THOUGH GURDJIEFF may have left no heir, I know at least three ‘disciples’ who are competent to convey the essence of what may be called his super-knowledge. There may be others….
Of the three I know, one was entrusted by Gurdjieff to carry on his work in France. Ever since his death she has done what is too difficult to do.
One day she and I were talking about the too difficult, and I asked her what she thought I could do that would be useful. I had already had the idea of a book — ‘But how’, I asked her, ‘dare I try to write about Gurdjieff when I haven’t the brain to do it?
‘You’re for him, not against him, aren’t you?
Such simplicity staggered me. I could only say, ‘As you so well know.’
‘Then try,’ she said.
So I am trying.
For a long time I debated with myself about an effective way to introduce Gurdjieff to anyone who approaches him with antagonism. I kept on saying, ‘I can’t do it, I don’t know enough.’ For instance, there are scientific charts and diagrams which exemplify his ideas but which I can’t understand, and couldn’t understand even if my incapacity were threatened with torture. But this is because I am allergic to charts. I can never, for example, find my way through a city if someone makes me a diagram to follow. I ask him to direct me verbally, then I can arrive. When I was taught to drive a car, it took me much longer than necessary because my teacher refused to teach me in the only way I can learn — by simply answering in sequence any questions I needed to ask. If anyone would answer my step-by-step questions about the Gurdjieff charts, I think I could finally understand them; but I have never found such a person, either in or outside the Gurdjieff groups. Like Henry James, who remained a stranger to arithmetic, I must remain oblivious to charts as a guide to the Gurdjieff ‘system’. Oh, I have studied and memorized them, and I have a general idea of their meaning; but really to understand and explain them is something else. I can play chess, I understand the significance and power of each piece, I can even win; but I wouldn’t feel
I understood the game unless I had invented it.
There are other aspects of Gurdjieff’s teaching that I know I do understand, and that I can explain. Besides, it isn’t a question of knowing everything, but of understanding something. I have only to select, or quote, from all that I found wonderful.
Remembering the injunction that ‘You must give to others, you have to learn not only to understand but to explain; and you will see that you can understand certain things only by explaining them to others’ . . . I thought: what good am I doing in the world if I don’t make this effort? how else can repay’ my debt for having been born to a life on earth, and ‘repay’ Gurdjieff for teaching me how I could live that life more consciously?
I decided that I could use his own words as an introduction to his ideas.
But first, it would have to be understood that these ideas cannot be made available to everyone. The masses don’t want them, and couldn’t understand them. Clergymen, priests, evangelists, Billy Grahams, serve the needs of those whose aspirations and capacities are on a different level, and who, in the hierarchy of ‘accident’, never rise above that level.
Second, this arbitrary classification would have to be justified, and Gurdjieff himself has done it:**
Question: Why, if ancient knowledge has been preserved and if there has always existed a knowledge distinct from our science and philosophy, or even surpassing it, is it so carefully concealed? Why are the men who possess this special knowledge unwilling to let it pass into general circulation, for the sake of a better and more successful struggle with deceit, ignorance and evil?
Gurdjieff. There arc two answers. In the first place, this knowledge is not concealed; and in the second place it cannot, from its very nature, become common property.
I will prove to you that knowledge is far more accessible to those capable of assimilating it than is generally supposed; and that the whole trouble is that people either do not want it or cannot receive it.
But first of all another thing must be understood, namely, that knowledge cannot belong to all, cannot even belong to many. Such is the law. You do not understand this because you do not understand that knowledge, like everything else in the world, is material. This means that it possesses all the characteristics of materiality. One of the first characteristics of materiality is that matter in a given place and under given conditions is limited…. The matter of knowledge possesses entirely different qualities according to whether it is taken in small or large quantities. Taken in a large quantity in a given place, that is, by one man, or by a small group of men, it produces very good results; taken in a, small quantity (that is, by everyone of a large number of people) it gives no results at all; or it may even give negative results, contrary to those expected. Thus, if a certain definite quantity of knowledge is distributed among millions of people, each individual will receive very little, and this small amount of knowledge will change nothing either in his life or in his understanding of things.
But if, on the contrary, large quantities of knowledge are concentrated in a small number of people, then knowledge will give very good results.
At the first glance this theory seems very unjust, since the position of those who are, so to speak, denied knowledge in order that others may receive a greater share, appears to be very sad and undeservedly harder than it ought to be. Actually, however, this is not so at all; and in the distribution of knowledge there is not the slightest injustice.
The fact is that the majority of people do not want any knowledge whatever; they refuse their share of it, and do not even take the radon allotted to them in the general distribution for the purposes of life. This is particularly evident in times of mass madness such as wars, revolutions … when men seem to lose even the small amount of common sense they bad and turn into complete automatons, giving themselves over to wholesale destruction in vast numbers … even losing the instinct of self-preservation. Owing to this, enormous quantities of knowledge remain unclaimed and can be distributed among those who realize its value.
There is nothing unjust in this, because those who receive knowledge take nothing that belongs to others; they take only what others have rejected as useless and
what in any case would be lost if they did not take it.
The collection of knowledge by some depends upon the rejection of knowledge by others.
The other aspect consists in the fact that no one is concealing anything; there is no mystery whatever. But the acquisition or transmission of true knowledge demands great labour and great effort from him who receives and from him who gives. And those who possess this knowledge are doing everything they can to transmit it to the greatest number of people, to facilitate people’s approach to it and enable them to prepare themselves to receive the truth. But knowledge cannot be given by force to anyone, and an unprejudiced survey of the average mans’ life, of what fills his day, and of the things he is interested in, will at once show whether it is possible to accuse men who possess knowledge of concealing it, of not wishing to teach people what they know themselves.
… Knowledge cannot come to people without effort on their own part. People understand this very well in connexion with ordinary knowledge, but in the case of great knowledge, when they admit die possibility of its existence, they find it possible to expect something different. Everyone knows that if a man wants to learn Chinese it will take several years of intense work; everyone knows that five years are needed to grasp the principles of medicine, and perhaps twice as many years for the study of painting or music. And yet there are theories which affirm that knowledge can come to people without any effort on their part. The very existence of such
theories constitutes an additional explanation of why knowledge cannot come to people.
At the same time it is essential to understand that man’s independent effort to attain anything in this direction can also give no results. A man can only attain knowledge with the help of those who possess it.
One must learn from one who knows.
When you went to Gurdjieff to study, only one demand was made upon you — that you work. You weren’t asked to try to change your nature, or give up your business, or ‘enter a monastery’, but seriously to apply yourself to acquiring the three dimensional life Gurdjieff’s knowledge could prepare you for. The ‘work’ had to take first place in your scheme or nothing would be accomplished. This was the great difficulty in the beginning.
When I first heard of this concentration on a paramount aim, I thought of a pianist friend of mine, Carol Robinson, who spends several weeks a year teaching in one of the large American colleges for girls. The first thing she always says to a new group is, ‘You must understand that if any of You were really going to become pianists you wouldn’t be here.’
It was a similar preoccupation with a single aim that was my chief problem year after year with Gurdjieff (as it is with everyone, I’m sure). I remember when I was trying to write The Fiery Fountains and decided that I must stop going to him every day; I couldn’t write a book and study intensely with him at the same time — I was sacrificing the book by this division of energies, and I wanted to finish it because it might make some money which we badly needed.
One day I told Gurdjieff that I wouldn’t be coming to him every day for a while.
‘Why?’ he asked.
‘Because I must finish my book.’
‘Book is nothing,’ he said. ‘If not come to me now, perhaps later will be too late to come. Then cannot come any more than you can kiss your own elbow.’
So I decided to renounce the book and go back to the daily hours of effort in his terms. And, as always when you have made a right decision, the ‘fates’ conspired to help me. Gurdjieff soon left for America and I had three free months before me in which to finish the book.
In one part of it I described the struggle I had gone through for years in trying to incorporate his knowledge. I called this part ‘A Life for a Life’.
Much later, when the book was published (after I had returned to America during the war), I asked a neighbour — a simple, serious person — if she had been interested in what I wrote about Gurdjieff.
‘I was interested, yes,’ she said, ‘but it was all beyond me. How could you expect me to understand it? I’m just a housewife, and a mother. I have a husband and two children whom I love and for whom I want the best. Gurdjieff gave you something, I could see that; but what could he give me and my family?
