Issue 6 — January 2019

The Nature of These Reviews
“A Sense of Wonder When I Do Not Know”
“Gurdjieff, Astrology & ‘Beelzebub’s Tales’”

The Nature of These Reviews

These reviews are meant to be descriptions and appreciations of books of current or continuing interest, both new publications and relevant books from the past. There is an old saying that goes like this: “Every book is a new book until you have read it.”

These reviews are mean to convey the enthusiasm that the reviewer feels for books in general, for books about the Work, and for books that increase the quality, the depth, and the extent of one’s response to what has been called “first things.” The books selected for review for these blogs are concerned with the quality of one’s response to everyday life.

That is the intent of these reviews. What the reviews are not is criticism or evaluation, except in the most general way possible. Information has a value all its own. One should be familiar with the books in the field of one’s interest. Books convey the experiences of other people and these are conveyed to their readers, and this is what the reviewer hopes to capture and convey.

The literature of the Fourth Way is a rich one, rich in familiar and sometimes famous names, but rich also in talent, ability, insight, and achievement. The century-long history of the Work makes for fascinating reading. The reviewer hopes that each book that is reviewed here will offer the reader a sense of the presence of its author.

26 Nov. 2018

“A Sense of Wonder When I Do Not Know”

Some books are so sizeable that they occupy considerable space and dominate the horizon. In Search of the Miraculous and The Harmonious Circle are two such tomes and they seem to both identify and define the subjects that they discuss. I sometimes think that P.D. Ouspensky’s Search has introduced more people to the Work than any other single publications including those of G.I. Gurdjieff himself. It certainly “turned me on” to the Work at an impressionable age.

For students of the Work, James Webb’s Circle has traced the evolution of the enterprise over the last century from St. Petersburg and Moscow to Paris and London, from New York and Caracas, from Toronto to perhaps Timbuktu, as well as other capitals of the Western world. Its progress is truly an international story. These are bulky books. It is only with difficulty that they may be summarized, but their presence cannot be ignored. They “go without saying,” so to speak.

It is the smaller, the shorter, the more personal, the more subjective, and the more intense books that are most often lost in the shuffle. These are works of quality, meant for discerning readers who are already familiar with the scope and direction of the Work, and I am only happy to draw attention to a few of them, as best I can, when I am able to recognize them for what they are, which is not what always happens!

All of this by way of introducing a book with an unusual title: A Sense of Wonder When I Do Not Know. It is very personal text. It is a translation into English of the Spanish text No Saber es Formidable! written by Nathalie de Salzmann de Etievan. On the copyright page it says it was “translated from the Spanish by members of the London Gurdjieff Foundation.” It was published 2008 in Caracas by A.C. Editorial Ganesha in its series “The Paracotos Collection,” which includes titles by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky as well as others by Thomas de Hartmann, C.S. Nott, A.R. Orage, Ravi Ravindra, Lizelle Reymond, William Segal, Henri Tracol, Jean Vaysse, and René Zuber. Good company!

By the way, Paracotos is the name of a small town in the large State of Miranda which embraces districts of the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Google does not state that the noun or place-name has any special significance in Spanish or any other language because the entry is deemed a “stub” (like a ticket stub, too short to be informative). The edition is a modest-looking paperback printed on the thin, off-white paper associated with books published in countries like India.

Enough about the physical book (which is 210 pages long) and now some details about Nathalie de Salzmann de Etievan. The author was born in Tbilsi, Georgia, in 1919; she died in San Antonio de los Altos, Venezuela, in 2007. She was educated in Switzerland and France and “took up residence” (as the back-cover copy explains) in Venezuela in 1950. It continues, amusingly, as follows: “Translator, airline pilot, journalist, painter of renowned worth in international exhibitions, she was fundamentally an educator.”

 

Mrs. de Salzmann is the founder of Colegio Los Hipocampitos, an elementary school in Carrizal, Miranda, and of similar schools located elsewhere, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Ecuador. The schools give expression to her “Educational Model” and all that the present author knows about this model may be gleaned from a subtitled interview with her that appeared on Venezuelian television and continues to appear on Google, along with still photographs of her which give the impression of a sharp-eyed and well-spoken women, like her mother Jeanne de Salzmann, generally known in the Work as “Madame.” As well, Mrs. de Salzmann is the mother of Anne-Marie Grant who is associated with the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City and is highly prized as one of the world’s leading exponents of the Movements.

