Posts Tagged ‘Thomas de Hartmann’
Gurdjieff’s Armenian Face
Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff, a new recording of a selection from Gurdjieff’s music, is played by the Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble, directed by Levon Eskenian. Issued in 2011 by ECM, # 2236, it takes an honourable place in the contemporary trend for Armenians and Russians to show serious interest in Gurdjieff’s legacy. Gurdjieff’s writings and music are very often understood and interpreted as if they were Western European. This is hardly surprising. The last 27 or so years of his life were spent there and in the USA (with perhaps a short trip to the East), and at the time of his death he was, for most part, surrounded by persons of West European background. But just as the Bible bears many resonances and meanings only apparent to someone familiar with the ancient Middle East, so too, Gurdjieff’s music – or at least these more folkloric examples of it – come alive when treated as they are on authentic Eastern instruments by authentic Eastern musicians.
To my ear, this is the pre-eminent selection and recording of Gurdjieff’s Songs and Rhythms from Asia and Sayyid Dances. I wonder how Eskenian’s approach would work when applied to the Sacred Hymns, and especially the Hymns from a Truly Great Temple. I’m optimistic, and I do hope this CD will be succeeded by others from the Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble. Before coming to deeper issues, I deal with it track by track below, and the reader will see that while I am not much affected by some pieces, yet, the album as a whole has to be considered as something of a triumph. I would unhesitatingly pronounce it as superior, for purposes of attentive listening, to any of the piano recordings I have heard, de Hartmann’s and Rosenthal and company not excluded.
This Recording: Track by Track
The opening track, “Chant from a Holy Book”, may be the most powerful piece on the entire album. The duduk is the chief instrument here. As Eskenian notes, its “warm sound closely resembles the human voice”. The playing is influenced by Eskenian’s view that the piece, as Gurdjieff wrote it, is in the style of the “tagh”, a sacred Armenian style of pre-Christian origin. As occurs so often on this CD, the use of different instruments adds a sustained dimensionality to the work which no other recordings have ever, in my opinion, captured. The scoring is such that one can clearly and distinctly hear and hold in one’s attention the several instruments and their diverse contributions.
The “Kurd Shepherd Melody”, is played on the blul, also known as the bilur or nayy, and accompanied on the saz, wind and string instruments, respectively. These instruments are actually used by Kurdish shepherds, and their use rendered the piece totally new for me. However, it strikes me as being chiefly of folkloric, not spiritual, interest. Yet, it is of interest.
By contrast, the “Prayer”, played on “kanon”, an instrument much loved in the Middle East, has both elements. I have heard a lot of kanon in my time, and although I could be quite wrong, it seems to me that the playing and the recording provide a virtuoso crispness and clarity. Yet, despite its technical brilliance and intrinsic charm, the recording lacks a certain impact. I would have to make much the same comments about the first two minutes of track 4, “Sayyid Chant and Dance no. 10”. However, when the “chant” gives way to the “rhythmic dance” (to use Eskenian’s terms), sparks erupt. The kanon seems capable of delivering a vivid sense of the folk tradition, but the more solemn pieces somehow elude it.
“Sayyid Chant and Dance no. 29” relies upon the nayy before the kanon and other instruments enter for the dance, and the effect is quite different. The entire piece has a nobility and grace, and the kanon does indeed deliver some poignant passages.
I was struck by Eskenian’s comments that the “Armenian Song” was in the manner of a love song, because if it is, it bridges secular and divine love, such is the impact it made on me. Again, it features the plaintive sound of the duduk.
When I read the notes about the different styles of “Bayaty”, and how their first passages were improvised, it struck me that perhaps when Gurdjieff demonstrated pieces like this to de Hartmann, he too, was improvising. This could account for the some of the difficulty of transcription which de Hartmann encountered. This was the first playing I have ever heard of this or similar pieces where I had the sense that the players were improvising as they played Gurdjieff’s music. Here, it is the oud which complements the virtuoso kanon playing.
It is difficult to record the oud well, but the engineers, Armen Yeganyan and Khatchig Khatchadourian, have pulled the rabbit from the hat, and enticed these delicate sounds to dwell in the digital. The rhythmic dance which follows that passage possesses a sweeping elegance.
Why, I don’t know, but “Sayyid Chant and Dance no. 9” fell a little flat for me. It isn’t that the playing is mediocre. It is perhaps that it follows several similar pieces with improvisation-like passages followed by dances.
“No. 11” from the Asian Songs is a welcome change. Eskenian rightly refers to its “mysterious” melody. The enigmatic ending, almost a fade out, is masterfully managed.
I had never liked the “Caucasian Dance” which is track 10 on this CD. But when it is rendered as ‘a version of a Shalakho dance” which leads into “the graceful, emotive solo dance, called siuzma”, the effect is utterly fresh. Having heard this, I now realise that the piano rendition had a flatness, almost a black and white quality. But this rendition uses a bright palette of tones and colours to make a fascinating piece. To me, this is not really a spiritual piece, but, still, it has brio and zest.
The next three pieces are, to use an already overused word, awesome. “No. 40”, again, from the Asian Songs, is a dream. This is one of those which I had never heard before the Schott edition. I was intrigued by the piano music, but this recording, with an Armenian ensemble is rather sublime. Also powerful, is the strange “Trinity” piece, played as an Armenian trio might, on “tar, sandtur and dap” (a drum also known as the “daf”). The more I have listened to this CD, the more this piece keeps at me: there is something in its insistent rhythm and graceful melody which reminds me of the music Gurdjieff produced for the Enneagram movement of the early 1920s, as if saying that the spiritual reality to which it points is ever-present, ever-flowing.
Then follows the “Assyrian Women Mourners”. The use of duduks and a dap is inspired. They combine solemnity, grief and dignity. The final note is sublime.
As with the “Caucasian Dance”, I had not liked “Atarnakh, Kurd Song”, the “Arabian Dance” or “Ancient Greek Melody” before hearing this recording, but I have been converted. The piano simply does not do justice to the music, but here they come alive. “Atarnakh” has a simple, graceful, almost hypnotic sway. I can now understand how it could have been written to be played before a reading from Beelzebub. It is transporting. The “Arabian” and the “Ancient Greek Dance” aren’t so strong, meaning that the music doesn’t have the same power for me, yet, they’ve been rediscovered and revived, so to speak. Of these three, “Atarnakh” is by far the stronger for me.
Finally, the “Duduki” is one of the highlights, with the “Reading”, “Trinity”, “No. 40”, “Mourners” and “Atarnakh”. This double reed instrument all but speaks. Whoever the master musician is, his assured playing provides a fitting end to the album, allowing it to close, as it opened, with a powerful spiritual statement.
The CD is very nicely presented. It comes in a cardboard cover. Both the cover and the CD itself feature a good reproduction of that picture from Gurdjieff’s lsat years where he’s sitting on a bench by what is probably a Paris building, and a large tree shadow falls across the pavement and ground floor window. The back cover of the booklet, not the cardboard, quite appropriately shows Gurdjieff’s house in Gyumri, while inside the booklet, is an evocative picture of the roof and spires of the Sanahin monastery in Armenia. It’s a fascinating complex: one could fill one’s spare time with worse things than checking it out at this Armenian wiki site:
The number of CD releases of recordings of Gurdjieff’s music has increased quite substantially, undoubtedly occasioned by the release of four volumes of much, but not all, of Gurdjieff’s piano music. Some of these recordings have used diverse instruments, and some have added words and singing of the interpreting artist’s own device. However, in my view, none of them, not excepting the soundtrack of the Meetings movie, have used Eastern instruments with the authority and success that Eskenian’s team does.
If I had to sum it up in one phrase, I would say that this album takes the Gurdjieff music out of the polite salons of Europe and North America, and rediscovers them in the distant, rocky and mystical East. I cannot help but feel that this is something Eskenian and his crew can be proud of. And I feel, if one can venture such a comment, that Gurdjieff too, would be proud, for he tried to link East and West by new lines of understanding. Eskenian is clearly sympathetic to Gurdjieff and his work. As the recording makes clear, he does not interpret Gurdjieff in a narrow Armenian manner, but is quite aware and respectful of Gurdjieff’s broader influences.
There is no point in repeating the many sound points which Eskenian makes in his liner notes. But one of them is critical, and presents an objective reason for interpreting Gurdjieff’s music using an Eastern ensemble:
… these indigenous Eastern instruments are capable of producing microtonal intervals, rhythms and other nuances that are essential parts of Eastern music.
I will not go into it here, but for me, these elements are all crucial in understanding Gurdjieff’s work. He was almost an engineer of the laws of the spiritual world. These laws are such that to us they are not laws as the laws of physics and chemistry are, but partake more of the nature of art, or even magic. However, this is an opportunity to provide some important material about Gurdjieff which is not readily available. Below I copy my transcription of some comments made by Thomas de Hartmann in an undated recording.
Thomas de Hartmann: At certain points in space, where the emanations of the earth encounter the emanations of the Sun Absolute, that means, the emanations of the Almighty, at these points is a reflection, an image – a something which can be seen, assumed, felt, from the Almighty. And, for earth people, with concentration, it is possible to visualise, to see in a certain manner, inner, the emanations of the Almighty.
Of course, for this, a very great deep concentration is wanted. Here we understand why Gurjivanch put always a great weight on music. He himself played and he also composed, and he wrote down things, and so on.
If we compare the music of all the religions, we can see that music plays a great role, a great part in – so to say – religious service. but after the work of Gurdjivanch we can understand it more, that music helps to concentrate oneself, to bring oneself to an inner state when we can ?assume with greatest possible emanations. That is why music is just the thing which helps you to see higher.
Levon Eskenian- Artistic Director
Levon Eskenian is an Armenian composer and pianist who was born in Lebanon in 1978. In 1996 he moved to Armenia where he currently lives. In 2005 he graduated from Yerevan Komitas State Conservatory with a Master’s degree in piano (class of professor Robert Shugarov). In 2007 he obtained his postgraduate degree from the class of Professor Willy Sargsyan. He has also studied composition, organ and improvisation classes at the Conservatory and harpsichord in Austria and Italy with the English organist and harpsichordist Christopher Stembridge.
Joseph Azize, 10 January 2012
Joseph Azize is presently an Honorary Associate with the Dept. of Religious Studies at the University of Sydney. In April, he will be delivering a paper there on J.G. Bennett as a student of mysticism. He has published academically in ancient Near Eastern history, in law, and in religious studies. His latest effort, an article on Gurdjieff’s sacred movements and dances, will be published later this year in a Brill volume edited by Carole Cusack and others.
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.
Tibi Cantamus, No. 2
Hymn from a Great Temple, No. 1
Ancient Greek Melody
Armenian Song, No. 1
Hymn (Jan. 6, 1927)
The Initiation of the Priestess
Hymn (Jan. 2, 1927)
Dance Rhythm (Nov. 29, 1925)
Armenian Song, No. 2
Untitled Melody (Jan. 1, 1926)
Moorish Dance (Dervish)
Prayer and Despair
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.
JRC reviews “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way”
Pierre Bonnasse, the author of the book that I am about to review,
lives in Paris and calls himself “a student of the Fourth Way.” His
photograph on his personal website shows him to be a young,
late-blooming hippie, complete with long hair and an appearance that
may be described as “determinedly poetic.” Biographical details are
sparse, but it seems Bonnasse holds a doctorate in literature from the
Sorbonne where he has taught writing.
He is the author of a book of poems “Dans la nuit d’Aghtamar” and an
anthology of passages about psychedelics called “Les voix de l’Extase.”
“Mode d’emploi de la parole analogue” is a book about words and
esotericism and it was published by Editions Dervy in Paris in 2005.
In 2008 it was translated into English as “The Magic Language of the
Fourth Way” and published by Inner Traditions, the Vermont-based
imprint devoted to quality books that are stocked –or should be
stocked – by the proprietors of metaphysical bookshops.
