A Mammoth and Unusual Publication
A Mammoth and Unusual Publication
A brief note of the features and characteristics of an enjoyable tome of an illustrated book compiled by Jessmin and Dushka Howarth
It was in the middle of the 1950s that I first encountered the writings of P.D. Ouspensky and through his ideas I engaged with the theory and practice introduced by G.I. Gurdjieff. To this day I visualize the Work from the vantagepoint of an unreconstructed Ouspenskian as well as through the filter of the Fifties, the period of the Cold War with all of its polarities, with the battle between ideologies, and with the ever-presence of subversive ideas in both East and West.
I am inclined to visualize the scenes of Ouspensky in Moscow and Gurdjieff in Paris in the tone of sepia but framed in black and white. The Work is in soft-focus and far in the past. It is not yet called the Gurdjieff Work and not yet referred to as the Fourth Way. Instead, it is known as the Special Doctrine, which was the term Ouspensky used to permit himself to distinguish between this “school of thought” from his earlier philosophical, theosophical, and mathematical speculations, the so-called “Secret Doctrine.” That continued to be a problem for him.
The special and private perspective that I have been describing may very well be shared by people who came to maturity with “fragments of an unknown teaching” in the late Forties and early Fifties. The perspective is that of a Wisdom tradition that is inimical to Western values generally, a tradition that appeared in the West in 1912 and over the next two decades came to the attention of a discerning public in literary and artistic circles through Ouspensky’s lectures in London and Gurdjieff’s activities in Paris and at Fontainebleau-on-Avon.
So in my mind’s eye, I still see the appearance of these ideas as accomplishments in the past, not contributions to New Age thought of the Sixties. Students of the Work who are younger than I was at that time have the opportunity (especially after reading the book that I am about to discuss) to view the Work on a wide-screen in Technicolor with Dolby Sound. No sepia or black and white for them! What grew with effort out of the soil of pre-Revolutionary Russia was able to survive the Communist Revolution, the Great War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. Now much that was merely words and counter-revolutionary history has been brought to life and given flesh and blood through the efforts of two extraordinarily able women, a mother and a daughter, inspired by G.I. Gurdjieff.
All of this activity seemed at the time to be of marginal interest to society as a whole. Except possibly for a handful of Theosophists and Anthroposophists, nobody I knew had ever heard of movements, the enneagram, kesdjan bodies, the formatory centre, etc. Soon the Special Doctrine would sea-change into the Work and these would enter into common parlance. If there is a year with which to mark that metamorphosis, it is the year 1979, which saw the commercial release of Peter Brook’s remarkable film, Meetings with Remarkable Men.
It is not by chance that since then I keep encountering people who know “all about” Gurdjieff. They proceed to share their “information and insights” with me. When this happens it is diverting but also dismaying, yet it remains instructive. Indeed, I recall the story told a few years ago by the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson (I think it was) about the middle-aged man who boarded an airplane and took his seat beside that of a distinguished-looking older man. The two passengers began to chat.
During the course of the flight, the middle-aged man waxed eloquent about the intricacies of “string theory,” basing everything he knew on an article that he had enthusiastically read about it in a popular science magazine. When he had finished with his disquisition, he asked the older man what he thought – and it turned out that he had been explaining “string theory” to Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate!
I am no Murray Gell-Mann – not even a Freeman Dyson – and I also assume my readers are neither – but I am also sure we have all had this experience at least once. Indeed, I have been having a similar experience while reading this massive new book that I am about to review. It is indeed massive. It measures 10 inches high and 7 inches wide and 1.25 inches thick! It has a four-colour-coated cover and it is quite long at xxvi + 512 pages. It is not strictly new – though a book is “new” to anyone who has yet to read it – for the title page says it was published in 1998, twelve years ago! Could that be true? (If so, I am uncharacteristically late catching up with it!) The tome to which I am referring bears a title with subtitles that are awkward yet not inaccurate. Here it is:
“It’s Up to Ourselves”:
A Mother, a Daughter, and Gurdjieff
A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album
By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth
Gurdjieff Heritage Society
Copyright, Dushka Howarth, 1998
To me in the 1950s, the Work represented ideas and effort. To the men and women who lived through that period as adults from 1912 to the 1950s, who were in daily and often intimate contact with Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, it was work and effort too, but it was also a lively time that was rich in character and personality, in idiots and toasts, in events and experiences that were seen to be teaching situations. There was the sprightliness of the Twenties and the literary and technological innovations of the interwar years generally – with inventions like the Theramin – which seemed to be outwards signs of inward change.
Now down to the book itself. The table of contents tells the story of the emergence and evolution of the Work chronologically: The Early Years, Twenties, Thirties, Forties, Fifties, The Later Years. Also included are a Preface and Introduction and then Postscripts, Appendices, Bibliography, and Index. The index is something of a shock because it consists of a list of names without a single page number. Yet the names that appear here! Some 800 people are mentioned, celebrities like Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen and Mrs. Wallace Warfield Simpson … as well as the seven Bennetts, the six Gurdjieffs, the five de Salzmanns, the four Stjernvals, the three Andersons, the two de Hartmanns, and the single Denis Saurat.
What I have yet to mention is this book’s unique and indispensable feature: its photographs. As well as a collection of informative letters, it is an album of close to 900 photos, ranging from studio portraits and publicity shots to candid snapshots. The latter are exceptional and even emotional in appeal. By comparison, I once edited for a publisher the memoirs of a Canadian colonel who had served as the aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip during their Royal Visits to Canada.
On the side-tables in his living-room in his gracious residence in Oakville, Ontario, there were framed snapshots of members of the Royal Family. These candid shots were inscribed and they showed the Royal personages in their leisured moments. It was something of a shock to see Liz and Phil lounging about on the lawns of Balmoral, toying with corgis, smiling at each other, relaxing with the colonel, etc.
The sense of surprise that I experienced in the general’s living room was recreated when page after page of this tome I saw candid photographs of the names of most if not all of the people who “made” the Work. There is hardly a double-page spread without its agreeable photograph or photographs. I realize now for too long I had been starved for images. And also for gossip.
No way am I am able to summarize the wealth of the contents of this publication, other than to briefly allude to its structure and straight away recall a few of its highlights, a personal selection at best. The tome may lack the high-seriousness of purpose characteristic of James Moore’s Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered, published in 2005, and it may miss the earnest quality of life exhibited in Frank R. Sinclair’s Without Benefit of Clergy: Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching (2009), which I hope to review in the future, yet its informality and its air of indiscretion are its characteristic charms.
It is a work of great gaiety. It has the air of one of today’s blogs or of one of yesteryear’s family scrapbooks or private diaries: the family being that of Gurdjieff’s kith and kin and karass (to use Kurt Vonnegut’s ingenious term for a self-made family). It takes the form of the long, detailed, and delightful letters that were exchanged by Jessmin Howarth and her daughter Cynthia Ann (Dushka) Howarth (one of Gurdjieff’s children).
A sense of how the Work impregnated the lives of these two correspondents and their array of friends is apparent on every page of this book, yet the import of all of these references will be lost on readers who lack knowledge of what it is all about, being J.K. Rowling’s muggles and squibs.
I mentioned earlier I would “review” this book. Since that is impossible, even given the measureless space available on a blog like this one, I will content myself by merely “noticing” some references in the book. I will comment here and there on passages that have struck me as particularly interesting over the month that I spent dipping into it, reading here and there. There is an old saying that goes like this: “You do not have to drink the ocean to learn that it is salty, as one drop is enough.” I will take a sip here and there. It will satisfy the curiosity of the reader who is needy and wants to sense the shape and feel of the Work, as it evolved, in terms of people and their relationships. The details will help historians of ideas for decades to come. Right now it is time for the reader who cherishes a taste for these ideas and feelings.