Now back to the text of No Saber es Formidable! The book is available in Spanish at $US12.00 plus postage through the online catalogue of Editorial Ganesha. English-language copies are available through the Advanced Book Exchange and Amazon in the $25.00 to $50.00 range. The contents of the book are as follows: a Foreword, a Letter to the Reader, then twelve chapters, plus a short section called Conclusions.

The Foreword was contributed by Dick Temple who is identified as a member of “the translation team.” It begins enigmatically: “The encounter with Señora Nathalie was always a challenge. One saw that she lived on another level and that her life was marvelously rich and varied. This challenged one to consider one’s own life.” Temple goes on to say, “She often reminded us that she had been brought up by the great G.I. Gurdjieff at the Prieuré in Fontainebleau where her parents Alexandre and Jeanne de Salzmann had taken her when she was two.”

Temple goes on to say that as a young adult she attended Gurdjieff’s groups in Paris. “Such an upbringing, combined with her own native intelligence and her great force of character, produced a personage worthy of the ‘remarkable men’ about whom Gurdjieff himself has written.”

She is described as a person who is surrounded by a great number of people, family, students, etc. “On a typical day breakfast might consist of the permanent household of, say, eight young people plus visitors, often from faraway places, who stayed for a few days. For lunch the number could be around fifteen or more. Nathalie was always engaged in large-scale projects involving delegations of people needing discussion or advice.”

Temple continues, “Conversations – in Spanish, French, English and even, occasionally, Russian – could range freely over the widest variety of serious or humorous topics until the moment when the general attention would focus on Nathalie herself as she held forth on subjects that deeply concerned her. One of these was the education of children.”

As Temple describes it, she administered the foundations that were dedicated to Gurdjieff’s teaching in a number of the principal cities of South America. “This was a life task equal to her immense energy.” If that was not enough, she founded schools for children from kindergarten to university entrance in Caracas (Venezuela), Cali (Colombia), Lima (Peru), Quito (Ecuador), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), and Santiago de Chile. “The curriculum of her system was based on ideas hinted at in his writings. Some of these ideas are set out specifically in the pages of this book.”

I wonder if the schools overseen by Nathalie have much in common with the Waldorf schools which were inspired by the Anthroposophical theories and practices of Rudolf Steiner. The reader will have to decide, based on Nathalie’s “Educational Model,” which emerges in the twelve chapters of her book. Temple finds that Nathalie’s distinguishing feature or perhaps chief characteristic is the special gift of insight that she has into what he calls the “inner welfare” of young people. Apparently her “penetrating gaze” turned nay-sayers into yea-sayers. She does indeed sound like a remarkable woman, teacher, and educator.

There are close to 100,000 words in Chapters 1 through 12, and while these are fluently translated, the author’s arguments do read like college lectures, though not in the sense that they are bookish, but in the sense that they are well organized and well argued for oral delivery at conferences. “Letter to the Reader” expresses the aim of the author and the way the author expresses her aim.

Aim: “The teaching awoke in me a deep interest in searching for a way to educate that would help awaken a child’s conscience and develop his feeling.” Way: “I want to underscore at this point that my character is whole and has a marked tendency toward being categorical.” That last word is le mot juste which, according to Google Translate, is solo palabra in Spanish.

The argument of Chapter I: The Current State of Affairs is that the world today knows no limits and is pervaded by negativity and violence. Permissiveness and materialism make it difficult for parents to raise their children and for teachers to educate them. Youngsters face great difficulties. The author quotes Simón Bolivar who said, “Talent without integrity is a scourge,” and then she concludes: “Everything in the child’s situation stems from a single basic lack: the deep need for love.”

Chapter II: What Does It Mean to Educate? The author answers this question in the most direct way possible: “Education must be a process through which an attempt is made to develop the mind, the feelings and the body in an integral and balanced way.” To educate is to teach and the child needs to be taught. “Therefore, not to know is wonderful because it gives the possibility to learn.”

