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The John Robert Colombo Page: DAVID KHERDIAN’S “SEEDS OF LIGHT”

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John Robert Colombo discusses a book of poetry inspired by the Work experience

If there is any other collection of poems inspired by the Fourth Way, I am unaware of its existence. It is true that some poets, like the late Kathleen Raine, have a distinct feelings for these experiences and values, but to my knowledge Raine did not explicitly write about such experiences in any of her volumes of verse. My generalization is true for the English language, but it is not true for poetry written in the French language.

The reader with a sweet-tooth for the images and the movements characteristic of intense and intuitive poetic language, who has a command of French or who is drawn to patiently prepared translations, will have his or her needs well met by the free-verse poetry and wildly imaginative prose poetry of René Daumal. He is the literary mascot of the Work in France and a creative artist endowed with persistent and penetrating powers of invention, well deserving of great respect accorded him. In past columns for this web-blog, I have reviewed current English translations of Daumal’s books. Translations of his writings add unexpected grace-notes to the leitmotif of “quest” expressed in the French and English languages.

The writings of Pierre Bonnasse, a student of the Work in Paris who holds a doctorate in Literature from the Sorbonne, has published a multitude of books of imaginative power and value, including a collection of poems titled “Dans la nuit d’Aghtamar” which exists in an English translation that no publishing house has yet offered to issue. I will say no more about Bonnasse and his work here because I described them at some length on this web-blog in October 3, 2008, under the questioning title “Fourth Way Words?” Instead I want to turn my attention to David Kherdian and his poetry.

I began this review article with these words: “If there is any other collection of poems inspired by the Fourth Way …. ” The “other collection” was composed in English by Kherdian. It is to this collection – “Seeds of Light: Poems from a Gurdjieff Community” (McMinnville, Oregon: Stopinder Books, 2002) – that I am now turning my attention. I am doing so because it was recently drawn to my attention that the book, now a decade old, has received hardly any attention – if any attention at all – from reviewers with any knowledge or interest in work-related literature. Readers appreciate the contents of the book, but reviewers know nothing of its appearance. This is a shame. No book is truly “old.” Every book is really “new,” at least until it has been read.

Question: “Who is David Kherdian?” I asked this question four years ago in this very web-blog, the occasion being the review article titled “Possible Gurdjieff-Stalin Connection with Reference to David Kherdian” which appeared here on June 3, 2008. At the time I was trying to trace the suggestion that not only were Gurdjieff and Stalin personally known to each other – highschool students in Georgia, so to speak – but Gurdjieff wrote about their association in a chapter that was mysteriously excluded from the published text of “Meetings with Remarkable Men.” I have never determined the truth (or consequences) of this statement, so I take it to be a rumour, one that is likely to lurk for decades to come, and nothing more. Here is what I wrote about Kherdian four years ago.

Answer: Kherdian 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” and it is subtitled “By a Grandson of Gurdjieff.” It was 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 decades ago from a farm in Wisconsin. “Stopinder: A Gurdjieff Journal for Our Time” was a handsomely designed publication illustrated by his talented wife Nonny Hogrogian. Each issue offered subscribers a low-key yet concentrated 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.

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, it is time that someone surveyed the writings of David Kherdian from the perspective of the Work. A start might be made by asking him for permission to reprint “The Vanishing Master” on this news-blog.

To repeat, I wrote the above paragraphs on June 3, 2008. Now four years have passed and I will try to catch up with Kherdian. He has his own website < > which is short on biographical details but nonetheless interesting. Born in Racine, Wisconsin, of Armenian background, he is “the author and editor of over sixty books, that include poetry, novels, memoirs, biographies, bibliographies, children’s books, as well as critical studies, translations, and retellings” (according to his vita sheet). He has edited a number of anthologies of poetries selected on the bases of “ethnic expression” and “sense of place” – i.e., the writer’s background, linguistic and social, as well as the writer’s place of residence. An hour-long documentary on his poetry, produced by the New York independent filmmaker Jim Belleau, was released in 1997. His latest book is an anthology of his own work in many genres, “Gatherings: Selected and Uncollected Writings” (Tavnon Books, 2011). In the fall of 2012 the University of California Press will publish his “New and Selected Poems.”

Here is an item from the author’s website expressed in the third person: “He is currently in the market for an agent to handle his retelling of David of Sassoun, the tenth-century Armenian epic, well known in the East but virtually unknown in the West.” (Publishers, take note!) So he has been dizzily busy as a man-of-letters. Enough of background. Here is a brief look at his Work-inspired poems.

To discuss Kherdian’s poetry, I want to place his poems in an unusual and perhaps idiosyncratic context, one that permits me to discuss the possibilities in our day of the straight-forward diction of his work – the common style: plain, direct, unornamented, unrhymed, unrhythmed, the one adapted by most poets and by most contemporary bards. The style is difficult to distinguish from prose except that the lines do not run to the right-hand edge of the page. There is no name for this style, though the words “free verse” probably best describe it, except that what is being heard or read is not “verse” (rhythm and rhyme) but “poetry” (highly associative language) – “free poetry” perhaps; yet those two words do not sound quite right. Perhaps the word “prayer” – or “meditation” or “rumination” or even “consideration” – sound more appropriate. In short, it is today’s vernacular.

I am tempted to regard Kherdian’s poems as prayers (which Gurdjieff calls “recapitulations”) because they are admissions of current limitations and appeals to an outside agency or force and also to the force or agency within one’s own self for enlightenment, salvation, redemption, whatever. The poems are highly personal, characteristically subjective. How essential they are is what this review attempts to probe. There are two contemporary works that I feel do convey some of the possibilities of poetry as prayer, particularly when performed by a singer with electronic backing. To this end I will discuss two compositions. Both of them may be heard with a few keystrokes on YouTube.

Whoever has viewed the 2010 film “The Tempest” directed by Julie Taymor will be bowled over by the visuals and soundtrack of its closing sequence, a sequence known as “Prospera’s Coda.” The Prospero of Shakespeare’s play is reinterpreted by the actress Helen Mirren in terms of a woman magus, Prospera. The final speech of the play is not delivered by the actress; instead, it is sung, or intoned, off-screen, by the English vocalist and lyricist Beth Gibbons. The effect is quite arresting, quite unsettling. The lines that Shakespeare wrote are pure poetry – rhythmical and rhymed verse:

But release me from my bands

With the help of your good hands:

Gentle breath of yours my sails

Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,

And my ending is despair,

Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults

Mercy itself and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.

Intoned by Gibbons, they are heard not as awesome affirmation or heroic renunciation or inevitable reconciliation, but in the contemporary context as the cry of a person without craft, the outcry of a person in pain without restraint. The presentation thus goes against type. It is overpowering, in some way beyond the language of poetry itself.

The same curious amalgam of art and artlessness is characteristic of the stunning finale of the final episode seen in 2005 of the HBO television series “Six Feet Under.” Sia, the Australian singer and songwriter, intones words of pleading and meaning, heart-brokenly, directionlessly. This time the words lack the Elizabethan air; instead what they have is the simplicity of the simpleton who nevertheless suffers needlessly:

Help, I have done it again

I have been here many times before

Hurt myself again today

And, the worst part is

There’s no-one else to blame.

The words are Sia’s and the presentation is true to type. It is called “Breathe Me” and it could be likened to the confession of a person who is drowning in the despair of present-day life. It is free verse and it is very effective. But, like “Prospera’s Credo,” it is about as far as possible from the common style. Redemption is not close at hand.

The visuals contrast too. The images that appear on the screen as Beth Gibbons intones Shakespeare’s words are dreamy and nightmarish. The visuals that appear as Sia seems to trip over her own words, so downtempo, so obsessive and abulic, are the images of an automobile journey across the American continent from Los Angeles to New York City. The landscape of Prospero-Prospera’s island (filmed in Hawaii) and that of the car’s journey across the Mojave desert might well be that of the moon. In both instances, whether presented against type or true to type, the visuals and electronic and acoustic effects make the work very contemporary in a direct and unmediated way. The effectiveness of the poetry or verse lies in its presentation, here aided and abetted by the media of cinema and television.

There are no trumpets or drums, intoning or appealing women, whether maguses or fallen women, in Kherdian’s poetry. Instead, there is some hope and the anticipation of self-knowledge if not power over the negative aspects of the self in David Kherdian’s “Seeds of Light: Poems from a Gurdjieff Community.” This is a trade paperback of attractive design with woodcuts by the poet’s wife, Nonny Hogrogian. It bears the imprint of Stopinder Books, McMinnville, Oregon. It consists of 202+iv pages and the year of publication is given as 2002. The effort is “Dedicated to the Memory and Living Presence of G.I. Gurdjieff.”

By my count the collection consists of 123 poems and they are arranged in chronological order in five divisions identified as “books.” I sense that book by book the poems advance from being descriptive and anecdotal to expressive and experiential. The first poems are somewhat sketchy, the last poems rather full-bodied. Yet the book is a whole and may be read from cover to cover like a log of rural experiences. The book is not like a diary – there are no personal revelations, there are no descriptive passages – so the poems have to be read for what they are, page-long, free-verse poetry. Do not look for characterization or profiles of people; they are not even noticeable by their absence.

The intelligent and insightful introduction has been contributed by Allen Roth whose name may ring a bell because he is the author of Sherborne: An Experiment in Transformation (1998). He notes that the poet and his wife, an illustrator, lived from about 1978 for nine years at Two Rivers Farm, near Aurora, Oregon, a community founded by Annie Lou Staveley, a pupil through Jane Heap of G.I. Gurdjieff. It was presumably the sole farm in the area that had and still has its own printing press. How many people have lived on these acres, how many people were weekend visitors, how many acres there are … none of this information is shared. Instead, the reader is invited to share Kherdian’s perceptions, impressions, and thoughts.

Of these poems, Roth writes, “We are given tastes, not recipes.” So there are no descriptions of exercises, meditations, or movements on these pages. It is as if the rationale for the rural retreat has been displaced or subsumed in the tasks of everyday farm life. “He is the single, full-fledged poet I know who sings of the work, although much has been written by some good writers in other forms.” Yet, as Roth notes, “These poems are noticings, of oneself in the moment of noticing: the gateway to all spiritual aspiration.” I like the plural noun “noticings.”

It is probably safe to say a reader who knows nothing about communal living and work centres will benefit from reading Kherdian’s poetry, though the reader might be puzzled by poems which from time to time conclude with spiritual affirmations that appear so to speak out of the blue: “There is a beauty in all this / beyond the telling.”

The reader can sense both the man and the poet at work in the earlier poems; in the later poem the reader can sense that they are the same being. There is an instance of this in two poems titled “i ride the red tractor.” In the first poem the “i” is identified as “a stranger to this green earth / these turbulent, thundering skies.” In the second poem the “i” is “this human form” which would “come to them” (“bird and animal / red tractor or green”) “in the halo of my love.” There is a transformation recorded here in parallel poems with the same title. It is casually presented, characteristic of Kherdian’s subtle sometimes impressionistic writing generally.

The poems are anything but innovative or subversive; they are anything but traditional or conservative. They are individual in the sense that the idiom adopted by the poet is that of modern free verse. The poet is aware of Ezra Pound who sought to introduce Modernism, which led to Post-Modernism, for Kherdian twice quotes the injunction “make it new,” a command identified with Pound. Kherdian does not make it new, but he makes it his own – here is a man here, a man in the guise of a farmer-poet – who does this and does that. Share his experiences and their meanings. In terms of the division of man in P.D. Ouspensky’s schema, it is possible to place Kherdian’s magnetic centre in his moving / instinctive centre – that is his “major” centre, his minor being the emotional.

I will not pause over the poems in whole or part that describe pigs, ducks, horses, chickens, starlings, flies, and other farm animals and fowl; here Kherdian has to contend with the reader’s remembered richness of D.H. Lawrence’s wildlife poems. Ditto for weeds, flowers, seeds, etc. Kherdian is inclined to see the wildlife that catches his eye as instances of all life:

Ah well, I tell myself, some things

just naturally resist a reasoning

mind, that’s all. And have you not

noticed how various and multiple

and mysterious everything is –

including chickens (not to mention

humans), etcetera, etcetera.

That is the ending of “the wild ones.” It is quite effective, and it would work on the podium as a spoken poem, but it tells us “a little about a little,” rather than “a lot about a lot.” Kherdian is not the poet of the big statement, but of the little insight, which is all the richer for its uniqueness. The poem “to the man or woman” is about a meditation cushion, accidentally left behind, which he then uses while shelling corn. He wonders if it will retain the impression of his body. He then ponders the act:

We want to touch everything

in this manner, with all

the parts of our bodies, consciously,

with all our feelings and thoughts,


for it is in this way

that we are trying to

awaken to The Farm

as heart

Only one of the poems is formal in the literary sense of that word. It is “mount st. helens” and it describes the feelings on the land when “the ashes fell.” It is formal because its stanzas are constructed like those of the classic French form known as the villanelle, except that there is no repetition of lines and no use of rhyme. I wish it were a villanelle. As it is, the memorability of the poem rests on the process of its thought and feeling, unbuttressed by stylishly or skillfully written lines. It ends:

We had been shocked into wakefulness, and the

certainly of that made us question again

the uncertainty of life and its meaning.

The structure of at least one other poem recalls the structure of a classic form, in this instance “poem” comes close to the three-line haiku, though its length is eleven lines. Five lines describe the sight of one of the farmers on a bicycle. Three lines are devoted to how the scene that is so far distant is so silent. Five lines move into another dimension, the last two being these:

I turn and do not see the invisible

imprint I have left on the ground.

There is a lot in these poems about close to indelible impressions. Reading these poems I occasionally thought how D.H. Lawrence would have done it better – or at least deeper – but then he was weighted down and occasionally buoyed up with deep passions and society’s restrictions against venting them. Yet every so often I also thought of Rainer Maria Rilke. The German poet would have approved of a number of Kherdian’s poem, especially the one titled “1,2,3,4, ducks in a row.” Lawrence would know what he thought of the inner life of the duck, but Rilke would have known better, especially in his period at Castle Duino in Trieste. And Kherdian too knows better. Without paraphrasing the twenty-one line poem, let me quote the last stanza about the sight of these strange creatures of creation:

As if it were my business. As if I, who understand nothing,

including myself, should be expected to understand

them, and know what they mean, or what

they SHOULD mean. Whose life am I living, anyhow?

The mundane task of keeping the birds from eating the fruit is described in the poem “they’re after my strawberries again.” The task is being poorly performed by the straw-hatted scarecrow. Is the poet better able to perform it? Here is how it ends:

What am I waiting for?

Heaven’s intervention? Childhood’s return?

A permanent summer sun and no villains?

Perhaps I’ll just sit back and wait

for a better poem, a better scarecrow,

and all the luck in the world,

plus a little bit more.

Everyone can use “the luck” and “a little bit more.” The expectations for the scarecrow were high, for the poet not so high, for the poem, it was the luck of the draw and the presence of perseverance and talent.

So far the poems that have been discussed and quoted come from the first half of the book. If I gave equal representation to the poems of the book’s second half, this appreciation would have to be much longer than it already is. Instead let me suggest only the following – that the later poems differ from the earlier in that the “noticings” of peculiarities and anomalies and unexpected emotions noted in the lines take on greater depths of meaning and significance in the later poems. What were sketches are now sculptures; what were two dimensional are now three dimensional.

This process of deepening and heightening is a consolidation of the poet and the process, of the man and the meaning, and it may be sensed by the reader in an occasional poem like “the cat” which describes movements of Tessie the tom cat. The description is neat and it “inscapes” the spirit of the animal, to use the verbal form of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ noun. Here is the three-line ending to the eighteen-line poem:

The hollow inbreath,

sensed but not seen,

between be and become.

The poet delves deeper or scales higher in “the death / life thing”:

when what we call life

and what we call death

join in their wholeness.

This Taoism or Buddhism or what-ism can go too far, as in the composition titled “the poet addresses his double” which looks at answers, organization, death, balance, and control, only to conclude:

Enter your life, only that.

Thank God, and be yourself.

Rather than leave it on a low note, I want to take this review to a high note and listen to what Kherdian has to say in what is obviously one of his major poems. The poem is “celebrating gurdjieff’s one hundredth,” and it is subtitled “January 13, Aurora, Oregon.” It is only seventeen lines long, seventy-two words of text (plus the nine-word title and subtitle, to make it 81 words in all). It is not a miniature literary work but in a way it is gem-like.

The poet imagines that the headlights of cars penetrating the fog are “candles in procession / walkers in Asian mountains / chanting as they come to prayers.” The mythic is contrasted with the ironic: “Here their descendants arrive / in shields of tin and glass / over mended gravel roads.” In a melange of imagery, the poet imagines “brothers, our fathers” – people in the present, people of the past – “our drum the silent wheel” – the prayer wheel apparently, but also the automobile wheel – “our prayer beads” too – “that hums under the hood.” There is the notion of poetry as prayer here too. The poem ends (if it truly ends) with three words separated by two spaces:

We Affirming Come

In its quiet way and not quite clear way, it is quintessential David Kherdian.

I could continue to discuss other poems in “Seeds of Light” and in the poet’s subsequent collection “Letters to My Father” in light of this author’s earlier prose work titled “On a Spaceship with Beelzebub By a Grandson of Gurdjieff” which Colin Wilson praised as “One of the best accounts I’ve read of actually being a member of a Gurdjieff group.” That book alone deserves to be described, but that is a subject for another review-article, perhaps one that I will write when, later this year, the University of California Press issues David Kherdian’s “New and Selected Poems.”

 John Robert Colombo

John Robert Colombo, based in Toronto, is a Member of the Order of Canada and holds an honorary doctorate from York University, Toronto. His latest books are “A Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore” (a volume of aphorisms) and “Less of Light” (the poems he wrote during the year 2011 plus a dream diary). Check his website for more details. < >




jane Heap

Jane Heap

Jane Heap / Notes, Jane Heap, anonymously edited by Annie-Lou Staveley and David Kherdian, 1983 and 2002, Two Rivers Press, Aurora, ISBN 089756023X

This is an edition of the notes Jane Heap prepared before delivering her talks to her pupils in the Gurdjieff ideas and methods. They are not ‘to introduce the ideas’, but ‘towards practical application of the ideas’. Her pupils had already learned the theoretical outlines, and were now participating in groups (the Gurdjieff schools generally organize pupils into ‘groups’ for collective study of the applied methods). The fact that these notes were not written for publication makes them more valuable, because we eavesdrop, as it were, on Jane thinking to herself about how she can address the practical needs of her pupils.

Gurdjieff’s ideas can only ever be superficially understood without an attempt to apply them to oneself. One finds in this volume, to an extraordinary degree, evidence of knowledge and practice united in work – which I would define as ‘informed action directed to a constructive aim’ (see George Adie p. 28). Although written as a number of chains of thought, not as one thematic exercise, the contents of this book are probably the greatest exposition of the ‘technique of techniques’ we will ever have.

There is a table of contents, a two page introduction by Michael Currer-Briggs (whom Dr Lester, Jane’s pupil and physician, described to me as Jane’s ‘right hand man’), a large number of extracts from Jane’s private notes, with minimally intrusive editing by Mrs Staveley (one of Jane’s pupils, whom Jane effectively ‘graduated’ from her group before her death), and David Kherdian (Mrs Staveley’s pupil, and an acclaimed literary talent). Pages 87-95 comprise a collection of Jane’s aphorisms. The text is organized into readings of between one and ten pages, with italic sub-headings at various points. This is good, because the presentation is intense and compressed, so the sectioned layout assists the reader to select and study integrated units of related thoughts.

The volume is an attractive hard cover, with thick paper cover and plastic protection, approx. 6 ½ by 8 inches, with oil print on the endpapers. It comprises 95 pages printed on a slightly creamy, textured, top quality paper. The original 1983 edition was handset. Except, I think, that the first edition had leather trimmings, the 2002 edition is an exact facsimile reproduction of the first. Information about Jane, her style of teaching, and the publication of these notes and others, is found on the fly-leaves. The excellent choice of the paper, print and binding were the work of David Kherdian and his wife Nonny Hogrogian, a celebrated artist. However, the entire group at Two Rivers Farm were concerned in various aspects of its compilation and printing. To see and hold it, one feels that one is in the presence of a product of respect and careful attention, even down to the good use made of the fly-leaves.

At the outset, I should observe that there is another book of Jane Heap’s notes, The Notes of Jane Heap, which, although also published by Two Rivers Press, was edited by Michael Currer-Briggs and others of Jane’s London pupils, not by Mrs Staveley. That is different from the book I am reviewing, although almost everything I say about the contents of this volume would apply to it, too. There is a significant overlap between the contents of the two books. The chief difference is that the ‘London notes’ lack even the subtle editing of this volume, and that, I think, is advantageous in that the notes are even more concise, but then, sometimes they’re almost impenetrable. That volume is a nice hard cover, but as an artefact, it is not in the same league as this masterpiece.

