Posts Tagged ‘Lytton Strachey’
2. The Real Question
I will assume that the reader has access to John Robert Colombo’s review of this book at https://gurdjieffbooks.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/was-lord-pentland-an-eminent-gurdjieffian/
This will save me going through the preliminaries. To a significant extent, I am in agreement with JR’s review. But I do think that the most important point a critic can make about this book is that it is not actually a biography of Lord Pentland in the sense that the genre of biography has been known in English letters: it is, rather, a polemic which takes Pentland as its chief but not its sole target. It is as if Pentland is merely a convenient, and – for Moore – an agreeable because a disdained target.
That the book is a polemic shows itself in two ways: its coverage of Pentland’s achievement is minimal to the point of mockery, and its coverage of other targets is overplayed. Thus, Moore also takes aim at what Pentland’s father, the social class to which he belonged, the Britain in which Pentland flourished, and P.D. Ouspensky. Moore sometimes takes aim at Jeanne de Salzmann and through her and Pentland, what is now clumsily known as the “International Association of the Gurdjieff Foundations”.
The title is, of course, pretentious, referring as it does to Lytton Strachey’s minor classic. But then, the author named his autobiography Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered. I doubt that he would see any pretence at all. Moore’s writing continues its steady decline. In my view, Gurdjieff and Mansfield was the best written of his books. Each succeeding volume sees further adventures in grandiloquence to the point where, in this book, Moore’s prose positively obscures his meaning as much as it reveals it. For example, speaking of the “Dunkirk Spirit”, Moore remarks: “By just such a rare and free flowing energy the aridities of Ouspensky’s scholasticism might have been irrigated. But they were not.” (p.53). What does this mean? We can see that he dislikes Ouspensky’s “scholasticism”, but he does not explain what the stated “aridities” are, or how they could have been “irrigated” by the spirit of Dunkirk. The dry four word sentence “But they were not”, seems to suggest that there was some fault of Ouspensky’s part, or that of someone else. However, as so often in this book, Moore does not condescend to explain his meaning, the basis for his opinion, or what his sources were.
Consider this line: “Here as elsewhere Pentland is litmus paper shy of turning red or blue”, (63). I do not know what he means in this context. I know what litmus paper is, and I know what shy means, but what is he saying? Moore aims for effect to the point of losing sight of why one writes.
One of Moore’s techniques in this book is to assume an omniscient voice, a manner of proceeding which allows him to criticise and condemn without needing to do more than demand that we accept his conclusions. Moore has researched many details of the world in which Pentland lived, but how can he possibly know that when he took his seat as President of the Cambridge Union, Pentland had “a sense almost of swooning vertigo”? (32) Does Moore have access to a diary or letter, and if so, why not mention it? Or is it all as much a fiction as the awkward talk between father and son which he invents?
“History’s access to their verbatim conversation is decently barred by the study door” (15) Moore speaks here, as often, as if he were the voice of history, and the tone supports him when he adds: “Yet this caveat does not entirely forbid the authorial imagination an intelligent extrapolation from circumstantial evidence. Like most fathers His Lordship hardly knew how to begin.” Where is the intelligence here? What are the pieces of evidence he uses? Maybe if we knew the facts, we would find that Pentland’s father was different from how Moore imagines him. All I can see here is the operation of thoroughgoing prejudice, and that is a very different thing.
Similarly, in speaking of Franklin Farms, he mocks how “Society women with compressed lips earnestly bottling peas and beans were in a profounder sense, bottling spiritual merit.” (67). How does he know what their attitude was? Were they really so self-righteous as that? Maybe the women would have surprised him. But by filling this slim volume with “intelligent extrapolations”, and speaking as if all-knowing, Moore creates a consistent picture of pretentious and deluded wealthy folks, and then pleads its very consistency in aid of its veracity. This is not valid biography, and is cheap even as polemic.
It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the book is primed with irrelevancies which create an illusion of research, while bare of many matters which are far more important. For example, we learn that tickets to the premier of Gone with the Wind were hard to procure (51), but Moore does even try to tell us in what Pentland’s approach to the Gurdjieff teaching and methodology consisted. Yet, after the publication of Exchanges Within and several of his talks, this would have been as easy as it is desirable.
Again, Moore tells us that at one time a certain piece of news “would have imparted to Pentland’s stiff mind and body the artificial agility bestowed on a dead frog’s hind-quarters when juxtaposed to an electric coil …” (72). It is ponderously written, and not, to my mind, at all witty. But more profoundly, Moore assumes and has assumed all throughout that Pentland had a “stiff” mind”.
Moore is content to construct a paper tiger and ignore, in the published group meetings, what made Pentland the teacher he was – whatever type of teacher that may have been.
It is necessary to state that I am sure that Moore has a certain point: but he does not demonstrate it. I remember that in several meetings with “senior” people from the New York Foundation, they would gently push you into agreeing with them: it was obscene, the number of times one woman in particular would put words into people’s mouths by asking, “Wouldn’t you say …?” I had a sense, even then, that she was imitating, and my guess was that she was imitating Pentland.
I recall one chap who had met Pentland would come quote statements such as: “Don’t write that down! Remember it! Lord Pentland said: Why do we write? We write it order to forget!” How absurd. We don’t write in order to forget, but so that if we do forget, as experience shows us we often do, we will have a record. When I was in New York, about eight years after Pentland’s death, I was with Jim Wyckoff’s group. We had to remove all the items from a series of cupboards. I started to make a sketch of what was where. They got stuck into me: that was not the Work! I had to remember not use a crutch. They would remember. And so on. They really made a point out of it: they were unctuous and self-righteous.
But when, a week later, they had to restore the items, they were searching high and low for the sketch. Not one said a word to me. I started to form the opinion then that Wyckoff was a New York hippie, and before he died, I informed him that I no longer wished to “work” with him. I am gratified that to remember that I did. Because, like Pentland, he was an authority figure. But to give Pentland his due, Pentland could run a business and did establish the Foundation on the West Coast.
Still, the picture of the NY Foundation I then formed, as conceited while operating at a level lower than ordinary life, does seem to go back to Pentland. But I also felt that there was more than just that to Pentland. And I feel that the X quality which Moore has missed must have been something to do with the presence of Lord Pentland. Only by appealing to the presence of Lord Pentland can I explain why the text of Exchanges Within, which seems to me to be good but not excellent, sends those who knew him into raptures: they make a connection to what they experienced when they met him
Interestingly, Mr Adie did not consider Pentland to be anything but formidable. He did say that Pentland would go all cryptic and mystificatory or change the topic when he did not know something or felt inadequate. He also said that Pentland could play a double game, and for reasons I won’t go into now, I think that Adie may well have been right. I think that Pentland did relish the idea of taking over the Adie group in Australia, but – probably on instructions from Jeanne de Salzmann – was content to wait until Adie would die. And to give them credit, the strategy did work, but by the time it bore fruit, the groups had reduced from well over a hundred and forty persons to about a third of that number.
I should also note here that there are some very interesting stories of Pentland being bested by Mrs Staveley in verbal duels. Once he asked her, in front of others, to give an impromptu talk on the importance of obedience. It was obvious to those present that his point was that she was disobedient to either Jeanne de Salzmann or himself or both. She turned the tables on him: “Yes, obedience is important. But obedience to what?” Discomfited, he changed the topic.
So it should be obvious that I have no problem with a book which is critical of Pentland and the Foundation: but it needs reasons and grounds. This book is filled with tricks: “How far away, suddenly, seemed the hors d’oeuvre table at Claridges,” (73). Moore had referred to Claridges a little earlier, but it had nothing to do with this section, and neither is there any reason to think that anyone thought of Claridges, wistfully or otherwise. It is just a way of inserting a supposedly clever line and making Pentland look like an upper class twit. Similarly, and there are other examples, Moore mentions that pencil sharpeners were made scarce in England during the war, and then speaks of Pentland going to the USA where “the staff were … never short of … pencil sharpeners,” (62). Is that humorous? Does it have a point? It was Moore, not Pentland, who cared about such matters.
I could continue like this, but in the end, the very cynicism of Moore’s approach takes me to what I consider to be the real question.
2. The Real Question
The real question, to my mind, is about the Gurdjieff Work. If Pentland – the leader of the Foundation in the USA – was indeed, as Moore paints him, then what is the point of the Gurdjieff Work?
See related posts:
Andrew Rawlinson’s review of this book
John Robert Colombo’s reviews this at: https://gurdjieffbooks.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/was-lord-pentland-an-eminent-gurdjieffian/
he reviews Ashala Gabriel’s Remembering Lord Pentland
JOSEPH AZIZE has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, ‘George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia’ represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.
“Maronites” is pp.279-282 of “The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia” published by Cambridge University Press and edited by James Jupp.