Re-reading BTTHG again… Reading matter that’s not for the sqeamish or for anybody just setting out to discover what the Gurdjieff canon is all about.
§1 Many moons ago, when I taught Eng Lit, in order to encourage students to be bold, I used to preface any course by referring to Sartre (1947) who is eloquent on the idea of reading as a re-creative process; every reader of any book, bringing their own learning, experience & thinking to bear on it, makes a new book out of what they read: Beelzebub is no exception—when twenty different readers set out to read it there are twenty different books. The way you have chosen to be programmed since birth enables you to get what you want from it.
§2 Mr G says that ‘every stick has two ends’. His whole teaching is in line with this. It’s never a question of either/or—it’s always both/and… Not either your idea or my idea but both your interpretation and mine which opens up opportunities for some creative reconciling in between. All events and phenomena have at least two possible interpretations. Sticks have two ends but there can also be an infinite number of notches along a stick.
§3 Since the notion of ‘God’ appears very early on in the book it’s worth saying that at one end of a stick there’s no such being as ‘God’—the very concept itself is unnecessary; at the other end there’s the absolutist certainty of God; somewhere in the middle there’s the statement: It all depends what you mean by ‘god’… I think that this is one of the great exciting challenges of Tales. G refers to ‘His Endlessness’ in many different ways.
§4 Elsewhere, Mr G says that when you begin any enterprise you should sound a bold note DOH! He could have started Tales in this way but he chooses to use the mechanical formula phrase, ‘In the name of the Father… etc…’ perhaps to demonstrate that it’s part of his programming—and the programming of Toulousites as well as Londonites and Chicagoites—and also to put himself at ease, ‘completely assured that from now on everything in this new venture… will proceed like a pianola…’
§5 This seems to me to be where Mr G starts seriously larking about—so early on: ‘As the blind man put it, “We shall see…”’ That things should proceed in the manner of a mechanical piano is exactly what Mr G does not intend to happen, his object being to mercilessly destroy all mechanically accepted beliefs about and views of so-called ‘reality’ now and forever.
§6 I remember long ago being very disappointed with Descartes when, after making his really positive statement of systematic doubt as the first step in his Theory of Knowledge, he excluded God from the process. I don’t think that Mr G goes the same way. When you get to pages 650-700 you’ll perhaps ask the question why there are at least twenty different circumlocutions for ‘God’ there…
§7 All beliefs without exception are to be fully examined. ‘All quieting notions’, everything that could lead to self-calming, ‘all romantic images and naive dreams’ will disappear under his analysis. Even the belief that Tales is the panacea must go.
§8 We tend to be educated out of asking the kind of searching questions we ask as little kids and we learn to play safe, relying on received wisdom to save the hard work of thinking. So it’s just as well maybe that we have ‘an excellently working automatism for perceiving all kinds of new impressions… thanks to which [there’s] no need to make any individual effort whatsoever…’ Under Capitalism, run by those whom Mr G calls ‘the Power Possessors, current notions of ‘education’ are designed to turn little kids into machines instead of getting them to question everything. In Tales, on the contrary, what will be demanded of us is a thorough-going individual effort after meaning. The original meaning in the Ancient Greek of the word ‘school’ is the opportunity offered for leisure to find out for yourself what everything means; now it’s a matter of conforming to somebody else’s ‘attainment targets’.
§9 Mr G says he’s obsessed by ‘the process of human mentation…’ What is thinking? How do we think? How do we know things? What counts as knowing? Is there anything we can know for sure? Instead of just submitting to Suggestibility managed by the curse of the Media… He has an interesting Theory of Knowledge. Part of his answer is that thinking takes place in one of two ways: (1) by means of words as empty sounds, always with relative meaning, carrying subjective meaning only, but, when we identify with them, likely to help maintain our state of sleep… (2) by means of forms—by which he clearly means not Plato’s Forms but just, as he says, ‘picturing’ and therefore perhaps metaphor, visualisation, images, pattern—such forms undergo intentional blending with one’s Being, somewhere in the Other-than-conscious part of it. There’s no doubting the meaning of Red Peppers or, at the end of the book, Divided Waters—both metaphors carry meaning without the need for words. The lovely paradox is that there are quite a lot of mere words in the thousand-plus pages of Tales…
§10 Mr G’s concern about the limitations of words reminds me of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: ‘the words we have at our disposal create the world in which we imagine we live…’ The way we label the world (and all its contents) determines our response to it.
§11 Mr G says he will eschew ‘grammaticality’ and ‘literary language’ but he’s very skilful indeed at setting up complex cadences that determine a rhythm of thinking, first one way then another—in the Second Series this is described potently as the SWING OF THOUGHT. It’s hugely satisfying to get into Mr G’s Swing of Thought: penduluming between the serious and the comic, between the promising of things (sowing ideas) and the not fulfilling the promise (make up your own mind), between lively short bursts of prose and long-windedness, between complex constructions and simple throwaway colloquialisms, between calculated lunacy and simple good sense, between obfuscation and total clarity. What is the purpose of this Swing of Thought? To get readers to settle on their own ideas in a centred, reconciling kind of way.
