The Journal Known as “Gurdjieff”
The Journal Known as “Gurdjieff”
This is the first time I am writing a review, a review article, or an essay for this blog based on a periodical rather than on a book. It may be a reminder to the blog’s readers that there is indeed a publication with such a title as The Gurdjieff Journal or, simply Gurdjieff, yet it has been around for some twenty years and is a vehicle for some fairly detailed information of a scholarly and a semi-scholarly nature on aspects on the past and the present status of the Fourth Way.
I cannot remember when first I took out my subscription to it, but I was reminded that it was once called The Gurdjieff Journal and that it was established in 1992. I was reminded on the publication’s website that it is “the first journal, international-domestic, devoted exclusively to G.I. Gurdjieff’s teaching of The Fourth Way.” The issue under review is the current one: Volume 30, Issue 1, Number 77.
The publishers explain further: “Published triannually, the intention of The Gurdjieff Journal is to observe and report upon the contemporary world ‘mercilessly, without any compromise whatsoever.’ Through original research, timely feature articles, essays, interviews and book and film reviews, the principles, perspectives and practices of the teaching are explored and applied to everyday living.” That is a tall order!
It is a tall order indeed, but it is published by an active organization that has a super-active man behind it. The organization is called The Gurdjieff Legacy Foundation and the man in question is William Patrick Patterson. The wording on the website continues: “The Gurdjieff Legacy Foundation sponsors talks, workshops and seminars conducted by William Patrick Patterson. Each year he gives three public seminars. Mr. Patterson has actively studied and practiced the teaching of The Fourth Way for forty-six years. He was a direct student of Lord John Pentland, the man Mr. Gurdjieff appointed to lead the Work in America.”
“Mr. Patterson is founder/director of The Gurdjieff Legacy Foundation which explores the fundamental ideas and practices of the Teaching, extending from its base to its furthest horizon. He leads groups, oversees The Online Fourth Way School, and is the founder/editor of The Gurdjieff Journal (est. 1992).”
“In addition to authoring nine books on The Fourth Way, he is the director-writer-narrator of seven films, including the first documentary trilogy, The Life & Significance of G. I. Gurdjieff, as well as Introduction to Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way Parts 1, 2, 3 and Spiritual Pilgrimage: Mr. Gurdjieff’s Father’s Grave.”
I am not quite sure if “a direct student of Lord John Pentland” differs in any fundamental way from “an indirect student” of the Scottish gentleman in question. Lord Pentland was the 2nd Baron Pentland and a civil engineer and businessman who spent the first half of his life as a student at Oxford and as a disciple of P.D. Ouspensky, and the second half of his life in New York City and San Francisco, where he directed the Work, being so appointed by Gurdjieff himself in the last year of his life. Indeed, at one point in his life Lord Pentland operated out of an office in Rockefeller Centre.
I have no personal knowledge of any of this, but I have heard it maintained on good authority that Mr. Patterson was in no way a more direct student than many of the other students of the Work in New York City in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Yet in retrospect the connection is deeply meaningful to Mr. Patterson, a former magazine editor, for he has written a moving memoir (inelegantly titled Eating The “I”) about his teacher and he has made much of his tutelage. Indeed, the one-time magazine editor became a full-time group leader, the presenter of seminars, the author of numerous serious book-length studies of the Work, as well as the producer and star of a trilogy of award-winning videos that take his viewers on tours of places associated with Gurdjieff. The videos are rewarding to watch.
I have written reviews of a number of his books for Sophia Wellbeloved’s gurdjieffbooks blogsite (currently archived and accessible), finding them to be well researched and well written, full of interesting and previously unknown details of some importance. Given any interest at all in the Work, they are instructive, though very few Work people I have met seem to be interested in them.
In a way I think of Mr. Patterson as today’s version of public teachers of the past like Manly P. Hall and Paul Brunton, to name two unlikely candidates for the calling. In fact, his books and videos are on my shelf of special books written by teachers and group leaders, next to the classic in the field: My Father’s Guru, authored by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson who has much to say about the Englishman Raphael Hurst, the English traveller and theosophist who published as Paul Brunton.
However, I am not writing to salute Mr. Patterson who needs no adulation from anyone, especially from me. All I object to is the occasional use of the photomontage of the faces of three people: Mr. Patterson, Lord Pentland, and Mr. G. himself, with the face of the former staring knowingly at the camera. Is this a new line of succession? Maybe ….
What I am saluting is Gurdjieff, the publication. Until recently the issues arrived regularly by post, the tinted stock stapled together, but rising costs and I suppose falling readership for serious research and writing being what it is these days, issues began to arrive online. Subscribers like me print them out on their own stationery, so that what we read is what might be described as the black-and-white photocopied pages of a magazine. The format is not very attractive or collectable, but the material is the same as it has always been. Some of it is of quite high quality, some of it of marginal interest at best. But it is a potpourri of material of interest to readers of the literature of the Fourth Way.
As always the typography of the publication of Gurdjieff suits a magazine more than it does a journal. I distinguish between these forms of periodicals on the basis of the fact that a magazine courts general and topical interest, whereas a journal publishes serious material of untimely and hence of timeless interest. Gurdjeiff is a journal of continuing interest that sometimes feels like a magazine of passing interest: an uneasy mixture. To illustrate what I am saying, allow me to page through the current issue of twenty-eight pages which I have printed out on my computer.
The type on the cover may be too small to be read with ease, so here is what it says: “Exploring Gurdjieff’s Teaching of The Fourth Way – The Way of Transformation in ordinary Life – $4.50.” The artwork depicts a sculpture of the Statue of Liberty, prepared by Sam Parry of Fairfax, California, coincidentally where the journal is published, waving a sign that asks, “What is Happening?” Running up and down the two columns are the words “Vote 11-6-18.” It all looks like an amateurish mish-mash to me.
The title of the lead article is “The Death of Christianity?” (note the presence of the question-mark) and the photomontage identifies “Parking garage near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where Jesus was entombed and resurrected.” It depicts the entrance to the parking garage in English and Hebrew, along with an orphan quote from G.I. Gurdjieff which offers a spooky prediction: “I already see in my mind’s eye that before many of their years have passed, there will be on the spot where the planetary body of the Divine Jesus was buried, a place for parking contemporary cars.”
Does this anticipation of the times appear in the pages of All and Everything? Or is it an apocryphal quote? The difference between a magazine and a journal is that a magazine generally runs illustrations and quotations but not source notes, unlike a journal which fails to credit sources for photographs though it does offer sources for quotations from printed matter. The lead article here, which is scrupulously sourced, runs for several, three-columned pages. It is the contribution of Mary Ellen Korman, a seasoned journalist and the author of A Woman’s Work, a most interesting biography of Ethel Merston, a Gurdjieff follower, which ran over many issues before it appeared in book form from Arete in 2009. Arete identifies Mr. Patterson’s book imprint.
The article sounds like a sociological survey of the religious “situation” – or perhaps the “religious” situation – in America: “Half of churchgoers attend 12 percent of the 350,000 extant churches; the other half go to churches with fewer than 75 people.” I suppose such “stats” are meaningful in some circumstances, but here what I hear are echoes of that know-it-all weekly magazine, Time, in its heyday. The text is full of pop references and popular psychology and tells you what you already thought you knew. An instance is “Overall a growing number of Americans identify themselves as spiritual but not religious …. Only 54 percent consider themselves religious, 75 percent as spiritual.”
After dealing with “America” (although there are no separate statistics for neighbouring Canada which is also part of America), Mrs. Korman examines the present state of Catholicism. The Trappists are declining in number (“Since 1965, their number declined by more than two thirds”) and we are assured “The basic problem for virtually all religions is that human beings are sexual beings.” Protestants of some persuasions are concerned with the Rapture (“which 41 percent believe will arrive by 2050”).
Leaders like Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and heir to his evangelical “missions,” and U.S. President Donald J. Trump, are shielded from serious criticism by the believers. Celibacy of the Catholic priesthood is no problem at all for priests of the Eastern Orthodox persuasion. This leads to a few facts about sexual abuse among the clergy. Apparently Pope Francis has been blaming Satan, “the great accuser,” for the “atrocities” committed by the Church’s bishops and the illegal and immoral attempts at “cover-ups.”
