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Azize Review: The Forgotten Language of Children

Joseph Azize

Joseph.Azize@gmail.com

The Forgotten Language of Children

Author: Lilian Firestone

Published: New York, 2010

{This is a reasonably lengthy article, as the book provides opportunities to discuss some significant issues: indeed, it almost demands serious discussion. I commence with an overview of the book and its contents. In Part 2, I outline the “Henry” story. Part 3 provides a critique. Part 4 includes some further ideas on being with children, while the final section, headed “Conscience”, is perhaps the most important part of the review. I then attach some brief extracts from Traherne’s “Centuries”. The length of the review will have been worthwhile if it introduces a few more people to Traherne’s writing. Joseph Azize, Joseph.Azize@gmail.com, 24 September 2010}.

1 Overview and Contents

This book is vivid and profound. It relates Firestone’s personal history of activities with children under the auspices of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York. Because it’s also meant to be a point of departure for one’s own discoveries, it bears a certain promise. When one reads a record like this, one feels that because new understandings and ways of relating were possible for those people, something corresponding is possible now for us. Our experiences will not be identical to Firestone’s, but they may, nonetheless, be analogous in that they’re oriented towards “essence values”, in Gurdjieff’s terms. Like any good history, this one silently invites us to ponder our own histories, to challenge our understanding, and to be responsible for living what we’ve learned.

As the title indicates, Firestone believes that children have a language of their own, one which we adults have forgotten. The key to this “language” would appear to be that it’s a tongue where imaginative cues are more important than verbal ones. In Firestone’s words: “what touches them more than words are pictures and images” (p.71). Firestone’s insight may be an application to children of Gurdjieff’s “mentation by thought” and “mentation by form” (Beelzebub, p. 15). Appropriately enough, although the book hardly seems aimed at children, Firestone uses something of the language herself, not only in her simple, sensitive prose, but also in the many photographs. I suspect that she would like to think that the book may hold meaning for some of the children who then participated. Perhaps, too, the once-forgotten language can be a factor in vivifying our adult language, unduly neglectful as it is, at times, of the value of images.

As someone who is fairly painfully aware of how poorly he writes, I admire Firestone for the apparently effortless clarity of her writing. To my mind, the mark of a good writer is that the words on the page flow so easily that the reader receives the meaning as if hearing an ordinary conversation, that is, without having to strain at the formulations or even to be aware that the writer has exercised an art. By those criteria, Firestone is a good writer. Because her style is, as I said, vivid and feeling, I never felt that what she was describing was at all foreign to me. It’s this quality in her writing which invites an imaginative engagement.

The title is, perhaps, the key to the first theme of the book: external communication between adults and children. Firestone’s entire verbal and pictorial record describes a chain of experiments in communication between adults and children. The aptness of the title is an example of Firestone’s ability as a writer.

As I read it, the next theme of the book is internal communication between parts of oneself: higher and lower; emotional, intellectual and organic. We can aim to live more consciously in two directions simultaneously: within ourselves and with others. The two themes seamlessly fit together, and without that fit, one line alone cannot long continue to be productive. I can neither communicate more consciously nor more conscience-ly with children, or with anyone else, unless I myself am more consciously present.

In the end, as Mr Adie said, “all it needs is my presence”. If a person is present when they’re with children, they are bound to have some feeling of themselves in relation to those children. Human communication can and should be marked by increasing honesty, receptivity and respect. In a genuine relationship, our being is evoked, and there’s often a wonder at the mystery of the present, at the unfolding, and at the possibilities.

Forgotten Language” is carefully, even affectionately produced. It’s a handsomely presented hardcover, the cover slip being what I think of as crimson, with an endearing naive drawing of an elephant. The contrasting touches of gold and the banding behind the author’s name on the dust jacket complement the cover almost perfectly, having strength, without being at all overpowering. Just those shades of crimson, gold and white on the cover suggest quietly glowing embers tumbled down from a fire. A little short of 300 pages, well illustrated, and published by Firestone’s own Indications Press, it’s moderately priced at $US40; further reason to see it as a labour of love. I’ve passed it on to an impecunious friend of mine, married with a child, because I think that he’ll find it absorbing and useful, and friends do each other good turns.

