Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

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

Posts Tagged ‘potted history







I distinctly remember the sensation that I experienced when I first saw in print the name “Lord Pentland.” What I sensed was a loftiness of person and of purpose. What I felt was the emotion of being wafted away from my usual, classless moorings: “Whoever is this fellow?” What I entertained was an heretical thought upon seeing his name in the context of the Work: “Was an English lord actually chosen by Mr. Gurdjieff to head the Work in America?”

I was late in the game. I first encountered the name and title in the early 1960s in the pages of a newly published book of radio talks. Its table of contents listed the contributors of talks and interviews broadcast on Pacifica Radio in California. I have long forgotten the names of the other contributors to this series of addresses, all of them public intellectuals familiar to me at the time. But I remember the name of this English baron who was completely unknown to me at that time. Curious!

I never met Lord Pentland or Henry John Sinclair or just plain John Sinclair, of course, but over the decades I have met with groups of men and women who knew him, attended his talks, and studied under him. They were unanimous in their admiration and respect for the man. I would ask each in turn, “What was his dominant characteristic? Why was he so admired and respected? What made him a dedicated teacher or leader?” People seemed to like the man but there was seldom a feature, chief or not, which I could identify or with which I could identify.

After all, the photographs of the man that I saw reproduced in public print, or at least those taken during his later years, showed a gaunt figure of a man with steel-rimmed glasses and querulous eyes. I once wrote, “To judge by photographs, John Pentland was a cadaverous figure of a man, toweringly tall, with skeletal skull, bushy eyebrows, and beady eyes. He resembles an ascetic, say a Cistercian monk …. “

As well, he seemed quite forbidding, almost formidable (if not slightly comic or ironic). I never could discover what psychological feature or features were so impressive, though every once in a while someone would glance around and mumble about the man’s patrician bearing, the slight condescension in his attitude and manner, etc. But then some people are never satisfied; they will accept the Sermon on the Mount only if delivered by Jesus Christ in person.

Over the years I watched out for references to Lord Pentland in the literature of the Work, especially in the “Gurdjieff Review.” I bought and read a copy of the book “Exchanges Within” which is subtitled “Questions from Everyday Life Selected from Gurdjieff Group Meetings with John Pentland in California, 1955-1984.” It was published by Continuum in 1977, and its prose captured some of the qualities of the man, which I take to be a general thoughtfulness or mindfulness coupled with directness and authority.

I found his manner of writing and speaking to be more elusive than evasive, and to this day his prose, whether transcriptions of the talks or of the sessions of questions and answers, continues to remind me of the opaque styles of J. Krishnamurti and Rudolf Steiner. The opacity could be that of some level of being: a disembodied intelligence, perhaps. The texts of the talks themselves read like … radio scripts.

The other day I checked Wikipedia’s entry and I learned a little about the man Henry John Sinclair, but next to nothing about his personality and purpose, his mission and message. He was born in 1907, but where? (The biography says London.) He died in 1984, but where? (The biography says New York City.) He was the 2nd Baron Pentland and a man of means; his wife Lucy was also titled and well-to-do. His daughter, son-in-law, and their child are contributors to the Work.

In the 1930s and 1940s he worked with P.D. Ouspensky in London, and in 1948 he spent about nine months with Mr. Gurdjieff in Paris, who thereupon appointed him to lead the work in America. (“America” means the United States; while he did visit Canada, it was for business meetings in Toronto before he had met Mr. Gurdjieff and for a visit to the rodeo in Calgary afterwards.)

At one point he worked out of an office in Rockefeller Center, representing British-American commercial interests, like an earlier neighbour, spymaster Sir William Stephenson (known as “the Quiet Canadian” before turning garrulous and acquiring the title “the Man Called Intrepid”). I recall reading a warm and memorable description of Lord Pentland at work in his office. The account was written by the youthful William Patrick Patterson who visited the baron there, was much impressed with the man, and studied under him for all of eleven years, before finding another mentor. Patterson went on to establish the Gurdjieff Studies Program and describes himself to this day as a student of Lord Pentland.

Lord Pentland served as president of the Gurdjieff Foundation from its inception in 1953 to his death in 1984, and also as president of the Gurdjieff Foundation of California from its inception in 1955 to his death. He also served as executive editor of Far West Editions from 1969 to his death. I sense that the year of his death marked the end of a phase of the Work in America, as phases of the Work in France and the rest of Europe and the United Kingdom were marked by the death in 1990 of Madame de Salzmann and eleven years later that of her son Michel de Salzmann.

Talks delivered by Lord Pentland at Esalen and on the campuses of American colleges and universities were delivered alike to veteran students and newcomers to the Work and printed in semi-limited editions. In print they seem somewhat abstract or at least abstracted from experience. Indeed, I reviewed three of these publications and summarized their contents for readers of this blog in 2008, where they remain archived for reading or reference.

I have gone into all this detail – peeks at Lord Pentland from a distance – for the reason that many if not most readers of this review will share experiences similar to mine, being one or two steps removed from the man and the manner. Not everyone in the Work has had a first-hand experience of the man. Savour those experiences and conceptions of the man before encountering him in relief in the pages of James Moore’s biography, which has a four-word title: “Eminent Gurdjieffians: Lord Pentland.”

This biography is a handsome volume published by Gurdjieff Studies Ltd. in England. The website is < www . gurdjieff . org. uk >. The book has an attractive dust jacket (designed by Linda Edmonds), card covers, matching coloured endsheets, and well-designed pages which measure 6″ x 9.5″ and which run from xx to 108. There are eighteen black-and-white illustrations. There is also a nominal index (i.e., restricted to personal names, not places or references) and a bibliography best described as sketchy. I wish the pages had been stitched rather than “perfect bound,” i.e., glued, but there are headbands, and the pages once opened almost lie flat on their own. It is a nice edition to hold and to read.

But before I do review its contents, I want to comment on the first two words of the book’s title: “Eminent Gurdjieffians.” Serious readers will catch the significance of the word “eminent,” which was not coined by Lytton Strachey but was certainly trademarked by him. “Eminent Victorians” is the title of this influential composite biography of four leading figures in Victorian England (Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Matthew Arnold, and General Gordon).

The lady and the three gentlemen were and are indeed “eminent,” though not necessarily pre-eminent for reasons of morality. The book’s appearance in 1918 coincided with the end of the Great War, and as the latter dealt the deathblow to the Kaiser’s designs on Europe, the former ended the idolatry and exposed the morality of leading public figures in Queen Victoria’s England.

Today, “Eminent Victorians” would be regarded as a hatchet-job, but for the fact that Strachey wrote well, researched deeply, and refused to moralize. Indeed, the composite biography appealed to the sceptical Bertrand Russell who read it while imprisoned for civil disobedience. In a letter he described the literary work in these words: “It is brilliant, delicious, exquisitely civilized.”

Do Lord Russell’s words describe the book at hand? I will answer that question but first here is another digression. The digression concerns the author James Moore. His entry in Wikipedia and his own detailed and informative website < www . jamesmoore . org . uk > are so interesting that I could write about the author at some length. Instead, I will write concisely and somewhat cursorily.

Moore, born in Cornwall in 1929, seems to be something of an autodidact, but one who worked with the Admiralty until retirement in 1980, who holds fellowships in at least two Royal Societies, and who is the author of four books of substance and many articles of importance which have appeared in serious journals and as entries in encyclopedias.

As for his Work experience, he studied with Henriette H. Lannes from 1957 to 1978, and thereafter with Henri Tracol and Maurice Desselle. He was closely associated with the Gurdjieff Society in London from 1981 to 1994 when, it seems, he was expelled, if that is the word to use, though “excommunicated” is the one that he himself prefers. (Query: Do Gurdjieffians “shun” like Mormons?) That might be the second-best thing that has ever happened to him, his induction into the Work being the first; the jury is still out on that. Anyway, he renewed himself as an independent scholar and presumably as an independent Gurdjieffian, his status to this day.

I have read his four books: “Gurdjieff and Mansfield” (1980), “Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth” (1991), “Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered” (2005), and now “Eminent Gurdjieffians: Lord Pentland” (2011). His chef d’oeuvre is the second of these books, a biography rivalled only by John Beekman Taylor’s “Gurdjieff: A New Life” (2009), a sturdy and substantial work. I am still divided on the merits of the third of these books, as it adopts the tone of the tabloid press in its whining and winging, though as a human document it is full of fascinating detail.

If anyone in the Work is in a position to write short biographies of Work personalities and their essences, it is James Moore. On an earlier occasion I referred to this biographer as a precisian, an uncommon proper noun for someone who is strict and precise in observing the rules, his own or others’. I suspect that he gives a lot of thought before writing down a word. He is as stylish and exacting as Flaubert, who, it is said, worried so much over his prose that he would spend a morning inserting a comma followed by an afternoon erasing it. Moore is a writer who has to be read closely, and watched.

I have the feeling – it is an idea, really; perhaps a dream – that “Eminent Gurdjieffians” marks the first volume in a series, a series that may set a high watermark for scholarship in the literature of the Work. Such a series is long overdue. Where is there a short biography of Sophie Grigorievna Volochine (aka Madame Ouspensky)? Or a long biography of Jeanne Allemand (aka Madame de Salzmann)? Perhaps these and other biographies are waiting in the wings.

Yet in these pages Moore writes, plangently, “This book is my literary swan-song.” If so, it is sad news. Earlier I quoted Bertrand Russell’s words about Lytton Strachey’s book: “brilliant, delicious, exquisitely civilized.” Do these words apply to Moore and this book? Yes and no is the short answer. The long answer follows.

Moore writes with a stylistic brilliance that is coruscating and hence sometimes blinding. His prose is delicious in the sense that the reader wants to consume more and more pages, though with full knowledge that some passages are going to be hard to digest. But is the work “exquisitely civilized”? The author is certainly a cultured man, but I would not immediately describe him as civilized, at least in terms of what he has written here. He is very hard on his subject and for these reasons one would have to read between the lines.

There is a telling anecdote about a beautiful but impressionable society lady who one day accepted a luncheon invitation from W.E. Gladstone. Asked about the experience, she replied, “I realize that I was in the presence of the most brilliant man in all of England.” The next day she lunched with Benjamin Disraeli. Asked how that lunch had gone, she replied, “I realize that I am the most brilliant woman in all of England.” Reading Moore’s prose I feel that Moore is the most brilliant writer in all of England.

He monopolizes his subject, but to demonstrate this I would have to lead the reader through the book page by page to review Pentland’s life and that would take a great many pages (or “screens”). It is an interesting life that he led, but not a very convincing one, at least to the degree that Pentland was a late developer, and it begs the question whether he developed at all; that makes Moore’s task all the harder.

Medical historian Michael Bliss had the same problem as Moore when he wrote the now-standard biography of Sir William Osler, the clinician and Regius Professor of Medicine, who had no secrets, no scandals, and no enemies. That presents a problem. How does a biographer make decency attractive in its own right? Instead of pursuing this line of inquiry, I will make a few general points.

* Moore devotes no pages at all to Pentland’s talks and interviews, even those that were published in “Exchanges Within.” So the subject’s “take” on the Work is not discussed. Pentland presided over an interesting period in the evolution of the Work – what with the introduction of all of those “sittings” – but while they are mentioned, they are certainly not considered in any detail.

* Moore has hardly anything of an interpretive nature to say about the appeal of P.D. Ouspensky’s “system” to Pentland. There is no speculation as to what Mr. Gurdjieff saw in Pentland’s spirit, mind, or manner. Possibly what he saw in his “American lieutenant” was a respectable man with the ability to relate to men and women on all social levels, which it seems is what Pentland did do.

* Moore devotes no paragraphs at all to Pentland’s business interests, a point he himself makes, as if to exculpate himself. These details would be of some social and intellectual interest. His “war record” seems to be one of evasion rather than duty, but that is not conclusively shown.

* Moore devotes no sentences at all to interpreting the man’s psychology. I am not now referring to “the psychology of man’s possible evolution” but to the dynamics of the man’s personality, his image of himself. For this reason the biography seems to me to be pre-Freudian: the subject is more a mannikin than a man in Moore’s hands.

* Moore seems uncomfortable dealing with the characteristics of the English class system, both its strengths and its weaknesses. Whenever possible he brings Gilbert Harding into the narrative. I found this interesting, but only because I have long been curious about this English broadcaster and polemicist (who spent some time making mischief in Toronto); Moore is always about to compare and contrast the two men whose lives seem to have been lived at cross-purposes.

* Moore might see himself as a social historian, offering brief histories of the decades. For instance, I learned that the year 1957 “was in some senses a funny year. Jack Kerouac published “On the Road”; Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” was translated into Eskimo and staged in a Perspex igloo …. ” Fascinating tidbits, à la John Dos Passos, but hardly part of Pentland’s world. For a short book, it is long on potted history.

* Moore is a careful researcher. I spotted no errors of consequence; two inconsequential ones are the spelling of the New Brunswick port where Madame Ouspensky disembarked (it is Saint John not St. John’s, New Brunswick); and the indecision as whether or not to hyphenate Rodney Collin-Smith’s name.

* Moore is good on the dissection of imagery. He offers a brilliant comparison of Pentland’s gaunt appearance with that of the elderly farmer in Grant Wood’s classic painting “American Gothic.” He also comments on the surprising photograph taken by Dushka Howarth which catches Pentland and Mr. Gurdjieff at lunch at a roadside café in 1949, the baron gazing into the distance, the “teacher of dance” digging into the food before him.

* In dealing with that photograph, I believe Moore tips his hand when he describes Pentland in terms of his “depthless earnestness.” These two words might well be his final insight into the man and interpretation of his contribution to the development of the Work. It is an most revealing phrase.

Earlier I mentioned in passing that I had no occasion to meet Lord Pentland. In the introductory pages of this book, Moore mentions that he did meet this “eminent Gurdjieffian,” once, almost accidentally, long before the notion of writing the man’s biography occurred to him. After reading his book, I feel that had I had an occasion to meet Pentland, I too might – like Moore – sense the man’s “depthless earnestness.”

%d bloggers like this: