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John Robert Colombo Page



A review of the Toronto production of Daumal’s ‘Holy War’ by JRC

A great deal of respect is paid in Work circles to the memory of René Daumal. The poet and philosopher is honoured both as a literary artist and as a human being. His personal circumstances were such that he struggled more than most people must with life, health, and art. His own struggles bring to mind analogous circumstances and struggles experienced two decades earlier by Katherine Mansfield, the New Zealand-born fiction-writer, who is also remembered with affection in Work circles.

Parallels in their lives are striking. Both died of tuberculosis, Mansfield at the age of thirty-five in 1923, Daumal at the age of thirty-six in 1944; Mansfield at the Priory in the presence of Mr. Gurdjieff, Daumal in the company of Madame de Salzmann. There is one major difference and it concerns their art: Daumal incorporated the insights of the Work into his poetry and fiction, whereas Mansfield was no longer writing fiction (only correspondence) when she moved for the last time to the Priory at Fontainebleau-on-Avon. Mansfield’s short stories are widely read to this day, especially by feminists. Daumal has a presence on the periphery of 20th-century French poetry and prose.

In the literature of post-war France, Daumal’s writings occupy an odd place. The “odd place” is the “simplist” position he defined for himself between the extremes of Dada and Surrealism. As well, his poetry and fiction make strong use of allegory, a neglected literary device in 20th-century literature, a literature largely given over to irony. Finally, his later work and last years were much influenced and enriched by G.I. Gurdjieff. All of this has endeared him to francophone readers. Yet among anglophones readers, despite the best efforts of an array of talented translators, his poetry, fiction, and essays are not widely read.

There is always the sense that whatever the nature of Daumal’s subject matter, he is also writing about something else. (His basis is his anabasis.) The problem for English readers is that he has no direct equivalent as a writer, though right now I am going to argue that there is an English poet whose temperament up to a point reflects that of the French poet.

A comparison-and-contrast of Daumal with Edward Thomas is rewarding. René Daumal (1908-1944) was a French writer, philosopher and poet. His alter ego is that of Edward Thomas (1878-1917), the Anglo-Welsh poet. Both are poets who go beyond the world we know. Daumal found a way “behind the beyond” (to use Stephen Leacock’s felicitous expression!) whereas Thomas encountered no teacher (though he was personally and artistically close to Robert Frost who lived close by on a farm in Hampshire).

Daumal’s life was cut short at the age of thirty-six by tuberculosis in the midst of the Second World War. Thomas’s life was cut short at the age of thirty-nine during the First Battle of Arras. There is the sense about both writers that they were under siege for much of their lives and that their finest works lay ahead of them.

Edward Thomas did not find a way out of the human predicament. He did not live long enough. The oldest road in Britain is known as the Icknield Way, and Thomas walked its path and wrote evocatively about the pilgrimage that he made along it in 1913: “Today I know there is nothing beyond the farthest of the ridges except a signpost to unknown places.”

Such unvisited places intrigued him. In the poem “I Never Saw that Land Before,” he wrote as follows:

I should use, as the trees and birds did,

A language not to be betrayed;

And what was hid should still be hid

Excepting from those like me made

Who answer when such whispers bid.

In the poem “Lights Out,” he alluded to the limits of knowledge about the human predicament, “the terror of the situation,” when his life was about to be cut short:

There is not any book

Or face of dearest look

That I would not turn from now

To go into the unknown

I must enter, and leave, alone,

I know not how.

So Edward Thomas entered the registry of the war poets and the war dead. Indeed, his epitaph reads as follows: “And I rose up and knew that I was tired – and continued my journey.” It was no “holy war” for Corporal Thomas.

René Daumal’s journey never ended, and in a sense it will never come to an end, thanks to his questing spirit and his questioning mind. Indeed, he waged the “holy war” of the Sufi all his life. He felt he had imaginatively encompassed the evidence of the known world and hence had a handle or even a purchase on the evidence of the unknown world. He could go to work on his personality and character and he did.

I must resist the temptation to write at length about Daumal’s prose, poetry, and fiction, as I have at hand the two biographies of the man and the three English-language collections of his writings. When I reviewed Pierre Bonnasse’s “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way” (Inner Traditions, 2008), I stressed Bonnasse’s indebtedness to Daumal’s “magical” writings and visions. I know of no finer or deeper contemporary tribute to the worth of Daumal’s life than Bonnasse’s words.

I assume the readers of this review will have a sense of the parameters of Daumal’s life and work and involvement with the Madame and the Mister, so I will concentrate on the present event, an occasion of genuine interest, which takes the form of a stage adaptation of his short prose poem “Holy War.”

The sponsor of the stage production is Toronto’s Seven Arts Study Centre (a group registered in 2006). The promotional copy that appears on the poster – which advertises the event which was held at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, December 6, 2008, George Ignatieff Theatre, Toronto – has been so well composed, will reproduce its words in their entirety:

“The prominent poet and novelist of avant-garde French literature wrote this prose poem as the Nazi armies were crushing Western Europe and approaching France. “Holy War” takes the battle inside. Daumal endows the words “holy war” with their truest meaning, as he evokes with ruthless honesty and rich humour the inner struggle toward consciousness and conscience. This is the unseen warfare that many spiritual traditions regard as the surest basis for peace.”

The George Ignatieff Theatre at Trinity College, University of Toronto, is a handsome, wainscotted space, suitable for guest lectures or small musical or theatrical ensembles, and there are seats for close to 200 people. The house was almost filled on a snowy night. Few if any of the members of the audience (who paid $25 for adult admission or $20 for student admission) will have reason to disagree with the appraisal that Daumal wrote with “ruthless honesty and rich humour” about “the inner struggle towards consciousness and conscience.”

This production is described as marking the centenary of Daumal’s birth. It is chastening to think that if he were alive today the poet would have reached the ripe old age of one hundred years! There was no printed program, but here are the details from the poster.

The text was spoken (recited and at times enacted) by Priscilla Smith. The dancer (an enacter too) was Dolphi Wertenbaker. The oud-player was Chris Wertenbaker. The string-player was Jeff Greene. Roger Lipsey introduced the work and led the discussion afterwards.

The sole surprise for me is that Professor Lipsey has no Wikipedia entry. He has taught art history and classical literature at the State University of New York in Potsdam, N.Y. One day I will examine his three-volume collection devoted to the life and work of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (compiled for the illustrious Bollingen series in 1977). I have long wanted to read his book titled “An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art (Shambhala, 1988). Any Wiki entry devoted to Mr. Lipsey would need to stress his essays and his contributions to Gurdjieffian studies, at once scholarly and appreciative.

“Holy War” is indeed a prose poem. The entire text of the work of some 2,000 words is available on Google. (Type in Daumal’s name and then click on “Holy War.”) The original French text was published as “La Guerre Sainte” in the collection “Poésie Noire, Poésie Blanche” (Editions Gallimard in 1954). The translation here is the one titled “The Holy War” which D.M. Dooling translated into English for an early issue of “Parabola” (7:4). The Internet text is that of the Fall 2000 issue of the “Gurdjieff International Review.” With slight changes, it is the Dooling translation that served as the basis of the production.

Characteristic of Daumal’s writing is his thinking or pondering. (I like to pun that his writing is “ponderful.”) He is not given to visual imagery or verbal concision, but the reader or listener feels that the man is responding both as an artist and as a human being. The text begins riddlingly enough: “I am going to write a poem about war. Perhaps it will not be a real poem, but it will be about a real war.” A little prankishness goes a long way!

The prose poem ends on a thoughtful but elliptical note: “And because I have used the word ‘war,’ and because this word ‘war’ is no longer, today, simply a sound that educated people make with their mouths, but now has become a serious word heavy with meaning, it will be seen that I am speaking seriously and that these are not empty sounds that I am making with my mouth.”

Daumal’s “guerre sainte” refers to the inner war, or striving, rather than to the Islamic “jihad,” yet the “jihad” (the word is not used) is seen to be the outward expression of an inner conflict and confusion. Daumal’s warfare might be described as a “crusade” – to use the word no U.S. President after George W. Bush will ever use again – because the battleground lies between the head and heart of man rather than amid the society of men.

The poem is not a dramatic work at all but a brooding meditation with insightful asides and rich reflections on man’s “inner struggle,” the one he has with himself. Nowhere in the text do the words “conscience,” “consciousness,” or even “presence” appear – any more than does the word “evolution” appear in the first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”

The stage was evenly lit and decorated with five Oriental carpets, one of them hanging from the ceiling as an eye-catching backdrop. Seated on the stage were (from left to right): Priscilla Smith, the speaker; Jeff Greene, string player; Chris Wertenbaker, oud-player; Dolphi Wertenbaker, dancer.

Professor Lipsey appeared, sat on a bench, and spoke accommodatingly to the audience for twenty minutes. He is balding, black-bearded, spectacled, and has a gentle manner. He sketched in Daumal’s literary background, stressing that he was “a seeker of truth” as well as “a writer of great exuberance,” whose abilities were quickly noted by Jean Paulhan, the Paris editor and publisher. Daumal found himself divided between literature and spirituality, until he had a chance meeting with Alexandre de Saltzmann, who recognized his predilection for spirituality and introduced him to his wife Jeanne who introduced him to Mr. Gurdjieff.

Professor Lipsey noted, “In the world of spirituality, originality is not regarded highly. Here was an opportunity to see what an art would be like if shaped by higher ideas.” Daumal wrote about “jihad” which to him meant “extreme striving,” rather like the Christian notion of the “unseen warfare.” Lipsey surprised me by not referring to the “Bhagavad Gita,” the Eastern world’s pre-eminent epic poem of warfare, inner and outer, but the Hindu dimension was explicit in the production itself.

Dolphi Wertenbaker, dressed in orange and black, jewelry on her head and brow and ears, red cast marks on her hands and feet, danced with bare feet. With her fingers she recreated the classical mudras of bharatanatyam which she learned first in Ceylon and later in Madras, India, where her father, James George, was the Canadian High Commissioner.

Ms. Wertenbaker moved her limbs with genuine purpose, conveying a great range of emotions. She possesses quite distinctive looks. I was finally able to connect them with the equally distinctive and noble looks of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, who also taught the Movements. She danced throughout the recitation and at various points echoed the words of Priscilla Smith.

Ms. Smith bears a striking resemblance to Adrienne Clarkson, the last Governor General of Canada. The two women carry themselves with ease and assurance. Ms. Smith was dressed in blue and black and spoke with clarity and purpose. She is a New York-based actress and a special favourite of director Andre Serban. She had committed the script to memory and combined the words with appropriate movements and gestures, by turns bringing forth the text’s humour, irony, sacrcasm, indignation, lyricism, mimicry, and drama.

I will long remember her declaring with desperation “And the war has hardly begun” and affirming “I am I know I wish” and informing “There is only one right, the right to be” and concluding “He who has declared this holy war with himself is at peace with his fellow man.” At one or two points she rose out of the sea of the text as an actress, rather than as a speaker reciting lines, but not for long, but just long enough to prove that the text embraced acting as well as witnessing, as she was intent on giving a “reading,” so it was the feeling behind the words that was to be the point of interest, not any single dramatic interpretation of it.

The two musicians performed intermittently and improvisationally behind the words. There was no electrical amplification. Mr. Greene played a variety of long-stemmed stringed instruments, and Mr. Wertenbaker (the dancer’s husband) strummed the oud and various other smaller instruments. The performance ended with the last lines of the text being recited in both English and French to great effect (especially in an officially bilingual country).

The performance lasted a little over thirty minutes. The audience was appreciative but afraid to applaud and resisted doing so until Professor Lipsey joined the performers on stage. Then there was enthusiastic applause, followed by the discussion that he led. Again, the audience was reluctant to ask questions, so I posed the first one.

I noted that we had learned about the genesis of the poem from the introductory comments. I then asked, “What is the genesis of this production?” It turned out that Professor Lipsey was familiar with the text, and after the shock of the events of September the Eleventh, turned to work on it to concentrate the confusion that he and so many other Americans had felt and were feeling. Here was a way to contain the confusion and frustration and deal with it.

I pursued the question of the genesis of the production afterwards. I learned that the first production (with the same speaker and dancer and the oud-player) was held in a church in Garrison, a hamlet in the Hudson River district of upstate New York in 2003. Since then it has been performed in colleges, institutions, and theatres. The Toronto production is the ninth in the ongoing series.

When there was a lull in the questions and answers, Professor Lipsey threatened the audience: “If you don’t ask questions, I’ll read you another of Daumal’s letters.” Questions again flowed, including one that was directed to the speaker and the dancer. “What goes on inside as you perform.” Both Ms. Smith and Ms. Wertenbaker smiled inscrutably. There was some talk of how difficult it is “to keep a moment of lucidity, with a scalpel to cut through the tissue of lies.”

Ms. Smith said that the text on paper is one thing of importance, but what is more important is what lies beneath the words. Ms. Wertenbaker said that she had read Daumal’s essays on Indian theatre and was startled to learn that there is no distinction in Hindi between “theatre” and “dance.” It seems the same Sanskrit-derived word is used for both forms of expression.

Ms. Smith studied acting and vocal expression in New York with a group that was directly influenced by Peter Brook. For one of their productions, they spoke with the sounds of a number of Asian languages that they did not understand. “Sanskrit has no connectives and is almost hieroglyphic.”

The audience was interested in the instruments and Mr. Wertenbaker explained that the oud that he played was a Turkish instrument (“constructed in Boston”). “The oud is the father of the lute and the grandfather of the modern-day guitar.” Among the other instruments played were Chinese cymbals, thumb-piano, ayala tambur, and sato – all of them exotic-looking and exotic-sounding.

Then there was a low-key reception of wine, mineral water, and canapés, and suddenly it was nine o’clock on a snowy Toronto Saturday evening. My wife Ruth and I left the Ignatieff theatre, which is informally known by the students of Trinity College as the “jit.” It formally bears the name of George Ignatieff, the diplomat and father of Michael Ignatieff, essayist and biographer of Isaiah Berlin, who is currently deputy leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. We left pondering the thought that in the midst of battle we must wend our way from the fort of war to the palace of peace.

In other words, we must find a peace within the warring elements within ourselves and only then attempt to establish a cease-fire for the world at large. So the tragic deaths of Edward Thomas and René Daumal, both of whom were victims of world wars, took on new meaning amid the evening of music, dance, and spoken word.

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto author and anthologist who has published some 200 books. These are listed on his newly reworked website . His last review for this blog was devoted to concert by Charles Ketcham and Casey Sokol at the Glenn Gould Theatre, Toronto.



John Robert Colombo Page


Toronto Concert

John Robert Colombo reviews a concert devoted to “The Piano Music of G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann”


Everyone recognizes the name of Glenn Gould, the famous pianist and musicologist, whose crisp and no-nonsense interpretation of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” took the musical world by storm in 1955. Almost as well known are Gould’s well-publicized antics – statements like “Mozart should have died sooner rather than later” and “The concert is dead.” The latter statement was proclaimed the same year that his Toronto neighbour Marshall McLuhan remarked, “The book is dead.” Both the concert and the book have been a long time dying.

Gould was a great eccentric and recluse rather than a great character or stage performer. Tragically, he was habituated to pharmaceuticals, and I believe that this addiction partly accounts for the hyper-real (almost surreal) quality of his interpretations and performances. If you suffer hyperacuity, you do not enjoy his recordings as much as you do those of his much less brilliant contemporaries. It does not take genius to perform with brilliance, emotion, and insight.


Gould came to mind as I paused in front of the statue erected in his honour at the entranceway to the Glenn Gould Centre of the Philip Johnson-designed Broadcast Centre of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in downtown Toronto. The statue may be said to stand, but the life-size, bronze effigy of him (wearing his characteristic rumpled raincoat) shows him slouched on a park-bench. I used to see him wearing that raincoat shambling through the halls of the old CBC Radio Building. The statue is a good likeness.

As I entered the Centre’s theatre, also named in his honour, at 8:00 p.m., Friday, November 21, 2008, I wondered what he would have made of the concert that my wife and Ruth were there about to hear. Gould was open to new ideas – indeed, he contributed a blurb to a book of Borges-like poems that I translated with Robert Zend, a lively Hungarian Canadian poet and radio producer – but to my knowledge he never once evinced any interest in either Eastern thought or any form of expression of the “wisdom tradition.”

The concert we took our seats to hear was devoted to the piano music produced by the collaboration of G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann. Now one of the pleasures of writing reviews for this blog is that there is no need for me to explain the backgrounds of these two gentlemen or their unlikely partnership, probably unique in the annals of folk and ethnic musicology. The “Gurdjieff-de Hartmann music” has a devoted following among both students of the work and young professional musicians. I could reel off the names of a dozen well-known pianists who perform many of these 300 or so works, and there are discographies that list the innumerable CDs that they have recorded.

I maintain an interest in Canadian cultural expression as well a “watching brief” on Fourth Way work, so permit to combine interests by sounding another nationalistic note. The musical world of the Fourth Way is well served by the retired film producer Thomas C. Daly of Montreal, who remains the faithful warden and guardian of this music, in his capacity of executor of the estates of the late Olga and Thomas de Hartmann. He has worked overtime to make these compositions available to music lovers.

Count me among these lovers. I first heard these plangent, seemingly repetitive, chord-like compositions in the late 1950s, pounded out on an upright piano, as I awkwardly performed the Movements. Intermittently since then, I have listened to them in small concert halls and in the solitude of my study at home. Indeed, they have quickened my taste for the repetitive compositions of “the musical minimalists” (like Arvo Pärt) and the work of electronic composers (like Philip Glass). Gould himself experimented with musical constructions – splicing tapes of human voices together – to create compositions that sound like “musique concrète,” so he might well have enjoyed attending this concert as much as we did.

The concert was organized by the Society for Traditional Studies, the earliest and the largest of the numerous organizations which take an interest in these ideas and motifs that are scattered throughout the City of Toronto (population 3.3 million). As a bystander, I wish these groups would collaborate more often than they do to sponsor public occasions like this one.

The Glenn Gould Theatre seats about 340 and two-thirds of the seats were occupied by an audience of quiet-spoken, interesting-looking men and women, mainly middle-aged and professional or semi-professional in appearance. Tickets were priced at $25 apiece ($15 for students and seniors) and the two performers were Casey Sokol (percussion) and Charles Ketcham (piano).

I am placing Mr. Sokol’s name first because he is quite active in Toronto. He is an associate professor with the faculty of fine arts at York University where he has taught and performed since 1971. He is a familiar figure in Work circles, performing these piano compositions with flair, enthusiasm, and affection. In the past he has selected compositions for his programs that reflect the varieties rather than similarities that are to be found in this body of piano music. In person he strikes me as having compressed power and intelligence.

The guest pianist was Charles Ketcham, who has recorded albums of the piano music but who is principally known as a widely travelled orchestra conductor. He originally studied under Eric Leinsdorf at Tanglewood and has made guest appearances or served as associate conductor at many of Europe’s important orchestras. With other musicians and musicologists, he has edited what has been described by knowledgeable people as the “definitive edition of the complete Gurdjieff / de Hartmann Piano Music” and he has “recorded the complete works for the German recording label, Wergo Schallplatten GmbH.”

Mr. Ketcham is not to be confused with his namesake Charles B. Ketcham, the American theologian and the author of “The Ontological Ground for a New Christology.” (I wonder if they are relatives.) Our Mr. Ketcham (the pianist) makes his home-base in San Francisco. He is a welcome visitor to Toronto; he arrived during a minor snowstorm, the first of the season.

He strikes me as a man who is able to wear two hats – the beret of the performer and the top-hat of the conductor – and bring to every musical occasion a strong sense of professionalism. For no good reason, I kept thinking of Messrs. Sokol and Ketcham as the “pepper and salt” of this concert, though both sported heads of white hair. Mr. Sokol supplied percussion accompaniment during the middle portion of the program.

The musical part of the concert went from 8:00 to 9:45 p.m. and was followed by an optional forty minutes of discussion. This took the usual, question-and-answer format. Some members of the audience left after the performances, but most remained and took seats closer to the stage. Those members who remained were in for a double treat: some good answers to reasonable questions, plus the spirited playing of two more compositions: “Mama” and a second “Sayyid Chant” (to match the opening number).

Now to the program. To whet the reader’s appetite for what we heard, here is a list (from the well-designed program that was distributed) of the twenty-one compositions that were performed:


Sayyid Chant and Dance, No. 1.

“Rejoice, Beelzebub!”

Tibi Cantamus, No. 2

Hymn from a Great Temple, No. 1


Ancient Greek Melody

Armenian Song, No. 1


Hymn (Jan. 6, 1927)

Greek Melody


The Initiation of the Priestess




Hymn (Jan. 2, 1927)

Afghan Melody

Oriental Melody

Dance Rhythm (Nov. 29, 1925)

Armenian Song, No. 2

Untitled Melody (Jan. 1, 1926)

Dervish Dance

Moorish Dance (Dervish)



Prayer and Despair

Religious Ceremony


It would be difficult for a diligent rapporteur (like the present one) to do any more than record some of his general impressions and responses to the musicians and the music. It is beyond his remit and competence to do more than that.

Mr. Ketcham offered a most professional performance of these works on a sleek black Steinway grand piano. In the past I would overhear the strains of “On the Steppes of Central Asia” whenever I heard other talented pianists perform these compositions. Mr. Ketcham added a new dimension with his broad sense of what constitutes performance and composition. So I kept hearing the unexpected strains of the compositions of well-loved European composers of the period (mainly the 1920s): Ippolitov-Ivanov, Khachaturian, Satie, Bartok, even Saint-Saëns’s “Aquarium” (from “The Carnival of Animals”), as well as echoes of the semi-notes of Arvo Pärt, the latter a legacy of attendance at the previous evening’s Estonian concert at St. Anne’s Church.

Mr. Ketcham also added to my appreciation of the range of the material, specifically the variety of subjects and effects. There were in effect the “ethnic” influences: rhythms and melodies described as Ancient Greek, Afghan, Moorish, Armenian, and “Oriental.” Then there were the moving and mysterious religious motifs: Sayyid chants and dances, Dervish dances, and prayers, etc. Finally there were the moods: elation, aspiration, dejection, depression. Finally there were complexities, solemnities, and intimacies aplenty.

All the pieces are quite short, yet each gives itself over to a seemingly complete expression of a rhythm, a feeling, even a thought, with a handful of the compositions ending abruptly, as if cut off in mid-expression. At various times I felt I wanted to march in a procession or step out into the aisle and perform a series of Tai Chi exercises. The printed program enjoined us not to applaud the compositions individually, but to reserve our applause for the end of each part of the program. So there was plenty of pent-up energy!

The concert opened with “Sayyid Chant and Dance,” a work of intricate complexity, very pianistic. The program ended with an encore performance of another Sayyid composition, one that expressed incredible longing … for what, who can say? These served as a pair of bookends for the musical portion of the concert.

During the mid-section of the program we heard and saw Mr. Sokol accompany Mr. Ketcham, taking delight in the use of a hoop-like drum with jingle-bells called a daff, a gourd-like drum called a darok, along with other unfamiliar, eye-catching and ear-holding instruments. The rhythms of dances familiar in ethnomusicology (perhaps given today’s climate of opinion it should be called “exomusicology”) were pronounced. The gentlemen performers worked together with a unity of aim or purpose as if they did this with delight every night of the year.

While listening to “Untitled Music” and other compositions I felt that parts of me were being energized and other parts being anaesthetized, so that various operations and procedures could be overseen and performed. It was a series of quite concentrated experiences, rather surprising in the same way that an acupuncture treatment is riddled with surface surprises: unexpected twinges, twitches, tweaks, and (to continue with the t’s) tastes.

The discussion began with Mr. Ketcham asking two questions: Where does music come from? What does music express? He did not attempt to answer these perennial questions, but he added that he had directed the first question to those composers he had met. They all drew a blank. He directed the second question to members of the audience.

One member stated that she felt that the music was coursing through her blood stream, going from the heart to the head. Another member said he felt it affected his breath and his breathing. A woman said she sensed that the music was being “disclosed” rather than composed or discovered.

In answer to the direct question, in effect, “What is Gurdjieffian about this music?” Mr. Ketcham gave a considered and measured answer: “Man has a purpose in life that cannot be realized as we are. There is something more complete to be found, and it is through consciousness that this transformation is to take place.”

He went on to sketch Mr. Gurdjieff’s cosmological view of man in the universe, the sense of scale.” I expected him to mention the word “harmonious” but I did not hear it. Instead he said, “Every tone is a mystery.” We really hear not one tone but composite tones, vibrations, overtones, and they “represent something that is universal.”

One observant questioner asked him how he “prepares” for a performance. She had presumably noted how he would pause at the keyboard before tackling a composition. He momentarily looked like the little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. In reply he quoted a previous speaker who had said that the music caused him “to make space.” “I make space,” he said, economically.

Toronto audiences are inclined to be tongue-tied, so I asked two questions to which I received responsible replies. The first question was: Do musicologists recognize the Gurdjieff-De Hartmann collaboration to be unique, given that ethnomusicology was a characteristic of the 1920s? And why are these three hundred compositions not part of the repertoire of contemporary performers and repertory companies?

Mr. Sokol replied that the character of the interaction between a professionally trained composer-performer and an untrained traveller-collector of indigenous traditions is recognized to be unique. Mr. Ketchum added that the musical scores were not published until the 1990s, the decision having been made late in the day by Michel de Salzmann to make them readily available. Also, the compositions are “intimate” and involve one or two interpreters, not all the players of symphony orchestras.

Later he made a case for the fact that these compositions were composed and are performed to have an influence on parts of the body seldom touched by other music or even observed by most people. They were designed to produce feelings we do not normally notice. Mr. Sokol said that the compositions are not folk music, saying, in effect, “You may go to Afghanistan but you will not find ‘Afghan Melody’ being performed there.”

Like the rest of the audience, Ruth and I left the Glenn Gould Centre with the sounds of the piano and percussion instruments vibrating within us. We paused before the bronze statue of the great pianist on the sidewalk in front of the building. Despite the fact that his gaze is averted, I bent down and peered into the sockets of his eyes. It seemed almost sacrilegious to do so. But (it may be my imagination) I observed – a wink.


Here is a related review of a new CD.

Not everyone is privileged to live in a large city like Toronto which hosts concerts of the quality of the one that we were able to attend. But for those people who have a taste for this music, but who live elsewhere, it is possible to have an aftertaste (so to speak) of what was missed through the release of a new CD.

Elisa Denzey, Toronto-based pianist and fabric artist, has had a forty-five year association with group work. She studied with Annette Herter who was a pupil of Thomas de Hartmann, from whom she learned that performance does not exist for the sake of performance but in the interest of … self-knowledge. Music is there not for performance “as we usually understand it, but rather the cultivation of a sensitivity to or an understanding of what each piece of music is saying or describing.” (I like the subtle distinctions between “sensitivity” and “understanding” as well as “saying” and “describing.”)

That quotation comes from the program notes that accompany the newly released CD of piano compositions performed by Ms. Denzey titled “Gurdjieff / De Hartmann.” The CD is available from By the Way Books or from the : ExGurdjieff Foundation of Toronto experimental Group. (Both organizations have websites.) The list price is $25 CDN, the price charged for a single concert ticket.

Ms. Denzey recorded all of the twenty-one compositions in her seventy-sixth year during one six-hour session in 1999. The tastefully produced CD includes three or four of the compositions that we played at the concert. (Curiously, both the disk and the concert include the same number of compositions.) Her interpretation is a less dramatic and far softer one than the interpretations offered by Messrs. Sokol or Ketcham. Perhaps it is more feminine. This in itself is neither a positive nor a negative. In fact, it is an attestation to the power of these compositions to move men and women in the same direction, each at his or her own speed, each in his or her own way.

John Robert Colombo is known throughout Canada as “the Master Gatherer” for his compilations of Canadiana. His two latest books are “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories” (Dundurn) and “Whistle While You Work” (C&C). The latter 400-age paperback book consists of essays and articles of general cultural and specific esoteric interest.


John Robert Colombo Page


Margaret Flinsch

Here she is telling stories to the children of Blue Rock School

His Master’s Words
JRC reviews a newly released spoken-word “Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson”

I am not really knowledgeable about “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson” or about the commentaries that it has generated. Much has been written about G.I. Gurdjieff’s masterwork, and this is only reasonable given that it is a singularly difficult work to read aloud. One reason for this is the tome’s length, which rivals that of James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” and Marcel Proust’s “A la recherche du temps perdu,” literary works that were written in Paris and Zurich in the late 1920s, at the same time that Gurdjieff at the Café de la Paix in Paris was labouring over the manuscripts that make up the Tales.

All three texts make mammoth demands on their readers, demands that include patience, application, concentration, commitment, and imagination. (By imagination I mean the powers of association, what
Ouspensky has called “psychological thinking” as distinct from “logical thinking,” necessary for an appreciation of this labyrinthine and often rococo work.)

Next year I will be in a better position to discuss the Tales as I plan to attend the “All & Everything Conference” which is being held in Toronto from April 22 to 26, 2009. I hope to cover the event in detail – presentations, seminars, panels, banquet, etc. – for readers of this blog who might wish to attend but do not live near Toronto and hence are unlikely to be there except in spirit. So I will not presume to discuss the Tales, short of reminding its readers of two facts.

The first fact is that the author has ordered his readers to read his text three times, all in different ways for different purposes and presumably different centres in man. The second fact is how the text itself begins, it commences with these words: “Among other convictions formed in my common presence during any responsible, peculiarly composed life …. ”

Now that fact introduces a problem because, as I write this review on my computer, I am listening to its audio system play the first of the four disks that comprise a newly released recording of the Tales
its entirety. Disk one begins, “Well, my boy …. ” What gives? What is happening? Let me back up and try to explain.

From time to time I have reviewed the books published by Dolmen Meadow Editions, which is the imprint of the Toronto Gurdjieff Group. Members of that group are quite active. They are responsible for the appearance of a Russian-language text of the Tales, a mammoth undertaking, as well as the first English editions of “Gurdjieff: A Master in Life” (the recollections of Tcheslaw Tchekhovitch) and “Inner Octaves” (the English translation of Michel Conge’s classic talks). Some of these publications are for general sale; others are not.

Some years ago members of Dolmen Meadow issued a set of four CDs in MP3 format of William J. Welch reading all of the Tales, I have yet to purchase those CDs of Dr. Welch’s reading, but one day I will. I recall he had a heavy and hearty voice and he always spoke “with a twinkle in the eye.” Then I will be able to compare and contrast his reading with the present one, which is an impressive and very womanly one done by Margaret Flinsch.

The four-disk set of CDs in MP3 format (suitable for playing on both a computer and a CD player) is titled “G.I. Gurdjieff: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man as read by Margaret Flinsch.” Dolmen Meadow’s website offers this details: ISBN: 978-0-9780-661-2-3. List price: US $60.00.

The jewel-box includes a model eight-page booklet that sketches in the background of the book and identifies the reader. Margaret (Peggy) Flinsch is one of those names that crops up in the literature of the Fourth Way, always in pleasant and positive contexts, for she knew Gurdjieff well, was respected by one and all, and at gatherings regularly recited passages from the Tales. She was born in Glendale, Ohio, in 1907; she taught in experimental schools; she married an Olympic oarsman and raised a family; she assisted in the preparation of the revised edition of the Tales which was issued by Penguin Books in 1992.

All of that information comes from the booklet. Let me add that Ms. Flinsch was associated with the Blue Rock School, a progressive primary and secondary school located in West Nyack, N.Y. Her sister made a contribution to the Work: the late D.M. Dooling, founder of the influential journal “Parabola.” The Work seems to run in her family.

The author or authors of the booklet relate the Tales to reciting, reading, and listening: “Peggy stresses that this book is meant to be read aloud. And Gurdjieff states that his book is designed to reach both the waking consciousness and the subconscious. ‘For me,’ Peggy has said, ‘listening is the path to the subconscious mind.’” Such is the power of the spoken word.

The recordings were made at her residence over a five-year period between 2003 and 2008. Volume levels of some sessions differ from those of other sessions, as one would assume, given the five-year eriod of recording. They also give the reader something of a jolt, a shock, a “stop” – perhaps not a bad experience in the circumstances! “Peggy is one of the last people alive who read from ‘Beelzebub’s Tales’ in Gurdjieff’s presence. She has studied the book all her life and is an advocate of its being read with the correct pronunciation of Gurdjieff’s special words.”

Not having a copy of the Penguin edition handy, I diverted myself by listening to Ms. Flinsch read the text while following it with a copy of the first edition of 1950 published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. After a couple of minutes of listening, it became apparent that the differences between the editions are mainly on the level of streamlining the expressions. For instance, on page 20, the text has a power “proceeding within.” Ms. Flinsch has it “aroused within.” I suppose this makes a difference, but how much of a difference I will leave that to specialists to determine – or to wiseacre.

If you want to hear six or so minutes of the text as read by Ms. Flinsch, check the Dolmen Meadow website and click on to “Becoming Aware of Being Duty.” If you do so, you will hear a representative part of the whole. You will hear a compassionate woman used to speaking with assurance and authority; an elderly person used to reading to classes and groups of younger people; a teacher used to articulating without pontificating; a human being who is certain the text has meanings that may be conveyed with intelligence and insight. She takes the text slowly, and her rhythm is that of someone who wishes to be heard and understood without the need for drama or melodrama.

Ms. Flinsch speaks the English of an educated professional person in an accent that is close to what Canadians describe as “mid-Atlantic.” She has no problems with the tome’s specialized vocabulary – “Sacred Vznooshlitzval” and “Askalnooazar” and so on – and indeed makes these expressions sound like English words. The key to her performance is that she reads these strange syllables quite slowly, whereas the attempt of the less-experienced reader would be to rush upon them and give them foreign intonations based on the derivations of their component parts. They are neologisms and legominisms, but they sound less like inventions than they do everyday expressions that are inescapable in the circumstances.

Amusingly, the only peculiarity is the pronunciation she gives to the French words “bon-ton” – a scowl comes through! Perhaps the sole surprise is that Ms. Flinsch speaks the language like an American: flattening some word-endings, dropping the occasional “g,” and turning the “t” into a “d.” These are minor matters indeed.

There is one other surprise. While the disks are playing, there are quasi-fractals that appear on the screen in shimmering colours. There is no relationship between the shapes and colours, on the one hand, and the words from the passages being read on the other.

I still do not know why the recording begins, “Well, my boy …. ” At first I had supposed it had something to do with the Penguin edition of the text, but upon replaying the opening, it does not recur. The text begins where the text should begin, so it must have been my computer’s fault: we all hear and read different things.)

My overall sense of the recording, however, is that this set of disks is Ms. Flinsch’s lasting legacy to readers and listeners of the Tales for decades to come. We sense in her voice an authority that seems to derive from that of the book’s author. She gives voice to the author’s words by finding each chapter of the book to be a repository of humour and folklore and insight into the human condition viewed from a cosmological perspective, lightened with verbal pranks and rogueries, all of which she recites with a straight face.

Here is a story-teller with a mission as well as a story-reader with a message. Indeed, she has shown how contemporary – and how postmodern – the Tales will sound when they are beautifully read.

John Robert Colombo is known in Canada as “the Master Gatherer” for his compilations of lore and literature. His current publications include “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories” and “Whistle While You Work,” a collection of essays about Canadiana and consciousness studies. He is an Associate of the Northrop Frye Centre, Victoria College, University of Toronto.



John Robert Colombo Page


Pierre Bonnasse

JRC reviews “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way”

Pierre Bonnasse, the author of the book that I am about to review,
lives in Paris and calls himself “a student of the Fourth Way.” His
photograph on his personal website shows him to be a young,
late-blooming hippie, complete with long hair and an appearance that
may be described as “determinedly poetic.” Biographical details are
sparse, but it seems Bonnasse holds a doctorate in literature from the
Sorbonne where he has taught writing.

He is the author of a book of poems “Dans la nuit d’Aghtamar” and an
anthology of passages about psychedelics called “Les voix de l’Extase.”
“Mode d’emploi de la parole analogue” is a book about words and
esotericism and it was published by Editions Dervy in Paris in 2005.
In 2008 it was translated into English as “The Magic Language of the
Fourth Way” and published by Inner Traditions, the Vermont-based
imprint devoted to quality books that are stocked –or should be
stocked – by the proprietors of metaphysical bookshops.

On his website Bonnasse describes himself as a “chercheur d’inspiration
transdisciplinaire.” A critic describes him in an amusing phrase as “a
provocateur of epiphanies.” The author himself writes, “I feel an
incredible closeness” to René Daumal and André Velter. I am familiar
with the writings of the French poet Daumal, but not with Velter’s
books about travel in the Orient or his poetry, despite the fact that
he is a holder of the Prix Goncourt. The late surrealist writer
Charles Duits is another of Bonnasse’s favourites. Bonnasse is widely
read in the literature of the Fourth Way though not widely read in
contemporary poetry generally.

Enough said about the author; here is some information on his first
book in English. “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way” bears the
subtitle “Awakening the Power of the Word” and has been feelingly
translated by Ariel Godwin, an American who is a professional editor
and translator of books largely devoted to the mysterious from four
languages: French, German, Italian, Spanish. I have yet to read
Bonnasse in French, but Godwin has created a “speaking voice” for
Bonnasse in English. (The slip-ups are minor: the proper abbreviation
of Neuro Lingusitic Programming, the spelling of T.S. Eliot’s last
name – on that level, hardly worth a mention.)

Inner Traditions has produced a quality trade paperback, 6″ x 9″,
xxxvi + 348 pages, with notes, bibliography, and detailed index. A
special feature is ten pages of diagrams and five pages of photographs
of Daumal, Charles Duits, Jeanne and Alexandre de Salzmann, Thomas de
Hartmann, G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky. $24.95.

Readers of this review will know about René Daumal whose principle
works are now available in English. The writings of Charles Duits,
mentioned above, are less well known to English readers than they
should be because they have not been translated. Duits died in 1991
and is remembered as a French writer of fantastic fiction who was
influenced by the surrealists and by Gurdjieff. In turn Duits had a
big influence on Bonnasse.

The English-language title draws attention to the Work, unlike the
title of the French original, and in doing so it expresses the author’s
indebtedness to Daumal, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Duits. There are
only passing references to Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists, to
René Guenon and the Traditionalists, and only one to Rudolf Steiner of
the Anthroposophists. Yet if there is a skeleton key to unlock the
theme and subject of this book, it is the one remark quoted from
Steiner: “Enthusiasm carries the spirit in itself.”

In terms of etymology, the word “enthusiasm” includes the notion of
“theos” or “god,” and in terms of Bonnasse’s book his personal
enthusiasm carries the entire book. To a rare degree he finds the Work
so meaningful that he has internalized it, so that one taste leads to
another taste, one perception to another perception, and one concept
to another concept. The book is his one long re-enactment within a
charmed circle of what excites him and inspires him about esotericism
and how it impacts on the seven-levels of language.

In structure the book is divided somewhat arbitrarily into three acts
with a total of twelve scenes. Each scene is an “essay” or “talk.”
Here are the acts: Part I is called “The Terror of the Situation” and
it describes “word prostitution” (to which I will shortly return).
Part II is titled “The Awakening of Hope” and it sketches in the Law
of Triamazikamno (three) and the Law of Heptaparaparshinokh (seven) as
embodied in the figure of the enneagram. Part III is named “The
Esoteric Work” and it deals with “legominisms.” As for the scenes,
these chapters seem to be organized on the basis of a course on the
Fourth Way, one that focuses on personal transformation through the
creative (read conscious) use of words.

Bonnase is concerned with “word prostitution,” a notion introduced by
Gurdjieff and used by Daumal. It refers to the mechanical or
manipulatory misuse of wordages and wordings. The author is so wrapped
up in the Work that it never occurs to him to see “word prostitution”
as a human condition that has been addressed by the world’s major
religions through the ages. I will digress a bit and suggest that in
its widest context “word prostitution” is really catchy and
contemporary shorthand for the old sin of simony.

Simony has never been included on the traditional list of the Seven
Deadly Sins, but it should appear on any new, updated list. It sounds
out of date because it recalls the name of Simon Magnus, the sorcerer
rebuked by St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles because he offered to
purchase the secret behind Paul’s miraculous powers. Simony is one of
the cardinal sins of the Western world in the Twenty-first Century.

Usually defined as the specialized sin of buying or selling
ecclesiastical favours, simony is more significant and prevalent than
that. It refers generally to the misuse of spiritual gifts –
imagination, sensitivity, talent, ability, insight – for gross or
ignoble ends. “Word prostitution” is a specialized form of simony,
familiar to us in the form of election speeches, advertising, TV
situation comedies, ministers’ homilies, televangelists, etc. As he
expostulates, “Rare are those who do not propagate word prostitution,
and there is no lack of candidates for the position of universal
Hasnamuss.” The idea goes back to Francis Bacon and forward to
Stephane Mallarmé and T.S. Eliot.

Bonnase knows simony in the form of “word prostitution” and he becomes
something of a moralist or preacher or instructor himself in his
attempt to define it, expose it, and expunge it. The misuse of words
is a sacrilege. He sees simony in terms of the hierarchy of man. On
each level, man must use the language appropriate to that level. There
are seven levels, ranging from the material to the spiritual. He gives
each man on each level his own label. These labels are
“Pseudoanthrope, Romantic, Savant, Apprentice Speaker, Authentic,
Objective, and Master. These “name tags” relate to men’s centres and
so correspond to Gurdjieff’s human types. The first name is new one to
me; it comes from one of Druits’s books.

As I mentioned earlier, Charles Duits is something of a discovery.
Perhaps some enterprising publisher will commission translations of
such books of his as Le Pays de l’éclairement (1994) and La Salive de
l’éléphant (1999). While we are at it, Bonnase has whetted my appetite
for the books of other French authors who are alive to the Work, but
whose works are still unavailable in English. Here are some authors’
names from his index: Jean Biès, Christian Bouchet, Jean-Yves Leloup,
Georges de Maleville, Patrick Negrier, Jean-Yves Pouilloux, Michel
Random, Jean-Philippe de Tonnac. I find characteristic of the French
texts about the Work is a subtlety of observation and expression that
is often lacking in comparable English texts. But then that is a
quality of much French poetry, fiction, philosophy, and religious

Bonnasse explains, “The goal of this work is to present a new theory
of language …. ” He makes that statement on the first page of his
book, yet because he lacks his own particular theory and fails to
develop concerns that are recognizably his own, Bonnasse tacks from
one theory to another, including those of Count Korzybski, Roman
Jakobson, and Gurdjieff. The latter’s theory, to the degree that it is
at all theoretical, is filtered through Daumal’s writings which are
amazingly sensitive to nuance yet vigorously imaginative. Bonnasse is
a great appreciator of modern mystical literature and he sees it not
in light of Tradition as such but in light of the Fourth Way.

It is well known that Gurdjieff made a notable distinction between
“objective art” and “subjective art,” but for all the fascination of
that dichotomy, it is regularly illustrated with instances of great
architecture (Sphinx, Mont-Saint-Michel, etc.) but seldom with works
of great literature (other than, perhaps, some scriptures). Still, I
found interesting the statement that Gurdjieff divides writings into
three different modes. These modes are said to be the scientific, the
narrative, and the descriptive. It sets me thinking … but again it
is difficult to use such distinctions to shed any light on literature
itself. Bonnasse persists in calling the spiritual use of language
“word magic” without dealing with any single concept of magic and or
any real sense of how it differs from the miraculous, the mythical,
the spiritual, and the metaphysical, if indeed it does.

Bonnasse is more convincing when it comes to the figure of the
enneagram. What has always appealed to me about this nine-interval
schematic diagram is that it is unicursal, which means that it may be
traced with a single line without backtracking. (I spent many
otherwise idle moments figuring out how to do this without pen and
paper and without peeking.) The author knows his enneagram and shows
how it combines 3 and 7 and he uses it to illustrate how one may
advance in stages: from Word (3) to Sound (6) to Rhythm (9); or from
Word (3) to Thing (6) to Consciousness (9); or from Speaker (3) to
Listener (6) to Message (9). He works in the “intervals.” It occurs to
me here for the first time that we are dealing with more than Hegel’s
“thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” for the reason that whereas Hegel’s
final “synthesis” is viewed as the extinguishing or exhausting of
forces, Gurdjieff’s “third force” is indeed a force in its own right.

Bonnasse has some original thoughts to convey on poetry – for
instance, how rhythm is not to be mistaken for metre. The key to this
is the fact that rhythm is seen as the synthesis, indeed a force in
its own right (9), not the neutralization of either the positive force
(3) or the negative force (6). Without rhythm the word is dead, the
language is not alive, and man remains in a stupor or a state of
sleep. The notion is advanced that the things of this world have
rightful names and sounds, but only in certain circumstances and in
certain ways are these names to be pronounced or sounded. So step by
step the author moves in a spiral-like fashion and in his own magical
way to arrive at the statement that “a poem is a portal between
different realities.”

There is a statement beloved of creative writing instructors who
assert that you should only write about what you know. I have always
found that to be a dubious piece of advice – did Dante visit
Purgatorio? did Tolstoy meet Napoleon? did Arthur C. Clarke set foot
on the spacecraft Rama? Certainly the writer must know himself or
herself and the self-knowledge might come through the process of the
writing. Whether it is doubtful or not, Bonnasse gives the statement
greater resonance, when he states: “If the goal of objective
literature is the awakening of readers, writing must first be a
technique of awakening and consciousness for the author, otherwise
there will be no evolution of saying, no advance in the level of the

Bonnasse sees writing as a conscious act, a form of praying, a way of
being, a state of consciousness. If that is so, it is also true that
reading is or may a conscious act, a form of praying, a way of being.
Jeffrey Kirpal in his mammoth book “Esalen” makes an interesting
observation about mythologist Joseph Campbell. He does so in these
words: “Campbell commonly denied any real interest in actual spiritual
experience or religious experimentalism. He made it quite clear that
his spiritual practice consisted of reading, reading, and more
reading. He thus showed little real interest in many of the
meditative, somatic, or explicitly religious practices in which Esalen
had put so much hope. Or rather, he proposed deep and extensive
reading as the transformative practice.” The path may be that of the
pen travelling across the blank scrap or sheet of paper, or a pair of
eyes tracking words line by line and sensing their sounds and

The real poet or writer is not the fakir, the monk, or the yogi, but
the “sly man,” for the reason that the experience that Gurdjieff
offers is “by definition _transpoetic_.” In real writing the real
writer works on and with the centres: “In writing, he must observe the
functioning of his machine in order not to be duped by his
mechanisms.” By way of illustration Bonnasse leans on two of Daumal’s
literary works: “A Night of Serious Drinking” (an essayistic novel in
the spirit of the Platonic dialogue “Symposium”) and “Poetry Black,
Poetry White” (an essay that distinguishes between what in other
contexts might be called writing “in bad faith” versus writing “in
good faith”). He reproduces all five pages of Daumal’s prose poem “The
Holy War” and in this context the discursive work (it is not a
dramatic work) takes on a live of its own.

In another way Bonnasse makes a contribution. He describes “the Way of
Blame” and identifies it with Gurdjieff. It is apparent he regards
“Beelzebub’s Tales” as the literary expression of the notion of
“blame,” for he writes, “‘Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson,’ that
magnificent work containing some twelve hundred of the prickliest
pages ever written, is a perfect example of this master-disciple
relationship transferred to the author-reader relationship: satire
incarnate, the highest achievement of the art of bad taste.”

Bonnasse is able to detect the expression of “blame” in the literary
modes of satire and irony. Earlier in the book he refers to Beckett’s
“Waiting for Godot.” It is obvious there is a parallel here between
the ironic mode and the mythic mode (a key point in the work of
Northrop Frye). “Beelzebub” is seen as one elastic-like work which
stretches across time and languages, securing the myths of the past to
the ironies of the present day.

“Reading is then no longer passive and mechanical, but active, and it
becomes real teaching. All great texts are either like this or they
are not.” I like the word “not” for it is double-edged. “Beelzebub”
requires active reading. “Each reading is a new experience, forever a
fresh source of knowledge. This is because this work, in particular,
is a _legominism_ – an initiatory mode of transmitting the truth.”

Bonnasse continues in this vein and makes some excellent points that
are fully relevant, which I will summarize in point form: legominism
in art and artifacts = legominism in beings who are initiates
(“leomanism?”); repetition = mnemonic aid; obscurity = requiring
exacting work; tales = truths; author’s distancing effect = reader’s
perspective on self; myth = Eliade’s “sacred history”; words = speech;
text = context of reader’s life. Many of these insights into
“Beelzebub” are derived from Duits’s writings, especially those
passages quoted by Michael Walberg in “Gurdjieff: An Approach to His
Ideas.” To the points made above, Bonnasse adds this one from the
enneagram: from Seeker (3) to Knowledge (6) to Myths and Symbols.

The use of psychedelics in ancient and modern times is the subject of
the second-last chapter. It considers Gurdjieff’s view and use of the
same, including “a special chemistry that could be used for
maneuvering the human machine.” Interestingly he refers to such
hallucinogenics as “unlimiters” and even discusses how language and
sound are employed by shamans under their influence. The autochthonous
power of speech is discussed, and it is noted that in an inspired
state it seems that when a man speaks the truth (as Octavio Paz
observed) “it is the language that speaks.”

The last chapter, titled “Movement in the Creative Process: From the
Dance to the Word,” is a condensed but concentrated account of
“movement” in the Work and its relationship with “the word.” It is up
to us to embody this movement: “Nothing remains but to act, to
remember ourselves, to engage in the harmony of things and being, to
form ourselves with the power of experience, and to dare to seek this
absolute, in order to _become_ and recover the primordial word intact
in the crucible of revelations, the primordial speech that has never
ceased living and shines in the hearts of all with a thousand lights.”

This last chapter is followed by a Conclusion and an Afterword, just
as the first chapter is preceded by a total of not two but four
subsections (Acknowledgements, Preface to the American Edition,
Preface to the First Edition, and Introduction). The book seems not to
end; it runs on like a periodic sentence. There is a sense in which
Pierre Bonnasse’s book resembles a music box: Lift its lid and it
plays. Open this book and it offers the leitmotif of the Fourth Way
with scores of variations.

Pierre Bonnasse is possessed with his subject, and by his subject,
with the result that “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way” brims over
with good spirits and bubbles over with enthusiasm and recurrence and
reiteration and recapitulation. The argument may be diffuse, even
scattered, but the insights are so pivotal that the reader is left to
wonder why the points did not occur to him or to her before Bonnasse
gave them expression. This is language itself at work in the spirit of

The feeling I have is that Bonnasse is a third-generation Gurdjieffian
in the sense that he is steeped in the work through the availability
of formerly withheld texts and that he is living in a time and a place
marked by the ready acceptance of ideas of personal transformation so
that he is able to internalize work principles to an unheralded

The first generation of pioneers of the Fourth Way have receded into
the honourable past; the second generation of organizers and
systematizers have done their landmark work by building their
organizations and leaving their marks; so it is now the time for the
third generation, a still-young young group of creators, to take root
and grow in individual and distinct fields of expression … in
composition or performance, be it in music, dance, writing,
literature, philosophy, fine art, film, and so on. There has always
been a spiritual dimension to poetry, something “magical” about all
the arts. So our time may truly be “the dawn of the magicians.”

John Robert Colombo is known as “Canada’s Mr. Mystery” for such
compilations as “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories.” He combines
two of his interests – Canadiana and consciousness studies – in his
recently issued collection of essays (many reprinted from this blog)
titled “Whistle While You Work.” He is an Association of the Northrop
Frye Centre, Victoria College, University of Toronto.



John Robert Colombo Page


A review of Michael Hayes’ The Hermetic Code in DNA

I quite enjoyed reading this book, but its title is a mouthful of
words, so I have found myself referring to it, in conversation with
friends, as “the new book which I am reading that tries to find a
relationship between the so-called ‘hermetic code’ and the code that
informs the structure of human DNA.” When I say that, people look
amiss or agog, and I know why. I repeat that the author is “trying to
find a relationship” and that it is an struggle worthy of the
exertions of a Sisyphus (an uphill battle) or the frustrations of
Tantalus (an ever receding reward).

The author who so resembles Sisyphus or Tantalus is Michael Hayes is
described on the cover of this quality paperback as “an administrator
at the University of Central England” (formerly Birmingham
Polytechnic) and “the author of ‘The Infinite Harmony: Musical
Structures in Science and Theology’” (McArthur & Co. / Orion Con Trad,
1994). I have yet to see a copy of that publication. After reading the
present book, I find myself moderately curious about it.

The present book is not a new title, for it was originally published
in England in 2004 by Black Spring Press, a quality literary publisher
in London, under the title “High Priests, Quantum Genes.” The edition
that I am reviewing is titled “The Hermetic Code in DNA: The Sacred
Principles in the Ordering of the Universe” and was published earlier
in 2008 by another quality house, Inner Traditions, Rochester,
Vermont, which specializes in book of a specular and spiritual nature.
(Both companies have readily accessible websites.)

Here are some bibliographical details for the American edition under
review: Trade paperback, 6″ x 9″, xviii + 334 pages, ISBN:
978-1-59477-218-4. $18.95. There are 17 chapters with notes,
bibliography, and index. Also included is the arresting Foreword, to
which I will now turn my attention.

The Foreword is a long personal essay from the fountain pen or
personal computer of Colin Wilson. I am second to none in my
admiration of Wilson’s oeuvre, and I really enjoy reading what he
writes for his choice of subjects and his agreeable style. His
strength has always been his remarkable ability to present the
unconventional ideas of “outsiders.” He is a great explainer of
ancient and advanced thinking, though lately he has become more of an
advocate more than an interpreter.

Here, for instance, is the first paragraph of the Foreword to the
present book: “I suspect that the name of Michael Hayes is going to be
remembered together with those of Stephen Hawking and Watson and Crick
as a thinker who has made a revolutionary contribution to our vision
of modern science.”

That is taking a giant step. Indeed, it is equivalent to the step that
Wilson took when he completed “Alien Dawn: An Investigation into the
Contact Experience” (1999). That book about the contactee dimension of
ufology concludes with the statement that the author believes that not
only do aliens exist, but aliens are here right now, walking the
streets of our cities, moving among us. The evidence for this claim is
lacking, but people will believe what excites them and what they want
to believe.

Indeed, when the atomic scientist Leo Szilard was asked if he believed
in the existence of alien beings, he replied that he did. Then he was
asked, “If they exist, where are they?” He replied, “They are here
right now. They live among us. They are called … Hungarians.” Unlike
Szilard’s aliens, Wilson’s critters are creatures or characters from
outer space, from other times, or from other dimensions – hybrid
humans, perhaps. Maybe.

I doubt that Michael Hayes’s name will ever be linked with those of
Hawking, Watson, or Crick – at least not as long as the names of those
scientists are honoured. And Hayes has yet to make a contribution to
“our vision of modern science,” but he has modestly contributed to our
view of “the wisdom tradition.” From now on Hayes’s name will be
linked with a lively and intelligent discussion of a range of subjects
of popular speculative interest. This book of his will be shelved
alongside works of dozens of writers who have contributed to the
“occult sciences” or what I have called in another context
“speculative non-fiction.”

Numerology is one such subject and it has been newsworthy for the last
decade. For instance, the Fortean movie “Magnolia” (1999) features the
number 8. “A Beautiful Mind” (2001) drowns in a tsunami of coded
numbers, zillions of digits. The comedy “The Number 23” (2007) makes
much use of the correspondences of the unlikely number 23. Behind much
of this is the Kaballah and behind that cerebral discipline there are
the 613 Hebrew laws (curiously, the number of bones in the human

In the present book Hayes devotes chapters to different traditions, so
each has its own special number or numbers. Hayes finds special
relevance in such digits as 3, 3.14157, 4, 7, 8, 22, 64, 838, etc. The
Law of Three and the Octaves of the Ray of Creation are featured. But
no special importance is given to the numbers 1.6, 9, 13, or 613,
perhaps because these come traditions that are not surveyed here– in
this case, sacred architecture, Bahá’i, the superstition of folklore,
and the Kaballah.

Excuse me if I am a little light-headed or flippant, but unlike the
scientists named by Wilson, Hayes undertakes no research, contributes
findings to no scientific publications, and demonstrates no special
scholarly or linguistic abilities or aptitudes. However, what he does
display is an omnivorous curiosity and the ability to respond
creatively to extensive readings in many popular books and a few
serious ones (although it is with the latter that he does express some
serious reservations).

By popular books I mean “eye-openers” like Robert Bauval’s “The Orion
Mystery” (1994) and Christopher P. Dunn’s “The Gaza Power Plant”
(1998). By serious books I mean Richard Dawkins’s “The Blind
Watchmaker” (1988) and Giorgio De Santillana’s “Hamlet’s Mill” (1992).
I am limiting myself to titles selected at random from the first page
of the three-page bibliography. Hayes also credits reprints of G.I.
Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales” (1964) as well as P.D. Ouspensky’s “In
Search of the Miraculous” (1976) and “A New Model of the Universe”
(1977), recalling here and there some of their pertinent passages to
good effect.

“The Hermetic Code in DNA” is hard to beat for a fast-moving survey of
current thought about the interaction of the wisdom tradition from
archaic times to the postmodern period and its possible connection
with the recently revealed structure of the human genome, specifically
its basis in the DNA. It makes use of comparisons and contrasts,
similarities and analogies, and above all it uses associative thought
processes, what in another context Ouspensky called “psychological
thought” to distinguish it from “logical thought.”

I am not going to pursue them here, but two general criticisms that I
have are that there is no discussion of the tendency of the human mind
to find symmetry where none exists, and there is no discussion of the
nature of language itself, the appeal of metaphor, or Northrop Frye’s
“order of words.” Nor is the insight of the poet as distinct from that
of the scientist mentioned. At some later point I may tackle those
criticisms as subjects worthy of consideration in their own right, for
such shortcomings are characteristic of “occult literature” generally.

Basically what Hayes has done is offer a discussion of the scientific
basis for the existence of the spirit, as well as the spiritual basis
for the existence of science. What we have here is a convergence of
two disciplines – call one of them “science,” the other “occult
science.” (Hayes handles this distinction by distinguishing between
“regular science” and what he calls “Science with a capital ‘s’.”) If
I can encapsulate Hayes’s aim in writing this book, it is to find a
convergence and ultimately an identity between hermetic studies and
the structure of the gene. In other words, we have in our genes –
coded in our genetic structure – the wisdom of the ages. It evolves
physically and psychologically through the Law of Three and the Law of

Hayes encapsulates this theme for the reader in the sole detailed
footnote of any length. Here it is: “One would not expect exact
superimpositions to be visible at every level, because the universe is
continually evolving, constantly in flux. But as long as the various
symmetries link in at these main ‘points of entry’ the Hermetic Code
is valid. If anything, the fact that the code can be directly linked
to all of these various symmetries – and many other found throughout
the natural world – is precisely what one would expect of a ‘theory of

Apparently mathematicians and cosmologists are johnny-come-latelys
with their own physical “theory of everything,” trailing by centuries
if not by millennia metaphysicians associated with obscure schools and
monasteries in claiming to have found “a key to the enigmas of the
world.” But enough of beating around the bush. Hayes in his book
focuses on the following subjects and argues in the following fashion.

Introduction. Proponents of all the major belief systems agree that
there is an existence after death, the author writes. Matter is
composed of particles or vibrations of light. There is a timeless or
eternal form of reality. The major religions harness very real forces.
Creation is the result of the Law of Three and the Law of Octaves
embodied in the nature of the mathematical ratio pi. The DNA in the
cells of human bodies has four chemical bases. There are parallels
here with the 64 permutations of the I Ching. Music and specifically
musical harmony offer a scientific key to the tones or wave-lengths
under discussion. He writes:

“As the first recorded version of this archaic science first appeared
in the Nile delta about five thousand years ago, I have called this
musical symmetry the Hermetic Code, after Hermes Trismegistus, the
Greek name for Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom …. This is
the Hermetic Code, a universal formula that as we shall find out,
encompasses within it practically everything.” This is another form of
the axiom: ‘As above, so below.’”

The author’s Introduction takes the reader this far. As a reader of
the book, I like the handling of the details that appear in the
seventeen chapters. As a reviewer all I can do is point out a few of
the approaches that the author takes. Suffice it to say the author
writes very readably, he is familiar with standard popular books on
offbeat topics, and he seems intent on proving that there is a
numerical code if not a Hermetic one that underpins the genetic code
and acts as a cipher for philosophical and theosophical systems.

Here is my simplification of the author’s argument: There is the
four-fold nature of the DNA. There are the four traditional elements
in the natural world. There is a parallel here between scientific
discovery and metaphysical inquiry. Could this be a coincidence? (I am
inclined to say that in many cases the “resemblance” or
“correspondence” is an artifact of the question itself.) Now here is
the author’s argument chapter by chapter (with one sentence or two for
each of the seventeen chapters).

1. “The Sacred Constant.” Ancient wisdom first appeared in Egypt some
5,000 years ago B.C. and it holds the “sacred constant” expressed in
the number 8. This is the Law of Octaves, counting the two do’s. Note
that 8 x 8 = 64, another type of greater harmony associated with the I

2. “A Different Way of Seeing.” Rhythms and harmonies of the universe
are expressed by the Hermetic Code, especially as evolution proceeds
by octaves, and this is seen in music and art (Gurdjieff’s distinction
between subjective and objective art) and architecture (René Schwaller
de Lubicz’s views on architectural forms of man).

3. “Music over Matter.” Music (all those octaves) may have managed the
construction of the megaliths, evoked by the phrase “musical magic,”
and perhaps the phenomenon of the “group-mind” as advanced by Colin
Wilson was used by early peoples to great effect: mental building
cranes and cranial forklifts.

4. “The Electron and the Holy Ghost.” Subatomic particles and the
theory of “quantum potential” advanced by David Bohm are considered,
as are the views of Sri Aurobindo, leading to the conclusion that
matter is alive and composed of vibrations and / or light.

5. “Further Light.” Christopher Dunn’s speculations on “sonic /
ultrasonic stone carving and drilling” and Princeton physicist Robert
Jahn are, in a sense, compared. This chapter and indeed much of the
book is “metaphysical” in the sense that literary scholars call John
Donne a “metaphysical poet,” for there is a roping together of
heterogeneous elements to create a greater whole. A sense of the
greater whole may be felt in these two long sentences:

“So the Great Pyramid, the most impressive monument to light ever
created on Earth, massive and imposing as it is, is really no more
than a foundation stone upon which has been constructed another,
infinitely vaster, metaphysical structure, a creation of sorts, whose
indeterminate dimensions are even to this day expanding ever outward
and upward. I am referring here, of course, to the ongoing evolution
of human consciousness, which began its present stage of development
at the time the Great Pyramid was designed, and which has ever since
been guided subconsciously by the also-embracing hermetic principles
embodied within it.”

This is indeed “metaphysical” prose. In another comparison, it
embodies the principle of the hologram, for from a single fragment may
be generated or regenerated the multifaceted whole.

6. “Live Music.” So-called “scientific creationists” and evolutionary
scientists are contrasted and Richard Dawkins is taken to task for his
notion that “stumbling blindly through geological time” led to life as
we know it today, not a noble notion of “transcendental evolution”
whereby “it is possible for individuals to emulate the living cell and
to achieve a similar condition of ‘optimum resonance.’”

Here the author expresses his naked thesis: “I stated above that I
believe that the growth and development of consciousness is an organic
process. Logically it has to be, because the Hermetic Code and the
genetic code are fundamentally one and the same system.”

7. “Extraterrestrial DNA.” Another extension of “the theory of
transcendental evolution” which leads to the Pyramids (“The Lights” is
apparently how these structures were known to the Egyptians of old)
which leads to the star systems above them, Sirius and Zeta Orionis,
as well as to the starry-eyed speculations of Rodney Collin.

8. “Interstellar Genes and the Galactic Double Helix.” Robert Temple’s
“The Sirius Mystery” is discussed, along with Gurdjieff’s “missing
semi-tones,” to suggest that the universe is a being that is fully

9. “The Hermetic Universe of Ancient Times.” The Pythagorean
cosmological system is considered with respect to reincarnation, the
nature of the universe, modern science, metaphysics, and “zoon,” the
Greek term for “a living thing.”

10. “The Hierarchy of Dimensions.” So the universe is “organic,” but
it exists on a hierarchy of planes or levels or dimensions.
“Confused?” the author questions the reader. “To be perfectly honest,
so am I. Frequently. But then we are trying to come to terms with the
imponderable here, and left-brain logic alone can take us only so far
in the quest for the ultimate reality.”

11. “The Fate of the Universe.” Speculation on the fate of the
universe gives equal weight to science-fiction writer Wilbur Wright in
“Time: Gateway to Immortality” and writer-scientist Paul Davies in
“The Last Three Minutes,” to build the argument that there is “music
literally everywhere, in the chromodynamic and atomic scales of
matter, in DNA and the genetic code,” etc.

12. “Inner Octaves.” Outer octaves were explored, so here the
investigation narrows and deeps into the inner octaves, through the
symbol or structure of the Ray of Creation.

13. “The Holographic Principle.” Michael Talbot, author of “The
Holographic Universe,” is a big help here to demonstrate that a part
is as great as a whole, a whole as great as a part.

14. “Quantum Psychology.” What the author calls “quantum psychology”
sheds light on the findings of particle physicists (notably Karl
Pribram), parapsychologists, and neurophysiologists, permitting the
reader to see that there are ways the brain resembles subatomic
particles in their “non-locality.” Here I recall the delicious pun in
the movie “The Golden Compass”: Lord Asriel is described as “a
particle metaphysicist.”

15. “QP2: The Universal Paradigm.” Man is composed of “triple octaves”
of resonance, so we are “‘walking trinities’ composed of our
sensations, emotions, and perceptions,” a point that Hayes argues in
his earlier book “The Infinite Harmony.”

16. “The Shapeshifters.” Mayan and Egyptian texts and Graham Hancock’s
“Fingerprints of the Gods” all lead to an examination of
“extraordinary mental and physical powers” shown by members of “the
Egyptian elite” to permit them to build their monumental structures.

17. “‘Al-Chem’ – the Egyptian Way.” Octaves of resonance are invoked
to account for the harnessing or focusing of exceptional powers for
exceptional effects. The author writes powerfully:

“We know that in the natural course of Darwinian evolution successful
genes can survive all manner of catastrophes: ice ages, rapid
meltdowns, deluges, earthquakes, cometary impacts. In the same way,
the hermetic ideas we are dealing with here – the metaphysical
equivalent of successful genes – have survived all kinds of social
upheaval: wars, dark ages, periods of total ignorance and barbarism,
inquisitions, revolutions, and so on. Therefore we are not speaking in
metaphor: we are talking about organic processes of creation and
evolution, both microcosmic and macrocosmic, which are identical in
every way, with a difference in scale only.”

So much for this Baedeker-like tour of the countryside. My own view of
Michael Hayes’s achievement is that “The Hermetic Code in DNA” is a
literary composition written in an underrated literary form, that of
the “anatomy” – think of Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” – and
that through accumulation of detail and organization by association,
rather than by classification and disinterested pursuit of its thesis,
it embraces other subliterary forms in an attempt to reveal common
characteristics and congruent conceptions that have to do with the
evolution of nature, man, and spirit. It is an ample and in a way an
impressive anatomical achievement.

How successful is it? That is for the reader to decide, the reader who
is familiar with associative thinking as well as the material that is
included and the material that is excluded, or the reader who is
flustered by all the material and perhaps overimpressed with it. Hayes
is committed to his point of view (Hermetic Code = Genetic Code) to
the exclusion of criticism of sources and common sense reservations.
Even so, Robert Burton was ultimately unhappy with his classic
“Anatomy of Melancholy,” perhaps because most people read it for its
bits and pieces rather than for its “metaphysical” whole.

John Robert Colombo is an author and anthologist who lives in Toronto.
His current publication, 500 pages long, is called “The Big Book of
Canadian Ghost Stories.” He is an Associate, Northrop Frye Centre,
Victoria College, University of Toronto. His website is www.
colomb-plus. ca.


John Robert Colombo Page


Toronto 1918

James George and Brabara Wright 2004


JRC contributes some impressions of James George’s
90th Birthday Celebration in Toronto

It was 90 years ago to the day that James George was born in Toronto.
His father was a physician and he grew up in the city’s exclusive
Rosedale area of the city. He acquired an excellent, bilingual
education and was drawn to Ottawa, the nation’s capital, where in the
1950s and 1960s he became one of the country’s “mandarins,” to use the
term to describe those members of the Department of External Affairs
who clustered around Lester B. Pearson (who went on to receive the
Nobel Peace Prize and then serve with distinction as the country’s
Prime Minister). In Ottawa these men – there were a couple of women
too – were called “mandarins,” in Whitehall “boffins,” and in New
Delhi “bapus.”

James George himself served with distinction as Canadian High
Commissioner to India and Ambassador to Nepal. In India he became fast
friends with the present Dalai Lama. I could go on to fill out Jim’s
distinguished career in the Royal Canadian Navy and as a foreign
service officer, and as the author of a forthcoming book (on the
subject of meditation). But of more interest here is the fact that in
select circles he is recognized to be one of the senior statesmen in
the realm of consciousness studies. (In Canada his peers are film
producer Tom Daly of Ottawa and physicist Ravi Ravindra of Halifax.)
He has great experience in the Work and at any one time leads or
contributes to group activities in cities in Canada and the United
States and perhaps elsewhere as well.

The celebration was well organized by Jim’s vibrant and vigorous wife
Barbara Wright, who has a long record of contributing to the Work in
San Francisco and elsewhere. The party was held on Sunday afternoon,
September 14, 2008, the actual day of his birth ninety years earlier.
The venue was Toronto’s Arts & Letters Club, and its Great Hall was
strikingly illuminated with candles for the sixty or so invited guests
who came from various cities across the continent to be present. In
attendance were members of the immediate family, including children
and grandchildren, who spoke about Jim as pater familias.

My wife Ruth and I were privileged to be among the invited guests and
we mingled with ease among them. I would estimate that four-fifths of
the people present were connected with the Work. (At times I felt like
a Catholic in a congregation of Protestants – to employ a loose
comparison!) But it was also by and large a professional group, with
teachers, editors, publishers, musicians, lawyers, and even a former
U.S. college president and a world-famous theoretical physicist.

It was a private event, so it would be inappropriate to report in
detail on the proceedings, other than to state that Jim George, at
ninety – now Dr. George, as he had recently been awarded the degree of
Doctor of Sacred Letters – spoke very well. He talked without notes
for about fifteen minutes about the need for us to be fully conscious
human beings who live in the here and now as well as about the
ecological crisis facing the world at this period and at this place,
which he described as “the most exciting time” to be alive.

Jim’s speech was made following testimonies of how he had influenced
the lives of his children and grandchildren and many of the other
guests who were present. Toasts were proposed, a new poem read, a new
song was sung, the friendship rite of the Pacific North West was
performed, a Tibetan prayer over food was recited, a birthday cake was
sliced and served, and a Gurdjieff-de Hartmann hymn was movingly
played on the piano. I think Barbara Wright hit the right note when
she talked of love and its force and how Jim had inspired that emotion
in everyone he had ever met.

No point would be served in describing the heart-warming proceedings
in greater detail, but I will share with the readers of this blog the text of
my own contribution, which was perforce less personal than the other
contributions. It was delivered without notes, but there was a text.
Here it is.

Notes for a Brief Talk
To Mark the Occasion of the Celebration of James George’s 90th
Birthday, Arts & Letters Club, Toronto, Sunday, 14 September 2008

My name is John Robert Colombo and I have been what might be called “a
James George watcher” since the year 1961. That was the year I first heard
the name of the gentleman we have gathered here to honour. His name came
from the lips of a young poet named William Hawkins who was running a
series of poetry readings at a coffee house in Ottawa, called Le Hibou, where
I was invited to be a guest reader.

Hawkins discovered that we shared his interest in occultism, mysticism,
esotericism, and Eastern religions. I remember Bill telling me, “There’s this
guy right here in Ottawa, who’s crazy about Oriental ideas, and he’s high
up in the Department of External Affairs, and one of these days he’s
going to be appointed Canada’s Ambassador to India!”

I remember thinking, “Bill, you’re exaggerating, as usual, but there’s
probably some substance to what you’re saying, even if you can’t
distinguish between an Ambassador and a High Commissioner.” At the
time that was forgivable because Hawkins was preoccupied with writing
the lively poems that would appear in the book he published with so
memorable a title. That title is “Shoot Low, Sheriff, They’re Riding
Shetland Ponies!” Remember it: I will return to it.

I asked Bill a question: “What’s this impressive man’s name?” Poet
that he was, Hawkins replied with a spondee. Now a spondee is an
unusual poetic meter that consists of two equal and heavy stresses ( X
X ). I never forgot that spondee: “James George.” I filed it away for
future reference.

Since then my wife Ruth who is here with me and I have been “James
George watchers” and I have kept a file on the man. But for more than
forty years, James – or Jim, as I have learned to call him – has
preferred to be “watched” from a distance. Over the years I courted
him. But it was not until the dramatic appearance on the scene of his
dynamic wife, Barbara Wright, that Jim agreed to be “watched”
close-up, at least by Ruth and me.

Many of you know Jim and Barbara as family members or as close
personal friends. Ruth and I are not able to make that claim, but we
are second to none in our appreciation of the qualities of the couple,
even if from the sidelines, though it must be said that distance does
sometimes lend some perspective on quality. So I will take the liberty
of speaking frankly about the man, beginning with identifying a chief
characteristic and the greatest misfortune ever to befall him.

Jim had the very bad luck to be born and raised in Toronto’s up-scale
community of Rosedale. Had his karma been other than it is, he would
have been born eight hundred miles north of Rosedale, among the
Algonkian-speaking Indians of the Great Lakes Region. There, north of
Lake Superior, he would have been honoured and admitted to the
Midewiwin, the Great Medicine Society of the Ojibwa. He would have
been recognized as its Sachem; and as its Chief, it would have been
his obligation to perform the aboriginal ancestral rites. He would
have been privy to its cache of hereditary knowledge, secrets of the
past that Madame H.P. Blavatsky attempted to penetrate in 1851 on her
exploratory trip to Quebec City.

Had his karma been more positive than that, he would have been born
even farther north, a thousand miles north of the Great Lakes Region,
among the Inuit of Baffin Island. Here he would have been regarded as
a shaman, a practitioner of the arts of “shamanstvo” which are
associated the ancient tribes of Mongols around Lake Baikal, a UNESCO
World Heritage Site. As an anagok, he would have made ecstatic flights
into the upper atmosphere and been able to access the possibilities of
the future. Indeed, he might have embodied that reference to “an
Eskimo … one of the four contemporary initiated beings” that
Gurdjieff mentioned in passing in “Beelzebub’s Tales.”

Or, had he been born outside Canada, in a foreign country half-way
around the world, in Japan for instance, perhaps in Kyoto, he would
now bear the title “Living National Treasure.” This designation was
instituted by the Japanese government in 1950 to honour contributors
to culture of considerable importance to the present – and hence
eligible for special protection and support.

Instead, he had the ill-luck to be born or at least raised in
Rosedale, a few miles northeast of where we are congregating right
now. Actually, he did quite well for someone who was handicapped from
birth by being a Rosedalian!

There are some positive aspects to an upbringing in Rosedale. For
instance, he was able to receive a great, bilingual education;
associate with “mandarins” like Lester B. Pearson; travel widely;
marry and raise a family; establish a record of heroism with the Royal
Canadian Navy; represent the country as its High Commissioner in New
Delhi; become Ambassador to Nepal; study and work with various
Gurdjieff groups; write an important book on ecology; and meet Barbara
… and change his name.

Let me dwell on the latter achievement. His name was changed from a
spondee to an iamb. Readers of poetry will know what I mean: from the
spondee “heavy-heavy” ( X X ) to the iambic “light-heavy” (x X). The
spondee “JAMES GEORGE” is now the iamb “Jim GEORGE.”

But his bad luck is our good fortune, for we would not be in his
company on this happy occasion had he lived in the past on the tundra
of the North of Superior, or in the provisional future on the littoral
of Baffin Island, or in the shadow of the temples of the present-day
in Kyoto, Japan. So we can be here, with him, in Toronto, dwelling in
the present, and Barbara too, within the hallowed halls of the Arts &
Letters Club, to mark the ninety years of the fruitful and productive
life at home and abroad of this accomplished man … our High
Commissioner to the World of Values.

Let me conclude. I mentioned earlier the title of Bill Hawkins’s book:
“Shoot Low, Sheriff, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies!” With James
George – that spondee of spondees – now Jim George – that iambic
meter – we have to revise it to read: “Aim Very High, Ladies and
Gentleman, He’s Riding on a Camel!”

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and editor with a
special interest in consciousness studies. His forthcoming book of
occasional essays is titled “Whistle While You Work.”

P.S. An envelope posted when James George was three days old.


September 15, 2008 at 2:31 pm

A WOMAN’S WORK: the spiritual life journey of Ethel Merston

John Robert Colombo Page


JRC reviews Mary Ellen Korman’s “A Woman’s Work”

What I have before me as I write this review is a handsome trade
paperback titled “A Woman’s Work.” It is subtitled “The Spiritual Life
Journey of Ethel Merston” and the author is Mary Ellen Korman. Barbara
Allen Patterson is identified as the book’s editor. I assume Mrs.
Patterson to be the wife of William Patrick Patterson, the energetic
and well-known exponent of the Fourth Way, who has contributed a short

Patterson is a partner in Arete Communications of Fairfax, California,
the book’s publisher, as well as the founder-editor of “The Gurdjieff
Journal,” the latest issues of which have been serializing the text of
this book. So as a subscriber to the “Journal,” I knew the book was
about to be published, but not so soon. Maybe the publisher was also
surprised. On the book’s copyright page, there are two curiosities.

The first curiosity is that the present publication has been
copyrighted in the year “2009.” This is a slip-up that is certain to
confuse librarians and bibliophiles. (J. Walter Driscoll,
bibliographer of Fourth Way publications, take note!) For the record,
I purchased my copy directly from the publisher and it arrived on
August 11, 2008.

The copyright page’s second curiosity is that it runs the Library of
Congress Catalogue which lists ten names for indexing purposes. Since
these could double as the backbone of the book, let me list them here
in the order in which they appear on the copyright page:

1. Ethel Merston. 2. G.I. Gurdjieff. 3. Ramana Maharashi. 4. J.D.
Krishnamurti. 5. Anandamayi Ma. 6. Sunyata. 7. Swami Omananda. 8. Pak
Subuh. 9. J.G. Bennett. 10. Fourth Way.

These names are quite a mouthful! The book also offers the reader
forty-nine black-and-white photographs of gurus and other people.
There are generous source-notes and also an index of names.

I know little about the author, Mary Ellen Korman, except for what it
says on the book’s back cover: “Editor-writer Mary Ellen Korman has
long been interested in spiritual transformation and its many
approaches. She teaches a yoga of body impressions and lives in
southern Pennsylvania.” I am not quite sure how a session of “a yoga
of body impressions” differs from a standard session of hatha yoga,
but that is what it says and I am willing to learn.

In the Preface, Mrs. Korman acknowledges the contribution of her
husband Henry Korman, with whom she has authored an earlier book in
1997. Its title is not promising, as least in the present context:
“Living with Dogs: Tales of Love, Commitment, and Enduring

As a reader and reviewer of this book, however, I want to acknowledge
the seamless prose of Mrs. Korman. She has done exemplary work
combining her own writing with that of Miss Merston who kept a diary
of her life, travels, and reflections. Passages from this diary and
other works are introduced into the narrative. (The typescript of the
diary is on deposit at the City of Westminster Archives in London.)
The two voices are one voice, rather like the chanting of one of those
Tibetan monks who is able to intone both a tone and an overtone in one
breath simultaneously.

My sole criticism is that Mrs. Korman is too vague about some facts
that could have been checked. For instance, was Miss Merston really
awarded an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) for her outstanding
work with the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) during the Great ar?
More work should have been done here and elsewhere.

Now to Ethel Merston. The excerpts from the book that have been
appearing in issues of “The Gurdjieff Review” did not really whet my
appetite to read the full text, but the mention of the “big names” did
pique my interest – enough to purchase a copy. All her life, Miss
Merston was a pilgrim, a quester, a seeker. She would probably concur
with this description of her way of life – but not if the definition
of a “seeker” excludes someone who is a “finder.” I will return to
this point shortly, but first some biographical information.

Ethel Merston was born in London, England, in 1882, into a family of
professional and accomplished Jewish-German parents of some wealth and
social standing. The original family name was Meyerstein. It seems the
family was a secularize one and dysfunctional. Edith’s mother was
artistic but high-strung and young Ethel fought with her bitterly. The
mother also “dabbled” in Theosophy.

When Ethel was eight years old, Madame Blavatsky “came to tea.” She
and her younger brother Will met the Madame. “Ethel and Will had heard
that Madame Blavatsky had only to point her finger at an object and it
would fall. The children watched her closely. When finally she pointed
and nothing happened, they were disgusted with her.” That incident
seems to have set the pattern for the future full of ultimately
disappointing meetings with gurus.

Ethel developed various psychosomatic illnesses (the author is as
vague as Ethel is about these) but as if in compensation, she had a
passion for languages and gardening. She left home without any
education or training and supported herself with temporary secretarial
work. She joins the WRNS and apparently distinguished herself on the
home front during the Great War.

After the war she sought the services of a psychiatrist, and her
choice of specialists is interesting: Dr. Maurice Nicoll, who was at
the point of abandoning Jung for Gurdjieff. She heard Gurdjieff speak
on one occasion and on another attended a lecture at the Quest Society
on the Fourth Dimension delivered by P.D. Ouspensky.

All this is mentioned in passing, in so many words, as the author has
hardly any other real information about Ethel’s first forty years. So
the biography effectively begins on a bench on the Boulevard de la
Madeleine in Paris in late August of 1922 when she meets George
Gurdjieff and appeals to him to receive her at the Priory, which is on
the point of opening its doors to selected members of the public.
After half an hour of silence, Gurdjieff replies with one word:

It turned out that Ethel – I will call her Merston hereafter – had
organizational and administrative abilities, so she became the chief
gardener at the 200-acre estate at Fontainebleau-Avon. She learned
enough Russian to order the Russian residents around and she possessed
enough class to intimidate the English visitors. This period is well
documented in the literature of the Fourth Way, particularly by her
nemesis at the Priory: young Fritz Peters who later wrote about the
many run-ins that he had with her.

Merston emerged as an unliked and unlikeable martinet (with “a little
black book” to record transgressions). Part of a chapter is devoted to
describing how Gurdjieff took pains to humanize her in the eyes of the
residents and visitors, and how he laboured to sensitize her to the
needs of other people, as other people experienced her as being
captious and distant.

At the Priory she learned to deal to some extent with her pressing
spinal problems through massage therapy as well as exercises in
self-remembering and self-observation: “I did not try to stop the
worry, but just to separate it from the body.” She wrote about
Gurdjieff: “I did not go to him for spiritual teaching, but solely for
physical healing purposes.” She left the Priory in 1927 but continued
her personal associations with Gurdjieff’s followers.

This would be a long review, indeed, if I gave equal time to Merston’s
experiences with other teachers in other parts of the world. Here I
will devote a sentence or two to each encounter, as she visits guru
after guru. Through the influence of a psychotherapist named Adelaide
Gardiner, who was also a leader of the Theosophical Society’s Esoteric
Group, she undertook a study of the “astral body.”

An inheritance from the estate of her parents in 1932 left her
independently wealthy and free to travel at will. In New York City she
met Ruth Underhill and the two of them shared accommodation in Tucson,
Arizona. She attended A.R. Orage’s groups in New York in 1924. She
even had psychic readings conducted by Edgar Cayce and another by Mrs.
Eileen Garrett. Nothing much occurred.

In 1934, at the age of fifty-two, she arrived in Bombay. She would
live in India off and on for the rest of her life. She never married
or showed much interest in or understanding of men. She shared living
quarters with a series of talented but unstable women who exhibited
psychic abilities as well as symptoms of mental, emotional, and
physical disorders. She met Saroijini Naidu, the poet and patriot,
whom she admired, and Mohandas Gandhi, who impressed her (as he did
everyone else, except Ali Jinnah of Pakistan).

Readers interested in how an English woman of a certain social class
conducted herself in India prior to Partition will find the bulk of
the book worth reading. The same is true for readers interested in
trance mediumship, for Merston’s companions were always conducting
seances or otherwise simply falling into trances. Seldom did the
voices that spoke to them during these sessions said anything
significant. Musicologists will be interested in the descriptions of
violinist Maude MacCarthy (Omananda Puri) and her husband, the
brilliant composer John Foulds.

In the meantime Merston read books by Alice Bailey, Helena and
Nicholas Roerich, and Paul Brunton, and she received private
instruction in specific but unnamed yogic techniques from a Hindu
medical doctor. In 1935, she returned briefly to Europe where she
attended one of Krishnamurti’s talks at Ommen, Holland. It seemed she
had no rapport with the designated World Saviour, or he with her.

Then it is back to India again. In 1931, Paul Brunton had received
instruction from Ramana Maharshi, “one of India’s great sages,” and
Merston was drawn to the Adviatic Vedantic teacher’s ashram near the
temple town of Tiruvannamalai at the foot of Aurunachala. She was
struck by the place’s peace and beauty.

She sat with Maharshi and told him, “I have hopes that I shall find
some interest in life.” The Maharshi replied, “If there is no
interest, it is good.” Their dialogue is reproduced at some length but
it seems to be a mishmash of cliché and mistranslation. She soon left
to visit other places and people, but she would return at least five
times: “I visited the Ashram each summer to sit in Bhagawan’s

Merston spent the Second World War in India. She immersed herself in
village life and acted in many capacities – as social worker, nurse,
gardener, herder, magistrate, etc. It turned out her distance from
other people made her good at non-judicial dispute resolution and
social mediation. But her labours were uphill battles against the
centuries-old ignorance of the villagers and the new-found arrogance
of the politicians and bureaucrats of the national government.

She met Alain Daniélou and his companion Raymond Burnier,
musicologists who had studied at Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan.
Then she met dance student Uday Shankar, guru Anandamayi Ma, poet
Lewis Thompson, guru Krishna Prem at the famous ashrama of Mirtola,
and Sri Aurobindo at Pondicherry.

She visited Mirtola, the ashram of Sri Anandamoyi Ma, but rejected the
Bengali guru’s approach of devotion and worship. She befriended the
Danish mystic Sunyata (Alfred Sorensen) and regarded him as a
“natural” mystic, as had Brunton earlier. She was attracted to the
spiritualism of Swami Omananda and The Boy who channelled The

She attended the death of Bhagavan at his ashram in 1950. As she
herself observed, it seemed to take decades for the lessons of her
teachers to take effect. “If I understood anything of the Maharshi’s
way of Self-inquiry, it is entirely due to Gurdjieff.” Then she
encountered Mataji, Krishnaji, known as The Mother.

On a visit to England in March 1954, J.B. Bennett invited her to stay
at Coombe Springs. She undertook editorial tasks connected with his
three-volume work “The Dramatic Universe.” All the while she continued
to work on her own glossary of “All and Everything.” What became of
that glossary is not mentioned. It seems Madame de Saltzman, with whom
she had no genuine relationship, had commissioned a glossary of her

On a return visit to Coombe Springs in 1957, she met Pak Subuh. She
was suspicious of the Indonesian teacher and felt hypnotism was behind
the effects of latihan. She invoked Bennett’s repeated experiences of
latihan to explain his end-of-the-day conversion to Catholicism.

In 1958, she visited friends in San Francisco, and in New York she met
up with an old friend, Jessmin Howarth, and at Franklin Farms in
Mendham, New Jersey, she conversed with John Pentland and
mathematician Christopher Fremantle.

Back in India in 1959 she resumed her friendship with a Benedictine
monk, Père Henri Le Saux, who wrote kind words about her, including
these: “She was an Englishwoman, always ready to do anyone a kindness,
no matter when or who it might be. This she always did with great
sensitivity….” It seems that the five decades of wandering in search
of gurus had engendered compassion. In 1967, at the age of
eighty-four, Merston succumbed to cancer and died in the shadow of her
beloved Arunachala.

What to make of her life? She was at once an adventurous Englishwoman
and a spiritual voyager, yet it seems (at least to the bystander or
interested observer) that hers was a life of to-ing and fro-ing
without much sense of self-awareness or self-fulfillment. (She cruised
on ocean-going vessels rather than on jetliners, but nonetheless
she brings to mind a jet-setting, globe-trotting journalist like Pico Iyer.)
No doubt she did what she wanted to do at the time, but did it satisfy her?
Despite years of hard work, indeed labour, she seems to have scattered her
attentions and her achievements. What were her goals? Simply to live?
Who is to say? She, the expert, does not say.

She was definitely not a finder, if by “a finder” is meant someone who
makes a self-discovery, perhaps a “personal best.” Within herself she
carried her problems (psychological as well as physical), and was
unable to commit herself to any single discipline or kindle within
herself a spark or flame of independence. This may explain her
never-ending, peripatetic pilgrimages to visit the world’s spiritual
leaders and sacred sites. Perhaps it is the travel and not the
terminus that is the destination.

As I read about the travels of Miss Merston, however, I kept thinking
about an Alice whom I knew, not “Alice in Wonderland” but the woman
who for decades until her recent death served as my research
assistant. A social-worker by profession, a woman the age of my
mother, all her life she was a “quester.”

Over the eighty years of her life she was, serially, a Presbyterian by
birth, a member of the United Church of Canada by default, a
Theosophist by interest, a student of the Kaballah through chance, a
Crowleyite as it happened, an Anthroposophist for reason of residence,
a Mormon by marriage, and at the end of her life an Anglican for
convenience. She seemed to have missed Gurdjieff (though she once
attended a function at the Foundation in New York, something I have
never done) and also Krishnamurti (though she did attend one of his

Looking back on this “quest” of hers, I wonder about its seriousness.
Alice was an independent thinker to the degree that she yearned for a
meaning and a significance in life that she could not find in
organized religion. But she was stubborn and would not learn anything
from anyone but herself. Was Alice passing the time? Was she in search
of a miracle? Was she like Merston?

We are informed that Merston began by searching for a cure for the
severe back pains that she suffered, but I believe she had much more
than that in mind. She was waiting for someone to offer her a placebo
with no strings attached. It never happened.

The “quests” of these two women bring to mind the famous byword of the
stage magician. Referring to the “vanishment” of an object, the
magician knows what his audience does not suspect: “Either the object
is still there or the object was never there to begin with.”
Is it a stretch to say that the same principle may be applied to the
“search for truth”? Indeed, it is there to begin with, or it will not
be found elsewhere.

John Robert Colombo is the author-editor of three books devoted to the
life and work of Denis Saurat, the Anglo-French littérateur and
metaphysician. This fall will see the publication of a collection of
his essays titled “Whistle While You Work.”



August 27, 2008 at 6:29 am

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