive Humanities classes that Neal Miller Cross taught, using a book he coauthored called “The Search for Personal Freedom.” That was just what I needed at that point in my life. I was also lucky later on to take history courses with a man named Peter Szymanski, a brilliant, Russia-educated, French-trained Polish professor who was by his choice hidden away in the high mountains of Colorado.
From childhood, I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories and Zane Grey’s novels, and read and reread a dazzling little book called “The Hidden Hand,” written in the late 1800s — don’t ask me why — I still enjoy it. When I was twelve or thirteen, I read that huge, shocking, and thrilling book, “The Brothers Karazamov.” It made a huge impact on me and inspired a certain rapport with Eastern Orthodoxy, which persists to the present time.
I have many tense moments, but no particular musical compositions come to mind. There is very often a melody humming around in my brain, but usually the one of the moment is the one I listened to most recently, or most recently played on the piano. The Gurdjieff-de Hatmann music is particularly haunting. I do love Schubert, Bach, Mozart, Bartok, and Brahms for humming. But also I like contemporary music. For example, John Adams’ operas, and most anything by Elliot Carter. Amazing, but not too hummable.
Q. You have traveled quite widely and visited Work groups in numerous countries, for instance, England, France, and Australia, in addition to the United States and Canada. Do you find characteristic types everywhere? From your perspective, are there national or cultural differences in the Work to be detected?
First of all, I would like to say that in my opinion people who are attracted to the work often — very often — have certain similar characteristics. Keep in mind that this is only my opinion, which I’ve shared with many groups over the past few years. I suppose someone could do a kind of survey someday to see if my opinion holds any truth. So, in my opinion, there are a lot of good-looking people in the Work, no matter what country they live in. The women don’t always let their beauty shine out, but still, the beauty is often there. In addition, I notice that people in the Work are very often intelligent and well-educated, artistically talented, and often creative and resourceful. They are generally very good at washing dishes, too, and figuring out how to get one hundred people in a space that really only holds sixty. But these are my very subjective observations.
Certainly every country has its characteristics. For instance, the Australians are even more independent than Americans. It’s the island — and a fairly isolated island at that — mentality. Self-reliance is the thing. There surely must be Canadian characteristics, as well as Latin American, French, English, and so on. But everywhere one goes there are similar types: the natural leaders, the real seekers who find a work for themselves, the ones who find it difficult to speak, the ones who are only interested in the Ideas and the ones who are only interested in the Movements, those who proclaim their devotion to the search and who disappear without warning, the silent ones who after years explode in anger, the drinkers, the dutiful wives or husbands who sometimes end up more devoted to the Work than their partner, the Martha types and the Mary types, and so on. Probably any group has most of these types. When you are in a community for a long time, you get to know people pretty well. In fact, you know their kids and often their parents, you go through deaths and marriages, and you all get old together, so everyone goes on being an “older” person or one of “the young ones.”
Most important though is the experience I’ve had again and again of the similarities. The serious questions are the same, almost word for word; the feeling tone of the meetings are the same. There is a kind of taste or flavour, like a delicate scent that lingers in a room, which is the same in meetings in many of the groups I’ve visited, when the serious work appears, no matter where they meet.
But a little more on differences. Usually the main difference comes from which Gurdjieff pupil first brought the work to a group. There is loyalty to that person, of course, and a kind of imprint in the mind and heart from the way he or she presented the ideas and the work. This connects to your next question, because people in the Work need to find ways to work together in spite of quite natural loyalty and fealty, which is perhaps more often unconscious and therefore stronger than we think. We need to beware of imitation.
Q. Do you have a clear idea where the Work is heading, that is, where it will be in ten years time or in fifty years? Still alive and still working are some people – Paul Beekman Taylor and Patty de Llosa spring to mind – who, as children, recall meeting Mr. Gurdjieff. I keep meeting people who knew John Bennett, but I think Joyce Colin-Smith is the only person I know who actually met Mr. Ouspensky.