The theme of Chapter III: Basic Principles for a New Education may be summarized in the words “the love of effort.” She has an interesting turn of phrase: “When we persevere – and this usually means we succeed – already we love making this effort and, consequently, we can teach another to do the same.” Then there is her interesting insight: “The development of attention requires training that demands that the child leaves his automatism to one side.” The teacher inspires the student as the teacher was herself inspired.

“A well-rounded Education” is the title of Chapter IV. The simplest expression of the subject of this chapter is its opening sentences: “As we have already said, all human beings are made up of three basic elements: mind, body and feelings. A well-rounded education addresses each of these three parts in a balanced way.” Here are two telling phrases: “the natural tempo of the child,” “the feelings suffer from neglect.” The author explains, “When we start to work with our positive feelings, at first we are surprised to find that they are small, but there are many of them, they are precious and they can grow.” “In order to educate the feelings of a child we must touch him in some way. To touch him is to touch his heart.” “The subject must never be more important than the child.”

Chapter V: Formation of Conscience. The author writes, “Man is not born with a fully formed conscience but he has the beginning of one and his most important responsibility is to develop this conscience or soul.” She continues, “True conscience is capable of feeling and also of awareness that everything bad for it is objectively bad and everything good for its growth is objectively good.” The author writes about the role of suffering in the development of conscience and the role of character. “To be able to bear physical pain is a good thing because it trains us to face any weakness and to overcome it.”

Sex is the title of Chapter VI. The author’s aphorism is very apt: “Sex is natural, but we are not natural about sex.” She notes, “The big difference between a coldly scientific explanation of sex, and one given lovingly, is that the first makes the child close up whereas, with the second, he can be open enough to understand it through his feelings.” “In Man there are two impulses: one is towards inner change in order to develop, while the other guarantees the reproduction of the species. Sex serves the latter and nature ensures this by thrusting men towards women.” “What do we usually do when we find that children are interested in sex? We almost always disapprove.”

Some pages are given over to the subject of homosexuality. “One way of attracting a young person to the opposite sex is to convince him that he can be.” Masturbation is dealt with: “Just as chewing gum in the classroom is not allowed, so masturbation is also forbidden – we should give it the same importance. We should not pretend not to notice. We must say no.”

The Teacher is the subtitle of Chapter VII. The author’s approach to teachers and teaching is summarized in the words of the Tai Chi Chuan master who said, “Being a teacher means that you have experienced what you teach before the student has.” The author notes, “There are two ways of approaching a child: either from afar or close to. The former is based on external respect and authority. The near approach, which is the one we should use, is based on love, understanding and tenderness. But it is not good to use both approaches at the same time because that makes the child insecure.”

One of the few times the author refers to a recognized pedagogue is when she quotes Dr. Maria Montessori’s phrase about relaxing and recuperating energy: “gathering ourselves internally.” Nathalie notes, “She instructed her teachers to gather themselves internally before taking any action, and also before entering the classroom.” Various characteristics of teachers are discussed, including self-knowledge and firmness.

Chapter VIII: How to Apply These New Ideas on Education. This chapter discusses the roles played by new ideas, convictions, beliefs, discipline, respect, and punishment (“A punishment must teach something.”). Perhaps the author is the only teacher to introduce the Stop exercise in the classroom: “I stop everything: my thoughts, my emotions, my physical agitation. It is a total ‘stop’ – as if I do not even breathe! Then I relax and focus my attention on the problem at hand.” She justifies this by adding, “To stop means to look inside.” This leads to the teacher’s resolve to make special efforts more often. “The element of surprise renews us.”

“The Need for Open Communications” is the title of Chapter IX. This chapter is mainly about the relationship between the parents and the teacher, based on the following truisms: “The only way to change things is to change them within ourselves.” “Only when we understand ourselves – will we understand the children.”

