John Robert Colombo reviews Gurdjieff’s Early Talks

Gurdjieff’s Early Talks is a substantial volume, both physically and psychologically. As if to prove the truth of that statement, the book bears one of the longest title-subtitle combinations on record: Gurdjieff’s Early Talks 1914-1931 in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Essentuki, Tiflis, Constantinople, Berlin, Paris, London, Fontainebleau, New York, and Chicago. That is eleven cities in all!

The tome measures 8.5″ x 5.5″ and has a heavy card cover with pages that are light cream in colour. While the type is small, it is surprisingly easy to read. Here is the pagination: xx+442+vi. The publisher is Book Studio, a company that was founded in London, England, in 2008. Its website < http://bookstudio.co.uk/&gt; rewards checking , for it offers for sale a roster of new and reprinted Work-related books, all beautifully designed and printed and less well known than they should be.

One of its recent compilations is Orage’s Commentary on Gurdjieff’s ‘Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson’: New York Talks 1926-1930 which appeared in 2013. It consists of A.R. Orage’s lecture notes, edited with care by Lawrence Morris and Sherman Manchester. I devoted a fair amount of time reading the book from cover to cover. The text is quite repetitive and it made me think of the musical convention of “theme and variations” and specifically of Wallace Stevens’s ingenious poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Yet Orage was a brilliant writer, personality, and presenter, so the reader learns something new even when the author covers familiar ground.

Book Studio’s website also lists what must be a companion volume to the present one, a volume that I have yet to see. I have made a note to order it. Its title is as follows: Transcript of Gurdjieff’s Wartime Meetings 1941-46. Here is a description of its contents from Book Studio’s website:

“With the outbreak of the Second World War, Gurdjieff’s American and English students were unable to return to Nazi occupied Paris, nevertheless, Gurdjieff continued to teach despite difficult and dangerous wartime conditions. In 1938, Jeanne de Salzmann introduced her French work group to him, and with this nucleus, Gurdjieff held regular meetings at his Paris flat throughout the occupation.

“In question and answer format, Gurdjieff answers his students’ questions on practical work in daily life and gives specific advice, guidance, and exercises. Among those present in Gurdjieff’s company at this time were René Daumal, Luc Dietrich, Jeanne de Salzmann, Tcheslaw Tchekhovich, Henri Tracol and René Zuber. Thirty-three meetings held at 6, rue des Colonels Renard, Paris. Second edition with new material. Complete and unexpurgated.”

Since I am quoting from the publisher’s catalogue copy online, I will reprint the website’s description of the present publication, the one being reviewed here: Gurdjieff’s Early Talks.

“The talks in this volume are not verbatim transcriptions. In the early years of Gurdjieff’s exposition of the fourth way teaching, he rarely allowed notes to be taken during his talks. The majority of his early talks were written down after the fact by pupils who were present, either individually or collectively, and should be taken as recollections of what people believed Gurdjieff to have said.

“The provenance of the talks are library archives, private collections, and individuals from all around the world. They have been arranged chronologically and are presented in this edition for the first time in their entirety. [The last three words appear in italics in the original.] Over one hundred authentic talks, unaltered and unexpurgated. Illustrated and fully indexed, with exercises, sayings and aphorisms.”

So the present book is a bonanza for the reader. A feature that goes unmentioned is the forty-six photographs that are reproduced (rather indistinctly, unfortunately) from the collection of the multi-talented impresario Gert-Jan Blom. There are also perhaps half that number of line drawings devoted to the interactions of the centres. There is a one-page bibliography and a ten-page, detailed index. This is a generous book.

I have yet to mention the contribution of Joseph Azize who is no stranger to this website (which is maintained by Sophia Wellbeloved in Cambridge, England). In an appreciative foreword titled “In Appreciation: A Short Essay of Commendation,” Azize extolls this “practical system of ideas and methods, which, if diligently applied, would bridge the gap between dream and reality.” He continues, “The path which Gurdjieff pointed to does not lead straight out of the world, but through it, fulfilling the legitimate demands of daily life.”

By now the Work in the West is a century old and Azize argues that it has reached “a critical point … an interval or gap.” The note do represents Gurdjieff’s personal efforts, the note re the work of his direct pupils, and the note mi the publication of his writings and music. The mi-fa interval requires “access to all of his talks, transcripts and papers in their original form,” and it also requires that there be access to “even the English version of Beelzebub, upon which Gurdjieff manifestly placed so much of his hopes.”

With respect to Gurdjieff’s Early Talks, Azize states that “books like this one are vital for the entirety of the Gurdjieff work.” The transmission of the legacy requires this or “the direction will veer off into tangents. The Gurdjieff Work will lose its vivifyingness.” Azize’s argument makes sense in the context of the Work, yet it is hard to imagine how the preservation and publication of texts like these, with their limited distribution, will add the necessary “shock.” He recognizes this and faults the publication of Views from the Real World because “it was neither transparent nor respectful of the integrity of the texts.” He concludes this line of argument: “Sometimes, to polish is to tarnish. And here, at last, are the unpolished texts, taken down by anonymous pupils.”

It is interesting that nowhere in his foreword does he mention the name of P.D. Ouspensky who did more than anyone else at the time to preserve Gurdjieff’s verba ipsissima. Nor does he refer to the more recent achievement of Stephen A. Grant who worked to the same end through the redaction of a fresh translation of Gurdjieff’s words in Ouspensky’s text in a form that has appeal to today’s serious reading public. I am referring to Grant’s adventurous volume – it is not temerareous at all – titled The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff. It is a collaboration across time, across the interval, so to speak, presumably what Azize has in head and heart and hand.

In these pages there are texts of 103 talks, some as short as a paragraph in length, others more than twenty pages long, to a word-count in the neighbourhood of 186,000 words. Here is what is colloquially known as “god’s plenty,” rather more than one would expect covering only seventeen years of Gurdjieff’s life. The editing is seemingly effortless, though here and there, near the beginning, I found myself wondering, “Who is speaking?” After reading all the texts, it comes as a relief to discover two short sections titled “Sayings” and “Aphorisms.”

Here are two instances from the former: “Real art is knowledge, not talent” and “Think of what you feel, and feel what you think.” Here are two instances from the latter: “Like what ‘it’ does not like” and “There are here no Russians, or English, Jews or Christians, but only those who follow one aim – to be able to do.” As a collector of quotations myself, I am delighted to have these terse expressions at hand, though I find myself scratching my head as to why the former are described as sayings while the latter are considered to be aphorisms: they seem to me to be much alike coming from the same mind.

Scratching my head is not my response to the talks themselves, but expressing my pleasure at having them in print describes my elated reaction. A thorough review of the contents here would require presenting what is known about the Work through previous publications and teachings plus the additional insights embedded in the present text. That would take thousands of words and too many computer screens.  Instead, I will note a half dozen sections which intrigued me and hence will, I assume intrigue every reader.

1. Asked about the origin of the teaching, Gurdjieff answered, “My teaching is my own. It combines all the evidence of ancient truth that I collected in my travels with all the knowledge that I have acquired through my own personal work.” (This comes from the section “Questions and Answers, Prieuré, October 1922.”)

2. Discoursing on symbology, he said, “My task was to give my listeners a sensation of the taste of understanding with which one must approach the search after the laws of truth. Once more I repeat: in order to understand in these matters, constant efforts are necessary.” (From “Lecture on Symbolism: The Enneagram.”)

3. On the subject of non-identification, he noted, “Humanity is earth’s nerve ends, through which planetary vibrations are received for transmission …. We can easily sacrifice our pleasures but not our sufferings; we are too identified with them – we love ourselves too much. We must learn to express opposite feelings. Everything in the universe has a place in a scale.” (Delivered on Monday, 17 July 1922; no locale identified.)

4. On Christianity, he stated, “Mind is governed by a devil. Do not let your mind slave for your essence. The thinking center is Christian, the emotional center is pre-Christian, the body is pagan. Emotional center with body make the devil, which the thinking center must learn to control.” (From “Summary of Lectures: Fifth Lecture: Christianity.”)

5. Discussing kinds of impressions, he makes an amazing declaration that is well worth pondering at considerable length: “We are only sincere in our imagination.” (This comes from Wednesday, 5 January 1921.)

6. Covering a wide range of subjects, he makes a statement that has always haunted me since I first encountered it in the 1950s in the pages of In Search of the Miraculous: “Eastern Art has a mathematical basis, it is a script with an inner and outer content. In Persia there is a room in a monastery which makes one weep, owing to the mathematical combinations of parts of the architecture. Real art is knowledge, not talent.” (From “Religion, Will, Education, New York, Saturday, 1 March 1924.”)

It is interesting to consider what is not included in the talks. In the index there are hardly any references to people, not even to Madame de Salzmann, though there are three odd mentions of P.D. Ouspensky. The first reference identifies him as being present at a meeting at Warwick Gardens; the second mistakes him for Madame Ouspensky; the third identifies him as “a writer and professor of psychology”! (Ouspensky objected to be identified by his publishers as “a mathematician”; I wonder what his take on being labelled a “psychologist” would be.)

Come to think of it, in the text there are no references at all to Carl Jung or Sigmund Freud, despite the fact that what is being proposed by Gurdjieff is a system of psychopraxis with many principles and procedures in common with the then-current psychological and psychiatric theories of the Swiss and the Austrian clinicians and theorists. Indeed, Jung’s practice of “active imagination” kept popping into my mind as I read many of the procedures and approaches identified with Gurdjieff during these years.

There are instances of the withholding of sensitive information in the text of Views from the Real World and these lacunae have been mentioned in passing in the literature of the Work. Although the present texts are presented verbatim, so to speak, there are some examples of this practice in these pages. I will give one instance. In the section “Fontainebleau, Friday, 19 January 1923,” Gurdjieff outlines the role of “the general accumulator” with regard to the energy required for self-remembering. Here is the text:

It is possible to prolong memory of self-remembering by making the energy stored in us last longer, if we are able to manufacture a store of this energy.

[At this point Mr. Gurdjieff gave an exercise.]

Up to now we have been doing all the exercises mechanically, without thought ….

The bracketed words are in italics in the original.

And so it goes. I imagine an ideal world with all the interested parties – biographers, historians, researchers, lecturers, instructors, group leaders, and students of the Work – busy turning the pages of Gurdjieff’s Early Talks 1914-1931, if only to savour the taste of the Special Doctrine.

 

John Robert Colombo is an author and anthologist who lives in Toronto. His latest books are A World of Differences (a collection of poems), The Northrop Frye Quote Book (3,600 quotations from the writings of the Canadian literary critic), and The Rohmer Miscellany (the record of Colombo’s long-time fascination with the works of the author Sax Rohmer, creator of Fu Manchu). His books are described on the website < www.colombo.ca >.

 

 

 

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