Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

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



This is the draft of a review to be published in the forthcoming Volume 5 of JASANAS: Journal of Alternative Spiritualities and New Age Studies


Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0230615074
ISBN-13: 978-0230615076
15 diagrams
Appendix J Walter Driscoll ‘The Textual Chronology of Gurdjieff’s Life’ pp 237-252
Bibliography and Index
Foreword: J Walter Driscoll

First, some background information about the author’s academic interests. From his website I found that Mohammad H. (Behrooz) Tamdgidi is Associate Professor of Sociology, teaching Social Theory at UMass Boston. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Sociology (in conjunction with a graduate certificate in Middle Eastern studies) from SUNY-Binghamton and a B.A. in Architecture from U.C. Berkeley. His fields of theoretical specialization include Sociological Imaginations, Self and Society, World-Historical Sociology, Sociology of Knowledge, Social Movements, and Utopias.

Tamdgidi’s research and teaching are framed by an interest in understanding how personal self-knowledges and world-historical social structures constitute one another. His continuing research on liberating social theory in self and world-historical contexts is pursued via critical comparative/integrative explorations of utopian, mystical, and scientific discourses and practices.

This book about Gurdjieff’s writings in relation to hypnotism is in part an extension of a theme occurring in his doctoral thesis, Mysticism and Utopia: Towards the Sociology of Self-Knowledge and Human Architecture (A Study in Marx, Gurdjieff, and Mannheim), 2002, SUNY-Binghamton Universtiy.

Tamdgidi’s sociological approach addresses two important issues in relation to Gurdjieff’s teachings. The first, evident from his title, is the centrality of hypnosis in Gurdjieff’s teaching, the second is his focus on hypnotism in relation to Gurdjieff’s four published texts. Both these are large themes and difficult to condense into the page limit that the author writes that he was confined to by his publishers. Because of this his text is densely complex as are the intricate diagrams, and this makes a prior knowledge of Gurdjieff’s teaching and texts a necessity, so this is a book for the specialist, rather than the general reader.

In relation to Gurdjieff Tamdgidi writes that he will examine only the written texts (not the oral teachings) and that the aim of this study is to show how, ‘Gurdjieff’s “objective art of literary hypnotism is devised and works.’ fn p.xvi. His interpretive method will be to make ‘an indepth textual analysis and interpret the text using ‘it’s own symbolic and meaning structures’ p. xvi. (author’s emphasis). These we can understand to be Gurdjieff’s cosmological teachings given most succinctly in P. D. Ouspensky’s ‘In Search of the Miraculous’, (1949) and in the symbol of the enneagram, familiar to Gurdjieff students and to a wider readership through more popular books which explore the enneagram in terms of a typology of personality. This method, of employing Gurdjieff’s own terms as a method of interpretation or explanation is also carried out by many Gurdjieff students who look to his texts as a help to explain the cosmology, and call upon the cosmology to illuminate Gurdjieff’s published writings. This does lead to a circularity in making any interpretation of Gurdjieff’s difficult, intentionally confusing and contradictory texts. It also ignores the primary interpretation, the world view that each reader already has already formed and already holds, even if unconsciously. I will give an example of this later.

The author has purposely preserved independence from any formal Gurdjieff organisations, but also writes that he has augmented his intellectual enquiry with helpful meditation practice drawn from other traditions that complement the experiential dimensions of Gurdjieff’s teaching, fn 8 p.16. It would be interesting to know what these practices were but he does not identify them nor tell us how they augmented his analysis of the text.

In relation to his use of the term hypnosis, Tamdgidi acknowledges that there are definitions of hypnosis that he could have referred to, for example in the works of Milton H. Erickson, but he does not wish to enter into these or any other definitions. Instead there is an unstated acceptance that Gurdjieff’s writing and teaching were governed by ‘hypnosis’ in what might be generally understood by the use of the term. For example he refers to the reader of Gurdjieff’s ‘Meetings with Remarkable Men’ ( 1978) as ‘mesmerised’ by curiosity about Gurdjieff p.188. His thesis is that the writings are intentionally hypnotic and thus capture the reader. Given the importance of hypnotism to his whole project it would have been useful if he had dealt with his definition of hypnotism more fully.

