The Gurdjieff Journal—Fourth Way Perspectives

Book Review
Leveling Gurdjieff:
The Philosophy of G.I. Gurdjieff:
Time, Word, and Being in All and Everything

by Paul Beekman Taylor


Following on the heels of his earlier forays into areas of Gurdjieffian historicity that were of interest to the author for personal reasons—studies of Jean Toomer and A.R. Orage and of their relationships with Gurdjieff—Paul Beekman Taylor has finally tackled Gurdjieff's teaching itself, setting out to "trace his [Gurdjieff's] philosophical idea that the acquisition of real Being requires attention to verbal instruction for husbanding human time to work on oneself." Purporting to outline Gurdjieff's philosophy for general readers, but seemingly aimed at the academic world, particularly at the discipline of philosophy, his discussion of ideas and terms is presented from the assumed viewpoint of the philosopher, not of the student of Gurdjieff's teaching.

Early in his introductory remarks Taylor stakes out his turf, maintaining, "though scores of books about Gurdjieff have laid out aspects of his 'work' and 'system,' no one has outlined exclusively what one can designate the philosophical content of his writings." Going on to establish the originality of his approach, after a fleeting glance at a mixed bag of books about Gurdjieff's teaching, Taylor concludes that in them "Gurdjieff's thought is culled from his talks and teaching materials, rather than from his writings." Maintaining his distinction between written exposition and oral teaching, and ideas from practice, Taylor makes clear he will limit himself to the former, to "philosophical issues embedded in the dense verbal fabric of his [Gurdjieff's] writings…". This distinction, as we shall show, is the essential contrivance for a leveling of the teaching to a philosophy. Is a teaching really the equivalent of a philosophy? Would we say the Philosophy of Christianity? Of Judaism? Of Islam? Gurdjieff's teaching—The Work—is the esoteric part of Christianity that tells how to become a Christian. Its practices are three-centered, not one-centered as is a philosophy.

But aren't Gurdjieff's writings teaching materials as well? Some of the books Taylor mentions were written after Gurdjieff's books were published, by people who had never met Gurdjieff and who were never students in the Work, so their approach to him could only have been through his writings, not from his talks or dialogues. Taylor further specifies that "After surveying basic philosophical issues of Time, Being and Word, I will look closely at some of Gurdjieff's narrative strategies to explore what authorial style adds to philosophical issues."

C Influences

C Influences, whose source is outside life, are leveled to B and finally to A.

With Latin phrases liberally sprinkled throughout, many parts of the book read like an introductory survey in a scholarly paper where the reader is expected to have familiarity with the citations, or, if a novice, use them along with a bibliography as aids to study. The extensive references embedded in the text are wide-ranging, making it extremely unlikely that a general reader would have the time and resources available to evaluate their relevance or the accuracy of Taylor's paraphrasing. As a consequence we limit this review to a representative sampling of those references with which we are familiar.

Interior & Exterior Time

Taylor scatters his discussion of philosophical issues regarding time and his surveys of Gurdjieff's usage throughout the book. As a framework for investigation, Taylor notes the contraction in the scale of calendar time from the First Series through the Third Series, with the First taking in the whole history of the world and human beings from origins to the present, the Second spanning the lives of individual men, the Third comprising just a few days in New York. Underlying this apparently simple progression is another of Gurdjieff's "narrative strategies," that of jumping between "interior" time, as experienced subjectively, and "exterior" calendar time." The dates for events, which have only one point on a calendar, are fluid, with some date sequences adding up differently when given in different places in the three series.

Taylor reviews various conceptions of time and compares them with what Gurdjieff has to say. Comparing what he calls the "sources" of time in the First Series and Plato's Timaeus, Taylor states that Gurdjieff's Creator God created the universe "out of nothing, as a material projection of thought," while Plato's god orders existing matter. If we consult the First Series we find "empty and endless space filled with the presence of the prime source cosmic substance, Etherokrilno, which is 'the basis for the arising and maintenance of everything existing.'" Later, when Taylor compares the Biblical and Gurdjieffian accounts of creation, he evinces a similarity: in the formless void of the Old Testament there is a water, and in Gurdjieff's empty space there is Etherokrilno. But the contradiction in Taylor's discussions of Gurdjieff and Plato, and Gurdjieff and the Bible, go unreconciled.

"In Genesis," says Taylor, "God speaks the temporal unit of a day…." Then, "Gurdjieff's All-Maintaining-Endlessness seems to have needed no time at all…." In fact, time isn't a central issue in Gurdjieff's story of the creation. One wonders why? Also, "Gurdjieff said that 'when we say a thing "exists," we mean by this existence in time (Search, 210)." But that's not all Gurdjieff says. He also explains that "existence in time does not embrace all the aspects of existence. Apart from existing in time, everything that exists, exists also in eternity." And he tells us that Objective Science says, "Time in itself does not exist; there is only the totality of the results ensuing from all the cosmic phenomena present in a given place." The remainder of Gurdjieff's discussion makes clear that time can be considered only with regard to a "cosmic concentration," in the Immediate.

Taylor uses the word time in a variety of ways, which seem to converge into three aspects: point time, called calendar time; linear time, called duration, may be seen as connecting two points; the Immediate, time in three-dimensions, solid like Lao Tzu's uncarved block, called infinite, eternal, endless. Concluding his discussion, Taylor writes that "Ultimately, Gurdjieff's audience is presented a secondary account of the beginnings of things whose primary sources are hidden and whose 'facts' are beyond its comprehension…." But who is Gurdjieff's audience? On one level we can agree when Taylor says, "Endlessness, or infinity, is beyond any positive measure, and duration without succession is both incomprehensible and inexpressible," and "Perfection of Being requires time." But is it possible that the seeming contradictions and discrepancies, the lawful inexactitudes, in instances of Point and Linear time in Gurdjieff's writings are meant to direct a student toward the Immediate?

The slippery usage of the word time complicates the discourse. After a while it becomes clear that Taylor often goes from one meaning to another without distinction and that his reading of Gurdjieff is incomplete. For example, he doesn't seem to have noticed that the chapters of Meetings are not presented in chronological order, or hasn't recognized what may be revealed about their meaning by this.

11 Missing Pages

In chapter 7, "Practical Philosophy of Being in Life Is Real," Taylor reviews each of the talks given in New York by Gurdjieff and reported by him in the Third Series. Referring to a passage in the third of the talks, Taylor says, "Reading out loud from the final chapter [of the First Series], he [Gurdjieff] identified two rivers down which Being flows.…" However, omitted from Taylor's review, are the facts that it was Gurdjieff's secretary, not Gurdjieff, who read the excerpt from the First Series, and that Gurdjieff, rather than having it read aloud in its entirety, abruptly interrupted its reading to summarize what he had written about the metaphor of the two rivers. Why this interruption and summarization?

Taking this omission as a cue to investigate the relevant passage in the First Series, we discover eleven missing pages from the version in the Third Series, pages which reveal what is otherwise hidden from view: that in fact the metaphor of the two rivers occupies only a few of the missing pages. Most of the eleven pages present Gurdjieff's discussion of a chief property of the organ Kundabuffer, that man cannot picture to himself his own death; that to cross from one river to the next "it is necessary to become dead to what has become for you your ordinary life." This metaphor is crucial for anyone who actually undertakes the crossing. It offers direction and sustenance in the midst of experienced feelings which might otherwise crystallize into despair.

If we follow Gurdjieff's trail, he leads us to answers, food, teaching. Interestingly, as a by-product of inspecting the passage as it appears in the First Series, we see that the passage, introduced by Gurdjieff in the Third Series as a "Word for word" extract, in fact differs substantially. Taylor has no questions about the differences. What might be the reason for them? Why does Gurdjieff present them as identical when they are not? For all Taylor's meticulous investigation and cross-referencing of dates and the chronology of events, this is a glaring omission.

