Saturday, May 14, 2011

Eminent Gurdjieffians- a review of the biography of Lord Pentland

This week, I both started and finished the book Eminent Gurdjieffians, by James Moore.

A short book, it would make for an even quicker read if it weren't for Moore's baroque prose. I daresay most of us would find Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson to be an easier–and more interesting– read.

Moore is an able--even talented-- craftsman of language, but the book gives the impression that he is a bit too enamored of his skill. The best such work ought to bring with it a transparency in which the craftsman disappears; that's not the case here. Instead, Moore's idiosyncratic presence looms large over every twist and turn of verbiage. I found myself wishing for an editorial weed whacker to thresh out adjectives and mow paragraphs down to size.

On the positive side, he has both a penchant for arch witticisms, and the ability to deliver them; this was one of the small pleasures of the book, and I had to grasp at it, because there were few of them. As to any larger pleasures, we will have to wait for the sequel.

In all, however, we should perhaps grudgingly admit that he has performed a real service. Who else, after all, is going to provide us with a biography of this significant Gurdjieff figure?

The book dwells a good deal too long, in my estimation, on Pentland's upbringing, which, as presented, seems to me to be made of rather thin fabric. In this portion of the book, what we receive is a snapshot of the social, political, and economic milieu that Pentland was born into, with the young Lord Pentland Photoshopped into it, albeit at a much lower resolution. The result is a series of speculations about how he might have experienced it, and how it may have affected him. Reading this half of the book was, for me, quite the bowl of gruel. (If you are interested in a better and more interesting piece of work about this period in British history, try Churchhill's biography, The Last Lion, by William Manchester.)

We don't encounter any real facts about Lord Pentland's life until–by my estimation–about halfway through the book. Some of these "facts" are, I am advised, wrong, so the reader is advised to proceed with caution, if not skepticism.

The second half of the book conveys what can only be called a brief sketch of Lord Pentland's long active life within the Gurdjieff work. Inevitably, it's impossible to boil a man's life down to any number of pages in a book, but it is arch–impossible to boil it down when the number is so small. We discover little, if anything, about the man as a human being: no warmth, no humor, no significant insights. This is annoying, because Lord Pentland the human being is what we earnestly hope to encounter; instead, we are given an awkward cartoon that can hardly do service to Pentland the man. In the Gurdjieff system of man numbers one, two, three and so on, we are all already at "man numbers" low enough that we hope our biographers will not perform any subtraction on us, as appears to have taken place here.

Serious biographies offer measured and reasoned insights into the subject's thought process, motivation, and action; instead, most of what Mr. Moore discovers is, to me, imagination, colorfully dressed up in order to distract us from its true nature. Where imagination fails, guesswork will have to suffice, and there's a good deal of that too.

My own experience as a writer confirms that it's enjoyable to write material like this, but it's definitely less enjoyable to read it, especially if one has developed an appreciation for factual reportage. When the prudently self-aware author sees material like this emerging from his word processor, he ought to reach for the aforementioned weed whacker. Then again, it may well be that the paucity of first-hand sources simply forced Mr. Moore to resort to such inventions in order to create a work of publishable length, in which case, we can understand him, even if our forgiveness lies a little further afield.

I never knew Lord Pentland personally–I entered the work just before he died–but many of my friends and acquaintances knew him and studied under him. They were left with powerful positive impressions of him, no matter his shortcomings, peccadilloes, or personal quirks. His legacy continues to reverberate throughout the Gurdjieff organizations worldwide, and he deserves an enormous respect for the years of service he put in to supporting and building the Foundation, both in the United States and worldwide. One must acknowledge that those efforts transcended his personality, emanated in some way from his essence--and that his formidable personal, administrative, and political skills were in some way both essential and absolutely necessary for the Gurdjieff work. One cannot imagine a landscape without him, because so much of the territory Gurdjieffians move through today was transformed by his singular efforts.

Some may feel that Moore has engaged in an act of character assassination, because Lord Pentland comes off–by various measures–as an underachiever, bland, uninteresting, colorless, and unable to commit at critical moments, although, as Moore admits, he definitely chose the right people to be associated with. If the most damning thing Mr. Moore manages to uncover is that Lord Pentland was, in the end, rather ordinary in many ways, it is cause for celebration. Eventually one has had quite enough of people who think (or act like) they are extraordinary; remember that Gurdjieff himself held up the example of the obyvatel, the "good householder"--an ordinary man--as an example of real work, surpassing those who flattered themselves with higher abilities and motives.

I can't say if character assassination bedevils Moore's intentions. It is probably impossible to write a biography without uncovering circumstances that will be upsetting, because we are all human, and every human has facts and circumstances surrounding their life, their attitude, and behavior which are, as Mr. Gurdjieff would say, "unbecoming to three-brained beings." There is no point in being thin-skinned about this.

I'm reminded of Mr. Gurdjieff's comments in Life Is Only Real Then, When I Am, in which he explains the ancient practice of gathering together after someone dies in order to remember all of the bad things they did, all of their shortcomings, all of their failures. Admittedly, this sounds like a harsh practice to us, in light of the fact that we seem to more or less anoint even rather reprehensible people to sainthood after they die in our own age.

Despite its deficiencies, Moore's biography has at least managed to take the statue of Lord Pentland from its pedestal, dust it off, and subject it to an initial examination. We should thank him for this much, at a minimum: it takes a bit of courage to touch the untouchables. One might argue that too many pedestals are being erected in the Gurdjieff work, and too many people who almost certainly would have objected to such treatment are having their graven images propped up on them–not the least of which is Mr. Gurdjieff himself.

All that being said, I can't recommend the book. I certainly don't recommend that anyone pay for it. The very stiff purchase price–it cost me almost $50 by the time the postage was included, ouch!–doesn't justify either the length or the quality of the read.

It does not, furthermore, compare favorably with Moore's biography of Gurdjieff, a far more serious and, to me, interesting piece of work. The Pentland biography lacks fluidity, and-- once one has plowed through it--ends up being more of a reading chore than a pleasure, without, in my estimation, offering any significant insights.

The book is not truly bad--I didn't throw it away before I finished reading it, which I have done a few times with truly awful books--, but it is not good, either, and in matters of this kind, mediocrity does not suffice.

May our prayers be heard.


  1. Super Bravo! Courage to call a spade black, and not sort of midnight blue.

    Mr.Moore's conceit evidenced itself quite visibly in his to me God-Awful biography of Mr. Gurdjieff, who deserves the services of a writer who has the skill and reservoir of power to remain translucent, allowing the object of his study to come through, to truly emerge, to REALLY allow us to view the biography as a clean window through which we might be able to develop a real relationship with the subject while at the same time to marvel at the skill of the biographer,with whom we end up wishing to spend even more time with than his subject allows.
    Mr. Moore's demand to punctuate his books with an intolerable ink of his own huge and glaringly faulted personality is, in my opinion, where he REALLY fails his readership; unless he means to go into the editorial section of the Sunday edition of a 'mediocre' newspaper.
    At least this review saved me $50. To whom should I make out the check?

    Certainly not to the Schackermachker table of Mr. Moore.

  2. Wasn't James Moore thrown out of the English group years ago? Not sure why he was thrown out, but I imagine it was because he never "got it" and then got mad and started speaking badly about the Work or the people or something like that. Maybe someone should write a book entitled "The Hasnamusses Among Us".

    I think I have several nominations for that book. I've often thought that the G Work is like a heart transplant. Many people's bodies can accept the Work ideas and eventually the actual Work itself and put in into practice for the benefit of themselves and everyone around them and for the planet itself and maybe even beyond that. I would call these people "serious" people with regard to the Work brought by Gurdjieff.

    And then there appear to me (based on 40 years in the Gurdjieff Work)to be people whose bodies cannot accept the Work and cannot put it into practice. Some leave. Some stay in the Groups for whatever reason. Some leave but then start to "discuss" the Work. Some leave and start to attack the Work in very subtle ways. Some do cariacature's of the Movements (all over the web these days, totally laughable) or the Meetings or other aspects of the teaching, without any comprehension of what takes place on the inside of people when the work takes hold. Others do the Enneagram stuff.

    I probably will not be reading this book based on the material in this blog and as spelled out in the ByTheWayBooks website.

    Yes, Lee Van Laer has called a spade a spade.


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