Ruth Colombo’s most recent poetry

words-on-parole-bookWords on Parole is the title of Ruth Colombo’s newest book of poems. It speaks of release, and the poems in this collection speak of release from concurrent life sentences. There is fascination with justice. There is perception in the  hindsight of childhood and reflection in the foresight of old age and death. In between, there is insight into the dynamic between sisters, and the dialogue between the poet and mentors such as a landlady in childhood and a mother-in-law in decline. There is thought and feeling and sentences aching for truth in this collection from a poet who has always wanted to be her own woman, and who likes the self she has forged, a self who wants to write about the world from the great monolith of Australia to the Third Rome in Russia. Words on Parole is the sequel to Concurrent Life Sentences, the earlier volume of autobiographical poetry. Both books are trade paperbacks with visually striking covers designed by Bill Andersen.

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“In the Spirit of Pilgrimage” by Dante Elsner Reviewed by John Robert Colombo

Whenever I visit New York City, which is not often enough, I devote half a day to the Frick Collection on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, largely in order to stand in reverential awe in its West Gallery to gaze at its most magnificent painting. Obviously I am referring to the “Self-Portrait” painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1658, the finest of the artist’s innumerable self-portraits and, in my eyes, one of the greatest works of art of all time.

I once quipped, “Rembrandt knows me but I do not know him.” This painting is evidence that he knows everyone, all of mankind, because he knows himself, and thus you and me. It is a tall order. On these occasions I recall the couplet composed by Robert Browning which go like this:

“He gazed and gazed and gazed and gazed,
Amazed, amazed, amazed, amazed.”

The enchanting lines come from Browning’s “Rhyme for a Child Viewing a Naked Venus in a Painting of the Judgement of Paris.” They capture what I continue to feel about this grand work of high art.

It would take an art historian like Simon Shama or a curator like Sir Kenneth Clark, Lord Saltwood, to elucidate the painting’s wonders and mysteries – or someone who has read the art book that is the subject of this review. The title of this book is “In the Spirit of Pilgrimage,” and it is the work of Dante Elsner, as edited by his son Jaś Elsner and published by Traditional Studies Press.

Before proceeding further, here is a paragraph about the publisher: Traditional Studies Press. The imprint has been maintained by the Society for Traditional Studies in Toronto since 1971. Over the last four or so decades it has released ten books and compact disks, all of them related to the Work, including the pioneering “Guide and Index,” “Beelzebub’s Tales” (in its Russian text), a compact disk of the English text (recorded by William J. Welch), and most recently, “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto,” a partial transcript of words spoken at meetings of the Toronto group a long time ago, some of which the present writer, a university student at the time, attended.

The books are beautifully and one senses lovingly selected, edited, designed, and printed. Most of them, like the present work, have a distinct, sparse, minimalist, and quietist style of their own. The work at hand shares these characteristics and has an unusual format. It is almost square, measuring 8.25 inches wide by 9.5 inches high. Pagination is x+106 pages of high-quality stock. It is a quality paperback with flaps on its front and back covers.

The text is well-leaded and hence easy to read, and there are by my count thirty illustrations, largely reproductions of paintings, ancient statuary, and pieces of old and new pottery, about half of them in full colour. My sole criticism of book’s typography is that on a double-page spread the outside margins are so wide that the lines of text disappear into what printers picturesquely call “the gutter.”

This is where the pages are glued (and not sewn unfortunately). Despite this reservation, the book serves as a miniature Frick Collection.

It comes with enthusiastic blurbs contributed by Jacob Needleman, Ravi Ravindra, Martha Heyneman, and Roger Lipsey. The consensus is that the book (in Needleman’s words) “sounds a uniquely authentic understanding of the spirituality of all great art.” That is the text in a nutshell.

In these pages Dante Elsner writes about his training and experience as an artist – painter, sculptor, and potter. For him art is everything, to the exclusion of much else. The book consists of a record of the conversations that in his later years he enjoyed with his son, enjoyed with his son Jaś Elsner. There are no entries for father or son on Wikipedia, but on the Web the son warrants a page as a faculty member of Corpus Christi College at Oxford.

Jaś Elsner was born in London and is a well-published authority on the art of the Roman Empire. He is also the author with Simon Coleman of “Pilgrimage: Past and Present in the World Religions” (Harvard University Press, 1995). The authors have dedicated this illustrated volume with its substantial text to their parents – in Jaś’s case to Renée and Dante.

In these pages there is no reproduction of Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait,” the painting I so cherish, but Rembrandt is the only artist (aside from Dante himself) who is represented with two full-page colour reproductions, and these are greatly arresting works in their own right: “Bathsheba at Her Bath” (1654) and “Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels” (1650). The commentaries on them are most insightful. Dante and I would agree about Rembrandt’s artistic greatness.

In fact, I find little in the entire book with which to disagree, although there are some points that he does not make that I feel he should have made, and it would have been a help to the student of art had the text included a brief biography of Elsner and some assessment of his work, though I sense the editors for reasons of their own, perhaps consistency, made a decision to avoid doing precisely that. For instance, in Poland he lost his parents in the Holocaust, yet somehow he found his way to Paris (and the Louvre) and thereafter he turned up in London. Herein lies a exodus yet to be shared. In point of fact, Jaś covers these matters in his memoir at the end of the book, albeit in a sketchy fashion.

The manuscript of these conversations was brought to the attention of the editors of Traditional Studies Press by Anna Passakas, one-half of the art group called Blue Republic, which exhibits its contemporary sculpture in Toronto and Krakow She was befriended by the Elsner family in London and in their cottage in the market town of Amersham. She supplies a warm memoir which she calls “The Story of a Friendship.”

What Elsner himself offers his readers is a view of the relationship between the artist and the audience. “An original idea can only arise when a person is completely alive, and that is possible only when all functions – mind, feeling and body – collaborate, and that I am sure happens equally in music, poetry and the other arts. You have to use all three functions together. That’s what is very difficult indeed, because usually we are predominantly in one function. Quite a lot of contemporary art is just invented by the mind.”

He finds the special relationship of the centres in statuary from Ancient Egypt and Ancient China, and he finds its absence in the works of Kandinsky and Klee, not to mention Dalí and Picasso. “Try to compare, for example, the quality of Dalí with the quality of Bosch and you will see that there is no comparison.” He is a Traditionalist in his tastes. He does have a modern hero. “Cézanne is a genuine discoverer,” he notes, in keeping with modern scholarship and artistic fashion, and not a mere manipulator of impressions and not a purveyor of “a kind of cocktail of improvised ideas.”

“Great painting, great art, has exactly the same potential. It is not made by the artist, but through the artist. It is not Rembrandt who painted the portrait, but something in him – you can call it Holy Spirit or whatever you wish – that is visiting him. Because he is in this state, he listens, he receives the impression, and because he is also ready in skill, he puts it immediately on canvas.” So the artist is a visionary. “When the great vision is dictated to you, you don’t have time to go and ask yourself what this shape or that shape will be. You just do it. That is what I call form.”