On his website Bonnasse describes himself as a “chercheur d’inspiration
transdisciplinaire.” A critic describes him in an amusing phrase as “a
provocateur of epiphanies.” The author himself writes, “I feel an
incredible closeness” to René Daumal and André Velter. I am familiar
with the writings of the French poet Daumal, but not with Velter’s
books about travel in the Orient or his poetry, despite the fact that
he is a holder of the Prix Goncourt. The late surrealist writer
Charles Duits is another of Bonnasse’s favourites. Bonnasse is widely
read in the literature of the Fourth Way though not widely read in
contemporary poetry generally.
Enough said about the author; here is some information on his first
book in English. “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way” bears the
subtitle “Awakening the Power of the Word” and has been feelingly
translated by Ariel Godwin, an American who is a professional editor
and translator of books largely devoted to the mysterious from four
languages: French, German, Italian, Spanish. I have yet to read
Bonnasse in French, but Godwin has created a “speaking voice” for
Bonnasse in English. (The slip-ups are minor: the proper abbreviation
of Neuro Lingusitic Programming, the spelling of T.S. Eliot’s last
name – on that level, hardly worth a mention.)
Inner Traditions has produced a quality trade paperback, 6″ x 9″,
xxxvi + 348 pages, with notes, bibliography, and detailed index. A
special feature is ten pages of diagrams and five pages of photographs
of Daumal, Charles Duits, Jeanne and Alexandre de Salzmann, Thomas de
Hartmann, G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky. $24.95.
Readers of this review will know about René Daumal whose principle
works are now available in English. The writings of Charles Duits,
mentioned above, are less well known to English readers than they
should be because they have not been translated. Duits died in 1991
and is remembered as a French writer of fantastic fiction who was
influenced by the surrealists and by Gurdjieff. In turn Duits had a
big influence on Bonnasse.
The English-language title draws attention to the Work, unlike the
title of the French original, and in doing so it expresses the author’s
indebtedness to Daumal, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Duits. There are
only passing references to Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists, to
René Guenon and the Traditionalists, and only one to Rudolf Steiner of
the Anthroposophists. Yet if there is a skeleton key to unlock the
theme and subject of this book, it is the one remark quoted from
Steiner: “Enthusiasm carries the spirit in itself.”
In terms of etymology, the word “enthusiasm” includes the notion of
“theos” or “god,” and in terms of Bonnasse’s book his personal
enthusiasm carries the entire book. To a rare degree he finds the Work
so meaningful that he has internalized it, so that one taste leads to
another taste, one perception to another perception, and one concept
to another concept. The book is his one long re-enactment within a
charmed circle of what excites him and inspires him about esotericism
and how it impacts on the seven-levels of language.
In structure the book is divided somewhat arbitrarily into three acts
with a total of twelve scenes. Each scene is an “essay” or “talk.”
Here are the acts: Part I is called “The Terror of the Situation” and
it describes “word prostitution” (to which I will shortly return).
Part II is titled “The Awakening of Hope” and it sketches in the Law
of Triamazikamno (three) and the Law of Heptaparaparshinokh (seven) as
embodied in the figure of the enneagram. Part III is named “The
Esoteric Work” and it deals with “legominisms.” As for the scenes,
these chapters seem to be organized on the basis of a course on the
Fourth Way, one that focuses on personal transformation through the
creative (read conscious) use of words.
Bonnase is concerned with “word prostitution,” a notion introduced by
Gurdjieff and used by Daumal. It refers to the mechanical or
manipulatory misuse of wordages and wordings. The author is so wrapped
up in the Work that it never occurs to him to see “word prostitution”
as a human condition that has been addressed by the world’s major
religions through the ages. I will digress a bit and suggest that in
its widest context “word prostitution” is really catchy and
contemporary shorthand for the old sin of simony.
