Review of Roger Lipsey’s “Gurdjieff Reconsidered” (Part One)

Roger Lipsey, Gurdjieff Reconsidered: The Life, The Legacy, The Teachings, Shambhala, Boulder, on sale from 5 February 2019 (280 pp. +, illustrated)

At the outset, I must disclose that Roger Lipsey thanks me on the acknowledgement page (xix), because I had made available to him copies of some letters from Mme de Salzmann to Mr Adie. While I am sensible of Roger’s propriety in expressing his gratitude, it is a small matter. Further, as I mention in the second instalment of this review, Lipsey engages in some mild criticism of certain unnamed people, and I am fairly sure I must be one of them. I doubt that either matter has affected my judgment. I consider this book to be essential reading for serious students of Gurdjieff. The previously unpublished material alone would justify purchase despite the book’s limitations, which are chiefly matters of omission.

Part One: The Purpose

First of all, an overview of the book. There is an introductory chapter of about 25 pages which explains why it was written. Then there follow five chapters, filling some 200 pages, which cover Gurdjieff’s life and teachings in approximate but not rigid chronological order. Then come two chapters, about 50 pages, on the legacy, and finally fourteen further pages on Beelzebub’s Tales, and some short final words in a “Coda” and an “Afterword”. It includes endnotes, a bibliography and an index (although the index was blank in my advanced reader’s copy).

In the course of this, Roger’s focus is on answering the question: who cares about Gurdjieff? (1). Perhaps one could rephrase it as: “Why should I, the reader, care about Gurdjieff’d ideas and methods?” He challenges widespread caricatures and distortions of Gurdjieff, seeing Gurdjieff’s teaching as a tradition to be counted with major world religions (277 and 21). He closes with: “When I look into your eyes and listen to you, I have no need to know if you are a Gurdjieff pupil or a Buddhist meditator, a Sufi or a Vedantist, an engaged Christian or a Jew, a secular humanist; I perceive you, not your path to maturity. This is as it should be. At some point, when we’re better acquainted, we may compare notes. We’ll take out our journals, so to speak, and show one another what we’ve written there over the years. And for the most part it will be the same (277).”

Lipsey also emphasizes the role of Jeanne de Salzmann in passing on Gurdjieff’s teaching and methods. In fact, for me, the most powerful pages in this volume are 163-165, where he sets out notes, hitherto unpublished n English, of an engagement between de Salzmann and Luc Dietrich. The impact of her words comes, in large part, from the fact that her piercing comments are universally applicable, as the truth always seems to be.

Roger has the advantage that, as a senior member of the NY Foundation, and obviously enjoying the cooperation of the Paris Institut, he has had access to their archives. In addition, he has read the publicly available material fairly closely, and has conducted research in library collections. His familiarity with the literature. His eye for the telling passages was apparent in his “Gurdjieff Observed” chapter, in the Essays and Reflections volume. But here, I think, the wider scope of the exercise shows off his abilities to better effect. On the basis of the hitherto unpublished material alone, I would say that for people with a serious interest in Gurdjieff, this volume is essential.

But those people are not the front row of Lipsey’s intended readership. The book is largely aimed at Gurdjieff’s critics (153, 232 and 245). This sometimes breaks out in a defensive tone, e.g.: “A charge to Gurdjieff’s future critics: listen first to the music … before settling your perspective” (117, also 163 for a defence of his self-described hagiography of de Salzmann). Lipsey’s insight is sound: Gurdjieff’s music tells us something of him, and should be factored into any “perspective”, the word he astutely selects. Yet, the tone of Lipsey’s “charge” does tell us that the criticism of Gurdjieff has got to him.

That raises the manner in which Lipsey writes this book. It is deliberately engaged, and not at all detached. It has quite a personal touch. For a book such as this, which is essentially advocacy, this is one possible approach. Sometimes this tone works well, but on other occasions it is distracting (e.g. his comments on Conge at 224), being, on occasions, rather too poetic and florid for my taste (101, 110, 111, 112 and 137). The voices of the editor and the authority, sometimes avuncular and sometimes sententious, are never far away (I made notes at 14, 15, 38, 42, 105, 117, 163, 171, 192, 194, 201, 207, 224 and 254). There are some instances I wonder about: why, for example, does he speak of Welch’s “acceptably long life” (202). Acceptable to whom, and by what standard? Besides, surely it is the quality of the life, not the length which matters. I found comments like this distracting: other than establishing Lipsey’s indirect and oblique voice, I don’t see what the is author getting at.

