INNER OCTAVES 1
In Search of Inner Octaves
John Robert Colombo’s
Commentary on an Important Book by Michel Conge
“Resumé translation of ‘Inner Octaves’ from French to English by author Charlotte Fielden”
Students of the Fourth Way are no doubt familiar with the name and reputation of Michel Conge (1912-1984), the French physician and senior student of the Work.
Following the death of Mr. Gurdjieff in 1949, Madame de Salzmann appointed a small number of followers to assist her in carrying on with the Work. Among these men and women were Pauline de Dampierre, Michel de Salzmann, Henri Tracol, Lord John Pentland, William Segal, Margaret (Peggy) Flinsch, and Michel Conge. Even in this group, Dr. Conge stood out, at least in the affections of his followers who heard him speak in many cities throughout France. He visited Israel in 1965 where he started the first Israeli group. His talks to followers in Paris and Reims and other cities were well attended and well remembered.
Not many of Dr. Conge’s words have appeared in English. Ricardo Guillon has good things to say about Dr. Conge in his memoir “Record of a Search: Working with Michel Conge in France” (2004). Excerpts from some of Conge’s talks on individual and group effort have appeared as articles in at least two back issues of the “Gurdjieff International Review,” and these have led me to conclude that his sensibility is subtle and discriminating like that of Henri Tracol. That is saying a lot!
It is worth pondering whatever it he says and particularly how he says it. No doubt it is a coincidence that the French noun “congé” (with an acute accent) means “leave” or “holiday” or “respite.” Maybe it is not a coincidence because to read his prose is to experience a respite from clichés and conundrums, for the reason that he speaks from the depths of the heart and not chiefly from the head.
So it came to me as something of a surprise to learn that the pupils of Dr. Conge had compiled and published a collection of his talks and reminiscences. I learned about this publication via the grapevine and confirmed it via the Chinese whisper. The seminal work bears the title “Sur le chemin de l’octave de l’homme: Témoignage d’un élève de G.I. Gurdjieff.” The book was published in January 2004 by a group known as Set, which consists of pupils who met with Dr. Conge. Three years following his death they legally constituted their association and gave it its present name. I have no idea why the group is called Set, though the word brings to mind the mathematician’s “set theory,” the Egyptian deity Seth, and even a class of roots in Sanskrit. No doubt there is another reason for the name.
What is at hand are some details about Sur le chemin (which may be translated “On the Path to the Octave of Man: Testimony of a Student of G.I. Gurdjieff”). Even in France the publication is not well known because its distribution has been restricted. The trade paperback is 200 pages in length; its International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is 2-9519513-0-2. It was printed by Groupe Corlet Imprimeur, SA – 14110 Condé-sur-Noireau, France. The printer’s number is 75920 and the legal deposit of two copies of the book was made to the Bibliothèque nationale in February 2004, where it may be examined. It seems the book has never been offered for general sale, though it is known that copies have been sold to individual members of groups.
The book consists of thirty sections, twenty-nine of which are talks devoted to the teaching as Mr. Gurdjieff presented it in Paris from 1944 to 1949, plus one more section of a biographical and anecdotal nature. That final chapter succeeds in capturing Mr. Gurdjieff in action, the occasion being his last motor trip, the one to Vichy, and the learning experiences that it entailed!
Dr. Conge’s transcripts of talks, exchanges, minutes of meetings, letters, and essays were written or delivered in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus some of the sections of the book are more than forty years old, but the prose has hardly aged at all. I understand from people who are in a position to evaluate it that the French text is quite remarkable. In fact, men and women whose opinions I trust prize the work and have shelved it alongside P.D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous.” That is high praise indeed!
I am now in a position to agree with these readers. After some effort I located a copy of the French edition and it lives up to its underground reputation. It is tempting to say that Conge’s book continues where Ouspensky’s book leaves off. Ouspensky conducts a symphony orchestra; Conge, a chamber ensemble. The Russian offers the reader and the student “the big picture,” the outer octaves; the Frenchman “the snapshot,” the inner octaves. In a modest, intimate, and disarming fashion, Conge focuses on man’s needs and especially on the almost inhuman effort required to discover “the motionless in motion,” all the while keeping the aims of the Work in their rightful place in a vast overview of the cosmos. Throughout the work, the “inner octaves” reflect the “outer octaves” – or is it the other way round? It is a work of inner transformation.
It is a shame that there has been no English translation of this important book, but I understand that one is in the works, scheduled to appear in the not too distant future. It will be titled “Inner Octaves” and will be the second publication of Dolmen Meadow Books in my hometown of Toronto. It is unlikely that I will be able to review the English translation, at least in the immediate future, for the reason that its distribution, too, will be limited.
In the meantime, to satisfy the curious or inquisitive among us, here are some notes that I made and others that I had made on a single reading of “Sur le chemin.” This is not a full-fledged review of the book, merely a fly-by-night commentary on those parts of the work that are readily summarizable (and not all are). It should be understood that the use of quotation marks is provisional in the sense that French work terminology is not all that accessible and the sole aim here has been to catch the drift of Conge’s thought and feeling, meaning and taste. It would take an inventive and sensitive translator like A.R. Orage to do the job properly.
As a teacher and a scientist, Conge explored the balance and the connection that exists between the “inner octaves” of man and the “outer octaves” of creation. After his meeting with René Daumal and Jeanne de Salzmann, he encountered G.I. Gurdjieff and studied with him from 1944 to 1949. Faithful to this wake-up call, he pursued the quest for reality behind appearances with his study groups until his own death in 1984.
“Foreword.” The foreword is written in the third person. Conge was a man who sought after truth, the reality behind appearances. This book contains answers to the questions he asked of himself and of the members of his study groups. His teachings are a blend of Gurdjieff’s ideas and his own inner searching wherein the wisdom of the heart is awakened. His way of teaching was not without humour for he mistrusted any teacher who could not elicit laughter. One question he loved to ask his study groups was the following: “There are cooked potatoes and raw potatoes. What are you?” and then he would answer the question: “You are raw potatoes.” (Here he seems to follow the lead of P.D. Ouspensky, who talked about raw and cooked eggs, and the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who built an entire system on a similar distinction.)
“My Life and My Death.” This section amounts to a mission statement that Conge shared with his students: He was not a man to take a permanent stand on something and hold onto it as if it was the absolute truth. Instead, he was a work in progress, in constant process. He saw the connection between his life and his death, between freedom and being lost. Neither the head nor the feelings lead to truth, and if he believed that his vision of things was the only right one, then he would be lost. He approached others without pretending that he alone had understanding. He taught that there must be a hierarchy of understanding that involves both parties to make a true connection. That way little by little relationships are created.
“The Idea of Evolution.” In this section, Conge looks at the problem of evolution with his study group. He begins by saying that no one can make headway in his inner development without taking into account simultaneously both approaches, the psychological and the cosmological. The evolution of man is the evolution of his consciousness, his will, and his power to act. To avoid limitations in discussing this problem of evolution, which he insists is universal, Conge draws a diagram of the parallels of the Ray of Creation, the lateral octave and the achievements of Man. What Conge says at the end of this section is indicative of the complexity of pursuing the process of awakening-awareness-will-action: “To perceive the substance of all the inner worlds and all the laws that order them, to discover the motionless in motion and the unique in the multiple, then I could speak to you of evolution. But because I am still so far from this, I can only prepare the groundwork.”
“The Lateral Octave and Its Influences.” Evolution starts with a change of direction from mechanical involution to conscious evolution – in stages – through a whole gamut of surprises, changes in direction. We move along this lateral octave without much understanding – we are organic, terrestrial, living a life that does not correspond to latent possibilities within us. So we go along the scale of evolution affected by earth-bound influences until our essential self hungers for something more. Until we are well disposed to certain influences on a higher scale, as in a musical scale, then and only then can we evolve.
The next three sections – “The Scale of Man,” “This Stranger, the Self” “To Be There between Worlds” – deal with exactly what they imply. Even angels must descend into incarnations to evolve. This explains the following: “I come from the world of stars and I am called to return.” In the meantime there is the struggle with duty undone, eating beyond hunger, and making oneself sick with guilt and remorse. We move in the cosmic scale of things, attached to what is One, to what is independent, and embraced by everything at the same time.
Conge goes on to say, “The lateral octave is just that – an octave. It’s not a note. It’s eight notes, and in some way that note is me. It’s also all of humanity, and many other things as well. My centre of gravity is between the notes, and I am stuck here on this planet as if I have feet of clay. But if I open to that stranger within me, that Self, I discover that my Self exists also in the upside of the interval between notes and I am in contact with a greater force that comes from On High. I see that I have to die to my illusions, to my memories. All these words are so clear and simple when we begin to live them.”
Then Conge asks, “What do we have to do to attain awareness? We have to depend on precise knowledge and at the same time on precise but limited experience.” Someone in the study group claims that he is at the threshold of one of the lateral intervals and cannot get past it. Conge suggests that he who speaks of a threshold speaks of an interval; he who speaks of an interval speaks of an octave; he who speaks of an octave speaks of notes. Notes are like facts, tangible realities within you. You are the octave. You have to accept that you are filled with a knowing, that you receive impressions, emanations from the other side of the interval. Then, as Gurdjieff would say, you will accept the labour you have to do. The work is the plough unused in the field, the half-hour of exercise you did not do. This is for us the whole problem – the problem of faith. We must learn not to doubt.
Our inner life contains the good and the bad. It is how we take it and when we get attached to it. You will never get past the interval if you remain “raw.” You must get “cooked” and digested to move on, like a potato. You are a raw potato.
“Awareness and Mechanicality.” Conge discusses the difference between man as awareness and man as machine, and shows how they are connected in the process of transformation and evolution. He finds it difficult to admit that he is a machine but if he were not a machine he would not have the means to organize his transformation. The Universe is a machine formed by a Creator who is pure Awareness, who desired to create such an organism as man.
“I don’t like to be called a machine,” says Conge. “I don’t like to admit it. But something extraordinary is evident: I am an organism that can transform substance because the possibility of evolution is built into the machine that I am. Of all the machines, only man has this in-built capacity for change. Is it not clear that awareness and mechanical functions work together in that immense cosmic game where an organism allows the transfer and transformation of energies? I am a machine but I am also awareness, and my body – that machine – allows me to live a life of awareness. So it is not an insult to be called a machine, for I am also awareness.” Conge expresses his gratitude to Gurdjieff for bringing him to this understanding of Man the machine, Man the Awareness.
“What Is It that Evolves?” The study group in Reims pursues the subject of evolution and ends with the understanding that “I am not obliged to stay locked into myself.”
“Can I See Myself as Awareness?” This is an excerpt from a discussion to be found in “Fragments” (presumably “In Search of the Miraculous”) in the form of questions and answers. Conge answers questions by raising related questions. The following are the questions he is asked: “Could evolution be only awareness and will?” “From the moment of my creation what happens to the Creator? He seems to distance himself from his creature.” “What does it mean that man is a product of what he has learned in school?” “But how does a man who possesses higher knowledge lose it? And how can he lose it without losing his soul?” “If evolution doesn’t occur, will humanity be destroyed?” “What compensations does this (evolved) life bring to us?” Conge’s final reply: “The raison d’être for evolution is an immense maintenance program – the law of reciprocal feeding. I eat therefore I must be eaten.”
“What Is Man?” This section’s title is again a question and within the section other questions are asked of Conge who answers with still more questions. One of the chief questions he asks is the following: “Why are we so blind that we cannot see that man does not end where his skin ends?” Here are some of the questions put to Conge: “What is life?” “You said that you are a grain of wheat. Does a man who appears less gifted have within him the potential to become a more gifted man?”
Conge’s answer: “If I remain a potential, a dormant grain of wheat, without understanding the innate impulse to grow, then I shall never awaken to my fullness, to my totality. We have to hit bottom, the very bottom of the barrel to rise to the notion of a higher level. There is no hardship, no injustice. It’s absolutely extraordinary that I could ever have completed the work that awaited me had I not been forced into that descent …. You have to understand that had I been created in one shot, then I would never have known self-awareness. One is tempted to ask why man was created in this way.”
“What Is the ‘Work’? An Overview.” There is “the way, the idea of liberation” and there is “the idea of working with an awareness of a life with the Work,” and it cannot be considered in any other way but from a perspective so vast that it breaks with our egocentric vision. What is the Work? It cannot be seen with the part of me that understands nothing about the life with the Work.”
“There is a place, a space between the Beginning and the End, that starts and ends with the Absolute, where there is shift, some sort of rhythmical change as you hop about in one spot. You feel this and you go with the shift and it is the way that the Work begins. It is where you realize that the Work is not made for me, but I am made for It. We cannot take for granted, that the Work will happen to us. How often we can pass by it and miss it. And once we go through the essential shift away from egocentricity we have begun to take part in the Work which is to understand, to obey, and to serve.
“The direction of the Work is Descent – Achievement – Return, or if you like, Incarnation – Passion – Resurrection – Redemption. It is difficult to penetrate the secret of the origin of the Work or to understand its progression.” There are three levels of progression in the Work: to work on oneself, to work with others and for others, and to work for the school.
“To Understand.” “Understanding is usually based on everyday functions. To make the shift to higher understanding, so that you can proceed with the Work, you must learn to free yourself from the constant slavish preoccupation with mundane functions. When you begin to live with the union of your mind, your body, and your awareness, then you will begin to understand the Work This work is painful but you must do it to begin the Work.”
“To Obey.” Man was born to serve nothing greater than himself, but the only way that he can even suspect that there is something else is to see himself in a cosmic context. Every other form of existence – suns, planets, satellites, angels or archangels – obeys unconditionally. It is in their nature to do this and they are unable to do otherwise. They are all part of the Ray of Creation that displays the harmony in the Universe. But Man is not on that Ray. He resonates in the octave of Organic Life. Man is the only creature and cosmic creation that has the free will to obey or not to obey. And this is his problem. What is the secret to shifting his understanding? Conge says it is “to obey like a loving friend and not like a servant from fear. It is with love, with desire and will that the shift to unconditional obeying begins … I must renounce my life for Life. I must give up my illusions of myself and my dreams for myself … I must renounce my freedom to disobey, to exist totally.”
“To Serve.” “We are conduits of energy, and like the machines that we are, we transmit it elsewhere, and in this way the need to feel, the need to understand the magnitude of this energy, is lessened within us. This energy should return to its source but we have not accepted that it is a double current. It is a gift and we have forgotten how to return it to its source. To enlarge our outlook we have to ‘die’ to our ignorance and to our conditioning. We have to see self-serving as a calamity, as an abomination. We have to recognize the error of our ways. How do we reconcile these opposing needs to serve ourselves and to serve others? When we do, a flood of well being and joy is returned to us.”
“The Struggle Has to Take Place in the Middle-World of the Soul.” It is not in the calm and the silence, not in the spiritual Himalayas, where we learn awareness in our ordinary lives. This would disconcert the hopes that were held for the seeds that were sown for us On High.”
“When you feel the void within you, feel it, taste it. The void is not emptiness. It is alive! Look within and you will find reality and subtlety at the same time – real thought and feeling and awakened intelligence. You will engage in your mundane life in a new way. You will begin to understand the sensation of seeing yourself, with all your painful destructive faults, at last, and you will live with self-awareness. You will feel as if you are living two lives at the same time, that you have two natures struggling in the Great Combat. Eventually you will see that this struggle takes place in your soul.”
“Functions Put to Good Use.” A machine-man functions without awareness. What is the purpose of these functions? They have a double objective: To take one through life; to curry favour or influence, nurture them, and transform them. There are two directions to go in life: downwards mechanically; upwards with awareness.
“The Graduate of Inner Work.” Conge starts work with one study group by saying that if they think he is a graduate of the inner work, they delude themselves, trusting him when he does not give a fig about that. An exchange follows:
Student: I feel that I’m turning around in circles exhausting myself –
M.C. (interrupts; ironically): Oh, so if you’re really exhausted, then the earth will split in two for you and you’ll be free!
Student: Yes! But I’ve totally exhausted myself and not been true with myself.
M.C.: But you haven’t entirely exhausted yourself because then you would be exsanguinated!
Student: I know that I have one step to get through this … but I can’t.
M.C.: It’s not life or nature stopping you from being free – it’s this “coco” (nut) that is looking at me terrified.
Student: I don’t have the subtlety to understand.