It was a difficult question, to which I had too many answers. And what a long time it would have taken to answer briefly. Besides, could I have made any of it clear?
Then one clay our neighbour asked Dorothy,* ‘What is it you have that gives me the feeling of a great serenity.? I wish I knew, and that I could have it too.’
As always, Dorothy answered in simple words which somehow managed to convey something of the essence of Gurdjieff’s theories. She used none of his terminology but spoke in the most easy human way.
‘Oh,’said our neighbour,’how wonderful! How can I find out more about it?
When people ask, ‘Do I have to read an incomprehensible book like Gurdjieff’s All and Everything?’, I am reminded of Thornton Wilder’s answer to a woman who asked him whether she ought to read Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.
I’m just a housewife,’ she said. ‘I have three children. I belong to the P.T.A. Do I have to read books like these?
Wilder said: ‘Did you ever read Rousseau’s Emile or La Nouvelle Heloise? I never did — but I can pretty well believe that all of us, whether we know it or not, have been in large part formed by them. Every century has its underground books which have permeated thought. Often they have been transmitted through relatively few readers. I believe those two great books of Rousseau are shaping us still — though many of us will never read them.’
I can think of another way to introduce the Gurdjieff ‘theory’: by comparing it with other theories that are prevalent today.
Many people are now reading and discussing the philosophy of Zen. But to us, Dr. Suzuki — the interpreter of Zen Buddhism, with a large following in the western world — is a teacher to whom we could never have turned.
We had already had enough of terminologies like this: ‘The finite is infinite … Prajna lays its hands on Emptiness, or Suchness, or Self-Nature . , * the grasping must be no-grasping, accomplished by nondiscrimination, that is by non-discriminating discrimination,’ etc. No, no, if Gurdjieff had offered this kind of thing we would never have sought him out.
But there is a small book by Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery, which parallels in a striking way the method of Gurdjieff’s teaching, and which to all of us, I think, constitutes the only psychological event we have encountered since the advent of Gurdjieff in our lives. I also think it is doubtful that anyone can understand — really understand this book unless he has first listened to Gurdjieff (I have read several attempts at interpretation). All that Herregel discloses about his six years of instruction in archery might serve as a manual of Gurdjieff’s daily psychological instruction, and might help people to understand why this super-psychology begins where all our orthodox psychology ends.
Another way to begin talking about Gurdjieff might be this:
Man is born into the captivity of Nature, with his supernatural part passive and hidden from him. With the greatest degree of natural intelligence he can never find anything in himself but mind, feeling, and senses. Only with assistance, instruction and revelation added to faith, the fire of wish and undeviating purpose, can he succeed in being ‘born again’.
For ‘rebirth’ there is an exact Science, the greatest in the world.
Not long ago I decided to read Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. I had always been willing to imagine that there must be something in existentialism, but uninterested in investigating it, knowing that it would be nothing in comparison with the Gurdjieff super-knowledge.
I read on and on — discovering, indeed, ‘nothingness’: ‘A freedom which wills itself freedom is in fact a being-which-is-not-what-it-is and which-iswhat-it-is-not, and which chooses as the ideal of being, being-what-it-is-not and not-being~-what it-is.’ Or this: ‘The possible is a structure of the foritself. Being-in-itself is never either possible or impossible. Being is. Being is in-itself Being is what it is.’
Doubtless! . . . if you don’t recognize such ‘titillation’ for what it is: simply a new Tower of Babel — of all approaches to Being one of the most certain to lead nowhere. Such a book is the summit of what Gurdjieff called ‘philosophysing’ — ‘pouring from the empty into the void’. (‘Only a philosopher can understand other philosophers,’ he said. ‘Children and animals alone have the property of pure magicality. They do not philosophize’.)
What does Sartre reveal about ‘knowing himself’? about knowing anyone else? about knowing anything that must be known if one starts on a quest of that exact science which says that a man must be born again?
But I am forgetting Gurdjieff’s primary premise that should be stated first of all in the pursuit of self-knowledge:
‘Man is a biological product of three interacting centres — physical, emotional, mental. We are in a state of arrested development because our mental and emotional centres are not developed.’