It should be noted that in its overall purpose, and even in some of its selection of material, it is strongly reminiscent of Margaret Anderson’s The Unknowable Gurdjieff (both are advocates and both have long quotes from Gurdjieff on knowledge). Just as the heart of Anderson’s book was the previously unpublished material of Jane Heap, in this one, it is the memories of Jeanne de Salzmann.

Part Two: Contents

Next, there is the questions of genre: what type of book has Lipsey written? It is not a straight biography, or even two related biographies, or a narrative of the Gurdjieff tradition. It is, rather, I think, an apologia, a defence, a piece of advocacy (as was Anderson’s book). It is more successful than Anderson’s effort, if only because it is a more coherent whole, but it is probably too long and involved to pack a knock-out punch, as does the classic of this genre, Plato’s Apologia. In some ways, it invites comparison with Zuber’s Who Are You, Mr Gurdjieff? But it is certainly no failure. It is an estimable attempt.

The title states that it is a re-consideration, a fresh journey over travelled ground, to review and draw fresh conclusions: pointing out where they were right, where they went wrong, what they missed and what they had not known. There is good cause to counter the cheap criticisms of Gurdjieff, because anyone under their influence will overlook the potential value in Gurdjieff’s tradition.

To this end, Roger says what seems to me to be an extraordinary amount about Louis Pauwels. However important Pauwels may be in French culture, and I was surprised to learn that he may have been responsible for a certain disaffection from Gurdjieff, for me he is too slight a figure to notice. Lipsey also deals with Perry’s silly critique of Gurdjieff. He devotes less space to it. If I am not wrong, he entertains rather more respect for Perry’s guru, Fritjof Schuon, than I do. I persevered for a while, but I can find very little of value in Guenon, Schuon and their followers; and their moment passed, I believe, with the “sacred nudity” scandal (Mr Adie did not share de Salzmann’s regard for the soi-disant “Traditionalists”.)

Another way of putting it is to say that Lipsey tries to draw a new portrait of Gurdjieff: one of him as a mix of Pythagoras and Diogenes, which he then follows with a disclaimer (especially 10-22, note the distancing from his own picture at 21-22, and 42). This is not entirely novel: this line of image-making goes back to at least Kenneth Walker and Margaret Anderson. But Gurdjieff as one of these Greek sages is the constant theme of this book, and I think that Pythagoras, at least offers an apt comparison.

It is not a standard biography, yet he does formulate a “mnemonic” to bring Gurdjieff’s life into focus: “Russia, theory; Prieuré, practice; 1930s, loss; 1940s, fulfilment” (31). This is helpful, although the mystery of Gurdjieff’s apparent lassitude (is that the word?) in the 1930s has not yet been satisfactorily answered (I have my own view, which I shall publish later on). Lipsey knows that his formula cannot be precisely accurate, but it is a fair guide, and he clothes the mannequin in the subsequent chapters.

Again, this is certainly not a standard introduction to either Gurdjieff’s life or his ideas: Lipsey severely limits the extent to which he will expound teachings (41). When he does venture to explain something, the results are impressive (84-88). While he cannot be accused of being unsystematic, there is no attempt to be at all exhaustive. As a result, however, the ideas never emerge with the crystal clarity I think might have helped. As with de Salzmann’s Reality of Being, the cosmological ideas are almost invisible. But whereas de Salzmann did speak of the higher being bodies, if they are mentioned here, I missed them. In my assessment, this is a serious loss: the higher bodies are absolutely central to Gurdjieff’s teaching, and the cosmology reconciles many apparent philosophical contradictions, e.g. between free-will and determinism, apparent diversity and theoretical unity, the presence of God and the absence of God.

Sometimes, I find Lipsey’s assessments and assertions most apt and even illuminating, for example, when he writes of the Movements that: “They were capable of teaching by the way, as if unnoticed, not specific elements of any religion but something to my mind more important and fundamental: a sense of the sacred, nested in a new sense of oneself” (96, see also 36 and 56 on the movements). This is close to my own view that Gurdjieff brought a way of life.

