Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

G. I. Gurdjieff's teaching, research, books, conferences

Posts Tagged ‘Michel Conge






Neither the Work nor the expression of the Work in any given time and at any given place is sacrosanct or immune to the ravages and revelations of time. Its demystification involves, in a way, its remythologization, and this is proceeding apace in our time.

Part of the process is the shedding of light on its early history through historical research, and on its recent past through the publication of books of studies and memoirs. The historical classics are “The Harmonious Circle” written by James Webb and the two books by Paul Beekman Taylor titled “A New Life” and “Gurdjieff’s America.” Among modern-day classics is the amazing tome titled “‘It’s Up to Ourselves” written by Jessmin and Dushka Howarth. (I celebrated the publication of the latter volume, largely a scrapbook with a multitude of snapshots, on this blog – Sophia Wellbeloved’s blog – a month or so ago.)

None of these works (or others like them) has ever attain the scriptural status of “All and Everything” or even the canonical status of “Meetings with Remarkable Men” and “In Search of the Miraculous.” Yet the light they shed on the Work is a human glow which does not bathe it in a sense of wonder as much as it does imbue it with a sense of personal gratitude for assistance received and services rendered. Frank R. Sinclair has contributed two books to this class of publication: “Without Benefit of Clergy” and “Of the Life Aligned: Reflections on the Teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff and the Perennial Order.”

I have yet to see a copy of the second of these two books, but after reading the first one I will certainly read the second. The book at hand, the first one, is badly titled and poorly subtitled, but my criticism ends there – at the title page. The other 295 pages are fine by me, anecdotal in the extreme, as I will demonstrate later.

It is a trade paperback. It measures 8″ x 5.5.” and it has a full-colour cover and there are close to forty black-and-white photographs, mainly snapshots, almost all of them new to me and to most readers. The volume has been attractively designed and issued by Xlibris. There are two editions, the first in 2005, the second in 2009, which is the one that I purchased.

The title is “Without Benefit of Clergy.” The subtitle is “Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching.” Both title and subtitle give me pause. The title attracted my attention (as should all good titles) so I decided to determine why I feel it is inappropriate. I have always associated the phrase “without benefit of clergy” with immorality – living together in sin, without the sacramental blessing of the church – and I was partially right in doing so, as well as partially wrong.

In English jurisprudence, members of the clergy were not subjected to secular laws, whether criminal or civil, but were permitted to demand to be tried under canon law. This immunity was abolished centuries ago. In 1890, Rudyard Kipling employed the phrase “without benefit of clergy” for the title of a short story set in India about the Englishman named Holden and the Muslim woman named Ameer who “shack up” (1950s expression; the 1980s expression still current is “living together”) and how their unsanctioned union brought wrack and ruin to both conservative communities. The plot proved sufficiently potent and the phrase so popular that in 1921 it became the title of a the silent movie “Without Benefit of Clergy” that starred Boris Karloff, of all people. So my original reaction to the phrase – sexual congress outside the bonds of marriage – is probably that of most people unschooled in the intricacies of English jurisprudence.

I am not convinced that the title of this book of memoirs sheds any light at all on the subject of these memoirs. Is the author telling us that his memoirs are scandalous or shocking? If so, then he is wrong. And then there is the matter of the subtitle which also irks me: “Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching.” Is the world of footnotes divided between those that are “personal” and those that are “impersonal”? Not that I am aware. Who would enjoy reading a book of footnotes? (Well, the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges may. Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science-fiction writer, may. James Moore, the precisian, who is the author of “Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered,” may, as well. But surely not the general reader with a taste for the world of the Work.)

I have done a lot of carping. It is time now for some celebration. Although I have yet to meet the author, I will take the liberty of referring to Frank R. Sinclair by his Christian name. The back-cover photograph of Frank shows him with a straw hat perched on the back of his head, rather like the humourist Stephen Leacock. It seems to give the reader leave to refer to him as Frank. If it does not do that, I have only to turn to the prose itself which is informal and off-the-cuff enough to confer permission. In fact, at one point – when Frank was asked to give the reading from the Bible at Lord Pentland’s funeral service (held in a Roman Catholic church, oddly) – he refers to himself as “a nonentity of the first order.” Now that is excessive!

In this memoir there are thirteen chapters, two pages of acknowledgements, prefaces to the first and the second editions, not to mention three appendices and one index. All of these sections are of some interest. But in the interest of brevity, I am going to short change the first half of the book and concentrate on the second half for it is largely devoted to pen portraits of personalities in the Work who have had an influence on Frank’s inner life and his outlook on life.

Readers who are interested in the early life of a journalist who was born in the shadow of Table Mountain in a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1929, and who found some twenty-eight years ago that his spiritual quest had taken him to Franklin Farms at Mendham in New Jersey, and Armonk in Westchester Country in New York State, and at the Gurdjieff Foundation on Manhattan Island, will find these early pages to be a treat.

In a sense he never did leave these sheltered communities, yet he emerged in the 1980s as the successor of Dr. William Welch as the President of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York. He has headed the Gurdjieff Fountain since 2009 and lives at Grand View-on-Hudson, a town of some 300 people with a high median income north of New York City. Its most notable inhabitant after Frank is Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

From the age of eight, Frank experienced “a blaze of light” while questioning the nature of God. Thereafter he had a few near encounters with death. He graduated from the University of Cape Town, majoring in philosophy, and spent eight years as a journalist with the Cape Times afternoon newspaper. He writes about his feelings of “anguish and heartaches and sufferings” at the time, but these came to an end, symbolically at least, when he encountered an essay by J.G. Bennett called “Living in Five Dimensions,” was assigned to review Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider,” studied “In Search of the Miraculous,” and identified with the verses of the deaf South African poet John Howland Beaumont, who had a mystical connection with nature: “I did but sleep – ah me, I dream, I dream!”

About 1956, Frank resolved to seek out the source of “the teaching” in a surprisingly direct way. He placed an advertisement in the personal columns of the rival Cape Argus afternoon paper to “make contact,” and to his surprise a reader of the paper mailed him a copy of “All and Everything” along with a note: “From one human being to another, that both may have more of themselves to give.” The benefactor’s identity remains unknown to this day.

He eventually met an English gentleman named B. Fairfax Hall who was an enthusiast for private printing. In England in 1930 he had founded and operated The Stourton Press, named after the family’s house in Westminster. Hall was a member of P.D. Ouspensky’s circle before he immigrated to South Africa. In 1947 he began to print books, including Ouspensky’s “A Record of Meetings,” in an edition of twenty copies in 1951, and “The Struggle of the Magicians,” in an edition of ten copies in 1957.

Frank already knew about editorial matters; from Hall he learned how to operate an Albion printing press, which served him well when he began his own private printing at Armonk, N.Y., using the imprint Antic Press. Hall, who had compiled “The Fourth Way” from Ouspensky’s lectures, arranged for Frank to reside for two months at Madame Ouspensky’s 300-acre estate at Franklin Farms. Frank left South Africa in 1958 and did not return for some twenty years.

Frank worked and studied at Franklin Farms and there met a young woman named Beatrice Rego, a teacher, and they married. No description of the bride is offered, but there is a long account of Frank’s out-of-body experience immediately prior to the wedding ceremony. There is also a long account of life at the residence, with a fleeting reference to Madame Ouspensky (who remained in her bedroom chamber so he never set eyes on her while she was still alive) and Madame Olga de Hartmann, who came and went and once referred to him as “a piece of furniture,” but there is a very detailed account of the first visit of Madame de Salzmann.

“Here, for the first time in my life, was someone who spoke to my deepest concerns, who undeniably had an inner presence (a thought that I had no way of articulating at that time) and at the same time actually ‘included’ me in that presence, who listened in some unfathomable way, and who actually ‘saw’ me before her and spoke to me as a real human being.”

In many ways the heart and core of the book is the account of the experiences that occurred to the impressionable young South African at Franklin Farms, experiences that are unhesitatingly described as “profound and miraculous.” One such experience, following an altercation with Madame Ouspensky’s unstable grandson Lonya Savitsky. It was accompanied by intense mortification:

“But lying there prone on the floor, I suffered terrible remorse and shame at having behaved as I had done, _and at the same time_ I was witness to the miraculous appearance in me of this brilliant, golden being. It glowed in a surrounding vivid blaze of light.” He calls it “the phenomenon of the golden embryo.” Pages are devoted to examining the experience, with its configuration of the Kesdjan body, from the vantage-points of different religious and cultural traditions.

This takes us to Chapter 6 which is a departure from the norm, for it consists of the account kept by Frank’s wife Beatrice of her impressions of the various appearances of the elderly Gurdjieff in New York. Her brief memoir is full of interesting details. Overall she found Mr. Gurdjieff to be a man of “tremendous energy; anything in this life seemed possible.”

Chapter 7 is a remarkable tribute to a veteran of the Work named Martin W. Benson who is a jack-of-all-trades and someone who seems to be “all essence.” Originally a puzzle to Frank, Benson became what might be called a “best friend” for his twelve years of apprenticeship at Mendham and Armonk.

Chapter 8 is in many ways the counterpart of Chapter 7, for it is a sustained tribute to Frank’s friendship with Thomas Vivian Forman, a Cambridge-trained specialist in agriculture as well as military intelligence. In many ways, too, Forman is the counterpart of Benson – a balance between personality and essence. Frank’s love of people glows in these portraits.

Chapter 9 is titled “Annals of the Antic Press” and it describes Frank’s work in the icehouse at Armonk where, among other books, a small band of editors, designers, compositors, and press operators printed “Pronunciation Guide for Words Invented by Gurdjieff” in 1984, the forerunner of the much expanded edition issued by the Traditional Studies Press in Toronto.

By now it should be apparent that Frank is an appreciator of people. To my mind the outstanding section of his memoirs is Chapter 10 which is titled “John Pentland: The Lordly Line of High Sinclair.” Lord Pentland, chief of the clan and a scion of the illustrious Sinclair line (which seems not to include our author Frank Sinclair), was Mr. Gurdjieff’s appointee to oversee the Work in the United States. In these pages the author describes a number of the close and almost accidental encounters that he had with Pentland between 1958 and the latter’s death in 1984.

The author has no problem with Pentland’s rapier-like wit, for he felt, intriguingly, that when Pentland glared at him and wielded it, Pentland “gave him ‘his work.’” It is an interesting passage and perhaps it hinges on the somewhat off-the-cuff statement that Pentland was “old enough to be his father.” It seems Lord Pentland was the grandson the Marquis of Aberdeen, the seventh Governor General of Canada, as well as part of the family of the Earl of Elgin, an even earlier Governor General. Perhaps it was from this aristocratic tradition that he learned the arts of diplomacy – certainly of use in Work circles!

I feel that this chapter about “this remarkable and unusual man” is the “still point” of the memoirs. The next two biographical chapters are anti-climaxes, though they do have interesting dimensions. Chapter 11 is devoted to “Bill Segal: The Radical Reorientation,” and it presents this multi-talented man as “a class act.” Segal was the epitome of the active man, and even after being nearly crushed to death an automobile accident, he emerged almost as active as ever. Sinclair writes, neatly, that Segal was “humbled both in his pride and in his prime.”

Chapter 12 is titled “Jeanne de Salzmann: A Compelling Call” and it seems to me to be an apologia for the second half of Madame de Salzmann’s life. “The Unknown does not yield itself through abundant description,” Frank writes, so the reader who does not have prior knowledge of her life and work will be at sea when it comes to understanding what Frank is writing about.

I take it that he has two themes: the first is the role of the institution vis-à-vis the individual; the second is the espousal of the role of grace rather than effort and of flow rather than effort – to express it directly – that is represented by her from the death of Mr. Gurdjieff at a probable age of eighty-three in 1949 and Madame’s death at the ripe old age of 101 in 1990. Madame can do no wrong.

“I dare say,” he writes gingerly, “that when her own notes are collated and published, there will be surprising indications of the precision with which she followed the movement of the attention and the work for Presence.” As it happens, extracts from Madame’s notebooks are about to be issued by Shambhala Publications under the title “The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff,” so we will have the opportunity to judge for ourselves.

