The Art of Artful Vagueness (R8)

Reflections after Reading Certain Pages in JGBennett’s Talks on Beelzebub’s Tales (Samuel Weiser Inc 1993 (second printing, pages 60-65) ISBN 0-87728-680-9

In these pages, Bennett talks about what, in relation to Milton Erickson’s style, has in quite recent years come to be called ‘Artful Vagueness’. What Bennett says can be used more generally to assess any writing that sets out to be a complete description of ‘reality’, to rock-solid systems of belief, to finally cut and dried ways of thinking, to final solutions of any kind, but it is here applied to the teaching of GIGurdjieff.

Gurdjieff & Artful Vagueness

Gurdjieff was a master of the art of Artful Vagueness nearly a century ago. Erickson died in 1980.

Gurdjieff was anything but cut & dried—while putting over a relatively coherent ‘system’, he wanted people to think for themselves, to verify everything in their own way, even, maybe, to follow the death-bed advice of his grandmother and either do something ‘otherwise’ or else just go to school for a good old-fashioned bit of brainwashing. And so he indulged in contradictions and obscurity, peddling deliberate ambiguities that people would have to work on for themselves; this was a good test of whether a ‘seeker’ would stick at it.

Relative clarity seems to me to be an emergent property of a complex and not necessarily very tidy system. Working hard at a complexity often produces creative results.

On the other hand, when you start from the obvious things remain obvious—there is no challenge. As Bennett himself said somewhere: anything too well-organised, too neatly portrayed, sows the seeds of its own destruction; the response to something that appears to have all its ‘i’s dotted and ‘t’s crossed is very likely to be: “Oh, OK, I don’t have to think about that then—it’s crystal-clear.”

Something that creates confusion is often quite useful because, when you’re determined, you are stimulated to find the way out of confusion… If you are not so determined, confusion reigns…

ANWhitehead (Modes of Thought) points out that ‘…when the universe is interpreted in terms of static actuality, potentiality vanishes and everything is just what it is…’ An assertion about a ‘right answer’ puts a stop to any idea that, left to itself, has a rough potential in it, could lead somewhere after a bit.

I think that’s the important point: ideas have potential—they have ‘Adventures’, as Whitehead suggested by the title of another of his books, Adventures of Ideas. Close your mind on an idea and it ceases to have any potential; the adventure is over.

A cast-iron assertion about what a thinker/philosopher/intellectual mover ‘really means’ closes down potential for good. So it is with Gurdjieff: an assertion about what he ‘really means’ kills thought. It’s not a question of either/or, more an acceptance of the potential for further exploration of both/and. Dogmatic Gurdjieff followers, often those who have not been able to withstand the more doctrinaire attitudes of groups ‘of the lineage’, present what they think of as the gospel according to Gurdjieff, all wrapped up and sealed for good—cudgels come out if anybody dares to think ‘otherwise’.

Gurdjieff Riots on the Internet do a disservice to the Unsystem which he promoted.

Naming & Labelling

The general position, as stated by Bennett, is that ‘…as soon as we have given something a name we start believing that we are talking about something that is…’, something that exists by virtue of the fact that it has a label. One’s attachment to a label is a striking one.

Take the idea of ‘Centres’—what we might nowadays refer to as the neocortex of the brain (Thinking Centre), limbic system (Feeling Centre) and the ‘Reptile’ bit of the brain (Moving Centre). Bennett points out that in his references to ‘Centres’ Gurdjieff is very erratic in his various writings, sometimes referring to there being just three Centres but on other occasions adding a fourth—the Instinctive Centre as a off-shoot from Moving Centre; and then a fifth, the Sex Centre, not to mention two Higher Centres concerned with Intellect and Emotion or even the combination Centres—the emotional part of the Intellectual Centre, the moving part of the Emotional Centre and so on. So the number of Centres is anywhere between three and seven-plus. The formatory part of one’s Intellectual Centre jumps up and down wanting to know for sure whether the number of Centres is three or seven-plus—that part of the Intellectual Centre craves such certainty. It can be argued that by using language and expressing ideas in this apparently random way, Gurdjieff makes us think for ourselves, stimulates us to make our own reconciliations while always sticking to the fundamentals; one would have to be hooked to stick at it—there are many years of effort involved…

Likewise Gurdjieff plays infinitely with the idea of consciousness: ordinary everyday consciousness, sleeping state, waking state, personality consciousness, essence consciousness, dream state, the state achieved with the taking in of the food of pure impressions, higher consciousness, cosmic consciousness, subjective consciousness, objective consciousness… With so much to figure out and choices to be made how can we possibly identify what state of consciousness we’re in at any one time; and as individuals we really have no way of making comparisons between one kind of consciousness, yours, mine, the other person’s. How does your state of consciousness compare with mine?

Writing this I might appear to be in Intellect but you’d have to take my word for it that I’m feeling all this quite deeply—in the emotional part of Intellectual Centre, I expect. Feeling the twists & turns of what I’m struggling (in Moving Centre) to say.

How can we judge whether we’ve gone up or down a level of awareness when there’s no clear demarcation of where one hazy kind of ‘consciousness’ ends and another begins?

A Digital, not an Analogue Shift

It could, of course, be as simple as the shift in consciousness Gurdjieff describes in the duel by artillery-range in Meetings with Remarkable Men where in dire circumstances he felt for the first time the ‘whole sensation of myself’ which was quite different from the ordinary bumbling thoughtless consciousness which had got him into such a fix in the first place—self-remembering as opposed to everyday unintentional ‘consciousness’… It may be as simple as this, digital rather than analogue. Perhaps all other types of named consciousness are mere intellectual constructions—Gurdjieff is expert at larking around, puffing such smokescreens at us to test our responses. He is to be honuored for this.

Living with Ambiguity—Progressive Approximation

It could be said that anybody who asserts that they know for sure how all this business about consciousness can be resolved, how for sure one raises oneself up a level, is thinking simplistically as though it were possible to provide a map with fixed conventional signs and roadways. This kind of thinking is mechanical intellectual and, though well-intentioned, it blocks the possibility of ‘progressive approximation’ (Bennett’s pregnant concept) towards understanding and, as he points out, ‘thwarts the possibility of new kinds of experience…’

As Gurdjieff and Ouspensky suggest in various places, we need a new vocabulary for discussing new ideas; the old language belongs to old ideas. The problem is, of course, that any new language pretty rapidly becomes another old one; words bamboozle.

Bennett makes this fundamental statement: ‘To try to reduce [Gurdjieff’s ‘system’]… to a scheme where everything is pinned down is nonsensical. The different descriptions are just signposts to help us feel our way around, [to make our own way] beyond the limitations of our understanding and consciousness. They are not really descriptions at all. They are more like evocations, arousing in us some sense of the different modes of experience that are possible. Perhaps they can help us organise our experiences as they come to us…’

That’s surely the important thing: we undoubtedly have experiences; life is crammed full of experiences that require sorting. We have thoughts & feelings, beliefs, desires & objectives; they come in all shapes & sizes, negative & positive.

Wars result from people pinning things down: the Gurdjieff wars and riots on the Internet are the result of battles between contrasting assertions of rectitude and the taking up of well-fortified, deeply entrenched, positions. Anybody who goes ‘over the top’ is likely to be sniped at.

In fact, Gurdjieff’s Unsystem offers a profound and, paradoxically, systematic way of sorting the jumble when we are prepared to respond sensitively to his Artful Vaguenes.

Gurdjieff’s Unsystem offers a thorough grounding in how to live with uncertainty, how to tolerate ambiguity..

Notable it is that we can get more lasting insights from Brother Ahl than we do from Brother Sez.

In Chapter 10 of Meetings with Remarkable Men, Father Giovanni tells of these two travelling preachers who make a much anticipated visit to his monastery ‘once or twice a year’. The sermons of Brother Ahl and Brother Sez are well-received and contain the same truths but they have a different feeling-tone.

When Brother Sez speaks, it is indeed like the song of the birds in Paradise; from what he says one is quite, so to say, turned inside out; one becomes as though entranced. His speech ‘purls’ like a stream and one no longer wishes anything else in life but to listen to the voice of Brother Sez.

But Brother Ahl’s speech has almost the opposite effect. He speaks badly and indistinctly, evidently because of his age. No one knows how old he is. Brother Sez is also very old—it is said three hundred years old—but he is still a hale old man, whereas in Brother Ahl the weakness of old age is clearly evident.

The stronger the impression made at the moment by the words of Brother Sez, the more this impression evaporates, until there ultimately remains in the hearer nothing at all. But in the case of Brother Ahl, although at first what he says makes almost no impression, later, the gist of it takes on a definite form, more and more each day, and is instilled as a whole into the heart and remains there for ever.

When we became aware of this and began trying to discover why it was so, we came to the unanimous conclusion that the sermons of Brother Sez proceeded only from his mind, and  therefore acted on our minds, whereas those of Brother Ahl proceeded from his being and acted on our being…

Artful Vagueness comes from True Being…

10 thoughts on “The Art of Artful Vagueness (R8)

  1. This represents a chunk of the truth of the matter, I strongly suspect. And then there’s the rest… Layer upon layer of ‘language of picture-form’, of myth, allegory, image, etc., etc., speaking to the various layers of our possibilities…


      1. And – there is a precision to the fuzzy fingers pointing to, not the Moon, but the Sun Absolute.


  2. Some works of art produce fuzzy fingers, like being wrapped in some form of fabric, they have this pull to them, that I find myself returning to over and over, some places produce this what-ever-it-is also. Trying to pin Gurdjieff down is like holding a bird in your hands, if we squeeze too tight we kill the living work. There’s an art to slipping on a banana peel, something the Marx Brothers did over and over, but somehow made it seem new each time.


  3. Another revelatory post, Colin! I doubt there is any more pressing need in the world today than for all of us to learn “how to live with uncertainty, how to tolerate ambiguity.” Thanks for pointing out one possible way through Gurdjieff’s “unsystem”. I’m reminded of a seminar on Buddhism that I attended some time ago. The teacher – Stephen Merchant – was asked a rather provocative question by a rather provocative attendee regarding different, and possibly invalid, interpretations of the classic Buddhist sutras. Merchant’s response has stayed with me as one of the wisest comments I’ve ever heard. “I don’t have a problem with different interpretations of Buddhism”, he said. “I have a problem when someone claims that their interpretation is the right one.”


  4. Hello Tom! I’m pleased to have reminded you of that great response. Provocative people, especially the negative ones, are very useful for making one respond resourcefully.


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