The most important points I wished to make were in Part 1 of this review, where I considered the first of the two narratives in Ben Bennett’s book. The great bulk of the volume is his telling of the “story” of his father. But interleaved with it is a much shorter book, Ben’s personal judgments on the Gurdjieff tradition. That is what I will discuss now.
The basic problem I see with this book-within-a-book is its authors credentials to make sweeping assertions such as that Ouspensky’s charge of theft of intellectual property against Bennett “suggests a level of egoism, self-importance and covetousness in Ouspensky that belies his own qualification to be known as a teacher.” (85-86) This is a big call: at the very least, to make it one would have to know what Ouspensky had been told, and his grounds for accepting it. But the problem goes even further that: the author is holding himself out as competent to arbitrate on “qualifications to be known as a teacher.” Now he may possess those qualifications. But they do not appear in this book.
And that brings me back to my critique: Ben has produced two different books but written them together as if they were one. As stated, the first book, the “story” of his father, succeeds. The second book, the take on the Gurdjieff tradition does not – possibly not because the author lacks the understanding necessary to write such a book, but because by inserting his opinions into the story of his father, he does not allow himself the space to do justice to his views. Take another example: “My own reading of Ouspensky’s travel accounts is that he himself had in fact encountered these ‘schools’ but that his own prejudices and preconceptions had blinded him to what was in front of him.” (62)
I could simply ask, why should we care about what Ben Bennett’s reading of Ouspensky’s travel accounts is, if he does not set out what he has read, and explained why he has come to the conclusion he has? That observation would be sufficient to explain my discomfiture at reading this. But then, are we to take from this statement that Ben believes himself to have understood Ouspensky’s experience better than Ouspensky himself did?
Likewise, he baldly asserts that Ouspensky believed “that he already knew enough of the system that he no longer needed Gurdjieff.” (98) Where does Ouspensky say that? And if it is to be inferred, on what basis is the inference drawn?
I think the facts were quite the opposite, and not only me. Stephen Grant has made out a case that Ouspensky wanted to return to Gurdjieff. I think he goes further than the available evidence warrants, but he is basing himself on an anecdote from his mother0in-law, Jeanne de Salzmann which runs counter to the other evidence, so I can hardly criticise him for that. As I see it, Ouspensky was forced away from Gurdjieff but had no illusions as to his own limitations. I think that would be a fairly standard view.
Along this line, Ben writes that his brother asked him whether he really had the authority to make the judgment he had made on p.128. He admits George had a point, but he did not take it to heart. As we see in “Miscellaneous Points” below, other problematic aspects of the book come from Ben’s apparent sense that he could speak of his own authority, without providing references.
Significant Short Matters
I am going to set out a number of small matters with bullet points. I think the effort to make a connected narrative would be unduly difficult.
But there is one matter of quite some significance for me, and for people with an interest in the authentic Gurdjieff work which I must single out: Ben reveals that Bennett learned the Nine Points Exercise from Shah. (193)
I have always been sceptical of this “exercise.” When I thought Bennett might have learnt it from Gurdjieff, I was prepared to countenance that I was not simply not sufficiently developed for it. Still, there were several points about it which struck me as quite a departure from Gurdjieff’s other exercises, and although I was taught it by a second-generation pupil of Bennett, I stopped using it and have never taught it. This “exercise” has what I considered an apparently fanciful “explanation” about perception. I say “apparently” because it was not inconceivable that my being was too low to realise it (i.e. make it real for myself).
I now understand that Mrs Staveley learnt of the exercise sometimes in the 1970s or 1980s, but did not use it at the Two Rivers Farm, because she strongly suspected that it was not from Gurdjieff. Now, Mrs Staveley did accept as authentic at least two other exercises from the Bennett tradition: the Conscious Stealing and the Decision Exercises, so she was not hostile or even cynical to accepting that Bennett had Gurdjieff exercises which she had not known of. So she was perfectly correct about the Nine Points. I never use it and recommend it be avoided.
Now, the other significant but short matters are:
- Bennett spent one day a week on community work (173). This practical aspect is much neglected in the Gurdjieff Work, and is one of the aspects of the priesthood I most value. The distinction between the inner and the outer work is, ultimately, a false dichotomy, and each shows the weaknesses in the other (e,g, deficiencies in charitable work show up deficiencies in my being-state). The fact that Bennett did this is significant, for he was certainly busy enough with weighty matters to have been able to put it off.
