Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

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


“Universe” 47 Years Later
Commentary by John Robert Colombo

There has been some discussion lately about the one book that you would recommend to a friend who has expressed serious interest in the Work. The book that I see as meeting this need is The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, the classic text by P.D. Ouspensky, which was originally published in a limited edition in 1950 but which has been reprinted at intervals many times. It has the virtue of clarity and concision, but it may not be to every reader’s taste, being quite uncompromising and committed to a context that is best described as “esoteric.”

A number of readers have drawn my attention to a work that I have long cherished, Toward Awakening (1979), which was written by Jean Vaysse, the distinguished surgeon and who led a major Paris group. His book I find to be very subtle indeed. It marks an advance on Ouspensky’s title if only in that it includes descriptions of work-related techniques, possibly for the first time in public print.

It is easier to recommend a motion picture to people who have expressed serious interest. Meetings with Remarkable Men will long remain the central film. One website devoted to the 1979 feature film identifies its writers as “Peter Brook & G.I. Gurdjieff,” a Hollywood-style billing that would no doubt make the great experimental stage and film director wince! Also, it makes no reference to the guidance given its conception and production by Madame de Saltzmann. But what a fine film it is, adventurous and reverential at the same time.

My own favourite introduction to the Work, or at least to a feeling for the Work, is a lesser-known contribution of genuine distinction and wide-spread appeal and influence. I have in mind the documentary motion picture titled Universe which was released by the National Film Board of Canada in 1960. The film is now forty-seven years old, but in spirit it remains as youthful as it ever was. I remember seeing the twenty-nine-minute, black-and-white documentary in a movie theatre the year of its release. This was during the period when Canadian motion-picture exhibitors (then as now mainly American-controlled) were required to include some “Canadian content” along with American-made feature films. I do not recall the title of the feature film I had gone to see, but I do recall the excitement of “Universe.”
Since then I have rewatched it a number of times, always with pleasure and profit.

Universe was produced by the experimental group within the National Film Board that was interestingly called Unit D. It was founded and headed by Tom Daly, who is one of the two senior Work personalities in the country. (The other prominent individual is James George, former High Commissioner to India.) Tom Daly grew up in a socially prominent family in Toronto. In the early 1950s he met Thomas and Olga de Hartmann, who were then temporary residents of Rawdon, Quebec, en route to the United States, and the Daly family brought Madame de Hartmann to Toronto where a study group was formed that continues to this day. Tom soon moved to Montreal to continue his work as a senior producer with the NFB. His professional, film-making career has been an outstanding one, notable for the taste and refinement as well as the audacity and sincerity of his productions.

Universe follows a night in the life of Donald McCrae, professor of astronomy, University of Toronto. At dusk Dr. McCrae drives north of the city to the university’s David Dunlap Observatory, where he conducts some routine work and photographs six star systems. The night’s work is exacting but not trying. At dawn, exhausted but exhilarated, he drives back into the city. The city seems transformed by the viewer’s experience.

The sequences in the observatory’s dome convey a monastic, sepulchre-like atmosphere, in contrast with the vision of the spectacular array of the far-off stars that light up the gradually darkening overhead sky. The narration is read by the actor Douglas Rain. (Stanley Kubrick was so impressed with Rain’s voice that he chose Rain, over actor Martin Balsam, to give the distinctive voice to the malevolent computer HAL 9000 in the monumental motion picture
“2001: A Space Odyssey.”) In a dry-as-dust way, Rain describes incredible wonders. In fact, the narration begins most memorably: “The ground beneath our feet is the surface of a planet whirling at thousands of miles an hour around a distant sun.”

The film offers perhaps the first Cosmic Zoom, with the camera taking the viewer from a minute point on Earth (the Observatory) on a journey among the planets of our Solar System, with a constantly widening perspective, to embrace the nearby galaxies, then the Milky Way galaxy, and then the cosmos itself. The narration runs: “If we looked more deeply into space, leaving behind us the earth and the whole of our solar system, and travelled at the speed of light, it would take four years before we came to even the closest of the billions of suns scattered through stellar space.” The visuals are very evocative of “a sense of wonder.” (It is not surprising that Colin Low, who with Rom Kroitor directed it, was soon employed assisting Kubrick with his own, breath-taking stellar sequences.)

The structure of the film seems to follow that of the cosmos itself, the Ray of Creation, glimpsed in astonishing sequences when detected at all. “If we could move with the freedom of a god so that a million years pass in a second, and if we went far enough, past the nearest suns, beyond the star clouds and nebulae, in time they would end and, as if moving out from behind a curtain, we would come to an endless sea of night.” But even that so-called sea of night has its oases, its “island universes.”

The Cosmic Zoom takes us to the farthest edges of the universe, or at least to those of the known universe, where all we can do is as pose questions about creation and causation, mind and matter. The limits of our telescopes and other instruments are augmented by our intelligences and intuitions and, above all, by our imaginations.

The narration concludes with a wry reluctance to probe further: “But when we look this deeply into space we are looking at a ghostly image of the distant past, for the light by which we see these regions started travelling towards us long before the dawn of life on earth.
In all of time, on all the planets of all the galaxies in space, what civilizations have risen, looked into the night, seen what we see, asked the questions that we ask?”

I certainly recommend a viewing of Universe to someone who has a latent or nascent or evolving “sense of wonder.” Someone with a knowledge of work principles will find in the film’s imagery and vocabulary reverberations of terms used in the work. It has not aged at all in spirit. Some other credits: script by Stanley Jackson, direction by Roman Kroiter and Colin Low, music by Eldon Rathburn, and production by Tom Daly. The DVD through the NFB’s website.

Earlier I mentioned Ouspensky’s work. A companion volume to The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution was published in 1989. It is titled The Cosmology of Man’s Possible Evolution, and it is based on Ouspensky’s lectures of 1934-40, the same vintage as the lectures that appeared in Psychology. The documentary Universe film might be regarded as a companion to this companion, so to speak!

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto author and anthologist. His latest publication is a trade paperback compilation in English of Maurice Level’s French-language horror fiction titled “Stories of Fear and Fascination.”



February 28, 2008 at 4:38 pm

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