Monday, April 30, 2012

A misleading situation

 Today's post is a page torn from the skeptic's diary.

It is wise to use caution when reading Ouspensky's In Search Of The Miraculous. This seminal book on the principles of the Fourth Way, published in 1949—two years after the author's death—has had an undeniable influence on the understanding of the system. Nonetheless, the text leaves us with many questions that ought to be asked, instead of taking it as gospel.

First of all, Ouspensky wrote about many things in this book which he had no real experience with. He was repeating hearsay; things Gurdjieff told him which he never had the chance to verify for himself. The instances of this are too numerous to count. As a reporter, he did what we have to assume was a responsible job of repeating what Gurdjieff said—after all, Gurdjieff endorsed the book and even used it on some occasions with his students—but he was repeating things, not understanding them. This leaves open the distinct likelihood that he serially misunderstood much of what was being said.

 Secondly, the book was clearly written long after the meetings described in it took place. It presents us with many extensive and complex quotes of what Gurdjieff said, supposedly verbatim, where—unless Ouspensky had an eidetic memory of the very first order ( unlikely, since by his own confession, he certainly couldn't remember himself)—it is patently impossible that he remembered the exact words in such detail.

 Third, it is a snapshot of a moment in time at which Gurdjieff was first introducing the ideas of the Fourth Way to the Western world. Not only was Gurdjieff not infallible—he even wrote and published texts, such as his Herald of Coming Good, which he later repudiated—his work was an evolving entity with an evolving understanding. While the essential ideas of it remained intact throughout his lifetime, the details underwent changes as Gurdjieff's own understanding deepened—as it had to. After all, as his designated heir and chief pupil Jeanne de Salzmann said, everything is constantly in movement, going up or down. If one does not deepen one's understanding, one loses it. A master of Gurdjieff's order doesn't squat on his inner laurels and pontificate.

 Fourth, there are specific and distinct instances where Ouspensky just got his facts wrong. That's all there is to it. He wasn't infallible either. Even worse, he tried to put many things into words that definitely can't be expressed verbally. He discusses and explains states—putting words in Gurdjieff's mouth—without ever having experienced them, and tragically misunderstands how inaccurate any verbal description of them could be. The end result is a misleading situation: a situation in which the reader thinks they are being given accurate summations of extremely complex inner realizations, which can only be arrived at after many years of intensive inner work, and never exactly resemble the descriptions in any texts, of any kind, whatsoever.

Readers who take the book up thinking that it is gospel, or that the understandings in it are comprehensive and conclusive, fail to understand the book taken from the point of view of its own title: fragments of an unknown teaching. The book is fragmentary; many of the things that it describes fall well outside the writer's (and the reader's) personal range of experience, and will always do so, because it describes states of consciousness and cosmological understandings that represent the summary of thousands of years of inner research by literally millions of individuals and esoteric schools.

 This is not to say that the book does not have a value; far from it. One must, however, read it from the point of view of those who question; a great deal of it needs to be challenged, in both an inner and an outer sense, and we must ask ourselves whether this is truly the right place to glean an understanding of the Fourth Way. The book is not anything on the order of Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson.

 Longtime readers may recall that I was one of the principal sound editors on the release of the  recordings of Peggy Flinsch's comprehensive reading of the book. I was present at the luncheon at her house which was thrown in celebration of the wrap-up and publication of the project. She made extensive remarks about the nature of the book and her experience with it that afternoon. She was one of the people Gurdjieff designated as a reader in the United States during the initial work on the book. Due to her  early exposure to the book and her unusually long life (she died at 102,) she  almost certainly had more years of experience working with Beelzebub than any other speaker of the English language.

 One of the things she emphatically told us was that the Gurdjieff organizations and students have, on the whole, a deeply mistaken impression about the importance and meaning of In Search of the Miraculous. Many, she said, take this book as though it were somehow of the same order as Beelzebub. This is not, she insisted, the case. The books are as different as night and day; one is, as she said, "a very good book," the other one is an esoteric work of the highest order.

I have to agree with her. Ouspensky's book, for all its structural value, is nothing more than an intellectual redaction of the Fourth Way. From a certain point of view, it has all the relevance to real life of a chemistry textbook... which is what a significant portion of it actually ends up being.

Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, on the other hand, is a piece of work directly from Gurdjieff's own hand—comprehensively eliminating any questions about its accuracy or provenance—and is furthermore a book emanating directly from what Gurdjieff called “influences three,” that is, inspired by the absolute highest source.

Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, furthermore, takes unto itself an aim so high that it eclipses Ouspensky's magnum opus. The book is an effort to repair the rent fabric of the world's major religions, and restore their essential core to them. It's furthermore a completely original attempt at this; the book  quite intentionally sets itself apart from and outside all of the major religious streams by invoking Beelzebub himself in the title.

Smart move, that. Dr. Welch was fond of saying that every man has an angel on one shoulder, and the devil on the other.

The devil, you can trust.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.


  1. well, I'm glad I have discovered this blog after a quarter of a century in the wilderness - but in a strange way I'm glad I haven't been in a group for the last quarter of a century. Everything you say seems so on the mark.
    I guess the revised edition of BT is the now accepted version...

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