As referred to above, Tamedgidi argues that his hermeneutical method is one in which he will interpret the texts by using the text’s own symbolic and meaning structure. One consequence of his interpretative method is that Tamdgidi necessarily takes the stance of a compliant reader. There are difficulties in seeking to be compliant, not least because Gurdjieff makes many contradictory demands of his reader who must be compliant yet not passive,

There are anomalies and contradictions in the texts that Tamdgidi recognises, he interprets and explains these in conjunction with his overall thesis and this makes for a closely argued text. Problems arise for the analysis of any text, let alone Gurdjieff’s symbolic and multivalent texts, that aim to exclude all other possible readings, and though Tamdgidi’s interpretation is largely supported by reference to his own publications, here again, these tend to intensify circularity.

In his usefully contextualising Foreword J. Walter Driscoll gives a definition of hermeneutics and writes that at its highest levels it ‘involves the search for meaning via numinous interpretation, be it of poetry, scripture, philosophy, literature, music, art, law or architecture’ and that ‘Tamdgidi draws for inspiration on all of his relevant hermeneutic options in search of meaning in Gurdjieff’s ideas and writings, p. xii, (Driscoll’s emphasis). Perhaps this aim would be impossible to achieve, but the limitations Tamdgidi has set himself in referring only to Gurdjieff’s own terms, have caused problems for him. He records an experience (before he began writing his book), of awakening to his own hypnotic conditioning to the ideas of Gurdjieff among those of other academic and cultural traditions and as this being ‘deeply shocking’ p. xxi. Anyone involved in sustained exposure to and immersion in Gurdjieff’s writings is highly likely to be hypnotised, and there is, in the general sense that he uses the term, a hypnotic element in Tamdgidi’s text, and in his diagrams.

There are errors arising from a misunderstanding of the narrative structure of the Tales which initially might seem slight or insignificant. For example, according to Tamdgidi, Beelzebub having been pardoned and spoken his last words at the end of the Tales is:

‘on his way to eventually unite with His Endlessness via a transitional stay in the Planet Purgatory to
deal with certain remorses of conscience’, p. 8.

But Beelzebub had already been pardoned before the narrative of the Tales begins, pardoned and returned to his home planet Karatas where he meets his grandson Hassein. The tales of the title begin and are told on another spaceship flight from his home planet to and from a conference on a distant planet. The visit to the Planet Purgatory takes place on the return journey to Karatas. There is no suggestion within the text that Beelzebub’s visit to Purgatory is ‘to deal with certain remorses of conscience’, and it would be impossible for Beelzebub to ever be united with His Endlessness, because according to the narrative His Endlessness dwells on the Sun Absolute which is now unreachable by any being other than himself.

There is nothing in Gurdjieff’s text to say that Beelzebub will be united with His Endlessness but we can see that this mystic notion of union might be adopted if ‘His Endlessness’ is regarded as a synonym for God, (and he is referred to as God by Tamdgidi) and also if the notion of divine union was familiar to the writer. In this case the concepts of Purgatory and of ‘union with God’ are ones that have come from Tamdgidi and not from within the text. In my view this is bound to happen as it is quite impossible for anyone to banish their own world view including what may be largely unconscious assumptions. Many authors, (and here I do not exempt myself) who have written about the ‘Tales’ have I think wrongly assumed a conflation of God and his Endlessness. It is true that His Endlessness is represented as the creator of the universe, which suggests this, but he makes mistakes, mistakes with tragic and dreadful consequences one of which is the permanent separation from himself of all beings in the universe, except those on Purgatory whom he visits in order to alleviate their unending suffering.

Tamdgidi concludes, in accordance with Gurdjieff’s own teaching on multiple selves, that Gurdjieff was ‘afflicted with a legion of selves, some high and some low in character’ but that it is possible to ‘cherish the teachings of one Gurdjieff self, while being critical and uncompromising toward another self’, p 235.

This conclusion leads to a possible validation for the many differing interpretations of Gurdjieff and his texts, because each critically uncompromising reader will also be afflicted by similar legions of selves, some choosing certain Gurdjieff selves to cherish and be critical of, and yet other readers choosing differently. But, however readers interpret Gurdjieff’s writings Tamdgidi should be applauded for having focused on a unifying scheme for all of Gurdjieff’s texts, and on hypnotism in relation to Gurdjieff’s writings, a subject which as he rightly says, has been largely ignored by other scholars.

G. I. Gurdjieff, ‘First Series: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man or Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson’. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950
‘Second Series: Meetings with Remarkable Men’. Trans. A. R.Orage, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul,
P. D. Ouspsensky, ‘In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching’, New York, Harcourt Brace and World, 1949.

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