It’s arranged around 15 chapters, each with a theme such as “In the Kitchen”, “Money”, “Impressions”, and so on. Each of these chapters has a special interest, and is reasonably self-contained, although one should begin by reading the first two chapters to obtain one’s bearings. As I shall mention, the last chapters have a continuity which close the book. There are sundry appendices and many pages of photographs.

Chapter 3, “Challenges”, is typical of the book. It opens with Gurdjieff’s wise advice to learn one new skill, craft or language each year; an advice which, so far as I know, he gave only to adults. Taking up this advice leads to a “struggle to learn” and a recognition that we’re prone to making “reflexive judgments” and hiding behind the mechanical pretext “I can’t”. In learning new things, they all had to leave “the safety of the known” (47-8), as Firestone says.

Yet, I wonder whether learning a new craft or language does really take anyone so very far out from the safety of shore. It is not, after all, as if they had gone to the Jordanian desert to learn falconry from the Bedouin. As we shall see in the next part of this review, when they had hardly left “the safety of the known” to camp out in Canada in the company of Henry the Micmac Indian, the adults scrambled back to shore as if drowning. I exempt Firestone from this: the account indicates that she struggled admirably against forces too great for her strength as it then was. So, speaking for myself, when I read such phrases as “leaving the safety of the known”, “Children’s Work”, and “leaning on the moment”, I find a certain low level grandiloquence. No matter, it isn’t painful.

As this chapter shows, a significant part of what Firestone and colleagues learnt came through the aid of Jeanne de Salzmann and Peggy Flinsch. De Salzmann advised them to “create an event”, to prepare a challenge, and, most importantly, to be there in the “moment”. In illustrating these events and moments, ample space is devoted to the children’s reflections. One remark which seems typical, was “At the Children’s Work … when you tried something new or from your imagination, nobody corrected you. Nobody said, “You’re wrong”, “You’re stupid” … Instead you were trusted to come up with something of your own, and the adults let you do it” (50).

A critical point came when, striving to understand de Salzmann’s advice to create special conditions, they saw that they themselves “were the special conditions on which everything depended” (52). They aimed for “a dual attention to oneself and the children” (52). This requires impartiality, and that led to an exercise where each would study one child to see whether mind, feeling or body were strongest, weakest, quickest and so on, in that child (53). After this, de Salzmann gave advice which approximates to Gurdjieff’s direction to see children in their potential (53-4). There is much more valuable material like this in chapter 3. Perhaps the acme is found in Jim Nott’s quoting Gurdjieff’s statement that we can repair the past, and that we can remember how we were as children, so coming to a sympathetic understanding of these children (54-5). I especially mention this because it points to a way forward for all of us.

Without repairing the past, we cannot, it seems to me, ever come to conscience. The royal road to individuality is to awaken conscience. And, as Gurdjieff said, behind real “I” lies God. What human aim would not be related to the beatific vision? Gurdjieff said as much in different terms when, in respect of the Third Series, he said that he aimed “to share the possibilities I had discovered of touching reality and, if so desired, even merging with it.”

My own view is that what readers can extrapolate from this volume will probably be more valuable as a new attitude, or even as a mood, than as statements of principle. And I say that knowing full well that the general principles cited from Gurdjieff and de Salzmann are, indeed, gems. I’ve made a list, probably incomplete, but you can find citations from Gurdjieff at pp. 16, 27, 47, 54, 97-8 and 127-130. The last of these opens with some profound stories told by de Salzmann. That redoubtable lady features at pp. 24, 27, 43, 48, 53-4, 56-7, 61, 63, 71-2, 92-3, 127, 132-3, 140, 145 and 196. Incidentally, comparing the de Salzmann who appears in this book with the de Salzmann of the recently published “Reality of Being”, is instructive. The “calendar speech” which spoils “Reality” for me is entirely missing from Firestone’s portrait. Perhaps de Salzmann’s forte was in exchanges and what we might call “life-engagements”, rather than philosophy. I would say that de Salzmann emerges in this book as a store of practical wisdom and controlled force. Peggy Flinsch is also an influence for impartial understanding in this book, see pp. 24, 35, 36, 55, 63-4, 77, 87, 111 and 130.

