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Alan Dundes’ “Holy Writ as Oral Lit” & “Fables of the Ancients?” + “Music of the Prieuré” played by Rosemary Nott

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Edith Fowke  

JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO PAGE

One of my intellectual mentors was the late Edith Fowke. Her name is unlikely to be recognized outside the country, but within Canada it is not only recognized but well respected. (Her name is what is called “an aptonym,” for “Fowke” is close to “folk,” so that anyone hearing it for the first time would automatically equates the woman with the discipline – and rightly so: Edith Fowke, folklorist.) In her later years she served as the country’s leading folklorist, for she devoted the second half of her professional life to recording, collecting, documenting, and publishing folk songs and traditional tales, including myths and legends, notably Native ones – Inuit and Indian.

Edith encouraged me to compile, annotate, and publish collections of Canadian “trivia” on the principle that “one man’s trivia is another man’s treasure.” She was not prolific but she was precise and passionate. The first half of her life was spent as a political and social activist who espoused the cause of organized labour and democratic socialism. An argument with the Lewises – David and his son Stephen – who dominated the national socialist party for two generations – led her to her seek new fields of endeavour, and to train and then work as a folklorist. She was no stranger to national radio broadcasting, and she ultimately joined the Humanities Division of York University in Toronto where she taught the folklore subjects. Upset by the direction the Lewis’s were taking the CCF/NDP, she had decided that if she could not influence our future, she could reveal the shape of our past.

She was a little woman who always wore pink – coats, jackets, blouses, scarves, trousers, skirts – and her favourite hymn was Blake’s “Jerusalem.” I had the honour to lead the hundred or so mourners and colleagues in singing Parry’s version of that visionary anthem at the “celebration of her life” held at York University in Toronto. She died suddenly on March 18, 1996, at the age of eighty-three, but nobody who ever met her ever really forgot her.

 Alan Dundes (photo Saaxon Donnelly)

I always remembered Edith’s enthusiasm for the work of the late Alan Dundes. He was a Professor of Anthropology and Folklore at the University of California, Berkeley, and until his death in 2005 at the age of seventy-one, he brought to wide public attention the cultural and psychological insights brought about by his study of “folkloristics.” He saw the discipline as one that shed light on the customs of the past and the present, but also on cultural lore and human psychology and behaviour. He caused a stir when he wrote at length about the homoerotics of American football. He did more than anyone to familiarize the North American public with the prevalence of “urban legends” so that the Vanishing Hitchhiker, the Cat in the Microwave, and the Wife on the Flight are recognized for the fabrications that they are. He argued that repeating them expressed deep-seated human needs. He published a half-dozen collections of these legends, with amusing and informed commentaries.

Readers of this web-blog will probably be interested in the themes of two of Dundes’ lesser-known books. It was Edith’s delight in Dundes’ work in general that drew me to seek out his writings and these related studies in particular. They are of concern to people who have a curiosity about the construction and constitution of world’s Holy Scriptures. The two books are available in trade paperback editions published by a lesser-known imprint: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (The company, with offices in Maryland and Oxford, has a website.) The books have quite arresting titles.

The first book is called “Holy Writ as Oral Lit” (1999) and the second is called “Fables of the Ancients?” (2003). While I usually like to paraphrase the contents of the books that I review for this website, here I will merely summarize the author’s arguments and suggest their importance. Then I will turn my attention to a newly published item that is of direct interest to the readers of this web-blog.

The subtitle of “Holy Writ as Oral Lit” is simplicity itself – “The Bible as Folklore.” Dundes argues that the Bible – by which he means the King James Version, but his approach applies to any translation or version of the Old and New Testaments – contains an immense amount of what he calls “folklore,” perhaps 20 percent by his estimate. In under 130 pages he reviews this “lore” in scripture and in very clearly, scholarly prose he notes the presence of the hallmarks of folklore – multiplicity and variety – that are characteristics of the Bible.

