review of ‘IT’S UP TO OURSELVES’
THE JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO PAGE
A MAMMOTH AND UNUSUAL PUBLICATION
John Robert Colombo briefly notes the characteristics of an enjoyable tome of a book by Jessmin and Dushka Howarth
It was in the middle of the 1950s that I first encountered the writings of P.D. Ouspensky and through his ideas I engaged with the theory and practice introduced by G.I. Gurdjieff. To this day I visualize the Work from the vantagepoint of an unreconstructed Ouspenskian as well as through the filter of the Fifties, the period of the Cold War with all of its polarities, with the battle between ideologies, and with the ever-presence of subversive ideas in both East and West.
I am inclined to visualize the scenes of Ouspensky in Moscow and Gurdjieff in Paris in the tone of sepia but framed in black and white. The Work is in soft-focus and far in the past. It is not yet called the Gurdjieff Work, or not yet called the Fourth Way. Instead, it is known as the Special Doctrine, which was the term Ouspensky used to permit himself to distinguish between this “school of thought” from his earlier philosophical, theosophical, and mathematical speculations. That continued to be a problem for him.
The special and private perspective that I have been describing may very well be shared by people who came to maturity with “fragments of an unknown teaching” in the late Forties and early Fifties. The perspective is that of a Wisdom tradition that is inimical to Western values generally, a tradition that appeared in the West in 1912 and over the next two decades came to the attention of a discerning public in literary and artistic circles through through Ouspensky’s lectures in London and Gurdjieff’s activities in Paris and at Fontainebleau-on-Avon.
So in my mind’s eye, I still see the appearance of these ideas as accomplishments in the past, not contributions to New Age thought of the Sixties. Students of the Work who are younger than I was then have the opportunity (especially after reading the book that I am about to discuss) to view the Work on a wide-screen in Technicolor with Dolby Sound. No sepia or black and white for them! What grew with effort out of the soil of pre-Revolutionary Russia was able to survive the Communist Revolution, the Great War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. Now much that was merely words and counter-revolutionary history has been brought to life and given flesh and blood through the efforts of two extraordinarily able women, a mother and a daughter, inspired by G.I. Gurdjieff.
In due course I discovered books by Rom Landau, Kenneth Walker, J.B. Bennett, and others, and eventually the foundation, institute, and society were established with their many affiliated groups, not to mention offshoot organizations with no particular provenance. Thus the work was rounded out for me. For a short time I was a member of the Toronto Group, which was founded only a few years after the New York foundation. In Toronto, I met the Welches – Dr. William Welch and Mrs. Louise Welch – the movements instructor Alfred Etiévant, not to mention Paul and Sheila Bura and other students of the Work, whom French participants are inclined to call “adepts.”
All of this activity seemed at the time to be of marginal interest to society as a whole. Except possibly for a handful of Theosophists and Anthroposophists, nobody I knew had ever heard of movements, the enneagram, kesdjan bodies, the formatory centre, etc. Soon the Special Doctrine would sea-change into the Work and these would enter into common parlance. If there is a year with which to mark that metamorphosis, it is the year 1979, which saw the commercial release of Peter Brook’s remarkable film, Meetings with Remarkable Men.
It is not by chance that since then I keep encountering people who know “all about” Gurdjieff.” They proceed to share their “information and insights” with me. When this happens it is diverting but also dismaying, yet it remains instructive. Indeed, I recall the story told a few years ago by the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson (I think it was) about the middle-aged man who boarded an airplane and took his seat beside that of a distinguished-looking older man. The two passengers began to chat.
During the course of the flight, the middle-aged man waxed eloquent about the intricacies of “string theory,” basing everything he knew on article that he had enthusiastically read about it in a popular science magazine. When he had finished with his disquisition, he asked the older man what he thought – and it turned out that he had been explaining “string theory” to Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate!
