Category Archives: JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO reviews CHRISTIAN WERTENBAKER’S ‘MAN IN THE COSMOS’

JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO reviews CHRISTIAN WERTENBAKER’S ‘MAN IN THE COSMOS’

JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO reviews CHRISTIAN WERTENBAKER’S MAN IN THE COSMOS

A review of a book that examines G.I. Gurdjieff’s ideas in light of Modern Science

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The author of this thoughtful book is Christian Wertenbaker, a clinical neuro-ophthalmologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in The Bronx, N.Y. The College’s website identifies the author and describes his work: “His interests include all areas of clinical neuro-ophthalmology, but especially eye movements and nystagmus, and the physiology of visual processing. He has authored or co-authored papers dealing with various aspects of clinical neuro-ophthalmology. He is also particularly interested in the art of patient care, and in teaching this to residents. The detective work involved in obtaining a comprehensive history and examination and then making sense of the patient’s complaints and illness, and the judgment involved in choosing the best course of action are all aspects of this.”

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Unless I miss my guess, “Man in the Cosmos” is Dr. Wertenbaker’s first book. It has been subtitled “An Inquiry into the Ideas of G.I. Gurdjieff from a Scientific Perspective.” What I like about this book, to express it briefly and to anticipate the drift of my argument, is that the author is serious about the words “scientific perspective.” A good many books and semi-scholarly papers that examine the parallel relationship of Gurdjieff’s world view and the scientific world view are willing to subsume the latter under the rubric of the former. What Dr. Wertenbaker does is take the scientific consensus as the norm and then subsume Gurdjieff’s cosmology and psychology under it, a wiser course by far. The reader learns a little science along the way.

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It is a handsome trade paperback that measures 6 inches by 9 inches. Its pagination runs as follows: xiv+192+iv. It is clearly printed on an off-white stock which, for whatever reason, makes for ready reading. The publishing house is Codhill Press, which was founded in 2008 in New Paltz, N.Y., by David Applebaum while he was the editor of “Parabola Magazine.” It was published last year.

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The publisher writes about the mission of his publishing imprint: “Codhill Press is devoted exclusively to the advancement and appreciation of the finest works in poetry and prose which promise to search out important meanings for our lives. Its voice was conceived as lying at the intersection of spiritual, literary, and poetic thought. Its function was to provide texts for readers on a search for meaning and transcendent value.”

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New Paltz, by the way, is the name of a village and a town located between Albany and New York City. It has an association with the anti-slavery fighter Sojourner Truth, boxer Floyd Patterson, and Mary Gordon the novelist. It is the location of a campus of the State University of New York. SUNY is the distributor of Codhill’s publications. New Paltz is also the home of another publishing imprint, Solar Bound Press, which issued Sophia Wellbeloved’s groundbreaking “Gurdjieff, Astrology and Beelzebub’s Tales: The Breakthrough Analysis of Gurdjieff’s Masterpiece.”

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Textually the present book consists of an Introduction plus nineteen essays which between 1997 and 2011 appeared in “Parabola Magazine.” About a dozen years ago I subscribed to this periodical but I allowed my subscription to lapse because I found it too much like a tossed salad for my taste, a little of this and a little of that, rather than a hearty, three-course meal. But the issues that I read must have included Dr. Wertenbaker’s original articles, and the value of these was lost on me amid the plethora of lighter and familiar material reprinted from so many other sources. The result is that I am going to resubscribe to the periodical, ever mindful of the fact that, when accumulated, articles like these amount to more than the sum of their parts.

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Earlier I used the words “scientific perspective,” and the value of this publication lies in the fact that this is precisely what the author offers the reader. The accumulated value of these essays amounts to a new and refreshing view of Gurdjieff’s cosmology and psychology. There is no index but there are about three dozen black-and-white illustrations as well as source notes for each chapter. The clarity of expression must owe something to Dr. Wertenbaker’s clarity of vision and his concern for reality and illusion and what he calls (with respect to the Necker cube and by extension to the subject-matter of this exposition) “perceptual decision.” Here is an outline of the contents and the argument of the book.

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In the Introduction the author states that his aim is to relate “two distinct areas of human knowledge: the mystical cosmology of G.I.Gurdjieff, based, according to him, on ancient wisdom, and the discoveries and theories of modern science.” He affirms that Gurdjieff “possessed a degree of awareness, attention, perception, knowledge, and ability to act that put him on another level compared to ordinary people,” so that it is fitting to take seriously his exposition of “more obscure and controversial ideas about the nature of the universe, of man, of the soul, and of their relationships.” Some of these ideas are indeed bizarre in conception and expression.

