Posts Tagged ‘Sophia Wellbeloved’
I Should Have Sent Roses
Sublime, poignant, elegiac: the first words to spring to mind when I think of this melody from the album The Union, by Elton John and Leon Russell. In Gurdjieff influenced terms, I would say that the person who wrote this had to be in a heightened state of emotional self-consciousness. He had to be present to the workings of his feeling centre to allow this lyrical and sensitive melody to emerge without constricting it. Some melodies owe more to moving centre, others owe more to emotional or intellectual centre, and some, such as this, are products of the higher emotional centre. But you can tell straight away that this was written from somewhere essential. (For an explanation of the centres, see Sophia Wellbeloved, Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts, 133-5; and for “essence”, see 71-3.)
Leon Russell, who has produced some of the most lyrical melodies of the last fifty years (e.g. “This Masquerade” and “Superstar”), reaches new heights with this masterpiece. I would place it almost on a par with the melody of Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”. And yet Leon Russell did not create it: no one but God can create. However, it is to Leon Russell’s credit that he could arrange the melody which arose from somewhere within his “common presence”. What happens in such work, and how we can recognize the operation are matters I shall address on another occasion.
While my response is, and must be subjective, I feel that the melody perfectly matches the lyrics by Bernie Taupin, which tell the story of a lost love from the point of view of the man who has lost. The boy knows that the girl has gone, and that he bears responsibility. When he was with her, he took her for granted. Ambivalently, he goes on to say both that he would treat her better now, and that she deserves someone more thoughtful. He addresses her with understanding and self-deprecation:
Are you standing outside?
Looking up at the sky, cursing a wandering star?
Well, if I were you, I’d throw rocks at the moon
And I’d say, “Damn you wherever you are!”
This is so apt that it’s almost humorous. A “wandering star” because, perhaps, he did not fit into his place in the order of things. Throwing stones at the moon, maybe because the moon is for lovers and lunatics: she being the lover and he the lunatic.
I don’t know where to start,
This cage round my heart locked up what I meant to say,
What I felt all along the way,
Just wondering how come I couldn’t take your breath away.
At various times we all feel something like this expression of mixed confidence, self-doubt and exasperation – at the same time that he believes she should have been overwhelmed by him, he confesses that he is confounded that she was not. Like Russell, we often feel that we have long wished to express something but that we could not, just could not, because of a sort of emotional tightness. It is as if we would choke were we to try and say it.
‘Cause I never sent roses. I never did enough.
I didn’t know how to love you, though I loved you so much.
And I should have sent roses when you crossed my mind,
For no other reason than the fact you were mine.
This is strange but true: we often feel that we love but do not know how to put that love into action. And of course, there are two errors: to think that an overt action is always needed, and to forget that actions are often needed. It is only people who are thinking philosophically who imagine that no action is needed. If you have read In Search of the Miraculous, it is fatal to take the idea that we “cannot do” in a formatory way to mean that we cannot therefore do anything at all.
Looking back on my life,
If fate should decide to let me do it all over again,
I’d build no more walls.
I’d stay true and recall the fragrance of you on the wind
This is the paradox which Ouspensky paints in unforgettable terms in The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. We make a mistake, we forget ourselves and our higher aims. Then we believe that if we had the opportunity again we would not fall into the same trap. But should the occasion arise again, we would make exactly the same error: we would forget at exactly the same place. And yet, there is a way to escape from the curse, and that is to remember oneself, hence the importance of Gurdjieff’s ideas and method to religions and religious systems.
The reference to fate is especially interesting to me, because it is a topic which is exercising me at the moment. Fate acts only upon essence, and this song, as I have said, is an essence-song. It is only when we are closer to essence that we can start to have any sense at all of what our destiny or fate is: that is, what it is that we are called to above and beyond the vicissitudes of life. If there is a “law of accident”, there is also a “law of destiny” which works itself out despite whatever other causal connections and chains may be playing themselves out and, I would suggest a “law of miracles” (see “Fate” at 80, “Law of Accident” at 115-6 and “miracle” at 144).
You’ll do better than me.
Someone who can see,
Right from the start give you all that you need
And I’ll slip away, knowing I’m half the man I should be.
There is genuine love here: for love seeks what is best for the beloved irrespective of the cost to oneself. Also, love brings impartiality, and the statement, “knowing I’m half the man I should be”, is a good impartial description of each one of us.
The topic of “lost loves” is a significant one: a person who never wonders about past friendships and romances and why they ended, to use a neutral term, is quite possibly incapable of reflection. I have published on this blog one of the most important pieces I ever transcribed from Mr Adie’s diaries, just on that topic. Bernie Taupin is also responsible for one of the most touching songs Elton John ever wrote, the much under-appreciated “I Feel like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford”. And in each case, “Robert Ford” and “I Should Have Sent Roses”, Taupin was working with one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, and each result has been a masterpiece.
And that brings me, briefly, to the topic of Leon Russell. There is no doubt of his uncanny talent at playing the piano and song writing. As I have already said, I feel that he produced some of the greatest songs of our time. For my money, his piano playing is better even than that of Elton John, and I am an Elton John fan. I remember, in the 70s, thinking that Leon Russell would go on to conquer the world, as they say. But then something happened. What? To an extent, perhaps, he sabotaged his own career. It was never the same with him after the 1975 album Will O’The Wisp. Then, Elton John enticed him to The Union in 2010 (Elton did not have to seduce very hard, it would appear), and Russell’s own account of the production of that album is found on “In the Hands of Angels”.
I have carefully praised the melody and the lyrics rather than the track. I feel that the production is too heavy. Very often, a beautiful melody is obscured by too much backing. If you do listen to this track, try and imaginatively screen out the brass. My own guess is that T-Bone Burnett sensed the beauty of the melody, and tried to raise it to prominence with the trumpets and trombones. But I don’t think it’s worked.
Still, while the arrangement is rather more heavy than I would like, it is extraordinary that after so long out of the public eye, this artist of astounding abilities would return and reveal so much about himself. I think that took strength: the sort of strength which this remarkable song reveals.
8 July 2012
JOSEPH AZIZE has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, ‘George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia’ represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.
“Maronites” is pp.279-282 of “The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia” published by Cambridge University Press and edited by James Jupp.
J R COLOMBO REVIEWS FRANK R. SINCLAIR’S MEMOIR
‘WITHOUT BENEFIT OF CLERGY’
Neither the Work nor the expression of the Work in any given time and at any given place is sacrosanct or immune to the ravages and revelations of time. Its demystification involves, in a way, its remythologization, and this is proceeding apace in our time.
Part of the process is the shedding of light on its early history through historical research, and on its recent past through the publication of books of studies and memoirs. The historical classics are “The Harmonious Circle” written by James Webb and the two books by Paul Beekman Taylor titled “A New Life” and “Gurdjieff’s America.” Among modern-day classics is the amazing tome titled “‘It’s Up to Ourselves” written by Jessmin and Dushka Howarth. (I celebrated the publication of the latter volume, largely a scrapbook with a multitude of snapshots, on this blog – Sophia Wellbeloved’s blog – a month or so ago.)
None of these works (or others like them) has ever attain the scriptural status of “All and Everything” or even the canonical status of “Meetings with Remarkable Men” and “In Search of the Miraculous.” Yet the light they shed on the Work is a human glow which does not bathe it in a sense of wonder as much as it does imbue it with a sense of personal gratitude for assistance received and services rendered. Frank R. Sinclair has contributed two books to this class of publication: “Without Benefit of Clergy” and “Of the Life Aligned: Reflections on the Teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff and the Perennial Order.”
I have yet to see a copy of the second of these two books, but after reading the first one I will certainly read the second. The book at hand, the first one, is badly titled and poorly subtitled, but my criticism ends there – at the title page. The other 295 pages are fine by me, anecdotal in the extreme, as I will demonstrate later.
It is a trade paperback. It measures 8″ x 5.5.” and it has a full-colour cover and there are close to forty black-and-white photographs, mainly snapshots, almost all of them new to me and to most readers. The volume has been attractively designed and issued by Xlibris. There are two editions, the first in 2005, the second in 2009, which is the one that I purchased.
The title is “Without Benefit of Clergy.” The subtitle is “Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching.” Both title and subtitle give me pause. The title attracted my attention (as should all good titles) so I decided to determine why I feel it is inappropriate. I have always associated the phrase “without benefit of clergy” with immorality – living together in sin, without the sacramental blessing of the church – and I was partially right in doing so, as well as partially wrong.
In English jurisprudence, members of the clergy were not subjected to secular laws, whether criminal or civil, but were permitted to demand to be tried under canon law. This immunity was abolished centuries ago. In 1890, Rudyard Kipling employed the phrase “without benefit of clergy” for the title of a short story set in India about the Englishman named Holden and the Muslim woman named Ameer who “shack up” (1950s expression; the 1980s expression still current is “living together”) and how their unsanctioned union brought wrack and ruin to both conservative communities. The plot proved sufficiently potent and the phrase so popular that in 1921 it became the title of a the silent movie “Without Benefit of Clergy” that starred Boris Karloff, of all people. So my original reaction to the phrase – sexual congress outside the bonds of marriage – is probably that of most people unschooled in the intricacies of English jurisprudence.
I am not convinced that the title of this book of memoirs sheds any light at all on the subject of these memoirs. Is the author telling us that his memoirs are scandalous or shocking? If so, then he is wrong. And then there is the matter of the subtitle which also irks me: “Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching.” Is the world of footnotes divided between those that are “personal” and those that are “impersonal”? Not that I am aware. Who would enjoy reading a book of footnotes? (Well, the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges may. Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science-fiction writer, may. James Moore, the precisian, who is the author of “Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered,” may, as well. But surely not the general reader with a taste for the world of the Work.)
I have done a lot of carping. It is time now for some celebration. Although I have yet to meet the author, I will take the liberty of referring to Frank R. Sinclair by his Christian name. The back-cover photograph of Frank shows him with a straw hat perched on the back of his head, rather like the humourist Stephen Leacock. It seems to give the reader leave to refer to him as Frank. If it does not do that, I have only to turn to the prose itself which is informal and off-the-cuff enough to confer permission. In fact, at one point – when Frank was asked to give the reading from the Bible at Lord Pentland’s funeral service (held in a Roman Catholic church, oddly) – he refers to himself as “a nonentity of the first order.” Now that is excessive!
In this memoir there are thirteen chapters, two pages of acknowledgements, prefaces to the first and the second editions, not to mention three appendices and one index. All of these sections are of some interest. But in the interest of brevity, I am going to short change the first half of the book and concentrate on the second half for it is largely devoted to pen portraits of personalities in the Work who have had an influence on Frank’s inner life and his outlook on life.
Readers who are interested in the early life of a journalist who was born in the shadow of Table Mountain in a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1929, and who found some twenty-eight years ago that his spiritual quest had taken him to Franklin Farms at Mendham in New Jersey, and Armonk in Westchester Country in New York State, and at the Gurdjieff Foundation on Manhattan Island, will find these early pages to be a treat.
In a sense he never did leave these sheltered communities, yet he emerged in the 1980s as the successor of Dr. William Welch as the President of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York. He has headed the Gurdjieff Fountain since 2009 and lives at Grand View-on-Hudson, a town of some 300 people with a high median income north of New York City. Its most notable inhabitant after Frank is Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.