I am no Murray Gell-Mann – not even a Freeman Dyson – and I also assume my readers are neither – but I am also sure we have all had this experience at least once. Indeed, I have been having a similar experience while reading this massive new book that I am about to review. It is indeed massive. It measures 10″ high and 7″ wide and 1.25 inches thick! It has a four-colour coated cover and it is quite long at xxvi + 512 pages. It is not strictly new – though a book is “new” to anyone who has yet to read it – for the title page says it was published in 1998, twelve years ago! Could that be true? (If so, I am uncharacteristically late catching up with it!) The tome to which I am referring bears a title with subtitles that are awkward yet not inaccurate. Here it is:
“It’s Up to Ourselves”
A Mother, a Daughter, and Gurdjieff
A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album
By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth
Gurdjieff Heritage Society
Copyright, Dushka Howarth, 1998
To me in the 1950s, the Work represented ideas and effort. To the men and women who lived through that period as adults from 1912 to the 1950s, who were in daily and often intimate contact with Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, it was work and effort too, but it was also a lively time that was rich in character and personality, in idiots and toasts, in events and experiences that were seen to be teaching situations. There was the sprightliness of the Twenties and the literary and technological innovations of the interwar years generally – with inventions like the Theramin – which seemed outwards signs of inward change.
Now down to the book itself. The table of contents tells the story of the emergence and evolution of the Work chronologically: The Early Years, Twenties, Thirties, Forties, Fifties, The Later Years. Also included are a Preface and Introduction and then Postscripts, Appendices, Bibliography, and Index. The index is something of a shock because it consists of a list of names without a single page number. Yet the names that appear here! Some 800 people are mentioned, celebrities like Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen and Mrs. Wallace Warfield Simpson … as well as the seven Bennetts, the six Gurdjieffs, the five de Salzmanns, the four Stjernvals, the three Andersons, the two de Hartmanns, and the single Denis Saurat.
What I have yet to mention is this book’s unique and indispensable feature: its photographs. As well as a collection of informative letters, it is an album of close to 900 photos, ranging from studio portraits and publicity shots to candid snapshots. The latter are exceptional and even emotional in appeal. By comparison, I once edited for a publisher the memoirs of a Canadian colonel who had served as the aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip during their Royal Visits to Canada. On the side-tables in his living-room in his gracious residence in Oakville, Ontario, there were framed snapshots of members of the Royal Family. These candid shots were inscribed and they showed the royal personages in their leisured moments. It was something of a shock to see Liz and Phil lounging about on the lawns of Balmoral, toying with corgis, smiling at each other, relaxing with the colonel, etc.
The sense of surprise that I experienced in the general’s living room was recreated when page after page of this tome I saw candid photographs of the names of most if not all of the people who “made” the Work. There is hardly a double-page spread without its agreeable photograph or photographs. I realize now for too long I had been starved for images. And also for gossip.
No way am I am able to summarize the wealth of the contents of this publication, other than to briefly allude to its structure and straight away recall a few of its highlights, a personal selection at best. The tome may lack the high-seriousness of purpose characteristic of James Moore’s Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered, published in 2005, and it may miss the earnest quality of life exhibited in Frank R. Sinclair’s Without Benefit of Clergy: Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching (2009), which I hope to review in the future, yet its informality and its air of indiscretion are its characteristic charms.
It is a work of great gaiety. It has the air of one of today’s blogs or of one of yesteryear’s family scrapbooks or private diaries: the family being that of Gurdjieff’s kith and kin and karass (to use Kurt Vonnegut’s ingenious term). It takes the form of the long, detailed, and delightful letters that were exchanged by Jessmin Howarth and her daughter Cynthia Ann (Dushka) Howarth (one of Gurdjieff’s children). A sense of how the Work impregnated the lives of these two correspondents and their array of friends is apparent on every page of this book, yet the import of all of these references will be lost on readers who lack knowledge of what it is all about, being J.K. Rowling’s muggles and squibs.
I mentioned earlier I would “review” this book. Since that is impossible, even given the measureless space available on a blog like this one, I will content myself by merely “noticing” some references in the book. I will comment here and there on passages that have struck me as particularly interesting over the month that I spent dipping into it, reading here and there. There is an old saying that goes like this: “You do not have to drink the ocean to learn that it is salty, as one drop is enough.” I will take a sip here and there. It will satisfy the curiosity of the reader who is needy and wants to sense the shape and feel of the Work, as it evolved, in terms of people and their relationships. The details will help historians of ideas for decades to come. Right now it is time for the reader with a taste for these ideas and feelings.
Allow me to begin by noting the “Canadian content.” There is a snapshot of James (Jim) George and of his daughter, dancer Dolphi Wertenbaker, and a photograph of Sheila Bura, who also taught the movements. There are references to Peter Colgrove, who nursed Madame de Hartmann through her last days, and Tom and Ruth Daly, guardians of the Gurdjieff / de Hartmann music. Honourary Canadians are the Welches who guided the groups in Toronto and Halifax.
