Tag Archives: Jeanne de Salzmann

Joseph Azize Reviews: Gurdjieff’s Early Talks in Moscow – Petersburg – Essentuki – Tiflis – Constantinople – Berlin – Paris – London – Fontainebleau – New York and Chicago 1914-1931

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.

Part One

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.
Part Two

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
Joseph.Azize@gmail.com

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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

SIMSON NAJOVITS REVIEWS ‘Les Femmes Mystiques’

 

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The recently published Les Femmes Mystiques is an exceptional book; it is remarkable for the wealth of information it provides about women mystics of all the religions and spiritual movements from antiquity to the present, and it is remarkable from what can be interpreted from the overall impressions it exercises on readers.

It was complied under the direction of the young (37 years old) French specialist of religions Audrey Fella who leads in with a 43-page introduction in which she holds – and it certainly seems to be so – that it is within western Christianity in which there have been the greatest number of female mystics and that this is largely due to the influence of Jesus’ open attitude towards women, although she makes no mention of the influence of Saint Paul who clearly opted for the control and relegation of women to inferior status as all the historical religions have more or less done. Fella defines mysticism “as the union of the soul with God or the absolute” and believes that women mystics have “particularly distinguished themselves in “the affectionate and sometimes sensual mystic of love,” although “mysticism is no more feminine than it is masculine…and is not more natural to women than it is to men.”

More than 900 double-column pages of notices organized as a dictionary-encyclopedia, feature more than 250 women by more than fifty scholars of religion. This of course includes the Catholic women (more than half the total) we would expect to find like Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Sienna, Thérèse de Lisieux, Héloïse, Bernadette Soubirous, or Edith Stein, but also the Protestants Sarah Edwards or Anne Lee, the Orthodox Xenia de Petersburg and the Copt Mary Kahil. And there are the Hindu Anadamayi Ma, the Buddhist Alexandra David-Néel, the Sufi Fâtima Bint Abî, the Hassid Malka Rokeah, and also Shintos, Taoists and Shamans…and, and the philosopher-scientist Hypathia, the Theosophist Helena Blavatsky, the Don Juan Matus and Carlos Castaneda-influenced neo-Shaman Taisha Abelar, artistic mystics like Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf or Isadora Duncan, political mystics like Simone Weill, Wiccans like Starhawk, “pagan” occultists like Lotus de Païni… The book is very usefully completed by a 22-page glossary of selected mystical and spiritual terms.

However, there is a glaring and surprising lack in this book – the quasi-absence of women linked to Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way. There is no mention whatsoever of Jeanne de Salzmann, Olga De Hartmann, Henriette Lannes, Pauline de Dampierre or Louise Welch. This absence doesn’t seem to be a result of unawareness of the Gurdjieff movement because the American painter Georgia O’Keefe’s knowledge of Gurdjieff’s teachings and her links to Jean Toomer are mentioned.

In only six pages and less than 4000 words, the Spanish emeritus professor Bernard Sesé traces the amazing career of Teresa of Avila from somebody who felt that she was “a miserable ruin and sinner” to somebody who came out on the other side of mortifications, the tricks of the devil, extreme torment, pain, suffering, extraordinary visions of enthrallment, constant meditation, prayer and study to joy, bliss, grace, union in her body with Jesus, “peace, quietude and ineffable peace of the soul,” love and service to others and one of the most important roles in the construction of Roman Catholic spiritual theology and a personal example to many other saints and doctors of the Church. There is a full description of how Teresa in her Interior Castle mapped “the seven mansions of the path of the soul until the center of the intimate castle where a spiritual marriage takes place.” This notice is a near-perfect example of what is possible using the way of devotion, a way that the Hindus name bhakti, personal devotion, adoration and loving faith, but it doesn’t adequately address questions which any person aspiring to neutrality must – did Teresa relish in suffering and was her despicience of the ordinary world (in Autobiography, the Way of Perfection she saw “ecstasy” as “making the soul despise the things of this world.”) a price that must be paid for magical religious rapture?

The notice about the Hindu saint and spiritual master Anadamayi Ma by the emeritus professor of INALCO (the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris) France Bhattacharya is especially well done. It tells how Anadamayi rose from a poor village girl in Bengal, subject to ecstatic trances, married off at 13, but refusing sexual relations, who at 22 years old experienced the divine kheyâl – the spontaneous desire for spiritual practice – and without the assistance of any guru became a spiritual master of immense emotional and intellectual intensity with a worldwide following. She respected Hindu rituals and unsurprisingly recommended a Hindu strictly vegetarian diet (without garlic or onions seen among Hindus following a spiritual path as foods which excite desires and favor a lack of mental control), but she was also noted for supporting spiritual equality irregardless of sex and caste.

I must mention that the notice about Anadamayi solved a longstanding personal mystery for me. As a young man I traveled from Paris (by all sorts of means, mostly hitchhiking) to the holy city of Hardwar in northern India to meet Anadamayi and at the end of a long day of rituals and talk I asked her to sign a book of her sayings and she signed with a dot, which I immediately interpreted as an esoteric symbol…and after all these years I learned from Bhattacharya’s notice that quite simply Anadamayi didn’t know how to write.

The notice about the neo-Shaman Taisha Abelar by Audrey Fella is particularly instructive for the questions it raises about the relevance of the abundance of criticism of the American Toltec shaman Carlos Castaneda (notably by William Patrick Patterson in The Life & Teachings of Carlos Castaneda in which he gives us a catastrophic portrait, especially of Castaneda’s last days, or his disappearance). While Fella mentions the widespread charges of fraud which Castaneda’s writings have provoked, notably the culminating magical practice of jumping off a cliff leading “to the passage from ordinary reality to another reality,” the notice about Abelar’s experiences seems to corroborate Castaneda‘s experiences and at the very least indicates a coherent spiritual system no different from what goes on in many other systems, and notably Tibetan Lamaism, and opens the question about is really possible using extreme methods and how all this can be divided into reality, imagination, self-suggestion or symbolic-metaphorical meaning. It brings to mind the definition of mythology by the British scholar of religions S.H. Hooke, in Middle Eastern Mythology :The right question to ask about myth is not, ‘Is it true?’ but ‘What is it intended to do?’

However, for anybody who believes that any wee particle of truth which we can find is in science and art rather than in religion or for anybody who is an atheist, it has to be acknowledged that what we have in Fella’s book is a huge accumulation of the usual mystic stuff about sexual abstinence, anorexia, stigma, lacrymations, possession, demonology, angelology, relics, visions, prophecies, premonitory dreams, dictated writing, healing and of course various mortifications. It is easy to interpret all this as psychosomatic phenomena born from an incapacity to accept reality as it is, or a refusal of reality, or a wishful, unquenchable thirst for a meaningful life, but one of the paradoxical and remarkable interpretations which can be made from Fella’s book is the overall impression that whatever one accepts or refuses about the truth of what is related it is impossible not to conclude that what we often have here are authentic spiritual adventures and the mystery of people who truly believe in spiritual fulfillment…and above all that often the genuine result is consolation, a consolation which rarely can be found in the spiritual paths which are less centered on mysticism.

This is turn raises a question which Gurdjieff addressed – as quoted by Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous; Gurdjieff states that monks are frequently “naïve”, but their essence, “the truth in man”, is more developed than in “an average cultured man”, a factor which opens the way of the fakir or the way of the monk to him…but “the method and means which are possible for a man of developed intellect are impossible for him.” Gurdjieff underscores that the way of the monk is “the way of faith, the way of religious feeling, religious sacrifice. Only a man with very strong religious emotions and a very strong religious imagination can become a monk. …All his work is concentrated on…feelings…But his physical body and his thinking capacities may remain undeveloped. …In order to be able to make use of what he has attained, he must develop his body and his capacity to think. …Very few get as far as this; even fewer overcome all the difficulties. Most of them either die before this or become monks in outward appearance only.” And so what one might venture to assert – and what we see in Fella’s book – is that the mystic, the monk, does indeed often find consolation, but that it is far less often than he or she goes far down the path towards unified growth, what Gurdjieff called “a real I am”, that is of course if one believes that any of the esotericisms or religions do in fact provide the means for a radical transformation rather than just constituting the fulcrum for a magnificent failure.

On the whole, Audrey Fella’s book is remarkably evenhanded and can be used for reference needs or even read from A to Z as fascinating biography. It is a sincere attempt to relate facts, or apparent facts, sprinkled with doses of criticism and even skepticism, but of course it has to be said that that like any book compiled by dozens of people with varied sensitivities it is also riddled with notices which make no attempt to separate possible legend from possible fact, an example of this being the notice about the Virgin Mary, Mother of God in which the usually related tale of Mary and the standard interpretation and meaning of her role are spun out by Thérèse Nadeau-Lacour, a professor of moral theology at the université Laval in Québec.

I hope that this book will soon be translated into English.

Fella, Audrey, (Directeur de la publication), Les Femmes Mystiques: histoire et dictionnaire, 1 vol (1087 pages), Notes bibliogr., Glossaire, Index, Robert Laffont, Paris, 2013.

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Simson Najovits is a writer and former Editor-in-Chief of Radio France Internationale where he broadcast on lifestyles, religion and politics. His stories, poems, essays and articles have been published in Canada, the United States, France and Britain. He is the author of the two-volume, Egypt, Trunk of the Tree, published by Algora in New York and translated into Arabic by Shorouk in Cairo. He has been awarded Canada Arts Council and Quebec Arts Council grants. He has lived in Paris for many years and spent many years in the Work.