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Joseph Azize Reviews: THE REALITY OF BEING

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Jeanne de Salzmann

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Review of The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff,

Jeanne de Salzmann, Shambhala, Boston & London, 2010

(293 pp, plus biographical note, list of de Salzmann founded Gurdjieff Centres, and index) Reviewer’s note, the book has been edited with a foreword by an anonymous team.

I have been pondering for two months: should I write a review of this book or not? The sublimity of some of this writing makes the idea reviewing it seem presumptuous, disrespectful and distasteful. At its best, this volume represents a unique spiritual literature, and bears ample evidence of the note-maker’s achievement, authority and stature. Reading in its pages for even five minutes, new vistas open, lines of study are confirmed and extended, and I receive fresh direction and hope. And yet I have questions, and even some misgivings, especially about the presentation of the material as an account of Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way rather than as de Salzmann’s own Gurdjieff-influenced teaching, the decision to publish exercises, the descriptions of what I might call “higher states” (with the possibility of inviting self-delusion), and whether many people will understand anything much from the book who did not previously know de Salzmann or have not had firsthand experience in her groups.

But I decided to write when the question occurred to me: what would Jeanne De Salzmann wish for? Adulation? I cannot rush into rapture over the volume, if only because it has helped me. To fall now into gushing blandishments of the type Gurdjieff satirised in Meetings With Remarkable Men would be a betrayal. I feel a certain duty to try and impartially review this book exactly because, at first blush, it seems to defy all review.

Other of Gurdjieff’s pupils have written comparable material, the unpublished “black notebook” which Jane Heap kept comes to mind. There is some material from George Adie which is of this genre, but I have never released it, and have no intention of doing so, given my reluctance to publish exercises and descriptions of higher states because these might invite self-delusion. Some of Bill Segal’s material is of this genre, but I don’t think it can be compared with Reality of Being for power, depth or scope. So this is a unique work.

Whether those who did not know de Salzmann or her pupils can benefit from this volume is another question altogether. My guess is that those people may perhaps sense that there is something significant here, but will find it too opaque for them. It badly needs a full introduction and glossary.

Finally, before plunging this review, I must thank Dr Sophia Wellbeloved, who helped me see certain matters I had been colour-blind to. Sophia experienced de Salzmann at first hand, and her impartial but warm personal assessment merged, as it were, with the force of these writings, in which I have been immersed, to produce quite an impact on me.

The major problem, and it is a significant one, is the packaging. The issue would not arise had the book been presented, packaged and titled accurately, for example, as The Reality of Being: The “Vigilant Meditation” of Jeanne de Salzmann. The misstatement that this volume is a representation of the “Fourth Way of Gurdjieff”, which is a way in life, distorts any reading of the contents, because many of the statements here are meaningful or true only within the context of what de Salzmann calls “the work in the quiet” (48) and “vigilance and meditation” (58). This practice was developed by de Salzmann from Eastern models, as Bill Segal states in one memoir. Further, the book as edited moves backwards and forwards between “work in life”, and “work in the quiet” in a manner which is not always clear. It might be a personal development of the Fourth Way, or even a portion of it, but then, why the clunky subtitle The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff?

De Salzmann did not see this book into the press: she wrote notes which, to judge by the sample on p. 293 were like journals written up after a period spent in “vigilant meditation”. The anonymous editors of this volume have, after her death, marshalled some of these notes of her contemplative experience, and added some other “recorded statements”, (whatever form these may have taken, xviii). As the foreword states, she was: “… constantly reflecting on the reality of being and writing down her thoughts in her notebook,” (xvi). She also wrote ideas for meetings with her students. These two sets of notebooks were kept “like diaries”, (xvi), and were understood by the editors to be the “book” she referred to when she said that she was writing “a book on how to be in life, on the path to take in order to live on two levels. It will show how to find a balance …”, (xvi). At her death, the careful state of these notebooks were taken by “those closest to her” to be “a clear sign” that she had intended the material in them to “help complete Gurdjieff’s writing on a true vision of reality …”, (xvi). The editors can only mean that this book is her effort to “complete” the Third Series.

The impression of continuity with Gurdjieff, and that this is the “Third and a half series”, is strengthened by the editors’ disclosure ay p. xvi that: “She often echoed, and sometimes repeated, his (i.e. Gurdjieff’s) exact words”, e.g. the exercise on pp.196-7 of this book is also given in the Third Series. But then the editors announce two pages later that: “No attempt has been made to identify isolated excerpts taken by her from Gurdjieff or other writers”, (xviii).