Since this book is not a treatise, but an intimation, I will quote at random certain formulations of the Gurdjieff cosmology that give a kind of orchestration of his thinking:
The universe is an intelligent scheme (plan, idea), and is therefore intelligible. The Gurdjieff ideas are a pattern of thinking — a great thinking-machine. Any question the mind of man can put has been answered. At the base of things there is not just a mystery. The nature of things he together in harmony. The real world is the evolution of an idea.
Man’s obligation is to cooperate with the laws which operate the universe. The realization of the working of certain laws is the kingdom of heaven.
The obligation goes with the fact that man has a unique place. But the awareness of his place is not a gift of nature. No man by wishing, or by taking thought, can do anything about his development. He must do something unique. This method offers this unique activity.
Since we have no technique for development, our life is like a dream. in dreams we don’t choose or invent events. Our life is like that. And we can’t voluntarily wake from this dream. We wake, or develop, only if the dream becomes unbearable, or if someone shakes us awake.
The octave was originally a formula to explain cosmic truths — only later was it used musically.
The active is a mathematical formula, in respect of sound, through which all creation (physical and psychical) must pass, upward and downward, in the phenomenal changes of nature.
A state of consciousness has a place (relative position) in the cosmos. The Sermon on the Mount — a high state of consciousness.
By conscious thoughts, emotions, acts, we feed ourselves. God, when He made the universe, made self feeding.
Time is only the exhaustion of the means to renew ourselves.
Knowledge and Understanding are quite different. Only Understanding can lead to Being, whereas Knowledge is only a posing presence in it. One must strive to understand. This alone can lead to our Lord God, and in order to understand the phenomena of Nature according to Law, one must first of all consciously perceive and assimilate a mass of information concerning objective truth and the events which really took place on earth in the past; and secondly, one must be the bearer of all kinds of personal-experiences-personally-experienced.
Perhaps one of my own experiences, after several years of working with Gurdjieff, may be a propos.
It was a kind of vision — the sort of illuminated seeing’ that happens with great suddenness, lasts for an instant, and leaves an indelible impression. Such moments are rare, and usually happen when you have been making great effort or have been harassed beyond endurance, too discouraged to go on trying at all.
One morning, — after a night of anguish, I sat up in bed as if I had been catapulted from sleep. I had had, in a flash, an answer to the recurring question: ‘Why do we work with Gurdjieff ? Why do we do the “exercises” (physical, emotional, mental) he gives? What are they really for?
The answer traced back to a statement of his — a Statement he never ceased to repeat and which was, to most people, the most antagonistic of all his pronouncements: ‘Man has no soul; he has only the potentiality!
We have always assumed that man is born with a soul, that this is the endowment which distinguishes him from animals. But now in my vision I saw that you can’t say a man is born with a soul any more than you can say that he is born with an art. A man may be born an artist — that is, with an art tendency — but he won’t have an art until he has worked at art, developed it through an organic process of growth. He must live a life of Art. In the same way, a man can’t have a soul until he has lived a life of the Soul.
So I began to understand at last — after how many years? — the reason for the Gurdjieff ‘exercises’: you work with them to make the soul function just as a painter works with colour and design to make his painting function. This ‘great discovery’ seems so simple that you can’t imagine why you haven’t always known it, especially since it has been suggested to you from the beginning. But when it strikes you as a piece of original thinking — as it struck me that long-ago morning — it’s as if you had solved the whole mystery of the world.
I have always been moved by Eliphas Levi’s words about men like Gurdjieff:
“What secret do these men bear with them to the tomb? Why are they wondered at without being understood? why are they acquainted with things of which others know nothing? Why do they conceal what all men burn to know?
There is indeed a formidable secret…. There is a science and a force. . . . There is one sole, universal and imperishable doctrine, strong as the Supreme reason, simple like all that is great, intelligible like all that is universally and absolutely true. This doctrine has been the parent of all others …. The secret constitutes the science of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and the secret of indefinite human progress is in that expression ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’.”
*In Search Of the Miraculous, by P. D. Ouspensky. (London,1950).
** Mrs. Enrico Caruso.