Posts Tagged ‘Maurice Nicoll’
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 email@example.com .
John Robert Colombo reviews Keith A. Buzzell’s latest publication
These days the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) is much in the news, at least in the American news, occasioned by the candidacy for the leadership of the Republican Party of the person of Mitt Romney, the Massachusetts Senator and Presidential hopeful. The man who has his eye set on occupying the Oval Office of the White House is a fifth-generation Mormon, and while he has lived a squeaky clean life to date, he apparently holds as gospel truths some of the bizarre beliefs and strange practices of the Mormon church.
Recently a researcher drew the attention of the reading public to the fact that in the eyes of Mormons, God is not the creator of the world. He is not the creator of the universe either, though it seems God resides “in” the universe and not “beyond” it. This is peculiarity that should be of interest to both theologian and geophysicist. Who then did create the heavens and the earth? Genesis 1:1 of the King James Version of the Bible states that God accomplished the deed “in the beginning.” Here is the standard Christian belief in the wording of the Apostle’s Creed: “God the Father Almighty … Creator of Heaven and Earth.”
The Mormon belief, formulated over eighteen decades ago, is that God, while in no way the architect of creation, nevertheless is a dweller in it as well as its superintendent. Indeed, the location of “divine throne” is known, for it is “near” Kolob, which is a celestial body in some distant sector of the cosmos, unsuspected by astrologer and unknown to astronomer. Is Kolob a planet or a star? The Mormon writings are obscure on this point, rather like the traditional beliefs of the Inuit of the Arctic whose cosmology conflates planets and stars. It does seem that the Mormon God is more akin to mankind than to spirit-kind.
Are the Mormons Christians? It seems that they are Christians in the same way that members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community are Muslims. Their membership in greater Islam is denied by Sunni and Shite alike, especially in Pakistan where the Parliament passed a statute declaring the Ahmadiyyas to be non-Muslims: So there! In the same way, fundamentalist Christian denominations and sects in the U.S. heartland refuse to extend the term “Christian” to include Mormonism: Take that! Yet the Ahmadiyyas consider themselves to be good Muslims, just as the Mormons consider themselves to be good Christians.
I am not sure why it is so, but I find all of this reassuring. Perhaps it reassures me because it is so human – to cling to peculiar beliefs, in lieu of any evidence at all, and to withhold validation to designated groups on account of their differing beliefs. It reminds me of the subterfuge and euphemism employed by Palestinians and other Muslims who insist on referring to the State of Israel as “the Jewish entity.” All too human!
With respect to the LDS tradition, it is enlightening that there should be a god or demiurge who lives on a celestial body named Kolob, for it seems the divinity is a being who – or which – has some sort of physical or corporeal existence. There is no reference to Kolob in “The Book of Mormon,” but it makes its appearance in the quasi-scriptural text “Pearl of Great Price.” The subject is of interest in that one may be a good Mormon without worrying much about the nature of divinity, whether architect or superintendent of the universe. In a sense, then, belief is a matter of degree and the responsibility of the individual and hence changeable.
I could continue with a discussion of bizarre beliefs held by many Christians – such as the rise and fall of the concept of Purgatory, not to mention the existence of states of Heaven and Hell, veneration of angels and saints, prayers for the posthumous rehabilitation of the death, the physical resurrection at the End of Days, etc. All of these fall into the province of Theology, the “queen of the sciences.” The list of endless. As the cartoonist Robert L. Ripley of “Believe It or Not!” fame once wrote, “Strange indeed is man seeking after his gods.”
What does all of this have to do with what appears below, or with the new book that I am about to review? (I use the verb “to review” with some reluctance because the book in question is a weighty one, and the arguments it presents are complex, indeed too complex to encapsulate in a relatively short review article.) The answer to the question is “not much,” except that there is little evidence for what is being described in the book’s pages. If the descriptions are taken seriously, the deductions and extensions truly follow. So the book is a disciplined work, a work of scholarly analysis. It is titled “Reflections on Gurdjieff’s Whim,” and I will describe the physical appearance of the volume before I turn my attention to its author, Keith A. Buzzell and to his previous publications, and only then to the general argument of the new book.
“Reflections on Gurdjieff’s Whim” is published in 2012 by Fifth Press, an imprint based in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Mormon headquarters (as it happens!), which has issued earlier titles by Dr. Buzzell. It is a handsome trade paperback, 266 pages of text, plus preliminary and postliminary matter, including a glossary of scientific (but not Gurdjieffian) terms and a bibliography that includes books and articles on philosophy, neurology, cosmology, mathematics, etc. There is no index, but the text is well organized in fourteen chapters, and there are four instructive prefaces (contributed by the book’s editors, John Amaral, Marlena Buzzell, Bonnie Phillips, and Toddy Smyth). There are also innumerable diagrams, many of them in lovely pastel colours. A rough approximation of the word count is 145,000 words. Although I found a couple of minor misprints (footnotes on page viii and page 7, for instance), the text is well edited and the argument is clearly expressed.
Now let me turn to Dr. Buzzell and his publications, paraphrasing what I wrote for this blog on September 28, 2011. (It is still archived here.) At the time I wrote: “It is apparent that there are many scientifically minded and technologically trained people like Dr. Buzzell who are ‘in the Work’ and are making sizeable efforts ‘to square’ what Mr. Gurdjieff wrote in ‘Beelzebub’s Tales’ with contemporary scientific and technological theories and practices. This is one way to ‘make relevant’ what the author wrote between 1924 and 1927, the text of which was translated into English and published in 1950 and subsequently reissued in a revised (and controversial) edition in 1992.”
“Dr. A. Keith Buzzell was born in 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. He studied music at Bowdoin College and Boston University, and received his medical doctorate in 1960 at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. For the past thirty-five years, he has been a rural family physician in Fryeburg, Maine, a staff member of Bridgton Hospital and currently holds the position of medical director at the Fryeburg Health Care Center.”