From the age of eight, Frank experienced “a blaze of light” while questioning the nature of God. Thereafter he had a few near encounters with death. He graduated from the University of Cape Town, majoring in philosophy, and spent eight years as a journalist with the Cape Times afternoon newspaper. He writes about his feelings of “anguish and heartaches and sufferings” at the time, but these came to an end, symbolically at least, when he encountered an essay by J.G. Bennett called “Living in Five Dimensions,” was assigned to review Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider,” studied “In Search of the Miraculous,” and identified with the verses of the deaf South African poet John Howland Beaumont, who had a mystical connection with nature: “I did but sleep – ah me, I dream, I dream!”
About 1956, Frank resolved to seek out the source of “the teaching” in a surprisingly direct way. He placed an advertisement in the personal columns of the rival Cape Argus afternoon paper to “make contact,” and to his surprise a reader of the paper mailed him a copy of “All and Everything” along with a note: “From one human being to another, that both may have more of themselves to give.” The benefactor’s identity remains unknown to this day.
He eventually met an English gentleman named B. Fairfax Hall who was an enthusiast for private printing. In England in 1930 he had founded and operated The Stourton Press, named after the family’s house in Westminster. Hall was a member of P.D. Ouspensky’s circle before he immigrated to South Africa. In 1947 he began to print books, including Ouspensky’s “A Record of Meetings,” in an edition of twenty copies in 1951, and “The Struggle of the Magicians,” in an edition of ten copies in 1957.
Frank already knew about editorial matters; from Hall he learned how to operate an Albion printing press, which served him well when he began his own private printing at Armonk, N.Y., using the imprint Antic Press. Hall, who had compiled “The Fourth Way” from Ouspensky’s lectures, arranged for Frank to reside for two months at Madame Ouspensky’s 300-acre estate at Franklin Farms. Frank left South Africa in 1958 and did not return for some twenty years.
Frank worked and studied at Franklin Farms and there met a young woman named Beatrice Rego, a teacher, and they married. No description of the bride is offered, but there is a long account of Frank’s out-of-body experience immediately prior to the wedding ceremony. There is also a long account of life at the residence, with a fleeting reference to Madame Ouspensky (who remained in her bedroom chamber so he never set eyes on her while she was still alive) and Madame Olga de Hartmann, who came and went and once referred to him as “a piece of furniture,” but there is a very detailed account of the first visit of Madame de Salzmann.
“Here, for the first time in my life, was someone who spoke to my deepest concerns, who undeniably had an inner presence (a thought that I had no way of articulating at that time) and at the same time actually ‘included’ me in that presence, who listened in some unfathomable way, and who actually ‘saw’ me before her and spoke to me as a real human being.”
In many ways the heart and core of the book is the account of the experiences that occurred to the impressionable young South African at Franklin Farms, experiences that are unhesitatingly described as “profound and miraculous.” One such experience, following an altercation with Madame Ouspensky’s unstable grandson Lonya Savitsky. It was accompanied by intense mortification:
“But lying there prone on the floor, I suffered terrible remorse and shame at having behaved as I had done, _and at the same time_ I was witness to the miraculous appearance in me of this brilliant, golden being. It glowed in a surrounding vivid blaze of light.” He calls it “the phenomenon of the golden embryo.” Pages are devoted to examining the experience, with its configuration of the Kesdjan body, from the vantage-points of different religious and cultural traditions.
This takes us to Chapter 6 which is a departure from the norm, for it consists of the account kept by Frank’s wife Beatrice of her impressions of the various appearances of the elderly Gurdjieff in New York. Her brief memoir is full of interesting details. Overall she found Mr. Gurdjieff to be a man of “tremendous energy; anything in this life seemed possible.”
Chapter 7 is a remarkable tribute to a veteran of the Work named Martin W. Benson who is a jack-of-all-trades and someone who seems to be “all essence.” Originally a puzzle to Frank, Benson became what might be called a “best friend” for his twelve years of apprenticeship at Mendham and Armonk.
Chapter 8 is in many ways the counterpart of Chapter 7, for it is a sustained tribute to Frank’s friendship with Thomas Vivian Forman, a Cambridge-trained specialist in agriculture as well as military intelligence. In many ways, too, Forman is the counterpart of Benson – a balance between personality and essence. Frank’s love of people glows in these portraits.
Chapter 9 is titled “Annals of the Antic Press” and it describes Frank’s work in the icehouse at Armonk where, among other books, a small band of editors, designers, compositors, and press operators printed “Pronunciation Guide for Words Invented by Gurdjieff” in 1984, the forerunner of the much expanded edition issued by the Traditional Studies Press in Toronto.
By now it should be apparent that Frank is an appreciator of people. To my mind the outstanding section of his memoirs is Chapter 10 which is titled “John Pentland: The Lordly Line of High Sinclair.” Lord Pentland, chief of the clan and a scion of the illustrious Sinclair line (which seems not to include our author Frank Sinclair), was Mr. Gurdjieff’s appointee to oversee the Work in the United States. In these pages the author describes a number of the close and almost accidental encounters that he had with Pentland between 1958 and the latter’s death in 1984.
The author has no problem with Pentland’s rapier-like wit, for he felt, intriguingly, that when Pentland glared at him and wielded it, Pentland “gave him ‘his work.’” It is an interesting passage and perhaps it hinges on the somewhat off-the-cuff statement that Pentland was “old enough to be his father.” It seems Lord Pentland was the grandson the Marquis of Aberdeen, the seventh Governor General of Canada, as well as part of the family of the Earl of Elgin, an even earlier Governor General. Perhaps it was from this aristocratic tradition that he learned the arts of diplomacy – certainly of use in Work circles!
I feel that this chapter about “this remarkable and unusual man” is the “still point” of the memoirs. The next two biographical chapters are anti-climaxes, though they do have interesting dimensions. Chapter 11 is devoted to “Bill Segal: The Radical Reorientation,” and it presents this multi-talented man as “a class act.” Segal was the epitome of the active man, and even after being nearly crushed to death an automobile accident, he emerged almost as active as ever. Sinclair writes, neatly, that Segal was “humbled both in his pride and in his prime.”
Chapter 12 is titled “Jeanne de Salzmann: A Compelling Call” and it seems to me to be an apologia for the second half of Madame de Salzmann’s life. “The Unknown does not yield itself through abundant description,” Frank writes, so the reader who does not have prior knowledge of her life and work will be at sea when it comes to understanding what Frank is writing about.
I take it that he has two themes: the first is the role of the institution vis-à-vis the individual; the second is the espousal of the role of grace rather than effort and of flow rather than effort – to express it directly – that is represented by her from the death of Mr. Gurdjieff at a probable age of eighty-three in 1949 and Madame’s death at the ripe old age of 101 in 1990. Madame can do no wrong.
“I dare say,” he writes gingerly, “that when her own notes are collated and published, there will be surprising indications of the precision with which she followed the movement of the attention and the work for Presence.” As it happens, extracts from Madame’s notebooks are about to be issued by Shambhala Publications under the title “The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff,” so we will have the opportunity to judge for ourselves.
Frank is obviously devoted to Madame and he accepts her direction for the work, its “single grand verity,” which he takes pains and pages to trace back to Mr. Gurdjieff’s talks in New York, the first one on Dec. 19, 1930, and the second one on Dec. 25, 1948. The exposition in these pages is more associative than it is disciplined, so there is little doubt that he feels that what she was doing she was doing consciously and with authorization. “Madame Jeanne de Salzmann brought neither a New Work nor an Old Work, but only Gurdjieff’s Work.”
I will pass over Chapter 13, “Some Random Inferences,” because the contents are indeed random (to describe them would be to try to herd cats) and they turn out to be elaborations of points made earlier in the memoirs. The one new element that I spotted is the effort that Frank is making to enlarge to conception of the Work to include the thoughts of some new-comers along with some overlooked old-comers (to name a few men and women in alphabetical order): Joseph Azize, Michel Conge, Martha Heyneman, James Moore, Jacob Needleman, Ravi Ravindra, Sophia Wellbeloved.
Also given some recognition is the contribution of the annual International Humanities Conference (better known as the All & Everything Conference) as well as Traditionalist thinkers like Titus Burkhardt and their semi-annual publication, the Vancouver-based “Sacred Web.” This is close to an ecumenical touch, and perhaps it is a daring one.
Throughout Frank retains his modesty and the projects the air of constant amazement associated with Alice in Wonderland. “I did not drink Armagnac with Gurdjieff,” he writes, amusingly. “I belong to the post-Gurdjieff era, not even remotely a Saul among the Apostles, but a fellow traveler, feeding from those who, like Madame de Salzmann, had been before.”
The second edition of the memoirs ends with three appendices as well as a nominal index. Two of the appendices consist of reviews of the first edition of the book. The first review is a once-over-lightly appreciation by David Appelbaum. It originally appeared in “Parabola,” as did the lively interview with Frank on the subject of “Who Is the Teacher?”
The third appendix consists, surprisingly, of a review amusingly titled “The Guide for the Perplexed” and posted on Amazon.com by its author, biographer James Moore. I found it to be one of the book’s highlights, in the sense that its tone and style are totally at odds with Frank’s. Yet it hits the right note when in an impish mood Moore describes Frank as “a regular-kinda-guy whose pride in his modesty attains oxymoronic heights.”
Had Frank been born under the shadow of the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia, rather than in the shadow of Table Rock, South Africa, I would be inclined to describe him as “a bloke.” Whatever the description, he is a sensitive fellow and “Without Benefit of Clergy” is certainly an entertaining and I believe honest account of one man’s rather unusual spiritual quest. He demystifies by remythologizing.
John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist who is known across Canada for his popular reference books. He writes about Work-related publications for this blog. His latest publication is “Walt Whitman’s Canada,” a book-length, documentary-style account of the American poet’s tour of Central and Eastern Canada in the Summer of 1880. Colombo’s website is < www . colombo – plus . ca >
This is the draft of a review to be published in the forthcoming Volume 5 of JASANAS: Journal of Alternative Spiritualities and New Age Studies
Tamdgidi, Mohammad H., GURDJIEFF AND HYPNOSIS: A HERMENEUTIC STUDY,
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Appendix J Walter Driscoll ‘The Textual Chronology of Gurdjieff’s Life’ pp 237-252
Bibliography and Index
Foreword: J Walter Driscoll
First, some background information about the author’s academic interests. From his website I found that Mohammad H. (Behrooz) Tamdgidi is Associate Professor of Sociology, teaching Social Theory at UMass Boston. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Sociology (in conjunction with a graduate certificate in Middle Eastern studies) from SUNY-Binghamton and a B.A. in Architecture from U.C. Berkeley. His fields of theoretical specialization include Sociological Imaginations, Self and Society, World-Historical Sociology, Sociology of Knowledge, Social Movements, and Utopias.
Tamdgidi’s research and teaching are framed by an interest in understanding how personal self-knowledges and world-historical social structures constitute one another. His continuing research on liberating social theory in self and world-historical contexts is pursued via critical comparative/integrative explorations of utopian, mystical, and scientific discourses and practices.
