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Joseph Azize Page


1 Identification

What actually is identification? Is it a mood, a thought, a feeling? What part of the person is it in? Or is it part of the person at all? Is it perhaps something which invades?

One easy, perhaps superficially appealing approach would be to say that these questions are academic: I seek only to know identification in myself, to know it by taste. Surely what matters is the struggle with identification, not theorizing about it.

Well, such a response is understandable, maybe even necessary for beginners, but not, perhaps, forever. We can be too absolute, and ascribe all-purpose value to a thought or a sentiment which once served us well. Indeed, we perhaps identify most with our best ideas. Yet, very little on the practical side of the spiritual path admits of perpetually valid statements, because, as one proceeds, the demands change. Mr Adie always said that the work becomes harder as one continues: if I can include more in my effort, then I have a responsibility to include it, and if I do not strive to fulfill my responsibilities I lose that possibility. When we have had a good taste of identification then we can take action to make it passive: but in order to do so, we just might need understanding. As we shall see by the end of part 3, the salt of knowledge is a necessary part of the deep work of freedom from identification.

What is identification? The short answer is, I think, that it is emotional engagement with an object of consciousness. I can identify with anything, any recognition or acknowledgement, only provided that there is some emotional attachment. This emotionality will invariably be a form of like or dislike, attraction or repulsion. The one thing identification cannot be is impartial. Identification is practically the law of life, whether inside families, socially, at the office, in the factory, in clubs, and even in groups.

Mr Adie used to say that considering (identification with people) is worse inside the groups. Only now do I see why this must be so: it is because the greater our valuation of something, the greater the opportunity for emotional engagement. We identify with our group leaders and colleagues, with our roles and our years in groups, and even with Gurdjieff himself and other teachers. Impartiality is most needed in groups, and in respect of the spiritual path. Sometimes I wonder if it is not a law that we must be madly identified with the work before we can become free of identification and re-meet the inner work, as if for the first time.

In George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia (esp. pp.37ff.), I set out a lot of what Mr Adie had to say about identification and how to struggle with it. I included some musings on the etymology of the word, and Mr Adie’s favourite simile for understanding identification: the four stages of identification. I cannot repeat all that here, but will say that my understanding is that the tendency to identification can never be eliminated in us so long as we have consciousness, and that there are degrees of identification.

The greater the identification, the more familiar it is, and hence the more unrecognizable as sleep. Part of the problem is that identification is often invisible. It is chained so tightly to our eyes that it we see by means of it, like contact lenses we have forgotten about. We may not even be aware of a liking or disliking, we take things as being the way they should be, and we mistake the familiar for the normal. As a friend of mine commented when I told her of my idea for this blog, “identification is taking things personally”. Often this attitude of personalising is not noticeably either pleasant or unpleasant: it is our world, our air; after all, we can only look out on the world from the citadel of our own person.

Frequently, too, we honour our identifications with golden names. For people such as ourselves, our “loving” involves identification. The modern passion for being “passionate” is a passion for identification. But maybe not all our loving, maybe some of it is free at moments, or at least relatively free, from identification. And then, there are moments of compunction, when we momentarily have a perspective on ourselves and our weaknesses. At least, I believe so.

2 Knowledge

One person who used to visit the groups in Australia would say: “When I know it, I kill it”. I have thought about this from various angles, and considered it carefully. This sort of comment was, I think, critical to his approach, which was one of breaking down, of course with a view to the arising of something new. But however I ponder it, I have concluded this is an over-statement, and by being inaccurate is dangerous, because it displaces a better, more precise approach.

Knowledge is not the problem: identification with our knowledge is. Without the possibility of knowledge our situation would be hopeless. There is even a certain identification with not knowing, as if to say that one knew anything would be false pride. If we don’t value what knowledge we have, we will lose it.

So we come back to the beginning: what do we know of identification? Is identification a mood, a thought, a feeling? What part of the person is it in?

I think that identification is in different “I”s. These are formed of associations in one or more centres. Sometimes these associations are so complex that they form chains, like a series of reflexes. But knowing this gives us an opportunity for freedom: when we become aware of identification we may be able to discern which centres are engaged, and how the chain of associations operates. Then an intelligent strategy for rendering identification passive can be formulated.

This insight also explains why it seems that identifications invade us from outside. An external factor acts as a catalyst, it starts a chain of associations, and then we are lost. Once the emotions are engaged it is impossible to feel oneself as separate. But the mind can stand aside, and, as Mr Adie would say, “feeling follows thought”. We do not drive out one emotion with another, but a feeling becomes available, and the reality of feelings is more potent than that of emotions.

When I have a feeling of myself, then perspective and impartiality are possible for me. I see that I am identified with many things: my name, my age, my personal history, my clothes, my taste in food, my emotional reactions and so on. Of all identifications, perhaps one of the most significant is identification with my bodily sensations. It is difficult to explain this, but once we see how we are identified with the body, a door opens, and we can get beyond it. We are identified with our range of movement (even though we may not consciously know what it is), our posture, the height from which we look at the world, the angle at which we hold our head and eyes, the way our stomach feels after a meal, and even the myriad small tensions, discomforts, which we constantly experience.

This is the knowledge we need. Westerners have a hang-up with knowledge. I suspect that it comes from the philosophers. In an academic paper, I have contended that, after the Milesians, the Greeks, and through them ourselves, took mathematical knowledge as the gold standard, indeed the only standard for knowledge. But one only needs knowledge of a mathematical type for maths, and scientific knowledge for when one studies science. In Greek, one word, episteme, means both “knowledge” and “science”. This may have contributed to the confusion. Compare this to Arabic: there are roots such as arafa and alama which have the same sort of range as Greek episteme. However, there is another productive root, adraka, which can mean “to know”, but has a fundamental sense of “reach, catch up, attain, ripen” and so on.

Identification and Knowledge 3

Breaking the nexus between knowledge and mathematics may offer a fresh understanding and valuation of knowledge. We have identified with our knowledge, and with our concept of knowledge. Fortunately, there is another approach, the objective approach to knowledge, unidentified, based on a transcendent aim, the ground of understanding which Mr Adie spoke of in “A God Given Day”:

“Somewhere in me is a granary, a store of knowledge, of facts. These facts have a definite significance, not wavering or uncertain. This knowledge is within me in the form of a living whole, having a certain definite power and degree of understanding. This can be a present part of my reality, if I appear certain and sure upon the stage of this, my life.”

So the problem is not that if I know it, I kill it. It is that I am not there to know it, and if I am not, then nothing is alive. The important thing is to have an aim, a flare to call my presence. If I have, for example, the aim to be more available to feeling, then I need a plan. Consider three simple objects for observation: (1) The sensation of my head and in my head. Am I identified with this? Even asking the question can lead to clarity. A friend of mine mentioned that before he prays he asks God to clear his head, and it works. (2) The tensions of my body. Once more, just asking whether I am identified with them brings me to a deeper relaxation, making more control possible. (3) The tempo of my thoughts, feelings and body. These are far more important than we realize, and may even be the key to consciously changing my state. I always find, when I query the tempo at which I eat, react, or “think”, that the tempo is unnecessarily frenetic.

Such questions, I find, can “dissolve” identifications, at least temporarily. But at the end of the day, the big question is the relation between identification, or more accurately, non-identification and the Kesdjan body. It can be active only when identification is passive, but at the same time, freedom from identification is a function of the Kesdjan body. The body is, and must be, a machine. But it can be a machine which is en-spirited by a soul.

The idea for this blog really began when I realized that some identification has a positive role from the point of view of daily life. The strings of identification allow life under the sun to roll on. Without some degree of identification, the instability of our inner world would be even more closely reflected in life than it already is. Identification keeps us in one place, and with the same people for significant periods. Without identification, we would be nomadic to the point of anarchy. So, identification has a positive role, but it has undoubtedly grown unhealthily to become a canker, and the strings have become chains.

I think that the linkage of thought and emotion which we see in identification is not in itself bad, the problem is that they are not under the direction of reason.

And this lead to a practical conclusion: if identification has a value when it is present in a modest manner, then freedom from it should be a gentle action, and should be conducted with understanding. This is why I said at the outset that knowledge is needed. There comes a point, I believe, where it can be very useful to sit in the collected state, and to ponder identifications, where they come from, what their value has been, and then to bring before me my understanding that they have surpassed their usefulness, and now mean slavery. If that is done, perhaps a feeling can appear which will serve as the reconciling factor between my desire for freedom of consciousness, and the bondage of identification. The chains, then, are transformed into rational connections.



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.



Joseph Azize Page



George Adie: Practical Efforts and Chief Feature

Often on the spiritual road, an insuperable question arises. Part of the difficulty is not the complete and utter sincerity demanded by the question itself. A really good, hard, here-are-your-gizzards-on-a-pike question can even be welcomed. The dilemma, the quicksand we kick in, is that we don’t even know how to begin to think about the question, and as we persevere, we sink deeper into the mud of turning thoughts. This could, maybe even should, be an opportunity. But in reality it is invariably experienced as emptying and draining at best, and at worst, as soul-destroying.

Here is one of the most difficult questions: how can I make practical efforts? Openings seem to appear, the question seems resolved in one’s work, and then it returns again, and any response seems further than ever. Even harder is this: what is my chief feature? This is so obscure to us that most people in the Gurdjieff groups of my acquaintance ignore it in tacit despair. Of course, despair is not admitted: no, a self-calming line is found (e.g. we are past that, or, it is a purely intellectual question and we want questions which address one’s being). I remember one “older” person saying to me that thinking about chief feature made us fixed. But this is wrong: I would say I know that this is wrong. It is wrong because chief feature is what keeps us in rigor mortis. Intelligently struggling with it can only lead to freedom. And what is more, Gurdjieff himself agreed: just read In Search of the Miraculous where he is quoted in Ouspensky’s masterful account.

In early 1983, Mr Adie spent an evening with us studying chief feature, and gave us the task of writing in not more than 50 words what we believed our chief feature to be and how we proposed to struggle with it. Then, in the following weeks, as we continued to study the concepts, we handed in our assessments. In the third week, in the group meetings, Mr Adie read what we had written and made comments. He would not, he said, generally indicate whether what we had observed was indeed our chief feature or not. Yet, on a very few occasions he did say that the perception was correct, while on some other occasions, he made a point of not endorsing the person’s conjecture.

When I recently transcribed these meetings, I found that I had not forgotten most of the comments from the group meeting I had attended. The learning of the evening has kept coming back to me. I think that the truth of what was said, and the quality of the shared attention in that small studio, helped me to remember. It was an extraordinary night. I remember that it seemed to be illuminated, and that there was a serious calm feeling in the air as I left for home. I have decided to share just a few of the exchanges, partly because the two comments he made about Gurdjieff may of interest to others. Also, as I was working on this material, Bob Hunter’s The Tyrant Within, an interesting and even vibrant study of chief feature, arrived. It seemed to demand a response.

But to be clear, this is not the evening where he discussed chief feature. This is the later exchange, where he spoke of our difficulties in formulating chief feature, and then taking what we had said, whatever we had said, he indicated that there was a way forward, and sketched out the direction, especially for those who had found the exercise hard.

From Tuesday 15 March 1983

Mr Adie said generally: “It’s now a question of taking measure. Most of reports on chief feature are all about the place. Very few of them are direct, and very few of them really get anywhere near touching the work. There’s one from Able: ‘Greed, selfishness and desire to be appreciated. These are, in combination, all-powerful, and have been as long as I can remember. Any concern for others, excepting my immediate family, can take place only after these I’s have been satisfied. I have tried to combat certain small aspects of these I’s, but never the real thing. I have not developed a central I, an inner strength which can oppose these I’s, when they are in control, I rarely get a glimpse: usually, only in retrospect.’.

“Well this is good”, said Adie, “because it’s a straight-forward statement. Whether it’s exactly right is another matter. But it’s more direct. After a good few years of seeing, there’s something at least more or less categoric about it. My comment it is that I haven’t developed a central I, certainly, but I have been given the seed for it. You don’t disbelieve that, I think, and you have the embryo in you, even if you haven’t developed it. You were given the seed, and you have the embryo, but it may be very covered.

“So, if you have this conviction that you have at least that, and you accept this fact, that acceptance is sufficient to begin to struggle and to work: you don’t need any more. If you have it, are you going to let it rot, are you going to yield it up again at the end of your life without any profit? You know the parable of the servants who had five, two and one talents. The first rendered to his lord the five talents and another five he had earned from them, the second returned his two talents and the two he had earned, but the third, who had just one, had not invested it, and said take back what thou givest, thou hard master. Mm?

“And this question of greed: how to struggle with greed? I want to determine what it is, and how, and how to give up something. It’s no good saying ‘it’s greed, and it always comes up’. If it’s true, then what do I need to forego? What? There must be many things. Something specific: choose it, do it, and it will have meaning in relation to my wish … only in relation to my wish. All the other I’s will say it’s rubbish, not interested, and they’ll turn out the same sort of plausible rigmarole that’s been going on for so long.

“Then selfishness. How to combat selfishness? I have to choose who, and when, and how to put them in the first place – simple. But how often do I move to that kind of thought? I say: ‘Oh, I’m selfish, I must observe my selfishness, I must prepare myself and so on.’ No. All beside the point. I must choose a definite time and definite circumstances when I am going to put the other one before me. Their comfort is more than mine. Then I can confront. Then I shall see the kind of make up of it.

“Work is definite. It is quite definite.

“And then the desire to be appreciated. Everyone has it, of course. The question there is am I really unable to be without praise? It isn’t so. There have been moments when I have been free. When I am, when I know I am, praise isn’t anything to me. I am.

“I have to remove myself from these limited and limiting thoughts. I have to get out of this realm and to practice. This certainly applies to everyone, but in degree.

“I’m going to be completely merciless tonight. It’s no good stroking people. We either really want and really believe there’s a chance or we don’t; and if we don’t, it’s much better not to waste our time.”

Mr Adie then read Pierre’s note. ‘I lose my force, energy and direction mainly to unnecessary worry and considering about what people think of me, and from that, I redirect it into criticism of others.’ Is there any such thing as necessary worry? Do you still believe that worry is necessary? You see how little thought you’ve put into it. Of course, there is no such thing as necessary worry, but we proceed on the basis that there is, and we justify worry, I justify hurry, I justify the fact that I have no time for it. I accept this situation, and I plunge into the worry.

“Now about this particularly, try to be alone for a moment or two. There is a special meaning to being alone. There could be a dozen people there, and yet if you wished, it would be possible to be alone. You have to have some serious intent, and some freeness from your personality. This is aloneness for us. Then if you are alone you are free to work: if you are not alone, you are already considering, associating, reacting. So, what is necessary for you? Not for everybody, but particularly for you? What is necessary is to be alone, for some time anyway.

Then Mr Adie took Serena’s assignment. ‘My chief feature, fault or obstacle is, I think mental laziness, letting myself drift through life without wishing to appreciate the terror of the situation.’

“Not wishing to appreciate the terror of the situation? It’s just words. You can’t wish to appreciate the terror of the situation? You can wish to be: then you can appreciate it. Do you follow? You do? Good. It isn’t really mental laziness, it’s laziness all the way around, not being serious. All you can do is wish to be. If you want to get over negative emotions, it’s no good wishing not be negative. But if you wish to be, then the wish is for something you can sense in yourself, and then the result will follow. It’s no good wishing for things to be other than they are. You are not a thing, you are a living woman with the possibility of action. You wish to have that presence, and when you have that presence, all the things which you project, all the lies, gradually diminish. Take those words: “mental laziness, letting myself drift through life without wishing to appreciate the terror of the situation.” When you are, then you will appreciate what you need to: but your wish must be more immediate if it is to be effective.