“The great artist does not necessarily always produce great works of art. There are works by Rembrandt that are eogistic, and not painted with submission. However the later Rembrandts are nearly all superb works of art. Such is the quality of this man. He had lost his first wife, then later his common law wife and his son. He was left alone, abandoned by everybody (except perhaps by the Jews of the Ghetto who posed for him) and in spite of all that, he still produced great works of art. That for me is a mystery – how a man grows like that. The poorer he was, the more dejected he was, the more alone he was, the stronger he became.”

Elsner finds Rembrandt to be a role model. “There is one late portrait of his representing a laughing old man. He laughs at fate. He is completely unconcerned about what will happen to him personally. That is what I would like to learn from Rembrandt, and I feel I am learning something of his wisdom each time I see his work. I know that he died in poverty. His life had a different pattern from the usual one. From a rich man, he became a pauper. But he was not broken by adversity. In him there was tremendous strength. And this strength shows in his painting. That is what others can learn from him. He shows the way. He shows how people can develop themselves.”

My own experience with his “Self-Portrait” bears this out, except that this portrait of Rembrandt captures the subject’s experience of himself and also captures the discrepancy between what the subject senses, feels, and knows about himself and what others are able to appreciate about him. Yet there is some irony here, some cynicism perhaps, as is pointed out by Simon Schama in his exhaustive study, Rembrandt’s Eyes.

In an interesting passage, Elsner states that in a garden you can see a rose. Or can you? “You cannot say ‘rose,’ in this case, because this one is unique. You have seen it and you will never see it again. This is what happened to me. I was simply in the inner state of completeness, and so I saw a complete thing. Is there a rose that is not complete? It has beginning, just as you have. You also are complete. From this sort of experience can be born a portrait of roses or something like that.”

The training of the artist is technical, but it must also be psychological, indeed spiritual. “All we can do is to prepare ourselves. We can prepare ourselves to be. This is basic to all religious teachings. Contemporary religions have lost contact with the essential, the basis in religion.”

Elsner finds the work of Henry Moore, or at least those works that he has seen of the British sculptor, to be lacking. “Some people fall into a position of dealing with shapes, and that is characteristic of Henry Moore.” It is earthbound rather than visionary. “As I’ve said, great paintings leave room for the spectator to be creative, to fill the spaces, and by that to create the work of art.”

With Zen paintings, he finds that the spectator “fills these gaps where there are no strokes.” He likens this to the modesty of Matisse who, sensing his limitations, forgets to paint in the faces of the saints in his masterpiece of religious art, Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. “By accepting that to paint them was not in his power, he did some good. And that is a wonderful thing.” My own feeling, on spending some time in the chapel near Nice, was that Matisse’s Dominican sponsors failed to realize that they had commissioned an artist who was a pagan rather a believing Christian.

I am not sure why but I find that Elsner’s Zen-like drawings to be less exciting than his paintings and ceramics. Perhaps it is because at first glance they resemble a lot of other calligraphic-like art and design. Perhaps the spectator has to study them in great detail to find how they are different, unlike Elsner’s ceramics which strike me as quite distinctive, rich in a quality that is both earthy and earthly.

Elsner is quite critical of today’s training techniques. “The training and practice of how to be open to another dimension does not exist in art schools. For that you have to find a special school and spend many years training. For example, there are meditation schools of Buddhism, like Zen, Vipassana or Thibetan; there is Islamic Sufism, the Krishnamurti Foundation, Bahai, the Gurdjieff teaching. All these schools may not teach you art, but they help you to become less dispersed within yourself.”

“If you want to educate yourself as an artist, I recommend looking at the great works of art in museums.” He then offers pointers on how to make such visits worthwhile. “If you look, for example, at Rembrandt, you don’t learn how to copy him; you learn how he positioned himself inwardly in order to receive the vision. It is possible to extract that from Rembrandt.”

It was Yogi Berra who once said, “You can see a lot by looking.” Elsner always says, “Looking at drawings is an extremely important part of an artist’s education. I spent two years in the Department of Prints and Drawings of the British Museum, and three years in the corresponding department of the Louvre, the Cabinet de Dessin.” I am sure Elsner was a fine teacher, if he taught at all, and relentless critic of the work of other artists.

“Yes, when a man is in a collected state, not relying only on the resources of the rational mind, but with the awareness of the body and feeling working simultaneously, he is connected to a different energy that flows through him with unusual speed. His eyes are open to a different reality. He sees more – he sees ‘form.’ Everything becomes alive then. You are somehow wider. So what is important, maybe, is precisely that, to be wider.”

En route to these insights, he discusses his reactions to individual works by Holbein, Leonardo, and, surprisingly, Corot’s “Seated Woman” painted in 1830. “That is what I call real art.” He then admits, “I think that all true art must be religious.” He distinguishes that from “going to church.” “Some Chinese or Japanese bamboo paintings are for me religious art, whereas ‘The Holy Family’ by Rubens is not.” The same is true of Vermeer’s ‘Lady Playing a Lute’”

Goya and El Greco “attempted a nearly unreachable” goal when they largely failed in their attempted depictions of Christ. “The majority of paintings representing Christ are not religious.” The reason for this? “What is missing nowadays, in both art and religious itself, is feeling. If we could have feeling, we could have peace. But we are not peaceful in ourselves and that is why our dreams of making peace are just nonsensical. If feeling were there, within a moment, peace would be there.” Also: “Every human being can be an agent of peace if he is peaceful himself – if he is related inside. Feeling of this quality is the highest thing a man can touch.”

There is a fair amount of information about Chinese, Japanese, and Korean art, and especially about Zen and the special paper and brush and brushstroke that the Zen artist uses. “To reach this quality of brushstroke, you have to practice hundreds of times.” Perhaps if I reread these pages I will begin to appreciate the depths of Elsner’s Oriental drawings.

Elsner takes his readers from his studio on a brief tour of a number of Europe’s greatest centres of art, including Chartres cathedral, Notre Dame cathedral, the Cluny Museum in Paris, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. He describes and examines stained-glass windows, carved stone heads, etc. At the Guimet Museum in Paris, he pauses over the Raku pots and La Tsu Shi porcelain. “The real pot has to be ‘born.’ The potter does not ‘do’ anything. That’s how it is in nature. To be creative does not mean that you create, but that creation takes place through you, through us; this is the purpose of our existence. We are created not in order to appropriate to ourselves the creating capacity.”

The art and architecture of Ancient Egypt shows “supreme clarity” if only because their artists and artisans did not have to struggle against the pervasive naturalism that plagued Rembrandt and other European artists. “The ‘Sphinx’ produced a profound impression when I looked at him from his left side, but he was not so convincing from the right side. However, I have to reserve my judgment because I saw him only in the morning and at midday. How would he look in the afternoon or evening? You would have to go there many times, to see him in various situations of light. Maybe he was designed in such a way that in the evening he would appear very impressive from the right side, when the sun having moved towards his back would diminish the glare of his right eye.”

Elsner finally asks the question, “Who is the ‘Sphinx’”? If it is the image of the Pharaoh Cheops, it is much more besides that. “Krishnamurti says that we have a brain, but rarely have Mind; only sometimes can the cells of our brain undergo a transformation and contact Mind.” There is a deep consideration of “Le Scribe Accroupi” (a seated male figure with a hypnotic gaze and a scroll in his lap) which dates from the Fifth Dynasty. “It calls you to be in the state of presence, not to imitate it, but to be it. The scribe is showing you as in a mirror what you could be.”

