From time to time I will offer followers of this blog an updated version of a review of a notable if overlooked publication that I described in print some years ago. What makes a book “new”? I have always felt that a book is “new” when it is first read, not first published; and if it is notable, it is well worth remembering and even rereading in whole or in part.
Here is a review of a book that I first described in 2014; it originally appeared on Sophia Wellbeloved’s Cambridge-based gurdjieffbooks website. The review, somewhat revised, is followed by a brand-new review article of a book and a booklet that I first read way back in 1957 and have yet to forget.
Early Talks by Mr. G.
Gurdjieff’s Early Talks is a substantial volume, both physically and psychologically. As if to prove the truth of that statement, the book bears one of the longest title-subtitle combinations on record: Gurdjieff’s Early Talks 1914-1931 in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Essentuki, Tiflis, Constantinople, Berlin, Paris, London, Fontainebleau, New York, and Chicago. That is eleven cities in all!
The tome measures 8.5 inches by 5.5 inches and has a heavy card cover with pages that are light cream in colour. While the type is small, it is surprisingly easy to read. Here is the pagination: xx+442+vi. The publisher is Book Studio, an imprint that was established in London, England, in 2008. Its website < http: // bookstudio.co.uk / > rewards checking, for it offers for sale a roster of new and reprinted Work-related books, all beautifully designed and printed and less well known than they should be.
One of its compilations is Orage’s Commentary on Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: New York Talks 1926-1930” which appeared in 2013. It consists of A.R. Orage’s lecture notes, edited with care by Lawrence Morris and Sherman Manchester. I devoted a fair amount of time reading the book from cover to cover. The text is quite repetitive and it brought to mind the musical convention of “theme and variations” and specifically of Wallace Stevens’s ingenious poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Yet Orage was a brilliant writer, personality, and presenter, so the reader learns something new even when the author covers familiar ground.
Book Studio’s website also lists what must be a companion volume to the present one, a volume that I have yet to see. I have made a note to order it. Its title is as follows: Transcript of Gurdjieff’s Wartime Meetings 1941-46. Here is a description of its contents from Book Studio’s website:
“With the outbreak of the Second World War, Gurdjieff’s American and English students were unable to return to Nazi occupied Paris, nevertheless, Gurdjieff continued to teach despite difficult and dangerous wartime conditions. In 1938, Jeanne de Salzmann introduced her French work group to him, and with this nucleus, Gurdjieff held regular meetings at his Paris flat throughout the occupation.
“In question and answer format, Gurdjieff answers his students’ questions on practical work in daily life and gives specific advice, guidance, and exercises. Among those present in Gurdjieff’s company at this time were René Daumal, Luc Dietrich, Jeanne de Salzmann, Tcheslaw Tchekhovich, Henri Tracol and René Zuber. Thirty-three meetings held at 6, rue des Colonels Renard, Paris. Second edition with new material. Complete and unexpurgated.”
Since I am quoting from the publisher’s catalogue copy online, I will also reprint the website’s description of the present publication, the one being reviewed here: Gurdjieff’s Early Talks.
“The talks in this volume are not verbatim transcriptions. In the early years of Gurdjieff’s exposition of the fourth way teaching, he rarely allowed notes to be taken during his talks. The majority of his early talks were written down after the fact by pupils who were present, either individually or collectively, and should be taken as recollections of what people believed Gurdjieff to have said.
“The provenance of the talks are library archives, private collections, and individuals from all around the world. They have been arranged chronologically and are presented in this edition for the first time in their entirety. [The last three words appear in italics in the original.] Over one hundred authentic talks, unaltered and unexpurgated. Illustrated and fully indexed, with exercises, sayings and aphorisms.”
So the present book is a bonanza for the reader. A feature that goes unmentioned is the forty-six photographs that are reproduced (rather indistinctly, unfortunately) from the collection of the multi-talented impresario Gert-Jan Blom. There are also perhaps half that number of line drawings devoted to the interactions of the centres. There is a one-page bibliography and a ten-page, detailed index. This is a generous book.
I have yet to mention the contribution of Joseph Azize who is based in Australia and as a writer and instructor is no stranger to the Work. In a gracefully written foreword titled “In Appreciation: A Short Essay of Commendation,” Azize extols this “practical system of ideas and methods, which, if diligently applied, would bridge the gap between dream and reality.” He continues, “The path which Gurdjieff pointed to does not lead straight out of the world, but through it, fulfilling the legitimate demands of daily life.”
By now the Work in the West is a century old and Azize argues that it has reached “a critical point … an interval or gap.” The note do represents Gurdjieff’s personal efforts, the note re the work of his direct pupils, and the note mi the publication of his writings and music. The mi-fa interval requires “access to all of his talks, transcripts and papers in their original form,” and it also requires that there be access to “even the English version of Beelzebub, upon which Gurdjieff manifestly placed so much of his hopes.”
With respect to Gurdjieff’s Early Talks, Azize states that “books like this one are vital for the entirety of the Gurdjieff work.” The transmission of the legacy requires this or “the direction will veer off into tangents. The Gurdjieff Work will lose its vivifyingness.” Azize’s argument makes sense in the context of the Work, yet it is hard to imagine how the preservation and publication of texts like these, with their limited distribution, will add the necessary “shock.” He recognizes this and faults the publication of Views from the Real World because “it was neither transparent nor respectful of the integrity of the texts.” He concludes this line of argument: “Sometimes, to polish is to tarnish. And here, at last, are the unpolished texts, taken down by anonymous pupils.”
It is interesting that nowhere in his foreword does he mention the name of P.D. Ouspensky who did more than anyone else at the time to preserve Gurdjieff’s verba ipsissima. Nor does he refer to the more recent achievement of Stephen A. Grant who worked to the same end through the redaction of a fresh translation of Gurdjieff’s words in Ouspensky’s text in a form that has appeal to today’s serious reading public. I am referring to Grant’s adventurous volume – it is not temerareous at all – titled The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff. It is a collaboration across time, across the interval, so to speak, presumably what Azize has in head and heart and hand.
In these pages there are texts of 103 talks, some as short as a paragraph in length, others more than twenty pages long, to reach a word-count in the neighbourhood of 186,000 words. Here is what is colloquially known as “god’s plenty,” rather more than one would expect covering only seventeen years of Gurdjieff’s life. The editing is seemingly effortless, though here and there, near the beginning, I found myself wondering, “Who is speaking?” After reading all the texts, it comes as a relief to discover two short sections titled “Sayings” and “Aphorisms.”
Here are two instances from the former: “Real art is knowledge, not talent” and “Think of what you feel, and feel what you think.” Here are two instances from the latter: “Like what ‘it’ does not like” and “There are here no Russians, or English, Jews or Christians, but only those who follow one aim – to be able to do.” As a collector of quotations myself, I am delighted to have these terse expressions at hand, though I find myself scratching my head as to why the former are described as sayings while the latter are considered to be aphorisms: they seem to me to be much alike coming from the same mind. Technically they are adages.
Scratching my head is not my response to the talks themselves, but expressing my pleasure at having them in print describes my elated reaction. A thorough review of the contents here would require presenting what is known about the Work through previous publications and teachings plus the additional insights embedded in the present text. That would take thousands more words and too many computer screens. Instead, I will note a half dozen sections which intrigued me and hence will, I assume, intrigue every reader.
1. Asked about the origin of the teaching, Gurdjieff answered, “My teaching is my own. It combines all the evidence of ancient truth that I collected in my travels with all the knowledge that I have acquired through my own personal work.” (This comes from the section “Questions and Answers, Prieuré, October 1922.”)
2. Discoursing on symbology, he said, “My task was to give my listeners a sensation of the taste of understanding with which one must approach the search after the laws of truth. Once more I repeat: in order to understand in these matters, constant efforts are necessary.” (From “Lecture on Symbolism: The Enneagram,” undated.)
3. On the subject of non-identification, he noted, “Humanity is earth’s nerve ends, through which planetary vibrations are received for transmission …. We can easily sacrifice our pleasures but not our sufferings; we are too identified with them – we love ourselves too much. We must learn to express opposite feelings. Everything in the universe has a place in a scale.” (Delivered on Monday, 17 July 1922; no locale identified.)
4. On Christianity, he stated, “Mind is governed by a devil. Do not let your mind slave for your essence. The thinking center is Christian, the emotional center is pre-Christian, the body is pagan. Emotional center with body make the devil, which the thinking center must learn to control.” (From “Summary of Lectures: Fifth Lecture: Christianity,” undated.)
5. Discussing kinds of impressions, he makes an amazing declaration that is well worth pondering at considerable length: “We are only sincere in our imagination.” (This comes from Wednesday, 5 January 1921, no locale given.)
6. Covering a wide range of subjects, he makes a statement that has always haunted me since I first encountered it in the 1950s in the pages of In Search of the Miraculous: “Eastern Art has a mathematical basis, it is a script with an inner and outer content. In Persia there is a room in a monastery which makes one weep, owing to the mathematical combinations of parts of the architecture. Real art is knowledge, not talent.” (From “Religion, Will, Education, New York, Saturday, 1 March 1924,” undated.)
It is interesting to consider what is not included in the talks. In the index there are hardly any references to people, not even to Madame de Salzmann, though there are three odd mentions of P.D. Ouspensky. The first reference identifies him as being present at a meeting at Warwick Gardens; the second mistakes him for Madame Ouspensky; the third identifies him as “a writer and professor of psychology”! (Ouspensky objected when his publishers identified him as “a mathematician”; I wonder how he would react to being labelled a “psychologist.”)
Come to think of it, in the text there are no references at all to Carl Jung or Sigmund Freud, despite the fact that what is being proposed by Gurdjieff is a system of psychopraxis with many principles and procedures in common with the then-current psychological and psychiatric theories of the Swiss and the Austrian clinicians and theorists. Indeed, Jung’s practice of “active imagination” kept popping into my mind as I read many of the procedures and approaches identified with Gurdjieff during these years.
There are instances of the withholding of sensitive information in the text of Views from the Real World and these lacunae have been mentioned in passing in the literature of the Work. Although the present texts are presented verbatim, so to speak, there are some examples of this practice in these pages. I will give one instance. In the section “Fontainebleau, Friday, 19 January 1923,” Gurdjieff outlines the role of “the general accumulator” with regard to the energy required for self-remembering. Here is the text:
It is possible to prolong memory of self-remembering by making the energy stored in us last longer, if we are able to manufacture a store of this energy.
[At this point Mr. Gurdjieff gave an exercise.]
Up to now we have been doing all the exercises mechanically, without thought ….
The bracketed words are in italics in the original.
And so it goes. I imagine an ideal world with all the interested parties – biographers, historians, researchers, lecturers, instructors, group leaders, and students of the Work – busy turning the pages of Gurdjieff’s Early Talks 1914-1931, if only to savour the taste of the Special Doctrine during those seventeen years in the eleven cities mentioned in the book’s subtitle.
2014 – 13 Jan. 2019
Edward Carpenter and the Swami
Not so long ago I identified a number of books that present such excellent basic summaries of the Work that they may function as ideal introductions for newcomers or for people who are simply curious about Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way. Two of these publications, both of them quite short, are P.D. Ouspensky’s The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution and Introduction to the Gurdjieff Work by Jacob Needleman.
Yet my favourite short work is not one of these. It predates the establishment of the Work itself, which first appeared in Russia in 1915, so the short work in question may be considered to be a proto-Work publication. Many such books seem to anticipate Gurdjieff’s contributions, ones that may even have influenced his teachings, for there is no monopoly on “consciousness studies.”
The titles of the favoured book is A Visit to a Gnani and its conscientious author is Edward Carpenter. The publication is hardly longer than a booklet, one with a soft pale green cardboard cover. It consists of a separate reprint of the pages from 135 to 150 of a much longer book, a travel guide book of sorts, with a title that is both long and memorable: From Adam’s Peak to Elephanta: Sketches in Ceylon and India. (Adam’s Peak is a conical mountain in Sri Lanka which is said to display the “sacred footprint” of the Buddha; Elephanta refers to a series of cave temples near Bombay, now Mumbai. Carpenter, a good traveller, visited them and dozens of others sites which he describes in inspired prose.)
Carpenter’s book appeared in an imposing hard-cover edition 370 pages long, issued by Swan Sonnenschein & Co. Limited in London and in New York by The Macmillan Co. in 1903. (I have owned a copy of that edition with those joint imprints since 1957. It is a handsome piece of bookmaking. The original edition appeared way back in 1892 and includes numerous photographs of outstanding landmarks in British India and Ceylon (the island that has been known as Sri Lanka since 1972).
The pamphlet (but not the book) bears the subtitle “Or Wise Man of the East.” The text consists of four chapters of the book’s nineteen, but to my way of thinking these four sections constitute the heart and core of the big book. The titles of the four chapters are “A Visit to a Gnani,” “Consciousness without Thought,” “Methods of Attainment,” and “Traditions of the Ancient Wisdom Religion.” The titles seem oddly familiar, The booklet’s title alludes to a “visit” to disguise the fact that the author had in mind a series of sessions of instruction conducted by a devout Hindu guru at the request of a remarkable English writer and social activist.
Edward Carpenter is the name of the remarkable Englishman. He was born in Sussex in 1844; he died in Surrey in 1929. His family was wealthy and influential and he attended Cambridge University, but he soon made it known that in addition to traveling and writing books on then-current subjects of social and cultural interest, he preferred the life of the manual worker to that of the scholar or philosopher. He was especially taken with market gardening as well as the companionship of a man of the same orientation.
Carpenter was a socialist, a critic of social values, a philosopher, a poet, an early feminist, and a gay activist. He was dubbed the “Saint in Sandals” because he is credited with the introduction of the sandal (the footwear of the Indian labourer) to the English-speaking world. Among his personal friends to whom he presumably presented pairs of sandals were Rabindranath Tagore, Havelock Ellis, J.A. Symonds, Olive Schreiner, D.H. Lawrence, Sri Aurobindo, E.M. Forster, Walt Whitman, and Richard Maurice Bucke, the author of Cosmic Consciousness. In fact, the first use of those last two words to refer to an extraordinary, life-altering experience of a spiritual nature appears in the correspondence conducted between Carpenter in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, and Dr. Bucke in London, Southern Ontario.
It was during a break in his 1890 tour of Ceylon and India that Carpenter had the opportunity to study Hinduism and Vedanta in depth and on an advanced level. He met his guru on a daily basis for six weeks. Ramaswamy was the guru’s name yet in the text he is referred to as Gnani. Apparently his honorific title was Ramaswamy, though he was also known to his followers as Ilakkanam the Grammarian. The white-robed and turbaned Gnani was caught by a photographer looking up from the journal he was consulting to face the camera with a scowl. The British historian Antony Copley saw Ramaswamy and Walt Whitman as alternatives for Carpenter, with Ramaswamy standing for transcendence and asceticism and Whitman for a “this-worldly” vision in which sex itself became a religion.
A proper appreciation of the “consciousness studies” of Carpenter was conducted by the Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspensky in his often overlooked book titled Tertium Organum (The Third Organ of Thought): A Key to the Enigmas of the World (Manas Press, Rochester, N.Y., 1920) translated from the Russian by Nicholas Bessaraboff and Claude Bragdon. The last chapter of this speculative, pre-Gurdjieff oeuvre is devoted to the contributions of Carpenter and Bucke. Here in part is what Ouspensky wrote about Carpenter:
“Edward Carpenter, directly and without any allegories and symbols, formulated the thought that the existing consciousness by which contemporary man lives, is merely the transitory form of another higher consciousness, which even now is manifesting in certain men, after appropriate preparation and training. This higher consciousness Edward Carpenter names cosmic consciousness.”
“All the subsequent writings of Carpenter, and especially his book of free verse, Towards Democracy, deal with the psychology of ecstatic experiences and portray the path whereby man goes toward his principle aim of his existence. Only the attainment of this principal aim will illumine for man the past and the future; it will be a seership, an awakening – without this, with only earthly, “individual” consciousness, man is blind, and cannot hope to know anything that he cannot feel with his stick.”
It is not that Carpenter’s unconventional life or life-style has been overlooked by biographers and cultural historians. His contributions were appraised anew in two current scholarly books. The first study, written by the British historian Antony Copley, is called A Spiritual Bloomsbury: Hinduism and Homosexuality in the Lives and Writings of Edward Carpenter, E.M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood (Lexington Books, 2006). He was in good company! The second study, written by the British socialist feminist theorist and academic Sheila Rowbotham, is Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (Verso, 2009). The Age of Eros lives.
So much for the lengthy preamble. Here is a brief ramble through these four chapters. It will be very brief because this review is already long enough. The text itself is highly readable, so much so that I am simply reproducing the four outlines that Carpenter supplied for the Table of Contents for the travel book. The outlines appear here shorn of the accents that adorn some of the works, e.g., “Gñáni.”
“A Visit to a Gnani.” Two schools of esoteric teachers, the Himalayan and South Indian – A South-Indian teacher – Three conditions for the attainment of divine knowledge or gndnam – The fraternity of Adepts – Yegam the preparation for gndnam – The yogis – Story of Tilleinathan Swamy – Democratic character of his teaching – Compare stories of Christ – Tamil philosophy and popular beliefs concerning Adepts – The present teacher, his personality and habits – “Joy, always joy.”
“Consciousness without Thought.” What is the name of Gnani’s experience? Answer given in modern thought-terms – Slow evolution of a new form of consciousness – Many a slip and pause by the way – A consciousness without thought – Meaning of “Nirwana” – Phenomena of hypnotism – Theory of the fourth dimension – The true quality of the soul in Space, by which it is present everywhere – Freedom, Equality – The democratic basis of Eastern philosophy.
“Methods of Attainment.” Physical methods adopted by some of the yogis – Self-mesmerism, fasting, severe penance – The Siddhi or miraculous powers – Mental methods (1) the Concentration, and (2) the Effacement of thought – Difficulties of (1) and (2), but great value for the Western peoples to-day – Concentration and Effacement of Thought are correlative powers – They led to the discovery of the true Self – Moral methods, gentleness, candor, serenity – Non-differentiation – The final deliverance – Probable difference between Eastern and Western methods of attainment – Through the Will, and through Love.
“Traditions of the Ancient Wisdom-Religion.” Difficulty of giving any concise account of Indian teaching – Personal rapprochement to the Guru, but alienation from the formalities of his doctrine – Mediaeval theories of Astronomy and Geology – Philosophy of the Siddhantic system – The five elements, five forms of sensation, etc. – The twenty-six tatwas, and the Self which stands apart from them all – Evolution and Involution – The five shells which enclose the soul – Death and Birth – Crudities of Astrology, Physiology, etc. – Double signification of many doctrines – Resemblance of modern Guru to a Vedic Sage – His criticisms of the English and of English rule – Importance to the West of the Indian traditions.
Those are Carpenter’s own outlines, and the fact that the teachings of his Hindu sage are understandable today, at least in an outline like this analytic index to a scholarly presentation, is a tribute to the curiosity of Edward Carpenter and other well-rounded, English non-conformists of the late 19th century whose principle concerns were to fuse the exoteric traditions of the West and the esoteric traditions of the East, as they encountered them still intact in India and Ceylon, in our time and place more than a century and a quarter later.
At some later date I hope to make a return visit to A Visit to a Gnani and to take from it the specific insights of the Hindu guru who shared the traditional doctrines and practices as he understood them with his English chela who recorded them with great fidelity to the source. Among other things, his views on the differences between India under the East India Company and India under the British Raj are thought-provoking. In the meantime, readers of this review article may wish to avail themselves of Carpenter’s writings first hand. This is easily accomplished, as the complete texts of both A Visit to a Gnani and From Adam’s Peak to Elephanta are readily and freely available at all times on the Internet – the form taken by the Akashic Records in our time and place.
23 Jan. 2019