Tilo Ulbricht, “Recollections” (Pt 1)

Review, Tilo Ulbricht, Recollections: Trying to Follow a Way, SomaHolis Publications; Calne, Wiltshire, 2022 (365 pp., no index)

This is an intriguing book. From the front and back covers, you would not know that the author was writing about his experience in Gurdjieff groups. You might even think that he was going to describe how he had invented a “Way of Questioning” (Ulbricht’s capitals). The three testimonial quotes on the back of the book are unattributed, something I have not encountered before. Yet the book is nicely presented, and the front cover, by the author, is quite enchanting, and suggestive of higher forces entering a human being through the head and branching through his body.

So with this curious cover, I was not surprised by its somewhat eccentric contents. The book is written as chiefly a series of edited diary notes, revised in places from the perspective of the completed volume [“there are also some (exercises) in this book”, 267] and with some more reflective passages which have sound of something added (e.g. the passage “Books” [303]). There is a short appendix on his childhood which would have been more useful as a preface, and a fifty page table of the Easter story, drawn from the Gospels, with a third and final appendix listing those who gave talks at a house he had purchased in France for group purposes, and their topics. Those features give it the appearance of a testimony; a collecting of various materials from his life which he considered of some value to those who would come after (born in or about 1928 [3], he is probably 95 years old at the date of writing).

It is a tribute to the material covered in this volume, that I will have to cover it in several posts, as I try not to write more than 1,000 words in each post.

In my assessment, the book succeeds in that it does show, as the author intended, that the Gurdjieff tradition is an effective one which can facilitate an ever-maturing spiritual life. It contains a fair amount of valuable material. The volume as a whole does not, however, satisfy, in that several questions hover over it unanswered: chiefly, what has Ulbricht’s aim in life been? The related question is whether he has ever had a line of work? Where does the truth lie in his critique of James Moore’s disapproval of the New Work? And, finally, is the Gurdjieff tradition no more than the random series of scattered insights and experiences he has sketched here?

The tradition Ulbricht depicts has some obvious and, he suggests, unnecessary limitations (“a great injustice has been done” [292]). The book has no order other than the chronological. As I was reading, I could not but wonder, rightly or wrongly, whether it was not an apologia or self-defence in the light of his falling out from the Gurdjieff Society, London. I gather that he began working on this book before his resignation from the Council [277 where he mentions working on the notes which go into this book, comes before 288 and his fall from favour]. However, he makes so many allusions to his own good judgment, his vigorous old age, and similar matters, that it would not be unfair to see him as sustaining a continuous thread of self-justification. Most of all, I will note now, he states that on one occasion he spoke with Jeanne de Salzmann, spoke of feeling sexually attracted to women, and she replied: “She said that we have to serve this, sexual energy has to be expended” [67]. It is hard not to see this as meaning that she was not opposed to sexual activity with women he found attractive.

This reminds me of one of the chief gaps in the Gurdjieff system as he received it, the absence of a sustained line of work against self-love in both its false forms. He does refer to self-love once [141 in a reading from Gurdjieff], and to his self-pity, which I see as probably thwarted self-love [306, where he states that the tears which abundantly irrigate these pages had been chiefly from self-pity]. I shall return to this later on, because there is so much weeping that it is a little disconcerting.

The Foreword

The book is set out in three parts: “Beginnings” (October 1954-October 1973); “Responsibility?” (April 1974-September 1991); and “Wider Responsibilities?” (October 1991-May 2018 – The unfinished story …).

In a short foreword, he christens the Gurdjieff teaching as “the Way of Questioning.” This is, I believe fundamentally mistaken, as questioning has no point if answering is not possible, and I would suggest that what was most distinctive about Gurdjieff was his answers. An “answer” does not have to mean that no further questions arise, that there is no further enquiry, nothing more to discover; but this focus on searching elevated above finding is typical of the New Work (the de Salzmann teaching, which I think of it as a series of casual engagements rather than a commitment to “work,” definite efforts in specific directions for an aim). I cannot see why one would search for an object which is not there.

When Ulbricht says that he does not set out to “explain” what he experienced, this has a special meaning for him. He sees “explanation” as the bane of most Gurdjieff-related writing. In Ulbricht’s hands, this leads to a lack of logical confrontation just when it would have been most valuable, e.g. he does not appear to note the apparent inconsistency between Michel de Salzmann’s comments about aim on two different occasions [“aim … can never be formulated” 154 compared with “Real knowledge is a current of energy directed towards a definite aim” 210].  If the two formulations are compatible, how  so? As I shall repeat in this series of reflections on this book, the major feature I missed was some sense that Ulbricht had an aim, a purpose, and that he systematically worked towards it, seeing and struggling with his negative emotions (especially self-love and self-pity, but also a tendency to futile imagination) while nourishing real feeling, thought and organic sensation.

The Chronology

It begins in school, and the first dated experience is in 1943 [3]. Two pages later, he has read Kenneth Walker’s Venture with Ideas, and Margaret Anderson’s The Fiery Fountains. By page 6, he has met Lord Pentland in the USA (where Ulbricht was then living) in 1954. He joins a group in New York, 1955, but by 1958 is back in England with Henriette Lannes [15]. In 1962 he visited the Ouspenskys’ property at Mendham, and returns to London. His meetings with Jeanne de Salzmann become more important for him, he maintains a correspondence with Pentland, and travels a good deal. The first part ends in June 1973, with the reorganization of the childrens’ activities at Bray (where they had their weekend work periods).

to be continued

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