This is the question that keeps me up at night. I don’t have a very clear idea where the work is heading but I can share some rather muddled thoughts about it. Some of the best people I’ve know in the Work have branched out to fortify their work using other disciplines. Patty de Llosa is a good example. She has a very serious work with the Alexander Method, which seems a good support to her work with the Gurdjieff groups. Also, as she mentions in her book, she has a serious practice of Tai Chi, and in this way, she can share her knowledge and experience with a wide range of people, using knowledge and experience that is very much influenced by her years in the Gurdjieff work.
Others use their knowledge of science or the religions to find avenues toward explaining the ideas and practices of the Work. Of course, there is always the danger of diversion or of dilution. This can happen when other traditions are brought in to help deepen or broaden the understanding. Although the study of the specificity of the Gurdjieff Work is an interesting one, it’s not easy. It’s easier to say what it resembles than what it is, so this study is too often neglected now. It requires knowing the ideas in the books as well as in the memory of the oral teaching, and you could say, it requires real thought, which is pretty scarce these day. And often, people get too interested and leave the Work in order to practise one of those other traditions.
There are others still alive who met Gurdjieff, but surely the future of the work does not depend only on having met him or Ouspensky. The future of the work will depend on what has passed from person to person. Gurdjieff uses the image of a staircase, and you can’t go any higher on this stairway until you’ve placed someone on your step. And that person must place someone on his step, and so on. Of course, we hear this and think it’s simple and straightforward.
The problem I’ve encountered is that one really does not know what that next higher step will entail, what will be required of one, having placed someone else and having moved up a step. We forget that each step is new territory, and I suspect that it is the shock of finding oneself in new territory, alone, so to speak, that may stop the development needed to help everyone ascend. It’s too easy to drift along using past methods. Imitation only works up to point. I have been very glad to hear reports about the next generation in San Francisco. It sounds like they learned something over the years and now feel the obligation to pass it along.
Up to now the Work has served as a kind of pollinator. Hundreds of people have passed through its groups and back into life. When I look at old group lists, it’s quite amazing how many people have come and gone. Once in awhile, in San Francisco, I was stopped by someone on the street who would say he or she used to be in my group twenty-five or thirty years ago, and is “still doing the morning work and / or reading ‘Beelzebub.’” The Work will probably never be huge, but I do very much wish and hope that it remains alive, even in people who no longer attend groups. It’s very much needed.
Q. That’s eleven questions. My twelfth question is the following: Is there a question I should have asked you but didn’t which you yourself would like to ask and answer?
I’d like to paraphrase Gurdjieff and be asked, Have you met any remarkable men or women through your association with the Work? The answer is yes, indeed. I never met Gurdjieff himself, but like so many of my generation, through a close association with two remarkable people who had worked with him, I felt something of the unique and specific force that Gurdjieff generated.
Since moving to San Francisco in 1961, many special people moved through my life. Some I met in the Work, others I met because of the Work, usually at special events — luncheons, lectures, and so on. Laurens van der Post, Carlos Casteneda, James Hillman, and Father Thomas Keating are only a few of the latter group who come to mind. There were many others, and many other remarkable men and women who had worked with Gurdjieff.
I heard Krishnamurti speak twice and feel fortunate to have witnessed his presence and clarity in person. I had a life-changing exchange with Muktananda in northern California, a special introduction and conversation with Chogyam Trungpa in San Francisco, and a surprisingly live connection with Lama Zopa. Also, more recently, through Jim, I have met the Dalai Lama and Chogyam Trungpa’s son along with several well-known Canadian persons of importance.
Even more important though are the people I’ve “grown up with” in the Work. There are maybe 150 people, in various locations, whom I know and care for — people I’ve worked with and now their children — and almost every one of them is remarkable.
All in all, so far, a rich outer life. As to the inner life, it is filled at best with many questions, and at worst with dreams of all that has gone before and that which will come later. But there’s always room for more.
No more questions … thank you!
John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist who is nationally known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana. In his latest book of essays called “Whistle While You Work,” he has combined consciousness studies with Canadian references. From time to time he reviews Work-related publications for this website.
