Archive for the ‘THE JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO PAGE’ Category
In the screening room of the world, a feature-length documentary film winds to a halt, and the overhead lights are abruptly switched on. We blink and wince. Thus we mark the passing of Tom Daly, one of the world’s finest directors of documentary cinema. Tom died at the age of ninety-three in Montreal on Sept. 18, 2011, following a lengthy illness.
In his public life, Tom was one of the mainstays of the National Film Board of Canada. The rudiments of the art and craft of motion-picture production and editing were taught to him by none other than John Grierson, the filmmaker who coined the term “documentary” and who founded the Board in Ottawa in 1939, then and now the world’s largest, government-owned producer of documentary films.
In various capacities over forty-four years, Tom left his mark on hundreds of the Board’s short and feature films, including those created by Norman McLaren (the Glenn Gould of film animation) and his own Unit B productions which introduced innovative techniques and ideas to the nation’s screens. In the 1950s and 1960s it was mandated that an NFB “short” had to be exhibited along with the other “short features” (cartoons, coming attractions) and the American feature film when it was publicly exhibited in a movie theatre in the country. So his productions reached immense national audiences. Often they struck the only note of “reality” on the screen.
I was especially moved in 1960 by his documentary film “Universe” which focused on the night in the life of a Toronto astronomer. We were invited to behold a “cosmic zoom” … an astronomical visualization which parallels the Ray of Creation aka the Great Chain of Being. It was done with spectacular effects and a feeling for the marvels of creation which Stanley Kubrick subsequently acknowledged to be influences on his own feature film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Tom was also a mainstay of the work in Canada. He was born into a socially prominent family in Toronto on April 25, 1918, and a graduate of the University of Toronto. Through his mother he met the De Hartmanns who were then temporary residents in Quebec’s Eastern Townships (awaiting papers to settle in the United States). Madame de Hartmann was encouraged to visit Toronto where she established what is now known as the Toronto group. Tom was active in the group until Board work required him to move first to Ottawa and then to Montreal where he led the work there. He married and raised a family and to the members of his family go the commiserations of the present writer (who was personally introduced to the work by Tom and his friend Peter Colgrove).
Tom was a gentleman of the Anglo-Saxon variety and a scholar manqué. I write manqué not in an attempt to circumscribe his talent but with the wish to extend it because he himself saw his art as coextensive with his life and with the work. Readers interested in how he did this are encouraged to read the biographical study The Best Butler in the Business: Tom Daly of the National Film Board of Canad (University of Toronto Press) by the academic D.B. Jones. According to Jones, Tom dealt with a problem the way a lumberjack walks across a log-boom: Step onto the first log, and before it sinks step onto the second log, and before it sinks step onto the third log ….
* * * * * * *
I knew him slightly but admired him greatly. He inspired a great many men and women of his generation, not only film-makers but also creative people in many disciplines. There is an expression that is used in the film business (and only in the film business) that applies to him. That expression is “the dailies.” It refers to the “rushes” of the day’s shooting that are available for viewing and reviewing the following day. Tom lived his life from day to day, never failing to reflect on the fine qualities of “the dailies.”
J.R.C., 18 Sept. 2011
JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO REVIEWS
JAMES MOORE’S NEW BOOK
I distinctly remember the sensation that I experienced when I first saw in print the name “Lord Pentland.” What I sensed was a loftiness of person and of purpose. What I felt was the emotion of being wafted away from my usual, classless moorings: “Whoever is this fellow?” What I entertained was an heretical thought upon seeing his name in the context of the Work: “Was an English lord actually chosen by Mr. Gurdjieff to head the Work in America?”
I was late in the game. I first encountered the name and title in the early 1960s in the pages of a newly published book of radio talks. Its table of contents listed the contributors of talks and interviews broadcast on Pacifica Radio in California. I have long forgotten the names of the other contributors to this series of addresses, all of them public intellectuals familiar to me at the time. But I remember the name of this English baron who was completely unknown to me at that time. Curious!
I never met Lord Pentland or Henry John Sinclair or just plain John Sinclair, of course, but over the decades I have met with groups of men and women who knew him, attended his talks, and studied under him. They were unanimous in their admiration and respect for the man. I would ask each in turn, “What was his dominant characteristic? Why was he so admired and respected? What made him a dedicated teacher or leader?” People seemed to like the man but there was seldom a feature, chief or not, which I could identify or with which I could identify.
After all, the photographs of the man that I saw reproduced in public print, or at least those taken during his later years, showed a gaunt figure of a man with steel-rimmed glasses and querulous eyes. I once wrote, “To judge by photographs, John Pentland was a cadaverous figure of a man, toweringly tall, with skeletal skull, bushy eyebrows, and beady eyes. He resembles an ascetic, say a Cistercian monk …. “
As well, he seemed quite forbidding, almost formidable (if not slightly comic or ironic). I never could discover what psychological feature or features were so impressive, though every once in a while someone would glance around and mumble about the man’s patrician bearing, the slight condescension in his attitude and manner, etc. But then some people are never satisfied; they will accept the Sermon on the Mount only if delivered by Jesus Christ in person.
Over the years I watched out for references to Lord Pentland in the literature of the Work, especially in the “Gurdjieff Review.” I bought and read a copy of the book “Exchanges Within” which is subtitled “Questions from Everyday Life Selected from Gurdjieff Group Meetings with John Pentland in California, 1955-1984.” It was published by Continuum in 1977, and its prose captured some of the qualities of the man, which I take to be a general thoughtfulness or mindfulness coupled with directness and authority.
I found his manner of writing and speaking to be more elusive than evasive, and to this day his prose, whether transcriptions of the talks or of the sessions of questions and answers, continues to remind me of the opaque styles of J. Krishnamurti and Rudolf Steiner. The opacity could be that of some level of being: a disembodied intelligence, perhaps. The texts of the talks themselves read like … radio scripts.
The other day I checked Wikipedia’s entry and I learned a little about the man Henry John Sinclair, but next to nothing about his personality and purpose, his mission and message. He was born in 1907, but where? (The biography says London.) He died in 1984, but where? (The biography says New York City.) He was the 2nd Baron Pentland and a man of means; his wife Lucy was also titled and well-to-do. His daughter, son-in-law, and their child are contributors to the Work.
In the 1930s and 1940s he worked with P.D. Ouspensky in London, and in 1948 he spent about nine months with Mr. Gurdjieff in Paris, who thereupon appointed him to lead the work in America. (“America” means the United States; while he did visit Canada, it was for business meetings in Toronto before he had met Mr. Gurdjieff and for a visit to the rodeo in Calgary afterwards.)
At one point he worked out of an office in Rockefeller Center, representing British-American commercial interests, like an earlier neighbour, spymaster Sir William Stephenson (known as “the Quiet Canadian” before turning garrulous and acquiring the title “the Man Called Intrepid”). I recall reading a warm and memorable description of Lord Pentland at work in his office. The account was written by the youthful William Patrick Patterson who visited the baron there, was much impressed with the man, and studied under him for all of eleven years, before finding another mentor. Patterson went on to establish the Gurdjieff Studies Program and describes himself to this day as a student of Lord Pentland.
Lord Pentland served as president of the Gurdjieff Foundation from its inception in 1953 to his death in 1984, and also as president of the Gurdjieff Foundation of California from its inception in 1955 to his death. He also served as executive editor of Far West Editions from 1969 to his death. I sense that the year of his death marked the end of a phase of the Work in America, as phases of the Work in France and the rest of Europe and the United Kingdom were marked by the death in 1990 of Madame de Salzmann and eleven years later that of her son Michel de Salzmann.
Talks delivered by Lord Pentland at Esalen and on the campuses of American colleges and universities were delivered alike to veteran students and newcomers to the Work and printed in semi-limited editions. In print they seem somewhat abstract or at least abstracted from experience. Indeed, I reviewed three of these publications and summarized their contents for readers of this blog in 2008, where they remain archived for reading or reference.
I have gone into all this detail – peeks at Lord Pentland from a distance – for the reason that many if not most readers of this review will share experiences similar to mine, being one or two steps removed from the man and the manner. Not everyone in the Work has had a first-hand experience of the man. Savour those experiences and conceptions of the man before encountering him in relief in the pages of James Moore’s biography, which has a four-word title: “Eminent Gurdjieffians: Lord Pentland.”
This biography is a handsome volume published by Gurdjieff Studies Ltd. in England. The website is < www . gurdjieff . org. uk >. The book has an attractive dust jacket (designed by Linda Edmonds), card covers, matching coloured endsheets, and well-designed pages which measure 6″ x 9.5″ and which run from xx to 108. There are eighteen black-and-white illustrations. There is also a nominal index (i.e., restricted to personal names, not places or references) and a bibliography best described as sketchy. I wish the pages had been stitched rather than “perfect bound,” i.e., glued, but there are headbands, and the pages once opened almost lie flat on their own. It is a nice edition to hold and to read.
But before I do review its contents, I want to comment on the first two words of the book’s title: “Eminent Gurdjieffians.” Serious readers will catch the significance of the word “eminent,” which was not coined by Lytton Strachey but was certainly trademarked by him. “Eminent Victorians” is the title of this influential composite biography of four leading figures in Victorian England (Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Matthew Arnold, and General Gordon).
