SIMSON NAJOVITS interviewed by JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO
The writer Simson Najovits who bears a distinct resemblance to actor Michael Caine.
I have known Simson Najovits for at least forty years and I feel I know him quite well, despite the fact that over those years there have been no more than half a dozen face-to-face meetings. Between meetings we have exchanged first typewritten letters, then computer-printed letters, and now email letters. Our meetings have taken place in Toronto and Paris, though never in Montreal, where he was born in 1937.
Simson has lived in Paris since 1962. Although many of his short stories, poems and essays have been published, and he is the author of a critically acclaimed two-volume history of ancient Egypt which has been acquired by most of the major university and public libraries throughout the world, his many long prose works remain unpublished. I would read his fiction and marvel that no publisher worth his salt has ever decided to publish these works, which bear some resemblance to those philosophical memoirs written by Henry Miller. But Simson is a hyper-intellectual Miller and a scholarly one, much concerned with intellectual thought and its expression.
For years I knew Simson as an expatiate Canadian writer who made his home in Paris. Gradually I realized that he had enjoyed a long-time involvement with the Work. This association began in Montreal, where he attended Sir George Williams University, now part of Concordia University, a city university now infamous for its illiberal student activism.
JRC: What did you study at Concordia? Who influenced you the most – students or faculty?
I studied literature and political science. My biggest influence was my main literature professor, Neil Compton, who knew more about both Joyce and Shakespeare than any other person I’ve met since and convinced me that nothing could be more important than being a writer as long as one was a surly writer.
He was the only person I know who had a specific insurance policy against getting polio and he got it, and taught from a motorized wheelchair until the day the elevator he was in didn’t stop exactly at floor level and his chair tipped-over and he died. And there was my psychology professor, James Winfred Bridges, a giant of a man but somehow he projected the image of a merry, malicious elf and he instilled in me a love of Freud which has been enduring, and he was the author of what I think is one of the most impartial, neutral books ever written about psychology, Psychology, Normal and Abnormal.
JRC: Who introduced you to the Work? When and how did that come about?
From a very young age, perhaps as early as five years old, I was intrigued by what things were all about and I was a voracious reader. As a young man, I got all wrapped up in what can be called consciousness development and I came across Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum and New Model of the Universe and from there I went to In Search of the Miraculous … and from there I sought contact with the Fourth Way Work and found it with Tom Daly in Montreal, a marvelous man for whom I still have a fondness and who was terrifically patient with my impatience and romanticism; I was still a Beatnik in those days, even if in civilian life I was a staff writer for the Canadian Press News Agency, and Tom Daly was not the sort of person attracted to that kind of shenanigans, yet he nevertheless treated me with considerable forbearance.
JRC: You are Jewish in background. Were did your parents hail from? Were they Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or Ultra-Orthodox? Do you find parallels between Judaism and the Work?
My father was born in Hungarian Transylvania (now in Romania) and my mother in the Ukraine. They came to Canada when they were very young, about twelve or thirteen. My father was a decorated war hero in the Canadian Army Engineering Corps and my mother was a pious and delightfully superstitious woman. They were Orthodox and they tried to bring-up my brother, my sister and me in the Orthodox tradition and I reluctantly went through the motions (sometimes with a bit of humorous twisting) until just after my Bar Mitzvah, but I was always something of a born-atheist and it’s many years now that I’m a good practicing atheist.
Nevertheless, I’m also something of a paleo-Hebrew, you know a bit of that fire and brimstone stuff, a bit of that tsadaquah and rachmonnes stuff, righteousness and compassion, and a bit of that romantic, erotic Song of Solomon stuff. For me, standard Judaism, despite its historical importance, and like all the other residually surviving modern religions, lacks any pertinence in modern life, but paradoxically, too, Judaism, like all the major religions, is a cornucopia as well as a can of worms … and if I dearly love and have learned a lot from the Bible – both Old and New Testaments – I think the Talmud contains a huge amount of horseshit and I think the modern Hasids (contrary to the original Baal Shem Tov Hasids) are frequently detestable people with no sense of live and let live. …
As to standard Judaism, I see very little resemblance with the Fourth Way Work, but there is considerable resemblance with esoteric Judaism, with Kabalism – there is a clear similarity in Gurdjieff’s system of centers and the Kabalistic sefirot, and Gurdjieff in In Search of the Miraculous lists Hebraic esotericism among the four “fundamental” esoteric “lines.”
