Introduction to the Gurdjieff Work
“The Song of the Morrow” with R.L. Stevenson and P.D. Ouspensky
Introduction to the Gurdjieff Work
Long have I wondered why it is that there is no book that is better than P.D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous to use to introduce curious people and would-be newcomers to the principles of the Work. In recent years I have begun to wonder if even this tome, first published in 1949, has begun to lose its luster and its sympathetic magic in this regard.
At 400 pages it is a long book, a difficult text to read at times, especially when it leaves behind its narrative of life in Russia and the Caucasus during the Revolution to explicate the Law of Three and the Octaves, etc. It was a long time in the making and it remains to this day an amazing publication, but are there simpler, shorter, and more straight-forward publications that one might recommend to neophytes?
At times I feel the ideal introduction to the Work is a short work, one that is less immersed in mysticism and the occult, I am referring to Ouspensky’s classic titled The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution. It is a work of only 114 pages and it was first published in 1954. It consists of five of Ouspensky’s lectures. It was prepared with oral presentation in mind, so it is a work of precision and economy of expression. Its contents are easily digested in an evening or two, at least on the basic level.
Not widely known is that there is also a lesser-known companion volume that is titled The Cosmology of Man’s Possible Evolution. It consists of six lectures, 111 pages in all, and it was released in 1989. Together these two volumes, which were published posthumously, as Ouspensky had died in 1948, cover the psychology and the cosmology of the Fourth Way, and they do it in an agreeable way as well.
For years I recommended these two books to newcomers and over the years I received but one complaint, and that was from a woman long associated with the Work. Her complaint was that the first book makes light of the Theory of Evolution and that such a dismissal these days is hard to take (except perhaps for Islamists and Christian Fundamentalists). She is right. It is hard to take. Offhand I would say that the majority of the books of a traditionalist nature find it necessary to debunk evolutionary thinking.
Even books as popular as those written by the traditionalist philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr are part of this project. I am referring to the very influential, Iranian-born professor emeritus of Islamic studies at George Washington University. He is the author of many books and also the father of Vali Nasr, Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a Senior Fellow in foreign policy at Brookings Institution.
This information comes from the Wikipedia entry on Professor Nasr, Jr. According to The Economist, he is as “a leading world authority on Shia Islam,” an honour that he presumably shares with his distinguished father. Darwin and Dawkins are presumably left behind among the shades and shadows.
In light of all of these considerations, is there a publication that could be recommended to an interested party with no knowledge and presumably little prior interest in seeking out such knowledge and practice? Obviously I have a suggestion to make in this regard – a rabbit to pull out of a hat, so to speak – or I would not pose such an innocuous question in the first place.
The book that I recommend is certainly a short one. It is called Introduction to the Gurdjieff Work and it was published in 2009 by Morning Light Press, Sandpoint, Idaho. It was written by Jacob Needleman, an American philosopher, author, and religious scholar. He was educated at Harvard University, Yale University, and the University of Freiburg, Germany. He is or has been a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and is said to have popularized the term “new religious movements.”
I am an admirer of various of his books, including The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work (2008), a collection of essays written by noted scholars and practitioners reprinted from the pages of Parabola. It was also published by Morning Light Press. Two of his books that I have yet to read bear great titles: Why Can’t We Be Good? (2008) and What is God? (2009). Good questions! Needleman is an incisive writer with a wide range of reference at his disposal.
Here I am going to recycle my own words from a review article that I wrote some years ago about Professor Needleman’s writings. Let me describe the little book titled Introduction to the Gurdjieff Work. It measures four inches wide by five inches high and in all is merely 62 pages long. So it is a gift book, the kind of miniature publications like those displayed beside cash registers in book stores.