This book about Gurdjieff’s writings in relation to hypnotism is in part an extension of a theme occurring in his doctoral thesis, Mysticism and Utopia: Towards the Sociology of Self-Knowledge and Human Architecture (A Study in Marx, Gurdjieff, and Mannheim), 2002, SUNY-Binghamton Universtiy.
Tamdgidi’s sociological approach addresses two important issues in relation to Gurdjieff’s teachings. The first, evident from his title, is the centrality of hypnosis in Gurdjieff’s teaching, the second is his focus on hypnotism in relation to Gurdjieff’s four published texts. Both these are large themes and difficult to condense into the page limit that the author writes that he was confined to by his publishers. Because of this his text is densely complex as are the intricate diagrams, and this makes a prior knowledge of Gurdjieff’s teaching and texts a necessity, so this is a book for the specialist, rather than the general reader.
In relation to Gurdjieff Tamdgidi writes that he will examine only the written texts (not the oral teachings) and that the aim of this study is to show how, ‘Gurdjieff’s “objective art of literary hypnotism is devised and works.’ fn p.xvi. His interpretive method will be to make ‘an indepth textual analysis and interpret the text using ‘it’s own symbolic and meaning structures’ p. xvi. (author’s emphasis). These we can understand to be Gurdjieff’s cosmological teachings given most succinctly in P. D. Ouspensky’s ‘In Search of the Miraculous’, (1949) and in the symbol of the enneagram, familiar to Gurdjieff students and to a wider readership through more popular books which explore the enneagram in terms of a typology of personality. This method, of employing Gurdjieff’s own terms as a method of interpretation or explanation is also carried out by many Gurdjieff students who look to his texts as a help to explain the cosmology, and call upon the cosmology to illuminate Gurdjieff’s published writings. This does lead to a circularity in making any interpretation of Gurdjieff’s difficult, intentionally confusing and contradictory texts. It also ignores the primary interpretation, the world view that each reader already has already formed and already holds, even if unconsciously. I will give an example of this later.
The author has purposely preserved independence from any formal Gurdjieff organisations, but also writes that he has augmented his intellectual enquiry with helpful meditation practice drawn from other traditions that complement the experiential dimensions of Gurdjieff’s teaching, fn 8 p.16. It would be interesting to know what these practices were but he does not identify them nor tell us how they augmented his analysis of the text.
In relation to his use of the term hypnosis, Tamdgidi acknowledges that there are definitions of hypnosis that he could have referred to, for example in the works of Milton H. Erickson, but he does not wish to enter into these or any other definitions. Instead there is an unstated acceptance that Gurdjieff’s writing and teaching were governed by ‘hypnosis’ in what might be generally understood by the use of the term. For example he refers to the reader of Gurdjieff’s ‘Meetings with Remarkable Men’ ( 1978) as ‘mesmerised’ by curiosity about Gurdjieff p.188. His thesis is that the writings are intentionally hypnotic and thus capture the reader. Given the importance of hypnotism to his whole project it would have been useful if he had dealt with his definition of hypnotism more fully.
As referred to above, Tamedgidi argues that his hermeneutical method is one in which he will interpret the texts by using the text’s own symbolic and meaning structure. One consequence of his interpretative method is that Tamdgidi necessarily takes the stance of a compliant reader. There are difficulties in seeking to be compliant, not least because Gurdjieff makes many contradictory demands of his reader who must be compliant yet not passive,
There are anomalies and contradictions in the texts that Tamdgidi recognises, he interprets and explains these in conjunction with his overall thesis and this makes for a closely argued text. Problems arise for the analysis of any text, let alone Gurdjieff’s symbolic and multivalent texts, that aim to exclude all other possible readings, and though Tamdgidi’s interpretation is largely supported by reference to his own publications, here again, these tend to intensify circularity.
In his usefully contextualising Foreword J. Walter Driscoll gives a definition of hermeneutics and writes that at its highest levels it ‘involves the search for meaning via numinous interpretation, be it of poetry, scripture, philosophy, literature, music, art, law or architecture’ and that ‘Tamdgidi draws for inspiration on all of his relevant hermeneutic options in search of meaning in Gurdjieff’s ideas and writings, p. xii, (Driscoll’s emphasis). Perhaps this aim would be impossible to achieve, but the limitations Tamdgidi has set himself in referring only to Gurdjieff’s own terms, have caused problems for him. He records an experience (before he began writing his book), of awakening to his own hypnotic conditioning to the ideas of Gurdjieff among those of other academic and cultural traditions and as this being ‘deeply shocking’ p. xxi. Anyone involved in sustained exposure to and immersion in Gurdjieff’s writings is highly likely to be hypnotised, and there is, in the general sense that he uses the term, a hypnotic element in Tamdgidi’s text, and in his diagrams.
There are errors arising from a misunderstanding of the narrative structure of the Tales which initially might seem slight or insignificant. For example, according to Tamdgidi, Beelzebub having been pardoned and spoken his last words at the end of the Tales is:
‘on his way to eventually unite with His Endlessness via a transitional stay in the Planet Purgatory to
deal with certain remorses of conscience’, p. 8.
But Beelzebub had already been pardoned before the narrative of the Tales begins, pardoned and returned to his home planet Karatas where he meets his grandson Hassein. The tales of the title begin and are told on another spaceship flight from his home planet to and from a conference on a distant planet. The visit to the Planet Purgatory takes place on the return journey to Karatas. There is no suggestion within the text that Beelzebub’s visit to Purgatory is ‘to deal with certain remorses of conscience’, and it would be impossible for Beelzebub to ever be united with His Endlessness, because according to the narrative His Endlessness dwells on the Sun Absolute which is now unreachable by any being other than himself.
There is nothing in Gurdjieff’s text to say that Beelzebub will be united with His Endlessness but we can see that this mystic notion of union might be adopted if ‘His Endlessness’ is regarded as a synonym for God, (and he is referred to as God by Tamdgidi) and also if the notion of divine union was familiar to the writer. In this case the concepts of Purgatory and of ‘union with God’ are ones that have come from Tamdgidi and not from within the text. In my view this is bound to happen as it is quite impossible for anyone to banish their own world view including what may be largely unconscious assumptions. Many authors, (and here I do not exempt myself) who have written about the ‘Tales’ have I think wrongly assumed a conflation of God and his Endlessness. It is true that His Endlessness is represented as the creator of the universe, which suggests this, but he makes mistakes, mistakes with tragic and dreadful consequences one of which is the permanent separation from himself of all beings in the universe, except those on Purgatory whom he visits in order to alleviate their unending suffering.
Tamdgidi concludes, in accordance with Gurdjieff’s own teaching on multiple selves, that Gurdjieff was ‘afflicted with a legion of selves, some high and some low in character’ but that it is possible to ‘cherish the teachings of one Gurdjieff self, while being critical and uncompromising toward another self’, p 235.
This conclusion leads to a possible validation for the many differing interpretations of Gurdjieff and his texts, because each critically uncompromising reader will also be afflicted by similar legions of selves, some choosing certain Gurdjieff selves to cherish and be critical of, and yet other readers choosing differently. But, however readers interpret Gurdjieff’s writings Tamdgidi should be applauded for having focused on a unifying scheme for all of Gurdjieff’s texts, and on hypnotism in relation to Gurdjieff’s writings, a subject which as he rightly says, has been largely ignored by other scholars.
G. I. Gurdjieff, ‘First Series: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man or Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson’. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950
‘Second Series: Meetings with Remarkable Men’. Trans. A. R.Orage, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul,
P. D. Ouspsensky, ‘In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching’, New York, Harcourt Brace and World, 1949.
Kate Bush (2) Lionheart
After the arcane glories of The Kick Inside, the record buying public
found 1978’s Lionheart to be a disappointment, perhaps even a
substantial disappointment. Although I would place the title track
“Lionheart” in the same exalted class as “Wuthering Heights” and “The
Man with the Child in his Eyes”, I have to agree with the popular
assessment, for the album as a whole was too patently a rushed
follow-up. However, it had the good fortune to be released in the
golden afterglow of Kick Inside, and went platinum in the UK. It is
not just that people were keen to hear what Kate Bush had produced:
music actually sounds better if we are well-disposed towards the
artist (or to adapt Gurdjieff’s terms, if we are favourably identified
with the artist). This phenomenon of “the golden glow” is an
interesting one, and I shall return to it at the end of this blog.
To my ear, the stand out track on this album, and one of Kate Bush’s
greatest triumphs, is the title song “Oh England, My Lionheart”. This
under-rated piece strikingly, even poignantly, conjures up “merry
England”, once more evidencing the Englishness we saw on Kick Inside:
Oh, England! My Lionheart!
I’m in your garden, fading fast in your arms.
The soldiers soften, the war is over,
The air-raid shelters are blooming clover.
Flapping umbrellas fill the lanes,
My London Bridge in rain again.
Oh, England! My Lionheart!
Peter Pan steals the kids in Kensington Park.
You read me Shakespeare on the rolling Thames,
That old river-poet that never, ever ends.
Our thumping hearts hold the ravens in
And keep the Tower from tumbling.
Oh, England! My Lionheart! Oh, England! My Lionheart!
Oh, England! My Lionheart!
I don’t want to go.
Oh, England! My Lionheart!
Dropped from my black Spitfire to my funeral barge.
Give me one kiss in apple blossom,
Give me one wish and I’d be wassailing,
In the orchard, my English Rose,
Or with my shepherd, who’ll bring me home.
Oh, England! My Lionheart! Oh, England! My Lionheart!
Oh, England! My Lionheart!
I don’t want to go.
The song tells the story of a Spitfire pilot who has been shot down.
As his plane hurtles towards the earth and his death, he sings his
love to the green land beneath him (hence, although it’s a little
macabre, he serenades England that he is “in your garden, fading fast
in your arms”). Through this story, an esoteric idea or reality is
touched: the transcendent reality and preciousness of conscious
experience. Later in her career, Bush returned to this theme, notably
in “Some Moments of Pleasure” from The Red Shoes, and on record two of
The insight, an insight which I think can only ever come from
experience, is that in a moment of self-consciousness, our experience
is transfigured. There is a sort of scale of conscious experience: it
can range from a slightly more vivid sense of oneself through to an
illuminated state where it is as if heaven is present right here, as
if the supernatural breaks through into and illuminates the natural
world. The reality of the moment is often felt to have a quality which
is more than the reality of other moments, hence it is often called
“transcendent”. However much we may have read or heard of this, the
understanding of it can only come through experience: otherwise, even
if we read about it, we do not comprehend what we read. This is the
realisation which Hopkins referred to when he wrote that: “The world
is charged with the grandeur of God.” I am not saying that Kate Bush
expresses this concept in what I might call “all its fullness”, but
then who could? Yet I do find that there is, to a substantial degree,
an approaching to the transcendent in her work.
We tend to have experienced something of this as children. Usually, it
is when we are children that our lives are lived at their most vivid.
To children, there is magic in the night time and glory in the
daylight. In childhood we are more prone to the simple, direct vision
of the joy of creation and the universal adoration offered up to God
by all life (see p.26 of the George Adie book). It is not just a
question of the “being-ness” of life, one can also sense its goodness.
This, I think, is why children so often bring an affirming force of
feeling in the face of really big hardship.
