Saturday, June 25, 2011

what's the alternative?

In a book as large, as long, and as complex as Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson, it's inevitable that no matter how much data about the book one absorbs, very little of it is present in one's immediate consciousness at any given time. It's easy for interesting details to sink into the subconscious and be forgotten for decades, until they surface again when one is reading the book and realizes that it says things which are either no longer discussed, or have been paved over by today's perceptions of the book.

One typical example of this is the idea that the book should not be analyzed. I myself have gradually been converted to this school of "thought;" yet, it's indubitably true that Gurdjieff's instructions to the reader specifically advised us to, as he put it, "try to fathom the gist of my writings." The opposing schools of, ahem, thought on this subject propose, so far as I know, no reconciling premises for us to ponder.

Putting aside for the moment the dilemma of whether or not this book should be treated the same way fundamentalists treat a Bible--that is, read aloud, but never actively questioned--for today, I'm going to take the position that there is no great harm in discussing a few salient points.

I have become accustomed, in my many years of studying the Gurdjieff ideas, to hearing the idea of associative thought being discussed as somehow inferior or undesirable; a lower quality of man which is not worthy of consideration as a "real" form of thinking, or, as Gurdjieff would have called it, "being mentation." Imagine my consternation, then, to come across the passage in the chapter "the arousing of thought" in which he states that "the process of mentation of every creature, especially man, flows exclusively in accordance with this law." (The law of associations.)

There is not a lot of wiggle room in that proposition.

He goes on, furthermore, to divide mentation into two separate types, mentation by thought, which consists of words, "always possessing a relative meaning," and mentation by form, which can be reasonably interpreted and understood as mentation by symbolism or imagery. In his discussion of mentation by form, he makes it quite clear that as with the first kind of mentation (mentation by thought or words) the process is, in a nutshell, entirely subjective--although one senses a hint of the idea that he thinks this form of mentation has a slight edge over the words.

Mr. Gurdjieff does not, in this succinct analysis, get into the thorny question of how one might transcend said process in order to engage in objective being mentation, even though an effort to engage in precisely that type of thinking preoccupies the greater portion of all the text that follows–more than 1000 pages of it. His opening shots do, however, firmly place us within what appears to be an inescapable sea of subjective thought processes.

Gurdjieff's approach to overcoming this problem is decidedly Jungian in character. He explains that using mentation by form, "the exact meaning of all writing should be perceived and then assimilated after conscious confrontation with information previously acquired," that is, by what one might call a type of inner visualization.

It is fairly clear that the entire balance of the book forms itself around a set of circumstances, events, and ideas specifically designed to feed a process of mentation by form. He is furthermore clear in indicating that he considers the subconscious to be the only "undamaged" portion of the human psyche, ergo, the book is (hopefully) designed in order to "sink in" to the reader, magically bypassing his "damaged" conscious thought process, and acting in the uncontaminated Jungian world of the subconscious, or perhaps, if you will, the collective unconscious, which lurks offstage in one way or another throughout much of the book.

Pondering this, it occurs to me that Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson does not, as some would have it, fall outside and above all conventional literary genres. It can be understood as a highly sophisticated and philosophically based form of magical realism.

I expect this statement will not sit well with those who are dogmatically determined to make this book a sacred text (thereby themselves magically bypassing Gurdjieff's demands to us that we question and verify everything for ourself.) I think, however, that to call the book a form of "magical realism with an aim" may actually enhance our understanding of it.

As with all other books in the Gurdjieffian canon, including the most recently published ones, it is highly dangerous to proclaim or pretend that the material is so special or different that nothing like it has ever gone before, or that it sets itself apart and above the rest of the world. All books are firmly set within this world, and we need to understand them as such. They are books. Not the living, breathing influence of our teachers, which can only be carried forward by the interaction of living, breathing individuals–not flimsy sheets of paper with ink marks on them. Not only that, those who claim that Gurdjieffian insights (be they from the Master himself, or his formidable pupils) have no precedent can only do so in sheer defiance of the facts, along with an ignorance, intentional or unintentional, of the vast body of obviously related work by other teachings and Masters.