Simony has never been included on the traditional list of the Seven
Deadly Sins, but it should appear on any new, updated list. It sounds
out of date because it recalls the name of Simon Magnus, the sorcerer
rebuked by St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles because he offered to
purchase the secret behind Paul’s miraculous powers. Simony is one of
the cardinal sins of the Western world in the Twenty-first Century.
Usually defined as the specialized sin of buying or selling
ecclesiastical favours, simony is more significant and prevalent than
that. It refers generally to the misuse of spiritual gifts –
imagination, sensitivity, talent, ability, insight – for gross or
ignoble ends. “Word prostitution” is a specialized form of simony,
familiar to us in the form of election speeches, advertising, TV
situation comedies, ministers’ homilies, televangelists, etc. As he
expostulates, “Rare are those who do not propagate word prostitution,
and there is no lack of candidates for the position of universal
Hasnamuss.” The idea goes back to Francis Bacon and forward to
Stephane Mallarmé and T.S. Eliot.
Bonnase knows simony in the form of “word prostitution” and he becomes
something of a moralist or preacher or instructor himself in his
attempt to define it, expose it, and expunge it. The misuse of words
is a sacrilege. He sees simony in terms of the hierarchy of man. On
each level, man must use the language appropriate to that level. There
are seven levels, ranging from the material to the spiritual. He gives
each man on each level his own label. These labels are
“Pseudoanthrope, Romantic, Savant, Apprentice Speaker, Authentic,
Objective, and Master. These “name tags” relate to men’s centres and
so correspond to Gurdjieff’s human types. The first name is new one to
me; it comes from one of Druits’s books.
As I mentioned earlier, Charles Duits is something of a discovery.
Perhaps some enterprising publisher will commission translations of
such books of his as Le Pays de l’éclairement (1994) and La Salive de
l’éléphant (1999). While we are at it, Bonnase has whetted my appetite
for the books of other French authors who are alive to the Work, but
whose works are still unavailable in English. Here are some authors’
names from his index: Jean Biès, Christian Bouchet, Jean-Yves Leloup,
Georges de Maleville, Patrick Negrier, Jean-Yves Pouilloux, Michel
Random, Jean-Philippe de Tonnac. I find characteristic of the French
texts about the Work is a subtlety of observation and expression that
is often lacking in comparable English texts. But then that is a
quality of much French poetry, fiction, philosophy, and religious
Bonnasse explains, “The goal of this work is to present a new theory
of language …. ” He makes that statement on the first page of his
book, yet because he lacks his own particular theory and fails to
develop concerns that are recognizably his own, Bonnasse tacks from
one theory to another, including those of Count Korzybski, Roman
Jakobson, and Gurdjieff. The latter’s theory, to the degree that it is
at all theoretical, is filtered through Daumal’s writings which are
amazingly sensitive to nuance yet vigorously imaginative. Bonnasse is
a great appreciator of modern mystical literature and he sees it not
in light of Tradition as such but in light of the Fourth Way.
It is well known that Gurdjieff made a notable distinction between
“objective art” and “subjective art,” but for all the fascination of
that dichotomy, it is regularly illustrated with instances of great
architecture (Sphinx, Mont-Saint-Michel, etc.) but seldom with works
of great literature (other than, perhaps, some scriptures). Still, I
found interesting the statement that Gurdjieff divides writings into
three different modes. These modes are said to be the scientific, the
narrative, and the descriptive. It sets me thinking … but again it
is difficult to use such distinctions to shed any light on literature
itself. Bonnasse persists in calling the spiritual use of language
“word magic” without dealing with any single concept of magic and or
any real sense of how it differs from the miraculous, the mythical,
the spiritual, and the metaphysical, if indeed it does.
