N.B. I revised this review on 13 January 2024, trimming a few words here and there, but leaving it basically unchanged. Although many people I know and esteem intensely disliked this book, I still think it is worth reading. I think they were expecting something new, whereas I was not anticipating more than a sort of armchair overview. It is a little more than that.
Yet, when I wrote it I had appreciated fact but not the significance of the influence of the Perennialists (Traditionalists) on de Salzmann and Lipsey. Although he disclosed his work on A.K. Coomaraswamy and friendship with R.P. Coomaraswamy, I naively thought that the influence went no further than indicated. I now realise that some of the features which struck me as odd or misguided in this book are due to Lipsey’s thorough-going and profound debt to the Perennialists. To a significant extent, he has remade the Gurdjieff teaching into something meant to be appealing to the Perennialists, hence his melodramatic diatribes against Perry’s Perennialist attack on Gurdjieff (believed to have been requested by Schuon himself): he felt stabbed in the back by the very people he wanted to impress and to admit him into their gilded company.
Now, while I desisted from making many critiques which I could have, one which I only now appreciate, has to be presented: the interview with R.P. Coomaraswamy where R.P.C. mocks the Gurdjieff teaching, rhetorically asking why it has not produced flying boddhisattvas, and its influence is so slight. Lipsey said nothing to R.P.C., rather he gives his answer in this book. To give Lipsey due credit, he disclosed this. Unless R.P.C. had been telling people about it, we would not have known. But what remains, I think, is the clandestine undermining of Gurdjieff’s teaching by Lipsey and, I regret to say, by Jeanne de Salzmann. I consider the influence of the Perennialists to have been and to remain pernicious.
Part Three: Miscellaneous Notes
In explaining Gurdjieff to people who do not know him or are even antagonistic to him, I think that a significant point is that Gurdjieff did not only bring ideas, he brought practices which both exemplify and implement those ideas. In Witness, Bennett recounts how when he told Gurdjieff of a vision he had had, Gurdjieff said to him that what he had seen was real, but then he asked, what use was it to him if he did not know how make that vision the reality of his life. Many years later, in 1948, Bennett told his small group that he had believed that it was impossible to remember oneself, but that Gurdjieff had taught him exercises which had convinced him that it is in fact possible by utilising the powers latent in the body (Witness, 48, 198-199).
To my mind, this is one item which differentiates Gurdjieff from most other teachers, although of course since he brought his methods they have been imitated with varying degrees of innovation. Gurdjieff is a “sign of contradiction” to those places and people who fervently read and speak about mysticism, effectively dreaming of it, rather than engaging with it. Do not just fantasise about the miraculous, says Gurdjieff, work for it. Lipsey mentions some of his most potent methods: the movements, the music and the books. But I think more could be said about the groups and the exercises; so I commence with them. Finally, I mention some minor sundry points.
The basic idea of the groups is that when a number of people bring their questions, and they are answered by a teacher, then all members in the group learn both from others’ questions and by the replies (In Search, 223). By meeting regularly, a certain subtle demand is made. There is both a privilege and a responsibility. That Gurdjieff was a master of taking these groups, and evoking the feeling of belonging to a group, not just an assemblage of people, is evident in the increasing number of transcripts now available from the last ten years or so of his life.
Even when he was teaching in Russia, Gurdjieff often met his pupils in a group: Ouspensky’s In Search alludes to these. Those groups were also used for Gurdjieff’s exposition of the ideas, but at least sometimes, Gurdjieff would give them a task. When they met again, they would report on what they had found, and Gurdjieff would comment (In Search, 240 and 247-248). In London and the USA, in the 1920s, he gave lectures and answered questions (e.g. Gurdjieff’s Early Talks, 117-121 and 310-312). But these were not regular groups which met week in and week out. I am not aware that Gurdjieff took questions and gave replies in groups after Russia, until that final period in Paris. All throughout his career, he would engage in conversation with people, sometimes in moderate numbers, as Tchechovitch records in his memories. Interestingly, Taylor refers to a children’s group which Gurdjieff took, but he does not say how long that group lasted.
Lipsey does mention and even quote from some of these groups. But what I think should be underscored is the critical role of the groups in what has been the main form of passing on Gurdjieff’s teaching. In these groups, a number of pupils regularly meet together with someone who took the position of a mentor, if not of a teacher. They bring their observations and questions about their work, and those “in front” respond. Depending upon the group leaders, more or less may be said, it is more or less helpful or instructive (sometimes didactic), and tasks or exercises may be suggested.