Chapter X has the longest title of all the chapters. It runs “Practical Actions that Could Be Taken to Deal with Some of the Problems Inherent in Education.” The author offers thoughts on school-age children and problems (and possibilities) presented by television, drugs, noise, violence, violent children, whims, vanity, envy, destructive behaviour, stealing, etc., all of which are followed by sections titled “Practical Actions.” Some of the responses that are possible are also surprising, like the response to violence (“If a boy hits a girl, then all the girls should go and kiss him.”).

Under the rubric “Difficult Children” are ways of thinking about and behaving in their presence: children who constantly seek affection, children who do not love themselves, children who are cut off from their feelings, distracted children, passive and withdrawn children, untidy children, children who imitate others, children who insult others, children who tell tales on others, swearing, cruelty to animals, bad table manners, selfishness, cry-babies, irresponsibility, insecurity, making fun of others. Lack of attention in every young children is a subject given special consideration. There are no fewer than sixty-four specific recommendations for helping these children, including “Ignore them when they are waiting for us to react.”

The brunt of Chapter XI: Young People is how to maintain one’s self control and position as a teacher when adolescents act out of turn. “We must not forget that there is nothing personal in their aggression; it is merely a reaction to their inner state, which expresses itself differently in each of them.” The author marvels at all the pent-up energy that is expressed. “Who is standing in front of these uneducated young people with all this energy? We are! Who are we! We are adults with good intentions who sometimes make an effort and sometimes do not – we are not always balanced.”

The author shares her considerable insights into the motivations and actions of students and how teachers should and should not react to them. This is the fruit of practical experience. It is transferable to students in classrooms in North America today, except for the fact that so many of today’s students are deemed “disturbed” and are certainly medicated.

Chapter XII: Methods to Support Education. Artistic activities including crafts are the bridges between the rough and ready world around us and the classrooms and workshops which should be as unalike that as possible. Educational games are also useful in the classroom, though the author does not once mention video games. “If we wish them to enjoy the experience of learning, then we must not be boring. There is nothing more interesting than learning!” This sounds a little like whistling in the dark, yet the statement is true and should be the educator’s mantra.

The author is ever-inventive and shares some of the techniques that she has used to deal with classes of demanding students. Included are thirty-eight “games for the instincts,” forty-two “games for the feelings,” fifty-six “games for the mind,” and eighteen “games for the body.” (Here is a game for the feelings: “Ask each child in turn to share with the class the greatest truth he knows.” Here is a game for the mind: “Ask the class to invent the biggest but most implausible lies they can think up.”) There are 154 “games” in all. I am tempted to try some of these Orage-like exercises myself!

That brings us to the section called “Conclusions,” which consists of four pages in which the author reviews some of the reasons why today’s children, while certainly schooled, are neither educated nor trained in their classrooms. Home and school are far apart in modern society. “If we believe in the existence of the soul, we can feel a respect towards others since we recognize in them the possibility of a level above the ordinary. Not believing in the soul causes parents and teachers to approach the child without respect and the child, in turn, responds to them with the same lack of respect.” The child’s “internal vacuum” is then filled with needs associated with drugs, alcohol, sex, etc.

Nathalie argues for what is in effect a Home and School Club – “an honest collaboration between parents and teachers: open exchanges and discussions if these are desired.” How to accomplish this? “One way of achieving this is for each parent to go to the school for one day as an assistant to the teacher.” With a “Parents Group,” the parent sees first-hand and up-close what the situation is like each day, and the children, not yet students, see their parents in another light as well.

The advice Nathalie offers parents is surprisingly straight-forward, although at times it may sound somewhat naive. There is hardly anything about tests, evaluations, and examinations; perhaps these are unnecessary. There is nothing about socialization, one of the functions of schools in North America. “Think and reflect deeply, try sincerely to see how the world is in order to bring light and hope to your children. You must go beyond your own self-centred habits and understand that this comfortable way of living leads nowhere, either for you or for your children. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work!” Nathalie calls this having faith … “not blind faith but faith based on facts.”

To anyone reading her “Conclusions,” it becomes apparent that innumerable difficulties stand in the way of realizing, in societies in the Western World these days, the niceties of “Parents Groups” and the abandonment of “self-centred habits.” Her prescription for the education of school-age children involves the co-operation and interaction of educational authorities and of teachers and of parents and of young boys and girls, so it seems that her “Educational Model” would result in a “model education” which, alas, would ideally be – and presumably would only be – realized in “schools” like those that are described in the pages of the books of P.D. Ouspensky. These are “schools” that are devoted to “traditional studies.”

29 Nov. 2018

 

Gurdjieff, Astrology & ”Beelzebub’s Tales”

There is no Spoiler Alert in this review; instead, there is a Full Disclosure Notice and it runs like this. I know and admire Sophia Wellbeloved, the author of Gurdjieff, Astrology & Beelzebub’s Tales. On this blogsite last month, I gave a favourable review to the author’s other important book, the one called Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts. For about a dozen years I reviewed a whole raft of new titles on her Cambridge-based blogsite devoted to Fourth Way publications. The site has been closed for some time but its contents are indexed by Google and my reviews and outstanding ones written by Joseph Azize are accessible today at < gurdjieffbooks.wordpress.com/ >. Enough about this disclosure. Now a paragraph about the author.

Dr. Sophia Wellbeloved is a Dublin-born artist and scholar of Western esotericism and co-founder with Andrew James Brown in 2006 of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Western Esotericism, a transdisciplinary organization. In the words of Wikipedia, “She has established a reputation as one of the relatively few academically qualified commentators on Gurdjieff and his teaching who is not a member of any Gurdjieff group or foundation. This often lends her writing on Gurdjieff an independent flavour.”

She is a trained artist, an accomplished poet, and a talented composer. Her doctorate is the result of her studies at King’s College London in 1996-99. Her studies resulted in the book that will be reviewed here. “She has identified her tutors and influences as Cecil Collins, 1960-61; Henriette Lannes, Maurice Deselle, Henri Tracol, and others in the Gurdjieff Society, London, 1962-75; the Rev. Donald Reeves and the Anglican community at St. James Church, Piccadilly, 1984-2004.”

Some years ago, my wife Ruth and I met with Sophia over a memorable luncheon in London. Over the decades we have engaged in considerable email correspondence. The book of hers that is under review here has been praised by Paul Beekman Taylor, no mean scholar himself: “With this work, Gurdjieff criticism comes of age.” Despite that praise and the fact that the book went through two editions, it has yet to receive its fair share of reviews and scholarly notice. I will try to do justice to this book which may justifiably be described as one that is often overlooked.

The words of Dr. Taylor that are quoted above continue with these thoughts: “Above all, Wellbeloved provides for the first time a structure of Gurdjieff’s Tales according to astrological principles. This will enable a fresh reading of Gurdjieff’s principle work which is generally neglected in academic studies of the 20th Century religious and philosophical movements.”

Now I am the last person to do justice to Dr. Wellbeloved’s study, so here is the second of the Full Disclosure Notices. I am no student of the ancient discipline of astrology and I have yet to read Beelzebub’s Tales three times, as admonished by its author … once for the intellect, once for the emotions, and once for the body. Yet I am a close reader of texts and a person with some familiarity with Work concepts who is content to describe and inform rather than to appraise or criticize.

Before I begin, allow me to introduce the third and last Full Disclosure Notice. I am no astrologer and have no particular ideas about or insights into this many-sided field of study – this mine-field of study, I might add – so this review could be an instance of “the blind leading the blind” across “a no-man’s land.” So to catch up on academic thought on the subject of astrology, I turned my attention to a new publication by James E. Alcock who is a Professor of Psychology at York University in Toronto, a member of the executive council of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and a long-time member of the editorial Board of its influential publication Skeptical Inquirer.

With great clarity, Dr. Alcock offers a critical appraisal of astrology in his 638-page tome titled Belief: What it Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2018). In this well-organized anatomy of popular beliefs, he writes as follows: “The belief that the heavenly bodies influence our personalities and our destinies is an ancient one that has taken root in many cultures.” He notes its origins in the teachings of Pythagoras of Ancient Greece. “Astrology was born conjoined with astronomy and survived in separation from its illustrious twin during the scientific revolution.”