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The author states that “the method of modern science is a generally valid and honest way to arrive at truths about the world,” despite the “caveat” that science “tries to be objective and to remove the subjectivity of the observer from its deliberations.” This turns out to be a major “caveat” or caution. Finally, he adds, almost parenthetically, “There is nevertheless only one world, and so all truths about it must be compatible and related.” This need for consilience is the driving force behind the book.

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In addition to his medical training and postgraduate studies in neurology and physiology, the author writes, “I also became a member of the Gurdjieff Foundation, devoted to exploring and pursuing Gurdjieff’s ideas and aims.” With characteristic honesty, he disarms the reader by adding, “I have not arrived at definite conclusions, and still do not know for sure whether many of Gurdjieff’s ideas are true.”

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That was the Introduction. There are five sections each with its chapters. The first section is called “Mathematics, the Science of Patterns.” Reading it is like listening to an audio lecture in the popular Great Courses series. We whiz through “Nature’s Patterns,” “Pythagoras in 1999,” and “Some Thoughts on the Enneagram” (to cite the headings of the three articles in this section). Behind this section is the ancient argument waged by those who hold that mathematical concepts correspond to external realities against those who maintain that the concepts are subjective and procedural. What is unquestionable is the power of “patterns” and algorithms which reveal symmetries, whole and broken, in nature and in the human brain.

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The chapter on Pythagoras takes the form of a lively dialogue between the author and the ancient philosopher who takes pride in the fact that “modern physics already has been forced to include the fact that the way in which a phenomenon is observed is an essential, though still mysterious, determinant of how reality manifests itself.”

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There are nineteen pages devoted to “Some Thoughts on the Enneagram” and these amount to a concise and clearly written exposition of the patterns in nature that are illustrated by the nine-pointed diagram. The chapter is really a disquisition on mathematics and it is an expositor’s delight. The Fibonacci series is evoked to show “Nature’s Patterns.” The analysis extends beyond P.D. Ouspensky’s pioneering disquisition on the figure in “In Search of the Miraculous.” Even so, the author admits, “Its resistance to comprehension indicates how far we really are from the level of understanding that Gurdjieff represented and embodied.”

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The second section is titled “Vibrations: The Universal Medium of Exchange.” The author writes, “The most interesting and important part of Gurdjieff’s teaching is related to vibrations, and it seems to me that since his time his views have been increasingly validated by science.” Behind this chapter is the evolution of the general and special theories of Relativity and then of Quantum Mechanics: “a Pandora’s box of bizarre attributes that continue to confound those who wish to add light to the list of puzzles considered solved by science.”

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These developments occurred along with the introduction of Gurdjieff’s ideas in the West. The paradoxes familiar to physicists are not unfamiliar to metaphysicians. “If we turn our contemplation away from the outer world and to the inner one, as the sages advise, a different reality becomes evident. Like light, consciousness has no place, and no shape. It is invisible yet illuminates everything. It is unimpeded by time or space.”

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The third section is titled “The Inner and Outer Worlds.” The author puzzles over “the greatest riddle, the greatest mystery of all, aside from Creation itself,” and he identifies it as the connection between “the inner world and the outer world, and their relationship to each other.” He notes their interdependency, their correlations, and their dependencies. So the sense of “the mystical feeling of being connected to everything” may be an illusion but then again it may not. In a sense, everyone is “an entity that is separate, yet connected to everything.”

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Actually,” the author concludes, “there are three elements that make up a state of full awareness: awareness of the outer world, awareness of oneself through inner sensation and feeling, and awareness itself. Each of these involves different brain regions, and it may be that coordinated electrical activity between separate parts of the brain underlies the sense of self-consciousness. If so, the physical correlate of an inner life is a sufficiently complex electromagnetic pattern at the level of the entire nervous system.”

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A significant concept here is what the author calls “semi-independent entities” – “an entity is like a living cell, with a semipermeable membrane that both defines it and connects it with the outside, allowing some substances to pass through in each direction and blocking others, in a dynamic equilibrium.” The cosmos is full of cells.

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The chapter “Shadows of the Real World” evokes Plato’s metaphor of the cave, but even more Aladdin’s cave, as it permits the author to offer a disquisition on vision – the physical sort, though it seems it is not far from the other sort – ranging from three-dimensional imagery and three-brain to bilateral brains, to sensory perceptions which waffle before they harmonize. Degrees of consciousness are mentioned. “Mozart could hear an entire composition all at once.” (Here he is paraphrasing Roland Penrose.) “_Consciousness_ is a state in which a man _knows all at once_ everything that he in general knows and in which he can see how little he does know and how many contradictions there are in what he knows.” (Here he quotes Gurdjieff via Ouspensky.)

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There is a discussion of the role of the power of the faculty of imagination. In the same way that “imaginary numbers” are required to represent the dynamic nature of elementary particles, what I might call “imaginary powers” are required to perform certain human functions. “We don’t bump into things much, and can plan our meals well ahead, as well as fantasize endlessly about the opposite sex, which sometimes leads to action. In the view of many scientists, this is the origin and purpose of imagination.”

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In fact, the future is both largely predictable and completely unpredictable, but we do not live with this paradox, because for the most part we do not live consciously in the present.” Gurdjieff’s movements require the student to “maintain a constant awareness of bodily sensation and at the same time to visualize the next position to be taken. Thus the present comes into existence.”

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The chapter “Awakening the Emotions” distinguishes between drives and emotions, with the help of the great psychologist William James; with the assistance of Antonio Damasio, he discusses feeling and emotions and this leads the author to suggest “self-consciousness is the result of the juxtaposition of internal and external sensation.” This is a growing point. The discussion extends to how “our instinctive-emotional reactions also have a direct effect on the activities of the cerebral cortex.”

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Such effects produce “states” – arrangements of components, which (in terms of matter) may be solid, liquid, and gaseous. States change – liquids may freeze – “so the state of a substance changes its relationship to space and time, to other things, and to vibrations.” A few pages are devoted to discussing thought, feeling, and awareness … and “conscience.” The states experienced by human beings are discontinuous in nature. Gurdjieff is quoted: “All our emotions are rudimentary organs of ‘something higher,’ e.g., fear may be the organ of future clairvoyance, anger of real force, etc.”

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The last chapters of this section are called “The Ego and I” and “The Home of the Self.” If they are less substantial than other sections, it may be because, once introduced, the word “ego” is difficult to dissever from Freud’s use of it, and because the word “home” (which for some readers may bring to mind Gaston Bachelard’s brilliant remark in “The Poetics of Space” that regardless of where we were born every human being lives in a house with a basement, an attic, and other floors and rooms). Yet the chapters imply a hierarchical view of man’s place in the cosmos … his “home.”

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The fourth section bears the title “Worlds within Worlds” and the material in its first chapter “The Teaching of the Cosmos” will be familiar to readers of “In Search of the Miraculous” and “All and Everything.” Long before proponents of String Theory, with its multiple universes, Gurdjieff taught that there was not one single cosmos but a series of related cosmoses. Long before the Gaia Hypothesis, he taught that everything in its own way is alive. The writing here is expository.

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Sir Isaiah Berlin is identified with the phrase “incommensurable values” which refers to the fact that concepts like liberty and equality cannot be combined in equal measure. This applies to attempts to equate knowledge and belief, a form of squaring the circle. Dr. Wertenbaker writes, “In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in reconciling, or at least understanding the relationship between, science and spirituality. Neuroscientists are tackling the question of the neural correlate of consciousness, after avoiding the subject for a long time. Philosophers are seriously studying the sciences. Physicists find themselves pondering the relationship between their theories and age-old spiritual questions.”

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In the chapters in this section the author gives a good overview of Gurdjieff’s ideas, as recorded by Ouspensky, and the insights into the subjective and objective nature of space and time identified with Newton, Heisenberg, Einstein, and the contemporary, maverick theoretical physicist Lee Smolin. Scale is the key here, as is the overall cellular nature of a cosmos, which “selects which substances it will allow in or out.” In this way it resembles the cellular nature of man. Man is a cell in the cell of the cosmos.

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The author takes the insight, which is a powerful one, and the argument well beyond the formulation above, introducing mechanical and conscious acts, advancing the average reader’s knowledge and appetite for speculation that would be free-wheeling except that it is based on the substrate of the notion of the cell. The author introduces “a resonance with a higher level of consciousness,” but warns, “These concepts are certainly foreign to science, and well beyond the direct knowledge of most of us, so that one hesitates to even mention them, but they are at the core of Gurdjieff’s teaching.”

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Yet the incommensurability of such notions with those of science may be seen as a goad: “Perhaps over time Gurdjieff’s ideas will help to bring about an exact science which includes the inner and outer worlds, time and space and things, consciousness, energy and matter.”