“Dr. Buzzell has also served as a professor of osteopathic medicine, a hospital medical director and a founder of a local hospice program. He has lectured widely on the neurophysiologic influences of television on the developing human brain and on the evolution of man’s triune brain. In 1971 Keith, and his wife Marlena, met Irmis Popoff, a student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and the founder of the Pinnacle Group in Sea Cliff, Long Island, New York. From then until the mid-1980s they formed work groups under her supervision. Since 1988, Dr. Buzzell and Annie Lou Staveley, founder of the Two Rivers Farm in Oregon, maintained a Work relationship up to her death in 1996. Keith continues group Work in Bridgton, Maine.”
This information is also reprinted in the current book. As for the earlier volumes, these are the three volumes that I reviewed: “Perspectives on Beelzebub’s Tales and Other of Gurdjieff’s Writings” (2005). “A Child’s Odyssey: Explorations in Active Mentation: Re-Membering Gurdjieff’s Teaching” (2006). “Man – A Three-brained Being: Resonant Aspects of Modern Science and the Gurdjieff Teaching” (2007, 2nd edition, 2011).
I have found these books to be among the most serious publications about the physics, physiology, neurology, and psychology of G.I. Gurdjieff’s thought – and also the most demanding to read. In their comprehensiveness, they remind me of Maurice Nicoll’s five-volume series of “Psychological Commentaries,” but whereas Dr. Nicoll generally limited himself to the psychological aspects of the system, Dr. Buzzell does not so limit his inquiry but attempts to relate metaphysical concepts with chemical and physical reality. The present title is no exception.
The title of the book struck me as odd for the reason that I was unfamiliar with the expression “Gurdjieff’s whim.” I assumed I was missing something – I quite often have this feeling, and with some justification! (Indeed, the phrase brought to my mind the not-unrelated, traditional Islamic words “Mohammed’s wont.”) I checked Sophia Wellbeloved’s indispensable volume ‘Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts’ (2003) but found no references there to “whim.” Nowhere else in the literature of the Work have I encountered any discussion of “whim,” so I conclude it is a synonym for “aim.”
I checked the “Guide and Index” and located “whim” (in the singular) in “All & Everything,” where it appears in the original edition on page 688 of the section on “France.” The author wrote as follows: “ … they occupy themselves out of idleness, in order to satisfy their whims, with devising ‘new-forms-of-manifestations-of-their-Hasnamussianing,’ or as is said there, with ‘new fashions,’ and spread them from there over the whole of the planet.” There the word is used in the plural and it refers to things of passing interest. I reluctantly returned to the notion of “one’s personal aim” in life and in Work. Perhaps it was related to the three aims of Group Work.
I was still uncertain about this, even after reading, on page 1, the words attributed to Gurdjieff: “to live and teach so that there should be a new conception of God in the world, a change in the very meaning of the word.” This is equated with Gurdjieff’s personal aim. Indeed, even earlier, on page ii, in the first of the prefaces, Toddy Smyth writes as follows: “In a rare moment of divulgence, Gurdjieff revealed his own whim: to bring to mankind a new understanding of God.”
There we have it. Smyth continues: “Keith Buzzell’s work is a verification of this whim – an aspect of a new understanding of God is to recognize and to gain the capacity to actualize one’s own whim. A portion of Dr. Buzzell’s whim could be summarized as the striving to understand how self-transformation – a process that requires the action of an independent will – can be possible within a Universe governed by unyielding, automatic law.”
Smyth goes on to describe the present book as “a dynamic synthesis of the indications found in ‘The Tales’ and ‘In Search’ with recent discoveries in quantum and cosmological science.” Indeed, as Dr. Buzzell has written elsewhere, “Gurdjieff’s conception of Okidanokh represents a major aspect of his effort to reconcile science and spirituality. As such, it plays a powerful role in his new conception of God in the world. The manner in which he accomplishes this reconciliation is quite ‘oblique’ or indirect and one has to read his complex elaboration with considerable care and attention to see how thoroughly he has blended the ‘way’ of science and of potential transformation with the ‘way’ of the spirit.”
He takes pains to place Gurdjieff’s exposition alongside those concerned with quantum physics and the theory of relativity. He could have added alongside as well of photographic proof of the expansion of the universe which was discovered by Hubble and Humason during the same period.
But perhaps the key passage appears in Philip Mairet’s memoir of A.R. Orage: “Whilst they were talking in this vein, someone asked Gurdjieff if he would disclose his own ‘whim,’ and he said it was to live and teach so that there should be a new conception of God in the world, a change in the very meaning of the word.” This passage is cited a number of times, and its source seems to be an unpublished lecture of J.G. Bennett’s. Bennett quotes Orage as saying his “whim” is to publish “the best literary journal in England,” an aim he achieved. Apparently the word “whim” in Armenian and Russian expresses not merely fantasy, as it does in English, in the sense of whimsy, but determination, intent, and wish. The reader will decide whether or not Gurdjieff realized his “whim.”
In some way this “new conception” is connected with those unwieldly terms Okidanokh and Triamazikamno, the former term representing the “reconciliation” of man’s inner world of three brains with the outer world that expresses the familiar Law of Three, and the latter term the all- encompassing Ray of Creation – our individual and collective place in the world.
Each of the fourteen chapters of Dr. Buzzell’s book is composed of sections a few pages in length, and any one section would lend itself to study and analysis, as it is immersed in the vocabularies of “The Tales” (as he refers to “Beelzebub’s Tales”) and “In Search of the Miraculous.” In this sense “Reflections” could be regarded as an organized gloss on central concepts presented in allegorical and other forms in “The Tales.”
The sheer amount of information and analysis in the book would overwhelm the casual reader (as it does the ordinary reviewer!) who has but a general understanding of and a passing interest in the mechanics of the work’s dynamics. So what I will do is parasail from chapter to chapter, suggesting some insights to be found therein. The author has made this easy to do because, in effect, each chapter examines a specific aspect of the system – indeed, each key word unlocks a portion of the whole. Here are the topics of the chapters:
(1) Whim as aim. (2) Evils old and new. (3) Generations, notably sons and grandson. (4) Conscience, reason. (5) Wiseacre, know-it-all. (6) Laws of the universe. (7) Suggestibility, including hypnotism. (8) Okidanokh, or reconciliation of science and spirituality. (9) Essence which has mellowed. (10) Organic life. (11) Individual and group place and presence. (12) Foods and the Ray of Creation. (13) Reconciliation that allows for self-perfection in a structured universe. (14) Quantum considerations as approaches to “the non-mass and mass-based worlds.”
