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Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto: reviewed by John Robert Colombo

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I have in front of me a copy of a newly published book titled “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto.” It was issued in November 2012 by Traditional Studies Press in Toronto, which happens to be the city in which I now reside. The book will be of interest to students of traditional thought and this is expressed in the wording of its subtitle: “On the ideas and practice of the teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff.”

To me the book is of especial interest because, in a limited way, a long time ago, I knew Louise Welch – Mrs. Welch, as she was always called. That was a long time ago – some fifty years ago. Memories sometimes serve as bridge-builders, connecting the past and the present. They do so in this instance.

Before I discuss the contents of this book, I will describe the volume as a physical object. It is a sturdy production, a new book designed to outlast the years, as are so many of the titles issued by Traditional Studies Press, which is the publication wing of The Gurdjieff Foundation: The Society for Traditional Studies. (The organization’s website identifies the organization as The Gurdjieff Foundation of Toronto: Society for Arts and Ideas.)

The publication has no dust jacket but the pages are bound in heavy boards covered in dark green cloth, and the pages are sewn together rather than glued together, so the book may be opened without worry that any of its pages will loosen or fly apart! The volume measures 6 inches by 9 inches, and the pagination goes like this: xxii + 181 + i. It is curious that the first twenty-two pages, which offer the reader an analytic table of contents (like those in P.D. Ouspensky’s “Tertium Organum” and in many of Colin Wilson’s books), appear without page numbers.

The typography is more practical than pictorial; the type is large and the lines are well “leaded” or spaced apart. The text is fairly short (perhaps 60,000 words) and each page is easy on the eyes. There is a frontispiece photograph of Mrs. Welch, taken in Halifax in 1984, which makes her look much older than the women I remember meeting over a period of two years in the second half of the 1950s.

In memory I recall Mrs. Welch as sharing some of the facial features of Maria Ouspenskaya, the Russian-born actress and acting teacher. Here she looks rather more like Marie Dressler, the Canadian-born, Academy Award-winning comic movie actress. I prefer the image in my memory to the portrait in the book!

Louise Welch’s vital years are 1905 and 1999 (so she is not to be confused with the similarly named Louise Welsh, the much younger, English-born, Scotland-based author of psychological thrillers). Mrs. Welch – Louise Michel Blinken Welch, to give her name in full – was born in New York City of Ukrainian background. She was raised in a dysfunctional family setting and received little formal education, but through her own efforts she found work as a journalist and editor. At one time in the 1920s, she wrote the “agony column” for the New York American. (Walter Winchell quipped about her that “Louise Michel went from bad to Hearst.”) Later in her varied career she worked as a director of a writer’s group for the WPA – the Work (or Works) Project Administration, the U.S. federal government’s employment program of the 1930s, now despised by Republications and forgotten by Democrats.

During the Depression she married and bore a son and a daughter. She was abandoned by her husband so she became their sole support. (Her daughter is Patty de Llosa, a writer and leader who is well respected in the circle of the Work, has has written warmly about her mother and her stepfather, Dr. William J. Welch, in a memoir that appears on one of the webpages of the “Gurdjieff International Review.” The information shared here is derived in part from that source.)

In the 1930s, Mrs. Welch worked with Benton & Bowles, the renowned advertising agency, and there she met and was befriended by a somewhat younger co-worker, who later trained to became a medical doctor, qualified as a cardiac specialist, and eventually became her husband. Together the Welches were what later came to be known as “a power couple.”

This is not the place to review her meetings in the 1920s with the English editor A.R. Orage or how through him she met G.I. Gurdjieff, in both Fontainebleau and New York, if only because she accomplished all of this in her finely written, book-length memoir titled Orage with Gurdjieff in America (1982). Offhand I would say her temperament had much in common with that of Orage. The two of them appreciated fine writing, they were practical people and skilled editors, they had an understanding of the emotional problems of other people as well as the social problems of their times, and they were entirely committed to being leaders in the Work.