Other works of art including Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” and Vermeer’s “La Dentellière” are examined. The latter canvas he calls “a complete painting, painted with all the powers of his being.” He confesses, “It took me eight years to distinguish the point of view expressed in this painting. The understanding did not happen suddenly as it did with the Mona Lisa. The understanding here came in a gentle way.”

Of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels,” he writes, “You feel it speaks to you, not to the whole world …. He painted her like a being from another planet.” He adds, “This painting saved my life. I came upon it wanting to kill myself. I needed help.” I will allow the reader of this book to learn more about this turning-point. Help arrived with the compassion conveyed by this painting.

The last section of this work is titled “Memoir of My Father” and it gives a youngster’s view of his sculptor father who found some artistic fulfilment during his life but no ready market for his wares. The youngster is the distinguished art historian Jaś Elsner. From his father’s exhibitions, he recalls signs that appeared on all the best pieces. They read “Not for Sale.”

Elsner Senior was born in 1920 to a middle-class Jewish family in Krakow. He would have been given the first name of David except that it seemed too Jewish; instead, his parents opted for Dante, which sounded Italian and Catholic. He survived the German occupation of Poland, unlike so many other people. At the age of twenty-four, he entered the Academy of Fine Arts. “He was absolutely clear that the artist’s two-fold path lay in clarifying what his expression should be, and in acquiring the necessary skills to the highest possible level.”

In 1948, he was able to leave Communist Poland on a scholarship to study art in Paris, where he applied for refugee status, supported in this endeavour by the sculptor Zadkine, a fellow Pole whom he barely knew. He spent ten years painting in a garret on the Boulevard St. Michel. It was in the Louvre that he came upon Rembrandt’s portrait of his common-law wife. It was in Paris that he chanced upon followers of Gurdjieff and in the early 1950s he joined the Work. “My father lived his working life, his art, his vocation and his spiritual life, as one. It is to Gurdjieff’s Work that he owed the inspiration to take this as a goal and much of the means to effect it.”

In 1956, he met a distant cousin Renée, also born in Kracow, and two years later they married and settled in London. They were able to support themselves from the meagre war reparations they received from the Federal Republic of Germany. Jaœ recalls growing up with his sister and attending meetings. “In our early childhood, one day of every weekend (alternately Saturday and Sunday) was spent at the Work’s large former chicken farm at Bray outside London where my parents were involved in various craft activities to be conducted under strictly Gurdjieffian conditions of attention and ‘self-remembering.’ I think the children were meant to do this too, but we conspired to be as disruptive as possible of this particular aspect of the Work!”

At Bray he was exposed to the pottery of Peter O’Malley. “I think he believed that a great pot was a perfect embodiment of an experience of life, and in the range of his pottery he sought to evoke the infinite variety of human experience, joyful, sad, summer, spring, winter, autumn …. ” In the end, “ill health struck him cruelly.” He died of pneumonia in 1997, but lived long enough to see his daughter married and his son Jaœ married and the father of a girl named Maia and a baby boy (named Dante after him). “It was a joyful cremation” that took place at the Golders Green crematorium.

Whoever reads “In the Spirit of Pilgrimage” will acquire a new friend, an irascible one at times perhaps, yet a presence, who regarded art as a vision and a revelation so that he regarded the artist as a visionary and a revelator. Artists in particular will be impressed with the man’s need to intuitively understand the work of art, intrinsically, rather than extrinsically through personal, material, or social history. If I had met him in life, I am sure Dante Elsner could and would have spoken to me for hours about the hidden and spiritual wonders of that special self-portrait now in the Frick Collection that Rembrandt had painted in Amsterdam amid so much poverty and pain over 350 years ago.

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based editor and anthologist and poet. His current collection is “Late in the Day” and his latest compilation is “The Northrop Frye Quote Book.” His website is www.colombo.ca and his email address is jrc@colombo.ca. He writes the occasional review of interesting books. To join the mailing list, drop JRC a line with your email address.

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John Robert Colombo reviews “Higher Being Bodies” and “A Stopinder Anthology”

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.”

John Robert Colombo is an author and anthologist who lives in Toronto, Canada. He has written and compiled many books on the lore and literature of his country notably “Colombo’s Canadian Quotations” and “Mysterious Canada.” Recent publications include “The Northrop Frye Quote Book” (3,200 alphabetically arranged quotations with sources), “A Sax Rohmer Miscellany” (thoughts on the writer and creator of Dr. Fu Manchu), and “Late in the Day” (poems and effects written during the calendar year 2014). His website is <www.colombo.ca >.

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Late in the Day

late-in-the-day.
Late in the Day is the title of this collection of the poems and effects composed during the year 2014 by John Robert Colombo. As well as the texts of 101 poems, the collection includes diary entries that focus on the events of each day of the year. The wrap-around cover is the brilliant design of Bill Andersen It confines the text (title and byline) to spine of the trade paperback book, although sharp eyes will discern that the shadows of the letters of the title have become part of the front cover. The poems range over history and literature, philosophy and speculation. Card cover, 6×9 inches. ISBN 978-1-894-540-74-2. 248 pages.

You may download a PDF version of the book here, free of charge.

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Gurdjieff in His Own Words

A Review of Paul Beekman Taylor’s “Gurdjieff’s Worlds of Words”
by John Robert Colombo

It has been some time since I have taken up the mantle of the reviewer. Half a year ago I laid the mantle to one side, distracted as I was by reading all the published writings of Northrop Frye, for a collection of the late literary critic’s quotable remarks. Currently I am concerned with preparing for the publication of another mammoth collection of quotations (1.5 million characters in length), some five thousand remarks of special significance and interest to Canadians.

In the past, the reviews that I had been writing of Work-related matter and materials have been appearing on Dr. Sophia Wellbeloved’s Cambridge-based website. Those reviews are still there and may be accessed at < https://gurdjieffbooks.wordpress.com > . Some recent reviews have appeared on own website (< www.colombo.ca > ) where they are not given featured treatment. But they are easily accessed. Simply click onto the website, then click onto the big green button, and then read the current review. If you scroll down, you will find other reviews, amidst much Canadiana!

I recently experienced a computer crash of epic proportions with attendant professional and psychological consequences. But now, bolstered by a brand-new computer on my desk, using a newer word-processing package, I have the desire to catch up on reviews and notices of current book-length publications in the field of Work studies. The review that appears here is about a newly published book. Its importance will be appreciated by all serious students of the Work.

Paul Beekman Taylor bears three names which every serious student of the history and historiography of the Work will recognize and respect. A linguist by training, a scholar by education, and a literary critic by profession, Professor Taylor is the author of eight highly original critical studies of various aspects of Gurdjieff’s life and work, including most recently two valuable volumes: Gurdjieff in the Public Eye (a collection of the press coverage of his endeavours during his lifetime) and Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff (a study of what the public knew about him during his lifetime).

Professor Taylor’s current book is Gurdjieff’s World of Words: A Methodological Reading, and it is best viewed as a monograph, not because it is short (in fact it is reasonably long: 76,000 words in length – with all those words set in smallish type), but because it has the sharp focus of a monograph, in this instance on Gurdjieff’s use of words – not his language or meaning so much as the words themselves: verbissima, the very words.

First: a few of my words about the book itself; second: my own summary of the book’s content and argument. The physical book is a sturdy trade paperback that measures 6.25 inches by 9 inches; it has 160 pages; it appears in an edition of 250 copies. Its publisher is Eureka Editions of Utrecht, The Netherlands, which has an informative site on the web that features a long list of invaluable Work publications.

The present monograph consists of an Acknowledgements, an Introduction, a Preface, a Prologue, an Epilogue, a Selected Bibliography, and an Index … and, almost as if as an afterthought, eleven detailed Chapters. Each chapter is in effect a critical paper or even an academic lecture. Now, Professor Taylor has an interesting habit. His habit (or habitus, as Latinists might have expressed it) is to wait until the end of the book to account for all and everything in the final pages. He himself wrote, “Last proves best.” The observation is true for the present book: the Epilogue speaks for the work as a whole, and I advise the reader to begin to read it from there, as I will now do.

The Introduction (which should be identified as a Foreword because it is supplied by someone other than the author, in this instance by the distinguished theorist Anthony Blake) makes the point that “this book provides a veridical account of what we know about the Gurdjieff writings.” Blake observes the surprising fact that Gurdjieff devoted “over just ten years of his life” to writing his books, no more than that. He finds that Taylor’s term “worlds of words” is “a strange but apt phrase.” Blake offers his own take on the notion: “I myself came to believe that words are like crystallized bits of consciousness that can release feelings in us if we enter into them.”

The Preface (written by Professor Taylor) is something of a lecture about hermeneutics, the disciplined interpretation of otherwise obscure meanings. “This book is unashamedly a scan of Gurdjieff’s stylistic mastery of the English language, not so much in theory but in practice, that is, in attention to possibilities of meaning, translation, and words whose contexts inform particular sense.” The insights into utterances of theorists like Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, Butor, and Hermes Trismegistus are introduced. Sometimes I think Professor Taylor is a frustrated philosopher, or perhaps merely a frustrated lecturer, as much of the discussion is only marginally germane to the work at hand. However, this section ends with a lovely image: “Gurdjieff’s language is like shot silk: what one sees depends upon the angle of vision.”

The Prologue is subtitled “Gurdjieff’s Cradle of Languages.” As a polyglot, Gurdjieff was able to mint words and create pun in numerous languages, notably Russian, French, and English. Professor Taylor’s strength is that he has no fear when it comes to explicating texts written or translated into these and other languages. The bulk of this chapter is newly uncovered details about Gurdjieff’s birth and birthplace and those of his close relatives. Oddly, the root of his surname, gurd, means “Kurd” in the Turkish language, “Christian” in the Armenian language, and “Georgian” in the language of Georgia. A man for all states if not all seasons.

Chapter 1 is a “defence” of the inerrancy of the English edition of Beelzebub’s Tales. (I could not resist employing that term, so beloved of Christian fundamentalists, but I should resist the temptation; the term I should use is “authorized” in its literal meaning, for it bears the imprimatur not of the Vatican but of Mr. G.) Professor Taylor has discussed this matter in a previous book, but in this one he updates his research with respect to the 1950 and 1992 editions of Tales by examining statements made by James Moore, Stephen A. Grant, Madame de Salzmann, Mrs. A.L. Staveley, Roger Lipsey, and many others. These two editions and other ones in other languages are compared and contrasted and the author soon reaches this conclusion: “I cannot find any compelling reason to deny that Gurdjieff approved and authorized the English text that he edited with Orage.”

Chapter 2 continues in the same vein of inquiry, which is known as explication de texte, with respect to the French versions along with his other texts, notably Meetings with Remarkable Men and Life Is Real. One of his judgements is particularly interesting: “To accept the claim that the French version’s clarity is a veritable model for revision of Gurdjieff’s English in the 1950 publication of All and Everything is to accept a language not Gurdjieff’s.” Equally interesting is one of the reasons he gives for not revising the English of that edition: “Last, if the 1950 [edition] seems difficult to read, Gurdjieff intended as much.”

Chapter 3 is a short lecture on what might be called “the spoken word” and specifically the word described by St. John as being “in the beginning.” I despair, in a sentence or two, of the task of trying to summarize the argument here, for it is full of talking-points like this one: “One can understand that Saint John means that god ‘spoke’ Creation into being, and Beelzebub seems to suggest the same.” There is much discussion of “Heropass” or the flow of time, and also of the nature of “endlessness,” with the chapter ending with the suggestion that it has to do with everything “from Classical Natural Philosophy to modern Western quantum physics.”

Chapter 4 is a chapter of speculation. There are many allusions to space travel and time travel, especially to novels published at the turn of the twentieth century, and the present work has some points in common with them. “Whether Gurdjieff’s Tales is science, science fiction, fantasy or vision, is inconsequential, for all these literary genres lie within its encyclopaedic scope.” Inadvertently Professor Taylor has hit upon the key word here and that word is “encyclopaedic.” The best literary description of the genre of Beelzebub is that the work is an “anatomy,” employing the term in the sense of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and currently of Northrop Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism. This is the route that Professor Taylor could well take in his future speculations. The “anatomy” is a work of the imagination and instruction that is “encyclopaedic” in nature, inclusive of all allusions and genres.

Chapter 5 is in many ways the core of the inquiry for it deals with what Professor Taylor calls “Gurdjieff’s Semantic Worlds,” that is, the confluences of meanings of a great gamut of terms and terminologies. Plato and Goethe held that the mind must know the meaning before hand – before it recognizes the meaning as being present in any word, old or new. Professor Taylor presumably agrees, for he discusses the matter with respect to the views of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Orage. Gurdjieff’s celebrated neologisms he places to one side. In this chapter he examines an odd assortment of words: dainty, whim, twaddle, wiseacre, galoshes, mills, and tango. Then he examines some phrases: intentional and voluntary suffering, the extents and limits of chief feature, and what he calls bodily functions. The argument here bears the imprint of deep thought, and its perusal cannot but enrich every reader’s sense of the depth of the texts being discussed.

Chapter 6 amounts to an eight-page analysis of the “Worlds of Accident and Fate.” Here Professor Taylor brings into the loop The Herald of Coming Good and the ballet-pageant known as The Struggle of the Magicians. He finds the words “law-conformable” to be especially revealing with respect to “the forces of the creation and maintenance of the world.” There is a discussion of the nature of law which is amplified through association: “The phonological association of ‘law’ with ‘love’ might well have been brought to Gurdjieff’s attention by Orage. The link is significant, of course, in Beelzebub’s Tales where the Common Creator commands: ‘Love everything that breathes.’” The technical terms are Heptaparaparshinokh for “the law of seven” and Triamazikammo for “the law of three.” Also introduced is the chapter “Glimpses of Truth” from Views from the Real World. Nietzsche and Ralph Waldo Emerson are introduced. “Only a law of change can reconcile the two, and since all laws are probabilities, man has the possibility of altering his personal relationship to laws.” In this regard the distinction between personality (being under forty-eight orders) and essence (under twenty-four orders) is recalled, along with the role of one’s magnetic centre, and becoming free of chance happenings. A surprising aside on Sartre’s Existentialism lends an intriguing perspective. The exposition here displays evidence of much thought, both associative and original (or perhaps traditional is the right word to use).

Chapter 7 begins, “There are both vertical as well as horizontal worlds of words in Meetings with Remarkable Men,” and Professor Taylor does his best to examine the riddles and puzzles in the text and the purposeful confusions that are to be found as part of “the architectonics” of the work, a work that incorporates as an integral part the supposedly added-on chapter titled “The Material Question.” Thus the text proceeds from the father through the companions along the way to the son. Professor Taylor is a talented textual scholar and there is little that eludes or evades him, especially when it comes to plumbing the depths of the names and the characters of this cast of characters – “remarkable men” and one remarkable woman, seekers all.

Chapter 8 is a mathematician’s delight but it may be off-putting to some readers because it takes with the utmost seriousness each and every specific date given in the canon and it attempts to link it to an overriding reason for it being there. Here is one instance: “Orage died on 6 November 1934, seven years to the day after Gurdjieff had warned him about his frail health and seven years to the day after Gurdjieff had apostrophized: ‘My Being is necessary not only for my personal egotism but also for the common welfare of all humanity,’ and projected another seven years to rewrite his work in accordance to the law of ‘sevenfoldedness.’” About this instance of numerology, Professor Taylor concludes: “The play of Gurdjieff’s numbers figures the play of man’s spirit with his body.”

Chapter 9 deals with The Herald of Coming Good which has always struck me as a work that would have benefited from the helping hand of Ouspensky or Madame de Salzmann. The role played by Payson Loomis in its appearance is discussed, as is the plan to close the Priory and re-establish the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in the United States. Professor Taylor pauses over the word “herald” in its title and gives an attentive reading to the text, one that will send me back to its pages for further edification. “It is worth noting that each of Gurdjieff’s four published works contain historical information not found in the others.” And this is true of details in Herald. The text includes an insightful review of that book written by T.J. Davis and published in Lincoln Kirstein’s Hound and Horn, a review that is otherwise not readily available. Davis makes an extravagant claim: it contains “the most authoritative writing on psychological and religious themes which has appeared in the western world since before the time of Aristotle.”

Chapter 10 examines “words of movement and colour” in the text of Struggle of the Magicians. The text of this work, not generally considered to be part of the canon, is tailor-made for Professor Taylor, who “goes to town” on its references, comparisons, metaphors, symbols, and archetypes. Even if the reader of this book has not had a chance to read the text of the five-act ballet, he or she will be carried along by the exact and exciting description of its action on many levels. The chapter ends with a commentary contributed by Anthony Blake, which concludes with this insight: “It is plausible to regard every manifestation of Gurdjieff, including the events of his own life, actual or invented, no matter in what medium, as part of his marvellous world of language.”

Chapter 11, the final formal chapter, examines Gurdjieff’s command of the English language, both spoken and written. The Interwar Years in Europe were characterized by polyglot, linguistic-minded writers who left their mark, notably James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, and generations later the tradition is continued by Jorge Luis Borges, George Steiner, Alberto Manguel, and others. To the list should be added Gurdjieff. Professor Taylor, a polyglot himself, draws the reader’s attention to meanings of words that intrigued Gurdjieff, oddly enough everyday expressions like “plat du jour” and “cocktail.” Humour is not evident in the earlier chapters, but it does appear in this one. The author agrees with the statement about Gurdjieff “that philology was a better route to Truth than philosophy.” Then there is that statement “one must bury the dog deeper.” Professor Taylor writes, “I cannot find it in any of his published writings but many who knew him repeat it. He offers various interpretations rather than definitions of it. I could go on … but I will not.

Remember what Professor Tahylor wrote? “Last proves best.” The Epilogue is more concerned with the book’s title “Gurdjieff’s Worlds of Words” and less with its subtitle “A Methodological Reading,” for it focuses on Gurdjieff’s linguistic fluency, aided and abetted by his youth spent in the Caucasus, where from his earliest years he “spoke all languages” – or he “spoke one that included all the others,” the author has added. “He had the skills of an orator who knows how [to] make an audience pay attention to what he says.” Mr. G. was wont to describe himself as “a teacher of dancing,” but he might equally well have described himself as “a teacher of language.”

As well as a linguistic flair, Gurdjieff had “a philological bent,” his philosophy being the subject of one of Professor Taylor’s lesser-known books. Like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gurdjieff distinguished between subjective language with its associations and objective language with its deep meanings. For instance, he preferred the verb “to exist” to the verb “to live,” noting that the former is active and dynamic whereas the latter is passive and static.

Words have roots: some bear fruit above ground; others bear vegetables below ground. Like roots, words may be shallow or deep, and there are levels of communication that are entirely free from the contexts and constraints of language. There are accounts of the man communicating in words with other men in a manner that seems best described as telepathic. He advised his readers to read his principal book three times, in three different ways, and inevitably on three different levels.

Gurdjieff had the reputation of garbling the language, but those men and women who knew him personally (and Taylor as a youngster was one of them) attest to his precise and often devastating use of words, largely in English, but also in French, Russian, Georgian, and Armenian. “He invented a large repository of words and assured their integrity free of the confusion of tongues. A study of that vocabulary would require another book and another author better equipped than I am for the task.”

Nevertheless Professor Taylor’s achievement is likely to remain unsurpassed, for he recognized that Gurdjieff created what he called “worlds of words” – a “universe of discourse” might be another way to express it; Northrop Frye would have called his achievement “the order of words” – the way a scientist adheres to a vocabulary of agreed-upon terminology for each discipline. One also thinks of “evidence-based medicine” versus “eminence-based medicine,” where the vocabulary is controlled and the lexicon is limited. Without an agreement on terms, there is no understanding at all. “Gurdjieff strained to create worlds of words that could be explored subjectively.” I might add, “objectively as well.”

The Epilogue – and hence the book itself – ends on a rousing note, referring as it does to Gurdjieff’s decision to close the gates of the Priory and to open notebooks in which to write the books that he eventually produced – to preserve the Special Doctrine in the formof script: “After that moment of kairos in 1927, he wrote himself into volumes in which we can read him.” An evocative phrase from another discipline comes to mind, one associated with the Haida myth-teller known as Skaay. His verbally inventive narratives of deep time are best described as “being in being.”

Professor Taylor “covers the waterfront,” to employ an inelegant expression. Yet, in reading the chapters and all the preliminary and end-matter, I have kept a “weather-eye” open (to use another inelegant expression) for one of the phrases that I most associate with Gurdjieff when he was faced with speech or script, an expression that he used on numerous occasions. Yet the phrase fails to appear in these pages. The phrase is “bon-ton.” The words are French for “high-toned,” but they carry undertones or undertones of facetiousness or derisiveness. Nowhere in these pages did I find the French expression used. While there is nothing bon-ton about Professor Taylor’s treatment of his subject, his readers would have found it enlightening had the author discussed the characteristics of bon-ton expressions (the high style) and the “wiseacering” (low style) that those words may imply.

