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John Robert Colombo reviews: Charles Upton’s latest book

with 3 comments

‘Vectors of the Counter-Initiation’

The Wikipedia entry for the author Charles Upton identifies him (somewhat starkly but no doubt truthfully) as “a poet and metaphysician.” He was born in San Francisco in 1948 and raised a Roman Catholic. Apparently he attended the University of California at Davis “for four days.” He enjoyed a period of association with the Beat writers of the city, and he had a collection of poems published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books, no mean achievement.

Like many another war resister, he immigrated to Canada, to the wild interior of British Columbia, where he had a series of jolting, counter-cultural experiences, before he returned to the United States. The entry notes: “In 1988 he joined a traditional Sufi order. Under his wife’s influence, Upton became interested in the metaphysics of the Traditionalist or Perennialist School … He continues to be partly identified with this school,” where his teacher or “pir” was presumably the psychiatrist and author Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh. Later he wrote, “Traditionalism has given me a way to distance myself from the errors and excesses of the Left without polarizing with it.” Upton and his wife Jennifer Doane now live in Lexington, Kentucky.

What they do there, I do not know. On the off chance that Upton is employed as an academic, I searched the directories of the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University, but his name does not appear on their faculty rosters. (Note: “Transylvania University” is indeed the name of a small liberal arts college in Lexington, founded in 1780, a century before Bram Stoker began to write about the vampire-infested region around Borgo Pass and Bistritz.)

Upton is a prolific writer. Sixteen of his twenty or so books have been issued by Sophia Perennis, including the current book, which is titled and subtitled “Vectors of the Counter-Initiation: The Course and Destiny of Inverted Spirituality” (2012). The title sounds a little odd, as does the subtitle: What precisely is a “vector”? Whatever is “counter-initiation” and “inverted spirituality”? A curious note is that on the author’s Wikipedia site, the subtitle of the present book reads “The Shape and Destiny of Inverted Spirituality,” but on the cover of the book reads: “The Course …. ” This may be an insignificant detail, but it is details of this nature that catch the author’s eye. It seems the current book is a sequel to an earlier one, “The System of Antichrist: Truth and Falsehood in Postmodernism and the New Age,” a book of metaphysics and social criticism, published by the same house way back in 2001.

Sophia Perennis, the publishing house, is an imprint that has an informative website. From the site one learns nothing at all about the people who operate the press – the publishers and editors seem to be a self-effacing lot, but they are very able group, and they produce a fine product (one that I will describe a little later). But from the site one may acquire basic information about the movers and shakers of Traditionalism and Perennialism. It appears in the institution’s mission statement, which discusses the main metaphysicians who identify with this school of lexis and praxis.

“Sophia Perennis is dedicated to publishing the best contemporary writing on the world’s wisdom traditions, largely from a Traditionalist or ‘Perennialist’ perspective, as well as reprinting recognized classics. We have tried to remain faithful to Traditionalist core principles – notably the Transcendent Unity of Religions – while exploring new applications of these principles, as well as returning to the great Revelations themselves for fresh insight.”

I have yet to read other books by Upton, so I approached “Vectors” cold-turkey. Well, not quite. Well before I discovered the literature of the Fourth Way, about the time that I learned about the “powers latent in man” identified with The Theosophical Society, which was then an institution only seventy-five years old, I found a copy in a second-hand bookstore of René Guénon’s “The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times.” I read it from cover to cover with a modicum of understanding and a quantum of fascination, so much so that I thereafter sought out publications of the Primordialist, Traditionalist, or Perennialist persuasion. I have yet to encounter any other soul so interested or inclined.

For some years I subscribed to that excellent, semi-annual journal called “Sacred Web,” not because it is published from Vancouver, British Columbia; not because its honourary patron is HRH the Prince of Wales; not because it is close to appearing to be a scholarly publication in a highly polemical and disputatious field; but because it did and does offer valuable insights – issue after issue, again and again. Eventually I found that its content was becoming repetitious and its tone increasingly peremptory … but because I am not reviewing “Sacred Web,” I will offer no telling instances, though one of them has to do with the bitchiest book review that I have ever read – the anathema invoked against Mark Sedgwick’s “Against the Modern World” (Oxford University Press) which bears the subtitle “Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century.”

Instead, I will mention in passing a few of the impressions that my wife Ruth and I had of the Traditionalists in action at the two-day colloquium “Tradition in the Modern World” sponsored by members of the Ismaili communities of Edmonton and Vancouver and held on the campus of the University of Alberta at Edmonton in September 2006. It was a joy to hear Jean-Louis Michou and Huston Smith and realize they were carrying their years with grace. Harry Oldmeadow was given to hectoring (in the manner of Nietzsche). James S. Cutsinger presented a somewhat brilliant paper called “The Noble Lie” that went well over the heads of most of the people in the audience, including my wife and myself.

My biggest disappointment was listening to the keynote address of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. I did not say my disappointment was hearing the speech of Dr. Nasr, for he does speak with surpassing fluency, authority, and scholarly acumen. My disappointment was listening to what he had to say because he took a number of pot-shots at easy targets, like the one on Pope Benedict XVI’s speech in Regensburg, Germany. I expected more equanimity; my fault, I guess. (Query: Can someone be a former Sufi?) I found fellow members of the audience to be warm and appreciative, especially as Ruth and I were among the few non-Muslims present, whereas most of the academic presenters were aloof and edgy if not chilly.

For what they are worth, my impressions are recorded in a long and detailed account of the proceedings in “Fohat,” the journal of the Edmonton Theosophical Society, X, 4, Winter 2006. For present purposes, let me add that “the perennial philosophy” that was celebrated by Aldous Huxley in his notable book of that title published in 1946 has nothing at all to say about Guénon and Traditionalism proper, though three of the French metaphysician’s books are listed in the bibliography. So it is misleading and mistaken to identify the so-called the “philosophia perennis” or perennial philosophy itself with Traditionalism per se, especially as the former implies eclecticism, ecumenicism, syncreticism, interfaith initiatives, “one world religion,” “new age,” etc., whereas metaphysicians of the latter camp abhor such movements and despise them as heretical and diabolical if not satanic.

Now to the book at hand. “Vectors” is a handsome and sturdily manufactured trade paperback, 6″ x 9″ with viii+336+ii pages. There is an informative introduction, then twelve interesting though densely written chapters, followed by five appendices of related material. There is no index but the footnotes and endnotes are quite detailed. The text must exceed 140,000 words in length.

There is not a page of the text that is badly written; there is not a page of the text that is easy to read. Upton has a rigorous prose style, in common with that of Guénon, as well as the spirit of “parti pris.” I managed to understand much of Guénon’s “Reign of Quantity” before I chose philosophy as my college major, so I assumed that all philosophy was written in this steely fashion. Then I discovered one could write philosophy in other styles – with the ease of R.G. Collingwood, the apocalyptic energy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the disdain for “bad faith” of Jean-Paul Sartre.

What had animated Guénon’s prose was a contempt for the false values of the Western world. The position that he took is what distinguished his writing from philosophy per se, and it also led to his prose being characterized as metaphysics. In his Weltanschauung, there is a “hierarchy” of values – accompanied by the “lowerarchy” (an amusing coinage of C.S. Lewis used by Upton) of deceptions – so his metaphysics is indistinguishable from theology – in this instance, Islamic theology. There is no more thorough-going critique of the values of the Western world in the twenty-first century than the writing of the Guénonian school. Upton follows in Guénon’s footsteps; Upton’s book is worthy of the master’s. There is a cultural jihad being waged in the pages of these books.

When I review a book, I try to refrain from reprinting the copy that appears on the back cover of that book, on the principle that I should be able to summarize its arguments at least as well as any publicist. But in this instance, the copy on the back cover of “Vectors” is so pertinent, I will reprint part of it here in a slightly shortened form:

“French philosopher René Guénon, who spent many years searching for a true esoteric Way, crossed paths with many false and subversive spiritualities before arriving at the threshold of Islamic Sufism. In his prophetic masterpiece “The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times,” he classed the worst of these spiritualities as examples of the Counter-Initiation. Anti-Tradition – secularism and materialism – opposes religion; Counter-Tradition inverts it; and the esoteric essence of Counter-Tradition is the Counter-Initiation. The author expands on this concept, recognizing the action of the Counter-Initiation in such areas as the politicizing of the interfaith movement, the anti-human tendencies in the environmental movement, the growing interest in magic and sorcery, the involvement of the intelligence communities in the fields of UFO investigation and psychedelic research, the history of Templarism and Freemasonry, and the de-Islamicization of the famous Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi.”

“The Counter-Initiation has six main features: syncretism; inverted hierarchy; deviated esoterism; the granting of the temporal transmission of spiritual lore precedent over the vertical descent of Revelation; the reduction of religion to utilitarianism (magic) and esoterism to a purely technical knowledge (Promethean spirituality); and the misapplication of the norms of the individual spiritual Path to the supposed spiritual evolution of the collective.”

“This book brings together two schools of thought: the Traditionalists or Perennialists (writers on comparative religion and traditional metaphysics) and the conspiracy theorists who are investigating the origin, nature, and plans of the New World Order. The NWO researchers can throw a penetrating light on the social and political dangers presently threatening the Perennialists, who the Perennialists can provide these researchers with a deeper and wider spiritual context for their vision of human evil.”

Those three paragraphs excellently summarize the convoluted arguments of the book, better than any that I could supply. What follows are some responses and reactions to the text chapter by chapter.

Chapter 1 has the title “What is the Counter-Initiation?” The author restates his thesis any number of times, changing the emphasis to match the contexts. I take it that his thesis is as follows: “Anyone who bases his critique of the Darkness of This World on the orthodox doctrines of a single God-given revelation, if he has sufficient courage and insight, will see far; the solid fulcrum of that orthodoxy will allow him to lift a great weight of error into the light. But this perspective will _not_ allow him to see how the other religions are menaced by the same Counter-Initiatory forces that threaten his own.”

Sceptics are anti-traditional and likely secularists or materialists. Among people who accept the notion of religious or spiritual initiation are the following: deluded people and gullible adherents to the principles of the New Age who are misled by the spread of Pseudo-Initiation; people intent on attaining or wielding power who embrace the anti-principles of Counter-Tradition and Counter-Initiation; people desirous of embracing and expressing spiritual values who attain one form or another of genuine Initiation. “Falsifications of the Transcendent Unity of Religions and the Primordial Tradition include syncretism; inverted hierarchy; deviated esoterism; dominance of history over Revelation; Promethean magic; and spiritual evolutionism – the six-fold falsification of the Transcendent Unity of Religions and the Primordial Tradition.”

Upton gives numerous instances and examples of how the élites of the world over the centuries and particularly in our own time have sought and to a great degree have undermined the integrity of the world’s great religions, especially their esoteric hearts, notably Kabbalah, Catholic monasticism, and Sufism. He does not hesitate to brand these people “satanists.” The satanists sabotage structures regardless of the orthodoxy or the heterodoxy of the doctrines of these religions, establishing their own Counter-Initiations, their own competing cults and sects. About True-Initiations, little is said, and nothing is revealed. So it is understandable in the absence of details that readers are inclined to imagine a succession or transmission through the ages of grace or of superstitious practices.

Perhaps I can help here. About a decade ago, introduced to the subject of “pretenders” to thrones and “false popes,” I latched onto the word “sedevacantism.” Its literal meaning is “the seat is empty,” suggesting that it is vacant in the sense that the occupant is unqualified for the position or that the occupant acquired the position of power through illegal or immoral means. Is there a person in a position of power in the world today who has not been accused of being a usurper, an illegitimate power-wielder? (Think about the “birther movement” and U.S. President Obama, etc.) There is a Traditionalist truism that runs like this: “A bad king is preferable to a good president.”

Chapter 2 is called “Vigilance in the Interfaith Arena” and it examines diverse subjects including the characteristics of Neo-Paganism, how Annie Besant (a Fabian Socialist) was granted control of the Theosophical Society, and the nature of “social control systems.” I have always been queasy about the notion that one should support the convergence of the world’s religions, viewing the movement itself as destructive of the integrity of each of those faiths as well as harmful to the individual and to society as a whole. Upton condemns these social forces: the movement towards “global governance”; the movement toward One World Religion, United Religions Initiative, and New World Order; the movement towards secular control of the world’s religions. Upton is not beyond making ridiculous statement like “Mikhail Gorbachev … is an avowed atheist who claims to worship the earth” but he generally sticks to the subject at hand.

This chapter is a mass – close to a mess – of detail; as such it is difficult to summarize. So here is part of an interesting footnote concerning The King Abdullah Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue to be based in Vienna: “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – not to be confused with the King of Jordan – may nonetheless see the Center named after him as a way of slowly introducing religious freedom into his kingdom ‘from outside.’ Before he took the throne, he was reputed to have said that he wanted to get rid of both the Wahhabis and the Americans.” Notice the scorn.

Chapter 3’s title is a mouthful, as befits a lengthy chapter: “Traditional vs. Counter-Traditional Perspectives on The Divine Feminine & The Sacredness of Nature.” The chapter begins well: “Wars inevitably produce three things: profiteering, domination, and a curtailment of human rights – and the war to save the Earth from environmental catastrophe is no exception.” It focuses on the “Divine Feminine” and the earth and the environment, first from the perspective of the Traditionalists and the Perennialists, second from the perspective of the Greens and the Neo-Pagans.

The “shadow-side” of environmentalism is “nature worship” which leads to human sacrifice “when overpopulation is seen as threatening the integrity of the environment.” Interesting insights follow on Abraham and his son Isaac and on “the anti-Islamic crimes of the Wahhabi terrorists.” There are basic conflicts: “Gaia vs. Kali” and “naturalistic vs. supernaturalistic nature-worship.” Technology is embraced by the worshipers of nature. There is an intriguing footnote about what drives serial killers: “The elites have the power to destroy whole nations and economies and ecosystems, but the sociopaths are out to rival the ruling class by proving that the ‘little guy’ can also contribute his share to the general destruction.” Serial killers and mass murderers are only doing on a micro scale what one-worlders and globalizers are doing on a macro scale.

Numerous pages are devoted to quotations about the earth from the Noble Qur’an. The basic position is as follows: “If there were no Divine Transcendence, all entities would be purely material, sealed into themselves, totally cut off from living participation in anything ontologically superior to them – like the parts of a machine.” There are intriguing insights: “Sleep during the night is life in death; sleep during the day is death in life.”

One would have to have a hard heart to read these pages without being charmed by the insights of the Qur’an into “the sacredness of nature,” but the reader wonders how much of this is shamanstvo, for notions coterminous with these may be found in the songs, stories, and beliefs of the Inuit of the Polar World. Indeed, Alan Dundes wrote one book about folklore in the Qur’an, and another book about the Holy Bible as folklore.

Chapter 4 is titled “Magic and _Tasawwuf_” and it brings into play the ideas and expressions of Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, and Baron Julius Evola, to name four founders of Perennialism. The performance of magical practices is not limited to magicians or illusionists, for theurgy and thaumaturgy are present as practices in all the world’s religions, from Bön to Scientology. Upton is uneasy with this fact. Aleister Crowley used to describe magic, whether black or white, as practices that cause “change in conformity with will,” whether malign or benign. There is no discussion of terms like these in this chapter.

Instead, the author writes as follows: “Tasawwuf” is identified as “the essence of the spiritual Path in every tradition. Everything else, every political strategy, every psychological manipulation or evasion, every buy or sell order on the stock market, every twisting of, or letting yourself be twisted by, occult forces, is in some sense magic. That’s why must I reiterate, and insist: Sufism and magic are poles apart. Where there is Sufism, there is no magic. Where there is magic, there is no Sufism.”

That may be true, but saying it is does not make it so. Elsewhere the author identifies the six major or “fixed” religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. He finds exclusivity in Hinduism (one must be born a Hindu) and Taoism he finds “closed” (for unstated reasons). Earlier he noted that Buddhism is inherently atheistic (even Guénon was initially uneasy with it as a vehicle), so that leaves Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is debatable to include Judaism (after all, one needs to be born Jewish). The first two religions certainly have aspects that are thaumaturgical. Is Islam the only one of them that is untainted by such entrapments or encroachments? Or is it only Islamic Sufism itself that is free – or is it merely Islamic Sufism’s Perennialism that attains this goal? These are questions the reader is likely to ask – if only to himself or herself.

Chapter 5 is titled “The Fall of the Jinn” and it tries to make sense of the jinn, leftovers from “The Arabian Nights” one would assume, who are mentioned in the Noble Qur’an. The jinn are equated with angels, fairies, demons, spirits, ghosts, and “the psychic powers of man.” They are discussed in light of philosophy, folklore, legend, myth, scripture, and psychic and telluric powers. These creatures or creations are long-lived, but are mortal only in the sense of not being immortal. Some of them believe themselves to be gods of some sort or other. All of this is quite lively though how much of it should be taken seriously is another matter entirely.

Chapter 6 has the intriguing title “UFOs, Mass Mind-Control, and the Awilya al-Shaytan.” I find it the least effective part of the book, but in one way it is the book’s most interesting section. It is the least effective chapter because in it the author, while widely read in the literature of ufology, seems to have sidestepped entirely reading the literature that critically considers the available evidence for such aerial phenomena. It is the most interesting chapter because in it he takes pains to embrace no end of contradictory conspiracy theories, paying no heed to such matters as social and psychological expectation and fantasy-prone personalities.

Nothing at all is known about the nature of Flying Saucers and Unidentified Flying Objects, or even about their existence, so it is easy to philosophize (or perhaps metaphilosophize) about them at great length. (Circular reasoning: If there is no evidence for the existence such vehicles, there must be conspiracies to suppress the knowledge of such devices.) For instance, Carl Jung described the aerial craft as objects of contemplation, which he called “flying mandalas.” Early in his career the Swiss psychologist argued they were entirely subjective in nature, whereas later in his career he decided they had in some instances the powers of exteriorization. Jung is wavering, but not Upton: “Demonic manipulation,” “social engineering,” “saints of satan” (Awilya al-Shaytan of the subtitle) … here we are in the realm of X-Files and Matrix.

Chapter 7 is called “The Real Rumi” and is deals with the fact that the immense popularity of the Persian poet and his works in the West – the “Rumi industry” – occurs at the expense of the man’s true beliefs, Islamic and Sufic. Upton writes, “He was a contemplative, saint and spiritual master first, and only secondarily an artist.” I agree with the author, as I too find the denatured verses attributed to him that appear in English translations to be about as authentic as poetry as the standard version of “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” (which at least has the merit of being lively and quotable verse). The author says that Rumi’s “only peers in the West” are Dante, Blake, and Shakespeare. (Despite their many differences, I would opt for likening the works of Rumi to those of Walt Whitman.)

Chapter 8 has a long title “A Chink in the Perennialist Armor – Uncertainty as to the Principal Unity of Knowledge and Love.” Is it true that “Intelligence emits straight rays, whereas love sends forth wavy or flaming rays”? What about “The synthesis of Love and Knowledge is, in fact, Wisdom, without which love must remain sentimental, knowledge theoretical … “? Whoever has an interest in the Courtly Love tradition of poetry and song will find the author’s ruminations here to be both thoughtful and heart-felt.

Chapter 9 consists of an interview with the author conducted by Samuel Bendeck Sotillos. (The interviewer, otherwise unidentified, serves as a mental health clinician who writes book reviews for “Studies in Comparative Religion.” ) The chapter is titled “Drug Induced Mysticism Revisited.” Here the author is hard-pressed, despite the fact that an argument proceeds on a conversational level, to distinguish between the transpersonal experiences that are the product of psychedelics and those that are the fruit of religious devotion and discipline.

The term “entheogen” is noted, possibly to suggest that psychedelic substances need not be ingested because the body in the right circumstances is able to produce these on its own. Anyway, it is difficult for Upton to distinguish between the differences in causation, whether molecular or eremitic, but this fact should not be held against him, for it was equally difficult for William James to do the same in his landmark study “The Psychology of Religious Experience” published more than a century ago.

In passing, Upton notes that it may have been the occultist Aleister Crowley who introduced mescaline to Aldous Huxley, not Dr. Humphry Osmond of the Weyburn psychiatric hospital in Saskatchewan. Also in passing, Upton finds an odd parallel – in the first half of the 1960s there was a psychedelic “explosion” of psychic content among the youth of America; at the same time there was a rationing of it resulting from reformers of the Second Vatican Council. The author refers to Vatican II a number of times; in this chapter he characterizes it as “the Masonic coup within the Catholic church” – the ill-effects of which are being felt to this day.

Chapter 10 looks at the Templars and the Freemasons as instances of Counter-Initiations intent on the restoration of brotherhoods, crafts, secret societies, gnosticism, etc. These forces assume such forms as Vatican II, Wicca, the Club of Rome, and the “global élites.” (Ted Turner, Maurice Strong, and George Soros are three named members of the élites. (I must admit to a smidgen of superbia that the middle one is a Torontonian! Who says Canada is a dull country?)

Masonry is denounced as a “parody” of the true initiatic way. In this chapter, as well as in other chapters, it is difficult to separate conspiracy theory from conspiracy fact, if indeed the word “conspiracy” in the sense of “cabal” is the appropriate one to employ. A substitute might be “prevailing ideology,” particularly views that are liberal, permissive, progressive, etc.

Chapters 11 and 12 are titled “The Fall of Lucifer” and “Luciferian Transhumanism.” These chapters consist of expositions of themes already discussed. These short chapters could best be summarized in the following sentence: There is “the metaphysical truth that limitation is necessary for divine manifestation.” Limitation is seen in the sense of respecting natural and spiritual boundaries and traditional, time-honoured initiations. “No salvation outside the church” is a familiar form of this traditionalist principle.

The five appendices are interesting in their own right, but as they add little to the sum and substance of the argument of the book, I will overlook them here. Over all, I had three unexpected responses to reading this work. Despite the fact these responses may be dismissed as shallow, or beside the point, they are my own and I offer them for consideration.

First response. While I admire the author’s erudition and concern for humanity, I find his range of sympathy and understanding to be – while deep – narrow. I suppose if someone is intent on digging a circular trench to secern or separate the circle of the temenos from all the rest of creation, one has to dig ditches that are deep but narrow. The result is that the argument of the book is expressed in such a perfervid fashion that it “preaches to the converted.” It is unlikely to win many if any uncommitted readers, though it may sharpen and strengthen the convictions of those readers already intent on conversion or yearnings of Muslims anxious to return to their origins. Yet I recall St. Augustine’s assertion that all of creation is greater than merely the best parts of creation.

Second response. The structure of this work, like the structure of other perennialist books that I have read, is not so much an inquiry or an argument as it is a collection homilies – in point of fact, twelve homilies, each chapter being its own homily. I know nothing about the order of service in a masjid, but in a Christian church the Reading of the Gospel is followed by the sermon, otherwise known as the homily. The homily applies the principles of the biblical text to the intrigues of the world and to the perversities of man’s nature, and it informs congregants “what must be thought, felt, and done.” In this book the biblical text is a verse chosen from the Noble Qur’an – or in some instances a passage from “The Reign of Quantity” – followed by an elucidation of the consequences of the application or non-application of the principle.

Third response. I expect the value of “Vectors” lies in the vast amount of information and insight that the author supplies and offers. The form it takes is that of the “anatomy,” the literary term for a work that schematically organizes knowledge in a practical way. The “anatomy” is not to be confused with the “encyclopedia.” The encyclopedia presents knowledge alphabetically, in a non-literary way, making no connections, whereas the anatomy does so through conventional and cultural categories with loose-knit or tightly-knit connectives to illustrate diversity or depth.

“The Anatomy of Melancholy,” compiled and written by the 17th-century Oxford don Robert Burton, is the best-known anatomy in English. Another instance, in our own day, is “Anatomy of Criticism” by the 20th-century professor Northrop Frye of Victoria College, University of Toronto. Both of these “anatomies” are – like “Vectors” – well-organized repositories of recherché information, valued as much for their insights as for their overviews or surveys.

It seems to me best to regard “Vectors” as a member of “anatomy” class of books. Its structure implies that there is, inarguably, a divine order and that there is a divinity that “shapes our ends,” ignore it as we may. That is the assumption, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” and based on that assumption, Upton’s tome orders the world of fact and fancy as best to approximate that design.

John Robert Colombo, an author and anthologist of many books about the lore and literature of Canada, lives in Toronto. He has a special interest in arcane subjects. He contributes occasional reviews to this blog. His website is  www.colombo.ca

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JACOB NEEDLEMAN: two new books reviewed John Robert Colombo


The John Robert Colombo Page

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Jacob Needleman


Two New Books by Jacob Needleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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