Friday, September 27, 2013

Notes on a Meeting with Peggy Flinsch

These notes are reported verbatim from the original document which I wrote in 2008.

As I have explained elsewhere, I was one of the principle sound editors on Ms. Flinsch's recordings of Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson. These notes were taken directly after the luncheon she hosted to celebrate the completion of the project.

 Notes on a Meeting with Peggy Flinsch

We met with Peggy Flinsch on Sunday, June 29, 2008 to celebrate the almost-conclusion of the recording project in which she read the entire new edition of "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson."

Before the meeting began, she made the remark that the book is meant to feed the two minds.  I mentioned the meeting Peter Brook attended, in which he intimated the need to stand between the inner and the outer.  She asked me what I understood by that, and I explained to her that my experience of it is that we have a set of inner impressions that are received from a higher place, and outer impressions which are received from the more coarse material of an external life.  She said “Yes, that's one way of expressing it.” 

She was specifically curious as to whether this was a theoretical position on my part or whether I had an actual experience of it.  I believe I satisfied her question in this regard, upon which we agreed that the experience of it is what needs to be relied on and practiced.

During the luncheon, she offered a number of comments that relate both to the history of the work and the significance of the text itself.

Peggy expressed a concern that listening to a recorded version of this text becomes a passive activity.  She felt that the material in the book must be taken in in a very active manner, which the recorded medium may not allow.  

She felt that it served well as a document of the text and an example of how to read it, but she did not appear to share the vision of the team members and those who initiated the project that it would be widely listened to and disseminated, or used as a tool for understanding.

Her chief point about this text was that the understanding transmitted in it is not an intellectual understanding.  The act of listening to the text with attention -- whether reading it to oneself with an effort of attention, or listening to it be read-- results in the text itself penetrating past the conscious mind and into a much deeper place in the body.  The text, she pointed out several times, was meant to inform the two minds -- and when I queried her about this, she confirmed that one way of putting it would be to understand it as the inner mind, or, the mind connected to the organic state of being, as opposed to the external mind, the intellectual mind, which is attached to the external.

She underscored this when we were discussing the question of listening.  She asked us what listening consisted of.  They were a number of different answers around the table.  

When I tried to bring in the question about listening as practiced in community -- which I planned to tie in to that question -- she interrupted me and said, “you're beginning with the external.  Why began with the external?"

I felt she was right, and so I maintain silence on the point, instead examining my own state.  Her whole point was that we always begin with the external.  We misunderstand the meaning of this text, and its value, because we do not understand that the text is meant to feed the internal. Only with a right attention can we take in this text with a part that is not of the mind.

She was asked about how many different people read this text in the early days.  Apparently there were only about three readers, herself, Rita Benson, and another gentleman whose name escapes me (I'm sure someone else at the meeting noted it.)  She used the discussion as an opportunity to mention that Mr. Gurdjieff spent a great deal of time, during the readings, observing how people were listening.  From her perspective, it appears that he felt that the most important thing about this text was not about how it was being read, but how it was being listened to.

She mentioned that today, this is still a great concern, and that people do not see that it's much more important to understand how to listen to Beelzebub's tales to his grandson that it is to understand how to read it.  She also discussed the book in contrast to Ouspensky's writings. I will paraphrase her words here.

"When people are preparing material for a reading in the work, they discuss reading Ouspensky or Gurdjieff, Gurdjieff or Ouspensky, as though they were of equal value and it doesn’t make much difference which one you are reading. They don't see that one of them -- Ouspensky -- simply gives us material for the intellect.  It's a very good material, of course, like a lot of other good material for the intellect, but it's very different than what Gurdjieff wrote, because it's ordinary.  Beelzebub's tales to his grandson is not food for the intellect.  It is food for other parts of ourselves.”

She went on to say that Ouspensky left Gurdjieff, because he didn't get the point.  There were, and are, those who think Ouspensky was the center of gravity of the work – Mendham, she mentioned, was all about that.  

"Madame Ouspensky," she said, “never left Mr. Gurdjieff. She was a dutiful wife, of course, she followed Ouspensky, but she never left Mr. Gurdjieff.  She said it a second time with emphasis to make the point clear. 

For myself, it was apparent that she felt that with all of the brilliant intellectual work Ouspensky did, he ultimately had missed the mark.  All of the theory about the work -- which does, of course, have a value – nonetheless missed the mark. Gurdjieff was, in the end, up to something much subtler and more difficult to understand.  In fact, I believe her whole point was that using our ordinary minds, it is impossible to understand what he was up to. Other parts have to come into play, and the important value of Beelzebub's tales to his grandson is that it is constructed in such a way that it can penetrate to them and help us.

She intimated on at least two occasions that we should read the Tibetan book of the dead.  The inference was that the beginning of that book makes points that need to be made about the nature of listening and hearing things, points that relate directly to the question of how to listen to Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson.

Jim Metzner asked her about her first encounter with the book, explaining that for him, it took him a while to understand where its value lay. She said to him in what sounded like a witty reply, "It wasn't like that for me.  I was much more prepared for it than you were.” There was general laughter around the table.  Peggy looked at everyone with those fiery eyes she still has at over a hundred years of age and said, indignantly, "it wasn't a joke. My sister had just died.  Nothing made any sense to me at that point.  I had just lost the person I loved most in my life.  I was 16, she was 15.  Nothing made any sense at all.  The church didn't make sense – of course, it had stopped making sense some time ago by then.  Then I found this book and these ideas, and it made sense. Nothing made any sense at all, but this made sense."

She made a number of other interesting comments in relationship to the current structure and nature of the work.  She was asked about Michel deSalzmann and the way that he brought the idea of peer groups and work in community to us.

"Of course," she said to us, "I knew Michelle from the time he was a tiny little boy.  Michel was a very dear man, and I loved him a great deal.  He did very good work.  But he was not my teacher.  He was never my teacher."  She didn't elaborate, but it became clear, I think, that she felt the only allegiance she could ever owe in the work was to Mr. Gurdjieff himself.  In her eyes -- admittedly, conservative eyes, but eyes that did set themselves upon Mr. Gurdjieff personally many times -- only Gurdjieff himself could be considered an authority on his own work. 

So here we had, in front of us, perhaps the ultimate conservative in the Gurdjieff work.  A true disciple and pupil of Mr. Gurdjieff, a hundred years old, and still unwavering in her inner and outer insistence on his method and authority.  There was no mixing here; no evidence of deviation.

She mentioned that when Jeanne DeSalzmann first brought the idea of groups to New York, she didn’t get it. “What do we need groups for?”  she asked. “After all, we had been working for a long time.  We had a foundation.  We had people working.  But nothing was ever organized into groups.  What do I need a group for? After all, this is my immortal soul.  I am responsible for it.  No one else. I have to take full responsibility, no one else can do that for me. So I questioned it.  What do we need groups for?” She paused for a moment, and then smiled at us, conveying a question in the expression itself.  "Of course," she continued, smiling in that inscrutable manner , "in those days, we questioned everything."  

There was a slight emphasis to the word everything at the end of the sentence, which for me unquestionably implied that she feels we have lost that art in the current generation. 

One anecdote which she related to us several times was the change in the first chapter of Beelzebub's tales to his grandson.  "When he first brought it to us," she said, "The Karapet of Tiflis wasn't even in there.”  The way she said it, it was as though the idea itself was astonishing every time she came to it. She twice made a reference to this first chapter ending with the suggestion that the reader might "stir water with a stick until it got thick,"  or something to that effect. I can't recall the precise words, and was unable to trace it in the book.  

She announced a suspicion that it was a story that Thomas deHartmann had told to Gurdjieff. According to her, he was an inveterate collector of such stories, many of them off-color, and Gurdjieff took great delight in hearing them. 


May your soul be filled with light.


  1. this is v interesting. We see hints of how a foundation with groups emerged ('candidates for a mental asylum' as G put on returning to the us.) And still today we have the family business running in paris with dear Michel's son alexandre running the show...the grandson!!!
    And the Gurdjieff apartment is still a shrine I imagine - for the well connected to receive higher energies in - there is something a little weird in all this - to put it mildly.....

  2. Thank you very much for sharing this Lee. It is an especially fecund perspective for me, having just read 500 pages of the Tales out loud to one or both minds.

  3. Lee, thank you for this post regarding Peggy Flinch. I remember her distinctly as having a mind as sharp at age 100 as anyone else I have ever encountered. There seem to be nothing missing from her consciousness. Of course, in the hierarchy of the foundation, I was as nothing, and once or twice when I saw her sitting empty at a bench during the meeting at the Lake regarding the peer groups, I tried approaching her and with great respect hoping to engage her in some dialogue/exchange. My attempts were rebuked, and I believe that this was a strong contributor to my being severed from the New York Foundation.

    Still, my rejection by her I found confusing and almost mean, without diminishing my respect for her.
    I remember you are discussing with me a conversation you had with her regarding the 12 step programs, and her lament of "Why can't we be like that?"

    One thing that has never ceased to amaze me and continues to inform me is that whereas the external world considers the elderly to be dispensable, in their dotage or regressing to an infancy, the Gurdjieff work always held older people in deep respect. From that I learned something important – that people are repositories of experience, and should be treated as if they were filled with gold or gems, especially as the outer world speeds up and with information fleeing from men into the Internet with its unlimited storage capacity – men are freed from having to learn anything, which makes a respect for the old diminish shamefully – perhaps we will end up as the Eskimos who put their grandparents into canoes and then push them out into the water where they paddle away, never to return.

    What do we lose? From my viewpoint we lose everything, because a zillion books and 1,000,000 Wikipedia's do not have the luster of even one conscious moment.


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