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JACOB NEEDLEMAN: two new books reviewed John Robert Colombo


The John Robert Colombo Page

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Jacob Needleman


Two New Books by Jacob Needleman

I have long admired the books written by Jacob Needleman who is Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State College in California. During his productive career, the scholar and writer, now in his seventies, has devoted books to a variety of subjects of relevance, including the nature of democracy in America, the object of philosophy, the role of the physician in society, the characteristics of money, the features of goodness, new religions, ancient and modern technologies, etc. He has been the director of the Center for the Study of New Religions at The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and he has served as general editor of the Penguin Metaphysical Library and the same for Element Books.

He has been a busy man, and the above activities do not take into account his work in the domain of the Work itself. Among his most useful publication is “Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching” (Continuum, 1996) which he compiled with George Baker. He has now produced two more books in this field — or might I say one full book and one booklet? The book is “The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work” (2008) and the booklet is “Introduction to the Gurdjieff Work” (2009). Both are published by Morning Light Press of Sandpoint, Idaho, which has a fine catalogue of books about modern-day spirituality. That catalogue is accessible through Google.

Let me describe the little book titled “Introduction to the Gurdjieff Work.” It measures four inches wide by five inches here and it is only 62 pages long. So it is a gift book, the kind of miniature publication like those displayed beside cash registers in book stores. It consists of Needleman’s necessarily brief essay on the Work along with a useful, annotated bibliography that lists books, music, and a feature-length film. (Yes, the film is Peter Brooks’s “Meetings with Remarkable Men.”) There is nothing remarkable about Needleman’s essay, though it is written with clarity and concision and it focuses on the pivotal role of conscience in the life of modern man. It downplays what has been called the “psychology” and the “esoteric” sides of the Work. It is a conscientious introduction to the Work.

The appearance of the essay in this form is an instance of how Needleman recycles his material because the essay is based on two earlier essays of his, one of which he included in “Modern Esoteric Spirituality ” (1922) which he compiled with Antoine Faivre, the other of which he wrote as an entry for “Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism” (2005) edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff. More to the point, the essay is reprinted verbatim as the Introduction to the principal book to be examined here: “The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work.”

As I mentioned, Morning Light Press publishes fine books, and the present volume is no exception. It is especially sturdy. It measures 6″ x 9″ and in length consists of xxxii + 356 numbered pages. The design and layout are a delight for the pages are easy to read and it is a handsome package to hold. It includes a surprise. It begins with the above-mentioned essay and it ends with the above-mentioned bibliography — along with a DVD of a film. (Yes, it is Brooks’s “Meetings with Remarkable Men.”)

“The Inner Journey” is one of eight books in Morning Light Press’s “Parabola Anthology Series” under the general editorship of Ravi Ravindra. Many readers of this review will be familiar with “Parabola,” the quarterly publication that is now celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. Founded by the late D.M. Dooling in New York City in1976, it is published by The Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition. It is the locus (it says) “Where Spiritual Traditions Meet.”

The series has volumes devoted to the “traditions” of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, as well as “Views from the Gurdjieff Work,” “Views from Native Traditions,” and a post-pourri titled “Myth, Psyche & Spirit.” It seems the general editor, Dr. Ravindra, a retired professor of both Physics and Religion from Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., has been busy overseeing this mining operation of the last twenty-five years of quarterly issues for relevant texts. It is quite a job.

For a year I held a subscription to “Parabola,” and while I admired and still admire the spirit and style of each issue of the well-illustrated periodical, I felt and feel the “mosaic” approach to be rather static and essentially bland. It consists of reprinting “snippets” from the standard books in the fields, though some original essays essays are commissioned and informative interviews are conducted. Pictorially issues are well illustrated, but outright contradictions are denied and rough edges are smoothed over.

The “transcendent unity” of religions is one thing, but one often learns more about spirituality by probing the elements of man and society that are not “transcendent” and are unrelated to “unity.” So I find “Parabola” to be very much a quality general publication, rather New Agey, not really more than that. Nobody ever said to me, excitedly, “Did you read such-and-such an article in the latest issue of ‘Parabola’?”

It fell to Jacob Needleman to compile “The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work” and given the chunks of prose he has had to work with, he has done a decent job of erecting a reasonable structure. In all there are sixty passages, and all of them are reprinted from well-known texts known to serious students of the Work. They were written by twenty-three contributors, including the editor. Here is a rough breakdown of the contributors.

The first tier of contributors consists of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, A.R. Orage, Maurice Nicoll, and Jeanne de Salzmann. The second tier includes Peter Brook, Rene Daumal, John Pentland, Henri Tracol, and Michel de Salzmann. On the third tier we have Pauline Dampierre, Margaret Flinsch, Chris Fremantle, Jacob Needleman, and Ravi Rabindra. That leaves the fourth tier: Henry Barnes, Martha Heyneman, Mitch Horowitz, Roger Lipsey, Paul Reynard, Laurence Rosenthal, William Segal, P.L. Travers, and Michel Waldberg.

Here are the names of some people who go unaccounted for (almost at random): J.B. Bennett, Henriette Lannes, Patty de Llosa, James Moore, C.S. Nott, Fritz Peters, Paul Beekman Taylor, Jean Vaysse, James Webb. I guess their writings did not appear in the pages of “Parabola.”

The sixty passages of prose (and some of Daumal’s prosey poetry) are arranged in six sections. These are called chapters and given headings. For the record here they are: Chapter 1: Man’s Possibilities Are Very Great. Chapter 2: Remember Yourself Always and Everywhere. Chapter 3: To be Man Who Is Searching with all his Being. Chapter 4: That Day … the Truth Will Be Born. Chapter 5: Only he Will Be Called and Will Become the Son of God Who Aquires in Himself Conscience. Chapter 6: The Source of That Which Does Not Change.

Try as I might I could not find much of a relationship between the chapter headings and the contents of the chapters, but try as I might I could not come up with a better plan of organization. (I find it odd that the book ends with Ouspensky’s outline of “the food factory.”) We have here a “mosaic” (not a “collage”) and individual voices predominate. It is no surprise that the two leading contributors (with eight pieces apiece) are Gurdjieff and Ouspensky with familiar passages from their familiar books, though if the books have yet to be read the passages are unfamiliar to the novice rather than to the veteran reader.

The editor did the best he could with the material at hand, yet the overall effect is that of reading “Reader’s Digest” (which used to plant wordy articles in popular publications so its editors could “digest” them) or present-day issues of “Harper’s” whose editors selected excerpts from current books and periodicals. So the present book is a box of all-sorts.There is material here aplenty for sermons and talks. If the Gospels are “good news,” these are “good thoughts.”

Everyone will have his favourite familiar passages, but for my taste the most rewarding contribution to the anthology — the one most worthwhile to reread — is “Footnote to the Gurdjieff Literature” written by Michel de Salzmann. With great taste (and some distaste), he surveys the writings of students, scholars, and imaginative writers, and he finds most of them wanting. He takes as a given the principle and practice that the Work cannot be conveyed or even described in words, but that it must be experienced to be realized in one’s everyday life.

While Dr. de Salzmann’s words continue to ring true, if words may be described as rungs on the ladder of life, the pages of “The Inner Journey” offer the reader sixty rungs that go up that ladder. They offer “views” of the variety (though little of the contrariety) “from the Gurdjieff Work.” Yet they should assist the reader in attaining “views of the real world.”

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John Robert Colombo is the author, compiler, and translator of more than two hundred books, largely concerned with Canadiana. His most recent publication is a collection of 2,000 aphorisms called “Indifferences.” His essays on Canadiana and the Work appear in “Whistle While You Work.” He is an irregular contributor of reviews and articles to this news/blog.
His website is http://www.colombo-plus.ca

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HIS MASTER’S WORDS


John Robert Colombo Page

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Margaret Flinsch

Here she is telling stories to the children of Blue Rock School

His Master’s Words
JRC reviews a newly released spoken-word “Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson”

I am not really knowledgeable about “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson” or about the commentaries that it has generated. Much has been written about G.I. Gurdjieff’s masterwork, and this is only reasonable given that it is a singularly difficult work to read aloud. One reason for this is the tome’s length, which rivals that of James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” and Marcel Proust’s “A la recherche du temps perdu,” literary works that were written in Paris and Zurich in the late 1920s, at the same time that Gurdjieff at the Café de la Paix in Paris was labouring over the manuscripts that make up the Tales.

All three texts make mammoth demands on their readers, demands that include patience, application, concentration, commitment, and imagination. (By imagination I mean the powers of association, what
Ouspensky has called “psychological thinking” as distinct from “logical thinking,” necessary for an appreciation of this labyrinthine and often rococo work.)

Next year I will be in a better position to discuss the Tales as I plan to attend the “All & Everything Conference” which is being held in Toronto from April 22 to 26, 2009. I hope to cover the event in detail – presentations, seminars, panels, banquet, etc. – for readers of this blog who might wish to attend but do not live near Toronto and hence are unlikely to be there except in spirit. So I will not presume to discuss the Tales, short of reminding its readers of two facts.

The first fact is that the author has ordered his readers to read his text three times, all in different ways for different purposes and presumably different centres in man. The second fact is how the text itself begins, it commences with these words: “Among other convictions formed in my common presence during any responsible, peculiarly composed life …. ”

Now that fact introduces a problem because, as I write this review on my computer, I am listening to its audio system play the first of the four disks that comprise a newly released recording of the Tales
its entirety. Disk one begins, “Well, my boy …. ” What gives? What is happening? Let me back up and try to explain.

From time to time I have reviewed the books published by Dolmen Meadow Editions, which is the imprint of the Toronto Gurdjieff Group. Members of that group are quite active. They are responsible for the appearance of a Russian-language text of the Tales, a mammoth undertaking, as well as the first English editions of “Gurdjieff: A Master in Life” (the recollections of Tcheslaw Tchekhovitch) and “Inner Octaves” (the English translation of Michel Conge’s classic talks). Some of these publications are for general sale; others are not.

Some years ago members of Dolmen Meadow issued a set of four CDs in MP3 format of William J. Welch reading all of the Tales, I have yet to purchase those CDs of Dr. Welch’s reading, but one day I will. I recall he had a heavy and hearty voice and he always spoke “with a twinkle in the eye.” Then I will be able to compare and contrast his reading with the present one, which is an impressive and very womanly one done by Margaret Flinsch.

The four-disk set of CDs in MP3 format (suitable for playing on both a computer and a CD player) is titled “G.I. Gurdjieff: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man as read by Margaret Flinsch.” Dolmen Meadow’s website offers this details: ISBN: 978-0-9780-661-2-3. List price: US $60.00.

The jewel-box includes a model eight-page booklet that sketches in the background of the book and identifies the reader. Margaret (Peggy) Flinsch is one of those names that crops up in the literature of the Fourth Way, always in pleasant and positive contexts, for she knew Gurdjieff well, was respected by one and all, and at gatherings regularly recited passages from the Tales. She was born in Glendale, Ohio, in 1907; she taught in experimental schools; she married an Olympic oarsman and raised a family; she assisted in the preparation of the revised edition of the Tales which was issued by Penguin Books in 1992.

All of that information comes from the booklet. Let me add that Ms. Flinsch was associated with the Blue Rock School, a progressive primary and secondary school located in West Nyack, N.Y. Her sister made a contribution to the Work: the late D.M. Dooling, founder of the influential journal “Parabola.” The Work seems to run in her family.

The author or authors of the booklet relate the Tales to reciting, reading, and listening: “Peggy stresses that this book is meant to be read aloud. And Gurdjieff states that his book is designed to reach both the waking consciousness and the subconscious. ‘For me,’ Peggy has said, ‘listening is the path to the subconscious mind.’” Such is the power of the spoken word.

The recordings were made at her residence over a five-year period between 2003 and 2008. Volume levels of some sessions differ from those of other sessions, as one would assume, given the five-year eriod of recording. They also give the reader something of a jolt, a shock, a “stop” – perhaps not a bad experience in the circumstances! “Peggy is one of the last people alive who read from ‘Beelzebub’s Tales’ in Gurdjieff’s presence. She has studied the book all her life and is an advocate of its being read with the correct pronunciation of Gurdjieff’s special words.”

Not having a copy of the Penguin edition handy, I diverted myself by listening to Ms. Flinsch read the text while following it with a copy of the first edition of 1950 published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. After a couple of minutes of listening, it became apparent that the differences between the editions are mainly on the level of streamlining the expressions. For instance, on page 20, the text has a power “proceeding within.” Ms. Flinsch has it “aroused within.” I suppose this makes a difference, but how much of a difference I will leave that to specialists to determine – or to wiseacre.

If you want to hear six or so minutes of the text as read by Ms. Flinsch, check the Dolmen Meadow website and click on to “Becoming Aware of Being Duty.” If you do so, you will hear a representative part of the whole. You will hear a compassionate woman used to speaking with assurance and authority; an elderly person used to reading to classes and groups of younger people; a teacher used to articulating without pontificating; a human being who is certain the text has meanings that may be conveyed with intelligence and insight. She takes the text slowly, and her rhythm is that of someone who wishes to be heard and understood without the need for drama or melodrama.

Ms. Flinsch speaks the English of an educated professional person in an accent that is close to what Canadians describe as “mid-Atlantic.” She has no problems with the tome’s specialized vocabulary – “Sacred Vznooshlitzval” and “Askalnooazar” and so on – and indeed makes these expressions sound like English words. The key to her performance is that she reads these strange syllables quite slowly, whereas the attempt of the less-experienced reader would be to rush upon them and give them foreign intonations based on the derivations of their component parts. They are neologisms and legominisms, but they sound less like inventions than they do everyday expressions that are inescapable in the circumstances.

Amusingly, the only peculiarity is the pronunciation she gives to the French words “bon-ton” – a scowl comes through! Perhaps the sole surprise is that Ms. Flinsch speaks the language like an American: flattening some word-endings, dropping the occasional “g,” and turning the “t” into a “d.” These are minor matters indeed.

There is one other surprise. While the disks are playing, there are quasi-fractals that appear on the screen in shimmering colours. There is no relationship between the shapes and colours, on the one hand, and the words from the passages being read on the other.

I still do not know why the recording begins, “Well, my boy …. ” At first I had supposed it had something to do with the Penguin edition of the text, but upon replaying the opening, it does not recur. The text begins where the text should begin, so it must have been my computer’s fault: we all hear and read different things.)

My overall sense of the recording, however, is that this set of disks is Ms. Flinsch’s lasting legacy to readers and listeners of the Tales for decades to come. We sense in her voice an authority that seems to derive from that of the book’s author. She gives voice to the author’s words by finding each chapter of the book to be a repository of humour and folklore and insight into the human condition viewed from a cosmological perspective, lightened with verbal pranks and rogueries, all of which she recites with a straight face.

Here is a story-teller with a mission as well as a story-reader with a message. Indeed, she has shown how contemporary – and how postmodern – the Tales will sound when they are beautifully read.


John Robert Colombo is known in Canada as “the Master Gatherer” for his compilations of lore and literature. His current publications include “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories” and “Whistle While You Work,” a collection of essays about Canadiana and consciousness studies. He is an Associate of the Northrop Frye Centre, Victoria College, University of Toronto.

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