5th Armenia-Gurdjieff Conference Location: Armenia
Call for Papers Date: 2009-02-01 (in 8 days)
Date Submitted: 2008-11-30
Announcement ID: 165481
Paper proposals are invited for a conference entitled
The Life and Work of G.I. Gurdjieff
To be held 26-28 June 2009 in Yerevan, Armenia. Scholars and Presenters are invited to examine the various dimensions of the life and thought of G.I. Gurdjieff, and in particular the Armenian and Caucasian roots of his work.
Deadline for proposal submissions: 1 March 2009
Location: Yerevan, Armenia, June 26-28, 2009
Conference Theme: While many works have been written about his life and work, few have addressed the Caucasian and specifically Armenian character of his work. Further, even though Gurdjieff is known outside of the Caucasus, many Armenians remain unfamiliar with him. Building upon the success of the first two conferences, this conference will continue to take steps in redressing these imbalances. This year we hope to present a more in-depth three day conference in which presentations and discussions will take place that investigate Gurdjieff, his life, his work, as well as his ideas. In particular, we hope to highlight and explore the roots of his identity and his role as an important philosopher and thinker of Armenia and the Caucasus. We hope to introduce Gurdjieff to a wider, as well as local, audience and to present and discuss various aspects of his life and teaching. As a result of the conference we hope to form a bridge of exchange that will serve both the local communities and global community that holds an interest in Gurdjieff. By holding the conference in the very heart of Gurdjieff’s homeland, we hope to make new global connections to the Caucasus, a project that has only become possible since Armenia’s break from the Soviet Union.
Paper Proposals: Proposals addressing Gurdjieff’s thought and cultural identity and aspects of the cultures that influenced his ideas, teaching and writing are welcomed. However, papers are particularly encouraged that undertake original research speaking to one or more of the following areas of inquiry.
1. Gurdjieff’s Influence in Contemporary Culture
2. Gurdjieff’s Caucasian and/or Armenian Identity
3. Gurdjieff’s Writings: Language and Terminology
4. Gurdjieff’s “Toast of the Idiots”
5. Gurdjieff and Ethics
Scholars, researchers and students interested in presenting papers at the conference should send a paper proposal of not more than 500 words and a short CV, by e-mail to the conference coordinator: Michael Pittman. The working languages of the conference will be English and Armenian – there will be simultaneous translation. The deadline for the submission of paper proposals is 1 Feb 2009. Authors of the paper selected for the conference will be notified by 1 March 2009.
***Participants MUST submit the full text of their respective papers to the conference organizers by 5 June 2009 (4 weeks before the conference), otherwise the opportunity to participate in the conference may be forfeited.
It is anticipated that the conference papers will be published as a volume. Unless otherwise agreed in writing, the conference organizers will have first option on all papers presented at the conference, and will let participants know by 1 December 2009 whether they will exercise that option.
Informal preliminary inquiries regarding paper submissions are welcome and may be directed to the conference coordinator, Michael Pittman at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences
106 New Scotland Ave.
Albany, New York 12208
Visit the website at http://armeniagurdjieff.org
JRC reviews “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way”
Pierre Bonnasse, the author of the book that I am about to review,
lives in Paris and calls himself “a student of the Fourth Way.” His
photograph on his personal website shows him to be a young,
late-blooming hippie, complete with long hair and an appearance that
may be described as “determinedly poetic.” Biographical details are
sparse, but it seems Bonnasse holds a doctorate in literature from the
Sorbonne where he has taught writing.
He is the author of a book of poems “Dans la nuit d’Aghtamar” and an
anthology of passages about psychedelics called “Les voix de l’Extase.”
“Mode d’emploi de la parole analogue” is a book about words and
esotericism and it was published by Editions Dervy in Paris in 2005.
In 2008 it was translated into English as “The Magic Language of the
Fourth Way” and published by Inner Traditions, the Vermont-based
imprint devoted to quality books that are stocked –or should be
stocked – by the proprietors of metaphysical bookshops.
On his website Bonnasse describes himself as a “chercheur d’inspiration
transdisciplinaire.” A critic describes him in an amusing phrase as “a
provocateur of epiphanies.” The author himself writes, “I feel an
incredible closeness” to René Daumal and André Velter. I am familiar
with the writings of the French poet Daumal, but not with Velter’s
books about travel in the Orient or his poetry, despite the fact that
he is a holder of the Prix Goncourt. The late surrealist writer
Charles Duits is another of Bonnasse’s favourites. Bonnasse is widely
read in the literature of the Fourth Way though not widely read in
contemporary poetry generally.
Enough said about the author; here is some information on his first
book in English. “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way” bears the
subtitle “Awakening the Power of the Word” and has been feelingly
translated by Ariel Godwin, an American who is a professional editor
and translator of books largely devoted to the mysterious from four
languages: French, German, Italian, Spanish. I have yet to read
Bonnasse in French, but Godwin has created a “speaking voice” for
Bonnasse in English. (The slip-ups are minor: the proper abbreviation
of Neuro Lingusitic Programming, the spelling of T.S. Eliot’s last
name – on that level, hardly worth a mention.)
Inner Traditions has produced a quality trade paperback, 6″ x 9″,
xxxvi + 348 pages, with notes, bibliography, and detailed index. A
special feature is ten pages of diagrams and five pages of photographs
of Daumal, Charles Duits, Jeanne and Alexandre de Salzmann, Thomas de
Hartmann, G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky. $24.95.
Readers of this review will know about René Daumal whose principle
works are now available in English. The writings of Charles Duits,
mentioned above, are less well known to English readers than they
should be because they have not been translated. Duits died in 1991
and is remembered as a French writer of fantastic fiction who was
influenced by the surrealists and by Gurdjieff. In turn Duits had a
big influence on Bonnasse.
The English-language title draws attention to the Work, unlike the
title of the French original, and in doing so it expresses the author’s
indebtedness to Daumal, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Duits. There are
only passing references to Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists, to
René Guenon and the Traditionalists, and only one to Rudolf Steiner of
the Anthroposophists. Yet if there is a skeleton key to unlock the
theme and subject of this book, it is the one remark quoted from
Steiner: “Enthusiasm carries the spirit in itself.”
In terms of etymology, the word “enthusiasm” includes the notion of
“theos” or “god,” and in terms of Bonnasse’s book his personal
enthusiasm carries the entire book. To a rare degree he finds the Work
so meaningful that he has internalized it, so that one taste leads to
another taste, one perception to another perception, and one concept
to another concept. The book is his one long re-enactment within a
charmed circle of what excites him and inspires him about esotericism
and how it impacts on the seven-levels of language.
In structure the book is divided somewhat arbitrarily into three acts
with a total of twelve scenes. Each scene is an “essay” or “talk.”
Here are the acts: Part I is called “The Terror of the Situation” and
it describes “word prostitution” (to which I will shortly return).
Part II is titled “The Awakening of Hope” and it sketches in the Law
of Triamazikamno (three) and the Law of Heptaparaparshinokh (seven) as
embodied in the figure of the enneagram. Part III is named “The
Esoteric Work” and it deals with “legominisms.” As for the scenes,
these chapters seem to be organized on the basis of a course on the
Fourth Way, one that focuses on personal transformation through the
creative (read conscious) use of words.
Bonnase is concerned with “word prostitution,” a notion introduced by
Gurdjieff and used by Daumal. It refers to the mechanical or
manipulatory misuse of wordages and wordings. The author is so wrapped
up in the Work that it never occurs to him to see “word prostitution”
as a human condition that has been addressed by the world’s major
religions through the ages. I will digress a bit and suggest that in
its widest context “word prostitution” is really catchy and
contemporary shorthand for the old sin of simony.
Simony has never been included on the traditional list of the Seven
Deadly Sins, but it should appear on any new, updated list. It sounds
out of date because it recalls the name of Simon Magnus, the sorcerer
rebuked by St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles because he offered to
purchase the secret behind Paul’s miraculous powers. Simony is one of
the cardinal sins of the Western world in the Twenty-first Century.
Usually defined as the specialized sin of buying or selling
ecclesiastical favours, simony is more significant and prevalent than
that. It refers generally to the misuse of spiritual gifts –
imagination, sensitivity, talent, ability, insight – for gross or
ignoble ends. “Word prostitution” is a specialized form of simony,
familiar to us in the form of election speeches, advertising, TV
situation comedies, ministers’ homilies, televangelists, etc. As he
expostulates, “Rare are those who do not propagate word prostitution,
and there is no lack of candidates for the position of universal
Hasnamuss.” The idea goes back to Francis Bacon and forward to
Stephane Mallarmé and T.S. Eliot.
Bonnase knows simony in the form of “word prostitution” and he becomes
something of a moralist or preacher or instructor himself in his
attempt to define it, expose it, and expunge it. The misuse of words
is a sacrilege. He sees simony in terms of the hierarchy of man. On
each level, man must use the language appropriate to that level. There
are seven levels, ranging from the material to the spiritual. He gives
each man on each level his own label. These labels are
“Pseudoanthrope, Romantic, Savant, Apprentice Speaker, Authentic,
Objective, and Master. These “name tags” relate to men’s centres and
so correspond to Gurdjieff’s human types. The first name is new one to
me; it comes from one of Druits’s books.
As I mentioned earlier, Charles Duits is something of a discovery.
Perhaps some enterprising publisher will commission translations of
such books of his as Le Pays de l’éclairement (1994) and La Salive de
l’éléphant (1999). While we are at it, Bonnase has whetted my appetite
for the books of other French authors who are alive to the Work, but
whose works are still unavailable in English. Here are some authors’
names from his index: Jean Biès, Christian Bouchet, Jean-Yves Leloup,
Georges de Maleville, Patrick Negrier, Jean-Yves Pouilloux, Michel
Random, Jean-Philippe de Tonnac. I find characteristic of the French
texts about the Work is a subtlety of observation and expression that
is often lacking in comparable English texts. But then that is a
quality of much French poetry, fiction, philosophy, and religious
Bonnasse explains, “The goal of this work is to present a new theory
of language …. ” He makes that statement on the first page of his
book, yet because he lacks his own particular theory and fails to
develop concerns that are recognizably his own, Bonnasse tacks from
one theory to another, including those of Count Korzybski, Roman
Jakobson, and Gurdjieff. The latter’s theory, to the degree that it is
at all theoretical, is filtered through Daumal’s writings which are
amazingly sensitive to nuance yet vigorously imaginative. Bonnasse is
a great appreciator of modern mystical literature and he sees it not
in light of Tradition as such but in light of the Fourth Way.
It is well known that Gurdjieff made a notable distinction between
“objective art” and “subjective art,” but for all the fascination of
that dichotomy, it is regularly illustrated with instances of great
architecture (Sphinx, Mont-Saint-Michel, etc.) but seldom with works
of great literature (other than, perhaps, some scriptures). Still, I
found interesting the statement that Gurdjieff divides writings into
three different modes. These modes are said to be the scientific, the
narrative, and the descriptive. It sets me thinking … but again it
is difficult to use such distinctions to shed any light on literature
itself. Bonnasse persists in calling the spiritual use of language
“word magic” without dealing with any single concept of magic and or
any real sense of how it differs from the miraculous, the mythical,
the spiritual, and the metaphysical, if indeed it does.
Bonnasse is more convincing when it comes to the figure of the
enneagram. What has always appealed to me about this nine-interval
schematic diagram is that it is unicursal, which means that it may be
traced with a single line without backtracking. (I spent many
otherwise idle moments figuring out how to do this without pen and
paper and without peeking.) The author knows his enneagram and shows
how it combines 3 and 7 and he uses it to illustrate how one may
advance in stages: from Word (3) to Sound (6) to Rhythm (9); or from
Word (3) to Thing (6) to Consciousness (9); or from Speaker (3) to
Listener (6) to Message (9). He works in the “intervals.” It occurs to
me here for the first time that we are dealing with more than Hegel’s
“thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” for the reason that whereas Hegel’s
final “synthesis” is viewed as the extinguishing or exhausting of
forces, Gurdjieff’s “third force” is indeed a force in its own right.
