Posts Tagged ‘John Robert Colombo’
I have in front of me a copy of a newly published book titled “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto.” It was issued in November 2012 by Traditional Studies Press in Toronto, which happens to be the city in which I now reside. The book will be of interest to students of traditional thought and this is expressed in the wording of its subtitle: “On the ideas and practice of the teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff.”
To me the book is of especial interest because, in a limited way, a long time ago, I knew Louise Welch – Mrs. Welch, as she was always called. That was a long time ago – some fifty years ago. Memories sometimes serve as bridge-builders, connecting the past and the present. They do so in this instance.
Before I discuss the contents of this book, I will describe the volume as a physical object. It is a sturdy production, a new book designed to outlast the years, as are so many of the titles issued by Traditional Studies Press, which is the publication wing of The Gurdjieff Foundation: The Society for Traditional Studies. (The organization’s website identifies the organization as The Gurdjieff Foundation of Toronto: Society for Arts and Ideas.)
The publication has no dust jacket but the pages are bound in heavy boards covered in dark green cloth, and the pages are sewn together rather than glued together, so the book may be opened without worry that any of its pages will loosen or fly apart! The volume measures 6 inches by 9 inches, and the pagination goes like this: xxii + 181 + i. It is curious that the first twenty-two pages, which offer the reader an analytic table of contents (like those in P.D. Ouspensky’s “Tertium Organum” and in many of Colin Wilson’s books), appear without page numbers.
The typography is more practical than pictorial; the type is large and the lines are well “leaded” or spaced apart. The text is fairly short (perhaps 60,000 words) and each page is easy on the eyes. There is a frontispiece photograph of Mrs. Welch, taken in Halifax in 1984, which makes her look much older than the women I remember meeting over a period of two years in the second half of the 1950s.
In memory I recall Mrs. Welch as sharing some of the facial features of Maria Ouspenskaya, the Russian-born actress and acting teacher. Here she looks rather more like Marie Dressler, the Canadian-born, Academy Award-winning comic movie actress. I prefer the image in my memory to the portrait in the book!
Louise Welch’s vital years are 1905 and 1999 (so she is not to be confused with the similarly named Louise Welsh, the much younger, English-born, Scotland-based author of psychological thrillers). Mrs. Welch – Louise Michel Blinken Welch, to give her name in full – was born in New York City of Ukrainian background. She was raised in a dysfunctional family setting and received little formal education, but through her own efforts she found work as a journalist and editor. At one time in the 1920s, she wrote the “agony column” for the New York American. (Walter Winchell quipped about her that “Louise Michel went from bad to Hearst.”) Later in her varied career she worked as a director of a writer’s group for the WPA – the Work (or Works) Project Administration, the U.S. federal government’s employment program of the 1930s, now despised by Republications and forgotten by Democrats.
During the Depression she married and bore a son and a daughter. She was abandoned by her husband so she became their sole support. (Her daughter is Patty de Llosa, a writer and leader who is well respected in the circle of the Work, has has written warmly about her mother and her stepfather, Dr. William J. Welch, in a memoir that appears on one of the webpages of the “Gurdjieff International Review.” The information shared here is derived in part from that source.)
In the 1930s, Mrs. Welch worked with Benton & Bowles, the renowned advertising agency, and there she met and was befriended by a somewhat younger co-worker, who later trained to became a medical doctor, qualified as a cardiac specialist, and eventually became her husband. Together the Welches were what later came to be known as “a power couple.”
This is not the place to review her meetings in the 1920s with the English editor A.R. Orage or how through him she met G.I. Gurdjieff, in both Fontainebleau and New York, if only because she accomplished all of this in her finely written, book-length memoir titled Orage with Gurdjieff in America (1982). Offhand I would say her temperament had much in common with that of Orage. The two of them appreciated fine writing, they were practical people and skilled editors, they had an understanding of the emotional problems of other people as well as the social problems of their times, and they were entirely committed to being leaders in the Work.
Hardly any of the above information appears in the pages of “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto,” a fact that limits the readership of this volume to readers appreciative of the subtleties of the Work. To all other readers, the book will be seen as a tribute to a well-liked person rather than as a valuable record of transactions and experiences. Traditional Studies Press did what it set out to do; that was its aim. Perhaps a wider perspective might have resulted in a more imposing publication. Yet readers of all persuasions should express gratitude for what has been achieved.
The Toronto group was founded in 1954, the first of the ancillary groups to be recognized by The Gurdjieff Foundation in New York which had then entered its second year of operation. Its seeds were planted by Olga de Hartmann and her husband Thomas, the composer who had worked so closely with Mr. Gurdjieff on those marvellous compositions for the piano. In fact, way back in 1919, it was the de Hartmanns who had introduced Alexandre and Jeanne de Saltzmann to Mr. Gurdjieff. In the same way, while the couple were living in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, anticipating their move to the United States, they introduced the Work to Canadians in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax.
Among the prime movers of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York were Dr. and Mrs. Welch. The latter was delegated to head the Toronto group, which she did from 1955 on. I met her a year or two later, never guessing that the Toronto group was not “ages old” but “brand new.” On our first meeting, I asked her if I could join the Work, once I had moved to the city and enrolled at the University of Toronto. She delayed answering that question. Instead she asked her own question, “How did you first learn about the this work?” It was a good question because there was very little information available to the public about Gurdjieff, especially in a small city like the one in which I was born and raised. (This was well before the arrival of the so-called New Age.)
I replied that I had borrowed a copy of “In Search of the Miraculous” (published four years earlier) from the local Carnegie library, and read it cover to cover, not once but twice. Etched in my memory is her grim rejoinder: “The Table of Hydrogens is quite difficult, you know.” Then I backtracked and admitted that I had not understood all that I had read! She was happier with that reply. In general, I knew about the Priory at Fontainebleau from Ouspensky’s description, but it was months before I heard anything at all about J.B. Bennett and the foundations, institutes, and societies, not to mention the estate at Mendham. I was nineteen years old at the time.
My first meeting with the Toronto group leader took place in the upstairs bedroom of the home of Mrs. Margot Dustin and her husband Ernest whose nickname was “Dusty,” both former Theosophists, about a mile from where I now live and am keyboarding this account, and I was regular in my attendance at weekly meetings for readings and for Movements held here and there throughout the city, especially at the monthly meetings convened by Mrs. Welch. She would fly into the city from New York to conduct the sessions, on occasion with Dr. Welch, a man of genuine presence and strong voice. Once, in later years, they brought with them a 16 mm, black-and-white print of performances of the Movements in Paris, which was shown to a small group at the Ontario Science Centre.
Sometimes in attendance at the meetings were film producer Tom Daly, teacher Peter Colgrove, Dr. Paul Bura, an engineer, and his wife Sheila, who was adept in Movements, who were “refugees” from a Bennett group in England, not to mention a stunning, exotic couple: an exquisite, half-Burmese, half-French woman of great beauty (named Olga, oddly, and former wife of BBC executive Cecil Lewis) and her tall, stylish architect husband who may have come from Cornwall, where they subsequently settled. Yet in general I found the original members to be drawn from the professional middle-class of the city, almost everyone being older than I was, and it was a somewhat staid gathering of people, certainly not one given to small talk or big pronouncements. There were occasional visits from the very Gallic Alfred Etievant who would lead the Movements with lithe assurance.
Mrs. Welch’s contributions were not limited to oral instruction, for she encouraged the group to break into print. She kindled the publication of “A Journal of Our Time,” a literary and artistic “little magazine” of some deft and delicacy; she wrote a play which the group produced and staged for public performance; she generated publicity for the commercial showing at Cineplex (the world’s first “cineplex” or multi-screen movie theatre) of Peter Brook’s film “Meetings with Remarkable Men”; she served as editor-in-chief of the first edition of “The Guide and Index to G.I. Gurdjieff’s All and Everything,” which remains an invaluable resource to this day.
References to a few of these activities appear in “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto,” which is dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Dustin, the very woman in whose house I first met Mrs. Welch. According to the editorial note, “This publication is compiled from notes taken at meetings spanning the years 1955-1965 and 1973-1989.” My experiences relate directly to the first period, not at all to the second period, and I have no idea what happened between 1965 and 1973, a span of years that I assume were busy ones for the Toronto group, which eventually acquired valuable real estate both in Toronto and outside the rapidly expanding city.
When I was in attendance, each one of us was encouraged – even required – to ask questions, and to ask them slowly, so that the two note-takers would have time to record them, whether in longhand or shorthand I never knew. Apparently these scripts exist today, and they form the basis of the text of this book. From time to time the questions themselves are recorded here, but in most instances it is only Mrs. Welch’s answers that are given. The text itself begins like this: “My search is your search. We must each have a common wish to find out who we are and the direction in which we can grow to reach the truth.” (For symmetry’s sake, the text proper ends like this: “We have a little help here.”)
Reading these passages I am able to imagine myself in her presence and hear her refined, modulated American speech tones and pronunciations. The content of the presentations brings to my mind the content of the entries that appear in the five volumes of Maurice Nicoll’s “Commentaries.” Dr. Nicoll’s presentations are quite technical, whereas Mrs. Welch’s are conversational, parallelling normal thought processes. Both books are organized topically with long, analytic tables of contents. Mrs. Welch is a communicator of attitudes from Mr. Gurdjieff; Dr. Nicoll is a conveyer of detailed information from Mr. Ouspensky.
Her expositions make good use of “I” and “me,” though they do so with great care so as to generalize about the “I” and the “me” and make the words apply to each and every one of her listeners. For instance, she writes as follows: “The important thing is my inner work. My presence is important. I live without meaning because I am not here.” Imagine hearing these words: the “my” and the “I” are those of you, the listener.
In later years, in an attempt to understand the thrust and direction of the Work, I came to define its essence in a single word, a compound word that is a personal neologism. That word is “psychopraxis.” Here the discipline is psychological even psychical rather than psychiatric, but it is also physiological, for it is concerned with physical expression and practice; it is also blessedly free of religious, theosophical, and psychological terminology. Such ideas would have been regarded as novel at the time. Mrs. Welch avoids such exercises, and the introduction into the text of specific Gurdjieffian terms is minimized. One unexpected exception is this one: “Trogoautoegocrat,” from “All and Everything,” which is defined as “real sacrifice” or “I eat myself.”
Preserved are instances of the common touch: “If you tell me you cannot Work for fifteen minutes a day, I say that you don’t want to …. Five minutes of struggle is better than twenty-four hours of daydreaming.” There is no attempt here to innovate or improvise; the expressions of insight are refreshingly free of argument and cant or special pleading. The result is the exposition is effective and the prose is durable and in no sense dated. There are no potted expressions meant to impress the listener or express the private opinion or reservations of the speaker.
At the time I identified Mrs. Welch’s message with a simple, three-letter word – “aim.” It seemed to me at the time that she was always after us to define our own “aim.” I was surprised to realize how difficult it was to comply, difficult when not impossible! Not much about aim has found its way into the text at hand.
What I took away from the Work, right away, was the notion that what lies at the root of most personal and social problems is mechanicality … in “mentation,” emotion, and action. “Mechanicality” is a word that is instantly meaningful, yet is seldom heard or used in this sense by the outside world. On one occasion, she asked a provoking question: “My pet mechanicality is what irritates you. What is there in me that I am unconscious of, and need to be conscious of and know better?”
If I had more time and space I would compare and contrast the records of these meetings, as fragmentary as they are here, compiled not by an individual but by “The Editors, The Gurdjieff Foundation,” with more elaborate records kept of meetings with Ouspensky, Madame Lannes, Conge, and other group leaders. But there are readers (perhaps those who have been exposed to multiple teachers) who are better equipped to do so than am I.
The beating heart of the book lies in its most extended passage, a veritable lecture, which runs from page 66 to page 97. This passage covers most of the subjects germane to work on self. Unlike the shorter sections, which range in length from one sentence to one paragraph or to one or two pages, some dated, the narrative arc of this passage moves from one aspect of the subject to another aspect of the subject, and it builds, as dramatists like to express it. It begins, “I can be stirred into uneasiness … ” and it ends, “We rejoice in the joy of the possibilities.” The beat of this heart marks the ending of the first section of the book.
The second section, which records exchanges between 1973 and 1987, preserves the question-and-answer format – observation and discussion – so it is somewhat more digressive than the first section, but perhaps more engaging. Its heart beats faster. In many ways it may seem less exciting but it is more experienced, less promising but more polished, yet not having been there I cannot comment on how well it represents the occasions themselves. I would say that they do show a leader who is probing, more deeply than formerly, the content of the Work, perhaps because the members of the group are able to absorb more than they did formerly.
The book ends with a selection of aphorisms. Here are some of the book’s aphoristic expressions or pensées, most of them taken from the text itself and not from the selection devoted to them:
* “Our search is not for miraculous results, not to achieve a result, but to learn a process.”
* “My body knows what it wants, not what I want. I must teach all of my parts what I want.”
* “My Gurdjieff said, ‘I don’t bring you a system of morality, but how to find conscience.’ We must find the outlines of a structure that is more valid.”
* “Only when I have a certain level of being can I be open to a certain level of knowledge.”
* “I remember Mr. Orage saying, ‘I love you,’ said the man. ‘Strange that I feel none the better for it,’ said the woman.”
Readers of the book today may find the presentations of procedures of “the work” and the attitudes that are described in these pages less engaging than did listeners at the time. Some of the passages are more than a half century old; others have aged by at least a quarter century. Much water has passed under the bridge since then, and truisms and oral teaching techniques that were once novel are now found in best-selling books and courses on the human potential movement, leadership training, self-motivation, cognitive therapies, mindfulness training, and on the TED Lectures on the Web. Many of the formulations are indebted to Mr. Gurdjieff, who gave gifts of insight to the world, few of them acknowledged. Nevertheless, here are some of Mrs. Welch’s formulations that struck me as still valid, informative, or interesting:
* We want to go on repeating what belongs to another period. “Mr. Gurdjieff said that he wasn’t interested in anyone over five or under fifty-five.”
* “Gurdjiefff said one third of one’s life should be spent in pondering. Why was I born? Who am I? What is meant by waking sleep?” [This statement comes from the second section. I recall no earlier instances of the use of the word “pondering” in the earlier period, or any references to the importance of “sittings,” now staples of the de Saltzmann period.]
* “To me it is such an extraordinary thing that a Way exists in which one does not have to leave one’s life.”
* “In Movements we have enormous help. We have a taste of what it means to be close to attention.”
* “We are all members of the human race in a bigger way. All this is common to us. If you see this enough you can’t even hate Hitler. He was just a biological mutation of the wrong sort.”
* “When I first went to Mr. Gurdjieff’s apartment, I couldn’t bear the thought of where he was living. After I was there for ten minutes it was the whole world.”
* “Madame Ouspensky said we always have time for a love affair. This is the human condition.”
* “Mind is the greatest thing we have – excuse me, we do not have it. It is there. How do we find access to it?”
* “If wish doesn’t exist, the wish to wish does exist.”
I will end this appreciation of “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto” with one oft-repeated remark of Mrs. Welch’s. It is a favourite of mine and I distinctly recall her uttering it on at least two occasions.
She said, “Your aim is to find your aim.”
John Robert Colombo is a prolific author and anthologist with a special interest in offbeat Canadiana and traditional studies. His latest publication is the Foreword to Paul Beekman Taylor’s book “The Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff” (Eureka Editions). Colombo was recently honoured as one of the “100 Graduates of Influence” of his alma mater, University College, University of Toronto. He holds the Harbourfront Literary Award, an honorary D.Litt. From York University in Toronto, and Bulgaria’s Order of Cyril and Methodius (first class). His website is . If you wish to be informed of forthcoming reviews and commentaries on this website, send him an email. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
Gurdjieff: drawn from life by Kiril Zdanevich in 1920 (*see note below)
Real Worlds of G.I.Gurdjieff”n
ins, “About nine months ago.” That one should be retained.n
About nine months ago, out of the blue, I received an email from Paul Beekman Taylor. It came as a surprise because I had never met the scholar and historian of the Work, although in the past I had reviewed a number of his books for this website. In his email Dr. Taylor mentioned that he was completing another book and hence he was writing to inquire whether or not I would consider contributing a Foreword to the work-in-progress.
I was, frankly, flattered, as I have long appreciated the man’s knowledge, grasp, and approach to the history of the Work. One learns much from reading his prose. But why me? (I have not been able to answer that question. Some of us are lucky, I guess!) I replied in a positive way and asked to see a few of the chapters of the book. I read them as soon as they arrived, I responded with some editorial reactions, and I agreed to contribute a biographical foreword, as long as the author felt he was free to accept or reject the text or suggest modifications.
Here is that foreword. There were no modifications. I hope it helps to draw readers not only to Dr. Taylor’s current book and also to his past publications. As I write, “Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff: Chapters in the Life of a Master” is about to be issued by Siebold and Patricia Tromp-Guégan, proprietors of Eureka Editions, an ambitious publishing house with an interesting history based in Utrecht.
Foreword / John Robert Colombo
This book is about G.I. Gurdjieff. But this foreword is about Paul Beekman Taylor.
In common with the majority of the readers of this book, I have yet to meet its author, if only because he lives and works in Geneva and I live and work in Toronto. Even thought we have not enjoyed a face-to-face meeting, that does not mean that we do not see eye-to-eye. I think we do see eye-to-eye, though he might have some qualms when I resort to the use of a tried-but-true phrase to characterize him. That phrase is “a scholar and a gentleman.”
Paul Beekman Taylor is certainly a scholar; there is no questioning that. He is a scholar in a number of fields, in addition to his role as a student and chronicler of the life and work of G.I. Gurdjieff. But let me make a few general points before considering the scholarship and the gentlemanly nature of the man.
If I may generalize, readers of this book will be people who belong to one or two groups. One group consists of people who know next to nothing about what has been variously called the “special doctrine,” the “system,” the “Fourth Way,” “the work,” or more explicitly “the Gurdjieff work.” The other group consists of people who are widely and perhaps even deeply read in the “literature” of the work; they may even be members of groups or centres that put into practice its principles. In my own mind, I dub any member of the first group a cheechako or “tenderfoot,” and any member of the second group a sourdough or “old hand.” Here I am employing words that were popular during the Yukon Gold Rush of 1898, words that were popularized in the ballads of the “Bard of the Yukon,” Robert W. Service. What the cheechako and the sourdour have in common is that each person has been drawn to the work by its enchanting features or driven to the work by the disenchanting features of man and his world.
Both the “tenderfoot” and the “old hand” will find in the pages of this book fascinating information, little if any of it of public knowledge. It is information that will expand one’s understanding of the everyday life of Mr. G., and extend one’s sympathy for this enigmatic man and the problems he faced on a daily basis. No reader will reach the last pages of this book without evincing an admiration of the man and his mission … the work of self-styled “Teacher of Dancing.”
Every reader will then begin to ask for more information about “the scholar and the gentleman” who wrote this study of Mr. G.’s life and times. Some biographical and bibliographical information about Paul Beekman Taylor should certainly help the reader to appreciate the unique qualifications of its author and how it seems he has been “tailor-made” to research and write this book. Here goes ….
Taylor was born in London, England, on 31 December 1930. He describes the unusual nature of his upbringing in one of these chapters much better than could anyone else. His childhood in Mr. G.’s extended family is indeed a remarkable biographical fact. In brief, he was raised by a lively mother within an enchanted circle of men and women involved in the work and somewhat later he was raised by a leader of the work in the United States.
He earned his bachelor’s degree from Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, in 1954; his master’s from Wesleyan University, Middleton, Connecticut, in 1958; and his doctorate from Brown again in 1961. Among his many academic honours is the fact that he has served as a Fulbright Scholar and a Fulbright Lecturer. Thereafter he taught in Departments of English at Brown University, University of New Mexico, and Yale University, as well as at universities in Oslo, Ireland, Tel Aviv, Lausanne, Fribourg, Zürich. He is now an Emeritus Professor of the University of Geneva and retired from teaching but not from searching and writing. He has been thrice married and has seven children. People whom I respect speak very highly of him; indeed, with considerable respect for his personal qualities as well as for his scholarship. He is truly a gentleman.
In academic life, Professor Taylor’s speciality is Old Norse; indeed, his 1963 doctoral dissertation bears the title Old Norse Heroic Poetry. Among his many scholar papers and book-length works are three volumes of translations from the Old Norse which he undertook with the great poet W.H. Auden. In addition to Old Norse, he is a specialist in both Old English and Middle English; he has also taught courses on modern American literature and Chicano writing.
Taylor has contributed mightily to “the Gurdjieff field.” He is one of the founding members of the All & Everything International Humanities Conference, a group of independent scholars and thinkers who have been meeting annually in various cities since 1996. He has researched and written six studies of interesting and important aspects of the work:
* Shadows of Heaven: Gurdjieff and Toomer (Weiser Books, 1998)ohn
* Gurdjieff and Orage: Brothers in Elysium (Weiser Books, 2001)
* Gurdjieff’s America: Mediating the Miraculous (Lighthouse Editions, 2004) reissued as Gurdjieff’s Invention of America (Eureka Editions, 2007)
* The Philosophy of G. I. Gurdjieff (Eureka Editions, 2007)
* G.I. Gurdjieff: A New Life (Eureka Editions, 2008)ohn
* Gurdjieff in the Public Eye 1914-1949 (Eureka Editions, 2011)
His biography of Gurdjieff takes its place alongside James Moore’s classic Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth (Element Books, 1991). Gurdjieff’s Invention of America is the product of prodigious scholarship. If The Philosophy of G.I. Gurdjieff is a little diffuse, Gurdjieff in the Public Eye is right on the ball! There is no real precedent for the present book, Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff , which consists of the discoveries made following a lifetime of immersion in the work and a half-century of research conducted with primary materials in private hands and public institutions, as well as with the ever-expanding “literature” of the work. The literature is vast for it embraces a multitude of books (patiently annotated by J. Walter Driscoll) and published and unpublished memoirs in the languages of Eastern and Western Europe and the anglophonie. In the process of researching and writing the present book, which is essentially a collection of essay-length studies, he has revealed most surprising and interesting aspects of the social and personal life of Mr. G.
For instance, new light is shed on members of his family in the Caucasus and on his meetings with members of the artistic community in Paris, creative people like Ezra Pound and Lincoln Kirstein. Then passages are quoted from the transcripts of secret intelligent reports from the dossiers the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. (These are eye openers!) How was Beelzebub’s Tales written? How was its publication financed? Is there a ur text in Russian? The answers appear here in more detail than ever before. Unexpected light is shed on the man’s deep love of children and the way he would tweak them to remember him, his message, and themselves. This relationship resonates with the author – and by extension with the reader – because in his childhood he benefited from the largesse of Mr. G. I could go on. The final chapter is remarkable for its insight into the life that Mr. G. kept secret, and the insight into why he did so. All in all, this is a remarkable book for cheechako and sourdough alike. It gives everyone the flavour of the man and his times.
I have no idea where Paul will next “strike” … what part or aspect of the work that he will stake out in order to unearth its termas, its buried treasures. But from the correspondence that we have intermittently conducted, I am led to believe that future forays will take him into archives and personal records that will bring to light further hitherto hidden material – on Gurdjieff’s Caucasian roots, specifically the connection with the Mercourov family in Armenia and Russia, on the Russian years in general, and on the man’s role as a “Teacher of Dancing.”
I look forward to rereading the present work, now that it is appearing in print, and to reading forthcoming essays and books written by Paul Beekman Taylor … in the same way that I look forward to meeting the scholar and the gentleman in person.
Note from SW:
the info captioning the image of the cover came from the book’s author Paul Beekman Taylor via John Robert Colombo.
There is a also a wiki page about Kiril’s older brother:
and an article by Jennifer Walker in the online Artes Magazine- click on link below
‘The Forgotten Modernists: In Search of Georgia’s Avant-Garde’, which establishes cultural links between Russia, Tiflis and Paris, and where you can read more about Kirill’s life as an artist.
John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist with a special interest in Canadiana, the mysterious, and Sax Rohmer. His latest books are “Jeepers Creepers” (a collection of accounts of psychical experiences) and “Fascinating Canada” (discussions of little-known facts about a very-big country). Earlier this year he was honoured by his alma mater, University College, University of Toronto, as one of “University College’s 100 Graduates of Influence.”
2. The Real Question
I will assume that the reader has access to John Robert Colombo’s review of this book at https://gurdjieffbooks.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/was-lord-pentland-an-eminent-gurdjieffian/
This will save me going through the preliminaries. To a significant extent, I am in agreement with JR’s review. But I do think that the most important point a critic can make about this book is that it is not actually a biography of Lord Pentland in the sense that the genre of biography has been known in English letters: it is, rather, a polemic which takes Pentland as its chief but not its sole target. It is as if Pentland is merely a convenient, and – for Moore – an agreeable because a disdained target.
That the book is a polemic shows itself in two ways: its coverage of Pentland’s achievement is minimal to the point of mockery, and its coverage of other targets is overplayed. Thus, Moore also takes aim at what Pentland’s father, the social class to which he belonged, the Britain in which Pentland flourished, and P.D. Ouspensky. Moore sometimes takes aim at Jeanne de Salzmann and through her and Pentland, what is now clumsily known as the “International Association of the Gurdjieff Foundations”.
The title is, of course, pretentious, referring as it does to Lytton Strachey’s minor classic. But then, the author named his autobiography Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered. I doubt that he would see any pretence at all. Moore’s writing continues its steady decline. In my view, Gurdjieff and Mansfield was the best written of his books. Each succeeding volume sees further adventures in grandiloquence to the point where, in this book, Moore’s prose positively obscures his meaning as much as it reveals it. For example, speaking of the “Dunkirk Spirit”, Moore remarks: “By just such a rare and free flowing energy the aridities of Ouspensky’s scholasticism might have been irrigated. But they were not.” (p.53). What does this mean? We can see that he dislikes Ouspensky’s “scholasticism”, but he does not explain what the stated “aridities” are, or how they could have been “irrigated” by the spirit of Dunkirk. The dry four word sentence “But they were not”, seems to suggest that there was some fault of Ouspensky’s part, or that of someone else. However, as so often in this book, Moore does not condescend to explain his meaning, the basis for his opinion, or what his sources were.
Consider this line: “Here as elsewhere Pentland is litmus paper shy of turning red or blue”, (63). I do not know what he means in this context. I know what litmus paper is, and I know what shy means, but what is he saying? Moore aims for effect to the point of losing sight of why one writes.
One of Moore’s techniques in this book is to assume an omniscient voice, a manner of proceeding which allows him to criticise and condemn without needing to do more than demand that we accept his conclusions. Moore has researched many details of the world in which Pentland lived, but how can he possibly know that when he took his seat as President of the Cambridge Union, Pentland had “a sense almost of swooning vertigo”? (32) Does Moore have access to a diary or letter, and if so, why not mention it? Or is it all as much a fiction as the awkward talk between father and son which he invents?
“History’s access to their verbatim conversation is decently barred by the study door” (15) Moore speaks here, as often, as if he were the voice of history, and the tone supports him when he adds: “Yet this caveat does not entirely forbid the authorial imagination an intelligent extrapolation from circumstantial evidence. Like most fathers His Lordship hardly knew how to begin.” Where is the intelligence here? What are the pieces of evidence he uses? Maybe if we knew the facts, we would find that Pentland’s father was different from how Moore imagines him. All I can see here is the operation of thoroughgoing prejudice, and that is a very different thing.
Similarly, in speaking of Franklin Farms, he mocks how “Society women with compressed lips earnestly bottling peas and beans were in a profounder sense, bottling spiritual merit.” (67). How does he know what their attitude was? Were they really so self-righteous as that? Maybe the women would have surprised him. But by filling this slim volume with “intelligent extrapolations”, and speaking as if all-knowing, Moore creates a consistent picture of pretentious and deluded wealthy folks, and then pleads its very consistency in aid of its veracity. This is not valid biography, and is cheap even as polemic.
It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the book is primed with irrelevancies which create an illusion of research, while bare of many matters which are far more important. For example, we learn that tickets to the premier of Gone with the Wind were hard to procure (51), but Moore does even try to tell us in what Pentland’s approach to the Gurdjieff teaching and methodology consisted. Yet, after the publication of Exchanges Within and several of his talks, this would have been as easy as it is desirable.
Again, Moore tells us that at one time a certain piece of news “would have imparted to Pentland’s stiff mind and body the artificial agility bestowed on a dead frog’s hind-quarters when juxtaposed to an electric coil …” (72). It is ponderously written, and not, to my mind, at all witty. But more profoundly, Moore assumes and has assumed all throughout that Pentland had a “stiff” mind”.
Moore is content to construct a paper tiger and ignore, in the published group meetings, what made Pentland the teacher he was – whatever type of teacher that may have been.
It is necessary to state that I am sure that Moore has a certain point: but he does not demonstrate it. I remember that in several meetings with “senior” people from the New York Foundation, they would gently push you into agreeing with them: it was obscene, the number of times one woman in particular would put words into people’s mouths by asking, “Wouldn’t you say …?” I had a sense, even then, that she was imitating, and my guess was that she was imitating Pentland.
I recall one chap who had met Pentland would come quote statements such as: “Don’t write that down! Remember it! Lord Pentland said: Why do we write? We write it order to forget!” How absurd. We don’t write in order to forget, but so that if we do forget, as experience shows us we often do, we will have a record. When I was in New York, about eight years after Pentland’s death, I was with Jim Wyckoff’s group. We had to remove all the items from a series of cupboards. I started to make a sketch of what was where. They got stuck into me: that was not the Work! I had to remember not use a crutch. They would remember. And so on. They really made a point out of it: they were unctuous and self-righteous.
But when, a week later, they had to restore the items, they were searching high and low for the sketch. Not one said a word to me. I started to form the opinion then that Wyckoff was a New York hippie, and before he died, I informed him that I no longer wished to “work” with him. I am gratified that to remember that I did. Because, like Pentland, he was an authority figure. But to give Pentland his due, Pentland could run a business and did establish the Foundation on the West Coast.
Still, the picture of the NY Foundation I then formed, as conceited while operating at a level lower than ordinary life, does seem to go back to Pentland. But I also felt that there was more than just that to Pentland. And I feel that the X quality which Moore has missed must have been something to do with the presence of Lord Pentland. Only by appealing to the presence of Lord Pentland can I explain why the text of Exchanges Within, which seems to me to be good but not excellent, sends those who knew him into raptures: they make a connection to what they experienced when they met him
Interestingly, Mr Adie did not consider Pentland to be anything but formidable. He did say that Pentland would go all cryptic and mystificatory or change the topic when he did not know something or felt inadequate. He also said that Pentland could play a double game, and for reasons I won’t go into now, I think that Adie may well have been right. I think that Pentland did relish the idea of taking over the Adie group in Australia, but – probably on instructions from Jeanne de Salzmann – was content to wait until Adie would die. And to give them credit, the strategy did work, but by the time it bore fruit, the groups had reduced from well over a hundred and forty persons to about a third of that number.
I should also note here that there are some very interesting stories of Pentland being bested by Mrs Staveley in verbal duels. Once he asked her, in front of others, to give an impromptu talk on the importance of obedience. It was obvious to those present that his point was that she was disobedient to either Jeanne de Salzmann or himself or both. She turned the tables on him: “Yes, obedience is important. But obedience to what?” Discomfited, he changed the topic.
So it should be obvious that I have no problem with a book which is critical of Pentland and the Foundation: but it needs reasons and grounds. This book is filled with tricks: “How far away, suddenly, seemed the hors d’oeuvre table at Claridges,” (73). Moore had referred to Claridges a little earlier, but it had nothing to do with this section, and neither is there any reason to think that anyone thought of Claridges, wistfully or otherwise. It is just a way of inserting a supposedly clever line and making Pentland look like an upper class twit. Similarly, and there are other examples, Moore mentions that pencil sharpeners were made scarce in England during the war, and then speaks of Pentland going to the USA where “the staff were … never short of … pencil sharpeners,” (62). Is that humorous? Does it have a point? It was Moore, not Pentland, who cared about such matters.
I could continue like this, but in the end, the very cynicism of Moore’s approach takes me to what I consider to be the real question.
2. The Real Question
The real question, to my mind, is about the Gurdjieff Work. If Pentland – the leader of the Foundation in the USA – was indeed, as Moore paints him, then what is the point of the Gurdjieff Work?
See related posts:
Andrew Rawlinson’s review of this book
John Robert Colombo’s reviews this at: https://gurdjieffbooks.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/was-lord-pentland-an-eminent-gurdjieffian/
he reviews Ashala Gabriel’s Remembering Lord Pentland
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.
Remembering Lord Pentland
Not too long ago there was an uproar over James Moore’s biography of Lord Pentland, with Moore expressing exasperation with the man he had met on one or two occasions, and with readers (and non-readers) of his biography who rushed to the defence of the man who was their teacher. For those who missed the catcalls and the catfight, here is some background information.
Henry John Sinclair (1907-1984), 2nd Baron Pentland, was appointed by G.I. Gurdjieff to lead the Work in North America. He became the first head of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York, leading that centre from its establishment in 1953 to the time of his death. As well, he oversaw the founding of the Gurdjieff organization in San Francisco, and over the decades he addressed countless study groups and met innumerable students throughout the United States. I am not aware that he ever ventured across the Canadian border.
He was said to be selfless in his devotion to the Work. A rule of thumb – my thumb – is that those people who knew the Baron personally, whether colleagues or students, were quite attached to the man and most protective of him – he does look frail in photographs, almost cadaverous – whereas those who knew him impersonally or peripherally, or not at all, were less disposed to be appreciative or even generous about him and the role he played.
A wake-up call was James Moore’s book “Eminent Gurdjieffians: Lord Pentland” which gave the man and the leader no quarter. I reviewed this stylishly written biography upon publication for this website, and it remains the sole biographical inquiry of any length devoted to the man and his work. On another occasion I summarized some of Lord Pentland’s published talks. I will not repeat here what I wrote there. I think readers may view the present publication “Remembering: Being with My Teacher” as an attempt to re-right the wrong, to re-balance of scales, to set the record straight, by offering at least one former student’s emotional tribute and appreciation of Lord Pentland at work and at play. On that level the publication succeeds.
Now that Lord Pentland and James Moore have been identified, the only other person to describe is Ashala Gabriel, the author of the publication. She is a woman in her early seventies, who has for many years worked in New York as an independent literary agent, copywriter, and psychic (or mystic, as she prefers). Ms. Gabriel is a graduate of Brown University, with a Master’s degree in TESOL (teaching English as a second language) from Hunter College, and a Doctor of Divinity degree or certificate from The College of Divine Metaphysics.
In 2002, Simon & Schuster published her illustrated book for young children, Night Night Toes. Ms. Gabriel has her own website, HeartReadings, where she writes, “I am a natural mystic. Even in my crib days, I was a frequent flier to far-off worlds – worlds as clear and close as the nose on my face.” (This detail brings to my mind the Ontario-born “natural medium” named Dorothy Maclean who with her “green thumb” grew those giant cabbages at Findhorn in Northern Scotland. In passing, Ms. Maclean’s own volume of memoirs, “To Hear the Angels Sing,” is well worth reading. I think Ms. Gabriel and Ms. Maclean are kindred souls.)
Never before have I heard of anyone who bore the name Ashala, so I checked the website Quick Baby Names where I learned the following bits of information. The website states that the name is a variant of Ashley which was popularized in the movie “Gone with the Wind.” The website continues: “As a baby girl name, Ashala is currently not a popular baby name in the USA.” The website concludes, interesting, that the name describes “a professional woman with good tastes and values, but is quite shy.” Whether or not this is true of the author Ashala Gabriel, I do not know, never having met her. But reading her prose, I do not judge her to be particularly shy, though, yes, she is somewhat tentative and certainly a sensitive woman.
Ms. Gabriel is the author of “Remembering: Being with My Teacher” published by CreateSpace in New York and her book is available through Amazon and Indigo. The trade paperback measures 6″ x 9″ and is 154 pages in length. One unusual feature of the publication is the pagination. Printers customarily reserve the number 1 for the first page, the one on the right. In this publication, the number 1 appears on the left-hand page (which means there should be a page 0)!
The text is set in a sans-serif typeface, though the typeface is generally reserved for headings, as they slow the reader down, lacking as they do readily recognizable serifs, thick and thin shapes, etc. However, the lines are well “leaded,” i.e., spread apart, so each page is quite spacious and easy to read. There are about 40,000 words here, divided into 44 chapters, so each chapter is in extent under 1,000 words long. Each chapter is a self-contained reminiscence which describes an interaction with Lord Pentland (who is referred to as “LP”). The author calls these chapters “stories,” and so does Barbara Wright George who supplies a friendly foreword in the form of a letter in which she notes, rightly, that “these stories” reveal “a teacher in action.”
A curious point about the 44 chapter headings is that they appear in lower case and systematically hyphenated – “the-invisible-cloak,” “unconditional-invitation,” “st.-george-of-the-jigsaw,” “death-and-breath,” etc. This creates a sense of breathlessness which is also characteristic of the text itself, as Ms. Gabriel enjoys hyphenating words, perhaps influenced by the neologisms of “All and Everything.” In one story, she describes how she elaborately packaged some baked goods for Lord Pentland. He observes this and draws this feature to her attention as a teaching lesson: “I was able to take in a strong impression of my tendency to always embellish everything I was asked to do.”
LP is described as “my teacher for all times” and as “a tall, stately, bushy-eyebrowed man” who is always asking “those question-less questions I’d learned to listen for but was rarely in the sort of state I was prepared to hear.” The episodes involving the two of them take place in California and New York State. Some of the encounters are entirely anecdotal, like the one called “elevator-antics.” An elevator operator responds to LP’s question about how life was treating him by saying that life has been taking him “up and down … up and down.”
The chapter “bookmark-re-marks” demonstrates how LP could be very direct in dealing with situations like the one created by the “bookmark people” who were always entering bookstores and inserting their own bookmarks in books by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. He had his followers continue to remove the bookmarks and bring them to him, and in his own handwriting he replaced the printed telephone numbers with his own phone number. “Now, don’t get caught … and don’t let any of the others at the Foundation know what we’re doing.”
The story I liked the most – because it tells us as much about Ms. Gabriel as about LP – is “cans-and-cabs.” It describes how LP set Ms. Gabriel a number of tasks to be completed in record time in downtown Manhattan a few hours before they were ticketed to fly from New York to San Francisco. Suitcases had to be claimed, delivered, etc., and she was ordered to arrive by cab outside the Waldorf Astoria to pick up LP: “Now be exactly on time, and not a minute too early.” The author describes how she conscientiously and breathlessly accomplished all of this, at one point trusting the good will of a New York taxi driver to safeguard a trunk full of reels of films of the Movements. As the cab pulls up with her and the trunk with its valuable consignment, LP descends the hotel’s steps. She had arrived at the hotel precisely on time. “Well done,” LP smiled, rather like the Cheshire cat.
LP’s remarks are hardly quotable but they are thoughtful and hence memorable. When Ms. Gabriel went grocery shopping for a group function, she returned with the exact change from the purchases. LP was pleased. “Always remember, the Work is in the details.”
On other occasions he offered these remarks: “Real doing is on the inside.” “It’s not just what you’re looking at, it’s where you’re looking from.” “Sooner or later you have to decide if you want to be visible or invisible.” He took the long view of life: “Try to look at your life in seven year increments. Then perhaps you’ll be able to see something about the larger patterns behind the events which have occurred.”
On occasion I have found that the first and last words of a book may be used to summarize its theme or content. This is so with the present book. Its first word is “my,” and its last word is “legacy.” Indeed, “Remembering: Being with My Teacher” is the author’s legacy, a tribute to Lord Pentland.
John Robert Colombo, author and anthologist, contributes the occasional book review to this website. He is known across Canada as “the Master Gatherer” for his compilations of lore and literature. He is currently collecting for publication the non-fiction writing of Sax Rohmer (the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu). The text of Colombo’s speech titled “Fantastic Elements in the Fiction of Sax Rohmer” appears on his website < http://www.colombo.ca >>.
DAVID KHERDIAN’S “SEEDS OF LIGHT”
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 < http://www.davidkherdian.com > 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
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. < http://www.colombo.ca >
John Robert Colombo compares and contrasts lectures delivered eighty-four years apart by William James and Carl Sagan.
William James 1842 – 1910)
Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996)
It is safe to say that the Gifford Lectureships are the outstanding series of lectures in their field of study, but it is also safe to say that their field of study is hardly the pre-eminent one that it once was. The series was established by Adam Lord Gifford, a leading jurist in Scotland, with a bequest to four universities to co-sponsor a series of lectures to “promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term – in other words, the knowledge of God.” The lectures have been delivered annually since 1888, with the exception of years during the Second World War. The four universities are those of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews, and Aberdeen.
Many significant books of science and the humanities, including theology, have been based on the texts of these lectures. Recent lectures have been broadcast in part on YouTube. For some time now the Gifford website has been sponsored by the Templeton Fund which tries its level best (without notable success) to reconcile religion and science by directing some of its vast wealth to the men and women and movements who or which try to do so.
The Gifford lecturers are recognized to be the pre-eminent thinkers in their respective fields. The list of the 120 or so speakers includes “household names,” and proof of this is that so many of the speakers are recognized by their last names alone: Arendt, Bohr, Dewey, Frazer, Gilson, Heisenberg, von Hügel, Müller, Murdoch, Niebuhr, Schweitzer, Tillich, Watson, Whitehead, etc.
In that list of “last names,” I did not include James because William James, the philosopher who was a Gifford lecturer, might be confused with his brother Henry James, the novelist who was not. Nor did I include in the high-recognition category the name Sagan, which identifies the celebrated astrophysicist and author Carl Sagan. (I will compare and contrast their contributions in due course.)
It is of passing interest to note that two distinguished Canadian philosophers have lately addressed these Scottish university audiences: Patricia Churchland in 2009 and Charles Taylor in 2010. Churchland is a noted “neurophilosopher” and Taylor is a “communitarian critic” of the modern-day project of liberalism and secularism. I lack the competence to assess Churchland’s many contributions to the nexus of neurology and philosophy, but I find Taylor’s critique of “the secular age” to be suave though largely beside the point.
It is of more-than-passing interest to compare and contrast the Gifford Lectures of William James and Carl Sagan. James delivered his series of talks in 1900-02 in Edinburgh; Sagan delivered his series in Glasgow in 1985. Thus they were heard eighty years apart. The title that James gave his series of lectures is so memorable that once heard it is never forgotten. He called it “Varieties of Religious Experience.” The memorably titled book, a classic in its field, was published in 1902, eight years before his death. The Harvard philosopher and psychologist was a brilliant thinker, a gifted writer, and the co-founder of the theory of Pragmatism. As well, he was the systematizer of his chosen field with “Principles of Psychology” published in 1890.
Carl Sagan bears a famous name for his contributions to the popularization of science, especially astronomy and cosmology, which were featured in his thirteen-part, television series Cosmos in 1980. As well as a distinguished astrophysicist, he served as director of Cornell University’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies. In due course Sagan became a leading spokesperson for “sceptical inquiry.”
His Gifford talks were titled “The Search for Who We Are” but the series was not published under that title but as Varieties of Scientific Experience. Note the substitution of the word “scientific” for the word “religious.” These Gifford lectures were delivered in 1985, Sagan died in 1996, and the book appeared in 2006. The editing, the publication, and perhaps the titling were undertaken by Ann Druyan, the author’s widow and a talented writer and presenter in her own right. In many ways the title is quite appropriate, for it recalls the earlier title of James’s book and it strikes the non-scientific reader that it could be regarded as an updated version of James’s argument, a revisioning of what is essentially a religious-scientific discussion.
James was a psychologist through and through, Sagan an astrophysicist through and through. James peered into the human soul (that is, the innermost nature of man) to find the rationale for the “religious experience.” To accomplish the same end, Sagan peered into the heavens (in the sense of the planets and the galaxies) to find the fundament of the “scientific experience.” One professor explored the depths of man, the other professor the heights of creation. James was a materialist for whom ideas mattered, and the same may be said of Sagan. The fabled “sense of wonder” was common to both men, and they conveyed its excitement when they expatiated on the surprises found in their subjects. James’s book is subtitled “A Study in Human Nature.” Sagan’s book is subtitled “A Personal View of the Search for God” in the same way that his television series Cosmos was subtitled “A Personal Voyage.” What the dual approaches to the mysteries of man’s nature and the nature of the universe is the mind of man.
Much changed in the Western world and its human values between the year 1900 when James delivered his lectures and the year 1985 when Sagan addressed his audience. The term “Natural Theology” fell out of favour and so did the unthinking respect that intellectuals paid to partisan proponents of biblical scholarship. Sagan began his lecture on “The God Hypothesis” with these words:
“The Gifford Lectures are supposed to be on the topic of natural theology. Natural theology has long been understood to mean theological knowledge that can be established by reason and experience and experiment alone. Not by revelation, not by mystical experience, but by reason. And this is, in the long, historical sweep of the human species, a reasonably novel view.”
Sagan found this view laudable, but only up to a point. Thereupon he dismissed all the traditional arguments for the existence of God (or gods) and substituted for them arguments found in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and Darwin’s natural selection, arguments that account for man’s continued and unthinking belief in a hierarchy of unseen deities or dimensions. He did this in a lecture or chapter titled “The God Hypothesis.”
In the early years of the Twentieth Century, psychologists tackled the problems posed by psychical research and this would have delighted James who, after all, had served as president of both the British and the American Societies for Psychical Research. What had been regarded as the study of “abnormal psychological states” came to be considered the study of “anomalous experiences.” One of the most impressive books in the field of psychical research and parapsychological studies is a posthumously published collection of James’s occasional papers on the subject, both abstract and anecdotal, titled William James on Psychical Research, edited by the psychologist Gardner Murphy and the compiler Robert Ballou. James felt that there were “unknowns” in the field, but that they may be destined to remain “forever unknown.”
It is hard to affirm that there has been any progress in the field of Religious Studies (called Comparative Religion or History of Religion) over the last century, certainly none compared with the advances made in science, notably in physics and in astronomy. The physicist’s description of the sub-atomic world went hand-in-hand with the astronomer’s discovery of the expanding universe. James was willing to give spirit-mediums a try, being impressed with the performances of a Mrs. Piper. Sagan dismissed such performances out of hand, instancing the childish and undirected nature of spirit-communication.
In the wake of the Second World War, the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence began to be considered seriously by scientists like Sagan and his colleague Frank Drake (of the famous Drake Equation which quantifies the variables connected with the possible existence right now of other technological civilizations elsewhere in the universe). During the Cold War, Sagan took a leading position in opposition to the Strategic Defence Initiative (Star Wars) and he discussed in harrowing terms the possibility of Nuclear Winter and the extinction of human life on Earth (with the continued existence of some forms of cockroaches and sulphur-eating worms at the bottom of the seas – a fate that casts in the shade the Christian fundamentalists’ Armageddon). All these matters are discussed by Sagan. James would have known about none of this and might well have been horrified by the way societies were behaving in the second half of the Twentieth Century.
“Forever unknown” was not the position taken by Sagan. For a scientist with both speculative and operative capability, he was surprisingly open to dissident theories and wrote remarkable essays, in Broca’s Brain and elsewhere, that examined the fantasies of Velikovsky and the fancies of ufologists. He appreciated the hold that such ideas have on all of us who live on this “pale blue dot” in our “demon-haunted world.” He had little time for spiritualists and self-styled psychics, claiming that spirit-mediums always assured him that “love is important” and never offered proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem!
James delivered twenty lectures which examined the “religious sentiment,” both personal and institutional, in which he introduced the useful division of mankind into those people who are “once-born” and those who are “twice-born.” The former accept things as simple; the latter regard things as complex. He considered sickness and health with respect to optimism and pessimism of the spirit, the notion of conversion, the ideal of saintliness and its uses, the nature of mysticism, the roles played with respect to religion by philosophy and theology, the characteristics of subconsciousness and higher consciousness … I could go on.
In the twentieth lecture, as well as in the unexpectedly personal Postscript, James offered the reader, if not a “summing up,” then a “personal take” on the subject. For instance, he wrote about the scale of the natural world and the universe:
“What we think of may be enormous – the cosmic times and spaces, for example – whereas the inner state may be the most fugitive and paltry activity of mind. Yet the cosmic objects, so far as the experience yields them, are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point at outwardly, while the inner state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one.”
In another instance, he wrote about consciously mediating thought and experience:
“A conscious field PLUS its object as felt or thought of PLUS an attitude towards the object PLUS the sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs – such a concrete bit of personal experience may be a small bit, but it is solid bit as long as it lasts; not hollow, not a mere abstract element of experience, such as the “object” is when taken all alone. It is a FULL fact, even though it be an insignificant fact …. “
James concluded with a distinction between “under-belief” and “over-belief,” whereby thoughtful people either minimized or maximized the relevance and importance of their own opinions and sentiments. He then shared with the reader his own “over-belief”:
“The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our lives also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in. By being faithful in my own poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true.”
James justified his optimism and his “over-belief” on the basis that it kept him “more sane and true.” He even named it “the faith-state.” I found myself wondering if Carl Sagan would recognize the claim. After reading “Varieties of Scientific Experience,” I came to the conclusion that Sagan would never have embrace the notion of “over-belief” or “the faith-state.” Instead, he would have espoused the spirit of sceptical, rational, and scientific inquiry. He was assuredly responsive to the spell of mystery and the allure of the unknown, but he staked his claim on the scientific endeavour which is self-correcting and self-affirming.
In his eyes, the sciences and especially the exploration of interplanetary and intergalactic space are stepping-stones towards the goal of the “deprovincializing” of the world’s population through sharing the insights of the biologist into changes over time and the visions of the astronomer across the immensity of space. He does not discuss “worlds of consciousness” but he does find other worlds – in our solar system, our galaxy, and our cosmos. Civilizations vastly in advance of our own may offer mankind precious knowledge, “god-like” levels of knowledge. If such civilizations do not exist (we the living are unlikely ever to know) the human race is all the more precious for its uniqueness. Sagan’s universe is humbling and ennobling: Earth may be a “pale blue dot,” but it is one of “billions and billions” of such dots in the cosmos – an astonishing vision to contrast with James’s probing but humbling question, “What is human life’s chief concern?” If Sagan asked a question it would be, “What is the point of the cosmos?”
To bring to an end this comparison and contrast of the twin approaches to religion and science, disciplines that share so much because both have a human origin, I assumed I would seek out and quote parallel passages from each speaker’s lecture. But the passages did not come so readily to hand. Instead, I will conclude with a recollection of the insightful words of Sigmund Freud. The words comprise the last two sentences of the psychoanalyst’s provocative study of religion called “The Future of an Illusion.” Here are those sentences:
“No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.”
John Robert Colombo, based in Toronto, is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. He is currently compiling “The Canadian Adventures of Jules Verne” (texts of the seven extraordinary-adventure novels that the French writer set amid the forests and tundra of Canada) and is busy introducing “The Crime Magnet” (sixteen hitherto uncollected short mystery stories written by Sax Rohmer, the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu). < http://www.colombo.ca >
More about John Robert can be found at Jon Lomberg’s blog which gives info about their work together on another Sagan project: the DVD Visions of Mars, an anthology of science fiction about Mars, now aboard NASA’s Phoenix lander, somewhere in Mars arctic tundra, awaiting a readership of future Mars colonists from Earth centuries from now, read more at: www.citizenofthegalaxy.com
Alan Dundes’ “Holy Writ as Oral Lit” & “Fables of the Ancients?” + “Music of the Prieuré” played by Rosemary Nott
JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO PAGE
One of my intellectual mentors was the late Edith Fowke. Her name is unlikely to be recognized outside the country, but within Canada it is not only recognized but well respected. (Her name is what is called “an aptonym,” for “Fowke” is close to “folk,” so that anyone hearing it for the first time would automatically equates the woman with the discipline – and rightly so: Edith Fowke, folklorist.) In her later years she served as the country’s leading folklorist, for she devoted the second half of her professional life to recording, collecting, documenting, and publishing folk songs and traditional tales, including myths and legends, notably Native ones – Inuit and Indian.
Edith encouraged me to compile, annotate, and publish collections of Canadian “trivia” on the principle that “one man’s trivia is another man’s treasure.” She was not prolific but she was precise and passionate. The first half of her life was spent as a political and social activist who espoused the cause of organized labour and democratic socialism. An argument with the Lewises – David and his son Stephen – who dominated the national socialist party for two generations – led her to her seek new fields of endeavour, and to train and then work as a folklorist. She was no stranger to national radio broadcasting, and she ultimately joined the Humanities Division of York University in Toronto where she taught the folklore subjects. Upset by the direction the Lewis’s were taking the CCF/NDP, she had decided that if she could not influence our future, she could reveal the shape of our past.
She was a little woman who always wore pink – coats, jackets, blouses, scarves, trousers, skirts – and her favourite hymn was Blake’s “Jerusalem.” I had the honour to lead the hundred or so mourners and colleagues in singing Parry’s version of that visionary anthem at the “celebration of her life” held at York University in Toronto. She died suddenly on March 18, 1996, at the age of eighty-three, but nobody who ever met her ever really forgot her.
Alan Dundes (photo Saaxon Donnelly)
I always remembered Edith’s enthusiasm for the work of the late Alan Dundes. He was a Professor of Anthropology and Folklore at the University of California, Berkeley, and until his death in 2005 at the age of seventy-one, he brought to wide public attention the cultural and psychological insights brought about by his study of “folkloristics.” He saw the discipline as one that shed light on the customs of the past and the present, but also on cultural lore and human psychology and behaviour. He caused a stir when he wrote at length about the homoerotics of American football. He did more than anyone to familiarize the North American public with the prevalence of “urban legends” so that the Vanishing Hitchhiker, the Cat in the Microwave, and the Wife on the Flight are recognized for the fabrications that they are. He argued that repeating them expressed deep-seated human needs. He published a half-dozen collections of these legends, with amusing and informed commentaries.
Readers of this web-blog will probably be interested in the themes of two of Dundes’ lesser-known books. It was Edith’s delight in Dundes’ work in general that drew me to seek out his writings and these related studies in particular. They are of concern to people who have a curiosity about the construction and constitution of world’s Holy Scriptures. The two books are available in trade paperback editions published by a lesser-known imprint: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (The company, with offices in Maryland and Oxford, has a website.) The books have quite arresting titles.
The first book is called “Holy Writ as Oral Lit” (1999) and the second is called “Fables of the Ancients?” (2003). While I usually like to paraphrase the contents of the books that I review for this website, here I will merely summarize the author’s arguments and suggest their importance. Then I will turn my attention to a newly published item that is of direct interest to the readers of this web-blog.
The subtitle of “Holy Writ as Oral Lit” is simplicity itself – “The Bible as Folklore.” Dundes argues that the Bible – by which he means the King James Version, but his approach applies to any translation or version of the Old and New Testaments – contains an immense amount of what he calls “folklore,” perhaps 20 percent by his estimate. In under 130 pages he reviews this “lore” in scripture and in very clearly, scholarly prose he notes the presence of the hallmarks of folklore – multiplicity and variety – that are characteristics of the Bible.
The biblical accounts are retellings of oral tales and the retellings differ in predictable ways. Yet far from being proof that the Bible is riddled with falsehoods, its nature attests to the value of the book as a record of the beliefs of the ancient Israelites and the early Christians, and it alludes to the problems that the texts present to scribes and scholiasts and redacteurs who have tried repeatedly to preserve them and then interpret them.
Dundas looks at how it is impossible to reconcile internal textual repetitions and variations in terms of number, name, and sequence. As well, there is duplication of texts in the various books of the Bible. Sequences of action are inconsistent. There is no agreed-upon text of the Ten Commandments, the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the names of the Twelve Disciples, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount … I could go on.
What had long puzzled me was the Creation myth described in Genesis. Which came first, “the heaven and the earth” or “the earth and the heavens”? The answer depends on whether one prioritizes or privileges (to use vogue phrases) Genesis 1:1 or Genesis 2:4. And why is the word “heaven” in the singular when it next appears as “heavens” in the plural? Dundes offers almost one hundred instances of such “confusions.” It is enough to give pause to the reader of “the Bible as living literature,” and it should cause conniptions for the “true believer” who holds to the theory of “the inerrancy” of the Holy Scripture. Biblical scholars, whether rabbis or priests, have evolved ways around these problems. Yet to Dundes, such concerns are proof that the Bible is a human document and a tribute to “the voice of the people” (to use an expression that he himself eschews). He concludes with the statement that the Bible may well be “the greatest book in the world,” but “it is truly folklore, and it is high time that it is recognized as such.”
“Fables of the Ancients?” is in many ways a more amazing study. At 90 pages it is a succinct study of (in the words of its subtitle) “Folklore in the ‘Qur’an.’” Dundes recalls that when he announced to his colleagues at the University of California that he was planning to continue his study of folklore in Holy Scripture by extending his analyses from the Bible to the “Qur’an,” he was warned that what he was undertaking might be dangerous to life, limb, and career. He was not deterred. “I soon discovered that there seemed to be many ‘formulas’ as well as several traditional stories, stories that were not simply retellings of narratives found in the Bible. To my knowledge, no folklorist has ever discussed the presence of both formulas and folktales in the ‘Qur’an.’” So Dundes is the first such commentator.
So far he seems to be the last, as well. No one has followed in his footsteps, though he does make this easy by pointing out that, unlike the Bible, which is recognized to be “the word of God” as vouchsafed to man, the “Qur’an” is considered to be the actual words of Allah orally transmitted by the Archangel Gabriel to Muhammed the Prophet. So the “Qur’an” is 100 percent folklore. It is admittedly an oral composition and one that is rich in tell-tale oral formulas and folktales. Dundes goes to great length to document these. Given more space (and time), I would identify these and discuss them. Dundes sidesteps the issue of the unusual origin of the “Qur’an,” content to comment on its oral rather than its linear construction.
The title of the book, complete with its question-mark, comes from the “Qur’an” itself. In Surah 6:25, unbelievers are quoted as dismissing the book with these words: “This is nothing but fables of the ancients.” Surah 8:31 repeats the formula: “Whenever Our revelations are recited to them, they say: ‘We have heard them. If we wished, we could say the like. They are but fables of the ancients.’” Dundes states that, given the oral nature of the “Qur’an,” it is inevitably replete with tale-types like The Seven Sleepers, Judgement of Solomon, and God’s Justice Vindicated. So the question-mark is supererogatory. He concludes: “In the ‘Qur’an there are indeed ‘fables of the ancients’ placed there by divine decree, full of worldly wisdom to be favoured and savoured for generations to come.”
The investigations of Alan Dundes would have met with the approval of Edith Fowke and of everyone else who has any experience with the composition and characteristics of the lore of the people. Indeed, it is probably a demonstrable fact that elements of folklore may be found in all literary works of any great length, from Greek epic poems to those lengthy compositions of our own day. The Modern period witnessed the composition of some very lengthy works of a sub-literary and supra-literary nature, including James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,” Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History,” Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West,” and G.I. Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales.” It would be rewarding to undertake a study of works like these from the perspective of folkloristics.
Movements: ( no date given)
Try as I might, I cannot contrive the ideal segue from these two books, written by Dundes, to the third item, a recently issued one, that has no known author but which I now want to discuss. (Come to think of it, Edith Fowke would have enjoyed it as well!) For one thing, the new work is both a booklet and a compact disk. For another, it more a souvenir of a place and period in time than it is an analysis of a powerful text studded with oral formulas, story-motifs, and story-types. The “book” to be discussed is titled “Music of the Prieuré” and it is credited to “Gurdjieff / de Hartmann” with Rosemary Nott at the piano.
The publisher is Dolmen Meadow Editions of Toronto, and the editors of Dolmen Meadow are to be congratulated for having overseen the production of an attractive, sepia-coloured “package.” It consists of one slipcase, one CD (released with the permission of Adam Nott), and one 16-page booklet (not in sepia), the text of which appears in English, French, and Spanish. The text explains what the “package” is all about.
It is a tribute to Rosemary Nott and it is a tribute from Mrs. Nott, who has been described as Gurdjieff’s “first American student.” Born in Houston, Texas, she studied the Eurhythmics of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze in Hellerau in 1922 when she first met Gurdjieff. She was a pianist and dancer in her own right. At the Prieuré, under Gurdjieff’s direction, she taught Movements, and there she had Thomas de Hartmann to guide her piano technique. Thereafter she performed the compositions she knew so well for groups in centres on both sides of the Atlantic. She died at the age of eighty-two in 1979 in London, England. She is well-loved for her dedication to the work.
Mrs. Nott recorded the “music of the Prieuré” on reel-to-reel tapes on a monaural studio recorder in London in 1974-75, and performances were “selected, digitized, and prepared for publication” by the well-known conductor and pianist Charles Ketcham, who himself has arranged and played the complete Gurdjieff-de Hartmann piano music. Illustrations to the package come from the collection of Gert-Jan Blom of Amsterdam and Mrs. Nott’s son Adam Nott.
There are twenty compositions on the CD disk and some of them have intriguing names. I have in mind “Orthodox Hymn from Asia Minor,” “The Sacred Goose,” “Lost Loves,” and “The Pythia.” With only a few years of piano practice and theory behind me, I would be hard-pressed to comment knowingly on the performances of these compositions, some of which are lodged in memory, others of which are strangers to my ears. Yet I was struck by the intentionality of the playing. “The Fall of the Priestess” and “The Great Prayer” are instances of this. Some tracks convey the impression of the loneliness of the pianist; other tracks transmit the sense of the company of other musicians. All the compositions sound alive yet ancient, or ancient yet alive.
The words “music of the Prieuré” were well chosen for they constitute a neat conceit (in the literary sense of the word). The next best thing to haunting the halls of Le Prieuré des Basses Loges at Fontainebleau-Avon is being overtaken by the airs, themes, and strains of Mrs. Nott’s piano.
John Robert Colombo is known across Canada as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of the lore and literature of the country. His current books include “Fascinating Canada” (a book of questions and answers) and “Jeepers Creepers” (a collection of told-as-true ghost stories). He has also published three volumes devoted to the life, work, and writings of Denis Saurat (who also “met Gurdjieff” and is discussed in “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye”). Colombo’s website is < http://www.colombo.ca >.