I can add that, as a child, and I do not believe that I was alone in
this, I had an inarticulate sense of human tragedy. In fact, my feel
for sadness and pain was at the same time both clearer than it is
today, and also less given to melancholy. As children, we are not so
hampered by judgmental attitudes, or by guilt, self-accusation or
self-pity. Thomas Traherne described the mystical insights of
childhood very well in some of his poetry which resonate with most of
All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and
delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my
entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable
joys. … Everything was at rest, free and immortal. …. I saw in all
the peace of Eden; Heaven and Earth did sing my Creator’s praises …
All Time was Eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath. (from The Third
Century, pt. 2).
I have elsewhere suggested that, in Gurdjieff’s terms, a further part
of the reason for this is the fact that in children the work of the
centres or brains is less demarcated: feeling, thought and sensation
are far closer together. The intellects of children are not so
divorced from their feelings and instincts, and not having yet fully
learned the gamut of negative emotions, their positive feelings enter
into their perceptions – and so they should, for it follows from
Gurdjieff’s ideas that the natural state of our feelings is positive
and affirming. Being more in the higher parts of centres, children
also have a different experience of time, closer to what Traherne has
described. And most importantly, in children, the feeling of being
present to oneself (an ineffable but unmistakable feeling with no
colour of changeable emotion), is more common than it is among adults.
I am not suggesting that Kate Bush’s “Lionheart” stands on the same
level as Traherne or Hopkins. Yet, consider some of the lines, such as
the one about flapping umbrellas and viewing London Bridge during
rain, and when I say “consider”, I mean to experience their poetic
impact in the song. As adults, we’re too bothered to really take these
impressions in. But children do, and these impressions feed them, as
Gurdjieff said, surely under inspiration. When I was young, I was
almost entranced by the reflection of traffic lights on wet roads.
Even the being-reality of residential lanes, which Kate Bush mentions
here, possesses a fascination for children. This “being-reality” of
objects, a sort of inherent wordless affirmation of their reality,
nourishes, I feel, an unsophisticated sensitivity in children. In
“Lionheart”, Bush refers to umbrellas in the lanes, not the streets,
but lanes, those humble, human and unhurried passageways. That small
touch is the touch of art. The song possesses clarity, and yet one can
peer deeply into its crystal simplicity, rather as if one were looking
into a stream of bright water which ran a hundred feet deep, and could
see to its bottom.
Now, before I read of what was undoubtedly Kate Bush’s own intentions in the narrative, I simply took it as the poignant declaration of a young woman, in love with England, and with the idea of romance in England. She sounds wistful yet not sentimental; romantically
possessed by the green land which Shakespeare celebrated. Something
about the light and optimistic attitude to rural lovemaking makes me
think of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Read as lyrics, “Lionheart” is
good poetry. Whether she was the first to call Shakespeare an “old
river poet” or if she only aptly used the phrase, it seems perfect
here. Those three words evoke iconic aspects of English life:
Shakespeare, poetry, the Thames and a cultured life on the river
banks. Even the little word “old”, more than just a term of affection,
reminds one of the enduring English tradition, its continuity and its
I refer to the pilot of “Oh England, My Lionheart” as a male, but I am
not sure I should. There is a video clip, now available on YouTube,
where Kate Bush sings this song dressed as a sort of air pilot. I say
“sort of”, because, but for the goggles, the coat looks rather
feminine to me. But who am I to dictate anything to Kate Bush? If she
wants to recast the expected male pilot as female, or if she makes
herself the sole female Spitfire pilot in history, and to sing about
wassailing and her shepherd, that is her prerogative. That the song
was about a pilot at all was not obvious to me: after all, in the very
first verse, she sings: “The soldiers soften, the war is over, the
air-raid shelters are blooming clover.” To go on later to mention a
black Spitfire and the funeral barge, would seem odd. Further, it is
difficult to imagine a pilot addressing England as “Oh England! My
Lionheart!” But then, she is Kate Bush, an Englishwoman avowing that
she wishes to stay forever in the heart of “This precious stone set in
the silver sea … this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this
England”, to quote John of Gaunt from Shakespeare’ Richard II (2:1).
Who are we to dictate to her?
The music is simple, and yet it sounds like the only music which could
have gone with those words. There is nothing antiquarian about either
the melody or the sound, yet the woodwind and the simplicity evoke the past, and a quiet style of English folk music. There is a sadness, but also a strength in the dignified line of the melody. Kate Bush has
been accused of “over-singing” on occasions: she does not do so here.
The gentle movement of her voice is just right for the piece. Overall,
as I have said, I find it one of her masterpieces. It strikes me as
flawless in itself. But, to my taste, at least, it stands head and
shoulders over every other track on this album.
There are good pieces of music here: I would single out “Symphony in
Blue”, “Wow” and “Kashka from Baghdad”, and there is one song which is in parts excellent, and in parts all too mediocre: “Hammer Horror”. I
only wish that this album had been an EP. “Symphony in Blue” opens the album, and like “Lionheart”, but unlike most of the tracks, has one
even tempo throughout. “I spend a lot of my time looking at blue”, she
sings, referring to blue in her room, her mood, in the sky, and “the
sort of blue in those eyes you get hung up about”. She goes on to
speak about red (“the colour of my heart when she’s dead”), and sex
(“the more I think about sex the better it gets; here we have a
purpose in life”). But the heart of the song is the second verse and
When that feeling of meaninglessness sets in,
Go blowing my mind on God.
The light in the dark with the neon arms …
I see myself, suddenly, on the piano, as a melody.
My terrible fear of dying no longer plays with me,
For now I know that I’m needed for the symphony.
She was not more than 20 years old, and yet she sang of her “terrible
fear of dying” and of rising above it. Is this a sign of remarkable
maturity, or of pretentiousness, or of both? When one listens to the
piece and its assured, steady tempo, one would be harsh indeed to
accuse her of over-reaching.
But what is more remarkable about the contents, is that there are two
polarities in the song: the personal and the impersonal, or
transcendent, and these are brought into artistic balance. There is
the acute receipt of impressions and also the sense that she is a part
of a larger harmony: this is why she ceases to feel accidental and is
liberated from her personal fear. Something of this polarity can,
perhaps, also be sensed in “Oh England, My Lionheart”, which is a song
about the individual and their relationship to something larger than
themselves. This precocious woman managed, on her second album, to
say something new about the relationship of the small-s self to the
capital-S Self of the organic cosmos, and to express it in a fresh and
The only reason, perhaps, that “Symphony in Blue” is not one of her
great songs is that the melody, competent as it is, does not little
more than present the lyrics. The melody, in itself, lacks power.
“Wow”, the third track on side one, boasts more power, but its
deficiencies run deeper. It seems to be made up of two different
songs, both addressed to an older actor by up-and-coming actors. The
pairing is held together by the chorus, a simple “Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow!
Wow! Wow! Unbelievable!” The first song within a song describes the
mixed feelings of the younger actors for the formidable veteran with
whom they are working. The second half is to an actor who will not
achieve the success he years for. As she sings: “He’ll never make the
screen … or be that movie queen, he’s too busy hitting the
Vaseline.” This actor is feted with insincere praise (“you’re amazing,
we think you are really cool”) but he is denied a role, because he’d
have to “play the fool”. The lyrics are clever, and the pocket
portraits from the world of acting are, I am told, accurate. The music
of the chorus is quite strong. Each “wow!” leaps out at you, aided by
the vocal gymnastics, where Bush sings low at just the right time. The
music of the verses is good, and the shift of tempo and feel at the
chorus brilliantly sets up and illumines the hyperbolic exclamations.
This is an instance where the gear change in a song works. Sad to say,
I do not think the same tactic works too well on the rest of the
album, and is, to my taste, overdone. The effect of the time change is
jagged on “In Search of Peter Pan”, “Don’t Push your Foot on the
Heartbrake”, “Fullhouse”, “Kashka”, “Coffee Homeground” and “Hammer
Horror”, fully six songs on an album of only ten.
Also noteworthy is the evocative “Kashka from Baghdad”, the third
track on side two. It tells the story of a man who lives “in sin” with
another, but has no other apparent friends or acquaintances: he lives
alone, visited by his lover, and remains inside the light of their
love (the metaphor she uses). Kashka’s Middle Eastern origin is nicely
conjured by the initial music, which is mysterious without sounding
like a caricature. The sentiments are beyond sympathetic:
I watch their shadows, tall and slim in the window opposite.
I long to be with them, ‘cos when all the alley cats come out,
I can hear music from Kashka’s house.
When the verse stops, the chorus erupts in a different tempo:
At night they’re seen, laughing, loving.
They know the way to be happy.
The track closes with a fade out. I cannot make out the words, but
they seem to something like: “Don’t you recognize? Don’t know you know the scene? … Let me in your love.” However, a lyrics web-site
offers: “Watching every night. Don’t you know they’re seen? Won’t you
let me laugh? Let me in your love.” Mmm. Overall, the piece is
something of a success, even if the sound of the chorus seems a little
contrived. It is not a great song, but it is a good one. I only wish
that I could have said the same for her “Gurdjieff” piece,
“Fullhouse”, which opens side two:
I am my enemy, mowing me over, and towing the light away,
… Imagination sets in, then all the voices begin,
Telling you things that aren’t happening.
(But they nig, they nag, ‘til they’re under your skin).
The rhythm is disrupted, as she hurries: “You’ve really go to ..”, and
then does she shriek: “Remember yourself, you’ve got a full house in
your head tonight! Remember yourself, stand back and see emotion
getting you uptight.” To “remember oneself”, in Gurdjieff’s terms, is
to be present to oneself as a whole: one’s thoughts, emotions and
organic instinct. The effort to remember oneself allows one to be
present to the turning thoughts which make up so much of our psychic
life, and to make them passive, so that they no longer bother, and
even cease. Despite the pointless screaming, the ideas here are good.
In verse two she sings:
My silly pride, digging the knife in,
She loves to come for her ride.
Surely by now I should know I can control my highs and my lows
By questioning all that I do, examining every move …
Once more, she is too accomplished to be pretentious: she is, as I
suggested in the first blog, the true prodigy of modern popular music.
But here, also, is the problem: the ideas are way too good for the
music. It just does not work as a song. The sudden change of pace at
the chorus does not help the song, as it does in “Wow”, it interrupts
and fragments it; and the singing is too fierce, almost hysterical,
for the chorus’s message.
Later, on The Dreaming, she attempted what may well be another
“Gurdjieff” song, “Sat in your Lap”. That effort was more successful,
at least to my ear. The last track to mention in any detail from
Lionheart is another worthy failure, the first single, and the last
track on the album, “Hammer Horror”. The opening is splendid, almost
scarlet with grandeur. The massive piano and synthesizer theme lasts
only 15 seconds, but it almost justifies the entire track. Then a
high-pitched vocal appears, eldritch and unearthly:
You stood in the bell-tower, but now you’re gone.
So who knows all the sights of Notre-Dame?
Just as the lyrics make a puzzling detour to the second line, the
music now changes completely: “They’ve got the stars for the gallant
hearts”, and then, after another 15 seconds, another complete change
of pace for the chorus: “Hammer Horror, Hammer Horror, won’t leave me alone.” The music never continues in one course, or at one tempo long enough to get into the feel of it. The song makes a picture of an
actor who has taken someone else’s role, and is now shadowed by the
former star. But the picture is a shattered one, it is too diverse to
even be a mosaic. It sounds jack clever, but clever as it is, it
doesn’t cohere. The other tracks on this album make me wince,
especially “Coffee Homeground” (which to me is pantomime of an
unconvincing type) and “In the Warm Room” (like an attempt to milk
There are some themes on this album: for example, film and theatre
appear in “Wow” and “Hammer Horror”, and “Coffee Homeground” is a
variation on the theme of Arsenic and Old Lace.