He finds that “it has flourished as a method of divination” and he recalls the findings of a Harris Poll conducted in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom in 2009 that noted that twenty-five percent of respondents “agreed that astrology, or the position of the stars and planets, can affect people’s lives.” He concludes: “Indeed, astrology is so well-established that most people, even those who give no credence to astrology itself, know their astrological sign.”

He accounts for the popularity of astrology and horoscopes today by reference to a number of factors, including the following influences which he discusses in some detail: historical and social support, expectation, pseudo-compatibility with natural science, complexity, illusory personal validation, selective memory, self-fulfilling prophecy, and freedom from obligations. He concludes, “Astrology operates in a value-free context, without any obligations. Astrology fills needs. Even though it makes no sense from the scientific point of view, it helps satisfy both the desire to reduce uncertainty about the future and the quest for self-understanding.”

Dr. Alcock is a social scientist with no apparent interest in the symbolism of astrology. He sees it as a system of divination and prediction, not at all as a means of meditation on the nature of man and the heavens. He pays no mind to another psychologist, Carl Jung, who held that “astrology represents the summation of all the psychological knowledge of antiquity.” To do that, astrology must be a discipline, if not a science, and a way of viewing man and creation that attempts to make sense of heavenly and human influences. So it presumably have its uses today.

The question of the usefulness of the structure of astrology has been on the mind of Dr. Wellbeloved, and this is apparent after reading the 260 pages of Gurdjieff, Astrology & Beelzebub’s Tales. The copy that I have at hand is the Revised Second Edition published by Solar Bound Press of New Paltz, New York. The first edition was published in 2001 by Abintra Books, Aurora, Oregon. Both editions are quite handsome and the second one is handsomely designed by its publisher David Perry.

The text itself is a revisal of the author’s doctoral dissertation in the Theology and Religious Studies Department of King’s College London. Or, as she expresses it, “This thesis presents an analysis of the narrative subject matter of Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson (the Tales) in terms of astrological correspondences.” It appears in two parts. Part One examines the events of “Gurdjieff’s life/myth,” a useful term, with respect to the cultural and historical contents of the day, and these are related to the forms he gave his teachings and his “literary strategies,” another useful term. Part Two consists of an analysis of Tales, aka All and Everything: Ten Books, in Three Series, of Which This Is the First Series (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950). This is Gurdjieff’s magnum opus. The chapters of the relevant books are considered as they correspond to the twelve signs of the zodiac.

Astrological references and influences are not only apparent in Tales, they comprise the principle of organization of Gurdjieff’s ambitious but generally baffling work. Dr. Wellbeloved’s book is about 150,000 words in length. I would hate to have to count all the words in Tales (though my rough estimate is 285,000 words). How to proceed amid the verbiage and diagrams?

For one, read the very intelligent Foreword to the book contributed by Wallace Martin, Professor of English at the University of Toledo in Ohio, an authority on A.R. Orage, who suggests that Tales does have the literary form of an “anatomy,” a work that includes everything, borrowing Northrop Frye’s use of the term. It also has the narrative shape of the “epic,” like Gilgamesh, which is qualified by the addition of the words “in a larger sense.” It is useful to remember that the literary editor Orage had a strong hand in revising Gurdjieff’s work over two decades.

Tales is also a work of imaginative prophecy, which Professor Martin does not mention, though the work “predicts the present,” i.e., the ever-present. As well, it is a literary work that has been influenced by folk tales and science fiction which H.G. Wells called “the literature of anticipation.” Tales was not the only such literary composition to be written (or constructed) in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, for this was the period of Modernism and experimentation that saw, for instance, the publication of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake which envisages the life and death of all men in one man. Finally, Martin reminds the reader of Orage’s remark that Tales itself is an “illuminating book … impossible to understand.”

A likely key to Wellbeloved’s study which relates astrology and Tales is Figure 21 which lists the twelve Zodiacal Signs with the chapters of Tales and then with the Four Elements. For instance, Aries is dealt with in Chapters 1-4 and linked with the element of Fire. Another instance is Pisces, Chapters 45-8, and the element of Water. “The table … also shows that if the zodiacal structure is taken to be one of the ways Gurdjieff structures the Tales, then he has concentrated most of his writing in or on the last four signs, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces. These four signs occupy 640 pages while the other eight signs occupy 478.”