The text consists of Needleman’s necessarily brief essay on the Work along with a useful, annotated bibliography that lists books, music, and the DVD of a feature-length film. (Yes, the film is Peter Brooks’s Meetings with Remarkable Men.) There is nothing remarkable in itself about Needleman’s essay, though it is written with clarity and concision and it focuses on the pivotal role of conscience in the life of modern man. It downplays what has been called the psychology and the cosmology and the esoteric and the traditionalist aspects of the Work. It is a conscientious introduction to the practice of the Work today.
The appearance of the essay in this form is an instance of how Needleman recycles his material because the essay is based on two earlier essays of his, one of which he included in Modern Esoteric Spirituality (1995), which he compiled with Antoine Faivre, the other of which he wrote as an entry for Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (2005) edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff. More to the point, the essay is reprinted verbatim as the Introduction to The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work (2008).
What I particularly admire about this gem of a publication is the conversational tone and the sense of conviction of its message without the need for apology or argument. The first page defines Gurdjieff’s aim as well as his own. “Gurdjieff’s fundamental aim was to help human being awaken to the meaning of our existence and to the efforts we must make to realize that meaning in the midst of the life we have been given.”
Needleman continues, “We begin to understand that his life was a work of love; and at the same time that word, ‘love,’ begins to take on entirely new dimensions of meaning, inconceivable in the state of what Gurdjieff called waking sleep.” He states that such is the turmoil of society today that men and women are unlikely to turn to religion or science for help. “In this sleep,” he tells us, “we are born, live and die, write books, invent religious, build monuments, commit murders, and destroy all that is good.”
“An extraordinary quality of help is needed. To this end, Gurdjieff created what has come to be called the work.” What follows are a few words about the Gurdjieff institute, society, and foundation in Paris, London, New York, and Caracas, as well as other centres in the major cities of the Western world. Jeanne de Salzmann is identified and quoted on the work of these centres though little is made of her continuation of the Work following the death of Gurdjieff in Paris in 1949.
The Gurdjieff work is essentially an oral tradition that embraces group meetings, sacred dances and movements, sittings, and work in life. All of this takes place “in life” and not apart from society in monasteries or seminaries or ashrams or tekkes. Self-observation is discussed as an essential part of “this understanding of inner work.” Gurdjieff’s early years are discussed along with his memoir Meetings with Remarkable Men and there are details about P.D. Ouspensky and Thomas de Hartmann and the formation of the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. It is stressed that “Gurdjieff always gave his ideas to his pupils under conditions designed to break through the crust of emotional and intellectual associations which, he taught, shut out the voice of conscience in man.”
Remarkably condensed is the section on “the Gurdjieff idea” which states: “There is no authentic I am in his presence, but only a fractured egoism which masquerades as the authentic self, and whose machinations poorly imitate the normal human functions of thought, feeling, and will.” The Ray of Creation and the Food Diagram are discussed but (mercifully) go unillustrated in these pages! Here the reader is referred to Ouspensky’s indispensable explanation of such matters in his mammoth work In Search of the Miraculous.
Life at the Prieuré is described as well as Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. A few pages are devoted to the three centres. Here he quotes Gurdjieff: “I wished to create around myself conditions in which a man would be continuously reminded of the sense and aim of his existence by an unavoidable friction between his conscience and the automatic manifestations of his nature.”
Needleman focuses on essentials so this short booklet punches above its weight and is a perfect vade mecum for the Work, either as a introduction or as a refresher course. It ends with a bibliography, largely annotated, of some three dozen books of quality, and one feature-length film, Peter Brooks’s Meetings with Remarkable Men. But beware: After reading Introduction to the Gurdjieff Work – which takes less than thirty minutes in all – one immediately wants to rewatch the film!
Come to think of it, Peter Brooks’s film itself might itself act as an ideal introduction to the Work.
11 Jan. 2019
“The Song of the Morrow” with R.L. Stevenson and P.D. Ouspensky
May P.D.O. and R.L.S. rest in peace, together.
