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APPROACHING INNER WORK: Opie’s study of Michael Currer-Briggs

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John Robert Colombo Reviews James Opie’s biographical study of Michael Currer-Briggs and the Gurdjieff Teaching

  Some books may be described in a relatively straight-forward fashion. Other books, not so easily summarized, require much foreground and background information before they may be appreciated at all. “Approaching Inner Work” falls into the latter category. It requires information up front. But before providing that information, permit me to describe the physical appearance of the book itself.

A handsome publication, “Approaching Inner Work” bears the subtitle “Michael Currer-Briggs on the Gurdjieff Teaching.” Its author, James Opie, is a long-time student of the Work. The publisher is Gurdjieff Books & Music, an imprint and a distributor for Work-related materials. It is located in Portland and operated by the Gurdjieff Foundation of Oregon. The website is < info@gurdjeiffbooksand >. The trade paperback measures 5 inches wide by 7.5 inches high, and it has xii +148 pages. The ISBN is 978-0-615-47529-5. The text consists of thirty-eight short chapters of commentary and interview, followed by an Appendix and an Acknowledgments. If I may risk a pun, this volume “speaks volumes.”

 So much for the easy part. Now for the detailed part! First, the Author. Second, the Subject. Third, the Book.

The Author: James Opie

  The “Opie” name is a respected one in literary circles, especially for the contributions of the well-loved, husband-and-wife team of English folklorists, Peter and Iona Opie. But the Opies are (as “Time Magazine” used to say) “no kin” to James Opie who describes himself as “a merchant and writer.” He was born in Sandusky, Ohio, in 1939, and is a graduate of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

Despite his birthplace and residence in Portland, Oregon, he has become a recognized authority on Persian tribal rugs and the origin of tribal rug motifs – both of which sound like demanding undertakings! His two books in the field are “Tribal Rugs of Southern Persia” (1982) and “Tribal Rugs: Nomadic and Village Weavings of the Near East and Central Asia” (1992). The latter title has been translated into French, Italian, and German.

 Opie was introduced to the Work in the mid-1960s when a musician friend loaned him a copy of “All & Everything.” He joined a group under the leadership of Donald Hoyt who became a member of the Gurdjieff Foundation under Lord Pentland and then served as president of the Gurdjieff Foundation of California. Lord Pentland himself was Opie’s teacher from 1974 to 1988. For fourteen years Opie was associated with Annie Lou Staveley of “The Farm,” later “Two Rivers Farm.” Mrs. Staveley was a direct student of Gurdjieff in Paris during his last years and also an associate of Jean Heap in London. Opie is now involved with Gurdjieff Books & Music in Portland.

 It was while he was in Afghanistan dealing in rugs that Opie met Peter Brook and Madame de Salzmann who were in the midst of filming “Meetings with Remarkable Men.” On the set he also met Michael Currer-Briggs. Briggs is credited with being of material help at a critical point in the production of this major motion picture through his extensive contacts in the fields of film-making and finance. “Meetings” was released by Remar Productions (“remar” is short for “remarkable”) and Briggs was granted screen credit as the film’s executive producer.

The Subject: Michael Currer-Briggs

 Opie refers to him as “Mr. Briggs” but I will shorten his name even further by referring to him as “Briggs.” He was born in 1922 in Leeds, Yorkshire, and died in 1980 in London, England. Briggs made his reputation in television production in the United Kingdom. He is credited as producer or director of over sixty-five television productions, largely episodes of popular mystery series. These were telecast between 1955 and 1970, so British viewers of a certain age might cast their memories back to such popular fare as “Boyd Q.C.,” “ITV Television Playhouse,” “ITV Play of the Week,” “Fraud Squad,” “Aces of Wands,” and “The Mind Robbers.”

 Briggs reminds me of Fletcher Markle, the distinguished Canadian television personality, who was once married to the actress Mercedes McCambridge. Markle’s skills as producer and director overshadowed his abilities as creator and artist. In other words, Markle and perhaps Briggs excelled as “arrangers” or “packagers” of other men’s ideas. Unlike Briggs, Markle had no special interest in spiritual psychology.

These days Briggs is not remembered for those British series, but for his role as executive producer of “Meetings with Remarkable Men,” which was released in 1979, thirty years following Gurdjieff’s death and one year before Briggs’s own death. Briggs had a background in the Work that took root in London in the 1940s where and when he met Jane Heap. As the result of Opie’s book on him, Briggs will have, additionally, a future in the Work.

 The Book: Approaching Inner Work

 The text of the book consists of a series of short chapters which consist of Briggs’s commentaries on “inner work.” They are based on interviews conducted by Opie with Briggs over the last years of the latter’s life. There are thirty-eight of these and they cover a range of interests. Each chapter of commentary is titled, and some of these titles are straight-forward and descriptive (“John Bennett,” “Madame de Salzmann and a Question about Money”), whereas others are analytical and work-related (“Self-study and Seeing,” “Like and Dislike”). Overall they bring to mind – to my mind, at least – the “commentaries” that comprise Maurice Nicoll’s “Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky,” a much-neglected, five-volume work that is a gold-mine (I almost keyboarded “gold-mind”) of aspects of the Work which now seem to be called “inner work.”

These “commentaries” are Briggs’s words, taken from conversations and interviews that have been deftly edited and sensitively arranged by Opie to cover subjects of current and continuing interest. In a way the arrangement reminds me of a book of “table talk.” It begins with a rhetorical question posed by Briggs: ” … what can I do? What is it, precisely, that does not happen automatically, but requires my intentional efforts? Doing depends on intentionality. Intentionality depends on sincerity. It depends on the presence of I.” The book is in effect a meditation on these words.

 The friendship began in 1977 in Central Asia, aka Afghanistan, where Opie was pursuing his trade in Oriental rugs and Briggs was visiting the set of “Meetings with Remarkable Men” then being filmed by Peter Brook under the tutelage of Madame de Salzmann. It seems Briggs with his industry contacts had a hand in ensuring the flow of funds from Lord Pentland, President of the Gurdjieff Foundation, to the production crew, no simple matter. History has a habit of repeating itself. Some decades earlier, Briggs was among the first visitors to Gurdjieff in newly liberated Paris to arrive with cash (presumably the first payment of Gurdjieff’s oil-well royalties!).

 One night over dinner in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, Opie raised the subject of miracles. Briggs described them in terms of the two rivers or streams. “There are two fundamental streams, an automatic stream moving downward, toward multiplicity, and a conscious stream flowing upward, toward unity and the source of all life. Highly unusual experiences which seem to be miracles may involve merely, if one dares use that word, a lawful and transitory merging of the two streams at a particular point or event.”

Briggs gave an illustration of a “miracle” in terms of a carrot growing in a garden. To the carrot the appearance of the gardener is miraculous; to the gardener the appearance of the carrot is mundane. Points of view and levels of being are relevant to miracles. This novel illustration brought to mind P.D. Ouspensky’s example of the baked potato being more “intelligent” than the raw potato. The discussions between Opie and Briggs reverberate with references to be found in the canon of the Work. This particular conversation on the subject of miracles concludes with Briggs’s caveat: Because of “habitual patterns” of thought and feeling and response, he wrote, “I dare say ‘miracles’ have been the ruination of some people.”

Another caveat is based on the effectiveness of effort when based on full knowledge and complete understanding, and its ineffectiveness when based on faulty knowledge and limited understanding. “The exercise of listening to those who would build professional careers around certainty can be helpful. How misguided are those politicians and other public figures who wish to impress others with their certainty.” This can be very instructive, Briggs reminds Opie. “Initially, our work is not to change what is seen, but to open to a new quality of seeing, wherein we directly experience the force of automaticity in our reactions.”

These thoughts lead to a discussion of the differences noted by Madame de Salzmann between the servant and the slave. When we shirk our own burdens, we increase the loads that need to be carried by other people; when we shoulder our own, we lighten their burdens. Briggs states that we should not be overawed by the immensity of the known universe because it is matched by the unknown worlds within man. “Here our small physical size, as human beings, can be deceptive. Within us are many potential levels, many possible hierarchies. The universe is not altogether an outer arrangement.”

 Briggs has a bent for vivid imagery. He suggests that there should be founded a new organization called “The Society for the Study of Self-love and Vanity.” He suggests that this kind of odd-fellows group could bring untold benefits to its members. As an aside he explains, “This is precisely what Mr. Gurdjieff outlined in his description of a ‘real group,’ which, he said, represents an exceptional level of achievement.”

He then traced the subsequent history of this impulse and how, over the years, it would metamorphose into its opposite. “Viewed from the outside, the buildings housing the Society may grow more impressive. But inside the buildings, decade by decade, the teaching descends to a level that is all-too-human.” This section of the book – about the devolution of this society and the impulse behind it – is called “The Unusual Society.” Although it is only a few pages long, it includes more than I can easily convey here. In fact, each of the chapters is quite expressive of the modulated expression of genuine insights.

The chapter titled “Madame de Salzmann and the Question of Money” deals broadly with values and evaluations and quotes Madame as making a pointed observation. “If students of Mr. Gurdjieff do not make a film based on this appealing title – Meetings with Remarkable Men – someone else will surely do so. We would then have to live with the consequences.” It is in Kabul that Briggs takes Opie to meet the Madame (a little drama all its own) and “the need to prepare a real question.” They chat with her on the film set and at one point Madame says, “When you first come, you hear and repeat ideas, with limited understanding. Later the ideas begin to live in you, and you have real questions. Now, your interest is superficial. But in time, perhaps it grows.”

The subject of money is broached. Opie suggests the ability to make it is “dirty.” Madame disagrees. “Money, a talent for making money, is not a dirty thing. Money is the blood of society. Everything is touched by money, every relationship. No part of life is without this connection, and it brings reality to your life. When money is needed it is no longer just … idea.”

This chapter, although short, reminded me of the comprehensive talk that Gurdjieff delivered on the subject of “the Material Question.” It seems everything everywhere is material and that it really matters. Madame gives it a spin: “Your life has a pattern. You don’t see it yet, but little by little it begins to appear. Seeing the pattern of your life helps very much. If you work with a talent, it develops. Later you can teach what you have learned to someone else who stands where you stand now. Then, perhaps, you will go on to something else.”

 Briggs and Opie meet some months later at The Farm overseen by Annie Lou Staveley in Portland, Oregon. Here Briggs talked about the plan, subsequently abandoned, to cast some Work personalities as leading characters in the film. Apparently Henri Tracol was to play Father Giovanni. Briggs: “We attempted this briefly and the experiment totally failed. We saw that what each of these people had was their own. Nothing was acted. What they possessed, while genuine, was not what was needed. Films involve acting. Also, none of these senior people in the Work could take directions!”

 The next two chapters deal with the dangers inherent in the transmission of oral teachings and how the Work has proceeded following Gurdjieff’s death. Madame de Salzmann met with the leaders of the various groups and the influx of new followers and attempted to create a single approach. There were disputes. “These disputes could have disrupted relationships within and between groups. Madame de Salzmann listened more than she spoke, and, like Mr. Gurdjieff, became a still point in the center of activity. Her efforts with previously existing groups, with new centers, and with hundreds of individual members, helped clarify more advanced approaches to inner work.”

 The chapter titled “Roses and Thorns” looks at the opposites and how they must be accepted and how each person must accept responsibility. “Interest in this inner study begins to connect us with the stream of intentionality. At the outset, an impartial view of our manifestations may elude us. We have not yet learned to take the necessary step back to hear our own voices, to sense habitual bodily postures, or to experience repetitive emotional and mental patterns more immediately and viscerally. Others see much of this in us, but we do not. Yet, little by little, we begin to learn.”

Subsequent chapters consider the power of identification and the need for “self-study.” We must learn to distinguish between what is automatic and what is authentic. Briggs: “The primary change is the seeing and accepting what is seen, in the midst of our manifestations. Seeing without judging, with impartial interest, is a feature of consciousness and the stream of intentionality.” This is “a gift” that requires “preparatory work.”

“Wish and the Role of the Mind” is the first chapter in a series of chapters that deal with the role of “wish” (or “aim,” as it used to be called) in the Work. Gurdjieff’s words are quoted: “Wish can be the strongest thing in the world.” The role of man’s centres is discussed and Gurdjieff is quoted as saying that thoughts are “thinking in me.” The difference between justification and explanation is discussed.

Briggs: “When both my mind and feelings are identified with justifying or explaining, word-producing functions in the mind readily cooperate. But when there is real work to be done, this automatic part is silent. Will is called for, something intentional. A quite different part of the mind needs to appear.” Man is machinery. “Our work is to not attempt to withdraw from contact with this current. It is to learn, little by little, to relate to it with greater awareness.”

 “Emotions about emotions” is a new formulation for me and perhaps for some other readers as well. Briggs: “When my awareness of an emotion is sidetracked by an automatic reaction, by an emotion about the emotion, is it too late to work? For Jane Heap, it was never too late. We begin from precisely where we are. We come into awareness now, rather than waiting for a better moment, or the arising of more positive attitudes. Looking back at lost opportunities with regret rarely helps us. The moment to begin is now.”

A chapter is devoted to “the multiplicity of I’s” and it describes how during an afternoon Briggs assumed one identity after another, one set of responses after another set, with hardly a sense of any segues. He prefers or defers seemingly like an automaton, assuming one identity after another. Readers will find the experiences that he describes appropriate to their own everyday lives. What to do about this situation? “At every step we need peers …. Peers-without-quotation-marks can keep a person honest.”

“Risks in group work” is not the title of a chapter but it is the subject-matter of one interesting chapter, and it goes into detail about the tactics that people devise or evolve to deal with the natures of groups or schools and the natures of the people who attend them. “Jane Heap once said that Mr. Gurdjieff could see into the dark corners of all of us because he saw into all the dark corners in himself.” Briggs distinguishes between “remarkable attainments” and “unfortunate crystallizations.” At this juncture the role of “shocks” is discussed.

Here I felt the discussion was skating on thin ice, for Ouspensky had gone into much more detail, distinguishing, as he did, between the tramp and the lunatic. The former could not hold any single thought for any appreciable time while the latter could not entertain any thought but the one that currently obsessed him. However, Briggs does quote Gurdjieff: “Learn to like what ‘it’ dislikes.” There follows is a brief discussion of the role of “charm” and how it harms.