Bonnasse is more convincing when it comes to the figure of the
enneagram. What has always appealed to me about this nine-interval
schematic diagram is that it is unicursal, which means that it may be
traced with a single line without backtracking. (I spent many
otherwise idle moments figuring out how to do this without pen and
paper and without peeking.) The author knows his enneagram and shows
how it combines 3 and 7 and he uses it to illustrate how one may
advance in stages: from Word (3) to Sound (6) to Rhythm (9); or from
Word (3) to Thing (6) to Consciousness (9); or from Speaker (3) to
Listener (6) to Message (9). He works in the “intervals.” It occurs to
me here for the first time that we are dealing with more than Hegel’s
“thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” for the reason that whereas Hegel’s
final “synthesis” is viewed as the extinguishing or exhausting of
forces, Gurdjieff’s “third force” is indeed a force in its own right.
Bonnasse has some original thoughts to convey on poetry – for
instance, how rhythm is not to be mistaken for metre. The key to this
is the fact that rhythm is seen as the synthesis, indeed a force in
its own right (9), not the neutralization of either the positive force
(3) or the negative force (6). Without rhythm the word is dead, the
language is not alive, and man remains in a stupor or a state of
sleep. The notion is advanced that the things of this world have
rightful names and sounds, but only in certain circumstances and in
certain ways are these names to be pronounced or sounded. So step by
step the author moves in a spiral-like fashion and in his own magical
way to arrive at the statement that “a poem is a portal between
There is a statement beloved of creative writing instructors who
assert that you should only write about what you know. I have always
found that to be a dubious piece of advice – did Dante visit
Purgatorio? did Tolstoy meet Napoleon? did Arthur C. Clarke set foot
on the spacecraft Rama? Certainly the writer must know himself or
herself and the self-knowledge might come through the process of the
writing. Whether it is doubtful or not, Bonnasse gives the statement
greater resonance, when he states: “If the goal of objective
literature is the awakening of readers, writing must first be a
technique of awakening and consciousness for the author, otherwise
there will be no evolution of saying, no advance in the level of the
Bonnasse sees writing as a conscious act, a form of praying, a way of
being, a state of consciousness. If that is so, it is also true that
reading is or may a conscious act, a form of praying, a way of being.
Jeffrey Kirpal in his mammoth book “Esalen” makes an interesting
observation about mythologist Joseph Campbell. He does so in these
words: “Campbell commonly denied any real interest in actual spiritual
experience or religious experimentalism. He made it quite clear that
his spiritual practice consisted of reading, reading, and more
reading. He thus showed little real interest in many of the
meditative, somatic, or explicitly religious practices in which Esalen
had put so much hope. Or rather, he proposed deep and extensive
reading as the transformative practice.” The path may be that of the
pen travelling across the blank scrap or sheet of paper, or a pair of
eyes tracking words line by line and sensing their sounds and
The real poet or writer is not the fakir, the monk, or the yogi, but
the “sly man,” for the reason that the experience that Gurdjieff
offers is “by definition _transpoetic_.” In real writing the real
writer works on and with the centres: “In writing, he must observe the
functioning of his machine in order not to be duped by his
mechanisms.” By way of illustration Bonnasse leans on two of Daumal’s
literary works: “A Night of Serious Drinking” (an essayistic novel in
the spirit of the Platonic dialogue “Symposium”) and “Poetry Black,
Poetry White” (an essay that distinguishes between what in other
contexts might be called writing “in bad faith” versus writing “in
good faith”). He reproduces all five pages of Daumal’s prose poem “The
Holy War” and in this context the discursive work (it is not a
dramatic work) takes on a live of its own.
In another way Bonnasse makes a contribution. He describes “the Way of
Blame” and identifies it with Gurdjieff. It is apparent he regards
“Beelzebub’s Tales” as the literary expression of the notion of
“blame,” for he writes, “‘Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson,’ that
magnificent work containing some twelve hundred of the prickliest
pages ever written, is a perfect example of this master-disciple
relationship transferred to the author-reader relationship: satire
incarnate, the highest achievement of the art of bad taste.”
Bonnasse is able to detect the expression of “blame” in the literary
modes of satire and irony. Earlier in the book he refers to Beckett’s
“Waiting for Godot.” It is obvious there is a parallel here between
the ironic mode and the mythic mode (a key point in the work of
Northrop Frye). “Beelzebub” is seen as one elastic-like work which
stretches across time and languages, securing the myths of the past to
the ironies of the present day.