But the oddest theme on this album is that of blurring gender
boundaries. I have already noted this in respect of “Lionheart”. She
seems to be male, too, on “Hammer Horror” (it is easier to imagine a
man in the role of stalking another who has taken his role) and “Peter
Pan”, a fitting song for such confusion, for he, too, was somewhat
androgynous. Peter Pan also appears in the title track, and on the
liner notes: “Special thanks … especially to Mr. P. Pan whose tricks
keep us on our toes.” Does that mean that Our Kate, the doctor’s
daughter, was flirting with transgendering? “Wow” and “Kashka” both
deal with gay culture, and on “In the Warm Room”, a sort of an ode to
a seductress, she speaks of the woman in terms such as:
She’ll touch you with your Mamma’s hand,
You’ll long to kiss those red lips …
You’ll fall into her like a pillow,
Her thighs are soft as marshmallows,
Say hello to the soft musk of her hollows.
I cannot imagine what the masculine equivalent would be of “Say hello
to the soft musk of her hollows”, but could you imagine any male
singer, say Bruce Springsteen, saying something similar about another
male, even if he were addressing a female? There is something so
voyeuristic as to be discomforting about this song. Even its lack of
crudity adds to this sense: when Kate Bush uses measured phrases like
these it’s as if she’s serious.
Yet, this theme fades out from her later work. It is as if the album
were not only hurried, but also transitional. This brings me back to
the question of its initial reception, which I think was warmer than
deserved: how is it possible that we like one song, or several songs
by an artist, and then hear the rest of their work in what I have
called “the golden glow”? To an extent, it is a question of acquiring
a taste: it may take a while before one becomes used to hearing
something like, for example, the music of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
But once one has acquired the taste, it is as if one hears emotional
nuances one was previously unaware of.
Surely, however, there is more. Surely, the main feature in this
phenomenon is what Gurdjieff called “identification”, where we
associate our own self-image with the music. To the extent that we are identified with an artist, we have no objectivity. I recall being
identified with Bowie when I was younger, to the point that I
purchased Lodger when it came out, and persuaded myself that I liked
it. Now there are only two tracks on it which I can even bear to
listen to (“African Night Flight” and “Move On”).
It is not just that our taste changes. I am asking why does our taste
change? Why do we sometimes like the work an artist produces to a
certain point, but are fairly indifferent to them after that point? I
recall one reviewer who was a big fan of Bowie’s earlier work, but
wrote that they wouldn’t serve pizza on his latest offerings. What
There are two obvious answers which, in the case of Lionheart, we can
dismiss at once: first, there was no change of idiom or style, such as
when an artist switches from, say, playing rock and roll to playing
jazz. Second, Kate Bush did not simply re-record Kick Inside with
different lyrics. By that I refer to the way that certain artists
repeat their first triumphs, sticking to a safe formula. For example,
I personally find that from the time of Zooropa, just about everything
U2 have produced has been virtually the same songs with minor, barely
significant, variations. Bono continues to metaphorically position
himself in the imagined abyss between being and nothingness, and to
sing about love as if the idea were entirely original to himself.
Why is it that we tend to like the songs by one artist more
consistently than the songs of another? It could be, for example, that
one artist sings big ballads, or country and western, and we don’t
like that style. To an extent, this is a question of what one is used
to , the way that Vietnamese music sells well in Vietnam, and Arabic
music is popular in Arabic countries, but not so popular to those who
were not raised in a Vietnamese or Arabic culture, respectively.
Again, some people cannot stand a certain singer’s voice, or the speed
at which they sing, or their orchestral arrangements.
But I think that there is something deeper than all of this. For
example, I like much of the music Stevie Wonder produced between
Talking Book and Hotter Than July, but, five or six songs apart, I
don’t like Michael Jackson’s music. Yet, their styles and arrangements
were similar enough, although of course there were differences, and my
distaste is not based on Michael Jackson’s voice or his tempo. I just
like Wonder’s songs better than Jackson’s, the way that some people
like Paul McCartney’s music, but not John Lennon’s. Why is this?
We tend to think, and to talk of, one writer being better than
another, but “better” in what respect?
In future blogs, I shall explore this in more depth later, but to
anticipate: I think that we are assessing not only the music but the
person who is manifested through the music. This is not necessarily
illegitimate. Music is like the eye: just as one can tell something
about the whole of the person and their state just by looking at their
eyes, one can do something the same with their music. The state of all
of our being-functions (intellect, feeling and physical) is subtly
mixed in and apparent in the visible state of the eyes. So, too, music
is a mixture of these three functions. Even if there is not a single
word in three minutes, there is a sort of thought behind it, and of
course it is obvious that music includes emotion and physical
One feels that one comes to know the person behind the music. The
feeling of contact is even greater, perhaps, in the case of
singer-songwriters. Although, in the case of artists like Bing Crosby,
Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley who wrote little or none of their
work, this is qualified by the way that the music they chose to sing
was tailored to them, their style and their image. In other words, the
relationships we have with recording artists are akin to the
relationships we have with acquaintances.
These thoughts arose not from Lionheart, but from pondering it, and my
response to it. Next, we will consider Kate Bush’s third album, Never
For Ever, which did, to a certain extent, rehabilitate her reputation.
Yet, I have to say, that I do not think the promise of The Kick Inside
has yet been realised, or at least satisfactorily realised, in her
career. She is still, I feel, underachieving, and the reason is a
certain self-indulgence, which we shall further explore in the next
Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.
Barbara and James in Colorado
I am sitting in front of my computer in North Toronto and Barbara Wright is sitting in front of her computer in downtown Toronto, a distance of perhaps eight kilometres. We are twenty minutes apart by car, yet our communication is via the a geostationary satellite, with the signal travelling back and forth perhaps 500,000 kilometres in one or two seconds.
I reside with my wife Ruth in our three-bedroom suburban house in the city’s North York district, which is unequally divided between the Italians and the Jews, to such an extent the district is locally known as the “Kosher Nostra.” (The New York essayist Richard Kostelanetz once called our place “Colombo Central.”)
Barbara Wright – I’ll call her Barbara, as she is quite direct in manner – lives with her husband James (Jim) George in their suite in a highrise in the city’s downtown area. The balcony offers a sweeping view of the city’s exclusive Rosedale district, which Jim has known since his childhood.
The view is new to Barbara who was born in Colorado. She made California her home state for decades, at least until her late marriage, four years ago in San Francisco, to Jim. They make a formidable couple and their surroundings are awesome. The suite is richly decorated with works of Buddhist and Hindu art: statues, mandalas, rugs, paintings, etc. There is even a framed photograph of the smiling couple with a giggling Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, taken last year during a private session at the time of his last public visit to the city.
Perhaps I should recall that Jim served as Canada’s High Commissioner to India from 1967 to 1972. During his years in New Delhi he befriended two youthful spiritual leaders of the Buddhist-Bon tradition: the Dalai Lama and Chögyam Trungpa. The American disciples of the latter “crazy wisdom” lama accompanied him when he shifted his ashram from Boulder, Colorado, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he established a thriving centre for Shambhala studies. Today Jim is regarded as one of the elder statesmen of the Work in Canada, a group that includes Ravi Ravindra and Tom Daly.
As for their ages – Barbara is in her seventies, Jim is in his early nineties – think nothing of it. Both are healthy and look great. Together they generate more energy than do the hydroelectric power turbines at Niagara Falls, an ninety minutes south of Toronto by car.
Barbara and James with HH the Dalai Lama
Barbara has kindly agreed to my request to reproduce this photograph taken with the Dalai Lama who, years earlier, contributed the foreword to Jim’s recently reprinted book, Asking for the Earth: Waking Up to the Spiritual / Ecological Crisis. Jim’s current book is “The Little Green Book on Awakening,” a kind of primer on the climate crisis and work on consciousness. She has also agreed to answer one dozen questions. So here are my statements and questions, with her responses and answers.
Q. Three cities: Boulder – San Francisco – Toronto. Although I could connect these three cities with a straight line on a map, it would not occur to me to do so, but for the fact that you have an association with these three North American cities. Let’s begin with Boulder, which by synecdochy I associate with the rest of Colorado. I understand that you were not born in Boulder, a spiritual centre in Colorado, but that you were born in the city of Grand Junction. Were you educated there? Do you see yourself as a “midwesterner”?
Boulder is important because it’s in Colorado and my younger daughter lives there. Also, there is a Gurdjieff group there which I have visited regularly for over twenty years, and during that time, I have gotten to know the people in the group very well, and value them very highly. It’s true that Boulder is a kind of spiritual center, and we are very aware of that. In fact, by coincidence or whatever arranges such events, my visits often coincide with special Buddhist gatherings. For example, the Dalai Lama was in Denver once when we were having a special weekend; and last year, the new Karmapa was there at the same time that the Boulder group worked together over a four-day period of time.
Last May, since some of our people were interested in studying Chogyam Trungpa’s ideas on work in life — and since the Gurdjieff Work is described as “a work in life” — invited several friends of mine, who live in Boulder and practice Buddhism, to join us. That made for an interesting time. So we feel very lucky to be in such a place, which is not only a spiritual center, but very beautiful. In only a few minutes, we can be walking uphill on a mountain path. My husband, Jim, sometimes goes with me to Colorado, and he loves the mountains; even though he was born in Toronto, he has climbed the best and highest mountains. Of course, I love the mountains because they are an essential part of me. I was born at an altitude of a little over 5000 feet.
I was born in the city of Grand Junction, which is on the other side of the mountains from Boulder, on the Western Slope of the Rockies. Though it has about the same mile-high altitude, it had a different feeling from Boulder, Denver, or Colorado Springs, which are located on the Eastern Slope and are related to the Great Plains in the central part of the United States. It felt a little less sophisticated and possibly more genuine. A little more desert prospector or sheep herder and less like the gold or silver barons. This is in the process of changing now as the powerful homogenous force erases those kinds of differences. Now, Grand Junction is becoming well known for its wineries; the thought of which would have horrified the members of the twelve to fifteen Protestant churches in the city when I was growing up. (I believe that the members of the one large Catholic church did have a glass of wine from time to time, and probably more Protestants than we knew of did also.)
Grand Junction is high-desert country, only a few miles from Utah and its fantastic canyons and rock formations. Two rivers meet there, and the valley they form is fertile and known for its warm climate. It’s also quite a beautiful valley, surrounded on three sides by completely different and completely amazing landscapes. In fact, on a recent visit, I felt quite strongly that the beauty and grandeur of that valley somehow comprise my heritage.
My education in Grand Junction gave me a pretty good start in life. We lived close enough that I could walk to and from school and come home for lunch each day, so the 3 schools I attended from grade 1-12 seemed like an extension of home life. Many of my teachers were highly educated in the now old-fashioned classics, probably similar to a Canadian education. And, I read a lot and was outdoors a lot.
