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

Archive for June 2010


John Robert Colombo considers the Frenchman’s life and work

I have a confession to make about a silly little habit that I have. I like to discover the meaningful anagrams that are based on common words and peoples’ names. By rearranging their letters, I am able to change their meanings and associations. For instance, the motto on my coat-of-arms reads “Alert.” Anagrammed, the letters spell out two different words. These are “Later” and “Alter.” They may or may not shed light on my resolve to be “alert”!

Since I discovered the presence of the free “anagram generators” on the World Wide Web, I have spend less time “generating” anagrams than I once did, with the result that now I have the time to anagram more words and names! What is gained on the swings is lost on the slides.

I have long had a fascination with the name Henri Tracol. It seems so neat! Those four syllables and eleven letters look and sound so straight-forward, yet they are memorable for a number of reasons. In fact, once seen or heard, they are unlikely to be forgotten. In this way, by all reports, they resemble the man. In short, I have always felt that the Frenchman was well and intriguingly named.

I am not aware that the word “tracol” has a specific meaning in the man’s native language, but once I had anagrammed his name, I found out that it harbours a number of associations. The letters HENRI TRACOL spell out innumerable anagrams – more than one thousand of them in English alone; additional ones may be available through a French-language anagram generator. Here are four of the better English anagrams, ones that “make sense.”

Henri Tracol bulks large in the world of anagrams for he is either a CHARTER LION or a NICER HARLOT. (To be frank, these two anagrams seem to me to be non-starters, given the man’s retiring nature!) Yet there are two other anagrams over which I will pause, and these are REAL CORINTH and LINEAR TORCH. Could these words be meaningful in the circumstances. Let us see if they could.

First are the words REAL CORINTH. Whenever I think of Corinth I think of the Greek port city, second only to Athens in importance, and I recall that its inhabitants had pagan ways, which persisted well into the Christian era, as was evident in their appetite for a sense of fashion and for displays of wealth.

What also comes to mind are the First and Second Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. These are letters of instruction that Paul (or someone calling himself Paul) addressed, more specifically, to the members of the Christian church of Corinth. As epistles, now scriptures, they are suitably obscure, fraught with numerous mysteries and multiple meanings. The first epistle is the source of such memorable phrases as “through a glass darkly” and “when I was a child, I spoke as a child.”

The second epistle, although less obscure, is reprovingly moral. Its message seems to be: “Christians, let there be no backsliding!” Together these letters comprise the seventh and eighth books of the New Testament. Christianity would be different had they been lost or never written on parchment. So, in brief, the letters of “Henri Tracol” bring to mind the REAL message for CORINTH, which I take to be the need to be aware and to be aware of one’s limitations.

Second are the words LINEAR TORCH. We speak about passing the “torch of learning” from generation to another, or of carrying the “Olympic torch” from one place to another. There is a sense in which Henri Tracol is passing along a “torch,” one ignited by G.I. Gurdjieff, and that he is doing so in a linear or direct fashion; nothing here is helter-skelter. It is not “everything for everybody,” but chosen things for the select few. So it is but a short step to describe his message as a “linear torch.” Henri Tracol is indeed a torch-bearer.

So much for my taste for anagrams. I also have a taste for the writings of Henri Tracol. Having “a taste of things” – or “the taste for things” – is an expression that is never far from the man’s lips.

In his day, Henri Tracol (1909-1997) wore a rack of many hats. He died thirteen years ago and today is fondly remembered as one of the leading French follower of Gurdjieff. By profession, he was a photographer and a journalist. He sold articles and news photographs to popular magazines like Vu. Like so many other free-thinking journalists in the 1930s, he filed field-reports from Spain. It seems he was an anthropologist, as well, and wrote reports on conditions in South America for the Musée de l’Homme. For some time he was married to Henriette H. Lannes, Madame Lannes, the leader of the Work in England. In his free time he devoted himself to an early love, sculpture.

But he had little free time at his disposal, for he spent ten years in the company of G.I. Gurdjieff. With the latter’s death in 1949, he became one of the leaders of the French group, working with Madame de Salzmann and other senior members. He assisted in the French translations of Gurdjieff’s writings. He had a strong influence on many students of the work, including biographer James Moore. Tracol was eventually appointed director of the l’Institute G.I. Gurdjieff, the first of the four member bodies of the International Association of The Gurdjieff Foundations, the other groups being those in London, New York, and Caracas.

The photographs of the man that are reproduced in the literature of the Work are head-and-shoulder shots and give no indication of his height and weight. I judge him to be a short person of slight build. In those photographs, his facial features appear to be emaciated, and his physiognomy brings to mind the head of an ostrich or that of a giraffe. I do not mean any disrespect: ostriches and giraffes have big eyes and presumably see much and miss little.

A number of the man’s talks have been transcribed, collected, and published in book form. I would call them “pure gold” except for the fact that the contributions of Henri Tracol (along with those of his colleagues Solange Claustres and Jean Vaysse) represent the “platinum standard” of writings in, from, of, within, or about the Work.

If someone, somewhere, has compiled a list of Tracol’s publications in French and in English, I have yet to see that list. Here is my make-shift bibliography for books in English and French (with a few other items thrown in). I have copies of a few of these publications in my study.

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff: Man’s Awakening and the Practice of Remembering Oneself. Bray, England: The Guild Press, 1977. [This publication is so short – a mere nineteen pages in length – it is presumably the text of a talk by Tracol.]

Rencontre avec deux hommes remarquables. Paris: Stock, 1979. [Meeting with Two Remarkable Men. The men are Gurdjieff and Oscar Ichazo The contributors include Jeanne de Salzmann and Tracol.]

Pourquoi dors-tu seigneur? Paris: Editions Pragma Vers, 1983. [Why do you sleep, Lord?] The title is based on the question posed in Psalm 44: 23: “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?” Enlarged and reissued as La vraie question demeure (Paris: Editions Eoliennes, 1996).

La vraie question demeure. Paris: Editions Eoliennes, 1996. [The real question remains] Enlarged and reissued edition of Pourquoi dors-tu seigneur? (1983).

Lord, Why do you Sleep [Expanded as The Real Question Remains (Wind Publishing, 1996).]

The Taste for Things that Are True: Essays and Talks by a Pupil of G.I. Gurdjieff. Shaftsbury, England: Element Books, 1994.

The Real Question Remains: G.I. Gurdjieff: A Living Call. Paris: Aeolian, 1996. [Preface by Jacques Lacarrière]

Buscador de Nacimiento – La llamada de G.I. Gurdjieff. Caracas, Venezuela: Caracas, 1999. [Wikipedia offers through Google Translate an oddly affecting if slightly ungrammatical translation of Spanish bookseller’s description of this book, presumably based on the original publisher’s catalogue copy. It goes like this: “It is a compilation of articles, interviews, conferences and exchanges in the group comprising more than 50 years time. Displays the hard work of a man to look sharp and bright, which above all is required to unravel and shred the apparent until closer to what lies behind, what is vital, always with humility, without ever conclusively boast about their discoveries. “The teacher (Gurdjieff) inherited a rigor that faculty had nothing, but it opened to a requirement of truth.” Life, by vocation, a real search, the man, a form of birth.]

The Real Question Remains: Gurdjieff: A Living Call. Sandpoint, Indiana: Morning Light Press, 2009. [This edition is discussed below.]

In addition to these books, the texts of a handful of talks delivered by Tracol over the years to select groups have been translated into limpid English and published in Parabola and The Gurdjieff Review. The text of a major address appears in James Moore’s Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching (N.Y.: Continuum, 1996). In one of these contributions Tracol has set forth his belief that “what is unique in any path of spiritual search is its own particular way of approaching and perceiving reality. And this teaching offers us a feeling of just that: something which goes beyond suggested forms of experience and investigation.”