Taylor continues: "At this point Gurdjieff exposes three essential factors (out of a total of seven) for man to form his own 'I' or essential Being. They are embedded in the sense of a mantra, 'I am, I can, I wish….'"
    "I am" asserts the totality of qualities of Being. "I" as ego is the subject of consciousness.…"Am," Heidegger asserted, contains the signification of all verbs.… "I can" in the pre-Shakespearean sense, he [Gurdjieff] insists signifies the totality of all qualities of physical acting and mental knowing. It asserts control over actions, particularly movement.…"I wish/will" asserts the totality of all qualities of mentation (thinking) and of directing action. It activates powers of the mind and other conscious efforts.
In offering his analysis, Taylor ignores Gurdjieff's language in teaching these "factors." Gurdjieff wrote that "these three factors engender in the general presence of man three definite impulses." [Emphasis added.] For the remainder of Gurdjieff's discussion Gurdjieff uses the term impulse or human impulse, not factor. The word impulse conveys a nonverbal quality of experience in a way the more abstract factor does not, so much so that Gurdjieff says, "I shall be compelled, on account of the absence in the English language of any exact verbal designation of these three impulses … to give you an approximate understanding of them and choose for them some more or less corresponding conventional names which we shall use in our subsequent talks." Gurdjieff is particularly explicit about "I am" as an approximation, that "as regards a word for the expression and understanding of the third definite aforementioned human impulse, in the whole lexicon of words in the English language there cannot be found one even approximately corresponding." It can, Gurdjieff tells us, be defined only with many words: "the entire sensing of the whole of oneself," clearly a nonverbal experience. And so the meaning of the passage has been leveled from a three-centered experiential context to a one-centered philological discussion.

The Case of Legominisms

Maintaining that Gurdjieff became a writer to communicate his knowledge in literary form, Taylor ignores All and Everything as a Legominism, the word, Gurdjieff explains, "given to one of the means existing there of transmitting from generation to generation information about certain events of long-past ages, through just those three-brained beings who are thought worthy to be and who are called initiates." The term first appears in connection with the efforts of Ashiata Shiemash to transmit his understanding to future generations.

What Taylor does say about Legominism is based on a careless reading of chapter 30, "Art," in the First Series. Taylor writes, "Gurdjieff's 'legominism' and 'word' designate any art form that carries a message understood intellectually or sensed aesthetically…." But Gurdjieff wrote that because already existing Legominisms—and the initiates who understood what they transmitted—were being destroyed at a rapidly increasing pace, they invented a new means of transmission "something like a Legominism," and secured its transmission "through initiates of a special kind" called "initiates of art." [Emphasis added.] Taylor has conflated the name of the club with their productions. Additionally, discussing Legominisms while failing to include the role of initiates in transmission supports the "do-it-yourself" approach of those who want no contact with anyone they would have to admit is of a higher level, or who are unwilling to submit to the discipline of a teacher.

In the same vein, Taylor speaks of "All the arts of legominism," "The arts understood as legominisms initiated by the higher beings of Atlantis…," and "the composers of legominisms in Babylon…." But as we have seen, Legominism does not designate art forms. And again he confuses Legominisms, which were the means of transmission devised by the beings of Atlantis, with the arts devised by the Adherents of Legominism thousands of years later in Babylon. And, of course, in association with Ashiata Shiemash's Legominism, Gurdjieff makes no mention of any art form.

Let us note Taylor's lowercase spelling of Legominism. Although the page number references he provides are for the original 1950 edition of the First Series, his spelling is that of the revised 1992 edition, the subject of controversy about its fundamentally distorting Gurdjieff's message. Lowercasing Legominism into legominism, with repeated usage, degrades the primacy of the noun giving it an adjectival character. For someone who claims to respect words, this is unforgivably sloppy.

Attempts at Connection

Taylor's conceptions of various "philosophies" or relatively differentiated realms of ideas appear throughout the book. Many are gathered in the chapter on "Gurdjieff's Wisdom" with glosses and paraphrased passages.

Attempting to connect Gurdjieff with the Stoics Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius,Taylor paraphrases a passage from Epictetus as "seeds of being," invoking being as a quality. The passage referred to reads, "from God have descended the seeds not only to my father and grandfather, but to all beings which are generated on the earth and are produced, and particularly to rational beings…." We see that Epictetus speaks of beings as instances of earthly life forms, a tenuous relationship at best.

As for Marcus Aurelius, in saying that "External things are not the problem. It's your assessment of them," Taylor considers this as "resisting negative emotions caused by external things." Yet Aurelius has taken pains to make clear that the inner event is not "caused" by external things.

Taylor's paraphrase "fixing attention on the inevitability of death so to use the present profitably," is reasonably faithful to Aurelius, as for example, "Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you're alive and able—be good." However, both the paraphrase and Aurelius in the original are not as explicit as Gurdjieff nor to his point. Gurdjieff advises that "every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as of the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests" to "destroy the egotism completely crystallized in them…." We can read this meaning back into Aurelius, but only because we have read Gurdjieff.

Taylor offers what seems to be his view of Gnosticism when he writes that "A recognized specialist has described Gnosticism as a religion of knowledge with a 'certain conception of the world, of man's alienness within it and of the transmundane nature of the godhead,' terms relevant to Gurdjieff's stance in Tales." Is this an accurate representation of Gurdjieff's "stance"? If man is an alien in the world, how is it that, in the First Series, his arising served an essential purpose in correcting an accidental imbalance which otherwise would have led to disaster?

Taylor goes on, "In accord with Gurdjieff's thought that knowledge is the byway to revelation, Gnosticism posits faith for the masses and knowledge for the superior mind." In Gurdjieff's teaching, what place does revelation have? And why, when "byway" means a minor road or path, does Gnosticism posit the lesser way for the "superior mind," the lesser way to revelation? Is faith, then, the higher way? Gurdjieff clearly tells us that faith is not an available path for us.

Addressing who or what came first with regard to Gurdjieff's ideas, in one place Taylor says: "It is fruitless to speculate on Gurdjieff's knowledge or conscious use of the works of his predecessors and contemporaries. It is enough to acknowledge that he absorbed or 'crystallized' in himself, as he would say, the message and the spirit emanating from the repository of artistic ideas circulating before and during his time." Later, beginning a discussion of philosophical ideas related to those of Gurdjieff he says more concisely that "Gurdjieff merges Greek philosophical and Christian conceptions of Nature with Judaic Law as intermediaries between man and God."

Gurdjieff tells us that the source of the teaching is prehistoric Egypt, at least 5,000 bce, likely older; that it is Christianity before Christ; that it has been unknown up until the time Gurdjieff presented it in Russia. If we take Gurdjieff at his word, the teaching predates all the mentioned philosophies, so we would expect it to have influenced later teachings (philosophies) and for aspects of it to appear in them. Levelers of all stripes bolstering their own favorite positions, because they can find such elements, have accused Gurdjieff of concocting the teaching from various sources, never considering that simply because their "sources" appeared chronologically at an earlier time than Gurdjieff's teaching, those "sources" are actually chronologically later than the original teaching. Despite all the attempts to supersede the teaching, no one has demonstrated a teaching which subsumes Gurdjieff's, rather Gurdjieff's teaching can be shown to subsume the others. Its scope and depth are too vast. To speak of Gurdjieff as absorbing or crystallizing in himself, or "merging," the mentioned ideas is to implicitly reify the widespread view of the teaching as eclectic and indirectly label Gurdjieff as a plagiarist.