The biblical accounts are retellings of oral tales and the retellings differ in predictable ways. Yet far from being proof that the Bible is riddled with falsehoods, its nature attests to the value of the book as a record of the beliefs of the ancient Israelites and the early Christians, and it alludes to the problems that the texts present to scribes and scholiasts and redacteurs who have tried repeatedly to preserve them and then interpret them.

Dundas looks at how it is impossible to reconcile internal textual repetitions and variations in terms of number, name, and sequence. As well, there is duplication of texts in the various books of the Bible. Sequences of action are inconsistent. There is no agreed-upon text of the Ten Commandments, the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the names of the Twelve Disciples, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount … I could go on.

What had long puzzled me was the Creation myth described in Genesis. Which came first, “the heaven and the earth” or “the earth and the heavens”? The answer depends on whether one prioritizes or privileges (to use vogue phrases) Genesis 1:1 or Genesis 2:4. And why is the word “heaven” in the singular when it next appears as “heavens” in the plural? Dundes offers almost one hundred instances of such “confusions.” It is enough to give pause to the reader of “the Bible as living literature,” and it should cause conniptions for the “true believer” who holds to the theory of “the inerrancy” of the Holy Scripture. Biblical scholars, whether rabbis or priests, have evolved ways around these problems. Yet to Dundes, such concerns are proof that the Bible is a human document and a tribute to “the voice of the people” (to use an expression that he himself eschews). He concludes with the statement that the Bible may well be “the greatest book in the world,” but “it is truly folklore, and it is high time that it is recognized as such.”

“Fables of the Ancients?” is in many ways a more amazing study. At 90 pages it is a succinct study of (in the words of its subtitle) “Folklore in the ‘Qur’an.’” Dundes recalls that when he announced to his colleagues at the University of California that he was planning to continue his study of folklore in Holy Scripture by extending his analyses from the Bible to the “Qur’an,” he was warned that what he was undertaking might be dangerous to life, limb, and career. He was not deterred. “I soon discovered that there seemed to be many ‘formulas’ as well as several traditional stories, stories that were not simply retellings of narratives found in the Bible. To my knowledge, no folklorist has ever discussed the presence of both formulas and folktales in the ‘Qur’an.’” So Dundes is the first such commentator.

So far he seems to be the last, as well. No one has followed in his footsteps, though he does make this easy by pointing out that, unlike the Bible, which is recognized to be “the word of God” as vouchsafed to man, the “Qur’an” is considered to be the actual words of Allah orally transmitted by the Archangel Gabriel to Muhammed the Prophet. So the “Qur’an” is 100 percent folklore. It is admittedly an oral composition and one that is rich in tell-tale oral formulas and folktales. Dundes goes to great length to document these. Given more space (and time), I would identify these and discuss them. Dundes sidesteps the issue of the unusual origin of the “Qur’an,” content to comment on its oral rather than its linear construction.

The title of the book, complete with its question-mark, comes from the “Qur’an” itself. In Surah 6:25, unbelievers are quoted as dismissing the book with these words: “This is nothing but fables of the ancients.” Surah 8:31 repeats the formula: “Whenever Our revelations are recited to them, they say: ‘We have heard them. If we wished, we could say the like. They are but fables of the ancients.’” Dundes states that, given the oral nature of the “Qur’an,” it is inevitably replete with tale-types like The Seven Sleepers, Judgement of Solomon, and God’s Justice Vindicated. So the question-mark is supererogatory. He concludes: “In the ‘Qur’an there are indeed ‘fables of the ancients’ placed there by divine decree, full of worldly wisdom to be favoured and savoured for generations to come.”

The investigations of Alan Dundes would have met with the approval of Edith Fowke and of everyone else who has any experience with the composition and characteristics of the lore of the people. Indeed, it is probably a demonstrable fact that elements of folklore may be found in all literary works of any great length, from Greek epic poems to those lengthy compositions of our own day. The Modern period witnessed the composition of some very lengthy works of a sub-literary and supra-literary nature, including James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,” Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History,” Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West,” and G.I. Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales.” It would be rewarding to undertake a study of works like these from the perspective of folkloristics.

