Monday, June 12, 2017

Work Without Quotation Marks, part I

Jonah and the whale, folio from a Jami-al-Tavarikh 
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

The following post is part 1 of the foreword  to my new book,  Novel, Myth, and Cosmos:  on the Nature of Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson.

Working, as I have recently, on collections of archival material that date from Gurdjieff's lifetime, including letters, pamphlets, and other material, it occurs to me how thoroughly dated the historical material related to Gurdjieff's original visits to New York have become.

We are nearly 100 years on in time from those dates in the early 1920s. To put that in perspective, when I was young, that was about the distance in time we were from the Civil War. 
The archival materials in question, that is, date from what now amounts to an distant past. The very flavor of the materials is different than the flavor of life today; the world tastes different now.  Although, taken as a whole, human behavior and spiritual psychology has remained consistent  (and always does), the external arrangements of human affairs have accelerated so drastically over the last hundred years that societal conventions, accepted moralities, modes of communication and discourse, and even the way people dress and what they do for work has completely changed. 
We might as well compare today's society to ancient Babylon as compare it to the society that Gurdjieff was living and teaching in.

Now, this isn't to say that human beings don't face the same exact inward questions that they did back then; questions of the soul are incredibly durable. They emerge from and center around processes that are organic and independent, in many ways, of external surroundings, which are forever superficial relative to the natural depth in man (cf. Wilson van Dusen’s book of the same title.) That is to say, a man's inner psychology proceeds in the same way whether he is in the desert or on a boat in the water. The two different environments certainly provide a different set of impressions, but the equipment that processes them doesn't change; nor do the tensions that arise within from the need to respond—whether to a lack of water or an excess of it. To put it a little differently, as I did to someone a bit earlier this morning, the way we work and the amount that we work from within is not dependent on whether we have a lot or a little bit of money. Both conditions produce important possibilities for inner work; and of itself, either one could also make it more difficult, which might also be necessary — work that is easy may not be worth doing.

In any event, it becomes apparent that it's impossible to view the way that the early Gurdjieff work unfolded, or the ways in which Gurdjieff interacted with others or collected money, and understand how they might be meaningful to the ongoing conduct of a real and vital inner work in today's society. Everything that emerged from the man in response to the conditions that surrounded him was strictly temporal and designed to address the way people dressed, thought, acted, earned a living, and formed relationships with each other at that particular time in world history. If people had dressed in sweat pants, posted to facebook, and used smartphones in that age, we would have seen a different work designed for different people. Yes, it would absolutely have been founded on the same principles; but the point of the way that the outer form of inner work is created is that it is reciprocal: it’s designed for the times it arises in.This is why, as Gurdjieff so pointedly explained to Ouspensky and others, schools form and disband where their work is done. They don’t imitate each other or themselves; in fact, as he also pointed out, once the work of the school was done there are always “leftovers” which imitate it, not understanding how schools function,  and somehow hoping, by aping the form and behavior of the school, to continue its work.

Hence trying to reproduce the attitudes, conditions, interests, and structural form of an inner work — a school, as Ouspensky would've called it — that existed 100 or even 50 years ago for today's society is almost certainly pointless. The age of the Internet and computers has changed the external form of society so much that completely new and absolutely unanticipated situations have arisen. These external conditions require a kind of creativity and spontaneity that in fact does relate to Mr. Gurdjieff's behavior 100 years ago; but we may not understand what that means, or how to implement it, because we have no one at his level of understanding to guide us. 

What I'm getting at here in regard to Mr. Gurdjieff's behavior was the arch, unpredictable, and disruptive way that he treated everyone around him. Back in those days, society had much clearer boundaries for "unacceptable" behavior, and it was (ironically) easier to find ways in which to bash the envelope — to challenge assumptions, to upset the apple cart. 

Upsetting the apple cart has, in today's world, become the norm: and so perhaps, one might argue, a retreat to hidebound tradition is exactly what's needed. Yet I'm not sure about that; no retreat to hidebound traditions will save us. 

We can’t protect the future from the present by imitating the past. 

Circumstances cry it out: something entirely new is called for!—yet the form of the Gurdjieff work, as it was established about 100 years ago — and which took its present “mature” form about 50 years ago— keeps attempting to be what it was. 

We do this in sheer defiance of the facts that things are not what they always were. Things are never “what they always were”; they are always new and different. In real life, consistency is a perpetual illusion crafted by the repetitive nature of superficial appearances. 

Yet we try to preserve the same rituals; we reflect back on the same sets of historical documents and rehash them endlessly. We form defensive boundaries around the traditions as though we were attempting to establish a new religion. All of this is a complete contradiction, my view, to the living, organic, vital, disruptive snapshots we get of Mr. Gurdjieff—for example, the one that emerges from Martin Benson's memoirs. 
Part two of the foreword will publish on June 15.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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