As I write this, I have in mind the unlikely relationship between Peter Demianovich Ouspensky and Robert Louis Stevenson, the Russian metaphysical philosopher and the Scottish romantic novelist. As soul mates they form an unlikely couple; in life they never met, but Ouspensky was familiar with Stevenson’s writings and no doubt had some salient points to make about the poetry, the prose, the poetic prose, and the prose poetry of this creative spirit who (like Katharine Mansfield and René Daumal) died at a very early age.
About Stevenson, Ouspensky has this to say in Chapter XI: “Eternal Recurrence and the Laws of Manu” in A New Model of the Universe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2nd revised edition, August 1950): “If we try to trace the idea of eternal recurrence in European literature it is necessary to mention the remarkable ‘fable’ by R.L. Stevenson, ‘The Song of the Morrow’ (1895) …. ” I wish Ouspensky had said more about this fable, but instead he went on to discuss C.H. Hinton’s Scientific Romances (1898) and poems by Alexis Tolstoy and D.G. Rossetti, all of which supported his sense that our experience of the passage of time is illusory. Apparently the passage of time may be turned into the progress of time.
Ouspensky further noted, “The feeling of the repetition of events was very strong in Lermontoff,” referring to the great Russian novelist and poet Mikhail Lermontoff. He casts his net to include D.S. Merejkovsky’s Life of Napoleon (1928). “This list does not claim to be complete. I wished only to show that the idea of repetition and recollection of the past which is not in our time is far from being foreign to Western thought.”
James Webb, the scholar of the Work and of “rejected knowledge,” goes into more detail in his mammoth volume The Harmonious Circle (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980): “Ouspensky later used to tell his pupils that Robert Louis Stevenson had taught him as much as Nietzsche about recurrence, and Stevenson’s view of the coils of time is pessimistic. The haunting ‘Song of the Morrow’ – published posthumously in Stevenson’s Fables of 1896 – is a recurring theme in Ivan Osokin.
“It would have been natural reading for a young romantic – and Stevenson’s tale of the King of Duntrine’s daughter, who had ‘hair like the spun gold and … eyes like pools in a river,’ ends with the princess as an ancient crone warning her younger self that she has ‘no thought for the morrow and no power upon the hour, after the manner of simple men.’ Writing, as he did, at a time of civil and personal chaos, Ouspensky’s life seemed not at all worth repeating, and eternal recurrence can only have presented itself as an assurance of eternal damnation.”
Ouspensky was much influenced by the classic novels, biographies, and poems that he read as a youth. Webb notes this. “At about the age of five, Ouspensky learned to read. A year or so alter he discovered Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and Turgenev’s Notes from a Sportsman’s Album. In a household of Russian ‘intelligents’ there was nothing odd in such books being available to a six-year-old, and Ouspensky’s precociousness in taking to the classics at such an early age was the beginning of a largely self-conducted education. The ‘enormous impression’ produced by these two books was a lasting influence on the boy. A Hero of Our Time, with its protagonist the very type of the disillusioned romantic, its exotic Caucasian background, and its occasional hints of the numinous, had made the book a cult among youth.
“Turgenev’s gentle tales of country life directed the attention of the literary world toward the realities of peasant existence. Both books would have formed part of the required reading of the generation to which Ouspensky’s parents belonged; and they stood in a naturalistic tradition which was then fashionable.”
Ouspensky never forgot how deeply Stevenson’s “fable” affected him as a youth. Today, when we recall Stevenson, we are grateful to the Scottish writer for his great stories, especially such children’s classics as Treasure Island and A Child’s Garden of Verses, as well as for works that haunt the adult imagination like Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the short fantastic stories in the collection New Arabian Nights. Yet we routinely overlook the haunting power of his “fables.”
Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1850 and died in Samoa in 1894 at the age of only forty-four. (Ouspensky was nineteen years old at the time.) His writings have always been popular with readers but they were not always well received by the reviewers of his day or the critics of our time. He was both a story-teller and a fantasist, and it is high time his fine writings in this latter field are read in light of the imaginative light that they shed.
One of the strangest of his books is the one simply titled Fables. It is a collection of twenty short stories and verses, all of which touch upon the “relative reality” of the productions of the imagination. These stories and sketches and poems went unpublished during the author’s lifetime, but they did receive magazine and book publication two years following his death. The last of the fables in the collection is titled “The Song of the Morrow.”
It is an eerie poem evocative of the Scottish Highlands and the Celtic realm of King Arthur, scenes that eerily glows in the painting and in the descriptions in print of the Pre-Raphaelites. It introduces these remarkably evocative phrases: “No thought for the morrow and no power upon the hour, after the manner of simple men.” These phrases seem to be fraught with meaning. They would be a goad to good action – should a man (or in this instance a woman) be able to make the effort and expend the energy to change one’s everyday life to enrich one’s life in futurity.
Keep this notion in mind when you read and reread “The Song of the Morrow” and bear in mind that yesterday and today and tomorrow are but a hair’s-breadth or a human’s breath away. The text reproduced here is reproduced from Fables in Volume VII of The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: The Davos Press, 1908) edited by Charles Curtis Bigelow and Temple Scott.
The Text of “The Song of the Morrow”
The King of Duntrine had a daughter when he was old, and she was the fairest King’s daughter between two seas; her hair was like spun gold, and her eyes like pools in a river; and the King gave her a castle upon the sea beach, with a terrace, and a court of the hewn stone, and four towers at the four corners. Here she dwelt and grew up, and had no care for the morrow, and no power upon the hour, after the manner of simple men.
It befell that she walked one day by the beach of the sea, when it was autumn, and the wind blew from the place of rains; and upon the one hand of her the sea beat, and upon the other the dead leaves ran. This was the loneliest beach between two seas, and strange things had been done there in the ancient ages. Now the King’s daughter was aware of a crone that sat upon the beach. The sea foam ran to her feet, and the dead leaves swarmed about her back, and the rags blew about her face in the blowing of the wind.
“Now,” said the King’s daughter, and she named a holy name, “this is the most unhappy old crone between two seas.”
“Daughter of a King,” said the crone, “you dwell in a stone house, and your hair is like the gold, but what is your profit? Life is not long, nor lives strong; and you live after the way of simple men, and have no thought for the morrow and no power upon the hour.”
“Thought for the morrow, that I have,” said the King’s daughter; “but power upon the hour, that have I not.” And she mused with herself.
Then the crone smote her lean hands one within the other, and laughed like a seagull. “Home!” cried she. “O daughter of a King, home to your stone house, for the longing is come upon you now, nor can you live any more after the manner of simple men. Home, and toil and suffer, till the gift come that will make you bare, and till the man come that will bring you care.”
The King’s daughter made no more ado, but she turned about and went home to her house in silence. And when she was come into her chamber she called for her nurse.
“Nurse,” said the King’s daughter, “thought is come upon me for the morrow, so that I can live no more after the manner of simple men. Tell me what I must do that I may have power upon the hour.”
Then the nurse moaned like a snow wind. “Alas!” said she, “that this thing should be; but the thought is gone into your marrow, nor is there any cure against the thought. Be it so, then, even as you will; though power is less than weakness, power shall you have; and though the thought is colder than winter, yet shall you think it to an end.”
So the King’s daughter sat in her vaulted chamber in the masoned house, and she thought upon the thought. Nine years she sat; and the sea beat upon the terrace, and the gulls cried about the turrets, and wind crooned in the chimneys of the house. Nine years she came not abroad, nor tasted the clean air, neither saw God’s sky. Nine years she sat and looked neither to the right nor to the left, nor heard speech of anyone, but thought upon the thought of the morrow. And her nurse fed her in silence, and she took of the food with her left hand, and ate it without grace.