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Three more chapters – “Holy Earth,” “Laws, Miracles, and Science,” and “The Materiality of the Soul” – round out this section. The information here, both scientific and Gurdjieffian, will be familiar to readers interested in the conjunction of ancient wisdom and modern science, though the expression of it – done with great care to avoid hyperbole – will be found to be reassuring that a rational discussion of these ideas is possible. Behind it is the conviction that the quest to reconcile the traditional and the contemporary was seen by Gurdjieff as possible, for he wrote as follows:

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Everything in this universe can be weighted and measured. The absolute is as material, as weighable and measurable, as the moon, or as man. If the absolute is God, it means that God can be weighed and measured, resolved into component elements, “calculated,” and expressed in the form of a definitive formula.”

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The author concludes, “If there is a soul, it seems, it must conform to universal laws.” Science thus relieves the spiritual of the weight of bogus mysticism and diminishes when it does not eliminate the need for belief.

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The fifth and last section is called “The Role of Man in the Cosmos,” which is essentially the theme of the book, though the reader may feel that what follows has already been subsumed by what preceded it in the fourth section. The chapter “The Fullness of the Void” examines the nature of thought and intuition and the modalities of knowledge (senses of perception and those of action) and their complexities. We take such input for granted, but not if we are scientists. “The central mystery of neuroscience, and a subject much debated today, is where, or how, or even why, consciousness awareness comes into this practice.”

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The exposition here takes the form of a comparison and contrast between what contemporary scientists like Antonio Damasio and Paul MacLean conclude about the brain and what Gurdjieff largely through Ouspensky states about man. The author writes, intriguingly, “One could postulate, somewhat boldly, that the physical correlate of a more comprehensive consciousness is in fact the integrated electromagnetic activity of the brain, perhaps even of the whole body.” Perhaps the author steps too close to the edge when he adds, “Fully consciousness of myself, I become a part of everything.”

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The chapter “The Cosmic Necessity of Suffering” is straight exposition of the Gurdjieffian view that suffering is inherent in creation because we are separated from creation because we are separated from ourselves. There is a reason for suffering and perhaps a purpose. “Possibly, if we took our cosmic duty seriously, our suffering could be less random and more appropriate.”

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Does Man Have Three Brains,” at thirty-nine pages, is the longest chapter, and a level-headed discussion of MacLean’s tri-brain theory, approached from various vantage-points. One of the vantage-points is Gurdjieff via Ouspensky. Here the exposition struck me as making non-controversial use of evidence and mainstream theory, but the author seems to feel otherwise, for he writes, “The ideas put forth here, while grounded in both inner and outer facts, are far away from current scientific understanding. They do not constitute a theory; rather they form a speculation, with many loose ends. But the issues addressed are fundamental and require confronting.”

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The last chapter is titled “The Cosmic Metabolism of Form” which is a serious way of saying “we are what we eat” and perhaps “eat or be eaten” – food, air, and impressions. A key conception here is the following sentence, which takes the reader pretty far from scientific fact but not from the Gurdjieffian perspective: “This vivification of impressions feeds our inner life, which needs conscious impressions to grow, and may also serve a larger purpose, enabling God to ‘see’ his own creation through us and other conscious observers throughout the universe.”

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On the last page the author writes (in an outstanding phrase) that we are or can be “part of a great cosmic ecology of consciousness.” Because this is so we have the opportunity to become “part of everything on a conscious level, just as we are part of everything on the level of gross materiality.”

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I closed the copy of “Man in the Cosmos” enriched and with the resolve to reopen the book at a later date to recall Dr. Wertenbaker’s presentation of scientific facts and theories, as well as his interpretation of Gurdjieff’s views on man’s nature and creation. It occurred to me the title of the book, while perfectly descriptive and appropriate, might even be inverted. It could be retitled “The Cosmos in Man.”

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John Robert Colombo, an author and anthologist, lives in Toronto and contributes reviews and commentaries to this website. His own website – http://www.colombo.ca – describes his books which include studies of science fiction, mystery fiction, Canadiana, quotations, poetry, and the country’s humour. In 1967, he was one of the founders of the League of Canadian Poets, and earlier this month he was invited to address the League’s annual general meeting, where he reminisced about its founding and introduced its inaugural Raymond Souster Award. Some years ago Marcel Marceau visited him at his home and said, “I will gladly come to Toronto at any time to perform for you free of charge.”

11 June 2013

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