The material is well-written, clear, engaging, and has a feeling quality. I find that, excepting only a few passages, it is impossible not to have sympathy with the author, and to applaud her efforts, some of which came at the price of a certain sacrifice of egoism.

2 The “Henry” Story

The most important of Firestone’s experiences appear in the story which comprises chapters 12, “Difficulties”, and 13, “Remorse”. These chapters are the climax, too, in that they form a sustained closing note. Firestone’s experience began like this: they wanted to find “a worthwhile destination” for the children’s holiday, one which “offered new meaning” (p.173). While they were thinking this way, the adults and some children from the group attended a pow-wow, where she met Henry, a Micmac from a reservation in Nova Scotia (174-5). Henry was impressive: “His life story was the first of its kind we had heard. His direct way of speaking was so striking that the children remembered afterwards what he said almost word for word” (175).

Henry emerges as probably the most practical and common sense actor in the whole book (Firestone not excluded, as she candidly shows in the “tins of food” story where she could, it seems to me, have just told a spoiled child that canned “food” was no substitute for fresh food, and refused to allow her to buy tins). When the children asked Henry whether he could sleep on the ground without a blanket, he answered: “Sure, if I haven’t got a blanket” (176). When they couldn’t light a fire because the kindling was damp, he used what he called “the Indian way”: he ignited it with kerosene. Firestone frankly discloses that the “work people” disapproved; but Henry pointed out that common sense is the Indian way (176-7). And so it was, in general, with Henry. He was efficient and capable, but if there were no jobs, he rested. “He never looked busy, never pretended” (177).

Henry told them that because the Indians had found the white man to be a hypocrite, they described him as speaking with “forked tongue” and as having “two hearts”. Henry related his stories of betrayal with impartiality, and without reproach. Firestone hoped to show him that, contrary to his experience hitherto, white people could act with “friendship and honour” (177). Henry invited them to the Canadian reservation. They agreed to come for ten days. This was to be the “worthwhile destination” for the children’s holiday. Peggy Flinsch could not make it, but they were nothing daunted: one of their leaders spoke of “adventure and responsibility”. So, off they set. When they arrived at the reservation, Henry led them to his mother’s house (178-80). His mother taught Firestone what she (Firestone) regarded as a valuable lesson, when she persuaded Firestone to let a small boy sleep on after the others had risen, rather than be awakened before he was ready. At this point Firestone says “The Indian way is about living with the reality of what is” (180). At least, I would say, that is the Indian way at its best.

But the “men on the team were restless”. There was, they said, no plan for the children, and Henry’s Indian friends had not yet arrived “to instruct the children”, who were running around playing in the woods and the lakeshore (181). In the meantime, Henry’s mother showed the girls how to make skirts from leaves. When Henry’s friends arrived that afternoon there was still no plan, and, they apparently said, there cannot be one: it isn’t their way (181-2). However: “the men on the team became irritated and gave Henry hard looks. They found an unstructured day hard to bear, but the children were happy” (182). In the course of that day, Henry and his friends showed the children how to make a “delicious, real, fresh bread” but one “of our men” asked why they hadn’t explained the process. Henry’s reply was, again, common sense: “The children can see; what’s the use of talking?” (183)

That night a musician played what they described as “traditional Indian music”. The music turned out to be Irish and English folk tunes. The children were happy, but “the men” were not. “This is not the Children’s Work”, one said, and the capitals are in Firestone’s book. I can well believe they were in the intonation, too. They decided to leave the very next day, just walking out on the Indians. Firestone alone dissented from this plan. She became bewildered: “How did principles apply?” (185)

Firestone was troubled, saying: “It was wrong to break our word to Henry. I could hardly bear the thought that, like all the others, we would betray him” (185). But, as she notes, Peggy was not there (185). Peggy Flinsch, for those who do not know, was a personal pupil of Gurdjieff. One of the leaders, Ben, told the children they had to leave immediately, and another, Bill, told them “not to ask any questions” (187). This produced a situation where “most of the children, still not understanding the adults’ cold abruptness, were resentful and afraid” (187). The children’s log stated:

From the first day, a gap seemed to form between the adults and us. The adults were always stressing responsibility. Hacking was so frowned upon that we felt guilty every time we laughed. There were few minutes of fun. … None of us wanted to go; we could see Henry was hurt. And again the adults were cold and demanding. (188)

Back home, Firestone realised that she could not “give” her conscience “over” to anyone, not even to “her” team. As she concluded: “Any group can lose its way” (197). In relating this tale, I’ve used more direct quotes than usual, in case it might be thought that I’m guilting the lily (to adapt a line).

