Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

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

WHAT DID GURDJIEFF LEAVE UNFINISHED?

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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.

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Written by SOPHIA WELLBELOVED

February 29, 2008 at 8:17 pm

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