§12 To return to his Theory of Knowledge, addressing the question of human mentation, Mr G frequently emphasises the concept of crystallisation. In the opening chapter of Tales he points to the importance of ‘three definite & peculiar psychic data crystallised in my common presence…’ As a mental process, crystallisation is about how we can know things for absolute certainty. Crystal is a hard, interestingly shaped, many-faceted, solid deposit; as a metaphor it connotes the rock-bottom certainty of something that has settled and grown in our being. Mr G’s grandmother’s advice that he should never do as others do is a crystallised deposit in his being. But crystal is somewhat dead and therefore needs something to bring it to life, to ‘vivify’ it. What brought his grandmother’s advice to life were the two vivifying processes, Always seek to learn the real causes of things by constantly asking questions and Going the Whole Hog, including the postage.
§13 Vivifyingness is ‘a certain something’ that when applied to ideas and thoughts (crystallised deposits) turns them into whole body possessions; it’s a ‘something’ that flows everywhere ‘through my whole presence, settled forever in each atom composing it…’ This brings to my mind ANWhitehead’s dictum that the object of education, properly understood, is to convert ‘inert ideas’ into something that is your own unique possession. Vivifyingness is Mr G’s word for the process that happens when ideas/concepts are assimilated or blended into the muscle, into the ‘something’ that’s hardly really known—into some ‘I’, or cluster of ‘I’s, or, as G says, ‘a relatively mobile arising depending on the quality of functioning of thought, feeling and organic automatism..’ An idea is truly vivified when it’s felt in all Centres—Thinking, Feeling, Moving.
§14 Although the aim of Tales is merciless destruction of all mechanically accepted beliefs about and views of so-called ‘reality’ now and forever, etc, we already have here the beginnings of the positive side of the whole Series: we are to consider the words we use carefully, work with ‘forms’ (metaphors, story, visual images) and concentrate on ways to vivify positive crystallisations
§15 ‘Never doing as others do…’ One could, of course, ask the question “Never doing as WHICH others…?” Gurdjieff, Ouspensky? Can one be choosy about the ‘others’ one is going to model on?
§16 ‘Impartial attitude’ How far is it really possible to have such an attitude when we are always conditioned by upbringing and education to have a particular perspective on things? Like Mr G we can assert that we have an impartial attitude but the assertion does not necessarily create a true ‘reality’… ‘Local influences and impressions’ affect the way we interpret what we like to think of as ‘the same world’… Even Beelzebub has a good share of vanity and won’t do something unless he has his palm greased… He’s not perfect.
§17 Putting that on one side, grabbing the other end of the stick, what might it require to get to an impartial attitude? Open-mindedness, suspension of disbelief, toleration of ambiguity, infinite play, not to suffer from the Sin of Seriousness, ability to stand apart from everything while at the same time being constantly inquisitive about everything… These seem to me to be some of the things that Mr G is advocating: operating from a spaceship is a great metaphor for separating oneself from everything in order to be able to be inquisitive about them and then diving down into them to study what’s really happening; Beelzebub constantly plays with ideas, in this way, requires that we suspend disbelief, exercise an open mind, question everything…
§18 A committed person (somebody who’s lost in identification with an idea, a belief, a point of view, an enthusiasm, with the book called Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson) cannot, by definition, have an impartial attitude. They are committed to, they identify with, a specific way of seeing things. The result is that they don’t/can’t see things any other way—they are partial to one way of seeing things—their own way.
§19 Mr G often plays with us. His heroes are not to be any old Tom Dick or Harry but ‘Beelzebub’, chosen to inspire ‘automatic contradictory impulses’ crystallised in people by standard ‘religious morality’. So this is a deliberate ploy to get people to study their automaticity.
§20 As for literary style, G engages the attention of the reader in the construction of ideas, deliberately guides the reader to understand the pattern of his ideas: ‘Hold on, old fellow…’ ‘Wait, wait…’ ‘It can’t be helped…’ G also paces the reader throughout the book; here eg ‘…not to fatigue him with the perception of numerous ideas over a short period of time…’ Acknowledges the possibility of ‘marked hostility… in every reader…’ [Not in this reader, except for three or four pages out of 1200!] I wonder if he’s intent on ‘pressing buttons’…
§21 However G declares that his experience of getting ‘one of those people who are always hanging around me… eager to enter paradise with their boots on…’ (without sufficient preparation?) to read the first chapter aloud made him realise that he had contravened one of the fundamental commandments of Nasr Eddin never to poke your stick into a hornets’ nest. This caused an emotional reaction in him (an intolerable itch just below the solar plexus) which he can get rid of by deliberately transferring his focus of attention to his Intellectual Centre & focussing on the story of Karapet of Tiflis.
§22 The moral of the story is that when you ask people to WAKE UP they will curse you no end because being asleep is a comfortable part of their nature.
§23 Karapet sensed ‘vibrations of malice’… To remain centred, one has to disidentify from other people’s responses: to do this Karapet started his activity by cursing first so other people’s curses were neither here nor there…
I happened to find these notes this morning, written a few years ago, stuck in some obscure corner of my computer. I wonder what else is there that I’ve forgotten about… 31st August 2012