 Movements:  ( no date given)

 

 Movements: 1924

Try as I might, I cannot contrive the ideal segue from these two books, written by Dundes, to the third item, a recently issued one, that has no known author but which I now want to discuss. (Come to think of it, Edith Fowke would have enjoyed it as well!) For one thing, the new work is both a booklet and a compact disk. For another, it more a souvenir of a place and period in time than it is an analysis of a powerful text studded with oral formulas, story-motifs, and story-types. The “book” to be discussed is titled “Music of the Prieuré” and it is credited to “Gurdjieff / de Hartmann” with Rosemary Nott at the piano.

The publisher is Dolmen Meadow Editions of Toronto, and the editors of Dolmen Meadow are to be congratulated for having overseen the production of an attractive, sepia-coloured “package.” It consists of one slipcase, one CD (released with the permission of Adam Nott), and one 16-page booklet (not in sepia), the text of which appears in English, French, and Spanish. The text explains what the “package” is all about.

 Rosemary Nott

 

 Adam Nott

It is a tribute to Rosemary Nott and it is a tribute from Mrs. Nott, who has been described as Gurdjieff’s “first American student.” Born in Houston, Texas, she studied the Eurhythmics of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze in Hellerau in 1922 when she first met Gurdjieff. She was a pianist and dancer in her own right. At the Prieuré, under Gurdjieff’s direction, she taught Movements, and there she had Thomas de Hartmann to guide her piano technique. Thereafter she performed the compositions she knew so well for groups in centres on both sides of the Atlantic. She died at the age of eighty-two in 1979 in London, England. She is well-loved for her dedication to the work.

Mrs. Nott recorded the “music of the Prieuré” on reel-to-reel tapes on a monaural studio recorder in London in 1974-75, and performances were “selected, digitized, and prepared for publication” by the well-known conductor and pianist Charles Ketcham, who himself has arranged and played the complete Gurdjieff-de Hartmann piano music. Illustrations to the package come from the collection of Gert-Jan Blom of Amsterdam and Mrs. Nott’s son Adam Nott.

There are twenty compositions on the CD disk and some of them have intriguing names. I have in mind “Orthodox Hymn from Asia Minor,” “The Sacred Goose,” “Lost Loves,” and “The Pythia.” With only a few years of piano practice and theory behind me, I would be hard-pressed to comment knowingly on the performances of these compositions, some of which are lodged in memory, others of which are strangers to my ears. Yet I was struck by the intentionality of the playing. “The Fall of the Priestess” and “The Great Prayer” are instances of this. Some tracks convey the impression of the loneliness of the pianist; other tracks transmit the sense of the company of other musicians. All the compositions sound alive yet ancient, or ancient yet alive.

The words “music of the Prieuré” were well chosen for they constitute a neat conceit (in the literary sense of the word). The next best thing to haunting the halls of Le Prieuré des Basses Loges at Fontainebleau-Avon is being overtaken by the airs, themes, and strains of Mrs. Nott’s piano.

 

John Robert Colombo is known across Canada as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of the lore and literature of the country. His current books include “Fascinating Canada” (a book of questions and answers) and “Jeepers Creepers” (a collection of told-as-true ghost stories). He has also published three volumes devoted to the life, work, and writings of Denis Saurat (who also “met Gurdjieff” and is discussed in “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye”). Colombo’s website is < http://www.colombo.ca >.

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review of ‘IT’S UP TO OURSELVES’

THE JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO PAGE
===========================

A MAMMOTH AND UNUSUAL PUBLICATION

John Robert Colombo briefly notes the characteristics of an enjoyable tome of a book by Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

It was in the middle of the 1950s that I first encountered the writings of P.D. Ouspensky and through his ideas I engaged with the theory and practice introduced by G.I. Gurdjieff. To this day I visualize the Work from the vantagepoint of an unreconstructed Ouspenskian as well as through the filter of the Fifties, the period of the Cold War with all of its polarities, with the battle between ideologies, and with the ever-presence of subversive ideas in both East and West.