He has further noted of the Work that “it also allows the individual to discover and realize certain hidden possibilities, by means of simultaneous and coordinated engaging of one’s intellectual, emotional, and physical capacities toward a voluntary concentration upon the struggle which takes place within the self between one’s positive and negative tendencies.”

At last I am on firm footing because I am now in a position to describe the latest book, which is certainly his best single work in English. It is called “The Real Question Remains: Gurdjieff: A Living Call.” I find the subtitle and the sub-subtitle to be a little awkward, in English anyway, but that is about all that is awry with this book. The translators have made extra-human efforts to catch the man’s way of speaking and his insights and outlooks.

A trade paperback published by Morning Light Press in 2009, it measures 5.50″ x 7. 75″ and has xiv + 228 pages. Alas, the book is glued rather than sewn – unlike the Dolmen Meadow edition of the correspondence of René Daumal, which I reviewed recently, which is well sewn – but it is easy on the eyes and a pleasure to hold in one’s hands. (Morning Light Press’s website offers further details.)

The text consists of a Preface, an Introduction, a Foreword, and an Editor’s Note – and while this may seem a little excessive, each of these elements is informative – plus the texts of twenty-six short talks (some of which end in question-and-answer sessions). The texts are thematically presented in five sections: Disillusion and Dissatisfaction; Studies and Questions on Culture and Traditional Perspectives; The Discovery of a Teaching; An Afterword; The Real Question Remains. The book concludes with Notes (five pages of sources and notations).

Where did these talks first appear? A note on the copyright page answers that question. The majority of the talks first appeared in “Pourquoi dors-tu Seigneur?” published by Editions Pragma in 1983. The text of that book was translated as “The Taste for Things That Are True” issued by Element in 1994. Also included are portions of “Further Talks, Essays and Interviews” issued by The Guild Press in 2003, as well as selections from the columns of the periodical “Parabola.” Tracol’s texts are being lovingly collected and recycled.

It is good to have so much material between the two covers of a single book that is in print as an affordable paperback. Here there is, as the saying goes, “material for thought.” In a short review it is impossible to do this work justice, and Tracol does not help the reviewer, for he is in no way a flashy writer. In fact, he is not much of a stylist at all, certainly no literary artist like René Daumal. Nor is he much of a philosopher or historian, though he is something of a sociologist.

As an inveterate quoter, I find myself lost in his fields of words. Very seldom does he find or even search for the “bon-mot.” (No bon-bons for him!) Instead, he is a thinker and a feeler. You can almost feel him thinking as he is speaking or writing, and he does have a distinctive voice: curiously hesitant yet surprisingly assertive.

Gurdjieff in “Meetings with Remarkable Men” talks about Brother Sez and Brother Ahl. The sermons of these travelling monks affect their audiences in decidedly different ways. Listeners stand in awe when Brother Sez speaks, but thereafter remember nothing of what he has been saying. But when Brother Ahl speaks, listeners are embarrassed for him and at a loss to figure out what he is trying to say, but later they find that they participated in his process of exposition, were deeply moved, and are able to recall much of what he said that they did not know they knew. Tracol is Brother Ahl – not that he is the model for this travelling monk. (I will show restraint and forbear the identification of any Brother Sezes among us!)

Let me offer a synopsis of the preliminary matter. The Preface is signed by Michel Peterfalvi who expresses “a certain awe in speaking about a man of great spirituality whose influence continues after his death.” He goes on to say there is “the impression of a great inner strength emanating from him in contrast to his frail appearance, and a great simplicity in his relations with other people.”

The Introduction, signed Jenny Koralek, makes the point that Tracol’s “only currency is conscious effort.” No sooner has she said this than she hedges her bet by qualifying it with a passing reference to “the grace of God.” Now grace is considered to be “unmerited love,” so it may or may not be directly related to “conscious effort.”

The Foreword is contributed by the author himself who admits to the influence of Elie Faure, the distinguished art historian and philosopher who is as well the author’s uncle. Tracol distances himself from authorship. Indeed, the texts in this book consist of addresses, articles, essays, interviews, talks, questions and answers, and “writing.” It is a mixed bag, what the Ojibwa of Ontario call “a nunny bag” (with full knowledge that a sacred “nunny bag” is a “medicine bundle” with undisclosed contents and unfathomable powers).

The unsigned Editor’s Note discusses the notion of “the master,” a term that is familiar in the East, relatively unfamiliar in the West, which Tracol uses to refer to Mr. Gurdjieff. A “master” is not so merely the teacher but also the embodiment of the teaching. (I could not help thinking that the words “life coach” express the outward but not the inward part of what is meant, and that the vogue in the 1990s for “practical philosophers” suggests the need for the inward part.)

So much for the preliminary matter. I said earlier that Tracol is not given to telling instances, but he does retell a story that I find characteristic of all of his work. The story is used to illuminate the notion of the search: “This cannot but remind me of my last meeting with an aging friend who was about to undertake what he sensed would be his last journey to sacred places and wise men of the East. Bidding him good-bye, I said, ‘I hope you will find what you are seeking.’ He replied with a peaceful smile, ‘Since I am really searching for nothing, maybe I shall find it.’”

Like his aging friend, Tracol is searching for nothing. Instead, he is living his life now, entering into the experience of how all of us really live through the harmonious balance of our centres or faculties. “It is not something to be spoken about, it is something to experience.” He adds, “I am reminded of what I have been granted to experience – for a purpose.”

In another essay he states, “We are much more concerned by the relationship between mind and body, feeling and body, and by the presence of that which bears witness to their unity.” On these foundation stones he offers his views of the world at large in two remarkable addresses, “Individual Culture: Its Possibilities and Its Demands,” delivered in Mexico City in 1961, and “In Search of a Living Culture: Present Perspectives of Culture and the Problem of Universality,” delivered in Axe-en-Province in the same year. They are remarkable as critiques of Western values.

In “Individual Culture,” the Mexico City address, he discusses the “natural authority” of one’s family and society, but also “how indispensable it is to awaken in everyone, from childhood on, that movement of withdrawal, of standing back to question and ponder what is proposed, in order to counterbalance adequately the tendency to passive acceptance and blind conformity.” He sees culture as a controlling mechanism that turns us into creatures who are incapable of the act of “self-interrogation.”

The influence of Western culture on the world’s traditional peoples has been disastrous: “For the sake of transistors and pocket calculators they exchange what was most precious to them – a way of living duly adapted to the specific conditions of their natural environment, in harmony with their own culture and their sense of taking part in the life of the universe.” Here he speaks like a Traditionalist, before the publication of Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations,” is such that these days the more traditional the society, the more it is mired in poverty, disease, and strife.

In his sociological and Traditionalist analysis, Tracol focuses on the pre-emptive effects of cultural conformity, but in this essay he fails to fix his attention on the possibly redemptive power of civilized values. Everyone participates in one culture or another, but not everyone embraces civilized values. Rather than the Highest Common Numerator, people are encouraged to settle for the Lowest Common Denominator. To do otherwise takes effort. Instead, in the passage here, he is anxious to note their equivalence or mutual dependency:

“Here lies the reconciliation between authority and search: they need each other. They attract one another mutually in this movement of unending renewal through which the life of culture perpetuates itself.” Elsewhere, as if to drive this point home, he discusses sleep and waking consciousness. “Such is the law of this equivocal situation: without sleep, no awakening; without oblivion, no remembering.” I will add that it seems the human condition mirrors the cosmic condition: As above, so below. No sun without shade. Dualism under the Sun.

In an interpolation, Christian theologians discuss the Fall of Adam in terms of “the fortunate fall” (for without it there would be no need for the Incarnation) and “Good Friday”in terms of what is necessary (what is “good” about it is that Friday’s Crucifixion sets the stage for Sunday’s Resurrection). In one of his novels Samuel Beckett suggests that what we need to do is “fail better.”