The lady and the three gentlemen were and are indeed “eminent,” though not necessarily pre-eminent for reasons of morality. The book’s appearance in 1918 coincided with the end of the Great War, and as the latter dealt the deathblow to the Kaiser’s designs on Europe, the former ended the idolatry and exposed the morality of leading public figures in Queen Victoria’s England.
Today, “Eminent Victorians” would be regarded as a hatchet-job, but for the fact that Strachey wrote well, researched deeply, and refused to moralize. Indeed, the composite biography appealed to the sceptical Bertrand Russell who read it while imprisoned for civil disobedience. In a letter he described the literary work in these words: “It is brilliant, delicious, exquisitely civilized.”
Do Lord Russell’s words describe the book at hand? I will answer that question but first here is another digression. The digression concerns the author James Moore. His entry in Wikipedia and his own detailed and informative website < www . jamesmoore . org . uk > are so interesting that I could write about the author at some length. Instead, I will write concisely and somewhat cursorily.
Moore, born in Cornwall in 1929, seems to be something of an autodidact, but one who worked with the Admiralty until retirement in 1980, who holds fellowships in at least two Royal Societies, and who is the author of four books of substance and many articles of importance which have appeared in serious journals and as entries in encyclopedias.
As for his Work experience, he studied with Henriette H. Lannes from 1957 to 1978, and thereafter with Henri Tracol and Maurice Desselle. He was closely associated with the Gurdjieff Society in London from 1981 to 1994 when, it seems, he was expelled, if that is the word to use, though “excommunicated” is the one that he himself prefers. (Query: Do Gurdjieffians “shun” like Mormons?) That might be the second-best thing that has ever happened to him, his induction into the Work being the first; the jury is still out on that. Anyway, he renewed himself as an independent scholar and presumably as an independent Gurdjieffian, his status to this day.
I have read his four books: “Gurdjieff and Mansfield” (1980), “Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth” (1991), “Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered” (2005), and now “Eminent Gurdjieffians: Lord Pentland” (2011). His chef d’oeuvre is the second of these books, a biography rivalled only by John Beekman Taylor’s “Gurdjieff: A New Life” (2009), a sturdy and substantial work. I am still divided on the merits of the third of these books, as it adopts the tone of the tabloid press in its whining and winging, though as a human document it is full of fascinating detail.
If anyone in the Work is in a position to write short biographies of Work personalities and their essences, it is James Moore. On an earlier occasion I referred to this biographer as a precisian, an uncommon proper noun for someone who is strict and precise in observing the rules, his own or others’. I suspect that he gives a lot of thought before writing down a word. He is as stylish and exacting as Flaubert, who, it is said, worried so much over his prose that he would spend a morning inserting a comma followed by an afternoon erasing it. Moore is a writer who has to be read closely, and watched.
I have the feeling – it is an idea, really; perhaps a dream – that “Eminent Gurdjieffians” marks the first volume in a series, a series that may set a high watermark for scholarship in the literature of the Work. Such a series is long overdue. Where is there a short biography of Sophie Grigorievna Volochine (aka Madame Ouspensky)? Or a long biography of Jeanne Allemand (aka Madame de Salzmann)? Perhaps these and other biographies are waiting in the wings.
Yet in these pages Moore writes, plangently, “This book is my literary swan-song.” If so, it is sad news. Earlier I quoted Bertrand Russell’s words about Lytton Strachey’s book: “brilliant, delicious, exquisitely civilized.” Do these words apply to Moore and this book? Yes and no is the short answer. The long answer follows.
Moore writes with a stylistic brilliance that is coruscating and hence sometimes blinding. His prose is delicious in the sense that the reader wants to consume more and more pages, though with full knowledge that some passages are going to be hard to digest. But is the work “exquisitely civilized”? The author is certainly a cultured man, but I would not immediately describe him as civilized, at least in terms of what he has written here. He is very hard on his subject and for these reasons one would have to read between the lines.
There is a telling anecdote about a beautiful but impressionable society lady who one day accepted a luncheon invitation from W.E. Gladstone. Asked about the experience, she replied, “I realize that I was in the presence of the most brilliant man in all of England.” The next day she lunched with Benjamin Disraeli. Asked how that lunch had gone, she replied, “I realize that I am the most brilliant woman in all of England.” Reading Moore’s prose I feel that Moore is the most brilliant writer in all of England.
He monopolizes his subject, but to demonstrate this I would have to lead the reader through the book page by page to review Pentland’s life and that would take a great many pages (or “screens”). It is an interesting life that he led, but not a very convincing one, at least to the degree that Pentland was a late developer, and it begs the question whether he developed at all; that makes Moore’s task all the harder.
Medical historian Michael Bliss had the same problem as Moore when he wrote the now-standard biography of Sir William Osler, the clinician and Regius Professor of Medicine, who had no secrets, no scandals, and no enemies. That presents a problem. How does a biographer make decency attractive in its own right? Instead of pursuing this line of inquiry, I will make a few general points.
* Moore devotes no pages at all to Pentland’s talks and interviews, even those that were published in “Exchanges Within.” So the subject’s “take” on the Work is not discussed. Pentland presided over an interesting period in the evolution of the Work – what with the introduction of all of those “sittings” – but while they are mentioned, they are certainly not considered in any detail.
* Moore has hardly anything of an interpretive nature to say about the appeal of P.D. Ouspensky’s “system” to Pentland. There is no speculation as to what Mr. Gurdjieff saw in Pentland’s spirit, mind, or manner. Possibly what he saw in his “American lieutenant” was a respectable man with the ability to relate to men and women on all social levels, which it seems is what Pentland did do.
* Moore devotes no paragraphs at all to Pentland’s business interests, a point he himself makes, as if to exculpate himself. These details would be of some social and intellectual interest. His “war record” seems to be one of evasion rather than duty, but that is not conclusively shown.
* Moore devotes no sentences at all to interpreting the man’s psychology. I am not now referring to “the psychology of man’s possible evolution” but to the dynamics of the man’s personality, his image of himself. For this reason the biography seems to me to be pre-Freudian: the subject is more a mannikin than a man in Moore’s hands.
* Moore seems uncomfortable dealing with the characteristics of the English class system, both its strengths and its weaknesses. Whenever possible he brings Gilbert Harding into the narrative. I found this interesting, but only because I have long been curious about this English broadcaster and polemicist (who spent some time making mischief in Toronto); Moore is always about to compare and contrast the two men whose lives seem to have been lived at cross-purposes.
* Moore might see himself as a social historian, offering brief histories of the decades. For instance, I learned that the year 1957 “was in some senses a funny year. Jack Kerouac published “On the Road”; Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” was translated into Eskimo and staged in a Perspex igloo …. ” Fascinating tidbits, à la John Dos Passos, but hardly part of Pentland’s world. For a short book, it is long on potted history.
* Moore is a careful researcher. I spotted no errors of consequence; two inconsequential ones are the spelling of the New Brunswick port where Madame Ouspensky disembarked (it is Saint John not St. John’s, New Brunswick); and the indecision as whether or not to hyphenate Rodney Collin-Smith’s name.
* Moore is good on the dissection of imagery. He offers a brilliant comparison of Pentland’s gaunt appearance with that of the elderly farmer in Grant Wood’s classic painting “American Gothic.” He also comments on the surprising photograph taken by Dushka Howarth which catches Pentland and Mr. Gurdjieff at lunch at a roadside café in 1949, the baron gazing into the distance, the “teacher of dance” digging into the food before him.
* In dealing with that photograph, I believe Moore tips his hand when he describes Pentland in terms of his “depthless earnestness.” These two words might well be his final insight into the man and interpretation of his contribution to the development of the Work. It is an most revealing phrase.
Earlier I mentioned in passing that I had no occasion to meet Lord Pentland. In the introductory pages of this book, Moore mentions that he did meet this “eminent Gurdjieffian,” once, almost accidentally, long before the notion of writing the man’s biography occurred to him. After reading his book, I feel that had I had an occasion to meet Pentland, I too might – like Moore – sense the man’s “depthless earnestness.”
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 > .
JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO
looks at the publications of SEYMOUR B. GINSBURG
The thought of G.I. Gurdjieff comes to mind whenever I drive into a shopping plaza where there is a sign that says Toys “R” Us. There are almost two dozen of these toy supermarkets in the Greater Toronto Area, where I live, all of them “reminders” of the man and his message. Canada alone has a total of seventy outlets at the present time. If you live in the United States, there are 860 occasions to remember Mr. Gurdjieff, but only seventy-six if you live in the United Kingdom. Non-U.S. outlets around the world offer an additional 716 opportunities for remembering.
All of this may seem a little sly or silly but for the fact that Toys “R” Us acts for me as a reminder to remember myself and it could do the same for other people too. The reason it comes to mind is that there is an interesting connection between the toy store chain and Seymour B. Ginsburg, whose contribution to the Work is an important one. As unlikely as it might seem, Ginsburg was the co-founder of the parent company and the first president of the company we know as Toys “R” Us. That was decades ago so I assume that he is no longer involved with running the highly successful chain of outlets.