Exposing Secrets

To justify his type of "study," Taylor invokes Jesus' teaching to the apostles that "There is nothing hidden but it must be disclosed, nothing kept secret except to be brought to light." But it's not likely Jesus meant in the form of written exposition, rather that by the work of the student and the grace of God, the hidden is brought to the light of consciousness. Exposing the secrets (to the extent they can be "exposed") makes more difficult the situation of the student, particularly the beginning or would-be student, who gulps down the "secrets" as intellectual ideas rather than as hard-won, and therefore highly valued, lived experience. This taking-in is arrogated by the person, substantiating the belief that one understands, rather than one "knows," with just one center. Such authors reinforce their own self-importance, despite disclaimers to the contrary, and steal a birthright of the student. What should be perceived as fresh and new is perceived as stale and old.

While acknowledging the existence of levels, Taylor appears not to discriminate among them. Consequent on failing this discrimination is that a term or idea with a meaning at one level is discussed as if it meant the same thing taken at a different level. Can someone at a lower level speak of higher levels as if they can be understood from the lower level?

A.R. Orage, for the sake of consistency in reviewing and editing, outlined a classification of literary works based on the Greek division of Mt. Olympus, the domain of Apollo, the god of prose or speech, into three zones—a lower, middle, and upper. Each zone was further divided into major and minor. A writer's evolution could be seen by the zone in which his work belonged. From journalism at the bottom, up through minor into major prose, at the uppermost, minor and major scripture, whose "aim is to induce a state which we may fairly define as ecstasy of understanding. That is to say, a form of reflection raised to a state of illumination." Orage understood Gurdjieff's writings as scripture of the highest kind, which necessitated that "We must always keep in mind what Gurdjieff says about Beelzebub's Tales: There are three 'versions' of the book—an outer, an inner, and an inmost: also, every complete statement in the book has seven aspects."

Taylor writes, "His [Gurdjieff's] teaching like his writing is 'graded,' on levels of 'exoteric, mesoteric, and esoteric,' beginners, intermediates, and advanced, to vulgarize his classification. All levels of his teaching and literary language, nonetheless, are esoteric in the sense that they conceal deep meanings beneath surface words." How can this be true? There may be connections, relationships between levels, but the word "level" itself indicates difference. To say all levels are esoteric is to blur the distinctions. And if they are all esoteric how are we to approach them? Isn't it the very differences that allow a movement from one level to a deeper level?

Gurdjieff told Ouspensky there are two kinds of influences on people, influences having different origins—one created in or by life, the second outside this life, esoteric influences created by conscious men for a purpose.

    The results of the influences whose source lies outside life collect together within him, he remembers them together, feels them together. They begin to form within him a certain whole…the results of these influences collect together within him and after a certain time they form within him a kind of magnetic center, which… begins to influence a man's orientation, obliging him to turn round and even to move in a certain direction. When the magnetic center attains sufficient force and development, a man already understands the idea of the way and he begins to look for the way.

This search may lead to a man who knows the way, a teacher, a third kind of influence.

    The influence of the man who knows the way upon the first man is a special kind of influence, differing from the former two, first of all in being a direct influence, and secondly in being a conscious influence. Influences of the second kind, which create magnetic center, are conscious in their origin but afterwards they are thrown into the general vortex of life, are intermixed with influences created in life itself…[influences of the second kind] can proceed through books, through philosophical systems, through rituals. Influences of the third kind can proceed only from one person to another, directly, by means of oral transmission.

The value of influences of the second kind, such as Gurdjieff's writings, lies in their role as instruments for spiritual transformation. Inevitably, "undergoing change and distortion in life through transmission and interpretation, influences of the second kind are transformed into influences of the first kind." As influences of the first kind, they lose that instrumentality. One must ask of a book such as Taylor's: why hasten that process? Is it that as Taylor himself recounted, "Gurdjieff more than once referred to him as—'an unhealthy element.' Why? 'Because,' says Taylor, 'I distracted other young people from the 'work.'"