JRC: Aside from the obvious attractions of the City of Light, why did you settle in Paris, considering that English is your mother tongue? How did you support yourself?
I settled in Paris because it was the world center of the Work … and also because I was always attracted to France; when I was a child I read all the Horatio Hornblower novels and it would enrage me that the Royal Navy always, but strictly always, defeated the French Navy … and also because I had a tendency to live with or marry French women ….
At first I supported myself by wacky jobs of all sorts and then as a correspondent for Canadian magazines and American radio networks and then as a journalist at Radio France Internationale where after several years I became the Editor-in-Chief of the English Service.
JRC: You married and raised two children, though in later years you have lived as a bachelor. Were your wife and children ever in the Work?
My first wife was and is still in the Work nearly fifty years later and my son participated for a time in the children’s activities of the Work. Both my later wife (my main ex-wife so to speak) and our daughter can certainly be described as spiritually concerned people, but they have never participated in the Work despite discreet efforts now and again from me to get them interested.
JRC: I assume you met the Madames – de Hartmann and de Salzmann. What did they look like? How did they impress you?
Look like? Both were very handsome women, Madame de Salzmann with a solemn, wistful allure and Madame de Hartmann with a haughty allure. But it’s of course what they were which counted most. It’s redundant to say that Madame de Salzmann was an extraordinary person, but that’s what she was, even if she was not the saint that some people have tried to make her out to have been.
I saw her a couple of times a week for about ten years and she directed the quiet work meditation class I participated in, usually came out to our countryside work place every Sunday and would often visit our group meetings and movements classes where her mere presence changed everything, electrified the atmosphere.
She came across as being utterly and tirelessly devoted to the Work goals both for herself and for others, and as Gurdjieff said of her, “She knows everything,” but I think her outstanding achievement was as a master of the movements. And all that said, it also has to be said that she was capable of losing her temper, she could sometimes prudently lie when I at least didn’t think it was necessary and sometimes her answers to questions were clearly routine answers and repetitions of what she had already said many times and she had an austere side, including being a vegetarian.
And all that said, too, of course, she was the most stunning illustration of what somebody could achieve with Gurdjieff’s methods, achieve in their own way, with their own essence, so to speak, and her essence was not at all like the lusty, eccentric essence of Gurdjieff. …
As for Madame de Hartmann, she too was great person, but she didn’t play ball in the same league as Madame de Salzmann and while she had a fine critical sense, which could often hit the bull’s-eye, she also dismayed me with what was quite simply an overdose of arrogance.
JRC: You must also have met Henri Tracol and Jean Vaysse. Were you impressed? Who else influenced you? Madame Lannes? Peter Brook?
Tracol didn’t impress me, despite the fact that he was Madame de Salzmann’s right-hand-man, but Vaysse, Conge, Pauline David, Michel de Saltzmann and several others impressed me immensely – they belonged to what was perhaps the most outstanding generation of Gurdjieffians ever produced, they certainly did develop something inside them which was strongly evident on the outside and by their words and behavior they certainly influenced many people, including myself.
I knew Peter Brook well and he encouraged me in my writing and understood what I was doing; he (together with somebody named John Robert Colombo) was instrumental in my being awarded Canada Arts Council and Quebec Arts Council grants.
JRC: You have travelled much in Morocco. Did you find traces of the Work in that region of the world?
