William Patrick Patterson’s “Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff”
An Evening of Movements and Exercises
William Patrick Patterson’s
“Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff:
The Man – The Teaching – His Mission”
In the past I have reviewed in some detail four or more of the books written by William Patrick Patterson. The reviews have appeared on the web-blog devoted to Gurdjieff studies that was maintained by the Cambridge scholar Sophia Wellbeloved. As well, I recently reviewed the author’s last book Adi Da Samraj – Realized and/or Deluded? for Parabola, the New York quarterly publication which celebrates all the world’s spiritual traditions in words and images.
Mr. Patterson (hereinafter WPP) needs little or no introduction to the readers of this web-blog. He is an extremely busy man, a long-time student of the late Lord Pentland (to whom the book is co-dedicated; guess the identity of the other co-dedicatee), and one of the principals behind Arete Communications, Publishers, Fairfax, California. Since the 1990s, WPP has been the mainstay of the Gurdjieff Legacy Foundation (which arranges study groups, seminars, workshops, talks, etc.) and the Gurdjieff Studies Program (which offers correspondence courses and private instruction).
Since 1992, he has edited the triannual publication called The Gurdjieff Journal. (I have been a subscriber from the first issue. I find its issues informative, though lately I sense the articles have begun to reflect the editor’s general cultural and social interests rather than specific Fourth Way matters.)
WPP was born in 1937 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has extensive experience as a writer and editor. Elsewhere he has described in detail his closeness to Lord Pentland who in 1953 was one of the founders of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City. WPP operates his enterprises in the busy field of the human potential movement, but he does so in that sector of it (the Fourth Way) that has been accustomed to privacy.
WPP appears to be a “one-man Gurdjieff movement” who runs a “one-stop Gurdjieff program.” His dedication, energy, knowledge, determination, and popular scholarship are not to be downplayed. Yet feelings run high in some circles that serious work in this sector takes place only in private. I have no problems appreciating his own contribution and legacy.
So much for WPP. Arete publishes serious and specialized books, so these titles seldom receive the media or even the word-of-mouth exposure that they deserve, a fate that is shared with the productions of many another dedicated publishing imprint. So my policy in reviewing such books has been two-fold: to go overboard in describing the physical appearances of Arete’s books; to go to great length to outline their contents. My assumption is that readers will never see copies of any of these books, unless they are specially ordered from specialty bookshops or mail-order services like By the Way Books or direct from the publisher’s website. (For the record I purchased my copy from the website.)
Now to Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff: The Man, The Teaching, His Mission. I have no idea how many copies of this book have been printed, but since it is a good and useful publication, I hope the press-run is extended at least ten times! Yet the publisher has to take into account the appetite of the market. It is a very interesting book, rather like a bowl of plum-pudding: Turn the page to learn something new, or to be reminded of something old in a new way. It is a book for people who are interested in the Fourth Way, not principally participants in the Work.
The book is a big volume: over 650 pages in all, probably around 350,000 words in length. It measures 6 by 9 inches and is 2 inches thick. The pages are well designed; the type is well-leaded and easy to read. It is a sturdy, bound volume with card covers and maroon-coloured end-sheets and (a classy touch!) a thin white ribbon to serve as a bookmark. There are more than ten dozen black-and-white photographs and illustrations, some new arrivals, others old standbys. The book is of good workmanship and the text is substantial and well organized.
The only way to convey the tome’s contents is to describe its table of contents. The Acknowledgements and Foreword are routine. The bulk of the text consists of nine sections arranged chronologically. An unusual feature is one that is found in the books of Colin Wilson: each section, part, or chapter is summarized through quasi-headlines like these: “Candidate for the madhouse. Exoteric, mesoteric, esoteric. Saleswoman of Sunwise Turn. Dangerous distortion. Orage ostracized.” They make amusing and sometimes startling reading. This sample comes from Part VI: The Herald.
Without further comment on my part, here are the titles of the nine sections: Part I, Search for the Miraculous. Part II, Higher Dimensions. Part III, Magicians at War. Part IV, Tzvarnoharno. Part V, All and Everything. Part VI, The Herald. Part VII, The Way of the Sly Man. Part VIII, Uspenskii in America. Part IX, Strike a Big Do. The attentive reader will catch from these titles the drift of the presentation of WPP’s presentation of the by-now canonical account of how this “self-supporting” part of the Eastern Wisdom Tradition was brought to the West.
The rest of the Afterword consists of fascinating documents that the author (as editor or compiler) has turned up in his researches in the manuscript collections of major universities. There is the longest version that I have seen of the scenario of the ballet The Struggle of the Magicians. This is followed by two manuscripts dated 1926 in which P.D. Ouspensky ponders the historic cleavage: “Why I Left Gurdjieff” and “The Struggle of the Magicians: Where I Diverge from Gurdjieff” (Had I world enough and time, I would delve into these matters.)
What follow are WPP’s own essays: “Gurdjieff in Egypt: The Origin of Esoteric Knowledge” and “Gurdjieff and Christianity” and “Gurdjieff, Uspenskii, Orage and Bennett” and “Personals and the Inner Animal” and “The Science of Idiotism” and “Images of God or Machines?” (These essays are reprinted from The Gurdjieff Journal so they will be new to that publication’s non-subscribers. They are thoughtful and based on original research, or at least on vast reading.)
There follow short essays and reminiscences by various hands on various subjects: Jessie Dwight Orage, Solita Solano, Carman Barnes, Frank Lloyd Wright, Count Bobrinskoy. These texts seem to be hitherto unpublished and of anecdotal interest, so it is nice to have them in print. The occasional pieces are followed by WPP’s Notes, thirty-four of them, ranging in length from one paragraph (Chief Feature) to three pages (Seekers of Truth). Some of the pieces are rehashes, but others (to name a few: Intelligentsia, Mercourov, Mouravieff) offer new information or formulations in a readable way.
Following the Notes is the Chronology which goes from Gurdjieff’s year of birth 1872 (by WPP’s determination) to the man’s death (at the age of only seventy-seven) in 1949. The entries here cover current events as well as developments connected with the Work (which WPP has paralleled in previous books). What struck me about the section is just how some assumptions based on slight evidence have passed into statements of supposed fact (two instances: Gurdjieff’s “working in the employ of the thirteenth Dalai Lama” in 1902; Aleister Crowley’s visit to the Priory in 1926).
A section that is likely to be overlooked is the one called References. It is the book’s backbone for it consists of twenty-five pages of sources (mainly based on 111 English-language texts). A lot of time and effort was expended on this section, largely invisible to the casual reader – to the extent that a book of this seriousness attracts the attention of “the casual reader.”
I had long wondered if anyone would ever comb through the vast literature of the Fourth Way and then quiz senior participants in order to generate a list of its leading students, thereby exhibiting the zeal shown by genealogists of the Church of Latter Day Saints who copy birth records for their retroactive rite of baptism as Mormons! WPP has done the hard work.
The section titled “Gurdjieff’s Students” consists of the names of 144 men and women, with vital years, schematically arranged, beginning with Russians, then yielding to English followers, French students, and finally American activists. Some Australians are named, but no Canadians (excepting Gurdjieff’s one-time physician, Vancouver-born, McGill-educated Dr. Bernard Courtenay-Mayers).
The Afterword concludes with the six pages devoted to the Selected Bibliography, and with an Index that is analytic, one dozen pages in length. In a sense, I suppose, this Afterword exhausts WPP’s larder of hard-to-digest information and opinion. The Afterword is almost a book in itself, one that could be titled “Fourth Way Notes and Queries.”
Having described the beginning and the ending of this book, I find I have passed over its middle section – the nine parts mentioned earlier in this review – which runs from page 1 to page 418! Yet I have already written over 1,400 words, and I wonder how long this review should be. I will leave it to the reader’s imagination – and perhaps to part two of this review, should I write it! – to fill in the big blank.
In a sense the heart and core of the book is found in the nine pages of the Afterword per se. This section seems to be a summary at the present time of the author’s thoughts on Gurdjieff’ “mission” (though “Gurdjieff’s ‘work’” might be a better term to use). WPP views Gurdjieff as a teacher and hence as someone who “acts.” What is this about? “His aim was to keep students between a ‘yes’ and a ‘no,’ keep them in question, and thus not knowing, for knowing is closure.” His message is that man is born without a soul and must acquire one and then develop it along given lines. He is truly the “Teacher of Dancing” because he is “one who embodies, understands and teaches the principles and laws of consciously receiving and transmitting energy in order to coat a soul.”
More than a century ago Gurdjieff recognized an imperative (memorably formulated in slightly different words by the French metaphysical writer Professor Denis Saurat): “Unless the ‘wisdom’ of the East and the ‘energy’ of the West could be harnessed and used harmoniously, the world would be destroyed.” WPP adds, “A major shock had to be given to avert the world’s destruction – the revelation of a heretofore esoteric teaching known only by its initiates …. ” There are religions founded by Hasnamusses as well as those founded by “genuine Messengers from Above.” The sign of the true religion is “wholeness” which is to be found in “the whole sensation of myself.” There is need for a new conception of God. “Then it follows that there must be a new conception of religion.” A tall order, indeed!
We live in trying times. WPP writes, referring to rolls of camera film, with their negative images and positive prints, “We either develop the positive or die in the negative.” He continues, “This eternal truth is inborn in every World-Time, be it Hunter-Gatherer, Agrarian, Industrial, Post-Industrial, and now the Technological.” He quotes from his second-last book Spiritual Survival in a Radically Changing World-Time about the dangerous nature of Technology. (In his books the word Technology is capitalized.) “Technology is not us. And yet it is us. This is what makes it so difficult to understand.”
We have to relate to Technology. “The hazard of not relating to it rightly is not only to forfeit our very identity and spiritual possibility, but to open the Gates of Hell to a certain planetary destruction that will erase the human experiment.” Yet introduced into the apocalyptic vein are pints of fresh new blood. “The seminal and sacred teaching Gurdjieff brought is in essence scientific in that it is centered in continual questioning, verification, exploration, and faith of Consciousness, not belief or dogma.” He continues, “It is the religion for our time so directly attuned is it to the World-Time.”
I find the phrase “World-Time” to be off-putting, and I am uncertain about its origin. It looks and sounds like a formulation from the typewriter of the German historian Oswald Spengler. (Perhaps Weltzeit?) Is it used by writers other than WPP?
“Only the Fourth Way can stand against the scientific entrancements of Technology, as it itself is founded in a scientific technology, albeit a sacred one, of self and soul development by inner practices based on the knowledge of chemical processes and laws. The only foundation that can adequately carry this is the awakening to and acceptance of the truth that the teaching Gurdjieff brought is an esoteric school united with its true and original Christian origin.”
I find the tone of the Afterword to be disturbing, evangelical in its strain and tenor, and while one may applaud the author’s moral fervour, it seems the argument is more rhetorical than reasonable. There are few connectives. Will all the doom and gloom be lifted by a quorum of followers of the Fourth Way? Technology presents problems but not ones that science itself cannot helped to resolve. Problems should be dealt with on their own level.
In this context, I find myself recalling the final, sobering sentence of Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion (1927, 1968) translated from the German by James Strachey. The founder of psychoanalysis and the critic of the world’s cultures wrote as follows: “No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.”
An Evening of Movements and Exercises
A Review by John Robert Colombo
Toronto is a metropolitan area with a diverse population of 3.3 million people and is very well named. The aboriginal meaning of toronto is “place of meeting.” Assuredly it is a meeting place if only because every second Torontonian was born outside Canada. In keeping with this sense of diversity, I like to note that the city has one Anthroposophical Society, two Theosophical Societies, and three Gurdjieff centres. That statement is true enough, but it would be more truthful to say that it has not three such centres, but four Gurdjieff centres, taking into account the growing number of people in the city working in the line of J.G. Bennett.
Followers of Bennett were out in force last month when the city hosted the All & Everything Conference. This marked the first occasion that the fourteen-year-old conference, devoted to the study of G.I. Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales was held in Canada. It may not be the last time because the conference attracted numerous Canadians from across the country, including some followers of Bennett. “An Evening of Movements and Exercises” had nothing to do organizationally with Bennett or his supporters, for it was sponsored by the Gurdjieff Foundation of Toronto: Society for Traditional Studies. This is the premier group of those recognized by the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York City.
It is hard to believe that this Toronto centre has been active since 1954, so it is only one year younger than the New York Foundation. It boasts an illustrious founder: Madame Olga de Hartmann, wife of composer Thomas de Hartmann, as well as an illustrious, long-time leader: Mrs. Louise Welch, both of whom, as they say, “knew Gurdjieff.”
The Toronto group has standing in the international world of Work for the activities of its publishing imprint, Traditional Studies Press. Among its publications is the invaluable and pioneering Guide and Index to “All & Everything” (1971, 2003). Under the long-time direction of David Young, the avuncular one-time museum curator and then highschool teacher, this group sponsors semi-public events – a lecture or book launch here, a concert somewhere else – every six months or so. There has not been a public (or semi-public) demonstration of the Movements in Toronto since 1984.
“An Evening of Movements and Exercises” was held Sunday, May 3, 2008, 7:00 p.m. The venue was the Toronto Dance Theatre, 80 Winchester Street, in the area of the city known as Cabbagetown, where two social classes meet: those professionals who live in renovated brownstones and the long-time occupants of the few remaining rooming houses in the district.