Why not? I could understand if they had made an attempt but cautioned that they may not have been able to identify all such excerpts. But to make no effort? Did they feel they had no duty to Gurdjieff, de Salzmann or anyone else not to pass off one person’s work as another’s? I feel sure de Salzmann would never have agreed. A staggering number of references to Gurdjieff in the text have inexplicably been omitted from the index. Very strange.

When we turn to the index under “Gurdjieff”, we find the following entry and page references or “locators” (the technical term for the page references provided in an index):

Gurdjieff, George Ivanovitch, 1-5, 295-7

It appears as if these are the only references to Gurdjieff in the volume. In fact, his name is also given at 22, 24, 64, 73, 100, 108, 120, 122, 133, 137, 172, 180, 181, 182, 183, 189, 196, 199, 235, 237, 280, 284, 286 and 292. Why omit so many locators from the index? The only argument I can see, which would not involve disrespect to Gurdjieff, is to say that the whole of the contents were so indebted to him that reference was pointless.

However, to argue thus is to miss the decisive point, as Aristotle said. It is an error for an index to omit proper names important to its readers, or to pass over occurrences of that name which go beyond mere mentions. Gurdjieff could hardly be more important to this book, yet the index has overlooked 22 or more references. Indexing is not easy: The Society of Indexers holds conferences and offers tutoring on indexing. Its web-site (www.indexers.org.au) includes this wisdom: “A good index can be much more than a guide to the contents of a book. It can often give a far clearer glimpse of its spirit than the blurb-writers or critics are able to do.” Quite so.

So, despite the often sublime contents, this book is something of an odd job. There are 140 entries. Each is of a fairly consistent length of between one and a half to two pages Presumably each piece was written on the one day (except where it was later supplemented by the mysterious “recorded statements”). Each of the 140 entries has a title, but no date, and they’re numbered 1 through to 140. The titles are written in Roman, e.g. “A nostalgia for Being” and ‘Only with a stable Presence”. These are arranged in 36 titled sections (32 sections have 4 entries, and 4 sections have but 3). The sections are unnumbered, and have italicised titles like: “To Remember Oneself” and “A Pure Energy”. Without exception, there are three sections to a chapter. The chapters are numbered in Roman numerals, and are titled “OPENING TO PRESENCE”, “TO BE CENTERED”, and so on.

The cover illustration is of a landscape beneath the night sky. In the lower heavens is an enneagram. On the earth, we see someone wearing what seems to be a bright red scarf. But it is a strange scarf: it looks as if a small inverted ziggurat has attached itself to someone’s back. Is it meant to represent the descending energies which de Salzmann writes of? Despite the Gurdjieff packaging, to put it that way, there is a photograph of the diarist, but none of Gurdjieff. Neither is an attempt made to relate her ideas to those of other people: yet this context could have helped people understand the significance of her writing. For example, she answers Hume’s enigma that one never finds a “self” (In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume discussed the question of personal identity, and argued that we assume that we have a “self”, but in fact there is no evidence at all for this). Explaining this somewhere would make the volume more accessible for the very many people who are acquainted with Hume, but not Gurdjieff.

That is the contents. To speak of aims, the book is pretty clearly “missionary”. It is meant to attract people to the de Salzmann groups (hence p.301 with its list of centres, and its reference to the Reality of Being website, to meet the anticipated demand).

My intuition is that the actual motive to publish this quality hardback was not only to give those who knew her a substantial memento, but also to reach that elusive audience of seekers, and to establish an independent basis for de Salzmann’s reputation as a spiritual authority. Together with the previous Foundation-sponsored or inspired Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections, Heart Without Measure, Without Benefit of Clergy, The Forgotten Language of Children, Tchekhovitch’s Gurdjieff: A Master in Life, and the volume of Parobola articles Ravindra edited, a bookshelf is being built up. In these books, Gurdjieff orthodoxy passes solely through de Salzmann, and other major figures such as Bennett, Ouspensky and Jane Heap barely exist, if at all. It is as if the Foundation has embarked on a publishing offensive.

Before each of the twelve parts of the volume, the editors have placed a page with some one-liners, presumably chosen for their punchy impact. The very first maxim on the very first of these pages, p.8, reads: “the child wants to have, the adult wants to be.” How could anyone write anything so glib and pat, I wondered to myself? If anything, it struck me, the exact opposite is true. But then I read the quotation in context on p.10: “We need to see our childishness in relation to the life force, always wishing to have more. The child wants to have, the adult wants to be. The constant desire for ‘having’ creates fear and a need to be reassured.” In other words, de Salzmann was explicitly speaking about the childish aspect of ourselves, not children in general. To place that sentence as a disembodied quote on a splash page was to invite misinterpretation.