Elsewhere Tracol explains that “the born seeker” cannot “escape from the labyrinth” of this world. Salvation (if the Christian term is not amiss in this context) comes from the individual’s realization that the most the seeker can do is to be “moving further toward the center of his own mystery.” This action alone confers meaning upon the individual’s search.

In concluding this address, Tracol describes the individual’s aim as “to work always according to his being, in order to affirm himself at each movement, in constant submission to the demands of the life of the universe.” He calls this “the authentic art of living.”

In the address “In Search of a Living Culture,” delivered in Aix-en-Province, he returns to the negative aspects of culture, including its “periodic decay” and its “sclerosis.” Here he raises the deferred notion of “civilization,” mentioned earlier, but he does not distinguish its individualized values from culture’s generalized values. Instead, he examines the nature of knowledge and how it swamps us, despite the fact that there are parallels between the physicist’s discoveries about the characteristics of subatomic particles and what Buddha said about the states of the human individual after death, an insight that he derived from the writings of the atomic physicist Robert Oppenheimer.

If Tracol has found an ideal man, it is the person of A.K. Coomaraswamy, “the great Orientalist,” son of an English mother and an Indian father, who was an outstanding curator and is regarded as one of the pillars of Traditionalism. He quotes with approval a remark made in 1932 by Coomaraswamy: “In all its diversity, Asia remains nevertheless a living spiritual unity which embraces, at the very least, half the cultural heritage of humanity … without some knowledge of Asia no civilization can reach maturity, no individual can consider himself as ‘civilized’ not even be clearly aware of what properly belongs to him.”

Tracol calls this “absolutely true” because it calls into question the “advanced” views that are held in the West: ignorance of the cyclic rather than the linear character of time; the illusion of an indefinite progress; the conviction of belonging to the most “advanced” period in history; holding on to a “superiority complex”; and equating people outside this matrix “uncivilized.”

He supports these points with references to Sir J.G. Frazer, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and Ruth Benedict. He paraphrases the remark of his Orientalist friend Paul Mus and writes, “We can say that the balance between culture and civilization is broken and that the most salient characteristic of our time, this subordination of pure science to a program of absolutely dizzying technical ‘achievements,’” is alienating ourselves from ourselves. In effect, data is dumbing us down.

Tracol concludes, “The man who is in love with real culture aspires to a transformation of _himself_ through knowledge. All knowledge seems pointless to him if it is not first and foremost _self-knowledge_. For it is only inasmuch as he knows himself that he knows how to choose his nourishment according to his real needs.”

I have now reached page fifty-one of “The Real Question Remains.” That is about one-quarter of the way through. I am afraid I would tire the reader of this review if I carried on in this fashion. So far Tracol has hardly mentioned Gurdjieff, but the name of the “master” appears frequently in the last three-quarters of the book. If there is interest I am prepared to summarize the rest of the author’s argument, to the degree that it may be summarized without being reduced to platitudes, as Tracol’s writing forms a whole and is addressed to people immersed in the Work. To read a little is to gain a lot. I urge the reader to share this experience with him by reading this book, and not with the present reviewer who is reviewing that book. Tracol needs only a translator – not an interpreter.

One final point: Tracol is not a seeker so much as he is a finder, a man who sought nothing outside himself that he could not first discover within himself. In this way he resembles his “aging friend” who yearns to go on more pilgrimages. Yet Tracol was assisted on his non-way by finding and receiving a “master.” I will conclude this account by quoting one sentence from the last essay, the one titled “Some Reflections on What Is Specific to Gurdjieff’s Teaching.”

Here Tracol is discussing the “adventure” of the Work: “It keeps alive in us the evidence of a _secret continuity_: consciousness never ceases to offer itself to us.”

John Robert Colombo is known as “the Canadian Bartlett” for his dictionaries of quotations. Two of his recent publications are “Richard Maurice Bucke: The New Consciousness” and “Walt Whitman’s Canada.” He is co-editor of a publication to appear this fall: Volume 14 in the series of annual Canadian science-fiction anthologies called “Tesseracts.” If you want to receive notice of forthcoming reviews on this blog, email the reviewer < jrc @ ca . inter. net >.


JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO reopens his old copy

of Aldous Huxley’s important study

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for a book that I bought by mail from Samuel Weiser Inc., the well-known, used-book dealer, then located in New York City. I made the purchase on 18 July 1957. I know the date of the original purchase because in a firm hand I had inscribed the date on the back end-page of the coveted volume. I read the book shortly after buying it, as its fame had preceded my purchase of this title, and since then its spine has graced many a bookshelf in the houses in which I have since lived and worked.

The edition that I have of “The Perennial Philosophy” is cloth-bound (printers used real cloth in those days) and its distinctive colour (russet) has yet to fade. The edition measures 5.25″ by 8.25″ and there are eight preliminary pages followed by the text of 360 pages. In design the pages are unpretentious and hence attractive to behold, and because they are set in largish type they are quite easy to read. The pages are sewn rather than glued and the paper is cream-coloured and hence it shows no evidence of its age; there is not a mottle in sight. The edition in question is the first edition, or close to it, published by Huxley’s regular London-based publishing house, Chatto & Windus, in 1946. I wish I had the dust jacket but it was not supplied by Samuel Weiser.

The pages may not show their years, but in a great many ways the text of the book is quite dated, almost alarmingly so. Now, Aldous Huxley is an interesting writer who is best (and worst) described as an intellectual, a highbrow, or, to use the terminology that he employs, a “cerebrotonic.” As he explains in these pages, “Cerebrotonics hate to slam doors or raise their voices, and suffer acutely from the unrestrained bellowing and trampling of the somatotonic …. The emotional gush of the viscerotonic strikes them as offensively shallow and even insincere.”

With this vocabulary he is employing the psychology of human types elaborated by the American psychologist William Sheldon, a scheme long out of fashion yet dear to the hearts of students of consciousness studies everywhere. Nothing dates quite as quickly as psychological terminology. Psychical and spiritual terminology like “intellectual centre,” “emotional centre, “moving centre,” etc., seems to age hardly at all!

Huxley died at the age of sixty-nine in 1963, the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. There is about the life and death of the English author and intellectual the sense of the dashing of high hopes, analogous to the early death of the American president. Huxley advanced from being a nihilist in his youth to a psychedelicist in his age. Where would the next twenty or thirty years have taken him? Perhaps to the altar of the nearest Episcopal church. The question is unanswerable.

The jury is still out about which genre is the best for Huxley: Was he finer as a literary artist (remember Point Counterpoint and Brave New World, the novels that ensured his reputation) or was he finer as a literary essayist (required reading in the 1950s was The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, short memoirs that did so much to mark the coming of age of the psychedelic revolution of the late Fifties and early Sixties)? It matters little, but accompanying his migration from England to California was his move the ironic to the mythic levels of discourse, almost as a matter of course.

Everyone interested in consciousness studies has heard of his study called The Perennial Philosophy. It bears such a prescient and memorable title. His use of the title has preempted its use by any other author, neuropsychologist, Traditionalist, or enthusiast for the New Age. The book so nobly named did much to romanticize the notion of “perennialism” and to cast into the shade such long-established timid Christian notions of “ecumenicism” (Protestants dialoguing with Catholics, etc.) or “inter-faith” meetings (Christians encountering non-Christians, etc.). Who would cared about the beliefs of Baptists when one could care about the practices of Tibetans?

Huxley did his best to popularize serious speculation about the nature of man and the constitution of the universe, largely prompted by such speculations found in Vedanta. He was marked by his mid-life study of texts basic to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christian mysticism. He knew about shamanism and perhaps about sorcery, alchemy, witchcraft, or wicca, but these aspects of his inquiries went unnoticed in his text. The New Age had yet to dawn.

What precisely is what he calls “the perennial philosophy”? Huxley answers this broad question in an even broader way on the first page of the Introduction to his book. His answer is surprisingly wordy, though his exposition is characteristically well organized. Here goes:

“Philosophia Perennis – the phrase was coined by Leibniz; but the thing – the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being – the thing is immemorial and universal.

“Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions. A version of this Highest Common Factor in all preceding and subsequent theologies was first committed to writing more than twenty-five centuries ago, and since that time the inexhaustible theme has been treated again and again, from the standpoint of every religious tradition and in all the principal languages of Asia and Europe.”

I like the idea of “this Highest Common Factor” because it begs a corresponding discussion on “a Lowest Common Multiple.” Huxley avoids this but then states, neatly, “Knowledge is a function of being.” I could quote more (and will, later), but the sentences that bring his Introduction to a conclusion are worth quoting here and now: “If one is not oneself a sage or saint, the best thing one can do, in the field of metaphysics, is to study the works of those who were, and who, because they had modified their merely human mode of being, were capable of a more than merely human kind and amount of knowledge.”

I first read these words some forty years ago when I was wowed and won by them. Rereading them now I have second thoughts. The book’s chapters are organized by theme, advancing from Chapter 1, “That Art Thou,” to Chapter 27, “Contemplation, Action and Social Utility.” I was not really surprised to find that the book’s contents are quite dated, but I was really surprised to find its arguments and rhetoric quite limited in appeal. The book is hortatory in style and substance, less of a psychological probing and more a hectoring that I had remembered it to be.

The book’s six-page, double-column index is extensive but unscholarly, and there was no need for him to index the word “consciousness” or its cognate terms “unconscious” and “subconscious” because these subjects are given no special treatment. There is no reference to Sigmund Freud; the single reference to Carl Jung draws attention to the psychologist’s use (his coinage, really) of the terms “introvert” and “extravert.” The contribution of Mircea Eliade, the multilingual scholar of shamanism, goes unmentioned. G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky (whose lectures Huxley attended at Colet Gardens in London) go unremarked.

As well, there is no reference to R.M. Bucke’s monumental, turn-of-the-century tome titled “Cosmic Consciousness,” and details about consciousness-raising or altering drugs and psychedelia in general are all in Huxley’s future. Yet the psychologist William James had much to say about chemically inducted altered states, and also about the field of psychical research in general, to which James donated twenty years of his professional life, speculating on the characteristics of the various levels of consciousness. All these go unappreciated except for one passing reference to James, as if to acknowledge his absence.

“The Perennial Philosophy” is essentially an anthology of short passages taken from traditional Eastern texts and the writings of Western mystics, organized by subject and topic, with short connecting commentaries. No specific sources are given. Paging through the index gives the reader (or non-reader) an idea of who and what Huxley has taken seriously. Here are the entries in the index that warrant two lines of page references or more:

Aquinas, Augustine, St. Bernard, Bhagavad-Gita, Buddha, Jean Pierre Camus, St. Catherine, Christ, Chuang Tzu, “Cloud of Unknowing,” Contemplation, Deliverance, Desire, Eckhart (five lines, the most quoted person), Eternity, Fénelon, François de Sales, Godhead, Humility, Idolatry, St. John of the Cross, Knowledge, Lankavatara Sutra, William Law (another four lines), Logos, Love, Mahayana, Mind, Mortification, Nirvana, Perennial Philosophy (six lines, a total of 40 entries in all), Prayer, Rumi, Ruysbroeck, Self, Shankara, Soul, Spirit, “Theologia Germanica,” Truth, Upanishads (six different ones are quoted), Will, Words.

Painfully absent from these pages are Huxley’s mordant wit and insights into human nature. It is as if his quicksilverish intelligence has been put on hold or has found itself in a deep freeze of his own making. When it comes to selecting short and sometimes long quotations, he is no compiler like John Bartlett of quotation fame, but he does find time to make a few deft personal observations.

Here is a suggestion from Chapter 3, “Personality, Sanctity, Divine Incarnation”: “But surely people would think twice about making or accepting this affirmation if, instead of ‘personality,’ the word employed had been its Teutonic synonym, ‘selfness.’ For ‘selfness,’ though it means precisely the same, carries none of the high-class overtones that go with ‘personality.’ On the contrary, its primary meaning comes to us embedded, as it were, in discords, like the note of a cracked bell.”

Chapter 7, “Truth,” offers the following gem: “Beauty in art or nature is a matter of relationships between things not in themselves intrinsically beautiful. There is nothing beautiful, for example, about the vocables ‘time,’ or ‘syllable.’ But when they are used in such a phrase as ‘to the last syllable of recorded time,’ the relationship between the sound of the component words, between our ideas of the things for which they stand, and between the overtones of association with which each word and the phrase as a whole are charged, is apprehended, by a direct and immediate intuition, as being beautiful.”

Chapter 12, “Time and Eternity,”gives the following caveat about the relative absence of Eastern literature in Western translation: “This display of what, in the twentieth century, is an entirely voluntary and deliberate ignorance is not only absurd and discreditable; it is also socially dangerous. Like any other form of imperialism, theological imperialism is a menace to permanent world peace. The reign of violence will never come to an end until, first, most human beings accept the same, true philosophy of life; until, second, this Perennial Philosophy is recognized as the highest factor common to all the world religions; until, third, the adherents of every religion renounce the idolatrous time-philosophies, with which, in their own particular faith, the Perennial Philosophy of eternity has been overlaid; until, fourth, there is a world-wide rejection of all the political pseudo-religions, which place man’s supreme good in future time and therefore justify and commend the commission of every sort of present iniquity as a means to that end. If these conditions are not fulfilled, no amount of political planning, no economic blue-prints however ingeniously drawn, can prevent the recrudescence of war and revolution.”

That passage was written during the Battle of Britain, so it is perhaps understandable that the essayist has become the preacher, the novelist the moralist. The text of his sermonizing seems to be that knowing about the perennial philosophy will, ipso facto, without further ado, without any other effort on anyone’s behalf, transform man’s bellicose nature into something finer and better!

As a reader of “The Perennial Philosophy,” and now its re-reader, I must admit to experiencing a sense of exhilaration the first time round – and to experiencing a sense of anticlimax and even dismay the second time round. Today the book seems too arch and so idiosyncratic! As well, I could not help but note the author’s lack of generosity and his unwillingness to express any sense of indebtedness to his predecessors. He fails to note two earlier, landmark publications in his chosen field: William James’s “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902) and Evelyn Underhill’s “Mysticism” (1911).

Yet these influential works were written decades before the appearance of Huxley’s book; indeed, they have aged far less obviously that has Huxley’s. As well, Underhill refers to James in her book, if only to argue with his thesis, but Huxley’s ignores both of them and their arguments to develop his own semi-thesis. In point of fact, the bibliography has an entry for “Mysticism” (with a reprint year of 1924, instead of 1911, the original year of publication).

In passing, it is interesting to note that the same bibliography draws attention to the publication of three books that were written by René Guénon, though no editorial use is made of even one of these – or of the writings of the leading Traditionalists: A.K. Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt. To this cabal should be added Whitall Perry, whose tome A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom (1971, 1986, 2000) is rightfully regarded as the principal anthology in this field.

To the extent that he was a follower of any mainstream religion, Huxley was a student of the Hindu system of thought known as Vedanta, which was making its American beachhead in Los Angeles, California, close to Huxley’s residence in Malibu. The text offers four references to Vedanta, the last one being the following observation: “The shortest _mantram_ is OM – a spoken symbol that concentrates within itself the whole Vedanta philosophy. To this and other _mantrams_ Hindus attribute a kind of magical power. The repetition of them is a sacramental act, conferring grace _ex opere operato_.”

In summary, Huxley’s book made an immediate impact upon publication and reverberates to this day, but upon examination the concept of the book is more convincing than is the accomplishment; at the same time, the parts are more intriguing than the whole. If it is a landmark study of anything at all, it takes its place in the eclectic division of the syncretistic field variously known as “religious knowledge,” “religious studies,” “comparative religion,” “Near Eastern studies,” “history of religion” – euphemisms abound! – in drawing the attention of English-speaking readers to the rich mother-lode of philosophical, psychological, and metaphysical thought that is to be found in translations of traditional Eastern texts and in the writings of Christian mystics of the past.

One of the meanings of the word “perennial” is “enduring,” and enduring is what this book is. “The Perennial Philosophy” endures in memory. A week or so ago, I took it down from the place it had graced on my bookshelf and dusted it off; later today I will return it to its rightful place. After all, it occupies a special space in my memory … as well as in the memories of its great many readers over the last six decades.


John Robert Colombo is nationally known for his compilations of Canadiana. These include such studies as “Mysterious Canada” and “UFOs over Canada.” He received the Harbourfront Literary Award and holds honourary D.Litt. from York University, Toronto. He is an Associate of the Northrop Frye Centre, Victoria College, University of Toronto. Check his website < www .colombo – plus . ca > .

If you wish to receive notification of new reviews and commentaries on this web-blog, email the writer:< jrc @ ca . inter. net > .



June 16, 2010 at 3:40 pm


The French writer’s work is considered by John Robert Colombo

René Daumal on May 19, 1944, three days
before his death, photographed
by his friend Luc Dietrich.

I have long thought of the Work as a lodestone, a meteorite perhaps, one that may have arrived from interstellar space, perhaps from beyond the Milky Way Galaxy. As a lodestone it is charged with magnetic properties so that like a giant magnet it attracts iron filings – ferrous metals, base metals like iron as well as rare metals like platinum. Its magnetic and electrical charges are very powerful and create a current which attracts filings. Now, for a few minutes, think of these “filings” as people, specifically creative people, notably literary people.

Writers have long been attracted by the magnetic or electrical properties of the Work. T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and Gerald Heard were among the dozens of literary people who attended P.D. Ouspensky’s inaugural lectures on the Special Doctrine in London or at Lyne Place. Indeed, J.B. Priestley, his request thwarted for a private interview with Ouspensky, depicted him (sympathetically ) in one of his popular novels and in one of his trio of “time plays.” He went on to praise “In Praise of the Miraculous” in one volume of his memoirs.

Between the wars, practically “anybody who was somebody” was drawn to the Priory to meet and assess G.I. Gurdjieff. He had a life-long influence on the youthful Lincoln Kirsten, the ailing Katharine Mansfield, the impressionable Denis Saurat, and the irrepressible Frank Lloyd Wright. In London and New York, A.R. Orage had no problem introducing the principles and practices of the Fourth Way to his literary friends, among them Elinor Wylie, Hart Crane, Margaret Anderson, Herbert Read, Zona Gale, etc.

It could be said that “Work ideas” appear in the writings of T.S. Eliot, but one has to strain to find any such influences in the verse of Wylie or Crane, or in the prose of Mansfield for that matter. Yet the Work has attracted a number of fine poets. Without attempting to be encyclopedic about it, here are the names of some practitioners who have fallen under the influence.

Indeed, the Work permeates the presentations and performances of the contemporary Paris-based poet and activist Bonnasse. (Curious readers should check his website for particulars.) Farming and “Gurdjieffing” (to coin a term) underscore the free verse of the Armenian-American poet David Kherdian. (Come to think of it, why is there no appreciation of his body of work written from the vantage-point of the Work?) Some of Sophia Wellbeloved’s poetry seems influenced by her early experience of the work. (She has her own web-log.) I am tempted to include Kathleen Raine among these names, but the major influence on the late poet was that of the Traditionalists rather than that of the Fourth Way. And then there is René Daumal.

Ah, Daumal! In France both the man and his body of work are identified with Surrealism and with Gurdjieffianism, but his name and his work are not widely known to English-language readers of prose or poetry. It is interesting to probe and ponder why this is so. Why is his name less familiar in the anglosphere than it is in la francophonie?

Daumal’s most ambitious achievement is a work of prose fiction (to be identified below) yet he is regarded first and foremost as a poet, one who writes highly personal essays. He is a poet with a pronounced mystical or metaphysical tendency, and this was so well before he was attracted to the Work like an iron filing. He was introduced to it by Alexandre and Jeanne de Salzmann who largely sustained Daumal and his partner Vera Milanova during the days of the Nazi occupation of France. Yet Daumal will be remembered as a writer long after his connection with literary Surrealism is set to one side.

Daumal’s work resists classification, as does the man himself, who stands apart from the restrictive but conventional categories of “writer,” “artist,” or “man of letters.” (Indeed, he once explained, “The task is to continue writing … without becoming a writer.”) Yet in his youth he considered himself a “para-surrealist,” as he had been influenced by the mainstream Surrealist movement which English-speakers are inclined to see as a visual movement, whereas French-speakers know it to be both a visual and a verbal movement and even at core as a social and aesthetic revolution.

Being memorable was Daumal’s aim and second nature, if not his first. A good instance of this occurs in his classic work of prose fiction. Here is its full title and subtitle: “Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidian Adventures in Mountain Climbing.” If I were lecturing at some length, rather than writing within the compass of a review article, I would compare and contrast Daumal’s sense of “mountain climbing” with that of Marco Pallis in Peaks and Lamas. (Hint: Daumal climbed symbolic mountains for symbolic purposes; Pallis scaled actual mountains for athletic and religious experiences.) Instead, I will focus on Daumal’s surprising ability to crystalize in a single image an intriguing impression, feeling, sensation, or idea. All of these are characteristic of the invention of the “peradam.”

I wrote “his invention” of the peradam, but I could have equally well have written “his discovery” of the peradam, for it may very well exist in its own right. I am assuming that the word “peradam” is of his own creation, his neologism – Kurt Vonnegut-style – but I trust that it has wide implications in mystical literature generally. The word was introduced in “Mount Analogue” (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1986), translated by the well-known scholar Roger Shattuck, to refer to some sort of spiritual substance, mystical material, or imaginary element that is “a clear and extremely hard stone … a true crystal … harder than diamond.”

Yet the most notable characteristic of the peradam is that it is extremely difficult (almost impossible) to see. Someone must know that it exists, where it exists, and how to find it, otherwise it will not appear as it sometimes does – as a “brilliant sparkle like that of a dewdrop.” In some way it resembles “faith” or “belief” or “the substance of things seen.” Perhaps it is like the coating of the astral body.

Furthermore, Daumal writes in the novel, “One finds here, very rarely in the low lying areas, more frequently as one goes farther up, a clear and extremely hard stone that is spherical and varies in size – a kind of crystal, but a curved crystal, something extraordinary and unknown on the rest of the planet. Among the French of Port-des-Singes, it is called peradam.”

Turn the pages of the novel for the location of “Port-des-Signes”; ignore the columns of the gazetteer for a real-world place. We are inhabiting now an imaginal world. I sometimes think we are surrounded by “peradams,” but it is only a person like Daumal, with his quasi-clairvoyant power, who “sees” such things or such essences as peradams that are able to change and enrich human lives to the degree that they are perceived.

Through the creation of the peradam, Daumal has grasped the parallel notion of the “terma,” the Tibetan term which Marco Pallis draws to the attention of Westerners in his memoir Peaks and Lamas. Daumal made the notion (or some similar notion) his very own. The peradam appears solely in Daumal’s writing. (As for the terma, here is an experiment: Ask any Tibetan you meet, whether a shopkeeper or a scholar, about that word, and he or she will look puzzled … and then beam!) I think the description of the peradam, whether an invention or a discovery, gives the reader a good indication of Daumal’s creativity and imaginative sensitivity to dimensions that are often described as mystical or metaphysical.

Here are a few details about his books that have been published in English translation. I have a number of them on my bookshelf, but this list comes from the entry on Daumal in Wikipedia. (Like Jorge Luis Borges, he would have marvelled at the scope of Wikipedia, had he lived to behold this use of the technological noosphere or 20th-century akashic record!) Here are the book titles in order of their appearance in English.

* A Fundamental Experiment. New York / Madras: Hanuman Books, 1987.

*The Lie of the Truth and Other Parables from the Way of Liberation. New York / Madras: Hanuman Books, 1989.

*The Powers of the Word (1927-1943) (Les pouvoirs de la parole). San Francisco: City Lights, 1991.

*You’ve Always Been Wrong (Tu t’es toujours trompé). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

*Mugle and The Silk (Mugle; La soie). New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.

*A Night of Serious Drinking (La grande beuverie). Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 2003.

*Mount Analogue (Le mont analogue). Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 2004.

*Le Contre-Ciel (Le contre-ciel).(Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 2005.

*Rasa or Knowledge of the Self: Essays on Indian Aesthetics and Selected Sanskrit Studies. New York: New Directions, 1982. Edited by Claudio Rugafiori, translated by Louise Landes Levi. Reprint editions of 333 copies apiece (Kathmandu, Nepal: Shivastan, 2002 & 2006).

So some of his books are available in English (on the lists of non-mainstream publishing houses), though he is the kind of author whose work may be organized and presented in many different ways to produce many different effects. His compositions resemble the shards of coloured glass in the turning kaleidoscope with three parallel mirrors which produces a seemingly endless series of patterns, each memorable and marvellous in its own irreplaceable way. In addition to his own books, a biographical study of the man and his oeuvre is available that is recommended: Kathleen Ferrick Rosenblatt, “René Daumal: The Life and Work of a Mystic Guide” (New York: SUNY Press, 1999).

There is a stage presentation of one of Daumal’s poetic essays, complete with recitation, music, and dance, that has inspired and impressed select audiences over the last few years. It is called “Holy War” or “The Holy War” (“La Guerre sainte”) translated by D.M. Dooling from the collection “Poésie Noire, Poésie Blanche” (Paris: Gallimard, 1954). The text is a meditation on the effect of violence on man and society, and while the Arab word “jihad” goes unvoiced, it is about the two struggles – the outer (and fruitless) clash and the inner (and fruitful) struggle. It begins, “I am going to write a poem about war. Perhaps it will not be a real poem, but it will be about a real war.” That is typical of Daumal.

Daumal’s staged work to one side, French critics and commentators have written about him, but English writers and reviewers have largely ignored his oeuvre and its contribution to the world of letters. I have yet to meet an a English-speaking professors of literature – and I know many of them – who knows anything more than the man’s name, if that.

There are three reasons why his work seems marginal to the mainstream in the English-speaking world. First, there is the fact that Surrealism is seen as largely pictorial, as mentioned earlier, so Daumal’s prose and poetry are held to be anomalous, even problematic. Second, Daumal writes almost exclusively as a mystic or at least as a metaphysician, and few modern literary artists work this vein in English. (The late Kathleen Raine is the notable exception among modern poets.) Third, Daumal has been adopted even appropriated as the “house poet” of the Work. If the last reason seems tangential, remember that the respect paid to Orage as literary editor and writer barely survived his decades-long association with Gurdjieff.

There are surprisingly few references to René Daumal on the Web (merely 12,200 largely repetitious or fragmentary references when I last checked), and the main Wikipedia entry itself is woefully weak. (Some sympathetic scholar should expand it, if only to honour the memory of the man.) Daumal’s dates are 1908 and 1944 so he was only in his mid-thirties when he died. In addition to his birth and death dates, there is a third “vital” date in his life, and that is the year 1930. The autumn of that year he was drawn by Alexandre de Salzmann into Madame de Salzmann’s circle of French students in Paris and then in Sèvres. Six years later she arranged for the poet to be introduced to Gurdjieff.

James Moore made an interesting point when he stated that Daumal became “G.’s first French pupil.” Up to that time pretty well all of Gurdjieff’s followers were Rusian, American or English. (The French were slow to step up to the bat, but they began hitting home runs following Gurdjieff’s death.) During the difficult years of the Second World War, and in particular during those of the Occupation, Daumal and his wife were sheltered and supported by the de Salzmanns. Vera was Jewish, and while she survived the War, her husband, never a robust person, did not. Daumal was known to rely on drugs which weakened his already precarious health. During the last months of his life he struggled to complete the manuscript of “Mount Analogue.” His death from tuberculosis at such an early age marked a genuine loss to French literature as well as to the literature of “the way.”

All of the above was brought to mind – let me credit the lodestone of the Work – by the appearance of a new book by Daumal, a collection of his correspondence, the first-ever compilation of his letters to be published in English. “Letters on the Search for Awakening: 1940-1944” has been professionally translated by Gabriela Ansari and Roger Lipsey. The first translator is responsible for the English version of “The Real Remains Invisible: Conversations with Olivier Laignel de Salzmann,” a text I have yet to see. The second translator is a well-respected art historian, authority on the contributions of A.K. Coomaraswamy, associate of the periodical “Parabola,” and trustee of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City. He has served memorably as the narrator of the “Holy War” staged productions that were mentioned earlier.

The new book, a handsome one, has been published by Dolmen Meadow Editions of Toronto. (The publisher has a website which lists this title and others in the same vein.) The trade paperback measures 5.5″ by 8.25″. It is 328 pages long. There is no index. I have two minor complaints. The first reservation is that the cover of the book, which features an apparently uncredited pencil or pen sketch of a mountain, gives the impression that the contents consist of “chinoiserie.”

The second and more serious reservation is the size of the type area versus the size of the page area. The outer margins are 1.25″ wide, whereas the inner margins are 0.5″ inches wide. The double-page spread may be held open easily by two thumbs, but two eyes have to strain to read the text at the inner margins.

Putting such material matters to one side, I wish I had the time to review this book in detail, as it deserves a detailed analysis. There is much in it, a plentitude of termas and peradams. It consists of the edited texts of some of the letters that Daumal wrote between 1930 and 1944, the last third of his life,. The texts were taken in the main and translated from the second and third volumes of the three-volume set of the “Correspondance” published by Gallimard in Paris in the 1990s.

Reading these letters, one is left with the thirst for more letters. Roger Lipsey’s Introduction is a model of its kind. He notes: “Once encountered and well encountered, Daumal becomes a permanent companion.” This collection of correspondence proves his assessment to be true.

The poet could be exact in his word-plays and inexact in his spellings (having trouble at first spelling Madame’s name as “Saltzmann,” for instance). My sole criticism of the Lipsey’s Introduction is the misuse of the word “unique” – twice in one sentence! (Alexandre de Salzmann is described as ” … virtually unique, just as René’s intent embrace of what he taught was, in its time, virtually unique.” Something is unique or it is not unique, never partially or “virtually.”

Daumal accepted the need to communicate his sense of awakening from the fitful sleep of the world. “One hasn’t understood,” the poet wrote two years before his death, “unless one has transmitted one’s understanding – however small – if one hasn’t realized it in an action, in an undertaking of some kind. And each new understanding awakens new questions.” He is most modern in that he is most comfortable asking rather than answering questions. He finds he must bear witness to “the co-existence of states.”

There follows a chronological selection of seventy-six letters grouped by the years from 1930 to 1944. In point of fact, the Table of Contents identifies that many letters, but successive letters to recipients are often grouped together under one heading, so the total number of epistles probably exceeds one hundred. The letters are beautifully translated and they convey the fact that “we have certainly had in our lives flashes of higher consciousness.” The editorial footnotes, which identify correspondents and references, are unobtrusive.

Scholars with an interest in literary matters will pause over the letters addressed to editors Jean Paulhan and Max-Pol Fouchet; readers with an concern for his marriage will pause over those addressed to Véra Milanova; and students curious about the Work in those days will pay particular attention to the ones addressed to Jeanne de Salzmann and Luc Dietrich.

Daumal’s writings are both frustrating and fascinating to read because so much of his writing is so immensely suggestive of enriched sensations, feelings, and thoughts, as well as states of awareness. It is life itself, both inner and outer, that grants him both psychological highs and physiological lows. Here is what he wrote to Geneviève Lief, a pharmacist friend, in 1942:

“We would have to approach the other with entirely new eyes, as if each time were the first time. The sky is blue – but that isn’t so because it was blue yesterday, no, at this moment it’s blue for the first time, and as if through a unique miracle. Look: the sky is blue! And it’s not because yesterday I had certain feelings for a person (or that person for me) …. ”

The letter that he wrote to his friend Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes in 1941 includes the following sentence: “There are still many things I would wish to tell you – ” Indeed, I too could go on …. Daumal is like one of those “iron filings” that has been drawn to the lodestone of the Work. He in turn has become a conductor of its magnetic charges and electrical currents which now empower “Letters on the Search for Awakening” which will in turn attract new readers to Daumal and “the search for awakening.”

John Robert Colombo has many interests, among them Canadian lore and literature, consciousness studies, poetry, and the fiction of Sax Rohmer (the creator of the arch-villain Dr. Fu Manchu). Being published this fall are Colombo’s editions of two new Rohmer titles: “The Sumuru Omnibus” and “Tears of Our Lady.” About once a month Colombo contributes a review or a commentary to this web-blog. If you would like to be notified of forthcoming contributions, email him to this effect at jrc @ ca. inter. net


June 9, 2010 at 9:47 pm

SUGAR IS AN ESOTERIC ISSUE (revised 28 may 2010

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Sugar is an Esoteric Issue (revised 28 May 2010)

I am absolutely serious. Sugar is an esoteric issue, together with smoking and narcotics. Of course, it is not nearly so dangerous as narcotics, which can make conscious development practically impossible. But I am not sure how it compares to tobacco. That issue is difficult, because, among matters, people who consume tobacco invariably consume sugar, so the respective roles of these poisons in causing disease is tricky. Also, the sugars which are sometimes added to cigarettes make their smoke more cancerous (they increase by up to 60% the amount of formaldehyde in “mainstream” cigarette smoke, i.e. the smoke produced after puffing on a cigarette). Therefore, the effects of sugar and tobacco may operate jointly.


Where is this all coming from? An article I wrote, dealing with sugar and its equivalents from a legal and ethical point of view, has been published in vol. 17 of the Journal of Law and Medicine (May 2010, pp.784-799).

In that article, I contend that there is a crying need for legislative intervention to actually tax sugar, ban sugar products from schools, require full disclosure of sugar content in any food (even in bread), with health warnings on confectionary, and more of the same fanatical measures. You can read the facts about sugar in the late John Yudkin’s readable classic Pure, White and Deadly. My article summarises some of the latest evidence, the vast bulk of which supports his conclusions about the relation between sugar, diabetes and cancer (not to mention dental caries), and some of which shows that sugar is addictive in much the same way that narcotics are.

That is all very well, you may say: but why put this on an esoteric studies web site?

The Esoteric Significance of Sugar

For those who know Gurdjieff’s ideas, let me say first, that sugar disharmonises the tempo of our common-presence, and second, that it damages essence.

Now, let me rephrase that for the non-initiated. Sugar is wreaking havoc on our civilization. It’s just doing it slowly and enjoyably. Gary Taubes, whose work in this area seems to me to be – without hyperbole – magnificent, writes: “Through their direct effect on insulin and blood sugar, refined carbohydrates, starches, and sugars are the dietary cause of coronary heart disease and diabetes. They are the most likely dietary causes of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and the other chronic diseases of civilization.” (The Diet Delusion, n 27, p 454) The italics on “dietary causes” is Taubes’ own.

Over time and in sufficient doses, sugar can do great damage to a person’s body and emotions. That is, it damages essence, the real you, the heirloom with which you are born. Indirectly, sugar will even damage how one’s mind works, because the workings of the mind, body and emotions cannot ultimately be separated (although the organism is very adaptable, and can often reach extraordinary levels of intellectual and emotional functioning despite even near-fatal physical damage). Indirectly, through diabetes and, it seems, other diseases, sugar can even be fatal. And if it does indeed contribute to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, what have we unloosed upon ourselves?

When I say that “over time and in sufficient doses, it can do great damage to a person’s body and emotions”, we must bear in mind that how much time and what doses are sufficient depends upon the person, their conscious control over their organism, their genes, the balance of their diet, the exercise they take, their sleep, their lifestyle, and other factors.

Now for common-tempo. In a talk he gave in Paris, in August 1922, Gurdjieff said that a person’s reception of impressions depends on “the rhythm of the external stimulators of impressions and on the rhythm of the senses”. Right reception, he said, would be possible “only if these rhythms correspond to one another”. In fact, he went so far as to say: “a man can never be a man if he has no right rhythms in himself.” G.I. Gurdjieff, Views from the Real World, pp.82-83.

Briefly, as I understand it, in Beelzebub, especially in the chapter on “Hypnotism”, Gurdjieff teaches that each centre of the organism, and also essence (as a whole) and personality (as a whole) function at different tempos, and that parts of the human organism can mutually communicate only when their tempos stand in a particular relation. At p.1163, Beelzebub says to Hassein that each of the functions which compose our individuality acquires a “harmonious tempo in the common functioning”. In other words, our individuality (the distinctive nature of our being), is made up of various functionings, each of which is formed as a whole (“crystallized” is Gurdjieff’s word) and works at its own tempo in an integrated organism, in harmony with other functions operating at their proper tempos.

One can think of it as being like a car: all the moving parts have their own tempos. The wheels, fan-belt, ignition, battery, all work at different speeds, or more precisely, within different ranges of speed. In fact, they can only perform their proper function without damaging the machine if they remain within their specific speed ranges. If one could arrange all these parts so that they operated at one identical speed, the car would be useless . I am aware I am now speaking of “speed”. Shortly, a speed is absolute: it is measured from zero, but tempo is a relative speed. Tempo is meaningful only as comparing the speeds, rhythms or rates of a particular activity.

Gurdjieff says that we have two established tempos of blood circulation (provisionally taking the tempos as absolute). Each of these tempos is related to a form of consciousness: essence (sub-consciousness), or personality (consciousness). A change in consciousness can cause a change in the tempo of blood circulation, and a change in that tempo can cause a change in consciousness.

Sugar disrupts that tempo to an extent which was not, I believe, contemplated by nature, and which is not under conscious control. Interestingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that if taken naturally (i.e. directly from sugar cane), it is not nearly so noxious, if at all. This makes sense: one researcher says that refined sugar is a “genetically unknown food”. That is, it is not a use but an abuse of nature. Further, you get a load of sugar a lot faster drinking soft drinks than you ever can by chewing on sugar cane. In the right dose, and for some people the right dose is an extremely small one, sugar causes a nervous energy within the body and disrupt emotional equilibrium.

Because sugar is (apparently) the only food which provides energy and no nutrients, there is nothing good to say about it which cannot be said for anything else which makes food more palatable (e.g. cinnamon and vanilla). On the other hand, those foods have positives which sugar does not. The glucose in sugar is oxidised in the cells, and the bloodstream cops the released energy. This is the basis of the “sugar-fix”. And this disrupts the tempo of the body, and the all-important tempo of the blood circulation. In other words, sugar is a food (although I would say it is better understood as a food derivative that is, in itself, a good-substitute), and a poison, which makes it harder for essence to manifest, and easier for personality to manifest.

If you don’t believe me, try and observe carefully what happens inside you when next you ingest confectionary, cake, sweetened biscuits, soft drink or anything else to which you’ve added sugar. You may be surprised to find that what you thought were part and parcel of your natural fluctuations of mood (and, in Gurdjieff’s terms, your “state”), are in fact abnormal but familiar results of sugar ingestion.

Part of the “esoteric danger” is this: because we do not think of sugar as a slow-working poison (albeit of low toxicity in small and irregular doses), but as a food and only as a food, it hardly enters our heads to think of its effects as being unnatural. We are far more likely to attribute its psychic effects to other causes.

Also, we are so used to sugar that we tend to accept our unnaturally sweetened state (to coin a phrase which is meant only half-humorously) as neutral, or even as positive. We take so much sugar, and we see so many people who take it, that we don’t know how jumped up we are.

There is more. I could do a social analysis and say that we live in a “sugar-coated” society. And I believe we do: but that is another area. I sometimes wonder if sugar is not one of those things like tea, coffee, hops and opium, which, as Gurdjieff said, have a complete enneagram within themselves. For what it’s worth, I think that mint and garlic may be other such plants, but of course benign ones. But for now, I just want to raise this issue.

Gurdjieff, Sugar and the Tempo Paradox

There are two related objections to consider: the first is, but didn’t Gurdjieff use sugar? And, considering the different tempos used in the movements and sacred dances, surely Gurdjieff didn’t try and impose one tempo on us? So if we can changing tempos is not noxious there, why should it be different if we change tempos by taking food?

The answer to the first question is simple: yes, Gurdjieff seems to have loved sugar, and was even known as “Monsieur Bon-Bon” because of his lavish distribution of confectionary. But Gurdjieff didn’t know everything. His being was beyond ours to an extent which makes comparison pointless, but he wasn’t omniscient. He still had to find out where the shops were, and learn the English language. He had to learn: in fact, he spoke to the Adies about one particular thing he had learned (as I shall mention in the forthcoming book on Helen Adie, where I can provide the context to do justice to the issue). As with sugar, I doubt that Gurdjieff would have used tobacco so much, or allowed people to smoke as they did, had he understood the dangers, especially the risks of passive inhalation where people who do not smoke suffer from others’ indulgence.

In respect of the second question, the first point is that it is striking that what I might call the sacred dances do seem to be slower than the other movements. I am thinking of “The Big Prayer”, “The Camel Dervish”, and of those which form the esoteric series within his last series of movements. But you could contradict me on that, and I would be unconcerned. There is something deeper than all this.

And this is it: first, disrupting our standard tempos is analagous to disrupting our standard roles. Gurdjieff said that man “has a role for every kind of circumstance in which he ordinarily finds himself in life; but put him into even only slightly different circumstances and he is unable to find a suitable role and for a short time he becomes himself.” At p.239 of Miraculous, the phrase “for a short time he becomes himself” is italicised. I think something similar happens with tempo. Is it going too far to say that each person ““has a common-tempo for every kind of circumstance in which he ordinarily finds himself in life; but put him into even only slightly different circumstances and he is unable to find a suitable tempo and for a short time he becomes himself”? This would be the purpose of movements. It is done there relatively consciously. But the same thing could not be said for eating confectionaries and cakes.

The second point is that although I have been studying tempo for a while now, I have only very recently started to think that the key to the awakening of essence is the ratio of tempos. Of course, the corresponding ratios should fall into place mor easily while one is quiet. This is why the preparations and exercises Gurdjieff bought are so important. Through these, he taught how to raise certain organic tempos to consciousness. But this was taught so that the state attained could be an influence in daily life, and the results crystallized in us. As Mr Adie used to say, it’s like learning to row a boat. You start off in calm waters, but one day, with sufficient practice, you might be able to manage in rough water.

Now, in so far as the movements have to do with changing the tempo of our organism, the aim is that we remain conscious whatever the tempo and how it changes: or so I tend to think. In terms of what I have said above, it is consciousness and the ratio of tempos which are critical. The quicker my body must work in the movements, the finer the work of the mind and feelings which is demanded. A different kind of consciousness, both active and passive, is called for to take the movements and the monitor what results.

I have made this as clear as I can, but of course I cannot disclose on the net the actual methods used in the preparation and exercises. Without that disclosure there will always be an irreducible margin of vagueness. So, perhaps these comments can help: a certain physical tempo is necessary only as an aid. Essence is not a slow tempo, or any tempo at all. Essence is in feeling (real feeling, and not the emotions). Feeling centre works faster than any of the centres but for sex and the two higher centres.

When essence appears through feeling, it can handle any speeds. Once we have awakened, we can manifest. But for man number 1, 2, and 3, there is a long work required to understand, by inner-sensation, the appropriate range of physical tempos and how to bring them within their proper ranges and mutual ratio.

And I will add one last comment which I shall expand on in future writings: we can, in my opinion, only work on bodies. But if this is right, then we’d better look after them.


I began by speaking about sugar. I said that in addition to the physical illnesses it contributes to, it damages essence and disharmonises the tempos of our common presence. I am recommending that anyone engaged in a spiritual quest has a spiritual reason to give up sugar altogether, and a responsibility not to facilitate its use (indeed, I feel a duty to actively discourage it).

Yet, I know from experience that it is very difficult for us to logically confront such matters. Neither do I think it’s only an issue of how I raise it with people, although that is not always guaranteed to help.

I would ask you read Yudkin and Taubes, and look at the evidence. If you can get the Journal of Law and Medicine, read my article. Then consider whether sugar is not, as I suggest, an “esoteric issue”.

And if you think it is, what prevents you acting on your knowledge?

Is this an area where the ‘I’ that knows is not the ‘I’ which is present when we come to eat?

28 May 2010

p.s. For regular updates on the science of sugar and related problems, check out the website “Raisin Hell”, maintained by David Gillespie. I must disclose that I have struck up a sort of friendship with David (who is also an Australian and a lawyer). But the friendship is a result of our reading the other’s work. We’re friends because we agree on these important issues, rather than agreeing because of friendship. You could also read his book Sweet Poison (Penguin Books). To find the web site, enter his name, or “Raisin Hell” and the words “Does saturated fat really cause heart disease?” into a search engine.

THE FORGOTTEN LANGUAGE OF CHILDREN: An Experiment in Conscious Living

Notice of this newly published book arrived by email this morning, no image of the cover  is available.

The Forgotten Language of Children:

An Experiment in Conscious Living

By Lillian Firestone

With a foreword by Tenzin Robert Thurman

Both a memoir and a call to action, this book is the first comprehensive account of the principles and methods of education as practiced by G. I. Gurdjieff and his pupils, and how they have been successfully applied through what is known as “The Children’s Work”.

Filled with unique unpublished accounts, many written by the children themselves, the book is an essential contribution to the Fourth Way literature. It offers adults a key to the forgotten language of children and provides the reader with a clear and immediate representation of how it can be accessed and effectively applied to real life.

“Irresistibly vivid and truly useful.”

Peter Brook.  Theatre and film director.

“Lillian Firestone brings to life the amazing work started in the sixties… the conscious living of the evolutionary life.”

-Tenzin Robert Thurman. Professor of Buddhist Studies, Columbia University, author of 24 books including Circling the Sacred Mountain, Jewel Tree of Tibet.

“Reading this book involves ache and longing and astonishment-ache for the whole education most of us didn’t receive, longing for this profound and novel form of education to find its way in the world, and astonishment at the insights in these pages. This is a permanent book, a resource for parents and educators.”

Roger Lipsey, author of Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton.

“I know of no book like it. A joyous, sustained revelation of a quality of love and attention that our children desperately need for their inner growth.”

Jacob Needleman, author of The American Soul, and Why Can’t We Be Good?

“This book brings together the ideas and practices for a balanced development between the mind, the feelings and the body. To all those who care for the real education of children, I enthusiastically recommend this well-written and important book.”

-Ravi Ravindra, author of Heart Without Measure, Science and the Sacred, and Krishnamurti: Two Birds on One Branch.

“Child psychiatry aims to hold the mirror for children to perceive themselves.  Gurdjieff’s work with children does exactly that and further adds spiritual dimensions to the growth and development of the child, which is tacitly understood by psychiatry but never explicitly explored or emphasized.”

Child Psychiatrist Risa Levenson Gold, M.D.


June 4, 2010 at 7:46 am

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