I have seen the typed transcript of all Jane’s notes, and it’s fairly apparent from their contents that some of them, especially the “Black Book”, can only have been meant for her own purposes, and not even in preparation for addressing her groups. But this book does not include those most private notes: this volume consists of notes which Jane wrote in longhand when preparing to give talks to her groups.

In August 1973, some nine years after Jane’s death, some of her pupils, having already provided Jeanne de Salzmann with a complete copy of the typed transcripts, met with her in Switzerland to discuss what use they might make of the material. And it is fortunate that they did, because Madame challenged them to produce their best. I do not just mean that she issued a challenge: anyone can do that. De Salzmann helped them probe deeply for their truest, best effort, as is apparent from the extracts below. It must have been an intense two days for these people. The notes of the meeting with Madame de Salzmann record her as saying on the first day:

This is something none of the other books have. There is plenty published about Ideas but not about How to work. Perhaps the thing to do is to prepare a small volume on this. Then Mme Salzmann will show it to the older ones – Tracol, Mme Lannes, Deselle – to see if it would help. We must be more DYNAMIC.

The capitals are as in the notes of that meeting, provided to me by the late Dr Lester. De Salzmann went on to say:

We must remember that what we do will be for the benefit of Jane – editing and shortening – and not hold back or hold on to the old memories because we were there – were taught by her. We must remember that the book will be read by people who never knew or saw Jane. For this reason we must remember that we have to insure that the book has IMPACT. (Jane’s sayings – need to be worked up and brought on).

I am not sure whether this last sentence represents de Salzmann’s aside, or was placed there by someone else. She made the point, which I feel the London notes bear out, that unedited, these notes incline towards being too dense. Thus, while I do not know if Madame ever gave approval of Mrs Staveley’s and Kherdian’s book prior to publication, it is that one which more closely accords with her advice:

As they are – Jane’s Notes – we would have to shorten them – edit them for reading. When they were given they were spoken – they were for that group to hear – for that moment – that meeting. They were spoken to be listened to. At a meeting – when spoken – the formulation does not matter so much because of the people there – they could be explained – elaborated – questions could be answered. But for reading by other people – people on their own – at home and not in meetings or groups – it would have to be different – and very carefully formulated – absolutely right.

One can sense the high demand which de Salzmann made, and the quality of thought which she brought (I am told she used to quote Gurdjieff as having said: “Very good is not good enough”). Other of de Salzmann’s comments, as recorded in these notes, illustrate the initial impulse which went into the production of this volume:

We must remember there is never enough MENACE in ourselves – never enough hard confrontation. If there is a true confrontation there is an agony – a horror – in that moment of balance. This way or that? Whichever way we go is an escape. We have to pay. If we give up then we are lost. … We meet someone – read a book – it arouses our interest – we feel that person has something. Even at a very early age that possibility of interest is there. This arousing of interest happens in our ordinary lives. We become aware that there is a hunger in us and because of that we follow that interest – we put our energy into that and no longer just as always before on everyday things. In doing that we put our energy onto a new and different level in ourselves.

We meet someone – like you met Jane – who has something different – that meeting raises your interest to this other level – it calls you to give your interest and energy in that direction. That person remains special for you – will always remain so – has become permanent. They have altered the direction of your life. Then later you will meet something else which will do the same and again raise you to another level. Gradually something becomes your own – what you have received is available to you. And you are in danger. There is a menace for you – a trap. You do not go on – you stay there. It has become too easy and you fall down and allow life to take you away. You do not stay there with that danger, that menace. You do not find your place. If you lose that position of danger it is hard to come back again.

Then there is TIME. Gurdjieff used to give work of a certain kind, for a time only. And just when people were getting used to that work – beginning to be able to do it – to find it easy, he would sweep it away – destroy it – because of that danger – the danger of it becoming too easy. Life changes – some of the things we still hear about – read about are now old fashioned. The time has gone for them, and this is inevitable and according to Law. There is a different way to call people to work now – a way that has to be used today. This we must always be searching for – and at the same time we must remain faithful to the Work – the Ideas – as we received them.

