A Review of Roger Lipsey’s “Gurdjieff Reconsidered”

Issue 1 – October 2018

Shambhala Publications is to be the publisher of Gurdjieff Reconsidered: The Life, the Teachings, the Legacy, a remarkable new book written by Roger Lipsey. The family-owned company was founded in Boulder, Colorado, in 1969, and by now has 1,600 titles in print, according to its website, where its current titles are described in some detail. The distributor of Shambhala’s books is a conglomerate: Penguin Random House.

There is nothing “random” about the focus of their titles, which is the subject of spirituality, especially the Eastern variety. Craftsmanship is characteristic of all these publications, especially the titles that are devoted to the Fourth Way. These include In Search of Being and The Reality of Being, which I like to call “twin books” because they complement each other and were carefully edited to do so by Stephen A. Grant. There are two other titles: one is “a workhorse,” The Intelligent Enneagram by A.G.E. Blake, and the other, which is new to me, is The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three by Cynthia Bourgeault.

Gurdjieff Reconsidered by Roger Lipsey will formally appear on February 5, 2019, to mark the seventieth anniversary of the death of G.I. Gurdjieff’s in Paris. I am reviewing it from an Advance Reader’s Copy which is complete except for the Index, which has yet to be added. (Its absence is a handicap for a reviewer.) But allow me to describe the physical book first, the book’s author second, and the argument of the book third, for it is unquestionably an important title in the canon of books devoted to the Work – more accurately, the Gurdjieff Work.

The book is a quality paperback that measures six inches by nine inches. There are 384 pages of slightly cream coloured stock and the design is handsome and the type is easy to read. It is a work designed and printed with extreme care. I wish the pages were stitched but the adhesive the printer is using seems to hold everything together. There are fourteen illustrations, a number of them new to me and presumably to other readers of work-related titles like this one. One of the images is a photographic portrait of Solita Solano in 1928 that is the essence of style.

This book will take its place on shelves alongside biographical studies of Gurdjieff like J.G. Bennett’s Gurdjieff: Making a New World, Margaret Anderson’s The Unknowable Gurdjieff, Paul Beekman Taylor’s Gurdjieff: A New Life, James Moore’s Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth, and John Shirley’s Gurdjieff: An Introduction to his Life and Ideas, not to mention the videos and writings about the work by lecturer William Patrick Patterson, notably Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff: The Man, The Teaching, His Mission (2014). So Lipsey’s book – an outstanding biographical-critical study – keeps good company, even alongside Paul Beekman Taylor’s meticulously research-based title.

Shambhala’s online catalogue identifies Lipsey as “a biographer, art historian, editor, and translator.” Wikipedia has no website devoted to him or to his works but I believe that he holds a Doctorate in Art History and is the author of the following titles (not to mention articles published in the journal Parabola and forewords to books by other authors):

A.K. Coomaraswamy: His Life and Work (3 volumes, 1977)
An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art
Have You Been to Delphi?: Tales of the Ancient Oracle for Modern
Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton (2006)
Hammarskjöld: A Life (2013)
Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down (2015)

His biography of Dag Hammarskjöld is considered to be the definitive study of the intellectual and spiritual life of the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. On the Net there are short videos of Lipsey chatting about the Secretary-General; they are best accessed by keyboarding “Lipsey and Hammarskjold.” (In the videos the author seems to bear some resemblance to the musician Thomas de Hartmann.) Lipsey lives in the hamlet of Garrison in New York State, not far from the West Point military academy. His name does not appear on Wikipedia’s list of Garrison’s “Notable People” (unlike the names of former hostage Patty Hearst and former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes).

Down to business. Here is what lies between the covers of this book ….

The Foreword has been contributed by Cynthia Bourgeault. I must admit that her name is new to me, but I did discover that she is well known and is usually described as a “modern-day mystic,” an Episcopal priest of American and Canadian background who is known for the religious (read “spiritual”) retreats that she leads. I do not recall seeing her name in Work contexts but after reading her contribution to this book I find I am anxious to learn more about her.

The Reverend Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault writes with a sense of urgency and agency with respect to communal and affective sympathy for New Age ideas in general and in particular for the ideas expressed by P.D. Ouspensky in his book In Search of the Miraculous. “I have watched this teaching come alive in people’s hearts. As it now moves in spite of itself more into the mainstream, carried forward by popular initiatives such as the Enneagram of Personality, ‘Movements intensives,’ and perhaps my own Wisdom Schools, I watch it growing, re-energizing, re-imagining not only the cultural institutions it touches, but the Work itself: ‘new wineskins’ and ‘seed fallen into the ground’ rolled into one.” That is quite an endorsement for the Work.

For all of this and for Bourgeault at least, the work is practical and ideal for people today. What does she wish for the readers of this book? It is time to listen. “It is time for that voice to be heard, and for Gurdjieff’s still astonishing vision to enter fully into conversation with a postmodern intellectual tradition grown nearly moribund for lack of real presence and real hope.” Do I detect in these words the excitement of the enthusiast and the evangelist?

What has Lipsey added to Gurdjieff studies? Right off the bat let me say he has injected the word “reconsidered” and given it prominence in the title itself. What specifically is being reconsidered? Let me race through the ten chapters of the text, highlighting parts that seem to me to be unexpected or particularly relevant to any “reconsideration” of the life, teachings, and legacy. After all the field has been well-ploughed in the past, though certain areas remain under-investigated, including Gurdjieff’s travels in the East and the time he spent in Germany before settling down in Paris and Fontainebleau-on-Avon.

Chapter I. “Disparu! Éteint!” Right away Lipsey establishes his mastery of the material with a panoply of familiar references to descriptions of Gurdjieff along with unfamiliar ones, like the focus on Gurdjieff’s eyes by the psychiatrist François Grunwald as radiating “intense affliction, a sort of sacred sadness, and at the same time ironic malice.” Sadness and malice might seem contraries, but they are not, for this book is a portrayal of the man in considerable depth and depth inevitably embraces inconsistencies. Two pages are devoted to the hostility to Gurdjieff evinced by commentators who regarded the man’s message as “cuckoo teachings and mystic baloney.” By focusing on visitors and residents of the Prieuré, the author presents a mosaic of views of the man and his message. He may be unknowable but, all the same, “are there no mirrors we can hold up to catch light?”

Lipsey is not the first commentator to see Gurdjieff as “the last Pythagoras.” He devotes a number of illuminating pages to seeing the modern-day Armenian Greek in light of the Ancient Greek mystic, the first one, the Ionian philosopher, with his own academy in Croton circa 530 B.C. The author skillfully counterpoises Pythagoras with Diogenes the Cynic who died in Corinth in 323 B.C. and sees elements of the cynic in Gurdjieff too, doing so in light of comments and insights from Henri Tracol, Jeanne de Salzmann, J.B. Bennett, and other familiar figures. The author goes further and discusses the “compact teachings” associated with Hasidim as well as with Gurdjieff’s relations with his closest followers. I am tempted to retell some of these “teaching stories,” especially his view of “vanity” and “self-conceit,” but I must move along to the conclusion of the first chapter: “ … he forced us to resist him, to react against him. And he did this without mercy.”

Chapter 2 would naturally follow, except that here the author has inserted an awkward, three-page section that he titles “The Decades of a Teacher” and calls “Prologue to Chapters 2-6.” I find this insertion here to be a bit odd, as if the material could not be worked into the bio-critical study itself, so I am inclined to consider it to be “a word from the author,” the author’s admission that he is not writing a standard biography that could be called “Gurdjieff and His Times.” Such a publication, he suggests, will emerge in time from “scholar-authors” fluent in the languages of Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, “and perhaps even Tibet.” This would be a way to assume a foreknowledge of the past. “No reduced formula can capture so much experience … Russia, theory; Prieuré, loss; 1940s, fulfillment.” I still think the theorizing here could have been worked into the narrative, but before and after all, this is Lipsey’s book, not mine.

Chapter 2. “Tibetan Tea Very Wise Creation.” (The chapter headings are indeed playful.) Here we learn a little of Gurdjieff’s travels and views about donkey, train, and automobile, and also about the “remarkable” men who  accompanied him on the way or greeting him by the way. The author and his wife attended an outdoor concert with music and dance in the Kathmandu Valley that reminded him of the Movements. “Apart from a few details, their dance was one that my wife and I had been learning in a Movements class in New York two years earlier. When we recovered, we reasoned that Gurdjieff must have travelled in Nepal, taken note of that dance with grand precision, and years later reconstituted it as part of the dance repertory at the Prieuré. There was a further implication: we were just seventy miles from the Tibetan border. If Gurdjieff had come this far – a point that looked to us inarguable – then surely he toiled on, into Tibet, or exited Tibet by way of Nepal and India.” This encounter, one of many, illustrates how the author is able to relate his extensive research to his felt experiences.

Chapter 3. “The First Exposition: Russia 1912-1917.” Lipsey writes, “The Gurdjieff teaching is an integrated pattern of ideas, practices, purposes, dances, music, literature, and sustained inquiry. But this is a list, and a teaching is not a list. Try again.” The author continues that the teaching is “fresh experience, insight, and (when needed) statement from day to day. It is constantly being lost …. ” There is evidence here of a close reading of In Search of the Miraculous in terms of how its presentation of ideas and experiences differ from those of Gurdjieff’s idiosyncratic presentment, especially in his later years. There is a thoughtful analysis of the notion of “being” in the world today and the “new meaning” given it orally by Gurdjieff and to a lesser extent in Ouspensky’s book. The discourse is a thoughtful way to relate and contrast “knowledge” and “being.” As for critics of Gurdjieff, “Aren’t we all grateful to hear of new, worthwhile knowledge even if we happen to learn that its discoverer is unpleasant or odd? Knowledge breaks free from its origin. It has its own defences.” The author states it thus: “It is a matter for sustained inquiry and self-inquiry.”

Chapter 4. “Sonnez Fort: The Prieuré 1922-1932.” The first two words of the title will bring to mind the notice on the doorway of the Prieuré and remind the visitor that effort and work are necessary to gain admission. At eighty pages, it is the longest of the chapters. If I have been performing a hop, skip, and jump over previous chapters, here I will have to pole-vault over the information and insights present in these pages. For instance, there is a sub-section titled “The Tapestry of Life at the Prieuré” which is rich in detail, as expressed through the minds and emotions of a series of visitors and residents like Louise March and Katherine Mansfield. One of Paul Beekman Taylor’s books is an anthology of descriptions of the contributions of journalists and authors, and Lipsey is not only familiar with this publication, he is knowledgeable about hitherto unfamiliar commentators, so there is a freshness to the information imparted here. Other sub-sections are devoted to A.R. Orage, the Study House (notably the aphorisms inscribed on its walls), the Lectures (with a link with ancient philosophers: “Whatever else the Gurdjieff teaching may be, it is unquestionably a renewal of the insistent light of Stoicism as taught with dramatic flair by Epictetus and exquisite pensiveness by Marcus Aurelius. To the best of my knowledge Gurdjieff did not mention either by name; they are nonetheless nearby.”), the Children ( with this observation: “one of the difficult points in the practice of inner work: not to expect results”). Another sub-section is “Prehistory of the Movements” which in itself could be the outline for a volume on its own. Emile Jaques-Dalcroze’s influence is considered and René Daumal’s opinion of his gymnastic system is considered. “Movements at the Prieuré and in Public Performances” is extremely detailed as to what, where, and when. Four more sub-sections – “At the Limit” (closing the Prieuré), “A New Discipline: Authorship” (thoughts on the writings), “Julia Osipovna” (Gurdjieff’s wife), “Much is Washed Down: The End of the Institute” (“The dismembered Prieuré was a source of seeds that brought life elsewhere.”) – are self-explanatory, and somewhat woeful.

Chapter 5. “Lux in Tenebris: The 1930s.” This chapter deals with the way the teaching scattered, as did its disciples, following the closing of the Prieuré in May 1932. It also deals with the physical decline of Gurdjieff himself. The author acknowledges his debt to William Patrick Patterson’s research on the women’s group known as the Rope which is so well documented. It also offers information about the composition of “Meetings with Remarkable Men” and “Beelzebub’s Tales.” Odd details stand out.  Orage presented Gurdjieff with one hundred bound copies of the latter, earmarked them to be sold for ten dollars apiece. Meanwhile Gurdjieff himself has grown fat and untidy, according to Claude Bragdon, but he resisted age itself, saying,”Only two things not spoiled by age – Armagnac and carpets.”

Chapter 6. “Là-bas, rue des Colonels Renard.” Every student of the Work knows that between 1937 and his death in 1949, Gurdjieff resided at 6 rue des Colonels Renard in Paris’s 17th Arrondissement, but not everyone knows the telephone number of his flat. Lipsey knows it and shares it: Wagram 53-46. It is details like this that act like raisons in the recipe and add unexpected zest to the text. There is much information about the formation of groups in London and Jeanne de Salzmann’s work in Paris. Interestingly he refers to her “independent identity,” a thoughtful phrase. He continues, “Sometimes I write Jeanne de Salzmann rather than the formal – and more customary – Madame de Salzmann in an effort to wring out of our growing acquaintance with her any trace of stiffness. She was indeed, in deed and word, formidable. She carried in her own person the complete teaching; she was both contained and radiant. That the Gurdjieff teaching remains alive today worldwide, rather than a brilliant lost thing, is owed in large measure to her.” He offers a considered description of the contents of Gurdjieff’s old flat, not for reasons of nostalgia, but for the reason that “details matter because Gurdjieff constructed a symbolic world from the paintings throughout the apartment.” He praises Kenneth Walker’s descriptions of the flat, especially the pantry, and finds his two books (“Venture with Ideas” and “A Study of Gurdjieff’s Teaching”) to be “the keenest in the literature,” an apt evaluation with which I concur. I once owned an academic study of the paintings and sculptures collected by Adolf Hitler (he had five paintings by his favourite artist, Arnold Böcklin, best known for the canvas “Isle of the Dead”) that suggest psychological insights into the psyche of the Nazi dictator. Lipsey is able to reveal unexpected aspects of Gurdjieff’s personality from the banal paintings and tiny figurines that he collected. The analysis extends from Occupied Paris to post-war gatherings. A rich dessert of teaching stories follows, including the account of his youngest pupil, the six-month-old daughter of a student of the Work, who “understand everything, all Beelzebub. You not understand, but she understand.” Gurdjieff is said to have remarked that he only liked people “under five and over fifty-five.” The last section here is called “Saying Goodbye” and it offers unexpected insights into Gurdjieff’s final days and the days thereafter.

Chapter 7. “The Great Prayer: 1950-1956.” I have long felt that the Work changed in reality though perhaps not radically under Madame de Salzmann’s direction, as the emphasis of the Work had shifted over time in the hands of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff. “The real work will begin for you after my death,” he said to Madame. Lipsey draws back somewhat for a new focus, a different perspective. “Here also could begin, but will not, a second book: a chronicle of the many decades ahead.” Some other “scholar-author” will have to rise to that challenge. Instead the author sees “the balance of this chapter as a tone poem … to be hummed rather than read. It needs not so much detail but rather a felt sense for people and events.” The quality of writing is finer in this section than it has been in the historical sections prior to this chapter. So I will discretely leave it to readers of this book to find out about Madame de Salzmann’s relations with J.G. Bennett, Henri Tracol, Luc Dietrich, the Movements, even the movie films that were made if not released to the general public.

Chapter 8. “Derision.” Whoever is “in the Work” is from time to time faced with the difficulty of coherently describing it to someone who sincerely asks about it. He has also to face hostility to its ideas and practices based on nothing more than automaton-like ignorance. This chapter deals with such derision and covers the willful reactions of Traditionalists (René Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, Whitall Perry) and other observers including Anthony Storr, Peter Washington, Jean-François Revel and (at some length) Louis Pauwels. Some of these critics exhibit “self-assured zealotry throughout” (a good phrase). “The obscuring dust shed by what they wrote – particularly by what Pauwels wrote – continues to reach some opinion makers who simply don’t take the time needed to know whereof they speak and write.” He concludes finding Gurdjieff partly responsible for this “shame” because, after all, “he was also one of us, human, not without error. Incomparable, not without error.”

Chapter 9. “Beelzebub’s Tales.”  There are numerous commentaries on “Beelzebub’s Tales” including a short and insightful one by Denis Saurat and a long one by A.R. Orage. Lipsey’s consideration of the masterwork is merely thirteen pages long. It places the composition of Gurdjieff’s work written in “a highly stylized language unlike any other” which draws us “into a religious universe unlike any other” in the context of his life and in comparison (albeit briefly) with the “rabelaisian” saga “Gargantua and Pantagruel” written by François Rabelais. “Language structured in this way becomes an exercise in attention for both readers in their privacy and for oral readings, which remain a tradition in Gurdjieff houses since the Prieuré, when the Tales were a work in progress.” Lipsey looks at the language – the vocabulary too – of the epic-style work, albeit briefly. I like his conclusion: “Beelzebub’s Tales” belongs in that small company; it is an ocean of story and thought, inexhaustible – and it is a taste acquired through attentive reading over time, through gradually settling into Beelzebub’s universe and finding it altogether acceptable, full of brightness and sorrow.”