Some of the chapters come in two parts. I noticed that the earlier chapters are highly specific and analytic, whereas the later chapters are somewhat speculative, historical, and once in a while personal. (The early explorations bring to hazy recall the detailed discussions, chemical largely, mentioned by Dr. James Carruthers Young and others at the Priory in the mid-1920s.)
There is a shift of perspective in this book from impersonal to personal, and it could be said to occur around Chapter 10. The theory comes first, thereafter its application. Indeed, in that chapter, “The Life Force,” Dr. Buzzell describes two instances of awareness and intention that occurred to him, the first stemming from an encounter with a disliked hardware clerk, the second stemming from his habit of leaving his socks on the floor of his bedroom!
Here is a brief summary of the contents of Chapter 10, which may act as a guide to how the author proceeds. Synonyms for “life force” is mentioned: Qui, Chi, prana, Shakti, pneuma, Great Spirit, Godhead (Jehovah, God, Allah). These are Eastern conceptions and there is no “action from below” and it is all “action from above.” It is Western conceptions that offer “action from below,” and these are sometimes called vitalism, will to live, élan vital, life force, formative drive, entelechy, orgone, etc. For a balance of “actions,” turn to Taoism. Newton and Darwin and Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of Relativity have begun to “bridge” reduce the gap between spirit and matter (to use basic terms).
Here is what Gurdjieff brings to this notion: “There is no intimation that life of any type (non-brained and brained) was a unique or separate creation of HIS ENDLESSNESS.” Life is a universal phenomenon, the Ilnosoparnian process, with Earth as special because of the collision of the comet Kondoor. Earth, Moon, and Anulios and what they represent are “imbalanced” and hence requires special consideration. There is much discussion of the nature of the “imbalance” based on passages from “The Tales.” “Gurdjieff carefully emphasizes the participation of the Divine Will Power _only_ at the onset of the Creation and yet has HIS ENDLESSNESS very active, via HIS Reason, _within_ the Creation.”
Everything proceeds lawfully. “The end result of the _actualizations_ of HIS ENDLESSNESS creates the possibility for the transformation and crystallization of ‘active elements’ …. ” As well: “Applying this Will, each of us three-brained begins can participate – be an active agent – in our own self-transformation. One becomes an active participant in the creation of the Higher Bodies. Efforts in this regard are _one’s own_ ; they are initiated from lower worlds and move upward. This is _evolution_ in the Gurdjieffian sense.”
The possible success of such effort leads to a discussion of “later octaves” in the Great Ray. (I would like to have known more about “coating bodies” vs. “crystallization.”) There is a section about: “All of life, therefore, is required and fulfills a cosmic need while, simultaneously, the actualizations of HIS ENDLESSNESS make it possible for certain of the three-brained begins to coat High Being-bodies.” This action is symbolically represented with respect to what looks like a multi-coloured cosmic pyramid. Movement (instinctive centre), eating (moving and instinctive), and survival (instinctive and moving and sex centre) are discussed. The role of H12, “the power of paying attention,” is discussed interestingly and importantly. Also discussed are characteristics and comparisons of first, second, and third brains.
Pages here resemble a textbook on neuro-anatomy. There is much discussion of the “location of attention” and the question is asked, “Where does ‘carbon 6’ come from?” The octaves of Food, Air, and Impressions are discussed. The subject is complicated, yet the exposition is clear, so the author deserves top marks for his hard work. In an ideal world – rather than on a planet like ours that falls under 48 laws – I would be able to summarize in greater detail the contents of all the chapters.
The quality of any work that is serious may be judged by the influence that it has on serious-minded people. The Gurdjieff Work was introduced to the West in 1915, so it nearly one century old, perhaps a lot older in fragmentary form in the East. Texts that were written in the 1920s and published as late as the 1940s are still able to beget serious discussion and engender new thoughts and feelings. Proof of the seriousness of the Work is that it inspires Dr. Buzzell and other scholars and scientists to “dig deeper.” Yet for all its length and depth, it seems that “Reflections” is but the first half of Dr. Buzzell’s analysis. For it is promised that there will be a second volume in this series to be titled “Further Reflections on Gurdjieff’s Whim.” So stay tuned ….
Lurking in the back of my mind, as I read these fourteen chapters, was the planet or star named Kolob and the lonely God of the Mormons, who lives in our cosmos, distant from us but not apart from existence. I must admit that this image brought to my mind Mr. Gurdjieff.
John Robert Colombo is an author and anthologist based in Toronto who is interested in esoteric ideas, Canadian lore and literature, jokes and anecdotes, and contemporary poetry. His latest collection of aphorisms is called “A Strange and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore.” Check his website: firstname.lastname@example.org
“There is not a page of this book that will not surprise and instruct every one of its readers, including even the most knowledgeable of readers.”
John Robert Colombo Reviews Paul Beekman Taylor’s Latest Book
The first introduction that I had to what is now called the Work was not the result of reading a copy of “In Search of the Miraculous.” That was my second introduction to it. The first introduction was finding a second-hand copy of “God Is My Adventure” in a bookstore which no longer exists in Toronto and buying it and avidly reading it from cover to cover. The book, published in 1935 and frequently reprinted, was written in a lively and irreverent manner by Rom Landau, a British or Polish-born journalist (Wikipedia says British, Taylor says Polish) with a special interest in such offbeat and exotic subjects as the dozen or so spiritual leaders who are the subject of “God Is My Adventure.”
Landau was a first-rate reporter and lively raconteur, and in this regard he resembled his contemporary, the American journalist and adventurer William Seabrook who also wrote about what became known as the Work. Among the spiritual leaders described by Landau in vivid detail are Count Keyserling, Stefan George, Rudolf Steiner, Krishnamuri, Meher Baba, and Frank Buchman, not to mention P.D. Ouspensky and G.I. Gurdjieff. It is a motley crew to be sure. Landau’s descriptions of the latter two leaders in action constitute the first such accounts to appear between the covers of any book, as distinct from the columns of daily newspapers and other periodical publications.
I will not take the time to discuss Landau’s understanding of traditionalist teachers or try to characterize his account of the lecture delivered by Ouspensky which he attended in London or his account of a lunch and a meeting with Gurdjieff in New York City. But I was reminded of Landau and the impression that he had made on me about fifty years ago while I was turning the pages of Paul Beekman Taylor’s latest book. It is called “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye” and it includes references to both Landau and Seabrook. Indeed, it would be incomplete if it had failed to do so.
First let me offer a description of this new book and then a brief account of its author before I turn to the text itself. “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye” is subtitled “Newspaper Articles, Magazines and Books 1914-1949.” It takes the form of a sturdy trade paperback which measures 6.25 inches by 9 inches and has 246 numbered pages. The pages are not stitched but glued. The textual apparatus includes a foreword, an introduction, a select bibliography, and a nominal index, along with 16 pages of dimly reproduced images of Mr. G., dancers, Movements demonstrations, program notes, newspaper clippings, the Priory, etc. The soul of the book is the seven chapters devoted to excerpts and commentaries – but more about such matters later.
The publisher is Eureka Editions in Utrecht in The Netherlands, and the year of publication is given as 2010 (though it seems the book has just appeared in the present year of 2011). Eureka is the publisher of over fifty Work-related books, including numerous new or reprinted volumes by Bob Hunter, Maurice Nicoll, Beryl Pogson, J.H. Reyner, Paul Beekman Taylor, and other group leaders, participants, and observers. The website of Eureka Editions is well worth examining for many reasons.
The story of Eureka’s founding and founders is given, along with its mission and defining characteristic: “Eureka Editions is not connected to any Foundation, Institute, Fellowship, Church or other form of organization, however useful they may be.” The publishers then quote Maurice Nicoll: “The Work is not a building, a place, a book, a system, dogma or tradition. The Work is something that lives in the hearts of men and women – if they can find it.”
The author of the present work is Paul Beekman Taylor who as a youngster “knew Gurdjieff.” Born in London in 1930, he and his mother spent some time at the Priory at Fontainebleau-Avon. Thereafter he became a scholar of Old Norse and Old English and taught for many years at the University of Geneva. He is now a Professor Emeritus of that institution. Books that he has researched and written include the very useful and detailed volume titled “Gurdjieff’s America” (2004), reissued as “Gurdjieff’s Invention of America” (2007), and “G.I. Gurdjieff: A New Life” (2008). The latter biography rises to the heights of James Moore’s classic work, “Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth” (1991); and, by incorporating the results of recent research, Taylor’s surpasses Moore’s biography in numerous particulars.
It is my guess that Taylor sees himself as the historian of the Work, and I assume that no one will deny that he is ideally equipped as a scholar to trace its trajectory and that no one will doubt his “feel” for the Work. When I learned of the imminent publication of “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye,” what flashed before my eye was the composition of the collection and the construction of the commentary, as well as the conviction that Taylor was the man for the job. I was more or less familiar with the ancillary literature because what also flashed before my eye was the following name: J. Walter Driscoll.
I have yet to meet J. Walter Driscoll. despite the fact that he was born in Toronto, where I live, and that he now resides on Vancouver Island, off the West Coast of Canada. I hope one day we will meet. Users of the Internet will be grateful to him for there is much for everyone to peruse on the website “Gurdjieff: A Reading Guide” edited by J. Walter Driscoll (third edition, 2004). Here is how the website describes itself:
“This edition of the ‘Gurdjieff Reading Guide’ contains a retrospective anthology of fifty-two articles, some originally published here, and others dating as far back as 1919. These provide an independent survey of the literature by or about George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866?-1949) and offer a wide range of informed opinion (admiring, critical and contradictory) about him, his activities, writings, philosophy, and influence.”
In effect, Driscoll’s “Gurdjieff: A Reading Guide” is the backbone of Taylor’s “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye.” Yet for its body and soul we have to turn to Driscoll’s magnum opus. This is the tome titled “Gurdjieff: An Annotated Bibliography” which was undertaken with the Gurdjieff Foundation of California and published in a hardcover edition by Garland Press in 1985. This standard work consists of some 1,700 entries full of delicious bits of information and iotas of insight.
Many researchers (like the present writer) have used Driscoll’s bibliography as a checklist for items to find, photocopy, read, and digest. I hope Driscoll continues to collect and annotate the ever-expanding body of knowledge about the Work. Yet the arrival of the Internet has probably stamped “paid” to future editions of Driscoll’s “Annotated Bibliography” at least in print form.
I am devoting all this attention to J. Walter Driscoll because the librarian, teacher, and archivist has contributed the foreword to the present volume. The foreword is short, only two pages in length, and it dwells entirely on the capacities and credentials of Taylor. It could but does not make the case that the “Annotated Bibliography” is the body and soul of “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye.” Driscoll seems very scholarly and endearingly self-effacing.
In his introduction, Taylor describes the present book as “an anthology of all printed materials about Gurdjieff during his lifetime.” He credits the work of “definitive” bibliographer Driscoll, of musician Gert-Jan Blom, and of historian Michael Benham, a specialist in twentieth-century Russian history. He discusses what is included because there was not enough space to reproduce every article from every newspaper or magazine in whole or in part or even at all. (That sounds like a job for the Internet.) But major articles quite often appear in full, and all the articles are succinctly and authoritatively annotated.
The years from 1921 to 1935 corresponded to a period of wide-spread public interest in Gurdjieff and his activities at the Priory, subsumed under the heading “the forest philosophers.” In all, I counted 126 articles from all periods, reproduced in whole or part, and they cover the years from 1914 to 1950. They range from the five-paragraph, anonymous notice about a hitherto unknown “Hindu” who had written “a most curious ballet scenario” called “The Struggle of the Magicians,” which appeared in “The Voice of Moscow” five months following the outbreak of the Great War and was read by Ouspensky, to the appearance of obituary notices in “The Times of London,” “The New York Times,” and “The New Yorker” in the late fall of 1949.
Taylor’s table of contents gives a good idea of the chronological arrangement of the material. There are seven chapters: 1. Early Notices; 2. What the French Press Reported on Gurdjieff and His Colony; 3. The English Press; 4. American News of the Institute; 5. The American Tour of 1924; 6. Gurdjieff’s Press 1924-1939; 7. Last Notices. The two chapters devoted to the American press are the longest, as they benefit from Taylor’s own research and editorial concentration on this period.
I am going to resist the temptation to discuss individual articles on the principle that one does not have to drink the entire ocean to know that it is salty – one drop will do; as well I will observe the injunction that it is difficult to eat just one salted peanut – and not a second and then a third. Having said that, let me suggest that worth the price of admission alone is the article reprinted from “The New Republic” (June 1929) written by Carl Zigrosser (who was subsequently appointed curator of prints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art). He knows his “prints” and offers his readers – and us, courtesy of Taylor – an engaging and lively account of a summer visit to the Priory as well as a notable pen-portrait of its founder.
It is interesting to read what non-Gurdjieffians have to say about Mr. G. Indeed, I find what Gurdjieffians have to say about the man and his manner somewhat predictable, and hackneyed because readers of the literature on the Work are already quite familiar with the formulations of Ouspensky, J.G. Bennett, members of The Rope, and other contemporary commentators. Independent journalists can often be irreverent and amusing, instructively so, as they fail to understand Mr. G. and his manner and method. Yet there is one editorial decision that was made with “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye” that surprises me.
What we have here is the material that should comprise an anthology, yet the text is presented not as an anthology or as a casebook of fully formed “pieces,” but as an historico-critical analysis that proceeds more or less decade by decade, in effect, a history. I wonder if the book would not have been more compelling and engaging had it been arranged in the form of an anthology, with independent contributions, each one introduced with a short preface followed by a source note and a critical commentary. The volume was not organized in this fashion, but I believe it would have found more readers had it been allowed to proceed along this trajectory.
According to the publisher’s webpage, one hundred copies of “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye” have been printed. (The statement about the press-run does not necessarily preclude reprints of the first edition.) Are there so few – or so many – collectors and “completists” who buy serious books about the Work? One would think there are more readers than one hundred who are interested in the interwar period, in journalism, in the sociology of belief, in the psychology of gurus and leadership, in comparative religion, in early twentieth-century philosophy, in New Age formulations, in Traditionalist thought, etc. Perhaps so, perhaps not!
I began this review with a reminiscence about Rom Landau’s “God Is My Adventure.” Taylor summarizes Landau’s contribution quite well, identifying times and places and people, and he concludes it by quoting Landau’s evaluation: “I have been unable to perceive in the man George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff the harmonious development of man.” That is the last sentence of the second-last paragraph. What Taylor does not quote is the first sentence of that paragraph: “I could dimly discern that the essence of Gurdjieff’s teaching contains a truth that everyone in contact with spiritual reality is bound to preach.”
Wallace Stevens wrote about 13 ways of looking at a blackbird. There are 32 short films about Glenn Gould. Hokusai painted 36 views of Mount Fuji. Paul Beekman Taylor has now offered us an anthology of 126 articles about Mr. G. There is not a page of this book that will not surprise and instruct every one of its readers, including even the most knowledgeable of readers.
John Robert Colombo is known across Canada as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of the lore and literature of the country. His current books include “Fascinating Canada” (a book of questions and answers) and “Jeepers Creepers” (a collection of told-as-true ghost stories). He has also published three volumes devoted to the life, work, and writings of Denis Saurat (who also “met Gurdjieff” and is discussed in “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye”). Colombo’s website is < http://www.colombo.ca >.
JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO REVIEWS
JEANNE DE SALZMANN’S “THE REALITY OF BEING”
A page from one of Jeanne de Salzmann’s notebooks
‘Madame de Salzmann’s Testament’
I have in front of me, as I keyboard this review, my prized copy of “The Reality of Being.” The copy is prized, despite the fact that it has not been autographed by its author; despite the fact that it lacks any association with an individual person, place, or incident; despite the fact that it was not given to me by a specially sensitive well-wisher; despite the fact that it was purchased through the Internet and arrived unheralded; despite the fact that it is the trade edition of the book that was published in thousands of copies in May 2010 and this is already October. The reasons why it is prized lie elsewhere and herein.
I prize it because of the quality of its contents, and so I have reserved a space for it on the bookshelf in my study where I display the spines of a limited number of select volumes about the Work that were published over the last three-quarters of a century. This brace of books includes the three volumes of G.I. Gurdjieff’s “All and Everything” series, four books written by P.D. Ouspensky, “The Harmonious Circle” by James Webb, and perhaps a dozen slender volumes composed by people whose last names are Claustres, George, Ravindra, Tracol, Vaysse, Welch, etc.
Before I attempt to convey the extent and limits of the contents of the present volume, I want to praise first its publisher and then its editors. It is a handsome piece of book-making. It measures 6″ x 9″ and has a substantial, dark blue cloth cover embossed in gold; it has end-sheets and an inspired and atmospheric dust-jacket which features an image that combines the horizon of the earth with the stars of the heavens which was created by an artist who goes unnamed but is nevertheless intriguingly referred to as “the author’s great-granddaughter.”
The typographical design of its pages appears at once casual and classical. The volume is published by Shambhala of Boston and London, which ensures it will be widely distributed and kept in print, and it is very reasonably priced at CDN $32.00. The publisher even had the signatures of the book sewn – most books these days have their pages glued together, a process euphemistically described as “Perfect Binding.” As well, they have added, like a sovereign crown, a bright yellow-orange headband. The book is a durable and handsome product, worthy of the muse or saint of printing and publishing, if there is one. Thank you, Shambhala, for taking pains!
I hope I do not sound like a claque because, as well, I will praise in extravagant terms the editors of this book. On the mundane level I did not find a single misprint, and that rarely happens these days, even with scholarly texts issued by university presses. I did note, in passing, that there are discrepancies between the birth years of its subject and its author. The copyright page, which includes the by-now standard Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data, gives G.I. Gurdjieff’s year of birth as 1872, whereas the text gives it as 1866. The same page gives Madame de Salzmann’s year of birth as “1889?” whereas the text gives the same year but without the droll question mark. But these are matters of amusement and no consequence, unlike the text of the book itself.
The text is well organized, indeed super-organized, with a Foreword, an Introduction, twelve main sections, a Biographical Note, a list of the four Gurdjieff centres (Paris, London, New York City, Caracas), and an Index. Let me pause over the latter item, the twelve-page, double-column index, as indices are often overlooked, despite the fact that the attentive reader may tell a lot about a book from a cursory examination of its index.
After perusing it, I thought, “The only personal name in this index – and hence in the text of the book itself – is that of G.I. Gurdjieff.” Then I looked closer and found three other names, those of Christ, Buddha, and Mohammed. Illustrious company indeed! Added to them, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, I found that of Ashiata Shiemash. So it is apparent from this index that the reader will not turn the pages of this book in order to be entertained by stories, anecdotes, or descriptions of the men and women who participated in the evolution of the presentation of Work principles and practices from Ouspensky’s “Special Doctrine” to Madame de Salzmann’s embodiment of the Fourth Way.
The present volume is about as far from a gossipy book as it is possible to be. In fact, the book is about how it is “possible to be,” and in doing so, I find I want to describe the text as a collection of homilies. A homily is a commentary on a passage of scripture, and during a church service a homily is delivered following the reading of the specified passage of scripture. It is basically a sermon with a practical application of the general principles found in the day’s passage. Hence a homily deals more with practice and not directly with principle. It is hortatory.
If I am right when I claim that what we have here is a series of homilies, it is also true that the thrust of the texts is towards the harmonization of the three centres of man. There is next to nothing about the speculative nature of this system of thought at least of the sort identified with the expositions of P.D. Ouspensky. The sections about the Law of Three and the Law of Seven are perfunctory in the extreme; indeed, they are credited by the editors to legitimate sources outside Madame de Salzmann’s notebooks, the source of these texts.
Instead of regarding thought, feeling, and sensation as separate subjects, we have an integration of them within the human body. The index, once again, gives an idea of what is being emphasized, with entries such as these, each of which has a dozen or more page numbers: being, body, consciousness, contact, crystalization, efforts, energy, existence, feeling, instrument of knowing, mind, nature, order, perception, reality, relation, seeing, sensations, shocks, teaching, tensions, understanding, vigilance, voluntary suffering.
There is an abstract quality to the exposition, certainly the quality of selflessness, so it is a relief that the texts themselves are surprisingly short – one page, two pages, three pages – seldom more. If they were any longer, they would be somewhat tedious to read; if they were any shorter, the expositions would be reducible to maxims, like the pages of sentence-long quotations that introduce each of the twelve sections. Two instances of these mantras are “We struggle not against something, we struggle for something” and “I have to maintain a continual sensation in all the activities of my daily life.” In his memoir of Madame de Salzmann called “Heart without Measure,” Ravi Ravindra made exceptional use of such expressions of experience.
The structure of this book as a collection of meditations or a passel of ponderings is such that it may not meet the needs of the novice in the Work, but by its nature it will address the deep-seated needs of people experienced in the ways and words of the Work, people who are in need reminding. In a way the present book reminds me of Maurice Nicoll’s multi-volume set of “Psychological Commentaries” in which each short essay concentrates on one particular element of the teaching. Whereas Nicoll is intellectual and philosophical, Madame de Salzmann is physical and functional..
Each of Madame de Salzmann’s texts illuminates an aspect of the Work, what used to be called “the practice of the presence of God” and what is now recalled by the words of the title of Patty de Llosa’s fine book “The Practice of Presence.” As Nicol was indebted to Ouspensky, Madame de Salzmann is indebted to Gurdjieff. Over the last fifty years or so, I have watched as the word “religion” has been replaced by the word “spirituality” and how that word is now passing out of style in favour of such words as “being,” “presence,” “consciousness,” and “awareness.” Who knows where it will end (to pose a Zen-like question!)?
Let me pause over the arrangement of the contents of the book. Each of the twelve sections is neatly divided into three sections, and each of these three sections has four subsections. This would create a book of 144 texts of homilies, except for the fact that four of the subsections have not four texts apiece but three. That makes 140 texts. (These short subsections are “A Sense of the Whole,” “Ego and Illusion,” “Voluntary Attention,” and “Voluntary Suffering.” It might be worthwhile, at some future time, to pause to wonder why this lack of symmetry is so.)
If the sign of a fine translation is that the reader hears the sound of the voice of a person whose words are being rendered into another language, this translation is sound indeed! I have never heard words spoken by Madame de Salzmann, but as I read these words I feel I am hearing her speaking her own words in her own way. She owns them. Her use of words is measured, they are masterfully chosen, and they are rhythmically arranged. There is a flow of language to match the flow of the teaching. The English translation from the French seems amazingly fine. Yet there is no way to ensure that this is so because the French originals of the notebook are not in print. Indeed, it seems that this English edition is the “editio princeps,” as the French text has never been published. A world first.
Who edited this book? Who prepared the translations from what are described as the “notebooks” kept by the author over the last half-century, from the death of Gurdjieff in 1949 and the death of Madame de Salzmann in 1990 at the age of 101? (Both the Library of Congress and the text of the book agree on these years!) “This book was edited by a small group of Jeanne de Salzmann’s family and followers.” Thus reads the last paragraph of the Foreword. This is a self-effacing sentence, so I wish I knew more, so I could credit the collective effort of family and followers.
Maybe I do know more. I have heard that the positive force behind the book’s appearance originated with the author’s daughter Nathalie de Salzmann de Etievan, who died in 2007. The project was carried out by a couple, Nathalie’s daughter Anne-Marie and her husband Stephen Grant, a retired New York lawyer, supported by the author’s grandson Dr. Alexandre de Salzmann. The labours of Anne-Marie and Stephen, to use their first names without leave, were no doubt augmented by those of other unnamed contributors. Their efforts “have surpassed expectations,” as M.B.A.s in business schools are wont to say these days.
The organization and presentation of the Work that is currently overseen by the four Gurdjieff centres would seem to be based on the efforts of preservation, continuation, elaboration, and extension led by Madame de Salzmann and continued by her son Dr. Michel de Salzmann until he died in 2001.” The text reads, “Before Gurdjieff died he charged Mme. de Salzmann to live to be ‘over 100’ in order to establish his teaching.” She certainly succeeded in more ways than one!
What is her message? Here any reviewer has to make a decision. He can either report on what the author says in the order of the excerpts from the notebooks that appear here, and thereby write at considerable length; or he can summarize the approach that the author takes, and thereby risk sounding somewhat platitudinous. After pondering the matter, what I have decided to do is offer the reader two sentences, no more, on each of the twelve sections of the text. They will give the flavour of the whole and a sense of its direction.
The first sentence is my summary of the argument of the section, expressed in language that sidesteps the terminology of the Work. The second sentence is taken from that portion of Madame de Salzmann’s text and represents an idea or a formulation that struck me as a novel in expression if not new in insight. The book is so arranged as to lead the reader from the simple to the complex, yet at the same time the text resembles a hologram, for which every portion is a portal to the whole.
1. “A Call to Consciousness.” Man does not know himself, but he may through self-knowledge become a conscious being. “Everything comes from the wish, the will.”
2. “Opening to Presence.” We sense ourselves in a passive way, but it is possible to have an active impression of ourselves. “At every degree of awareness my response is in the way I exist at the very moment, and the kind of action in which I am engaged.”
3. “In a Common Direction.” Attention must be paid to the feeling of being alive. “In order for my being to change, I must understand my state emotionally.”
4. “The Work to Be Present.” There are moments of awakening and we need to aim at these, to concentrate on these. “Only one thing counts: ‘I exist.’”
5. “With Others.” Man is a living organism and it is necessary for living organisms to meet and learn and work and move together. “This is why the most important condition, the necessary condition, is to work with others of comparable experience and understanding, who are capable of upending the completely false scale of values established by personality.”
6. “To Be Centered.” Through concentration, through will, and through breath-work, I may find my inner center. “I need to know myself as a whole and to express myself as a whole, that is, to be a whole.”
7. “Who Am I?” The real self is consciousness itself. “No movement from the periphery toward the center will ever reach the center.”
8. “Toward a New Being.” Man has various centres and these need to be sent shocks in order for man to collect himself. “Our work is to understand better the collected state, a state in which I engage in a new order.”
9. “In a State of Unity.” If all my sensations, feelings, and thoughts were in alignment, I would be a conscious being. “Seeing is an act.”
10. “A Presence with Its Own Life.” There are very special energies and subtle forces and man has to experience them in quietude to be truly alive. “To come to this state, I need a right posture, an attitude in which I am grounded, maintaining an inner center of gravity.”
11. “The Essential Being.” Forces pass through us and we must learn to sense those vibrations that are subtle and submit to them. “I need to have a force in me coming from a higher level of the cosmos. It must become part of what I am.”
12. “To Live the Teaching.” We live in two worlds and with our bodies we may feel a Presence. “With consciousness, I see what is, and in the experience ‘I Am,’ I open to the divine, the infinite beyond space and time, the higher force that religions call God.”
These twelve chapters take the reader from a concentration on the ego through schools with practices to a sense of the cosmos, not really step by step but all at once. Hologram-like, these homilies repeat the main thesis that change in level of being is possible and they treat the reader to an array of approaches to the central existence of gnosis or the “knowledge of being.” The book is rightly named “The Reality of Being” for it deals with what is most real in us and in the world in which we live. This is Madame de Salzmann’s predominant testament, one that is to be prized.
John Robert Colombo, Toronto-based author and anthologist, has recently published “Poems of Space and Time,” a collection of 360 poems written over the last half-century and inspired by “the fantastic imagination.” Watch and hear him read some poems on YouTube. Listen to his podcasts on topics of the day on his website: www. colombo -plus. ca. He writes regularly on Fourth Way subjects for this blog.
“Behind Real I Lies God”
“Behind real I lies God”, said Gurdjieff. And one possible expression of the feeling-quality of the relationship between real I and God is indicated by the prayer “Lord Have Mercy”. This was an important prayer to Gurdjieff: it is in exercises he gave Mrs Staveley and also the Adies in the last years of his life. It features in some of his very last movements. It is even found in Beelzebub. It is worth pondering. If one uses the method of continuing prayer I mentioned in the blog on the Prayer of the Heart, one can take it into life, and even into the Gurdjieff preparation. Then one can experience both “Lord Have Mercy” and “I AM”. Two separated but related impulses which lived together bring an almost miraculous experience.
This statement attributed to Gurdjieff, “behind real I lies God”, and which lands with the force of a revelation, was preserved by Maurice Nicoll (Selections from Meetings in 1953 at Great Amwell House, Eureka Editions, 1997, p.14). Nicoll went on to explain that it follows that Real I can be placed on the Ray of Creation around the note “si”, just beneath the Absolute. That volume has many interesting references to Gurdjieff: see pp.105, 110, 123, 126, 146, 173, 180, 188, and 202-3 (the last two pages are from Nicoll’s very last group meeting).
Then, in another book of miscellaneous meeting notes, it is related that Nicoll had said that when he and his wife were at the Prieuré, their two year old baby Jane fell sick. Gurdjieff kept the members of the Institute up for most of the night doing unusually difficult exercises “in order to create the force which he was able to use to cure Jane … He and Mrs Nicoll always felt that he had in this way saved Jane’s life.” (Informal Work Talks, Eureka Editions, reprint of 1998, p.82). This book, too, contains other Gurdjieff anecdotes and maxims: see pp.3, 6, 17, 48 (x2), 51, 93 and 113-4.
In my opinion, however, the very best and most useful material from Nicoll’s groups is to be found in Notes Taken At Meetings January 18, 1934 to April 28, 1934 (Eureka Editions, 1996). What Nicoll writes there about the internal parts of centres, and other topics, is – to my mind – astounding. So precise is it, that one receives a shock from merely reading it. One of the bizarre diagrams in the hardcover edition of Views (p.218, omitted from the paperback, possibly because it was considered too opaque) is found in almost identical form in Notes Taken At Meetings. Nicoll’s explanation of it is complementary to Gurdjieff’s, and illuminating. In effect, one can see that it graphically and vividly illustrates an insight into our position as individuals and in the cosmos.
Although there is some excellent material in the far better known Psychological Commentaries and in The New Man and Living Time, as a whole, Nicoll’s best and most unique insights come in the three slim volumes of informal notes. Further, they often put ideas in a better form than that of the Commentaries. I have sometimes encountered something in one of these books, and then researched that topic in the Commentaries. It is perhaps significant that Nicoll did not revise these volumes of notes: had he done so he might have ruined them.
Nicoll was an immensely talented individual, and he had the advantage of spending many mornings with Gurdjieff, working at carpentry. Gurdjieff, too, clearly thought a great deal of Nicoll, and invited Nicoll to him after the death of Ouspensky, but Nicoll refused. However, I think that when Nicoll wrote he took too much care to express his meaning. His Commentaries are Talmudic in inaccessibility. Invariably prolix and didactic, they repeat themselves to little advantage, even in the one paper. I not infrequently have the sense of being reprimanded by a schoolmaster. The many references to the Gospels are not always enlightening: too often they just import a sense of preachy self-righteousness. And Nicoll has an awful habit of writing about “the Work” as if we all knew what it was, and it spoke in a clear and strident voice. “The Work” tells us this, and the “the Work” tells us that. Of course, the work in so far as it can be personalised tells us nothing. But Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, and especially Nicoll, said a good deal. The Commentaries need condensation: for example, the anecdote about “Real I” is found there, at page 1647. Not too many readers have made it so far into the volumes, as evidenced by the fact that it is never cited.
The same deficiency in Nicoll’s “polished” work and the comparative vigour of his raw product is found in the two “New Testament” books, The New Man and The Mark. Nicoll had completed and published New Man in 1950, three years before he died, but he did not complete Mark. Yet, in my view, that is easily the best of the two books, even if it does to an extent assume the ideas in New Man. Lacking the “official Nicoll style”, New Man is more engaging and convincing. It also features the wonderful essay “The New Will”, perhaps the best thing Nicoll ever wrote, although it does not provide commentary on the New Testament.
Then, there is Pogson’s biography, Maurice Nicoll: A Portrait, republished by Fourth Way Books, 1987. One can receive an entirely new impression of Gurdjieff and the Prieuré from that volume. It is extraordinary that later researchers have under utilised these pages. It is not a “great” biography. Pogson’s approach is rather naive in some respects, and with her I always have a faint sense of the “prim and proper”. She describes how Nicoll moved his group to various stately English mansions and taught the New Testament, and she often says how wonderful and moving various events and talks were, but leaves it at that, as if the reader can share in the moment by reading of her own emotional exaltation. It is not so. Pogson could have made some attempt to bring together important ideas. Even the reference to Jane Nicoll’s illness does not mention how Gurdjieff asked people to make super-efforts to provide an energy. But why not? Pogson knew of this, and it exemplifies a principle, which others can experiment with.
Overall, then, I think that there is some very good and useful material in Nicoll’s legacy, which has too often been overlooked. But the difficulty is that it has been badly edited and passed on. Creed’s volumes of notes are very poorly put together, with the same illustrations and diagrams in each, and he has a habit (especially in his two volumes of shamefully muddled Fragments) of mixing together valuable and rare material with excessive quotation from Miraculous and the Psychological Commentaries. Like Pogson, but even more so, Creed’s talent is for collection. And we must thank him for that.
But anyone who made their way through these books and put together a single volume of about 200 pages called “Nicoll’s Approach to Mystical Philosophy”, systematically synthesizing Nicoll’s teaching rather than cutting and pasting from various sources, would be performing a public service. For example, the statement about real I can be expanded by reference to the diagram on p.41 of Notes Taken At Meetings, but this sort of research and editing is, sadly, beyond any of the commentators and editors Nicoll has found to date.
Nicoll is something of an outsider in certain Gurdjieff circles. For example, he does not appear in the Foundation-sponsored Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections, yet a good deal of what I might politely call material of little enduring value does, side by side with some powerful material. And the feeling is reciprocal: Nicoll’s people have their own canon of acceptable teachers: Ouspensky, Nicoll and Pogson. And, from what I can see, that is about it. Yet, as I have written elsewhere, I am more certain than ever that Gurdjieff intended his pupils, yes, even Jeanne de Salzmann, to learn from each other. He gave many of his pupils something unique and helped them to develop their own material: how could this not have been deliberate?
The question is: will Gurdjieff’s pupils ever start to reach over institutional walls and learn from each other? Will they ever be able to come together for any purpose? Why could the Foundation, the Bennett people, and others, perhaps in the USA, not come together on a Nicoll project, and invite Lewis Creed?
After I had written this blog, but before posting it, I was reminded of something. It was in November 2003, and Mr Adie’s group had a time away with the “Sydney Foundation” group in the Blue Mountains near Sydney. Since that time, I have left the Adie group and it has joined the Foundation people. But at this week away, I was on the Adie group’s council, and I said at one of the meetings that it was difficult when the two councils got together because the Foundation group had 12 people on theirs. We had five. Let us say that my comments were not warmly received.
Afterwards I spoke to one of our people and remarked that he knew that what I had said was right, so why did he not support me? He was not happy with me: he was glowering behind his beard. Yes, he stated, tetchily, you are right, but nothing will come of it, so why raise it? As I say, he was not happy with me.
Then, at our very next meeting, David from London made the surprising announcement, looking in my direction, that “for once I had sympathy with one of your outbursts”. Further, he had spoken to the lady in New York with responsibility for that group or had someone speak to her. I cannot quite recall which, but it may have been both. She had agreed, and the council of 12 was being replaced by a council of five persons, but the lineup would rotate from time to time.
I felt like asking David when I had given way to outbursts, and perhaps should have, as to refrain seemed to encourage him in his belief that he possessed “gravitas” and ‘auctoritas”. But, conscious that I was with others of my group, I did not. Yet, I have to say, that one of them could have supported me. However, they did not.
I also felt like pointing out to the one I had spoken to that indeed he had been wrong: the change was made. So my raising it was not forlorn. In fact, it had been the catalyst to David contacting New York and introducing some practicality into their council’s arrangements.
Why do I raise this? Because in the Gurdjieff groups people often feel inhibited from raising matters they think will be unpopular. Be ever so sane and balanced as you like, the fact that you are not doing the done thing is sufficient to set you up as a bringer of outbursts.
Well, the moral of my story is, the ideas and the methods are real. The groups, and often the group leadership are not. They are illusions. if you are in a Gurdjieff group, and even in the Foundation itself, do be not afraid to be wrongly seen as making outbursts. Be centred, and speak. You have nothing to lose but your illusions.