Was Lord Pentland an Eminent Victorian?
Was Lord Pentland an Eminent Victorian?
A Review of James Moore’s Last Book
Mea Culpa: When I innocently reviewed this biography of Lord Pentland, the sole such work to date, I had no idea that its author, the English writer James Moore, was a controversial figure in Group circles in England and America. The review – actually an essay – appeared in Sophia Wellbeloved’s blog eight years ago and is being reprinted here without any changes being made, despite the fact that men and women involved in the Work went out of their way to call me to order for apparently slighting the subject of the biography. I am assured by people whose opinions I genuinely respect that the Baron was in every regard a remarkable and warm-hearted man, ideally chosen by Mr. Gurdjieff to further the work in America … indeed, a man of the Work. I had and have no reason at all to doubt them. I also learned from his one-time secretary that independent promoters of the work who claim they follow in his footsteps are misleading the public. In itself all this is more intriguing than interesting, especially as when the review article appeared I received the first in a series of emails from James Moore who was so pleased with my description of his writing style (what I said was somewhat complimentary: “Moore writes with a stylistic brilliance that is corruscating and hence sometimes blinding.”) that shortly before his death he wrote to me: “I owe you one.” He had in mind a shot of Scotch. Alas, he died before we could meet on May 11, 2017.
1 Oct. 2019
I distinctly remember the sensation that I experienced when I first saw in print the name “Lord Pentland.” What I sensed was a loftiness of person and of purpose. What I felt was the emotion of being wafted away from my usual, classless moorings: “Whoever is this fellow?” What I entertained was an heretical thought upon seeing his name in the context of the Work: “Was an English lord actually chosen by Mr. Gurdjieff to head the Work in America?”
I was late in the game. I first encountered the name and title in the early 1960s in the pages of a newly published book of radio talks. Its table of contents listed the contributors of talks and interviews broadcast on Pacifica Radio in California. I have long forgotten the names of the other contributors to this series of addresses, all of them public intellectuals familiar to me at the time. But I remember the name of this English baron who was completely unknown to me at that time. Curious!
I never met Lord Pentland or Henry John Sinclair or just plain John Sinclair, of course, but over the decades I have met with groups of men and women who knew him, attended his talks, and studied under him. They were unanimous in their admiration and respect for the man. I would ask each in turn, “What was his dominant characteristic? Why was he so admired and respected? What made him a dedicated teacher or leader?” People seemed to like the man but there was seldom a feature, chief or not, which I could identify or with which I could identify.
After all, the photographs of the man that I saw reproduced in public print, or at least those taken during his later years, showed a gaunt figure of a man with steel-rimmed glasses and querulous eyes. I once wrote, “To judge by photographs, John Pentland was a cadaverous figure of a man, toweringly tall, with skeletal skull, bushy eyebrows, and beady eyes. He resembles an ascetic, say a Cistercian monk …. ”
As well, he seemed quite forbidding, almost formidable (if not slightly comic or ironic). I never could discover what psychological feature or features were so impressive, though every once in a while someone would glance around and mumble about the man’s patrician bearing, the slight condescension in his attitude and manner, etc. But then some people are never satisfied; they will accept the Sermon on the Mount only if delivered by Jesus Christ in person.
Over the years I watched out for references to Lord Pentland in the literature of the Work, especially in the Gurdjieff Review. I bought and read a copy of the book Exchanges Within which is subtitled “Questions from Everyday Life Selected from Gurdjieff Group Meetings with John Pentland in California, 1955-1984.” It was published by Continuum in 1977, and its prose captured some of the qualities of the man, which I take to be a general thoughtfulness or mindfulness coupled with directness and authority.
I found his manner of writing and speaking to be more elusive than evasive, and to this day his prose, whether transcriptions of the talks or of the sessions of questions and answers, continues to remind me of the opaque styles of J. Krishnamurti and Rudolf Steiner. The opacity could be that of some level of being: a disembodied intelligence, perhaps. The texts of the talks themselves read like … radio scripts.
The other day I checked Wikipedia’s entry and I learned a little about the man Henry John Sinclair, but next to nothing about his personality and purpose, his mission and message. He was born in 1907, but where? (The biography says London.) He died in 1984, but where? (The biography says New York City.) He was the 2nd Baron Pentland and a man of means; his wife Lucy was also titled and well-to-do. His daughter, son-in-law, and their child are contributors to the Work.
In the 1930s and 1940s he worked with P.D. Ouspensky in London, and in 1948 he spent about nine months with Mr. Gurdjieff in Paris, who thereupon appointed him to lead the work in America. (“America” means the United States; while he did visit Canada, it was for business meetings in Toronto before he had met Mr. Gurdjieff and for a visit to the rodeo in Calgary afterwards.)
At one point he worked out of an office in Rockefeller Center, representing British-American commercial interests, like an earlier neighbour, spymaster Sir William Stephenson (known as “the Quiet Canadian” before turning garrulous and acquiring the title “the Man Called Intrepid”). I recall reading a warm and memorable description of Lord Pentland at work in his office. The account was written by the youthful William Patrick Patterson who visited the Baron there and was much impressed with the man, and studied under him for all of eleven years, before finding another mentor. Patterson went on to establish the Gurdjieff Studies Program and describes himself to this day as a student of Lord Pentland.
Lord Pentland served as president of the Gurdjieff Foundation from its inception in 1953 to his death in 1984, and also as president of the Gurdjieff Foundation of California from its inception in 1955 to his death. He also served as executive editor of Far West Editions from 1969 to his death. I sense that the year of his death marked the end of a phase of the Work in America, as phases of the Work in France and the rest of Europe and the United Kingdom were marked by the death in 1990 of Madame de Salzmann and eleven years later that of her son Michel de Salzmann.
Talks delivered by Lord Pentland at Esalen and on the campuses of American colleges and universities were delivered alike to veteran students and newcomers to the Work and printed in semi-limited editions. In print they seem somewhat abstract or at least abstracted from experience. Indeed, I reviewed three of these publications and summarized their contents for readers of this blog in 2008, where they remain archived for reading or reference.
This biography is a handsome volume published by Gurdjieff Studies Ltd. in England. The website is < www . gurdjieff . org. uk >. The book has an attractive dust jacket (designed by Linda Edmonds), card covers, matching coloured endsheets, and well-designed pages which measure 6 inches x 9.5 inches and which run from xx to 108. There are eighteen black-and-white illustrations. There is also a nominal index (i.e., one that is restricted to personal names, not places or references) and a bibliography best described as sketchy. I wish the pages had been stitched rather than “perfect bound,” i.e., glued, but there are headbands, and the pages once opened almost lie flat on their own. It is a nice edition to hold and to read.
Today, Eminent Victorians would be regarded as a hatchet-job, but for the fact that Strachey wrote well, researched deeply, and refused to moralize. Indeed, the composite biography appealed to the sceptical Bertrand Russell who read it while imprisoned for civil disobedience. In a letter he described the literary work in these words: “It is brilliant, delicious, exquisitely civilized.”
Do Lord Russell’s words describe the book at hand? I will answer that question but first here is another digression. The digression concerns the author James Moore. His entry in Wikipedia and his own detailed and informative website < www . jamesmoore . org . uk > are so interesting that I could write about the author at some length. Instead, I will write concisely and somewhat cursorily.
Moore, born in Cornwall in 1929, seems to be something of an autodidact, but one who worked with the Admiralty until retirement in 1980, who holds fellowships in at least two Royal Societies, and who is the author of four books of substance and many articles of importance which have appeared in serious journals and as entries in encyclopedias.
As for his Work experience, he studied with Henriette H. Lannes from 1957 to 1978, and thereafter with Henri Tracol and Maurice Desselle. He was closely associated with the Gurdjieff Society in London from 1981 to 1994 when, it seems, he was expelled, if that is the word to use, though “excommunicated” is the one that he himself prefers. (Query: Do Gurdjieffians “shun” like Mormons?) That might be the second-best thing that has ever happened to him, his induction into the Work being the first; the jury is still out on that. Anyway, he renewed himself as an independent scholar and presumably as an independent Gurdjieffian, his status to this day.
I have read his four books: Gurdjieff and Mansfield (1980), Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth (1991), Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered (2005), and now Eminent Gurdjieffians: Lord Pentland (2011). His chef d’oeuvre is the second of these books, a biography rivalled only by John Beekman Taylor’s Gurdjieff: A New Life (2009), a sturdy and substantial work. I am still divided on the merits of the third of these books, as it adopts the tone of the tabloid press in its whining and winging, though as a human document it is full of fascinating detail.
If anyone in the Work is in a position to write short biographies of Work personalities and their essences, it is James Moore. On an earlier occasion I referred to this biographer as a precisian, an uncommon proper noun that describes someone who is strict and precise in observing the rules, his own or others’. I suspect that he gives a lot of thought before writing down a word. He is as stylish and exacting as Flaubert, who, it is said, worried so much over his prose that he would spend a morning inserting a comma followed by an afternoon erasing it. Moore is a writer who has to be read closely, and watched.
Yet in these pages Moore writes, plangently, “This book is my literary swan-song.” If so, it is sad news. Earlier I quoted Bertrand Russell’s words about Lytton Strachey’s book: “brilliant, delicious, exquisitely civilized.” Do these words apply to Moore and this book? Yes and no is the short answer. The long answer follows.
Moore writes with a stylistic brilliance that is coruscating and hence sometimes blinding. His prose is delicious in the sense that the reader wants to consume more and more pages of it, though with full knowledge that some passages are going to be hard to digest. But is the work “exquisitely civilized”? The author is certainly a cultured man, but I would not immediately describe him as civilized, at least in terms of what he has written here. He is very hard on his subject and for these reasons one would have to read between the lines.
There is a telling anecdote about a beautiful but impressionable society lady who one day accepted a luncheon invitation from W.E. Gladstone. Asked about the experience, she replied, “I realize that I was in the presence of the most brilliant man in all of England.” The next day she lunched with Benjamin Disraeli. Asked how that lunch had gone, she replied, “I realize that I am the most brilliant woman in all of England.” Reading Moore’s prose I feel that Moore is the most brilliant writer in all of England.
He monopolizes his subject, but to demonstrate this I would have to lead the reader through the book page by page to review Lord Pentland’s life and that would take a great many pages (or “screens”). It is an interesting life that he led, but not a very convincing one, at least to the degree that Pentland was a late developer, and it begs the question whether he developed at all; that makes Moore’s task all the harder.
Medical historian Michael Bliss had the same problem as Moore when he wrote the now-standard biography of Sir William Osler, the clinician and Regius Professor of Medicine, who had no secrets, no scandals, and no enemies. That presents a problem. How does a biographer make decency attractive in its own right? Instead of pursuing this line of inquiry, I will make a few general points.
* Moore devotes no pages at all to Pentland’s talks and interviews, even those that were published in Exchanges Within. So the subject’s “take” on the Work is not discussed. Pentland presided over an interesting period in the evolution of the Work – what with the introduction of all of those “sittings” – but while they are mentioned, they are certainly not considered in any detail.
* Moore has hardly anything of an interpretive nature to say about the appeal of P.D. Ouspensky’s “system” to Pentland. There is no speculation as to what Mr. Gurdjieff saw in Pentland’s spirit, mind, or manner. Possibly what he saw in his “American lieutenant” was a respectable man with the ability to relate to men and women on all social levels, which it seems is what Pentland did do.
* Moore devotes no paragraphs at all to Pentland’s business interests, a point he himself makes, as if to exculpate himself. These details would be of some social and intellectual interest. His “war record” seems to be one of evasion rather than duty, but that is not conclusively shown.
* Moore devotes no sentences at all to interpreting the man’s psychology. I am not now referring to “the psychology of man’s possible evolution,” but to the dynamics of the man’s personality, his image of himself. For this reason the biography seems to me to be pre-Freudian: the subject is more a mannikin than a man in Moore’s hands.
* Moore seems uncomfortable dealing with the characteristics of the English class system, both its strengths and its weaknesses. Whenever possible he brings Gilbert Harding into the narrative. I found this interesting, but only because I have long been curious about this English broadcaster and polemicist (who spent some time making mischief in Toronto); Moore is always about to compare and contrast the two men whose lives seem to have been lived at cross-purposes.
* Moore might see himself as a social historian, offering brief histories of the decades. For instance, I learned that the year 1957 “was in some senses a funny year. Jack Kerouac published On the Road; Samuel Beckett’s Endgame was translated into Eskimo and staged in a Perspex igloo …. ” Fascinating tidbits, à la John Dos Passos, but hardly part of Pentland’s world. For a short book, it is long on potted history.
* Moore is a careful researcher. I spotted no errors of consequence; two inconsequential ones are the spelling of the New Brunswick port where Madame Ouspensky disembarked (it is Saint John, not St. John’s, New Brunswick); and the indecision as whether or not to hyphenate Rodney Collin-Smith’s name.
* Moore is good on the dissection of imagery. He offers a brilliant comparison of Pentland’s gaunt appearance with that of the elderly farmer in Grant Wood’s classic painting “American Gothic.” He also comments on the surprising photograph taken by Dushka Howarth which catches Pentland and Mr. Gurdjieff at lunch at a roadside café in 1949, the Baron gazing into the distance, the “teacher of dance” digging into the food before him.
* In dealing with that photograph, I believe Moore tips his hand when he describes Pentland in terms of his “depthless earnestness.” These two words might well be his final insight into the man and interpretation of his contribution to the development of the Work. It is an most revealing phrase.
Earlier I mentioned in passing that I had no occasion to meet Lord Pentland. In the introductory pages of this book, Moore mentions that he did meet this “eminent Gurdjieffian,” once, almost accidentally, long before the notion of writing the man’s biography occurred to him. After reading his book, I feel that had I had an occasion to meet Pentland, I too might – like Moore – sense the man’s “depthless earnestness.”
11 April 2011
Every once in a while I come upon a book that might be of interest to the subscribers to this blog, despite the fact that it may have no direct relationship with the Fourth Way. Here is one such book.
In its pages there appear no references at all to Gurdjieff or Ouspensky, and conspicuous by their absence are any references to noted commentators like Richard Dawkins, Lawrence M. Krauss, Sam Harris, or other members of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Even more surprising are the absences of references to the Jungian psychologist James Hillman and especially Henri Corbin, the Sufi-influenced French philosopher and champion of “the realm of the imaginal.” The book is really about the latter, though the author avoids the term “imaginal” which stands for Professor Corbin’s approach to intuitive sources of knowledge.
Even the title of the book is a little off-centre: American Cosmic. Cosmic what? That is for the reader to decide except for the fact that the subtitle adds some information: “UFOs, Religion, Technology.” For a book with that title and subtitle, the name of the publisher comes as a surprise: Oxford University Press. An academic press. This is certainly not an academic publication (at 269 pages) per se, though it does take the notion of formal learning quite seriously, here and there.
The author is D.W. (Diana Walsh) Pasulka, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and chair of its Department of Philosophy and Religion. According to the book’s dust-jacket blurb, “Her current research focuses on religious and supernatural belief and practice and its connections to digital technologies and environments.”
Her prose is highly readable and she tells a number of stories in this her first solo book (as distinct from a number of academic collections). The main story is how she began to find connections between descriptions of the lives and talents or “charisms” of those saints and near-saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church and the accounts of witness describing “the phenomenon,” a general reference to the emergence since the end of World War II of ufology. One “charism” of abiding interest is levitation, which was claimed by saints of the Church and these days is described by UFO experiencers. it seems saints and aliens do fly or float or flit.
