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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

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 Herbs cure the Eyes, Saturn the Spleen, Jupiter the Liver, Mars the Gall and diseases of choler, and Venus diseases in the Instruments of Generation.

Ouspensky too passes from the ordinary to the fantastic without changing gear. He sees man as having various “centers,” intellectual, emotional, moving, and instinctive, each involving the whole body but with its own “center of gravity”—the brain, the solar plexus, and the spinal cord. This mixture of oversimplified psychophysiology, metaphor, and muddle is usual enough, but Ouspensky adds that these centers work at widely different speeds:

…all the figures referring to these different speeds are established and known in school systems. As you will see later, the difference in the speed of centers is a very strange figure which has a cosmic meaning, that is, it enters into many cosmic processes or, it is better to say, it divides many cosmic processes one from another. This figure is 30,000. This means that the moving and instinctive centers are 30,000 times faster than the intellectual center. And the emotional center, when it works with its proper speed, is 30,000 times faster than the moving and instinctive centers.

Clearly these are as much matters of faith as the Virgin Birth or reincarnation or the creation of the universe in six days, and we might respect them more if they were not baited with scraps of science.

The technique of extrapolation from science to fantasy is simplicity itself. Mr. Bennett demonstrates it in Is There “Life” on Earth? He points to the increasingly fine forms of energy, from the heat released when wood burns, through electrical energy, and on into the radiations that are detectable only by the most refined scientific techniques. So, he says, we can presume that there is a still higher form of energy connected with thoughts and feelings, beyond that a form which enables us to choose and make decisions, and further on still energies which permit “man to form in himself a second body, which is made of a higher order of matter than his physical body.” But although this second body survives the death of the physical body,

At the same time, it is not the vehicle of the true self, the independent will. These belong to the third body in man. This is made from the highest form of energy…. The third body is the soul in the Christian sense.

Gurdjieff held that this soul is not a natural possession, nor “spiritual”; it is of fine material substance, and it has to be created with the aid of appropriate mental and physical exercies.

All this is quite irrefutable and equally quite untestable, and it is therefore, scientifically and logically, on a par with any fantasy for which no disproof is even conceivable. As always with such beliefs, a prop for faith is found in the fact that others have shared them, in this case sages in the mysterious depths of Asia. Gurdjieff traveled there widely at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of this century, attaching himself to cult centers from Turkestan to Tibet (his traveling facilitated, Mr. Bennett thinks, by his being a Russian spy), and he seems to have gathered esoteric teachings that brought together Sufism, Buddhism, and remnants of Zoroastrianism and other more ancient doctrines, as well as learning the physical practices not only of yoga but of dervish cults. He brought to the West, besides the doctrines, the temple dances and the sacred rhythms and gymnastics; he maintained that they did more than contribute to individual development: they actually expressed and conveyed doctrinal knowledge. If it had not been for a car crash in France, when he almost died, Gurdjieff would, says Mr. Bennett,

no doubt have begun to use the movements in the traditional way as they were used in the ancient temples, for the principal purpose of transmission of knowledge directly to the higher centers without passing through the mind.

After his studies in the East Gurdjieff returned to Asiatic Russia and set about becoming a wealthy man, by public-works contracting, buying and selling businesses, developing oil fields, and also by undertaking the cure of drug addicts and alcoholics for very large fees paid by their desperate families. He could then establish his first teaching center.

It would do no good to think of him as a charlatan (and with the austere Ouspensky not even the suspicion would arise). We have no word for the man who sincerely holds improbable beliefs but uses all the tricks of the charlatan and showman to disseminate them. It was hardly a charlatan who made prodigious efforts in daily sessions “to cure his wife’s cancer by a technique learned in Central Asia which made use of astral power.” But the smell of charlatanry, 1914 style, pervades the country house near Moscow where the carefully selected and awe-inspired new disciple (who tells the fascinating story in Views from the Real World) is led by the hand through a pitch-black and carpet-muffled anteroom and then pushed ahead into a lighted room where the master sits cross-legged, with water pipe and coffee, amid ottomans and rugs, with carpets covering the walls, doors, and windows, the ceiling festooned “with ancient silk shawls of resplendent colors,” diffused light from two lamps, a delicate scent mingling with the aroma of tobacco. This is the kind of thing Madame Sosostris would have appreciated.

