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Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto: reviewed by John Robert Colombo

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I have in front of me a copy of a newly published book titled “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto.” It was issued in November 2012 by Traditional Studies Press in Toronto, which happens to be the city in which I now reside. The book will be of interest to students of traditional thought and this is expressed in the wording of its subtitle: “On the ideas and practice of the teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff.”

To me the book is of especial interest because, in a limited way, a long time ago, I knew Louise Welch – Mrs. Welch, as she was always called. That was a long time ago – some fifty years ago. Memories sometimes serve as bridge-builders, connecting the past and the present. They do so in this instance.

Before I discuss the contents of this book, I will describe the volume as a physical object. It is a sturdy production, a new book designed to outlast the years, as are so many of the titles issued by Traditional Studies Press, which is the publication wing of The Gurdjieff Foundation: The Society for Traditional Studies. (The organization’s website identifies the organization as The Gurdjieff Foundation of Toronto: Society for Arts and Ideas.)

The publication has no dust jacket but the pages are bound in heavy boards covered in dark green cloth, and the pages are sewn together rather than glued together, so the book may be opened without worry that any of its pages will loosen or fly apart! The volume measures 6 inches by 9 inches, and the pagination goes like this: xxii + 181 + i. It is curious that the first twenty-two pages, which offer the reader an analytic table of contents (like those in P.D. Ouspensky’s “Tertium Organum” and in many of Colin Wilson’s books), appear without page numbers.

The typography is more practical than pictorial; the type is large and the lines are well “leaded” or spaced apart. The text is fairly short (perhaps 60,000 words) and each page is easy on the eyes. There is a frontispiece photograph of Mrs. Welch, taken in Halifax in 1984, which makes her look much older than the women I remember meeting over a period of two years in the second half of the 1950s.

In memory I recall Mrs. Welch as sharing some of the facial features of Maria Ouspenskaya, the Russian-born actress and acting teacher. Here she looks rather more like Marie Dressler, the Canadian-born, Academy Award-winning comic movie actress. I prefer the image in my memory to the portrait in the book!

Louise Welch’s vital years are 1905 and 1999 (so she is not to be confused with the similarly named Louise Welsh, the much younger, English-born, Scotland-based author of psychological thrillers). Mrs. Welch – Louise Michel Blinken Welch, to give her name in full – was born in New York City of Ukrainian background. She was raised in a dysfunctional family setting and received little formal education, but through her own efforts she found work as a journalist and editor. At one time in the 1920s, she wrote the “agony column” for the New York American. (Walter Winchell quipped about her that “Louise Michel went from bad to Hearst.”) Later in her varied career she worked as a director of a writer’s group for the WPA – the Work (or Works) Project Administration, the U.S. federal government’s employment program of the 1930s, now despised by Republications and forgotten by Democrats.

During the Depression she married and bore a son and a daughter. She was abandoned by her husband so she became their sole support. (Her daughter is Patty de Llosa, a writer and leader who is well respected in the circle of the Work, has has written warmly about her mother and her stepfather, Dr. William J. Welch, in a memoir that appears on one of the webpages of the “Gurdjieff International Review.” The information shared here is derived in part from that source.)

In the 1930s, Mrs. Welch worked with Benton & Bowles, the renowned advertising agency, and there she met and was befriended by a somewhat younger co-worker, who later trained to became a medical doctor, qualified as a cardiac specialist, and eventually became her husband. Together the Welches were what later came to be known as “a power couple.”

This is not the place to review her meetings in the 1920s with the English editor A.R. Orage or how through him she met G.I. Gurdjieff, in both Fontainebleau and New York, if only because she accomplished all of this in her finely written, book-length memoir titled Orage with Gurdjieff in America (1982). Offhand I would say her temperament had much in common with that of Orage. The two of them appreciated fine writing, they were practical people and skilled editors, they had an understanding of the emotional problems of other people as well as the social problems of their times, and they were entirely committed to being leaders in the Work.

Hardly any of the above information appears in the pages of “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto,” a fact that limits the readership of this volume to readers appreciative of the subtleties of the Work. To all other readers, the book will be seen as a tribute to a well-liked person rather than as a valuable record of transactions and experiences. Traditional Studies Press did what it set out to do; that was its aim. Perhaps a wider perspective might have resulted in a more imposing publication. Yet readers of all persuasions should express gratitude for what has been achieved.

The Toronto group was founded in 1954, the first of the ancillary groups to be recognized by The Gurdjieff Foundation in New York which had then entered its second year of operation. Its seeds were planted by Olga de Hartmann and her husband Thomas, the composer who had worked so closely with Mr. Gurdjieff on those marvellous compositions for the piano. In fact, way back in 1919, it was the de Hartmanns who had introduced Alexandre and Jeanne de Saltzmann to Mr. Gurdjieff. In the same way, while the couple were living in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, anticipating their move to the United States, they introduced the Work to Canadians in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax.

Among the prime movers of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York were Dr. and Mrs. Welch. The latter was delegated to head the Toronto group, which she did from 1955 on. I met her a year or two later, never guessing that the Toronto group was not “ages old” but “brand new.” On our first meeting, I asked her if I could join the Work, once I had moved to the city and enrolled at the University of Toronto. She delayed answering that question. Instead she asked her own question, “How did you first learn about the this work?” It was a good question because there was very little information available to the public about Gurdjieff, especially in a small city like the one in which I was born and raised. (This was well before the arrival of the so-called New Age.)

I replied that I had borrowed a copy of “In Search of the Miraculous” (published four years earlier) from the local Carnegie library, and read it cover to cover, not once but twice. Etched in my memory is her grim rejoinder: “The Table of Hydrogens is quite difficult, you know.” Then I backtracked and admitted that I had not understood all that I had read! She was happier with that reply. In general, I knew about the Priory at Fontainebleau from Ouspensky’s description, but it was months before I heard anything at all about J.B. Bennett and the foundations, institutes, and societies, not to mention the estate at Mendham. I was nineteen years old at the time.

My first meeting with the Toronto group leader took place in the upstairs bedroom of the home of Mrs. Margot Dustin and her husband Ernest whose nickname was “Dusty,” both former Theosophists, about a mile from where I now live and am keyboarding this account, and I was regular in my attendance at weekly meetings for readings and for Movements held here and there throughout the city, especially at the monthly meetings convened by Mrs. Welch. She would fly into the city from New York to conduct the sessions, on occasion with Dr. Welch, a man of genuine presence and strong voice. Once, in later years, they brought with them a 16 mm, black-and-white print of performances of the Movements in Paris, which was shown to a small group at the Ontario Science Centre.

Sometimes in attendance at the meetings were film producer Tom Daly, teacher Peter Colgrove, Dr. Paul Bura, an engineer, and his wife Sheila, who was adept in Movements, who were “refugees” from a Bennett group in England, not to mention a stunning, exotic couple: an exquisite, half-Burmese, half-French woman of great beauty (named Olga, oddly, and former wife of BBC executive Cecil Lewis) and her tall, stylish architect husband who may have come from Cornwall, where they subsequently settled. Yet in general I found the original members to be drawn from the professional middle-class of the city, almost everyone being older than I was, and it was a somewhat staid gathering of people, certainly not one given to small talk or big pronouncements. There were occasional visits from the very Gallic Alfred Etievant who would lead the Movements with lithe assurance.

Mrs. Welch’s contributions were not limited to oral instruction, for she encouraged the group to break into print. She kindled the publication of “A Journal of Our Time,” a literary and artistic “little magazine” of some deft and delicacy; she wrote a play which the group produced and staged for public performance; she generated publicity for the commercial showing at Cineplex (the world’s first “cineplex” or multi-screen movie theatre) of Peter Brook’s film “Meetings with Remarkable Men”; she served as editor-in-chief of the first edition of “The Guide and Index to G.I. Gurdjieff’s All and Everything,” which remains an invaluable resource to this day.

References to a few of these activities appear in “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto,” which is dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Dustin, the very woman in whose house I first met Mrs. Welch. According to the editorial note, “This publication is compiled from notes taken at meetings spanning the years 1955-1965 and 1973-1989.” My experiences relate directly to the first period, not at all to the second period, and I have no idea what happened between 1965 and 1973, a span of years that I assume were busy ones for the Toronto group, which eventually acquired valuable real estate both in Toronto and outside the rapidly expanding city.

When I was in attendance, each one of us was encouraged – even required – to ask questions, and to ask them slowly, so that the two note-takers would have time to record them, whether in longhand or shorthand I never knew. Apparently these scripts exist today, and they form the basis of the text of this book. From time to time the questions themselves are recorded here, but in most instances it is only Mrs. Welch’s answers that are given. The text itself begins like this: “My search is your search. We must each have a common wish to find out who we are and the direction in which we can grow to reach the truth.” (For symmetry’s sake, the text proper ends like this: “We have a little help here.”)

Reading these passages I am able to imagine myself in her presence and hear her refined, modulated American speech tones and pronunciations. The content of the presentations brings to my mind the content of the entries that appear in the five volumes of Maurice Nicoll’s “Commentaries.” Dr. Nicoll’s presentations are quite technical, whereas Mrs. Welch’s are conversational, parallelling normal thought processes. Both books are organized topically with long, analytic tables of contents. Mrs. Welch is a communicator of attitudes from Mr. Gurdjieff; Dr. Nicoll is a conveyer of detailed information from Mr. Ouspensky.

Her expositions make good use of “I” and “me,” though they do so with great care so as to generalize about the “I” and the “me” and make the words apply to each and every one of her listeners. For instance, she writes as follows: “The important thing is my inner work. My presence is important. I live without meaning because I am not here.” Imagine hearing these words: the “my” and the “I” are those of you, the listener.

In later years, in an attempt to understand the thrust and direction of the Work, I came to define its essence in a single word, a compound word that is a personal neologism. That word is “psychopraxis.” Here the discipline is psychological even psychical rather than psychiatric, but it is also physiological, for it is concerned with physical expression and practice; it is also blessedly free of religious, theosophical, and psychological terminology. Such ideas would have been regarded as novel at the time. Mrs. Welch avoids such exercises, and the introduction into the text of specific Gurdjieffian terms is minimized. One unexpected exception is this one: “Trogoautoegocrat,” from “All and Everything,” which is defined as “real sacrifice” or “I eat myself.”

Preserved are instances of the common touch: “If you tell me you cannot Work for fifteen minutes a day, I say that you don’t want to …. Five minutes of struggle is better than twenty-four hours of daydreaming.” There is no attempt here to innovate or improvise; the expressions of insight are refreshingly free of argument and cant or special pleading. The result is the exposition is effective and the prose is durable and in no sense dated. There are no potted expressions meant to impress the listener or express the private opinion or reservations of the speaker.

At the time I identified Mrs. Welch’s message with a simple, three-letter word – “aim.” It seemed to me at the time that she was always after us to define our own “aim.” I was surprised to realize how difficult it was to comply, difficult when not impossible! Not much about aim has found its way into the text at hand.

What I took away from the Work, right away, was the notion that what lies at the root of most personal and social problems is mechanicality … in “mentation,” emotion, and action. “Mechanicality” is a word that is instantly meaningful, yet is seldom heard or used in this sense by the outside world. On one occasion, she asked a provoking question: “My pet mechanicality is what irritates you. What is there in me that I am unconscious of, and need to be conscious of and know better?”

If I had more time and space I would compare and contrast the records of these meetings, as fragmentary as they are here, compiled not by an individual but by “The Editors, The Gurdjieff Foundation,” with more elaborate records kept of meetings with Ouspensky, Madame Lannes, Conge, and other group leaders. But there are readers (perhaps those who have been exposed to multiple teachers) who are better equipped to do so than am I.

The beating heart of the book lies in its most extended passage, a veritable lecture, which runs from page 66 to page 97. This passage covers most of the subjects germane to work on self. Unlike the shorter sections, which range in length from one sentence to one paragraph or to one or two pages, some dated, the narrative arc of this passage moves from one aspect of the subject to another aspect of the subject, and it builds, as dramatists like to express it. It begins, “I can be stirred into uneasiness … ” and it ends, “We rejoice in the joy of the possibilities.” The beat of this heart marks the ending of the first section of the book.

The second section, which records exchanges between 1973 and 1987, preserves the question-and-answer format – observation and discussion – so it is somewhat more digressive than the first section, but perhaps more engaging. Its heart beats faster. In many ways it may seem less exciting but it is more experienced, less promising but more polished, yet not having been there I cannot comment on how well it represents the occasions themselves. I would say that they do show a leader who is probing, more deeply than formerly, the content of the Work, perhaps because the members of the group are able to absorb more than they did formerly.

The book ends with a selection of aphorisms. Here are some of the book’s aphoristic expressions or pensées, most of them taken from the text itself and not from the selection devoted to them:

* “Our search is not for miraculous results, not to achieve a result, but to learn a process.”

* “My body knows what it wants, not what I want. I must teach all of my parts what I want.”

* “My Gurdjieff said, ‘I don’t bring you a system of morality, but how to find conscience.’ We must find the outlines of a structure that is more valid.”

* “Only when I have a certain level of being can I be open to a certain level of knowledge.”

* “I remember Mr. Orage saying, ‘I love you,’ said the man. ‘Strange that I feel none the better for it,’ said the woman.”

Readers of the book today may find the presentations of procedures of “the work” and the attitudes that are described in these pages less engaging than did listeners at the time. Some of the passages are more than a half century old; others have aged by at least a quarter century. Much water has passed under the bridge since then, and truisms and oral teaching techniques that were once novel are now found in best-selling books and courses on the human potential movement, leadership training, self-motivation, cognitive therapies, mindfulness training, and on the TED Lectures on the Web. Many of the formulations are indebted to Mr. Gurdjieff, who gave gifts of insight to the world, few of them acknowledged. Nevertheless, here are some of Mrs. Welch’s formulations that struck me as still valid, informative, or interesting:

* We want to go on repeating what belongs to another period. “Mr. Gurdjieff said that he wasn’t interested in anyone over five or under fifty-five.”

* “Gurdjiefff said one third of one’s life should be spent in pondering. Why was I born? Who am I? What is meant by waking sleep?” [This statement comes from the second section. I recall no earlier instances of the use of the word “pondering” in the earlier period, or any references to the importance of “sittings,” now staples of the de Saltzmann period.]

* “To me it is such an extraordinary thing that a Way exists in which one does not have to leave one’s life.”

* “In Movements we have enormous help. We have a taste of what it means to be close to attention.”

* “We are all members of the human race in a bigger way. All this is common to us. If you see this enough you can’t even hate Hitler. He was just a biological mutation of the wrong sort.”

* “When I first went to Mr. Gurdjieff’s apartment, I couldn’t bear the thought of where he was living. After I was there for ten minutes it was the whole world.”

* “Madame Ouspensky said we always have time for a love affair. This is the human condition.”

* “Mind is the greatest thing we have – excuse me, we do not have it. It is there. How do we find access to it?”

* “If wish doesn’t exist, the wish to wish does exist.”

I will end this appreciation of “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto” with one oft-repeated remark of Mrs. Welch’s. It is a favourite of mine and I distinctly recall her uttering it on at least two occasions.

She said, “Your aim is to find your aim.”

John Robert Colombo is a prolific author and anthologist with a special interest in offbeat Canadiana and traditional studies. His latest publication is the Foreword to Paul Beekman Taylor’s book “The Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff” (Eureka Editions). Colombo was recently honoured as one of the “100 Graduates of Influence” of his alma mater, University College, University of Toronto. He holds the Harbourfront Literary Award, an honorary D.Litt. From York University in Toronto, and Bulgaria’s Order of Cyril and Methodius (first class). His website is . If you wish to be informed of forthcoming reviews and commentaries on this website, send him an email. His email address is jrc@colombo.ca .

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John Robert Colombo reviews: Reflections on Gurdjieff’s Whim

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John Robert Colombo reviews Keith A. Buzzell’s latest publication

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These days the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) is much in the news, at least in the American news, occasioned by the candidacy for the leadership of the Republican Party of the person of Mitt Romney, the Massachusetts Senator and Presidential hopeful. The man who has his eye set on occupying the Oval Office of the White House is a fifth-generation Mormon, and while he has lived a squeaky clean life to date, he apparently holds as gospel truths some of the bizarre beliefs and strange practices of the Mormon church.

Recently a researcher drew the attention of the reading public to the fact that in the eyes of Mormons, God is not the creator of the world. He is not the creator of the universe either, though it seems God resides “in” the universe and not “beyond” it. This is peculiarity that should be of interest to both theologian and geophysicist. Who then did create the heavens and the earth? Genesis 1:1 of the King James Version of the Bible states that God accomplished the deed “in the beginning.” Here is the standard Christian belief in the wording of the Apostle’s Creed: “God the Father Almighty … Creator of Heaven and Earth.”

The Mormon belief, formulated over eighteen decades ago, is that God, while in no way the architect of creation, nevertheless is a dweller in it as well as its superintendent. Indeed, the location of “divine throne” is known, for it is “near” Kolob, which is a celestial body in some distant sector of the cosmos, unsuspected by astrologer and unknown to astronomer. Is Kolob a planet or a star? The Mormon writings are obscure on this point, rather like the traditional beliefs of the Inuit of the Arctic whose cosmology conflates planets and stars. It does seem that the Mormon God is more akin to mankind than to spirit-kind.

Are the Mormons Christians? It seems that they are Christians in the same way that members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community are Muslims. Their membership in greater Islam is denied by Sunni and Shite alike, especially in Pakistan where the Parliament passed a statute declaring the Ahmadiyyas to be non-Muslims: So there! In the same way, fundamentalist Christian denominations and sects in the U.S. heartland refuse to extend the term “Christian” to include Mormonism: Take that! Yet the Ahmadiyyas consider themselves to be good Muslims, just as the Mormons consider themselves to be good Christians.

I am not sure why it is so, but I find all of this reassuring. Perhaps it reassures me because it is so human – to cling to peculiar beliefs, in lieu of any evidence at all, and to withhold validation to designated groups on account of their differing beliefs. It reminds me of the subterfuge and euphemism employed by Palestinians and other Muslims who insist on referring to the State of Israel as “the Jewish entity.” All too human!

With respect to the LDS tradition, it is enlightening that there should be a god or demiurge who lives on a celestial body named Kolob, for it seems the divinity is a being who – or which – has some sort of physical or corporeal existence. There is no reference to Kolob in “The Book of Mormon,” but it makes its appearance in the quasi-scriptural text “Pearl of Great Price.” The subject is of interest in that one may be a good Mormon without worrying much about the nature of divinity, whether architect or superintendent of the universe. In a sense, then, belief is a matter of degree and the responsibility of the individual and hence changeable.

I could continue with a discussion of bizarre beliefs held by many Christians – such as the rise and fall of the concept of Purgatory, not to mention the existence of states of Heaven and Hell, veneration of angels and saints, prayers for the posthumous rehabilitation of the death, the physical resurrection at the End of Days, etc. All of these fall into the province of Theology, the “queen of the sciences.” The list of endless. As the cartoonist Robert L. Ripley of “Believe It or Not!” fame once wrote, “Strange indeed is man seeking after his gods.”

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What does all of this have to do with what appears below, or with the new book that I am about to review? (I use the verb “to review” with some reluctance because the book in question is a weighty one, and the arguments it presents are complex, indeed too complex to encapsulate in a relatively short review article.) The answer to the question is “not much,” except that there is little evidence for what is being described in the book’s pages. If the descriptions are taken seriously, the deductions and extensions truly follow. So the book is a disciplined work, a work of scholarly analysis. It is titled “Reflections on Gurdjieff’s Whim,” and I will describe the physical appearance of the volume before I turn my attention to its author, Keith A. Buzzell and to his previous publications, and only then to the general argument of the new book.

Reflections on Gurdjieff’s Whim” is published in 2012 by Fifth Press, an imprint based in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Mormon headquarters (as it happens!), which has issued earlier titles by Dr. Buzzell. It is a handsome trade paperback, 266 pages of text, plus preliminary and postliminary matter, including a glossary of scientific (but not Gurdjieffian) terms and a bibliography that includes books and articles on philosophy, neurology, cosmology, mathematics, etc. There is no index, but the text is well organized in fourteen chapters, and there are four instructive prefaces (contributed by the book’s editors, John Amaral, Marlena Buzzell, Bonnie Phillips, and Toddy Smyth). There are also innumerable diagrams, many of them in lovely pastel colours. A rough approximation of the word count is 145,000 words. Although I found a couple of minor misprints (footnotes on page viii and page 7, for instance), the text is well edited and the argument is clearly expressed.

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Now let me turn to Dr. Buzzell and his publications, paraphrasing what I wrote for this blog on September 28, 2011. (It is still archived here.) At the time I wrote: “It is apparent that there are many scientifically minded and technologically trained people like Dr. Buzzell who are ‘in the Work’ and are making sizeable efforts ‘to square’ what Mr. Gurdjieff wrote in ‘Beelzebub’s Tales’ with contemporary scientific and technological theories and practices. This is one way to ‘make relevant’ what the author wrote between 1924 and 1927, the text of which was translated into English and published in 1950 and subsequently reissued in a revised (and controversial) edition in 1992.”

Dr. A. Keith Buzzell was born in 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. He studied music at Bowdoin College and Boston University, and received his medical doctorate in 1960 at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. For the past thirty-five years, he has been a rural family physician in Fryeburg, Maine, a staff member of Bridgton Hospital and currently holds the position of medical director at the Fryeburg Health Care Center.”

Dr. Buzzell has also served as a professor of osteopathic medicine, a hospital medical director and a founder of a local hospice program. He has lectured widely on the neurophysiologic influences of television on the developing human brain and on the evolution of man’s triune brain. In 1971 Keith, and his wife Marlena, met Irmis Popoff, a student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and the founder of the Pinnacle Group in Sea Cliff, Long Island, New York. From then until the mid-1980s they formed work groups under her supervision. Since 1988, Dr. Buzzell and Annie Lou Staveley, founder of the Two Rivers Farm in Oregon, maintained a Work relationship up to her death in 1996. Keith continues group Work in Bridgton, Maine.”

This information is also reprinted in the current book. As for the earlier volumes, these are the three volumes that I reviewed: “Perspectives on Beelzebub’s Tales and Other of Gurdjieff’s Writings” (2005). “A Child’s Odyssey: Explorations in Active Mentation: Re-Membering Gurdjieff’s Teaching” (2006). “Man – A Three-brained Being: Resonant Aspects of Modern Science and the Gurdjieff Teaching” (2007, 2nd edition, 2011).

I have found these books to be among the most serious publications about the physics, physiology, neurology, and psychology of G.I. Gurdjieff’s thought – and also the most demanding to read. In their comprehensiveness, they remind me of Maurice Nicoll’s five-volume series of “Psychological Commentaries,” but whereas Dr. Nicoll generally limited himself to the psychological aspects of the system, Dr. Buzzell does not so limit his inquiry but attempts to relate metaphysical concepts with chemical and physical reality. The present title is no exception.

The title of the book struck me as odd for the reason that I was unfamiliar with the expression “Gurdjieff’s whim.” I assumed I was missing something – I quite often have this feeling, and with some justification! (Indeed, the phrase brought to my mind the not-unrelated, traditional Islamic words “Mohammed’s wont.”) I checked Sophia Wellbeloved’s indispensable volume ‘Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts’ (2003) but found no references there to “whim.” Nowhere else in the literature of the Work have I encountered any discussion of “whim,” so I conclude it is a synonym for “aim.”

I checked the “Guide and Index” and located “whim” (in the singular) in “All & Everything,” where it appears in the original edition on page 688 of the section on “France.” The author wrote as follows: “ … they occupy themselves out of idleness, in order to satisfy their whims, with devising ‘new-forms-of-manifestations-of-their-Hasnamussianing,’ or as is said there, with ‘new fashions,’ and spread them from there over the whole of the planet.” There the word is used in the plural and it refers to things of passing interest. I reluctantly returned to the notion of “one’s personal aim” in life and in Work. Perhaps it was related to the three aims of Group Work.

I was still uncertain about this, even after reading, on page 1, the words attributed to Gurdjieff: “to live and teach so that there should be a new conception of God in the world, a change in the very meaning of the word.”  This is equated with Gurdjieff’s personal aim. Indeed, even earlier, on page ii, in the first of the prefaces, Toddy Smyth writes as follows: “In a rare moment of divulgence, Gurdjieff revealed his own whim: to bring to mankind a new understanding of God.”

There we have it. Smyth continues: “Keith Buzzell’s work is a verification of this whim – an aspect of a new understanding of God is to recognize and to gain the capacity to actualize one’s own whim. A portion of Dr. Buzzell’s whim could be summarized as the striving to understand how self-transformation – a process that requires the action of an independent will – can be possible within a Universe governed by unyielding, automatic law.”

Smyth goes on to describe the present book as “a dynamic synthesis of the indications found in ‘The Tales’ and ‘In Search’ with recent discoveries in quantum and cosmological science.” Indeed, as Dr. Buzzell has written elsewhere, “Gurdjieff’s conception of Okidanokh represents a major aspect of his effort to reconcile science and spirituality. As such, it plays a powerful role in his new conception of God in the world. The manner in which he accomplishes this reconciliation is quite ‘oblique’ or indirect and one has to read his complex elaboration with considerable care and attention to see how thoroughly he has blended the ‘way’ of science and of potential transformation with the ‘way’ of the spirit.”

He takes pains to place Gurdjieff’s exposition alongside those concerned with quantum physics and the theory of relativity. He could have added alongside as well of photographic proof of the expansion of the universe which was discovered by Hubble and Humason during the same period.

But perhaps the key passage appears in Philip Mairet’s memoir of A.R. Orage: “Whilst they were talking in this vein, someone asked Gurdjieff if he would disclose his own ‘whim,’ and he said it was to live and teach so that there should be a new conception of God in the world, a change in the very meaning of the word.” This passage is cited a number of times, and its source seems to be an unpublished lecture of J.G. Bennett’s. Bennett quotes Orage as saying his “whim” is to publish “the best literary journal in England,” an aim he achieved. Apparently the word “whim” in Armenian and Russian expresses not merely fantasy, as it does in English, in the sense of whimsy, but determination, intent, and wish. The reader will decide whether or not Gurdjieff realized his “whim.”

In some way this “new conception” is connected with those unwieldly terms Okidanokh and Triamazikamno, the former term representing the “reconciliation” of man’s inner world of three brains with the outer world that expresses the familiar Law of Three, and the latter term the all- encompassing Ray of Creation – our individual and collective place in the world.

Each of the fourteen chapters of Dr. Buzzell’s book is composed of sections a few pages in length, and any one section would lend itself to study and analysis, as it is immersed in the vocabularies of “The Tales” (as he refers to “Beelzebub’s Tales”) and “In Search of the Miraculous.” In this sense “Reflections” could be regarded as an organized gloss on central concepts presented in allegorical and other forms in “The Tales.”

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The sheer amount of information and analysis in the book would overwhelm the casual reader (as it does the ordinary reviewer!) who has but a general understanding of and a passing interest in the mechanics of the work’s dynamics. So what I will do is parasail from chapter to chapter, suggesting some insights to be found therein. The author has made this easy to do because, in effect, each chapter examines a specific aspect of the system – indeed, each key word unlocks a portion of the whole. Here are the topics of the chapters:

(1) Whim as aim. (2) Evils old and new. (3) Generations, notably sons and grandson. (4) Conscience, reason. (5) Wiseacre, know-it-all. (6) Laws of the universe. (7) Suggestibility, including hypnotism. (8) Okidanokh, or reconciliation of science and spirituality. (9) Essence which has mellowed. (10) Organic life. (11) Individual and group place and presence. (12) Foods and the Ray of Creation. (13) Reconciliation that allows for self-perfection in a structured universe. (14) Quantum considerations as approaches to “the non-mass and mass-based worlds.”

Some of the chapters come in two parts. I noticed that the earlier chapters are highly specific and analytic, whereas the later chapters are somewhat speculative, historical, and once in a while personal. (The early explorations bring to hazy recall the detailed discussions, chemical largely, mentioned by Dr. James Carruthers Young and others at the Priory in the mid-1920s.)

There is a shift of perspective in this book from impersonal to personal, and it could be said to occur around Chapter 10. The theory comes first, thereafter its application. Indeed, in that chapter, “The Life Force,” Dr. Buzzell describes two instances of awareness and intention that occurred to him, the first stemming from an encounter with a disliked hardware clerk, the second stemming from his habit of leaving his socks on the floor of his bedroom!

