Soul Food

Is There "Life" on Earth? An Introduction to Gurdjieff

by J.G. Bennett
Stonehill, 144 pp., $2.25 (paper)

Gurdjieff: Making a New World

by J.G. Bennett
Harper & Row, 320 pp., $8.95

Views from the Real World: Early Talks of Gurdjieff

As Recollected by His Pupils
Dutton, 284 pp., $10.95

Talks with a Devil

by P.D. Ouspensky
Knopf, 176 pp., $5.95

Gurdjieff; drawing by David Levine

The revived interest, to which these recent books testify, in an occult doctrine of the 1920s challenges an attempt at serious understanding. Although aspects of the teaching made an appeal to the Heard-Huxley-Isherwood group in the 1930s the true doctrine has been kept alive for the past fifty years by a very small number of people, one of them Mr. J.G. Bennett, a man now in his seventies, who directs an “International Academy for Continuous Education” in England. His introductory lectures on Gurdjieff, dating from 1949, form the substance of Is There “Life” on Earth?, and he gives a fuller account of the man and his teaching, set in the context of present-day problems, in Making a New World. He also edits and introduces Talks with a Devil, two allegorical stories that Ouspensky wrote in 1914 after his own pilgrimage in the East but before he had met Gurdjieff.

Ouspensky, born in 1878, devoted himself to Gurdjieff, a close contemporary, from 1915 until 1924 when he could bear him no longer. After that, still adhering to the system though presenting it independently, he had his own teaching center, first in London and then from 1941 to 1947 in New York. He died in 1947, two years before Gurdjieff.

Mr. Bennett is a persuasive guide. He leads into his subject by the familiar path of denouncing what we all deplore, the “negative” emotions of hostility, anxiety, jealousy, and so forth in the individual and their calamitous collective expression in wars, and he offers sound injunctions as well known to psychotherapy and religion as, for instance, “Know thyself.” We go along trustfully with him step by reasonable step on firm ground, and then abruptly, almost between one sentence and the next, we plunge into a crevasse. War, he well says, “is a terrible madness which overtakes mankind, when people lose even the little sense of reality they usually have.” And then in the next paragraph:

War has a twofold origin. The first |is outside man and arises independently…. From time to time a special state of tension arises on the earth, which Gurdjieff calls the state of “Soliooensius.” This state of tension arises from the relations between the planets.

He hastens to assure us that this is nothing mysterious, just an effect of “changes in the balance of electrical and other energy in the solar system.” Culpeper, I feel sure, would have said the same, had he known about electricity when he published his Herbal in 1653:

Fourthly, You may oppose diseases by Herbs of the planet, opposite to the planet that causes them: as diseases of Jupiter by Herbs of Mercury, and the contrary…diseases of Mars by Herbs of Venus and the contrary.

Fifthly, There is a way to cure diseases sometimes by Sympathy, and so that every planet cures his own disease; as the Sun and Moon by their…

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