Bonnasse has some original thoughts to convey on poetry – for
instance, how rhythm is not to be mistaken for metre. The key to this
is the fact that rhythm is seen as the synthesis, indeed a force in
its own right (9), not the neutralization of either the positive force
(3) or the negative force (6). Without rhythm the word is dead, the
language is not alive, and man remains in a stupor or a state of
sleep. The notion is advanced that the things of this world have
rightful names and sounds, but only in certain circumstances and in
certain ways are these names to be pronounced or sounded. So step by
step the author moves in a spiral-like fashion and in his own magical
way to arrive at the statement that “a poem is a portal between
There is a statement beloved of creative writing instructors who
assert that you should only write about what you know. I have always
found that to be a dubious piece of advice – did Dante visit
Purgatorio? did Tolstoy meet Napoleon? did Arthur C. Clarke set foot
on the spacecraft Rama? Certainly the writer must know himself or
herself and the self-knowledge might come through the process of the
writing. Whether it is doubtful or not, Bonnasse gives the statement
greater resonance, when he states: “If the goal of objective
literature is the awakening of readers, writing must first be a
technique of awakening and consciousness for the author, otherwise
there will be no evolution of saying, no advance in the level of the
Bonnasse sees writing as a conscious act, a form of praying, a way of
being, a state of consciousness. If that is so, it is also true that
reading is or may a conscious act, a form of praying, a way of being.
Jeffrey Kirpal in his mammoth book “Esalen” makes an interesting
observation about mythologist Joseph Campbell. He does so in these
words: “Campbell commonly denied any real interest in actual spiritual
experience or religious experimentalism. He made it quite clear that
his spiritual practice consisted of reading, reading, and more
reading. He thus showed little real interest in many of the
meditative, somatic, or explicitly religious practices in which Esalen
had put so much hope. Or rather, he proposed deep and extensive
reading as the transformative practice.” The path may be that of the
pen travelling across the blank scrap or sheet of paper, or a pair of
eyes tracking words line by line and sensing their sounds and
The real poet or writer is not the fakir, the monk, or the yogi, but
the “sly man,” for the reason that the experience that Gurdjieff
offers is “by definition _transpoetic_.” In real writing the real
writer works on and with the centres: “In writing, he must observe the
functioning of his machine in order not to be duped by his
mechanisms.” By way of illustration Bonnasse leans on two of Daumal’s
literary works: “A Night of Serious Drinking” (an essayistic novel in
the spirit of the Platonic dialogue “Symposium”) and “Poetry Black,
Poetry White” (an essay that distinguishes between what in other
contexts might be called writing “in bad faith” versus writing “in
good faith”). He reproduces all five pages of Daumal’s prose poem “The
Holy War” and in this context the discursive work (it is not a
dramatic work) takes on a live of its own.
In another way Bonnasse makes a contribution. He describes “the Way of
Blame” and identifies it with Gurdjieff. It is apparent he regards
“Beelzebub’s Tales” as the literary expression of the notion of
“blame,” for he writes, “‘Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson,’ that
magnificent work containing some twelve hundred of the prickliest
pages ever written, is a perfect example of this master-disciple
relationship transferred to the author-reader relationship: satire
incarnate, the highest achievement of the art of bad taste.”
Bonnasse is able to detect the expression of “blame” in the literary
modes of satire and irony. Earlier in the book he refers to Beckett’s
“Waiting for Godot.” It is obvious there is a parallel here between
the ironic mode and the mythic mode (a key point in the work of
Northrop Frye). “Beelzebub” is seen as one elastic-like work which
stretches across time and languages, securing the myths of the past to
the ironies of the present day.