- Speaking about learning the Lord’s Prayer as a sort of mantram, “he observed that any such repetitive activity becomes mechanical and does not replace the task of self-remembering.” (62)
- Gurdjieff had said: “… it is indispensable to seek for reliable knowledge of long-past events not only to help us understand the present, but because we are connected with the past and must learn to make use of this connection.” (108)
- The description of Subud crises (159).
- The confirmation, as I take it, that Idries Shah possessed Hasnamuss-properties: that is, he was a parasite and a fraud (181, 183, with his mother’s keener insight into Shah’s snobbishness and emptiness, also 191 on how even Bennett saw that Shah had assumed a responsibility and then disowned it).
Interesting Short Matters
- Rogers the schoolmaster warned that JGB’s lack of stability may lead to disappointment in his career (18);
- Bennett helped Gurdjieff with the ship in Constantinople (28);
- Bennett was colour-blind (29);
- Bennett taught a Vedic technique for memorizing text (38);
- Gurdjieff told Bennett about his five Turkish languages, the 4,000 tekkes and monasteries he had visited, the tunes learnt, and 800 “devotional and other exercises.” (41-42)
- Bennett helped found the New York Foundation (122-3);
- Bennett never learnt Arabic (127);
- Merston wrote how well Bennett could take criticism (135);
- Bennett never missed Sunday Mass, and helped the St Vincent de Paul once he had converted (173).
- Shushud pulled out of the contract for Masters because Gurdjieff was “a drunken womanizer who was, moreover, Armenian”. I had not known that Shushud dismissed the Movements as ‘childhoods’.” (224-5)
- Briefly, A New Model of the Universe, does in fact allude to Gurdjieff (37): he is the source for some of Ouspensky’s observations about Yoga and about the Mevlevis.
- Gurdjieff never used the word ma’arifat, and neither should his words be paraphrased in this respect (40).
- Ditto for speaking of “baraka.” (87 and elsewhere) It is an error to assume that it is the same as the higher energies Gurdjieff spoke of; at times it may, at times it may not, but better far to use Gurdjieff’s own words.
- I would question the idea that “collective unconsciousness” is “central to everything Bennett later wrote and taught, “and this notion is allegorically described in depth in Gurdjieff’s own book.” (50)
- He states that the “Master Idea of the New Epoch” is an idea “more attributable to Gurdjieff than to Ouspensky.” (83) I see it as attributable to neither. He provides no references.
- I would not have thought that “The Prieuré the “model for future centres …” (94) Neither is there any evidence known to me that “At the Prieuré, Gurdjieff “attempted to train pupils in the kind of clairvoyant powers he himself had acquired in exceptional circumstances.” (210) This is part of the problem of omitting references.
- Ben states that Gurdjieff Making a New World is “unquestionably the most important” study of Gurdjieff by one of his pupils, etc. (103 and 225), Perhaps he has so narrowly defined the field that he has to be right. I would rate Solange’s book and Zuber’s above it, even some of Bennett’s own earlier books on Gurdjieff because, in my view Gurdjieff Making a New World was a failure, written under the influence of a Sufi obsession. So, it can be questioned.
- I do not agree with Ben on C- influences. (104) As I read Ouspensky, it is a far more specific concept than he presents it as. Again, he does not explain the basis of his view.
- I do not know what is meant by “learning from neutral experience ..” (180)
- I disagree that Bogga Eddin is “a thinly disguised symbol of Bahauddin Naqshbandi …” (186) This is a bold surmise given the popularity of the name, and other than the name I can find absolutely nothing in support of it.
- Dover’s Powders are most definitely not fictional (216), as an internet search will show at once. However, I have come across them in 19th century books.
The author has done a far better job than most. Still, I could not help noticing:
- The lay out of the paragraph half way down page is askew (42). This is a hazard of self-publishing.
- “Welsh” (104) should be “Welch.”
- There is a word missing after “cosmological” on (116).
What could have been a very good book is limited by the author’s being unable to keep his judgments on Ouspensky and aspects of the Gurdjieff Work out of the story of his father. He should have written one simple book, but he complicated it by writing two, and mixing them together.