Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

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




[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

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