“Universe” 59 Years Later
A Pertinent Question
“Universe” 59 Years Later
There has been some discussion lately about the one book that you would recommend to a friend who has expressed serious interest in the Work. The book that I see as meeting this need is The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, the classic text by P.D. Ouspensky, which was originally published in a limited edition in 1950 but which has been reprinted at intervals many times.
It has the virtue of clarity and concision, but it may not be to every reader’s taste, being quite uncompromising and committed to a context that is best described as “esoteric.”A number of readers have drawn my attention to a work that I have long cherished, Toward Awakening (1979), which was written by Jean Vaysse, the distinguished surgeon who led a major Paris group. His book I find to be very subtle indeed. It marks an advance on Ouspensky’s title if only in that it includes descriptions of work-related techniques and their psychological effects, possibly for the first time in public print.
Lately I recalled a third candidate for the “recommendation to a friend” which has the virtue of being very straight-forward in style and extremely well organized. I have in mind Sy Ginsberg’s Gurdjieff Unveiled. It is subtitled “An Overview and Introduction to the Teaching.” Its virtues of clarity, concision, and comprehensiveness speak for themselves. One added benefit is that the entire text of the book is available free of charge on the Internet with no strings attached. (Simply type the title into Google.)
It is easier to recommend a motion picture to people who have expressed serious interest. Meetings with Remarkable Men will long remain the central film. One website devoted to the 1979 feature film identifies its writers as “Peter Brook & G.I. Gurdjieff,” a Hollywood-style billing that would no doubt make the great experimental stage and film director wince! Also, it makes no reference to the guidance given its conception and production by Madame de Saltzmann. But what a fine film it is, adventurous and reverential at the same time.
My own favourite introduction to the Work, or at least to a feeling for the Work, is a lesser-known contribution of genuine distinction and wide-spread appeal and influence. I have in mind the documentary motion picture titled Universe which was released by the National Film Board of Canada in 1960. The film is now fifty-nine years old, but in spirit it remains as youthful as it ever was. I remember seeing the twenty-nine-minute, black-and-white documentary in a movie theatre the year of its release. This was during the period when Canadian motion-picture exhibitors (then as now mainly American-controlled) were required to include some “Canadian content” along with American-made feature films. I do not recall the title of the feature film that I had gone to see, but I do recall the excitement of Universe.
Since then I have rewatched it a number of times, always with pleasure and profit. Universe was produced by the experimental group within the National Film Board that was interestingly called Unit D. It was founded and headed by Tom Daly, who was one of the three senior Work personalities in the country. (The other prominent individuals are James George, former High Commissioner to India, and Ravi Ravindra, physicist, author, and public speaker.)
Tom Daly grew up in a socially prominent family in Toronto. In the early 1950s he met Thomas and Olga de Hartmann, who were then temporary residents of Rawdon, Quebec, en route to the United States, and the Daly family brought Madame de Hartmann to Toronto where a study group was formed that continues to this day. Tom soon moved to Montreal to continue his work as a senior producer with the NFB. His professional, film-making career has been an outstanding one, notable for the taste and refinement as well as the audacity and sincerity of his productions.
Universe follows a night in the life of Donald McCrae, professor of astronomy, University of Toronto. At dusk Dr. McCrae drives north of the city to the university’s David Dunlap Observatory, where he conducts some routine work and photographs six star systems. The night’s work is exacting but not trying. At dawn, exhausted but exhilarated, he drives back into the city. The city seems transformed by the viewer’s experience.
The sequences in the observatory’s dome convey a monastic, sepulchre-like atmosphere, in contrast with the vision of the spectacular array of the far-off stars that light up the gradually darkening overhead sky. The narration is read by the actor Douglas Rain. (Stanley Kubrick was so impressed with Rain’s voice that he chose Rain, over actor Martin Balsam, to give the distinctive voice to the malevolent computer HAL 9000 in the monumental motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey.) In a dry-as-dust way, Rain describes incredible wonders. In fact, the narration begins most memorably: “The ground beneath our feet is the surface of a planet whirling at thousands of miles an hour around a distant sun.”
The film offers perhaps the first Cosmic Zoom, with the camera taking the viewer from a minute point on Earth (the Observatory) on a journey among the inner and outer planets of our Solar System, with a constantly widening perspective, to embrace the nearby galaxies, then the Milky Way galaxy, and ultimately the Cosmos itself. The narration runs: “If we looked more deeply into space, leaving behind us the earth and the whole of our solar system, and travelled at the speed of light, it would take four years before we came to even the closest of the billions of suns scattered through stellar space.” The visuals are evocative of “a sense of wonder.” (It is not surprising that Colin Low, who with Rom Kroitor directed it, was soon employed assisting Kubrick with his own, breath-taking stellar sequences.)
The structure of the film seems to follow that of the Cosmos itself, the Ray of Creation, glimpsed in astonishing sequences when detected at all. “If we could move with the freedom of a god so that a million years pass in a second, and if we went far enough, past the nearest suns, beyond the star clouds and nebulae, in time they would end and, as if moving out from behind a curtain, we would come to an endless sea of night.” But even that so-called sea of night has its oases, its “island universes.” The Cosmic Zoom takes us to the farthest edges of the universe, or at least to those of the known universe, where all we can do is as pose questions about creation and causation, mind and matter. The limits of our telescopes and other instruments are augmented by our intelligences and intuitions and, above all, by our imaginations.
The narration concludes with a wry reluctance to probe further: “But when we look this deeply into space we are looking at a ghostly image of the distant past, for the light by which we see these regions started travelling towards us long before the dawn of life on earth. In all of time, on all the planets of all the galaxies in space, what civilizations have risen, looked into the night, seen what we see, asked the questions that we ask?”
I certainly recommend a viewing of Universe to anyone who has a latent or nascent or evolving “sense of wonder.” Someone with a knowledge of Work principles will find in the film’s imagery and vocabulary reverberations of terms used in the work. Like the universe itself, it has not aged at all in spirit. Some other credits: script by Stanley Jackson, direction by Roman Kroitor and Colin Low, music by Eldon Rathburn, and production by Tom Daly. The last time I checked the documentary could be viewed free of charge on the NFB’s website. It is fifty-nine years old. The feeling I have is that long-lived individuals will be watching it in another fifty-nine years.
Earlier I mentioned Ouspensky’s work. A companion volume to The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution was published in 1989. It is titled The Cosmology of Man’s Possible Evolution, and it is based on Ouspensky’s lectures of 1934-40, the same vintage as the lectures that appeared in Psychology, the other half of the psychology/cosmology equation. The documentary Universe film might be regarded as a companion to this companion, so to speak!
A Pertinent Question
In July of 2018 there were exchanges of emails between an artist and writer in Vancouver and myself in Toronto that had to do with my poetry and my interest in the Work, the latter being the teachings and practices of G.I. Gurdjieff. My correspondent’s first email arrived “out of the blue” and commented on the review that I wrote more than a decade earlier on the contribution of Louise Welch to the Work in Toronto. Then we exchanged writings and commented on each other’s writings and, on July 17, 2019, I was faced with the following statement: “I have a ‘burning question of the day’ which will now take over: How is it that you came into the Work at the tender age of nineteen?”
Here is my answer. You have asked a pertinent question that few other people have thought to ask or have been emboldened to ask. I will answer it and I hope you will reciprocate with an account of your own introduction to the Work.
My earliest sensations of the world around me were that I did not belong right here and right now. It was not that I felt maladjusted or that anyone else felt that I was. It was that I knew I would have to wait until such time as I could strike out on my own and not be dependent on the good will and misunderstandings of other people. I was nominally raised a Roman Catholic but I always knew that the sacraments, the scriptures, and the strictures were being misunderstood and misapplied.
Only later did it dawn on me that nobody whom I knew really knew much more about such matters than I did. It was a sobering thought. The question I then asked is whether or not this is a characteristic that applies across time and around the world. It made sense to me that what was characteristic of the Western world was not necessarily characteristic of the Eastern world and, as well, that the Ancients were any the wiser about matters of metaphysics than are Moderns like ourselves.
It took me some years to realize, without travelling abroad, that possibilities are different in different parts of the world, but that it is an exaggeration or a misunderstanding to believe that Lhasa, Tibet, is or was a more spiritual or sacred place than, say, Toronto, Ontario. The cost of all of this on my psyche was that I took no interest at all in sports and hardly any in local or current events. The intellectual dimension was added through wide but not deep reading in the prose poems of the Lebanon mystic Kahlil Gibran and writings inspired by the musings of the savants of The Theosophy Society, though not its mahatmas, who were a little remote in my eyes.
In 1956, while still a highschool student in Kitchener, I became the Toronto Theosophical Society’s youngest member, a “corresponding member,” so eager was I to read more widely in occult and metaphysical literature, which I did by making use of its “travelling library,” based in Toronto. It soon occurred to me that in “the T.S.,” as it was called, there was no “praxis” or “practicum.” One “studied” Theosophical texts, like mathematics texts!
Then by chance or fate or karma, I met and undertook some private studies with a local bond salesman who once held a seat on the Toronto Stock Exchange but who also had a Rosicrucian orientation and was in possession of an immense private library of occult literature. He knew more than I did but seemed unable to render it for inner use. That might explain why I possess an original oil painting by Aleister Crowley, reproduced here.