Students of the work will find the next two chapters to be of special interest – the chapter on Jane Heap of biographical and bibliographic interest, the chapter on Jean de Salzmann relevant to ongoing discussions of the drift or the direction taken by the Work since the 1960s. As Briggs explains, “Mr. Gurdjieff did not instruct Madame to continue everything in fixed and dogmatic ways. Her task was to sustain the clarity and expand the influence of the teaching, while helping relatively small numbers to experience a deepening inner engagement. Aside from exercises for beginning levels, such as you and I have discussed, Mr. Gurdjieff introduced approaches to silent work to a few people who had been with him for many years, and to others he considered prepared for this work. First among these was Madame de Salzmann.”

As Briggs expresses it, Asian teachings were making inroads in the West. “Madame de Salzmann needed to understand and assess these new influences in Western culture in relation to the Gurdjieff teaching, even as she responded to the demands of her special role. She never resisted speaking with teachers of established traditions, even traveling to meet them in their own institutions and behaving externally not as a teacher, but as a student. But the course of her work had been set long before, by Mr. Gurdjieff.” Elsewhere it is said that Madame attended the Bollingen lectures on Jung’s thought at Ascona and even journeyed to Cairo to meet the Traditionalist thinker René Guenon.

 Quite enjoyable are occasional references to Mrs. Staveley and the chapter devoted to the scalawag Fritz Peters. Briggs quoted Jane Heap on the latter personality: “In and out of groups, personal qualities are often mistaken for sincerity and truth.” A later chapter considers the special case of John Bennett, despite Briggs’s feeling that “it was difficult to discuss a figure possessing such useful skills, a great storehouse of intensity, and, from the viewpoint of those whom he influenced, a special and profound understanding of the Gurdjieff teaching.”

Bennett is seen as a man who placed “action” before “self-questioning” and risked the inadvertent mingling of all the traditions with which he was familiar with whatever one was at hand. Willem Nyland is also discussed. Had Nyland “gone off on his own” or had the rest of the followers “left the path”? As Briggs had little first-hand knowledge of Nyland, the point is not pursued.

 The chapter oddly titled “Rolling the Triangle” refers to the Law of Three, in general to the Active, Passive, and Neutralizing principles, with specific references to the Three Centres in man. Jane Heap introduced the notion to Briggs who explained how the “triangle” is “rolled” in the sense that each “role” is changed or rotated to create other bodily impressions through attention and wish. He concludes, “Inside us, potentially, are many orders of triangles.”

Later chapters refer to E.J. Gold, Idries Shah, Jan Cox, and Alex Horn, who tried to take the Work or at least its followers in directions of their own devising. A chapter is devoted to the so-called Fellowship of Friends led by Robert Burton. At one time his followers were dubbed “the bookmark people” because they were tasked to visit metaphysical bookstores and insert their own bookmarks into copies of books by Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, and kindred writers. The bookmarks (handsomely produced; I own a couple) list telephone numbers of local groups. If there are still “bookmark people,” their bookmarks probably now include websites and email addresses. Briggs is surprisingly long-suffering and philosophical about these leaders and their groups: “Possibly a few people in centers led by such people sense something wrong and then look for more reliable sources.”

 The chapter “The Yen to Teach” is one of the few discussions of the role of the teacher or group leader that I have encountered, and it considers the responsibilities that leadership entails and the misconceptions that it generates. The discussion is brief but Briggs quotes a suggestive insight from his own teacher Jane Heap: “When you grab hold of something too tightly you press your own fingerprints into it.”

 The chapter “Our Final Face-to-Face Exchange” and the next one titled “Letters” describe Briggs’s failing health before he succumbed to cancer in England. They also include Opie’s importuning for guidance on how to regard the various centres, how they should relate to one another – not man’s inner centres, but the Work centres in the United States and in London and Paris. There was also what might be called the changing nature of the Work, or at least the change in direction or emphasis initiated by the Paris centre.

Briggs takes a long-range view of the effects of time and tide. “Few realize how much the Work moved during Gurdjieff ’s time in Europe in so far as he changed the way of passing on the Ideas a number of times. One period was all Movements, another his period of writing, another the intense work at the Prieuré, another work with very small groups, another a period of preparation during the war, and the last a period when in his declining years he himself had no more need and only cared for the people who came to him for their own sakes.”

Such changes or interchanges require greater efforts at cohesion. “Now we are coming to face a loneliness, where we have to take the responsibility, we have to draw closer together. This can only be done by exchange – by sharing – by watching – by remembering – in true openness. Relaxed and free and clear in our heads and hearts. What we do now we must do together and not alone. We are too weak to go it alone.”

The last chapters describe some of the ways in which Opie’s own life was affected by his friendship and fellowship with Briggs. Through Briggs, Opie grew close to Lord Pentland before the leader’s death in 1984. Then there is the almost elegiac sense that for efforts to take effect people must work together. This is expressed most clearly in one of the last letter that Pentland addressed to Opie: “I begin to see more clearly and without judgment or hostility that there is some chief weakness in our minds, in each of us, which so far we have all failed to conquer and that the Work’s future really does hang on some of us facing and sharing this individual difficulty with each other.”

It is reported that Briggs’s dying words were appropriate: “It’s all one.” And Opie’s book “Approaching Inner Work” is a work that is all of one piece. I have quoted substantially from the book, principally Briggs’s words and not Opie’s, because the latter is more than willing to step back to grant his subject the main speaking part. The book is very readable, very agreeable. In its pages I found a few facts and formulations new to me, and they may be new to other readers as well, but the principal value of this book lies not so much in what it reveals as in the demonstration of the fact that “inner work” continues, as long as we ask, in a heartfelt way, “What can I do?”



 John Robert Colombo, a Toronto-based author and anthologist, is mainly known for his work in the field of Canadiana. But he has a long-standing interest in mysteries and the paranormal. His forthcoming book (from Dundurn Group) is called “Jeepers Creepers” and it consists of fifty told-as-true paranormal experiences of Canadians with psychological commentaries. He is an occasional reviewers of books about the Work for this blogsite. For information on Colombo’s other books, or to be alerted to the appearance of forthcoming reviews and commentaries, email him at his website: < www. colombo. ca > .







I distinctly remember the sensation that I experienced when I first saw in print the name “Lord Pentland.” What I sensed was a loftiness of person and of purpose. What I felt was the emotion of being wafted away from my usual, classless moorings: “Whoever is this fellow?” What I entertained was an heretical thought upon seeing his name in the context of the Work: “Was an English lord actually chosen by Mr. Gurdjieff to head the Work in America?”

I was late in the game. I first encountered the name and title in the early 1960s in the pages of a newly published book of radio talks. Its table of contents listed the contributors of talks and interviews broadcast on Pacifica Radio in California. I have long forgotten the names of the other contributors to this series of addresses, all of them public intellectuals familiar to me at the time. But I remember the name of this English baron who was completely unknown to me at that time. Curious!

I never met Lord Pentland or Henry John Sinclair or just plain John Sinclair, of course, but over the decades I have met with groups of men and women who knew him, attended his talks, and studied under him. They were unanimous in their admiration and respect for the man. I would ask each in turn, “What was his dominant characteristic? Why was he so admired and respected? What made him a dedicated teacher or leader?” People seemed to like the man but there was seldom a feature, chief or not, which I could identify or with which I could identify.

After all, the photographs of the man that I saw reproduced in public print, or at least those taken during his later years, showed a gaunt figure of a man with steel-rimmed glasses and querulous eyes. I once wrote, “To judge by photographs, John Pentland was a cadaverous figure of a man, toweringly tall, with skeletal skull, bushy eyebrows, and beady eyes. He resembles an ascetic, say a Cistercian monk …. “

As well, he seemed quite forbidding, almost formidable (if not slightly comic or ironic). I never could discover what psychological feature or features were so impressive, though every once in a while someone would glance around and mumble about the man’s patrician bearing, the slight condescension in his attitude and manner, etc. But then some people are never satisfied; they will accept the Sermon on the Mount only if delivered by Jesus Christ in person.

Over the years I watched out for references to Lord Pentland in the literature of the Work, especially in the “Gurdjieff Review.” I bought and read a copy of the book “Exchanges Within” which is subtitled “Questions from Everyday Life Selected from Gurdjieff Group Meetings with John Pentland in California, 1955-1984.” It was published by Continuum in 1977, and its prose captured some of the qualities of the man, which I take to be a general thoughtfulness or mindfulness coupled with directness and authority.

I found his manner of writing and speaking to be more elusive than evasive, and to this day his prose, whether transcriptions of the talks or of the sessions of questions and answers, continues to remind me of the opaque styles of J. Krishnamurti and Rudolf Steiner. The opacity could be that of some level of being: a disembodied intelligence, perhaps. The texts of the talks themselves read like … radio scripts.

The other day I checked Wikipedia’s entry and I learned a little about the man Henry John Sinclair, but next to nothing about his personality and purpose, his mission and message. He was born in 1907, but where? (The biography says London.) He died in 1984, but where? (The biography says New York City.) He was the 2nd Baron Pentland and a man of means; his wife Lucy was also titled and well-to-do. His daughter, son-in-law, and their child are contributors to the Work.

In the 1930s and 1940s he worked with P.D. Ouspensky in London, and in 1948 he spent about nine months with Mr. Gurdjieff in Paris, who thereupon appointed him to lead the work in America. (“America” means the United States; while he did visit Canada, it was for business meetings in Toronto before he had met Mr. Gurdjieff and for a visit to the rodeo in Calgary afterwards.)

At one point he worked out of an office in Rockefeller Center, representing British-American commercial interests, like an earlier neighbour, spymaster Sir William Stephenson (known as “the Quiet Canadian” before turning garrulous and acquiring the title “the Man Called Intrepid”). I recall reading a warm and memorable description of Lord Pentland at work in his office. The account was written by the youthful William Patrick Patterson who visited the baron there, was much impressed with the man, and studied under him for all of eleven years, before finding another mentor. Patterson went on to establish the Gurdjieff Studies Program and describes himself to this day as a student of Lord Pentland.

Lord Pentland served as president of the Gurdjieff Foundation from its inception in 1953 to his death in 1984, and also as president of the Gurdjieff Foundation of California from its inception in 1955 to his death. He also served as executive editor of Far West Editions from 1969 to his death. I sense that the year of his death marked the end of a phase of the Work in America, as phases of the Work in France and the rest of Europe and the United Kingdom were marked by the death in 1990 of Madame de Salzmann and eleven years later that of her son Michel de Salzmann.

Talks delivered by Lord Pentland at Esalen and on the campuses of American colleges and universities were delivered alike to veteran students and newcomers to the Work and printed in semi-limited editions. In print they seem somewhat abstract or at least abstracted from experience. Indeed, I reviewed three of these publications and summarized their contents for readers of this blog in 2008, where they remain archived for reading or reference.

I have gone into all this detail – peeks at Lord Pentland from a distance – for the reason that many if not most readers of this review will share experiences similar to mine, being one or two steps removed from the man and the manner. Not everyone in the Work has had a first-hand experience of the man. Savour those experiences and conceptions of the man before encountering him in relief in the pages of James Moore’s biography, which has a four-word title: “Eminent Gurdjieffians: Lord Pentland.”

This biography is a handsome volume published by Gurdjieff Studies Ltd. in England. The website is < www . gurdjieff . org. uk >. The book has an attractive dust jacket (designed by Linda Edmonds), card covers, matching coloured endsheets, and well-designed pages which measure 6″ x 9.5″ and which run from xx to 108. There are eighteen black-and-white illustrations. There is also a nominal index (i.e., restricted to personal names, not places or references) and a bibliography best described as sketchy. I wish the pages had been stitched rather than “perfect bound,” i.e., glued, but there are headbands, and the pages once opened almost lie flat on their own. It is a nice edition to hold and to read.

But before I do review its contents, I want to comment on the first two words of the book’s title: “Eminent Gurdjieffians.” Serious readers will catch the significance of the word “eminent,” which was not coined by Lytton Strachey but was certainly trademarked by him. “Eminent Victorians” is the title of this influential composite biography of four leading figures in Victorian England (Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Matthew Arnold, and General Gordon).

The lady and the three gentlemen were and are indeed “eminent,” though not necessarily pre-eminent for reasons of morality. The book’s appearance in 1918 coincided with the end of the Great War, and as the latter dealt the deathblow to the Kaiser’s designs on Europe, the former ended the idolatry and exposed the morality of leading public figures in Queen Victoria’s England.

Today, “Eminent Victorians” would be regarded as a hatchet-job, but for the fact that Strachey wrote well, researched deeply, and refused to moralize. Indeed, the composite biography appealed to the sceptical Bertrand Russell who read it while imprisoned for civil disobedience. In a letter he described the literary work in these words: “It is brilliant, delicious, exquisitely civilized.”

Do Lord Russell’s words describe the book at hand? I will answer that question but first here is another digression. The digression concerns the author James Moore. His entry in Wikipedia and his own detailed and informative website < www . jamesmoore . org . uk > are so interesting that I could write about the author at some length. Instead, I will write concisely and somewhat cursorily.

Moore, born in Cornwall in 1929, seems to be something of an autodidact, but one who worked with the Admiralty until retirement in 1980, who holds fellowships in at least two Royal Societies, and who is the author of four books of substance and many articles of importance which have appeared in serious journals and as entries in encyclopedias.

As for his Work experience, he studied with Henriette H. Lannes from 1957 to 1978, and thereafter with Henri Tracol and Maurice Desselle. He was closely associated with the Gurdjieff Society in London from 1981 to 1994 when, it seems, he was expelled, if that is the word to use, though “excommunicated” is the one that he himself prefers. (Query: Do Gurdjieffians “shun” like Mormons?) That might be the second-best thing that has ever happened to him, his induction into the Work being the first; the jury is still out on that. Anyway, he renewed himself as an independent scholar and presumably as an independent Gurdjieffian, his status to this day.