I have now wandered marginally off the subject of mentation and form, which was my original interest here. It's clear enough from the statements in the opening chapter that Gurdjieff considers associative thinking to be the inescapably lawful foundation of all mentation, both in animals and man. He does not, in this chapter, allude to an alternative. If we wanted to extrapolate, we might allow for the fact that in his exposé of the idea of higher centers as expounded to P.D. Ouspensky, there might be a deus ex machina that descends from above to relieve us of our subjectivity. That is, indeed, the premise of sacred work itself in a nutshell, and one might suggest that Gurdjieff invoked just such a principal in his invention of Beelzebub as the protagonist of his philosophies.

Be that as it may, aside from what we call "enlightenment," we are left with no alternative to our subjectivity, and everything we examine–using words or images–is mired in this difficulty of subjective form. Gurdjieff outsourced the transcendental mechanisms that might overcome this difficulty in inaccessible areas–he "buried the bone;" Beelzebub marches boldly across page after page with his grandson on a journey directed exclusively towards our unconscious parts; the Gurdjieff- de Hartmann music somehow manages to tonally invoke distant landscapes and journeys into the unknown; the movements confront us with unfamiliar forms that refuse to be codified in any conventional manner. In the same way that Christ's teachings attempt to sidestep our ordinary mind and magically speak to the deepest and most mysterious parts of our being, the entire Gurdjieff work was constructed as a parable.

How this might lead us all to "objective" being mentation remains a mystery. Even if we have an objective thought, it has no choice but to express itself within the context of this subjective associative flow of words and forms that is engendered in, and emerges from, all of us.

Perhaps the greatest danger we face is the inner danger of deluding ourselves into presuming that our thoughts or actions are in any way objective. As Meister Eckhart would have it, only the Will of the absolute–the Will of God–has an objective property,

and I think we can agree that as we are, we are all far away from any inner expression of that Will.

May our prayers be heard.


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  2. A Chinese man made wheels. His wheels were so perfect that they gave a smooth ride even over rough terrain.

    He got old and was asked to write a book on wheel making. He replied: "I have tried, but I cannot even teach one of my sons to make proper wheels. Writing a book would be like the shit a snail leaves behind as it makes it's way. No,there is no method to making a perfect wheel except to know how to make one.
    Writing books are for those who cannot understand, and those reading such, will never understand.

  3. I should have added that the Buddhist term for suffering (Dukha) transliterates as a "bad wheel", because before rubber and inflatable inner tubes etc... chariots and carts were dependent on handmade wheels.

    As human beings are said to not be able to draw freehand circles with any accuracy,(without a compass), this makes much more sense. Wheels were made of stretched wood, moistened and made to conform to the round shape of the wheel.

    So the story is much deeper than simply about talent or skill, it is about living in reality where a good wheel was quite a rarity.

    It implies a depth spirituality as well as just good carpentering. I thought your readers might like to know a little more.

    Just as Mr. Gurdjieff said more than once that one needs gold to make gold, in that same sense, the "gist" of his book is hidden within the "Earth" or "Ground" of it's surface meaning, which in many cases uses neologisms and run-on sentences to properly write a "hypnotic book", which only can reach a man's unconscious and subconscious parts. When it does that, it is a private meaning which arises, not something that can be written on a college blackboard.

  4. There is a marvellous image in this post, the Karnak spaceship changed in a submarine, that sinks in the subconscious.

    About the pictorial-form concepts of the book, the threefold obligatory reading, the inpronounceable neologisms, the sacred and incapable cosmic individuals, the mystery is as dense as ever.

  5. Alberto,

    What a fantastic observation. It renews and refreshes the entire book, in one simple concept. Thanks.

    I just wrote a long reply to Lee's latest post and of course the computer lost it. Sometimes we lose, sometimes we win, and your image just woke me up, big time.


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