An interview by Gregory Dominato of Anthony Blake on this subject can be accessed at IdiotPlayers
Most things happened mostly by momentum and my readings of the last two series of writings by Gurdjieff are probably no exception. Though, after completing the First Series, I was considering his next two books as possible candidates for my ministrations, amongst others such as Rene Daumal's Mount Analogue, it was a chance remark by someone thanking me for the Beelzebub readings that impelled me to make a start and see where it led me. Of course, there is the edict, as pronounced somewhere by Gurdjieff himself, "better not to start; but, if start, better finish". I had long been attracted to the idea of the Second Series, with its travelogues and portraits of "remarkable men" and I looked forward to it also as a relief from the intensive demands of sustaining the paragraph sentences of Beelzebub, which would tax any mortal, I feel, not least because the punctuation adds to the torture of reading it aloud. Here I must add that there are two main axes of challenge in reading Gurdjieff at his most expansive; one of them is simply finding ways to breathe as some sentence goes on perhaps forasmuch as a whole page, the punctuation not adequate enough for this, or I might say, only something an underwater swimmer with highly developed lungs could manage, the other being the challenge of meaning, even at the basic level of recognising and conveying the interrelationships of the plethora of clauses Gurdjieff intertwines, as if making a tapestry. But I remember well, on reading my very first chapter "The Arousing of Thought" the feeling for a kind of musically-notated script behind the words, a pattern of its meaning, capable of guiding the reading.
The shift of struggle from Beelzebub to Meetings is appealing but Gurdjieff of course is still provocative and sets the reader up with the diatribe of a wise Persian directed against Western literature which turns out, in fact, to consist of stories about journalists in Azerbaijan and with some unlikely tale of superior journalists in ancient Babylon. Meetings also has a sting in its tail, in the infamous last chapter "The Material Question" which not only contains the amusing story about manufacturing corsets but also a harrowing account of Gurdjieff's financial disasters, placed in the context of human conflict and suffering in the region he was brought up in, the chapter ending with the collapse of his proposed business in antiques in New York because of the crash on Wall Street. Gurdjieff certainly knows how to work the emotions of the reader, in this being true to his expressed conviction that understanding without feeling is misunderstanding (let alone the automatic instinct I will get to later). I've felt myself moved, infuriated, depressed, excited in equal measures. Much of his portraiture of people is pious in the extreme, so that one has to weep over the account of his father and his desire for is his grave to be found and marked with a special inscription, or anonymously attending the Mass arranged for the soul of Dean Borsh.
As to the form of the writing, Gurdjieff himself tells the reader, in the chapter on professor Skridlov, that he is going to write in a certain way - of course it has to be an ancient and not a modern way - called "making images without words" a peculiar phrase not least because he goes on to paint word pictures of scenes on the river Amu Darya, and then resumes his usual flow. The clue, of course, is to thinking images, or "mentation by form" and some people such as Henderson have attested to the action of such thinking being awakened by reading Meetings in particular, but all of Gurdjieff's books offer images endowed with feeling that work "of themselves" in one's mind, but not the surface mind of linear attention but Gurdjieff's famous "subconsciousness" deeper down still but capable I suppose of informing us somehow.
I'm wanting now to speak of the action of reading aloud. Though I have done a lot of it in my time, in these series of recordings I have discovered new intensities of feeling-sensing, there at the very heart of the action. Most people will have experienced the special quality of actually hearing their own voice in the moment of speaking and, in many groups, it has been adopted as an exercise in self observation and the like; usually, such an exercise is useful for only a limited time because there is strong automatically regulating mechanisms for reducing what in physics is called "free energy" which in the nomenclature of spiritually minded people might be called "higher states". I do not know whether Gurdjieff of himself has dealt specifically with this mechanism anywhere in his writings or recorded talks, but I can attest to its pernicious sway and how it serves to close down the special or higher to re-establish dull normality. In this case, namely in the reading aloud from Meetings, I felt nearly overcome by the intensity of the "self reverberating" experience of my own voice not least because it was clear to me that "I", the person thinking and attending, was not the same as the "speaker" and I had no idea where my voice was coming from. As this experience was arising in me, I had still to maintain the execution of the task and every mental association ensuing from the intense experience in my own speaking would inevitably result in errors which had then to be gone over and corrected. It came to me, over just this phenomena, that I was experiencing just what is in essence the core of "doing movements" - that is the Gurdjieff movements which enjoin us to combine several distinct actions and amplify a kind of self awareness that is almost the opposite to the usual kind of self reaction. At the same time, I became aware of my breathing and, that, strangely, the demands being exerted on me were resulting in an improvement and deepening of my breathing, such that my total sense of what is called "well-being" or "health" seemed to indicate improvement. This of course resonated with the comments made by Gurdjieff on how he managed to restore his physical health; so that I had the experience of reading about something that was, in some way, happening to me right then and there. It is important to emphasise that in the core of all these various experiencing is was a sense that "nobody was doing it" and thus I came face-to-face with the absolute enigma of doing. I also had at the back of my mind Idries Shah's acerbic remark, "one is not interested in the experiences of a pencil getting sharpened, only that the pencil is sharp and can do the job".