In Search of the Miraculous appeared in 1949 and shortly thereafter I read it from cover to cover, repeatedly, digesting its principle ideas and making many of them (at least those that I could understand) my own. Thereafter it became the lodestone or the measuring stick of my inner world. While an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, I was admitted to the Toronto group, then only a few years old, managed by Mrs. Louise Welch with the occasional assistance of her husband Dr. William Welch. (Her photograph appears here; his appears below. They have nothing in common with Crowley’s vibrant portrait of two American socialites which also appears here!) Separately or together on a monthly basis, the couple flew from New York City to Toronto and back, a dizzying prospect. I also met Tom Daly, one of the world’s leading documentary film producers, and Rogers (Pete) Colgrove (then a mathematics teacher at Toronto’s Forest Hill Collegiate Institute; later the companion of Madame de Hartmann in Santa Fee, New Mexico). I was a member for two years and learned a lot about myself from the Movements, the Sittings, the Talks, and particularly the other group members. In idle moments I imagined myself visiting Mendham, New Jersey. But it did not take me long to conclude that I was more an Ouspenskian than I was a Gurdjieffian, so I left behind the Work itself, but not my private work.
I remain, I guess, an independent scholar or a lonely practitioner, perhaps a “cowan” (a term mistakenly given a bad reputation ih Masonry), except for the fact that about fifteen years ago I began to correspond with the Cambridge scholar Sophia Wellbeloved. I accepted her kind invitation to contribute to her Gurdjieff blog which was widely read at the time. I wrote quite detailed reviews of current publications in this field for her dedicated and knowledgeable readership. Nobody else was doing what I was doing in organized fashion, so why not continue to do so? Book and other reviews of mine on literature and nationalism had been appearing in Canadian magazines and newspapers, so why not write about other neglected subjects for Sophia’s blog?
After some time I was surprised (and honoured) to be invited to contribute the foreword to Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff, a new book by the scholar Paul Beekman Taylor, and in recent years I certainly benefited through a number of friendships, including those with James George (retired Canadian High Commissioner to India) and his wife Barbara Wright George (one of leaders of the San Francisco group founded by Lord Pentland). At a later point I will name other contributors to my sense of the Work.
At my initial meeting over sixty decades ago, with Mrs. Welch, I told her that I was aware of “the tension of the two worlds.” She asked me where that phrase had come from, I told her it was my own inspiration and insight. She looked surprised and then smiled. I am still surprised.
That’s my turn. Now it’s your turn!
17 July 2018
On Hearing a Reading of Passage 45: “‘To Know Myself’” on the “Reality of Being Webinar,” Oct. 14, 2018
Reading this passage I sense that I am looking backward in time and forward in attention. By that I mean backward to Ouspensky’s descriptions of attention which are laden with technical terminology – magnetic centre, crystalization, etc. – and forward with Madame de Salzmann’s presentations which are pretty well innocent of technical vocabulary. Indeed, it comes as a surprise when she slips into one of her accounts of the acquisition of self-knowledge a reference to “First Shock” and then to “Second Shock,” almost unawares. Instead of “Magnetic Centre” (a great phrase by the way, one I equate with the pedestrian and folkloristic term “Green Thumb”), the term she uses is “Centre of Gravity,” which is about as technical as she gets.
Even before I encountered Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous and the Work itself, when I was seventeen or eighteen years old, I formulated what I was dealing with even then – what we are dealing with here and now – and I did it with the phrase “the tension of the two worlds.” A year later this was favourably received by Mrs. Welch, the leader of the Toronto Group.
So impressed was she with the expression or formulation that she suggested that I had picked up the phrase from a popular commentator like Alan Watts. This surprised me as I was close to an elderly gentleman named Watt, Alexander Watt, who had an immense library of occult books. “No,” I replied. “I have read books by Watts and Paul Brunton and Madame Blavatsky, but to my knowledge I had encountered that phrase nowhere else. It had come to me naturally.” I n my own mind it conjured up the image of an oil painting that I had once done which I had titled “man is an incompleted being and nature a suggestion of infinity.” I was trying to reconcile these worlds and words so the tension was manifest. She said nothing for a while and then nodded with approval.
Today I would sidestep the plural noun “worlds,” as graphic as it is, perhaps suggestive of an interplanetary novel by H.G. Wells, preferring perhaps “centres” or “zones” or “areas” or “faculties” or “intelligences” or even “attitudes,” but I would retain the word “tension” in the singular. It is, with me, a constant. To favour the work is to create a tension in life, as well as an increase in attention.
14 Oct. 2018