Chapter 10. “Coda.” That musical term for a review and summary of themes is the title of the final chapter. Odd. Perhaps Dr. Lipsey had in mind the “music of the spheres,” though on the surface that is doubtful, or perhaps it is a “prose poem” or the “tone poem” mentioned earlier. But beneath the surface, who knows? “I have no idea whether the Gurdjieff teaching or any other will in future exercise that degree of humane influence. Perhaps they will remain secret. Perhaps they should remain secret. The well-being and even wisdom they generate in individuals will surely influence the geographical and professional communities in which those individuals make their lives. That would be enough, and already a great deal.” So we end on a high note.

Other sections follow the ten chapters.

“Afterword.” Here the author acknowledges the influences on his life and on the conception, composition, and publication of his work. The first name mentioned is that of Lord Pentland, “the vastly creative president” of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York. The last named is that of Lise Etiévan, “who would not tolerate here an excess of kind words; she deserves them all.” Nobly expressed.

“Notes.” These are not to be overlooked because they are invaluable to scholars and collectors: nineteen closely set pages of source-notes.

“Bibliography.” Coverage is given to the following categories: unpublished sources, published works by Gurdjieff, printed music, recordings, published works on Gurdjieff, works by Louis Pauwels, and “other material.”

“Credits.” This is a single-page listing of credits to cited passages.

“Index.” I cannot tell how extensive the index will be, as it does not appear in this advance reader’s copy, but given the author’s scholarly credentials, I imagine it will be sound.

“About the Author.” Here appears the basic publisher blurb on the author. It is the only section of the book that might be described as “routine,” despite the author’s many accomplishments.

And now … some considerations amid the appreciation, remarks of my own, rather than the previous précis-like summaries of the book’s contents.

1. This is not strictly a biography of G.I. Gurdjieff. In the words of the book’s subtitle, it is a study of “The Life, the Teachings, and Legacy.” It is the account of a spiritual leader as a spiritual teacher, and nowhere does it probe or speculate about the man’s psychological constitution or “mentation.” Even so there is very little discussion of the psychological and sociological aspects of leadership and mentorship.

2. This book is a well researched and presented discussion of all the quality literature in English and French about the man and the movement. The study proceeds with care, precision, and passion. It is quite up-to-date and each chapter includes a fair amount of material new to avid readers of the literature like myself. The text is fully documented and sources for all the principle statements are given.

3. The work is not a substitute for Group Work. No secrets (in the sense of “oral tradition”) are revealed, no teaching techniques are described and shared, but the sense – even the scent of the whole – is ever-present.

4. The title is an arresting one, though after reading the book from cover to cover, if hurriedly, I find myself scratching my head trying to answer the straight-forward question that is inevitably generated by the book’s title: “In what way is Gurdjieff being reconsidered?” Inevitably the man, the message, and the influence have been reconfigured by history, one hundred years having passed: that is certain. Yet the story of the introduction of the Fourth Way to the Western World, the century-long saga that began in St. Petersburg and Moscow and has now seeped into Western cultural history, has by now been pretty well cemented in place.

Yet the final pages of this book carry the argument that the work has “gone global.” It is taking its place on the world stage of values. Lipsey writes, “Hence the teaching about vigilance: dreamers, awaken.” These last two words can serve humanity especially at this time of world-wide social and political disruption. Lipsey names a number of moral exemplars, like Martin Luther King and eight others, including Mohandas Gandhi, who have borne a somewhat similar (if humanistic) message.

Lipsey faithfully records all the twists and turns of the Work in Europe and America, perhaps with one eye on James Webb’s monumental The Harmonious Circle and with the other eye on Paul Beekman Taylor’s study, Gurdjieff: A New Life, with that pun in its title. Nowhere are Gurdjieff’s values questioned or reconsidered; in fact, they are affirmed and re-affirmed. That statement of mine is true except perhaps it is adumbrated by the last sentence of Chapter 8. That surprising sentence finds him to be “human, not without error,” for it concludes with these words: “For his share of what we are, he too must be forgiven.”

In short, all in all, Gurdjieff Reconsidered is a remarkable book about a remarkable man written by a remarkable author and scholar.