A bit of Sufism, a bit of trance-inducing gnawa musicians, lots of magical marabouts, lots of vendors flogging amulets and ingredients for casting spells, but nothing spectacular. The spectacular place for the survival of esoteric traditions, including some with resemblances to the Work, of course remains India, and concerning the movements and sacred dances, Dervish groups in Turkey and central Asia.
JRC: Your two-volume history of Ancient Egypt is a work of considerable scholarship. Did you find any earlier elements of the Work in “pre-sand Egypt”?
Certainly not! The notion of a “prehistoric, pre-sand” Egypt with immense achievement, esoteric knowledge and fabulous architecture is a loony fantasy, an historical, archaeological and climatic impossibility which is only believed by the loony wing of Egyptologists. And Gurdjieff’s statement that some of the Egyptians were “the direct descendants” of the Atlanteans and the wise extra-terrestrial beings, “the Akhaldans” with the “pyramids and sphinx [being] the sole, chance surviving remains erected … by the most great Akhaldans and by the great ancestors … of Egypt” is in the same vein and its only redeeming quality may be that just as in Plato’s original Atlantis myth, in Timaeus and in Critias, in which Plato’s purpose was to describe a great, wise ideal which could serve as the model for the Greece of his time, Gurdjieff might have been metaphorically hinting at the same thing for our modern times.
On the other hand, if Gurdjieff’s idea that many of the origins of Christianity were “taken in a ready-made form from Egypt, not only from the Egypt we know, but from the one which … existed much earlier” is also loony, it’s not loony to see some key aspects of Christianity, and notably what Gurdjieff called “the form of worship in the Christian Church” indeed owing something to what he called Egyptian “schools of repetition,” but of course in historical Egypt and not in an imaginary “pre-sand” Egypt. As for direct links between Egypt and the Work, or at least similarities, the Egyptian description of “the silent man” found in many of the sebayt, the so-called Wisdom Texts, does bear a resemblance to what happens in quiet work meditation.
JRC: Name six contemporary writers who are especially meaningful to you. How have they influenced your own life and writing?
Why only six? I could name dozens. There’s Richard Powers, a genius of plot and style and meandering in the seemingly meaningless web of our world and who is one of the few contemporary writers who coherently weaves science and technology into his novels; I think/feel that his The Goldbug Variations is a near-masterpiece.
There’s Paul Auster, who obviously takes great pleasure in writing, which has perhaps led him to write too many standard novels, but he’s done some very fine things like The Music of Chance and Mister Vertigo. There’s Pascal Quignard, who is on the cutting edge of what can be called a new way of writing, a near-plotless mix of narration, retelling of old tales, stark emotion and straightforward views about what goes on in us and in the world, as in the five volumes of his Dernier royaume.
There’s Haruki Murakami, who is a wizard of the oddball story, especially in A Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There’s Michel Faber and his Crimson Petal and the White which burns your brain with how familial tragedy repeats itself. There’s Gunter Grass whose entire work is one long confession and what it’s like to be born with a cultural deficit and how he built himself into a man.
There’s Umberto Eco and especially Foucault’s Pendulum which delightfully fools about with esotericism and religion without falsifying history as some others do. And there’s Marie Drarieussecq, a fine writer of the humanistic intimate as in Bref Séjour chez les Vivants (A Brief Stay with the Living) and of the bizarre magical as in Truisimes (Pig Tales), and if she ever succeeds in combining these two elements she could become one of the greats.
And now I see that I’ve broken the Marquis of Queensberry rules and have already named eight contemporary writers, and I’ve got to admit, too, that had you been just a wee bit less arbitrary and asked not only about contemporary, living, authors, but extended your question to include recently croaked authors, I would have talked about Sam Beckett, surely one of the finest writers in the 20th century, surely somebody who best described lack of meaning and the absurd nature of life while seeing how it was so necessary to care and to “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” … and I would have talked about John Fante and especially his Brotherhood of the Grape, and Bohumil Hrabal and especially his I Served the King of England … and Jorge Luis Borges, I.B. Singer and Thomas Bernhard and Saul Bellow and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Marguerite Yourcenar …
And had you been still more generous and asked me to name the writers of any epoch who were meaningful to me, then I would have had to write a long tome like Henry Miller’s The Books in my Life. In any case, reading has always been one of my great pleasures – both as an aesthetic and hedonistic joy and because if it can’t replace direct experience of all kinds nor the lessons of science, it is nevertheless one of the key vectors which tell the truest lies about our unraveable self and unraveable world. There is more philosophy in fiction than in philosophy.