Gurdjieff was not just a teacher but very much a manipulator of people. Ouspensky found him intolerable as a person and broke with him on moral grounds, although remaining loyal to his system; there was great ambivalence on both sides. With other disciples Gurdjieff broke abruptly and cruelly, apparently when he found himself becoming in any way dependent on them for emotional or material comfort. Mr. Bennett charitably interprets this tactic as being intended for the good of the disciple, but he doesn’t conceal the hurtfulness of these rejections and can’t bring himself to describe the tragic effect on two young Russians. There seem to have been psychotic elements in Gurdjieff’s make-up: he had frequent frenzied rages in which his entire body would shake and his face grow purple, he went in for wildly dangerous high-speed driving in spite of disastrous accidents, and when there were no funds he made grandiose plans for great building projects at the Prieuré, his Institute near Paris. Earlier he had told Mr. Bennett

how he intended the Institute to develop, how it would become a center of training and research not only into the powers of man himself, but into the secrets of the solar system. He said he had invented a special means for increasing the visibility of the planets and the sun and also for releasing energies that would influence the whole world situation.

Nevertheless it is indisputably clear from Mr. Bennett’s account that this one-time professional hypnotist was a spellbinder, not only for the girl disciples whom he used as a harem but for highly intelligent if not rationally disciplined men and women.

How are we to understand the revival of interest in such a cult figure and his teaching? The background, of course, is a spreading disillusionment with the standard baits that society, especially industrialized society, holds out—material prosperity and social status, with the implications of a secure (and securely shackling) job, a socially sanctioned (and supervised) marriage, State-organized security of life and property (until State-organized war destroys it). In the second of Ouspensky’s Talks these are the lures with which the Devil, a benevolent technocrat, tempts a member of the small minority of humanity not already happily in his power—and it is only patriotism that finally wins him his victim, who is last seen newly enlisted, marching down Piccadilly in 1914. (This, remarkably, was published without interference in Petrograd in 1916: the tsar’s successors have a more alert censorship.) The disenchanted minority—it is never more, as Ouspensky recognized—becomes more vocal and recalcitrant after particularly dramatic blunders by organized society, and his story accurately foreshadows the mood of the 1920s and the 1960s.

In these periods the minority who reject the standard baits search more desperately for other values to guide the development of their individual potentialities, including the social potentialities that the State exploits in simplified forms. Such values—not displacing the need for material well being, security, and social support, but putting it in perspective—are implied in all the religions and also in the disinterested pursuit of the arts, the sciences, humane learning, and personal relationships. In the universities only a very few teachers can convey, to a few students, the possibility of individual development through the discipline of an intrinsically satisfying “subject.” Mostly the universities serve Ouspensky’s Devil by supplying personnel for the professions and industries of contemporary society, shaping students into tools (most students asking nothing better).

Compared with the universities at their best and most exacting, religion as an alternative to the pursuit of wealth and prestige has the advantage of making kindlier provision for people of moderate and low intelligence; there is a respected place for everyone. But although any religion proposes a perspective of values in which worldly success appears diminished, the standard religions of one’s own society, whether or not originally tailored to its needs, have become through long wear too comfortably fitting to look like a real alternative to its prevailing values. For the restive minority they are discredited, unless very drastically revised in presentation, as in the Jesus cults—which make small appeal to the sophisticated or sensitive. The dice are loaded in favor of religions from outside one’s own culture.

The East is well outside. But it has more than this and more than the glamour of mystery on its side. Its potential in correcting some imbalance in Western culture was one of Jung’s insights in the late 1920s. Speaking of the theosophical belief that certain Mahatmas inspire or direct every mind in the world he comments:

It seems to be quite true that the East is at the bottom of the spiritual change we are passing through today. Only this East is not a Tibetan monastery full of Mahatmas, but in a sense lies within us. It is from the depths of our own psychic life that new spiritual forms will arise; they will be expressions of psychic forces which may help to subdue the boundless lust for prey of Aryan man. We shall perhaps come to know something of that circumscription of life which has grown in the East into a dubious quietism; also something of that stability which human existence acquires when the claims of the spirit become as imperative as the necessities of social life. [Modern Man in Search of a Soul]