Hardly any of the above information appears in the pages of “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto,” a fact that limits the readership of this volume to readers appreciative of the subtleties of the Work. To all other readers, the book will be seen as a tribute to a well-liked person rather than as a valuable record of transactions and experiences. Traditional Studies Press did what it set out to do; that was its aim. Perhaps a wider perspective might have resulted in a more imposing publication. Yet readers of all persuasions should express gratitude for what has been achieved.

The Toronto group was founded in 1954, the first of the ancillary groups to be recognized by The Gurdjieff Foundation in New York which had then entered its second year of operation. Its seeds were planted by Olga de Hartmann and her husband Thomas, the composer who had worked so closely with Mr. Gurdjieff on those marvellous compositions for the piano. In fact, way back in 1919, it was the de Hartmanns who had introduced Alexandre and Jeanne de Saltzmann to Mr. Gurdjieff. In the same way, while the couple were living in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, anticipating their move to the United States, they introduced the Work to Canadians in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax.

Among the prime movers of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York were Dr. and Mrs. Welch. The latter was delegated to head the Toronto group, which she did from 1955 on. I met her a year or two later, never guessing that the Toronto group was not “ages old” but “brand new.” On our first meeting, I asked her if I could join the Work, once I had moved to the city and enrolled at the University of Toronto. She delayed answering that question. Instead she asked her own question, “How did you first learn about the this work?” It was a good question because there was very little information available to the public about Gurdjieff, especially in a small city like the one in which I was born and raised. (This was well before the arrival of the so-called New Age.)

I replied that I had borrowed a copy of “In Search of the Miraculous” (published four years earlier) from the local Carnegie library, and read it cover to cover, not once but twice. Etched in my memory is her grim rejoinder: “The Table of Hydrogens is quite difficult, you know.” Then I backtracked and admitted that I had not understood all that I had read! She was happier with that reply. In general, I knew about the Priory at Fontainebleau from Ouspensky’s description, but it was months before I heard anything at all about J.B. Bennett and the foundations, institutes, and societies, not to mention the estate at Mendham. I was nineteen years old at the time.

My first meeting with the Toronto group leader took place in the upstairs bedroom of the home of Mrs. Margot Dustin and her husband Ernest whose nickname was “Dusty,” both former Theosophists, about a mile from where I now live and am keyboarding this account, and I was regular in my attendance at weekly meetings for readings and for Movements held here and there throughout the city, especially at the monthly meetings convened by Mrs. Welch. She would fly into the city from New York to conduct the sessions, on occasion with Dr. Welch, a man of genuine presence and strong voice. Once, in later years, they brought with them a 16 mm, black-and-white print of performances of the Movements in Paris, which was shown to a small group at the Ontario Science Centre.

Sometimes in attendance at the meetings were film producer Tom Daly, teacher Peter Colgrove, Dr. Paul Bura, an engineer, and his wife Sheila, who was adept in Movements, who were “refugees” from a Bennett group in England, not to mention a stunning, exotic couple: an exquisite, half-Burmese, half-French woman of great beauty (named Olga, oddly, and former wife of BBC executive Cecil Lewis) and her tall, stylish architect husband who may have come from Cornwall, where they subsequently settled. Yet in general I found the original members to be drawn from the professional middle-class of the city, almost everyone being older than I was, and it was a somewhat staid gathering of people, certainly not one given to small talk or big pronouncements. There were occasional visits from the very Gallic Alfred Etievant who would lead the Movements with lithe assurance.

Mrs. Welch’s contributions were not limited to oral instruction, for she encouraged the group to break into print. She kindled the publication of “A Journal of Our Time,” a literary and artistic “little magazine” of some deft and delicacy; she wrote a play which the group produced and staged for public performance; she generated publicity for the commercial showing at Cineplex (the world’s first “cineplex” or multi-screen movie theatre) of Peter Brook’s film “Meetings with Remarkable Men”; she served as editor-in-chief of the first edition of “The Guide and Index to G.I. Gurdjieff’s All and Everything,” which remains an invaluable resource to this day.