For a town of around 28,000 people there many riches. For example, growing up in Grand Junction at that time provided special opportunities for anyone to study classical music that probably don’t exist now. Every elementary school, and the junior high and high school had an orchestra, a concert band, and a marching band, with very good teachers — several just back from WWII and one at least, a veteran of the Paul Whiteman orchestra that played for silent movies. I started piano lessons at five and violin at ten, and by the time I was in high school, I was taking violin lessons at the local college, playing in two symphonies, and performing chamber music in a string trio.
As to being a “midwesterner.” Very early in U.S. history, my ancestors moved from the British Isles, Germany, and Switzerland to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and points farther east, and then to Missouri and Iowa and finally, just after the Civil War, to Colorado, leaving the southern part of the Midwest behind. Like them, I was and am a Westerner. Quite a different animal. Although I lived for six months in Iowa once long ago — and Iowa is definitely the Midwest — and I live now in Toronto — and Toronto is definitely the East — I remain a Westerner.
Q. Where and how did you first encounter the Work? Could you describe how its ideas and emotions initially affected you? Did it suddenly seem to you to answer your questions about life or did it gradually meet your inner needs?
I first encountered the work ideas in Grand Junction. A friend lent me a book by Kenneth Walker and I happened to notice the name Gurdjieff in it. Noticed and was galvanized. That’s the one, I thought. There was no reason; I simply seemed to recognize his name, just as I simply seemed to know that the ideas were true when I read them later on. The first work book I read was “Venture with Ideas” by the same Kenneth Walker, and while reading it, I really learned that I was asleep. While I was reading in the living room, too completely engrossed by new ideas and new possibilities, the water had been used up in the vaporizer I’d left running in my daughters’ bedroom, and it was beginning to overheat and starting to smoke. That was a definite shock. A wake-up call.
Another strong moment I remember was reading “In Search of the Miraculous” while waiting to have surgery the next morning. That book, and the particular passage I read that evening, also served as a call for a new way of living. Curiously, Jim and I are reading through “In Search of the Miraculous” with a small group of people, and a few weeks ago we read that very same passage. Again, a strong moment.
And I was lucky that my introduction to “Beelzebub’s Tales” was oral. The same friend who lent me the Walker books read the first chapter, “The Arousal of Thought,” out loud to me while I was ironing. It was amazing. To hear the words first rather than reading them was a very lucky event. Of course, I then read the book, as fast as I could, unintentionally reading it the way I would ordinarily read any book, in fact as Gurdjieff suggests.
Those books changed my life. The ideas seemed completely familiar, as if they spoke to my own experience and knowledge that had been forgotten. So many of my questions about my own and other’s behavior were addressed and the grandeur of creation and the living universe, which I had experienced myself in special moments, was evoked. I would describe the experience of reading these books as the experience of coming back to life. Of course, as the years went along, I discovered other needs within myself because the work gave me something in relation to those needs.
Q. San Francisco is the next city. What year did you move there? Did you raise your family there?
San Francisco was my home for forty-five years. It was there that I joined a group, met Lord Pentland and many other remarkable people, and of course, made many close friends in the work community there.
I moved to San Francisco in 1961, after going back to college in 1960 — I was one of two single mothers with kids, a rarity at the time — and getting a teaching certificate. My two young daughters and my twenty-one year old sister went with me. I was twenty-eight. In early September, we pulled a small trailer from Grand Junction to San Francisco across the desert and the Sierras, crossed over the Bay Bridge while reciting a little Hart Crane, and stayed the first night in a motel right on the beach south of San Francisco.
In the next few days, we found a place to live, a school for my older daughter and a babysitter for the younger one, and a job for my sister. I began my teaching career in a 6th grade classroom and felt very close to that class. We went to our first meeting on October 10th, with Lord Pentland and the leaders of the San Francisco work. Some notes from that first meeting are in the book Exchanges Within. That was the beginning of my work with the group in San Francisco.
Hopefully, my daughters were helped by our connection to the work. I had remarried, to an older man in the work, and we were very busy with groups and work activities. There were many people in and out of the house, and we were away a lot. But, we had music and crafts at home, and two dogs. Also, the city of San Francisco offered many cultural opportunities. There were many interesting people around our dinner table during those years. They never had what they considered a “normal” family life, but as adults they’ve realized that there is no such thing as the ideal, perfectly normal family. I’m hoping now that they feel their lives were very special, in good ways.
Q. I know you are a woman who cherishes family connection. Tell us the names of your children and grandchildren. Where do they live? Were they surprised when you informed them that you and Jim would live in Toronto?
My older daughter, Claudia, still lives in San Francisco and, along with her husband, is quite active in the Gurdjieff Foundation there. She is quite a good pianist and also quite a good poet. They have two daughters, Anne, just receiving her MSW from UC Berkeley in May, and Clara, an artist / poet who lives in Santa Cruz and is very active in community organizations. My younger daughter, Kristine, lives in Boulder with her husband. She is a healer, and uses flower essences, Jin Shin Jyutsu, and psychic healing to great and good results. Her daughter Jessamyn is finishing her third year of college and studying international law.
I do very much cherish family connections. After my mother’s death, I remembered conversations we’d had and after finding notes she had made in various books, I realized that my life, which had been so much about a search for meaning, was a continuation of hers. As is my sister’s. Now, as I get older and watch my daughters, and their daughters, becoming more and more wise, this continuity seems even more apparent. And, I wish for them all, wish that their own lives and their inquiries into the purpose of life can bring more freedom, wisdom, clarity, daring, and so on. The good things.
There were various reactions to my announcement that I was thinking of marrying Jim George. Surprise, certainly, because it all happened very quickly. Reactions ranged from excitement to opposition. A very positive Tarot reading from one granddaughter, a “Go for it, Grandma” from another, and a “You’ve got to be kidding!” from my younger daughter. Now, five years later, we’ve visited them and they’ve each have visited us in Toronto, and I think everyone agrees it’s been a good arrangement.
Q. Was it in San Francisco that you began your work as a Feldenkrais instructor? Are you still a practitioner?
In the late 70s and early 80s, Lord Pentland began using Feldenkrais lessons as part of his teaching. I believe that he could see that without real changes in the body, self development was mostly mental. Moshe Feldenkrais had been influenced by Gurdjieff and his teaching is highly appropriate for Gurdjieffians or for anyone interested in the development of the whole person. Those first lessons were astounding. I still remember the whole sensation and feeling of myself, of my whole self, as I walked down the hill after the first one.
About the same time, with his encouragement, I began to have lots of body work, which continued into the 90s. There was a double motive for this. Partly for deepening awareness and partly to improve a bad back that was the result of an early fall off a horse.
In 1992, I started my career as a free-lance editor, not only making a decent amount of money but also setting my own hours. By 1994, it seemed the time and the funds were right for me to take the Feldenkrais training in the Bay Area north of San Francisco. Again I was lucky. My trainers were excellent. They were Buddhists and tuned to the awareness aspect of the work. After four years more or less on the floor at least once a week and for longer periods several times a year, my back was many times better. Hopefully, the awareness was better also.
I graduated from the four-year training in 1999, and had quite an active practice, teaching classes in several locations, with a good number of private clients up until the time I moved to Toronto, but it’s been difficult to keep it going here. It takes time to be married! I taught some classes that met here in our condo for several months, substituted a bit at the Feldenkrais Center, and taught one at the Institute of Traditional Medicine on the Art of Sitting, in which I combined lessons for the body and sitting quietly together. I have had a few private clients, including a man who comes regularly when he’s visiting from San Francisco. Eventually I would like to be teaching more. The Feldenkrais Method is amazing.
Q. How long were you associated with the work in San Francisco? By the way, do you know Jacob Needleman, the philosopher who has published many work-related books?
I was associated with the Work in San Francisco for forty-four years — from 1961 to 2005, and I still travel to San Francisco and attend group meetings there when I can. I will probably always be related to the work in San Francisco. The San Francisco groups were begun by Lord Pentland around 1954 to 1957, shortly after Gurdjieff’s death in 1949. He continued almost monthly visits to San Francisco from New York, where he lived and where he headed the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York, the primary North American foundation.
The New York foundation had been organized by Gurdjieff himself during his last visits to the United States. Especially in the 60s and 70s, most of the leaders in the New York foundation were pupils of Gurdjieff. At the same time, there was a frequent exchange between New York and Paris, and Madame de Salzmann, and other pupils of Gurdjieff. Several times a year, some of us made trips to New York at Pentland’s invitation, usually when Madame de Salzmann was there. Often when he came to San Francisco, he brought people along with him from other work centers, like New York or Los Angeles, London or Paris. It was easy to feel part of a great, living organism, complete with a thriving circulatory system. The years until his death in 1984 were rich with opportunity to learn, study, explore and engage along with a group of like-minded, and like-hearted, people.
After 1984, at least once a month and for longer periods in the summer, Paul Reynard continued to visit San Francisco, until his death a few years ago, bringing his sensitive inner work in movements and with the ideas. He had worked as a very young man with Gurdjieff in Paris and has led the movements work in North and South America under Madame de Salzmann’s direction since the late 60s. I feel that the groups in San Francisco were given more than most of us can ever really make our own, and probably much more than we can share with others. This seems to be a theme of mine: we received many riches.
Jacob Needleman has been a friend since 1965. I value any opportunity to work with him, and admire him deeply. He has been able to find ways to bring finer, higher ideas into the main stream of life through his books and talks, and I know he continues this effort.
Q. The third city in your life is Toronto. I know why you came to this city: the catalyst was your marriage to Jim in 2006. Did you meet him in San Francisco at a Work function?
We were married on January 1, 2005, and it took me about six months to get things together for a final move to Toronto. As the third city in my life, as you put it, Toronto is very important to me, because this is the city where I live now, where my husband was born and grew up. It provides me with the opportunity to know a different set of human beings and to explore the ways they are the same and yet different from the people who live in San Francisco, New York, or Colorado. I have met some wonderful people here — especially some outstanding women, who are bright and intelligent — and have had the opportunity to widen my friendships to those not in the Gurdjieff work, which has been very good for me.
I had noticed Jim at various work functions and conferences over the years, but we had hardly had a conversation until 1999 when we were at the same conference in New York and had an opportunity to talk. Perhaps he noticed me earlier, but I wasn’t aware of it. Later, two of our granddaughters got to know each other and it was through this that Jim and I got better acquainted.
Q. You would expect that Toronto, a multicultural city with a population of more than three million people, close to half of its residents born somewhere else, would be particularly receptive to new ideas. In the 1920s it was hospitable to Theosophy. A Gurdjieff group was founded in the city in the early 1950s under the personal direction of Madame de Hartman. It was responsible for the publication of an index to “All and Everything” and also the Russian-language edition of that mammoth text. In the 1960s the city was recognized as the intellectual home of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. Currently groups like Theosophy and Anthroposophy are languishing here. It is common knowledge that in the city the Gurdjieff work, like Caesar’s Gaul, is divided in three parts, if not more than three. Did this scattering of energies take you by surprise? Can you offer any reason for it? Is the situation likely to remain fragmented in the future?
