Saturday, August 11, 2007

A report on Beelzebub

As I have mentioned before, I am up to my proverbial eyebrows in review of the material in "Beelzebub's tales to his Grandson." Even here in China.

Not only did I read the whole book myself late last year and early this year--due to a fortuitous set of events, I unexpectedly found myself editing a massive quantity of sound files of various chapters being read out loud. Listening to the material being read to me is certainly a different experience than reading it myself. As I pour over the text, listening, reading, and pondering, I reevaluate -- and reevaluate -- and reevaluate.

It has been a terrifically valuable experience. I gained several major insights into meaning of the text over the last month which never would have arrived were it not for this project. I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to Mr. Gurdjieff for the effort he put into this book and the bones that he buried in it.

At the same time --one of the things that Gurdjieff insisted we do is to question everything -- even Gurdjieff himself. And so, inevitably, I ask myself questions about this text, instead of swallowing the bait whole.

Over the course of nearly 40 years of familiarity with his material (How so long?-- in the 1960's, a sixth grade teacher of mine, recognizing my precocious literary abilities, recommended I read Beelzebub -- which turned out to be over my head at that time, although I did try it on for size) I have satisfied myself that a great deal of what he said is true.

The true things that he did say are enormously important. They are probably some of the most important true things that have been sent to man in the last few centuries.

At the same time, I am not--as I have pointed out before in this blog-- satisfied with everything he said, and I refuse to sign on to a cult of idolization of the man. He was clearly as fallibly and touchingly human as the rest of us, despite his apparent level of development. His all-too-human weakness for colorful anecdotes and his tendency to engage in drama (which are hardly examples of his famous "impartial mentation") are all too evident in the "Beelzebub's tales to his Grandson." And those observations are certainly consistent with the details I hear from people who knew him personally.

What are we to make of Gurdjieff's ruthless and relentless criticism of man's present state? He stands almost alone among spiritual teachers (well, there may be a few fire and brimstone evangelists, but I doubt he would appreciate being classified with them) in apparent pessimism about what ordinary life can bring. His laundry list of man's foibles, transgressions, and sins makes the Catholic Church look like a libertarian organization. His deeply held belief that we are absolutely worthless the way we all are is offensive to almost everyone. --of course, I have little doubt that that particular feature of his work was intentional. Provoking reactions in people is one of the best ways to get their attention, and people will do little or nothing unless you get their attention.

His message to us reminds me of the way we treat children. In my own case, with our homegrown rat-pack of teenagers, I am often excessively stern. Much to my "exclusively-saintly-nurturing" wife's distress, I paint horrifically grim pictures of the future, repeatedly issue dire warnings about the disastrous state of my teenagers' being, the way they approach life, their activities, their attitude, and so on and so forth.

A lot of it is drama. In fact, I recognize that the kids really aren't that bad at all. I am just trying to spur them on in order to get them to organize their lives, get off their asses, and do something. The objective is to get them to see that life is not a merry-go-round where the only thing to be done is entertain oneself 24/7.

When I look at this, and I read Beelzebub, I realize that Gurdjieff was treating us in much the same way. Personally, I don't think things are quite as grim as he painted them. I think if he was in front of me right now and I stood him down (being the arrogant, stubborn Dutchman that I am) he would concede that we are not totally hopeless, that not everything about life is bad or worthless, and that even the smallest among us achieve something in this life, ...even if it is not very much.

In this day and age, when man has reached the technological levels he has, and we are damaging as many things as we are damaging, -- at least in the natural world -- there is a need to find a more positivist methodology to life. The bleakly Victorian pronouncements about the state of man which the oeuvre of the classic Gurdjieff literature leave us with don't ring true in today's world. Both the tone and the attitude are dated. People don't understand them. The Gurdjieff work might have been better off turning itself into a religion. People grok religions better.
Let's face it, heaven and hell are a little easier to understand than the ray of creation. ...So much so that Gurdjieff himself apparently failed to resist the temptation of seasoning his work with a bit of their piquant flavor. (see his remarks to O. in regard to levels and laws, about the place of "weeping and gnashing of teeth.")

I don't believe that we can move things forward, either individually or in terms of our society, by constantly telling each other how screwed up everything is. We need a message that affirms our possibilities, that affirms the value of our relationships and our lives. One of the reasons I like Paramahansa Yogananda is that he offers this alternative. His relentlessly positive message about our nature and our possibilities provides a perfect counterweight to the leaden pessimism of Gurdjieffian parentage.

It may sound odd to hear a person so utterly devoted to Gurdjieff's work say these things about him. I think, however, that in questioning him we must recognize and accept his weaknesses as well as his strengths. To blindly worship everything he wrote and agree with all of his points of view is just plain stupid. If he wanted anything from us, it was to act for ourselves, to think for ourselves, to be for ourselves.

Not to fall under the influence of everyone else and everything else.

Real work does not produce the same "results" every time. The whole point of development is that each human being has the potential to express a unique individuality through the development of their spiritual aim and effort.

This is why Jeanne DeSalzmann was not like Gurdjieff. She didn't say the same things he did, she didn't teach the same way he did, she didn't act like he did. Nonetheless she is recognized as a legitimate successor to Mr. Gurdjieff, at least within the formal confines of the G. Foundation as it stands today. J. G. Bennett was also different, and he also established a line of work that was uniquely his own.

Gurdjieff's work, as he said himself, did not "belong" to Gurdjieff, and it was not in the business of producing Gurdjieff clones. We should all consider that carefully as we examine our expectations and attitudes both in regard to our own work and the work of the people within the Gurdjieff work at large.

Today, this work, which is "the" work, not "Gurdjieff's" work, belongs to those of us who are alive and make efforts within it.

We do not know what it will produce. It will not produce another Gurdjieff, that is certain. There was only and ever can be one of him.

Whatever it produces, if it is real, will have to be new, challenging, fresh, different. It will not look like people dressed up as dervishes or Sufis. It will not sound like the music that Gurdjieff and de Hartman wrote. Its food will not smell like the dishes cooked in the past, and meetings will not be held in yesterday's buildings.

It will have to become a work for this century, for people as they are, and will have to take the political, social, and technological situations on the planet as they are today into account.

Even the internet.

If there is anything Gurdjieff intimated in Beelzebub's tales of his many descents to the planet, and in his tales of the various avatars that attempted to help humanity, what he intimated is this: New situations demand new approaches.

To all appearances, Gurdjieff himself lived that way, as did his work.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

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