And I must also say that if you had framed your question otherwise and spoken not only about contemporary writers who have influenced me, but of contemporary or near-contemporary people in all walks of life, I would have mentioned being equally influenced by Rothko and Giacometti, by Miles Davis and Leonard Cohen, by Igmar Bergman and Woody Allen, by Einstein and Heisenberg, by John Dewey and Richard Rorty ….
JRC: For the last two decades or so, you have devoted considerable time and energy to writing your reflections on life on this planet as well as on the illusions and delusions of spiritual practices. What conclusions have you come to?
I call it Niatpra – nihilism, atheism, pragmatism, art, the overall shift in attitude begun with the Greek Pre-Socratic philosopher-scientists in the sixth century B.C., who opted for rational, experimental, natural explanations rather than magical, religious, supernatural suppositions, who opened a war against God.
This war was unwittingly accelerated in the 17th century by Newton who despite his official belief that God had created everything demonstrated that the universe was run by mechanical laws of motion and gravity and in so doing left no space for anything but a deistic God, a God who created the universe and then withdrew from its operation, took early retirement so to speak.
And the Pre-Socratic war against God was renewed and developed during the 18th century Enlightenment and began culminating from the late 19th century with implacable science and plausible descriptions in psychology, art and philosophy which in one way or another owe much to Darwin and his “great, unmistakable principle of evolution” and his postulation of “natural and sexual selection” and to Nietzsche’s “there is simply no true world,” Einstein’s relativity and Freud’s view of our state as “essentially conflicted.”
Standard religion and standard esotericism and the notion that something called the soul have been ruined. There has been a virtual elimination of the possibility of any fundamental answer to any fundamental question. Our only lucid choice seems to be nihilism – no absolute truth, no absolute purpose – atheism – no God or gods, no metaphysics – Pragmatism – not the so-called pragmatism of crass self-interest, but the philosophy of Pragmatism, of “experimentalism” in the realm of the possible, of the search for the least imperfect answers, the answers with the best “effects” in an unknowable world – and art – art which is always glad when we come to visit its probing, its description and sometimes its celebration and which with true lies tells us more about what is, what ought to be, but what can’t be than any other medium ever invented by us Homo Sapiens.
All this doesn’t mean that it’s five minutes to the end, it is a lucid acknowledgement, a tabula rasa which can be painted on, a beginning, a passage to a new stance which may one day also be seen as a mythology, but which today comes the closest to what we believe, to the truth of no truth in which much is nevertheless possible. In other words, the world makes no sense, but a world of sense can be made, we can create sense, we can create meaning, we can live splendid, awesome lives, we can slice through the shoddy and maybe earn a tie-game.
JRC: You eventually left the Work, “not with a bang but a whimper,” I gather. When did this happen? What were the reasons for your departure? What do you see to be the future of the Work?
I wouldn’t say that it was either with “a bang” or with “a whimper”; it was in the early seventies and it was because I concluded that the Work not only doesn’t, but can’t deliver the promised goods; it can’t deliver the goods of being and understanding, of a radical transformation, of a real, central “I am” and the unfortunate truth – as far as I can make-out – is that no esotericism in the history of mankind has ever been able to deliver the goods, and that all of them in one way or another, including G.’s system, are ultimately religious, they fall back on the fairy tale of religion, on supernatural pie-in-the-sky, and to mention only a single, significant example, that’s what G.’s “Our Almighty Omni-Loving Common Father Uni-Being Creator-Endlessnes” is all about, pie-in-the-sky.
