On the morning of Thursday 4 March 2021, Sydney time, I received an email titled “Your Review of The Reality of Being.” The entirety of the body of the email read: “You are an asshole and know nothing about the Work”
I do not know and at that time had never heard of the sender, but for the purposes of this email let me call that person “my pen pal.” I have written several reviews of The Reality of Being, the fullest of which was an academic study which was peer-reviewed and published in Fieldwork in Religion. volume 11.1 (2016) 104-120. It is titled “Review of Three Gurdjieff-Related Books,” and as well as de Salzmann’s book, covers Women of the Rope and Questions and Answers along the Way, by Hugh Ripman. But you will also find a treatment of The Reality of Being in my Oxford University Press volume, Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation, and Exercises. If you search this website by its title, you will find a number of references to the book.
In my review article, I first set out the background, providing previously unpublished material about the disapproving attitude of de Salzmann (and her son Michel) to books such as these three. I briefly treated of the Gurdjieff literature, and reviewed Women of the Rope. Then I came to The Reality of Being. First I set out the background and the importance of de Salzmann in the Gurdjieff tradition (108-109). I mention how some in her groups (often called “the Institute” or “the Foundation”, but I shall use “the Institute”) became identified with and imitated de Salzmann. The next two pages deal, quite neutrally, with the contents of the book, critiquing the editing rather than the contents. (110-111) I observe that she “positioned herself at the centre” of the Institute, and emphasised those aspects of the teaching she had mastered, and downplayed to the extent of virtually ignoring those which she had not. After looking at the Ripman volume, I turned to “Siting Gurdjieff’s System of Ideas and Methods.” (113-115)
I opine that Gurdjieff’s system was a good balance of what Colin Campbell in The Easternization of the West, calls the traits of “Eastern” and “Western” spirituality. I conclude it by saying: “under de Salzmann, Gurdjieff’s system … underwent a process of “Easternization”.” (115) I then applied this thesis to what has happened to the teaching of the authentic Gurdjieff exercises. (I am gratified to say that my efforts have contributed to a wide revival of interest in the authentic Gurdjieff exercises and system as a whole).
So that is my fullest review of The Reality of Being. Let us return to my pen pal. From the title of the email, it was clear that comment which followed was prompted by a reading of one of those reviews. There does not follow any reasoned critique of my opinion. If it was meant as a review of my review, as the title of the email and the second half of the body suggest, then what follows (that I am an “asshole”) is an ad hominem attack coupled with a mere assertion (that I know nothing about the Work.)
The ad hominem argument is a well-known fallacy of reasoning, see for example David Kelley, The Art of Reasoning, (W.W. Norton, NY, 1988) 120-122. An assertion, “an unsupported statement of belief”, is not reasoning at all: Nigel Warburton, Thinking from A to Z, (Routledge, London, 3rd edition, 2007) 20-21.
So as a reviewer or critic, my evaluation is that my pen pal has not made the grade, at least in this email. But what if it was not a review? Or at least not just a review? After all, the first part, about my alleged status, could be taken as outright invective – what then?
Well, if it is or includes personal invective, why make my review of The Reality of Being the occasion of such an attack? First, what does it mean? My pen pal seems to be based in the USA, so using an American resource, the on-line Merriam has this definition: “1. usually vulgar: anus / 2a usually vulgar : a stupid, annoying, or detestable person.” People who have known me have long and often had good reason to consider me to be an “asshole”. But I would reply that neither I nor anyone in themselves is properly called “an asshole,” rather, we might have something in us which is annoying or detestable, or that our unconscious manifestations are stupid.
Then, to say that I know nothing about the Work is odd: a brief review of my output would show at once that I have a significant amount of knowledge about the Gurdjieff Work – but there could be a live question as to what I understand.That is something else. And this is, I think, critical: I know of no infallible and objective litmus test for what any of us understands about the Work, as Gurdjieff used the words. Neither do I have any reason to think that my pen pal has the key to such a litmus test.
When it comes to understanding, I think we have to be humble. Hence, for example, I never have said and do not now say that I understand the work better than those who knew Gurdjieff, or have studied his ideas and methods. But I can and do give my reasons for saying “this comment or this practice or this idea is or is not in continuity with what Gurdjieff brought.” And then, other people can counter my contentions with reasoned arguments of their own.
I would suggest that, looked at in that light, my pen pal has probably read something I wrote, and reacted angrily. My pen pal now has the satisfaction of having made an attack on me. My pen pal is welcome to that. I am not envious. But I do not feel as if my opinions have been refuted in any way. Rather, my first reaction was along the lines that the truth always hurts, and my pen pal has been stung pretty sharply.
I can go further: I have often thought that, at least in The Reality of Being, and in the New Work generally, too little is said about the need to struggle with negative emotion. My pen pal’s email does not prove me right, but neither does it shake me in this opinion: rather it makes me think that I may have hit something true.
Also, as noted, I have said that de Salzmann seems to have been surrounded by people who identified with her. My pen pal’s email does tend to confirm me in this view: whether the pen pal knew Madame or not, the conditioning continues.
I will add that I have had discussions with some very senior people in the Institute groups, who are quite capable of rational engagement. I cannot therefore suggest that identification with Madame, or with one’s own negative emotions necessarily follows from the New Work. But I do think it is a danger.
Two practical conclusions follow: (1) the Work in all its forms and all its institutions, societies and groups should be reoriented back to the full and authentic Gurdjieff system; and (2) that particular includes the teaching on negative emotion.