Now when the nine years were out, it fell dusk in the autumn, and there came a sound in the wind like a sound of piping. At that the nurse lifted up her finger in the vaulted house.
“I hear a sound in the wind,” said she, “that is like the sound of piping.”
“It is but a little sound,” said the King’s daughter, “but yet is it sound enough for me.”
So they went down in the dusk to the doors of the house, and along the beach of the sea. And the waves beat upon the one hand, and upon the other the dead leaves ran; and the clouds raced in the sky, and the gulls flew widdershins. And when they came to that part of the beach where strange things had been done in the ancient ages, lo, there was the crone, and she was dancing widdershins.
“What makes you dance widdershins, old crone?” said the King’s daughter, “here upon the bleak beach, between the waves and the dead leaves?”
“I hear a sound in the wind that is like a sound of piping,” quoth she. “And it is for that that I dance widdershins. For the gift comes that will make you bare, and the man comes that must bring you care. But for me the morrow is come that I have thought upon, and the hour of my power.”
“How comes it, crone,” said the King’s daughter, “that you waver like a rag, and pale like a dead leaf before my eyes?”
“Because the morrow has come that I have thought upon, and the hour of my power,” said the crone, and she fell on the beach, and lo! she was but stalks of the sea tangle, and dust of the sea sand, and the sand lice hopped upon the place of her.
“This is the strangest thing that befell between two seas,” said the King’s daughter of Duntrine.
But the nurse broke out and moaned like an autumn gale. “I am weary of the wind,” quoth she; and she bewailed her day.
The King’s daughter was aware of a man upon the beach, he went hooded so that none might perceive his face; and a pipe was underneath his arm. The sound of his pipe was like singing wasps, and like the wind that sings in windlestraw; and it took hold upon men’s ears like the crying of gulls.
“Are you the comer?” quoth the King’s daughter of Duntrine.
“I am the comer,” said he, “and these are the pipes that a man may hear, and I have power upon the hour, and this is the song of the morrow.” And he piped the song of the morrow, and it was as long as years, and the nurse wept out aloud at the hearing of it.
“That is true,” said the King’s daughter, “that you pipe the song of the morrow; but that ye have power upon the hour, how may I know that? Show me a marvel here upon the beach between the waves and the dead leaves.”
And the man said, “Upon whom?”
“Here is my nurse,” quoth the King’s daughter. “She is weary of the wind. Show me a good marvel upon her.”
And lo the nurse fell upon the beach as it were two handfuls of dead leaves, and the wind whirled them widdershins, and the sand lice hopped between.
“It is true,” said the King’s daughter of Duntrine; “you are the comer, and you have power upon the hour. Come with me to my stone house.”
So they went by the sea margin, and the man piped the song of the morrow, and the leaves followed behind them as they went. Then they sat down together; and the sea beat on the terrace, and the gulls cried about the towers, and the wind crooned in the chimneys of the house. Nine years they sat, and every year when it fell autumn, the man said, “This is the hour, and I have power in it,” and the daughter of the King said, “Nay, but pipe me the song of the morrow.” And he piped it, and it was long like years.
Now when the nine years were gone, the King’s daughter of Duntrine got her to her feet, like one that remembers; and she looked about her in the masoned house; and all her servants were gone; only the man that piped sat upon the terrace with the hood upon his face; and as he piped the leaves ran about the terrace and the sea beat along the wall. Then she cried to him with a great voice, “This is the hour, and let me see the power of it.” And with that the wind blew off the hood from the man’s face, and lo, there was no man there, only the clothes and the hand and the pipes tumbled one upon another in a corner of the terrace, and the dead leaves ran over them.
And the King’s daughter of Duntrine got her to that part of the beach where strange things had been done in the ancient ages, and there she sat her down. The sea foam ran to her feet, and the dead leaves swarmed about her back, and the veil blew about her face in the blowing of the wind. And when she lifted up her eyes, there was the daughter of a King come walking on the beach. Her hair was like the spun gold, and her eyes like pools in a river, and she had no thought for the morrow and no power upon the hour, after the manner of simple men.