That doesn’t mean that we need over-focus on the many weird things in G.’s Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson which can’t possibly be valid no matter how one casuistically twists and turns Gurdjieff’s supposed intentions or metaphorical riddles, and it doesn’t mean that the book is not understandable as some people claim; it is not only understandable, it is a fabulously new way of writing mythology and it does provide very plausible postulations concerning the “machines” we humans are, how “everything happens” and “no one does anything,” our state of waking sleep and the nature of human nature.
G.’s system is pie-in-the-sky, the transformation he postulated can’t happen, but that doesn’t mean that nothing happens, there is meaningful trickle-down, there is a development of some consciousness and above all there is the development of a pedestal of perspective on oneself and on the world.
My years in the Work have marked me, they count enormously for me, and I still practice self-remembering and quiet work meditation, I still frequently dip into G.’s and other Gurdjeffians’ writings and I have written abundantly about the Work in essayistic, allegorical and fictional forms.
But the bottom line – about radical transformations, enlightenments, Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I am’ and all the other esoteric fundamental, wishful, magical hopes – is what the Buddha told a novice when he asked him what he would give him and the Buddha replied, “I will give you old age, sickness and death.” …
I think that historically the esotericism which has lied least, or pretended least, about so-called enlightenment has been Zen; when the 8th-century Chinese Zen master, Zhaozhou, was asked by a disciple to teach him satori, enlightenment, Zhaozhou asked, “Have you eaten your dinner?” and the disciple replied, “Yes,” and Zhaouzhou said, “Then go wash your bowl ….”
As to the future of the Work, like the future of other esotericisms, I think it will stumble along and be beneficial to some, and if ever a guru of the stature of a Gurdjieff or a de Salzmann again arises in the Fourth Way then it could temporarily flourish but basically, I think that we have to keep in mind the context in which Gurdjieff operated – in my mind, he was unquestionably the outstanding guru of the 20th century and he emblematized the hope of a renovated esotericism, a possibility that a radical transformation of our being and understanding was not a pipe dream, but he was also emblematic of the failure of this hope, a magnificent failure, but a failure … and while it would be silly to deny that the Work can enhance the lives of some people in it – in it for a few years, many years or their entire lives – the most that can be expected, and only rarely, is magnificent failure.
JRC: Are there any questions that remain unasked that you think our readers would be interested in asking?
Yes, you didn’t ask me if I’m glad to be alive! My answer is the final paragraph in the book I’m now finishing called Modern : YOU KNOW, despite all the crap and corruption, all the mischaracterization and misconstruing, all the puzzlement and absurdity, all the embranglement and failures, all the cruelty and wars, the sweetness of living is such that it’s just too damn bad that an afterlife doesn’t exist, that it’s as charmingly nonsensical as The Owl (that “elegant fowl”) and the (“lovely”) Pussy, but if it did exist, if we could really travel to “the land where the Bong-tree grows,” get “married by the turkey who lives on the hill” and “dine on mince and slices of quince,” which we would eat “with a runcible spoon,” then I think the ancient Egyptians naively concocted the best option – wehem ankh, repeating life and gamboling about in an ideal state of youth.
The Egyptians ardently wanted to be one step ahead of the game, one step ahead of the scandal of death, even after the usual warranty for wear and tear had expired.
JRC: Thank you! Chimo!
John Robert Colombo is known across his native Canada as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana. He writes occasional reviews and commentaries on Work-related subjects, particularly when they have Canadian context or content. To watch a video of Colombo’s banquet speech at the last All & Everything Conference, held in Toronto in April 2009, check his website: www. colombo-plus. ca. Simson Najovits’s study of ancient Egypt, which is mentioned in this interview, was published in two volumes in 2003 and 2004 by Algora Publishing, N.Y. The general title is “Egypt, Trunk of the Tree” and Volume I is subtitled “The Contexts” and Volume II is subtitled “The Consequences.” For more details, check the website for Algora Publishing: Nonfiction for the Nonplussed.