Here is a brief summary of the contents of Chapter 10, which may act as a guide to how the author proceeds. Synonyms for “life force” is mentioned: Qui, Chi, prana, Shakti, pneuma, Great Spirit, Godhead (Jehovah, God, Allah). These are Eastern conceptions and there is no “action from below” and it is all “action from above.” It is Western conceptions that offer “action from below,” and these are sometimes called vitalism, will to live, élan vital, life force, formative drive, entelechy, orgone, etc. For a balance of “actions,” turn to Taoism. Newton and Darwin and Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of Relativity have begun to “bridge” reduce the gap between spirit and matter (to use basic terms).

Here is what Gurdjieff brings to this notion: “There is no intimation that life of any type (non-brained and brained) was a unique or separate creation of HIS ENDLESSNESS.” Life is a universal phenomenon, the Ilnosoparnian process, with Earth as special because of the collision of the comet Kondoor. Earth, Moon, and Anulios and what they represent are “imbalanced” and hence requires special consideration.  There is much discussion of the nature of the “imbalance” based on passages from “The Tales.” “Gurdjieff carefully emphasizes the participation of the Divine Will Power _only_ at the onset of the Creation and yet has HIS ENDLESSNESS very active, via HIS Reason, _within_ the Creation.”

Everything proceeds lawfully. “The end result of the _actualizations_ of HIS ENDLESSNESS creates the possibility for the transformation and crystallization of ‘active elements’ …. ” As well: “Applying this Will, each of us three-brained begins can participate – be an active agent – in our own self-transformation. One becomes an active participant in the creation of the Higher Bodies. Efforts in this regard are _one’s own_ ; they are initiated from lower worlds and move upward. This is _evolution_ in the Gurdjieffian sense.”

The possible success of such effort leads to a discussion of “later octaves” in the Great Ray. (I would like to have known more about “coating bodies” vs. “crystallization.”) There is a section about: “All of life, therefore, is required and fulfills a cosmic need while, simultaneously, the actualizations of HIS ENDLESSNESS make it possible for certain of the three-brained begins to coat High Being-bodies.” This action is symbolically represented with respect to what looks like a multi-coloured cosmic pyramid. Movement (instinctive centre), eating (moving and instinctive), and survival (instinctive and moving and sex centre) are discussed. The role of H12, “the power of paying attention,” is discussed interestingly and importantly. Also discussed are characteristics and comparisons of first, second, and third brains.

Pages here resemble a textbook on neuro-anatomy. There is much discussion of the “location of attention” and the question is asked, “Where does ‘carbon 6’ come from?” The octaves of Food, Air, and Impressions are discussed. The subject is complicated, yet the exposition is clear, so the author deserves top marks for his hard work. In an ideal world – rather than on a planet like ours that falls under 48 laws – I would be able to summarize in greater detail the contents of all the chapters.

o

The quality of any work that is serious may be judged by the influence that it has on serious-minded people. The Gurdjieff Work was introduced to the West in 1915, so it nearly one century old, perhaps a lot older in fragmentary form in the East. Texts that were written in the 1920s and published as late as the 1940s are still able to beget serious discussion and engender new thoughts and feelings. Proof of the seriousness of the Work is that it inspires Dr. Buzzell and other scholars and scientists to “dig deeper.” Yet for all its length and depth, it seems that “Reflections” is but the first half of Dr. Buzzell’s analysis. For it is promised that there will be a second volume in this series to be titled “Further Reflections on Gurdjieff’s Whim.” So stay tuned ….

o

Lurking in the back of my mind, as I read these fourteen chapters, was the planet or star named Kolob and the lonely God of the Mormons, who lives in our cosmos, distant from us but not apart from existence. I must admit that this image brought to my mind Mr. Gurdjieff.

John Robert Colombo is an author and anthologist based in Toronto who is interested in esoteric ideas, Canadian lore and literature, jokes and anecdotes, and contemporary poetry. His latest collection of aphorisms is called “A Strange and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore.” Check his website:  jrc@colombo.ca

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: two new books reviewed John Robert Colombo


The John Robert Colombo Page

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Jacob Needleman


Two New Books by Jacob Needleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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POSSIBLE GURDJIEFF-STALIN CONNECTION WITH REFERENCE TO DAVID KHERDIAN

Stalin in 1908

Stalin in 1915
John Robert Colombo reviews the article “The Vanishing Master”

There has always been the suggestion that G.I. Gurdjieff and Joseph Stalin met as young students while attending the same seminary in Tiflis in the Caucasus. If so, they made strange bedfellows! The symbolism is surprising, yet stranger events have indeed occurred.

But what do historians make of the notion? In an earlier posting some months ago, I reported that Simon Sebag Montefiore, in his award-winning biography titled “Young Stalin” (2007), discusses the matter in a footnote and dismisses it as being a statement without substance.

Then I received an email from a correspondent in Paris who is familiar with the subject as well as with my ongoing interest in it. He writes as follows: “Through my usual obscure (and perhaps obscurantist) channels, I’ve recently had in my hands a photocopy of a review of Walter Driscoll’s ‘Gurdjieff: An Annotated Bibliography’ by David Kherdian in ‘Ararat Magazine,’ Spring 1991. It is a very well written review and contains some interesting opinions about Gurdjieff, his background, his works, and his aims. What might be most interesting (to you, having reviewed a Russian TV program on Gurdjieff and Stalin) is this remark.”

Background: The article is titled “The Vanishing Master” and it is about 2,000 words long. It offered Kherdian the opportunity to record some of his own feelings about Mr. G. as well as his observations about the limitations of J. Walter Driscoll’s bibliography of Gurdjieffian publications, specifically about his treatment of “Meetings with Remarkable Men.” Kherdian discusses what is included as well as what is not included. “But nothing is said about the chapter on Joseph Stalin, which was left out of the final MS, nor the reasons why it was left out (fear of the Cold War, presumably) – nor why – the fear of that having been removed by global events – that chapter has not been restored and the book reissued.”

My informant in Paris continued, “Kherdian does not give his sources for this affirmation.” All I can do is wonder about the origin of this idea: the missing chapter on Stalin the Man of Steel! Will it one day appear?

My informant concluded: “I don’t know if it’s possible to verify what Kherdian claims; if such a chapter about Stalin really existed, as far as I can see, it can only be in one of three places – the Gurdjieff archives held by the ‘SERCH’ in Paris, the estate of A.R. Orage, if such an estate exists, or the estate of his second wife Jessie Dwight, if she’s now dead (which is likely), and if such an estate, presumably managed by her children, exists. Anyway, getting anything from any of those possible sources would probably be as difficult as getting to the Most Holy Sun Absolute.”

Two details included in my informant’s account may be unfamiliar to readers of this news-blog. First detail: What is SERCH? This is the acronym for the association that constitutes the Gurdjieff groups in France; it stands for Société d’Etudes et de Recherche Pour la Connaissance de l’Homme. Second detail: Who is David Kherdian? He is a thoughtful and productive person, an Armenian-American poet, novelist, and essayist with much experience in the Work.

One of Kherdian’s books “Seeds of Light” was published by Stopinder Books and is subtitled “Poems from a Gurdjieff Community.” Another of his books is called “On a Spaceship with Beelzebub,” is subtitled “By a Grandson of Gurdjieff,” and is praised by Colin Wilson as “one of the best accounts I’ve read of actually being a member of a Gurdjieff Group.”

I first encountered Kherdian when I subscribed to the journal that he edited a decade or so ago from his farm in Wisconsin. “Stopinder: A Gurdjieff Journal for Our Time” was a handsomely designed publication that was illustrated by his talented wife Nonny Hogrogian. Its issues offered its subscribers a concentrated, yet low-key approach to human problems in rural and rustic settings. Over the decades Kherdian has published about two dozen anthologies, volumes of verse, collections of memoirs, and works of fiction. He has his own website, and although it is short on biographical details, from it I gather that his current publication is “Forgotten Bread: An Anthology of Armenian American Writers.”

Kherdian’s article “The Vanishing Master” is almost twenty years old but it is still fresh. In practical terms it offered the author an opportunity to share his views of Mr. G., whom he describes as a man formed by his Armenian background. Armenians – as well as Bulgarians, I have noted – describe themselves as being situated at the “cross-roads of the world,” the cock-pit of history and civilization. For this reason, Kheridan finds something unique about Mr. G and his message.

“He was the very first of the Eastern teachers or Masters to formulate an ancient teaching for the West – this planet’s growing point. All the others brought their religion or ideology entire – garment, beads, and all – changing the fit and form of Western spirituality into its Eastern strictures. Gurdjieff, of mixed Greek-Armenian parentage, grew up in Armenia, at the crossroads of East and West, the Armenians being the only people who belonged to neither yet were part of both. Whether he chose himself or was chosen, we do not know. We only know that he left his school, assumed a mission and devised a plan for its execution. He called it Esoteric Christianity, perhaps because it straddled East and West, as he did, being raised in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and then pushing East for his training before returning, transformed, to the West.”

Such is his view of Mr. G. This is not the place to present Kherdian’s interesting argument that there are now two generations of Gurdjieffians and that their aims are anything but congruent. Instead, let me mention in passing that in addition to Mr. G.’s standard publications, the author mentions two others that are not generally known or widely available. Their titles are “The Struggle of the Magicians” and “Narcotics and Hormones.” Both were privately printed by Stourton Press.

June 3, 2008

John Robert Colombo, a frequent contributor to this news-blog, is currently reading the proofs of “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories.” An observer described Colombo as “anthologist to the stars” based on his contribution to the plaque affixed to the Phoenix Mars Lander launched by NASA and now resting on the surface of the Red Planet. (See “Contact” and then “Lander” on http://www.colombo-plus.ca )

Written by SOPHIA WELLBELOVED

June 14, 2008 at 8:26 pm

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