Serena said: “What you said was really what I meant.”

Mr Adie replied: “Yes, but this is what you write, and that has a significance. If you disown it too easily, and don’t address what you actually wrote, you are robbing yourself of an opportunity. See, if you weren’t here you could withdraw it, and all would be forgotten. Here I can help you to confront it: you know how he speaks about being-logical-confrontation. Even saying that it isn’t what you meant may be a form of laziness. You have a fact: something in you used these words, and not the words you say you meant.

“Then you go on: ‘I need to face this every day, starting in the morning.’ It is true, quite true, but it’s a passive comment. There is no suggestion as to what to do, except for something which is impossible for you as you are.

Serena expanded: “I need to get up earlier in the morning.”

“In order to prepare? Yes, very good, then make a clear plan, because you will have to change your regime in some way: maybe eat supper earlier, or whatever. If you take that into account, you then have something practical. Choose something definite within your power and do it. But if you want to get up earlier while you don’t want to alter anything else you may find that it comes to nothing, it starts and then it stops. If you attempt that seriously over the next week, it will be different, it won’t be like this any more.

“Well, that’s all for tonight. It’s food for everybody, I think you must all have found a point of application. We all share in this. Let me see how long will it take me to get to something small and specific which I really can carry out. Make the plan, carry it out, and bring it next week.”

Mrs Adie mentioned that next week was a combined meeting. “Yes, thank you”, he said. “Then bring your observations in a fortnight; but next week, to the combined meeting, bring the effect of your work.”

Thursday 17 March 1983

Mr Adie started with the Myron, who was then working on a book. This was an exchange I have often remembered. “You wrote: ‘The major obstacle at present is the consuming belief in my professional brilliance, and all the unnecessary effort and antagonisms that go with trying to support this belief. It is an obstacle in that it hinders my ability adequately to fulfill my duties such as the preparation and pondering.”

There was a lengthy pause. “Well most of what is necessary has already been said. But you see, there’s a sense of competition there: your excellence and superiority is only in relation to others. Otherwise, how do you measure your brilliance? You’re not brilliant in comparison with a caterpillar, for instance. You couldn’t crawl up a leaf and climb back down.”

At this point there was laughter and loads of it. I can still recall people diagonally rocking on their chairs.

“It’s all comparative”, he continued. “Comparative and competitive. And the other puppets with whom you compare yourself, you don’t see them as they are at all. They are puppets whom you see as inferior, or – if you are jealous – they are superior puppets. It’s all created inside you: a whole universe of puppets. By accident, you might get a glimpse of the truth. But can you really tolerate this position? … You must be alone in your efforts for freedom, otherwise you start competing once more. All your life is competition: how good, how clever. So surely you yearn for some kind of freedom, don’t you?”

“Yes”, Myron replied.

“Well, why worry any more? The freedom’s in this other direction, alone. If you’re not prepared to be alone and seek a kind of aloneness, you’re just wasting your time. It can be full of grace, that special time. You might have a moment or two of real quiet. Working in that way is a sacred thing.”

Mr Adie paused. “Writing books can so easily be narcissistic. You know about Narcissus? Looking into the pool, loving himself. It’s a wonder no one pushed him in.” Again, laughter. He then took Sam’s observation: ‘This week, upon being called and attempting to turn inward, the question arises, what is the next step?’

“Yes, that’s right. I am called, so what is necessary? Now, at this very second. It’s always at this very second. Then you go on: ‘This question is of a formatory nature and leads away from the sense of myself into revolving thoughts and sleep.’ But it is formatory only if I don’t sense myself. Of course, if I don’t respond, it immediately turns into a poison. But the question is the next step: I turn to myself. I do nothing. I am present. What is necessary is more likely to take place if I am not interfering.

“You’ve got to find your feeling and sensation: it’s your responsibility to provide the vehicle or tabernacle in which this process can take place. Remember “I AM”.

“Remember, as Mr Gurdjieff used to say “You are Mr Gurdjieff’s pupil: you are not tail of donkey. You are possible man.”

“So, alright, you are Mr Gurdjieff’s second generation pupil. You are becoming a man. It’s not nothing.

He then read Amie’s thoughts: ‘If I have a goal and there are obstacles to face …’. Do you mean “when” you have a goal, and “when” there are obstacles to face?

Yes, Amie said.

“Good, because the first is theoretical. So when you have a goal, and when you face obstacles: ‘this negative part rises up and cancels the positive wish, so there is no longer any forward momentum. I lose the sense of myself’. Yes, broadly speaking it’s right. But now it mustn’t be “if I have a goal”. You have to a task, you have to have an immediate goal, a task. The far goal is there, but you have to have the intermediate steps, otherwise you’ll never arrive, you see.

“Mr Gurdjieff used to say that if you are going to achieve, it’s like the lamp-posts. You have to the first lamp post, then the next, then you are at the Arc de Triomphe, more lamp posts, then Colonels Renard in order to get to this room. But if you don’t pass each lamp post you’ll never get there. You have to do the thing immediately before you. That, at least, is within your power. Maybe you’ll get knocked over before you reach the far aim, but this one here seems in reach. So the work is always immediate. And our work in regard to this is at once.

Now to understand, and later I will make my resolve for a particular plan. If you make a plan to see the obstacles you will encounter them. But you will never see them unless you have an aim. Presently, what had been a difficulty is no trouble, but then there’s a bigger one before you.

And you shall succeed only by work: there is no alternative. The great reward is the sense of I which you speak of. Work until I know that I really am. I have to decide myself between I and it, between I and not I. I and all the Annies, all the Myrons.”

Mr Adie paused again: “Well, this was a bit longer than we have ordinarily had, but it was to mark a new level in our work. Bring short notes of what you’re doing for yourself. Even there you’ll find the resistance: you haven’t got the pencil or you haven’t got the paper. But it isn’t so far to get them.

Work from your understanding and limit your task to that. Not all day, just definite and limited so that you can know whether you have failed or not. And do not accept to fail. Well, we’d better stop there. Good night.”


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.



Joseph Azize Page



A Noble Work

In Part One, I present some edited extracts from a meeting with George Adie at Newport, on Thursday 12 March 1987, with as little comment as possible. To make clear what comes directly from Mr Adie, and what does not, I offer some reflections in Part Two.

Part One

Joel spoke first. “Each day this week, when I’ve done my preparation, I’ve then made my plan for the day; and that has included taking a moving stop each hour on each hour, while I’m at work. I’ve noticed two things in particular. The first is that it helps me during the whole of the day, and I think about it not only on the hour, but also at other times, I might look at my watch, and it keeps me a little bit closer to some more conscious state. And the second thing is that I clearly realise that too often my efforts are only in the head. I found that what was happening was I might check my watch, or it might be the hour, and I would simply think about making an effort or taking a moving stop, and then go back to what I was working on. And the last few days, on some occasions, I’ve at the times –”

Mr Adie then asked: “Did you say, ‘taking a moving stop’? Exactly what do you mean by that?”

“Well, not to actually disrupt my work, for instance, if I was writing, not to stop writing, but to try to –”

“Remember inside?”


“That is interesting, isn’t it? Something is possible there, because nothing ever stops. Everything is moving, everything is going away. There are impulses, but between the impulses there are also movements, yes. Good.

“This is a sort of first step to a different state. A different state means work on a higher level. You see, if there’s no intention, there’s no work. If you realise that, you cannot bear to live without any intention, which means to say that you are just a thing. But you realise that there has to be intention and there has to be work. I intend to do or not do.

“What you describe is very important, and it’s good. It begins to make a continuity, it begins to make a sort of connection between now and then, because with the law of cause and effect, now will produce a certain result.

But there’s a great mystery there. I begin to sense a different kind of life, I begin to sense a different kind of experience, quite different inside. I’m writing, but there’s something else, and that’s related to something which I manage to glimpse or formulate. It’s related to a realm which isn’t confined to this writing that I’m doing. So there are two lives simultaneously, the very necessary practical life of writing or boiling an egg or something; and there’s another life; and they’re related.”

Later in the meeting, Humbert said that he seemed to get to a stage of observing himself, but didn’t seem to want to go any deeper. Mr Adie asked him for an example. Humbert replied: “Yes, last week I had an argument with my mother. I saw her as interfering with my life, although I knew that in a way she was right. And I saw how my face changed, my posture changed, and my tone of voice changed, and all this commotion going on. And I saw this, but I couldn’t change it, and I didn’t know where it was coming from.”

“I have to go through that, ponder on it, when could I do something about it? What could I do? I want to go over it. It’s like a contest, where I realise that at one moment I have an opportunity, but I didn’t take any advantage of it. And I realize that that’s something to watch for.”

Humbert mentioned that this type of thing happened frequently with his mother. Incidentally, although Humbert was an adult, he had moved back home with his mother, who was also in the groups, although she attended a different meeting. Knowing this, perhaps, Mr Adie replied: “Yes, well it has a history. It’s a bad one, isn’t it? What is necessary is to try and stabilize yourself, and then get quiet, and then bring this happening in front of you, truly, and then be prepared to suffer it. Go through it. If you like, make yourself repeat it. How could I? Yes, but somehow to face it, to suffer for it, intentionally. Find your own way how to. It is something that you cannot leave. Your mother’s there, and hopefully she will be for many years. And you are there too, and you don’t want to leave, so there it is. There’s a very definite obstacle there. Bring it to you, prepare, bring it to you without alteration, without lying. See, repeat the foul thing, until you’re sick. Do something.”

“This is the problem, I push it to the side.”

“I know, that’s why I say don’t try and change it. Face it. Make yourself face it. Make yourself. You know what you do with a cat when it messes in the room? You take it by the back of the neck, and you rub its nose in it. And the cat understands that. It generally is enough, once. Now you want to do the same with yourself, with this animal which is so filthy. You would reap benefits: you could achieve something. And you have examples of it, so you don’t lack the material. I think you have something to work on there, you could do quite a good bit of work there.

“What we don’t realize is that the whole of life is confrontation, or could be. Confrontation can be of two kinds: conscious and unconscious. Conscious confrontation is wonderful, it’s the third force between the presence of my life circumstances and the presence of a becoming-man. Do I confront this issue, intelligently, feelingly, consciously, deliberately, or do I disappear into dreams, complaints, negative emotions, and project a world of unfairness? I wish to confront whatever is there, including my own lack of responsibility. I begin to live then, begin to receive. All the life forces on different levels coming in; some marvellous life forces come in.

“We need choice, and because we’ve got a mind, it makes all the difference. Plants respond: a plant in an unfavourable position will lean right over. A plant in a dark place will find the sun, reaching out, elongating its stock to get there. All nature is doing that. So what about us? Our response must be with some intention, otherwise we just remain a vegetable or animal, or something: two brained. All the time and on every level there’s confrontation: it is the law. That is to say, we’re receiving influences all the time. Different influences, different densities, including ideas and higher ideas, ideas specially sent, all this is our life material, and we live looking in dark holes, instead of being open.

“I have to build up a centre of choice, and that’s a noble work. And if I do, I actually reduce, by some small degree perhaps, the negative force. I do a little bit of the transformation of negative into positive, you see, which is part of the work of the creation and of maintaining the world. And you see, many people here have testified to the truth of this, because under very difficult circumstances, they’ve found that there is this reality, this realization of the gift of life, and so on.”

Part Two

At first I had called this blog “A higher level of work”, intending to take as the theme Mr Adie’s answer to Joel. The question and the answer together seem to me to present a very practical way of working which anyone could participate in, given only a little will power. Neither that exchange, nor the one with Humbert seem to require any explanation. But there is something I think I can now add, with the benefit of 20 years’ experience since that meeting.

It seems to me that a major problem with us is that we identify with our tensions. I call them “our” tensions loosely, but we are responsible for them, even if our work is to dissolve them. We are so used to certain low- and middle-level tensions in the body, feeling and mind that we take them as being how we are when we’re normal, when we’re “ourselves”. Chiefly, only unusually bad tensions are recognized as anomalous, or as something impinging upon “my good state”.

It never ceased to startle me when Mr or Mrs Adie would say in a preparation, “I relax my thoughts” or “I relax my feelings”. It seems illogical: how can a thought or a feeling, concepts without any discernable material extension, be tense? Yet there is an inner movement of relaxation which corresponds to the instruction. So it isn’t nonsense, it is wisdom: an understanding which surpasses logic.

Relaxation is an opening to the possibility of movement. Tension is a restriction of movement. The power of choice is a power to exercise reason and then to freely move or assent in accordance with that reason. So the “noble work” Mr Adie referred to, the development of the power of choice, requires relaxation, and most frequently, it requires relaxation in thought and feeling. Although he never used these very words, my view is that one of Gurdjieff’s great insights is that physical relaxation can remove the foundations of the tensions in thought and feeling, and so facilitate their relaxation. But if I am identified with those tensions of thought and feeling, no amount of physical relaxation will be of much help to me. If I do not see that I am tense, why would I ever choose to relax?



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.



December 27, 2008 at 2:53 pm


John Robert Colombo Page



A review of the Toronto production of Daumal’s ‘Holy War’ by JRC

A great deal of respect is paid in Work circles to the memory of René Daumal. The poet and philosopher is honoured both as a literary artist and as a human being. His personal circumstances were such that he struggled more than most people must with life, health, and art. His own struggles bring to mind analogous circumstances and struggles experienced two decades earlier by Katherine Mansfield, the New Zealand-born fiction-writer, who is also remembered with affection in Work circles.

Parallels in their lives are striking. Both died of tuberculosis, Mansfield at the age of thirty-five in 1923, Daumal at the age of thirty-six in 1944; Mansfield at the Priory in the presence of Mr. Gurdjieff, Daumal in the company of Madame de Salzmann. There is one major difference and it concerns their art: Daumal incorporated the insights of the Work into his poetry and fiction, whereas Mansfield was no longer writing fiction (only correspondence) when she moved for the last time to the Priory at Fontainebleau-on-Avon. Mansfield’s short stories are widely read to this day, especially by feminists. Daumal has a presence on the periphery of 20th-century French poetry and prose.

In the literature of post-war France, Daumal’s writings occupy an odd place. The “odd place” is the “simplist” position he defined for himself between the extremes of Dada and Surrealism. As well, his poetry and fiction make strong use of allegory, a neglected literary device in 20th-century literature, a literature largely given over to irony. Finally, his later work and last years were much influenced and enriched by G.I. Gurdjieff. All of this has endeared him to francophone readers. Yet among anglophones readers, despite the best efforts of an array of talented translators, his poetry, fiction, and essays are not widely read.

There is always the sense that whatever the nature of Daumal’s subject matter, he is also writing about something else. (His basis is his anabasis.) The problem for English readers is that he has no direct equivalent as a writer, though right now I am going to argue that there is an English poet whose temperament up to a point reflects that of the French poet.

A comparison-and-contrast of Daumal with Edward Thomas is rewarding. René Daumal (1908-1944) was a French writer, philosopher and poet. His alter ego is that of Edward Thomas (1878-1917), the Anglo-Welsh poet. Both are poets who go beyond the world we know. Daumal found a way “behind the beyond” (to use Stephen Leacock’s felicitous expression!) whereas Thomas encountered no teacher (though he was personally and artistically close to Robert Frost who lived close by on a farm in Hampshire).

Daumal’s life was cut short at the age of thirty-six by tuberculosis in the midst of the Second World War. Thomas’s life was cut short at the age of thirty-nine during the First Battle of Arras. There is the sense about both writers that they were under siege for much of their lives and that their finest works lay ahead of them.

Edward Thomas did not find a way out of the human predicament. He did not live long enough. The oldest road in Britain is known as the Icknield Way, and Thomas walked its path and wrote evocatively about the pilgrimage that he made along it in 1913: “Today I know there is nothing beyond the farthest of the ridges except a signpost to unknown places.”

Such unvisited places intrigued him. In the poem “I Never Saw that Land Before,” he wrote as follows:

I should use, as the trees and birds did,

A language not to be betrayed;

And what was hid should still be hid

Excepting from those like me made

Who answer when such whispers bid.

In the poem “Lights Out,” he alluded to the limits of knowledge about the human predicament, “the terror of the situation,” when his life was about to be cut short:

There is not any book

Or face of dearest look

That I would not turn from now

To go into the unknown

I must enter, and leave, alone,

I know not how.

So Edward Thomas entered the registry of the war poets and the war dead. Indeed, his epitaph reads as follows: “And I rose up and knew that I was tired – and continued my journey.” It was no “holy war” for Corporal Thomas.

René Daumal’s journey never ended, and in a sense it will never come to an end, thanks to his questing spirit and his questioning mind. Indeed, he waged the “holy war” of the Sufi all his life. He felt he had imaginatively encompassed the evidence of the known world and hence had a handle or even a purchase on the evidence of the unknown world. He could go to work on his personality and character and he did.

I must resist the temptation to write at length about Daumal’s prose, poetry, and fiction, as I have at hand the two biographies of the man and the three English-language collections of his writings. When I reviewed Pierre Bonnasse’s “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way” (Inner Traditions, 2008), I stressed Bonnasse’s indebtedness to Daumal’s “magical” writings and visions. I know of no finer or deeper contemporary tribute to the worth of Daumal’s life than Bonnasse’s words.

I assume the readers of this review will have a sense of the parameters of Daumal’s life and work and involvement with the Madame and the Mister, so I will concentrate on the present event, an occasion of genuine interest, which takes the form of a stage adaptation of his short prose poem “Holy War.”

The sponsor of the stage production is Toronto’s Seven Arts Study Centre (a group registered in 2006). The promotional copy that appears on the poster – which advertises the event which was held at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, December 6, 2008, George Ignatieff Theatre, Toronto – has been so well composed, will reproduce its words in their entirety:

“The prominent poet and novelist of avant-garde French literature wrote this prose poem as the Nazi armies were crushing Western Europe and approaching France. “Holy War” takes the battle inside. Daumal endows the words “holy war” with their truest meaning, as he evokes with ruthless honesty and rich humour the inner struggle toward consciousness and conscience. This is the unseen warfare that many spiritual traditions regard as the surest basis for peace.”

The George Ignatieff Theatre at Trinity College, University of Toronto, is a handsome, wainscotted space, suitable for guest lectures or small musical or theatrical ensembles, and there are seats for close to 200 people. The house was almost filled on a snowy night. Few if any of the members of the audience (who paid $25 for adult admission or $20 for student admission) will have reason to disagree with the appraisal that Daumal wrote with “ruthless honesty and rich humour” about “the inner struggle towards consciousness and conscience.”

This production is described as marking the centenary of Daumal’s birth. It is chastening to think that if he were alive today the poet would have reached the ripe old age of one hundred years! There was no printed program, but here are the details from the poster.

The text was spoken (recited and at times enacted) by Priscilla Smith. The dancer (an enacter too) was Dolphi Wertenbaker. The oud-player was Chris Wertenbaker. The string-player was Jeff Greene. Roger Lipsey introduced the work and led the discussion afterwards.

The sole surprise for me is that Professor Lipsey has no Wikipedia entry. He has taught art history and classical literature at the State University of New York in Potsdam, N.Y. One day I will examine his three-volume collection devoted to the life and work of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (compiled for the illustrious Bollingen series in 1977). I have long wanted to read his book titled “An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art (Shambhala, 1988). Any Wiki entry devoted to Mr. Lipsey would need to stress his essays and his contributions to Gurdjieffian studies, at once scholarly and appreciative.

“Holy War” is indeed a prose poem. The entire text of the work of some 2,000 words is available on Google. (Type in Daumal’s name and then click on “Holy War.”) The original French text was published as “La Guerre Sainte” in the collection “Poésie Noire, Poésie Blanche” (Editions Gallimard in 1954). The translation here is the one titled “The Holy War” which D.M. Dooling translated into English for an early issue of “Parabola” (7:4). The Internet text is that of the Fall 2000 issue of the “Gurdjieff International Review.” With slight changes, it is the Dooling translation that served as the basis of the production.

Characteristic of Daumal’s writing is his thinking or pondering. (I like to pun that his writing is “ponderful.”) He is not given to visual imagery or verbal concision, but the reader or listener feels that the man is responding both as an artist and as a human being. The text begins riddlingly enough: “I am going to write a poem about war. Perhaps it will not be a real poem, but it will be about a real war.” A little prankishness goes a long way!

The prose poem ends on a thoughtful but elliptical note: “And because I have used the word ‘war,’ and because this word ‘war’ is no longer, today, simply a sound that educated people make with their mouths, but now has become a serious word heavy with meaning, it will be seen that I am speaking seriously and that these are not empty sounds that I am making with my mouth.”

Daumal’s “guerre sainte” refers to the inner war, or striving, rather than to the Islamic “jihad,” yet the “jihad” (the word is not used) is seen to be the outward expression of an inner conflict and confusion. Daumal’s warfare might be described as a “crusade” – to use the word no U.S. President after George W. Bush will ever use again – because the battleground lies between the head and heart of man rather than amid the society of men.

The poem is not a dramatic work at all but a brooding meditation with insightful asides and rich reflections on man’s “inner struggle,” the one he has with himself. Nowhere in the text do the words “conscience,” “consciousness,” or even “presence” appear – any more than does the word “evolution” appear in the first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”

The stage was evenly lit and decorated with five Oriental carpets, one of them hanging from the ceiling as an eye-catching backdrop. Seated on the stage were (from left to right): Priscilla Smith, the speaker; Jeff Greene, string player; Chris Wertenbaker, oud-player; Dolphi Wertenbaker, dancer.

Professor Lipsey appeared, sat on a bench, and spoke accommodatingly to the audience for twenty minutes. He is balding, black-bearded, spectacled, and has a gentle manner. He sketched in Daumal’s literary background, stressing that he was “a seeker of truth” as well as “a writer of great exuberance,” whose abilities were quickly noted by Jean Paulhan, the Paris editor and publisher. Daumal found himself divided between literature and spirituality, until he had a chance meeting with Alexandre de Saltzmann, who recognized his predilection for spirituality and introduced him to his wife Jeanne who introduced him to Mr. Gurdjieff.

Professor Lipsey noted, “In the world of spirituality, originality is not regarded highly. Here was an opportunity to see what an art would be like if shaped by higher ideas.” Daumal wrote about “jihad” which to him meant “extreme striving,” rather like the Christian notion of the “unseen warfare.” Lipsey surprised me by not referring to the “Bhagavad Gita,” the Eastern world’s pre-eminent epic poem of warfare, inner and outer, but the Hindu dimension was explicit in the production itself.

Dolphi Wertenbaker, dressed in orange and black, jewelry on her head and brow and ears, red cast marks on her hands and feet, danced with bare feet. With her fingers she recreated the classical mudras of bharatanatyam which she learned first in Ceylon and later in Madras, India, where her father, James George, was the Canadian High Commissioner.

Ms. Wertenbaker moved her limbs with genuine purpose, conveying a great range of emotions. She possesses quite distinctive looks. I was finally able to connect them with the equally distinctive and noble looks of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, who also taught the Movements. She danced throughout the recitation and at various points echoed the words of Priscilla Smith.

Ms. Smith bears a striking resemblance to Adrienne Clarkson, the last Governor General of Canada. The two women carry themselves with ease and assurance. Ms. Smith was dressed in blue and black and spoke with clarity and purpose. She is a New York-based actress and a special favourite of director Andre Serban. She had committed the script to memory and combined the words with appropriate movements and gestures, by turns bringing forth the text’s humour, irony, sacrcasm, indignation, lyricism, mimicry, and drama.

I will long remember her declaring with desperation “And the war has hardly begun” and affirming “I am I know I wish” and informing “There is only one right, the right to be” and concluding “He who has declared this holy war with himself is at peace with his fellow man.” At one or two points she rose out of the sea of the text as an actress, rather than as a speaker reciting lines, but not for long, but just long enough to prove that the text embraced acting as well as witnessing, as she was intent on giving a “reading,” so it was the feeling behind the words that was to be the point of interest, not any single dramatic interpretation of it.

The two musicians performed intermittently and improvisationally behind the words. There was no electrical amplification. Mr. Greene played a variety of long-stemmed stringed instruments, and Mr. Wertenbaker (the dancer’s husband) strummed the oud and various other smaller instruments. The performance ended with the last lines of the text being recited in both English and French to great effect (especially in an officially bilingual country).

The performance lasted a little over thirty minutes. The audience was appreciative but afraid to applaud and resisted doing so until Professor Lipsey joined the performers on stage. Then there was enthusiastic applause, followed by the discussion that he led. Again, the audience was reluctant to ask questions, so I posed the first one.

I noted that we had learned about the genesis of the poem from the introductory comments. I then asked, “What is the genesis of this production?” It turned out that Professor Lipsey was familiar with the text, and after the shock of the events of September the Eleventh, turned to work on it to concentrate the confusion that he and so many other Americans had felt and were feeling. Here was a way to contain the confusion and frustration and deal with it.

I pursued the question of the genesis of the production afterwards. I learned that the first production (with the same speaker and dancer and the oud-player) was held in a church in Garrison, a hamlet in the Hudson River district of upstate New York in 2003. Since then it has been performed in colleges, institutions, and theatres. The Toronto production is the ninth in the ongoing series.

When there was a lull in the questions and answers, Professor Lipsey threatened the audience: “If you don’t ask questions, I’ll read you another of Daumal’s letters.” Questions again flowed, including one that was directed to the speaker and the dancer. “What goes on inside as you perform.” Both Ms. Smith and Ms. Wertenbaker smiled inscrutably. There was some talk of how difficult it is “to keep a moment of lucidity, with a scalpel to cut through the tissue of lies.”

Ms. Smith said that the text on paper is one thing of importance, but what is more important is what lies beneath the words. Ms. Wertenbaker said that she had read Daumal’s essays on Indian theatre and was startled to learn that there is no distinction in Hindi between “theatre” and “dance.” It seems the same Sanskrit-derived word is used for both forms of expression.

Ms. Smith studied acting and vocal expression in New York with a group that was directly influenced by Peter Brook. For one of their productions, they spoke with the sounds of a number of Asian languages that they did not understand. “Sanskrit has no connectives and is almost hieroglyphic.”

The audience was interested in the instruments and Mr. Wertenbaker explained that the oud that he played was a Turkish instrument (“constructed in Boston”). “The oud is the father of the lute and the grandfather of the modern-day guitar.” Among the other instruments played were Chinese cymbals, thumb-piano, ayala tambur, and sato – all of them exotic-looking and exotic-sounding.

Then there was a low-key reception of wine, mineral water, and canapés, and suddenly it was nine o’clock on a snowy Toronto Saturday evening. My wife Ruth and I left the Ignatieff theatre, which is informally known by the students of Trinity College as the “jit.” It formally bears the name of George Ignatieff, the diplomat and father of Michael Ignatieff, essayist and biographer of Isaiah Berlin, who is currently deputy leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. We left pondering the thought that in the midst of battle we must wend our way from the fort of war to the palace of peace.

In other words, we must find a peace within the warring elements within ourselves and only then attempt to establish a cease-fire for the world at large. So the tragic deaths of Edward Thomas and René Daumal, both of whom were victims of world wars, took on new meaning amid the evening of music, dance, and spoken word.

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto author and anthologist who has published some 200 books. These are listed on his newly reworked website . His last review for this blog was devoted to concert by Charles Ketcham and Casey Sokol at the Glenn Gould Theatre, Toronto.


John Robert Colombo Page


Toronto Concert

John Robert Colombo reviews a concert devoted to “The Piano Music of G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann”


Everyone recognizes the name of Glenn Gould, the famous pianist and musicologist, whose crisp and no-nonsense interpretation of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” took the musical world by storm in 1955. Almost as well known are Gould’s well-publicized antics – statements like “Mozart should have died sooner rather than later” and “The concert is dead.” The latter statement was proclaimed the same year that his Toronto neighbour Marshall McLuhan remarked, “The book is dead.” Both the concert and the book have been a long time dying.

Gould was a great eccentric and recluse rather than a great character or stage performer. Tragically, he was habituated to pharmaceuticals, and I believe that this addiction partly accounts for the hyper-real (almost surreal) quality of his interpretations and performances. If you suffer hyperacuity, you do not enjoy his recordings as much as you do those of his much less brilliant contemporaries. It does not take genius to perform with brilliance, emotion, and insight.


Gould came to mind as I paused in front of the statue erected in his honour at the entranceway to the Glenn Gould Centre of the Philip Johnson-designed Broadcast Centre of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in downtown Toronto. The statue may be said to stand, but the life-size, bronze effigy of him (wearing his characteristic rumpled raincoat) shows him slouched on a park-bench. I used to see him wearing that raincoat shambling through the halls of the old CBC Radio Building. The statue is a good likeness.

As I entered the Centre’s theatre, also named in his honour, at 8:00 p.m., Friday, November 21, 2008, I wondered what he would have made of the concert that my wife and Ruth were there about to hear. Gould was open to new ideas – indeed, he contributed a blurb to a book of Borges-like poems that I translated with Robert Zend, a lively Hungarian Canadian poet and radio producer – but to my knowledge he never once evinced any interest in either Eastern thought or any form of expression of the “wisdom tradition.”

The concert we took our seats to hear was devoted to the piano music produced by the collaboration of G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann. Now one of the pleasures of writing reviews for this blog is that there is no need for me to explain the backgrounds of these two gentlemen or their unlikely partnership, probably unique in the annals of folk and ethnic musicology. The “Gurdjieff-de Hartmann music” has a devoted following among both students of the work and young professional musicians. I could reel off the names of a dozen well-known pianists who perform many of these 300 or so works, and there are discographies that list the innumerable CDs that they have recorded.

I maintain an interest in Canadian cultural expression as well a “watching brief” on Fourth Way work, so permit to combine interests by sounding another nationalistic note. The musical world of the Fourth Way is well served by the retired film producer Thomas C. Daly of Montreal, who remains the faithful warden and guardian of this music, in his capacity of executor of the estates of the late Olga and Thomas de Hartmann. He has worked overtime to make these compositions available to music lovers.

Count me among these lovers. I first heard these plangent, seemingly repetitive, chord-like compositions in the late 1950s, pounded out on an upright piano, as I awkwardly performed the Movements. Intermittently since then, I have listened to them in small concert halls and in the solitude of my study at home. Indeed, they have quickened my taste for the repetitive compositions of “the musical minimalists” (like Arvo Pärt) and the work of electronic composers (like Philip Glass). Gould himself experimented with musical constructions – splicing tapes of human voices together – to create compositions that sound like “musique concrète,” so he might well have enjoyed attending this concert as much as we did.

The concert was organized by the Society for Traditional Studies, the earliest and the largest of the numerous organizations which take an interest in these ideas and motifs that are scattered throughout the City of Toronto (population 3.3 million). As a bystander, I wish these groups would collaborate more often than they do to sponsor public occasions like this one.

The Glenn Gould Theatre seats about 340 and two-thirds of the seats were occupied by an audience of quiet-spoken, interesting-looking men and women, mainly middle-aged and professional or semi-professional in appearance. Tickets were priced at $25 apiece ($15 for students and seniors) and the two performers were Casey Sokol (percussion) and Charles Ketcham (piano).

I am placing Mr. Sokol’s name first because he is quite active in Toronto. He is an associate professor with the faculty of fine arts at York University where he has taught and performed since 1971. He is a familiar figure in Work circles, performing these piano compositions with flair, enthusiasm, and affection. In the past he has selected compositions for his programs that reflect the varieties rather than similarities that are to be found in this body of piano music. In person he strikes me as having compressed power and intelligence.

The guest pianist was Charles Ketcham, who has recorded albums of the piano music but who is principally known as a widely travelled orchestra conductor. He originally studied under Eric Leinsdorf at Tanglewood and has made guest appearances or served as associate conductor at many of Europe’s important orchestras. With other musicians and musicologists, he has edited what has been described by knowledgeable people as the “definitive edition of the complete Gurdjieff / de Hartmann Piano Music” and he has “recorded the complete works for the German recording label, Wergo Schallplatten GmbH.”

Mr. Ketcham is not to be confused with his namesake Charles B. Ketcham, the American theologian and the author of “The Ontological Ground for a New Christology.” (I wonder if they are relatives.) Our Mr. Ketcham (the pianist) makes his home-base in San Francisco. He is a welcome visitor to Toronto; he arrived during a minor snowstorm, the first of the season.

He strikes me as a man who is able to wear two hats – the beret of the performer and the top-hat of the conductor – and bring to every musical occasion a strong sense of professionalism. For no good reason, I kept thinking of Messrs. Sokol and Ketcham as the “pepper and salt” of this concert, though both sported heads of white hair. Mr. Sokol supplied percussion accompaniment during the middle portion of the program.

The musical part of the concert went from 8:00 to 9:45 p.m. and was followed by an optional forty minutes of discussion. This took the usual, question-and-answer format. Some members of the audience left after the performances, but most remained and took seats closer to the stage. Those members who remained were in for a double treat: some good answers to reasonable questions, plus the spirited playing of two more compositions: “Mama” and a second “Sayyid Chant” (to match the opening number).

Now to the program. To whet the reader’s appetite for what we heard, here is a list (from the well-designed program that was distributed) of the twenty-one compositions that were performed:


Sayyid Chant and Dance, No. 1.

“Rejoice, Beelzebub!”

Tibi Cantamus, No. 2

Hymn from a Great Temple, No. 1


Ancient Greek Melody

Armenian Song, No. 1


Hymn (Jan. 6, 1927)

Greek Melody


The Initiation of the Priestess




Hymn (Jan. 2, 1927)

Afghan Melody

Oriental Melody

Dance Rhythm (Nov. 29, 1925)

Armenian Song, No. 2

Untitled Melody (Jan. 1, 1926)

Dervish Dance

Moorish Dance (Dervish)



Prayer and Despair

Religious Ceremony


It would be difficult for a diligent rapporteur (like the present one) to do any more than record some of his general impressions and responses to the musicians and the music. It is beyond his remit and competence to do more than that.

Mr. Ketcham offered a most professional performance of these works on a sleek black Steinway grand piano. In the past I would overhear the strains of “On the Steppes of Central Asia” whenever I heard other talented pianists perform these compositions. Mr. Ketcham added a new dimension with his broad sense of what constitutes performance and composition. So I kept hearing the unexpected strains of the compositions of well-loved European composers of the period (mainly the 1920s): Ippolitov-Ivanov, Khachaturian, Satie, Bartok, even Saint-Saëns’s “Aquarium” (from “The Carnival of Animals”), as well as echoes of the semi-notes of Arvo Pärt, the latter a legacy of attendance at the previous evening’s Estonian concert at St. Anne’s Church.

Mr. Ketcham also added to my appreciation of the range of the material, specifically the variety of subjects and effects. There were in effect the “ethnic” influences: rhythms and melodies described as Ancient Greek, Afghan, Moorish, Armenian, and “Oriental.” Then there were the moving and mysterious religious motifs: Sayyid chants and dances, Dervish dances, and prayers, etc. Finally there were the moods: elation, aspiration, dejection, depression. Finally there were complexities, solemnities, and intimacies aplenty.

All the pieces are quite short, yet each gives itself over to a seemingly complete expression of a rhythm, a feeling, even a thought, with a handful of the compositions ending abruptly, as if cut off in mid-expression. At various times I felt I wanted to march in a procession or step out into the aisle and perform a series of Tai Chi exercises. The printed program enjoined us not to applaud the compositions individually, but to reserve our applause for the end of each part of the program. So there was plenty of pent-up energy!

The concert opened with “Sayyid Chant and Dance,” a work of intricate complexity, very pianistic. The program ended with an encore performance of another Sayyid composition, one that expressed incredible longing … for what, who can say? These served as a pair of bookends for the musical portion of the concert.

During the mid-section of the program we heard and saw Mr. Sokol accompany Mr. Ketcham, taking delight in the use of a hoop-like drum with jingle-bells called a daff, a gourd-like drum called a darok, along with other unfamiliar, eye-catching and ear-holding instruments. The rhythms of dances familiar in ethnomusicology (perhaps given today’s climate of opinion it should be called “exomusicology”) were pronounced. The gentlemen performers worked together with a unity of aim or purpose as if they did this with delight every night of the year.

While listening to “Untitled Music” and other compositions I felt that parts of me were being energized and other parts being anaesthetized, so that various operations and procedures could be overseen and performed. It was a series of quite concentrated experiences, rather surprising in the same way that an acupuncture treatment is riddled with surface surprises: unexpected twinges, twitches, tweaks, and (to continue with the t’s) tastes.

The discussion began with Mr. Ketcham asking two questions: Where does music come from? What does music express? He did not attempt to answer these perennial questions, but he added that he had directed the first question to those composers he had met. They all drew a blank. He directed the second question to members of the audience.

One member stated that she felt that the music was coursing through her blood stream, going from the heart to the head. Another member said he felt it affected his breath and his breathing. A woman said she sensed that the music was being “disclosed” rather than composed or discovered.

In answer to the direct question, in effect, “What is Gurdjieffian about this music?” Mr. Ketcham gave a considered and measured answer: “Man has a purpose in life that cannot be realized as we are. There is something more complete to be found, and it is through consciousness that this transformation is to take place.”

He went on to sketch Mr. Gurdjieff’s cosmological view of man in the universe, the sense of scale.” I expected him to mention the word “harmonious” but I did not hear it. Instead he said, “Every tone is a mystery.” We really hear not one tone but composite tones, vibrations, overtones, and they “represent something that is universal.”

One observant questioner asked him how he “prepares” for a performance. She had presumably noted how he would pause at the keyboard before tackling a composition. He momentarily looked like the little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. In reply he quoted a previous speaker who had said that the music caused him “to make space.” “I make space,” he said, economically.

Toronto audiences are inclined to be tongue-tied, so I asked two questions to which I received responsible replies. The first question was: Do musicologists recognize the Gurdjieff-De Hartmann collaboration to be unique, given that ethnomusicology was a characteristic of the 1920s? And why are these three hundred compositions not part of the repertoire of contemporary performers and repertory companies?