The term “UFOs” is used throughout, with but one single reference that I spotted to the term “flying saucers,” which was in connection with Carl Jung’s book on the subject: Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. Jung wavered between insisting on the psychical nature of “the mandala in the sky” and the possibility of such forces “exteriorizing” and thus directly affecting human beings. There is no reference to science fiction per se, despite the fact that its Golden Age in the 1950s set the agenda for much of what followed that invented the present-day’s digital streaming culture. If Scientology was the religion of Science Fiction, and it was, then perhaps Ufology is the religion of the digital and streaming world, our time and place. Are these religions or merely the forms that the religious sense may assume?
In the last chapter Dr. Pasulka expresses her theme with some care: “I have made the case that belief in extraterrestrials and UFOs constitutes a new form of religion. Media and popular culture have successfully delivered a UFO mythos to audiences through television series, music and music videos, video games, cartoons, hoaxes, websites, and immersive and mixed reality environments. New research in digital-human interfaces reveals that it doesn’t matter what a person might consciously believe, as data delivered through screens shoots straight into memory, which then constructs models of events. On a personal level, many individuals now interpret their own traditional religions through the lense of the UFO hermeneutic.”
I would like to go on and quote the author on her perception that the “perceived contact with a nonhuman intelligent, divine being is simultaneously imagined and real.” She writes, “What one sees on a screen, if it conforms to certain criteria, is interpreted as real, even if it is not real and even if one knows it is not real. Screen images embed themselves in one’s brain and memories; they can determine how one views one’s past and even determine one’s future behaviours. This research has disturbing implications with respect to belief. What we see, we tend to believe.” But that would take up too much time and space, as it deserves a full-fledged review, not this short notice about the book’s appearance which can only allude to its contents and organization.
The author pays tribute to the very real Jacques Vallée (known to everyone who has enjoyed watching Close Encounters of the Third King, the movie that has the French-speaking scientist Lacomb played with great restraint by New Age director François Truffaut but modelled on fellow Frenchman Vallée). If there is one real-life scientist who has embraced the “UFO hypothesis,” here he is. He had a direct influence on the author and together the scientist and the professor visit interesting UFO sites (like the one in Roswell, New Mexico). He is credited with reviving the term “Invisible College,” first used in 17th century England to refer to an independent-minded group of progressive scientists who avoided the limelight, subsequently extended by Vallée for use in the 1970s to refer to unorthodox thinkers who sought and seek to explore extensions of the human mind.
There are even more references to “The Invisible Tyler D.” than to Vallée. The identity of Tyler D. is withheld, yet we are repeatedly told he is a scientist and an inventor of considerable consequence. I have no idea who he is supposed to be. We are told that he is an American who was born and raised a Baptist but that his experiences, shared with the author while researching in the Vatican Secret Archives – “Secret” in the sense of “Sacred” – lead in these pages to his decision to convert to Roman Catholicism.
Many other people mentioned in the travel sections – devoted to evocations of possible crash/landing sites in New Mexico and elsewhere and descriptions of the Vatican, etc. – seem overawed by “the phenomenon.” A good many of these serious and accomplished researchers seem to belong to the “Invisible College” of professionals in various disciplines who far from the glare of publicity are exploring the implications of “the phenomenon.” Experiencer Whitley Strieber is paid serious attention, alas, as well as researcher Jeffrey J. Kripal, who deserves it.
America Cosmic is a curious book, highly readable, question-begging, good natured, adventurous physically and psychologically if not psychically, full of what in ufological circles used to be described as “high strangeness.” Yet it poses questions that beg to be asked by the general reader. “Can such things be?” “Who indeed is Tyler D.?”“Do aliens exist physically as well as psychologically?” “Is religion anything more than a digital hallucination, and is that a good thing or a bad thing?” “Is ‘the phenomenon’ a substitute for religion or its apotheosis in our day?” “Is the author a member of the Invisible College?” “Are you a member of the Invisible College?”
19 Sept. 2019