But what, in less vague and general terms, has the East to offer as a corrective to Western ways? Two related features of Gurdjieff’s system point to psychological possibilities that the East has developed much further than the West. The first is the importance he gives to freeing oneself from involvement in the constant stream of casual mental associations through which the trivialities of everyday existence and social contact impose themselves on us. In a very simple talk recalled in Views from the Real World he advised a New York questioner how to mobilize enough energy to achieve an aim in personal development: he should sit alone for at least an hour, relaxing all his muscles, letting his associations proceed as if they belonged to someone else and not getting absorbed in them; at the end of the hour he should write his “aim” on a piece of paper, and then

Make this paper your God…read it constantly…. To gain energy, practice this exercise of sitting still and making your muscles dead. Only when everything in you is quiet after an hour, make your decision about your aim.

This is immediately followed by the usual stuff about magnetism, astral matter, and auras, but the simple prescription itself points in the right direction, toward ensuring that our purposes are backed by a coordinated personality and are not just verbal resolves formulated prematurely and having too little depth to resist distractions. It is in line with the various forms of “meditation” found in most religions but given special prominence in present-day importations from the East.

Allied with his insistence that the talking surface of the mind should be quieted went the second feature of Gurdjieff’s system of instruction, the development of disciplined bodily movement in dance, posture, gesture, balance, and rhythm (and the cultivation of the stillness and relaxation against which they are composed). The contribution of the musculature to the “mental” states with which we usually contrast it is almost unexplored in the West, although some lines of work have approached it. They include the various techniques of progressive relaxation (whether as explicit programs or tacit accompaniments of message or acupuncture); psychophysiological experiment on changes in the fine musculature and the volume of the blood vessels during attention and mental effort (with feedback techniques to help in bringing them under control in psychosomatic conditions); a great deal of work on gesture, stance, gait, eye movement, etc., as media of expression and communication; and, more practically, the ubiquitous spread of “yoga classes” in which exercises of controlled posture and relaxation are offered without doctrinal adhesions.

But the use of relaxation and controlled movement even for the treatment of minor physical ailments is still rudimentary and commands less general confidence than pharmaceuticals and surgery. As a means to the development of personality, as it is in Gurdjieff’s system, it engenders deeper suspicion, coming under the same interdict as shamanism and the trance and delusional states induced by drugs or fasting; it challenges the sovereignty of reason. And certainly to abandon the Western ideal entirely and not bring the outcome of such practices to the eventual test of logical coherence and of consistency with observable fact does lead to freewheeling fantasy and whatever set of bizarre beliefs the latest arrival among the prophets can establish in susceptible minds. Yet reason is fragile if it claims a supremacy independent of the organism’s other coordinating processes; when it imposes language-mediated principles, judgments, and intentions that are not in harmony with the body’s needs and capacities it induces the stress illnesses or anxiety states that end its effective reign.

By an odd quirk of fashion young Americans seem to have neglected Trigant Burrow, their home-produced prophet, whose teaching shared so many of the features now being avidly absorbed from the East: a profound distrust of the role that language has been allowed to assume in shaping our lives, relaxation techniques to secure a special mode of relating ourselves to the environment, and a sort of “commune” that required more radical social integration than anything attempted in Zen or Gurdjieff’s system. And at the same time Burrow’s aim—and his achievement to some extent—was to keep his work within the exacting discipline of Western science, without taking off into supernatural beliefs. His prose, while not so grotesquely clotted as Gurdjieff’s, has the advantage for cult purposes of being at times only partly intelligible (though a fairly clear picture of his work emerges from his selected letters, A Search for Man’s Sanity, Oxford University Press, 1958).

Basically all the modern cults, religious or secular, are united in seeking forms of individual development that bring satisfaction directly, and not through the prestige or material wealth they produce, and in seeking to ensure that the individual develops in community with others. In the end they have to meet the insistent question of how to use the human potential that their techniques and ways of living release—the question of what activities in this life are worth pursuing. A good life without content, spent in harmony and mutual helpfulness with others equally without content, is not a compelling ideal. The need still remains for the magnificent wealth of human pursuits that cultures have astonishingly managed to create in spite of the folly of wars and squandered resources. To approach the full use of even a fraction of these possibilities—in the arts and sciences and human relations—demands at least as much disciplined enterprise as the cults devote to establishing their intercourse with remoter cosmic processes.

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