Mr. Sokol replied that the character of the interaction between a professionally trained composer-performer and an untrained traveller-collector of indigenous traditions is recognized to be unique. Mr. Ketchum added that the musical scores were not published until the 1990s, the decision having been made late in the day by Michel de Salzmann to make them readily available. Also, the compositions are “intimate” and involve one or two interpreters, not all the players of symphony orchestras.

Later he made a case for the fact that these compositions were composed and are performed to have an influence on parts of the body seldom touched by other music or even observed by most people. They were designed to produce feelings we do not normally notice. Mr. Sokol said that the compositions are not folk music, saying, in effect, “You may go to Afghanistan but you will not find ‘Afghan Melody’ being performed there.”

Like the rest of the audience, Ruth and I left the Glenn Gould Centre with the sounds of the piano and percussion instruments vibrating within us. We paused before the bronze statue of the great pianist on the sidewalk in front of the building. Despite the fact that his gaze is averted, I bent down and peered into the sockets of his eyes. It seemed almost sacrilegious to do so. But (it may be my imagination) I observed – a wink.


Here is a related review of a new CD.

Not everyone is privileged to live in a large city like Toronto which hosts concerts of the quality of the one that we were able to attend. But for those people who have a taste for this music, but who live elsewhere, it is possible to have an aftertaste (so to speak) of what was missed through the release of a new CD.

Elisa Denzey, Toronto-based pianist and fabric artist, has had a forty-five year association with group work. She studied with Annette Herter who was a pupil of Thomas de Hartmann, from whom she learned that performance does not exist for the sake of performance but in the interest of … self-knowledge. Music is there not for performance “as we usually understand it, but rather the cultivation of a sensitivity to or an understanding of what each piece of music is saying or describing.” (I like the subtle distinctions between “sensitivity” and “understanding” as well as “saying” and “describing.”)

That quotation comes from the program notes that accompany the newly released CD of piano compositions performed by Ms. Denzey titled “Gurdjieff / De Hartmann.” The CD is available from By the Way Books or from the : ExGurdjieff Foundation of Toronto experimental Group. (Both organizations have websites.) The list price is $25 CDN, the price charged for a single concert ticket.

Ms. Denzey recorded all of the twenty-one compositions in her seventy-sixth year during one six-hour session in 1999. The tastefully produced CD includes three or four of the compositions that we played at the concert. (Curiously, both the disk and the concert include the same number of compositions.) Her interpretation is a less dramatic and far softer one than the interpretations offered by Messrs. Sokol or Ketcham. Perhaps it is more feminine. This in itself is neither a positive nor a negative. In fact, it is an attestation to the power of these compositions to move men and women in the same direction, each at his or her own speed, each in his or her own way.

John Robert Colombo is known throughout Canada as “the Master Gatherer” for his compilations of Canadiana. His two latest books are “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories” (Dundurn) and “Whistle While You Work” (C&C). The latter 400-age paperback book consists of essays and articles of general cultural and specific esoteric interest.


For a review of this performance see
Review of Rene Dumal’s ‘Holy War’
on the John Robert Colombo page


Celebrating the centenary of Rene Daumal’s birth (1908-1944)


The remarkable prose poem of inner search

The prominent poet and novelist of avant-guarde French literature wrote this prose poem as the Nazi armies were crushing Western Europe and approaching France. “Holy War” takes the battle inside.

Daumal endows the words “holy war” with their truest meaning, as he evokes with ruthless honesty and rich humour the inner struggle toward consciouness and conscience.

This is the unseen warfare that many spiritual traditions regard as the surest basis for peace.

Priscilla Smith (voice)
Dolphi Wertenbaker (dance)
Chris Wertenbaker (oud)
Jeff Greene (strings)

With an introduction by author and Daumal scholar, Roger Lipsey

A discussion with the audience will follow the performance

Doors open 7.00pm
General admission $25
Students $20

For information and to purchase tickets call: 416 – 469 – 2847



The Gurdjieff Foundation in Toronto’s Society for Traditonal Studies
offer a rare opportunity to attend a performance of the music of


Gurdjieff/de Hartmann
Charles Ketcham, piano
Casey Sokol, percussion

G. I. Gurdjieff (1866-1949) was a remarkable teacher, writer, composer and choreographer. His teaching, some-times referred to as the ‘Fourth Way’, blends the inner search of eastern and western traditions and speaks directly to the deeper questions facing so many spiritual seekers today.

In collaboration with Thomas de Hartmann (1885-1956), a gifted Russian composer, Gurdjieff created an impressive and inspiring body of music. Charles Ketcham is considered one of its foremost interpreters.


Friday, November 21st
8 pm at Glenn Gould Studio
CBC Building, 250 Front St W
$25/$15 students, available at the door
An open discussion follows concert.

Tickets available at:
Roy Thomson ticket office

Charles Ketcham


Charles Ketcham has conducted many of the major orchestras in the United States, including the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Dallas Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony, The Denver Symphony and the Portland Symphony. He has held the positions of Resident conductor with the Utah Symphony and the San Diego Symphony as well as Music Director of the San Diego Master Chorale and Principle Conductor of Ballet West. He has also served as principle guest conductor of the Utah Opera.

In 1963, Mr. Ketcham, studied conducting with Eric Leinsdorf at the Tanglewood Institute. In 1969, a Fullbright Fellowship enabled Mr. Ketcham to study in Vienna with the renowned Wolfgang Sawallisch and at the Sienna Academy with the legendary Franco Ferrara. During that period, he also served as Music Director of the American Opera Workshop in Vienna. Mr. Ketcham was subsequently appointed Associate Conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra, conducting tours throughout Portugal, Spain and Africa.

Mr. Ketcham has conducted orchestras in France (the Radio orchestra of Lille), Italy, Holland, and Denmark (Alborg). His most recent appearances have been with world-renowned Philharmonia of London, the Russian National Orchestra at Tschaikowsky Hall in Moscow, the Park City International Music Festival, the Julliard Orchestra, and the Munich Symphony Orchestra where he made recordings for several episodes of the “Indiana Jones” film series

After his appearance with the Symphony of the New World at Carnegie Hall the New York Times reported:

One of the sternest challenges in the symphonic repertory, Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony … was a superior effort by all … A healthy share of the credit should go to the guest conductor, Charles Ketcham”.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said of his Pittsburgh Symphony appearance:

“Ketcham’s best work was in Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite’. Everything was very much in place. He provided a stable underlying pulse, clear entrances throughout, a strong crescendo of energy in ‘The Infernal Dance’. and a sense of poetry in the ‘Lullaby’.

After leading the Philharmonia orchestra of London in the World premier of Gordon Getty’s Opera Plump Jack, The London Times wrote:

“… polished playing by the Philharmonia under Charles Ketcham.”.

Contra Costa Times reported: Russian Orchestra does a masterful Tchaikovsky…

“…the glowing highlight of the Russian National Orchestra’s concert led by guest conductor Charles Ketcham. Ketcham shaped the second movement scherzo with a deft, elegant hand. Yet it was in the third movement’s boisterous march that the conductor galvanized the performance, with each orchestral voice dynamically focused and forcefully articulated. The solemn Finale was devastating … Ketcham also led stirring performances of works by Pletnev, Gordon Getty and John Adams.”

Mr. Ketcham has recorded for RCA Red Label, Pro Arte and Varase Saraband.

Today Mr. Ketcham is considered one to the leading interpreters of the Gurdjieff / de Hartmann Music. Along with Linda Daniel Spitz and Laurence Rosenthal, Mr. Ketcham has edited the definitive edition of the Complete Gurdjieff / de Hartman Piano Music and together recorded the complete works for the German Recording label, Wergo Schallplatten.

Contact e-mail: | tel:416-485- 7908