Because the last split happened so soon after I moved here, it did take me by surprise. It also makes me sad whenever and wherever a separation takes place — and it does take place too often within work groups — and within many other groups, even one as small as two people, such as in a marriage. There is a small, sad statement about human beings in “Beelzebub’s Tales,” in the chapter about the destruction of Ashiata Shiemash’s labors: “And gradually, as it also usually happens there, almost everywhere beings became divided into two mutually opposing parties…. ” I’m reminded of a brilliant Aldous Huxley essay entitled “Usually Destroyed” that speaks to similar human proclivities.
Also, one could talk about the problem of the ego, and I’m tempted to talk about the male ego in particular. But, having a philosophical bent, I would have to say that the underlying reason for divisions, in the Work or in religions or families or nations, is the inexorable quality of the great laws of “world creation and world maintenance,” which must govern all of life. Implicit in these laws is the fact that everything happens, and no intentional result comes about automatically. In a simple way, one can see that effort is almost always required in order to carry out any real intention. Anyone who’s married knows this, at least if they are interested in keeping their marriage intact and thriving. It takes work.
A Gurdjieff group is not immune to the pulls and pushes of life. Individual initiatives can become all important. Individual power can become all important. The need for recognition, for place, and so on — all the ordinary desires that we know too well — all that becomes important. Surely every one of us can speak about that from our own experience in many different situations, but I hope that some of us have some experience of intention, and really working toward something.
Will it ever change here in Toronto? Each of the three groups has many wonderful people, and many wonderful initiatives. In my experience with each group, I could say that the work is alive in each one. Most separations remain separations. Some separations were obviously meant to be, just as some marriages seem destined for divorce and some for a fifty-year anniversary. One hopes that areas of mutual co-operation or mutual need might arise, and this might happen someday. I hope it doesn’t require a great emergency for this to happen. However, it’s important to remember that, in my experience, the movement toward unity is always uphill. It’s neither easy nor automatic. At the same time though, the tastes we have of wholeness or unity begin to reveal to us that this work is in fact a great service. That realization helps in the ongoing attempt to struggle with the arising of individual initiatives, in myself and in others.
Q. Over the years has there been a single teacher or a specific book that has been particularly meaningful to you? Is there a musical composition that you find yourself humming in tense moments – if you have tense moments?
There have been several teachers who have been meaningful to me, starting with my fourth grade teacher and going on through college. In fact, I consider myself pretty lucky in this respect. As a college freshman, I enrolled in three consecutive Humanities classes that Neal Miller Cross taught, using a book he coauthored called “The Search for Personal Freedom.” That was just what I needed at that point in my life. I was also lucky later on to take history courses with a man named Peter Szymanski, a brilliant, Russia-educated, French-trained Polish professor who was by his choice hidden away in the high mountains of Colorado.
From childhood, I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories and Zane Grey’s novels, and read and reread a dazzling little book called “The Hidden Hand,” written in the late 1800s — don’t ask me why — I still enjoy it. When I was twelve or thirteen, I read that huge, shocking, and thrilling book, “The Brothers Karazamov.” It made a huge impact on me and inspired a certain rapport with Eastern Orthodoxy, which persists to the present time.
I have many tense moments, but no particular musical compositions come to mind. There is very often a melody humming around in my brain, but usually the one of the moment is the one I listened to most recently, or most recently played on the piano. The Gurdjieff-de Hatmann music is particularly haunting. I do love Schubert, Bach, Mozart, Bartok, and Brahms for humming. But also I like contemporary music. For example, John Adams’ operas, and most anything by Elliot Carter. Amazing, but not too hummable.
Q. You have traveled quite widely and visited Work groups in numerous countries, for instance, England, France, and Australia, in addition to the United States and Canada. Do you find characteristic types everywhere? From your perspective, are there national or cultural differences in the Work to be detected?
First of all, I would like to say that in my opinion people who are attracted to the work often — very often — have certain similar characteristics. Keep in mind that this is only my opinion, which I’ve shared with many groups over the past few years. I suppose someone could do a kind of survey someday to see if my opinion holds any truth. So, in my opinion, there are a lot of good-looking people in the Work, no matter what country they live in. The women don’t always let their beauty shine out, but still, the beauty is often there. In addition, I notice that people in the Work are very often intelligent and well-educated, artistically talented, and often creative and resourceful. They are generally very good at washing dishes, too, and figuring out how to get one hundred people in a space that really only holds sixty. But these are my very subjective observations.
Certainly every country has its characteristics. For instance, the Australians are even more independent than Americans. It’s the island — and a fairly isolated island at that — mentality. Self-reliance is the thing. There surely must be Canadian characteristics, as well as Latin American, French, English, and so on. But everywhere one goes there are similar types: the natural leaders, the real seekers who find a work for themselves, the ones who find it difficult to speak, the ones who are only interested in the Ideas and the ones who are only interested in the Movements, those who proclaim their devotion to the search and who disappear without warning, the silent ones who after years explode in anger, the drinkers, the dutiful wives or husbands who sometimes end up more devoted to the Work than their partner, the Martha types and the Mary types, and so on. Probably any group has most of these types. When you are in a community for a long time, you get to know people pretty well. In fact, you know their kids and often their parents, you go through deaths and marriages, and you all get old together, so everyone goes on being an “older” person or one of “the young ones.”
Most important though is the experience I’ve had again and again of the similarities. The serious questions are the same, almost word for word; the feeling tone of the meetings are the same. There is a kind of taste or flavour, like a delicate scent that lingers in a room, which is the same in meetings in many of the groups I’ve visited, when the serious work appears, no matter where they meet.
But a little more on differences. Usually the main difference comes from which Gurdjieff pupil first brought the work to a group. There is loyalty to that person, of course, and a kind of imprint in the mind and heart from the way he or she presented the ideas and the work. This connects to your next question, because people in the Work need to find ways to work together in spite of quite natural loyalty and fealty, which is perhaps more often unconscious and therefore stronger than we think. We need to beware of imitation.
Q. Do you have a clear idea where the Work is heading, that is, where it will be in ten years time or in fifty years? Still alive and still working are some people – Paul Beekman Taylor and Patty de Llosa spring to mind – who, as children, recall meeting Mr. Gurdjieff. I keep meeting people who knew John Bennett, but I think Joyce Colin-Smith is the only person I know who actually met Mr. Ouspensky.
This is the question that keeps me up at night. I don’t have a very clear idea where the work is heading but I can share some rather muddled thoughts about it. Some of the best people I’ve know in the Work have branched out to fortify their work using other disciplines. Patty de Llosa is a good example. She has a very serious work with the Alexander Method, which seems a good support to her work with the Gurdjieff groups. Also, as she mentions in her book, she has a serious practice of Tai Chi, and in this way, she can share her knowledge and experience with a wide range of people, using knowledge and experience that is very much influenced by her years in the Gurdjieff work.
Others use their knowledge of science or the religions to find avenues toward explaining the ideas and practices of the Work. Of course, there is always the danger of diversion or of dilution. This can happen when other traditions are brought in to help deepen or broaden the understanding. Although the study of the specificity of the Gurdjieff Work is an interesting one, it’s not easy. It’s easier to say what it resembles than what it is, so this study is too often neglected now. It requires knowing the ideas in the books as well as in the memory of the oral teaching, and you could say, it requires real thought, which is pretty scarce these day. And often, people get too interested and leave the Work in order to practise one of those other traditions.
There are others still alive who met Gurdjieff, but surely the future of the work does not depend only on having met him or Ouspensky. The future of the work will depend on what has passed from person to person. Gurdjieff uses the image of a staircase, and you can’t go any higher on this stairway until you’ve placed someone on your step. And that person must place someone on his step, and so on. Of course, we hear this and think it’s simple and straightforward.
The problem I’ve encountered is that one really does not know what that next higher step will entail, what will be required of one, having placed someone else and having moved up a step. We forget that each step is new territory, and I suspect that it is the shock of finding oneself in new territory, alone, so to speak, that may stop the development needed to help everyone ascend. It’s too easy to drift along using past methods. Imitation only works up to point. I have been very glad to hear reports about the next generation in San Francisco. It sounds like they learned something over the years and now feel the obligation to pass it along.
Up to now the Work has served as a kind of pollinator. Hundreds of people have passed through its groups and back into life. When I look at old group lists, it’s quite amazing how many people have come and gone. Once in awhile, in San Francisco, I was stopped by someone on the street who would say he or she used to be in my group twenty-five or thirty years ago, and is “still doing the morning work and / or reading ‘Beelzebub.’” The Work will probably never be huge, but I do very much wish and hope that it remains alive, even in people who no longer attend groups. It’s very much needed.
Q. That’s eleven questions. My twelfth question is the following: Is there a question I should have asked you but didn’t which you yourself would like to ask and answer?
I’d like to paraphrase Gurdjieff and be asked, Have you met any remarkable men or women through your association with the Work? The answer is yes, indeed. I never met Gurdjieff himself, but like so many of my generation, through a close association with two remarkable people who had worked with him, I felt something of the unique and specific force that Gurdjieff generated.
Since moving to San Francisco in 1961, many special people moved through my life. Some I met in the Work, others I met because of the Work, usually at special events — luncheons, lectures, and so on. Laurens van der Post, Carlos Casteneda, James Hillman, and Father Thomas Keating are only a few of the latter group who come to mind. There were many others, and many other remarkable men and women who had worked with Gurdjieff.
I heard Krishnamurti speak twice and feel fortunate to have witnessed his presence and clarity in person. I had a life-changing exchange with Muktananda in northern California, a special introduction and conversation with Chogyam Trungpa in San Francisco, and a surprisingly live connection with Lama Zopa. Also, more recently, through Jim, I have met the Dalai Lama and Chogyam Trungpa’s son along with several well-known Canadian persons of importance.
Even more important though are the people I’ve “grown up with” in the Work. There are maybe 150 people, in various locations, whom I know and care for — people I’ve worked with and now their children — and almost every one of them is remarkable.
All in all, so far, a rich outer life. As to the inner life, it is filled at best with many questions, and at worst with dreams of all that has gone before and that which will come later. But there’s always room for more.
No more questions … thank you!
John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist who is nationally known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana. In his latest book of essays called “Whistle While You Work,” he has combined consciousness studies with Canadian references. From time to time he reviews Work-related publications for this website.
John Robert Colombo reviews the recently published biography of metaphysical writer and teacher Manly P. Hall
Is anyone really comfortable with the words “Western Wisdom Tradition” or “Western Esotericism”? I know that I am unhappy with these words, but try as I might I am unable to find better ones.
I have always liked the words “Perennialism” or “Perennial Tradition,” but they have pretty well been appropriated by Messrs. Guénon, Schuon, and Nasr to describe their early 20th century tradition of introspection influenced by Sufism. Of all the terms in common use, my favourite is “The Perennial Philosophy.” It was coined by Gottfried Leibniz, but most people identify it with the title of Aldous Huxley’s ground-breaking and influential compilation of mystical texts which first appeared in 1945.
I also like the two words employed by the late James Webb, the historian who documented occultism’s rises and falls in excruciating detail in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. He referred to the subject of such studies as “rejected knowledge.” He had in mind knowledge (not merely information, not chiefly wisdom) that was dismissed by one generation of mainstream thinkers only to be embraced by the next generation of such thinkers, yet all the while was highly prized by disciples of occult doctrines and studies: the hidden thought through all the ages. So let me call it, simply, “occult thought.”