Frank is obviously devoted to Madame and he accepts her direction for the work, its “single grand verity,” which he takes pains and pages to trace back to Mr. Gurdjieff’s talks in New York, the first one on Dec. 19, 1930, and the second one on Dec. 25, 1948. The exposition in these pages is more associative than it is disciplined, so there is little doubt that he feels that what she was doing she was doing consciously and with authorization. “Madame Jeanne de Salzmann brought neither a New Work nor an Old Work, but only Gurdjieff’s Work.”

I will pass over Chapter 13, “Some Random Inferences,” because the contents are indeed random (to describe them would be to try to herd cats) and they turn out to be elaborations of points made earlier in the memoirs. The one new element that I spotted is the effort that Frank is making to enlarge to conception of the Work to include the thoughts of some new-comers along with some overlooked old-comers (to name a few men and women in alphabetical order): Joseph Azize, Michel Conge, Martha Heyneman, James Moore, Jacob Needleman, Ravi Ravindra, Sophia Wellbeloved.

Also given some recognition is the contribution of the annual International Humanities Conference (better known as the All & Everything Conference) as well as Traditionalist thinkers like Titus Burkhardt and their semi-annual publication, the Vancouver-based “Sacred Web.” This is close to an ecumenical touch, and perhaps it is a daring one.

Throughout Frank retains his modesty and the projects the air of constant amazement associated with Alice in Wonderland. “I did not drink Armagnac with Gurdjieff,” he writes, amusingly. “I belong to the post-Gurdjieff era, not even remotely a Saul among the Apostles, but a fellow traveler, feeding from those who, like Madame de Salzmann, had been before.”

The second edition of the memoirs ends with three appendices as well as a nominal index. Two of the appendices consist of reviews of the first edition of the book. The first review is a once-over-lightly appreciation by David Appelbaum. It originally appeared in “Parabola,” as did the lively interview with Frank on the subject of “Who Is the Teacher?”

The third appendix consists, surprisingly, of a review amusingly titled “The Guide for the Perplexed” and posted on by its author, biographer James Moore. I found it to be one of the book’s highlights, in the sense that its tone and style are totally at odds with Frank’s. Yet it hits the right note when in an impish mood Moore describes Frank as “a regular-kinda-guy whose pride in his modesty attains oxymoronic heights.”

Had Frank been born under the shadow of the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia, rather than in the shadow of Table Rock, South Africa, I would be inclined to describe him as “a bloke.” Whatever the description, he is a sensitive fellow and “Without Benefit of Clergy” is certainly an entertaining and I believe honest account of one man’s rather unusual spiritual quest. He demystifies by remythologizing.

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist who is known across Canada for his popular reference books. He writes about Work-related publications for this blog. His latest publication is “Walt Whitman’s Canada,” a book-length, documentary-style account of the American poet’s tour of Central and Eastern Canada in the Summer of 1880. Colombo’s website is < www . colombo – plus . ca >


John Robert Colombo Page


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.




photo: Jeanne de Salzmann sitting left with Helen Adie at the piano, London
to enlarge click on image

Joseph Azize addresses this questionion the first part of a continuing enquiry;

“Everything” indicated that Gurdjieff’s work remained “unfinished”, Michel Conge told Ricardo Guillon. Dr Conge was a direct pupil of Gurdjieff, and quite close to Jeanne de Salzmann. When he went on to say that “we” had decided to continue “Gurdjieff’s task”, it would seem that he was speaking of the Institut Gurdjieff in Paris. De Salzmann herself told Guillon that the transmission of the teaching can proceed outside of groups, and in other “movements” including religions (Record of a Search, 93 and 100-1). Some who knew her have disclosed what was in any event clear, that de Salzmann introduced new techniques into the Gurdjieff groups (Ravindra, Heart without Measure, 128-9 and Segal, A Voice at the Borders of Silence, 196-7). Segal says that it was only after Gurdjieff and Ouspensky that “the true sense of the Work” even began to be understood (A Voice, 216).

If Gurdjieff did not finish his task, if what he did bring had to be supplemented, if even then it could be carried on in other religions, and if it could not be understood in a “true sense” while he was alive, then how can we understand Gurdjieff’s methods and teachings now? The short answer is, perhaps we cannot. If so, then the honest course would be to admit this, and its repercussions for the Gurdjieff groups.

However, my thesis is that it is not Gurdjieff’s task which was unfinished, but his pupils. First, the methods must all be used in their integrity: and some such as the inner exercises were wrongly abandoned by de Salzmann. Next, properly understood, the Gurdjieff methods and ideas are most effective when ancillary to a person’s aim or faith. The ideas will illuminate and even influence these, but they cannot supply a motive where a person has none. Where teachers such as the Adies, the Andersons, the Bennetts, Mme Claustres, the Conges, the Courtenay-Mayers, the de Hartmanns, Jane Heap, Henriette Lannes, the Nicolls, the de Salzmanns and Mrs Staveley (and there were of course others) embodied what I will call “faith”, the Gurdjieff methods and ideas could have a profound effect, if the pupil was in sympathy with their teacher. However, in many of the continuing groups there has been a tension between the institutional and the individual health of the group. It seems to me that the tendency has been for the various institutions to ossify and narrow, especially since de Salzmann remade the Gurdjieff methods to suit her strengths.

I suspect that the roots of tension go back to Gurdjieff himself, who by closing his own Institute, inadvertently provided an opening for the formation of a new institute (the Institut Gurdjieff in Paris) which developed a goal of self-preservation in a way which is inimical to the preservation of Gurdjieff’s methods and the spreading of his ideas. The other error which I believe he made was to place so much trust in de Salzmann and to encourage others to look up to her. Gurdjieff cannot have realised what she would do.

Others will disagree with all this: but I can see no real difference between most members of the Gurdjieff groups and most members of churches or even devotees of a philosophical life. The differences, such as they are, seem to me in superficial behaviour: members of Gurdjieff groups tend to be more self-conscious and controlled. Mr Adie used to say that considering and politics were worse within the groups, and he died in 1989. I think the situation has deteriorated since his day. There are exceptions. But such exceptions are found elsewhere, too. In fact, apart a few second-generation Gurdjieff pupils in Europe and the USA, the most impressive people I have met over the years since Mrs Staveley’s death in 1996, have been monks, priests, or people who have left Gurdjieff groups.

The Groups
I know of persons whom I can recommend; who can pass on a living and transformative tradition which has come down from Gurdjieff. But even where these persons run formal groups, the groups do not bear names, or if they do, they do not have the words “Foundation” or “Institute” in them. Indeed, my view is that if you wish to lose your faith in Gurdjieff’s methods, then you should make friends with your closest Gurdjieff Foundation.

Scepticism about the enduring value of Gurdjieff’s efforts is not palatable to those with an institutional interest in the Gurdjieff name. Sinclair’s desperate efforts to prove that de Salzmann’s “new work” is in perfect conformity with Gurdjieff’s are doomed to failure, contradicting Ravindra and Segal’s avowal of innovation. Sinclair invests a great deal of capital in Gurdjieff’s instruction to “steal” the energies which the faithful direct to Jesus, as demonstrating continuity with de Salzmann’s approach (Without Benefit of Clergy 146, 157, 230-1). However, Sinclair actually demonstrates discontinuity: Gurdjieff gave at least two fully developed exercises for appropriating these finer materials. I find it difficult to believe that de Salzmann did not know at least one of them. Why did she not teach them? Why did she abandon the preparation exactly as Gurdjieff had brought it? (see Sophia Wellbeloved, Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts, under “New Work” and “New Work Terminology” and on diversity within the broad Gurdjieff tradition, appendix 2).

The only answer, I think, can be that de Salzmann had too little confidence to continue with those methods, but she built her authority on what she was and what she did have confidence in. In itself this was not bad, but it was not a complete and impartial representation of the Gurdjieff tradition. At some point, it seems to me, de Salzmann had to compromise fidelity to Gurdjieff’s methods and ideas in order to buttress her authority. That is, she felt that in order to maintain her position as the leader of an almost global movement, she had to possess authority. She could only enjoy this authority by emphasizing those areas where she was pre-eminent, chief among these being perhaps the movements and the “sitting”. Where she did not possess the greatest qualifications, such as with the ideas, or with the inner exercises and in understanding Beelzebub, these had to take a secondary place. It is rather as if the leader of cards club banned all games other than those at which they themselves excelled, so as to preserve their own position.

More than this, those who did not uncritically accept her authority were marginalised (e.g. Mrs Staveley). I call this “initiatism”: the attitude that unless one is a trusted member of the group, little or nothing should be allowed to them. Consider the secrecy which now surrounds the movements to the extent where many Foundation movements demonstrators do not wish the pupils know the movements in detail. The emphasis now is on “protecting” the movements and “working in the moment on the movements floor”. For example, after Mrs Adie died, our Foundation demonstrators such as Jim Wyckoff from New York prohibited us from practising movements at home: something the Adies had encouraged (I shall perhaps later set out why I believe that the Adies’ attitude is the better). Another demonstrator from the Foundation, let me call him J., specifically told us not to divulge the names of the movements, as it made it harder for people to take the movements elsewhere. I have it on good authority that the Foundation had their lawyers threaten someone with a suit should they publish the Struggle of the Magicians, which begs the question, why has the Foundation itself not published this remarkable piece? Why are so many documents “privately compiled” and never released? It is a standing rebuke to the Foundation that the maverick Patterson published some of the of the surviving Gurdjieff group meetings. This is “initiatism”.

And now that de Salzmann has gone, with the astonishing force she could manifest, the Foundation has been left depleted of authentic Gurdjieff exercises, and with a bowdlerized Beelzebub, but following her model of authority and “initiatism”. And this is the root fault of the groups. The groups exemplify what Gurdjieff said about the law of seven, and how the line of development can veer into different and even hostile directions, while preserving the former name. Many of the Gurdjieff groups have not an exoteric but a cult mentality: in is good and out is bad.

Like de Salzmann, the Foundation groups de-emphasize the ideas and Beelzebub. In a transcript which I have, de Salzmann is reported as having been critical of the efforts of the Toronto group in putting together an index of Beelzebub. Once at Bray, Mme Lannes stated that there is to be no discussion of Beelzebub in the official groups, one just reads it for oneself. This is the position de Salzmann took in the transcript. And why? Once more, the only answer can be a lack of confidence. Although she had taken a major role in the rendering of a French translation, she was unhappy with the English, and had it revised by the New York group. And yet, Gurdjieff had spent many years with that text, and given meticulous attention to even small details, as Orage and Toomer noted. As Mrs Staveley said, Gurdjieff allowed himself to die when the book was sent to the presses. How could anyone, even de Salzmann, claim to understand Gurdjieff’s intention better than he did? The question is, what did she think the book actually was?

Staveley was of the view that the book was a legominism. When Gurdjieff describes legominisms, he gives only general principles. In the chapter “Art”, when he speaks of legominisms in dance, one is perplexed: how could anyone today decipher such a legominism? One would need to know where the feet, for example, should in principle be placed before being able to ponder why they have been placed otherwise in any given dance. However, there are legominisms in Beelzebub. By that I mean that there are at least two places where I believe Gurdjieff has deliberately used the wrong word. I believe, on the basis of my own experiencings, that the word “X” should be “Y”. Further, the substitution of “X” and not “Z” for “Y” is itself significant in both instances. The statements make perfect sense, but they are simply not correct, and from other indications, it is clear that the correct statement is “Y”. On one occasion, “Y” includes certain words which have been left out, but are to be found nearby. Gurdjieff refers to something like this method in an unpublished piece called “Palm Sunday”. While the reader may be wondering what I am referring to, I cannot give the examples because I respect Gurdjieff’s method. When I realised that these passages, which had always struck me as enigmatic, were legominisms, I received a shock. The realisation brought a simplicity and depth of understanding I would not have thought possible. The moments of illumination seem to me to have become a part of myself. Were I to disclose these legominisms, I would be robbing others of the chance to discover them. Gurdjieff could easily have stated these propositions in prose: but he chose not to, so that when they were deciphered, they burst into understanding, with feeling attached to them.

But the point is this: these experiences prove to me that de Salzmann did not realise that the English Beelzebub, as a legominism, is not simply a translation. No one who worked on either of the new translations can have understood this. Gurdjieff said of Beelzebub that it contains “all that exists, all that has existed, all that can exist … all the secrets of the creation of the world …” (Voices in the Dark, 118). Does one see a corresponding valuation of the book in the groups? I don’t, except perhaps in Mrs Staveley’s group (Mr Adie possessed this valuation, but his group has folded). It means that the high noon of the Gurdjieff work has already passed, as this understanding is not to be found where it should by rights have been nurtured.

To conclude, many of the groups, but perhaps not all, have narrowed the Gurdjieff ideas to a caricature which they can control.

The Romance of the “Search”

A special section has to be written for the romance of the search, which exemplifies, for me, “the new work”. Mr Adie would speak of the necessity of the search. “Do not put a full stop there … go on,” he would urge. But he did so understanding that a search has no meaning unless there is a possibility of finding, and Mr Adie had found something. Rather than introduce a polemical tone into George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia, I placed entries for “certainty” and “doing” in the index. Beelzebub is replete with examples of how knowledge was gained, and later developed or lost. If Beelzebub does not say that real knowledge can be obtained, and passed on in endless ways, even through words, then it says nothing. Knowledge is not enough: Gurdjieff told Hulme to work at her task like a monk, not “knowing” but “sure-ing”, with a feeling understanding (Undiscovered Country, 90). But some knowledge is a good start. If one knows nothing, as people from the Foundation so often said to us in absolute terms, then why do we make any effort at all? One might as well end one’s life in narcotic-induced bliss. But there is such a thing as knowledge, and it can reveal its own limitations. This, after all, is what a scientist or scholar does: he acquires a knowledge which leads him on to and into the unknown – and he follows it with gratitude.

In no other area, perhaps, does Mr Adie’s fidelity to Gurdjieff appear in greater contradistinction to the “new work”. Certainty of myself is the aim of our work, said Adie (George Adie, 222), and he had us prepare our activities, and then review them, and learn any lessons. Accustom yourself to do things well, said Gurdjieff, prepare them in advance with all your faculties, and “never fail” (Voices, 173). Jim Wyckoff, on the other hand, would say “when I know it I kill it”, which can be true but can also be untrue, and he would be forever tearing up plans and making people revisit what they had decided. It was a good way of keeping the group dependent on him. We had a period at Yerrinbool with him. The groups had prepared menus for each day. Wyckoff had the cooks dispense with the menus. Go out and work the people, he said, try and feel what they need, rather than impose your pre-set menus on them. The result was chaos, and what was worse, potato soup. At one meal, when the now chronically unprepared kitchen did not have enough food on hand to prepare whatever the inspiration of the morning had “told” them was required, one of the women in the kitchen sent back her plate for a larger serving. The others had to do with smaller servings. True, Jim Wyckoff was a “New York hippie”, forgetting his umbrella, whose books demonstrate his intellectual mediocrity. But, in my assessment, the efforts of the group remains at a lower level than the level of life: and that is inimical to the Gurdjieff work.

More broadly, this spirit is certainly still a part of the “new work”. Roger Lipsey wrote of the Gilgamesh epic that it tells us that neither success nor failure matters, only the search (Search: Journey on the Inner Path, ed. J. Sulzberger, 41). This is silliness both as a statement in itself and as a reading of Gilgamesh. The whole point of Gilgamesh, as they very opening words of the epic tell us, is that he did indeed see the “all”, and attained knowledge. He understood the role of mortal human life in the great universe. If this seems anticlimactic, it has much in common with the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Perhaps the point is to accept the obvious facts of life: that is, there a deeper acceptance is possible for us.


February 29, 2008 at 8:17 pm

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