Sunday, January 15, 2012

Beelzebub's Tales: Cosmologies In Literature


  This essay is part of a series of discussions on the exoteric nature and aim of the Gurdjieff work, and inner work in general. That portion of the work may seem unimportant to some; and indeed, it is often neglected, especially in the Gurdjieff work. However, the old saying, “weak in life–weak in the work” indicates that a strong exoteric practice is in fact essential– a fact often lost on those who sink into themselves into a rapture of contact with the divine. It might even be argued that understanding this point of work is in fact essential to everything that both Gurdjieff and Jeanne de Salzmann were trying to teach.

 Readers encountering the following material should consequently understand that this is not about the esoteric sides of the book, Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson, which are vitally important and, for the greater part, not subject to verbal redaction. The book is, however, one of the most important and powerful faces put on the exoteric side of the Gurdjieff work, and a failure to both understand and value that side of its nature is a profound disservice to the effort at large.

My daughter Rebecca is a PhD candidate in English literature at Brown University. One of her associates is also in the PhD program, and a Milton scholar. Over the last few weeks, the three of us discussed the subject of major works in the Western literary canon containing complete cosmologies. We were speaking specifically of works of fictional literature, not treatises or philosophical discourses.

The list of works in this category is surprisingly short. What we were able to come up with as definitively belonging were Milton's Paradise Lost, Dante's Divine Comedy, and Gurdjieff's Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson. There may be other works of this nature, particularly in the modern world of science fiction, but they are inherently disqualified, since inventive cosmology is a prerequisite of science fiction, and is rarely– if ever– based on any presumed connection to actual reality.

Given that caveat, we discussed the inclusion of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, but more or less disqualified it, because this is essentially a mythological reconfiguration of the story of Christianity, not a revelation related to the structural nature of the universe. In addition,

The only other work that comes to mind is a recent one- Carlos Castaneda's A Separate Reality and other books in the series.

Very few authors, in other words, have had the audacity or the vision to present a complete cosmology of the kind that Gurdjieff advances in Beelzebub. Thus, although the work does not stand alone literature, it finds itself in relatively rarefied company.

I've pointed out before that Beelzebub's Tales  is not, in fact, a unique and completely unclassifiable piece of literature, but, reasonably considered, firmly planted (and planted very early) in the genre of magical realism. The character of Beelzebub uses one of the typical devices of this genre: a protagonist who lives far longer than ordinary humans. What sets this particular work apart from other magical realism is its comprehensive focus on cosmology; one, furthermore, deeply tied into religious traditions from all parts of the world. It is, in other words, magical realism with an open stated aim and purpose, rather than just a work of fantasy for entertainment. It certainly careens in and out of didactic territory; nonetheless, any cosmological expose does so.

Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson bears more kinship to Dante's Divine Comedy and A Separate Reality than it does to Paradise Lost, because both Dante, Gurdjieff, and Castaneda employ the device of first-person narrative, presenting the reader with an unmediated, self-aware narrator. Milton, on the other hand, presents us with a third-person narrative more on the order of an imaginative and theatrical recapitulation of Christian doctrine, cast in a mythological atmosphere.

Both Gurdjieff, Dante, and Castaneda, on the other hand, present structural cosmologies with an intimate critique of contemporary human behavior. Their protagonist's intersections and interactions with our own world engender more immediate, practical, and powerful metaphors.

This is not to lessen the enormous achievement Milton sets before us, but rather to highlight the differences between the texts. The purpose here is not, in any event, to justify or evaluate Milton or Dante's place in the canon of Western literature, but merely to point out that Gurdjieff and Castaneda rightly earn a place beside these two giants with their work.

Although Castaneda's books certainly contain a legitimate literary cosmology, and present many fascinating ideas, they seem to me to lack the essential mythological core underlying the other three works. One's concern would center around the feeling that these books are more a form of pop art–works of popular culture, cast in the new age mold–than they are serious, world-class literature. On the other hand, being a product of their own time, perhaps this is an entirely appropriate guise for them to assume. Only the test of time will tell.

 In the meantime, it seems apparent that the literary world has not properly or appropriately evaluated Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson  in the context of Milton and Dante, even though this subject seems to have the potential for more than a few PhD theses.

I respectfully ask you to take good care.


1 comment:

  1. I should like to bring your attention to Tolkien, not only through the Hobbit and Lord of the Ring series but especially a book called The Silmarillion, which has as it's opening a cosmology that is as brazen as Beelzebub's, but is also MUSICAL. It begins as follows:

    AINULIDALE

    There was Eru, the ONE, who in Arda is called Iluvatar, and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him aught anything else was made. And He spoke to them, propounding to them themeless of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad.

    But for a long time they sang each only alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Iluvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony....

    Now, the Aramaic term for Earth is Ardha, or Arda; the ONE is a combination of Illumination (light) and Avatar (manifestation), and this book was published post-mortem and serves as a prequel to the entire Ring series. To continue reading is to gather into a depth of understanding in a cosmology which has no superior, albeit tomes like Beelzebub stand as equals.

    Just a note from a friend recommending this as equal to any you have mentioned.

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