The Immaculate Conception
El Greco, 1607-13
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
"SO, MY DEAR Hassein… it will be enough for the moment to tell you how they understand and explain to themselves the reasons why there occur periodically on their planet the cosmic phenomena they call 'daylight,' 'darkness,' 'heat,' 'cold,' and so on.
"All the three-brained beings of that planet who have reached responsible age, under the influence of the many and various wiseacrings they call 'sciences,' are without exception categorically convinced that these phenomena arrive on their planet completely ready-made, as it were, directly from their own sun and, as Mullah Nasr Eddin would say in such cases, 'no more hokey-pokey about it.'
"What is most peculiar about this is that, apart from certain beings who existed there before the second transapalnian perturbation, not a single one of them has ever had the least doubt about this conviction of theirs.
"Although their Reason, strange as it is, does bear some resemblance to sane logic, none of them has ever yet suspected the causes of these phenomena, nor has anyone manifested in this regard that peculiar trait of their common psyche, proper to the three-brained beings of that planet alone, known as 'fantasizing.' "
Having said this, Beelzebub continued with a bitter smile: "You, for instance… would be unable to contain your 'being-parkhitrogool,' or what they call 'irrepressible inner laughter,' at their astonishment if they should suddenly sense clearly, and understand beyond all doubt, that not only does nothing like 'light,' 'heat,' and so on come to their planet from their sun, but that this supposed 'source of heat and light' is itself almost always freezing cold…
"In reality, the surface of their 'source of heat,' like that of all the ordinary suns of our Great Universe, is perhaps \ more covered with ice than the surface of what they call the 'North Pole.'
—G. I Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, “The Arch-Absurd” (Chapter 17.)
“…those who do not acknowledge that God is at work in nature move the eyes of their reason to the back of their heads rather than the front when looking at these phenomena. They are the type who derive every idea of their thought process from their bodily senses, and let themselves be convinced by false sensory evidence, saying, ‘You see the sun producing all these changes through its heat and light, don’t you? What is a thing you can’t even see? Is it in fact anything at all?’
“Those who attribute everything to nature do indeed see these phenomena, but their only thought is that they exist. They simply say that nature has that effect. They say this because they turn their minds away from thoughts about the Divine; and when people who turn away from the Divine see astounding things in nature they cannot think about them rationally, much less spiritually. They think with their senses and in a material way. They think in nature, from nature, and not beyond it…
“Those who believe in nature and worship it use these and similar animal phenomena to support their belief in nature. Those who believe in and worship God use the same phenomena to support their belief in God. The spiritual person sees something spiritual in these phenomena, while the earthly person sees something earthly; everyone sees it in her or his own way. To me, these phenomena have been evidence of an inflow of the spiritual world into the physical world—an inflow from God…
All who are willing to think about a divine inflow through the spiritual world into the physical world can see that inflow from these examples. If they are willing, they can say in their hearts that such knowledge cannot be acquired from the sun through its heat and light. The sun, nature’s origin and essence, is nothing but a fire. The flow of heat and light from it is utterly dead. From this they can conclude that these phenomena are the result of divine inflow through the spiritual world into the outermost aspects of nature. ..
Some do not view the universe as the handiwork of God and the home of his love and wisdom, but view it instead as a product of nature and as the home of the sun’s heat and light. They close the higher levels of their mind toward God and open the lower levels of their mind toward the Devil…
Until now, no one has known anything about the spiritual world, where there are spirits and angels and where we go after we die. The spiritual world has a sun that is pure love from Jehovah God, who is within that sun. The heat from that sun is essentially love, and its light is essentially wisdom.
—Emmanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity, selected excerpts from pages 19-33
Here we encounter one of the classic dilemmas presented by Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. From a scientific point of view, the idea the surface of the sun is cold is demonstrably untrue. Sophisticated instrumentation brings us conclusive evidence that the sun is enormously hot. Looking at it from this point of view, we can’t take the book literally: we must understand it as an allegory. While I have listened to those who attempt to come up with “rational” explanations of Gurdjieff’s comments about the sun, they always end up being absurd and convoluted.
It is, then, allegory. But what kind of allegory?
Gurdjieff’s remarks bear a striking resemblance to Swedenborg’s contention that men see nature as the source of everything, the motive force for its existence, and that all things arise from nature and are created by nature. This “natural thinking,” which he contrasts with spiritual thinking, leads human beings to deny the divine.
The relationship is hardly coincidental. Humanity is, in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, engaged in a serial and chronic denial of the divine. The entire book, from Beelzebub’s point of view, is an effort to counteract that malicious tendency.
In this particular example, we see where an argument of Beelzebub’s about the nature of the sun bears a close relationship to Swedenborg’s contention: that the light and heat of the sun are, in fact, not light and heat at all, but divine love and divine wisdom. In Swedenborg’s cosmology, all natural phenomena are “correspondences:” phenomena which exist as a reflection of divine properties. Readers should take note that this bears a striking resemblance, in its own turn, to Ibn al ‘Arabi’s contention that all of the manifest or created world is actually an iteration of God’s infinite perfection.
“Correspondences,” in Swedenborg’s world, need to be understood as reflections of this divine perfection; and thus the “light” and “heat” of the sun are not, in fact, light and heat at all, but the material reflection of God’s divine love and wisdom. Their actual physical properties are unimportant relative to their nature as a reflection of the divine truth.
Furthermore, understanding Swedenborg from a somewhat deeper point of view, the light and heat of the sun are actually the physical and material representatives of God’s divine love and wisdom on this level. The sun serves as an aperture through which divine love and wisdom emanate into our solar system. All suns, it can be noted, serve the same purpose throughout the universe. In Swedenborg’s cosmology, this “effect” whereby we believe that the sun’s light and heat give life its form, substance, energy, and impulse for evolution, are not a natural one but a divine one; and we find a special correspondence of our own in Gurdjieff’s citation of “emanations,” as opposed to radiation, as a source for transmission of divine influences throughout the universe.
The points of contact here are more than casual, and well deserve further pondering.
There is a further correspondence worth considering in this material. The idea that nature by itself gives rise to everything is a uniquely egoistic perspective. Understanding that all of life arises from the emanations of divine love and wisdom requires a different perspective, one that submits to a higher authority — which is, indeed, the whole point of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. “Natural thinking,” thereby, becomes a product in Gurdjieff’s world of the maleficent consequences of the organ Kundabuffer; and it is Swedenborg’s “spiritual thinking” to which Gurdjieff would direct us.
His comments about the nature of the sun are a case where this bone, while buried quite deep, can still be sniffed.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.