Followers of Buddhism are not exempt because their religion “has well-known problems with sexuality.” This leads to Sogyal Rinpoche and his well-publicized difficulties, as well as to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and his “crazy wisdom” troubles (or, as they are called these psychotherapeutic days, “challenges”). The suggestion is made that the defence against Buddhist clergy assaulting Western women is that the offenders can commit themselves to “enter a period of reflection.”
A sign of the Buddhist times – in China anyway – is the following, which is new to me: “One previous instance of sexual misconduct by a monk was reported in 2015. Shi Yongxin, abbot of legendary kung fu monastery Shaolin Temple, was accused but cleared of being an embezzler and womanizer with illegitimate children. Yongxin, known as China’s ‘C.E.O. Monk,’ revived the derelict Shaolin, with paying tourists flocking to see Shaolin’s hourly ‘fighting monks’ acrobatic show, and made it into a global commercial empire, with product licensing and overseas franchises.”
All this is contrary to the spirit of Gurdjieff who had this to say of sexual abstinence: “No sensible result at all is ever obtained from this abstinence of theirs, and it is not obtained, because the thought has ceased even to enter the heads of these unfortunate ‘contemporary’ monks that although it is indeed possible, by means of these substances Exioëhary formed in them, to perfect themselves,” etc.
It comes as a relief when some space is given “to intentionally use sex energy for evolution, not repress or suppress it as religious mandate, so that it is not used by other centers nor does it use them, one energy polluted by another, and the centers become balanced.” Gurdjieff also wrote, “Look at the priests where they grow ‘fat like pigs’ (the concern about eating dominating them), or they are ‘skinny as the devil’ (and have inside little love for their neighbor), the fat are less dangerous and more gentle.”
Mrs. Korman has no worries about social inequality, inequality of income, income corrupting consciousness, consciousness affected by ersatz cultures and civilizations, cultures that corrupt male values … I could go on. She focuses on “this secular splintering of Christianity, and perhaps even Buddhism and Shambhala.” She has nothing to say about more immediately pressing Muslim and Islamic influences, pernicious poverty, cultural genocide, and only an allusion or two to the effects of atheism or agnosticism or materialism per se. There are few sociological studies and statistical analyses of these to use to be sure.
She looks ahead, gaze averted. “It’s not hard to see the creative innovations that await us. Wicca and sexual tantra certainly among them, given the growing legitimization of weed. Societal belief systems, spiritual and otherwise, will erode as A.I. replaces human jobs, and even brain-heavy occupations like surgery and law, making economic and political divisions intensity, and at a time when climate change is upending traditional patterns – what then?”
For her, Gurdjieff has the answer because the question he asks is, “What is the true purpose of human life on Earth? His answer is the ancient, esoteric teaching he brought it in the form of The Fourth Way. It is the teaching for our time.”
While that may be so, I find this survey of contemporary cultural values to be less challenging than it could be. Vigorous debates being waged in Western societies about the reasons and the consequences of the loss of our values both private and public over time. But it would seem that there are even greater losses to be noted in the loss of values and even material gain in non-Western societies. Of such matters Mrs. Korman has nothing to say, although she has appended thirty-three source notes to her long lead article.
I cannot devote as much time and space to the other contributions to this journal as I have to this article, which on the whole is interesting to read, but I have tried to show how the lead article leads nowhere unexpected, though I will try to encapsulate the other writers’ works as best I can. A writer named Dick Myers has contributed “Discovering Man’s Hidden Consciousness” which is subtitled “Western Exploration & Ideas on the Subconscious.” It is Part II of an ongoing series and it is illustrated with sometimes relevant and sometimes irrelevant illustrations.
It begins with a useful enough discussion of the study of dreams that was made by P.D. Ouspensky in 1900 who came to the following conclusion: “Dreams do not stand observation; observations change them.” (This sounds like an anticipation of the findings of the founders of Quantum Physics a decade or so later.) I contrast this with British scholar’s Robert Irwin’s dismissal of dream analysis in Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sufis (2011). As a student of Sufism in Algeria in the Sixties, and subsequently a brilliant and productive Arabist, he came to the conclusion that after taking his dreams seriously for years, he had learned nothing at all from them. That tells us not a little bit about the dynamic and compelling nature of dream imagery, but it does draw attention to those once-popular “dream books” which are anthologies of dramatic figures and configurations. Ouspensky did recognize such images to be the projection of “consciousness without thought.” He calls this “sleep plus waking state.”
As usual Gurdjieff went deeper into the mystery of sleep and the dream state than Ouspensky. He described four kinds of sleep but added, “If you dream while you sleep, you only sleep half.” Gurdjieff stated that “most dreams come from Moving Centre, from haphazard connections taking place in Moving Centre …. They have no meaning and so are of no importance.” Maurice Nicoll suggested they also emerged from Higher Emotional and Higher Intellectual Centers.” (Bear in mind that Nicoll was a Jungian before he was an Ouspenskian.)
Myers passes over the insights of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, finding that subsequent research has failed to reveal the scientific value of their insights. Yet their terminologies have entered our vocabularies – primal scene, repression, introversion, etc. “Rightly or wrongly, these ideas seem to provide simple, satisfying answers to some of the manifestations of the human psyche.”
The author devotes some paragraphs to showing how treatment modalities used today often incorporate these concepts. “Gurdjieff looks at this differently: these are instinctive-moving center functions, which become habitualized, and have nothing directly to do with the subconscious.” This view is close to the current view of Dr. Sherry Buffington who is concerned with leadership issues because the “the subconscious has two goals – survival and happiness – and have nothing to do with the subconscious – and has six functions.” Her work sees the subconscious assisting the human mind by operating as a memory bank, regulatory centre for involuntary functions, generator of emotions, creation of imagination, central control system for patterns or habits, and dynamo which directs energy and drives motivation.
There is much information about the operation of the mind (the last two decades have seen many new scientific theories of the mind emerge) for “Consciousness is regarded by science as a function of the brain.” It is a process which can “fit into the theory of Neural Darwinism.” The author continues, “Consciousness and its evolution is made manifest through a process of natural selection.” The author sees this through Gurdjieff’s eyes as “a topsy-turvey view of human awareness” which to him is one of the four states of consciousness possible to human beings. I take it there is no need to explain what is meant here; the main idea being that the Gurdjieffian view is at odds with the scientific view of the matter.
The author then considers the other two states of consciousness possible for man “people ordinarily experience those only in flashes” due to the intervention of the implanted organ Kundabuffer. Is it possible for the two states to permeate each other, a process that in a literary context Northrop Frye described as “interpenetration.” The last sentence goes like this: “In other words, can we become normal three-brain beings? And then there may be the beyond – objective consciousness, no-thing, nothing.” That is followed by thirteen source notes.
“The Fourth Way Is the First Way” is the title of a two-page article (identified as Part II, with two source notes but no byline per se, but it is signed by Mr. Patterson) that follows the long one contributed by Dick Myers. The title recalls a well-known paradoxical expression used by P.D. Ouspensky about the Fourth preceding the First.
It is an account, in point form, of “a taste of how the esoteric knowledge of The First Way was passed after the sinking of Atlantis to the high priests of Egypt and also carried into Asia by the learned beings of Akhaldan. Because everything, subtle and gross, dissolves under the pressure of Heropass, if not consciously assimilated and worked with, The First Way became ‘The Fourth Way.’ This has led to one-sided Hatha yogis, monks and Jnana yogis. The harmony, intrinsic to the First Way, was lost.” It sounds a little like a series of lecture notes.
“One Great Round” is a lyric poem credited to Mr. Patterson, alongside a poem titled “To Express … ” credited to Teresa Adams. These free-verse poems are not great shakes as poetry but recited with feeling they could hold the stage.
“Human-Animal Interbreeding” is the somewhat disagreeable title of an article made slightly more agreeable with the reproduction of “Leda and the Swan” by Peter Paul Rubens. In brief, the single-page article about “the blending of the Exioëharies of two Keschapmartnian beings of different brain systems of opposite sexes,” etc. There are students of such matters and if specialist journals like this one do not publish articles like this one, it might as well be another general interest magazine. Authorship is attributed to Mike Miller.
A feature of every issue of this journal is its film review and this issue features The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, a feature-length documentary directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine. It is not a new film; it was released in 2013. In summary, it might be described as “the devil in paradise” for it recalls how a group of European adventurers settled on Floreana Island where they found a new Eden of sorts in the Galapagos and then disappeared. Murder was suspected. The historical characters are brought to life with stills and their words in letters as spoken by actors including Cate Blanchett. This documentary is something of an oddity though it received positive reviews, as noted in the Wikipedia entry. In past issues the journal has reviewed current features, largely to reveal the moral bankruptcy of modern times (a charge worthy of the Traditionalists). The review article is signed by Deborah Jacobs.
Each issue contains a book review and this issue’s review is a serious examination of Tobias Churton’s Deconstructing Gurdjieff: Biography of a Spiritual Magician published by Inner Traditions. The review’s author is Henry Korman who writes at great length and, suitably, includes 53 source notes. I will not go into detail about Tobias Churton, who is described as an authority on Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Freemasonry, and Rosicrucianism. That is a tall order for someone born in 1960. Appointed Honorary Fellow of Exeter University in 2005, he holds a master’s degree in Theology from Brasenose College, Oxford.
He has written over twenty books including three devoted to Aleister Crowley, and after wading through the legend and myth surrounding the many lives of To Mega Therion (alias “the Great Beast”), he probably found it clear sailing past the fables and recollections of educated men and women concerning the comings and goings of Mr. Gurdjieff.
Churton is one of a generation of well-educated British scholars who are bold enough to endanger their academic careers by specializing in alternative religions and especially esoteric studies. (These scholars, like Robert Irwin the Arabist, are knowledgeable, well-read, and chance-taking.) His book (which I may review) is not to be confused with Robert Lipsey’s Gurdjieff Reconsidered, which I did review in the first issue of this blog and found to be a remarkable book in every way.
The reviewer of Churton’s biography or biographical study is Henry Korman (who is presumably related to the writer May Ellen Korman) and he conducts the review thoroughly and at some length (with 53 source notes). Apparently Churton sees Gurdjieff as a “spiritual magician,” whatever that is. Churton writes, “He talked the talk because, as far as he was concerned, he had walked the walk. Unfortunately, for historians and biographers he mostly fictionalized the walk.” Perhaps a little miffed, Korman adds, “This sets the tone for the rest of the book – it’s Gurdjieff who is the culprit obscuring the confusing everything.”
Jacques Derrida’s name does not crop up in many studies of Gurdjieff, but it does in this one: “Deconstruction as means of conducting readings of a text to discover what may run counter to the intended meaning of the text.” In the process Churton practises explication de texte or “close reading” of what Gurdjieff said and wrote and what others had to write or say about him. This does not impress Korman who heads the last section of his review “‘Deconstructing’ – or Deprecating?”
Terminologies come and go, for as Korman noted: “What he says regarding occultism holds equally true for references to the other isms. Gurdjieff later discarded all the terminology recorded by Uspenskii in Search and reformulated the teaching in A&E using term that were for the most part newly coined by him.” It seems the “close reading” is an “attack.”
“A number of consistent patterns emerged: the use of rhetorical leveling through sarcasm; labeling Gurdjieff’s ideas as unoriginal or derivative; conceding a patronizing respect toward some of these ideas; circumspectly switching the context of a discussion to introduce new ‘facts’ and meaning supported in one context but not in the other; emphasizing traits of Gurdjieff’s character as venal and dishonest; and presuming, like [Paul Beekman]Taylor, the knowledge and understanding necessary to explain Gurdjieff’s Teaching without significantly distorting it.”