“The Song of the Morrow” and the Internet
Trolling the Internet, I came upon some stray bits and pieces about a video or movie version of Stevenson’s evocative poem. I also found a thoughtful appreciation of the poem which I am reproducing courtesy of “The Lilting Tree,” the blogsite of Lisa Evelyn Cote. Here is what Ms. Cote has to say:
“The film tells the story of the Daughter of Duntrine who had ‘No power upon the hour and no thought upon the Morrow.’ A strong Pre-Raphaelite influence dominates the visual style, and the language mirrors Stevenson’s text. Years pass and characters come and go, but when the Daughter finally realizes that she has ‘Power upon the Hour’ – it is all too late.” She continues, “Here’s another inspiration entry that comes out of The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. It was originally published in a collection of Stevenson’s called Fables, in 1902, and since it is in the public domain, and a quick read, I’ve reprinted it below for your convenience.
“I could find precious little about this story online (there’s no Wikipedia page for it, nor for the collection). I did discover that a U.K. director called Digby Rumsey has turned the ‘fable’ into a short film, but all I could find was this short clip online. I’d love to watch the whole thing.
“As for the tale in question, it’s hard to even describe what happens plot-wise in the story, as it’s more abstract strangeness and inscrutable dream logic than sensible plot moves. What I can tell you: There’s an inexplicably solitary princess living in a forlorn seaside castle, a smiting crone, a lamenting nurse, a dubious piper, and a hauntingly odd refrain about having ‘no care for the morrow, and no power upon the hour, after the manner of simple men’ that implants itself in the princess, leading to her doom – you’ll see. I find the story delightfully creepy in a pleasingly subtle way, and thus deemed it appropriate for our ‘supernatural horror’ October theme. It’s short, so I hope you take the time to read it, and comment.
“There are a few sources out there that allude to the influence of Stevenson’s Fables, and this particular story, on Jorge Luis Borges: an interesting connection. And I did find a reference to ‘The Song of the Morrow’ in Alexander [Hay] Japp’s (2009) book Robert Louis Stevenson, where he asserts the ‘feeling for symbol,’ and ‘Celtic strain’ of this and other tales in the collection. The effect, he says is ‘as though moonshine, disguising and transfiguring, was laid over all real things, and the secret of the world and life was in its glamour.’ (p. 86) Poetically stated, and accurate, I would say.
“Indeed, there are lots of symbolic elements, repetition, and a queer symmetry in the tale that works well with the theme of time as an all-powerful usurper and paradoxically, a potential liberator. See what you think …. ”
Thank you, Ms. Cote, for your enthusiasm and for the information. I too would like to watch the video of “The Song of the Morrow.” There is a site for it on YouTube, but it will not play on my computer, despite the fact that YouTube implies that it does. Oddly, from time to time, the narration may be heard. There are no visuals except for the one that appears below. Yet from that useful film website IMDb, I did learn that the film is a short, fourteen-minute fantasy released in 1998, with script and direction by Digby Rumsey. It stars Rosalie Dores as the King’s Daughter, Anna Dewsbury as the Crone, and Denise Devlin as the Narrator.
Here is IMDb’s summary of the action: “The film tells the story of the Daughter of Duntrine who had ‘No power upon the hour and no thought upon the Morrow.’ A strong Pre-Raphaelite influence dominates the visual style, and the language mirrors Stevenson’s text. Years pass and characters come and go, but when the Daughter finally realizes that she has ‘Power upon the Hour’ –it is all too late.”
In a way the fable is fatalistic. and in this way it brings to mind the haunting theme of lost opportunity that is found in Ouspensky’s ever-new novel, Strange Life of Ivan Osokin.
2-3 Jan. 2019