I am inclined to visualize the scenes of Ouspensky in Moscow and Gurdjieff in Paris in the tone of sepia but framed in black and white. The Work is in soft-focus and far in the past. It is not yet called the Gurdjieff Work, or not yet called the Fourth Way. Instead, it is known as the Special Doctrine, which was the term Ouspensky used to permit himself to distinguish between this “school of thought” from his earlier philosophical, theosophical, and mathematical speculations. That continued to be a problem for him.

The special and private perspective that I have been describing may very well be shared by people who came to maturity with “fragments of an unknown teaching” in the late Forties and early Fifties. The perspective is that of a Wisdom tradition that is inimical to Western values generally, a tradition that appeared in the West in 1912 and over the next two decades came to the attention of a discerning public in literary and artistic circles through through Ouspensky’s lectures in London and Gurdjieff’s activities in Paris and at Fontainebleau-on-Avon.

So in my mind’s eye, I still see the appearance of these ideas as accomplishments in the past, not contributions to New Age thought of the Sixties. Students of the Work who are younger than I was then have the opportunity (especially after reading the book that I am about to discuss) to view the Work on a wide-screen in Technicolor with Dolby Sound. No sepia or black and white for them! What grew with effort out of the soil of pre-Revolutionary Russia was able to survive the Communist Revolution, the Great War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. Now much that was merely words and counter-revolutionary history has been brought to life and given flesh and blood through the efforts of two extraordinarily able women, a mother and a daughter, inspired by G.I. Gurdjieff.

In due course I discovered books by Rom Landau, Kenneth Walker, J.B. Bennett, and others, and eventually the foundation, institute, and society were established with their many affiliated groups, not to mention offshoot organizations with no particular provenance. Thus the work was rounded out for me. For a short time I was a member of the Toronto Group, which was founded only a few years after the New York foundation. In Toronto, I met the Welches – Dr. William Welch and Mrs. Louise Welch – the movements instructor Alfred Etiévant, not to mention Paul and Sheila Bura and other students of the Work, whom French participants are inclined to call “adepts.”

All of this activity seemed at the time to be of marginal interest to society as a whole. Except possibly for a handful of Theosophists and Anthroposophists, nobody I knew had ever heard of movements, the enneagram, kesdjan bodies, the formatory centre, etc. Soon the Special Doctrine would sea-change into the Work and these would enter into common parlance. If there is a year with which to mark that metamorphosis, it is the year 1979, which saw the commercial release of Peter Brook’s remarkable film, Meetings with Remarkable Men.

It is not by chance that since then I keep encountering people who know “all about” Gurdjieff.” They proceed to share their “information and insights” with me. When this happens it is diverting but also dismaying, yet it remains instructive. Indeed, I recall the story told a few years ago by the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson (I think it was) about the middle-aged man who boarded an airplane and took his seat beside that of a distinguished-looking older man. The two passengers began to chat.

During the course of the flight, the middle-aged man waxed eloquent about the intricacies of “string theory,” basing everything he knew on article that he had enthusiastically read about it in a popular science magazine. When he had finished with his disquisition, he asked the older man what he thought – and it turned out that he had been explaining “string theory” to Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate!

I am no Murray Gell-Mann – not even a Freeman Dyson – and I also assume my readers are neither – but I am also sure we have all had this experience at least once. Indeed, I have been having a similar experience while reading this massive new book that I am about to review. It is indeed massive. It measures 10″ high and 7″ wide and 1.25 inches thick! It has a four-colour coated cover and it is quite long at xxvi + 512 pages. It is not strictly new – though a book is “new” to anyone who has yet to read it – for the title page says it was published in 1998, twelve years ago! Could that be true? (If so, I am uncharacteristically late catching up with it!) The tome to which I am referring bears a title with subtitles that are awkward yet not inaccurate. Here it is:

“It’s Up to Ourselves”

A Mother, a Daughter, and Gurdjieff

A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

Gurdjieff Heritage Society

Copyright, Dushka Howarth, 1998

To me in the 1950s, the Work represented ideas and effort. To the men and women who lived through that period as adults from 1912 to the 1950s, who were in daily and often intimate contact with Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, it was work and effort too, but it was also a lively time that was rich in character and personality, in idiots and toasts, in events and experiences that were seen to be teaching situations. There was the sprightliness of the Twenties and the literary and technological innovations of the interwar years generally – with inventions like the Theramin – which seemed outwards signs of inward change.