Here the innovative Toronto Dance Theatre has occupied a renovated church building since 1968, where it operates its own theatre for experimental dance performances and its school for training in dance. The edifice is historic St. Enoch’s Presbyterian Church; the congregation was founded in 1878. It is interesting to note that a venue dedicated to avant-garde and non-traditional dance should be the stage for the most traditional of dance-forms, the Gurdjieff Movements.
There is no need for me to describe these movements or their history here, or to characterize the contribution of the composer Thomas de Hartmann, who of course was no stranger to the city. As for the aim of the movements, rather than making an attempt to describe that, I can do no better than to quote the following, quite eloquent passage from the Toronto group’s website:
“We realize in the movements that we are rarely awake to our own life – inner or outer. We see that we always react in a habitual and conditioned way; we become aware that our three main centres – head, body and feeling – rarely work together or in harmony. We begin to try to move always intentionally – not mechanically – and we discover in ourselves many hitherto unexpected possibilities. We find that one can collect one’s attention; that one can be awake at times and have an overall sensation of oneself; that a quietness of mind, and awareness of body and an interest of feeling can be brought together. This results in a more complete state of attentiveness in which the life force is felt and one is sensitive to higher influences. Thus one has a taste of how life can be lived differently.”
The author of those words is Work leader Jessmin Howarth. Here is another passage, an excerpt from the writings of composer and pianist Laurence Rosenthal: “What can we consider to be the purpose of Gurdjieff’s music? Perhaps it is related to man’s work on himself, what Gurdjieff called ‘harmonious development.’ He offered food for the growth of a man’s being through the different sides of his nature: ideas for the mind, special exercises and dances for the body and mind together, and music as a way to awaken a sensitivity in the feelings, to arouse in the deeper level of the listener’s interior world questions and intimations beyond words. And perhaps, in dissolving the barriers created by associations and conditioning, these sounds could bring the listener into closer contact with his own essential nature.”
It was a sold-out house. Tickets were only $15 for general admission, $10 for students and seniors. The 130 or so raked seats were occupied by a youngish group of sloppily dressed people who nevertheless paid rapt attention. I would judge that two-thirds of the audience had some familiarity with the Work, the other third being curious about it. There was no stage per se, but there was a large rehearsal area that served the occasion quite well. The proceedings were videotaped.
A few minutes after seven-thirty, David Young, who was seated in the audience, stood up, stepped onto the rehearsal area, faced the audience, and made some general announcements: no recording devices permitted, turn off cell phones, no applause. He greeted “old friends and new faces” and stated that the exercises that would be seen and heard were dances, rites, prayers, etc., “based on cosmic laws as expounded in Gurdjieff’s teachings.”
He emphasized that the twenty-five or so “dancers” were students of the Work, not professional performers; they were drawn from various levels of classes. Their ages ranged from the twenties to the seventies. The reason for the request to refrain from applause is that this is not a “performance” but “work.” Addressing the audience directly, he said, “We have a part to play. They need your attention.” They audience willingly granted it.
The dancers were both male and female and all wore white tunics with cummerbunds, black trousers, and black slippers. The cummerbunds came in a rainbow of colours. The musicians were similarly attired. At the keys of the baby grand piano sat Casey Sokol, a Professor in the Music Department of York University, Downsview, Ont., who must be the ideal pianist for the Movements, given his sharply defined stroke and his strong sense of rhythm. There were also two younger violinists, one of whom also played the drum, Kousha Nakhaei and Ivan Ivanovich. When Sokol joined the dancers, which he did periodically, his place was taken by the dancer Lindsay Smail who played the piano with very rich emotion.
David Young in his yellow-orange velvet jacket, classy tie, and black trousers, exhibited genuine authority as in effect he acted as director from his seat in the centre of the first row. I wish I could identify the thirteen compositions that were performed, but there was no printed program, and Mr. Young, on purpose I guess, did not identify the names of the movements and the music compositions by G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann by name. The result is that there seemed to be a progression, not from simple to difficult, as each exercise is difficult in its own way, so much as an increase in intensity, so that by the end of the evening, two hours later, the sounds and sights seemed more deep and more subtle.
The dancers performed expressionlessly, tirelessly, blinking from time to time on their own but otherwise doing everything as a group. I thought of the troupe of Whirling Dervishes from Konya who performed in Toronto about ten years ago. I also remembered those “stiff-arm” Irish colleens of “Riverdance” who bring to their routines an immense energy. Mostly I thought about Tai Chi exercises which, without the rhythm of music, require individual effort and group identification. Yet the Movements are performed with musical compositions that are captivating all on their own, though the dancers seem to regard them as clocks that tell them the time and set the tempo and require their individual movements to be performed without any other direction or cue.
Between some of the performances, Mr. Young would read a passage from A.R. Orage, Gurdjieff, or Madame de Salzmann. The group unhurriedly but deftly reformed for each “number.” There were no “star” performers. I remembered studying some of the exercises myself more than fifty years earlier. They were as demanding then as they are today. One I remember quite clearly: it has the dancers describing circles in the air with their right hands.
At one point Mr. Young identified the compositions as “sacred dances” that Mr. Gurdjieff oberved in temples and monasteries and tekkes: “ceremonies that are inaccessible and unknown to Europeans.” The dances are to be felt, for they speak of cosmic laws and also of various organs and other parts of the human body. A couple of the compositions call for performers to say “Ha!” or “Na!” or their equivalents. One number struck me as the dance that a crazy man – an idiot – might perform when he lost control over his body. But no control was lost!
I always found it unexpected and moving when the dancers in one row or in one file would begin to perform acts that the dancers in the other rows or files would then begin to perform. It created a sense of contained movement, a spiritual stasis. It brought a secular image to mind: “the wave” introduced by baseball fans at Toronto Raptors games.
Near the end of the program, Mr. Young quoted Madame de Salzmann who said, “Behind the visible there is much that cannot be seen. Attention is your only chance. Without it you can do nothing.”
The thirteenth and last exercise seemed to embody the need for attention and aim. It had the troupe arranged three deep in six rows. Dancers began to lean to and fro, rocking, their fingers fluttering, as if uncontrollably. Again, everything visible was under control.
Suddenly it was 8:30 p.m. and the demonstration was over. The audience emerged as if from under a spell. There was the urge to applaud, but this was suppressed, though instead there was more than the usual animation and conversation. Mr. Young announced that while the demonstrations were finished for the evening, after a short break members of the audience who were interested could return to their seats and take part of “an exchange.”
About ninety members of the audience accepted the invitation to the “exchange.” Mr. Young and Mr. Sokol sat on chairs on the stage and encouraged questions and comments from the audience. The first question concerned the country of origin of the movements and the music. Someone compared the music to folk tunes and found in them echoes of Béla Bartók who collected folk melodies.
Mr. Sokol found in them “quietness in motion.” He spoke about “flow” and occupying “musical time, not in my usual associative time.” You have to look with intention. Mr. Young said the music is unique in that it “speaks to the whole of man,” and the Movements are not learned or performed for purposes of exhibition. “We do not try to do the movements well per se, but we try to do them well as a source of knowledge.” He noted that when students are about to master one set of Movements, another more difficult set it introduced. He went on to discuss conditions for work on attention – “something that is larger than a cell in, say, the liver of the body.”
He recalled an ominous remark made by Madame de Salzmann to the effect that one needs to work alone but one does this with others. “If you don’t, the Earth will fall down.” With Mr. Sokol, he took a pass on some of the rambling questions that seemed to touch upon important concerns which were not really articulated. He left the audience with the message that a new series of classes for people who were interested in learning the Movements was to begin in a few days. Information was available.
Now it was 9:45 p.m., and it a lovely evening, quite warm. My wife Ruth and I left the rehearsal space of the Toronto Dance Theatre with a lightness of step and instep. In my mind’s eye I entertained images of the faces of the dancers, whose eyes (when not blinking) were perhaps still staring into the middle distance. Some of the participants were younger, some older; some looked to the future ahead of them, some looked to the past behind them; some looked apprehensive, some fulfilled; some would no doubt flourish, some falter; all would experience disappointment, yet all were working together for inner knowledge and its outer expression. The Work here has meaning for all and everyone.
5 May 2009
Note: This essay originally appeared in Sophia Wellbeloved’s Cambridge-based gurdjieffbooks blog. It is being reprinted here, more than a decade later, to recall a pleasant occasion of a semi-public nature that involved Group Work. Events of this sort are seldom described in any detail in public print, so there is reason to preserve an observer’s impressions of the occasion. (Also included here is the author’s blurb from the original blog.)
It is with sadness that the editor of this blog notes that David Young, the leader of the Toronto group, died at the age of eighty on January 28, 2019.
“John Robert Colombo, who participated in the Movements with the Toronto group in the late 1950s, is a Canadian author and anthologist. His current books include a collection of causeries titled Whistle While You Work and The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories. Later this month, the Humanist Association of Toronto will designate Colombo to be their Humanist of the Year.”
5 May 2009