Monday, December 28, 2009

snakes over the moon

On the heels of Christmas past--if not its ghost-- and after flying snakes over the very moon itself, some musings.

This week I was browsing through "Luba Gurdjieff: a memoir with recipes", as published by SLG books, Berkeley -- Hong Kong, 1997. Luba, for those of you new to the subject, was Gurdjieff's niece. She offers some refreshing points of view that are not colored by the Royal Keepers Of The Faith.

I came across this passage on page 11:

"I remember we girls wanted to wear lipstick. I was not allowed to wear lipstick until I was 18, but we wanted to wear it. When I was 16 we used to go out and put it on anyway and my uncle would say, "What is that rubbish on your face?"
He had a girlfriend, my uncle. She was French-Russian -- a funny woman. She wore more makeup than anyone else I've ever seen in the world. It was like paint. I would say to my uncle, "Why can she do it and not me?" He would say, "When you are her age you can whore yourself."

I was immediately reminded of the touching passages from "Beelzebub in America," in which Beelzebub encounters a young Persian man who struggles with his attraction to "woman-females," a degraded type of woman far from the pure -- if not downright puritanical -- ideal of "woman-mother."

And I thought to myself, well, well, well.

There have, by now, been far too many embarrassing peccadilloes on the part of various "spiritually developed" masters for any of us, I hope, to believe in any sense that spiritual genius-- even the genius of a man like Gurdjieff-- frees men from the confusing conditions we all face.

This remark of Luba's provoked a new line of pondering and inquiry about the overall nature and meaning of the book itself -- that is, "Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson."

With the recent publication of Carl Jung's "The Red Book," the topic of allegorical autobiography is in the air. Are there parallels in Gurdjieff's magnum opus?

Well, of course, you idiot, people are going to say to me. Everyone knows Gurdjieff "was" Beelzebub. But I don't think it's quite that easily dismissed. To be that glib about it implies that we understand the subject.

In his role as narrator, Beelzebub is set apart from the ordinary sins and foibles of every man--that is to say, he offers what Jeanne DeSalzmann might have called "the look from above." Nonetheless, even he begins with a stain on his soul that was the cause of his banishment to the solar system. (...need we also remind ourselves here of the repeated and even grotesque [for heavenly beings] incompetence of Beelzebub's fellow countrymen, and at least one lofty Archangel?)

Despite Beelzebub's lofty perspective, from which he "descends" to pass various sage judgments on the "slugs," i.e., men, he is observing, one begins perhaps to get the sense that each of the characters and situations in the book represents, in one way or other, a struggle that Gurdjieff went through himself. That is to say, in addition to being a vast spiritual allegory with a depth of perception and a breadth of relationship that stitches together a staggering number of religious understandings and practices, it is a recapitulation of Gurdjieff's own life. This suggests a more compelling and intriguing text than the one--delivered in the apparently abstract, or more clinically allegorical form--that more conventional interpretations offers us.

From this perspective, we might understand that the character of Beelzebub himself represents an idealized version of what even Gurdjieff himself was aiming for, not what he had attained. We are presented, in other words, with man's two natures framed in the context of the entire structure of the book: Beelzebub as the higher nature, and the rest of the mess as the lower. Couched in the text we find out not just how difficult it was and is for mankind -- not just how difficult it was and is going to be for you, or for me -- but we also find out how difficult it was for Mr. Gurdjieff himself.

As we hear from Beelzebub himself on page 271 of "Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson," These conscious observations and impartial verifications at last convinced Belcultassi that in his common presence of something was proceeding not as it should proceed according to sane being-logic."

Beelzebub experts and Beelzebub students alike, take note. If, as Orage suggested, Beelzebub has seven different levels of meaning and allegory, then an autobiographical depiction of Gurdjieff's highly personal inner struggles over the course of his lifetime may also be embedded in the book.

Indeed, psychologists (learned beings of new formation though they may be) might well support the premise that the author of any book -- no matter how conscious or unconscious he is -- puts a great deal of himself in his texts. All books are inevitably and irrevocably autobiographical, in one way or another. They spring uniquely from the being of the author themselves, and can come into existence no other way.

If we look at the book from this perspective, it may give us insight into some of the same urges, struggles, weaknesses, sins, strengths, triumphs, and defeats that Mr. Gurdjieff encountered during his own journey -- in what we might call a parallel to Carl Jung's exposé of his own inner journey through the collective unconscious in "The Red Book."

I'm not advocating revisionism here. The book still seems to me to be a totally extraordinary piece of work, and I think that trying to reduce it to any one perspective is a shamefully limiting activity. On the other hand, a call to broaden the perspective, to view the text from a more intimate and personal point of view, that is, as a document straight from the heart of the man himself, seems rather more interesting.

What does it tell us about the man himself, about his own contradictions and questions, as opposed to those of his alter ego Beelzebub?

When James Moore published his controversial -- to Foundation insiders, anyway -- biography of Gurdjieff, I found it touching. It humanized the man, took him off his pedestal, so to speak, and reminded me quite firmly that he was a man who dwelt among us, not some saint in white sheets. The reminiscences in Luba Gurdjieff's book, juxtaposed against the struggles of the young Persian man in "Beelzebub in America," remind me of this all over again.

For myself, it is in Gurdjieff's unabashed and unapologetic humanity -- his willingness to play the role of the "negative pole" in relationship to the higher -- that his true greatness resides. He did not spend time bullshitting people about how pure, compassionate, or enlightened he was. He was a gemstone with the dirt from the mine still on it, not all dressed up and faceted so that it looked good in the light.

May the living light of Christ discover us.




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