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JACOB NEEDLEMAN: two new books reviewed John Robert Colombo


The John Robert Colombo Page

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Jacob Needleman


Two New Books by Jacob Needleman

I have long admired the books written by Jacob Needleman who is Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State College in California. During his productive career, the scholar and writer, now in his seventies, has devoted books to a variety of subjects of relevance, including the nature of democracy in America, the object of philosophy, the role of the physician in society, the characteristics of money, the features of goodness, new religions, ancient and modern technologies, etc. He has been the director of the Center for the Study of New Religions at The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and he has served as general editor of the Penguin Metaphysical Library and the same for Element Books.

He has been a busy man, and the above activities do not take into account his work in the domain of the Work itself. Among his most useful publication is “Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching” (Continuum, 1996) which he compiled with George Baker. He has now produced two more books in this field — or might I say one full book and one booklet? The book is “The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work” (2008) and the booklet is “Introduction to the Gurdjieff Work” (2009). Both are published by Morning Light Press of Sandpoint, Idaho, which has a fine catalogue of books about modern-day spirituality. That catalogue is accessible through Google.

Let me describe the little book titled “Introduction to the Gurdjieff Work.” It measures four inches wide by five inches here and it is only 62 pages long. So it is a gift book, the kind of miniature publication like those displayed beside cash registers in book stores. It consists of Needleman’s necessarily brief essay on the Work along with a useful, annotated bibliography that lists books, music, and a feature-length film. (Yes, the film is Peter Brooks’s “Meetings with Remarkable Men.”) There is nothing remarkable about Needleman’s essay, though it is written with clarity and concision and it focuses on the pivotal role of conscience in the life of modern man. It downplays what has been called the “psychology” and the “esoteric” sides of the Work. It is a conscientious introduction to the Work.

The appearance of the essay in this form is an instance of how Needleman recycles his material because the essay is based on two earlier essays of his, one of which he included in “Modern Esoteric Spirituality ” (1922) which he compiled with Antoine Faivre, the other of which he wrote as an entry for “Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism” (2005) edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff. More to the point, the essay is reprinted verbatim as the Introduction to the principal book to be examined here: “The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work.”

As I mentioned, Morning Light Press publishes fine books, and the present volume is no exception. It is especially sturdy. It measures 6″ x 9″ and in length consists of xxxii + 356 numbered pages. The design and layout are a delight for the pages are easy to read and it is a handsome package to hold. It includes a surprise. It begins with the above-mentioned essay and it ends with the above-mentioned bibliography — along with a DVD of a film. (Yes, it is Brooks’s “Meetings with Remarkable Men.”)

“The Inner Journey” is one of eight books in Morning Light Press’s “Parabola Anthology Series” under the general editorship of Ravi Ravindra. Many readers of this review will be familiar with “Parabola,” the quarterly publication that is now celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. Founded by the late D.M. Dooling in New York City in1976, it is published by The Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition. It is the locus (it says) “Where Spiritual Traditions Meet.”

The series has volumes devoted to the “traditions” of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, as well as “Views from the Gurdjieff Work,” “Views from Native Traditions,” and a post-pourri titled “Myth, Psyche & Spirit.” It seems the general editor, Dr. Ravindra, a retired professor of both Physics and Religion from Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., has been busy overseeing this mining operation of the last twenty-five years of quarterly issues for relevant texts. It is quite a job.

For a year I held a subscription to “Parabola,” and while I admired and still admire the spirit and style of each issue of the well-illustrated periodical, I felt and feel the “mosaic” approach to be rather static and essentially bland. It consists of reprinting “snippets” from the standard books in the fields, though some original essays essays are commissioned and informative interviews are conducted. Pictorially issues are well illustrated, but outright contradictions are denied and rough edges are smoothed over.

The “transcendent unity” of religions is one thing, but one often learns more about spirituality by probing the elements of man and society that are not “transcendent” and are unrelated to “unity.” So I find “Parabola” to be very much a quality general publication, rather New Agey, not really more than that. Nobody ever said to me, excitedly, “Did you read such-and-such an article in the latest issue of ‘Parabola’?”

It fell to Jacob Needleman to compile “The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work” and given the chunks of prose he has had to work with, he has done a decent job of erecting a reasonable structure. In all there are sixty passages, and all of them are reprinted from well-known texts known to serious students of the Work. They were written by twenty-three contributors, including the editor. Here is a rough breakdown of the contributors.

The first tier of contributors consists of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, A.R. Orage, Maurice Nicoll, and Jeanne de Salzmann. The second tier includes Peter Brook, Rene Daumal, John Pentland, Henri Tracol, and Michel de Salzmann. On the third tier we have Pauline Dampierre, Margaret Flinsch, Chris Fremantle, Jacob Needleman, and Ravi Rabindra. That leaves the fourth tier: Henry Barnes, Martha Heyneman, Mitch Horowitz, Roger Lipsey, Paul Reynard, Laurence Rosenthal, William Segal, P.L. Travers, and Michel Waldberg.

Here are the names of some people who go unaccounted for (almost at random): J.B. Bennett, Henriette Lannes, Patty de Llosa, James Moore, C.S. Nott, Fritz Peters, Paul Beekman Taylor, Jean Vaysse, James Webb. I guess their writings did not appear in the pages of “Parabola.”

The sixty passages of prose (and some of Daumal’s prosey poetry) are arranged in six sections. These are called chapters and given headings. For the record here they are: Chapter 1: Man’s Possibilities Are Very Great. Chapter 2: Remember Yourself Always and Everywhere. Chapter 3: To be Man Who Is Searching with all his Being. Chapter 4: That Day … the Truth Will Be Born. Chapter 5: Only he Will Be Called and Will Become the Son of God Who Aquires in Himself Conscience. Chapter 6: The Source of That Which Does Not Change.

Try as I might I could not find much of a relationship between the chapter headings and the contents of the chapters, but try as I might I could not come up with a better plan of organization. (I find it odd that the book ends with Ouspensky’s outline of “the food factory.”) We have here a “mosaic” (not a “collage”) and individual voices predominate. It is no surprise that the two leading contributors (with eight pieces apiece) are Gurdjieff and Ouspensky with familiar passages from their familiar books, though if the books have yet to be read the passages are unfamiliar to the novice rather than to the veteran reader.

The editor did the best he could with the material at hand, yet the overall effect is that of reading “Reader’s Digest” (which used to plant wordy articles in popular publications so its editors could “digest” them) or present-day issues of “Harper’s” whose editors selected excerpts from current books and periodicals. So the present book is a box of all-sorts.There is material here aplenty for sermons and talks. If the Gospels are “good news,” these are “good thoughts.”

Everyone will have his favourite familiar passages, but for my taste the most rewarding contribution to the anthology — the one most worthwhile to reread — is “Footnote to the Gurdjieff Literature” written by Michel de Salzmann. With great taste (and some distaste), he surveys the writings of students, scholars, and imaginative writers, and he finds most of them wanting. He takes as a given the principle and practice that the Work cannot be conveyed or even described in words, but that it must be experienced to be realized in one’s everyday life.

While Dr. de Salzmann’s words continue to ring true, if words may be described as rungs on the ladder of life, the pages of “The Inner Journey” offer the reader sixty rungs that go up that ladder. They offer “views” of the variety (though little of the contrariety) “from the Gurdjieff Work.” Yet they should assist the reader in attaining “views of the real world.”

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John Robert Colombo is the author, compiler, and translator of more than two hundred books, largely concerned with Canadiana. His most recent publication is a collection of 2,000 aphorisms called “Indifferences.” His essays on Canadiana and the Work appear in “Whistle While You Work.” He is an irregular contributor of reviews and articles to this news/blog.
His website is http://www.colombo-plus.ca

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