Friday, October 9, 2015

The Missing Women

Cycladic Female Figurine
Metropolitan Museum, NY
Photograph by the author

While doing research on another matter in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, it suddenly struck me that there are almost no principle female characters in this book.

It was a striking thought. 

How could a book this long, covering a scope this vast, and purporting to outline, in a comprehensive manner, All and Everything, claim to be representative of mankind’s spiritual history when it effectively edits out 50% of the entire species? 

Excuse me, please.

The book is about humanity’s awareness; and, furthermore, not just a general awareness — which is definitely covered in the book — but also, higher or spiritual consciousness, which must of necessity have equally male and female parts. Yet the book is exclusively patriarchal; and after we finish making excuses for it, presenting the case that Gurdjieff was a traditionalist, a man who was raised in a patriarchal society, trained in the rituals, observances, and attitudes of the Greek Orthodox Church, etc., we are left with the fact that this is, quite simply, a stunning and epic omission.

In any society, women represent about 50% of the mix. It simply isn't credible that women played no significant, major supporting role in the spiritual saga of mankind. For goodness’ sake!—Gurdjieff’s own religious tradition, Christianity, assigns central roles to female characters, including Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene! It's clear, furthermore, that in early Christianity and in the Gnostic Gospels, women, especially Mary Magdalene, played central roles in man's spiritual understanding. 

Yet they aren't seen anywhere in Beelzebub.

To claim that the book represents any legitimate kind of spiritual history is difficult, because any such history has to include women. 

You can't just pretend they aren't there.

After I had this thought, I used a few simple search tools to determine how prominently male and female figures are featured in the text by simply searching for the number of times that the word "he" and "she" appear. After all, as denominators of the sex of a particular character, their frequency in the text ought to more or less represent how often characters of that sex are appearing, on the basis of straight statistics. Completing this search, I discovered that the word "he" appears in the text 1,222 times as a whole word; and the word "she" appears a total of 98 times. 

This indicates that men are represented over women at a ratio of a staggering 10 to 1 in this book. The word "man," furthermore, appears 304 times; "woman," 43. The deficiency of representation seems consistent across this range of words as well.

So. Essentially, what makes this book truly exceptional (in the introduction, Gurdjieff proudly insists his book is extraordinary and exceptional) is that there aren't any women in it. I daresay it would be nearly impossible to find any other tale of this length that's managed to so effectively suppress and ignore the female element of humanity and her presence in society at large. It smacks of a deeply ingrained and unconscious chauvinism. That may sound damning; but given our context, it would be even more damning, wouldn’t it, to suggest that he consciously excluded women?

Now, we know that that chauvinism was not evident in Gurdjieff's practical teachings and in the way he handled pupils. He even showed, in some ways, favoritism towards his female students; and at times, he vaguely asserted that they had perhaps better spiritual abilities, more sensitive spiritual abilities, than men did. It's also equally true that many women assumed important positions of authority in Gurdjieff’s tradition, and a number of them ended up inheriting his laurels, including Jeanne de Salzmann, who was his appointed heir at the time of his death, and carried on the inner work in a powerfully positive tradition.

The temptation is to begin to make excuses for him; after all, when a teacher of this stature emerges on the world stage and then dies, he leaves flaws, missteps, and misconceptions behind; and generations of apologists arise to explain these away instead of looking at them straight in the eye. 

I think the most troubling issue here is that a man who was truly conscious of what he was writing and how he was writing it would have managed to create a text, which, while following history, assigned women an important, meaningful, and respected place in a book of this scope. 


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.


  1. Indeed. And 'Meetings with Remarkable MEN' harldly does better. The only woman wears trousers :)
    I remember Pauline de Dampierre once saying that the work required a 'feminine' influence which was purported to come from Mme S. Not so sure it did. Pauline was probably more 'feminine. My suspicion is that the foundation will ultimately be seen as a tragic failure and that G's work has no 'method' (as you know). It has produced many 'candidates for a mental asylum' :)

  2. And then there is Will Mesa:


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