Korman concludes, “Asking questions about Gurdjieff and the Teaching he brought is a legitimate exercise, but perhaps we can recognize now that Churton actually conflates biography with deconstruction in line with his primary interests: Crowley, Art, Espionage, Magick, esoteric mysteries, Gnosticism, spiritual history and philosophy.”
Korman is quite diligent in noting what Gurdjieff says and did and then noting what Churton decides he said and did. As close as it is to Derrida, it is even closer to the “figural language” of the late Paul de Man. Literary scholars will give Derrida a free pass, but call into question the integrity of Paul de Man’s life-story and writings. Korman has planted the seeds of discontent with the image of the “spiritual magician,” the same seeds that Churton planted around Mr. G. I will have to read Deconstructing Gurdjieff to decide for myself, but Korman knows his stuff.
For umpteen years this journal has been running chapters from a long work of fiction in what amounts to serial publication translated from Russian into English. It is called Atis, the Bloodless Sacrifice and it is set in Ancient Egypt. The Russian-language original may or may not be the work of Ouspensky, as it was found among his papers which are held in his Memorial Collection in Manuscripts and Archives at Yale University’s Sterling Library. I gave up reading it after the first chapter as it seemed to me hardly the work of the skilled author of Strange Life of Ivan Osokin.
I have argued that the world lost a major metaphysician when Ouspensky met Gurdjieff; in its place the world gained a major philosopher of the esoteric. The world also lost a fine writer of literary essays and fiction. But that author is not the author of Atis, the Bloodless Sacrifice, judging the quality of the prose of Part 1, Chapter X, and all previous chapters. “To be continued” runs the last line. The translation is the joint work of Dmitry Bochkarnikov and Lena Jacobson, and it is presumably “a labour of love.”
A lively section near the end is “Letters to TGJ.” There are four long letters which generally agree or sometimes disagree with the arguments in previous issues. The contributions to theories of sexuality within the contexts of psychoanalysis and Kabbalistic mysticism, made by Dan Merkur and David Bakan, an analyst and a psychologist, both Canadians, are added to the mix. Two readers independently relate how refreshing it is to “self-sense” and to direct attention into the body rather than away from it. Another reader notes that “though Heropass may be merciless, yet there is mercy – we are shown how we can work to make ourselves available that our work may be of service.”
“Sayings of Substance” is a column of Gurdjieff’s short observations from Life is Real Only Then, When “I Am.” Here are two: “A man is not a pig to forget good, nor is he a cat to remember evil.” “You will be reasonable only then when you will learn to distinguish your future good or evil from that of our present.”
“Kultur” is a page of “quickies” from the daily press. Here are two instances: “Thou Shalt Not Steal. Though still free at most churches, the Bible is the most commonly stolen book.” “Pack Leader. The U.S. outstrips all top gun-owning countries at 89 firearms per 100 residents (Yemen second at 55), and it holds the lead in percentage of gun-related homicides, 64 percent of all homicides. Canada’s next at 30.5, Australia at 13 …. ” Reading three columns devoted to these “quickies” reminds me of being carried along reading the continuous prose of John Dos Passos, a once popular novelist who perfected a “non-linear” Modernistic style.
For the record, the publisher of The Gurdjieff Journal is William M. Blue; the editor is William Patrick Patterson; the assistant editors are Barbara Patterson, Mary Ellen Korman, and Teresa Adams; the design and graphics are handled by Henry Korman. Four issues cost $18 US and are delivered in the PDF format (i.e., electronically) there being no print edition.
P.S. I hope it is not impertinent of me, but I have a request to make to the graphics editor. It is certainly time, now that the electronic format has replaced the print format, that the articles be run continuously rather than be continued later in the issue (or in the occasional instance, earlier in the issue). The type size should be enlarged, and the table of contents should be moved from the last pages to the first pages.
While I am at it, I am of two minds about the illustrations because I cannot decide whether they are there as “spot” illustrations (à la The New Yorker) or they are there to add interest to the articles. How about photographs and bio-bibliographical information about the contributors? I should also add that what I like most about Gurdjieff is the variety of the contents, firmly reflective of the characteristics of contemporary Western society, and the long articles that offer the subscribers new information about old if not ancient subjects of perennial interest.
6-7 February 2019
The Gurdjieff Work is considered a serious subject and not one to be lightly regarded as a place for levity or humour. After two years in the Work in the distant past, followed by more than a half-century devoted in part to reading its literature, I have yet to come up with many or even any genuine instances of the expressions of a sense of humour specific to the Work. This is so despite the fact that I have kept my weather-eye open in that I have compiled popular collections of Canadian wit and wisdom and even two anthologies devoted to Soviet humour.
I will not hazard a guess as to why there is such a paucity of humour, but I do have suspicions that I will reserve for a later occasion. Instead, now I turn my attention to the Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff & Ouspensky. This is Maurice Nicoll’s five-volume set of discussions of the Work. There are really more than five volumes, if you care to consult volume six, the Index volume, which is in itself two hundred pages long. There is not a single reference anywhere in these volumes to Jokes or Humour, despite the fact that Nicoll, a psychiatrist by profession, trained by Carl Jung, would be expected to be familiar with the subject of humour. (Sigmund Freud once jested that people who study under Jung soon turn into Gurdjieffians!)
For the record, Freud published a wonderfully insightful book about jokes. His landmark publication, following full-length studies of aphasia, hysteria, dreams, and everyday psychopathology, bears the title Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). In its pages he examines the subject from three vantage-points: analysis, synthesis, and theory. Analysis refers to their techniques and tendencies. Synthesis studies their origins and motives as part of the social process. Theory discusses jokes in relation to dreams and the Unconscious.
Gurdjieff was a witty man and he is known to have punned, employing the idioms of perhaps half a dozen languages. Ouspensky was a careful writer and observer of life’s vagaries and mankind’s incongruities. Did either of them comment on jokes or humour? What about their followers who seem to be cautious or unreflective about these matters?
But do not lose hope, for I have on hand a much-consulted volume called Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts (2003). The knowledgeable author of this informed and indispensable reference work is Dr. Sophia Wellbeloved, a former member of the London Gurdjieff Society. She has identified and written extremely detailed notes on the “key concepts” used by Gurdjieff. If you think you know a lot about various aspects of the Work, check her examination of the vocabulary with some 300 entries arranged from The Absolute to the Zodiac and think otherwise!
Among her entries there is one devoted to “Humour” and it consists of three detailed paragraphs. She reminds us that “Gurdjieff’s jokes and humorous stories range in tone from absurd though witty to sharp, cutting and extremely dark.” They are not laughing matters. She points out that he was “not always kind, in his teaching.” She goes on to quote Paul Beekman Taylor who noted, “Everything he said could be taken as a joke, an absurdity or a profound observation in disguise.” She then reminds her readers of the characteristics of the oral tradition, song contests at Kars, the disruptive use of words as “teaching strategy,” Sufi tales, and the ever-present funny and philosophically inspired sayings of Mullah Nasr Eddin.
“For example,” she adds, “Gurdjieff’s reader may well question which bits of texts are jokes … in Tales Gurdjieff names our solar system as Ors. The word dervives from Greek ouros, a word for buttocks/arse. Thus, according to Gurdjieff, our solar system is the buttocks of the universe.” Then she asks an alarming question: “Is the whole of Tales a joke? If it were, would that make it less valuable than if it were not?”
Dark and demanding humour indeed! All of this is designed to act as a preamble to the two specimens of jokes proper that I have found through my ongoing researches. I heard only two jokes. They are weak and edentate ones at that, those I do cherish them. Here they are. I hope no one takes my frivolity amiss or lightly!
Joke No. 1 – P.D. Ouspensky and G.I. Gurdjieff enter a bar. The bartender is J.G. Bennett.
Joke No. 2 – Three men meet and then discover they have much in common, despite the fact that one of them is quite analytic, another is quite sympathetic, and the third is quite athletic. They head for the nearest bar, and as they take their seats the bartender greets them with these words: “What may I serve you, Mr. Gurdjieff?”
30 July 2007 – 7 Jan. 2019