Gurdjieff was not alone in using such linkages; Ulysses and Finnegans Wake draw on similar organizational principles, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer not given to cosmic considerations, draws on innumerable lunar influences and references in his famous short story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” Gurdjieff is given to such considerations, and on the page opposite Figure 21, Wellbeloved notes, “The Tales is divided into three books, and has forty-eight chapters; this is a significant number within Gurdjieff’s teaching. Forty-eight is the number of laws man is subject to on Earth … Thus the number of chapters in the Tales may have some numerological symbolic significance.”

A not-obvious feature of Wellbeloved’s book is the inclusion of a remarkable Introduction which offers a distillation of Gurdjieff’s “life, myth and teaching” by way of “explaining” (although that may not be the ideal word to use) the author’s background, the Turkic oral tradition, travels, the study of hypnotism, the Laws of Three and Seven, the Ray of Creation, the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, the so-called oral tradition, Gurdjieff’s mode of writing.

This leads her to a thorough consideration of what she calls “Gurdjieff’s Cosmological Teaching,” the backbone of which is the Laws of Three and Seven, and then “the Numbers Three and Four in Relation to Twelve and Seven,” and other relationships. Along the way she glances at “Theosophical Astrology” with special reference to Alan Leo, Alice A. Bailey, Robert Assagiolo and Rudolf Steiner.

Gurdjieff’s own views of astrology are gleaned from the writings of Ouspensky and other commentators over the years. Basically he held that only the essence and not the personality of man is influenced by the planetary bodies. “The essence is totally under the control of planetary influences and these influences represent the fate or destiny of the essence.” So at the end of this section, Wellbeloved writes, “A zodiacal structure for the Tales would offer Gurdjieff several benefits: a form which is an embodiment of his cosmological laws, and an interpretative tradition, astrology, which encourages multivalence.”

“There are many systems of astrological interpretation from the past which might be applied to the Tales and future changes in astrological interpretation would allow new interpretations to be made. Thus the text will continue to be read anew.” This section alone generates four, double-columned pages of footnotes and source notes. Thus traditional astrology offered Gurdjieff a ready-made structure for his teachings, much more so, one might add, than the science-fiction story he began to dictate to his secretary before he scrapped it in favour of his accounts of Beelzebub’s visits to Earth.

Here is an indication of the annotations of the chapters, using Chapter XXV: “The Very Saintly Ashiata Shiemash, Sent from Above to the Earth” as an instance. The “Summary of the Narrative” begins, “Ashiata was a Messenger from above sent to help men overcome the results of the implanting of the organ Kundabuffer. He was the only Messenger from Above who succeeded in his holy labours.” Two paragraphs continue the summary. “Correspondences in Libra” are “with a positive cardinal mode, a positive air element and a positive planet Venus.”

“Air Element” looks at the transmission of information “in correspondence to the air element of Libra.” Legominisms are the means employed, along with initiation, stories, lectures, and fictions “which Lucifer could not invent.” Here is an interesting aside: “Scheherazade who is the personification of a transmitter of tales is mentioned in the punning reference “tail-and-mane-and-food-for Scheherazade.”

The duality of Libra is considered in light of the two meanings of the word “initiate,” positive and negative. “As morning and evening star, Venus shares with Mercury the double qualities of ascent and descent of connecting above and below, the light and dark.” Various aspects of the Greek goddess of life, Aphrodite, in terms of the planet Venus. This informs the name OUR OMNI-LOVING COMMON FATHER ENDLESSNESS.

“Questions Raised” examines the fact that Lucifer is one of the names given to the planet Venus, and why. Stories such as these “contain truth that anyone can recognize, even if it is not literal truth.” What we have here is what used to be called “close reading” or in French explication de texte. The Plimsoll level of information is very high indeed. It is hard to imagine that anyone could read Tales – even three times – without having ready access to information of this sort. Tales must be the most diabolically learned of sacred-seeming texts.

