Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

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

Archive for February 2008


esalen-institute-big-sur.jpgESALEN INSTITUTE BIG SUR

John Robert Colombo looks at a new book about the Esalen Institute

I am about half a year behind in my reading so it has taken me six months to catch up with the appearance of a mammoth book about the Esalen Institute titled, simply and inevitably, “Esalen.” The title may be one word long but the subtitle is seven words in length: “America and the Religion of No Religion.” The book itself weighs in at 575 pages (roughly 300,000 words, plus notes, bibliography, and index). It is the handiwork of Jeffrey J. Kripal who is identified as J. Newton Rayzor Professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University.

At least that is what the jacket flap says. I checked Rice’s website and learned a few curious facts: the university’s slogan seems to be “Unconventional Wisdom”; it is located in Houston, Texas; it hosts a Space Institute (that seems reasonable given that nearby there is a rocket command centre); it also hosts a Tibetan / Bonpo Textual Collection; it may or may not have Jeffrey J. Kripal as the J. Newton Rayzor Professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies – I could find no reference to him on Rice’s website and a query to its information officer went unanswered (as of this writing). What happened to Professor Kripal?

The University of Chicago Press issued “Esalen” as it did Kripal’s two previous books: “Kali’s Children: Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom” and “The Serpent’s Gift.” In time I will “catch up” with these titles. The author identifies himself as an American who was raised as a Roman Catholic, but it seems he holds a torch for Buddhist studies of the Tantric variety. Buried in a footnote is an acknowledgement of the influence of Bubba Free John (now known as Adi Da). He excels as a researcher-writer and is able to handle masses of information and to conduct in-depth interviews with people like Michael Murphy, one of Esalen’s two founders, and extract from his subjects all the information that is relevant to his purposes without the strain of show or effort.

The problem I have is that Kripal’s name keeps reminding me of the semi-sound-alike Kripalu Centre of Yoga and Health set amid the Berkshires of Massachusetts, near Tanglewood, where two decades ago my wife Ruth and I once spent an intriguing weekend. The Kripalu Centre is housed in an imposing structure, once a Jesuit seminary and hospital, which now serves as a residential centre for Hindu practices and studies. So given its Catholic background and its Hindu foreground, perhaps Professor Kripal is appropriately named.

I am not going to review Esalen. Any review, by my estimate, would require at least 5,000 words. Instead I will go to the heart and core of the book and identify what I take to be four main ideas plus some allied thoughts: Esalen as an institution and movement; Esalen as the centre of “the religion of no religion”; Esalen as the focal point of Tantric yoga; Esalen as the root of the “human potential movement.” The author does not pluralize Esalen, but there are many Esalens, certainly more than four, perhaps as many as nine. But here goes … by way of the book’s sole reference to Gurdjieff.

This passing reference occurs in connection with Ida Rolf (of Rolfing fame) and it runs in its entirety alluding to yogi Pierre Bernard as follows: “The tantric yogi from Nyack, however, was hardly Rolf’s only influence. She also studied with F. Matthias Alexander and imbibed the esoteric teachings of the ‘rascal’ mystic Gurdjieff with a small group in London. In New York she met Greta Garbo and Georgia O’Keeffe, both of whom she would later take on as clients. But it was Fritz Perls who finally got her to Esalen.”

This passage gives you a good idea of Kripal’s prose which is stylish and studded with names and clever classifications. It never occurred to me that Gurdjieff was a “rascal” or a “mystic,” but I am somewhat sympathetic to the author’s attempt to characterize if not categorize him. The author writes with verve and occasional excess, but he seems omniscient when it comes to tracking and tracing to their roots the origins of American exceptionalism in religious and spiritual matters. This exceptionalism refers to the unique blend of transcendentalism and individualism identified with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Richard Maurice Bucke (a special interest of mine). It also extends to the commercialization of everyday life and thought, what might be called the shopping-cart or supermarket version of “mystical materialism” (a line of thought largely unexplored by the author).

1. Esalen as an institution and movement. The author documents the early history of the Esalen Institute which began informally in the early 1950s but formally only in 1962 on the site of a resort hotel with hot springs on a breath-taking promontory overlooking the Pacific Ocean off U.S. Route 101, El Camino Real, between San Francisco and Los Angeles. This region, so primordial and elemental, has attracted its share of seekers, for instance the founders of Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, and other retreat centres.

Esalen, named after the local native tribe, owes its past eminence and present reputation to Michael Murphy and Richard Price, two highly educated and sophisticated spiritual seekers who turned their property into a centre that would attract seekers of similar natures and backgrounds. This has taken the form not of a seminary or monastery but of a centre for conferences, seminars, and workshops. From its early days, it has combined the openness of an off-campus college with the concentration of a quasi-religious retreat. Early on it attracted free-thinking academics, largely psychologists, and then religious teachers, mainly Hindus and Buddhists. Its ripples continue to spread outward, so that today it has influenced pretty well every countercultural thinker in North America.

Esalen’s speakers are a who’s who of ground-breaking writers and thinkers and inspirational speakers, one dozen of them being Henry Miller, Aldous Huxley, Abraham Maslow, Fritz Perls, Claudio Naranjo, George Leonard, Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts, John Heider, Will Shutz, Don Hanlon Johnson, Stanislav Grof … I could go on and name a second dozen. Esalen’s salad days of influence were the 1960s and 1970s when it gave impetus to the New Age movement, a designation despised by founders Murphy and Price.

In the anglosphere, but not elsewhere, developments are chronicled by decade, so I will attempt just such a calendar/catalogue here: 1950s – Huxley’s perennialism, psychedelia, “human potential movement,” interpretation-free centre for contemplation and study influenced by Vedanta; 1960s – Maslow and Perls and “bodywork”; 1970s – Stanislav and Christina Grof, Cold War activism, ufology, Tantra and Tao; 1980s – “the religion of no religion,” “the transformation project,” “the future of the body”; 1990s – regrouping, “the future of the past,” “the Mystical Idea of ‘America,’” etc.

Esalen continues to operate in the 2000s, mainly through “invitational conferences.” References to its activities are more likely to appear in the footnotes of scholarly texts than in the headlines of daily newspapers. Up to 150 people are employed at any one time to run the place, from maintaining its fabled hot springs to programming. It has become a popular centre for executive retreats. Part of its role has been assumed by the Internet, perhaps, but its influence in the past has been substantial. From Kripal’s book I learned, for instance, Esalen organized the visits to the United States of Soviet leaders Yeltsin and Gorbachev.

2. Esalen as the centre of “the religion of no religion.” The author sees this one of Esalen’s principal contributions; indeed, as its “final philosophy.” The fact that this notion is expressed in a cliché – “being spiritual without being religious” – is no doubt a tip of the hat to Esalen.

3. Esalen as the focal point of Tantric yoga. This is another of the author’s main themes, though I search in vain for any real articulation or elucidation of what constitutes Tantra. His point seems to be, simply, that there is no spirit-matter dualism, or mind-body opposition, but that everything takes place in the human body and the vital spark is kundalini, or sexual energies. There is the philosophical opposition – “consciousness, awareness, and spirit” versus “energy, emotion, and body” – that is somehow overcome in practice, perhaps through bodywork. From the first the hot springs attracted lovers and gave it its early reputation as a place of sexual experimentation. There are repeated references to the influence of Sri Aurobindo through Murphy in particular. A column and a half of references to Tantra appear in the book’s index.

4. Esalen as the root of the “human potential movement.” The movement’s birth here is eloquently expressed and well documented, as it grows out of an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s insightful phrase “human potentiality.” It too became a cliché of the New Age movement and has become the kit and caboodle of innumerable motivational speakers. The author sees it as the contemporary expression of siddhis, psychic powers, or today’s “enhanced facilities,” subliminal powers of the mind so described by British psychical researcher Frederic Myers whose general contribution to consciousness studies is currently undergoing a revival of interest.

A word that recurs throughout the book is “integral” and it may well be what Esalen is remembered for being integral to a mending of (or at least a recognition of) the body-mind dichotomy. An idea that recurs is “the future of the past,” the notion that by imaginatively keeping the past alive in the present one gains greater strength, the strength of one’s ancestors. Islam and kabbala, as well as Western occultism, or “mystical realism,” have been the subject of conferences, but Esalen has less in common with these subjects than one might assume.

Schematically, it may be surmised that Esalen began as a centre for the study and experiments inspired by perennialism but that half a century later it finds itself the centre for pluralist studies. Its countercultural and advanced thinkers, for all their pronounced personalist and historicist views, seem to have been as much taken by surprise as the rest of us, what with the emergence (and not the convergence) of religious principles and practices, in the form of the rise of militant Islam and religious fundamentalism generally. The divergence leads me to believe that Esalen is an object lesson in how ideas turn into their opposites: the philosophy that what was once on the cutting edge – perennialism – is now passé, having been replaced by its opposite – pluralism. If religion is a puzzle, there are pieces that will not fit together. If spirituality is a mystery, there are pieces that are missing.

The author returns to the phrase “no one captures the flag” to refer to the fact that Esalen as an institution and as a movement, as an inspiration and as a value-free model for inquiries into human and non-human values, remains free of dogma. It is something of a forum for advanced thinking. It is what in the long run Kripal defines as “a place of gnosis,” “a gnostic community,” where one acquires “a learned pantheism or nature religion.”

P.S. The information officer at Rice University subsequently replied to my query that that Prof. Kripal is indeed Professor and Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice. I wonder why he is not, then, listed as being among faculty staff.

John Robert Colombo’s single visit to the Esalen Institute was as a tourist who found the grounds and buildings to resemble a summer camp, albeit impressively sited and one for intelligent and inquisitive men and women. His latest book is “The New Consciousness” (Battered Silicon Dispatch Box), a collection of R.M. Bucke’s papers on Walt Whitman and consciousness studies.



February 29, 2008 at 10:33 pm



photo Rockefeller Centre

A Take on the Talks of Lord Pentland by John Robert Colombo

Resting on my desk, on the right side of the keyboard of my computer, there are three thin booklets in uniform format but with card covers of different colours. One colour is green, one is blue, and one is red. The booklets have the same format (5.5″x 8″) and are close to the same in length: respectively, 24 pages, 32 pages, and 36 pages. The green one was issued in 2005, the blue one in 2006, and the red one in 2007. I wonder, “Will there will be a booklet for 2008? What colour will be chosen for that cover?”
There is a general series title: “Introducing the Ideas of G.I. Gurdjieff.” The author is identified as John Pentland. The work is copyright in the name of Mary Rothenberg. The publisher is given as the J.P. Society, an operation new to me. I suspect that Ms. Rothenberg controls the copyright of the works of the late John Pentland aka Henry John Sinclair aka Lord Pentland, and that in the works are plans to issue the texts of his many talks, speeches, and addresses, these three booklets being the trailblazers for the series.

John Pentland, who inherited the baronetcy from his father, the first Lord Pentland, a Scottish politician, is the last bearer of the title. He was born in Britain and his vital years are 1907 and 1984. He studied with Ouspensky, and later Madame de Saltzman having met Gurdjieff during the last years of Gurdjieff’s life. During the Second World War, from his office in Rockefeller Centre, he engaged in liaison work for the British and American governments. He served as the president of the Gurdjieff Foundation from its inception in 1953 until his death some thirty years later. He oversaw the founding of the Gurdjieff organization in San Francisco and over the decades addressed study groups throughout the United States.

I do not know if in his travels he ever visited Canada, but since its appearance I have owned a copy of his book “Exchange Within: Questions from Everyday Life Selected from Gurdjieff Group Meetings with John Pentland in California 1955-1984″ (published by Continuum in 1997). I found his writing style to be opaque, if somewhat misted over, but then I was reading in print what had been delivered orally in person. Had I heard him speak, I might have found his thought processes more enlivening and enlightening. Yet there is a subtle quality in his prose, an inherent humility and restraint, that I have come to identify with the French commentators Tracol, Vaysse, and Conge.

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, but let me add that I never met the man and if any readers have accurate impressions of him, I would be pleased to hear from them. Enough about the man and the format of these booklets. What about their texts?

The green booklet is titled “Impressions of Truth in the Human Mass.” This is an oddly unidiomatic phrase for an English speaker to use, and as such it captures the sense of the opacity that I found in the prose of “Exchanges Within.” In the present instance, we have the text of a short speech he delivered in Los Angeles in 1960, followed by a record of the questions and answers that it generated. Here he addresses the question of how “to understand ourselves as a whole” and this requires that we experience impressions or perceptions (he uses the words almost interchangeably) of Being and Conscience.

He writes, “We have this incurable weakness for thinking about inner values on much too small a scale, giving up too soon and paying too little. Ouspensky called this inner search for reality a search for the miraculous. We always forget that what we are looking for is a miracle.” He mentions impressions, attention, self-observation, and understanding, and returns to these words later in the discussion. Asked about art, he makes the interesting statement that art is produced by “high machines in the artist” and not by “something that occurs in the artist himself.” Such is argument of the green booklet.

The blue booklet is the text of two talks that took place at Wagner College, Staten Island, New York City, in 1983. The first talk is really an address to precede the showing of the movie “Meetings with Remarkable Men.” Here he urges his audience to capture “a little taste of what Gurdjieff’s vision of man” is like. It is done by becoming aware of “levels of truth.” He argues that Marx, Freud, Jung, Teilhard de Chardin, and even “Star Wars” offer views of the state of man that are state-dependent: “but the vision is too simplistic, at too low a level to affect us and change us for long.”

The speaker notes that the younger generation is turning away from Darwin and Newton to the earlier visions of Augustine, Jesus, and Buddha. The earliest known vision is that of Zarathustra, the first teacher in a succession of spiritual teachers of mankind, who counselled men and women “that their inner life and inner attitude is just as important as their external behaviour.” A modern vision comes from Gurdjieff. The speaker then offers four characteristics for a spiritual teacher for our time:

First: “His thinking should be a service to the highest.” Here is a recognition of levels and Gurdjieff “restores to humanity an order of rank with an intelligent aristocracy at the top which is open to anyone who can learn to differentiate the different levels and the action of the energies on each other at each level.” Second: “A man with vision should think dangerously … truth must be his only ethic.” There must be no fear here. Gurdjieff stresses this. Third: “The thinking of a man of vision is from the heart as well as the head.” Referring to Gurdjieff, he says, “He used to say that we are like automobiles stalled on the highway of our search, and his ideas are like a repair car that comes along and give[s] us some gas to get started again.” Fourth: “We ask of a man of vision that his teaching should be complete and consistent in itself with no compromises, no exceptions and no self-contradictions.” This too is true of Gurdjieff’s teaching.

Language is considered and Gurdjieff is compared to William Blake (perhaps for the first and last time) for his neologisms and for giving new meanings to old words. The word “search” is one of these. “The search begins more from a part of myself that I don’t know, it begins in spite of myself as I know myself, more than from the part I do know.”

The word “consciousness” is another concept to consider, but as the word has become voguish, the author prefers another word. “I’d rather use the more modest word, awareness, or simply seeing.” He writes, “Seeing is taken as the energy aspect of material, not the forms aspect.” In Gurdjieff’s theory and practice, psychology, cosmology, metaphysics, ontology, etc., come together in man all at once. “Either I’m seeing myself or not.” Self-observation leads us “to work for more and more of these moments, recognizing them and verifying them by their taste, which is a strange taste of like and dislike, at the same time, of freedom and mechanicalness, good and evil of going upstream and going downstream together.” The right work of the three centres is necessary “to open the possibility for a higher conscious energy to enter my presence and allow a new conscious level of vision.”

The author asks, “What is a real question?” and then responds with eight questions of his own, to prime the pump. These are ignored. His listeners, instead, ask twenty-six questions of their own. Here they are in summary form: The first one is knowing which “school” is for any one person. The answer is that you will know. The second one concerns the discontinuous nature of the work: “Things start to go down as soon as they stop.” The third one has to do with “octaves” and recognizing their “laws.” The fourth one has to do with “one of the very first liberating experiences, which we can each have, is being able to differentiate between the direction from the highest downwards and the direction from below to return to oneself.”

The fifth one concerns “sleeping man” and “awake man” and their differing expectations. The sixth one permits the speaker to contrast “getting stuck” with recognizing how we “change the direction” without recognizing it. The seventh one concerns the realization that “there is no ‘I’.” The eighth one leads to an elaboration which concerns inability to do but how we “simply begin to see” and ponder the possibility of control. The ninth one focuses on “free will” and “some choice.” Do we have “the choice to break a law”? The tenth one examines “this little bit of free attention that I have” and how “these new experiences come at first just in glimpses.”

The eleventh one examines decision-making, how we attach ourselves to one decision instead of another, and how we can “stay quiet in front of this question of whether to go right or left.” He says, “And our work of study is to free myself all the time from this kind of attachment.” It seems “the taste of the ego” expresses itself, now one way, now another. If a person is able to remain awake, he may engage a “conscious struggle, that means a struggle of which I’m conscious,” and the problem disappears. The twelfth question concerns what to do when “you find yourself in front of something,” so “the question is whether you stop living and decide, or whether you just go on living.” Since choice is a concern for the future, a person should eschew it because “I wish to live in the present moment.”

The thirteenth question leads to “the power of suggestion.” A questioner asks, “What distinguishes Gurdjieff from, let’s say, Krishnamurti?” The speaker answers, “In this particular sense, not very much.” The speaker points out how bodily sensations keep one within oneself and one’s basic physical energy, whereas one’s thoughts lead one away and astray. The answer to the question, “Who am I?” is “I am.” This works “like a purge” of the ill winds that blow from “the pressures around, in business, in politics, international politics.” The fourteenth one asks how to remain “in the present.” The answer is, “We study how we lose it.” Observation of impressions is essential, and new impressions are necessary, but we must not become attached emotionally to them. “Sleeping Man wants permanence … Awake Man wants impressions.”

The fifteenth question concerns how “shocks” produce “hydrogen.” “Our whole work is the work of study, of consciousness. It’s not a work of doing.” The sixteenth question concerns the nature of shocks, first from plants and animals. The seventeenth question concerns the baleful influence of the moon and how “part of us when we die goes to feed the moon.” Taking a space craft to another planet changes nothing. Everything costs. The eighteenth question inquires about the nature of evil. “Evil was originally part of God.” Then it became separated and “becomes unhealthy. There has to be mechanicalness, evil. People are so made that to a large extent they have to serve the mechanical ends of Nature.” Then the gap between consciousness and mechanicalness becomes too great to be bridged, so “a wise man had to be sent in order to show people how to bring the evil mechanicalness more inside and work with it.” “It is through the negative, the affirmative appears, through the evil, the good appears.”

The nineteenth one elaborates and suggests “you wouldn’t need the good unless the evil came up.” The speaker points out: “Growth is growth of the mind. Evolution is evolution of understanding. So evolution depends on understanding the two together.” “We’re all the time trying to have a less negative view of the negative. And in that way our lives can be normal, which means positive.” The twentieth one turns on how to not “let the evil bog you down.” The twenty-first question is about beginning. “You have to begin now. There’s no other way. In five minutes you’ll be thinking of something else.” Another point: “Of course we each need to make our own experiences. There’s absolutely nothing that anybody can experience for me.”

The twenty-second one discusses “the experience of oneself” and “the outward pull and the inward pull.” The twenty-second one looks at “free energy” and “automatism” and how they morph into a consideration of how when consciousness and “the automatic parts” work together so that “my Self, an intelligence not in words, begins to work.” The twenty-third one is about the nature of this “intelligence”: “It’s the kind of thought that can choose associations.” The twenty-fourth one alludes to “intentional suffering” which is described as “intentionally putting yourself in situations in which you know you will suffer in order to have the observation of how this affects your energy of attention.” The twenty-fifth one alludes to simple exercises (like using the left hand instead of the right) to increase one’s sense of working. The twenty-sixth one turns on attachment. There is a brief reference to the relationship between the book and the movie “Remarkable Men.”

That question also elicits the answer that one may become free of attachment one of two ways: “by austerity” (”the energy is not available for being attached, so one can have glimpses of a higher level of looking”); “by self-observation” (”by coming in touch with a more desirable energy and this is the energy with which I see … the more I wish to see, the less energy there is to be attached”).

The speaker alludes to “a very little known procedure … I can’t demonstrate here” to bring this about, one that is mentioned by Jean Vaysse in “Toward Awakening.” The speaker than introduces the topic of “negative emotions” and adds, “Looking at an emotion throws light on it and changes it. And little by little I can wish to throw more light, and that’s all the time taking away the attachment to the emotion.” Enough is enough! “I think we can stop here,” he says, “but this is very important.” “It’s simply a question of looking, the quality of my looking. And that way one doesn’t cut oneself off stupidly from all the suffering there is, but one suffers much more consciously, much more intentionally.” So ends the blue book.

The red booklet consists of two talks, the first delivered at San Francisco in 1976, the second at New York University in 1980. The first talk examines “the possibility or the study of human growth,” and it is a difficult possibility, “even in California.” The opportunity exists but the ideal of growth is difficult to measure. How to measure growth is to ask, “Is he or she more unified?” What is meant is the following consideration: a unity of the senses, head, heart, and purpose. Starting is difficult. The work is both an art and a science. Gurdjieff: “He’s a trailblazer in giving self-knowledge scientific clothing.”

There is a brief discussion of behaviourism with its rewards and reinforcements and threats and punishments. We need “a lasting wish to grow.” Our progress must be evolutionary, not involutionary. “We put much less emphasis on the method and technique than on establishing a contact with the essence or with the parts of myself that naturally wish to grow.” Also, “The idea that we are interested in is the formation of a will, which would be in correspondence with what happens, which would not be fighting all the time the central impulses in myself.” The will is “the awareness of who all this is happening to.” And also, “The point is now, the point is what can we do now, what can we exchange now.”

A slew of general questions followed this short presentation. One question had to do with whether the inquirer was passionate or not passionate and how passion is generated not by belief but by desire, “something irrational.” Another question turned on finding assistance: “Look around until you find somebody who is growing. You know you can tell with people …. ” There is a discussion of the nature of “a reliability that is true.” The speaker notes, “A thought is brought to paper-over the vision of my own dividedness.”

Then there is an interesting consideration of the role of fear in life. “We need to be open, to be vulnerable …. We need to have a strong taste for the truth.” Fear and paranoia are discussed in light of the text of “The Life of Milarepa.” “To be hollow – to have no contact at all with the ground of my existence – this is the state of affairs for almost all of us most of the time.” The manifestation of this may be put to good use. The roles of discipline and respect are considered, as well as finding what inspires one so that a transformation is possible. A frequent refrain is the author’s question, “Do you follow me?”

The second talk introduces Gurdjieff as “a Master who dealt in his own particular way with all the myriad aspects of human existence, life and death.” The speaker confesses that this is the first time that he has introduced the Work to people unacquainted with it, so he begins with generalizations and some biographical details absent elsewhere. The speaker suggests of Gurdjieff that “he was able to bring some kind of reconciliation between the oriental teachings like Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam – that have been popular in the last fifteen years – and the western religions and western science and western psychiatry.”
John Pentland was a young engineer in London in 1936 when he began working with Ouspensky. “The first thing that struck me was the certainty with which Mr. Ouspensky spoke about ideas, the wholeness, sureness and certainty with which he formulated for us one by one, in a particular order, the ideas of Gurdjieff.” He found parallels between Ouspensky and himself. He did not meet Gurdjieff for another twelve years.

He speaks about approaching the work not as an object of study, like philosophy, but as “a teaching for the keeping of a community together and for understanding relationships between people …. But I think the best approach is the approach from this angle of self-study, self-observation, investigating all the facts that come to one’s attention …. ” He moves on to note “the word ‘secret’ comes from the same root as ‘sacred.’” Then he offers his listeners an overview of the different levels or qualities of knowledge. There is understanding or wisdom, which is superior to “the knowledge which can be written down, put into words, held in the memory, in the head, and printed, distributed in different languages in books.” Understanding how to make a cup of excellent coffee is instanced.

“Gurdjieff held that this unconditioned knowledge is a substance, and only a limited amount of it exists in the world at one time …. ” It is necessarily handed down from generation to generation, from mouth to mouth, from teacher to student. This is oral transmission and it is used to relate “a kind of secret about bringing my attention onto myself.” “It cannot be given indiscriminately or democratically without risk.”

Some time is given over to self-observation. The listener is advised to listen to hear the words he is speaking but also to overheard his own thoughts “to see how part of your attention is toying with something else besides listening to what I’m saying …. ” The aim is “a more continuous self-awareness or consciousness.” Some simple exercises are imparted to bring about a realization of “the first of Gurdjieff’s ideas, which is that we live in a state of sleep.” We live between two levels. “And so I, not very often, emerge from this kind of subaqueous sleep in which we live into the plain and healthy air of being awake.” He adds, “In other words, the only possible change is in a small way to go against the mechanicalness of my sleep.”

A brief description of Gurdjieff in his late years follows. “He wore a red tarboush, a red fez, and a welcoming smile which had in it also a certain amount of irony, a certain amount of disillusionment and a compassion which enabled one to look directly in his eyes and feel at once no fear, some kind of common ancestry, some kind of common humanity.” Some biographical details follow. The speaker quotes Colin Wilson’s description of the Work as”the greatest single-handed attempt in the history of human thought to make us aware of the potential of human consciousness.” The speaker adds, however: “It’s ambitious, but I’d like to make a more sophisticated judgment of his ideas than the one I just quoted from Colin Wilson. His ideas are formulations of some indestructible wisdom which is mercifully available to human beings on this planet at all times and which exists since ancient times in other formulations.” Then he adds, uncharacteristically because poetically, “These ideas are like the shadows of birds above us that leave traces on the emptiness and enable us to know how to go on.”

Some interesting comments follow on such human ideals as mercy, truth, humility, etc., and the compromises man makes with them. A passage from the last chapter of “Beelzebub” follows. Then there is a scattering of questions. The first one comes from a Professor Carse who introduced the speaker and he wants to know if the oral transmission is knowledge shared by esoteric communications in other traditions, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism. The speaker answers this by distinguishing between “orders of knowledge” and “orders of being.” He adds, “Maybe one can have a little inkling of that if one sees some great master in India or in America or in South America; these people must exist somewhere. And there must be some kind of attraction between them, and so on at lower levels.”

In answer to a question about self-observation, the speaker discusses “the momentary experience, the gift of suddenly seeing oneself caught in the middle of a complete lie, for instance …. ” “It’s as if I were between two different stories of a house, or between two different levels in a big department store. And there’s an escalator going up and an escalator going down, and in a sort of vague way all this is going on and suddenly I see it, and there I am getting angry with somebody and at the same time there’s something telling me more and more I ought to stop, and I feel I’m like a field in which all this drama is going on and I’m entirely helpless; it’s all going on involuntarily. Do you understand?” The talk ends with the speaker agreeing “to stay for a few minutes to answer individual questions.” Thus ends the red booklet.

These three booklets, which fall under the rubric “Introducing the Ideas of G.I. Gurdjieff,” may or may not be available through regular commercial channels; if not, they should be. They offer the reader, whether novice or veteran, a view of John Pentland, a formative influence on the Work in the United States. The view is an impressionistic sketch rather than an elaborate, full portrait.
Pentland himself offers the reader a good sense of how a sensitive and intellectual man has absorbed Work impressions or perceptions and in turn interpreted them for Americans, centring on a sense of presence and the need to strive for awareness not tomorrow but right now. He repeatedly asked his listeners, “Do you understand?” I am sure that they did understand.

John Robert Colombo has taken an interest in Ouspensky and Gurdjieff since the late 1950s. He is an Associate of the Northrop Frye Centre, Victoria College, University of Toronto. His latest books are a study of the Canadian broadcaster and globetrotter Gordon Sinclair and a book of poems called “End Notes: Poems with Effects.


February 29, 2008 at 8:35 pm



photo: Jeanne de Salzmann sitting left with Helen Adie at the piano, London
to enlarge click on image

Joseph Azize addresses this questionion the first part of a continuing enquiry;

“Everything” indicated that Gurdjieff’s work remained “unfinished”, Michel Conge told Ricardo Guillon. Dr Conge was a direct pupil of Gurdjieff, and quite close to Jeanne de Salzmann. When he went on to say that “we” had decided to continue “Gurdjieff’s task”, it would seem that he was speaking of the Institut Gurdjieff in Paris. De Salzmann herself told Guillon that the transmission of the teaching can proceed outside of groups, and in other “movements” including religions (Record of a Search, 93 and 100-1). Some who knew her have disclosed what was in any event clear, that de Salzmann introduced new techniques into the Gurdjieff groups (Ravindra, Heart without Measure, 128-9 and Segal, A Voice at the Borders of Silence, 196-7). Segal says that it was only after Gurdjieff and Ouspensky that “the true sense of the Work” even began to be understood (A Voice, 216).

If Gurdjieff did not finish his task, if what he did bring had to be supplemented, if even then it could be carried on in other religions, and if it could not be understood in a “true sense” while he was alive, then how can we understand Gurdjieff’s methods and teachings now? The short answer is, perhaps we cannot. If so, then the honest course would be to admit this, and its repercussions for the Gurdjieff groups.

However, my thesis is that it is not Gurdjieff’s task which was unfinished, but his pupils. First, the methods must all be used in their integrity: and some such as the inner exercises were wrongly abandoned by de Salzmann. Next, properly understood, the Gurdjieff methods and ideas are most effective when ancillary to a person’s aim or faith. The ideas will illuminate and even influence these, but they cannot supply a motive where a person has none. Where teachers such as the Adies, the Andersons, the Bennetts, Mme Claustres, the Conges, the Courtenay-Mayers, the de Hartmanns, Jane Heap, Henriette Lannes, the Nicolls, the de Salzmanns and Mrs Staveley (and there were of course others) embodied what I will call “faith”, the Gurdjieff methods and ideas could have a profound effect, if the pupil was in sympathy with their teacher. However, in many of the continuing groups there has been a tension between the institutional and the individual health of the group. It seems to me that the tendency has been for the various institutions to ossify and narrow, especially since de Salzmann remade the Gurdjieff methods to suit her strengths.

I suspect that the roots of tension go back to Gurdjieff himself, who by closing his own Institute, inadvertently provided an opening for the formation of a new institute (the Institut Gurdjieff in Paris) which developed a goal of self-preservation in a way which is inimical to the preservation of Gurdjieff’s methods and the spreading of his ideas. The other error which I believe he made was to place so much trust in de Salzmann and to encourage others to look up to her. Gurdjieff cannot have realised what she would do.

Others will disagree with all this: but I can see no real difference between most members of the Gurdjieff groups and most members of churches or even devotees of a philosophical life. The differences, such as they are, seem to me in superficial behaviour: members of Gurdjieff groups tend to be more self-conscious and controlled. Mr Adie used to say that considering and politics were worse within the groups, and he died in 1989. I think the situation has deteriorated since his day. There are exceptions. But such exceptions are found elsewhere, too. In fact, apart a few second-generation Gurdjieff pupils in Europe and the USA, the most impressive people I have met over the years since Mrs Staveley’s death in 1996, have been monks, priests, or people who have left Gurdjieff groups.

The Groups
I know of persons whom I can recommend; who can pass on a living and transformative tradition which has come down from Gurdjieff. But even where these persons run formal groups, the groups do not bear names, or if they do, they do not have the words “Foundation” or “Institute” in them. Indeed, my view is that if you wish to lose your faith in Gurdjieff’s methods, then you should make friends with your closest Gurdjieff Foundation.

Scepticism about the enduring value of Gurdjieff’s efforts is not palatable to those with an institutional interest in the Gurdjieff name. Sinclair’s desperate efforts to prove that de Salzmann’s “new work” is in perfect conformity with Gurdjieff’s are doomed to failure, contradicting Ravindra and Segal’s avowal of innovation. Sinclair invests a great deal of capital in Gurdjieff’s instruction to “steal” the energies which the faithful direct to Jesus, as demonstrating continuity with de Salzmann’s approach (Without Benefit of Clergy 146, 157, 230-1). However, Sinclair actually demonstrates discontinuity: Gurdjieff gave at least two fully developed exercises for appropriating these finer materials. I find it difficult to believe that de Salzmann did not know at least one of them. Why did she not teach them? Why did she abandon the preparation exactly as Gurdjieff had brought it? (see Sophia Wellbeloved, Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts, under “New Work” and “New Work Terminology” and on diversity within the broad Gurdjieff tradition, appendix 2).

The only answer, I think, can be that de Salzmann had too little confidence to continue with those methods, but she built her authority on what she was and what she did have confidence in. In itself this was not bad, but it was not a complete and impartial representation of the Gurdjieff tradition. At some point, it seems to me, de Salzmann had to compromise fidelity to Gurdjieff’s methods and ideas in order to buttress her authority. That is, she felt that in order to maintain her position as the leader of an almost global movement, she had to possess authority. She could only enjoy this authority by emphasizing those areas where she was pre-eminent, chief among these being perhaps the movements and the “sitting”. Where she did not possess the greatest qualifications, such as with the ideas, or with the inner exercises and in understanding Beelzebub, these had to take a secondary place. It is rather as if the leader of cards club banned all games other than those at which they themselves excelled, so as to preserve their own position.

More than this, those who did not uncritically accept her authority were marginalised (e.g. Mrs Staveley). I call this “initiatism”: the attitude that unless one is a trusted member of the group, little or nothing should be allowed to them. Consider the secrecy which now surrounds the movements to the extent where many Foundation movements demonstrators do not wish the pupils know the movements in detail. The emphasis now is on “protecting” the movements and “working in the moment on the movements floor”. For example, after Mrs Adie died, our Foundation demonstrators such as Jim Wyckoff from New York prohibited us from practising movements at home: something the Adies had encouraged (I shall perhaps later set out why I believe that the Adies’ attitude is the better). Another demonstrator from the Foundation, let me call him J., specifically told us not to divulge the names of the movements, as it made it harder for people to take the movements elsewhere. I have it on good authority that the Foundation had their lawyers threaten someone with a suit should they publish the Struggle of the Magicians, which begs the question, why has the Foundation itself not published this remarkable piece? Why are so many documents “privately compiled” and never released? It is a standing rebuke to the Foundation that the maverick Patterson published some of the of the surviving Gurdjieff group meetings. This is “initiatism”.

And now that de Salzmann has gone, with the astonishing force she could manifest, the Foundation has been left depleted of authentic Gurdjieff exercises, and with a bowdlerized Beelzebub, but following her model of authority and “initiatism”. And this is the root fault of the groups. The groups exemplify what Gurdjieff said about the law of seven, and how the line of development can veer into different and even hostile directions, while preserving the former name. Many of the Gurdjieff groups have not an exoteric but a cult mentality: in is good and out is bad.

Like de Salzmann, the Foundation groups de-emphasize the ideas and Beelzebub. In a transcript which I have, de Salzmann is reported as having been critical of the efforts of the Toronto group in putting together an index of Beelzebub. Once at Bray, Mme Lannes stated that there is to be no discussion of Beelzebub in the official groups, one just reads it for oneself. This is the position de Salzmann took in the transcript. And why? Once more, the only answer can be a lack of confidence. Although she had taken a major role in the rendering of a French translation, she was unhappy with the English, and had it revised by the New York group. And yet, Gurdjieff had spent many years with that text, and given meticulous attention to even small details, as Orage and Toomer noted. As Mrs Staveley said, Gurdjieff allowed himself to die when the book was sent to the presses. How could anyone, even de Salzmann, claim to understand Gurdjieff’s intention better than he did? The question is, what did she think the book actually was?

Staveley was of the view that the book was a legominism. When Gurdjieff describes legominisms, he gives only general principles. In the chapter “Art”, when he speaks of legominisms in dance, one is perplexed: how could anyone today decipher such a legominism? One would need to know where the feet, for example, should in principle be placed before being able to ponder why they have been placed otherwise in any given dance. However, there are legominisms in Beelzebub. By that I mean that there are at least two places where I believe Gurdjieff has deliberately used the wrong word. I believe, on the basis of my own experiencings, that the word “X” should be “Y”. Further, the substitution of “X” and not “Z” for “Y” is itself significant in both instances. The statements make perfect sense, but they are simply not correct, and from other indications, it is clear that the correct statement is “Y”. On one occasion, “Y” includes certain words which have been left out, but are to be found nearby. Gurdjieff refers to something like this method in an unpublished piece called “Palm Sunday”. While the reader may be wondering what I am referring to, I cannot give the examples because I respect Gurdjieff’s method. When I realised that these passages, which had always struck me as enigmatic, were legominisms, I received a shock. The realisation brought a simplicity and depth of understanding I would not have thought possible. The moments of illumination seem to me to have become a part of myself. Were I to disclose these legominisms, I would be robbing others of the chance to discover them. Gurdjieff could easily have stated these propositions in prose: but he chose not to, so that when they were deciphered, they burst into understanding, with feeling attached to them.

But the point is this: these experiences prove to me that de Salzmann did not realise that the English Beelzebub, as a legominism, is not simply a translation. No one who worked on either of the new translations can have understood this. Gurdjieff said of Beelzebub that it contains “all that exists, all that has existed, all that can exist … all the secrets of the creation of the world …” (Voices in the Dark, 118). Does one see a corresponding valuation of the book in the groups? I don’t, except perhaps in Mrs Staveley’s group (Mr Adie possessed this valuation, but his group has folded). It means that the high noon of the Gurdjieff work has already passed, as this understanding is not to be found where it should by rights have been nurtured.

To conclude, many of the groups, but perhaps not all, have narrowed the Gurdjieff ideas to a caricature which they can control.

The Romance of the “Search”

A special section has to be written for the romance of the search, which exemplifies, for me, “the new work”. Mr Adie would speak of the necessity of the search. “Do not put a full stop there … go on,” he would urge. But he did so understanding that a search has no meaning unless there is a possibility of finding, and Mr Adie had found something. Rather than introduce a polemical tone into George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia, I placed entries for “certainty” and “doing” in the index. Beelzebub is replete with examples of how knowledge was gained, and later developed or lost. If Beelzebub does not say that real knowledge can be obtained, and passed on in endless ways, even through words, then it says nothing. Knowledge is not enough: Gurdjieff told Hulme to work at her task like a monk, not “knowing” but “sure-ing”, with a feeling understanding (Undiscovered Country, 90). But some knowledge is a good start. If one knows nothing, as people from the Foundation so often said to us in absolute terms, then why do we make any effort at all? One might as well end one’s life in narcotic-induced bliss. But there is such a thing as knowledge, and it can reveal its own limitations. This, after all, is what a scientist or scholar does: he acquires a knowledge which leads him on to and into the unknown – and he follows it with gratitude.

In no other area, perhaps, does Mr Adie’s fidelity to Gurdjieff appear in greater contradistinction to the “new work”. Certainty of myself is the aim of our work, said Adie (George Adie, 222), and he had us prepare our activities, and then review them, and learn any lessons. Accustom yourself to do things well, said Gurdjieff, prepare them in advance with all your faculties, and “never fail” (Voices, 173). Jim Wyckoff, on the other hand, would say “when I know it I kill it”, which can be true but can also be untrue, and he would be forever tearing up plans and making people revisit what they had decided. It was a good way of keeping the group dependent on him. We had a period at Yerrinbool with him. The groups had prepared menus for each day. Wyckoff had the cooks dispense with the menus. Go out and work the people, he said, try and feel what they need, rather than impose your pre-set menus on them. The result was chaos, and what was worse, potato soup. At one meal, when the now chronically unprepared kitchen did not have enough food on hand to prepare whatever the inspiration of the morning had “told” them was required, one of the women in the kitchen sent back her plate for a larger serving. The others had to do with smaller servings. True, Jim Wyckoff was a “New York hippie”, forgetting his umbrella, whose books demonstrate his intellectual mediocrity. But, in my assessment, the efforts of the group remains at a lower level than the level of life: and that is inimical to the Gurdjieff work.

More broadly, this spirit is certainly still a part of the “new work”. Roger Lipsey wrote of the Gilgamesh epic that it tells us that neither success nor failure matters, only the search (Search: Journey on the Inner Path, ed. J. Sulzberger, 41). This is silliness both as a statement in itself and as a reading of Gilgamesh. The whole point of Gilgamesh, as they very opening words of the epic tell us, is that he did indeed see the “all”, and attained knowledge. He understood the role of mortal human life in the great universe. If this seems anticlimactic, it has much in common with the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Perhaps the point is to accept the obvious facts of life: that is, there a deeper acceptance is possible for us.


February 29, 2008 at 8:17 pm




While I am preparing the documents I referred to in the earlier post What did Gurdjieff Leave Unfinished?, and there are many documents to consider, I thought I might share this material from Mr Adie. It is something he wrote on 19 March 1953. It deals with an issue we often encounter: we receive a reminder but then the reminder seems to go no further. For example, a thought might not develop beyond an intellectual recognition that I am in a low state. How can we make the best use of these moments of opportunity?

Higher Nature, Lower Nature, and the In Between
I wish to give in a few words my conception of some of the keys and main points of the line of work which we have been following, and from this to try to formulate a point concerning the development from a moment of partial self-remembering to deeper self-remembering. I find that when I work invariably I am brought to a sense of immediacy – to a sense of the expansion of a moment of time and its contents.

The line we have been working on has shown our duality, and the necessity of recognizing this division. It has shown the necessity of observation, and the weakening of wrong manifestations of our lower centres in order to be able to come into touch with our true lower nature and the higher nature which is present with it.

A first infallible approach to our true lower nature is by relaxation and having sensation of our body, a real part of our true lower nature. By directing his attention and discriminating between his substantial body and his turning thought or chameleon manifestations he becomes truly more conscious of his lower nature.

Without division of attention, what comes from my higher nature can almost at once be lost and lead to fantasy if not balanced by a simultaneous consciousness of my lower nature.

There is a gradual work of becoming more aware of something in-between the higher and lower nature, just that something from which a man can most surely find a representative “I”, and the place from which he can most surely work.

I have felt consciousness of I in that ‘between place’. I have felt unquestionable separated contact between my higher nature and my lower nature; held apart by very relaxed and subtle effort, when there has also occurred a simultaneous approaching consciousness of these as one, as a whole. There is the possibility – and necessity – of gradually increasingly experiencing, through our work, the nature, weight and place of the two natures and the between force. Then one constates “I” in these three places separately and yet also simultaneously as a whole.

One can not hold a sense of the higher nature so deeply in unquiet circumstances as in special quiet preparatory times, nor in life have such deep sensation and experience of one’s lower nature as in quiet moments. But, one can for the briefest second in life make the effort of recollection.

By the reduction in wrong manifestation of lower nature, I have come to establish a contact with it, and discovered its willingness to obey the higher nature, and observe as it becomes imbued with the higher nature.

Many attempts have been made to come to a clearer statement of our higher nature, but it must be emphasised that this can never be defined.

If I have sensation of my body there is no doubt of this, but about higher nature also I wish to become equally certain, and for me the necessary concept, the vital true compass is my AIM. By direct experiencing of my physical being I can approach my lower nature. The lower nature becomes, as it were, active. This approach brings with it also the higher nature but, as it were, the higher nature is passive. Awareness of AIM changes the polarities, and makes the higher nature active. Between higher and lower nature, held apart by an impartial awareness, is the seat of REAL I.

I see that I can immediately test and recognize what is truly pertaining to and of my higher nature by relating it to my AIM. It must relate to my AIM otherwise I know that my attention is attracted, and that fantasy will ensure rapidly, or else that I am simply mistaken. I find that the relationship of my AIM to my higher nature is a key of approach and discrimination.

And the recollection, realisation, visualisation and sense or awareness of the reality and weight of my aim gives an approach to the place and experiencing of my higher nature.

By my aim I can find the most reliable expression of and experience of my higher nature.

By my aim, I may be more alive relatively in the higher nature than in the lower nature, or my attention may be relatively more attracted towards the higher than, as it normally is, attracted towards the lower.

Let no man speak of his higher nature when he has forgotten his aim.

A reminder, a spark of self-consciousness, an impression, may be in the higher, lower or between. Quickly, before the chance departs, recognize which is being touched, and how the attention must be divided, directed and collected. And so time becomes longer, impressions deeper and in the gradually awakening centres, the deposits can be laid down.

By discriminating in regard to his AIM, a man can know he becomes truly more conscious of his Higher Nature.

By consciousness of lower nature, higher nature, and between, he can simultaneously be conscious of these three as one, as a whole, and he then surely knows that he becomes truly conscious of REAL I.


February 29, 2008 at 7:57 pm




[This is the second of a series of posts which will appear over the next few months. Some of the ideas sketched here will be more fully developed and referenced in future postings.]

Two Sydney Groups (Part One)

Reviewing the first post, What did Gurdjieff leave unfinished?, I was initially a little startled, because I had written about Jim Wyckoff in a rather blunter manner than I had intended to let the public see. I did not review those comments before having the text uploaded, and the post did not express the entirety of my evaluation of Jim Wyckoff. But the comments accurately reflect my view, albeit not tempered by any slim diplomatic skills I may command. The post should remain, because it may be fruitfully provocative.

I liked Jim Wyckoff as a person, although I did not respect him as a group leader or a thinker: his mind was fast, but as I have said, “mediocre” (I use that word in its precise dictionary sense of “middle quality, neither good nor bad, indifferent”). Wyckoff had learned what I now think of as some “tricks”, which gave the impression of profundity, but I was not the only one who felt that they had been fobbed with fairy gold, glittering by night, but dust the next morning. One of these tricks was to answer requests for advice by replying, “You cannot …” do whatever they wanted the advice about. So a person would ask, “How can I remember myself?” Wyckoff would reply “You cannot remember yourself. But you can be remembered.” Being momentarily stunned by this denial of a fundamental assumption, one would think, boy, have I had it upside down. But then, sooner or later, the question would return, it would just be rephrased. One could parody this style: “How can I be remembered? I cannot be remembered. But I can remember to be remembered. How can I cook a sausage? I cannot cook a sausage. I am cooked.” I shall return to this in future posts, as it is a favourite technique of the new work. “I cannot work. I am worked. I cannot trust, I am trusted.”

As a person, he was not, I felt, materialistic or grasping. He flew economy, and he flew a good deal. This meant something, as we had to pay his expenses. His clothes were always clean, but hardly luxurious. He was certainly not in the grip of creature comforts. He could push himself and could be generous with his time, but then he very rarely acknowledged let alone answered letters. I thought that he often manifested feeling, a feeling which was all the better for not being sentimental, but he also manifested vanity, and quickly forgot himself if touched on a sensitive spot. At times, but not always, he seemed to me to demand loyalty to himself first and foremost. Over all, he seemed to be collected or at least trying to collect himself, even when tired. However, illness knocked him over. When I saw him ill, I saw a man depleted, and he did eventually lose his memory and faculties. I do not know what illnesses he may have had, but there were some people, like Mr Adie and Mrs Staveley, who did not lose their presence or their faculties even during sickness. Those two amazing persons positively defied senility.

In future blogs, I shall expand on those comments, placing them in some context. When we return to the topic, I shall be able to explain things which at present cannot clearly be put. For example, my sense is that his mental decline was related to his excessively passive style. And I shall broach the topic of the abuse of authority and hierarchy in some Gurdjieff groups, which is important because these abuses are contrary to the development of individuals. Once more, as often happens in life, we come to the perceived conflict between the good of individuals and that of the group. However, to paint the context, I must tell the story of “the two Sydney groups” and how we, meaning the Adies’ Newport group, came to be associated with Jim Wyckoff from New York.
The Sydney Groups

Not so long after I joined Mr Adie’s group, I learned that there were many groups here in Sydney (I already knew of at least three others), and that some people from one of these were meeting regularly with Mr Adie and some of his senior pupils. Over the following years, I learned from persons who had been in that group, one of whom had been a founding member, that it had been founded in the 1950s (I have been given different dates) and in its early years had invited CS (Stanley) Nott out on several occasions. After a rather eventful history, it seems to have stabilised, and featured a number of persons who saw themselves as the chieftains of that group. When it became clear that Nott could not or would not continue with them (once more, I have heard various accounts), he had Rina Hands visit on one occasion or more.

Someone else in the Newport group, who related the story to me after Mr Adie had died, once asked Mr Adie why the other group had not simply joined him. After all, she said to him, Mrs Adie and yourself had been with Gurdjieff, Mrs Adie was a superlative pianist and movements teacher, and you had been on the council and taking groups in London. If you had been one of the leaders in a major centre like London, why would the Sydney group, none of whom had anything like your experience and understanding, remain in a separate group? “Well”, he told her, “that is what I had thought was going to happen. We had been told to expect that, but when we arrived, it did was not at all what occurred. The group chieftains asked me for a guarantee that they would have permanent positions of leadership, and I did not feel that that sort of bargaining was good.”

I shall return to this later, as the correspondence I now have discloses that there are other aspects around how the Adies came to Australia, and how Mme de Salzmann tried to help them, of which the most important are that at some point Mme de Salzmann herself had advised the Adies to establish their own separate group (as I shall document), and Stanley Nott, who was still alive in 1965, and had founded the other group, did not like Mr Adie.

Nott’s advice to his group was clear in two points: first, they were not to join with Adie, whom he disparaged as an Ouspensky pupil, overly intellectual and unworthy to take groups, but secondly, not to let the Americans take their group over. I have been told this by several people. He apparently trusted Lord Pentland no more than he liked Mr Adie. I have never been told why, but Pentland, like the Adies, was initially with Ouspensky, and as Nott’s books clearly show, he believed Ouspensky was too much “in the head”, and lacking in feeling. This would explain why the idea of Pentland’s visit, mentioned in Adie’s letter of 3 July 1969 (see the next post) did not come to pass. The connection between the other group and the USA Foundation came by another route, which of course eventually did lead to Pentland.

Rina Hands’ advice to that group was to try and form a link with the San Francisco group, as it was closer to Sydney than any other large Foundation centre. Eventually, they took her advice, and Charles Wright from San Francisco, of whom I have hardly ever heard a good word, came out, and took for himself an expensive luxury apartment on the harbour whenever he visited, at the group’s expense. Even after more than 30 years, his stated self-importance still rankles with some people who knew him. I did not know him, but I have seen some of his correspondence with Mr Adie, and it does strike me that in those letters, at least, he struck a superior, if urbane, tone with Mr Adie.

Although he was a senior man in the San Francisco establishment, Wright was still under Pentland, who would allocate movements demonstrators to assist Wright. Then, according to my oral sources, Jim Wyckoff was invited out, I am not sure whether he was Pentland’s choice, but my sources are unanimous that Wyckoff first came as a movements demonstrator to assist Charles Wright. I was told that Wyckoff first came out in the 1970s, but I do not know. Mr Adie’s correspondence from Wright certainly predates any mention of Wyckoff, and in 1993 Wyckoff said to me that he had been visiting Australia for 19 years. Wyckoff was not exactly given to precision, so even such an apparently exact statement may well have been wrong. However, whenever Jim started visiting Australia, he operated in such a way that the group decided to continue to invite him out but not invite Wright further. Again, I stress, I was not there, but I have one source which says that there was a rather testy meeting at an airport when Wyckoff and Wright were both leaving for the USA. Each of them sat in the airport cafe surrounded by their acolytes, studiously ignoring the other camp. My source states that he went over to Wyckoff, whom he perceived as engineering the deposition of Wright from his role in Sydney, and told him to acknowledge the man. Wyckoff then went over and shook hands with Wright, but that was Wright’s last visit. I am told that Wright was quite shaken by the encounter.

My source for this incident states that Wyckoff had a subtle but effective way of ingratiating himself with the Sydney chieftains: it was stated to me that Wyckoff had a way of making the local chieftains feel important. For what it is worth, even before I had been told that, I had seen it. I soon noticed that Wyckoff allowed himself to be treated as being hosted by the leaders of the group. The same two or three people always sat by him in meetings, any meetings. Only they referred to him as “Jim”. He occasionally offered little blandishments to them and only to them: “Perhaps you could, if you wanted, try this exercise. But this exercise is only for Dick. He has been trying rather a long time.” Tom once said to me, with his studied nonchalance: “Oh, Jim is very particular about the sittings. He has a rule that that we can have them only if Dick and I are both there.”

One of the other chieftains, I will call him Hank, was once speaking of how “influences” were carried in the work. “I see the older people as passing the teaching onto us and ourselves as passing it to the younger people, so that it moves down in that way.” Yes, I thought, you do indeed. At Newport there were practically only two levels in the hierarchy, the Adies and all the rest of us. With Wyckoff, there were five levels: Wyckoff; the most important chieftains, especially Dick, Tom and to an extent, Hank; then the rest of group A; then group B; and then the others. The role of group “B” as both subordinate to, and yet the successors to group “A” was something I particularly did not like.

One trick of the group “A” people would be to make impractical requests of others, and place the demand on them to comply. This kept them in a state of dependence and also in awe of the wisdom of group “A”. It sometimes backfired. Hank once asked a lady from our group, let us call her Jana, to make the ends of celery sticks curl. “You want them curled?” she asked. “Yes”, he replied, “for the sake of a pleasant appearance”. “I prefer their natural appearance. I think curled celery sticks are a pointless gimmick”, I chipped in. “No, no, take it as a task to find how to curl the ends of celery sticks”, replied Hank with his assumed Zen imperturbality. I was never fond of Hank, at least not to a point of distraction, and was gratified by Jana’s witheringly delivered reply: “Oh, well do you have the ice water?” Hank repeated the words back to her, rather blankly, but sensing that something was about to come which he would not be pleasing. “Yes,” she replied, “that is how you curl celery sticks, you use ice water.” Hank walked away in silence. On another occasion, he asked someone to go into the bush and find some people. “How do you find them? It’s a big bush, and you don’t know where they are. Yet you can find them? How?” Perhaps he had in mind that they would blend their consciousness with the infinite and assume omniscience. Along this line, I once asked Marita, a movements demonstrator, what the banners read. They were written in the script Gurdjieff and Alexandre Salzmann had used. “Try and sense it”, she said, self-importantly. She thought it impressive, which was not my opinion, quite. I say this, because people should not accept these power manipulations – which is, of course, what they are.

Once, after Jim Wyckoff had died, we had a weekend at premises on the Shoalhaven River. The main person at that time was S. of New York. S. did not have quite the same style as Wyckoff, but the hierarchy was alive and well. Their group “A” was hands free the whole weekend for discussion, other “work activities” and swimming in the river. Their group “B”, who paid the same amount of money for the weekend, were in the kitchen and on cleaning duties the whole weekend. However, all the Newport people (with one exception, who had not been there when Mr Adie was alive and was a last minute addition) were with group “A”.

Until the end of the weekend, I was thinking that surely we would cook a meal for the lackeys, but no. I was on the council, no one else even raised the question. The subordinates did take part in the sittings and the movements, and when we had an activity of acting out a parable, they were given a saying from the Gospels, not a parable, to play around with. My idea had been to study the parables: but in their new age way, they decided to study them by acting them out. The result was a series of vignettes, most of which were incomprehensible. But I felt sorry most of all for group “B”. No one had any idea what they were doing, and when the farce was over, they collapsed in nervous laughter, thus indicating “we know it wasn’t much good, be soft on us”. I still remember two of them: one who is now a movements demonstrator and the other who has since died, holding their hands over their mouths and giggling. I received a lift back to Sydney from someone in their group “B”. I did not particularly wish to talk, but she insisted. So I thought, well why not gratify myself and ask her the hard question? And I asked her had she paid for the weekend? Yes, she had. How much? It was the same we had paid. You spent all weekend in the kitchen, I remarked. That was good, she said, she was so pleased to see group “A” relaxed. They are never so relaxed as she saw them this weekend. They have so much to do. And so people come to make love to their subordination and admire their dominators.

I dwell on this at some length, because it is a very important aspect of the worst aspects of the functioning of contemporary Foundation groups. There is a clear hierarchy, and you are subservient to those above, but superior to those below. You know your role, you keep your place, and with appropriate humility, length of service, and keep your nose clean, you can rise in the hierarchy. You never speak of knowing or understanding more, you speak of being “older” or having been many years in the work. Once when David from London was ticking me off, he said “I have been in the work for many years now, and I can assure that the longer I have been in it, the more I have seen …”. Politely, I did not laugh outright. I cannot imagine what Mr Adie would have said: he never ever treated years in service as a qualification, although he said that the effort to persevere did count for something. He used to imitate with approval, and he was a splendid actor, Mme Lannes saying “English is beWILDering, but I shall perSEvere.” To reflect now that David should think I would accept that! I could only surmise that he was used to the unwritten conventions, and did not imagine someone would not accept them.

Hierarchies and Vaticans

I refer to this entire process as the “Vaticanisation” of the Gurdjieff work. I have vastly more respect for the true Vatican, and the Catholic and Orthodox position, where priesthood is a sacrament, with an infusion of grace, graciously supplied on known and certain terms. That position is clear and comprehensible by all. If one does not accept it, one can and should leave the church. But the pretension in the Gurdjieff groups is galling and, I would say, actually inimical to the Gurdjieff ideas and methods, properly understood.

Hierarchies have a purpose and are inevitable: but first of all, there should be a bare minimum of levels, and second, they should be used to teach, not to control the individuals in the groups. People can only be given responsibilities which correspond to their abilities and their capacity to stretch themselves. I have no issue at all with that. And the line between teaching and control can be a fine one: after all, there is no education without some discipline. This is why the anecdotes I have told, although they appear sharp, are so important. One can tell, not in words, but by feeling when a hierarchy, etymologically, a sacred (hieros) source or principle (arche), has become a rigid chain of command. And if one is in such a group, then one must leave it if it cannot be changed, because the group is no longer an organism but an institution.

This exploitative hierarchy brings out the worst in the chieftains and corrupts them. While they play these games, they do not really respect each other. One of our group, Ian, was very friendly with Dick, and to a lesser extent, with Tom, both of the Wyckoff group. Once Tom said to me, almost laughing, “Ian has told me that he cannot come on Wednesday night because he is taking your oldest group.” I could see that Tom was asking me whether this was so, while at the same time indicating that he thought Ian was absurdly vain, and he didn’t really give a hoot for which group Ian “took”, he was just wondering if Ian was deluded as well as boastful. I ignored that part of the statement.

One thing is clear to me: the chieftains should join in all the work, as long as they physically can. This includes the cooking and the washing, the gardens and the toilets. While the chieftains would be allocated to groups, they would often disappear from the groups for lengthy periods of time to do the “planning.” Ian tried to introduce something like this at Newport after Mr Adie died. Why not hold out council meetings during the weekend works? There is no time otherwise, he said. Once, or perhaps twice, we went along with it, but then I said, no, this is not right. We should be with the others as we always have, and should make the time outside of these hours for the council. The others agreed with me. Some of my clearest and best recollections are of working in the kitchen with Mrs Adie, peeling vegetables, when the group numbers had fallen. I can still see Lady Pentland, advanced in years, pruning plants. Insofar as the chieftains do kitchen work and clean toilets so long as they are able, and very many do, this is good. Insofar as they do not, this is bad. I think it is a sure sign to those who are in groups. Do your hierarchies excuse themselves from the unsavoury jobs? The other jobs are their privilege, they must make time for these. And they should do their planning beforehand.

The Next Post

To wrap this post up now, I shall return to the narrative thread, not everyone in the other group, back in those distance days liked Wyckoff’s assumption of authority. While Wyckoff did then become the leader for the former Nott group in Sydney, three of the chieftains split off at that point. I have been told that this split occurred in 1978, but once more, I am not certain. One of splinter groups was established with the permission of Lord Pentland, who said that this person and his group could remain “separate but not separated”. The other two simply went their own ways rather than join what was now a Wyckoff group. I have it from another source that the most successful of these had already started his own group-within-a-group, and said that he was concerned that Wyckoff would try and impose a USA-style group on them, whereas as Australians they should develop their own distinctively Australian style. That source is likewise vague on dates. However, in the next post, I shall marshall some documents, and show – so far as they allow us to see – what happened next, when and why.


February 29, 2008 at 7:42 pm





Dr Jon Woodson reviews the film: The Great Debaters with reference to Tolson’s involvement with Gurdjieff’s teaching.

Melvin B. Tolson had attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. When, as an instructor of English, I first walked into the campus bookstore in 1968, I found about twenty copies of Tolson’s long poem, Harlem Gallery(1965), piled up in the back. I had been reading Ezra Pound’s Cantos since the age of fifteen, having come upon it in the stacks of the Washington, D.C. public library. My discovery of a dense, obscure, and vexing long poem by a shadowy African-American motivated me to resolve then and there that if I ever went on to further study, I would write my dissertation on Melvin B. Tolson. In 1971 I did exactly that. Along the way many things happened but few were of any real significance with respect to my understanding of Tolson: the chief event was that I was given a box of esoteric books by an avant-garde poet who had mastered their contents and moved on to phenomenology and Wittgenstein. At some point I read the entirety of the little library that my friend had given me, and one fortuitous afternoon it dawned on me that so had Melvin B. Tolson. And it was clear that P. D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous was an important influence on Tolson’s long poems: there are many renderings in cabala of Ouspensky’s name in Tolson’s poetry, but my favorite is “…or / tight / like ski pants at the ankle” (lns. 1969-72). The esoteric level of Harlem Gallery also generates the poem’s drollery. At the time I little realized the difficulties that finding that Tolson was an esotericist would make for me: I entered into research with boundless energy, optimism, and determination. I applied myself to the careful disclosure of Tolson’s use of esoteric lore, and in 1978 I finished my dissertation, ¬ A Critical Analysis of the Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson. Following that two very odd things happened: Wilburn Williams, Jr. published his dissertation The Desolate Servitude of Language (1979) and Robert Farnsworth published a biography on Tolson (Plain Talk), 1984). Williams’s dissertation asserted that Tolson’s poetry was intricate nonsense, vapid imitations of T.S. Eliot. Farnsworth wrote that he had thought about my dissertation a little and concluded that Tolson had not been interested in Gurdjieff’s system, as I had mistakenly supposed. From that time on Farnsworth had the definitive word on Tolson, and further scholarship assumed with Williams that Tolson’s writings were inconsequential, though that somehow did not prevent scholars from writing about him as a “great” poet and including him in authoritative anthologies. For the few scholars who wrote on Tolson, it was perfectly sensible that a poet would spend a lifetime producing nonsense, if the alternative reading was that he was an occultist.

An examination of studies of Tolson’s work demonstrates that the scholarship by the followers of Farnsworth and Williams is laughably inadequate. There is simply nowhere any work that deals with what is on the pages that Tolson wrote: the readings ignore every feature that Tolson labored to create. Here is a typical instance.

Behind the curtain, aeon after aeon,
he who doubts the white book’s colophon
is Truth’s, if not Laodicean, wears
the black flower T of doomed Laocoon.

[Libretto 338- 340]

Williams interprets line 339 above in the sense of “white papers” though Tolson actually wrote “white book’s colophon”—that being more convenient, since Williams does not know what the white book is. However, the real deficiency is that the common run of students of literature are simply lacking in the information that would allow them to read Tolson intelligently: they know nothing of Tolson’s real subjects. For instance, the surface of Harlem Gallerycontains the name of many famous alchemists. He even uses the word cabala, the name of the code in which alchemical texts were written. He uses the word “cipher” in the poem five times, “secret” six times, and even uses “esoteric” twice. But because he supplies a cover text that is grounded in science, this surface-oriented reading has prevailed—though the science has been interpreted as merely pseudo-learning. What I am emphasizing is that it is not required that one penetrate to the deeper levels of the codes in the poems to encounter material that really should not be there if Tolson is who Williams and Farnsworth said that he was. But if the reader is narrowly educated and incurious (because there are other types of keys that also should raise questions about how the poem is to be read), there is going to be no recognition of the poem’s inner content.

My own work was just as troubling to me as it was to my detractors. Eventually, I worked it out that Tolson was not alone in his approach to esoteric modern writing. His Master’s thesis The Harlem Group of Negro Writers is a key text that supplied the missing link. Tolson had gone to New York for a year in 1931 and 1932 (to study literature at Columbia University), where he had fallen in with the New York disciples of G. I. Gurdjieff—though at first I did not recognize them for who they were. It took me several years to clear away my own unwarranted assumptions, until I was finally able to realize that there are no texts by Tolson that are not esoteric. Even his thesis contains a hidden level. Most mysterious to me of all of his books was his unpublished “Marxist” epic: only recently was I able to see that while the poems in A Gallery of Harlem Portraits may be read at face value as a social realist exercise, the table of contents is written in code. The title renders Gurdjieff’s name as the title of one of the poems: “Jesse Seegar.” (Improbably, the Harlem Gurdjieffians were obsessed with the politics of the Gurdjieff movement—the Orage-Gurdjieff rivalry, and its details haunt their writings. Thus the title of Tolson’s Marxist epic is in code, insisting that Gurdjieff is a traitor, an assertion that reflects Tolson’s allegiance to the A.R. Orage-C. Daly King group after Gurdjieff “excommunicated” Orage in 1931.) Another of my findings was that it was C. Daly King who was at the center of Tolson’s esoteric school in Harlem: King (using the name Robert Courtney) had initiated the American school of Gurdjieffian writing in 1927 with Beyond Behaviorism [The Butterfly]. King, who had organized groups after the death of A. R. Orage in 1934, had written a series of detective novels— Obelists at Sea (1932), Obelists en Route (1934), and Obelists Fly High (1935). The word “obelist” indicates that something is spurious, a puzzling usage unless one realizes that the titles of King’s novels indicate that the surface levels are “spurious” and that the novels require an esoteric reading. King was imitating Gurdjieff, attempting to write a legominism—a coded text. A legominism is, according to Gurdjieff, “one of the means of transmitting information about certain events of long-past ages through initiates.” Following King’s lead, the members of what Tolson labeled the Harlem school of Negro writers produced a long list of “obelist” texts—an enterprise that I described in my book, To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff , Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance (1999). My latest research reveals that there were other participants in this endeavor, the most surprising being James Agee, whose experimental documentary study of poverty during the Great Depression, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men(1941), is a “obelist” text that substituted the name George Gudger for Floyd Burroughs, the actual name of the man on whom the book was based.

Now we have a major motion picture about Melvin B. Tolson, The Great Debaters. The story takes place in Marshall, Texas in 1935. Tolson is featured in this film in the first place because he was seized upon as a role model, a figure of racial uplift who is allowed to get off only one good speech. The film spends a lot of time building Tolson up as a leftist political organizer, wearing a disguise and organizing a farmer’s union that dangerously combines blacks and whites. This allows for scenes of frenzied violence and hair-breadth escapes. When the film finally gets back to the debate theme, Tolson is confrontationally asked about his own father by one of the obstreperous debaters that he was training. Tolson replies with a terrifying description of the historical ur-lynching, as it was performed by its supposed originator, Governor Sir Thomas Lynch of Jamaica. Tolson tells his debate team that the spectacle of the torture-murder of slaves was designed to rob slaves of their minds, while effectively putting their bodies at the disposal of their owners. Tolson passionately declares that his goal is to return to his students their minds. Crucially, Tolson’s speech flies in the face of Marxist theory. The Marxist term for the condition of the students is “alienation”: “Under capitalism, those who work harder increase the power of a hostile system over them. They themselves, and their inner worlds, become poorer. ‘The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more goods he creates. The devaluation of the human world increases in direct relation with the increase in value of the world of things’” (Cox). The use of Marxism as a cover or code for the Work is witty, in that Gurdjieff’s teaching is known as the Work (the name is taken from Alchemy which was known as the Great Work) and so references to the ‘workers’ would be understood by Gurdjieff students to refer to themselves as ‘workers’ i.e. those who are working on themselves for their own inner transformation.

What Tolson proposes to do is not encompassed by Marxist thought: “Lifestyles and leisure activities cannot liberate us from alienation, or even create little islands of freedom in an ocean of alienation. As alienation is rooted in capitalist society, only the collective struggle against that society carries the potential to eradicate alienation, to bring our vast, developing powers under our conscious control and reinstitute work as the central aspect of life” (Cox). This contradiction is not and cannot be dealt with in the film. As I show in To Make a New Race, it was the strategy of the New York Gurdjieffians to seek to use Communism as a means to “shock” the masses in order to eventually recruit a very small number of individuals to their own group. Here is how Wallace Thurman (the subject of the thirteenth chapter of Tolson’s Master’s thesis) expressed this idea: “Gladly would I urge the Negro masses to take an active part in the revolution, just to see them, for one moment emerge from their innate sluggishness, massacre their ministers, and perhaps, in the interim, give birth to a few exceptional individuals capable of arising the mob, Communism, Christianity, and all other such doctrines to become master intellects and creative giants.” Tolson uses a title in the table of contents of A Gallery, “Aunt Tommiezene,” to tells us that he “ain’t commie.”

The character of Tolson that the film presents is, in the final analysis, inexplicable and unaccountable. Tolson, an African-American college English teacher, is eccentric, secretive, and brilliant. The film does not deal with his poetry at all. He has two activities, organizing farmers as a Communist agitator and leading a championship debate team. The film makes no attempt to harmonize these contradictory activities, so by the conclusion of the film, we have no real idea of who Tolson was or what he was doing. He is perhaps a new type of black man, a sort of Indiana Jones, combining derring-do and intellectuality. Thankfully, the film does not try to develop Tolson’s radical activities. He is presented as a mysterious figure that is beyond our everyday categories. Yet, Tolson had not meant for this condition to have come about. He inserted Gurdjieffian terminology in everything that he said and wrote, providing a way into his inner activities. This is borne out by a recent article on his teaching methods by David Gold, “`Nothing Educates Us Like a Shock’: The Integrated Rhetoric of Melvin B. Tolson.” [CCC. 55.2 (2003): 226-253.] Gold is unable to account for Tolson’s use of the importance of the “shock” in education, and he does not admit that this usage is unusual. The “shock” is an important concept that Tolson derived from Gurdjieff, though it is at the same time one of great complexity, so that we do not immediately know what Tolson meant to communicate by employing the term beyond his awareness of the teachings of Gurdjieff. (We do get some insight from the title “Ben Shockley” [A Gallery] in that it suggests that one must get shocked in order to “be.”) But if we can become aware of the nonconformity of Tolson’s assertion that “Nothing educates us like a shock” we may be able to track down its source. For example, Ouspensky, (1949, 221), writes that shocks must be given to man, to help him ‘wake up’, by someone whom he ‘hires’ to wake him, while Tracol (1994, 113), one of Gurdjieff’s senior pupils, writes that Gurdjieff shocked pupils out of blind worship by his language and the calculated contradictions of his behaviour.’ for further references see Wellbeloved (2003, 191-192).

The trouble is that even in an article that calls attention to Tolson by citing his interest in “shocks,” in the final analysis Tolson is reduced to a serviceable pedagogue: Gold concludes that “Tolson demonstrates that it is possible to instruct students in the norms of the academy without sacrificing their home voices or identities.” Again, though Gold appreciates Tolson’s dedication to the creation of illusions, he does not seem to grasp the implications: Gold states that “…Tolson had a complex understanding of rhetoric’s epistemic functions. He was keenly aware of the difference between the private and publicly constructed face. He celebrated the hypokrinesthai in Greek theater—”the speaker’s stage voice instead of his real voice” (Letter to Partisan Review). Time and time again he insisted that art, scholarship, and even “being human” were all “unnatural.” “To be natural on the stage is to [be] unnatural. . . . A naturalistic work is unnatural” (Tolson Papers). “A work of art is an illusion of life” (“A Poet’s” 187). Indeed, creating an illusion of naturalness was to him the essence of being human. He therefore disavowed totalizing philosophies of race and human nature.” Like many other Gurdjieffians, Tolson was simply imitating Gurdjieff: “Gurdjieff [disguised himself] …with layers of acting, multiple personas, irony, sarcasm, ambiguity — with rumors of scandalous personal conduct intentionally encouraged, … with a misty, shadowy, mythologized, fairy-tale past” (Tamm). The first time we see Tolson in the film, he unhesitatingly strides across furniture and stands on a desk, from which vantage he begins to recite poetry.

Of course, The Great Debaters is removed from Tolson’s direct influence, so that it allows no access to Tolson’s motivations. Presumably, it was required for his development that he traveled. In the film we see a teacher determined to make a name for his debate team. In actuality, Tolson was a sophisticated modernist poet and esoteric initiate stuck in a remote town in Texas, with no means of escape. By organizing the debate team, Tolson had a presumptive reason to travel, and his victories even provided funds for further contests. The film even points out that Tolson cheated by writing the arguments for the students, thus making sure that his teams were victorious. In the film’s version of the story, the students only come to write their own speeches once Tolson is prevented from traveling with them because of some legal troubles that he became involved in. Tolson had written his Master’s thesis in the early 1930s, though he did not finish his degree for many years, until June 1940: this also provided an excuse for travel—to do more research. However, what we know of his travels departs greatly from what the movie depicts. Tolson mentions only one trip in his thesis, to Portage, Wisconsin, to visit Zona Gale, and he does not connect it to a debate. His biographers (Flasch and Farnsworth) place the trip in 1932 and show that it concurs with a trip that he made with his debaters. This is doubly interesting. Zona Gale was a wealthy novelist who took a correspondence course from Gurdjieff. And, though Gale supposedly contributed information to Tolson for his thesis, the only member of the Harlem Group that Gale seems to have supplied information on was Jessie Fauset, despite the fact that Jean Toomer had married Gale’s protégé and that Toomer had used Gale’s Portage land for Gurdjieff group work in the late 1920s. Even though Toomer was a key player in the Harlem Renaissance and a direct linkage to Gurdjieff, Tolson does not write about him in his Master’s thesis. The one mention of Toomer contains a series of mistakes (see Mullen, 85) that suggests that Tolson was employing the Gurdjieffian technique of lawful inexactitude. The fact alone that Tolson ignores Toomer is for me an indication that his thesis is not to be taken at face value, but the provocative treatment of Gale is a further alert that he was up to something. All of this is very suggestive. Somehow Tolson came into contact with a great deal of esoteric information: his poems are testimony to wide reading, but the record of his books has not yet come down to us. It remains to be worked out who else he might have visited while traveling as a debate coach.

Jon Woodson is a Fulbright scholar and Professor of English at Howard University. His To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance explores the influence of G. I. Gurdjieff on Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, and Wallace Thurman and through them his influence on American literature.

Cox, Judy. “AN INTRODUCTION TO MARX’S THEORY OF ALIENATION.” Issue 79 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM, quarterly journal of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain) Published July 1998 Copyright © International Socialism.

Farnsworth, Robert M. Melvin B. Tolson, 1898–1966: Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy, 1984.

Flasch, Joy. Melvin B. Tolson. New York: Twayne, 1972.

Gold , David. ”Nothing Educates Us Like a Shock”: The Integrated Rhetoric of Melvin B. Tolson. CCC 55:2 / DECEMBER 2003. 226-253.

Mullen, Edward J. The Harlem Group of Negro Writers by Melvin Tolson. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group 2001. 182 pp.

Ouspensky, P.D. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949.

Tamm, Eric. Robert Fripp.

Tolson, Melvin. Harlem Gallery. With an introd. by Karl Shapiro. NY: Twayne [1965- ] v.1.

Tracol, Henri. The Tase for the Things that are True,: Essays and talks by a Pupil of Gurdjieff, Dorset: Element, 1994.

Williams, Jr., Wilburn. “The Desolate Servitude of Language: A Reading of the Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson,’ Yale University, 1979.

Wellbeloved, Sophia. Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts, New York: Routledge, 2003.

Woodson, Jon. To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999.


Ronald Hutton

By John Robert Colombo

I spent the hectic days between Christmas and New Year’s immersed in an all-engrossing book. That book may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if I may compare it to a pot of tea, the comparison is to vintage Earl Grey, the favourite beverage of such discerning characters as Jean-Luc Picard, Sir Leigh Teabing, Ellie Arroway, and Bruce Wayne. The book in question is The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford: OUP, 1999) and the author, or tea-pourer, is Ronald Hutton, the Bristol historian who has previously written academic studies of “Merry England” and the “ritual year” in Britain.

Hutton’s work is close to five hundred pages in length and it examines in great and scholarly detail the Early Modern Period and in greater details the period between 1800 and 1940 in Britain and to some extent in Europe and America, where there was a revival of the practice of “pagan witchcraft.” That, in turn, requires an analysis of the paganism of Classical Antiquity, which might be termed High Magic, and the paganism of the English countryside, which might be termed Low Magic: priests and maguses on one hand, cunning folk and witches on the other.

The analysis turns into an investigation of what can be known about the past with certainty (perhaps “uncertainty” is a better word here) and whether continuity with the past is at all possible. Are there “pagan survivals”? Do “mysteries” pass from one generation to another? Let me introduce a “spoiler warning” here because Hutton dismisses the notion of transmission, but rather than lament that fact, he finds numerous occasions to celebrate the spirit of revival, recreation, and renewal. He concludes that the flower of “wicca,” the name for contemporary witchcraft, does not grow from the roots of “pagan witchcraft”; it is better to regard it as “the belated offspring of the Romantic Movement.” More generally he categorizes it as a “revived religion.” His analysis covers some 200,000 words, all of them smoothly functional, studded with apt quotations, argued without rhetoric, and above all else informative. All this is in the service of showcasing wicca, the only religion Britain ever produced.

I want to mention two points of personal interest. I am writing this in Canada but the country does not figure in the story of the development of the modern wiccan movement, except in one peculiar way. In the second half of the book, Hutton makes frequent reference to “the Toronto collection,” sometimes “the Toronto Collection,” which is probably the single most significant trove of documents that shed light on how the movement took form in the late 1940s. The manuscripts are those of Gerald Gardner and among them is the original “Ye Bok of ye Art Magical,” which is the precursor of the famed “Book of Shadows,” the collection of spells and liturgies that every ordained or initiated witch is bidden to copy in his or her own handwriting.

Hutton does not tell the story of how these papers ended up in a strongbox in Toronto, but I have it on some authority that it came about in the following way. Upon Gardner’s death in 1964 his belongings, which included the implements of witchery from the witch museum that he operated on the Isle of Man, were purchased by the Jim Pattison Group, a Vancouver-based conglomerate that also owned Ripley’s Believe It or Not! which was then operated out of Toronto, now out of Orlando, Florida. So all the artifacts and manuscripts came to Toronto. The former were put on display as attractions at the dozens of Ripley’s “odditoriums,” but the manuscripts were judged to be of antiquarian and sholarly interest. So they were sold to an interested party, Richard and Tamarra James, founders of the Wiccan Church of Canada. That is how “the Toronto collection” ended up here, so far from the action.

Another point of personal interest is Aleister Crowley, who was known before his death in 1947 as “the great beast” and “the wickedest man in the world.” I happen to own a small cache of Crowley’s unpublished letters, as well as one of his original oil paintings (which is so ugly it might have been painted by Bacon or Kokoshka), so I was intrigued with Hutton’s attempt (in the main successful) to trace Crowley’s influence on Gardner and on rituals like those in “Ye Bok of ye Art magical.” References to Crowley are plentiful, and one of them sheds some light (or at least expels some darkness) on G.I. Gurdjieff.

In Hutton’s book there is but a single reference to Gurdjieff. It appears on page 220 and it occurs in connection with Crowley. I assume most readers of this commentary will have heard that Crowley was Gurdjieff’s guest at the Prieuré in 1925, how the Teacher of Dance extended the Black Magician traditional Caucasian courtesy, and then at the conclusion of the weekend, how Crowley was summarily dismissed with an insult. The incident has been retold three or four times in books and on videos.

It seems the tale is first recorded by James Webb in The Harmonious Circle (1980), a careful and comprehensive work, to say the least. Then it was immediately repeated by Gerald Suster in The Legacy of the Beast (1981). The problem is that Webb offered no source for the incident. Did it take place? Hutton considers that question:

” … none of Crowley’s works mention his humiliation by the famous mystic Georgei Gurdjieff, who berated him and threw him out of Gurdjieff’s community at Fontainbleau in 1925, as related in a well-known book by James Webb. This particular example backfires, however, because Webb never provided a reference for the anecdote and it seems to have been a piece of gossip. Suspicion that it was a false one, inspired by Crowley’s generally bad reputation, is strengthened by the statement of Gerald Yorke to his namesake Gerald Suster, that he was the sole witness of Crowley’s only actual meeting with Gurdjieff and that the latter was a total non-event; the two men just ‘sniffed around one another’.”

So the incident may or may not have taken place. In an earlier commentary I raised the question of a possible relationship between Gurdjieff and Joseph Stalin. Here I am asking questions about a possible interaction between Gurdjieff and Aleister Crowley. A lot of peculiar things happened at the Prieuré, despite its short period of operation, including the editing on the premises of The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett (1926), one of the bulwarks of the Theosophical movement. Perhaps a reader of this commentary has further information about any meeting or meetings between Gurdjieff and Crowley.

John Robert Colombo is an author and anthologist based in Toronto whose special interests include Canadiana and consciousness studies.
Shortly to appear are two of his new books. The first is Footloose: A Commentary on the Books of Gordon Sinclair. The second is End Notes, a collection of poems.


February 29, 2008 at 7:26 pm

%d bloggers like this: