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John Robert Colombo reviews: Charles Upton’s latest book

with 3 comments

‘Vectors of the Counter-Initiation’

The Wikipedia entry for the author Charles Upton identifies him (somewhat starkly but no doubt truthfully) as “a poet and metaphysician.” He was born in San Francisco in 1948 and raised a Roman Catholic. Apparently he attended the University of California at Davis “for four days.” He enjoyed a period of association with the Beat writers of the city, and he had a collection of poems published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books, no mean achievement.

Like many another war resister, he immigrated to Canada, to the wild interior of British Columbia, where he had a series of jolting, counter-cultural experiences, before he returned to the United States. The entry notes: “In 1988 he joined a traditional Sufi order. Under his wife’s influence, Upton became interested in the metaphysics of the Traditionalist or Perennialist School … He continues to be partly identified with this school,” where his teacher or “pir” was presumably the psychiatrist and author Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh. Later he wrote, “Traditionalism has given me a way to distance myself from the errors and excesses of the Left without polarizing with it.” Upton and his wife Jennifer Doane now live in Lexington, Kentucky.

What they do there, I do not know. On the off chance that Upton is employed as an academic, I searched the directories of the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University, but his name does not appear on their faculty rosters. (Note: “Transylvania University” is indeed the name of a small liberal arts college in Lexington, founded in 1780, a century before Bram Stoker began to write about the vampire-infested region around Borgo Pass and Bistritz.)

Upton is a prolific writer. Sixteen of his twenty or so books have been issued by Sophia Perennis, including the current book, which is titled and subtitled “Vectors of the Counter-Initiation: The Course and Destiny of Inverted Spirituality” (2012). The title sounds a little odd, as does the subtitle: What precisely is a “vector”? Whatever is “counter-initiation” and “inverted spirituality”? A curious note is that on the author’s Wikipedia site, the subtitle of the present book reads “The Shape and Destiny of Inverted Spirituality,” but on the cover of the book reads: “The Course …. ” This may be an insignificant detail, but it is details of this nature that catch the author’s eye. It seems the current book is a sequel to an earlier one, “The System of Antichrist: Truth and Falsehood in Postmodernism and the New Age,” a book of metaphysics and social criticism, published by the same house way back in 2001.

Sophia Perennis, the publishing house, is an imprint that has an informative website. From the site one learns nothing at all about the people who operate the press – the publishers and editors seem to be a self-effacing lot, but they are very able group, and they produce a fine product (one that I will describe a little later). But from the site one may acquire basic information about the movers and shakers of Traditionalism and Perennialism. It appears in the institution’s mission statement, which discusses the main metaphysicians who identify with this school of lexis and praxis.

“Sophia Perennis is dedicated to publishing the best contemporary writing on the world’s wisdom traditions, largely from a Traditionalist or ‘Perennialist’ perspective, as well as reprinting recognized classics. We have tried to remain faithful to Traditionalist core principles – notably the Transcendent Unity of Religions – while exploring new applications of these principles, as well as returning to the great Revelations themselves for fresh insight.”

I have yet to read other books by Upton, so I approached “Vectors” cold-turkey. Well, not quite. Well before I discovered the literature of the Fourth Way, about the time that I learned about the “powers latent in man” identified with The Theosophical Society, which was then an institution only seventy-five years old, I found a copy in a second-hand bookstore of René Guénon’s “The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times.” I read it from cover to cover with a modicum of understanding and a quantum of fascination, so much so that I thereafter sought out publications of the Primordialist, Traditionalist, or Perennialist persuasion. I have yet to encounter any other soul so interested or inclined.

For some years I subscribed to that excellent, semi-annual journal called “Sacred Web,” not because it is published from Vancouver, British Columbia; not because its honourary patron is HRH the Prince of Wales; not because it is close to appearing to be a scholarly publication in a highly polemical and disputatious field; but because it did and does offer valuable insights – issue after issue, again and again. Eventually I found that its content was becoming repetitious and its tone increasingly peremptory … but because I am not reviewing “Sacred Web,” I will offer no telling instances, though one of them has to do with the bitchiest book review that I have ever read – the anathema invoked against Mark Sedgwick’s “Against the Modern World” (Oxford University Press) which bears the subtitle “Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century.”

Instead, I will mention in passing a few of the impressions that my wife Ruth and I had of the Traditionalists in action at the two-day colloquium “Tradition in the Modern World” sponsored by members of the Ismaili communities of Edmonton and Vancouver and held on the campus of the University of Alberta at Edmonton in September 2006. It was a joy to hear Jean-Louis Michou and Huston Smith and realize they were carrying their years with grace. Harry Oldmeadow was given to hectoring (in the manner of Nietzsche). James S. Cutsinger presented a somewhat brilliant paper called “The Noble Lie” that went well over the heads of most of the people in the audience, including my wife and myself.

My biggest disappointment was listening to the keynote address of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. I did not say my disappointment was hearing the speech of Dr. Nasr, for he does speak with surpassing fluency, authority, and scholarly acumen. My disappointment was listening to what he had to say because he took a number of pot-shots at easy targets, like the one on Pope Benedict XVI’s speech in Regensburg, Germany. I expected more equanimity; my fault, I guess. (Query: Can someone be a former Sufi?) I found fellow members of the audience to be warm and appreciative, especially as Ruth and I were among the few non-Muslims present, whereas most of the academic presenters were aloof and edgy if not chilly.

For what they are worth, my impressions are recorded in a long and detailed account of the proceedings in “Fohat,” the journal of the Edmonton Theosophical Society, X, 4, Winter 2006. For present purposes, let me add that “the perennial philosophy” that was celebrated by Aldous Huxley in his notable book of that title published in 1946 has nothing at all to say about Guénon and Traditionalism proper, though three of the French metaphysician’s books are listed in the bibliography. So it is misleading and mistaken to identify the so-called the “philosophia perennis” or perennial philosophy itself with Traditionalism per se, especially as the former implies eclecticism, ecumenicism, syncreticism, interfaith initiatives, “one world religion,” “new age,” etc., whereas metaphysicians of the latter camp abhor such movements and despise them as heretical and diabolical if not satanic.

Now to the book at hand. “Vectors” is a handsome and sturdily manufactured trade paperback, 6″ x 9″ with viii+336+ii pages. There is an informative introduction, then twelve interesting though densely written chapters, followed by five appendices of related material. There is no index but the footnotes and endnotes are quite detailed. The text must exceed 140,000 words in length.

There is not a page of the text that is badly written; there is not a page of the text that is easy to read. Upton has a rigorous prose style, in common with that of Guénon, as well as the spirit of “parti pris.” I managed to understand much of Guénon’s “Reign of Quantity” before I chose philosophy as my college major, so I assumed that all philosophy was written in this steely fashion. Then I discovered one could write philosophy in other styles – with the ease of R.G. Collingwood, the apocalyptic energy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the disdain for “bad faith” of Jean-Paul Sartre.

What had animated Guénon’s prose was a contempt for the false values of the Western world. The position that he took is what distinguished his writing from philosophy per se, and it also led to his prose being characterized as metaphysics. In his Weltanschauung, there is a “hierarchy” of values – accompanied by the “lowerarchy” (an amusing coinage of C.S. Lewis used by Upton) of deceptions – so his metaphysics is indistinguishable from theology – in this instance, Islamic theology. There is no more thorough-going critique of the values of the Western world in the twenty-first century than the writing of the Guénonian school. Upton follows in Guénon’s footsteps; Upton’s book is worthy of the master’s. There is a cultural jihad being waged in the pages of these books.

When I review a book, I try to refrain from reprinting the copy that appears on the back cover of that book, on the principle that I should be able to summarize its arguments at least as well as any publicist. But in this instance, the copy on the back cover of “Vectors” is so pertinent, I will reprint part of it here in a slightly shortened form:

“French philosopher René Guénon, who spent many years searching for a true esoteric Way, crossed paths with many false and subversive spiritualities before arriving at the threshold of Islamic Sufism. In his prophetic masterpiece “The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times,” he classed the worst of these spiritualities as examples of the Counter-Initiation. Anti-Tradition – secularism and materialism – opposes religion; Counter-Tradition inverts it; and the esoteric essence of Counter-Tradition is the Counter-Initiation. The author expands on this concept, recognizing the action of the Counter-Initiation in such areas as the politicizing of the interfaith movement, the anti-human tendencies in the environmental movement, the growing interest in magic and sorcery, the involvement of the intelligence communities in the fields of UFO investigation and psychedelic research, the history of Templarism and Freemasonry, and the de-Islamicization of the famous Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi.”

“The Counter-Initiation has six main features: syncretism; inverted hierarchy; deviated esoterism; the granting of the temporal transmission of spiritual lore precedent over the vertical descent of Revelation; the reduction of religion to utilitarianism (magic) and esoterism to a purely technical knowledge (Promethean spirituality); and the misapplication of the norms of the individual spiritual Path to the supposed spiritual evolution of the collective.”

“This book brings together two schools of thought: the Traditionalists or Perennialists (writers on comparative religion and traditional metaphysics) and the conspiracy theorists who are investigating the origin, nature, and plans of the New World Order. The NWO researchers can throw a penetrating light on the social and political dangers presently threatening the Perennialists, who the Perennialists can provide these researchers with a deeper and wider spiritual context for their vision of human evil.”

Those three paragraphs excellently summarize the convoluted arguments of the book, better than any that I could supply. What follows are some responses and reactions to the text chapter by chapter.

Chapter 1 has the title “What is the Counter-Initiation?” The author restates his thesis any number of times, changing the emphasis to match the contexts. I take it that his thesis is as follows: “Anyone who bases his critique of the Darkness of This World on the orthodox doctrines of a single God-given revelation, if he has sufficient courage and insight, will see far; the solid fulcrum of that orthodoxy will allow him to lift a great weight of error into the light. But this perspective will _not_ allow him to see how the other religions are menaced by the same Counter-Initiatory forces that threaten his own.”

Sceptics are anti-traditional and likely secularists or materialists. Among people who accept the notion of religious or spiritual initiation are the following: deluded people and gullible adherents to the principles of the New Age who are misled by the spread of Pseudo-Initiation; people intent on attaining or wielding power who embrace the anti-principles of Counter-Tradition and Counter-Initiation; people desirous of embracing and expressing spiritual values who attain one form or another of genuine Initiation. “Falsifications of the Transcendent Unity of Religions and the Primordial Tradition include syncretism; inverted hierarchy; deviated esoterism; dominance of history over Revelation; Promethean magic; and spiritual evolutionism – the six-fold falsification of the Transcendent Unity of Religions and the Primordial Tradition.”