Here is some background on the man, all taken from published sources. Sy Ginsburg (as he is usually greeted) was born in Chicago in 1934 and studied accountancy and law at Northwestern University. In addition to his success in the world of commerce, he has made his mark in at least five related fields of endeavour.
First, he served as President of the Theosophical Society in South Florida. Second, he was a co-founder of the Gurdjieff Institute of Florida. Third, he and his wife Dorothy Usiskin have been mainstays of the series of annual All & Everything Conferences, now in their fifteenth year. Fourth, he has drawn attention to the spiritual contribution of a modern-day Indian guru known as Sri Madhava Ashish. Fifth, he is the author of a number of books that are not only interesting but significant.
There is no way for me to survey all of these fields of accomplishment. Instead, I will describe Sy’s publications and focus on Sy Ginsberg’s relationship with “Ashishda” (as he is known). I will do so out of chronological order; I will also note that I met Sy at the A&E Conference held in Toronto in April 2009 and hence took the opportunity to observe him in action. I found him, unlike many students and practitioners of the Work, to be direct and dynamic. He knows his own mind and he understands precisely what he is doing.
These features are characteristic of his most important if overlooked publication, the one titled “Gurdjieff Unveiled.” There is a subtitle “An Overview and Introduction to the Teaching” as well as a sub-subtitle “For the beginning student, for the inquiring seeker, and for the simply curious.” The sub-subtitle covers a lot of ground, as does the text itself. It is a short work, not more than 150 pages in all, and the paperback copy that I purchased was published in 2005 by Lighthouse Editions, and is still in print on demand format ISBN 1-90499801 0.
From time to time I am asked to recommend a book on the Work. When that happens I automatically nominate P.D. Ouspensky’s “The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution,” for it is short, straight-forward, and uncompromising. Along with its companion book “The Cosmology of Man’s Possible Evolution,” it certainly captures the essence of the Work in Europe in the interwar period. Knowledgeable people often recommend books that convey the “taste” of the spirit of the Work since the 1950s, memoirs written by participants like Henri Tracol.
From now on I will recommend Sy’s “Gurdjieff Unveiled” as not only an introductory work but also as a “continuing” work. I recommend it despite its title which I assume reflects the author’s interest in Theosophy, and while I may yearn to behold “Isis Unveiled” (the reference is to H.P. Blavatsky’s major book written prior to “The Secret Doctrine”), I have never lusted to see Mr. Gurdjieff “unveiled.” It certainly offers information on the ins and the outs of the Work in clear and contemporary prose. Indeed, it is something of a handbook.
The work is dedicated to Nicolas Tereshchenko, “A serious seeker, a true scholar, a friend.” In addition to tables and diagrams and four appendices, it offers the reader six chapters, quaintly called “Lessons.” For general interest, I will list the titles of the chapters so the experienced reader will see at a glance where the book begins and ends.
Lesson 1: Who am I?
Lesson 2: The Expansion of Consciousness
Lesson 3: The Transmutation of Energy
Lesson 4: The Conservation of Energy
Lesson 5: Meditation
Lesson 6: Gurdjieff Groups
In these chapters I found considerable information with insights that I had not encountered elsewhere, at least in this form. Fresh material also appears in the four appendices. The first appendix tries to answer the question “Who are you Mister Gurdjieff” and includes detailed information on how the Mahatma Letters, identified with the Theosophical Society, were edited at the Priory at Fontainebleau. The second appendix breaks new ground in relating “the study of dreams” to the Work and offers techniques for remembering dreams, approaches that do work.
The third appendix examines the Exercises in genuine detail and in doing so offers lists of words for human concerns and failings keyed to passages in “Tales.” This is a feature that I have not seen elsewhere in the Canon. As well there are Notes, Bibliography, and a detailed Index. The book is quite a handful, hence I call it a Gurdjieff handbook.
On another occasion I may draw attention to some of the insights that appear in the pages of “Gurdjieff Unveiled,” but on this occasion I want to note Sy’s other books. But even they deserve more time and space than I have at hand. Here goes. The author’s first book bears the daunting title “In Search of the Unitive Vision” and is subtitled “Letters of Sri Madhava Ashish to an American Businessman 1978-1997).” It is a compilation with a commentary and it appeared in a handsome, trade paperback published in 2001 by New Paradigm Books of Boca Raton, Florida.
The text of almost 300 pages consists of the above-mentioned letters but also descriptive passages, narrative accounts, diary entries, personal essays, and a series of questions and answers about spiritual matters. In fact, the book is indexed and I assume that pretty well every subject of interest to the student of consciousness studies is mentioned at some point in these pages.
Sy spent almost twenty years in contact with Madhava Ashish, making annual visits, beginning in the year 1978, to Ashishda’s ashram at Mirtola, near Almora, in the Himalayan foothills of Northern India. Indeed, it was Ashishda who directed the young “American businessman” to seek out the teachings of Gurdjieff. The book is a record of their friendship, not so much between equals as much as it was and remains between fellow-seekers, one of whom was in a position to inspire and direct the other.
To confuse matters a little, “In Search of the Unitive Vision” has been reprinted with another title and subtitle: “The Masters Speak: An American Businessman Encounters Ashish and Gurdjieff.” This is brand-new edition, well printed, published in 2010 by Quest Books: Theosophical Publishing House of Wheaton, Illinois. The differences between the two editions seem minor, mainly matters of presentation.
Whichever edition is used, the portrait that emerges of Ashishda is one that is “in the round.” Judging by the descriptions and photographs that are reproduced in these pages, Sri Madhava Ashish was Central Casting’s ideal guru: tall, dark-haired, handsome … and English. Ashishda was born Alexander Phipps (1920-1997) and educated in English public schools. On a trip to the subcontinent he met and became a disciple of Sri Krishna Prem (1898-1965), another Englishman, this one born Ronald Henry Nixon, a Theosophist in background.
Prem and Ashishda, both sannyasins of the Vaishanava tradition of Hinduism, became influential spiritual leaders, thinkers, and practitioners with much to offer to those Westerners who were drawn to their ashrams. They themselves had been influenced by Theosophy, as is apparent when one reads the essays in “What Is Man?”
“What Is Man?” is subtitled “Selected Writings of Sri Madhava Ashish.” This is another handsome publication, issued in 2010 by Penguin Books, New Delhi. It is also about 300 pages long and begins with a Foreword contributed by Dr. Karan Singh who goes unidentified (but whom Wikipedia informs me was “the last ruler of the princely state of Kashmir and Jammu” and served as India’s Ambassador to the United States in 1990-91). It is a perfunctory Foreword.
The Preface, anything but perfunctory, was written by Sy along with three other compilers: Satish Datt Pandey, Seán Mahoney, Pervin Mahoney. They quote a passage from one of Ashishda’s letters to Sy: “Give me all the teachings about man and the universe and I will accept them only if I can be shown one man who embodies and validates these teachings. One follows the teachings back to their source in the man whose truth affirms the truth of the teachings.” I am sure that most people instinctively feel the same way: validation of the tradition lies in its embodiment and expression in the human being. On this basis, Ashishda is one such embodiment and expression.
The texts are organized in four parts. Part I, called “Introduction,” consists of Ashishda’s appreciative memoir of his teacher, Sri Krishna Prem. Part II is titled “The Path” and it collects seven essays on such subjects as “The Value of Uncertainty” and “The Sadhu in Our Lives.” Part III has been titled “The Inner Inquiry” and contains of eight miscellaneous essays including one called “Big Dreams” and another intriguingly titled “Quacking Oranges and Cloned Einsteins.” Part IV, “The Doctrine,” brings together five essays that will be familiar to Theosophists, notably “‘The Secret Doctrine’ as a Contribution to World Thought” and “The Fifth Race.” Finally, there is an two-page appendix of some historical, textual interest devoted to Madame Blavatsky’s “The Stanzas of Dzyan.”
The well-written copy on the back cover of “What Is Man?” notes how unusual is the message in this book: “It has little to do with conventional religions, but can be called secular spirituality. It points out the folly of viewing the cosmos in material terms alone, encouraging us to open our minds and see that our lives are not restricted to the closed box of purely physical existence.” The copywriters mercifully avoided the words “New Age.”
There is a clarity to Ashishda’s prose is reasonable and at the same time reassuring. He composes the sort of prose that I can imagine Aldous Huxley enjoying or Gerald Heard writing. At times it verges on being a sermon; at times it reminds me of the inspired and inspiring “talks” of J. Krishnamurti. It is a prose addressed to man’s best nature and it resists quotation; there are no high moments, for there is a general level of elevation. It is timeless prose if by that description is meant that it is sounds somewhat old-fashioned.
The essay “Man, Son of Man” sounds this note: “Columbus would never have discovered the Americas had he not disbelieved in the flatness of the world, nor shall we discover this other New World if we do not challenge the equally ‘flat’ world view of our present-day science and set out on a voyage of discovery in a direction and dimension where science sees nothing to discover.”
In summary: Seekers and readers have reasons to be grateful to Seymour B. Ginsburg for his many-fold contributions, including writing a spot-on introduction to the teaching called “Gurdjieff Unveiled” and for introducing readers in the English-speaking world to the traditional yet timely message of Sri Madhava Ashish. Driving past a Toys “R” Us outlet brought all of this to mind!
John Robert Colombo, known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana, reviews books for this blog on “consciousness studies.” Scheduled to appear in the fall is “The Sumuru Omnibus,” his compilation of the five novels written about the villainess Sumuru the English mystery-story writer Sax Rohmer.
J R COLOMBO REVIEWS FRANK R. SINCLAIR’S MEMOIR
‘WITHOUT BENEFIT OF CLERGY’
Neither the Work nor the expression of the Work in any given time and at any given place is sacrosanct or immune to the ravages and revelations of time. Its demystification involves, in a way, its remythologization, and this is proceeding apace in our time.
Part of the process is the shedding of light on its early history through historical research, and on its recent past through the publication of books of studies and memoirs. The historical classics are “The Harmonious Circle” written by James Webb and the two books by Paul Beekman Taylor titled “A New Life” and “Gurdjieff’s America.” Among modern-day classics is the amazing tome titled “‘It’s Up to Ourselves” written by Jessmin and Dushka Howarth. (I celebrated the publication of the latter volume, largely a scrapbook with a multitude of snapshots, on this blog – Sophia Wellbeloved’s blog – a month or so ago.)
None of these works (or others like them) has ever attain the scriptural status of “All and Everything” or even the canonical status of “Meetings with Remarkable Men” and “In Search of the Miraculous.” Yet the light they shed on the Work is a human glow which does not bathe it in a sense of wonder as much as it does imbue it with a sense of personal gratitude for assistance received and services rendered. Frank R. Sinclair has contributed two books to this class of publication: “Without Benefit of Clergy” and “Of the Life Aligned: Reflections on the Teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff and the Perennial Order.”
I have yet to see a copy of the second of these two books, but after reading the first one I will certainly read the second. The book at hand, the first one, is badly titled and poorly subtitled, but my criticism ends there – at the title page. The other 295 pages are fine by me, anecdotal in the extreme, as I will demonstrate later.
It is a trade paperback. It measures 8″ x 5.5.” and it has a full-colour cover and there are close to forty black-and-white photographs, mainly snapshots, almost all of them new to me and to most readers. The volume has been attractively designed and issued by Xlibris. There are two editions, the first in 2005, the second in 2009, which is the one that I purchased.
The title is “Without Benefit of Clergy.” The subtitle is “Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching.” Both title and subtitle give me pause. The title attracted my attention (as should all good titles) so I decided to determine why I feel it is inappropriate. I have always associated the phrase “without benefit of clergy” with immorality – living together in sin, without the sacramental blessing of the church – and I was partially right in doing so, as well as partially wrong.
In English jurisprudence, members of the clergy were not subjected to secular laws, whether criminal or civil, but were permitted to demand to be tried under canon law. This immunity was abolished centuries ago. In 1890, Rudyard Kipling employed the phrase “without benefit of clergy” for the title of a short story set in India about the Englishman named Holden and the Muslim woman named Ameer who “shack up” (1950s expression; the 1980s expression still current is “living together”) and how their unsanctioned union brought wrack and ruin to both conservative communities. The plot proved sufficiently potent and the phrase so popular that in 1921 it became the title of a the silent movie “Without Benefit of Clergy” that starred Boris Karloff, of all people. So my original reaction to the phrase – sexual congress outside the bonds of marriage – is probably that of most people unschooled in the intricacies of English jurisprudence.
I am not convinced that the title of this book of memoirs sheds any light at all on the subject of these memoirs. Is the author telling us that his memoirs are scandalous or shocking? If so, then he is wrong. And then there is the matter of the subtitle which also irks me: “Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching.” Is the world of footnotes divided between those that are “personal” and those that are “impersonal”? Not that I am aware. Who would enjoy reading a book of footnotes? (Well, the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges may. Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science-fiction writer, may. James Moore, the precisian, who is the author of “Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered,” may, as well. But surely not the general reader with a taste for the world of the Work.)
I have done a lot of carping. It is time now for some celebration. Although I have yet to meet the author, I will take the liberty of referring to Frank R. Sinclair by his Christian name. The back-cover photograph of Frank shows him with a straw hat perched on the back of his head, rather like the humourist Stephen Leacock. It seems to give the reader leave to refer to him as Frank. If it does not do that, I have only to turn to the prose itself which is informal and off-the-cuff enough to confer permission. In fact, at one point – when Frank was asked to give the reading from the Bible at Lord Pentland’s funeral service (held in a Roman Catholic church, oddly) – he refers to himself as “a nonentity of the first order.” Now that is excessive!
In this memoir there are thirteen chapters, two pages of acknowledgements, prefaces to the first and the second editions, not to mention three appendices and one index. All of these sections are of some interest. But in the interest of brevity, I am going to short change the first half of the book and concentrate on the second half for it is largely devoted to pen portraits of personalities in the Work who have had an influence on Frank’s inner life and his outlook on life.
Readers who are interested in the early life of a journalist who was born in the shadow of Table Mountain in a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1929, and who found some twenty-eight years ago that his spiritual quest had taken him to Franklin Farms at Mendham in New Jersey, and Armonk in Westchester Country in New York State, and at the Gurdjieff Foundation on Manhattan Island, will find these early pages to be a treat.
In a sense he never did leave these sheltered communities, yet he emerged in the 1980s as the successor of Dr. William Welch as the President of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York. He has headed the Gurdjieff Fountain since 2009 and lives at Grand View-on-Hudson, a town of some 300 people with a high median income north of New York City. Its most notable inhabitant after Frank is Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.
From the age of eight, Frank experienced “a blaze of light” while questioning the nature of God. Thereafter he had a few near encounters with death. He graduated from the University of Cape Town, majoring in philosophy, and spent eight years as a journalist with the Cape Times afternoon newspaper. He writes about his feelings of “anguish and heartaches and sufferings” at the time, but these came to an end, symbolically at least, when he encountered an essay by J.G. Bennett called “Living in Five Dimensions,” was assigned to review Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider,” studied “In Search of the Miraculous,” and identified with the verses of the deaf South African poet John Howland Beaumont, who had a mystical connection with nature: “I did but sleep – ah me, I dream, I dream!”
About 1956, Frank resolved to seek out the source of “the teaching” in a surprisingly direct way. He placed an advertisement in the personal columns of the rival Cape Argus afternoon paper to “make contact,” and to his surprise a reader of the paper mailed him a copy of “All and Everything” along with a note: “From one human being to another, that both may have more of themselves to give.” The benefactor’s identity remains unknown to this day.
He eventually met an English gentleman named B. Fairfax Hall who was an enthusiast for private printing. In England in 1930 he had founded and operated The Stourton Press, named after the family’s house in Westminster. Hall was a member of P.D. Ouspensky’s circle before he immigrated to South Africa. In 1947 he began to print books, including Ouspensky’s “A Record of Meetings,” in an edition of twenty copies in 1951, and “The Struggle of the Magicians,” in an edition of ten copies in 1957.
Frank already knew about editorial matters; from Hall he learned how to operate an Albion printing press, which served him well when he began his own private printing at Armonk, N.Y., using the imprint Antic Press. Hall, who had compiled “The Fourth Way” from Ouspensky’s lectures, arranged for Frank to reside for two months at Madame Ouspensky’s 300-acre estate at Franklin Farms. Frank left South Africa in 1958 and did not return for some twenty years.
Frank worked and studied at Franklin Farms and there met a young woman named Beatrice Rego, a teacher, and they married. No description of the bride is offered, but there is a long account of Frank’s out-of-body experience immediately prior to the wedding ceremony. There is also a long account of life at the residence, with a fleeting reference to Madame Ouspensky (who remained in her bedroom chamber so he never set eyes on her while she was still alive) and Madame Olga de Hartmann, who came and went and once referred to him as “a piece of furniture,” but there is a very detailed account of the first visit of Madame de Salzmann.
“Here, for the first time in my life, was someone who spoke to my deepest concerns, who undeniably had an inner presence (a thought that I had no way of articulating at that time) and at the same time actually ‘included’ me in that presence, who listened in some unfathomable way, and who actually ‘saw’ me before her and spoke to me as a real human being.”
In many ways the heart and core of the book is the account of the experiences that occurred to the impressionable young South African at Franklin Farms, experiences that are unhesitatingly described as “profound and miraculous.” One such experience, following an altercation with Madame Ouspensky’s unstable grandson Lonya Savitsky. It was accompanied by intense mortification:
“But lying there prone on the floor, I suffered terrible remorse and shame at having behaved as I had done, _and at the same time_ I was witness to the miraculous appearance in me of this brilliant, golden being. It glowed in a surrounding vivid blaze of light.” He calls it “the phenomenon of the golden embryo.” Pages are devoted to examining the experience, with its configuration of the Kesdjan body, from the vantage-points of different religious and cultural traditions.
This takes us to Chapter 6 which is a departure from the norm, for it consists of the account kept by Frank’s wife Beatrice of her impressions of the various appearances of the elderly Gurdjieff in New York. Her brief memoir is full of interesting details. Overall she found Mr. Gurdjieff to be a man of “tremendous energy; anything in this life seemed possible.”
Chapter 7 is a remarkable tribute to a veteran of the Work named Martin W. Benson who is a jack-of-all-trades and someone who seems to be “all essence.” Originally a puzzle to Frank, Benson became what might be called a “best friend” for his twelve years of apprenticeship at Mendham and Armonk.
Chapter 8 is in many ways the counterpart of Chapter 7, for it is a sustained tribute to Frank’s friendship with Thomas Vivian Forman, a Cambridge-trained specialist in agriculture as well as military intelligence. In many ways, too, Forman is the counterpart of Benson – a balance between personality and essence. Frank’s love of people glows in these portraits.
Chapter 9 is titled “Annals of the Antic Press” and it describes Frank’s work in the icehouse at Armonk where, among other books, a small band of editors, designers, compositors, and press operators printed “Pronunciation Guide for Words Invented by Gurdjieff” in 1984, the forerunner of the much expanded edition issued by the Traditional Studies Press in Toronto.
By now it should be apparent that Frank is an appreciator of people. To my mind the outstanding section of his memoirs is Chapter 10 which is titled “John Pentland: The Lordly Line of High Sinclair.” Lord Pentland, chief of the clan and a scion of the illustrious Sinclair line (which seems not to include our author Frank Sinclair), was Mr. Gurdjieff’s appointee to oversee the Work in the United States. In these pages the author describes a number of the close and almost accidental encounters that he had with Pentland between 1958 and the latter’s death in 1984.
The author has no problem with Pentland’s rapier-like wit, for he felt, intriguingly, that when Pentland glared at him and wielded it, Pentland “gave him ‘his work.’” It is an interesting passage and perhaps it hinges on the somewhat off-the-cuff statement that Pentland was “old enough to be his father.” It seems Lord Pentland was the grandson the Marquis of Aberdeen, the seventh Governor General of Canada, as well as part of the family of the Earl of Elgin, an even earlier Governor General. Perhaps it was from this aristocratic tradition that he learned the arts of diplomacy – certainly of use in Work circles!
I feel that this chapter about “this remarkable and unusual man” is the “still point” of the memoirs. The next two biographical chapters are anti-climaxes, though they do have interesting dimensions. Chapter 11 is devoted to “Bill Segal: The Radical Reorientation,” and it presents this multi-talented man as “a class act.” Segal was the epitome of the active man, and even after being nearly crushed to death an automobile accident, he emerged almost as active as ever. Sinclair writes, neatly, that Segal was “humbled both in his pride and in his prime.”
Chapter 12 is titled “Jeanne de Salzmann: A Compelling Call” and it seems to me to be an apologia for the second half of Madame de Salzmann’s life. “The Unknown does not yield itself through abundant description,” Frank writes, so the reader who does not have prior knowledge of her life and work will be at sea when it comes to understanding what Frank is writing about.
I take it that he has two themes: the first is the role of the institution vis-à-vis the individual; the second is the espousal of the role of grace rather than effort and of flow rather than effort – to express it directly – that is represented by her from the death of Mr. Gurdjieff at a probable age of eighty-three in 1949 and Madame’s death at the ripe old age of 101 in 1990. Madame can do no wrong.
“I dare say,” he writes gingerly, “that when her own notes are collated and published, there will be surprising indications of the precision with which she followed the movement of the attention and the work for Presence.” As it happens, extracts from Madame’s notebooks are about to be issued by Shambhala Publications under the title “The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff,” so we will have the opportunity to judge for ourselves.
Frank is obviously devoted to Madame and he accepts her direction for the work, its “single grand verity,” which he takes pains and pages to trace back to Mr. Gurdjieff’s talks in New York, the first one on Dec. 19, 1930, and the second one on Dec. 25, 1948. The exposition in these pages is more associative than it is disciplined, so there is little doubt that he feels that what she was doing she was doing consciously and with authorization. “Madame Jeanne de Salzmann brought neither a New Work nor an Old Work, but only Gurdjieff’s Work.”
I will pass over Chapter 13, “Some Random Inferences,” because the contents are indeed random (to describe them would be to try to herd cats) and they turn out to be elaborations of points made earlier in the memoirs. The one new element that I spotted is the effort that Frank is making to enlarge to conception of the Work to include the thoughts of some new-comers along with some overlooked old-comers (to name a few men and women in alphabetical order): Joseph Azize, Michel Conge, Martha Heyneman, James Moore, Jacob Needleman, Ravi Ravindra, Sophia Wellbeloved.
Also given some recognition is the contribution of the annual International Humanities Conference (better known as the All & Everything Conference) as well as Traditionalist thinkers like Titus Burkhardt and their semi-annual publication, the Vancouver-based “Sacred Web.” This is close to an ecumenical touch, and perhaps it is a daring one.
Throughout Frank retains his modesty and the projects the air of constant amazement associated with Alice in Wonderland. “I did not drink Armagnac with Gurdjieff,” he writes, amusingly. “I belong to the post-Gurdjieff era, not even remotely a Saul among the Apostles, but a fellow traveler, feeding from those who, like Madame de Salzmann, had been before.”
The second edition of the memoirs ends with three appendices as well as a nominal index. Two of the appendices consist of reviews of the first edition of the book. The first review is a once-over-lightly appreciation by David Appelbaum. It originally appeared in “Parabola,” as did the lively interview with Frank on the subject of “Who Is the Teacher?”
The third appendix consists, surprisingly, of a review amusingly titled “The Guide for the Perplexed” and posted on Amazon.com by its author, biographer James Moore. I found it to be one of the book’s highlights, in the sense that its tone and style are totally at odds with Frank’s. Yet it hits the right note when in an impish mood Moore describes Frank as “a regular-kinda-guy whose pride in his modesty attains oxymoronic heights.”
Had Frank been born under the shadow of the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia, rather than in the shadow of Table Rock, South Africa, I would be inclined to describe him as “a bloke.” Whatever the description, he is a sensitive fellow and “Without Benefit of Clergy” is certainly an entertaining and I believe honest account of one man’s rather unusual spiritual quest. He demystifies by remythologizing.
John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist who is known across Canada for his popular reference books. He writes about Work-related publications for this blog. His latest publication is “Walt Whitman’s Canada,” a book-length, documentary-style account of the American poet’s tour of Central and Eastern Canada in the Summer of 1880. Colombo’s website is < www . colombo – plus . ca >
THE JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO PAGE
A MAMMOTH AND UNUSUAL PUBLICATION
John Robert Colombo briefly notes the characteristics of an enjoyable tome of a book by Jessmin and Dushka Howarth
It was in the middle of the 1950s that I first encountered the writings of P.D. Ouspensky and through his ideas I engaged with the theory and practice introduced by G.I. Gurdjieff. To this day I visualize the Work from the vantagepoint of an unreconstructed Ouspenskian as well as through the filter of the Fifties, the period of the Cold War with all of its polarities, with the battle between ideologies, and with the ever-presence of subversive ideas in both East and West.
I am inclined to visualize the scenes of Ouspensky in Moscow and Gurdjieff in Paris in the tone of sepia but framed in black and white. The Work is in soft-focus and far in the past. It is not yet called the Gurdjieff Work, or not yet called the Fourth Way. Instead, it is known as the Special Doctrine, which was the term Ouspensky used to permit himself to distinguish between this “school of thought” from his earlier philosophical, theosophical, and mathematical speculations. That continued to be a problem for him.
The special and private perspective that I have been describing may very well be shared by people who came to maturity with “fragments of an unknown teaching” in the late Forties and early Fifties. The perspective is that of a Wisdom tradition that is inimical to Western values generally, a tradition that appeared in the West in 1912 and over the next two decades came to the attention of a discerning public in literary and artistic circles through through Ouspensky’s lectures in London and Gurdjieff’s activities in Paris and at Fontainebleau-on-Avon.
So in my mind’s eye, I still see the appearance of these ideas as accomplishments in the past, not contributions to New Age thought of the Sixties. Students of the Work who are younger than I was then have the opportunity (especially after reading the book that I am about to discuss) to view the Work on a wide-screen in Technicolor with Dolby Sound. No sepia or black and white for them! What grew with effort out of the soil of pre-Revolutionary Russia was able to survive the Communist Revolution, the Great War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. Now much that was merely words and counter-revolutionary history has been brought to life and given flesh and blood through the efforts of two extraordinarily able women, a mother and a daughter, inspired by G.I. Gurdjieff.
In due course I discovered books by Rom Landau, Kenneth Walker, J.B. Bennett, and others, and eventually the foundation, institute, and society were established with their many affiliated groups, not to mention offshoot organizations with no particular provenance. Thus the work was rounded out for me. For a short time I was a member of the Toronto Group, which was founded only a few years after the New York foundation. In Toronto, I met the Welches – Dr. William Welch and Mrs. Louise Welch – the movements instructor Alfred Etiévant, not to mention Paul and Sheila Bura and other students of the Work, whom French participants are inclined to call “adepts.”
All of this activity seemed at the time to be of marginal interest to society as a whole. Except possibly for a handful of Theosophists and Anthroposophists, nobody I knew had ever heard of movements, the enneagram, kesdjan bodies, the formatory centre, etc. Soon the Special Doctrine would sea-change into the Work and these would enter into common parlance. If there is a year with which to mark that metamorphosis, it is the year 1979, which saw the commercial release of Peter Brook’s remarkable film, Meetings with Remarkable Men.
It is not by chance that since then I keep encountering people who know “all about” Gurdjieff.” They proceed to share their “information and insights” with me. When this happens it is diverting but also dismaying, yet it remains instructive. Indeed, I recall the story told a few years ago by the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson (I think it was) about the middle-aged man who boarded an airplane and took his seat beside that of a distinguished-looking older man. The two passengers began to chat.
During the course of the flight, the middle-aged man waxed eloquent about the intricacies of “string theory,” basing everything he knew on article that he had enthusiastically read about it in a popular science magazine. When he had finished with his disquisition, he asked the older man what he thought – and it turned out that he had been explaining “string theory” to Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate!
I am no Murray Gell-Mann – not even a Freeman Dyson – and I also assume my readers are neither – but I am also sure we have all had this experience at least once. Indeed, I have been having a similar experience while reading this massive new book that I am about to review. It is indeed massive. It measures 10″ high and 7″ wide and 1.25 inches thick! It has a four-colour coated cover and it is quite long at xxvi + 512 pages. It is not strictly new – though a book is “new” to anyone who has yet to read it – for the title page says it was published in 1998, twelve years ago! Could that be true? (If so, I am uncharacteristically late catching up with it!) The tome to which I am referring bears a title with subtitles that are awkward yet not inaccurate. Here it is:
“It’s Up to Ourselves”
A Mother, a Daughter, and Gurdjieff
A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album
By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth
Gurdjieff Heritage Society
Copyright, Dushka Howarth, 1998
To me in the 1950s, the Work represented ideas and effort. To the men and women who lived through that period as adults from 1912 to the 1950s, who were in daily and often intimate contact with Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, it was work and effort too, but it was also a lively time that was rich in character and personality, in idiots and toasts, in events and experiences that were seen to be teaching situations. There was the sprightliness of the Twenties and the literary and technological innovations of the interwar years generally – with inventions like the Theramin – which seemed outwards signs of inward change.
Now down to the book itself. The table of contents tells the story of the emergence and evolution of the Work chronologically: The Early Years, Twenties, Thirties, Forties, Fifties, The Later Years. Also included are a Preface and Introduction and then Postscripts, Appendices, Bibliography, and Index. The index is something of a shock because it consists of a list of names without a single page number. Yet the names that appear here! Some 800 people are mentioned, celebrities like Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen and Mrs. Wallace Warfield Simpson … as well as the seven Bennetts, the six Gurdjieffs, the five de Salzmanns, the four Stjernvals, the three Andersons, the two de Hartmanns, and the single Denis Saurat.
What I have yet to mention is this book’s unique and indispensable feature: its photographs. As well as a collection of informative letters, it is an album of close to 900 photos, ranging from studio portraits and publicity shots to candid snapshots. The latter are exceptional and even emotional in appeal. By comparison, I once edited for a publisher the memoirs of a Canadian colonel who had served as the aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip during their Royal Visits to Canada. On the side-tables in his living-room in his gracious residence in Oakville, Ontario, there were framed snapshots of members of the Royal Family. These candid shots were inscribed and they showed the royal personages in their leisured moments. It was something of a shock to see Liz and Phil lounging about on the lawns of Balmoral, toying with corgis, smiling at each other, relaxing with the colonel, etc.
The sense of surprise that I experienced in the general’s living room was recreated when page after page of this tome I saw candid photographs of the names of most if not all of the people who “made” the Work. There is hardly a double-page spread without its agreeable photograph or photographs. I realize now for too long I had been starved for images. And also for gossip.
No way am I am able to summarize the wealth of the contents of this publication, other than to briefly allude to its structure and straight away recall a few of its highlights, a personal selection at best. The tome may lack the high-seriousness of purpose characteristic of James Moore’s Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered, published in 2005, and it may miss the earnest quality of life exhibited in Frank R. Sinclair’s Without Benefit of Clergy: Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching (2009), which I hope to review in the future, yet its informality and its air of indiscretion are its characteristic charms.
It is a work of great gaiety. It has the air of one of today’s blogs or of one of yesteryear’s family scrapbooks or private diaries: the family being that of Gurdjieff’s kith and kin and karass (to use Kurt Vonnegut’s ingenious term). It takes the form of the long, detailed, and delightful letters that were exchanged by Jessmin Howarth and her daughter Cynthia Ann (Dushka) Howarth (one of Gurdjieff’s children). A sense of how the Work impregnated the lives of these two correspondents and their array of friends is apparent on every page of this book, yet the import of all of these references will be lost on readers who lack knowledge of what it is all about, being J.K. Rowling’s muggles and squibs.
I mentioned earlier I would “review” this book. Since that is impossible, even given the measureless space available on a blog like this one, I will content myself by merely “noticing” some references in the book. I will comment here and there on passages that have struck me as particularly interesting over the month that I spent dipping into it, reading here and there. There is an old saying that goes like this: “You do not have to drink the ocean to learn that it is salty, as one drop is enough.” I will take a sip here and there. It will satisfy the curiosity of the reader who is needy and wants to sense the shape and feel of the Work, as it evolved, in terms of people and their relationships. The details will help historians of ideas for decades to come. Right now it is time for the reader with a taste for these ideas and feelings.
Allow me to begin by noting the “Canadian content.” There is a snapshot of James (Jim) George and of his daughter, dancer Dolphi Wertenbaker, and a photograph of Sheila Bura, who also taught the movements. There are references to Peter Colgrove, who nursed Madame de Hartmann through her last days, and Tom and Ruth Daly, guardians of the Gurdjieff / de Hartmann music. Honourary Canadians are the Welches who guided the groups in Toronto and Halifax.
I was pleased to see many references to movements instructor Alfred Etiévant, whom I found to be a stern taskmaster, but whom wiser and older people knew to be so sweet as to be described as a “pushover.” I learned he was urged to marry Dushka Howarth but he ended up married to Lise Tracol. I could go on. There are lovely photographs of the “work periods” in Halifax with Ravi Ravindra. There is even a photo of Walter Driscoll, the bibliographer.
I had long nourished a curiosity about life at Franklin Farms at Mendham, N.J. There are photographs of the attractive residence and of activities that took place there, as well as pen portraits of the personalities who worked there on weekends or who resided there for years. There are references to the site at Armonk and photographs of Lyne Place, Colet Gardens, Coombe Springs, and Sherborne House, all fabulous and semi-storied places in my eyes.
Jessmin Howarth, an orphan, was an student of Dalcroze’s Eurythmics at Hellerau where she met fellow student Jeanne de Salzmann who subsequently introduced her to the movements, which Christian philosopher Jacques Maritain is credited with calling “meditation in motion.” (The same description is independently used to characterize the discipline of Tai Chi.) Jessmin met Gurdjieff in Paris in 1922. Over the years she learned, like many another woman, to dissever the teacher from the man.
Throughout the book appear photographs of Madame Gurdjieff and Madame Ouspensky as well as snapshots of Ouspensky himself travelling through Ceylon. In fact, the women whose stories are told and whose photographs are reproduced play a great role in the story. Dushka herself has done a fine job explaining the background and significance of the references that appear in the correspondence.
In addition to the women already mentioned (in no order whatsoever, a little confusion being catchy) here are some names redolent of activities in the past and the present: Lily Galumian, Madame Ostrowska (Gurdjieff‘s mother), Olga de Hartmann, Jessie Dwight Orage, Katherine Mansfield, Olgivanna Hinzenberg Wright, Edith Taylor Swaska, Elizabeta Stjernvall, Louise Goepfert March, Ethel Merston, Tania Savitsky, Edith Taylor, Rita Romilly Benson, Petey Taylor, Solange Claustre, Lise Tracol, Marian Sutta, Peggy Flinsch, Henriette Lannes, Rina Hands, Elizabeth Bennett, Dorothea Dooling, Pauline de Dampierre, Marthe de Gaigneron, Tania Nagro, Luba Gurdjieff, Rosemary Nott, P.L. Travers, Patty Welch de Llosa, Svetlana Wright Peters, Dorothy Caruso, and Lady Lucy Pentland, not to mention Kathryn Hulme and Margaret Anderson and the talented women who were members of The Rope. I hope I have not overlooked too many talented and energetic women!
I will forego any attempt to summarize what Jessmin and Dushka took from the work or from Gurdjieff personally and privately. It resists summary. The enthusiasm for the Work that is displayed by them for the man and the techne and praxis speaks for itself. Jessmin’s letters to Dushka and Dushka’s replies are the threads that stitch this crazy-quilt of a book together. It is apparent that the daughter inherited her verve and personal style from her mother. (I will leave up in the air what she inherited from her father.)
Both women are lively correspondents, uninhibited letter-writers, whose words are a joy to read. Not a few of these pages are devoted to accounts of Dushka’s own and varied activities. A glamorous professional guitar-player, she was also a spunky and adventurous licensed press agent, translator, and guide working in Paris. For all of this froth and frivolity, I am grateful to her for capturing the excitement of the people who were involved in the work, changing my impression of it from something solemn and remote and sepia to a dynamic way of living, what Paul Beekman Taylor has recently described as “a new life.”
It’s Up to Ourselves is published by the Gurdjieff Heritage Society, which has its own website. The selling price of the book is in given as US$75.00. It is worth every penny of that amount. (With a workable index, it would be worth at least twice that sum.)
John Robert Colombo is known across Canada as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of the lore and literature of the country. He is the author, most recently, of End of Greatness, a collection of poems, and Indifferences, a collection of aphorisms. Yevgeny Yevtushenko told him, “You must be the most sophisticated of poets.” Andrei Voznesensky wrote, “The searchings of John Robert Colombo are significant and profound.” Check his website with its podcasts: www. colombo-plus.ca
An eye-opener of a book written by Susan Greenwood is reviewed by John Robert Colombo
There is an amusing story that is told about the Danish physicist Niels Bohr who was showing a colleague the barn behind his chalet which he had converted into a study where he undertook his calculations. The colleague pointed out that above the barn door someone had nailed an inverted horseshoe, a symbol of good luck. He asked Bohr if he believed the horseshoe would bring him good luck. “No,” Bohr replied, “but I understand it works whether I believe in it or not.”
I was reminded of this tale when I began to read “The Anthropology of Magic” written by Susan Greenwood. It came to mind because the moral of her book – I am not offering a “spoiler warning” here so much as I am “cutting to the chase” – seems to be that “thinking makes it so” or “if you believe you can do something or if you believe you cannot do something, you are right.”
The two statements seem to be platitudes – indeed, the first is a cliché, and the second is a paradox – yet these truisms are … well … true. There is a kind of knowledge that results from “magical thinking” as there is a kind of knowledge that results from “scientific thinking.” This in a nutshell I assume to be the argument of Dr. Greenwood’s study. As for the nutshell mentioned in the previous sentence, it was Prince Hamlet (who has been called the first modern man) who boasted, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and call myself king of infinite space …. ”
It occurred to the biologist Stephen Jay Gould while he was in Vatican City that there are two forms of authority (if not knowledge) and that these two forms are derived from “the magisterium of science” and “the magisterium of religion” and that the two magisteria do not overlap. At the time of this formulation Gould was in Rome, accompanied by Carl Sagan, the sceptical astronomer, who had a deep “sense of wonder.” They were there to participate in a scientific conference. Sagan derided Gould for his suggestion (or concession) there is any knowledge in religion, knowledge at any rate that resembles the “real” knowledge that results from the work of scientists, that produces measurable results, and that can be falsified. Gould was miffed and wrote an essay about the disagreement.
Aleister Crowley practised ritual magic the way Dorothy Clutterbuck practised the ceremonial magic of wicca. The Great Beast used to call what he did “magick,” and I seem to recall that he defined this practice as “causing change to occur in conformity with Will.” Crowley conformed to the image of the Black Magician. The White Witch may be seen in the person of Clutterbuck, who inspired Gerald Gardner, who gave much of the characteristic form and feel to the contemporary practice of Wicca, which is at home with the subtle forces of the natural and supernatural worlds. Both Crowley and Clutterbuck worked in “imaginal” realms.
These ideas and notions were rattling around in my brain (or mind) when I began to read “The Anthropology of Magic,” which is a serious contribution to both anthropology and magic written Dr. Susan Greenwood, who is Visiting Senior Research Fellow of the University of Sussex, Brighton, England. She is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at a seminar to be held at Girton College, Cambridge, England. It takes place on May 13, 2010, and the title of the session is “Legitimate Forms of Knowledge?” (I imagine that the question mark is important in her address.) So Dr. Greenwood is a scholar. She is also a practitioner of magic.
First, a note of “disambiguation.” Susan Greenwood is not to be confused with her near-namesake, Susan Greenfield. The former is an anthropologist; the latter is Baroness Greenfield, an Oxford scholar and a biomedical writer of considerable ability and media-savvy and the author of numerous works, including The Human Mind Explained, and other popular and not-so-popular texts. The two Susans are very able people, but the Baroness does not profess to be a magician.
The Anthropology of Magic, written by the scholar who professes to read tarot cards and to practice the healing arts, is a big book in that it is an oversize trade paperback that measures 6 inches by 9.5 inches. It is only viii + 164 pages long but the type is quite small so there are many sentences. It was issued in soft and hard-cover editions in 2009 by Berg Publishers, an academic house based in Oxford that publishes books and journals in a great variety of fields with a specialty in modern design. Its website lists and describes its serious publications, including the present one.
I imagine Dr. Greenwood to be a fine lecturer because she is a fine writer. I am tempted to say that for an anthropologist she writes with great clarity. Her sentences are crystal clear and the diagrams that she has added to the text to display contrasts between scientific and non-scientific modes of thought are ideal for PowerPoint presentations. She is one anthropologist who is interested in communicating with a public that is academic though not limited to fellow anthropologists or magicians. In this regard she reminds me of Susan Blackmore, who in her shift from espousing parapsychology to embracing scepticism has never ceased to be a psychologist and a scientist.
Like Dr. Blackmore, Dr. Greenwood is an enthusiast and a participant who is willing to advance atypical views. But the two academics are unalike in that Dr. Blackmore works as an experimental psychologist and follows the trail of the evidence (or lack of it), whereas Dr. Greenwood is a theorist and not a scientist who is concerned with finding a place in intellectual discourse for what is regarded as the irrational. Dr. Greenwood is arguing a case, and she argues well, but after a while the reader – this reader anyway – begins to feel that he is being led to face a series of foregone conclusions.
In the next paragraphs, I will summarize the contents of Dr. Greenwood’s book and thereafter offer an evaluation of her approach. Now I will begin with the Table of Contents which neatly outlines the subject – which I take to be how an anthropologist argues that we could look at magic as a source of knowledge, and if knowledge is a form of power, then as a source of power too.
There are four sections. The first section is titled “Explaining Magic” and it describes what used to be called the “participation mystique” (it sounds better in French) and the structure and operation of magical thinking (through connections and associations). The second section is called “The Experience of Magic” and it presents what the author considers “magical consciousness” and “a mythological language of magic.” The third section is labelled “Practical Magic” and it deals with “webs of beliefs,” basically how being human we can never escape this way of experiencing the world. The fourth section is termed “Working with Magic” and deals with what might be called consilience but which the author describes in the phrase “Not Only, but Also.”
So much for the arrangement of the contents of the book. I will now try to abridge the author’s Introduction, introducing some of my own impressions along the way, but downplaying to some extent the author’s great strength: her knowledge of and respect for the theories and insights of the great anthropologists of the past and the present. She argues that the discipline has always had to deal with the subject of magic and that the approaches that anthropologists have taken in the past have told their readers more about themselves and their societies than about the theory and practice of magic itself. As well, it seems, the conception of the nature magic has changed with the times.
There are two main problems: the “ultimate irrationality of magic” and its “inferiority … when compared to science.” Nevertheless magic lies “at the heart of anthropology” because of “the issues it raises in relation to human experience.” If it lies at the “heart” of anthropology, it lies at the “heart” of men and women too. We seem to be creatures who are able to respond to the world both magically and scientifically.
The author writes, “The time has come to propose another understanding of magic, and it is the aim of this book to examine magic as an aspect of human consciousness.” She is prepared to show how it affects “everyday conceptions of reality” and how it can be “an analytical category as well as a valuable source of knowledge.” Perhaps I am taking this further than the author does when I suggest that to her magic offers a way of knowing about ourselves in the world through the imagination, a way of knowledge that augments the way we generally know the world of matter through measurement.
“When I first started my doctoral research in the 1990s, I made the decision to study magic from the inside, as a practitioner of magic as well as an anthropologist. I wanted to discover what could be learnt through direct experience.” She explored the ramifications of this approach in her two previous books, both published by Berg: “Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld” (2000) and “The Nature of Magic” (2005).
A dozen pages of Introduction follow in which she discusses cultural assumptions and contrasts the experiences of magical practice in our own culture with those in other cultures. She notes the effects of “a detraditionalisation of mainstream religions”and limns the changing face of magic in Western occultism. In the process, I acquired two new words that have recognizable meanings: “Celticity” and “Druidry.” She amusingly compares traditional “African witch-doctors with Western political spin-doctors” (like those employed by prime ministers and presidents and other political leaders to create new “narrative”). She concludes, “Magic is alive and well as an analytical category in a whole range of new ethnographies.”
She writes, “The approach taken here focuses on _magical consciousness_, a term that I use to describe a mythopoetic, expanded aspect of awareness that can potentially be experienced by everyone …. ” Despite the importance of this mode of knowledge, magic has been marginalized in what she calls our “Western rationalist culture.” The writings of Tylor, Kroeber, Freud, Durkheim, and others are mentioned to demonstrate how magic has been dismissed as deluded, dangerous, deceitful, or dumb.
Yet shamanism is not so easily dismissed because it does produce a change in consciousness in the sense of a transformation of sensations, impressions, emotions, and conceptions. These in turn affect values. The transformation of consciousness immediately brought to my mind the following lines from the poem “Vacillation” in which Yeats describes the illumination of a fifty-year-old man:
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
Many people feel (at times anyway) blessed, but anyone who is able to bless is a magician. It would seem the poets are there with the magicians.
A consideration of the truths or insights that come to us through the medium of poetry is offered through a brief but relevant discussion of Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Yet only one page is devoted to the nature of consciousness itself, despite the advances recorded in the 1990s by neurologists and philosophers into the mind / brain division in the field of “consciousness studies.” I guess these are not subjects regularly discussed by anthropologists, nor should we expect them in a book about the “anthropology” of magic.
Some subjects do not yield their secrets to logic and this is one of them, so with relief she switches into a visionary mode. She begins one paragraph, “I remembered a dream I had had previously in which I was climbing down a deep tunnel in the middle of the earth …. ” The dream continues and it involves a loss of skin, a round space, swimming in water, narrow tunnels, bones being picked by a large crow, etc. This is a fertile field for a Freud or a Jung!
I have maintained a daily dream diary for the last five years, so I can attest that one’s dreams are significant to the dreamer but seldom meaningful to anyone else. These motifs in the dream world may or may not be relevant to the waking world. She concludes, “This experience had a profound effect on me,” and I do not doubt her, but was it an “imaginal experience” as she suggests? Not in Corbin’s meaning of that word. A dream is an experience, but it is the experience of an illusion, and no special effects necessarily issue from it. Are any such illusory experiences meaningful and significant? I doubt it but the subject may be debated and Dr. Greenwood does debate it well.
Psychology is not much to the fore. I read Tanya Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft when it appeared in 1989, but in the intervening years, I have found little reason to recall its argument. Luhrmann found magic or Wicca to be rich in psychological insight, period. Dr. Greenfield finds it to be rich in many other fields as well.
The author is concerned to square insights from the practice of magic with the understanding offered by her discipline. “The difficulty is that anthropology is a discipline with theoretical and methodological understandings located firmly in the material world, despite attempts to value all human orientations as valid.” Yes, but is there communicable knowledge beyond the confines of the material world? She would answer Yes. I am inclined to agree with her, but I prefer to hedge my bet, like the majority of scholars and scientists, and take refuge in the Scots verdict “not proven.”
The great anthropologist Frazer is given his due, limitations and all, for he was the Darwin in his field. One upon a time, à la Frazer, there was magic which gave way to religion which gave way to science. Given the paradigm shift proposed in these pages, it seems science may now yield to religion and religion to magic. Perhaps “paradigm shift” is the wrong phrase to use here, for there are no references in the text to Kuhn and his theory of just such a shift.
Dr. Greenwood much prefers what has been called the “interpretive drift.” This is part of the mythopoeic faculty which has always been inherent in the nature of man and woman and been granted at least some recognition in every human society (except, according to convention, that of ancient Sparta). Denis Saurat saw it explained as “philosophical poetry.”
The author discusses the views of the “mystical mentality” adopted by the philosopher Lévy-Bruhl and the psychologist Evans-Pritchard. She even writes an imaginary dialogue for them to debate their points of view. She feels their views hold promise today for they agree that “mystical mentality was universal to all human beings.” The savage of the past was no less rational than is the scientist of today. The anthropologist or psychologist is on safe ground in making this observation for the statement challenges neither of these disciplines. I recall reading somewhere that a researcher once said, “Superstition is superstition. But the study of superstition is science.”
The profession of magic is very much part of the author’s life, as is the profession of anthropology. “This book tells a story about my journey to discover the anthropology of magic; it feels like a patchwork quilt or a jigsaw of pieces of information that I have picked up over the years, both in trying to make sense of my fieldwork experience and also in teaching ideas about magic in anthropology of religion courses at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, and shamanic and altered states of consciousness courses at the University of Sussex.”
So much for the Introduction. If I continued to try to paraphrase and comment in such detail on the balance of the book, I would produce a tedious review too long to be read in a single sitting, and I would do the author’s thesis less than justice. Instead, I propose to do something unusual and allow the author to make her major points in her own words. I will do so by quoting the four paragraphs that the author has written to outline her argument section by section. These are well handled.
Summary of Section One:
“This section sets out to explain theories that help an understanding of magic: not the explanations that somehow reduce magic to its effects on human behaviour or society, but the essence of magic as an intuitive process of mind. Magic is a holistic orientation to the world that is essentially relational and expansive; it is not irrational or confined to the thought of so-called primitives, nor is magic the preserve of non-Western, exotic societies. Rather, it is an aspect of human consciousness, and therefore it is especially appropriate to study magic in modern, Western societies, where it often manifests as an undercurrent.”
Summary of Section Two:
“Using my own experience, in this section, I focus on breaking down the barrier between researcher and researched to show how magical consciousness flows through emotion and the mythological imagination.” (Added to this summary are two quotations. The first one has Dr. Greenwood quoting herself about the “uncomfortable process” of “self-examination and exploration.” The second one is an observation of Jo Crow, a British shaman, who alludes to the “multidimensional” nature of this experience.)
Summary of Section Three:
“Magic is often said to be about the purported art of influencing the course of events through occult means; it is a practice that is said can bring about certain effects such as causing harm or healing. It can be conscious or unconscious as well as rational and mystical, but above all, magic involves an immaterial psychic dimension to everyday reality; this is widely described as spirit. In this section, we will explore everyday magic, from the classical ethnographic work of Evans-Pritchard on Azande witchcraft, magic and oracles (Chapter 6) to divination and healing in various cultural settings (Chapter 7).” (Also included are three quotations from Evans-Pritchard, Tedlock, and Parrish which add little to the above description.)
Summary of Section Four:
“Anthropologists working in the field encounter specific challenges when confronted with the gap between informants’ accounts of spirit beings and their own position as researchers within the essentially rationalistic academic anthropological discipline. Magic poses problems for many anthropologists; this is due to the fact that its spiritual nature conflicts with Western notions of rationality, as we will see in Chapter 8. A more inclusive scientific framework is needed that overcomes the theoretical tendency to devalue magical experience and to recognize magical knowledge as a valuable aspect of human consciousness. Chapter 9 builds on ideas developed by Gregory Bateson and Geoffrey Samuel to just this end.” (Also included are short quotations from Turner, Lévy-Bruhl, and Bateson.)
I should add that the book includes extensive source notes and an index. There is no general bibliography but there are short bibliographies for “further reading.” There is no section called Conclusion, but I soon came to the conclusion that none is required for what the author would have to say in any final section is a foregone conclusion.
Dr. Greenwood is appreciative of the anthropologists of the past who devoted their lives to fieldwork. I imagine she regards her own experiences and the effects they have caused in magical circles as a form of fieldwork. She sees the great anthropologists’ insights into shamans and magical journeys as transferrable to today’s witches and their imaginative encounters. In this undertaking, she wins on points because she is what the French describe as “parti pris.” She knows where she stands and that is where she is heading. The reader is not taken on a journey so much as allowed to explore the intellectual ground already claimed. So her study does not add to human knowledge but it does examine some of our preconceptions of the nature of that knowledge.
There is a short but interesting section devoted to the relationship between mythos and logos. I wish it were longer and that it took into account the conception of that connection in the analysis of Northrop Frye who found the relationship to be one of “interpenetration.” But to do so would have required Dr. Greenwood to enter into the woods of the archetypal world of Nemi that is more frequented by literary critics and analytical psychologists than by anthropologists and ethnologists. As well, the author spends some time with phenomenology, she never really exorcizes its demon of subjectivity, even misspelling that word on page 141.
Yet I find “The Anthropology of Magic” to be an eye-opener of a book, not so much because of what or how it argues, but more because of the position for which it argues: the postmodern notion which is rapidly gaining ground that it is not necessary to believe in anything.
Near the end of the book she writes, “Whilst participating in a magical aspect of consciousness, the question of belief is irrelevant: belief is not a necessary condition to communicate with an inspirited world.” What works, works. William James’s contribution to the notion of multiple consciousnesses – not just to multiple layers of consciousness – is acknowledged, and as a pragmatist he would have agreed. So would Niels Bohr with his horseshoe.
John Robert Colombo, an author and commentator who lives in Toronto, is an anthologist, not an anthropologist (although he did pass two “anthrop” courses at the University of Toronto in the late 1950s). His latest publication (co-edited with Dr. Cyril Greenland) is an expanded edition of “Walt Whitman’s Canada.” He is currently writing an introduction to an omnibus edition of the five Sumuru novels written by Sax Rohmer (the mystery story writer who created Dr. Fu Manchu). Colombo’s personal website is http://www.colombo-plus.ca