The Gurdjieff Literature, 2012
These are simply some notes of Gurdjieff-related literature which came to my attention in 2012, and which have provoked in me thoughts which seem worth sharing. The most important of this selection is, without doubt, the MP3 recording of A.G.E. Blake’s reading of Meetings With Remarkable Men. This small CD has been significant to me. In addition to the impact of hearing the text read, I had not realised why Meetings benefited by being heard as opposed to being read. It is, I am fairly confident, because by making the effort to follow the spoken word, we receive the text in a new tempo. One’s accustomed tempo of reading to oneself allows us to pass over small words and phrases so lightly that they leave no appreciable impression. We subliminally notice certain parts and ignore others. The same is not true when one hears it read, at least not to the same extent.
But the value is even greater when the lector, to use a word from divine liturgy, reads at a pace influenced by the contents and nature of what is being read. Blake does not read at all theatrically, but allows each word its weight. The result is that countless passages, sentence, phrases and words burst into meaning for me. I shall not give examples, lest I rob the reader of their own discoveries. Suffice it to say that listening to this CD has brought me closer to Gurdjieff’s ideas and methods, and, I think, helped to balance my perspective on them.
I now see that, although the text is clearly auto-mythological (which word I am coining to refer to an apparently autobiographical work which offers mythology rather than biography), we nonetheless have to start with the story as it is. The text may work within us, through the mysterious laws of association (deep calls to deep) suggesting different interpretations, dimensions and connections. But there is no need to analyse it: there is no need, if one has accepted the narrative as if it were history. The book is addressed to the whole of us; it is a loss to redirect the invitation to the head.
The movie, beautiful as it was, comprised a series of vignettes held together only by chronology. The Blake recording showed me what the film missed: as it was made, the move omitted Gurdjieff. Of course Gurdjieff was shown in it. Yes, but not in his most important role, that of narrator. Hearing the recording, one cannot but be struck by the presence of the narrator. Almost all of the words, phrases and sentences which now burst into meaning for me were spoken by the narrator: they provide coherence to the inner content. To leave them out is to make a necklace without some of the most important beads and without any thread. When de Salzmann made the Lubovedsky incident the climax, she lost Gurdjieff’s chosen ending: the last reunion with Skridlov. Re-read that last paragraph, the one commencing: “Formerly, it may be said …” and you will see what I mean. That is where the movie should have ended: anything else misses the point, Gurdjieff’s point.
This leads me to the last example I will offer of my revivified interest in Meetings. It also strikes me that Gurdjieff may have been telling the literal truth when he told of the “duel with cannon”. I have often wondered why Gurdjieff’s system never produces people like himself. From time to time, piano teachers have pupils who are as proficient as themselves if not better. The same happens everywhere, in sports, art, literature, science and religion. This never happens with the Gurdjieff work. It is said that Gurdjieff himself declared that anyone could achieve what he had if they were prepared to suffer as he had. I do not believe it. Many people in groups have suffered very considerably, and yet no one even comes close to Gurdjieff in terms of being and understanding. Why? Could it be that Gurdjieff’s experience on the cannon range was, for him, an artificial organ “to constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests”? Perhaps that accident allowed Gurdjieff to make a breakthrough. One could not set out to repeat that now, for one’s very identification with the goal would hinder the aimed for result. However, if there is something in this, it could help to explain the strange paradox which led Ouspensky to despair: the system seems true, but the promised result of development never proceeds beyond a limited level, which is hardly distinguishable from the level one finds in life.
Three Books by Pupils of Pupils
If I am right that, in some way, Gurdjieff was an anomaly, then those who knew him benefitted from close contact with that anomalous individual, because what he had could not be passed down any other way with anything like the same impact. Of course, the personal touch always makes a difference, even at universities. But I do not think that what I have said is a truism. Although Gurdjieff collected the fragments of a hitherto unknown teaching, his own being remained anomalous: he was not able to raise his pupils to his own level, and they have not been able to pass their benefit on to others with anything like the success which attended Gurdjieff. It has always struck me as lawful that the pupils who received the most from Gurdjieff were the most individual. These were the mavericks, the Orages, Bennetts, Staveleys, Heaps and Adies. I could be wrong, but so it seems to me. Only now are we starting to reap a harvest of literature about these pupils of the Master.
This is significant, because it means that the second generation pupils, those who learnt from those who knew Gurdjieff, are starting to find their confidence to speak about those who had taught them. Until recently, very few had written, partly because many of the first generation pupils were still alove. Paterson was one exception. I believe he possessed credentials in journalism. A more notable exception, both for content and depth was David Kherdian, who was already an accomplished and decorated author, and wrote about Mrs Staveley while she was still alive. However, this is rare. For the most part, we of the second generation have been silent until after our teachers’ deaths.
This phenomenon of recording the teaching of those who learned from Gurdjieff is also important because those who knew him personally were often able to apply his teaching in novel contexts. Some of them, such as Solange Claustres and especially Bennett and Nicoll, not only recorded valuable sayings of Gurdjieff’s, but also drew from his ideas interesting ideas of their own. A few months ago, I read three examples of these books by the second generation pupils which preserve something of the influence of the first generation. I will start with Notes on the Next Attention, which is Fran Shaw’s notebook of her time with Michel de Salzmann at Chandolin.
It is a nice book, very peaceful, and sometimes touching. By moments it is even powerful. De Salzmann made a substantial impression on Shaw, and she has creditably laid herself down, as it were, to allow him to be heard. It would be quibbling to criticise or analyse these quotes. They partake of the nature of poetry, e.g. “Stillness: what is still is the attention” (118). Perhaps to encourage one to meditate upon rather than hurry when reading it, it is broken into many small chapters with blank pages in between. The book, is, I think, valuable as conveying a subjective approach to the mystery of conscious development which was influenced by Gurdjieff, although it does not strike me as being entirely true to Gurdjieff’s line.
I paid hard-earned money for Remembering Being With My Teacher, by Ashala Gabriel. I feel somewhat cheated that I wasn’t warned. Gabriel places the emphasis on the two letter word in the title, to the extent that I often felt that this was an exercise in self-expression, a personal sketch with words rather than pencil lines. It certainly does not appear to me as if it was systematically written as a book intended to convey meaning to the readers. Take this passage, for example: “… I never again had a smidgeon of doubt about my naturally-mystical nature which my teacher had now demonstrated and confirmed nor about the reality of these magical-Harry-Potter-made-visible worlds he and I could avail ourselves of undetectably …” (p.114). What can this mean, and what does it matter to another soul in the world that her nature is not just naturally mystical but “naturally-mystical”, if you please? Similarly, at p.82 we read about “Having had a few touches with these splitting of atoms and reconfigurings of cells we mystics can come by somewhat naturally …”. I respect her devotion, and am not attacking her as a person, but I am critical of the decision to publish and sell these elitist and self-satisfied indulgences. I can’t see why the following, like almost all of these episodes, does not belong to Pentland and herself alone: “When I opened my eyes and slowly-emerged out of my re-incarnated-dream-body, my teacher, Lord Pentland, stood both with and before me, wearing the most unforgettably-collusive-Cheshire-cat-smile, as we co-inhabited the core of this now-silver-white-light-body-reality …” (106). The five page summary at the end of the 140 page, would have been sufficient, and some of the material there is quite good. If Gabriel would care to write something more straightforward, which sheds light on questions of general concern, I sure it could be quite worthwhile. I am keen to learn more about Lord Pentland, having myself fairly recently cast doubts on the objectivity of Moore’s Eminent Gurdjieffians. But this “book” does not enlighten me at all.
Far more to my taste is the book I most value of these three, James Opie’s Approaching Inner Work: Michael Currer-Briggs and the Gurdjieff Teaching. Opie’s notes were checked by Briggs himself before his death, and Briggs, a pupil first of Jane Heap, but then of Gurdjieff, was clearly a man of some wisdom. For me, the centrepiece is perhaps the story concerning his relations with his brother at pp.45-47. What is really striking about this book is the practicality of what Briggs had to say. Compare, for example, the chapter on justifying and explaining (pp.59-62), or what is said about self-criticism and self-respect at 75-76, and certainty at 83-84. There is nothing like it in either of the other two books. Interestingly, Opie has taken care to make what he writes clear. It would be mean spirited to make this criticism of Shaw’s book – it is of an entirely different nature. This little tribute to Briggs shows the value of just doing a job without any show or fanfare, but doing it well. Opie and Shaw can be proud of their volumes, but of course, their true pride is that they accepted their vocations to write those books, and did so with something like humility.
There is just one further point about Opie’s book which I would like to note: Opie clearly disliked the “separation” (let us put it that simply for the sake of argument) between the Foundation and people like Bennett and Staveley. He does not mention this in a polemical way: his attitude merely sets the backdrop for Briggs’ impartial comments. I have no criticism of him for that, but his remarks made me start thinking: why was there ever this “us and them” mentality? Why was it ever thought that Gurdjieff’s pupils should all be in one institution or society? It is not decisive, but after Gurdjieff’s Institute folded, he could have, but did not ever re-instigate it. I could state my opinion at further length, but it is sufficient for this review to restate the question: why did these “separations” loom so large in the generations after Gurdjieff’s death? For example, the walls of suspicion which built up were such that the Gurdjieff groups in Australia, which could and should have flourished, and did so briefly with the Adies, are now practically moribund.
Gurdjieff in the Public Eye
Paul Beekman Taylor is, I would say, the leading Gurdjieff scholar today. I am making no comment in any direction about anything other than his scholarship. But as a scholar, he is in a position to, and I would suggest he should, write de novo a new biography of Gurdjieff. His valuable G.I. Gurdjieff: A New Life too often, in my view, refers back to Moore’s ‘anatomy of a myth”. That is a good and useful book, and Moore’s achievement was impressive for a person with his limited academic background. I am not criticising that book. But I am certain that Taylor could produce something different, and of even greater value. And about two years ago Taylor performed a service in collecting and editing the materials in Gurdjieff in the Public Eye: Newspaper articles, Magazines and Books 1914-1949. I am presently reading his recent Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff, but apart from highly recommending it, shall not offer any review right now.
As with practically everything Eureka produce, Gurdjieff in the Public Eye is well-made, easy to read, and attractive. At least all of the known material, with immaterial exceptions, is now to be found within one set of covers. The article by Zigrosser at pp.177-184 is a minor classic. This man’s understanding of Gurdjieff was astounding. At pp.193-194 is a letter from Gurdjieff which I cannot recall having seen before. It is not profound, but it is full of Gurdjieff’s dry humour. The volume is full of small details which shed a different light on Gurdjieff. For example, for the first time ever, in Gorham Munson’s valuable article, did I learn that Gurdjieff sometimes drove “very carefully” (209), which makes me wonder, how much of the Gurdjieff legend is a caricature?
I shall certainly be mining this book for the many comments and asides which, but for it, may have been overlooked for ever. I shall not list all of them here. However, to give but one example, in the early days when journalists and visitors were able to speak with Gurdjieff directly, the question of whether other people had succeeded in achieving the aim of the system was raised. That Gurdjieff took this question seriously and answered it directly supports me in my critique of the Gurdjieff work as it is today (see pp. 34-35, 53-54 and 155, and along pertinent lines, p.83).
That Gurdjieff courted publicity, and later did not, does not – to my mind – necessarily mean that his earlier attitude was wrong and his later one was right – it may just show that different policies are appropriate at different times. A more interesting question is: if the leaders of the Gurdjieff groups were to be interviewed today, what could they show of themselves to distinguish the groups from any other self-development society, or from Buddhism, or even from religious institutions? What if the enquiry were extended to those of us who were once but no longer are in groups? Could any of us impress with our being the way that Gurdjieff did, or anything remotely like it? This is not to say that our experience of Gurdjieff has been without value – for many of us it straightened us out and allowed us to make something of our lives. Heaven only knows where I would be today had I not met Mr Adie. But I know that I am not half the man he was, and he would not even have made that comparison between Gurdjieff and himself.
The answer to my rhetorical question is obvious, but one question remains, what does this say about Gurdjieff’s ideas and methods? Clearly there is a flaw somewhere, but where? Could it be as radical as the issue of the aim of human existence? Could it have something to do with the relation between God and man? This is not the place to defend my view, but I should state it here: I do not believe that any view of human history or destiny which omits the position of Jesus of Nazareth – simultaneously central and transcendent – can be objective.
The books mentioned are available, inter alia, from By The Way Books. The CD is available from http://www.anthonyblake.co.uk, or you could try the Duversity site, which has the requisite links.
JOSEPH AZIZE has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, ‘George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia’ represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.
“Maronites” is pp.279-282 of “The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia” published by Cambridge University Press and edited by James Jupp.