The reader who tries to read Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson will likely be perplexed to encounter tongue-testing neologisms, like the three that appear on the first page of its Prologue – Assooparatsata, Karatas, Pandetznokh. The reader would be well advised to turn to the well-known Guide and Index (2nd edition, 2003) and then to Sophia Wellbeloved’s valuable Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts (2003). Gurdjieff’s Worlds of Words will not help that reader, as the book was written to assist students with more experience. But it does suggest that Gurdjieff, with his surprising OULIPO-like focus on the insights and idiocies of language, rightly saw himself as the author of the world’s first postmodern books of sacred writings.

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist. His latest books are A World of Differences (a volume of poems) and A Sax Rohmer Miscellany (an account of a lifelong appreciation of the writings of the British author of the Fu Manchu novels). The latter is available in a print edition and an ebook edition through Amazon Kindle. JRC’s website is < www.colombo.ca > .

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Slideshow with music bed

This is a collection of covers for books published relatively recently by authors John Robert Colombo and Ruth Colombo. (In the case of the Sax Rohmer’s Sumuru, JRC contributed the foreword.)

The covers were designed by Bill Andersen, in collaboration with the authors. The music bed is sampled from this album, if you wish to purchase it online. John Robert Colombo has an extensive list of titles now available as Kindle ebooks.

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Uncommonplaces

uncommonplaces-300pxThe subtitle of Uncommonplaces is “New Aphorisms of John Robert Colombo.” There are more than 3,400 original aphorisms and surprising aphoristic expressions, as well as a separate section which offers close to 300 more aphorisms which attempt to describe those men and women the aphorist has met. All the contents have been arranged in alphabetical order by subject, so they range from Abilities to Zombies, or in the case of the personalities, from Acorn to Zukofsky. Colombo writes, “There are words around us that we resist using at our pleasure or peril, and these words are the most common ones.” By and large these commonplaces (or platitudes) whirl about like dervishes until they become uncommonplaces, remarks worth pondering. 400 pages. Now available as an Amazon Kindle at US $6.99.

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Sisters Agonistes

sisters-3-640

Sisters Agonistes is the overall title of a trilogy of three volumes of dramatic poetry written in epic vein by Ruth Colombo. The individual titles of the volumes in the trilogy are Sisters of Elysium, Sisters of Earth, and Sisters of Olympus. They describe the struggles of women both mortal and immortal through the ages and stages of life from girlhood as kore, through maturity as corona, and through old age as crone. The immortal players are the goddesses of Ancient Greece and there is much debate among the goddesses. The mortal players are the defeated Trojan women and the depleted Greek women of the House of Atreus. There is also much debate between mortal sisters, immortal sisters, and between mortal sisters and certain immortal archetypes.

The trilogy will be published in a limited edition in August 2014 by Colombo & Company. Email for complete details.

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Ghosts Over Canada now on Kindle

Ghosts-colombo-blog-300John Robert Colombo has been called “Canada’s Mr. Mystery” for such publications as Mysterious Canada. Over the years he has edited three dozen compilations of descriptions of weird events and odd experiences recorded by Canadians of all walks of life, from all parts of the country, and from the days of Samuel de Champlain to the era of Stephen Harper. Ghosts over Canada is the latest in this series; it consists of more than 30 brand-new, told-as-true accounts of ghosts and spirits, poltergeists and hauntings, in the words of the informants themselves. This scary book, with a ghostly cover specially designed by Bill Andersen, is available as an Amazon ebook for Kindle readers.

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A Rohmer Miscellany

cover-web-rohmer-fix

My latest publication is titled A Rohmer Miscellany and it is a modest contribution to the study of popular fiction, to the appreciation of mystery and detective fiction, and to the enjoyment of the seventy-odd books written by Sax Rohmer, the once-popular novelist who 101 years ago created the arch-villain Dr. Fu Manchu.

The present book, 116 pages in length, collects the thoughts and the research of John Robert Colombo who became enamoured of this author’s writings in May of 1950. It includes an original letter written by Rohmer to Colombo. An unusual publication: Colombo & Company , 6″ x 9″, 116 pages, ISBN 978-1-894-540-72-8. Cover design by Bill Andersen. $30.00 plus postage and handling.

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A One-Volume-Frye

northrop-frye-cover-300For the last ten years friends of mine have been listening to me describe this “work in progress.” The work is The Northrop Frye Quote Book, and while it took a decade to research and compile, it has finally appeared in this handsome, trade paperback edition published by Dundurn. The text consists of 3,600 “quotable quotes” from the writings of the country’s and one of the world’s leading literary critics and scholars. I selected the quotations, complete with their sources, to illuminate 1,100 subject-headings which range from Abortion to Zodiac. There are 356 double-columned pages and the volume includes my Introduction as well as a Biographical Appreciation written by Jean O’Grady of the Northrop Frye Centre of Victoria College, University of Toronto. Here is an ideal book for browsing and reference. It may be described as “a one-volume Frye.” After reading Northrop Frye’s “quotable quotes,” the world will appear more wondrous than ever!

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Colombo’s Latest Book of Poems

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front+backA World of Differences is the title of the latest collection of poetry written by John Robert Colombo. It is a trade paperback, 6″ x 9″, 300 pages in length. It brings together the “poems and effects” composed by this busy author during the calendar year 2013. Some poems are playful, others solemn. The volume has an unusual neo-noir cover, the work of designer Bill Andersen, and another notable feature of this publication is that the entire text, cover and all, is offered on a complimentary basis (no charges at all) to the readers of this website.

All you have to do is CLICK HERE for the download link to the free, complete PDF version of A World of Differences. (6.1MB)

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Three Videos of Poems

I am grateful to Kristin Somborac of Somborac Productions, an independent film and television production company based in Toronto, for commissioning, on behalf of the Bravo specialty network (owned by Bell Media), animated versions of three of my poems. (This happened three years ago when they were initially telecast; I am only now sharing them with friends and fans. Viewing time is about six minutes in all.)

The titles of the three poems (which appear below) are “Recipe for a Canadian Novel,” “Domestic Weaponry,” and “If the Rest of the World.” (Technically, the first two videos are animated short features, whereas third video is an instance of “pixillation,” a term identified with Norman McLaren, one of my idols.) Kristin is very imaginative, as are members of her crew. Thank you, Kristin!

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Jon Woodson’s “Oragean Modernism”

A Review by John Robert Colombo

oragean300In some ways I am the ideal person to review this book. In other ways I am the least equipped person to review it. So let me draw attention to my strengths and then to my weaknesses before summarizing the author’s argument and then assessing its merits. But before doing so, here is a physical description of the book itself.

The title and subtitle are the first unusual features of this publication. The title is a mouthful: Oragean Modernism: A Lost Literary Movement, 1924-1953. The author is a retired academic named Jon Woodson. The volume, a trade paperback with a black-and-white cover, measures 6 inches by 9 inches. The pagination is viii+204+iv. The print is large enough to be read with ease and there are seven black-and-white illustrations; except for one illustration (which will be described shortly), they make no specific point. The name of no publisher is listed on either the title page or the copyright page. I purchased my copy through Amazon.com at the all-in price of US $18.93.

The book begins with “Chart of the Oragean Modernist Network” (which is the illustration of genuine interest that I mentioned) which is a “sociogram” that offers links between and among people mentioned in the text. It continues with three chapters: “Oragean Modernism,” “Representative Works of Oragean Modernism,” and “A Lost Modernism.” The chapters are followed by the Conclusion: “Oragean Modernism as Psychohistory.” What follows those chapters are Endnotes, Works Cited, and Index.

diagram

The Endnotes are interesting, being in the nature of asides, but the section Works Cited is skimpy. For instance, the citation for a good many works is simply “Web.” At first I thought this was an acknowledgement of the contribution of James Webb, the historian of “rejected knowledge.” Then I realized that the author was referring generally to the World Wide Web, with little or no documentation and no date of “accession.” In these six pages, I counted over forty-five uses of “Web.” The Index, however, is nine pages long, double-columned, and quite substantial.

I am the ideal person to review this book because as an author and an editor who has copy edited a couple of hundred books for trade and educational publishers over the last fifty years, I automatically respond to the text on the page. The text of “Oragean Modernism” is not up to scratch in two ways. It would have benefited from the input of both a copy editor and a layout artist or designer. New sections begin at the tops of pages rather than lower down on the pages. The treatment of subsections and quotations is varied. There are numerous stylistic infelicities but, more importantly, spelling errors abound. Rather than blame the author for these, I suggest it was a mistake to “go-it-alone” without editorial input and typographical support.

I am also a reader of books devoted to the Fourth Way, so I have a fair knowledge of the characters and personalities involved in the Work. I know about the contributions made by A.R. Orage. Indeed, I knew Louise Welch, his biographer; I am familiar with her book Orage with Gurdjieff in America, which is cited here and there. I have read C. Daly King’s The Oragean Version, a very useful and often overlooked text, which is frequently mentioned.

Yet I am not an ideal reader of this book in the sense that I know little about its author, Jon Woodson, or his previous publications in this field. According to the author’s note on the book’s back cover, Jon Woodson is an emeritus Professor of English at Howard University. Howard is historically a Black university that is located in Washington, D.C., where Professor Woodson was born in 1944. He has described his sensibility as that of an “innate surrealist,” an interesting label. He is a recognized specialist in the field of African American expression.

Well received was his study To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance which was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 1999. He is knowledgeable about a whole raft of writers whose names are familiar but whose writings are not as familiar as they should be. He makes out that the texts of these books, mainly novels, are inherently interesting but also relevant here for reasons that have less to do with literature and more to do with what he has dubbed “Oragean Modernism.”

A.R. Orage (1873-1934), whose last name is now an adjective, was the brilliant editor of The New Age in London. He devoted the last decade of his life to assisting G.I. Gurdjieff in his work in France and the United States. In essence, he formed a variety of study groups in New York City, some devoted to the craft of writing, others to the study of the Work. This work brought him to the attention of some of America’s leading writers, notably those located in Greenwich Village and Harlem. With them he shared his views on the value of traditional principles and practices, and Orage’s own sense of “modernism” is the subject of the present book. I can do no better than to quote Woodson’s account of this own discovery of the importance of Orage’s work. The text comes from the biographical note that he wrote for his entry on Amazon.com, accessed 12 Oct. 2013. Here it is:

“After publishing a poem in an important anthology of African-American literature in 1971, I turned away from poetry, since it was impossible to stomach the ruinous course of American literary culture. I wrote a dissertation that read Melvin B. Tolson’s poetry through the lens of Gurdjieff’s esotericism, a view that was immediately rejected by other scholars. I have since worked to explore the esoteric cast of American modernism and have published To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance (1999), an account of how Tolson was introduced to esotericism by contact with the members of the Harlem Renaissance, many of whom were writing coded esoteric fiction and poetry.

“I have continued to write and to publish on this topic, showing that other major figures were also involved in this tendency – James Agee, Djuna Barnes, Dawn Powell, and Ralph Ellison. I have taught at Towson University and at Howard University. As a Fulbright lecturer in American Literature, I taught at two Hungarian universities in 2006. I now am at work on a series of comic novels.”

In essence, the argument of the present book is that Orage opened the eyes of more than thirty writers, a good many of them African Americans, to the absence of esoteric ideas in the literature of the period and to the need for such ideas and the requirement that they be expressed in secrecy, in veiled or “coded” references, in their works of fiction, in order to save the world from self-destruction. To make his point, Woodson has examined the texts of a number these writers and found instances of “legominisms” and “lawful inexactitudes,” the presence of which, once discerned, may be readily explained in no other way.

Has he been successful in realizing this aim and objective? Paul Beekman Taylor, the redoubtable historian of the Work, is quoted on the cover of the present book as saying yes: “This is the best scan of what was going on in those crucial years, 1924-1953. Your book is a major contribution to the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual history of the Harlem Renaissance and all the wells it drew from.”

I am not about to argue with Professor Taylor, or with Professor Woodson for that matter, and while I think and feel that Oragean Modernism has drawn useful attention to Orage’s work and its reverberations in the pages of a large number of important though often overlooked works of fiction, I believe Professor Woodson has overstated his case and in doing so has tested the patience of even the most patient of readers. Perhaps it is necessary these days to overstate one’s case in order to state anything at all, there being so much background noise and nonsense in the air.

Earlier I mentioned there is a useful illustration in the book. It is called the “Chart of the Oragean Modernist Network” and it is a sociogram which shows lines of influence emanating from Gurdjieff (top) and Orage (left) to embrace a “network” of writers and other influential men and women who are part of this “movement” led by Orage. Some names are household names, largely from Greenwich Village: James Agee, Djuna Barnes, Ralph Ellison, Walker Evans, Alfred A. Knopf, John O’Hara, John Dos Passos, Nathaniel West, Lincoln Kirstein, John Hall, Wheelock, etc. Other names are those of respected writers, many identified with the Harlem Renaissance: Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston, Nella Lawson, George Schuyler, Wallace Thurman, Melvin B. Tolson, Jean Toomer, Carl Van Vechten, Elinor Wylie, etc.

In the past it occurred to no one to search for esoteric influences or hermetic references in the works of Agee, Ellison, Dos Passos, West, for instance. Are there any? And how about Alfred A. Knopf who is included in this group? He and his wife Blanche established the most distinguished literary publishing imprint in the United States, largely by translating and issuing the cream of European literature of the Interwar Years. I know little about Knopf, but fresh from reading descriptions of him and his milieu written by fellow publisher and personal friend Bennett Cerf of Random House, I find myself doubting that there were any esoteric influences at all to be laid to the door of the publisher of “Borzoi Books.”

The argument that Knopf was subjected to Orage’s influence is based on the fact that he published one book by Orage and numerous books by Carl Van Vechten with whom the Knopfs socialized. This is thin gruel. I found myself thinking of the methods of Joe McCarthy, the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, who perfected the technique of finding Communist influences everywhere by declaring innocent people, in the absence of other evidence, “guilty by association.”