Allow me to begin by noting the “Canadian content.” There is a snapshot of James (Jim) George and of his daughter, dancer Dolphi Wertenbaker, and a photograph of Sheila Bura, who also taught the movements. There are references to Peter Colgrove, who nursed Madame de Hartmann through her last days, and Tom and Ruth Daly, guardians of the Gurdjieff / de Hartmann music. Honourary Canadians are the Welches who guided the groups in Toronto and Halifax.
I was pleased to see many references to movements instructor Alfred Etiévant, whom I found to be a stern taskmaster, but whom wiser and older people knew to be so sweet as to be described as a “pushover.” I learned he was urged to marry Dushka Howarth but he ended up married to Lise Tracol. I could go on. There are lovely photographs of the “work periods” in Halifax with Ravi Ravindra. There is even a photo of Walter Driscoll, the bibliographer.
I had long nourished a curiosity about life at Franklin Farms at Mendham, N.J. There are photographs of the attractive residence and of activities that took place there, as well as pen portraits of the personalities who worked there on weekends or who resided there for years. There are references to the site at Armonk and photographs of Lyne Place, Colet Gardens, Coombe Springs, and Sherborne House, all fabulous and semi-storied places in my eyes.
Jessmin Howarth, an orphan, was an student of Dalcroze’s Eurythmics at Hellerau where she met fellow student Jeanne de Salzmann who subsequently introduced her to the movements, which Christian philosopher Jacques Maritain is credited with calling “meditation in motion.” (The same description is independently used to characterize the discipline of Tai Chi.) Jessmin met Gurdjieff in Paris in 1922. Over the years she learned, like many another woman, to dissever the teacher from the man.
Throughout the book appear photographs of Madame Gurdjieff and Madame Ouspensky as well as snapshots of Ouspensky himself travelling through Ceylon. In fact, the women whose stories are told and whose photographs are reproduced play a great role in the story. Dushka herself has done a fine job explaining the background and significance of the references that appear in the correspondence.
In addition to the women already mentioned (in no order whatsoever, a little confusion being catchy) here are some names redolent of activities in the past and the present: Lily Galumian, Madame Ostrowska (Gurdjieff‘s wife), Olga de Hartmann, Jessie Dwight Orage, Katherine Mansfield, Olgivanna Hinzenberg Wright, Edith Taylor Swaska, Elizabeta Stjernvall, Louise Goepfert March, Ethel Merston, Tania Savitsky, Edith Taylor, Rita Romilly Benson, Petey Taylor, Solange Claustre, Lise Tracol, Marian Sutta, Peggy Flinsch, Henriette Lannes, Rina Hands, Elizabeth Bennett, Dorothea Dooling, Pauline de Dampierre, Marthe de Gaigneron, Tania Nagro, Luba Gurdjieff, Rosemary Nott, P.L. Travers, Patty Welch de Llosa, Svetlana Wright Peters, Dorothy Caruso, and Lady Lucy Pentland, not to mention Kathryn Hulme and Margaret Anderson and the talented women who were members of The Rope. I hope I have not overlooked too many talented and energetic women!
I will forego any attempt to summarize what Jessmin and Dushka took from the work or from Gurdjieff personally and privately. It resists summary. The enthusiasm for the Work that is displayed by them for the man and the techne and praxis speaks for itself. Jessmin’s letters to Dushka and Dushka’s replies are the threads that stitch this crazy-quilt of a book together. It is apparent that the daughter inherited her verve and personal style from her mother. (I will leave up in the air what she inherited from her father.)
Both women are lively correspondents, uninhibited letter-writers, whose words are a joy to read. Not a few of these pages are devoted to accounts of Dushka’s own and varied activities. A glamorous professional guitar-player, she was also a spunky and adventurous licensed press agent, translator, and guide working in Paris. For all of this froth and frivolity, I am grateful to her for capturing the excitement of the people who were involved in the work, changing my impression of it from something solemn and remote and sepia to a dynamic way of living, what Paul Beekman Taylor has recently described as “a new life.”
It’s Up to Ourselves is published by the Gurdjieff Heritage Society, which has its own website. The selling price of the book is given as US$75.00. It is worth every penny of that amount. (With a workable index, it would be worth at least twice that sum.)
Note: This review of Dushka Howarth’s book appeared on Sophia Wellbeloved’s gurdjieffbooks blog shortly before the principle author’s death on March 28, 2010. It may well be the sole review of Dushka’s book to appear on screen or in print, so I wondered whether she ever saw it. A year or so later, Patty de Llosa assured me that Dushka had heard it, for it seems that Patty herself had read the text to Dushka. (I hesitated to ask Patty what the author thought of the review – or for that matter what Patty thought of it, being more familiar with the ambience than I could ever be.) A few copies of the first edition remain in print and are available through By the Way Books, though not at the list price above. As for the “workable index,” it is hardly necessary to prepare one, if a publisher reissues the full work as an ebook with a searchable Portable Document Format (PDF). Let us hope that an enterprising publisher will rise to the challenge.
Useful Summary of the Editions of “Beelzebub’s Tales”
Like many another reader of this blog, I have spent much time in a state of confusion over the various French and English-language editions that have been published of Beelzebub’s Tales (aka All and Everything) as well as over the status of “the Russian text,” the putative ur-text of that publication, not to mention information about the appearance of the text in other languages.
Questions about the latter were asked and then answered with authority, based on scholarship, by the Geneva-based historian Paul Beekman Taylor, in Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff (Eureka Editions, 2010). All confusions may well be swept aside after reading about the often-overlooked appearance on the scene of Professor Taylor’s carefully written text.
Now all that it takes to learn about the provenance of Beelzebub’s Tales is to read the 1,200-word history of that text that appears on the website of Dolmen Meadow Editions, a small but not minor publishing imprint based in Toronto which specializes in Fourth Way publications. Its catalogue on the Web describes and offers for sale the authorized Russian version of that book.
On the publisher’s website, click the book’s title and then its history (written by Jack Cain). It’s all spelled out there. Now you know which of the two editions in the English language to read for the first, second, and third times. Bravo, Dolmen Meadow Editions!
At least half a dozen times over the last fifty years I have been commissioned by the editors of various newspapers and periodicals to identify “my favourite book” and to write a brief essay about it for their readers. Naturally, I agreed, and for my own part, over the same period of time, I have read with benefit perhaps one hundred such short reviews written by authors who were at the time in the news. I always learn something reading these reviews and sometimes make a note to seek out copies of these books and read them in earnest. A popular feature of the year’s end issue of the weekly The Times Literary Supplement is its retrospective look – a round-up, really – of the fifty or so year’s favourite choices by the TLS’s regular contributors, but these are limited to titles published during the previous twelve months.
I have always identified my “favourite book” as Ripley’s Believe It or Not! It has been my favourite because the concept behind the book as well as its execution continue to intrigue me. You may recall that Robert L. Ripley was the New York sports cartoonist who became a world traveler and collector of “oddities,” which he described and illustrated in those inescapable, popular cartoon features that appeared in daily and weekly newspapers, and thereafter on radio, television, and in “odditoriums” throughout the Western world. The headquarters of Ripley Entertainment Inc. is Orlando, Florida, thought for about a dozen years it was owned and operated by a venture capitalist in Toronto, Ontario, who sold it to Jim Pattison, another venture capitalist, its current owner, a resident of Vancouver, British Columbia.
The first hard-cover edition of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! was published by Simon & Schuster in 1931 and proved to be wildly successful. It was reprinted by Pocket Books, and in 1948 my favourite Aunt Marie presented me with a copy of the paperback edition. It was well-thumbed.
Early Ripley collections of his cartoons (unlike their successors) included his writings as well as his drawings, and these assured me that for two reasons the world in which we live is a bizarre and wonderful place. It is bizarre because most of what we popularly believe is untrue, as Ripley delighted in pointing out. (“Panama hats are not produced in Panama. They come from Ecuador,” etc.) It is fascinating because the truths about the world are even more wonderful than what its occupants fancy to be true. “Strange indeed is man seeking after his Gods.” He also said, “I have traveled to 201 countries, including Hell (Norway), and the strangest thing I’ve seen was man.” So Ripley’s Believe It or Not! remains my favourite book.
The Hills of Varna is a work of fiction that I have cherished, also since 1948, when I was twelve years old, when a very tall and thoughtful librarian at the local Carnegie public library thrust a copy of that book into my hand and said, “Borrow this short novel. You will enjoy reading it.” She was right. I really did enjoy reading it and then rereading it on a number of occasions over the years between then and now.
The English novelist Geoffrey Trease is its author and his specialty was writing historical fiction for young readers. In this novel, set in Cambridge, England, as well as in the Balkans in the Late Middle Ages, he describes with great excitement the hunt for the sole remaining copy of an Ancient Greek manuscript that was believed to be held in the scriptorium of a monastery in the Balkan Range. Erasmus of Rotterdam knows all about this and sets two young scholars the task of finding it and making it available to the world through the printing presses of Aldus Manutius.
I am only sorry that the conscientious librarian never knew that The Hills of Varna would prove to be prophetic in my life. In later years I was intrigued by printing and publishing and hand-printing, and on five occasions my wife Ruth and I were guests of the Writers Union and the Slav Committee of Bulgaria. I kept referring to “this marvelous book for younger readers which offers memorable descriptions of the Balkan Range” to encourage translators in Sophia to arrange for The Hills of Varna to be translated into Bulgarian, but while genuine interest was expressed, to my knowledge nothing came of the suggestions that I made.
A gift book that I especially cherish is my copy of Values. It is a smallish, hard-cover book complete with its yellowish dust jacket. The colour recalls the alarming yellow dust jackets once used by the publisher Victor Gollancz for his leftist publications, except that this jacket identifies no author or editor, offers no selling copy, only and oddly on its front cover only the name of its publisher and its year of publication: “Coombe Springs Press 1963.” The jacket is purely protective; it has indeed protected this hard-bound volume very well since that year when it was presented to me at a Group meeting in Toronto.
It was given to me by Dr. Paul Bura, a member of the Toronto Group which was then led by Mrs. Louise Welch. A mild-mannered man of Ukrainian background, Paul had received his doctorate in Engineering from the University of London and after living in London and then in Montreal for some years. He settled in Toronto with his wife, Sheila, who was an instructor of Movements in New York and Toronto. I should really say the copy of Values was slipped to me by Paul who was anxious that I keep the gift to myself and not show it to other members of the group.
The book itself is 170 pages long. The first edition appeared in 1943. My edition was reprinted in 1963 by the Coombe Springs Press, Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey. That information will alert readers to the fact that its text was compiled and edited, printed and published, under the auspices of the polymath J.G. Bennett at the Institute for Comparative Study of History, Philosophy and the Sciences. At Coombe Springs he oversaw a seven-acre estate that sponsored no end of activities of interest but of which I knew nothing at all at the time – not that I know very much more these days.
In 1963, Bennett’s name was not widely known to the general public; nor, for that matter, was G.I. Gurdjieff’s, who had died four years earlier in 1949. Madame Ouspensky herself passed away twelve years later at Mendham, New Jersey, but few members of the general reading public knew about them at the time and there was no Internet with Google and YouTube to identify people and institutions. Encyclopaedias were hopeless as they were always out of date. What I knew was what was included in my copy of Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, published in 1949, and I had and still have a jacket-less copy of Gurdjieff’s All and Everything (1950), which at the time I found difficult to read with any degree of comprehension.
For the record, here is a rundown on the groups today: 1. “The Gurdjieff Foundation of Toronto: The Experimental Group.” 2. The publishing group (officially “Toronto Gurdjieff Group”). 3. “The Society for Traditional Studies.” There is also a fourth, non-affiliated group, taking into account the active Gurdjieff Bennett Group.
To befuddle matters further, there is also Dolmen Meadow Editions, a fine publishing imprint devoted to Fourth Way publications. (It produced the Russian-language edition of All & Everything.) The main group retains property: a two-storey midtown building as well as a farm at Tyrone, Ontario. Some element in “wisdom traditions” and “universal brotherhoods” gives rise to turf-wars.
Paul was wary of all of this and perhaps that was the reason that in his last years he shifted his fealty to join the Toronto Theosophical Society. I am uncertain whom he regarded as the pioneers of Group work in Toronto, but I presume he meant Sheila and himself and possibly other unnamed followers of Bennett who were residents of the city in the very early 1950s.
I subsequently met Paul while he was serving as the T.S.’s President. James George and I were among the handful of mourners present at the Turner & Porter Yorke Chapel in the city’s West End who had gathered to acknowledge his passing at the service held in his memory in November 2006 (as is mentioned in “On the Death of Paul Bura” in Volume 5 of The Notebooks of John Robert Colombo).
The surreptitious behaviour in presenting the gift of Values has brought all of this to mind. I hope it is of some interest to a handful of men and women today. But what is guaranteed to be relevant is the unpretentious book’s contents. The text begins with a Preface which starts with these words: “The sacred literature of all ages and the speculative writings of the philosophers abound in passages which endeavour to express the ultimate values which form the goal of human striving.”
Its unidentified author continues, “The object has been to give ready access to a few of the more precise and also the more pregnant statements in Eastern and Western literature. Passages from the Bible have been deliberately excluded as belonging to a different order of Truth.” Also missing, curiously, are any passages from the Koran. Yet Islam is well represented: “Jalalu’din Rumi is the author from whom the largest number of quotations has been drawn.” “The longest passage quoted is from the tractates of Meister Eckhart.” “The whole of Patanjali is condensed into three short verses, but they are the very essence of all doctrines of self-creation.” “Nevertheless, the Desert Fathers have a lesson to teach as to the degree of persistence and single-mindedness necessary for attainment, which we can only disregard at the risk of losing sight of the immense gap which separates man as he is, from what he can become if he is prepared to pay the price.”
There is a Foreword which is signed by J.G. Bennett, dated June 8, 1963, at Coombe Springs. “The really great changes in human life came with new ways of thinking,” it begins. “In this present century we are passing through such a transformation.” Bennett explained, “The thirty-eight passages collected here under the title Values were chosen for reading in a group with which I was connected in the early 1940s, i.e., during the second World War. We used them as an exercise, reading one passage every week and ending with a meeting for meditation upon the them: ‘Forms are different but Truth is One.’ They proved so popular that a privately printed edition was sold out within a year. A second printing made ten years later has been out of print for several years. The present edition is offered to a wider public through the Coombe Springs Press.”
“The passages can be read as an anthology, or they can be used as an exercise in new modes of thought. The point is to recognize that there is one basic statement underlying all the passages and that this statement concerns a particular attitude towards the meaning and purpose of man’s life on the earth.”
There is a caveat. “It would be absurd presumption to suggest that the study of the passages in this book will change the reader’s modes of thought. It will have served its purpose if it suggests in the concluding words of the final passage that we must always be ready for the unexpected.”
The shortest of the passages is probably Patanjali’s “The Meaning of Yoga.” (It is only three sentences long: “Yoga is constraint placed upon the fluctuations of consciousness. Then the seer is present within his own form. Otherwise he is identified with the fluctuations.” Three well-written sentences, twenty-five well-chosen words in all!) As noted earlier, the longest passage (fifteen pages in length) is titled “Sister Katrei” and comes from the writings of Meister Eckhart. Sources are given for all the passages that are quoted here in previously published scholarly translations.So these are serious passages from standard religious literature in meaningful versions. In later years, Idries Shah would intrigue the West with his numerous collections of “teaching tales” about Mullah Nasruddin and other Sufi masters. His tales are well constructed and entertaining, though most of them are more humorous than they are seriously meaningful. Unlike Shah, Bennett offers the readers of Values excerpts from “wisdom literature,” excerpts that sustain discussion and are serious and not at all humorous because what they express is a sense of … values.