Perhaps Taylor believes a hybridizing of the teaching with academe— philosophizing—will assist in its preservation. A worthwhile effort—if one also believes that a stuffed passenger pigeon is as good as a live one.

—Henry Korman


Notes

1. Philosophical content. Paul Beekman Taylor, The Philosophy of G.I. Gurdjieff (Utrecht, the Netherlands: Eureka Editions, 2007), p, 4.

2. Gurdjieff's thought is culled. Taylor, p. 5.

3. Time, Being and Word. Taylor, pp. 3, 10.

4. Etherokrilno. "The Deep Question of Energy," The Gurdjieff Journal, #46, p. 9.

5. Existence in time. Taylor, p. 11.

6. Time in itself does not exist. First Series, p. 123.

7. Perfection of Being. Taylor, pp. 82, 83.

8. Being flows. Taylor, p. 137.

9. 11 pages missing. First Series, pp. 1219–30.

10. I am, I can, I wish. Taylor, pp. 137–38.

11. Three definite impulses. Third Series, p. 110.

12. Legominism. Gurdjieff, First Series, p. 349.

13. Controversy. Much worse, are changes in the revised edition that reverse the meanings of words. In the passage previously cited, "three-brained beings who are thought worthy to be and who are called initiates," the revised changes the phrase to, "three-brained beings who have become worthy to be, and to be called 'initiates.'" Initiates have become "initiates in quotation marks." Given Gurdjieff 's usage of quotation marks, we now have an indication that they are not genuine initiates, the complete opposite of Gurdjieff's meaning in the original.

In another instance, a word is moved resulting in a different set of meanings. Gurdjieff says to Hassein, "I must here explain to you a little bit about those beings there whom other beings called and call initiates." The revised passage reads, "I must tell you a little about those beings whom other beings there called 'initiates.'" Once again we have "initiates in quotation marks." "Explain," meaning making something clear, is substituted with "tell," reporting facts. And the position of the word "there" has been changed. In the original, "Those beings there" refers directly to initiates on Earth. In the same sentence, "other beings" may be Earth beings or non-Earth beings, such as Goornahoor Harharkh or Beelzebub himself. So an initiate (not in quotation marks) is one who may be recognized as such universally. In the revision, "Other beings there" narrowly refers to Earth beings only who may be mistaken or deluded. A small change with large consequences.

Every page of the edition is replete with such changes which are not trivial. Many of the changes defuse a device used by Gurdjieff known to linguistic researchers as functional shift. A noun, for example, serves as a verb. This technique allows the brain to understand what a word means before it understands the function of the word within a sentence.

14. Beings. Epictetus, The Works of Epictetus: His Discourses, in Four Books, the Enchiridion, and Fragments, ed. & trans. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1890), Book 1, Chap. 9.

15. External things. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Gregory Hays (New York: The Modern Library, 2002), p. 110.

16. Be good. Aurelius, p. 41.

17. A recognized specialist. Taylor, p. 148.

18. Fruitless to speculate. Taylor, p. 45.

19. Gurdjieff merges. Taylor, p. 145.

20. Classification of literary works. Gorham Munson, "Orage in America" in Dynamic America (New York), Part II, X (6), June 1940, pp. 12–16.

21. Ecstasy. The Greek roots have the meaning of "standing outside oneself." Orage is quoted by Munson as explaining that "a second awakening might fairly be described as ecstasis, since it would imply the power to stand outside the ordinary waking state, as that stands outside sleeping." Munson, p. xx.

22. Three 'versions' of the book. C.S. Nott, Teachings of Gurdjieff (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), p. 136.

23. Influences. P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p. 198.

24. Influences of the third kind. Ouspensky, p. 199.

25. I distracted other young people. "Not remember self, forget others," Telos, #17, p. 24.


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