“Reading is then no longer passive and mechanical, but active, and it
becomes real teaching. All great texts are either like this or they
are not.” I like the word “not” for it is double-edged. “Beelzebub”
requires active reading. “Each reading is a new experience, forever a
fresh source of knowledge. This is because this work, in particular,
is a _legominism_ – an initiatory mode of transmitting the truth.”
Bonnasse continues in this vein and makes some excellent points that
are fully relevant, which I will summarize in point form: legominism
in art and artifacts = legominism in beings who are initiates
(“leomanism?”); repetition = mnemonic aid; obscurity = requiring
exacting work; tales = truths; author’s distancing effect = reader’s
perspective on self; myth = Eliade’s “sacred history”; words = speech;
text = context of reader’s life. Many of these insights into
“Beelzebub” are derived from Duits’s writings, especially those
passages quoted by Michael Walberg in “Gurdjieff: An Approach to His
Ideas.” To the points made above, Bonnasse adds this one from the
enneagram: from Seeker (3) to Knowledge (6) to Myths and Symbols.
The use of psychedelics in ancient and modern times is the subject of
the second-last chapter. It considers Gurdjieff’s view and use of the
same, including “a special chemistry that could be used for
maneuvering the human machine.” Interestingly he refers to such
hallucinogenics as “unlimiters” and even discusses how language and
sound are employed by shamans under their influence. The autochthonous
power of speech is discussed, and it is noted that in an inspired
state it seems that when a man speaks the truth (as Octavio Paz
observed) “it is the language that speaks.”
The last chapter, titled “Movement in the Creative Process: From the
Dance to the Word,” is a condensed but concentrated account of
“movement” in the Work and its relationship with “the word.” It is up
to us to embody this movement: “Nothing remains but to act, to
remember ourselves, to engage in the harmony of things and being, to
form ourselves with the power of experience, and to dare to seek this
absolute, in order to _become_ and recover the primordial word intact
in the crucible of revelations, the primordial speech that has never
ceased living and shines in the hearts of all with a thousand lights.”
This last chapter is followed by a Conclusion and an Afterword, just
as the first chapter is preceded by a total of not two but four
subsections (Acknowledgements, Preface to the American Edition,
Preface to the First Edition, and Introduction). The book seems not to
end; it runs on like a periodic sentence. There is a sense in which
Pierre Bonnasse’s book resembles a music box: Lift its lid and it
plays. Open this book and it offers the leitmotif of the Fourth Way
with scores of variations.
Pierre Bonnasse is possessed with his subject, and by his subject,
with the result that “The Magic Language of the Fourth Way” brims over
with good spirits and bubbles over with enthusiasm and recurrence and
reiteration and recapitulation. The argument may be diffuse, even
scattered, but the insights are so pivotal that the reader is left to
wonder why the points did not occur to him or to her before Bonnasse
gave them expression. This is language itself at work in the spirit of
The feeling I have is that Bonnasse is a third-generation Gurdjieffian
in the sense that he is steeped in the work through the availability
of formerly withheld texts and that he is living in a time and a place
marked by the ready acceptance of ideas of personal transformation so
that he is able to internalize work principles to an unheralded
The first generation of pioneers of the Fourth Way have receded into
the honourable past; the second generation of organizers and
systematizers have done their landmark work by building their
organizations and leaving their marks; so it is now the time for the
third generation, a still-young young group of creators, to take root
and grow in individual and distinct fields of expression … in
composition or performance, be it in music, dance, writing,
literature, philosophy, fine art, film, and so on. There has always
been a spiritual dimension to poetry, something “magical” about all
the arts. So our time may truly be “the dawn of the magicians.”
John Robert Colombo is known as “Canada’s Mr. Mystery” for such
compilations as “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories.” He combines
two of his interests – Canadiana and consciousness studies – in his
recently issued collection of essays (many reprinted from this blog)
titled “Whistle While You Work.” He is an Association of the Northrop
Frye Centre, Victoria College, University of Toronto.