M.C.: Well, now, I ask myself if we have a super “coco” here. When we try to unravel him he is still muddled. This is why we have to work on our emotions … not be annoyed by everything, not get upset, not say that time is running out. When we tell you it takes time, that bothers you even more. Are you a seeker or a player?
Student: A player? I don’t understand.
M.C.: You have to play out the game. All your cards are on the table so you have to win.
“As Stubborn as a Mule.” When we get stuck in our inner work and are aware of this, then this is the beginning of change. We have to desire the change. We have to have the will to make it happen.
Student: If one day I feel the need for some peace between my desire for awareness and this crass laziness within me, don’t I need to beat myself up about this?”
Conge tells the student the story about the man who had a mule but fell asleep and allowed the mule to wander off its course. And then it stopped, exhausted. The man tried everything to get it going again – pulling, pushing, tempting it with goodies. Nothing worked. Finally he decided that if he wanted to get where he was going, he would have to carry the mule. But he could not do that for long and had to rest.
M.C.: Isn’t it better to do the work on yourself in stages, admitting that at times you need to give it a rest?
Two sections follow: “The Devil … a Very Very Important Personage” and “The Freshness of Innocence.” A student bemoans the fact that in a movements class he lost control of his body. Conge explains that this was because he has lost his innocence by killing it or allowing it to be killed. “Could it be the devil at work whispering to the mountain climber, ‘It is so high and far away, and you have been walking for hours.’ And you begin to think that you can go down again. Was it really the devil? G. says that the devil is a good trooper, always in a hurry, and that he knows everybody’s business. Get back your innocence? You can always say that you have lots of time. It will come back. But you can also say that it’s still there and I aim to keep it. But it needs your constant attention. It depends on you.”
“Learn to Accept a New Impression of Yourself.” Gurdjieff said: “Let the angels help you. Let the devil help you … and in between, may God help you.” “With an inner shift you need both polarities – the plus and the minus. Stars move in a complex way that is not visible to the naked eye. It is the same for our inward shifts. We do not see ourselves as others see us when we have changed. As you shed your old skin, learn to see yourself in a new light.”
“A Self-impression: I Exist, I Have Always Existed.” “Life gives us hard knocks. Sometimes we give off a dull sound – other times a crystalline sound. You exist but you can’t leave it at that. You react. You can’t simply accept that you exist, that you always have.
You think this is presumptuous, but as soon as you say or think this, impressions change. Finally you have to dare to say, ‘I exist.’ This fact seems so simple, understanding it within your grasp, yet it is so distant. So where do you go from here?”
“Making Sense of the Question.” The question is: What is this world we live in? The question cannot be answered with the intellect. It has to resonate within you. Is it a question without an answer? Can you stay with it until you see that all our problems are simpler than we imagine? Conge explains, “We like to find quick solutions but the earth has to tilled to bring forth a harvest. One quick pass with the plough is not enough. You have to stir the soil deeply.”
“The Role of Attention in the Process of Deliverance.” Conge gives a talk in Santiago, Chile. He repeats material on how we behave mechanically; how nothing can be done if not by ourselves; how when we think we act freely, we are dependent on things and people outside ourselves; how we allow functions to control us, distract us; how we are divided within ourselves; how we can become whole by learning from others who have achieved unity within themselves.
The solution to the dilemma of the division within each of us is the ability to be aware. We need to become the focus of awareness. Where that focus is, you are. If it is weak, you are weak. If it is mechanical, you are mechanical. If it is free, you are free. Wherever you direct your awareness, there you will be, high or low. As you learn to free yourself from the grip of tyrannical functions, your focus has new power, and you sense a new quality of thought. From there you become more vigilant. Conge adds, “I must attempt to live this, to hold it secretly in my heart, and to protect it from everything that could destroy it.”
“Management.” To know management is to know our needs. “To know my needs is to know that I am. To know that I am is to know I am focused. What else do you need to know? If you live this way everything falls into place, absolutely everything.”
“Prayer.” Conge begins this segment with something like a prayer or an invocation: “God Saint. God Strong. God Immortal. / God All. God Nothing. / Light unthinkable. Darkness unthinkable. / The entire Universe is prayer./ That is to say a call in response to a call.” “Real prayer is not of this world. The entire universe is a response to prayer. In the silence I perceive the life that is restorative. This is grace. Prayer is submission, recognition, abandoning trust in my thoughts, my feelings, my attachment to my body, to go into the silence, not for the silence in itself, but because in the silence comes one question: Who, me?”
“Presence and Prayer.” There is a divine presence that is alive within us and it is through prayer that we can maintain that divine spark within us. It gives us the get-up-and-go to attempt and achieve in life, and we are always sustained by that divine presence.
The final chapter of the book is the longest and it offers a precious glimpse of Gurdjieff in action. It is titled “Michel Conge Reminiscences about Monsieur Gurdjieff.” On each January 13, Gurdjieff’s traditional birthday, Conge assembles his students and recounts anecdotes that have appeared in an lesser-known publication titled “Les Dossiers H ‘G.I.Gurdjieff.’” Conge stresses that for him Gurdjieff is a bridge that the teacher erects between himself and his students so they will not be able to build a new religion on his teachings with Gurdjieff as its evangelist.
From this section it would be pleasant to quote some brilliant remarks of Gurdjieff’s, but brilliance is lacking and the French he speaks is best described as broken. It is what he does not say that is brilliant, and how through spontaneous responses to students’ quandaries he ushers them into processes that seem so simple but yet are so profound. It might be described as metaphysical shock-treatment. This is his particular genius. To quote Conge: “He gives you the most awful knocks that seem to have no effect and he says: ‘Ah! Ah!’ What extraordinary moments! Then we know he will let us rest because we need to gather our energy for the next onslaught. And how we loved him at that moment, and how grateful we were.”
“First dinners at Monsieur Gurdjeff’s.” Conge arrives at G.’s on St. Michael’s Day for the first time with other beginners. Although he is a doctor with a full practice, he feels like a schoolboy. Madame de Salzmann is there and she warns everyone to be prepared for the worst and the unexpected. “Be vigilant,” she says. “He’s your master now. He’s going to test you.” And test them he did. Conge has to wait a long time for the answer to his first question. He thinks it an important question but it is ignored by G. He endures this without being annoyed and passes his first test this way. There are more tests to come.
“The Forgotten Briefcase – the Turkey Neck.” G. makes spontaneous use of very ordinary and mundane events as they occur as occasions for major lessons. Conge passes two more tests. The first, when he fits his schedule into G.’s to retrieve a briefcase he has forgotten, a briefcase that holds important secret research documents. The second, when he stubbornly refuses to eat the turkey necks simmering on G.’s stove because he does not care for them. Conge describes the scene in G’s kitchen:
“Oh! Doctor, you like turkey necks?’
“What! You don’t like? This best piece. Special treat to honour you. Take!”
“No, monsieur, I don’t want any.”
“What! You, idiot!”
“Perhaps I am. Idiot who doesn’t like.”
“Yes, yes! Take to please me.”
“I assure you that I don’t want any.”
“Want! That, mechanical thing. You must experience new treat.”
G. got angry and insulted Conge. Conge stood firm and the dispute and G.’s efforts to humble him through humiliation continued on through the dinner with others present. No one spoke. Only for the toasts. When G. insisted Conge stand and defer to an elderly doctor, something rebelled in Conge, but at the same time he realized how far he had to go in his inner work with G.
After dinner. alone with Madame de Salzmann, she says, “You have had a great victory. G. just put you through your second difficult test, and you have behaved well. It was important for the rest of your work.”
Conge is rewarded with an invitation from G. to accompany him on a motor trip to Vichy. After enduring every possible obstruction in the planning of the trip, while on the road, and arriving at their destination, Conge is amazed to see that “in the end, everything fell into place as if by pure enchantment.”
On this happy note ends “Sur le chemin de l’octave de l’homme.” And so ends this commentary.
John Robert Colombo is interested in the writings of Gurdjieff and
Ouspensky and has written and compiled numerous books about
supernatural and paranormal activity in Canada. His latest titles are
“The Midnight Hour,” “Terrors of the Night,” and “Strange but True.”
With Dr. Cyril Greenland, he compiled the published and unpublished
writings of Richard Maurice Bucke in a book titled “The New