I have read his four books: “Gurdjieff and Mansfield” (1980), “Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth” (1991), “Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered” (2005), and now “Eminent Gurdjieffians: Lord Pentland” (2011). His chef d’oeuvre is the second of these books, a biography rivalled only by John Beekman Taylor’s “Gurdjieff: A New Life” (2009), a sturdy and substantial work. I am still divided on the merits of the third of these books, as it adopts the tone of the tabloid press in its whining and winging, though as a human document it is full of fascinating detail.

If anyone in the Work is in a position to write short biographies of Work personalities and their essences, it is James Moore. On an earlier occasion I referred to this biographer as a precisian, an uncommon proper noun for someone who is strict and precise in observing the rules, his own or others’. I suspect that he gives a lot of thought before writing down a word. He is as stylish and exacting as Flaubert, who, it is said, worried so much over his prose that he would spend a morning inserting a comma followed by an afternoon erasing it. Moore is a writer who has to be read closely, and watched.

I have the feeling – it is an idea, really; perhaps a dream – that “Eminent Gurdjieffians” marks the first volume in a series, a series that may set a high watermark for scholarship in the literature of the Work. Such a series is long overdue. Where is there a short biography of Sophie Grigorievna Volochine (aka Madame Ouspensky)? Or a long biography of Jeanne Allemand (aka Madame de Salzmann)? Perhaps these and other biographies are waiting in the wings.

Yet in these pages Moore writes, plangently, “This book is my literary swan-song.” If so, it is sad news. Earlier I quoted Bertrand Russell’s words about Lytton Strachey’s book: “brilliant, delicious, exquisitely civilized.” Do these words apply to Moore and this book? Yes and no is the short answer. The long answer follows.

Moore writes with a stylistic brilliance that is coruscating and hence sometimes blinding. His prose is delicious in the sense that the reader wants to consume more and more pages, though with full knowledge that some passages are going to be hard to digest. But is the work “exquisitely civilized”? The author is certainly a cultured man, but I would not immediately describe him as civilized, at least in terms of what he has written here. He is very hard on his subject and for these reasons one would have to read between the lines.

There is a telling anecdote about a beautiful but impressionable society lady who one day accepted a luncheon invitation from W.E. Gladstone. Asked about the experience, she replied, “I realize that I was in the presence of the most brilliant man in all of England.” The next day she lunched with Benjamin Disraeli. Asked how that lunch had gone, she replied, “I realize that I am the most brilliant woman in all of England.” Reading Moore’s prose I feel that Moore is the most brilliant writer in all of England.

He monopolizes his subject, but to demonstrate this I would have to lead the reader through the book page by page to review Pentland’s life and that would take a great many pages (or “screens”). It is an interesting life that he led, but not a very convincing one, at least to the degree that Pentland was a late developer, and it begs the question whether he developed at all; that makes Moore’s task all the harder.

Medical historian Michael Bliss had the same problem as Moore when he wrote the now-standard biography of Sir William Osler, the clinician and Regius Professor of Medicine, who had no secrets, no scandals, and no enemies. That presents a problem. How does a biographer make decency attractive in its own right? Instead of pursuing this line of inquiry, I will make a few general points.

* Moore devotes no pages at all to Pentland’s talks and interviews, even those that were published in “Exchanges Within.” So the subject’s “take” on the Work is not discussed. Pentland presided over an interesting period in the evolution of the Work – what with the introduction of all of those “sittings” – but while they are mentioned, they are certainly not considered in any detail.

* Moore has hardly anything of an interpretive nature to say about the appeal of P.D. Ouspensky’s “system” to Pentland. There is no speculation as to what Mr. Gurdjieff saw in Pentland’s spirit, mind, or manner. Possibly what he saw in his “American lieutenant” was a respectable man with the ability to relate to men and women on all social levels, which it seems is what Pentland did do.

* Moore devotes no paragraphs at all to Pentland’s business interests, a point he himself makes, as if to exculpate himself. These details would be of some social and intellectual interest. His “war record” seems to be one of evasion rather than duty, but that is not conclusively shown.

* Moore devotes no sentences at all to interpreting the man’s psychology. I am not now referring to “the psychology of man’s possible evolution” but to the dynamics of the man’s personality, his image of himself. For this reason the biography seems to me to be pre-Freudian: the subject is more a mannikin than a man in Moore’s hands.

* Moore seems uncomfortable dealing with the characteristics of the English class system, both its strengths and its weaknesses. Whenever possible he brings Gilbert Harding into the narrative. I found this interesting, but only because I have long been curious about this English broadcaster and polemicist (who spent some time making mischief in Toronto); Moore is always about to compare and contrast the two men whose lives seem to have been lived at cross-purposes.

* Moore might see himself as a social historian, offering brief histories of the decades. For instance, I learned that the year 1957 “was in some senses a funny year. Jack Kerouac published “On the Road”; Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” was translated into Eskimo and staged in a Perspex igloo …. ” Fascinating tidbits, à la John Dos Passos, but hardly part of Pentland’s world. For a short book, it is long on potted history.

* Moore is a careful researcher. I spotted no errors of consequence; two inconsequential ones are the spelling of the New Brunswick port where Madame Ouspensky disembarked (it is Saint John not St. John’s, New Brunswick); and the indecision as whether or not to hyphenate Rodney Collin-Smith’s name.

* Moore is good on the dissection of imagery. He offers a brilliant comparison of Pentland’s gaunt appearance with that of the elderly farmer in Grant Wood’s classic painting “American Gothic.” He also comments on the surprising photograph taken by Dushka Howarth which catches Pentland and Mr. Gurdjieff at lunch at a roadside café in 1949, the baron gazing into the distance, the “teacher of dance” digging into the food before him.

* In dealing with that photograph, I believe Moore tips his hand when he describes Pentland in terms of his “depthless earnestness.” These two words might well be his final insight into the man and interpretation of his contribution to the development of the Work. It is an most revealing phrase.

Earlier I mentioned in passing that I had no occasion to meet Lord Pentland. In the introductory pages of this book, Moore mentions that he did meet this “eminent Gurdjieffian,” once, almost accidentally, long before the notion of writing the man’s biography occurred to him. After reading his book, I feel that had I had an occasion to meet Pentland, I too might – like Moore – sense the man’s “depthless earnestness.”

Jeanne de Salzmann’s “The Reality of Being”



A page from one of Jeanne de Salzmann’s notebooks

‘Madame de Salzmann’s Testament’

I have in front of me, as I keyboard this review, my prized copy of “The Reality of Being.” The copy is prized, despite the fact that it has not been autographed by its author; despite the fact that it lacks any association with an individual person, place, or incident; despite the fact that it was not given to me by a specially sensitive well-wisher; despite the fact that it was purchased through the Internet and arrived unheralded; despite the fact that it is the trade edition of the book that was published in thousands of copies in May 2010 and this is already October. The reasons why it is prized lie elsewhere and herein.

I prize it because of the quality of its contents, and so I have reserved a space for it on the bookshelf in my study where I display the spines of a limited number of select volumes about the Work that were published over the last three-quarters of a century. This brace of books includes the three volumes of G.I. Gurdjieff’s “All and Everything” series, four books written by P.D. Ouspensky, “The Harmonious Circle” by James Webb, and perhaps a dozen slender volumes composed by people whose last names are Claustres, George, Ravindra, Tracol, Vaysse, Welch, etc.

Before I attempt to convey the extent and limits of the contents of the present volume, I want to praise first its publisher and then its editors. It is a handsome piece of book-making. It measures 6″ x 9″ and has a substantial, dark blue cloth cover embossed in gold; it has end-sheets and an inspired and atmospheric dust-jacket which features an image that combines the horizon of the earth with the stars of the heavens which was created by an artist who goes unnamed but is nevertheless intriguingly referred to as “the author’s great-granddaughter.”

The typographical design of its pages appears at once casual and classical. The volume is published by Shambhala of Boston and London, which ensures it will be widely distributed and kept in print, and it is very reasonably priced at CDN $32.00. The publisher even had the signatures of the book sewn – most books these days have their pages glued together, a process euphemistically described as “Perfect Binding.” As well, they have added, like a sovereign crown, a bright yellow-orange headband. The book is a durable and handsome product, worthy of the muse or saint of printing and publishing, if there is one. Thank you, Shambhala, for taking pains!

I hope I do not sound like a claque because, as well, I will praise in extravagant terms the editors of this book. On the mundane level I did not find a single misprint, and that rarely happens these days, even with scholarly texts issued by university presses. I did note, in passing, that there are discrepancies between the birth years of its subject and its author. The copyright page, which includes the by-now standard Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data, gives G.I. Gurdjieff’s year of birth as 1872, whereas the text gives it as 1866. The same page gives Madame de Salzmann’s year of birth as “1889?” whereas the text gives the same year but without the droll question mark. But these are matters of amusement and no consequence, unlike the text of the book itself.

The text is well organized, indeed super-organized, with a Foreword, an Introduction, twelve main sections, a Biographical Note, a list of the four Gurdjieff centres (Paris, London, New York City, Caracas), and an Index. Let me pause over the latter item, the twelve-page, double-column index, as indices are often overlooked, despite the fact that the attentive reader may tell a lot about a book from a cursory examination of its index.

After perusing it, I thought, “The only personal name in this index – and hence in the text of the book itself – is that of G.I. Gurdjieff.” Then I looked closer and found three other names, those of Christ, Buddha, and Mohammed. Illustrious company indeed! Added to them, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, I found that of Ashiata Shiemash. So it is apparent from this index that the reader will not turn the pages of this book in order to be entertained by stories, anecdotes, or descriptions of the men and women who participated in the evolution of the presentation of Work principles and practices from Ouspensky’s “Special Doctrine” to Madame de Salzmann’s embodiment of the Fourth Way.

The present volume is about as far from a gossipy book as it is possible to be. In fact, the book is about how it is “possible to be,” and in doing so, I find I want to describe the text as a collection of homilies. A homily is a commentary on a passage of scripture, and during a church service a homily is delivered following the reading of the specified passage of scripture. It is basically a sermon with a practical application of the general principles found in the day’s passage. Hence a homily deals more with practice and not directly with principle. It is hortatory.

If I am right when I claim that what we have here is a series of homilies, it is also true that the thrust of the texts is towards the harmonization of the three centres of man. There is next to nothing about the speculative nature of this system of thought at least of the sort identified with the expositions of P.D. Ouspensky. The sections about the Law of Three and the Law of Seven are perfunctory in the extreme; indeed, they are credited by the editors to legitimate sources outside Madame de Salzmann’s notebooks, the source of these texts.

Instead of regarding thought, feeling, and sensation as separate subjects, we have an integration of them within the human body. The index, once again, gives an idea of what is being emphasized, with entries such as these, each of which has a dozen or more page numbers: being, body, consciousness, contact, crystalization, efforts, energy, existence, feeling, instrument of knowing, mind, nature, order, perception, reality, relation, seeing, sensations, shocks, teaching, tensions, understanding, vigilance, voluntary suffering.

There is an abstract quality to the exposition, certainly the quality of selflessness, so it is a relief that the texts themselves are surprisingly short – one page, two pages, three pages – seldom more. If they were any longer, they would be somewhat tedious to read; if they were any shorter, the expositions would be reducible to maxims, like the pages of sentence-long quotations that introduce each of the twelve sections. Two instances of these mantras are “We struggle not against something, we struggle for something” and “I have to maintain a continual sensation in all the activities of my daily life.” In his memoir of Madame de Salzmann called “Heart without Measure,” Ravi Ravindra made exceptional use of such expressions of experience.

The structure of this book as a collection of meditations or a passel of ponderings is such that it may not meet the needs of the novice in the Work, but by its nature it will address the deep-seated needs of people experienced in the ways and words of the Work, people who are in need reminding. In a way the present book reminds me of Maurice Nicoll’s multi-volume set of “Psychological Commentaries” in which each short essay concentrates on one particular element of the teaching. Whereas Nicoll is intellectual and philosophical, Madame de Salzmann is physical and functional..

Each of Madame de Salzmann’s texts illuminates an aspect of the Work, what used to be called “the practice of the presence of God” and what is now recalled by the words of the title of Patty de Llosa’s fine book “The Practice of Presence.” As Nicol was indebted to Ouspensky, Madame de Salzmann is indebted to Gurdjieff. Over the last fifty years or so, I have watched as the word “religion” has been replaced by the word “spirituality” and how that word is now passing out of style in favour of such words as “being,” “presence,” “consciousness,” and “awareness.” Who knows where it will end (to pose a Zen-like question!)?

Let me pause over the arrangement of the contents of the book. Each of the twelve sections is neatly divided into three sections, and each of these three sections has four subsections. This would create a book of 144 texts of homilies, except for the fact that four of the subsections have not four texts apiece but three. That makes 140 texts. (These short subsections are “A Sense of the Whole,” “Ego and Illusion,” “Voluntary Attention,” and “Voluntary Suffering.” It might be worthwhile, at some future time, to pause to wonder why this lack of symmetry is so.)

If the sign of a fine translation is that the reader hears the sound of the voice of a person whose words are being rendered into another language, this translation is sound indeed! I have never heard words spoken by Madame de Salzmann, but as I read these words I feel I am hearing her speaking her own words in her own way. She owns them. Her use of words is measured, they are masterfully chosen, and they are rhythmically arranged. There is a flow of language to match the flow of the teaching. The English translation from the French seems amazingly fine. Yet there is no way to ensure that this is so because the French originals of the notebook are not in print. Indeed, it seems that this English edition is the “editio princeps,” as the French text has never been published. A world first.

Who edited this book? Who prepared the translations from what are described as the “notebooks” kept by the author over the last half-century, from the death of Gurdjieff in 1949 and the death of Madame de Salzmann in 1990 at the age of 101? (Both the Library of Congress and the text of the book agree on these years!) “This book was edited by a small group of Jeanne de Salzmann’s family and followers.” Thus reads the last paragraph of the Foreword. This is a self-effacing sentence, so I wish I knew more, so I could credit the collective effort of family and followers.

Maybe I do know more. I have heard that the positive force behind the book’s appearance originated with the author’s daughter Nathalie de Salzmann de Etievan, who died in 2007. The project was carried out by a couple, Nathalie’s daughter Anne-Marie and her husband Stephen Grant, a retired New York lawyer, supported by the author’s grandson Dr. Alexandre de Salzmann. The labours of Anne-Marie and Stephen, to use their first names without leave, were no doubt augmented by those of other unnamed contributors. Their efforts “have surpassed expectations,” as M.B.A.s in business schools are wont to say these days.

The organization and presentation of the Work that is currently overseen by the four Gurdjieff centres would seem to be based on the efforts of preservation, continuation, elaboration, and extension led by Madame de Salzmann and continued by her son Dr. Michel de Salzmann until he died in 2001.” The text reads, “Before Gurdjieff died he charged Mme. de Salzmann to live to be ‘over 100’ in order to establish his teaching.” She certainly succeeded in more ways than one!

What is her message? Here any reviewer has to make a decision. He can either report on what the author says in the order of the excerpts from the notebooks that appear here, and thereby write at considerable length; or he can summarize the approach that the author takes, and thereby risk sounding somewhat platitudinous. After pondering the matter, what I have decided to do is offer the reader two sentences, no more, on each of the twelve sections of the text. They will give the flavour of the whole and a sense of its direction.

The first sentence is my summary of the argument of the section, expressed in language that sidesteps the terminology of the Work. The second sentence is taken from that portion of Madame de Salzmann’s text and represents an idea or a formulation that struck me as a novel in expression if not new in insight. The book is so arranged as to lead the reader from the simple to the complex, yet at the same time the text resembles a hologram, for which every portion is a portal to the whole.

1. “A Call to Consciousness.” Man does not know himself, but he may through self-knowledge become a conscious being. “Everything comes from the wish, the will.”

2. “Opening to Presence.” We sense ourselves in a passive way, but it is possible to have an active impression of ourselves. “At every degree of awareness my response is in the way I exist at the very moment, and the kind of action in which I am engaged.”

3. “In a Common Direction.” Attention must be paid to the feeling of being alive. “In order for my being to change, I must understand my state emotionally.”

4. “The Work to Be Present.” There are moments of awakening and we need to aim at these, to concentrate on these. “Only one thing counts: ‘I exist.’”

5. “With Others.” Man is a living organism and it is necessary for living organisms to meet and learn and work and move together. “This is why the most important condition, the necessary condition, is to work with others of comparable experience and understanding, who are capable of upending the completely false scale of values established by personality.”

6. “To Be Centered.” Through concentration, through will, and through breath-work, I may find my inner center. “I need to know myself as a whole and to express myself as a whole, that is, to be a whole.”

7. “Who Am I?” The real self is consciousness itself. “No movement from the periphery toward the center will ever reach the center.”

8. “Toward a New Being.” Man has various centres and these need to be sent shocks in order for man to collect himself. “Our work is to understand better the collected state, a state in which I engage in a new order.”

9. “In a State of Unity.” If all my sensations, feelings, and thoughts were in alignment, I would be a conscious being. “Seeing is an act.”

10. “A Presence with Its Own Life.” There are very special energies and subtle forces and man has to experience them in quietude to be truly alive. “To come to this state, I need a right posture, an attitude in which I am grounded, maintaining an inner center of gravity.”

11. “The Essential Being.” Forces pass through us and we must learn to sense those vibrations that are subtle and submit to them. “I need to have a force in me coming from a higher level of the cosmos. It must become part of what I am.”

12. “To Live the Teaching.” We live in two worlds and with our bodies we may feel a Presence. “With consciousness, I see what is, and in the experience ‘I Am,’ I open to the divine, the infinite beyond space and time, the higher force that religions call God.”

These twelve chapters take the reader from a concentration on the ego through schools with practices to a sense of the cosmos, not really step by step but all at once. Hologram-like, these homilies repeat the main thesis that change in level of being is possible and they treat the reader to an array of approaches to the central existence of gnosis or the “knowledge of being.” The book is rightly named “The Reality of Being” for it deals with what is most real in us and in the world in which we live. This is Madame de Salzmann’s predominant testament, one that is to be prized.

John Robert Colombo, Toronto-based author and anthologist, has recently published “Poems of Space and Time,” a collection of 360 poems written over the last half-century and inspired by “the fantastic imagination.” Watch and hear him read some poems on YouTube. Listen to his podcasts on topics of the day on his website: www. colombo -plus. ca. He writes regularly on Fourth Way subjects for this blog.


John Robert Colombo considers the Frenchman’s life and work

I have a confession to make about a silly little habit that I have. I like to discover the meaningful anagrams that are based on common words and peoples’ names. By rearranging their letters, I am able to change their meanings and associations. For instance, the motto on my coat-of-arms reads “Alert.” Anagrammed, the letters spell out two different words. These are “Later” and “Alter.” They may or may not shed light on my resolve to be “alert”!

Since I discovered the presence of the free “anagram generators” on the World Wide Web, I have spend less time “generating” anagrams than I once did, with the result that now I have the time to anagram more words and names! What is gained on the swings is lost on the slides.

I have long had a fascination with the name Henri Tracol. It seems so neat! Those four syllables and eleven letters look and sound so straight-forward, yet they are memorable for a number of reasons. In fact, once seen or heard, they are unlikely to be forgotten. In this way, by all reports, they resemble the man. In short, I have always felt that the Frenchman was well and intriguingly named.

I am not aware that the word “tracol” has a specific meaning in the man’s native language, but once I had anagrammed his name, I found out that it harbours a number of associations. The letters HENRI TRACOL spell out innumerable anagrams – more than one thousand of them in English alone; additional ones may be available through a French-language anagram generator. Here are four of the better English anagrams, ones that “make sense.”

Henri Tracol bulks large in the world of anagrams for he is either a CHARTER LION or a NICER HARLOT. (To be frank, these two anagrams seem to me to be non-starters, given the man’s retiring nature!) Yet there are two other anagrams over which I will pause, and these are REAL CORINTH and LINEAR TORCH. Could these words be meaningful in the circumstances. Let us see if they could.

First are the words REAL CORINTH. Whenever I think of Corinth I think of the Greek port city, second only to Athens in importance, and I recall that its inhabitants had pagan ways, which persisted well into the Christian era, as was evident in their appetite for a sense of fashion and for displays of wealth.

What also comes to mind are the First and Second Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. These are letters of instruction that Paul (or someone calling himself Paul) addressed, more specifically, to the members of the Christian church of Corinth. As epistles, now scriptures, they are suitably obscure, fraught with numerous mysteries and multiple meanings. The first epistle is the source of such memorable phrases as “through a glass darkly” and “when I was a child, I spoke as a child.”

The second epistle, although less obscure, is reprovingly moral. Its message seems to be: “Christians, let there be no backsliding!” Together these letters comprise the seventh and eighth books of the New Testament. Christianity would be different had they been lost or never written on parchment. So, in brief, the letters of “Henri Tracol” bring to mind the REAL message for CORINTH, which I take to be the need to be aware and to be aware of one’s limitations.

Second are the words LINEAR TORCH. We speak about passing the “torch of learning” from generation to another, or of carrying the “Olympic torch” from one place to another. There is a sense in which Henri Tracol is passing along a “torch,” one ignited by G.I. Gurdjieff, and that he is doing so in a linear or direct fashion; nothing here is helter-skelter. It is not “everything for everybody,” but chosen things for the select few. So it is but a short step to describe his message as a “linear torch.” Henri Tracol is indeed a torch-bearer.

So much for my taste for anagrams. I also have a taste for the writings of Henri Tracol. Having “a taste of things” – or “the taste for things” – is an expression that is never far from the man’s lips.

In his day, Henri Tracol (1909-1997) wore a rack of many hats. He died thirteen years ago and today is fondly remembered as one of the leading French follower of Gurdjieff. By profession, he was a photographer and a journalist. He sold articles and news photographs to popular magazines like Vu. Like so many other free-thinking journalists in the 1930s, he filed field-reports from Spain. It seems he was an anthropologist, as well, and wrote reports on conditions in South America for the Musée de l’Homme. For some time he was married to Henriette H. Lannes, Madame Lannes, the leader of the Work in England. In his free time he devoted himself to an early love, sculpture.

But he had little free time at his disposal, for he spent ten years in the company of G.I. Gurdjieff. With the latter’s death in 1949, he became one of the leaders of the French group, working with Madame de Salzmann and other senior members. He assisted in the French translations of Gurdjieff’s writings. He had a strong influence on many students of the work, including biographer James Moore. Tracol was eventually appointed director of the l’Institute G.I. Gurdjieff, the first of the four member bodies of the International Association of The Gurdjieff Foundations, the other groups being those in London, New York, and Caracas.

The photographs of the man that are reproduced in the literature of the Work are head-and-shoulder shots and give no indication of his height and weight. I judge him to be a short person of slight build. In those photographs, his facial features appear to be emaciated, and his physiognomy brings to mind the head of an ostrich or that of a giraffe. I do not mean any disrespect: ostriches and giraffes have big eyes and presumably see much and miss little.

A number of the man’s talks have been transcribed, collected, and published in book form. I would call them “pure gold” except for the fact that the contributions of Henri Tracol (along with those of his colleagues Solange Claustres and Jean Vaysse) represent the “platinum standard” of writings in, from, of, within, or about the Work.

If someone, somewhere, has compiled a list of Tracol’s publications in French and in English, I have yet to see that list. Here is my make-shift bibliography for books in English and French (with a few other items thrown in). I have copies of a few of these publications in my study.

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff: Man’s Awakening and the Practice of Remembering Oneself. Bray, England: The Guild Press, 1977. [This publication is so short – a mere nineteen pages in length – it is presumably the text of a talk by Tracol.]

Rencontre avec deux hommes remarquables. Paris: Stock, 1979. [Meeting with Two Remarkable Men. The men are Gurdjieff and Oscar Ichazo The contributors include Jeanne de Salzmann and Tracol.]

Pourquoi dors-tu seigneur? Paris: Editions Pragma Vers, 1983. [Why do you sleep, Lord?] The title is based on the question posed in Psalm 44: 23: “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?” Enlarged and reissued as La vraie question demeure (Paris: Editions Eoliennes, 1996).

La vraie question demeure. Paris: Editions Eoliennes, 1996. [The real question remains] Enlarged and reissued edition of Pourquoi dors-tu seigneur? (1983).

Lord, Why do you Sleep [Expanded as The Real Question Remains (Wind Publishing, 1996).]

The Taste for Things that Are True: Essays and Talks by a Pupil of G.I. Gurdjieff. Shaftsbury, England: Element Books, 1994.

The Real Question Remains: G.I. Gurdjieff: A Living Call. Paris: Aeolian, 1996. [Preface by Jacques Lacarrière]

Buscador de Nacimiento – La llamada de G.I. Gurdjieff. Caracas, Venezuela: Caracas, 1999. [Wikipedia offers through Google Translate an oddly affecting if slightly ungrammatical translation of Spanish bookseller’s description of this book, presumably based on the original publisher’s catalogue copy. It goes like this: “It is a compilation of articles, interviews, conferences and exchanges in the group comprising more than 50 years time. Displays the hard work of a man to look sharp and bright, which above all is required to unravel and shred the apparent until closer to what lies behind, what is vital, always with humility, without ever conclusively boast about their discoveries. “The teacher (Gurdjieff) inherited a rigor that faculty had nothing, but it opened to a requirement of truth.” Life, by vocation, a real search, the man, a form of birth.]

The Real Question Remains: Gurdjieff: A Living Call. Sandpoint, Indiana: Morning Light Press, 2009. [This edition is discussed below.]

In addition to these books, the texts of a handful of talks delivered by Tracol over the years to select groups have been translated into limpid English and published in Parabola and The Gurdjieff Review. The text of a major address appears in James Moore’s Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching (N.Y.: Continuum, 1996). In one of these contributions Tracol has set forth his belief that “what is unique in any path of spiritual search is its own particular way of approaching and perceiving reality. And this teaching offers us a feeling of just that: something which goes beyond suggested forms of experience and investigation.”

He has further noted of the Work that “it also allows the individual to discover and realize certain hidden possibilities, by means of simultaneous and coordinated engaging of one’s intellectual, emotional, and physical capacities toward a voluntary concentration upon the struggle which takes place within the self between one’s positive and negative tendencies.”

At last I am on firm footing because I am now in a position to describe the latest book, which is certainly his best single work in English. It is called “The Real Question Remains: Gurdjieff: A Living Call.” I find the subtitle and the sub-subtitle to be a little awkward, in English anyway, but that is about all that is awry with this book. The translators have made extra-human efforts to catch the man’s way of speaking and his insights and outlooks.

A trade paperback published by Morning Light Press in 2009, it measures 5.50″ x 7. 75″ and has xiv + 228 pages. Alas, the book is glued rather than sewn – unlike the Dolmen Meadow edition of the correspondence of René Daumal, which I reviewed recently, which is well sewn – but it is easy on the eyes and a pleasure to hold in one’s hands. (Morning Light Press’s website offers further details.)

The text consists of a Preface, an Introduction, a Foreword, and an Editor’s Note – and while this may seem a little excessive, each of these elements is informative – plus the texts of twenty-six short talks (some of which end in question-and-answer sessions). The texts are thematically presented in five sections: Disillusion and Dissatisfaction; Studies and Questions on Culture and Traditional Perspectives; The Discovery of a Teaching; An Afterword; The Real Question Remains. The book concludes with Notes (five pages of sources and notations).

Where did these talks first appear? A note on the copyright page answers that question. The majority of the talks first appeared in “Pourquoi dors-tu Seigneur?” published by Editions Pragma in 1983. The text of that book was translated as “The Taste for Things That Are True” issued by Element in 1994. Also included are portions of “Further Talks, Essays and Interviews” issued by The Guild Press in 2003, as well as selections from the columns of the periodical “Parabola.” Tracol’s texts are being lovingly collected and recycled.

It is good to have so much material between the two covers of a single book that is in print as an affordable paperback. Here there is, as the saying goes, “material for thought.” In a short review it is impossible to do this work justice, and Tracol does not help the reviewer, for he is in no way a flashy writer. In fact, he is not much of a stylist at all, certainly no literary artist like René Daumal. Nor is he much of a philosopher or historian, though he is something of a sociologist.