Upton gives numerous instances and examples of how the élites of the world over the centuries and particularly in our own time have sought and to a great degree have undermined the integrity of the world’s great religions, especially their esoteric hearts, notably Kabbalah, Catholic monasticism, and Sufism. He does not hesitate to brand these people “satanists.” The satanists sabotage structures regardless of the orthodoxy or the heterodoxy of the doctrines of these religions, establishing their own Counter-Initiations, their own competing cults and sects. About True-Initiations, little is said, and nothing is revealed. So it is understandable in the absence of details that readers are inclined to imagine a succession or transmission through the ages of grace or of superstitious practices.

Perhaps I can help here. About a decade ago, introduced to the subject of “pretenders” to thrones and “false popes,” I latched onto the word “sedevacantism.” Its literal meaning is “the seat is empty,” suggesting that it is vacant in the sense that the occupant is unqualified for the position or that the occupant acquired the position of power through illegal or immoral means. Is there a person in a position of power in the world today who has not been accused of being a usurper, an illegitimate power-wielder? (Think about the “birther movement” and U.S. President Obama, etc.) There is a Traditionalist truism that runs like this: “A bad king is preferable to a good president.”

Chapter 2 is called “Vigilance in the Interfaith Arena” and it examines diverse subjects including the characteristics of Neo-Paganism, how Annie Besant (a Fabian Socialist) was granted control of the Theosophical Society, and the nature of “social control systems.” I have always been queasy about the notion that one should support the convergence of the world’s religions, viewing the movement itself as destructive of the integrity of each of those faiths as well as harmful to the individual and to society as a whole. Upton condemns these social forces: the movement towards “global governance”; the movement toward One World Religion, United Religions Initiative, and New World Order; the movement towards secular control of the world’s religions. Upton is not beyond making ridiculous statement like “Mikhail Gorbachev … is an avowed atheist who claims to worship the earth” but he generally sticks to the subject at hand.

This chapter is a mass – close to a mess – of detail; as such it is difficult to summarize. So here is part of an interesting footnote concerning The King Abdullah Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue to be based in Vienna: “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – not to be confused with the King of Jordan – may nonetheless see the Center named after him as a way of slowly introducing religious freedom into his kingdom ‘from outside.’ Before he took the throne, he was reputed to have said that he wanted to get rid of both the Wahhabis and the Americans.” Notice the scorn.

Chapter 3’s title is a mouthful, as befits a lengthy chapter: “Traditional vs. Counter-Traditional Perspectives on The Divine Feminine & The Sacredness of Nature.” The chapter begins well: “Wars inevitably produce three things: profiteering, domination, and a curtailment of human rights – and the war to save the Earth from environmental catastrophe is no exception.” It focuses on the “Divine Feminine” and the earth and the environment, first from the perspective of the Traditionalists and the Perennialists, second from the perspective of the Greens and the Neo-Pagans.

The “shadow-side” of environmentalism is “nature worship” which leads to human sacrifice “when overpopulation is seen as threatening the integrity of the environment.” Interesting insights follow on Abraham and his son Isaac and on “the anti-Islamic crimes of the Wahhabi terrorists.” There are basic conflicts: “Gaia vs. Kali” and “naturalistic vs. supernaturalistic nature-worship.” Technology is embraced by the worshipers of nature. There is an intriguing footnote about what drives serial killers: “The elites have the power to destroy whole nations and economies and ecosystems, but the sociopaths are out to rival the ruling class by proving that the ‘little guy’ can also contribute his share to the general destruction.” Serial killers and mass murderers are only doing on a micro scale what one-worlders and globalizers are doing on a macro scale.

Numerous pages are devoted to quotations about the earth from the Noble Qur’an. The basic position is as follows: “If there were no Divine Transcendence, all entities would be purely material, sealed into themselves, totally cut off from living participation in anything ontologically superior to them – like the parts of a machine.” There are intriguing insights: “Sleep during the night is life in death; sleep during the day is death in life.”

One would have to have a hard heart to read these pages without being charmed by the insights of the Qur’an into “the sacredness of nature,” but the reader wonders how much of this is shamanstvo, for notions coterminous with these may be found in the songs, stories, and beliefs of the Inuit of the Polar World. Indeed, Alan Dundes wrote one book about folklore in the Qur’an, and another book about the Holy Bible as folklore.

Chapter 4 is titled “Magic and _Tasawwuf_” and it brings into play the ideas and expressions of Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, and Baron Julius Evola, to name four founders of Perennialism. The performance of magical practices is not limited to magicians or illusionists, for theurgy and thaumaturgy are present as practices in all the world’s religions, from Bön to Scientology. Upton is uneasy with this fact. Aleister Crowley used to describe magic, whether black or white, as practices that cause “change in conformity with will,” whether malign or benign. There is no discussion of terms like these in this chapter.

Instead, the author writes as follows: “Tasawwuf” is identified as “the essence of the spiritual Path in every tradition. Everything else, every political strategy, every psychological manipulation or evasion, every buy or sell order on the stock market, every twisting of, or letting yourself be twisted by, occult forces, is in some sense magic. That’s why must I reiterate, and insist: Sufism and magic are poles apart. Where there is Sufism, there is no magic. Where there is magic, there is no Sufism.”

That may be true, but saying it is does not make it so. Elsewhere the author identifies the six major or “fixed” religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. He finds exclusivity in Hinduism (one must be born a Hindu) and Taoism he finds “closed” (for unstated reasons). Earlier he noted that Buddhism is inherently atheistic (even Guénon was initially uneasy with it as a vehicle), so that leaves Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is debatable to include Judaism (after all, one needs to be born Jewish). The first two religions certainly have aspects that are thaumaturgical. Is Islam the only one of them that is untainted by such entrapments or encroachments? Or is it only Islamic Sufism itself that is free – or is it merely Islamic Sufism’s Perennialism that attains this goal? These are questions the reader is likely to ask – if only to himself or herself.

Chapter 5 is titled “The Fall of the Jinn” and it tries to make sense of the jinn, leftovers from “The Arabian Nights” one would assume, who are mentioned in the Noble Qur’an. The jinn are equated with angels, fairies, demons, spirits, ghosts, and “the psychic powers of man.” They are discussed in light of philosophy, folklore, legend, myth, scripture, and psychic and telluric powers. These creatures or creations are long-lived, but are mortal only in the sense of not being immortal. Some of them believe themselves to be gods of some sort or other. All of this is quite lively though how much of it should be taken seriously is another matter entirely.

Chapter 6 has the intriguing title “UFOs, Mass Mind-Control, and the Awilya al-Shaytan.” I find it the least effective part of the book, but in one way it is the book’s most interesting section. It is the least effective chapter because in it the author, while widely read in the literature of ufology, seems to have sidestepped entirely reading the literature that critically considers the available evidence for such aerial phenomena. It is the most interesting chapter because in it he takes pains to embrace no end of contradictory conspiracy theories, paying no heed to such matters as social and psychological expectation and fantasy-prone personalities.

Nothing at all is known about the nature of Flying Saucers and Unidentified Flying Objects, or even about their existence, so it is easy to philosophize (or perhaps metaphilosophize) about them at great length. (Circular reasoning: If there is no evidence for the existence such vehicles, there must be conspiracies to suppress the knowledge of such devices.) For instance, Carl Jung described the aerial craft as objects of contemplation, which he called “flying mandalas.” Early in his career the Swiss psychologist argued they were entirely subjective in nature, whereas later in his career he decided they had in some instances the powers of exteriorization. Jung is wavering, but not Upton: “Demonic manipulation,” “social engineering,” “saints of satan” (Awilya al-Shaytan of the subtitle) … here we are in the realm of X-Files and Matrix.

Chapter 7 is called “The Real Rumi” and is deals with the fact that the immense popularity of the Persian poet and his works in the West – the “Rumi industry” – occurs at the expense of the man’s true beliefs, Islamic and Sufic. Upton writes, “He was a contemplative, saint and spiritual master first, and only secondarily an artist.” I agree with the author, as I too find the denatured verses attributed to him that appear in English translations to be about as authentic as poetry as the standard version of “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” (which at least has the merit of being lively and quotable verse). The author says that Rumi’s “only peers in the West” are Dante, Blake, and Shakespeare. (Despite their many differences, I would opt for likening the works of Rumi to those of Walt Whitman.)

Chapter 8 has a long title “A Chink in the Perennialist Armor – Uncertainty as to the Principal Unity of Knowledge and Love.” Is it true that “Intelligence emits straight rays, whereas love sends forth wavy or flaming rays”? What about “The synthesis of Love and Knowledge is, in fact, Wisdom, without which love must remain sentimental, knowledge theoretical … “? Whoever has an interest in the Courtly Love tradition of poetry and song will find the author’s ruminations here to be both thoughtful and heart-felt.

Chapter 9 consists of an interview with the author conducted by Samuel Bendeck Sotillos. (The interviewer, otherwise unidentified, serves as a mental health clinician who writes book reviews for “Studies in Comparative Religion.” ) The chapter is titled “Drug Induced Mysticism Revisited.” Here the author is hard-pressed, despite the fact that an argument proceeds on a conversational level, to distinguish between the transpersonal experiences that are the product of psychedelics and those that are the fruit of religious devotion and discipline.

The term “entheogen” is noted, possibly to suggest that psychedelic substances need not be ingested because the body in the right circumstances is able to produce these on its own. Anyway, it is difficult for Upton to distinguish between the differences in causation, whether molecular or eremitic, but this fact should not be held against him, for it was equally difficult for William James to do the same in his landmark study “The Psychology of Religious Experience” published more than a century ago.

In passing, Upton notes that it may have been the occultist Aleister Crowley who introduced mescaline to Aldous Huxley, not Dr. Humphry Osmond of the Weyburn psychiatric hospital in Saskatchewan. Also in passing, Upton finds an odd parallel – in the first half of the 1960s there was a psychedelic “explosion” of psychic content among the youth of America; at the same time there was a rationing of it resulting from reformers of the Second Vatican Council. The author refers to Vatican II a number of times; in this chapter he characterizes it as “the Masonic coup within the Catholic church” – the ill-effects of which are being felt to this day.

Chapter 10 looks at the Templars and the Freemasons as instances of Counter-Initiations intent on the restoration of brotherhoods, crafts, secret societies, gnosticism, etc. These forces assume such forms as Vatican II, Wicca, the Club of Rome, and the “global élites.” (Ted Turner, Maurice Strong, and George Soros are three named members of the élites. (I must admit to a smidgen of superbia that the middle one is a Torontonian! Who says Canada is a dull country?)

Masonry is denounced as a “parody” of the true initiatic way. In this chapter, as well as in other chapters, it is difficult to separate conspiracy theory from conspiracy fact, if indeed the word “conspiracy” in the sense of “cabal” is the appropriate one to employ. A substitute might be “prevailing ideology,” particularly views that are liberal, permissive, progressive, etc.

Chapters 11 and 12 are titled “The Fall of Lucifer” and “Luciferian Transhumanism.” These chapters consist of expositions of themes already discussed. These short chapters could best be summarized in the following sentence: There is “the metaphysical truth that limitation is necessary for divine manifestation.” Limitation is seen in the sense of respecting natural and spiritual boundaries and traditional, time-honoured initiations. “No salvation outside the church” is a familiar form of this traditionalist principle.

The five appendices are interesting in their own right, but as they add little to the sum and substance of the argument of the book, I will overlook them here. Over all, I had three unexpected responses to reading this work. Despite the fact these responses may be dismissed as shallow, or beside the point, they are my own and I offer them for consideration.

First response. While I admire the author’s erudition and concern for humanity, I find his range of sympathy and understanding to be – while deep – narrow. I suppose if someone is intent on digging a circular trench to secern or separate the circle of the temenos from all the rest of creation, one has to dig ditches that are deep but narrow. The result is that the argument of the book is expressed in such a perfervid fashion that it “preaches to the converted.” It is unlikely to win many if any uncommitted readers, though it may sharpen and strengthen the convictions of those readers already intent on conversion or yearnings of Muslims anxious to return to their origins. Yet I recall St. Augustine’s assertion that all of creation is greater than merely the best parts of creation.

Second response. The structure of this work, like the structure of other perennialist books that I have read, is not so much an inquiry or an argument as it is a collection homilies – in point of fact, twelve homilies, each chapter being its own homily. I know nothing about the order of service in a masjid, but in a Christian church the Reading of the Gospel is followed by the sermon, otherwise known as the homily. The homily applies the principles of the biblical text to the intrigues of the world and to the perversities of man’s nature, and it informs congregants “what must be thought, felt, and done.” In this book the biblical text is a verse chosen from the Noble Qur’an – or in some instances a passage from “The Reign of Quantity” – followed by an elucidation of the consequences of the application or non-application of the principle.

Third response. I expect the value of “Vectors” lies in the vast amount of information and insight that the author supplies and offers. The form it takes is that of the “anatomy,” the literary term for a work that schematically organizes knowledge in a practical way. The “anatomy” is not to be confused with the “encyclopedia.” The encyclopedia presents knowledge alphabetically, in a non-literary way, making no connections, whereas the anatomy does so through conventional and cultural categories with loose-knit or tightly-knit connectives to illustrate diversity or depth.

“The Anatomy of Melancholy,” compiled and written by the 17th-century Oxford don Robert Burton, is the best-known anatomy in English. Another instance, in our own day, is “Anatomy of Criticism” by the 20th-century professor Northrop Frye of Victoria College, University of Toronto. Both of these “anatomies” are – like “Vectors” – well-organized repositories of recherché information, valued as much for their insights as for their overviews or surveys.

It seems to me best to regard “Vectors” as a member of “anatomy” class of books. Its structure implies that there is, inarguably, a divine order and that there is a divinity that “shapes our ends,” ignore it as we may. That is the assumption, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” and based on that assumption, Upton’s tome orders the world of fact and fancy as best to approximate that design.

John Robert Colombo, an author and anthologist of many books about the lore and literature of Canada, lives in Toronto. He has a special interest in arcane subjects. He contributes occasional reviews to this blog. His website is


John Robert Colombo Page


Pierre Bonnasse

JRC reviews “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way”

Pierre Bonnasse, the author of the book that I am about to review,
lives in Paris and calls himself “a student of the Fourth Way.” His
photograph on his personal website shows him to be a young,
late-blooming hippie, complete with long hair and an appearance that
may be described as “determinedly poetic.” Biographical details are
sparse, but it seems Bonnasse holds a doctorate in literature from the
Sorbonne where he has taught writing.

He is the author of a book of poems “Dans la nuit d’Aghtamar” and an
anthology of passages about psychedelics called “Les voix de l’Extase.”
“Mode d’emploi de la parole analogue” is a book about words and
esotericism and it was published by Editions Dervy in Paris in 2005.
In 2008 it was translated into English as “The Magic Language of the
Fourth Way” and published by Inner Traditions, the Vermont-based
imprint devoted to quality books that are stocked –or should be
stocked – by the proprietors of metaphysical bookshops.

On his website Bonnasse describes himself as a “chercheur d’inspiration
transdisciplinaire.” A critic describes him in an amusing phrase as “a
provocateur of epiphanies.” The author himself writes, “I feel an
incredible closeness” to René Daumal and André Velter. I am familiar
with the writings of the French poet Daumal, but not with Velter’s
books about travel in the Orient or his poetry, despite the fact that
he is a holder of the Prix Goncourt. The late surrealist writer
Charles Duits is another of Bonnasse’s favourites. Bonnasse is widely
read in the literature of the Fourth Way though not widely read in
contemporary poetry generally.

Enough said about the author; here is some information on his first
book in English. “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way” bears the
subtitle “Awakening the Power of the Word” and has been feelingly
translated by Ariel Godwin, an American who is a professional editor
and translator of books largely devoted to the mysterious from four
languages: French, German, Italian, Spanish. I have yet to read
Bonnasse in French, but Godwin has created a “speaking voice” for
Bonnasse in English. (The slip-ups are minor: the proper abbreviation
of Neuro Lingusitic Programming, the spelling of T.S. Eliot’s last
name – on that level, hardly worth a mention.)

Inner Traditions has produced a quality trade paperback, 6″ x 9″,
xxxvi + 348 pages, with notes, bibliography, and detailed index. A
special feature is ten pages of diagrams and five pages of photographs
of Daumal, Charles Duits, Jeanne and Alexandre de Salzmann, Thomas de
Hartmann, G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky. $24.95.

Readers of this review will know about René Daumal whose principle
works are now available in English. The writings of Charles Duits,
mentioned above, are less well known to English readers than they
should be because they have not been translated. Duits died in 1991
and is remembered as a French writer of fantastic fiction who was
influenced by the surrealists and by Gurdjieff. In turn Duits had a
big influence on Bonnasse.

The English-language title draws attention to the Work, unlike the
title of the French original, and in doing so it expresses the author’s
indebtedness to Daumal, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Duits. There are
only passing references to Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists, to
René Guenon and the Traditionalists, and only one to Rudolf Steiner of
the Anthroposophists. Yet if there is a skeleton key to unlock the
theme and subject of this book, it is the one remark quoted from
Steiner: “Enthusiasm carries the spirit in itself.”

In terms of etymology, the word “enthusiasm” includes the notion of
“theos” or “god,” and in terms of Bonnasse’s book his personal
enthusiasm carries the entire book. To a rare degree he finds the Work
so meaningful that he has internalized it, so that one taste leads to
another taste, one perception to another perception, and one concept
to another concept. The book is his one long re-enactment within a
charmed circle of what excites him and inspires him about esotericism
and how it impacts on the seven-levels of language.

In structure the book is divided somewhat arbitrarily into three acts
with a total of twelve scenes. Each scene is an “essay” or “talk.”
Here are the acts: Part I is called “The Terror of the Situation” and
it describes “word prostitution” (to which I will shortly return).
Part II is titled “The Awakening of Hope” and it sketches in the Law
of Triamazikamno (three) and the Law of Heptaparaparshinokh (seven) as
embodied in the figure of the enneagram. Part III is named “The
Esoteric Work” and it deals with “legominisms.” As for the scenes,
these chapters seem to be organized on the basis of a course on the
Fourth Way, one that focuses on personal transformation through the
creative (read conscious) use of words.

Bonnase is concerned with “word prostitution,” a notion introduced by
Gurdjieff and used by Daumal. It refers to the mechanical or
manipulatory misuse of wordages and wordings. The author is so wrapped
up in the Work that it never occurs to him to see “word prostitution”
as a human condition that has been addressed by the world’s major
religions through the ages. I will digress a bit and suggest that in
its widest context “word prostitution” is really catchy and
contemporary shorthand for the old sin of simony.

Simony has never been included on the traditional list of the Seven
Deadly Sins, but it should appear on any new, updated list. It sounds
out of date because it recalls the name of Simon Magnus, the sorcerer
rebuked by St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles because he offered to
purchase the secret behind Paul’s miraculous powers. Simony is one of
the cardinal sins of the Western world in the Twenty-first Century.

Usually defined as the specialized sin of buying or selling
ecclesiastical favours, simony is more significant and prevalent than
that. It refers generally to the misuse of spiritual gifts –
imagination, sensitivity, talent, ability, insight – for gross or
ignoble ends. “Word prostitution” is a specialized form of simony,
familiar to us in the form of election speeches, advertising, TV
situation comedies, ministers’ homilies, televangelists, etc. As he
expostulates, “Rare are those who do not propagate word prostitution,
and there is no lack of candidates for the position of universal
Hasnamuss.” The idea goes back to Francis Bacon and forward to
Stephane Mallarmé and T.S. Eliot.

Bonnase knows simony in the form of “word prostitution” and he becomes
something of a moralist or preacher or instructor himself in his
attempt to define it, expose it, and expunge it. The misuse of words
is a sacrilege. He sees simony in terms of the hierarchy of man. On
each level, man must use the language appropriate to that level. There
are seven levels, ranging from the material to the spiritual. He gives
each man on each level his own label. These labels are
“Pseudoanthrope, Romantic, Savant, Apprentice Speaker, Authentic,
Objective, and Master. These “name tags” relate to men’s centres and
so correspond to Gurdjieff’s human types. The first name is new one to
me; it comes from one of Druits’s books.

As I mentioned earlier, Charles Duits is something of a discovery.
Perhaps some enterprising publisher will commission translations of
such books of his as Le Pays de l’éclairement (1994) and La Salive de
l’éléphant (1999). While we are at it, Bonnase has whetted my appetite
for the books of other French authors who are alive to the Work, but
whose works are still unavailable in English. Here are some authors’
names from his index: Jean Biès, Christian Bouchet, Jean-Yves Leloup,
Georges de Maleville, Patrick Negrier, Jean-Yves Pouilloux, Michel
Random, Jean-Philippe de Tonnac. I find characteristic of the French
texts about the Work is a subtlety of observation and expression that
is often lacking in comparable English texts. But then that is a
quality of much French poetry, fiction, philosophy, and religious

Bonnasse explains, “The goal of this work is to present a new theory
of language …. ” He makes that statement on the first page of his
book, yet because he lacks his own particular theory and fails to
develop concerns that are recognizably his own, Bonnasse tacks from
one theory to another, including those of Count Korzybski, Roman
Jakobson, and Gurdjieff. The latter’s theory, to the degree that it is
at all theoretical, is filtered through Daumal’s writings which are
amazingly sensitive to nuance yet vigorously imaginative. Bonnasse is
a great appreciator of modern mystical literature and he sees it not
in light of Tradition as such but in light of the Fourth Way.

It is well known that Gurdjieff made a notable distinction between
“objective art” and “subjective art,” but for all the fascination of
that dichotomy, it is regularly illustrated with instances of great
architecture (Sphinx, Mont-Saint-Michel, etc.) but seldom with works
of great literature (other than, perhaps, some scriptures). Still, I
found interesting the statement that Gurdjieff divides writings into
three different modes. These modes are said to be the scientific, the
narrative, and the descriptive. It sets me thinking … but again it
is difficult to use such distinctions to shed any light on literature
itself. Bonnasse persists in calling the spiritual use of language
“word magic” without dealing with any single concept of magic and or
any real sense of how it differs from the miraculous, the mythical,
the spiritual, and the metaphysical, if indeed it does.

Bonnasse is more convincing when it comes to the figure of the
enneagram. What has always appealed to me about this nine-interval
schematic diagram is that it is unicursal, which means that it may be
traced with a single line without backtracking. (I spent many
otherwise idle moments figuring out how to do this without pen and
paper and without peeking.) The author knows his enneagram and shows
how it combines 3 and 7 and he uses it to illustrate how one may
advance in stages: from Word (3) to Sound (6) to Rhythm (9); or from
Word (3) to Thing (6) to Consciousness (9); or from Speaker (3) to
Listener (6) to Message (9). He works in the “intervals.” It occurs to
me here for the first time that we are dealing with more than Hegel’s
“thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” for the reason that whereas Hegel’s
final “synthesis” is viewed as the extinguishing or exhausting of
forces, Gurdjieff’s “third force” is indeed a force in its own right.

Bonnasse has some original thoughts to convey on poetry – for
instance, how rhythm is not to be mistaken for metre. The key to this
is the fact that rhythm is seen as the synthesis, indeed a force in
its own right (9), not the neutralization of either the positive force
(3) or the negative force (6). Without rhythm the word is dead, the
language is not alive, and man remains in a stupor or a state of
sleep. The notion is advanced that the things of this world have
rightful names and sounds, but only in certain circumstances and in
certain ways are these names to be pronounced or sounded. So step by
step the author moves in a spiral-like fashion and in his own magical
way to arrive at the statement that “a poem is a portal between
different realities.”

There is a statement beloved of creative writing instructors who
assert that you should only write about what you know. I have always
found that to be a dubious piece of advice – did Dante visit
Purgatorio? did Tolstoy meet Napoleon? did Arthur C. Clarke set foot
on the spacecraft Rama? Certainly the writer must know himself or
herself and the self-knowledge might come through the process of the
writing. Whether it is doubtful or not, Bonnasse gives the statement
greater resonance, when he states: “If the goal of objective
literature is the awakening of readers, writing must first be a
technique of awakening and consciousness for the author, otherwise
there will be no evolution of saying, no advance in the level of the

Bonnasse sees writing as a conscious act, a form of praying, a way of
being, a state of consciousness. If that is so, it is also true that
reading is or may a conscious act, a form of praying, a way of being.
Jeffrey Kirpal in his mammoth book “Esalen” makes an interesting
observation about mythologist Joseph Campbell. He does so in these
words: “Campbell commonly denied any real interest in actual spiritual
experience or religious experimentalism. He made it quite clear that
his spiritual practice consisted of reading, reading, and more
reading. He thus showed little real interest in many of the
meditative, somatic, or explicitly religious practices in which Esalen
had put so much hope. Or rather, he proposed deep and extensive
reading as the transformative practice.” The path may be that of the
pen travelling across the blank scrap or sheet of paper, or a pair of
eyes tracking words line by line and sensing their sounds and

The real poet or writer is not the fakir, the monk, or the yogi, but
the “sly man,” for the reason that the experience that Gurdjieff
offers is “by definition _transpoetic_.” In real writing the real
writer works on and with the centres: “In writing, he must observe the
functioning of his machine in order not to be duped by his
mechanisms.” By way of illustration Bonnasse leans on two of Daumal’s
literary works: “A Night of Serious Drinking” (an essayistic novel in
the spirit of the Platonic dialogue “Symposium”) and “Poetry Black,
Poetry White” (an essay that distinguishes between what in other
contexts might be called writing “in bad faith” versus writing “in
good faith”). He reproduces all five pages of Daumal’s prose poem “The
Holy War” and in this context the discursive work (it is not a
dramatic work) takes on a live of its own.

In another way Bonnasse makes a contribution. He describes “the Way of
Blame” and identifies it with Gurdjieff. It is apparent he regards
“Beelzebub’s Tales” as the literary expression of the notion of
“blame,” for he writes, “‘Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson,’ that
magnificent work containing some twelve hundred of the prickliest
pages ever written, is a perfect example of this master-disciple
relationship transferred to the author-reader relationship: satire
incarnate, the highest achievement of the art of bad taste.”

Bonnasse is able to detect the expression of “blame” in the literary
modes of satire and irony. Earlier in the book he refers to Beckett’s
“Waiting for Godot.” It is obvious there is a parallel here between
the ironic mode and the mythic mode (a key point in the work of
Northrop Frye). “Beelzebub” is seen as one elastic-like work which
stretches across time and languages, securing the myths of the past to
the ironies of the present day.

“Reading is then no longer passive and mechanical, but active, and it
becomes real teaching. All great texts are either like this or they
are not.” I like the word “not” for it is double-edged. “Beelzebub”
requires active reading. “Each reading is a new experience, forever a
fresh source of knowledge. This is because this work, in particular,
is a _legominism_ – an initiatory mode of transmitting the truth.”

Bonnasse continues in this vein and makes some excellent points that
are fully relevant, which I will summarize in point form: legominism
in art and artifacts = legominism in beings who are initiates
(“leomanism?”); repetition = mnemonic aid; obscurity = requiring
exacting work; tales = truths; author’s distancing effect = reader’s
perspective on self; myth = Eliade’s “sacred history”; words = speech;
text = context of reader’s life. Many of these insights into
“Beelzebub” are derived from Duits’s writings, especially those
passages quoted by Michael Walberg in “Gurdjieff: An Approach to His
Ideas.” To the points made above, Bonnasse adds this one from the
enneagram: from Seeker (3) to Knowledge (6) to Myths and Symbols.

The use of psychedelics in ancient and modern times is the subject of
the second-last chapter. It considers Gurdjieff’s view and use of the
same, including “a special chemistry that could be used for
maneuvering the human machine.” Interestingly he refers to such
hallucinogenics as “unlimiters” and even discusses how language and
sound are employed by shamans under their influence. The autochthonous
power of speech is discussed, and it is noted that in an inspired
state it seems that when a man speaks the truth (as Octavio Paz
observed) “it is the language that speaks.”

The last chapter, titled “Movement in the Creative Process: From the
Dance to the Word,” is a condensed but concentrated account of
“movement” in the Work and its relationship with “the word.” It is up
to us to embody this movement: “Nothing remains but to act, to
remember ourselves, to engage in the harmony of things and being, to
form ourselves with the power of experience, and to dare to seek this
absolute, in order to _become_ and recover the primordial word intact
in the crucible of revelations, the primordial speech that has never
ceased living and shines in the hearts of all with a thousand lights.”

This last chapter is followed by a Conclusion and an Afterword, just
as the first chapter is preceded by a total of not two but four
subsections (Acknowledgements, Preface to the American Edition,
Preface to the First Edition, and Introduction). The book seems not to
end; it runs on like a periodic sentence. There is a sense in which
Pierre Bonnasse’s book resembles a music box: Lift its lid and it
plays. Open this book and it offers the leitmotif of the Fourth Way
with scores of variations.

Pierre Bonnasse is possessed with his subject, and by his subject,
with the result that “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way” brims over
with good spirits and bubbles over with enthusiasm and recurrence and
reiteration and recapitulation. The argument may be diffuse, even
scattered, but the insights are so pivotal that the reader is left to
wonder why the points did not occur to him or to her before Bonnasse
gave them expression. This is language itself at work in the spirit of

The feeling I have is that Bonnasse is a third-generation Gurdjieffian
in the sense that he is steeped in the work through the availability
of formerly withheld texts and that he is living in a time and a place
marked by the ready acceptance of ideas of personal transformation so
that he is able to internalize work principles to an unheralded

The first generation of pioneers of the Fourth Way have receded into
the honourable past; the second generation of organizers and
systematizers have done their landmark work by building their
organizations and leaving their marks; so it is now the time for the
third generation, a still-young young group of creators, to take root
and grow in individual and distinct fields of expression … in
composition or performance, be it in music, dance, writing,
literature, philosophy, fine art, film, and so on. There has always
been a spiritual dimension to poetry, something “magical” about all
the arts. So our time may truly be “the dawn of the magicians.”

John Robert Colombo is known as “Canada’s Mr. Mystery” for such
compilations as “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories.” He combines
two of his interests – Canadiana and consciousness studies – in his
recently issued collection of essays (many reprinted from this blog)
titled “Whistle While You Work.” He is an Association of the Northrop
Frye Centre, Victoria College, University of Toronto.


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