These days I am proving to be a highly irregular reviewer of books. The last book that I reviewed was a critical study of the writings of my late friend Judith Merril, the American-Canadian “science fiction personality” (as she styled herself). It appeared late last year in “Canadian Literature,” the academic quarterly published by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C. I found the academic study to be sturdy but stingy in scope. It lacks entirely the “feel” of the woman.
I also wrote a short review – a very, very long paragraph in fact – full of impressions of Conrad Black’s “Rise to Greatness,” his very, very long history of Canada (1,100 pages in length). I wrote it for some future use, so it has yet to appear in print The two academics who wrote “Judith Merril: A Critical Study” overlooked entirely the feisty woman’s social role and presence. In is history of the Dominion of Canada, Black, a capitalist, a financier, and at one time one of the world’s leading newspaper “press lords,” Lord Crossharbour in fact, ignored the role of capital formation in the evolution of this country. I find specialists seldom see forests for trees.
I am pleased to report that this observation does not apply to the two books that I am about to review here. What they have in common is the Work, of course, but also the Beech Hill Publishing Company. I will sidestep saying a few words about the Work, but I will write some words in praise of Beech Hill. The publishing house may be the only one in the world that is based on a small island; it lies in the coastal waters off the shore of the State of Maine. The island’s name is Mount Desert, and the imprint goes back to 1975 when its name began to appear on scientific publications and books of local history. In recent years its proprietors have shifted gears so that now and in the future it will concentrate on publishing works on the Work.
These books are among the most attractive titles in the library of such literature. So far four titles have appeared. I have yet to set eyes on “The Struggle of the Magicians” by G.I. Gurdjieff and “The Story of My life with Mr. Beelzebub” by Will Mesa, but if they resemble the two books already issued by Beech Hill, which are lying on my desk right now, they are beautiful indeed. These are handsomely produced volumes with striking covers and readable text pages.
Perhaps at a future date I will review each of these books in detail. Right now, all I want to do is to write a brief note about these two trade paperbacks and suggest why they are not only readable and worth reading but also worth collecting.
“Higher Being Bodies” measures 5.5 x 8.5 inches and is 262 pages in length, though it seems to be much shorter. Its author is Ocke de Boer, a Dutchman who has become, as far as I know, the first enthusiast for the Work to explore in person and in print the notion of the “coating” of bodies, which I take to mean the opposite of the “crystalizing” of bodies. I will not go into detail about this process; interested parties are able to check the author’s name and the book’s title on Google and find websites devoted to this book and to an interview with the author. So the reader may watch and listen to Mr. De Boer talk about his book, rather than read what Dr. Colombo has to say.
De Boer has given the following subtitle to his book: “A Non-Dualistic Approach to the Fourth Way, with Hope.” I like those last two words – they are a humble surprise, as is the book itself. For myself,
I always confuse non-dualism and Adviata, on the one hand, with Monism and philosophical substantialism, on the other, so I am never able to decide whether I would prefer to be identified as a non-dualist or as a monist. De Boer is a non-dualist of the first water. He takes the reader through nineteen chapters that lead from Higher Being-Bodies (in the text of the book the last two words are hyphenated, but not on the cover or the title page) to “Unity or Disparity Thinking.” It is thoughtful journey.
The degree to which Higher Being Bodies (or Higher Being-Bodies) differ from chakras has yet to be determined, though the latter are illustrated in some of the book’s fine sketches, but through De Boer’s association with Joseph Azize, a student of George Adie, in turn a student of Gurdjieff, he began to study this aspect of the Work and made an important presentation “Conscience Dialogue” with Farzin Deravi on this subject to the members of the All & Everything Conference meeting in Canterbury in April of 2013. At the time it was widely noted and it brought attention not only to the subject but also to De Boer.
A former teacher and therapist Susan Dent Aronson, attracted to De Boer’s approach to the subject, agreed to assist in turning the De Boer’s manuscript into the present text. Perhaps she saved the author from innumerable Gurdjieffian formulations, though some of them, whether unique to him or not, do survive: “reason-of-understanding,” etc. Passages about the Kesdjan body from Christian scripture appear here and there in the text. In fact, what is quite unusual about the present publication is that it commingles passages from a great range of sources beginning with “Beelzebub’s Tales” and continuing with references to Salzmann, Bennett, Adie, Hands, Heap, Nylan, De Lubicz, Nicoll, etc. The text is deep as well as wide ranging. She quotes De Ocke on Work effort: “It is very serious but also very light.” To her we owe the stylish prose, I guess.
Here are a few of the author’s formulations: “This small work is about applying sacred ideas, not about describing them.” “Overcome disparities, live with one’s conscience.” “If we have fully-coated bodies we no longer belong to the Earth. We can be sent down here or somewhere else where we are needed if this is necessary.” (This sounds somewhat ominous!) “If we start to coat higher bodies with our own initial efforts, we will be noticed by higher forces.”
“If you learn to remember yourself, the voice of conscience will become stronger in you and will warn you when you lose track, so to speak. Only this voice can help dissolve the hypnotism of ordinary life.” “Conscious labour and intentional suffering are human means for liberating sacred vibrations before death to fulfill God’s purpose.” (To the last formulation he adds, “I do not know where I heard this, but I had written the following statement in my diary about conscious labour and intentional suffering.”)
There are occasional surprises, like the note about “sittings.” Here is part of it: “Gurdjieff did not use the word ‘sittings.’ He frequently used the word ‘exercises.’ Jane Heap used the term ‘morning preparations.’ George Adie used the word ‘sittings.’ I use the word simply because I am used to it.” It continues, but this line of reasoning reminds me of the fact (noted by Ravi Ravindra) that not once does Patanjali in his classic “Yoga Sutras” mention the word “asana” or its translation “posture.” The sole error I found in the present book is “Forward” for “Foreword” in the running head on page xi. It leads me to believe that the author, editor, and publisher are truly human! In brief, “Higher Being Bodies” is a lovely book and the last word on the subject, so far anyway.
Over the years I have had occasion to review some of the publications of David Kherdian who has described himself as a “third-generation” follower of Gurdjieff. In a way Kherdian is “one up” on the Teacher of Dancing himself, as Gurdjieff was only fifty percent Armenian, whereas Kherdian is a one hundred percent Armenian. He is also a one hundred percent American, having been born of immigrant parents in Racine, Wisconsin, in 1931.
Maybe it helps to be Armenian. No one has ever accused Gurdjieff of lacking in energy. Kherdian seems to have plenty of it. He is the author of dozens and dozens of books (as many as seventy in all) in a variety of fields of interest. I have an Armenian friend in Toronto who thinks the world of Kherdian’s recently published translation of his people’s great narrative poem: “David of Sassoun: An Armenian Epic.” He was awarded the Newbery Medal for “The Road to Home,” which was followed by “Finding Home,” about his mother during the Armenian Genocide and then as an immigrant in America. Three of his collections of poetry are “The Nonny Poems,” “Living in Quiet,” and “Seeds of Light: Poems from a Gurdjieff Community.”
The latter publication is illustrated by Nonny Hogrogian, his wife, a talented artist whose work brings to mind the lazure-like art and decoration of Rudolph Steiner of Anthroposophy fame. In the past I have reviewed Kherdian’s collections of poetry, but I have never set eyes on a copy of “An Anthology of Armenian American Writers” which apparently includes works by Michael J. Arlen and the two Saroyans, William and Aram.
Kherdian recalls his introduction to the Work through Lord Pentland and how it affected him emotionally in his awkwardly titled memoir, “On a Spaceship with Beelzebub: By a Grandson of Gurdjieff.” It is a memoir that was praised by the late Colin Wilson as “one of the best accounts I’ve read of actually being a member of a Gurdjieff Group.” It is written with warmth and introspection.
I first encountered Kherdian when I subscribed to the journal that he edited decades ago from a farm in Wisconsin. It was called “Stopinder: A Gurdjieff Journal for Our Time” and it was handsomely designed and illustrated by the talented Nonny. Each issue offered subscribers a low-key yet concentrated approach to human problems and experiences and perplexities in a rural and rustic setting. Then I took an interest in Kherdian and his own writing. This takes time because over the decades Kherdian has published innumerable anthologies, volumes of verse, collections of memoirs, and works of fiction.
In an earlier review devoted to the man’s poetry, I yielded to the temptation to regard Kherdian’s poems as prayers (which Gurdjieff calls “recapitulations”) because they are admissions of current limitations and appeals to an outside agency or force or power and also to the force or the agency within one’s own self for enlightenment, salvation, redemption, insight, consciousness, whatever. The poems are straight-forward and personal without being particularly subjective in nature. I find I want to place his poems in an unusual and perhaps idiosyncratic context, one that permits him to explore the possibilities in our day of the direct expression of one’s life and work – the common style: plain, direct, unornamented, unrhymed, unrhythmed, a style that is risked by few poets in the West these days. It is free verse, be assured, but it is so direct it has little appeal to most poets, though it does attract a good many singers and songwriters.
The poems might also be described as meditations, ruminations, ponderings, or considerations. The only other poets who come to mind so influenced by the Work (or at least by Traditionalism) are Kathleen Raine and Pierre Bonnasse, both quite differently. The British poet worked within given forms (rather like Edith Sitwell), whereas the French poet and critic is a composer and performer with innovative tendencies. Kherdian seems the workman among the artisans.
David the poet and Nonny the artist lived from about 1978 for nine years at Two Rivers Farm, near Aurora, Oregon, a community founded by Annie Lou Staveley, a pupil through Jane Heap of Gurdjieff. It was presumably the sole farm in the area that had its own printing press. How many people have lived on these acres, how many people were weekend visitors, how many acres there are … none of this information is shared. Instead, the reader is invited to partake of Kherdian’s perceptions, impressions, and thoughts.
It is not surprising that David and Nonny (one yearns to refer to them informally by their first names) sought to find a public of readers and seekers who lived outside the confines of their group, so they launched their subscription publication “Stopinder,” twelve issues of which were issued between 2000 and 2003. Highlights are now reprinted between the covers of “A Stopinder Anthology” which Kherdian has skilfully edited. This handsome publication measures 6×9 inches, is 324 pages long, and displays a lovely cover with art by Nonny. I subscribed to “Stopinder” in its heyday and at the time I regarded it as a manifestation of the principle of “outreach” beyond the predominant group structure of the Work, a reaching out to the general republic of seekers, displaying as it did so the spirit of the All & Everything Conferences.
Joseph Azize contributes an appreciative Foreword which tactfully avoids explaining the meaning of the word “stopinder.” He has my sympathy. Here is one of Gurdjieff’s uses of the word: “in respect of what is called the ‘Vivifyingness of Vibrations’ according to its passage through what are called the ‘Stopinders’ or ‘gravity-centers’ of the fundamental ‘common-cosmic sacred Heptaparaparshinokh.’” There are seven such centres in all. Instead, Azize has interesting insights to share concerning the role of communities in the Work, the relationship between individual effort and group work. In this regard I recall the African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go in a group.”
There is also “A Note from the Editor.” I believe David is inclined to see the Work in terms of the company he keeps. I find him to be a man of faith: “That many of us may not live to see the dawn of a new era of human history more than likely, but that we have a task to perform is in my mind an absolute certainty.” There are thirty like-minded contributors of the forty or so easy-to-read articles, interviews, memoirs, poems, descriptions of the Work in action, including the Movements. Contributors widely known on their own include the following: Joseph Azize, Anthony Blake, Keith Buzzell, Wim van Dullemen, Seymour Ginsburg, Will Mesa, Allen Roth, Sophia Wellbeloved, John Anthony West … plus, oddly, Walt Whitman.
Whitman belongs here, in a way, of course. I enjoyed some of the lighter contributions, like “Remembering being Forgotten by Mr. B.” contributed by Bob Engel. The sole interview included is John Scullion’s informative interview with Sophia Wellbeloved about her study of astrology and “Beelzebub.” Allen Roth (“With Types and Astrolabes”) is informative about life at the community at Sherborne House. Everybody likes to recall his introduction to the Work, including Bob Silber (“The Spring of 1968”), and it comes as no surprise that it turns on a first reading of “In Search of the Miraculous.” Seymour Ginsburg examines “The High Commission and Other Sacred Individuals” and gives a high-level, level-headed reading of sections of “Beelzebub’s Tales.” Kamori Cattadoris writes “commentaries on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” that range well beyond Two Rivers Farm. The longest contribution seems to be “A Taste of the Sacred: Gurdjieff’s Movements,” written by Wim van Dullemen, who puts all the details in a larger context than is usual. I could go on ….
“A Stopinder Anthology” is a distillation of the experiences of a dozen or so years of working together and gathering together disparate approaches to traditional themes and common materials. It is a good-natured and varied prelude to work on oneself within the context of a group of like- minded individuals. As the Michelin Guides would say, “Mérite un détour – Worth a detour.”