“Reading is then no longer passive and mechanical, but active, and it
becomes real teaching. All great texts are either like this or they
are not.” I like the word “not” for it is double-edged. “Beelzebub”
requires active reading. “Each reading is a new experience, forever a
fresh source of knowledge. This is because this work, in particular,
is a _legominism_ – an initiatory mode of transmitting the truth.”
Bonnasse continues in this vein and makes some excellent points that
are fully relevant, which I will summarize in point form: legominism
in art and artifacts = legominism in beings who are initiates
(“leomanism?”); repetition = mnemonic aid; obscurity = requiring
exacting work; tales = truths; author’s distancing effect = reader’s
perspective on self; myth = Eliade’s “sacred history”; words = speech;
text = context of reader’s life. Many of these insights into
“Beelzebub” are derived from Duits’s writings, especially those
passages quoted by Michael Walberg in “Gurdjieff: An Approach to His
Ideas.” To the points made above, Bonnasse adds this one from the
enneagram: from Seeker (3) to Knowledge (6) to Myths and Symbols.
The use of psychedelics in ancient and modern times is the subject of
the second-last chapter. It considers Gurdjieff’s view and use of the
same, including “a special chemistry that could be used for
maneuvering the human machine.” Interestingly he refers to such
hallucinogenics as “unlimiters” and even discusses how language and
sound are employed by shamans under their influence. The autochthonous
power of speech is discussed, and it is noted that in an inspired
state it seems that when a man speaks the truth (as Octavio Paz
observed) “it is the language that speaks.”
The last chapter, titled “Movement in the Creative Process: From the
Dance to the Word,” is a condensed but concentrated account of
“movement” in the Work and its relationship with “the word.” It is up
to us to embody this movement: “Nothing remains but to act, to
remember ourselves, to engage in the harmony of things and being, to
form ourselves with the power of experience, and to dare to seek this
absolute, in order to _become_ and recover the primordial word intact
in the crucible of revelations, the primordial speech that has never
ceased living and shines in the hearts of all with a thousand lights.”
This last chapter is followed by a Conclusion and an Afterword, just
as the first chapter is preceded by a total of not two but four
subsections (Acknowledgements, Preface to the American Edition,
Preface to the First Edition, and Introduction). The book seems not to
end; it runs on like a periodic sentence. There is a sense in which
Pierre Bonnasse’s book resembles a music box: Lift its lid and it
plays. Open this book and it offers the leitmotif of the Fourth Way
with scores of variations.
Pierre Bonnasse is possessed with his subject, and by his subject,
with the result that “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way” brims over
with good spirits and bubbles over with enthusiasm and recurrence and
reiteration and recapitulation. The argument may be diffuse, even
scattered, but the insights are so pivotal that the reader is left to
wonder why the points did not occur to him or to her before Bonnasse
gave them expression. This is language itself at work in the spirit of
The feeling I have is that Bonnasse is a third-generation Gurdjieffian
in the sense that he is steeped in the work through the availability
of formerly withheld texts and that he is living in a time and a place
marked by the ready acceptance of ideas of personal transformation so
that he is able to internalize work principles to an unheralded
The first generation of pioneers of the Fourth Way have receded into
the honourable past; the second generation of organizers and
systematizers have done their landmark work by building their
organizations and leaving their marks; so it is now the time for the
third generation, a still-young young group of creators, to take root
and grow in individual and distinct fields of expression … in
composition or performance, be it in music, dance, writing,
literature, philosophy, fine art, film, and so on. There has always
been a spiritual dimension to poetry, something “magical” about all
the arts. So our time may truly be “the dawn of the magicians.”
John Robert Colombo is known as “Canada’s Mr. Mystery” for such
compilations as “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories.” He combines
two of his interests – Canadiana and consciousness studies – in his
recently issued collection of essays (many reprinted from this blog)
titled “Whistle While You Work.” He is an Association of the Northrop
Frye Centre, Victoria College, University of Toronto.