As an inveterate quoter, I find myself lost in his fields of words. Very seldom does he find or even search for the “bon-mot.” (No bon-bons for him!) Instead, he is a thinker and a feeler. You can almost feel him thinking as he is speaking or writing, and he does have a distinctive voice: curiously hesitant yet surprisingly assertive.

Gurdjieff in “Meetings with Remarkable Men” talks about Brother Sez and Brother Ahl. The sermons of these travelling monks affect their audiences in decidedly different ways. Listeners stand in awe when Brother Sez speaks, but thereafter remember nothing of what he has been saying. But when Brother Ahl speaks, listeners are embarrassed for him and at a loss to figure out what he is trying to say, but later they find that they participated in his process of exposition, were deeply moved, and are able to recall much of what he said that they did not know they knew. Tracol is Brother Ahl – not that he is the model for this travelling monk. (I will show restraint and forbear the identification of any Brother Sezes among us!)

Let me offer a synopsis of the preliminary matter. The Preface is signed by Michel Peterfalvi who expresses “a certain awe in speaking about a man of great spirituality whose influence continues after his death.” He goes on to say there is “the impression of a great inner strength emanating from him in contrast to his frail appearance, and a great simplicity in his relations with other people.”

The Introduction, signed Jenny Koralek, makes the point that Tracol’s “only currency is conscious effort.” No sooner has she said this than she hedges her bet by qualifying it with a passing reference to “the grace of God.” Now grace is considered to be “unmerited love,” so it may or may not be directly related to “conscious effort.”

The Foreword is contributed by the author himself who admits to the influence of Elie Faure, the distinguished art historian and philosopher who is as well the author’s uncle. Tracol distances himself from authorship. Indeed, the texts in this book consist of addresses, articles, essays, interviews, talks, questions and answers, and “writing.” It is a mixed bag, what the Ojibwa of Ontario call “a nunny bag” (with full knowledge that a sacred “nunny bag” is a “medicine bundle” with undisclosed contents and unfathomable powers).

The unsigned Editor’s Note discusses the notion of “the master,” a term that is familiar in the East, relatively unfamiliar in the West, which Tracol uses to refer to Mr. Gurdjieff. A “master” is not so merely the teacher but also the embodiment of the teaching. (I could not help thinking that the words “life coach” express the outward but not the inward part of what is meant, and that the vogue in the 1990s for “practical philosophers” suggests the need for the inward part.)

So much for the preliminary matter. I said earlier that Tracol is not given to telling instances, but he does retell a story that I find characteristic of all of his work. The story is used to illuminate the notion of the search: “This cannot but remind me of my last meeting with an aging friend who was about to undertake what he sensed would be his last journey to sacred places and wise men of the East. Bidding him good-bye, I said, ‘I hope you will find what you are seeking.’ He replied with a peaceful smile, ‘Since I am really searching for nothing, maybe I shall find it.’”

Like his aging friend, Tracol is searching for nothing. Instead, he is living his life now, entering into the experience of how all of us really live through the harmonious balance of our centres or faculties. “It is not something to be spoken about, it is something to experience.” He adds, “I am reminded of what I have been granted to experience – for a purpose.”

In another essay he states, “We are much more concerned by the relationship between mind and body, feeling and body, and by the presence of that which bears witness to their unity.” On these foundation stones he offers his views of the world at large in two remarkable addresses, “Individual Culture: Its Possibilities and Its Demands,” delivered in Mexico City in 1961, and “In Search of a Living Culture: Present Perspectives of Culture and the Problem of Universality,” delivered in Axe-en-Province in the same year. They are remarkable as critiques of Western values.

In “Individual Culture,” the Mexico City address, he discusses the “natural authority” of one’s family and society, but also “how indispensable it is to awaken in everyone, from childhood on, that movement of withdrawal, of standing back to question and ponder what is proposed, in order to counterbalance adequately the tendency to passive acceptance and blind conformity.” He sees culture as a controlling mechanism that turns us into creatures who are incapable of the act of “self-interrogation.”

The influence of Western culture on the world’s traditional peoples has been disastrous: “For the sake of transistors and pocket calculators they exchange what was most precious to them – a way of living duly adapted to the specific conditions of their natural environment, in harmony with their own culture and their sense of taking part in the life of the universe.” Here he speaks like a Traditionalist, before the publication of Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations,” is such that these days the more traditional the society, the more it is mired in poverty, disease, and strife.

In his sociological and Traditionalist analysis, Tracol focuses on the pre-emptive effects of cultural conformity, but in this essay he fails to fix his attention on the possibly redemptive power of civilized values. Everyone participates in one culture or another, but not everyone embraces civilized values. Rather than the Highest Common Numerator, people are encouraged to settle for the Lowest Common Denominator. To do otherwise takes effort. Instead, in the passage here, he is anxious to note their equivalence or mutual dependency:

“Here lies the reconciliation between authority and search: they need each other. They attract one another mutually in this movement of unending renewal through which the life of culture perpetuates itself.” Elsewhere, as if to drive this point home, he discusses sleep and waking consciousness. “Such is the law of this equivocal situation: without sleep, no awakening; without oblivion, no remembering.” I will add that it seems the human condition mirrors the cosmic condition: As above, so below. No sun without shade. Dualism under the Sun.

In an interpolation, Christian theologians discuss the Fall of Adam in terms of “the fortunate fall” (for without it there would be no need for the Incarnation) and “Good Friday”in terms of what is necessary (what is “good” about it is that Friday’s Crucifixion sets the stage for Sunday’s Resurrection). In one of his novels Samuel Beckett suggests that what we need to do is “fail better.”

Elsewhere Tracol explains that “the born seeker” cannot “escape from the labyrinth” of this world. Salvation (if the Christian term is not amiss in this context) comes from the individual’s realization that the most the seeker can do is to be “moving further toward the center of his own mystery.” This action alone confers meaning upon the individual’s search.

In concluding this address, Tracol describes the individual’s aim as “to work always according to his being, in order to affirm himself at each movement, in constant submission to the demands of the life of the universe.” He calls this “the authentic art of living.”

In the address “In Search of a Living Culture,” delivered in Aix-en-Province, he returns to the negative aspects of culture, including its “periodic decay” and its “sclerosis.” Here he raises the deferred notion of “civilization,” mentioned earlier, but he does not distinguish its individualized values from culture’s generalized values. Instead, he examines the nature of knowledge and how it swamps us, despite the fact that there are parallels between the physicist’s discoveries about the characteristics of subatomic particles and what Buddha said about the states of the human individual after death, an insight that he derived from the writings of the atomic physicist Robert Oppenheimer.

If Tracol has found an ideal man, it is the person of A.K. Coomaraswamy, “the great Orientalist,” son of an English mother and an Indian father, who was an outstanding curator and is regarded as one of the pillars of Traditionalism. He quotes with approval a remark made in 1932 by Coomaraswamy: “In all its diversity, Asia remains nevertheless a living spiritual unity which embraces, at the very least, half the cultural heritage of humanity … without some knowledge of Asia no civilization can reach maturity, no individual can consider himself as ‘civilized’ not even be clearly aware of what properly belongs to him.”

Tracol calls this “absolutely true” because it calls into question the “advanced” views that are held in the West: ignorance of the cyclic rather than the linear character of time; the illusion of an indefinite progress; the conviction of belonging to the most “advanced” period in history; holding on to a “superiority complex”; and equating people outside this matrix “uncivilized.”

He supports these points with references to Sir J.G. Frazer, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and Ruth Benedict. He paraphrases the remark of his Orientalist friend Paul Mus and writes, “We can say that the balance between culture and civilization is broken and that the most salient characteristic of our time, this subordination of pure science to a program of absolutely dizzying technical ‘achievements,’” is alienating ourselves from ourselves. In effect, data is dumbing us down.

Tracol concludes, “The man who is in love with real culture aspires to a transformation of _himself_ through knowledge. All knowledge seems pointless to him if it is not first and foremost _self-knowledge_. For it is only inasmuch as he knows himself that he knows how to choose his nourishment according to his real needs.”

I have now reached page fifty-one of “The Real Question Remains.” That is about one-quarter of the way through. I am afraid I would tire the reader of this review if I carried on in this fashion. So far Tracol has hardly mentioned Gurdjieff, but the name of the “master” appears frequently in the last three-quarters of the book. If there is interest I am prepared to summarize the rest of the author’s argument, to the degree that it may be summarized without being reduced to platitudes, as Tracol’s writing forms a whole and is addressed to people immersed in the Work. To read a little is to gain a lot. I urge the reader to share this experience with him by reading this book, and not with the present reviewer who is reviewing that book. Tracol needs only a translator – not an interpreter.

One final point: Tracol is not a seeker so much as he is a finder, a man who sought nothing outside himself that he could not first discover within himself. In this way he resembles his “aging friend” who yearns to go on more pilgrimages. Yet Tracol was assisted on his non-way by finding and receiving a “master.” I will conclude this account by quoting one sentence from the last essay, the one titled “Some Reflections on What Is Specific to Gurdjieff’s Teaching.”

Here Tracol is discussing the “adventure” of the Work: “It keeps alive in us the evidence of a _secret continuity_: consciousness never ceases to offer itself to us.”

John Robert Colombo is known as “the Canadian Bartlett” for his dictionaries of quotations. Two of his recent publications are “Richard Maurice Bucke: The New Consciousness” and “Walt Whitman’s Canada.” He is co-editor of a publication to appear this fall: Volume 14 in the series of annual Canadian science-fiction anthologies called “Tesseracts.” If you want to receive notice of forthcoming reviews on this blog, email the reviewer < jrc @ ca . inter. net >.



About three months ago I reviewed Frank R. Sinclair’s book “Without Benefit of Clergy” and found that his memoir offered the reader an appropriately “frank” account of the life and experiences of the gentleman who is the current head of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City. Frank was named co-president in 2000, president in 2005. It is a one-year appointment, regularly renewed.

The memoir focused on Frank’s early years in South Africa, his interest in Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, and his account of the twenty or so years that he spent living and working at the Gurdjieff community of Franklin Farms, Mendham, N.J. Along the way he described his meetings with some of the stalwarts of the Fourth Way, notably Madame de Salzmann and Frank’s namesake John Sinclair, Lord Pentland.

I was late in reviewing “Without Benefit of Clergy,” which first appeared in 2005, largely because I was perplexed by its title. I had assumed the book had something to do with “clergymen” or with what once was called “living in sin.” Both of those assumptions proved to be wrong. Instead, the title has to do with the desire to dispense with the “the clergy” – that is, do away with the need for intermediaries between the wisdom tradition and one’s realization of it. That problematic title to one side, Frank’s memoir, with its three dozen black-and-white snapshots of life on the farm, is a publication that makes for thoughtful and informative reading.

The same is true of Frank’s successor volume, which is also written in an easy-going style, the style of the newspaperman that Frank was trained to be. But here Frank faced a problem: What do you write after you have written your memoirs? His solution was simplicity itself: You offer the reader not an account of your life but an account of your philosophy of life. And that is what he has done in “Of the Life Aligned.”

It was Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian-born essayist and social commentator, who popularized the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of immersion in a discipline or a practice to master it, to make it one’s own. By that token, Frank is totally immersed in the Work, for he spent more than twenty years living and working at Mendham plus all those other years spent elsewhere. He knows the scene forwards – and probably backwards, too.

So here are his thoughts on what he calls at one point the “perennial philosophy” and at another point the “traditional wisdom.” He also refers to it as “the Source,” “the Great Work,” and “the Great Knowledge.” Indeed, he has a novel way of referring to it in the book’s wordy subtitle: “Reflections on the Teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff and the Perennial Order.” That’s right, the “Perennial Order.” That formulation is new to me. “Order” in the sense of hierarchy of being? “Orders” perhaps in the sense of monastic organization?

A few words about the book itself. The trade paperback is published by Xlibris Corporation in three formats (such are the times): hardcover, softcover, ebook. The work is fairly short, a total of 146 pages, with a preface, introduction, eight chapters, three epilogues, and an index. The attractive painting reproduced on the front cover, which resembles a icon-like cross, a mosaic of pastel colours, is the work of author’s late wife, Beatrice Sinclair. A dozen black-and-white photographs are scattered throughout the book, including the frontispiece portrait of the author, who seems to be giving the viewer a sly look.

I will refrain from commenting on the appropriateness of the title, which is a mouthful of words: “Of the Life Aligned.” The book is indeed an attempt to outline how one man sees the alignment of forces as the basis for a spiritual life in a secular society. His discussions and experiences will ring true for a good number of readers. But rather than second-guess the author and pontificate on such matters, let me offer the reader of this review a précis of the book’s contents, chapter by chapter (with a few extraneous observations thrown in).

In the Preface, Frank explains the book’s double genesis in two life-shattering experiences – what he artfully calls a “brush with the outer darkness” (in the form of a blocked artery that required the insertion of a stent with a serious staph infection to follow) followed by the death of Beatrice Rego, his wife of almost fifty years. These drew him closer to Gurdjieff’s teachings about “the Great Knowledge, ‘the powerful ancient stream of knowledge of being,’ or what is more commonly known as the perennial wisdom.”

I find these terms to be a little odd, in this context, but this is his book and he has spent some fifty years in the Work. He found himself close in spirit to the mystic Meister Eckhart, to Alphonse Levée, and to the non-dualistic thinkers of Hinduism. As for Gurdjieff, “his extraordinary influence continues to grow – and to be acknowledged.” Along the way he pays tribute to friends and mentors, notably philosopher David Appelbaum and Basarab Nicolescu, “theoretical physicist and transdisciplinarian.”

The Introduction finds Frank in a disarming mood. He wishes to be personal, but the personal is suspect: “Granted that the person, to the perennialist, is ultimately only a delusion of the intellect, I must warn the ‘gentle reader’ that this is nevertheless a very personal book.” How does one reconcile the personal with what is necessarily impersonal? You do it this way: “become more interiorized … I need to be still – in all the parts, not just in the head, but also in the body and in the feeling.” He effectively quotes Gurdjieff: “When I am not collected, I am simply a piece of meat.”

He follows this passage with an allusive account of the effects of a sitting: “And I begin to sense that I’m here to be the link between this current of life and this other, unknown vertical dimension. I need to respect that, and respect that in my neighbour.” It is being done “for Presence” (the noun is capitalized and italicized). For this to happen there must be “this new alignment between the head, the body, and the feeling.” There is no mention in this context of Madame de Salzmann who introduced the “sittings” to the Work – or re-introduced them.

In a roundabout way Frank admits to his own limitations and conceivably to those of the Work itself. He writes, “I am convinced that the aim of any real search is not simply to get ‘answers.’ Rather, it is the fact that one can enter into the process from which meaning is derived, to be part of the exchange of energies and the play of forces on so many different levels in which esotericism calls one.” This brought to mind the grace of Subud’s latihan rather than the effort required for self-observation and self-awareness.

Chapter 1: Who Is the Teacher? I have always felt that proceeding along the so-called spiritual path should be imagined as a journey that takes place within (à la Jules Verne’s “A Journey to the Centre of the Earth”) rather than as a journey that takes place without (à la Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days”). The treasures to be found have been there all the time, not precisely hidden, but underfoot and unobserved, like the “termas” of Tibet.

Frank may feel the same way as I do. He differentiates between the Creator and “the Beyond-Being.” He writes, “To repeat: The ‘I Am’ is not the Absolute, but rather it is still the relative Absolute.” As for phrases like “the relative Absolute,” whenever I encounter them, I am reminded of the otherwise indescribable alien artifacts that are called “half-empties” by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky in their science-fiction novel “Roadside Picnic.” Half-empties? Relative Absolutes? The words may have some philosophical value, but they also partake of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt or “Distancing Effect.” The leave the reader wanting to concentrate on them rather than yearning to contemplate what they were coined to represent.

Some wise words are offered about the role of “the teacher,” as distinct from that of the “group leader.” He writes, “I was always struck by the way in which Madame de Salzmann, when we had truly worked and the quality of attention had been raised to an intensity in which our little egoisms no longer counted, would say that she felt ‘Mr. Gurdjieff is here.’” Another great teacher was Michel de Salzmann. The mother and son made possible “the underpinning of the return to the Source.” If this chapter can be summarized in four words, those four words are “Presence is the Teacher.”

Chapter 2: A Return to Tradition. The contents of this chapter come from an interview with the author conducted by Jeff Zaleski and Tracy Cochran published in “Parabola” (Winter 2007). Here Frank makes an important point about the nature of Gurdjieff’s contribution: “I did not know Mr. Gurdjieff. But the deeper I have explored his ideas and his principles as they have been conveyed to me by those who studied with him, the more I am convinced that he has indeed brought us ‘fragments of an unknown teaching.’”

He continues, interestingly: “It wasn’t that he collected bits and pieces from the great traditions and contrived some proprietary teaching. Rather, he seems to have been able to gain access to several primary sources and to make their knowledge authentically his own.” He adds, “He called it the Great Knowledge, ‘the powerful ancient stream of true knowledge of being.’”

Much of the rest of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of “a return to Tradition.” The names of Augustine, Michel Conge, Eckhart, Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, and Nicolescu are mentioned in this context. So are words familiar to practitioners of the Fourth Way: conscience, “merciless Heropass,” remorse, intention, “Obligolnian Strivings,” “His Endlessness,” “a centering element,” as well as the “first exercise,” which is “I Am.”

Intriguingly, some light is shed on “Gurdjieff’s warning about the use of electricity – the whole planet is ‘wired’ now.” What are the consequences? Another area of interest is “sitting practice” which is mentioned in the context of Zen and Vipassana. “One can experience, especially but not exclusively in sittings, that a certain alignment can appear through one’s active participation but only if there is no attempt at ‘doing.’”

In the back of Frank’s mind is the need to make a major distinction: “His whole extraordinary cosmological teaching appears to me to point to the timeless, perennial understanding that beyond God is the Godhead, which is the unfathomable source of all.” I find this need to be a little odd in that there are now posited two levels of being rather than one, and about one of them nothing may be known or said! However that may be, if there is a succinct message in this chapter, it too may be expressed in four words: “To be more interiorized.”

Chapter 3: A Glimpse of the “Outer Darkness.” This chapter is a gripping account of Frank’s angioplastic procedure followed by a very serious staph infection. His period in intensive care was characterized by “a variety of subterranean and subconscious recollections … that I could explain only in terms of G.I. Gurdjieff’s psychological teachings.” He shared some of them with his medical specialist who implied that they were imaginings of a writer’s mind.

Frank engaged in imaginary conversations and had “impressions being registered by, and in, one or other part of what Gurdjieff referred to as the three-brained structure of the mind, the body, and the feeling.” He found, intriguingly, that these impressions “were being experienced, registered, often with extraordinary clarity,” while unconscious. He concluded that “functions can exist without consciousness.” This is a sensation that has been widely reported in the literature of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and analytic psychology, and it does seem ominous in its implications.

There were as well dreams and delusions and these may have been caused by the prescribed SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and they may have contributed to what he felt were Bardo-like states. One delusion of his “addled mind” was that a psychiatrist friend was imagined to be a “Prince of the Church.” As Frank concludes these pages of self-appraisal: “The staph infection can be a murderous and totally disorienting thing.” It took some courage to write so openly about disorientation and its possible orientation to other dimensions of reality or consciousness.

About his inner state at the time, Frank found there to be three elements: “dark energies,” “myself,” and “a silent witness. The third element was “a dispassionate presence, unintrusive and unmoving, and totally impartial to this incredible struggle.” Was the second element (“myself”) a “second body”? Was the first element (“dark energies”) a scattering of drives like those recognized by Freud? Subsequent pages are devoted to some discussion of the self and the soul, the centre, etc.

Beatrice is relieved that Frank is “back to normal,” but he returned with something new, a gift from the “dark energies” that came “unbidden … a sense of Presence.” During convalescence, he described catching an episode of “Nova,” the popular-science television program, and being astonished to learn that when scientists super-cooled atoms, the atoms slowed down to “their lowest energy state.” Frank identified this state with the “dark forces” he had experienced. He concludes, “I have absolutely no doubt about the authenticity of my experience.”

His infirmity left him with “two overarching understandings and imperatives.” One understanding is “a deepened sense of awe at the vast cosmic scheme of creation that Gurdjieff outlined.” The second understanding is the need to work for “perfection in the sense of being.” He refers to the latter as “the sense of verticality … the need for … a return to the Source.”

I found this chapter to be quite moving. It even includes a touch of humour, black humour to be sure. This is evident when he parallels his own misfortunes with those of the late William Segal who barely survived an automobile accident with multiple, life-threatening injuries. Segal practised Zen and was visited by an old roshi who said to him, “One car crash is equivalent to 10,000 sittings.”

Chapter 4: Instruments of the Spirit – I. This chapter is divided into three sections, and the first section is titled “Inferences of a very personal nature about life and death.” Frank’s health was one matter, the death of his wife Beatrice quite another. This chapter focuses on the latter and introduces the name René Guénon (though the index omits this reference on page 37). This surprised me. I seem to recall reading that it was considered bad form for Madame de Salzmann to attend a series of lectures delivered in Switzerland by Jung or Krishnamurti. (Did she even travel to Cairo to confer with Guénon?)

Garnering insights from the Traditionalists seems a little odd to generations of readers influenced by Ouspensky. So I wonder if it will be considered bad form for Frank to mention René Guénon in a non-negative context. After all, the French metaphysician’s followers have nothing but foul words for Gurdjieff. Yet Frank seems to have been influenced by the Traditionalists, the Primordialists, the Perennialists – call the followers of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon what you wish. Indeed, Guénon is described as “the pioneering Traditionalist of the modern world.”

The second section is titled “To Live in Emptiness.” Beatrice’s suffering and death were followed by his own suffering on her behalf and this is the subject of the present section. He considers the notion of “emptiness” and quotes Madame de Salzmann to the effect that Gurdjieff himself admitted to her that in the wee hours of the morning he gnashed his teeth and wept bitter tears. To suffer is to be human. Or better: To be human is to suffer.

The third section is called “To ‘A Man of the Cloth,’” and it consists of a letter about Beatrice’s death that Frank wrote to one of their mutual friends in India. The friend is a guru with a long last name: Swami Jyotirmayananda. Frank discusses the notion, popularized by Spiritualists in the late nineteenth century, that “there is no death.” He sees this in terms of being able to receive finer influences, energies of a higher level, and to regard with equanimity the deterioration of bodies and even coatings of bodies. He quotes the words that Gurdjieff wished for his father’s grave: “I am Thou, Thou art I, we are His.”

What I missed in this chapter, as well as in the relevant chapters of the earlier book “Without Benefit of Clergy,” is a pen-portrait of Beatrice, Frank’s companion for almost fifty years. She was surely a patient and positive woman in her own right, his helpmeet in the months of his greatest stress.

Chapter 5: Instruments of the Spirit – 2. This chapter has the subtitle “On the Invocation of the Name,” and it begins with a reference to a legominism that Frank found in Beatrice’s writings. He approaches it by way of “the metaphysical order” (quoting Alvin Moore Jr.) and man’s “very great purpose,” “the need for being-partkdolg-duty,” or “being efforts.” By this route he finds the invocation “I Am” (in italics) to be a vital component of “the true traditions.”

He writes, “In its broadest possible meaning, I Am is All and Everything, the ultimate, although not exactly the absolute Absolute …. ” He recalls that Gurdjieff had said that “I Am” was “the first exercise in the work to remember oneself (more properly, perhaps, to remember one’s self).” To this end he refers to the “real Christmas present” that Gurdjieff presented to his followers on December 25, 1948, at the Hotel Wellington in New York City. There follows a brief discussion of what took place at that memorable dinner.

Frank’s half-century in the work pays dividends in unexpected ways. He recounts how Michel de Salzmann give him a variation on the “I Am” exercise: “On the slip of paper which he had handed to me with what I recall was a one-sentence description of the exercise as being ‘food for the astral body’ were one or two other numbered exercises attributed to Gurdjieff. So it was authentic, from the source. This was not something that Dr. de Salzmann had made up.” These pages are rich in speculation and association, best read as he presents them rather than in a paraphrase.

Chapter 6: Instruments of the Spirit – 3. There are two sections to this chapter: “Of Presence and Prayer” and “Dear Sir, ‘I Am.’” Frank writes, “As so often in my experience, the confirmation of the transformative possibilities inherent in the Gurdjieff Work – and in the invocation of I Am in particular – have come to me in the most unexpected moments.” What follows is a vivid account of “a new inner alignment … myself aligned to the ‘flow.’” He is not only surrounded by but also suffused by the sense of presence. Then he takes possession of it by adding a vivid two-word sentence of his own: “It shimmered.”

To prove his point, he quotes from the privately circulated yet influential letter addressed by Michel de Salzmann to the groups in Israel in 1999: “Mr. Gurdjieff reminds us at every moment that we are created BY, and created FOR, this PRESENCE, that we were meant to live under its influence and to gradually become true human beings.”

The feeling I had reading this section is that Frank is elbowing his way into the province of prayer. Indeed, it is difficult to read this chapter’s second section without that word hovering over the account of “sensations” which stress how “a higher or a finer quality of energy” needs “in turn to reverberate or resonate in harmony with the other parts – the mind and the feeling – as a cohesive whole.” The discussion here leads me to believe that some day Frank may take the time to compose his own glossary of spiritual terms, as he is a clear writer, a fair philosopher, and a serious seeker.

Chapter 7: Instruments of the Spirit – 4. This chapter consists of two sections, “The Practice of the Presence of God” and “A Message from Beyond the Grave.” Frank refers to these sections as his “personal meditation on life and death and the role that we humans are called to play.” Here he discusses how Beatrice, who was raised a Roman Catholic, found solace in the writings of Brother Lawrence, a lay brother of the Carmelites in Paris in 1666, whose spiritual handbook bears the provocative title “The Practice of the Presence of God.”

Frank missed his calling – he could have been an event planner – because he found great meaning in planning the program for Beatrice’s memorial service . I will spare the reader the details of the Order of Service, which took place at the Presbyterian Church, Palisades, N.Y., on 6 September 2008, except to note in passing that all the passages that were chosen to be read on that occasion remain specially resonant to followers of the Work.

Frank finds that he has “the need to understand the relation between the immensity of I Am and the ‘non-inherent existence’ of the human being. What is it that enables the spirit to become a force that quickens?” Beatrice’s answer to this question was an observation made by Madame de Salzmann in 1990: “When we receive this grace, we are no longer alone.” Frank concludes, “‘This grace’ could only be that of Presence.” To make his point, he quotes from Guénon, Sri Anirvan, and Ravi Ravindra.

Chapter 8: Intimations of Grace. The author’s own struggles with defining “the comprehensive reality of the Godhead as distinct from the Creator, and the evident need in the great scheme of things for instruments of the spirit – instruments of ‘the multiple states of the Being.’” References are made to Alvin Moore, Jr., Meister Eckhart, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, and Gurdjieff.

Along the way he discusses how the public views Gurdjieff, knowing nothing of “a quickening spirit.” He then discusses what Gurdjieff has to say about the spirit in “Tales” and enters into deep waters when he quotes Gurdjieff as saying that “fishing in the stream of time” one could catch enough to “become enduring.”

Epilogue – 1: G.I. Gurdjieff’s Teaching in the Modern World. This chapter is something of an anti-climax (following the deep sea fishing of the previous chapter). It takes the form of an interview conducted by Tony Lahoud, editor of the website The interview is a model of its kind, a leisurely introduction to various aspects of the work, including a brief discussion of Gurdjieff’s indebtedness to Sufism. Frank makes his characteristic point: “His teaching is not a new religion. Rather, it is a return to tradition.” There is even a discussion of “schools,” harkening back to Ouspensky’s certainty of the need for them.

Epilogue 2: Some Principles of the Return. This section, too, is an interview, one with the radio producer Jim Metzner. There are mentions of “levels of being” and references to the insights of Michel Conge. Frank talks about “the growing sense of community – of a sacred community” that grows out of the process of the purification of the centres. “Every great teaching begins with a central revelation of the Uncreated Source. Gurdjieff is clearly an exemplar of this overarching lineage.”

Frank raises the issue that “there is always now the danger in Gurdjieff’s teaching that things become stratified, almost ecclesiastical in their forms.” Automatically he returns to the question, “Who is the Teacher?” His answer this time is surprising: “It was a dramatic discovery for me to realize that, in the absence of the prophet, or the master, or the messenger from above, it is Presence that is the teacher.” He is hesitant to call it “the presence of God” because “there are gradations of Presence – from the Ultimate Uncreated itself down to where we find ourselves in this vast range of being. But Presence, I am convinced, is the guide – it’s the evidence of the Higher.”

It is difficult to argue with such conviction – as well as fruitless. Offhand I would add that it is also difficult to distinguish this emphasis within the Work from the Vipassana Movement of Theravada Buddhism or from the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy of Jon Kabat-Zinn of the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. No doubt practitioners of the Work know that there are intentional differences, but Frank does not spend time discussing these.

Frank does refer to the description of “the so-called sittings” as “an Alice in Wonderland dispensation,” quoting James Moore in doing so. He defends the “sittings” of the charge, adding that he values “the people who are challenging those of us who are quietly labouring in the mainstream, compelling us to work ever more rigorously and objectively.”

Epilogue – 3 reprints the Order of Service for the “Memorial Program for Beatrice Sinclair.” After reading Frank’s two books, I still have but the haziest idea of what Beatrice was really like. (He shares this unwillingness to go into detail with Dante.) There is an Index but an incomplete one.

The larger issue is that of the purpose of the vehicles for the teaching: the Institute, the Society, and the Foundation. The teaching has been in the West for a century now, which is a long time for any particular theory and practice no matter how “traditional.” How much has it changed? Is it changing now? Will it change much more in the future? Will the Gurdjieff Work survive? In what form or forms?

Frank answers a couple of these questions in his own distinctive way: “That is why I believe that, in spite of the seemingly inevitable ‘institutionalizaton’ and even ‘churchification’ and ‘religionification’ of the Foundations, it is there that the Gurdjieff teaching probably has the best chance of being kept alive.”

Let me add, as a reader, based on the wealth of experience recorded in “Of the Life Aligned,” that Frank is probably right, and that he is probably the fellow who is best constituted and positioned to tackle the task of keeping it alive, if that is an aim that may be realized in our day and age (aka “merciless Heropass”). If not him, who?

John Robert Colombo has been called “Canada’s Mr. Mystery” for his compilations of the country’s ghost stories, as well as “the Canadian Bartlett” for his collections of “quotable Canadiana.” With Dr. Cyril Greenland, he recently compiled “Walt Whitman’s Canada,” which examines the American poet’s friendship with the Dr. R.M. Bucke, Canadian alienist and author of the book “Cosmic Consciousness.”



looks at the publications of     SEYMOUR B. GINSBURG

The thought of G.I. Gurdjieff comes to mind whenever I drive into a shopping plaza where there is a sign that says Toys “R” Us. There are almost two dozen of these toy supermarkets in the Greater Toronto Area, where I live, all of them “reminders” of the man and his message. Canada alone has a total of seventy outlets at the present time. If you live in the United States, there are 860 occasions to remember Mr. Gurdjieff, but only seventy-six if you live in the United Kingdom. Non-U.S. outlets around the world offer an additional 716 opportunities for remembering.

All of this may seem a little sly or silly but for the fact that Toys “R” Us acts for me as a reminder to remember myself and it could do the same for other people too. The reason it comes to mind is that there is an interesting connection between the toy store chain and Seymour B. Ginsburg, whose contribution to the Work is an important one. As unlikely as it might seem, Ginsburg was the co-founder of the parent company and the first president of the company we know as Toys “R” Us. That was decades ago so I assume that he is no longer involved with running the highly successful chain of outlets.

Here is some background on the man, all taken from published sources. Sy Ginsburg (as he is usually greeted) was born in Chicago in 1934 and studied accountancy and law at Northwestern University. In addition to his success in the world of commerce, he has made his mark in at least five related fields of endeavour.

First, he served as President of the Theosophical Society in South Florida. Second, he was a co-founder of the Gurdjieff Institute of Florida. Third, he and his wife Dorothy Usiskin have been mainstays of the series of annual All & Everything Conferences, now in their fifteenth year. Fourth, he has drawn attention to the spiritual contribution of a modern-day Indian guru known as Sri Madhava Ashish. Fifth, he is the author of a number of books that are not only interesting but significant.

There is no way for me to survey all of these fields of accomplishment. Instead, I will describe Sy’s publications and focus on Sy Ginsberg’s relationship with “Ashishda” (as he is known). I will do so out of chronological order; I will also note that I met Sy at the A&E Conference held in Toronto in April 2009 and hence took the opportunity to observe him in action. I found him, unlike many students and practitioners of the Work, to be direct and dynamic. He knows his own mind and he understands precisely what he is doing.

These features are characteristic of his most important if overlooked publication, the one titled “Gurdjieff Unveiled.” There is a subtitle “An Overview and Introduction to the Teaching” as well as a sub-subtitle “For the beginning student, for the inquiring seeker, and for the simply curious.” The sub-subtitle covers a lot of ground, as does the text itself. It is a short work, not more than 150 pages in all, and the paperback copy that I purchased  was published in 2005 by Lighthouse Editions, and is still in print on demand format ISBN 1-90499801 0.

From time to time I am asked to recommend a book on the Work. When that happens I automatically nominate P.D. Ouspensky’s “The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution,” for it is short, straight-forward, and uncompromising. Along with its companion book “The Cosmology of Man’s Possible Evolution,” it certainly captures the essence of the Work in Europe in the interwar period. Knowledgeable people often recommend books that convey the “taste” of the spirit of the Work since the 1950s, memoirs written by participants like Henri Tracol.

From now on I will recommend Sy’s “Gurdjieff Unveiled” as not only an introductory work but also as a “continuing” work. I recommend it despite its title which I assume reflects the author’s interest in Theosophy, and while I may yearn to behold “Isis Unveiled” (the reference is to H.P. Blavatsky’s major book written prior to “The Secret Doctrine”), I have never lusted to see Mr. Gurdjieff “unveiled.” It certainly offers information on the ins and the outs of the Work in clear and contemporary prose. Indeed, it is something of a handbook.

The work is dedicated to Nicolas Tereshchenko, “A serious seeker, a true scholar, a friend.” In addition to tables and diagrams and four appendices, it offers the reader six chapters, quaintly called “Lessons.” For general interest, I will list the titles of the chapters so the experienced reader will see at a glance where the book begins and ends.

Lesson 1: Who am I?

Lesson 2: The Expansion of Consciousness

Lesson 3: The Transmutation of Energy

Lesson 4: The Conservation of Energy

Lesson 5: Meditation

Lesson 6: Gurdjieff Groups

In these chapters I found considerable information with insights that I had not encountered elsewhere, at least in this form. Fresh material also appears in the four appendices. The first appendix tries to answer the question “Who are you Mister Gurdjieff” and includes detailed information on how the Mahatma Letters, identified with the Theosophical Society, were edited at the Priory at Fontainebleau. The second appendix breaks new ground in relating “the study of dreams” to the Work and offers techniques for remembering dreams, approaches that do work.

The third appendix examines the Exercises in genuine detail and in doing so offers lists of words for human concerns and failings keyed to passages in “Tales.” This is a feature that I have not seen elsewhere in the Canon. As well there are Notes, Bibliography, and a detailed Index. The book is quite a handful, hence I call it a Gurdjieff handbook.

On another occasion I may draw attention to some of the insights that appear in the pages of “Gurdjieff Unveiled,” but on this occasion I want to note Sy’s other books. But even they deserve more time and space than I have at hand. Here goes. The author’s first book bears the daunting title “In Search of the Unitive Vision” and is subtitled “Letters of Sri Madhava Ashish to an American Businessman 1978-1997).” It is a compilation with a commentary and it appeared in a handsome, trade paperback published in 2001 by New Paradigm Books of Boca Raton, Florida.

The text of almost 300 pages consists of the above-mentioned letters but also descriptive passages, narrative accounts, diary entries, personal essays, and a series of questions and answers about spiritual matters. In fact, the book is indexed and I assume that pretty well every subject of interest to the student of consciousness studies is mentioned at some point in these pages.

Sy spent almost twenty years in contact with Madhava Ashish, making annual visits, beginning in the year 1978, to Ashishda’s ashram at Mirtola, near Almora, in the Himalayan foothills of Northern India. Indeed, it was Ashishda who directed the young “American businessman” to seek out the teachings of Gurdjieff. The book is a record of their friendship, not so much between equals as much as it was and remains between fellow-seekers, one of whom was in a position to inspire and direct the other.

To confuse matters a little, “In Search of the Unitive Vision” has been reprinted with another title and subtitle: “The Masters Speak: An American Businessman Encounters Ashish and Gurdjieff.” This is brand-new edition, well printed, published in 2010 by Quest Books: Theosophical Publishing House of Wheaton, Illinois. The differences between the two editions seem minor, mainly matters of presentation.

Whichever edition is used, the portrait that emerges of Ashishda is one that is “in the round.” Judging by the descriptions and photographs that are reproduced in these pages, Sri Madhava Ashish was Central Casting’s ideal guru: tall, dark-haired, handsome … and English. Ashishda was born Alexander Phipps (1920-1997) and educated in English public schools. On a trip to the subcontinent he met and became a disciple of Sri Krishna Prem (1898-1965), another Englishman, this one born Ronald Henry Nixon, a Theosophist in background.

Prem and Ashishda, both sannyasins of the Vaishanava tradition of Hinduism, became influential spiritual leaders, thinkers, and practitioners with much to offer to those Westerners who were drawn to their ashrams. They themselves had been influenced by Theosophy, as is apparent when one reads the essays in “What Is Man?”

“What Is Man?” is subtitled “Selected Writings of Sri Madhava Ashish.” This is another handsome publication, issued in 2010 by Penguin Books, New Delhi. It is also about 300 pages long and begins with a Foreword contributed by Dr. Karan Singh who goes unidentified (but whom Wikipedia informs me was “the last ruler of the princely state of Kashmir and Jammu” and served as India’s Ambassador to the United States in 1990-91). It is a perfunctory Foreword.

The Preface, anything but perfunctory, was written by Sy along with three other compilers: Satish Datt Pandey, Seán Mahoney, Pervin Mahoney. They quote a passage from one of Ashishda’s letters to Sy: “Give me all the teachings about man and the universe and I will accept them only if I can be shown one man who embodies and validates these teachings. One follows the teachings back to their source in the man whose truth affirms the truth of the teachings.” I am sure that most people instinctively feel the same way: validation of the tradition lies in its embodiment and expression in the human being. On this basis, Ashishda is one such embodiment and expression.

The texts are organized in four parts. Part I, called “Introduction,” consists of Ashishda’s appreciative memoir of his teacher, Sri Krishna Prem. Part II is titled “The Path” and it collects seven essays on such subjects as “The Value of Uncertainty” and “The Sadhu in Our Lives.” Part III has been titled “The Inner Inquiry” and contains of eight miscellaneous essays including one called “Big Dreams” and another intriguingly titled “Quacking Oranges and Cloned Einsteins.” Part IV, “The Doctrine,” brings together five essays that will be familiar to Theosophists, notably “‘The Secret Doctrine’ as a Contribution to World Thought” and “The Fifth Race.” Finally, there is an two-page appendix of some historical, textual interest devoted to Madame Blavatsky’s “The Stanzas of Dzyan.”

The well-written copy on the back cover of “What Is Man?” notes how unusual is the message in this book: “It has little to do with conventional religions, but can be called secular spirituality. It points out the folly of viewing the cosmos in material terms alone, encouraging us to open our minds and see that our lives are not restricted to the closed box of purely physical existence.” The copywriters mercifully avoided the words “New Age.”

There is a clarity to Ashishda’s prose is reasonable and at the same time reassuring. He composes the sort of prose that I can imagine Aldous Huxley enjoying or Gerald Heard writing. At times it verges on being a sermon; at times it reminds me of the inspired and inspiring “talks” of J. Krishnamurti. It is a prose addressed to man’s best nature and it resists quotation; there are no high moments, for there is a general level of elevation. It is timeless prose if by that description is meant that it is sounds somewhat old-fashioned.

The essay “Man, Son of Man” sounds this note: “Columbus would never have discovered the Americas had he not disbelieved in the flatness of the world, nor shall we discover this other New World if we do not challenge the equally ‘flat’ world view of our present-day science and set out on a voyage of discovery in a direction and dimension where science sees nothing to discover.”

In summary: Seekers and readers have reasons to be grateful to Seymour B. Ginsburg for his many-fold contributions, including writing a spot-on introduction to the teaching called “Gurdjieff Unveiled” and for introducing readers in the English-speaking world to the traditional yet timely message of Sri Madhava Ashish. Driving past a Toys “R” Us outlet brought all of this to mind!

John Robert Colombo, known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana, reviews books for this blog on “consciousness studies.” Scheduled to appear in the fall is “The Sumuru Omnibus,” his compilation of the five novels written about the villainess Sumuru the English mystery-story writer Sax Rohmer.






Neither the Work nor the expression of the Work in any given time and at any given place is sacrosanct or immune to the ravages and revelations of time. Its demystification involves, in a way, its remythologization, and this is proceeding apace in our time.

Part of the process is the shedding of light on its early history through historical research, and on its recent past through the publication of books of studies and memoirs. The historical classics are “The Harmonious Circle” written by James Webb and the two books by Paul Beekman Taylor titled “A New Life” and “Gurdjieff’s America.” Among modern-day classics is the amazing tome titled “‘It’s Up to Ourselves” written by Jessmin and Dushka Howarth. (I celebrated the publication of the latter volume, largely a scrapbook with a multitude of snapshots, on this blog – Sophia Wellbeloved’s blog – a month or so ago.)