What did my various interesting experiences amount to besides giving me material for what I suppose, Gurdjieff would call "logical being confrontation"-and please notice that all such confrontations and corresponding mentation start exclusively only by the impact of an inescapable actually experienced contradiction - which has in part resulted in these notes? Well, one general point is that this input of sound, sense, breath, etc in the pursuit of meaning brought home the essential role of the automatic instinctive component of understanding; simply put, unless it is in the workings of the body it does not count for anything. In a way deeper than conscience, the seemingly mechanical, bodily, chemical, etc functioning of my organism is integral to my understanding. As I am wont often to say: the contemporary prescription of a divide between software, roughly "mental", and hardware, roughly "physical", is false. It is a typical case of how a convenient divide or twofold classification can obscure what is most important for us and needs to be addressed in terms of threefoldness.
Enough of that "mere theory" as it were, which will tend to be either ignored or believed in, neither of which is desirable. The Third Series proved even more harrowing than the first two. What in God's name is it about? The very first words "I am" thunder off the page and I remembered that over the years I, actually, in some way foresaw and anticipated the time when I would have the effrontery to pronounce these words of Gurdjieff, necessarily then acting as if they were my own. The whole opening scene is dramatic: Gurdjieff lying wounded and near death in some oasis near the Gobi Desert involved in a moment of intense self reflection that, it appears through its recurrence later on, to question the very essence of his teaching as he had then formulated it, namely that work on oneself necessarily entailed "intentional suffering". The Prologue is a masterwork of confession in the classical sense of revealing the workings and question of "I". Gurdjieff's abandonment of the method of intentional suffering and taking up using the results of unintentional suffering, in his case on account of his wife and mother both with terminal illnesses, marked an extraordinary volte face and I think only Bennett has consistently drawn attention to Gurdjieff's moves away from "artificial" to "natural" ways of working.
What follows is extraordinary in the sense that, as Gurdjieff himself says most readers would just not grasp the point of what he is doing in describing the absurdities of his encounters with Orage's group in New York; which seems to exhibit simply a basic dialectical technique for energising such a group - get them set up, dismiss them, re-admit them - but he manages to warn about the dangers of prolonged self observation, producing as he says "candidates for lunatic asylum" and creates a message of a total teaching with no less than 24 divisions only in which can there be a balanced development. He also introduces two inner exercises, the only time such things were described by him in his writings.
But I'm straying into the content of the books, which is not my business, since I'm here concerned with my experience of reading Gurdjieff's books rather than daring to presume I can interpret what they "really mean". One thing that sticks in my mind is the relentless contrast between Gurdjieff's claims for his powers - for example telepathy, curing illness, making money, etc - on the one hand and facing disasters of all kinds on the other. Every advance he makes is annihilated by some adversity, including of course the terrible thing of having to watch his beloved wife died because he, Gurdjieff, at one-time capable of curing her, could no longer because of his depleted state due to his motorcar accident.
In very vivid way, Gurdjieff summed up the whole thing in the episode of the cayenne pepper when, driven to hysterics by Orage's philosophising he says he inadvertently dumped the whole pot of cayenne pepper into the dish he was preparing for himself and the people with him in his apartment, which fiery dish they were then forced to eat, lacking any other food due to the absence of funds at that point. This, of course, reminds one of the episode of the Transcaucasia incurred forcing himself to eat the red peppers he has spent his last projects on that occurs in the first chapter of Beelzebub.
This bizarre and even farcical image is balanced by the sweetly mysterious portrait of his mother walking towards him accompanied by two peacocks, a dog and a cat which, he says, always came with her on her walks; and the scene of his mother and wife leaning towards each other behind him, as he sat working on the bench, and whispering together in their made-up language. One just has to feel them, and not interpret them. But they draw attention to the form of mentation Gurdjieff seems to be advocating and I have been trying to see what has been going on me as a result of the images I have read into myself.
It seems so subjective to talk about; because I have to bring into the picture as it were particular impressions that belong to me. Just this afternoon, weeks after making the recordings, I was sat in my garden and picking up on the feeling that, in spite of his endless boasts of superhuman toil, powers and sufferings he speaks human. I mean that he is telling my story and yours. He had been sitting in his garden worrying about how to pay the mortgage just as I have done and was doing. Then it came over me that I was him, lying wounded in 'purgatory' between the hell of the desert and the heaven of the oasis, though there was neither of these physically present; it was that the very air carried the moment of experience, the air having the form of experience that was the same: in the Third Series, does he not cry out, "What is this sameness? Why sameness?"
What next then for this upstart reader of Gurdjieff's "sacred texts"? Well, there remains the enigma of "the Herald of Coming Good". In the Third Series he urges people not to read it and says he tried to withdraw and destroy every copy, yet in another place he refers to it concerning the Tzvarnoharno or the special energy that is akin, so I believe, to havareno in Pahlawi (according to John Bennett), daimon in Greek and genius in Latin; though, typically, inverted in usage by G to mean that which people project onto 'remarkable men'. So I am tempted, since I have gone the "whole hog", to include the postage, in this case "Herald" and commit the alchemical transgression of tangling with the "recalcitrant fourth". At least, it is even shorter than "Life is Real"!