References to a few of these activities appear in “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto,” which is dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Dustin, the very woman in whose house I first met Mrs. Welch. According to the editorial note, “This publication is compiled from notes taken at meetings spanning the years 1955-1965 and 1973-1989.” My experiences relate directly to the first period, not at all to the second period, and I have no idea what happened between 1965 and 1973, a span of years that I assume were busy ones for the Toronto group, which eventually acquired valuable real estate both in Toronto and outside the rapidly expanding city.

When I was in attendance, each one of us was encouraged – even required – to ask questions, and to ask them slowly, so that the two note-takers would have time to record them, whether in longhand or shorthand I never knew. Apparently these scripts exist today, and they form the basis of the text of this book. From time to time the questions themselves are recorded here, but in most instances it is only Mrs. Welch’s answers that are given. The text itself begins like this: “My search is your search. We must each have a common wish to find out who we are and the direction in which we can grow to reach the truth.” (For symmetry’s sake, the text proper ends like this: “We have a little help here.”)

Reading these passages I am able to imagine myself in her presence and hear her refined, modulated American speech tones and pronunciations. The content of the presentations brings to my mind the content of the entries that appear in the five volumes of Maurice Nicoll’s “Commentaries.” Dr. Nicoll’s presentations are quite technical, whereas Mrs. Welch’s are conversational, parallelling normal thought processes. Both books are organized topically with long, analytic tables of contents. Mrs. Welch is a communicator of attitudes from Mr. Gurdjieff; Dr. Nicoll is a conveyer of detailed information from Mr. Ouspensky.

Her expositions make good use of “I” and “me,” though they do so with great care so as to generalize about the “I” and the “me” and make the words apply to each and every one of her listeners. For instance, she writes as follows: “The important thing is my inner work. My presence is important. I live without meaning because I am not here.” Imagine hearing these words: the “my” and the “I” are those of you, the listener.

In later years, in an attempt to understand the thrust and direction of the Work, I came to define its essence in a single word, a compound word that is a personal neologism. That word is “psychopraxis.” Here the discipline is psychological even psychical rather than psychiatric, but it is also physiological, for it is concerned with physical expression and practice; it is also blessedly free of religious, theosophical, and psychological terminology. Such ideas would have been regarded as novel at the time. Mrs. Welch avoids such exercises, and the introduction into the text of specific Gurdjieffian terms is minimized. One unexpected exception is this one: “Trogoautoegocrat,” from “All and Everything,” which is defined as “real sacrifice” or “I eat myself.”

Preserved are instances of the common touch: “If you tell me you cannot Work for fifteen minutes a day, I say that you don’t want to …. Five minutes of struggle is better than twenty-four hours of daydreaming.” There is no attempt here to innovate or improvise; the expressions of insight are refreshingly free of argument and cant or special pleading. The result is the exposition is effective and the prose is durable and in no sense dated. There are no potted expressions meant to impress the listener or express the private opinion or reservations of the speaker.

At the time I identified Mrs. Welch’s message with a simple, three-letter word – “aim.” It seemed to me at the time that she was always after us to define our own “aim.” I was surprised to realize how difficult it was to comply, difficult when not impossible! Not much about aim has found its way into the text at hand.

What I took away from the Work, right away, was the notion that what lies at the root of most personal and social problems is mechanicality … in “mentation,” emotion, and action. “Mechanicality” is a word that is instantly meaningful, yet is seldom heard or used in this sense by the outside world. On one occasion, she asked a provoking question: “My pet mechanicality is what irritates you. What is there in me that I am unconscious of, and need to be conscious of and know better?”

If I had more time and space I would compare and contrast the records of these meetings, as fragmentary as they are here, compiled not by an individual but by “The Editors, The Gurdjieff Foundation,” with more elaborate records kept of meetings with Ouspensky, Madame Lannes, Conge, and other group leaders. But there are readers (perhaps those who have been exposed to multiple teachers) who are better equipped to do so than am I.

