Ben Bennett, I Teach how to Cook (… but not what to cook): A Story of John Godolphin Bennett, self-published, 2022 (249 pp., neither index nor bibliography).
It seems to me that Ben Bennett has written two books and interleaved them within the covers. The first and much the lengthier of the two is his own personal take on his father, the “story” of the sub-title. At times, this book within a book reads as if it were written to be read by his father, as if he were saying “Look, dad, this is how I understand things now. What do you think?” This book, the story, is satisfactory and has some valuable material in it. The second and shorter book is Ben’s take on the Gurdjieff tradition, and Bennett’s place in its current. That is less successful.
While the author is clearly proud of his father and his accomplishments, he manages, in my assessment, to avoid the temptations to either unbalanced praise or unbalanced dispraise.
Now, there is a phenomenon where, if I level any criticisms, I feel the need to explain in detail what I disagree with or question, and why. When I am lauding something, I have not felt the same need to explain myself, and if I am to critique, to make the critique telling – after all, who ever feels that praise of themselves is gratuitous or unfounded? Also, if I am going to offer a critique then I think it better to be direct than to mitigate it with blandishments. If I speak directly, I am probably not insulting your intelligence. These traits sometimes give the impression that I am less favourably disposed to something than I am.
Review of the Story
So, I will spend some time saying what is good about Ben’s story before I turn to the critique. First, it is, it seems to me, a good flowing story of his father’s life. For those who have not yet come across him, John Godolphin Bennett (1897-1974) was an English mystic, scientist, philosophy, and, I might say, “soldier of fortune,” giving himself, with little reserve, to the calls which were made upon him. Hence he fought in WWI, became a major figure in the British Intelligence in post-War Turkey (where he met Gurdjieff and Ouspensky), wasted years chasing the confiscated assets of a despotic dictator on behalf of his family, worked in the technical and administrative side of the coal industry, and little by little established himself as a teacher in the tradition of the Fourth Way.
The last fifteen years of his life took a surprising turn when he was instrumental in the introduction of Subud into the West, then prising himself loose from that, was taken for a ride by Idries Shah who, in an act of barbarity, destroyed the Djamichunatra – possibly the most consciously produced building in England since the Middle Ages. Bennett and his pupils had worked masterfully to help bring this astonishing structure into being. I do not think it going too high to call it a sacred space (Ben makes some interesting comments about the “Djami”). I am giving this a central place because the Djami unites in one project Bennett’s mysticism, science, and artistry, and his abilities as teacher, guide, and inspiration. After its destruction, Bennett underwent further extraordinary experiences, and finally began the celebrated course at Sherborne (see the books by Allan Roth and Roberta Chrome, reviewed on this site). These last four years saw Bennett work with a number of young people who are still a conscious or at least semi-conscious within the world. They are perhaps what he would be most proud of.
I would not call this volume a “biography,” because that would imply more of a study. Ben has done a bit of homework, in fact I suspect that he wears his learning lightly so as not to burden the narrative. But by omitting not only footnotes but also most references, he telegraphs that this is not his research, it is his relation of his view of his father. Since his father was a public figure, it is only natural that in writing his account, he should take advantage of the many available books, articles and pieces. Sometimes these materials fill out his memory, but often, too, he compares them to his own recollection.
In telling his story, Ben recounts the sort of incidents a child would about their father, their memories from an early age, their affection and their misunderstandings, their family and the family history, and so on. I shan’t spend much time on this aspect except to say that he handles it very well, without sentimentality. So, at this stage we can say that the book is a good book about an important figure. Since I consider Bennett to have been one of the most important mystics in the known history of mysticism, of more value to modern people even than Eckhart, this book is correspondingly worth reading. So I shall not describe the contents of the story; I think it more valuable to focus here on some of the ideas which emerge from reading it.
One of the most important sections of the entire book was, for me at least, given my interests, the section on Hasan Shushud (1901-1988). Ben writes:
“In the autumn of 1969, Hasan Shushud came to stay. My father writes in Witness that he neglected him due to the pressure of his own work, but I recall that one weekend, my parents and two little sisters left to spend a few days at the cottage … They could have taken Shushud with them, but instead left him to be attended by myself and a young American woman … He was a physically unimpressive man, short and slender and grey … I did not discover until some years later that he embodied clairvoyant powers of his own.”
“It appears that it was not until after he left that my father fully grasped the significance of his visit, let alone of himself personally. … At some time since Shushud’s departure, Bennett seems to have realized belatedly that he had missed an opportunity with him, and wished to make up for lost time.” (199-200)
This stunned me. How could someone as intelligent and penetrating as Bennett possibly have initially missed Shushud’s importance? As I pondered this, I recalled that earlier in the book, Ben had referred to his mother’s memoire of Gurdjieff telling her that JGB was naive (110). I turned to her journal, and found this:
“He asked her why she wanted “this man.” She replied with her own question: “Do I want him?” He looked searchingly into my eyes. “Yes. You want. He naïf, like a little boy. What you want with little boy?” He walked on down the passage and then turned back, with his face alight and smiling. “Not always so. Can perhaps be good. Very perhaps”.” My Life, J.G. Bennett and G.I. Gurdjieff: The Memoirs of Elizabeth Bennett, 2016 (99).
When I read this a few years ago, in Elizabeth’s book, I did not give it much weight, I took it as Gurdjieff simply saying what he thought would provoke Elizabeth. But now I saw it differently. Yes, it was doubtless meant to be provocative, but some at least of its power to provoke came from the fact of its truth. Were it obviously fantastic, it could have been laughed off. I also think now that Gurdjieff was trying to help Elizabeth by warning her of what Bennett was like so that, when his naivety caused problems in her life, she would be better able to reconcile herself to her situation, knowing that she had deliberately accepted it.
I suggest that naivety is the clue not only to Bennett and Shushud, but also to John de Kay, Subuh and Shah, and to what we could call “preternatural phenomena.” Bennett was naive. That is, initially and for a long time, he took things at face value. I intend to write something on the question of naivety, because it seems to me that we are made to be naive – but only to an extent, and for a time. But what I believe I discovered through this line of enquiry is that Bennett was naive in that he was impressed by the appearance of things and people. Shushud was small, grey and unassuming. He did not promote himself. De Kay and Shah, of all those whom Bennett over-rated were both the emptiest and the most adept at self-advertisement and praise. Being naive, Bennett fell for them, heavily. Fortunately for him, Subuh did in fact have something, although not nearly as much as Bennett thought; and the Shivapuri Baba was the real thing, as the children say nowadays.
Clairvoyance and Phenomena
Preternatural phenomena, what people often think of as “the miraculous,” are significant, but we tend to take them too superficially as evidence of inner achievement. Pondering what I have learnt from various sources, including this book, about the phenomena produced in Bennett’s life (and especially those produced by or around Subuh and Shah), I have seen something which had entered my field of awareness but which I had not brought into focus and articulated. I can articulate it now.
It strikes me now that despite their clairvoyant abilities – or maybe even because of them – people like Subuh, Shah, and even Shushud were not as balanced as Bennett had thought, and the very phenomena which had favourably impressed Bennett should have warned him to be especially carefully with them, had he understood the significance of these “miracles.”
It seems to me that if a person develops control of these powers when they are not stable in conscience, so to speak, then the possession of the powers causes them to err, or at least inclines them to rash judgments. After all, if I can send my thoughts to other people across the ocean, why do I need to think twice about my first impressions?
Let us look at this again, because it is critical in several ways. First, I am sure that all of you, like myself, have come across preternatural phenomena, whether a tarot-reader who made an uncannily accurate prediction, someone who appeared to be able to sometimes read minds, people who clairvoyantly know what is happening at a distance, miraculous cures, and so on. These can be most impressive, and we all tend to think that a person who can produce such manifestations must be of a higher level than ourselves and the common mass of humanity. We also tend to think that they are all-round higher, even morally and spiritually. This is especially the case if the person makes some such claims, directly or indirectly.
However, I have also come across cases of many people who seemed to have such powers available to them, at least at some times and in some circumstances, but who were otherwise lacking in wisdom, or sometimes even repellent, greedy and selfish.
How to reconcile the two? Really, there is nothing to reconcile. It is we who associate the miraculous with the higher. It is not necessarily so. For some reason or reasons we do not presently understand, and perhaps never may, such phenomena can manifest in the absence of consciousness and conscience.
What it may come down to is this: our attitude to preternatural phenomena is invariably naive. I think this was Bennett’s weakness. This is by far the most important thing to emerge for me from reading this book. I have many more detailed comments to make, but I do not wish to distract from this point, so I shall place them in a subsequent post.