Issue 3 — November 15, 2018
Short Reviews of Five Books
The Occult Webb
Finding Time for Your Self
Gurdjieff Group Work with Rita Romilly Benson
Philosophy between the Lines
The Occult Webb
Some time has passed since I last faced the task of reviewing current books of interest to readers who value what I call psychopraxia. That unfamiliar-looking word is my coinage. It refers to any system that intends to remake or redeem mankind through means that are at once psychological and practical.
One reason for my tardiness is that I have been busy preparing the second edition of The Occult Webb. More than sixteen years ago I collected all the information that I could find on the life and work of James Webb, the Anglo-Scottish historian of what he regarded as “rejected knowledge.” The Harmonious Circle, his magnum opus, has yet to be bettered as the single most comprehensive guide to the personalities and principles involved in the appearance and development in the West of what was once known to P.D. Ouspensky as the Special Doctrine but is now known as the Fourth Way or to practitioners as the Gurdjieff Work.
The Harmonious Circle was published a couple of months following its author’s suicide in Scotland on May 9, 1980. He never set eyes on a copy of his impressive publication. For information about James Webb – not the second administrator of NASA who is remembered through the naming of the James Webb Telescope – check the Wikipedia entry on James Webb, the historian, accessible through the Google search engine.
Living in Toronto has its strengths and its limitations. One strength is the fact the city (the largest in Canada and the fourth most populous in North America) has the world’s largest municipal library system and a superb inter-library loan service, so James Webb’s major publications are readily enough available. But one limitation for any scholar who dwells in Toronto is that he or she lives pretty far away from people who had ever actually met Webb, as well as pretty far away from the places where he had lived and worked.
So to write a 100-page monograph of Webb’s achievement I had to use my wits and whatever resources were readily available. No biographer had studied his life and no bibliographer had catalogued his writings. So I undertook the twin tasks. Anyway, I brought out a QuasiBook edition of the text under the Colombo & Company imprint, and over a decade and a half it sold more than two hundred copies, and through its appearance I made a number of friends in different parts of the world into the bargain.
The text consisted of my commentaries and bibliographies plus contributions by Colin Wilson and Joyce Collin-Smith (sister-in-law of Rodney Collin-Smith). For the expanded edition I was able to add a lively and insightful essay by Gary Lachman, bass guitarist for the band Blondie and now the author of numerous articles and books about the makers of the occult tradition in the West. It took me two afternoons of trial and error to learn to prepare a Kindle edition, but two months later I released The Occult Webb as a Kindle.
Every newly published book marks a marché and a démarche. I had hoped to include as part of the text of The Occult Webb an annotated list of the material that, at the last moment, Webb had excised from the immensely long manuscript, to shorten the text somewhat and to avoid antagonisms. The publication of such material will have to await a possible third edition.
Let me add that I will not review the second edition of the monograph here or in any way try to sell it to my readership for the simple reason that I am giving the edition away, free of charge. I have made the text available as a PDF (Portable Document Format) which may be instantly and safely downloaded at no cost. Its text is identical to the text of the Kindle edition. No record is being kept of the addresses of the interested parties. Keyboard in a search engine the name of the book, the name of the author, and the letters PDF. Then you can download the text and read or save it to learn as much as I learned about the remarkable James Webb.
Finding Time for Your Self
I am in no position to assess the merits of the Webb monograph and in the same way I have no right to review Finding Time for Your Self, the latest publication of Patty de Llosa. (I cannot review it – but I can notice it – for the simple reason that in the acknowledgements section Patty generously thanks me for some editorial advice that I offered.)
Patty is a person who is well known and respected in Work circles. Louise Welch is her mother and her stepfather is Dr. William Welch who from 1984 to his death in 1999 served as the head of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York City. I had a nodding acquaintanceship with Mrs. Welch, when she visited Toronto, which she did many times over many years. In recent years, my wife Ruth and I have enjoyed the company of her talented daughter Patty in both Toronto and New York City.
As well as being an author, Patty is a presenter and group leader and an editor of the periodical Parabola. Her first two books are The Practice of Presence, which describes five spiritual paths, and Taming Your Inner Tyrant, which leads the reader along a path to healing.