The beating heart of the book lies in its most extended passage, a veritable lecture, which runs from page 66 to page 97. This passage covers most of the subjects germane to work on self. Unlike the shorter sections, which range in length from one sentence to one paragraph or to one or two pages, some dated, the narrative arc of this passage moves from one aspect of the subject to another aspect of the subject, and it builds, as dramatists like to express it. It begins, “I can be stirred into uneasiness … ” and it ends, “We rejoice in the joy of the possibilities.” The beat of this heart marks the ending of the first section of the book.

The second section, which records exchanges between 1973 and 1987, preserves the question-and-answer format – observation and discussion – so it is somewhat more digressive than the first section, but perhaps more engaging. Its heart beats faster. In many ways it may seem less exciting but it is more experienced, less promising but more polished, yet not having been there I cannot comment on how well it represents the occasions themselves. I would say that they do show a leader who is probing, more deeply than formerly, the content of the Work, perhaps because the members of the group are able to absorb more than they did formerly.

The book ends with a selection of aphorisms. Here are some of the book’s aphoristic expressions or pensées, most of them taken from the text itself and not from the selection devoted to them:

* “Our search is not for miraculous results, not to achieve a result, but to learn a process.”

* “My body knows what it wants, not what I want. I must teach all of my parts what I want.”

* “My Gurdjieff said, ‘I don’t bring you a system of morality, but how to find conscience.’ We must find the outlines of a structure that is more valid.”

* “Only when I have a certain level of being can I be open to a certain level of knowledge.”

* “I remember Mr. Orage saying, ‘I love you,’ said the man. ‘Strange that I feel none the better for it,’ said the woman.”

Readers of the book today may find the presentations of procedures of “the work” and the attitudes that are described in these pages less engaging than did listeners at the time. Some of the passages are more than a half century old; others have aged by at least a quarter century. Much water has passed under the bridge since then, and truisms and oral teaching techniques that were once novel are now found in best-selling books and courses on the human potential movement, leadership training, self-motivation, cognitive therapies, mindfulness training, and on the TED Lectures on the Web. Many of the formulations are indebted to Mr. Gurdjieff, who gave gifts of insight to the world, few of them acknowledged. Nevertheless, here are some of Mrs. Welch’s formulations that struck me as still valid, informative, or interesting:

* We want to go on repeating what belongs to another period. “Mr. Gurdjieff said that he wasn’t interested in anyone over five or under fifty-five.”

* “Gurdjiefff said one third of one’s life should be spent in pondering. Why was I born? Who am I? What is meant by waking sleep?” [This statement comes from the second section. I recall no earlier instances of the use of the word “pondering” in the earlier period, or any references to the importance of “sittings,” now staples of the de Saltzmann period.]

* “To me it is such an extraordinary thing that a Way exists in which one does not have to leave one’s life.”

* “In Movements we have enormous help. We have a taste of what it means to be close to attention.”

* “We are all members of the human race in a bigger way. All this is common to us. If you see this enough you can’t even hate Hitler. He was just a biological mutation of the wrong sort.”

* “When I first went to Mr. Gurdjieff’s apartment, I couldn’t bear the thought of where he was living. After I was there for ten minutes it was the whole world.”

* “Madame Ouspensky said we always have time for a love affair. This is the human condition.”

* “Mind is the greatest thing we have – excuse me, we do not have it. It is there. How do we find access to it?”

* “If wish doesn’t exist, the wish to wish does exist.”

I will end this appreciation of “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto” with one oft-repeated remark of Mrs. Welch’s. It is a favourite of mine and I distinctly recall her uttering it on at least two occasions.

She said, “Your aim is to find your aim.”

John Robert Colombo is a prolific author and anthologist with a special interest in offbeat Canadiana and traditional studies. His latest publication is the Foreword to Paul Beekman Taylor’s book “The Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff” (Eureka Editions). Colombo was recently honoured as one of the “100 Graduates of Influence” of his alma mater, University College, University of Toronto. He holds the Harbourfront Literary Award, an honorary D.Litt. From York University in Toronto, and Bulgaria’s Order of Cyril and Methodius (first class). His website is . If you wish to be informed of forthcoming reviews and commentaries on this website, send him an email. His email address is jrc@colombo.ca .

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