My sense is that in his eagerness to make Gurdjieff a peer to Rumi, Eckhart and Dogen, Lipsey has underplayed Gurdjieff’s insistence that in contemporary conditions, there is need of a Fourth Way (simultaneous work on body, mind and feeling in one’s daily life in the world), whatever the possibilities may be in a monastery, or may have been in the past. As we are, says Gurdjieff, we cannot do (achieve a projected aim), because we have no will or consciousness. However, they can be developed through the Fourth Way because we have enough will and consciousness to at least direct our attention to self-observation, especially of the body and our manifestations. Self-observation can lead to self-remembering, and that has more than one stage: it leads to and it is evolution. Religions and philosophical systems do not begin with the non-possession of consciousness. They can commence with faith, which Gurdjieff said in his day and age he could not, and so they assume that man as he is can take steps to achieve the aim, however it is defined, of coming closer to God, approaching reality, non-attachment and so on.

Then there is Gurdjieff’s cosmology, and related to it, the Ray of Creation, the Table of Hydrogens and the Food Diagram. This unique system grounds a chemistry or alchemy of transformation through the conscious reception and digestion of higher substances. A consideration of the recent work of Keith Buzzell would probably show the potential of these ideas: see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgRV23CX8kA&t=211s (a video titled “A Visual Unfolding of a Symbol of the Cosmos and its Laws).

Another somewhat neglected matter is that of work against our sleep, our internal resistance. While Roger handles questions such as vanity reasonably well (26-7, 44) there is much more to be said about our sleep, especially negative emotions and attitudes, than appears in these pages. As Ouspensky said, after consciousness, negative emotions are possibly the second major idea in the system. Some of Gurdjieff’s concepts, such as “identification” can be found in world literature: especially in Eastern Christianity and Buddhism. However, his take on negative emotion, lying, unnecessary talking, considering, daydreaming, imagination and formatory thinking, to name the most prominent, are unique, so far as I can see – and I have examined many religions, psychologies and philosophies looking for parallels. It is perhaps significant that I did not find the treatment of these topics satisfactory, or at least adequately full.

Lipsey also mentions, but says little of Gurdjieff’s exercises. I consider these to have been the crown of his practical methods, the final and best fruit of his years of experimentation. I return to these in the next instalment of this review.

Then, on the more positive side of Gurdjieff’s teaching, although there is some mention of the Obligolnian Strivings, I would suggest there could be more. Many people, myself included, consider these five injunctions to be essential to understanding Gurdjieff’s philosophy, his way of life. Still, how much to include is always a question of judgment, and judgments can legitimately differ.

I am aware that there can be arguments about the paragraphs above, and whether Gurdjieff is only stating in new ways what others have taught. This may be Lipsey’s view. But it is not mine. I think we do see something genuinely new with Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way: to repeat, Gurdjieff brought a way of life. Not a religion, not a philosophy, not a psychology, but something related to all, and which can support a man in his religion, in many ways. The closest parallel to Gurdjieff which Lipsey offers is Pythagoras, not Diogenes, but if we delved further, and looked into mythology, I would say that the culture heroes like Prometheus or the Mesopotamian apkullu are even closer. Hence his music, his movements, his literature and his ideas for practical application. Like Prometheus, Gurdjieff taught how to make fire, but through conscious labour and intentional suffering. Gurdjieff brought the seeds of a new culture for a new way of life based on a sense of “I am” (something which Frank Sinclair’s Life More Aligned brings out).

While there is a great deal of excellent material in this book, and some of it is even, in my view, sublime, I nonetheless have to say that my approach to Gurdjieff is fundamentally different, and I could on no account omit the higher being-bodies, and the exercises with their alchemy of the breath and all the human faculties, leading to self-remembering (a full sensing of “I Am”). Take Lipsey’s closing thoughts, set out at the beginning of this review. To my mind, if our comparative notes are “for the most part” the same, this would mean that something distinctive and individual had been lost from Gurdjieff, that he had been assimilated to something purely religious (see my review article in Fieldwork in Religion 2016, 104-120). Neither do I think one can distinguish between “you” and “your path to maturity.” How can the two not be aspects of the one reality?

Gurdjieff said that all true teachings had two parts: what to do and how to do it. The first part had been retained, but not the second. He was, he said, now restoring that. Gurdjieff’s teaching and methods led to, he implied, the Christianity of Man Number Four. In so far as I can judge, he was correct.

(To be continued in the next part, which deals only with some miscellaneous points.)

Joseph Azize, 13 November 2018, revised 14 November 2018

3 comments

  1. Fr. Azize,

    Many thanks for your thoughts on this book. (I will certainly be buying a copy). I always appreciate when you write about Fourth Way books. First, because I value your opinion and guidance. And second, because you often alert me to books I might otherwise have overlooked. Please continue!

    Sincerely,

    Chris

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