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review of ‘IT’S UP TO OURSELVES’

THE JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO PAGE
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A MAMMOTH AND UNUSUAL PUBLICATION

John Robert Colombo briefly notes the characteristics of an enjoyable tome of a book by Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

It was in the middle of the 1950s that I first encountered the writings of P.D. Ouspensky and through his ideas I engaged with the theory and practice introduced by G.I. Gurdjieff. To this day I visualize the Work from the vantagepoint of an unreconstructed Ouspenskian as well as through the filter of the Fifties, the period of the Cold War with all of its polarities, with the battle between ideologies, and with the ever-presence of subversive ideas in both East and West.

I am inclined to visualize the scenes of Ouspensky in Moscow and Gurdjieff in Paris in the tone of sepia but framed in black and white. The Work is in soft-focus and far in the past. It is not yet called the Gurdjieff Work, or not yet called the Fourth Way. Instead, it is known as the Special Doctrine, which was the term Ouspensky used to permit himself to distinguish between this “school of thought” from his earlier philosophical, theosophical, and mathematical speculations. That continued to be a problem for him.

The special and private perspective that I have been describing may very well be shared by people who came to maturity with “fragments of an unknown teaching” in the late Forties and early Fifties. The perspective is that of a Wisdom tradition that is inimical to Western values generally, a tradition that appeared in the West in 1912 and over the next two decades came to the attention of a discerning public in literary and artistic circles through through Ouspensky’s lectures in London and Gurdjieff’s activities in Paris and at Fontainebleau-on-Avon.

So in my mind’s eye, I still see the appearance of these ideas as accomplishments in the past, not contributions to New Age thought of the Sixties. Students of the Work who are younger than I was then have the opportunity (especially after reading the book that I am about to discuss) to view the Work on a wide-screen in Technicolor with Dolby Sound. No sepia or black and white for them! What grew with effort out of the soil of pre-Revolutionary Russia was able to survive the Communist Revolution, the Great War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. Now much that was merely words and counter-revolutionary history has been brought to life and given flesh and blood through the efforts of two extraordinarily able women, a mother and a daughter, inspired by G.I. Gurdjieff.

In due course I discovered books by Rom Landau, Kenneth Walker, J.B. Bennett, and others, and eventually the foundation, institute, and society were established with their many affiliated groups, not to mention offshoot organizations with no particular provenance. Thus the work was rounded out for me. For a short time I was a member of the Toronto Group, which was founded only a few years after the New York foundation. In Toronto, I met the Welches – Dr. William Welch and Mrs. Louise Welch – the movements instructor Alfred Etiévant, not to mention Paul and Sheila Bura and other students of the Work, whom French participants are inclined to call “adepts.”

All of this activity seemed at the time to be of marginal interest to society as a whole. Except possibly for a handful of Theosophists and Anthroposophists, nobody I knew had ever heard of movements, the enneagram, kesdjan bodies, the formatory centre, etc. Soon the Special Doctrine would sea-change into the Work and these would enter into common parlance. If there is a year with which to mark that metamorphosis, it is the year 1979, which saw the commercial release of Peter Brook’s remarkable film, Meetings with Remarkable Men.

It is not by chance that since then I keep encountering people who know “all about” Gurdjieff.” They proceed to share their “information and insights” with me. When this happens it is diverting but also dismaying, yet it remains instructive. Indeed, I recall the story told a few years ago by the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson (I think it was) about the middle-aged man who boarded an airplane and took his seat beside that of a distinguished-looking older man. The two passengers began to chat.

During the course of the flight, the middle-aged man waxed eloquent about the intricacies of “string theory,” basing everything he knew on article that he had enthusiastically read about it in a popular science magazine. When he had finished with his disquisition, he asked the older man what he thought – and it turned out that he had been explaining “string theory” to Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate!

I am no Murray Gell-Mann – not even a Freeman Dyson – and I also assume my readers are neither – but I am also sure we have all had this experience at least once. Indeed, I have been having a similar experience while reading this massive new book that I am about to review. It is indeed massive. It measures 10″ high and 7″ wide and 1.25 inches thick! It has a four-colour coated cover and it is quite long at xxvi + 512 pages. It is not strictly new – though a book is “new” to anyone who has yet to read it – for the title page says it was published in 1998, twelve years ago! Could that be true? (If so, I am uncharacteristically late catching up with it!) The tome to which I am referring bears a title with subtitles that are awkward yet not inaccurate. Here it is:

“It’s Up to Ourselves”

A Mother, a Daughter, and Gurdjieff

A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

Gurdjieff Heritage Society

Copyright, Dushka Howarth, 1998

To me in the 1950s, the Work represented ideas and effort. To the men and women who lived through that period as adults from 1912 to the 1950s, who were in daily and often intimate contact with Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, it was work and effort too, but it was also a lively time that was rich in character and personality, in idiots and toasts, in events and experiences that were seen to be teaching situations. There was the sprightliness of the Twenties and the literary and technological innovations of the interwar years generally – with inventions like the Theramin – which seemed outwards signs of inward change.

Now down to the book itself. The table of contents tells the story of the emergence and evolution of the Work chronologically: The Early Years, Twenties, Thirties, Forties, Fifties, The Later Years. Also included are a Preface and Introduction and then Postscripts, Appendices, Bibliography, and Index. The index is something of a shock because it consists of a list of names without a single page number. Yet the names that appear here! Some 800 people are mentioned, celebrities like Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen and Mrs. Wallace Warfield Simpson … as well as the seven Bennetts, the six Gurdjieffs, the five de Salzmanns, the four Stjernvals, the three Andersons, the two de Hartmanns, and the single Denis Saurat.

What I have yet to mention is this book’s unique and indispensable feature: its photographs. As well as a collection of informative letters, it is an album of close to 900 photos, ranging from studio portraits and publicity shots to candid snapshots. The latter are exceptional and even emotional in appeal. By comparison, I once edited for a publisher the memoirs of a Canadian colonel who had served as the aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip during their Royal Visits to Canada. On the side-tables in his living-room in his gracious residence in Oakville, Ontario, there were framed snapshots of members of the Royal Family. These candid shots were inscribed and they showed the royal personages in their leisured moments. It was something of a shock to see Liz and Phil lounging about on the lawns of Balmoral, toying with corgis, smiling at each other, relaxing with the colonel, etc.

The sense of surprise that I experienced in the general’s living room was recreated when page after page of this tome I saw candid photographs of the names of most if not all of the people who “made” the Work. There is hardly a double-page spread without its agreeable photograph or photographs. I realize now for too long I had been starved for images. And also for gossip.

No way am I am able to summarize the wealth of the contents of this publication, other than to briefly allude to its structure and straight away recall a few of its highlights, a personal selection at best. The tome may lack the high-seriousness of purpose characteristic of James Moore’s Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered, published in 2005, and it may miss the earnest quality of life exhibited in Frank R. Sinclair’s Without Benefit of Clergy: Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching (2009), which I hope to review in the future, yet its informality and its air of indiscretion are its characteristic charms.

It is a work of great gaiety. It has the air of one of today’s blogs or of one of yesteryear’s family scrapbooks or private diaries: the family being that of Gurdjieff’s kith and kin and karass (to use Kurt Vonnegut’s ingenious term). It takes the form of the long, detailed, and delightful letters that were exchanged by Jessmin Howarth and her daughter Cynthia Ann (Dushka) Howarth (one of Gurdjieff’s children). A sense of how the Work impregnated the lives of these two correspondents and their array of friends is apparent on every page of this book, yet the import of all of these references will be lost on readers who lack knowledge of what it is all about, being J.K. Rowling’s muggles and squibs.

I mentioned earlier I would “review” this book. Since that is impossible, even given the measureless space available on a blog like this one, I will content myself by merely “noticing” some references in the book. I will comment here and there on passages that have struck me as particularly interesting over the month that I spent dipping into it, reading here and there. There is an old saying that goes like this: “You do not have to drink the ocean to learn that it is salty, as one drop is enough.” I will take a sip here and there. It will satisfy the curiosity of the reader who is needy and wants to sense the shape and feel of the Work, as it evolved, in terms of people and their relationships. The details will help historians of ideas for decades to come. Right now it is time for the reader with a taste for these ideas and feelings.

Allow me to begin by noting the “Canadian content.” There is a snapshot of James (Jim) George and of his daughter, dancer Dolphi Wertenbaker, and a photograph of Sheila Bura, who also taught the movements. There are references to Peter Colgrove, who nursed Madame de Hartmann through her last days, and Tom and Ruth Daly, guardians of the Gurdjieff / de Hartmann music. Honourary Canadians are the Welches who guided the groups in Toronto and Halifax.

I was pleased to see many references to movements instructor Alfred Etiévant, whom I found to be a stern taskmaster, but whom wiser and older people knew to be so sweet as to be described as a “pushover.” I learned he was urged to marry Dushka Howarth but he ended up married to Lise Tracol. I could go on. There are lovely photographs of the “work periods” in Halifax with Ravi Ravindra. There is even a photo of Walter Driscoll, the bibliographer.

I had long nourished a curiosity about life at Franklin Farms at Mendham, N.J. There are photographs of the attractive residence and of activities that took place there, as well as pen portraits of the personalities who worked there on weekends or who resided there for years. There are references to the site at Armonk and photographs of Lyne Place, Colet Gardens, Coombe Springs, and Sherborne House, all fabulous and semi-storied places in my eyes.

Jessmin Howarth, an orphan, was an student of Dalcroze’s Eurythmics at Hellerau where she met fellow student Jeanne de Salzmann who subsequently introduced her to the movements, which Christian philosopher Jacques Maritain is credited with calling “meditation in motion.” (The same description is independently used to characterize the discipline of Tai Chi.) Jessmin met Gurdjieff in Paris in 1922. Over the years she learned, like many another woman, to dissever the teacher from the man.

Throughout the book appear photographs of Madame Gurdjieff and Madame Ouspensky as well as snapshots of Ouspensky himself travelling through Ceylon. In fact, the women whose stories are told and whose photographs are reproduced play a great role in the story. Dushka herself has done a fine job explaining the background and significance of the references that appear in the correspondence.

In addition to the women already mentioned (in no order whatsoever, a little confusion being catchy) here are some names redolent of activities in the past and the present: Lily Galumian, Madame Ostrowska (Gurdjieff‘s mother), Olga de Hartmann, Jessie Dwight Orage, Katherine Mansfield, Olgivanna Hinzenberg Wright, Edith Taylor Swaska, Elizabeta Stjernvall, Louise Goepfert March, Ethel Merston, Tania Savitsky, Edith Taylor, Rita Romilly Benson, Petey Taylor, Solange Claustre, Lise Tracol, Marian Sutta, Peggy Flinsch, Henriette Lannes, Rina Hands, Elizabeth Bennett, Dorothea Dooling, Pauline de Dampierre, Marthe de Gaigneron, Tania Nagro, Luba Gurdjieff, Rosemary Nott, P.L. Travers, Patty Welch de Llosa, Svetlana Wright Peters, Dorothy Caruso, and Lady Lucy Pentland, not to mention Kathryn Hulme and Margaret Anderson and the talented women who were members of The Rope. I hope I have not overlooked too many talented and energetic women!

I will forego any attempt to summarize what Jessmin and Dushka took from the work or from Gurdjieff personally and privately. It resists summary. The enthusiasm for the Work that is displayed by them for the man and the techne and praxis speaks for itself. Jessmin’s letters to Dushka and Dushka’s replies are the threads that stitch this crazy-quilt of a book together. It is apparent that the daughter inherited her verve and personal style from her mother. (I will leave up in the air what she inherited from her father.)

Both women are lively correspondents, uninhibited letter-writers, whose words are a joy to read. Not a few of these pages are devoted to accounts of Dushka’s own and varied activities. A glamorous professional guitar-player, she was also a spunky and adventurous licensed press agent, translator, and guide working in Paris. For all of this froth and frivolity, I am grateful to her for capturing the excitement of the people who were involved in the work, changing my impression of it from something solemn and remote and sepia to a dynamic way of living, what Paul Beekman Taylor has recently described as “a new life.”

It’s Up to Ourselves is published by the Gurdjieff Heritage Society, which has its own website. The selling price of the book is in given as US$75.00. It is worth every penny of that amount. (With a workable index, it would be worth at least twice that sum.)

John Robert Colombo is known across Canada as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of the lore and literature of the country. He is the author, most recently, of End of Greatness, a collection of poems, and Indifferences, a collection of aphorisms. Yevgeny Yevtushenko told him, “You must be the most sophisticated of poets.” Andrei Voznesensky wrote, “The searchings of John Robert Colombo are significant and profound.” Check his website with its podcasts: www. colombo-plus.ca

THE CYNICAL IDEALIST: A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon

JOSEPH AZIZE BOOK REVIEWS

Joseph.Azize@googlemail.com

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Book Review:
: A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon, by Gary Tillery (Quest Books, 2009, 6” x 9”, 169 pp. plus chronology, notes, bibliography and index.)

The cover photograph of a wintry Lennon, with the Statue of Liberty ghostly in the background, is appropriate and eloquent for this excellent book. Its subject, John Lennon (1940-1980), was one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, and, beyond any sensible argument, one of the most profound songwriters ever known to us. Its author, Gary Tillery, is intelligent, well-informed, sympathetic, and writes very well indeed. I could have greedily finished it in one day, had I had the leisure.

The contents are methodically laid out in four parts: the first three mix biography and philosophy in a readable blend, while the fourth part weaves all the philosophical strands together. This way, we’re introduced to the concepts in a narrative setting before they’re briefly reprised in a more abstract manner. So, although the last section is more recondite, the ideas are familiar. The effect of Part 4, then, is not of density but of convergence.

Reading it, I entered into Lennon’s world. I couldn’t help but engage with the issues Lennon engaged with: life in society, life as a child and as a parent, wanting and giving love, our responsibility to use our influence and power constructively (we all have these, to various degrees extents), religion, politics and art. It’s a book to make and to help you think, thanks in no small part to the quotations from Lennon.

Tillery’s thesis is plausible: Lennon correctly saw himself as a philosopher (as well as a rock’n’roller, a writer and an “artist”). His philosophy was more a developed outlook, based on his experience, than it was an academic philosophy drawn from reading and University discipline. It was not expressed in treatises, but in music, a few short books, some sketches, and perhaps most importantly, his life. Yet, as Tillery notes, Lennon did some serious reading, especially in English nonsense, literature and poetry (and, we should note, history). So far as I know, he didn’t read philosophers like Plato, Aristotle or those in the Western tradition subsequent to Descartes.

Lennon never sat down to work out a consistent system, the way a modern academic like, say, D.M. Armstrong does. Nor did he develop his philosophy by reference to classic problems such as materialism, or the problem of universals. The issues he dealt with were delivered to him as he rose from the lower middle class to the privileged caste of super-wealthy celebrities and tried to make sense of his multiple worlds. Having said that, Tillery finds five principles in Lennon’s philosophy:

(1) it was fundamentally humanistic and secular (p.50),
(2) with a faith in individuals to find their own best natures,
(3) through their love to combine,
(4) through their power to change the world, and
(5) through their altruistic aim to give life meaning (p.101).

That is Lennon’s philosophy in a nutshell, and along the way we have a fascinating account of his life and intellectual development. I could have started with the three principles on pp. 7-8, but they come to the same thing. The account is necessarily brief, but Tillery has a spaniel’s scent for the essential, and the very conciseness of the biography brings out some critical features in sharp relief. Lennon realised he was responsible for his actions, in fact responsible for his influence, and struggled to becomingly discharge that responsibility. Tillery is not the first to grasp this, but his understanding of it is extremely clear and well put (“we owe it to ourselves …”, p. 7; and “Lennon came to see it … as their responsibility to make a positive contribution”, p. 56, see also pp.100-101).

I am most impressed by Tillery’s ardent desire and ability to sum up large issues in pithy statements, e.g. in speaking of how Lennon came to rock’n’roll, Tillery says “he was groping to define himself” (p.23). At p.80, in respect of the Maharishi and Janov, he summarises Lennon’s conclusions by saying: “Leaders were substitute fathers” (p.80). At p.130, he observes that Lennon learnt, from his “lost weekend”, that “… freedom without a foundation is an abyss”. These lapidary phrases don’t come about by accident: a writer has to work to coin them. It is so much easier to just throw words at your subject. Tillery can be justly proud of his achievement, especially in this respect. It is one of the engagingly Lennonesque features of his style. It’s almost a book to hold a conversation with, and the comments below can be taken as my side of the discussion.

Tillery coins a Lennonesque phrase, “cynical idealist”, to describe Lennon (see the explanation at pp.71-4). Personally, I would have said “street-wise” or perhaps “hard-nosed”, and described Lennon as a “songwriter-philosopher”. There is something harsh or dismissive implied in the word “cynical”, and, for me, importing that nuance is rather a high price to pay for the pleasure of the paradox.

Overall, I would be inclined to see Lennon as “sceptical” rather than “cynical”. Yet neither word is really correct, because, whether sceptical or cynical, he was also, by turns, trusting, extraordinarily optimistic, and even gullible (as with some of his advisers). Steven Stark quotes an unnamed critic as saying that of all the celebrities interviewed in a series of t.v. shows in 1969, only Lennon had “a gospel, a hope and a belief” (Meet the Beatles, p.272).

He was all of those things on a cinemascope scale, and as Maharishi experienced, the turn from suggestibility to hostility could come very quickly. In that instance, Lennon had surely been seeking a father figure whom he could trust (p.80), and when Maharishi disappointed him, he lashed out. Is this cynicism, scepticism or something else? Henriette Lannes once said that no one can be adequately described by reference to one characteristic. Such as we are, we’re too divided, too psychologically diverse for that. Shortly before he was murdered, Lennon said that he knew that he wasn’t always positive, but that when he was, he tried to project it (p.155). Lennon’s insight and frankness is touching, and because he saw his fluctuations, it meant that he had the possibility of becoming more consistent.

So although the title is witty, I would quibble with it. Even the sub-title: “A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon”, raises an issue: while Tillery does deal very well indeed with Lennon’s attitude to religion, his use of meditation, and his approach to the book Mind Games, the emphasis in this book is on philosophy rather than spirituality. That is, the primary thrust of the book is with Lennon’s ethical and political philosophy. Spirituality is really the secondary stream here, as the five points of Lennon’s philosophy show.

While Tillery’s approach to Lennon is not at all like mine, neither is it inconsistent. I think that, by comparison, I probably pay more attention to what I hear in the music. The difference in methods is, I often found, stimulating. Tillery looks at what Lennon said in his songs and elsewhere, and deduces a philosophy from that. I am oversimplifying a little bit, because Tillery is quite aware of the need to consider Lennon’s life as an expression of his philosophy: he even quotes Lennon as saying: “Our life is our art” (p.100), referring to Yoko and himself, but also, perhaps, to every human being. To me, this is critical. As Gurdjieff showed, one cannot really divorce a person’s philosophy from their life. They are two related aspects of the one larger reality: their being. I shall return to this below.

Tillery nicely brings out how Lennon was concerned to be able to reach people, all people, and not just a large audience. Lennon did not see himself as over and above the working people he had come from. He never lost his sympathy. I recall an anecdote from the Beatles years, where he was being driven in London, and they’d stopped at traffic lights. Some girls who noticed him perversely scratched the paintwork of the car (I think it was the Rolls). The driver got angry, but Lennon calmly said: “It’s alright, they paid for it”. That is impartiality. Lennon was also his own most perceptive critic. I hope to get to this in the forthcoming blog on “Memory” and “Living on Borrowed Time”.

Lennon was an extraordinary mix, and this book is so interesting partly because Tillery communicates his own broad interest in Lennon’s life and work. This sympathetic interest provides many incidental reading pleasures. For example, I appreciate the story of how Lennon told the students of a university, who were protesting the University’s refusal to turn a vacant lot into a “People’s Park”, that there was no park “worth getting shot for”. Although they had sought his opinion, they rejected it, and in the event, one hundred were injured, one fatally and one blinded. Lennon’s response was equally incisive: the students had been used by an administration which had provoked them into protesting so that it could come down hard on them (p.103)

Not only was Lennon an “extraordinary mix”, he also had something of the English eccentric about him, a type Tillery may not have mixed with, but which is far more benign than the American version which becomes obsessed with conspiracy theories and the Federal Government. This English eccentricity showed partly in Lennon’s faddishness, his love of the exotic (I think this partly explains his fascination with Maharishi), and in his puzzling willingness to entertain weirdos and weird ideas.

One of these was fads, and a weird one, too, was the book Mind Games. I did read it a few years ago, but I can’t say I found anything deep or even interesting in it. Despite Lennon’s quondam enthusiasm for it, I am unpersuaded that it had any lasting effect on him. I thought it might shed light on the powerful song, but it didn’t. The imagery of “Mind Games” the song is not at all drawn from the book, from what I could see. I suspect that Lennon projected into the pretentious volume things which weren’t there, and then lauded what he saw in his fertile brain. So, although Lennon once said that it ranked with Yoko’s Grapefruit and another book, perhaps Janov’s, he seems to have moved beyond it by the time he wrote the song of the same name ( see pp.144-8). The excellent Lennonism which I quote below from p.148 did not need Mind Games, it is a well-known idea which he could have deduced for himself, and would have heard from Maharishi and, especially, from Yoko Ono. As pellucidly expressed by Mr Lennon, it reads:

If you speak, what you say doesn’t end here. … vibrations go on and on infinitely, and therefore every action goes on and on infinitely and has its effect. If you think carefully about the effect you’re going to create, there’s more chance for all of us. It’s hard to think of your every move. But your attitudes to life will have an effect on everyone – and thereby, the universe.

This, of course, dovetails with Lennon’s philosophy as expressed in “Instant Karma”, “You Are Here”, and “Imagine”, to name but some.

At this point, I should mention a matter which can be corrected in future editions: Tillery often cites Lennon interviews, but rarely dates them. For example, the above quotation is referenced, and so I can check the date if I can find the book he drew it from. But the deeper point is that Tillery does not seem to think that the interview dates are important. As a historian of some feeble description, I think that they are: when did key themes emerge, and how did Lennon’s philosophy develop? What twists and turns did it take? It isn’t so easy to conceive things in a sound historical perspective and to soberly evaluate one’s sources. But Tillery is not an amateur writer, he has all the intellectual tools, and wrote the first three chapters in chronological order. As stated, I hope that this book sees a second edition where Tillery can revise the book upwards, so to speak.

Another example of Tillery’s sometimes ahistorical approach to Lennon, is his reference to fasting, prayer and meditation, without noticing (or so it seems to me), that Lennon’s fondness for them was sporadic (p.70). I am unaware of any evidence that Lennon fasted in his Dakota years, although he did to some degree follow a macrobiotic diet (and yet, he also smoked and drank coffee). The question of meditation and prayer is trickier. Lennon referred to meditation in Skywriting by Word of Mouth, but I know of no evidence that he did more than endorse meditation at that time (pp.69-70), or that he ever meditated consistently, except when he was in India. And if he did meditate in the 1970s, how did he do so? Did he use a method, no method, or a mixture? Did he continue to use TM?

As for prayer, Lennon redefined it in pantheist, almost occult terms (as David Katz uses that word in The Occult Tradition). Also, as I mentioned in the “Beautiful Boy” blog, prayer is an important concept in that song, and impromptu prayers turn up, for example, in “Grow Old With Me”. But Tillery refers to prayer in the context of Jesus, Buddha and Milarepa and “time-tested methods of inspiration”. I do not think that that sort of prayer was significant to the mature Lennon, much as I might like to think it was. Indeed, as Tillery notes at pp.4 and 11, Lennon had tried prayer as Jesus recommended, and nothing productive came of it. (As Gurdjieff said, Jesus was speaking to his apostles, people who had been prepared. The effectiveness of prayer depends upon who is praying and how, and the attitudes of certain people upstairs.)

I don’t wish to make too much of this, it’s maybe a good fault to have, but a conscientious reviewer should mention it: Tillery seems to me sometimes to be too positive about Lennon, almost excusing his faults. Thus he downplays the self-indulgence of Lennon’s impertinent letter to the Queen returning his MBE because among matters “Cold Turkey” was slipping down the charts (p.106). I cannot credit, when the short letter is read as a whole, that Lennon was really trying to “lighten” its tone. The tone of that letter was all of a piece. Further, however Lennon may have rationalised the full frontal on Two Virgins, it carried eccentricity to a point which was bizarre, despite Tillery’s best defence advocacy (p.94). Lennon’s modesty before Mintz establishes nothing: he may have changed, he may have been shy in person, or had some personal reason for being apologetic before his friend – anything. Again, it is ahistorical to take incidents separated by the years and say that that was Lennon, as if he were a monolith. And one cannot seriously say of Lennon, by any criterion, that “perhaps he was a Buddha we can all relate to …” (p.137). Yet to be fair, Tillery does mention Lennon’s notorious violence to women (p.115).

As I said above, I don’t wish to make too much of this, because it is only a minor aspect of the book. But precisely because of the extraordinarily high opinion I have of Lennon, I feel that we must be careful not to lost perspective and slide into idolatry and identification.

The true point of my study of Lennon is that sometimes, perhaps very often, it is easier to see reality in the lives of other people than it is to see it in our own. Because of the depth of his insight, and his candid expression of what he learned at each step, Lennon’s life is the richest field I have come across of any figure in the second half of the 20th century. One of the things we see clearly in Lennon’s life is that simply wanting to love is not enough: we cannot love on demand. Something else must come first before the commandment to love can be reliably fulfilled. Just before his death, Lennon himself said:

The hardest thing is facing yourself. It’s easier to shout ‘Revolution’ and ‘Power to the people’ than it is to look at yourself and try to find out what’s real inside you and what isn’t, when you’re pulling the wool over your own eyes. That’s the hardest one. (p. 124, and that interview is dated!)

Earlier in the book, Tillery sums up this attitude, saying how Lennon came to realise that we have to act both “individually and in concert”, but that the “first key … is self-transformation. When considering how to improve the world, people almost always focus their attention outside themselves, which too often leads to resistance, confrontation, frustration and defeat. Actually, the only thing over which we have control is our own attitudes and behaviour” (p. 7).

This is true, at least as I see it. I mean both that Lennon’s insight is true, and that Tillery has correctly formulated Lennon’s view. So Lennon saw that we must begin with self-transformation, and he made some sterling efforts in this direction. It is an art which is expressed in and over a lifetime. But how can this insight be made practical? Tillery suggests meditation, prayer and fasting. Apart from the question of whether Lennon did use these methodically and consistently, it would be even fuller and more practical to say as Gurdjieff did, that if this is our aim, then our being must change before we can achieve that aim (what Gurdjieff calls “doing”).

To change our being, we need to transform negative emotion (a major part of the second conscious shock). That transformation begins not with a direct attack upon hatred, or a direct incitement to love, but with self-consciousness, with the first conscious shock, which comprises: “Efforts to remember oneself, observation of oneself at the moment of receiving an impression, observation of one’s impression at the moment of receiving them, registering, so to speak, the reception of impressions and the simultaneous defining of the impressions received …” (In Search of the Miraculous, p.188). And Lennon had one of those rare glimpses of the reality of self-remembering: I referred to this in the first Lennon blog.

That Lennon did not come up with a practical system like Gurdjieff’s is not a criticism. That he had so many elements of reality in his philosophy is stupendous. Lennon’s insights were astounding. But we cannot without violence separate a person’s philosophy and their behaviour: both express their being. Some of these issues are difficult, and I don’t raise this to condemn Lennon, but I feel that his apparent cruelty to Cynthia and Julian should not be swept under the carpet. It seems to me that Lennon’s cool and aloof paining of Cynthia is typical of someone who knows that he has acted unconscionably, and, incapable of making amends, transfers the blame to the other. No one behaves so maliciously as someone with a guilty conscience.

What Lennon knew and even what he felt, he could not always put into practice. This is one of the morals of Lennon’s life, rather like the lessons of Aesop’s fables.

Along the same lines, Lennon was almost fanatically competitive, especially with Paul McCartney first, and Bob Dylan second. Tillery’s comments at pp.32, 57 and 155 seem to me to be much understated. I think that it’s in MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, where Lennon’s sabotage of McCartney’s music on what became the Let It Be album is documented. If I remember correctly, MacDonald called it an “act of bastardry”. The first time I read it, I didn’t want to believe it. After all, the motive was clear enough. I think few would dispute that Paul’s songs on that record (especially the title track, “Long and Winding Road” and “Two Of Us”) far outshone John’s. No, I think that if one is going to give an overview of Lennon’s life by way of background to his spirituality, his treatment of his first family, his insecurity and egotism, should probably be acknowledged.

Another possible example of being overkind to Lennon is the way that Tillery mentions philosophers like Descartes, Kant, Hegel and Wittgenstein. Is that praise by association? I am not quite sure. Tillery doesn’t mention Nietzsche, so far as I recall or as the index discloses. But if any philosopher should be mentioned in the company of Lennon, I think that it’s Nietzsche. Of course, he was not so respectable a philosopher as Kant, but then neither was Lennon. Even if it is right to mention Hegel and so on, yet I feel that Tillery pays disproportionate attention to those academic philosophers, as compared with others of an artistic variety like G.B. Shaw, Tennessee Williams (whose work Lennon idolised, see my “Tennessee” blog) and, of course, Bob Dylan.

A few books are missing from the bibliography. Goldman’s book is dirty, but it should be read, even if only to critique it, which, incidentally, I would like to do, but I lack the time. If you are a John Lennon fan, and know Yoko One, persuade her to pay me a stupendous amount of money to write a critique of it: she will be so satisfied she’ll wish she’d paid me more (and I won’t knock it back). Similarly, Dakota Days by John Green should be considered (from fallible memory, Green was one of Goldman’s sources, but he is not responsible for that). Green may have exaggerated certain matters, but I am by no means convinced everything he wrote was inaccurate. His diagnosis that Lennon had a sort of writer’s block during most of the Dakota period may be at least partly correct (see p.130). Once more, I don’t think he should be ignored.

Cynthia Lennon’s book John, is much fuller than A Twist of Lennon, which Tillery does use, and was, I would have thought, available in time for Tillery’s research. It presents a decidedly less flattering picture of Lennon, but my sense is that she has been scrupulously honest. Julian Lennon made some important points in the foreword to his mother’s book. I did not notice them here.

When books present negative images of Lennon one can try and maintain a dignified silence, lest they be given undue credibility by paying attention to them. Or one can answer them, squarely and analytically. I think that given Lennon’s fame, and the nature of the world, the first option is, finally, counter-productive. People will be coming back to Goldman (and even that weird book by someone who’d interviewed him once, and whose name I thankfully forget). If their views of Lennon are not answered, later critics will take this as a sign of their unassailable veracity. Sometimes silence can encourage, or at least facilitate, shouting.

But then, May Pang is positive about Lennon and the “lost weekend”, and I don’t recall that she’s even mentioned in this book. I find that odd, because she was an important figure in Lennon’s life. As I recall, she says that the LA period “wasn’t so lost”, and I found her memoirs intelligent and sensitive. Of course there was a personality clash (if that word is not too weak) with Yoko.

Another book which was missing, is Steven Stark’s Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band that Shook Youth, Gender and the World, published in 2006. It could have added another dimension to Tillery’s treatment, because it shows, to an extent I had never appreciated, how the Beatles’ popularity was related to their fresh approach to youth and gender, an approach which Lennon developed as he grew older. Which reminds me that the role of the female in Lennon’s spirituality, as opposed to his politics, seems to me to be missing from Cynical Idealist. Stark could also have helped Tillery to an increased appreciation of the importance of the Lennon/McCartney rivalry.

By the way, Quest Books please take note: I performed a spot check of the index, and found an error one of the 30 tests: where the index has p. 172 for the film Hard Day’s Night, it should be 170. That error was the only one I found, but the index should be revised if you go to a second, revised edition.

And I hope you do, because this book, deep and thought-provoking as it is, was a damned good read (to use a phrase Americans gave to the world).

Joseph.Azize@googlemail.com

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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.

“Maronites” is pp.279-282 of “The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia” published by Cambridge University Press and edited by James Jupp.

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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