Like the tree decorated for Christmas, the boughs here offer instances of humour, paradox, metaphor, symbolism, contradictions, information, challenges, and even “Beelzebub’s Karatasian Vocabulary.” There are nine circles of Dante’s Hell and there are nine solar planets and some other heavenly bodies, with their themes and patterns, including the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Mars, Saturn, Venus, Neptune, Jupiter, Uranus, and Pluto. Add to those the “planets beyond the Solar System” and you may include Beelzebub’s home planet Karatas and the planets of Purgatory, Desagroanaskrad and Deskaldino – “among others,” Wellbeloved wryly adds.

In a sketchy way I have drawn attention to some of the plums in the pudding to suggest that Gurdjieff and Wellbeloved have made imaginative use of the imagery offered by traditional astrology and its body of information if not its knowledge. That concludes Part One, roughly one-third of the text.

Part Two, the other two-thirds, displays the immense factual knowledge that is available to the reader thanks to Gurdjieff and Orage – and, for the purposes of this review, thanks also to Dr. Wellbeloved, who writes, “In these chapters the definition of each sign is established by narrative themes in correspondence with the element of the sign, the ruling planet and in some cases the planet in exaltation or detriment of the sign. The mode of each sign is included in the list of its factors but is not taken into account separately in the analysis.”

In these chapters are the head and the heart and the body of Gurdjieff’s book and also of Wellbeloved’s book. It is possible to see what she highlights as a commentary on Tales and an insightful and careful one at that. Gurdjieff’s chapters are examined as “sun influenced,” “lunar influenced” and “solar influenced.” To these are added “Mercurial influenced chapters” followed by summaries and conclusions. Helpful are the pages devoted to “Mercurial influences” on the Four Elements. A simple comparison is to Fitzgerald’s lunar-obsessed story, mentioned earlier.

In Chapter Eight, titled “Conclusions,” Wellbeloved summarizes her thesis: “The above analysis of the text in terms of astrological correspondences demonstrates that the Tales is zodaically structured and that this structure provides for a continuing exploration of Gurdjieff’s text, through astrological interpretation in terms of past, present and future expressions of astrology, and also by comparison with other zodiacally and numerologically structured texts. The Tales has been shown to be a complex and highly ordered text and as such would repay further academic attention from scholars in fields of textual analysis in the traditions of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, as well as in the fields of psychology, literature and the occult.”

Should this not be ambitious enough, Wellbeloved continues, “If the reader abandons an attempt to arrive at a literal understanding, he may come to value the process of reading more than product, the experience of attentive reading more for the decoding of a specific secret or esoteric meaning. He may take Gurdjieff’s text as an impetus and, in Work terms, change the level of his being which will enable him to understand the text in a new way.”

It could be argued that she has revealed Tales to be not a work of modernism, but a composition of postmodernist origin, perhaps the first such work with a religious or at least a sacred intent. One need not come to any conclusions about these matters – how postmodern that statement is! – but there is much to be gained by such speculation based on Wellbeloved’s perceptions.

“Conclusion” is followed by three appendices devoted to (1) The life and work of Gurdjieff, (2) Astrological terms and their meanings, (3) “The Way of the Obyvatel” (Russian for a generally good person who lives in accord with his conscience). “A Selected Bibliography” follows with clear definitions of the terms used in the body of the book and in the appendices and commentaries.

My advice to future readers of Gurdjieff, Astrology & Beelzebub’s Tales is to begin close to the end: open the book at page 257 and continue to page 260 where a number of non-astrological views of the Tales are suggested, notably the insights and interpretations suggested by Orage. Wellbeloved describes Orage’s approach to “subvert a readerly criticism and evaluation” but finds his commentaries “almost as ‘befuddling’ as the Tales themselves.”

“Befuddling” is an apt description of the entire adventure – the authorship of Tales, the interpretation via principles of astrology, and the extensive commentary on this “irritatingly difficult text whose vocabulary and structure deliberately obscured sense” (to quote Paul Beekman Taylor). Yet there is hardly a page of Tales that does not yield its obscurities to the author’s search for meaning. I must add that Sophia Wellbeloved has argued her case for the astrological alignment of the text with great energy and insight, with benefit for all serious readers, and probably once and for all.

10 Dec. 2018