Her third book, just out, is titled Finding Time for Your Self, and it consists of fifty-two reflections and exercises “for busy people.” In point of fact, while there are fifty-two weekly sets of reflections, each set offers many more exercises of a psychological nature than that. The publisher of Finding Time for Your Self is Sussex Academic Press and it has its own informative website.
The text is charming and insightful and the exercises will be useful to many readers. Indeed, my wife Ruth was sitting in the waiting room of a medical clinic, reading an advance copy, when a fellow woman patient, unknown to Ruth, came up to her, squinted at the fetching cover of the book, and said, “I must have that book! I need to find time for my self.”
Ruth had noted that the book’s title splits the word “yourself” into two words, and that the fellow patient automatically used two words to refer to “myself.” This is a meaningful distinction. Such ideas are infectious and contagious, even in a medical clinic! Indeed, the cover depicts a relaxing scene: a rustic stairway that invites the viewer into a woodsy forest.
If I reviewed Patty’s book, I could be accused of having a “conflict of interest.” That is what the French call being parti pris. But I am free to review two other books that have appeared over the last twelve months. Because they were issued by smaller-than-small publishing operations, the media will likely overlook them and they will probably pass through the sieve of public awareness and leave no trace. That is unfortunate because the two books are genuine contributions to consciousness studies and should have much appeal in Work circles.
Gurdjieff Work …
The title of the first book is Gurdjieff Group Work with Rita Romilly Benson – which is an informative mouthful of a title! The trade paperback, which measures 6 inches by 9 inches and is 262 pages long, is an attractive production of Lulu Publications (a self-publishing operation located in Raleigh, North Carolina, which has its own website). The book has been compiled and edited by Marshall May, one of Mrs. Benson’s students, a gentleman otherwise unknown to me. (I am grateful to him for writing to me and drawing my attention to this book as well as to the next one to be noticed here.)
Before I offer some personal responses to GGWWRRB, I can do no better than to reproduce the publisher’s description of the contents of this book: “Mrs. Benson was a student of G. I. Gurdjieff and a group leader at the New York Foundation for over fifty years. This book was compiled and edited by one of her students and contains a mini-biography with pictures of her career on Broadway and in the theatre. It also contains transcripts of meetings of her Gurdjieff groups, her Tradition studies group and her Bunraku puppet group (also with pictures).
“This book is for all those interested in the ideas and teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff and his students and their students. Originally she worked with Alfred Orage; meeting him through C. Daly King, his biographer, Edwin Wolfe and Jean Toomer. She was instrumental in the presentation of Mr. Gurdjieff’s yet unpublished books and lectures and was known as ‘The Reader’ for her presentations at many venues from 1928 through the end of the 1940s. After Mr. Gurdjieff’s death she worked closely with both Mme. de Salzmann and Mme. de Hartmann as well as Henri Tracol.”
In her day Rita Romilly Benson (1900-1984) was admired as a dancer, a dramatic actress, and a teacher of theatre. In the 1960s and 1970s she served as a noted group leader at the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City. There is Jacob Epstein’s bust of her which grants her a round head with immense eyes and generous lips, the better to see people as they are and to speak to them in words that are meaningful to them.
She studied under A.R. Orage and then under Gurdjieff. In May 1938, She married Martin Benson, who was also prominent in the Work, and Gurdjieff himself attended their country wedding ceremony. When the minister asked Gurdjieff who he was, he playfully replied that he was father of both the bride and the groom. The minister was mystified but all the other guests knew what was meant.
One of Mrs. Benson’s students was Marshall May who shouldered the heavy burden of collecting, editing, and publishing the texts of her talks along with their question-and-answer sessions at the Foundation headquarters, Mendham, and Armonk, as well as at Mt. Kisko, her one-time home. The text has a certain garrulous charm and the group leader is able to convey a great sense of boundless good will.
“I would like to leave everyone with hope, because the whole purpose of this work is to show that there is hope; that nobody needs to be as they are. At the same time I have to tell you that very few people ever make it.” She conveyed good news and bad news. She stressed that the work cannot be ‘given’”; it can only be ‘taken.’ Later she says, ‘No one can be given anything. A person takes it. If you give it to them you will soon see they will fall by the wayside if they didn’t understand and take it.’”
Perhaps it was her theatrical background that meant she had to be a self-starter and practical and down-to-earth, unlike the highly intellectual followers of Ouspensky: “What is the best word in the English language that I would say … guts! Yes, that’s what you have to have; it’s got to be if you want anything from this work, or if you want to be different than you are. You can’t do it by wishing to be different yet leaning on all the old staples that came into the world with you; you can’t and nothing will ever happen except little incidents. Well maybe before you die or I do you’ll believe me; up to now you wish to believe me but you never have.”
The sections that are devoted to the study of what is here called “the Christian Tradition … particularly the teachings of Christ as contained in the Gospels” must be regarded as among the high-points of the text. As well, readers who have an interest in theatrical expression, particularly puppet theatre, curiously, will find the last chapters, which are devoted to Japanese Bunraku performance from the Work perspective, will find this material both relevant and revealing.
So Gurdjieff Group Work with Rita Romilly Benson is a mixed bag and is best read slowly in bits and pieces. Such is Marshall May’s skill and sensibility as a textual editor that one can enjoy the sound of the author’s voice, for she spoke with an emphasis that was attention-getting.
The second new book, unlike the first one, has a startling and imposing title: Spiritual Physics. When I first saw the title in print, I asked myself, “Whatever is ‘spiritual physics’?” The words sound like ones that might flow from the lips or the pen of Rudolph Steiner, yet there is no connection here with his Anthroposophical Society.
The author is Jerry Brewster and the editors are John Anderson and Marshall May. The publisher of the current edition (the fifth) is identified as JAMM Publishing (which seems to be an editorial service), yet the book itself is available to the trade through Lulu Publications (at Lulu.com). It is 248 pages long in the standard trade paperback format (of 6 inches by 9). Again I will reproduce the informative on-line catalogue copy:
“Jerry Brewster was a group leader of the Gurdjieff Work in New York City. He studied personally with Mrs. Sutta, Christopher Fremantle, Mme, de Hartmann, Mme. de Salzmann, Henri Tracol, and Michel de Salzmann. He followed the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, better known today as ‘The Fourth Way.’ He devoted over fifty years of his life to the practice and teaching of what has become known as the ‘Work’ and made great efforts to expand the understanding of it. Jerry’s view of the work was very scientific, hence the name Spiritual Physics which he suggested before his death in 2009. There is a chapter in this book that introduces Jerry’s personal search to understand the Enneagram.”
The subtitle of Spiritual Physics is “Another Generation’s View of the Work of G.I. Gurdjieff,” and as if that is not enough, there is also the book’s sub-subtitle: “A practical guide to the science of being known as The Fourth Way.” Until now unknown to me, the author Jerry Brewster (1928-2009) was born to Jewish parents in the immigrant district of the South Bronx in New York City. In time he became an expert picture-framer and then an art dealer with his own commercial gallery.
In addition, he committed his energy to the work of the Gurdjieff Foundation where he was regarded as something of a powerhouse for his forceful presentations of Work-related ideas, especially in the areas of self-remembering and Enneagram studies. While he was a forceful figure, he was also a modest man who more than once quoted the remarkable insight of Madame de Salzmann: “I cannot do it, but without me, it cannot be done.”
I love to cast my eye over Indexes, and the fourteen, double-columned pages of index entries in this book speak wonders. The first entry is “Able, to be,” with fifty pages of references. The last entry is the suitably laconic word “Zen,” with three entries. Key words with the most page references seem to be these subjects: attention, emotions, energy, feelings, Gurdjieff, knowing, laws, personality, seeing, struggles, and trying.
In the index there are seventy-five or so references to G.I. Gurdjieff, but none to P.D. Ouspensky, despite the fact that the author of In Search of the Miraculous is mentioned and quoted in the text, and good use is made of his formulations and presentations.
Casting my eye over the entries in the index put me in the mind of a one-volume version of Maurice Nicoll’s multi-volume Commentaries on the Teachings on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. The quality of the references and the explanations may not be as high as Nicoll’s, but the expression is certainly a lot livelier.
There is another way to view the body of the book and that is to see it from its five-page, detailed Table of Contents. The book is divided into the following fourteen chapters: Attention, Group Work, Personality, Considering, Unity, Sacred Laws, Work Ideas, Sexual Energy, Family and Inner Work, Centres, Centering, Jerry’s Work Experiences, A New Understanding of the Enneagram, and The Energy of Hydrogen.
Each chapter consists of an introductory quotation followed by a related discussion and then questions and answers taken verbatim from study groups conducted by the author over the decades. If the questions are short (“What are buffers?”), the answers are long (“In observing oneself, one has to first acknowledge that buffers exist,” etc.).
The writing is brisk but not brusque. To illustrate a point the author may make reference to the Table of Hydrogens or to the Enneagram by way of the caption to a cartoon he saw in The New Yorker. I imagine Jerry Brewster to be a dynamic, no-nonsense sort of guy. Indeed, photographs of the author show a bulky, balding man with a thin moustache – the spitting image of Hulk Hogan.
I will practise sortilege with this book – there, I opened it at random, and I will quote a lively sentence. In the section on Unity, he writes: “The real aim of this work on participation is to bring you to another place in yourself that’s not of the centres; an objective place in us that can be an active force in relation to all the three centres, like a refuge.” Well expressed. I cannot imagine there is a single reader who would not benefit from reading this book. I would be remiss if I did not admit that I am no fan of the words “spiritual physics” as I agree with Stephen Jay Gould that there are two “magisterial,” that of religion and that of science, though I dubious that there is any significant amount of “overlap.”
Philosophy between the Lines
So far I have briefly commented on four books. These are the second edition of The Occult Webb, Finding Time for Your Self, Gurdjieff Group Work with Rita Romilly Benson, and Spiritual Physics. That is surely enough for one column of reviews! However, I will add an excursus so as to include a book with an intriguing title that has nothing at all to do with the Fourth Way, although it does have to do with “esoteric writing.”
I am referring to Philosophy between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing. Here is a hefty work of scholarship, not one for either the faint-hearted or the light-headed. The author is a political scientist, Arthur M. Melzer, and the publisher is the University of Chicago Press. This academic and historical study is concerned with interpreting and understanding the writings of the philosophers of the Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
Its purpose is to reveal their “double philosophy.” Apparently Plato and Aquinas and a great many other philosophers and theologians concealed or otherwise withheld their real and esoteric views and opinions behind the blander ones that they expressed in exoteric terms on the printed pages of their books. To understand them fully, doubly, one has to learn “to read between the lines,” so to speak.
The late University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss is the modern exponent of this approach to reading and writing, and Strauss’s contribution is examined by Professor Melzer. Strauss had a marked influence on the neo-conservative movement in the United States, so much so that a few years ago the possibly malign influence on Washington politics was the subject of a long and serious article in The New York Times Magazine. He was a sort of forerunner of Steve Bannon (who himself has been influenced by the Traditionalists).
Strauss died in 1973, yet his influence is greater today than it was during his years of teaching and writing. He was a professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and he defended the concept of “the noble lie” on the basis that the general public has the right to know only what is good for them – only so much and no more.
“Straussian” ideas influenced the U.S. Republican Party and such writers as Allan Bloom, Richard Rorty, and Susan Sontag, as well as George P. Grant, the Canadian philosopher, a devout Christian and Conservative, who studied under Strauss and in my presence repeatedly sang the praises of the man and his message.
Professor Melzer does not discuss the use made of the “Aesopian” language by Russian dissident writers during the Cold War, nor the much older and honoured Sufi tradition that permits the Arab in speech and in writing to express the exact opposite of what is meant. This practice has a name: ketman. A pioneering consideration of the nature of ketman, its implications and consequences, first appeared in the brilliant book The Captive Mind which was written over sixty years ago by the former diplomat and Polish poet and Nobelist, Czesław Miłosz.
“Legominisms” and “legal inexactitudes” are well known in the Work. Some years ago I reviewed a study of the book Oragean Modernism: A Lost Literary Movement 1924-1953 written by Jon Woodson, a retired English professor. In his semi-scholarly text, he argued that A.R. Orage urged a group of writers in New York to introduce esoteric words into their writings or they would otherwise be devoid of them. It is an interesting conjecture and one worthy of consideration, though I found its demonstration to be unconvincing. Yet in the annals of esoteric and philosophical prose, who knows what is possible – or impossible?
In this context I savour the witty observation made by Paul Cantor, the American literary critic and one of the reviewers of Melzer’s landmark study. Cantor wrote: “A demonstrably esoteric text is a contradiction in terms.”