De Salzmann wished to carry on and develop what Gurdjieff had brought, and yet, as Conge is reported to have said, it seemed as if Gurdjieff left something uncompleted in his work (noted in Ricardo Guillon, Record of a Search). It seems to me that most of Gurdjieff’s pupils supplemented his methods and ideas with methods and ideas from mystical traditions. My own view is that Gurdjieff’s heritage is equivalent to medicine: there is no reason why Christians, for example, should not use medicine, not matter who the doctor is, and the Gurdjieff system is one of psychological medicine.

Gurdjieff did not bequeath to de Salzmann an organization. She had to work indefatigably just to build up the Institute and to maintain its main branches in but three other cities: London, New York and Caracas. Then, through those “second level suns”, she could have an influence on other groups, and would travel to other places such as San Francisco. It was as if she had cardinals in Paris who would travel, especially to London and New York, where the councils were made up archbishops. Most of these then travelled to other places within their archdioceses. Gurdjieff had been the personal centre of his pupils. De Salzmann set up an institution which could effectively take over after the charismatic leader had gone, serving as a sort of school where guides and mentors might come and go, but the institution would survive and develop a sort of corporate personality. She had to position herself at the centre, and placed the emphasis of those aspects of the teaching she had mastered, that is, the groups and movements. Those parts where she was not quite so confident, especially the ideas and the books such as Beelzebub, she downplayed in comparison. For example, she early introduced a rule that there were to be no discussions of Beelzebub in the groups.

De Salzmann felt, it seems to me, that she needed her own special area to cement her authority. This is, I think, why she devised new means of “work” (where one speaks “from the present” after a “sitting”), and, of course, the sittings (or “quiet work”). If she was to base her authority, at least in part, on these, they had to be considered an essential component of the groups’ efforts, so she removed the competition: she stopped systematically teaching the Gurdjieff preparation and exercises. She also forbade the movements to be taught in their entirety: from a certain point in time, one only learnt parts of movements. It was said that this was to stop people like the Rajneeshis stealing them. But I do not think that that was all. I am not saying that that was not a factor, but I do not think it was determinative, because by ceasing to teach all of a movement, she ceased to teach them in the way Gurdjieff had intended. Her method of allowing only a few trusted instructors to have the entire movement from beginning to end was like thwarting an anticipated vandalism by committing it yourself.

Apart from the Gurdjieff omissions, there is another matter about the index I must raise. The problem with the entry for “tempo” is that there is none. There is a reference for “rhythm”, but there should also be one for “tempo”. At 192, De Salzmann uses “rhythm” and “tempo” as being equivalent terms. Relevant locators for “tempo” and instances where equivalents are used include 124, 139, 147 (“rhythmic order”), 182 (“the rhythms of all the functions”), 188, 192, 195, 209, 265 (“rhythm”), 272 and 273. This concept was important to de Salzmann. The understanding of tempo is linked to the understanding of the entire person in who these tempos operate. Interestingly, the English translation of Beelzebub, in the version Gurdjieff authorised, always uses the word “tempo”. Irrespective of what de Salzmann wrote in French, “they leave the general rhythm” is a mediocre translation: better to say “they fall out of” or even “they depart from” the general rhythm. But the point is in the meaning.

What Gurdjieff means is this: just as the different centres have their own individual tempos, so too, can one speak, as Gurdjieff does, of an “aggregate tempo” of our “common presence”. He says that one tempo (or, I think, limited range of tempos), is related to essence, and another much wider range of tempos supports the emergence of personality, and the other larger range supports the domination of personality. This is not the place to go into it in detail, but the tempos of Gregorian chant correspond to the tempo of essence. If one understands what one is doing, then one can change one’s aggregate tempo and thus come closer to essence. It is, therefore, a matter of the greatest practical importance.

Another obvious matter I have barely alluded to is that the struggle with negative emotion is not set out here along Gurdjieff’s method of what I might call ‘active mentation”, which is really a three-centred confrontation. De Salzmann’s method is more to seek a state where one does not feel negative emotion. That is something, but I don’t think it is enough.

There is so much more I could say, for example, her comments on “tonus” anticipate what I came to about “pitch”. But this suffices for now. This is primarily a de Salzmann book and only secondly in the Gurdjeiff line. Much of the material is of the first significance for those seeking a finer consciousness which stands behind and above our other functions.

Joseph.Azize@gmail.com

JOSEPH AZIZE  has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies.    His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.

The third book, ‘George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia’ represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.

“Maronites” is pp.279-282 of “The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia” published by Cambridge University Press and edited by James Jupp.

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