Gurdjieff’s Early Talks in Moscow, Petersburg, Essentuki, Tiflis, Constantinople, Berlin, Paris, London, Fontainebleau, New York and Chicago, 1914-1931, Book Studio, 2014 (442 pp.)
Twice the size of Views from the Real World, this may well be the last great publication of hitherto little known Gurdjieff material. It features many photographs providing unique impressions, some of which I have not seen before. But the essence of this book is the ideas. These notes of talks, exchanges, and other sundry pieces have circulated, if that is not too vigorous a word, within very limited circles for 100 years in some cases (e.g. “Reflexes of Truth” cannot be later than 1915 when Ouspensky heard it). As I wrote in the short essay which I was privileged to offer this volume, the editors are to be commended for their indefatigable efforts in hunting down the texts. It was not easy, and the material rewards have been only the expenditure of what must be significant sums of money, together with lost “opportunity costs”. For those who imagine that authors and publishers bathe in cataracts of gold, undeceive yourself, as George Borrow memorably exclaimed, undeceive yourself! No one produces books like this unless they are burning with a quiet ardent flame to share something which is of great value to them, and they have the fortitude to persist through delays, difficulties and disputes. The time the editors have invested in this has been amply rewarded by their very efforts. I did much less than they did, yet I have felt something of this. Perhaps one can even say that the editors have gone some way towards paying the debt of their existence.
I shall not repeat what I wrote in the short essay: suffice it to say that I explained why, in my view, this publication was necessary for the true development of the impulse brought by Gurdjieff, now that the copyright in these works has expired. However, if you have not obtained a copy, then let me reiterate that it contains the material which was edited, spliced and rearranged before inclusion in Views, and much else besides, not least some of Gurdjieff’s own exercises. It is the exercises I wish to speak about here, because I sense that there is a need to explain these to the larger Gurdjieff “world”, since they are perhaps the least understood aspect of his legacy.
First of all, an observation: the late Jeanne de Salzmann must have felt that the publication of Gurdjieff’s exercises was needful, for she published several of them in Life Is Real Only Then, When “I AM”, and she placed more in the notes which she left behind, and which have found their way into The Reality of Being. It is not her fault that that book was so poorly edited, as I have mentioned in an earlier review. However, I am grateful that it was produced, if not only because it enables us to compare her formulation of the exercises with Gurdjieff’s own words. For example, the exercise at pp.196-197 of Reality is based on the “Compromise Exercise” at pp.409-411 of Gurdjieff’s Early Talks, and the exercise taught in Reality at p.189 is that of transcript 29 (3 August 1944) in Transcripts of Gurdjieff’s Wartime Meetings 1941-1946, the companion volume to Early Talks. There have been sundry other partial disclosures, such as in Sinclair’s Without Benefit of Clergy, a book which promotes himself, de Salzmann and the Foundation, in that order. These have been unsatisfactory: partial description is worse than none, because it must by its nature prompt readers to speculate. Sinclair’s effort necessitated the publication of the Four Ideals exercise.
Yet, I do not think that the authority of anyone’s example, even that of the formidable Jeanne de Salzmann, is by itself sufficient warrant for our own actions, at least not in a case like this.
The reason the Gurdjieff exercises deserve to be better known is simply that they are essential to his method, and if they are not published in authentic formulations they will be lost forever. A friend recently remarked to me that the exercises should ideally be passed on orally. Substitute “presence-ly” for “orally” and I agree. They should, ideally be passed not from mouth to ear, or even from person to person, but from presence to presence, hence I say “presence-ly” transmission is the best. But this is not happening. Even the fact that de Salzmann published some in Life Is Real, a matter which alarmed George Adie, tells me that she must have felt that this was the proper way to transmit them to future generations. As we now know, if she did continue teaching the Gurdjieff preparation and exercises in her own groups, it was in rare cases, and even then, all the indications are that as time went by this occurred less frequently.
Yet, even here, we have not come to the heart of the matter, for why would anyone wish to preserve materials if there is no use in their preservation, or worse, if – as some say – their publication is harmful? After all, perhaps de Salzmann ceased to use them because they were not so effective as the Zen-influenced “sittings” she adapted? Perhaps she did not properly take into account the damage which could be caused by using exercises?
Briefly, I am of the opinion that the Gurdjieff exercises are of a far higher quality than the sittings. Further, I have searched for evidence, but never found any, to suggest that the publication of exercises ever harmed anyone. Even if certain people had ended up worse off for them, this raises questions of causation, responsibility and weighing or assessment.
The first issue is causation. What caused the hurt? Was the use of the exercise really the cause of the deterioration in the person’s state, or was it rather an incident in a process which was already under way? Some people go mad when they make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Does that mean that Jerusalem should be destroyed or that no one should go there? In such a case it is apparent that the person was already unbalanced, and the event was not to blame for that. Unsteady people often seek what is holy and powerful because they feel the need for it. You cannot stop them. They are hell-bent on finding something.
