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JOSEPH AZIZE REVIEWS: Martin Benson Speaks

Martin Benson Speaks, ed. Carl Lehmann-Haupt, Codhill Press, 2011 (248 pages)

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In previous posts, I have stated my conclusion that the Gurdjieff Work has reached an interval in its historical development. Increasing difficulties are met with in the Work, whether considered at the level of individuals, groups or as a movement. These difficulties are lawful, for now – right now – all are working in the interval. The momentum that once was is now weak, and the new energy which is needed has not yet appeared. Worldwide, the Gurdjieff current and all those in that line, are in the interval of its development.

The great value of Gurdjieff’s ideas and methods is still apparent. But the line of force which came from Gurdjieff himself and his direct pupils has been dispersed, never to be directly recovered. At the interval, indeed, precisely at the interval, new forces are needed, and wisdom is necessary if it is not to be diverted in a new direction, and run the risk of disappearing, or even worse, continuing and becoming its opposite.

Memoirs and collections of talks, such as those in this interesting volume, provide some of the requisite force. Will they provide sufficient? By themselves, of course not. The ideas have to be applied in a balanced manner. Yet, I think that I can be confident that this book will help.

This is the sort of book which puts the content back into the over-used word “interesting”. Too often, that word is used to avoid making unflattering comments, or to hide an inability to articulate certain qualities felt rather than distinctly seen. But this book arouses one’s interest. It provokes further thought, and leads one to pursue further avenues of study.

It is not what I would judge to be one of the first-rate recent Gurdjieff books, such as those by Solange Claustres and Jeanne de Salzmann, or the recently published volume of Orage’s commentaries on Beelzebub. Neither, however, is it at the other extreme with some others there is no need to name. But some of it is very powerful, and even when I am disposed to disagree with Benson, or to be doubtful, his opinion is nonetheless worth examining. Beyond even that, there are passages where he articulates a line of thought I had been tentatively developing. It was delightful to come upon such confirmation.

The great weakness of the book is that it is an apparently randomly assembled collage. Benson does not really emerge: we obtain glimpses of him. We hear his voice but don’t really see him. Hence, perhaps, the title – for it really is just Martin Benson speaking with the bare minimum, if that, by way of introduction.

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The Groups

I will start with what is, for me, the most important example, Benson’s observance of two differing tendencies in the Gurdjieff Foundation groups: the Ouspensky-influenced organisation, and the “sittings” introduced into in the 1960s by Jeanne de Salzmann working in tandem with Bill Segal. Lehmann-Haupt writes:

Martin Benson was a different kind of teacher and his approach to the Work differed from the more psychological one practised by some of Gurdjieff’s other pupils. … He didn’t believe in psychological exercises. He didn’t think you could come to a state of attention by closing your eyes in a quiet place at an appointed time. “You all talk about attention,” he said, “but you haven’t got the power to come to a real attention, just by yourself.” He believed that one had to be put on the spot and shocked before one would be able to attend productively. (12)”

Benson himself is quoted as declaring:

I could almost answer that nobody, sitting in a quiet time, can come to attention. You have to be in a receptive part of attention, and it takes a big shock so that you’re ready to receive it; that will put you into real attention. Now, you may not believe this, but this is what I have come to. The Old Man was capable of giving us the shock.” (78)”

You know why I don’t go to sittings? On account of that. … the reason people go to sittings is the thing I don’t want to go to sittings for. … Instead of arriving at a state of absolute awareness of yourself – what we call consciousness – you may arrive at what we call illumination. This is what the Japanese go in for in Zen. The danger of a process is that one could go so far and never return. … I don’t delve into the Zen thing because I figured out years they {sic} they’re out after illusions not consciousness. (159-160)”

So I suggested last year, “This is not the Gurdjieff Work anymore. We should change the name from the Gurdjieff Foundation to the British Ouspensky People in America Foundation.” Well, Mme de Salzmann almost died when I said that. (171)”

This confirms, or at least lends support for, the view that the “New Work” which Jeanne de Salzmann introduced in the 1960s under the influence of Asian practitioners to whom she had been introduced by Bill Segal, was truly, as it so clearly appears to be, a departure from Gurdjieff’s line. The only question is whether, together with this new practise, she also continued to teach Gurdjieff’s preparation and exercises. There are different views about that. Incidentally, if I understand Benson correctly, he felt that he could help Segal, who was – it seems – too much off with the spirit, and not enough in and caring for the body (p.157). Benson’s way and advice was to “Keep your feet on the earth” (163).

Benson was critical of the Ouspensky groups ( see pages 39, 118 and 192). I am interested in those remarks chiefly because they relate to the question the form of the Work, and how too rigid a form can stifle the content. But an unyielding and even doctrinaire approach to the Work was by no means the exclusive preserve of the Ouspensky people. I knew some people from the Foundation who could have given Ouspensky a few tips in this respect.

To my mind, the issue of change and continuity comes it is an inescapable part of the human condition: we need both. That is, we cannot live without a mix, or perhaps a balance, of change and continuity. We need principled development. But, as stated above, we also need the wisdom to judge when the development is based on sound principles, and when it is a lop-sided development which will lead to the diversion, indeed the corruption of the line of work. We need discrimination to sift the good ideas from the bad. We need courage to stand against a group, when it is necessary, but who has the wisdom to know when refusing to accept the group consensus is merely self-will?

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The Human Condition and the Exercises

This, I think, is true: our quandary before all these questions of judgment is an inescapable part of our condition. Speaking of our condition, Benson provides a hitherto unpublished comment by Gurdjieff which sheds, I would say, a powerful light on our condition:

You know, Mr Gurdjieff would say a curious thing: “The angels are pure, and there is no place for them to go. We on this earth are fallen angels, but we have a place to strive for, objectively and actively to come to.” (138)”

Benson also gives some information about the exercises which came directly from Gurdjieff, and which I have said time and again, are to be distinguished from the “New Work”. In respect of these exercises, and I reiterate that I have recently been informed that Jeanne de Salzmann did teach them to small groups, Benson said:

You never know what you do in these exercises to allow things to happen, allow vital things to happen otherwise nothing will happen. (140)”

This may well be very true: it is not that Gurdjieff’s exercises and preparation furnish any guarantee, but perhaps they allow a certain movement of vital energies to occur which otherwise would not, or probably would not. And that may be sufficient to make these exercises critical.

The book abounds with some most unusual observations. Some of them may just be strange, but others, such as the “salt in the mountain” remarks (127), strike me as quite possibly true, and if so, point to a phenomenon we have been too little aware of. Just recently, a newspaper article in the Sydney Morning Herald, stated, quite in passing, that the indigenous aboriginals of Australia had known that there was something unhealthy beneath a certain are in Kakadu, and refused to live there. It turns out that it harboured uranium deposits.

Another idiosyncratic, but profound comment is about how he ran the Sundays at the ice house at Armonk:

I don’t demand anything, least of all the finished product – or to do things neatly, correctly. That’s not the demand. I make such demands of the natural forces that make their senses vibrate and grow close to nature in the greater sense of the word, to actually feel that they’re alive in order to do better things. (164)”

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Glimpses of Gurdjieff

Little is said in this book about Gurdjieff. One of the anecdotes, concerning Gurdjieff’s remark to the minister at Benson’s wedding, strikes me as rather inconsequential (178-179). But the others strike me as more powerful. Benson has an interesting slant on Gurdjieff’s habit of writing in cafés: it was, he says, in order to steal the “wasted emotions” of the people who were there (173-174). This then starts Benson speaking about the “stealing” exercise, which he also does at p.156, where he curiously says that he could have performed the exercise had he been able to get into an objective state, but that he had never been able to. The passages at pp.123-124 about taking a part of God’s force may not be the same thing, exactly, but neither are they unrelated, and they repay careful pondering.

Another forceful anecdote concerns how Benson approached Gurdjieff at a time when he, Benson, was “suffering tremendously.” Gurdjieff said to him: “You see that skin? That is yours and no one else’s. This is a part of you.” Short, almost pitiless in its expression and conciseness, but how profound. So much of our suffering is predicated upon an implicit attitude that other people have to change or apologise before our pain can end. As Benson goes on to say, in his own voice: “It’s just as bad … to continue feeling bad about the situation.” (48)

Speaking of Gurdjieff, however, the most unexpected piece of information here is that Gurdjieff was involved in two motor accidents while at the Prieuré: the second, and much less serious one, is described at pp.193-196. I had not heard of that one before. The account of it, of Benson’s removing the staples from Gurdjieff’s body, and what Gurdjieff did the day after he returned from the hospital was strangely moving. I wonder why no one else mentions this, or is it just that I have missed it?

I mentioned that there were points in Benson which accorded with ideas I had already had. One of those is the idea that doing has been down played in the Work since the death of Gurdjieff. I expressed that view in those parts which I wrote of George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia, and illustrated it by reference to Mr Adie’s teaching, Then I read in Benson:

… as it says in the Book of Solomon, ‘Man should rejoice in his works, for that is his portion.’ Do you all understand that? No more, no less. That’s what you leave behind, that‘s your development, that’s you. Is that understandable? (82-83)”

In a curious way, you grow by doing. (139)”

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Miscellanous Points

There are a few errors, e.g. “practiced” for “practised” (12).

More serious than the odd spelling errors, are certain notes which are not just indulgent, or even self-indulgent, but absurdly so: see the anecdote which ends: “Christ, I loved that” (120). I can see nothing to love there.

There is a very strange passage on love, which spans the strange and the inspired. First, I cannot see why Abeldard and Heloise’s romance is “the most tragic love story that has ever existed” (135). But then, Benson’s comments on “love” being a concept which came not from Christianity but from Greece, specifically Plato (135-136), is seriously muddled. Many writers such as CS Lewis may have interpreted Christian love through Greek spectacles, but it is prominent in the Gospels, long before any influence of Greek thought. However, to say that what is valuable is not “love” but “wisdom” is quite stimulating (136). Of course it is a simplification and the result of an abstraction: in reality, love and wisdom must go together, and perhaps even be aspects of the one cosmic force. It is interesting how often people who claim to be straightforward and bluff, not given to intellectual niceties, are in fact more at the mercy of their analyses than the “intellectuals” whom they deride.

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The Ongoing Issue

Now that I am onto it, I cannot lose sight of what I call “the ongoing issue”. And that is this, the Work does not seem to work beyond a limited point. All development seems to plateau out after a period of probably three years, about the length of time it usually takes get a university degree. There are exceptions, of course, but these seems to depend upon a fortunate conjunction of the student and the teacher. This is a large thought, but it is one of those which I found expressed in Benson, and which confirms me in my view. He writes:

I think some people are born with a greater being than other people. They have to be educated, in a sense, not educated in a school, but ‘brought out’. If they stay at it they can understand more and more and eventually become an entirely different person through that understanding. But I don’t think this is acquired so much. (150)”

This seems to be right. Gurdjieff had the power to lift people beyond their deserts, and this gave them a tremendous desire to help others, and a confidence that development was possible. But it just doesn’t seem to be the case that this development is possible for very many of us. And to evolve into someone with the individuality and understanding of Gurdjieff, or even close, seems quite impossible. Benson puts it more bluntly: “I don’t think we have the possibility of reaching consciousness” (154).

But if this is right, then Gurdjieff was wrong. Yet if Gurdjieff was wrong on that point, he still had a point: we can have more consciousness than we enjoy. It may well be that we would never be making efforts towards any consciousness unless we came to believe that we could have full consciousness. And it is even more likely, I think, that if we are not making efforts towards full consciousness, we will sink even deeper into unconsciousness. As Jane Heap used to say, the only difference between a groove and a grave is the depth. As Benson used to say: “The power of forgetting is … the curse of mankind” (80, see also 165).

This, I think, may be the upshot of “the ongoing issue”.

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© Joseph Azize, 27 December 2013

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