It is not that no work is possible without groups. It clearly is: Gurdjieff did not take formal groups with the English, in 1948 and 1949, but they engaged in intense work. Yet, the groups have been historically crucial to the practical implementation of Gurdjieff’s ideas and methods. They allow for the directed application of the ideas to concrete life situations. Mr Adie, and not he alone, had a rule that one was to bring actual observations and, if possible, to formulate a question about what one had seen and tasted. If one had difficulty in finding the words, he would help. It was also a time when one might be put on the spot, as it were, as the grain was sifted from the chaff by someone of superior understanding. But the questions brought in groups were not to be theoretical. So often Mr Adie would ask us not to bring our conclusions about our efforts, let alone about ourselves. And so often, too, people would bring a general survey, and when, under Mr Adie’s guidance, they brought the actual factual observations, it turned out that they had arrived at a wrong, sometimes a bizarrely wrong, conclusion.
I would go further: I would say that it is artificial to treat any of Gurdjieff’s methods apart from the groups, or more precisely, apart from the necessary exchange about how the ideas and methods have been used in daily life. Ideally, these exchanges would at the very least include exchanges in groups,
Lipsey says: “Exercises taught by Gurdjieff have as a rule been little published, little discussed, and those who have nonetheless chosen over the years to publish and discuss leave an invisible tarnish where they have done so.” (143). When I read this, my first response was: “Why? What is his reason? Are we to accept his assertion? And everyone who has ever written on the exercises falls under this stricture?” Although I am in Roger’s firing line, I think I am on firm ground in saying that the rebuke as phrased is arbitrary and absolute.
But then I looked at it more closely: first of all, I considered the assertion that the exercises have been little published. That is true, arguably the most important exercises and their principles were published in Life Is Real Only Then, When “I AM”. Then, many more were published in The Reality of Being. Many more have appeared in the transcripts of the Paris meetings of the 1940s. The poor presentations in a book by Charles Tart have doubtless been forgotten, and a few others appeared in miscellaneous volumes. Yet, those aside, it appears to me that the publication of these other books alone makes Roger’s comment unreliable. Yes, not much has been said, but what has been said is what is most essential, and also the most authoritative.
Next, when he writes that some of us “chose” to publish, the question is: has he enquired as to why we made the choice? Perhaps some have published so that something so valuable not be lost. Solange Claustres told me that when the “responsibles” (by whom she had, I think, Jeanne and Michel de Salzmann and Henri Tracol chiefly in mind) decided to stop using Gurdjieff’s own exercises and substituted for them others of their own device, they acted, she insisted, for the best reasons. But, she also insisted, they had been wrong. “They were not in themselves negative,” she told me, “but the results of what they did were negative.” And in the course of that meeting she passed on to me an exercise from Gurdjieff which effectively dealt with a long-standing and seemingly intractable problem I had had.
Now, I suggest that it is not enough to criticise those who publish, for two reasons. First, whether one writes or is silent, one is responsible for what one knows. One who allows the exercises to be either forgotten or distorted cannot escape his responsibility for what he has learned. To say nothing is as serious a choice as speaking. Sometimes one has a duty to speak. Second, it is not, I suggest, what is said, so much as how it is said. One published alleged rendition of some exercises is, in my view, quite misconceived. Okay. That writer is responsible for that. Some of us have done our level best to present them accurately and with the proper context. If we have failed, we are responsible for that. Equally, Roger is responsible not only for what he has written, but also for what he has not.
Then, there is the question of the “invisible tarnish”. This is more problematic. The delightful English word “tarnish” is derived, our friend Skeat tells us, from an Indo-European root which originally meant “to hold, secure”, and hence to refer to what was hidden and kept secret. When it appears in English, the original sense was probably “to dim”. It still has that meaning, as well as meaning “staining”. One can surmise the development: what is kept secret will lose its colour and lustre. This makes me wonder: what is wrong with an invisible tarnish? Even if we accept that to speak of the exercises leaves one, simply on Roger’s say so, yet the only thing wrong with a tarnish is that it is visible.
Then, what, exactly is tarnished? Are the exercises less effective? Does a person who reads one of Gurdjieff’s exercises suffer some loss, some diminishment or lose an opportunity? I will not enter here into the vital importance of the exercises for implementing Gurdjieff’s teaching. I will just refer once more to Bennett’s comment, above, and add this one: “By the autumn of 1960, the realisation came to me that I had ceased to work on myself and had relied on the latihan to do what I should be doing by my own effort. … I resumed the discipline and the exercises I had learned from Gurdjieff and almost at once I found my state changed for the better” (Witness, 283).
A number of significant people were treated perhaps too concisely in this book: in alphabetical order they were Bennett, Ferapontoff, Jane Heap, Nicoll, Orage and Ouspensky. Ferapontoff excepted, they all established lineages within the Gurdjieff current. I believe the Heap and Orage lines have folded into the de Salzmann. Lipsey is in the de Salzmann lineage. This means that he does not see others the way I do. But one does not have to stay within one’s groove, one can make the imaginative effort to step out.
A quick check indicates that the word “centrum” is both a Late Latin and an English word, although little used in English. The English probably derives from the Latin and the Late Latin would be derived from the Greek. The Armenian is derived from the Greek. Whether Gurdjieff must have found it in Greek and Armenian. Whether he found it elsewhere, and whether he used it with the apparently exclusive Armenian, Latin and English meaning of “centre” or the wider ancient Greek senses of “sharp point, spur, centre” is anyone’s guess (see Lipsey 38).
I would agree with Lipsey that some of the “Gurdjieff materials” which are published “lack validity of serious care” (143), if by “validity” we mean that they are fraudulent (e.g. the Cox and Gold materials). But in a book of this type, it is perhaps better to specify which works he means: not specifying can lead to suspicion.
The idiot toasts could indeed be a development of the rituals Gurdjieff saw in Georgia (120 and 191), but I do not know that there is any evidence to that effect.
Was Gurdjieff saying to leave the table a little hungry (43)? The exercise he refers to, of leaving the last mouthful on the plate rather than eating it may have been an exercise in self-control. That is how Mr Adie understood it: a sleeping man will obsessively eat all the food on his plate because he is identified with it.
Page 54, footnote 3, see also my recent edition of Boris Ferapontoff’s Constantinople Notes (Beech Hill).
Lipsey devotes some attention to Gurdjieff and Dalcroze. I briefly averted to this in my academic article on the Sacred Dances and Movements, although I omitted most of my research due to limitations of space and because in the result, my view was that there was no link direct between Gurdjieff and Dalcroze other than coincidence (the question of the Dalcroze dancers who joined Gurdjieff is another matter). When I wrote that article I had completely forgotten about this important reference in the de Hartmanns’ Our Life with Mr Gurdjieff: “… there was one person who was very displeased with the demonstration (of Sacred Dances). This was Emile Jacques-Dalcroze. Perhaps it was because everything that he saw contradicted his own system of movement … Here everything was based on quite another principle of anti-mechanical movement, simultaneously developing physical work with consciousness and even prayer, as in the Dervish Movements” (de Hartmann and de Hartmann, definitive edition 206).
The comments on Gurdjieff’s script (78-79) are interesting, and unique. Once more, Lipsey has access to information most of us do not. After considering the material here, it looks to me as if the script could be a form of English, perhaps with some capacity for one sign to indicate a syllable or more than one letter.
The description of the two “assemblages” in Gurdjieff’s apartment which he christens “the crèche of humanity” (172-173) is enticing. Photographs would have been appreciated.
I agree that Gurdjieff did change, even in his public years (266). To my mind, the clearest exposition of this is the chapter “Djartklom” in Bennett’s Talks on Beelzebub’s Tales. I cannot do justice to it here, but perhaps I should write a post on it.
Lipsey’s account of Katherine Mansfield and Gurdjieff is good, but overlooks the extraordinary tale of the return of her ghost to the Prieuré, available in the French original of the Tchechovitch memoirs.
I think I understand and even have sympathy for the idea that “perhaps” the Gurdjieff tradition should “remain secret” (277). Mr Adie told us that he would not have published the Third Series. (I have a feeling he may even have said he would not even have published the Second Series!) I have been told that the formidable Jane Heap believed the Work had to remain small and if not secret, then confidential. But the thing is that it has not remained confidential, and leaving the techniques secret meant that they were in danger of being lost, for some of them (notably the exercises), were kept so confidential that they have almost been forgotten.
Joseph Azize, 16 November 2018