Now down to the book itself. The table of contents tells the story of the emergence and evolution of the Work chronologically: The Early Years, Twenties, Thirties, Forties, Fifties, The Later Years. Also included are a Preface and Introduction and then Postscripts, Appendices, Bibliography, and Index. The index is something of a shock because it consists of a list of names without a single page number. Yet the names that appear here! Some 800 people are mentioned, celebrities like Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen and Mrs. Wallace Warfield Simpson … as well as the seven Bennetts, the six Gurdjieffs, the five de Salzmanns, the four Stjernvals, the three Andersons, the two de Hartmanns, and the single Denis Saurat.

What I have yet to mention is this book’s unique and indispensable feature: its photographs. As well as a collection of informative letters, it is an album of close to 900 photos, ranging from studio portraits and publicity shots to candid snapshots. The latter are exceptional and even emotional in appeal. By comparison, I once edited for a publisher the memoirs of a Canadian colonel who had served as the aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip during their Royal Visits to Canada. On the side-tables in his living-room in his gracious residence in Oakville, Ontario, there were framed snapshots of members of the Royal Family. These candid shots were inscribed and they showed the royal personages in their leisured moments. It was something of a shock to see Liz and Phil lounging about on the lawns of Balmoral, toying with corgis, smiling at each other, relaxing with the colonel, etc.

The sense of surprise that I experienced in the general’s living room was recreated when page after page of this tome I saw candid photographs of the names of most if not all of the people who “made” the Work. There is hardly a double-page spread without its agreeable photograph or photographs. I realize now for too long I had been starved for images. And also for gossip.

No way am I am able to summarize the wealth of the contents of this publication, other than to briefly allude to its structure and straight away recall a few of its highlights, a personal selection at best. The tome may lack the high-seriousness of purpose characteristic of James Moore’s Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered, published in 2005, and it may miss the earnest quality of life exhibited in Frank R. Sinclair’s Without Benefit of Clergy: Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching (2009), which I hope to review in the future, yet its informality and its air of indiscretion are its characteristic charms.

It is a work of great gaiety. It has the air of one of today’s blogs or of one of yesteryear’s family scrapbooks or private diaries: the family being that of Gurdjieff’s kith and kin and karass (to use Kurt Vonnegut’s ingenious term). It takes the form of the long, detailed, and delightful letters that were exchanged by Jessmin Howarth and her daughter Cynthia Ann (Dushka) Howarth (one of Gurdjieff’s children). A sense of how the Work impregnated the lives of these two correspondents and their array of friends is apparent on every page of this book, yet the import of all of these references will be lost on readers who lack knowledge of what it is all about, being J.K. Rowling’s muggles and squibs.

I mentioned earlier I would “review” this book. Since that is impossible, even given the measureless space available on a blog like this one, I will content myself by merely “noticing” some references in the book. I will comment here and there on passages that have struck me as particularly interesting over the month that I spent dipping into it, reading here and there. There is an old saying that goes like this: “You do not have to drink the ocean to learn that it is salty, as one drop is enough.” I will take a sip here and there. It will satisfy the curiosity of the reader who is needy and wants to sense the shape and feel of the Work, as it evolved, in terms of people and their relationships. The details will help historians of ideas for decades to come. Right now it is time for the reader with a taste for these ideas and feelings.

Allow me to begin by noting the “Canadian content.” There is a snapshot of James (Jim) George and of his daughter, dancer Dolphi Wertenbaker, and a photograph of Sheila Bura, who also taught the movements. There are references to Peter Colgrove, who nursed Madame de Hartmann through her last days, and Tom and Ruth Daly, guardians of the Gurdjieff / de Hartmann music. Honourary Canadians are the Welches who guided the groups in Toronto and Halifax.

I was pleased to see many references to movements instructor Alfred Etiévant, whom I found to be a stern taskmaster, but whom wiser and older people knew to be so sweet as to be described as a “pushover.” I learned he was urged to marry Dushka Howarth but he ended up married to Lise Tracol. I could go on. There are lovely photographs of the “work periods” in Halifax with Ravi Ravindra. There is even a photo of Walter Driscoll, the bibliographer.

I had long nourished a curiosity about life at Franklin Farms at Mendham, N.J. There are photographs of the attractive residence and of activities that took place there, as well as pen portraits of the personalities who worked there on weekends or who resided there for years. There are references to the site at Armonk and photographs of Lyne Place, Colet Gardens, Coombe Springs, and Sherborne House, all fabulous and semi-storied places in my eyes.

Jessmin Howarth, an orphan, was an student of Dalcroze’s Eurythmics at Hellerau where she met fellow student Jeanne de Salzmann who subsequently introduced her to the movements, which Christian philosopher Jacques Maritain is credited with calling “meditation in motion.” (The same description is independently used to characterize the discipline of Tai Chi.) Jessmin met Gurdjieff in Paris in 1922. Over the years she learned, like many another woman, to dissever the teacher from the man.

Throughout the book appear photographs of Madame Gurdjieff and Madame Ouspensky as well as snapshots of Ouspensky himself travelling through Ceylon. In fact, the women whose stories are told and whose photographs are reproduced play a great role in the story. Dushka herself has done a fine job explaining the background and significance of the references that appear in the correspondence.

In addition to the women already mentioned (in no order whatsoever, a little confusion being catchy) here are some names redolent of activities in the past and the present: Lily Galumian, Madame Ostrowska (Gurdjieff‘s mother), Olga de Hartmann, Jessie Dwight Orage, Katherine Mansfield, Olgivanna Hinzenberg Wright, Edith Taylor Swaska, Elizabeta Stjernvall, Louise Goepfert March, Ethel Merston, Tania Savitsky, Edith Taylor, Rita Romilly Benson, Petey Taylor, Solange Claustre, Lise Tracol, Marian Sutta, Peggy Flinsch, Henriette Lannes, Rina Hands, Elizabeth Bennett, Dorothea Dooling, Pauline de Dampierre, Marthe de Gaigneron, Tania Nagro, Luba Gurdjieff, Rosemary Nott, P.L. Travers, Patty Welch de Llosa, Svetlana Wright Peters, Dorothy Caruso, and Lady Lucy Pentland, not to mention Kathryn Hulme and Margaret Anderson and the talented women who were members of The Rope. I hope I have not overlooked too many talented and energetic women!

I will forego any attempt to summarize what Jessmin and Dushka took from the work or from Gurdjieff personally and privately. It resists summary. The enthusiasm for the Work that is displayed by them for the man and the techne and praxis speaks for itself. Jessmin’s letters to Dushka and Dushka’s replies are the threads that stitch this crazy-quilt of a book together. It is apparent that the daughter inherited her verve and personal style from her mother. (I will leave up in the air what she inherited from her father.)

Both women are lively correspondents, uninhibited letter-writers, whose words are a joy to read. Not a few of these pages are devoted to accounts of Dushka’s own and varied activities. A glamorous professional guitar-player, she was also a spunky and adventurous licensed press agent, translator, and guide working in Paris. For all of this froth and frivolity, I am grateful to her for capturing the excitement of the people who were involved in the work, changing my impression of it from something solemn and remote and sepia to a dynamic way of living, what Paul Beekman Taylor has recently described as “a new life.”

It’s Up to Ourselves is published by the Gurdjieff Heritage Society, which has its own website. The selling price of the book is in given as US$75.00. It is worth every penny of that amount. (With a workable index, it would be worth at least twice that sum.)

John Robert Colombo is known across Canada as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of the lore and literature of the country. He is the author, most recently, of End of Greatness, a collection of poems, and Indifferences, a collection of aphorisms. Yevgeny Yevtushenko told him, “You must be the most sophisticated of poets.” Andrei Voznesensky wrote, “The searchings of John Robert Colombo are significant and profound.” Check his website with its podcasts: www. colombo-plus.ca

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