Issue 4 – December 2018
The Wisdom of Writing Reviews
Kenneth Walker’s “Venture with Ideas”
Sophia Wellbeloved’s “Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts”
The Wisdom of Writing Reviews
Why write these reviews? Why read these reviews?
I have been reviewing books since I was a university student and that was many decades ago. My feeling was then and is today that if I am going to devote time to reading a book that is one of more than passing interest, a little extra time is well spent setting my ideas and responses in order, in print form, for myself and for any interested readers my prose will be able to reach.
Fourth Way publications are largely overlooked by the review media and the social media. This is unfortunate if only because these books are often of enduring value. About fifteen years ago, at the invitation of Sophia Wellbeloved, I began to review Work-related books for her Cambridge-based blog-site. The blog has since been is closed but the texts remain searchable on the web. (See https://gurdjieffbooks.wordpress.com/ ) I reprinted many of those reviews in The Notebooks of John Robert Colombo, which is the general title of a five-volume set of books of occasional writing that appeared in Fall 2018. (See www.colombo.ca )
In October 2018, I established this blog-site, “Workbooks for the Fourth Way,” which is devoted to the appearance of monthly (sometimes semi-monthly) reviews. I am doing so with the assistance of Bill Andersen, webmaster, friend, writer, and designer, who studied art history at the University of British Columbia and has a special feeling for the art of the Haida.
Allow me to make two observations about these reviews.
1. I am writing appreciations rather than critical reviews. I want to convey an enthusiasm for these ideas. I have no interest in Critical Theory and I have no desire to argue for or against one school of thought or another. I wish to describe these books as material objects and as repositories of ideas and truths about human nature.
2. I am reviewing current titles, but I am also reminding readers of older titles that I feel are relevant today. Here are two instances of past publications of current interest. Issue 1 offers subscribers the first review anywhere of Roger Lipsey’s Gurdjieff Reconsidered. (To read that 4,000-word review, scroll down to the bottom of this page and click.) Issue 4 (the current issue) recalls the particular charms of Kenneth Walker’s memoir titled Venture with Ideas. (Incidentally, the memoir is praised by Dr. Lipsey in his book.)
Detailed analyses of the contents and the arguments of these books – these texts – I leave to those few academically trained scholars who have a talent for research and speculation. As well, I am happy to side-step the current concern for Critical Theory (theoretical writing that includes a critique of society) with all its argumentative manifestations and, instead, take steps in the direction of plain exposition and sincere expression.
I hope there is some wisdom to be gained from taking these steps, for I have in mind a readership that enjoys the writings of yesterday and today — writers like Edmund Wilson and J.B. Priestley, Gary Lachman and Geoff Dyer.
12 Oct. 2018
Kenneth Walker’s “Venture with Ideas”
I purchased a copy of Kenneth Walker’s Venture with Ideas a long, long time ago – on Friday, October 11, 1957. I am able to be precise about the day of the purchase because I dated that copy of the book on its last page, a practice I recommend. For the next week I read its thirteen chapters with high excitement, and its contents have stayed with me until October 11, 2018, when I spent a few evenings rereading the entire text. Even with the passing of sixty or so years, I was able to recall passages from that book, so clearly was it written and so mightily did the writing impress me back then, while I was still a student at University College, University of Toronto. Yet it is possible the book in question is so old and outdated that it has been forgotten by the reading public that exists for books about the Work. But it has not been forgotten by me.
It was recommended to me by a member of Mrs. Welch’s Toronto Group who said, privately, “It may be of interest to you.” He was surprised that I had not know of its existence. (Bear in mind that this occurrence predated the appearance of the search engine Google, which is now celebrating its twentieth anniversary.) But the member of the Group had predicted that I would find it of interest, if only because the sole books about the Fourth Way that I had read in the late 1950s were In Search of the Miraculous in its entirety and snippets of All and Everything.
These days we are deluged with books about the Work, but we would be wise to remember that Kenneth Walker’s book is not only one of the first of the general books about the subject, but it is also a classic in its field – a highly readable, highly informative introductory approach to the Work. I am not going to review it here, but I have written a few paragraphs about the title and its author, and I will comment on the highly personal way that the Work is presented in its pages.
Kenneth Walker (1882-1966) was a graduate of Cambridge University and a leading Harley Street surgeon who specialized in urological disorders. In addition to maintaining his clinical practice, he turned his hand to writing some twenty-two books, most of which were devoted to philosophical issues, three of them dedicated to expositions of the Work.
One of his close friends was Dr. Maurice Nicoll, the Jungian psychiatrist who wrote a series of basic books of commentaries on the Work, and it was through Nicoll that Walker became a student of P.D. Ouspensky. Thereafter Walker led study groups in London and, following Ouspensky’s death in 1947, he became one of Gurdjieff’s students in Paris – “the oldest,” he admits rather sheepishly. So sure of himself professionally was he that he had the temerity to offer his new teacher a piece of unsolicited advice about his health. Gurdjieff accepted the medical advice with good grace and with the explanation that help for him was arriving from “America,” in the person of Dr. William Welch, husband of Louise Welch, who did arrive from New York City shortly thereafter in October 1949.
Venture with Ideas has gone through numerous editions, beginning with the original Jonathan Cape edition of 1951 (which was reprinted in 1957), followed by editions from Pellegrini & Cudahy 1952, Samuel Weiser 1972, The Book Service 1973, Literary Licensing 1973, Spearman 1973, Luzac Oriental 1996, Monabooks 1996, and Relnk Books 2018. These editions are available on the Web through the Advanced Book Exchange at prices ranging from $10 to $100, plus postage, of course. For the impecunious student, the entire text of the book is available on the Web at no cost courtesy of the Hathi Trust Digital Library.
The first edition that I have is a sturdy hard-cover edition (with dust jacket) which measures 5 inches by 8 inches, 192 pages in all. The book’s signatures are sewn rather than glued, so the book remains wide open on my desk. It is printed on slightly off-white stock so the type is highly readable (unlike so many books produced these days). I value it highly, along with its sequel, A Study of Gurdjieff’s Teaching issued by Jonathan Cape in 1957.
The sequel is a clearly written account of the “teaching” of both men that argues for the importance of esotericism and covers such now-familiar subject areas as “man’s several minds,” “knowledge and being,” “essence and personality,” “the two great cosmic laws,” “the possibility of evolution in man,” etc. The discussion of “the step diagram and the enneagram” is particularly noteworthy for its concision and precision.
Walker’s third book on Ouspensky and Gurdjieff and what Ouspensky called the “Special Doctrine” (to distinguish it from Madame Blavatsky’s “Secret Doctrine”) is titled The Making of Man, published by Routledge & Kegan Paul in 1963. This book covers the same ground but includes as well his own commentary on All and Everything.
Back to Venture with Ideas. I find that Dr. Walker’s book’s title is somewhat unidiomatic, though the text does describe an adventure and it is concerned with not so much separate ideas as with a system of thought and a way to live one’s life. The adventure that alerted and enriched the course of his life began for him in 1923. With grace and precision he describes Warwick Gardens off Kensington High Street in London and the “dreary room in Kensington” where the first public lecture that he attended was held. “A few members of the audience whispered to each other, but the great majority sat in their chairs – how uncomfortable the chairs were – looking straight in front of them, or else down at their feet. I was carried back to the presbyterian churches of my boyhood, so strongly was I reminded of a Scottish congregation awaiting the arrival of the minister.”
Dr. Walker was surprised that there were so many young men and women among the audience of fifty or so. “My thoughts about the younger members of the audience were interrupted for the door behind had opened and now a very solid man of medium height, with closely cropped grey hair, was making his way to the vacant chair in front of me. He sat down and, without seeming to notice the audience, drew from his coat pocket a small sheet of paper and scrutinized it carefully. He was wearing very strong glasses but instead of availing himself of them, he held the paper a few inches from his face and peered at it over the top of the lenses. Then he put his notes on the table, turned his attention to his audience, and said: ‘Well?’”
Walker observes that Ouspensky was unlike any teacher he had ever met. “He made no use of gestures or of the other aids employed by lecturers, but this absence of all art in his delivery proved to be an asset. The very baldness of his statements added weight to them and disarmed all adverse criticism.” Walker continues at some length and despite their differences the two men became if not fast friends then at least colleagues with the common intent of advancing the “thoughts” or “ideas” of the system.
Ouspensky was only four years older than Walker but he seemed to have answers to questions that Walker was only then beginning to ask. Reading about Ouspensky makes one lament the fact that the Russian philosopher refused to meet with J.B. Priestley for fear that the playwright and novelist would have left posterity with an even more life-like portrait of Ouspensky than he did in the figure of Dr. Görtler in his play I Have Been Here Before. In the meantime, Walker’s descriptions in his memoir must suffice.
I should at least mention Walker’s views of and on Gurdjieff, who hosted him in Paris at his flat in the Rue des Colonels Rénards. “You may be a very clever doctor but you are also a very big fool,” Gurdjieff said at one point, neither kindly nor unkindly, perhaps waiting for a reaction. None came, so guarded was Walker, perhaps as a physician, perhaps as a student of the Work. He wrote, “I saw a man with an immense compassion for mankind. He could be brutal and he could be cruel, but he would be cruel only as a surgeon is cruel when he operates. I also was conscious of his immense strength, but what struck me more forcibly than anything else was his essential kindness.” Every page of Ventures with Ideas sparkles with … ideas.
The only recent tribute to Dr. Walker that I am familiar with is Roger Lipsey’s rich reference to him in Gurdjieff Reconsidered (2019). Lipsey describes him as “a distinguished British surgeon and author” and notes that “his books Venture with Ideas and A Study of Gurdjieff’s Teaching are among the keenest in the literature.” “Keenest” is the key word here. Further, he writes, “Walker was resolutely free and ‘simple honorable,’ as Gurdjieff would sometimes define a value he cared for.” These books attest to the sense of the perspicuity of Kenneth Walker, as well as his shared feelings for the unusual natures of his two teachers, P.D. Ouspensky and G.I. Gurdjieff.
29 Sept. 2018
Sophia Wellbeloved’s “Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts”
Every once in a while I like to draw attention to a book about the Work that has not only retained its value over the years but has increased its worth to readers and collectors over the decades.
One such book and one that should be on the bookshelf of every person concerned with consciousness studies is Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts. The author is Sophia Wellbeloved and the London publisher is Routledge. It appears in the series called “Routledge Key Guides,” which is a library of well-edited texts designed to be “the ultimate reference resources for students, teachers, researchers, and the interested lay person.” (That description seems to include just about anyone and everyone.) The present volume appeared in London and New York in 2003. Prices through Amazon and the Advanced Book Exchange on the Web range from $20 to $40 US.
The author is Sophia Wellbeloved, an Irish-born, Cambridge-based academic with a doctorate from King’s College, London. She served as a member of the Gurdjieff Society, London, from 1962 to 1975. She was a student of Cecil Collins, Henriette Lannes, Maurice Deselle, and Henri Tracol. As well, she served as webmaster for the informative site < gurdjieffbooks.workbooks.com > which is now archived for ease of reference. For some years now Wellbeloved has been composing liturgical music.
Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts appears as a quality paperback of 271 pages with a full scholarly apparatus. The backbone of the book is 300 or so entries that range, interestingly, from Absolute to Zodiac. The entries resemble the ones that appear in encyclopedias, except that Wellbeloved’s are highly readable, densely detailed, and fully cross-referenced. For instance, I found an entry for “Stop Exercise” but I did not find one for “Stopinder,” the interesting reason being that the collection is not a dictionary of terms but a collection of “concepts.”
“Laws: An Overview” is a compact reminder of the various “laws” to be found in the Work, notably Laws of Three and Seven, the Law of Octaves, and the Law of Reciprocal Maintenance. Also found here is the Law of Duality and the Law of Solioonensius. “According to Gurdjieff,” she writes, “although laws themselves do not vary, the way they are manifested does vary in relation to different levels and different planes of the universe.”
One concept (which I have been finding particularly relevant day in and day out since the U.S. presidential election of November 2017) is that of the “Hasnamuss,” which is included because it defines a person who has “something” that produces “destructive impulses.” Seven characteristics of this type of person are listed. Here are two of them: the person or being displays “every kind of depravity, conscious as well as unconscious” and that includes “the feeling of satisfaction in leading others astray.”
There is a list of all the concepts as well as a list of all of the illustrations. Biographical notes on leading Group members are included, plus a twelve-page bibliography and an index of proper names. Paul Beekman Taylor contributed an appreciative Foreword in which he wrote, “This text will prove very soon to be of inestimable value to both the first-time reader of Gurdjieff and the experienced pupil who is teaching, as well as those who would study the breadth and complexity of Fourth Way thought.”
Sophia Wellbeloved has provided a ten-page Introduction which is a remarkable condensation of reliable information giving the background of the Work. Reading the text is both a reminder of the “key concepts” and an account of how all three hundred of them work together in the Fourth Way.
30 Sept. 2018