Huxley and Webb to one side, there is one person who has done more than anyone else to popularize the notion of occult thought – that there is a current of energy and a set of symbols common to all the religions of the world, to all the philosophies of man, and to all the sciences that have emerged. That person is Manly P. Hall. His name may not be on everyone’s lips, but I have long known it and so have countless millions of North Americans who may be forgiven for regarding it as synonymous with a popular version of occult traditions of thought and practice.
There is a very sketchy biography of Manly Palmer Hall (MPH) on Wikipedia that gives a few of the essentials and more than a few of the inessentials. He was born in Canada, in Peterborough, Ontario, in 1901. (Hence my interest in him and in his works.) He died in Los Angeles in 1990, an influential teacher, a millionaire, who had established in that city his own non-profit research institute. A Freemason must have written the Wiki entry because it exaggerates the influence of Masonry on his life and thought, which I regard as negligible. It ignores some interesting personal facts: he came from a broken home and was a high school dropout; in 1918, he accompanied his mother (who was something of a healer) to Los Angeles, where he met a series of self-styled preachers who led their own small congregations of spiritually dissatisfied men and women (many of the latter elderly and wealthy) and instructed them in the principles that are “behind” or that “transcend” New Thought, not to mention Theosophy, “I Am,” AMORC, etc.
MPH, at the time in his early twenties, was drawn to these men, and them to him. He was an imposing figure of a man, well over six feet in height, though in later years he was given to corpulency (so that his first wife teased him when he reached 300 pounds and described him as her “Canadian bacon”). Photographs reveal a face with chiselled features and with piercing eyes that lend him a somewhat demonic expression. Recordings preserve his soothing voice and his authoritative manner of exposition. He could speak seemingly without effort for an hour and a half on any number of arcane subjects, and at first he did so in the small parishes and study groups throughout the Los Angeles basin. Then he graduated to larger venues including sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
In 1932, despite the Depression, he was able to fund the founding of the Philosophical Research Society (PRS) and house it in a purpose-built, neo-Mayan structure of some beauty on Los Feliz Boulevard close to the famed Griffith Observatory and not far from “Karlofornia,” the science-fiction-strewn residence of the late Forrest J. Ackerman. The PRS structure is now a protected landmark.
The PRS served as MPH’s headquarters and as a magnet for mystically minded Californians who attended the lecture series delivered by MPH and his colleagues. Here he established a gallery of symbolic art of considerable interest and value and a collection of 50,000 books which includes some rare alchemical texts borrowed by C.G. Jung for his studies in this field. From here MPH published and distributed his own books. (There are said to be close to 200 of these, though many of them are little more than booklets or texts of lectures, rather than full-fledged works of continuing interest.) They were sold in bookstores but mainly through mail order. Many PRS publications got as far as Kitchener, Ontario, where as a teenager in the early 1950s, I devoured them, easily digesting their contents.
As I did so I noticed that the writing was breezy and the details were somewhat repetitious. Stock phrases were used and reused to describe the ancient cultures of the past of the Near, the Middle, and the Far East. Everything was always a little bit “mysterious.” There was no scholarship per se, but there was familiarity with classical texts. MPH read these texts and digested them, at least on their moralistic levels, finding in each and every one of them elements of an idealistic philosophy that would remain his mainstay through his life.
The aim of these texts, in his eyes, was to help mankind with a some sort of “divine plan” accessible through “transcendental idealism” – perhaps a faith in the powers of the imagination – that would be character-bracing, spirit-respecting, and morale-building. It seems “the Ancients” (whether Ascended Masters or Prophets or Gurus or Saviours or Sages) had not only messages for their own times, but messages for posterity, for us today.
In his writing there is plenty of theoria but a poverty of praxis. For us “Moderns,” the message has something to do with Right Thinking and being Respectful of the Ancients and what in other circles might be called Positive Thinking. MPH of the PRS was there before Alfred Adler and Esalen and the self-esteem movement that morphed into what passes for New Age thought, EST, and the bromides of Tony Robbins (who is married to a Canadian) or Eckhart Tolle (who is a Canadian).
In point of fact, he predated such movements. He was able to capitalize on the genius of H.P. Blavatsky and the principles of Theosophy. He seemed to have been unaware of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy or G.I. Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way. But what he had and what he added to his reading and thinking was his own genius – and I hold it to be that. In 1928, at the age of 27, this uneducated young man published his magnum opus, a remarkable work titled “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” It is indeed an amazing book and it is still in print. It is one of the biggest and most influential of all the best-sellers in what is now a crowded field.
Open before me is a mammoth copy of “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” It is the Diamond Jubilee Edition of Hall’s chef d’oeuvre, and even in its reduced format it is gigantic: It measures 13 inches high, 9 inches wide, with 245 pages – affectingly numbered in Roman numerals (so there are ccxlv double-columned pages). The original edition, which I have examined, is even larger in format. Both the original edition of 1928 and the various reprint editions have forty-eight, full-page plates (brilliantly coloured in the original edition, black-and-white in the reprint editions) with about 190 text illustrations. Although the page is large, the type is tiny. My quick estimate is that the text consists of more than half a million words, completely indexed.
The full title of this amazing work is as follows: “An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolic Philosophy … Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of all Ages … Diamond Jubilee Edition … Reduced Facsimile.”
It would take too long to reproduce the entire Table of Contents, but there are forty-five chapters with such chronologically arranged chapter headings as “The Ancient Mysteries and Secret Societies Which have Influenced Modern Masonic Symbolism” (the first) and “The Mysteries and Their Emissaries” (the last). In between, the reader will find the whole panoply of subjects – Pyramids, Isis, Zodiac, Pythagoras, Human Body, Animals, Stones, Magic, Sorcery, Elements, Qabbala, Tarot, Rose Cross, Alchemy, Baconism, Freemasonry, Mystic Christianity, Islam, American Indian Symbolism, etc.
The treasure-trove treatment does full justice to the labours of a young enthusiast, something of an evangelist who has no single secret interpretation of the Book of Revelation but is excited by Holy Scripture in toto, a young man with no foreign languages, no academic contacts, and no publisher’s advance, who researched, wrote, and published this opus on a subscription basis, single-handedly. That in itself is one of the “wonders” of the age.
The book ends with an excited invitation that gives a taste of Hall’s style and moralistic message, surprisingly relevant today: “The great institution of materiality has failed. The false civilization built by man has turned, and like the monster of Frankenstein, is destroying its creator. Religion wanders aimlessly in the maze of theological speculation. Science batters itself impotently against the barriers of the unknown. Only transcendental philosophy knows the path. Only the illumined reason can carry the understanding part of man upward to the light. Only philosophy can teach man to be born well, to live well, to die well, and in perfect measure be born again. Into this band of the elect, – those who have chosen the life of knowledge, of virtue, and of utility – the philosophers of the ages invite YOU.”
Who can resist such an invitation? Hall’s approach reminds me, a bit, of that taken by the scholar Joscelyn Godwin in his most recent book, “The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions.” When I reviewed that book for this blog last year, I wondered, “What do all the ‘wonders’ in Godwin’s book have in common? Is there indeed a ‘golden threat’?” Now I know the answer to that question: The wonders are also found in Hall’s “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” This is Occult Thought in Illuminated Capital Letters!
Also open before me is a copy of the recently published biography of the man himself. It is written by Louis Sahagun, a staff writer with “The Los Angeles Times,” and it is titled “Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall.” It was published in paperback in 2008 by Process Media, Fort Townsend, Washington, U.S.A. (There is a website for the book.)
As a newspaperman, Sahagun covered MPH’s life and work and death – indeed, the way he died is as mysterious as the way he lived is unusual. It might be that in his eighty-ninth year he was murdered. Sahagun investigates all of this and the court cases that followed and the assumption of the PRS into the welkin of an institution that grants a Master of Arts degree in Consciousness Studies. As a biographer with an eye on both the man and the spirit of the times, he effectively compares and contrasts the ambience of Los Angeles, MPH’s favourite city, in the 1920s and in the 1960s. Sahagun knows little about occult thought, but he is effective when he describes what he does know, which is MPH’s milieu.
Overall, MPH emerges as a preacher, a man (like say Fulton J. Sheen or Billy Graham) with a message. That message has nothing to do with Roman Catholicism or Protestant Evangelism, but it has a lot to do with a recognition of arcane symbolism, of the “transcendental” nature of religious paths, of the brotherhood of man, of the powers latent in both nature and human nature, and of the “wisdom tradition” … oops … Occult Thought.
John Robert Colombo is nationally known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana and for such collections as “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories.” In the interests of disclosure: JRC is mentioned by name in the pages of Sahagun’s book. The passage is innocent enough: “Hall was so hungry to be in the public eye that he welcomed the 1988 publication of a book ‘Mysterious Canada: Strange Sights, Extraordinary Events, and Peculiar Places’ by John Robert Colombo, which lumped Hall’s birth in Peterborough with sightings of UFOs and abominable snowmen in Canada, haunted houses and curses.”
G. I. Gurdjieff: Armenian Roots, Global Branches
Editor: Michael Pittman
Date Of Publication: Dec 2008
Cambridge Scholars Publishing
This volume presents a selection of writings based on papers originally presented at the G.I. Gurdjieff: Caucasian Influence in Contemporary Life and Thought conferences or, as they came to be called, the Armenia-Gurdjieff Conferences, which were held in Yerevan, Armenia in the summers from 2004-2007. Gurdjieff was born in Gyumri, Armenia, to an Armenian mother and a Cappadocian-Greek father, and was raised in eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus. According to his own accounting, he spent his early years traveling in Central Asia, Asia Minor, Egypt, India, and Tibet in search of undiscovered knowledge. Eventually, after 1921, his work led him to Europe where lived, wrote, and taught until his death in 1949. Though not having received great popular attention, he remains an important figure of the twentieth century and his influence continues to grow into the twenty-first century.
A growing body of secondary literature connected to the work of Gurdjieff has been produced in fields as disparate as psychology, philosophy, literature, health, ecology, and religion. The conferences and the book aim to provide a forum of exchange about the ideas, influence, and work of Gurdjieff, while making a contribution to the reintroduction of the work of Gurdjieff to Armenia, which had been cut off from his ideas and works during the Soviet period. The articles here reflect a range of work addressing key contributions and ideas of Gurdjieff, from more academic studies of All and Everything, or Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, to a discussion of the application of Gurdjieff’s ideas and principles in the education of children, to a chapter on the music and of Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann.
Michael Pittman is currently Assistant Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Albany, New York. Michael spent a year as a Volunteer Faculty Fellow in Armenia with the Civic Education Project, which led to the organization of the Armenia-Gurdjieff conferences. He completed a dissertation on Gurdjieff entitled, G.I. Gurdjieff: Medieval Textualizations of Oral Storytelling and Modern Teachings on the Soul. Michael continues to travel to Turkey and Armenia for research and teaching.
“The Armenian Gurdjieff conferences mark the significant and almost mythical return of the teachings of the greatest modern sage to his homeland. With imaginative insight and scholarly finesse, the papers in this volume confront the greatest human problem, man’s inability to take hold of reality —what Gurdjieff called sleep—and the catastrophic conditions that rise up from that cause, war, cultural irrationalism, over-consumption, and intractable hegemonies. The topics are timely, the exposition is clear and lively, and the information is crucial and compelling.”
Jon Woodson, Department of English, Howard University
Author of To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance