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John Robert Colombo reviews: “Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff: The Man – The Teaching – His Mission”

William Patrick Patterson’s latest opus is reviewed by John Robert Colombo.

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In the past I have reviewed in some detail four or more of the books written by William Patrick Patterson. The reviews have appeared on this web-blog devoted to Gurdjieff studies which is maintained by the Cambridge scholar Sophia Wellbeloved. As well, I recently reviewed the author’s last book “Adi Da Samraj – Realized and/or Deluded?” for “Parabola,” the New York quarterly publication which celebrates all the world’s spiritual traditions in words and illustration.

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Mr. Patterson (hereinafter WPP) needs little or no introduction to the readers of this web-blog. He is an extremely busy man, a long-time student of the late Lord Pentland (to whom the book is co-dedicated; guess the identity of the other co-dedicatee), and one of the principals behind Arete Communications, Publishers, Fairfax, California. Since the 1990s, WPP has been the mainstay of the Gurdjieff Legacy Foundation (which arranges study groups, seminars, workshops, talks, etc.) and the Gurdjieff Studies Program (which offers correspondence courses and private instruction).

Since 1992, he has edited the triannual publication called “The Gurdjieff Journal.” (I have been a subscriber from the first issue. I find its issues informative, though lately I sense the articles have begun to reflect the editor’s general cultural and social interests rather than specific Fourth Way matters.)

WPP was born in 1937 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has extensive experience as a writer and editor. Elsewhere he has described in detail his closeness to Lord Pentland who in 1953 was one of the founders of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City. WPP operates his enterprises in the busy field of the human potential movement, but he does so in that sector of it (the Fourth Way) that has been accustomed to privacy.

WPP appears to be a “one-man Gurdjieff movement” who runs a “one-stop Gurdjieff program.” His dedication, energy, knowledge, determination, and popular scholarship are not to be downplayed. Yet feelings run high in some circles that serious work in this sector takes place only in private. I have no problems appreciating his own contribution and legacy.

So much for WPP. Arete publishes serious and specialized books, so these titles seldom receive the media or even the word-of-mouth exposure that they deserve, a fate that is shared with the productions of many another dedicated publishing imprint. So my policy in reviewing such books has been two-fold: to go overboard in describing the physical appearances of Arete’s books; to go to great length to outline their contents. My assumption is that readers will never see copies of any of these books, unless they are specially ordered from specialty bookshops or mail-order services like By the Way Books or direct from the publisher’s website. (For the record I purchased my copy from the website.)

Now to “Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff: The Man, The Teaching, His Mission.” I have no idea how many copies of this book have been printed, but since it is a good and useful publication, I hope the press-run is extended at least ten times! Yet the publisher has to take into account the appetite of the market. It is a very interesting book, rather like a bowl of plum-pudding: Turn the page to learn something new, or to be reminded of something old in a new way. It is a book for people who are _interested_ in the Fourth Way, not principally participants in the Work.

The book is a big volume: over 650 pages in all, probably around 350,000 words in length. It measures 6 by 9 inches and is 2 inches thick. The pages are well designed; the type is well-leaded and easy to read. It is a sturdy, bound volume with card covers and maroon-coloured end-sheets and (a classy touch!) a thin white ribbon to serve as a bookmark. There are more than ten dozen black-and-white photographs and illustrations, some new arrivals, others old standbys. The book is of good workmanship and the text is substantial and well as organized.

The copy on the dust-jacket (undoubtedly written by WPP) identifies this title as the author’s ninth book. It points out, in addition, that he has produced the award-winning video trilogy (“The Life and Significance of GIG”) and two recent videos (which I have yet to view) called “Introduction to The Fourth Way: From Selves to Individual Self to The Self” and “Spiritual Pilgrimage: Visiting Gurdjieff’s Father’s Grave.”

The only way to convey the tome’s contents is to describe its table of contents. The Acknowledgements and Foreword are routine. The bulk of the text consists of nine sections arranged chronologically. An unusual feature is one that is found in the books of Colin Wilson: each section, part, or chapter is summarized through quasi-headlines: “Candidate for the madhouse. Exoteric, mesoteric, esoteric. Saleswoman of Sunwise Turn. Dangerous distortion. Orage ostracized.” They make amusing and sometimes startling reading. This sample comes from Part VI: The Herald.

Without further comment on my part, here are the titles of the nine sections: Part I, Search for the Miraculous. Part II, Higher Dimensions. Part III, Magicians at War. Part IV, Tzvarnoharno. Part V, All and Everything. Part VI, The Herald. Part VII, The Way of the Sly Man. Part VIII, Uspenskii in America. Part IX, Strike a Big Do. The attentive reader will catch from these titles the drift of the presentation of WPP’s presentation of the by-now canonical account of how this “self-supporting” part of the Eastern Wisdom Tradition was brought to the West.

The Afterword itself is nine pages in length and offers the reader a pertinent account of WPP’s current thinking about the Fourth Way and the great role he sees it playing in the contemporary world faced with “the scientific entrancements of Technology.” (I will return to the author’s odd argument and the conclusions he draws from it at the end of this review.)

The rest of the Afterword consists of fascinating documents that the author (as editor or compiler) has turned up in his researches in university libraries’ manuscript collections. There is the longest version that I have seen of the scenario of the ballet “The Struggle of the Magicians.” This is followed by two manuscripts dated 1926 in which P.D. Ouspensky ponders the historic cleavage: “Why I Left Gurdjieff” and “The Struggle of the Magicians: Where I Diverge from Gurdjieff” (Had I world enough and time, I would delve into these matters.)

What follow are WPP’s own essays: “Gurdjieff in Egypt: The Origin of Esoteric Knowledge” and “Gurdjieff and Christianity” and “Gurdjieff, Uspenskii, Orage and Bennett” and “Personals and the Inner Animal” and “The Science of Idiotism” and “Images of God or Machines?” (These essays are reprinted from “The Gurdjieff Journal” so they will be new to that publication’s non-subscribers. They are thoughtful and based on original research, or at least on vast reading.)

There follow short essays and reminiscences by various hands on various subjects: Jessie Dwight Orage, Solita Solano, Carman Barnes, Frank Lloyd Wright, Count Bobrinskoy. These texts seem to be hitherto unpublished and of anecdotal interest, so it is nice to have them in print. The occasional pieces are followed by WPP’s Notes, thirty-four of them, ranging in length from one paragraph (Chief Feature) to three pages (Seekers of Truth). Some of the pieces are rehashes, but others (to name a few: Intelligentsia, Mercourov, Mouravieff) offer new information or formulations in a readable way.

Following the Notes is the Chronology which goes from Gurdjieff’s year of birth 1872 (by WPP’s determination) to the man’s death (at the age of only seventy-seven) in 1949. The entries here cover current events as well as developments connected with the Work (which WPP has paralleled in previous books). What struck me about the section is just how some assumptions based on slight evidence have passed into statements of fact (two instances: Gurdjieff’s “working in the employ of the thirteenth Dalai Lama” in 1902; Aleister Crowley’s visit to the Priory in 1926).

A section that is likely to be overlooked is the one called References. It is the book’s backbone for it consists of twenty-five pages of sources (almost exclusively based on 111 English-language texts). A lot of time and effort was expended on this section, largely invisible to the casual reader – to the extent that a book of this seriousness attracts the attention of “the casual reader.”

I had long wondered if anyone would ever comb through the vast literature of the Fourth Way and then quiz senior participants in order to generate a list of its leading students, thereby exhibiting the zeal shown by genealogists of the Church of Latter Day Saints who copy birth records for their retroactive rite of baptism as Mormons! WPP has done the hard work. The section titled “Gurdjieff’s Students” consists of the names of 144 men and women, with vital years, schematically arranged, beginning with Russians, then yielding to English followers, French students, and finally American activists. Some Australians are named, but no Canadians (excepting Gurdjieff’s one-time physician, Dr. Bernard Courtenay-Mayers).

The Afterword concludes with the six pages devoted to the Selected Bibliography, and with an Index that is analytic, one dozen pages in length. In a sense, I suppose, this Afterword exhausts WPP’s larder of hard-to-digest information and opinion. The Afterword is almost a book in itself, one that could be titled “Fourth Way Notes and Queries.”

Having described the beginning and the ending of this book, I find I have passed over its middle section – the nine parts mentioned earlier in this review – which runs from page 1 to page 418! Yet I have already written over 1,400 words, and I wonder how long this review should be. I will leave it to the reader’s imagination – and perhaps to part two of this review – to fill in the big blank.

In a sense the heart and core of the book is found in the nine pages of the Afterword per se. This section seems to be a summary at the present time of the author’s thoughts on Gurdjieff’ “mission” (though “Gurdjieff’s ‘work’” might be a better term to use). WPP views Gurdjieff as a teacher and hence as someone who “acts.” What is this about? “His aim was to keep students between a ‘yes’ and a ‘no,’ keep them in question, and thus not knowing, for knowing is closure.” His message is that man is born without a soul and must acquire one and then develop it along given lines. He is truly the “Teacher of Dancing” because he is “one who embodies, understands and teaches the principles and laws of consciously receiving and transmitting energy in order to coat a soul.”

More than a century ago Gurdjieff recognized an imperative (memorably formulated in slightly different words by Denis Saurat): “Unless the ‘wisdom’ of the East and the ‘energy’ of the West could be harnessed and used harmoniously, the world would be destroyed.” WPP adds, “A major shock had to be given to avert the world’s destruction – the revelation of a heretofore esoteric teaching known only by its initiates …. ” There are religions founded by Hasnamusses as well as those founded by “genuine Messengers from Above.” The sign of the true religion is “wholeness” which is to be found in “the whole sensation of myself.” There is need for a new conception of God. “Then it follows that there must be a new conception of religion.” A tall order, indeed!

We live in trying times. WPP writes, referring to rolls of camera film, with its negative images and positive prints, “We either develop the positive or die in the negative.” He continues, “This eternal truth is inborn in every World-Time, be it Hunter-Gatherer, Agrarian, Industrial, Post-Industrial, and now the Technological.” He quotes from his second-last book “Spiritual Survival in a Radically Changing World-Time” about the dangerous nature of Technology. (In his books the word Technology is capitalized.) “Technology is not us. And yet it is us. This is what makes it so difficult to understand.”

We have to relate to Technology. “The hazard of not relating to it rightly is not only to forfeit our very identity and spiritual possibility, but to open the Gates of Hell to a certain planetary destruction that will erase the human experiment.” Yet introduced into the apocalyptic vein are pints of fresh new blood. “The seminal and sacred teaching Gurdjieff brought is in essence scientific in that it is centered in continual questioning, verification, exploration, and faith of Consciousness, not belief or dogma.” He continues, “It is _the religion for our time_ so directly attuned is it to the World-Time.”

I find the phrase “World-Time” to be off-putting, and I am uncertain about its origin. It looks and sounds like a formulation from the German historian Oswald Spengler. (Perhaps Weltzeit?) Is it used by other writers than WPP?

“Only the Fourth Way can stand against the scientific entrancements of Technology, as it itself is founded in a scientific technology, albeit a sacred one, of self and soul development by inner practices based on the knowledge of chemical processes and laws. The only foundation that can adequately carry this is the awakening to and acceptance of the truth that the teaching Gurdjieff brought is an esoteric school united with its true and original Christian origin.”

I find the tone of the Afterword to be disturbing, evangelical in its strain and tenor, and while one may applaud the author’s moral fervour, it seems the argument is more rhetorical than reasonable. There are few connectives. Will all the doom and gloom be lifted by a quorum of followers of the Fourth Way? Technology presents problems but not ones that science cannot resolve. Problems should be dealt with on their own level. In this context, I find myself recalling the final, sobering sentence of Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion (1927, 1968) translated by James Strachey. The founder of psychoanalysis and the critic of the world’s cultures wrote as follows: “No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.”

According to this tome’s jacket-copy, as I mentioned earlier, this publication is WPP’s ninth book. It is also the author’s longest and most ambitious book, one that at times brings to mind James Webb’s tremendous work The Harmonious Circle. The jacket-copy goes on to say that the present volume will be WPP’s “last.” His last on Gurdjieff? On the Fourth Way? On saving the world from itself? I hope that this is not so. Say it is not true, WPP.

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto author and anthologist with a special interest in Canadiana and esotericism and wisdom traditions. He is the author, editor, compiler, or translator of over 220 books, all listed on his website < www.colombo.ca > . A book of his poems “The World of Differences” will appear in February of this year. He has compiled “The Northrop Frye Quote Book” (3,600 quotable quotes arranged by 1,100 subject headings), a decade-long undertaking, which will be published in March.