None of these works (or others like them) has ever attain the scriptural status of “All and Everything” or even the canonical status of “Meetings with Remarkable Men” and “In Search of the Miraculous.” Yet the light they shed on the Work is a human glow which does not bathe it in a sense of wonder as much as it does imbue it with a sense of personal gratitude for assistance received and services rendered. Frank R. Sinclair has contributed two books to this class of publication: “Without Benefit of Clergy” and “Of the Life Aligned: Reflections on the Teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff and the Perennial Order.”

I have yet to see a copy of the second of these two books, but after reading the first one I will certainly read the second. The book at hand, the first one, is badly titled and poorly subtitled, but my criticism ends there – at the title page. The other 295 pages are fine by me, anecdotal in the extreme, as I will demonstrate later.

It is a trade paperback. It measures 8″ x 5.5.” and it has a full-colour cover and there are close to forty black-and-white photographs, mainly snapshots, almost all of them new to me and to most readers. The volume has been attractively designed and issued by Xlibris. There are two editions, the first in 2005, the second in 2009, which is the one that I purchased.

The title is “Without Benefit of Clergy.” The subtitle is “Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching.” Both title and subtitle give me pause. The title attracted my attention (as should all good titles) so I decided to determine why I feel it is inappropriate. I have always associated the phrase “without benefit of clergy” with immorality – living together in sin, without the sacramental blessing of the church – and I was partially right in doing so, as well as partially wrong.

In English jurisprudence, members of the clergy were not subjected to secular laws, whether criminal or civil, but were permitted to demand to be tried under canon law. This immunity was abolished centuries ago. In 1890, Rudyard Kipling employed the phrase “without benefit of clergy” for the title of a short story set in India about the Englishman named Holden and the Muslim woman named Ameer who “shack up” (1950s expression; the 1980s expression still current is “living together”) and how their unsanctioned union brought wrack and ruin to both conservative communities. The plot proved sufficiently potent and the phrase so popular that in 1921 it became the title of a the silent movie “Without Benefit of Clergy” that starred Boris Karloff, of all people. So my original reaction to the phrase – sexual congress outside the bonds of marriage – is probably that of most people unschooled in the intricacies of English jurisprudence.

I am not convinced that the title of this book of memoirs sheds any light at all on the subject of these memoirs. Is the author telling us that his memoirs are scandalous or shocking? If so, then he is wrong. And then there is the matter of the subtitle which also irks me: “Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching.” Is the world of footnotes divided between those that are “personal” and those that are “impersonal”? Not that I am aware. Who would enjoy reading a book of footnotes? (Well, the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges may. Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science-fiction writer, may. James Moore, the precisian, who is the author of “Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered,” may, as well. But surely not the general reader with a taste for the world of the Work.)

I have done a lot of carping. It is time now for some celebration. Although I have yet to meet the author, I will take the liberty of referring to Frank R. Sinclair by his Christian name. The back-cover photograph of Frank shows him with a straw hat perched on the back of his head, rather like the humourist Stephen Leacock. It seems to give the reader leave to refer to him as Frank. If it does not do that, I have only to turn to the prose itself which is informal and off-the-cuff enough to confer permission. In fact, at one point – when Frank was asked to give the reading from the Bible at Lord Pentland’s funeral service (held in a Roman Catholic church, oddly) – he refers to himself as “a nonentity of the first order.” Now that is excessive!

In this memoir there are thirteen chapters, two pages of acknowledgements, prefaces to the first and the second editions, not to mention three appendices and one index. All of these sections are of some interest. But in the interest of brevity, I am going to short change the first half of the book and concentrate on the second half for it is largely devoted to pen portraits of personalities in the Work who have had an influence on Frank’s inner life and his outlook on life.

Readers who are interested in the early life of a journalist who was born in the shadow of Table Mountain in a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1929, and who found some twenty-eight years ago that his spiritual quest had taken him to Franklin Farms at Mendham in New Jersey, and Armonk in Westchester Country in New York State, and at the Gurdjieff Foundation on Manhattan Island, will find these early pages to be a treat.

In a sense he never did leave these sheltered communities, yet he emerged in the 1980s as the successor of Dr. William Welch as the President of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York. He has headed the Gurdjieff Fountain since 2009 and lives at Grand View-on-Hudson, a town of some 300 people with a high median income north of New York City. Its most notable inhabitant after Frank is Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

From the age of eight, Frank experienced “a blaze of light” while questioning the nature of God. Thereafter he had a few near encounters with death. He graduated from the University of Cape Town, majoring in philosophy, and spent eight years as a journalist with the Cape Times afternoon newspaper. He writes about his feelings of “anguish and heartaches and sufferings” at the time, but these came to an end, symbolically at least, when he encountered an essay by J.G. Bennett called “Living in Five Dimensions,” was assigned to review Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider,” studied “In Search of the Miraculous,” and identified with the verses of the deaf South African poet John Howland Beaumont, who had a mystical connection with nature: “I did but sleep – ah me, I dream, I dream!”

About 1956, Frank resolved to seek out the source of “the teaching” in a surprisingly direct way. He placed an advertisement in the personal columns of the rival Cape Argus afternoon paper to “make contact,” and to his surprise a reader of the paper mailed him a copy of “All and Everything” along with a note: “From one human being to another, that both may have more of themselves to give.” The benefactor’s identity remains unknown to this day.

He eventually met an English gentleman named B. Fairfax Hall who was an enthusiast for private printing. In England in 1930 he had founded and operated The Stourton Press, named after the family’s house in Westminster. Hall was a member of P.D. Ouspensky’s circle before he immigrated to South Africa. In 1947 he began to print books, including Ouspensky’s “A Record of Meetings,” in an edition of twenty copies in 1951, and “The Struggle of the Magicians,” in an edition of ten copies in 1957.

Frank already knew about editorial matters; from Hall he learned how to operate an Albion printing press, which served him well when he began his own private printing at Armonk, N.Y., using the imprint Antic Press. Hall, who had compiled “The Fourth Way” from Ouspensky’s lectures, arranged for Frank to reside for two months at Madame Ouspensky’s 300-acre estate at Franklin Farms. Frank left South Africa in 1958 and did not return for some twenty years.

Frank worked and studied at Franklin Farms and there met a young woman named Beatrice Rego, a teacher, and they married. No description of the bride is offered, but there is a long account of Frank’s out-of-body experience immediately prior to the wedding ceremony. There is also a long account of life at the residence, with a fleeting reference to Madame Ouspensky (who remained in her bedroom chamber so he never set eyes on her while she was still alive) and Madame Olga de Hartmann, who came and went and once referred to him as “a piece of furniture,” but there is a very detailed account of the first visit of Madame de Salzmann.

“Here, for the first time in my life, was someone who spoke to my deepest concerns, who undeniably had an inner presence (a thought that I had no way of articulating at that time) and at the same time actually ‘included’ me in that presence, who listened in some unfathomable way, and who actually ‘saw’ me before her and spoke to me as a real human being.”

In many ways the heart and core of the book is the account of the experiences that occurred to the impressionable young South African at Franklin Farms, experiences that are unhesitatingly described as “profound and miraculous.” One such experience, following an altercation with Madame Ouspensky’s unstable grandson Lonya Savitsky. It was accompanied by intense mortification:

“But lying there prone on the floor, I suffered terrible remorse and shame at having behaved as I had done, _and at the same time_ I was witness to the miraculous appearance in me of this brilliant, golden being. It glowed in a surrounding vivid blaze of light.” He calls it “the phenomenon of the golden embryo.” Pages are devoted to examining the experience, with its configuration of the Kesdjan body, from the vantage-points of different religious and cultural traditions.

This takes us to Chapter 6 which is a departure from the norm, for it consists of the account kept by Frank’s wife Beatrice of her impressions of the various appearances of the elderly Gurdjieff in New York. Her brief memoir is full of interesting details. Overall she found Mr. Gurdjieff to be a man of “tremendous energy; anything in this life seemed possible.”

Chapter 7 is a remarkable tribute to a veteran of the Work named Martin W. Benson who is a jack-of-all-trades and someone who seems to be “all essence.” Originally a puzzle to Frank, Benson became what might be called a “best friend” for his twelve years of apprenticeship at Mendham and Armonk.

Chapter 8 is in many ways the counterpart of Chapter 7, for it is a sustained tribute to Frank’s friendship with Thomas Vivian Forman, a Cambridge-trained specialist in agriculture as well as military intelligence. In many ways, too, Forman is the counterpart of Benson – a balance between personality and essence. Frank’s love of people glows in these portraits.

Chapter 9 is titled “Annals of the Antic Press” and it describes Frank’s work in the icehouse at Armonk where, among other books, a small band of editors, designers, compositors, and press operators printed “Pronunciation Guide for Words Invented by Gurdjieff” in 1984, the forerunner of the much expanded edition issued by the Traditional Studies Press in Toronto.

By now it should be apparent that Frank is an appreciator of people. To my mind the outstanding section of his memoirs is Chapter 10 which is titled “John Pentland: The Lordly Line of High Sinclair.” Lord Pentland, chief of the clan and a scion of the illustrious Sinclair line (which seems not to include our author Frank Sinclair), was Mr. Gurdjieff’s appointee to oversee the Work in the United States. In these pages the author describes a number of the close and almost accidental encounters that he had with Pentland between 1958 and the latter’s death in 1984.

The author has no problem with Pentland’s rapier-like wit, for he felt, intriguingly, that when Pentland glared at him and wielded it, Pentland “gave him ‘his work.’” It is an interesting passage and perhaps it hinges on the somewhat off-the-cuff statement that Pentland was “old enough to be his father.” It seems Lord Pentland was the grandson the Marquis of Aberdeen, the seventh Governor General of Canada, as well as part of the family of the Earl of Elgin, an even earlier Governor General. Perhaps it was from this aristocratic tradition that he learned the arts of diplomacy – certainly of use in Work circles!

I feel that this chapter about “this remarkable and unusual man” is the “still point” of the memoirs. The next two biographical chapters are anti-climaxes, though they do have interesting dimensions. Chapter 11 is devoted to “Bill Segal: The Radical Reorientation,” and it presents this multi-talented man as “a class act.” Segal was the epitome of the active man, and even after being nearly crushed to death an automobile accident, he emerged almost as active as ever. Sinclair writes, neatly, that Segal was “humbled both in his pride and in his prime.”

Chapter 12 is titled “Jeanne de Salzmann: A Compelling Call” and it seems to me to be an apologia for the second half of Madame de Salzmann’s life. “The Unknown does not yield itself through abundant description,” Frank writes, so the reader who does not have prior knowledge of her life and work will be at sea when it comes to understanding what Frank is writing about.

I take it that he has two themes: the first is the role of the institution vis-à-vis the individual; the second is the espousal of the role of grace rather than effort and of flow rather than effort – to express it directly – that is represented by her from the death of Mr. Gurdjieff at a probable age of eighty-three in 1949 and Madame’s death at the ripe old age of 101 in 1990. Madame can do no wrong.

“I dare say,” he writes gingerly, “that when her own notes are collated and published, there will be surprising indications of the precision with which she followed the movement of the attention and the work for Presence.” As it happens, extracts from Madame’s notebooks are about to be issued by Shambhala Publications under the title “The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff,” so we will have the opportunity to judge for ourselves.

Frank is obviously devoted to Madame and he accepts her direction for the work, its “single grand verity,” which he takes pains and pages to trace back to Mr. Gurdjieff’s talks in New York, the first one on Dec. 19, 1930, and the second one on Dec. 25, 1948. The exposition in these pages is more associative than it is disciplined, so there is little doubt that he feels that what she was doing she was doing consciously and with authorization. “Madame Jeanne de Salzmann brought neither a New Work nor an Old Work, but only Gurdjieff’s Work.”

I will pass over Chapter 13, “Some Random Inferences,” because the contents are indeed random (to describe them would be to try to herd cats) and they turn out to be elaborations of points made earlier in the memoirs. The one new element that I spotted is the effort that Frank is making to enlarge to conception of the Work to include the thoughts of some new-comers along with some overlooked old-comers (to name a few men and women in alphabetical order): Joseph Azize, Michel Conge, Martha Heyneman, James Moore, Jacob Needleman, Ravi Ravindra, Sophia Wellbeloved.

Also given some recognition is the contribution of the annual International Humanities Conference (better known as the All & Everything Conference) as well as Traditionalist thinkers like Titus Burkhardt and their semi-annual publication, the Vancouver-based “Sacred Web.” This is close to an ecumenical touch, and perhaps it is a daring one.

Throughout Frank retains his modesty and the projects the air of constant amazement associated with Alice in Wonderland. “I did not drink Armagnac with Gurdjieff,” he writes, amusingly. “I belong to the post-Gurdjieff era, not even remotely a Saul among the Apostles, but a fellow traveler, feeding from those who, like Madame de Salzmann, had been before.”

The second edition of the memoirs ends with three appendices as well as a nominal index. Two of the appendices consist of reviews of the first edition of the book. The first review is a once-over-lightly appreciation by David Appelbaum. It originally appeared in “Parabola,” as did the lively interview with Frank on the subject of “Who Is the Teacher?”

The third appendix consists, surprisingly, of a review amusingly titled “The Guide for the Perplexed” and posted on by its author, biographer James Moore. I found it to be one of the book’s highlights, in the sense that its tone and style are totally at odds with Frank’s. Yet it hits the right note when in an impish mood Moore describes Frank as “a regular-kinda-guy whose pride in his modesty attains oxymoronic heights.”

Had Frank been born under the shadow of the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia, rather than in the shadow of Table Rock, South Africa, I would be inclined to describe him as “a bloke.” Whatever the description, he is a sensitive fellow and “Without Benefit of Clergy” is certainly an entertaining and I believe honest account of one man’s rather unusual spiritual quest. He demystifies by remythologizing.

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist who is known across Canada for his popular reference books. He writes about Work-related publications for this blog. His latest publication is “Walt Whitman’s Canada,” a book-length, documentary-style account of the American poet’s tour of Central and Eastern Canada in the Summer of 1880. Colombo’s website is < www . colombo – plus . ca >

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