I was pleased to see many references to movements instructor Alfred Etiévant, whom I found to be a stern taskmaster, but whom wiser and older people knew to be so sweet as to be described as a “pushover.” I learned he was urged to marry Dushka Howarth but he ended up married to Lise Tracol. I could go on. There are lovely photographs of the “work periods” in Halifax with Ravi Ravindra. There is even a photo of Walter Driscoll, the bibliographer.
I had long nourished a curiosity about life at Franklin Farms at Mendham, N.J. There are photographs of the attractive residence and of activities that took place there, as well as pen portraits of the personalities who worked there on weekends or who resided there for years. There are references to the site at Armonk and photographs of Lyne Place, Colet Gardens, Coombe Springs, and Sherborne House, all fabulous and semi-storied places in my eyes.
Jessmin Howarth, an orphan, was an student of Dalcroze’s Eurythmics at Hellerau where she met fellow student Jeanne de Salzmann who subsequently introduced her to the movements, which Christian philosopher Jacques Maritain is credited with calling “meditation in motion.” (The same description is independently used to characterize the discipline of Tai Chi.) Jessmin met Gurdjieff in Paris in 1922. Over the years she learned, like many another woman, to dissever the teacher from the man.
Throughout the book appear photographs of Madame Gurdjieff and Madame Ouspensky as well as snapshots of Ouspensky himself travelling through Ceylon. In fact, the women whose stories are told and whose photographs are reproduced play a great role in the story. Dushka herself has done a fine job explaining the background and significance of the references that appear in the correspondence.
In addition to the women already mentioned (in no order whatsoever, a little confusion being catchy) here are some names redolent of activities in the past and the present: Lily Galumian, Madame Ostrowska (Gurdjieff‘s mother), Olga de Hartmann, Jessie Dwight Orage, Katherine Mansfield, Olgivanna Hinzenberg Wright, Edith Taylor Swaska, Elizabeta Stjernvall, Louise Goepfert March, Ethel Merston, Tania Savitsky, Edith Taylor, Rita Romilly Benson, Petey Taylor, Solange Claustre, Lise Tracol, Marian Sutta, Peggy Flinsch, Henriette Lannes, Rina Hands, Elizabeth Bennett, Dorothea Dooling, Pauline de Dampierre, Marthe de Gaigneron, Tania Nagro, Luba Gurdjieff, Rosemary Nott, P.L. Travers, Patty Welch de Llosa, Svetlana Wright Peters, Dorothy Caruso, and Lady Lucy Pentland, not to mention Kathryn Hulme and Margaret Anderson and the talented women who were members of The Rope. I hope I have not overlooked too many talented and energetic women!
I will forego any attempt to summarize what Jessmin and Dushka took from the work or from Gurdjieff personally and privately. It resists summary. The enthusiasm for the Work that is displayed by them for the man and the techne and praxis speaks for itself. Jessmin’s letters to Dushka and Dushka’s replies are the threads that stitch this crazy-quilt of a book together. It is apparent that the daughter inherited her verve and personal style from her mother. (I will leave up in the air what she inherited from her father.)
Both women are lively correspondents, uninhibited letter-writers, whose words are a joy to read. Not a few of these pages are devoted to accounts of Dushka’s own and varied activities. A glamorous professional guitar-player, she was also a spunky and adventurous licensed press agent, translator, and guide working in Paris. For all of this froth and frivolity, I am grateful to her for capturing the excitement of the people who were involved in the work, changing my impression of it from something solemn and remote and sepia to a dynamic way of living, what Paul Beekman Taylor has recently described as “a new life.”
It’s Up to Ourselves is published by the Gurdjieff Heritage Society, which has its own website. The selling price of the book is in given as US$75.00. It is worth every penny of that amount. (With a workable index, it would be worth at least twice that sum.)
John Robert Colombo is known across Canada as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of the lore and literature of the country. He is the author, most recently, of End of Greatness, a collection of poems, and Indifferences, a collection of aphorisms. Yevgeny Yevtushenko told him, “You must be the most sophisticated of poets.” Andrei Voznesensky wrote, “The searchings of John Robert Colombo are significant and profound.” Check his website with its podcasts: www. colombo-plus.ca