3 Critique

Sometimes, when reviewing, I’ll make substantial comments because I find that a book has substantial value. In other instances, a long critique might be needed to justify an unflattering appraisal. This book invites comments because of its depth. You could assess foundations as being really solid but still wish to do a little more work, even if just to hose them down before building upon them. Something similar is the case here. It’s because the volume is so good that I think there’s a use in addressing what I see as a flaw in the execution. In principle, the book is great. It’s a firm, even inspiring foundation. But the surface of the foundations wants sweeping, at least in my view.

The volume could be tidier in this respect: I think that it’s too long. It seems to me that Lillian Firestone has written one and a bit books with two different if related aims inside one cover: (1) a narrative, of satisfying length, which could stand by itself as an interesting and instructive autobiographical fragment, and, (2) in the appendices titled “Themes” and “Some Principles”, a how-to-Work-with-Children manual, to use New York capitals.

My sense is that had these short appendices been omitted, and the offering of principles been left to the voices of Gurdjieff, de Salzmann and Flinsch, the principles would have been more effectively conveyed. The minor statements of principle in the text are not offensive or even distracting: some reflection, some philosophy, is often necessary. Many of Firestone’s own short meditations, if I can call them that, are very good indeed: for example, her conclusion to the Henry story. But while some salt seasons the dish, too much seizes the throat.

The book challenges conventional ideas of drilling “the right way” into children’s heads. It stands, to use Gurdjieff’s terminology, for the imperatives to be present, to remember oneself, and to manifest from “consciousness and conscience” (perhaps a hendiadys, perhaps not). The how-to manual is maybe more than simply a departure from this: it seems to me to be inimical. Firestone says that children should be allowed their own experience. I would agree, so far as one can agree with such a statement. At the least, we adults too often wish for children to share our own experience, and to accept our valuations. We often show too little respect for the child’s individuality. But why not let adult readers have their own experience, and leave the appendices out? Still, being at the back of the volume they don’t interfere with the narrative, and so the sound foundations, so to speak, remain intact.

That is my major reservation. Let’s now turn to another matter: the so-called “Children’s Work” with capitals. If we call an activity “work”, there is at least a danger that we’ll assume that we’re working simply by virtue of being on a “work team”, and the phrase will keep suggesting that back to us. And so we glue assumptions into our language. The word “work” stands for something very high: rational, connected efforts in the direction of a chosen aim. We have to earn the right to say that we’re working, especially working as a man would, with all three centres. Gurdjieff said a good deal about suggestiveness, an aspect of Kundabuffer, and the force for illusion which it represents in our lives. We would be prudent to avoid words which might feed suggestion. Again, it’s another mild aspect of grandiloquence, but it’s significant, because I tend to see it as supporting our evil inner god “self-calming”.

Thankfully, there is an easy solution. I see no reason to employ any special sobriquets. If the children are working on a pond, call it “the pond team”. If some are in the kitchen, then they’re in “the kitchen crew”. Where there is a legitimate need to distinguish, one can refer to the children in the theatre troupe, or the adults in the gardening outfit, and be none the poorer.

To return to an example from “Forgotten Language”, in the case of the spoiled kid that insisted on buying tinned food and not fresh food, it might have been possible, if in the right state, to tell her that her proposal was misconceived for the simple reason that fresh food is more nutritious than canned food-substitutes. Of course, we want to explain this without any feeling of condemnation, just addressing the matter in hand. If I can be impartial, and feel supportive of the child while speaking, something of my inner state has a chance of coming through. The other may refuse to be mollified, but I don’t believe that they do not know at some deep level what is going on, and that they’re being wilful.

By the way, Gurdjieff groups should be insisting on fresh food (organic and, I suspect, without genetic modification where possible) and freshly prepared meals. Ordering in sandwiches or pizza, and eating “sweets” is anti-essence. We should, so far as possible, banish processed carbohydrates like sugar, bread, pizza and white rice. Solanges Claustres reports that Gurdjieff said that because inner efforts use the sort of energy they do, it’s essential to at least try and give the body the most nutritious food. Gurdjieff, de Salzmann and the Adies did not know that sugar was a poison. Okay, but we do, and they wanted us to pursue truth rather than limiting ourselves to what was known about nutrition in their day.

I will end this critique by mentioning another factor I’d like to “challenge”, to use Firestone’s term. That is the material commissioned in the foreword and the testimonials. The foreword is by T.R. Thurman, and praises the “firm but kind realism of the adults” (ix). The praise for the volume, for Gurdjieff, de Salzmann and the adults is fulsome, very fulsome. I wonder Firestone did not find it embarrassing. Then, Thurman relates how the Dalai Lama, when receiving an honorary degree, said “so powerfully as to penetrate the stone pillars” that to educate the brain but not the heart is to create a danger. Thurman adds: “The assembled dignitaries nodded approvingly, but subsequently I didn’t notice any change in the curriculum” (x).

What changes to the curriculum did Thurman expect to see? What changes did he himself make? What changes did the Lama indicate? The fact of the matter is, as reported, the Dalai Lama made a platitudinous statement which could mean almost anything. Thurman was identified with him to the extent that he even imagined the pillars hearing his voice, and now shares his fond fantasy with us. Once more, I call it grandiloquence. A more humorous and softer phrase might be the Australianism “cosmic wombat”.

I could make comments about the testimonials on the back cover, but time is limited. Suffice to say, if you esteem gushing praise, yes, they’re good. But why “ache” for what you didn’t have? What could such an “ache” be but imagination? Does Firestone need this sort of marketing? This book is a dedication to life and consciousness past, present and future before it’s a product, and to market it like any ordinary book, with the sort of testimonials Gurdjieff satirized in “Meetings” … well, I can’t conceive that it was necessary, especially as it’s her own press and she has no external publishers to compromise with.

4 Further Thoughts on Children

I have no children of my own, but I was a child. One of the rarest insights I’ve ever heard about children was said by my late grandmother. “Children,” she said, “know who love them.” An intuitive knowledge is available to them in many ways. At some level, children, especially small children, know. They know what’s going on and what’s taking place in the people around them. My clear recollection, and it’s something we all shared whether we remember it or not, is that as a child I was very often quite impartial. I recall looking around me with the sort of feeling-impartiality that Thomas Traherne describes in his “Centuries”, and having a respect for other people as being miracles equal to myself. In book 3.3. of the “Centuries”, Traherne wrote:

Aged men seemed as venerable and reverend creatures – young men seemed glittering and sparkling angels. and women strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty. Boys and girls tumbling in the street and playing. were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die, but all things bided as if in their proper places eternally.

I recall that I was centred, that my mind was crystal clear, and my feelings were positive. The memories are absolutely crisp. I did not then realise that I was centred, but then again, perhaps I did. By imperceptible degrees, of course, this state of natural, innocent blissful perception was lost. But the realisation that I then had, effectively of the truth of the Beatific Visions, has never been lost, although for periods, sometimes for long weary periods, it has lain unremembered.

As an aside, the very first time I read In Search of the Miraculous, I at once saw that what Gurdjieff was teaching was a method for restoring the lost vision, but at a higher level, one which would relate our perception to our will, and not merely our circumstances. It seemed right that the path would lie through conscience, but never had I remotely guessed that that could commence through something as simple as becoming conscious to my own reality, beginning with physical sensation. Yet how obvious, after all, that the road to reality should begin in the one certain place available to everyone, our own individual being-reality? I tried to bring some of that understanding to Mr Adie’s book, especially the chapters “The Joy of Creation” and “The World in Amber”.

To return to our theme, Traherne saw that this tale of infant paradise and the fall is true of everyone. Children are more in essence than we are, and, as I shall mention below, the working of their centres is more united. Traherne’s writing on this subject is significant, and too little appreciated. In an appendix to this review, I attach some more brief quotations from book 3 of Traherne’s “Centuries”. But there is no substitute for purchasing a volume of his poetry, and making your own acquaintance with this profound mystic.

To return to my grandmother’s words, I think that the first effort with anyone, but especially perhaps with children, is to open to feeling. By “feeling” I mean positive emotion of myself, not mere “emotion” (see p.61 of “George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia” for the critical distinction.) I won’t delve into it now, but it’s natural that such an effort extends downwards into presence of sensation and above into presence of aim. This is another reason why I think there needs to be more attention paid to the awakening of feeling, and less to intellectual formulations such as “leaning on the moment”, which to me paints a humorous picture of leaving smudges everywhere. A moment is a breath. You can’t “lean” on it, even metaphorically. But to the degree that I am present, higher emotional centre operates with its richer time, and it as if corridors of dimensions are added to the experience of the moment. Once more, contact with feeling proves to be the gate.

In small children, the centres function more closely together. Children are both more sensitive and stronger than they will be as adults, more in essence, and so we are accordingly more responsible for our manifestations in their presences. Incidentally, I heard this from Mr Adie, but the same idea is recorded in Ouspensky’s “The Fourth Way”, so I am pretty sure it came from Gurdjieff. At p. 74 is this fertile line: “In small children centres are not divided.” At p. 121, Ouspensky answers a question as to whether a child is nearer to self-remembering than an adult. “No, not quite”, said Ouspensky. Remembering oneself, he explained, comes from one’s own conscious and intentional efforts. While children have moments of consciousness, these moments come by themselves because the emotional centre is more active in children.

So it seems to be this: the younger the child, the less division there is likely to be between the centres. One can even see from embryology how the mechanisms of the centres start to appear. The different scale of time in higher centres and higher parts of centres explains why our sense of time is different when we’re children. As Traherne said of his experience as a boy: “All time was eternity and a perpetual sabbath.” My own guess is that the operational division of centres which has begun in infancy does not end its octave of development until puberty, and is aided, or at least given its characteristic form, by the development of personality which starts to cover essence.

So it isn’t so much that images and pictures mean more to children than words: that will depend upon which images, picture and words, and which child. It is more that every word will resonate with images and pictures, and vice versa, because the intellect and the feeling are closer together. The very young don’t make the hard distinction between words and pictures that we do: that, at least, I can remember from childhood.

And of course, it follows from all this, that the higher parts of centres are more available in children, and so the mystic element of a child’s experience must be respected, and allowed space. If a person is present with a child, especially a small child, that person cannot be impatient without remorse of conscience.

Now, if children cannot make conscious efforts the way that an adult can, they yet have the possibility, even the heightened possibility, of receiving impressions of our conscious and intentional efforts. Those impressions can become active later when personality is smothering essence. It could be that neither then nor later will they be aware of having received any such impression. Impressions can be so weak as to be negligible. But no conscious effort made with someone is ever wasted, either for oneself or for the other.

Further, the effort with anyone – adult, baby or youth – should be impartial and unconditional to the extent we can manage, and maybe even beyond that. One does not make such efforts in the hope of evoking gratitude from the other. That would be manipulation, and it always, it seems to me, backfires. It leads, in other words, to revulsion, if not to outright revolt. There are no guarantees: there are children who knew Gurdjieff and even had the experience of children’s movements, who did not turn out at all brilliantly.

There are very few rules and perhaps even fewer guarantees. Corporal punishment is looked upon as barbaric today. But sometimes, Gurdjieff would spank a child on the bottom, and say that it was a good reminding factor. Olga de Hartmann relates that Gurdjieff shouted at her once in the presence of her father. That good man was appalled, until Gurdjieff explained to him that because he, the father, had not shouted at Olga, now he, Gurdjieff, had to give her that experience. And he, according to Olga, saw the wisdom in that. The late Michael Smyth recounted to me a story he had heard from Paul Beekman Taylor. I think I have it right: a child was proud of its toy watch. Gurdjieff beckoned the child over, obtained the watch, and then deliberately crushed it beneath his foot. The story did not end there. The next night, Gurdjieff called the child over to himself. The child was reluctant, but the parents helped the child over to Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff then presented the child with a real watch. No one I know would dare to do such a thing, but it may have been beneficial to the child: I don’t know, and I don’t know how to judge it.

So there are very few rules. We just have to use our individual being-reason, and in using it, develop it.

5 Conscience

The key to work with anyone, children or otherwise, is, I would now say, conscience. There is a special connection with children, and not only because our time of childhood was absolutely critical for our development. As Jesus said, we must become like little children if we’re to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Traherne refers to this in “Centuries”:

Our Saviour’s meaning when He said that whoever would enter into the kingdom of heaven must be born again and become a little child, is far deeper than is generally believed. It is not only in a careless reliance upon divine providence that we are to become little children or in the feebleness and shortness of our anger, and in the simplicity of our passions: but in the peace and purity of all our soul, which purity also is a deeper thing than is commonly apprehended – for we must disrobe our selves of all false colours, and forsake self-will. All our thoughts must be infant-like and clear, the powers of our soul free from the values of this world, and disentangled from men’s opinions and customs. [“Centuries” 3.5]

To be concise, my personal view is that Jesus meant that we must come to conscience.

To be with and to understand children, we must be with and understand our own childhoods. This both requires feeling, and brings us to feeling. If feeling is awake for long enough, this leads to conscience.

Let’s relate this to an example from “Forgotten Language”. Recall that before they walked out on Henry, someone declared: “This isn’t the Children’s Work”. How could people aiming to “work”, to become more conscious, hurl the Indians’ hospitality back in their faces, implicitly reproaching them for failing to provide the exotic but safe adventure they had dreamed of? We should never consent to compromise our innate human sense of principle: it is asphyxiation of conscience. But they were ensconced as leaders of the “Children’s Work”, and, apparently, they didn’t feel the earth-level realities of their “hard looks” and similar actions. How is this possible? What is the point of years in Gurdjieff groups if we never change?

Take that phrase: “it isn’t the work”. How can anyone confidently announce what is and isn’t “the work”? We would need to know the other person’s condition and need so fully that we could dismiss something as not being work for them. But our position and needs have so many individual aspects that I can only see in this phrase a laziness of thought yoked to a desire to have the last word. And that means that conscience is fast asleep.

What does it mean to say that something is or is not the work? Does it not mean that certain ideas, feelings, emotions, actions or omissions cannot lead to, be material for, or contribute to someone’s efforts to become more conscious? So much of what we try is experimental that we should be slow to say that others are in a dead end. But that remark is inherently loaded in the direction of being arrogantly slighting. It could be uttered in sadness, but I think that if one had feeling one would choose a different phrase. I never heard Mr Adie say it, and I’ve never heard that Gurdjieff used it. To be perfectly blunt, it sounds to me as if someone in what I think of as “the group executive” used to say it, other people heard it, it sounded impressive, and it’s been parroted ever since. Here, I’ll briefly note that “work” itself is often a hiding word. It’s a valuable exercise to sometimes try and find another word or phrase to use in substitution: this exercise brings us right up against our mental laziness.

I would have far more sympathy if a person could say that they felt something was right or wrong, or that they could sense that, for them, it led away from conscience. Conscience is the issue for all of us. I hope I’m wrong, but I think that today, both in groups and outside of them (especially outside of them) some people implicitly see themselves as “beyond good and evil”, or something equivalent to that, tolerating all sorts of selfish or even predatory behaviour, their own and other people’s, and excusing it with platitudes like “who are we to say?”, “they’re adults”, or “it’s all good”.

While we should always try and grasp the other end of the stick, “Beelzebub is replete with commandments of the Creator, and Gurdjieff himself approved this principle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If someone falls short of a standard, it is sometimes right and appropriate to say so. Sometimes, a direct statement is the best statement. It’s always a matter of judgment. Although we may not be sure what conscience would direct, we can be sure if something aggravates the black hole in us where conscience should be.

In other words, for a long time we may not positively know conscience as the source of light it is. But, if we’re honest, we do know the absence of conscience. And, also if we’re honest, we can tell when the sense of absence is made worse. We can feel a certain hardness in us.

Firestone spoke of handing over her conscience. I wonder. Is this like the assumption about “Children’s Work”? Although it’s not meant literally, it’s assuming that we have a conscience, and that the group, any group, can take delivery of it. Fear of being on the outer of the group can actually anaesthetize the feeling of myself which leads to conscience. There is an extent, I would say a significant extent, to which group work is or by law can become antipathetic to the individuality which Gurdjieff wished for his pupils. His knowledge of that fact was, I think, the deepest reason why he pushed people out on their own, even if he re-established contact in those instances where they’d made something for themselves. (I refer to Jeanne de Salzmann, Sophia Ouspensky and Jane Heap. He wished to re-establish relations with P.D. Ouspensky, A.R. Orage and Maurice Nicoll, although they all refused his invitations.)

Two more points from the Henry saga. When they packed up, Bill told the children not to ask questions (187). Firestone does not consider how this relates to their own stated principles about how they would deal with children’s questions in the children’s work (16-8). Was it ever discussed? If not, why not, I wonder? If a group cannot discuss such matters, what sort of group is it? Gurdjieff, of course, like any sane person, was always on the side of conscience, never of conformity.

Then, of equal importance, what was Firestone’s follow up? Did she make contact with Henry by letter or phone? Send him an apology, or a greeting? A little present? Or a big present? We just don’t know. Mr Adie said once of someone who had said something quite unfeeling, and later apologized: “It was good that having said what he did, he later said something else to be added to it.” Mr Adie would sometimes mention that it was important to judge when having left impression, we should then say or do something so that when that first impression was recalled, the second would be there, too, to mitigate its effect. When I had unintentionally confused someone, he told me that I should have explained my situation as soon as possible. I felt that he was right, and asked him how to deal with the fact that I would have to say something about other people. “You don’t have to”, he said. “Just keep it simple and speak of yourself.” And he was right. As a general rule, the simplest statements are the most credible.

There is a clear criterion as to whether our efforts towards the awakening of conscience are on the right road or not: we shall be suffering, and suffering remorse in respect of our manifestations towards our parents and others. You can read any of the good material on conscience, whether in Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and Staveley, and they will support this in whole or in part. This also emerges from Firestone’s own account. To have a conscience one needs to suffer analogously to how Christ suffered in his passion. As Gurdjieff was reported to have said in an unpublished talk titled “Palm Sunday”:

… the word “passion” is applied to that state in us which is called the gnawings of conscience. Whoever understands the gnawings of conscience will understand the word “passion”. To most people the taste of this function is unknown. For most people this state might not exist and they understand it only theoretically. For a final definition of the word “passion” it is necessary to add the word similar to the gnawings of conscience, since the expression gnawings of conscience is used by us too often and we are accustomed to take its meaning too superficially. Passion is a state similar to the gnawings of conscience.

Appendix

Excerpts edited from book 3 of Thomas Traherne’s “Centuries”:

All appeared new and strange at the first; inexpressibly rare and delightful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted with innumerable joys. My knowledge was divine. I knew by intuition those things which since my apostasy I collected again, by the highest reason. I knew not that there were any sins or complaints or laws. All time was eternity and a perpetual sabbath. Is it not strange that an infant should be the inheritor of the world. and see those mysteries which the books of the learned never unfold? [from C. 3.2]

Wheat in the fields was the immortal grain of the rising sun, which never should be reaped nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold. The gates of the city were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me; their unusual beauty made my heart to leap almost mad with ecstasy, they were so strange and wonderful. [from C 3.3]

Eternity was manifest in the light of the day, and some thing infinite behind every thing appeared, which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The streets of the city were mine. The people were mine. Their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skin and ruddy faces. The skies were mine and so were the sun and moon and stars. I knew no bounds or divisions until with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world; which now I unlearn, and become as it were, a little child again, that I may enter into the kingdom of God. [from C 3.3]

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

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

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

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