The second matter is responsibility: who is responsible for the person’s condition? As soon as the question is posed that clearly it is answered, for everything subsequent flows from that condition.
The third question is weighing. If there is a possibility that people can damage themselves with exercises, there is nonetheless a certainty that people can benefit from them. How do you weigh the one against the other? The only possible way is through one’s own experience, and this is revealed to us most clearly through conscience. Conscience is a big thing. It is a big thing, too, to say that you are at peace with your conscience. People who say that invariably wish to believe it, and say it, as if stating it publicly proves it must be so. Conscience, in other words, is often used as a fig-leaf. But if we cannot say what conscience is, we can at least know that the void we feel through lack of conscience is not deepened or wounded by one’s action. That, in the end, is how we weigh the possible benefit against the possible detriment.
The discussion of the exercises has to move beyond what this person did or that institution has done. In the end, appeals to authority are insufficient. We need objective reasons. The practice of the exercises is, for me, sufficient and objective reason. Almost ten years ago now, several months after I had left the group, I found myself in a position where I was still okay, but could tell that I could not go on the way I had: it was as if a car had had a fairly full tank of petrol, but it was now starting to get low. The car was still chugging along, but it no longer sat on the road the way it does when it is full. I knew the gauge was getting low. Fortunately, I was not so low that I did not have a sense of what was needed. I obtained the tapes of meetings with Mr and Mrs Adie. and went back to transcribing them. Much to my surprise, what I found was that the preparations and exercises which they brought suddenly came to life.
The preparation is the exercise which Gurdjieff taught the Adies to perform at the start of each day. It is not only a meditative exercise, it also includes making a plan for the coming day. This is an essential feature. It was a surprise, because Mr Adie had not asked to transcribe them. He had felt that the living work with them had been sufficient to ensure that they would be passed on. But he had not allowed anyone but Mrs Adie to take the preparation, at least not in the years I was with him. The result was that after his death, and for quite a long time, no one gave the preparation at all. If we had it, and we rarely did, I was by listening to a tape. Then, when Jim Wyckoff introduced the “new work” sittings, that tradition of the Gurdjieff preparation and exercises stopped. But there is, I believe, an objective value in not allowing the knowledge which has been found to be lost again. De Salzmann had ths emblazoned across the screen at the start of one of the movements films. It struck me then, at it still strikes me now. What falls from the wagon is lost. Okay, we threw ourselves over the side, and caught it just before it hit the road.
The second objective reason is based on aim. The important thing is always all the aim, not just that we formulate an aim which touches our feeling, but also an evaluation of the target itself, according to conscience. For me, the Gurdjieff tradition has a very specific place, it can help find the consciousness and balance, and elaborate the energies necessary, to follow my supernatural aim. It is not needed for natural purposes, even if it can be advantageous. In my case, I aspire to become a true Christian. The situation is analogous to our need for medicine, exercise, a nourishing diet, and recreation simply in order to perform to our best, to exceed our limitations. Gurdjieff’s ideas and methods, to me, are like that. Let us say that you want to attend divine worship, but you have a migraine. The doctor gives you a pill and prescribes a change in lifestyle and diet so that the headaches will not reappear, or at least not be so crippling. Gurdjieff’s ideas and methods help one clear away the migraines of the world, so that one can participate in divine worship.
The ultimate aim of Gurdjieff’s technique, in so far as it has one, is identical with that of Christianity, but it needs personal effort, and the discarding of certain baggage mixed in with his legacy, to recover the supernatural aspect. I do reject Gurdjieff’s attitude to certain things. This is not the place to document it all, but look at the transcript of the meeting of 22 July 1943, and you will see what I mean. I am shortly publishing an academic article which gathers what Gurdjieff said on fasting, and which also publishes the opinions of several international medical experts on fasting to the effect that Gurdjieff was just plain wrong, even though one of them says that the views expressed were once thought to be correct. I studied the issue carefully, and I cannot see that the experts are wrong: the evidence is too clear. Perhaps Gurdjieff himself would change his mind if he saw it.
But there is one thing which Gurdjieff said, about his own methods, which I think is correct: “Exercises, exercises, thousands and thousands of times. Only this will bring results.” (Wartime Meetings, p. 100). This is my experience: the exercises are not enough, but they are indispensable. What they need more than anything else to keep them effective and true is not the movements but the ideas. And this book of early talks will, I am sure, allow more people to work in the salt mines as it were, to dig and recover for themselves the exhilarating sense of engaging with one of the great mystics.
If the exercises found here assist people in finding strength, and building up reserves of the fine energy we need on the mystic path, that will be objectively good. And who in their right mind would not want to serve the objective good?
Joseph Azize, 8 April 2014