It is easy to make grand efforts – big efforts – to work extra hard on this or that, with terrific energy. This also can be an escape – can be a danger too. But if your work is related differently – if it is not just in one part – your mind or your feelings or your body – if everything in you is related and related to that danger – that menace – so that a true confrontation can take place – a confrontation that brings you up with a jerk – then that is different.

That, then, is how Jeanne de Salzmann came to be the godmother, as it were, of this volume. Now for the two other key players. Jane Heap and Annie-Lou Staveley were two of Gurdjieff’s most accomplished, and most faithful pupils. Unfortunately, there has not yet been any study of either of these most redoubtable persons which does them justice. Jane (1887-1964) was with Gurdjieff from about 1924, I believe, although at some point he sent her to London to commence her own groups. Initially, I understand, he asked her to join Ouspensky’s London group, but he refused to accept her. If I remember correctly, Moore says that his stated reason was that she was an ‘incorrigible lesbian’. Apart from wondering what a ‘corrigible lesbian’ would look like, and how Ouspensky would go about correcting one, I would need to see some evidence before I could believe that Ouspensky had made the comment: it seems an odd thing to say knowing that it could be reported, and that she had been a pupil of Gurdjieff’s.

The Contents
This book is direct and powerful to an extent I have never seen matched: “Only what we actually experience is valuable” [page 8]. As De Salzmann said, these notes tell how to apply the Gurdjieff method. They do not expound the ideas, but they operate from the ideas in such a way that certain important ones are highlighted; and when they are, their setting, which is a practical one, illuminates them in fresh ways. For example, she says that ‘I’ is a ‘power of emanation’ [12], and that it is a ‘potentiality of essence’ [13], and so opens a new perspective on these ideas. Then, the piece “I Am my Burden” draws on the Law of Seven, and yet develops it in a direction contemplated, but not executed, in Miraculous:

To finish everything you begin! We rarely finish anything completely – always something is lacking. How to see clearly in ourselves the cause of this! I may be unable to finish because I have decided but have not understood. … Or you may take the habit of finishing – but it will not give anything because the same habit may turn into something else. [3]

From these notes we can glimpse something of the teaching, and of the ‘technique of techniques’. I first heard this phrase from George Adie: both he and Helen Adie had been close to Jane, and they perhaps learned it from her. Mr Adie used it as a description of the Gurdjieff method, a technique which is not like any other we have known. It’s a technique which comes from a higher level, so that even in its form it is under fewer rules than our ordinary methods. The heart of this ‘technique of techniques’ is the preparation, and so, the preparation itself can also be called the ‘technique of techniques’. And yet, Jane says that “Every time I have to remind myself that it has to be the first time I ever tried the exercise” [16].

Can the use of a technique and the imperative to continually reinitiate fresh efforts be reconciled? They can be, and they often are, in practice. We see this even in the world where employing techniques in trades, arts and crafts, far from inhibiting freshness, makes it more possible. The great innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and J.S. Bach devoted great attention to the fine details of their arts. They can be reconciled in theory, too, because mastering the platform skills requires that the three platform functions (intellect, feeling and organic instinct) are trained, as a vine is trained to a trellis, and harmonized at least in respect of that art, which may explain why many people who master a craft, an art, a science or a skill, come to appreciate it with something in the direction of love.

The technique of techniques is under the laws of a higher world: it is based on the understanding of higher mind. In addition, the preparation is done in quiet, away from electro-magnetic fields, in the light and air of morning, which, as Gurdjieff said, possess special properties. Very few principles are required to do the preparation, either for the contemplative part, or to complete it by making a plan for the day or, in the evening, to review it and perhaps make a sketch for the following day.

Although the preparation is made in a special environment, with special knowledge, nonetheless its fruits must be expressed in this world: which means the formulation and the fixture of plan, and the wish and resolve to keep one’s word to oneself. So there is definition and decision, and it has to be that way. To refuse to use any technique is idiocy, a recipe for delusion. This is true whether we’re speaking of carpentry, gardening, painting, music, or inner development.

This point deserves emphasis: this book presents the authentic Gurdjieff teaching of the ‘preparation’ (not the ‘sitting’), thus Jane says “All depends on your preparation” [63] , but see also pp. 10 (mentioning divided attention), 14-16, 31, 34, 38, 46, 48-9, 52, 54, 63, 69 and 81. It helps that Jane refers both to the evening preparation and to the connection between the preparation and one’s plan for the day [pp. 14, 55 and 70]. The Adies brought all of these methods, and I have concluded that they are critical to any possibility of accelerated development. I would say that I proved this to myself, because after their deaths, I gradually let those good habits run down, but I’ve returned, thankfully, to them just in accordance with the principles they gave.

The preparation is a sort of bridge between worldly and spiritual life, what Mr Adie called ‘life under the sun’ and ‘life under the stars’. Both lives go together, as Jane said: “We transport into work what we are in life. If I behave like a pig in life, I behave in the work like a pig also …” [58]. Another practical concept uniting the two lives in practices is the teaching of the good householder, whom she says is “the man who neglects nothing. The man that is faithful and accurate in small things and, at the same time, remembers that he has another life to care for and who tries to relate them” [21, see also p. 15].

So, Jane points us to a unitive discipline [39], pursued for an aim [80]. To speak of discipline, today, invites resistance. Dr Lester often said that Jane understood the importance and lawfulness of resistance. He said, for example, that if someone in their craft shop The Rocking Horse was hammering an object which was not sufficiently steady, she would call out “Not enough denying force!”. The same wisdom inhabits this book: “The No is to make the Yes remembered. No and Yes have to become more inseparable – one without the other is not profitable. … Yes without No – the angel without the devil – is impotence. … If it were not so it would not lead you to something. It would be romance – fallacious.” [10-11]. Later, we find this powerful comment: “Gurdjieff says the word ‘passive’ meant something very strong and concrete” [66].

Negative emotions can be used: hence her succinct advice: “Look over the top of being negative” [26]. And not only negative emotions: Jane understood the value of fasting, [73], something which one can harmlessly experiment with by following the traditional fasts of the Eastern Christian Churches (modern Catholic practice is arguably better than nothing, but it does not compare to the Eastern traditions).

A special feature of this volume is that Jane preserves in an organic context many sayings of Gurdjieff, some of which would otherwise have been lost. Here is my list:

“Try to be responsible for what you have understood” [19]
“We are always making requirements” [24]
“To believe is to make sheep” [36]
“Revalue your values” [40]
“Everyone has a dog in himself” [41]
“Not even an apparatus in us for negative emotions – but they use every part of us”[42]
“Your work is cheap” [44]
“You are a very naive person” [46]
“A good egoist is something very big – a man who becomes concerned for his own reality, then begins to be concerned for the reality of others” [50]
“Try to do what you do – just what you do – but do it!” [58]
“Use little reminding factors” [59]

At the end of the volume, as noted, are her powerful aphorisms. An earlier draft of this review cited some, but there were so many I ached to include that it became unworkable. So I have, instead, selected lines from the other part of the text which strike me as profound with an almost unearthly profundity: “A picture formation in the mind is one of the foods for attention. Think what is meant by this food – food for voluntary attention” [53]; “What you have lived in dreams is etched in you …” [26], and with that, “As long as you accept to feed on deception you will not be given better food” [17].

There are so many such master-teachings that I cannot do them justice. I will give a subjective list of a few: see [44] for her comments on blood and instinct, [45] on worry, [76] on death, and pp. 19, 22-23, 28-29, 32-33, 50, 69, 71 and 76-77 for her comments on reality, unity aim and cause and control. It seems to me that she gives the clue to a theoretical understanding of reality and unreality in oneself. One of Jane’s famous sayings about death is here, too [76]. Dr Lester was there when a woman, in a state of mild anxiety, asked Jane what death was like. Jane replied: “Don’t worry. You won’t notice much difference.”

Finally, the Notes of Jane Heap ends with a few extracts about death and recurrence. And that is a good way to end. But this volume ends with something I think is even better: a chapter titled ‘Here – Now’ which seems to me to sum up the entire book in a tour de force. I will end with just one sentence from that chapter:

Do not fear – it is stupid. Quieten your emotions – this is the first step – then collect a little.

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

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



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 )


June 14, 2008 at 8:26 pm