In the years ahead there may be readers and researchers who, following the lead of Professor Woodson, will devote time and energy to tracing the evidence for such influences. In the meantime, here are some of the author’s insights. Professor Woodson devoted his doctoral dissertation to the writings of Melvin B. Tolson whose “poetry showed outward signs of a significant interest in the occult, though this was not acknowledged by the few critics who at that early stage had published on Tolson. But there were significant tokens of a deep concern with the occult in Tolson’s poetry, and belong long, I could see that Tolson had drawn deeply on the writings of P.D. Ouspensky in order to shape his poems, and that Tolson was nothing less than a follower of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Though I was successful in earning a Ph.D. with my dissertation on Tolson, because of my view of Tolson as an occultist, my findings were summarily dismissed by the critics who began in the late 1970s to publish studies of Tolson.”

Fair enough so far. He further explains, “My interest in occultism was a matter of intellectual curiosity. I was never a follower of Gurdjieff or a member of any esoteric group. I am a literary scholar who happened to acquire a general acquaintance with the literature of esotericism – a body of knowledge that few literary scholars come into contact with.” Thereafter he began to track other writers of the Harlem Renaissance and note their interconnections and the fact that many of them attended meetings with Orage and met Gurdjieff himself, largely though the good offices of Gurdjieff’s secretary at the time, Muriel Draper.

Professor Woodson’s frustration has been experienced by other scholars and readers. I have on my bookshelf a copy of Joseph Hone’s early biography of W.B. Yeats which offers an analysis of his poetry that makes light the Irish poet’s interest in magic, theosophy, occultism, etc. Yet time passes and these days there are biographical and critical studies that focus on little else. There are even departments in major universities devoted to the influence of occult ideas on mainstream subjects.

“Finally, the breakthrough came wherein I realized the scope of Oragean Modernism. A scholar who had read my book To Make New Race wrote to me and told me that James Agee’s book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was the same sort of Gurdjieffian literary construction that I had been writing about in connection with Tolson, Hurston, Larsen, Fisher, Thurman, and Schuyler. This was a surprise to me …. ”

In a nutshell, here is what he concluded: “The Oragean Modernists subscribed to an unfamiliar ethos. As they saw their role on the planet, it was a given that they were above all supermen, and as such they may not have seen fit to reveal any more of their arrangements than they felt obliged to. Secrecy was important to the Oragean Modernists.” Names of writers so influenced by this form of modernism are given on pages 21-3. Pages 32-3 refer to Gurdjieffian ideas like the Law of Three, the Law of Seven, the Fourth Way, that found their way into fiction in non-realistic ways. This was accomplished ingeniously through the “phonetic cabala.”

The so-called “phonetic cabala” is not to be confused with the Hebrew kabbalah. The latter has for ages served as a way of wresting meaning from obscure and not so obscure passages of the “Torah.” The former consists of finding hidden meanings in letters of the alphabet and the words that they form. It was employed by the mysterious French alchemist and hermeticist who is known as Fulcanelli. In literary circles this pursuit is known as “lettrism,” and the arithmetical version is called “numerology.”

One morning I decided to try lettrism out for myself. That noon I was meeting with Barbara Wright and James George for lunch. Mr. George, a former diplomat and a present-day group leader, is familiarly known familiarly as “Jim,” so I decided to see what I could do with the letters of his name. To my surprise I discovered that “JIMGEORGE” lends itself to this treatment. The combined words contain the letters IMG, and in this context they obviously mean “I am Gurdjieff.”

A paragraph from a novel written by Zora Neale Hurston describes a room in a house and it yields two words that catch Professor Woodson’s eye: “gaudy” and “chiff.” They are said to sound out the name “Gurdjieff” – despite the fact that no fewer than eighty-three words separate these two key words. Astronomers have a term to describe a pattern or a shape that is more apparent than real, so the Big Dipper is described as an “asterism.” Psychologists refer to this activity as pareidolia. The term that crops up in psychical research is apophenia.

It is known that Louise Welch of the New York Foundation, who led the Toronto group for many years, had earlier in her career as a journalist contributed an “agony column” to The New York American. (As the newspaper was published by William Randolph Hearst, one observer noted that in accepting this assignment “she went from bad to Hearst.”) She wrote as Louise Michel, her name before her marriage to the noted physician William Welch. According to Professor Woodson, her name appears encoded in Nathaniel West’s well-known novel Miss Lonelyhearts which is about “agony aunts” or “gossip columnists.”

No one could imagine a more acerbic novel this side of French literature, one that is less likely to be a repository of “rejected knowledge.” The satire describes the ordeals of a journalist who is assigned to write the “agony column” for his newspaper. “West has inserted Louise Michel’s name at the beginning of his text using the phonetic ‘cabala.’” Professor Woodson explains, adding, “The name ‘Louise Michel’ is somewhat indistinct.”

Yes, it is “indistinct.” The passage from the novel which he quotes includes these italicized words in the following order: “clue,” “Miss,” “kill myself my.” The author explains that “Michel” must be read in reverse. Try as I might, I cannot figure out how this reading is plausible or even possible, but readers of this review who are intrigued with linguistic literalism are free to try for themselves by turning to pages 97-8 of the present text and puzzling out the sounds. Readers so inclined should watch out for eight other legominisms in Miss Lonelyhearts, all of them helpfully preceded by the use of the word “leg” in various formations and combinations.

What I have discussed up to this point are the points made by Professor Woodson in chapters one and two. The third chapter discusses the writers of this “lost generation” in considerable detail. I have nothing useful to add in this regard, as I am unfamiliar with these novels, and the author has a deep knowledge and appreciation of them. But the Conclusion takes the book’s argument into the field of science fiction, a subject I do know quite well, specifically the writings of Isaac Asimov (regarding the “Foundation Trilogy”).

Asimov coined the term “psychohistory” to refer to a meta-science, one by which statistical or stochastic analyses combine the insights offered by the hard physical sciences and the soft social sciences. Professor Woodson equates this with Orage’s “practical application of the laws that make up part of the Hidden Learning.” The argument here is suggestive and associative, rather than assertive and logical, but that approach should not be held against it, as the possibilities are intriguing.

These days most aficionados of science fiction view Asimov’s “psychohistory” as a dated plot-device, one that is on the same level as the philosophy of “nexialism” which guides the science officer aboard the space ship “Beagle” in a series of intergalactic stories written by A.E. van Vogt. These two pseudo-sciences probably owe much to the popularity at the time of Dianetics (the precursor of Scientology), the “General Semantics” of Count Korzybski, very popular in those days, Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History,” and even “The Decline of the West” by Oswald Spengler.

I am not sure, even after reading Oragean Modernism, what such “total systems” (which seek to explain the totality of history) have in common with “Hidden Learning,” but discussing the latter in light of the former is not necessarily an unrewarding endeavour. It is a task that the late historian and scholar James Webb would have undertaken in earnestness, but I doubt that even he would have found links between these “total systems,” secular as they are, with what evidence exists for the non-secular “Hidden Learning.”

Oragean Modernism concentrates on some of the writers who created the movement known as “literary modernism” in the 1920s and 1930s and on Orage’s unquestionable influence on these writers. What occurs to me is that Professor Woodson’s own book has been written not so much in the spirit of “modernism” as in the spirit of “post-modernism.” The “modernist” approach has been one of “structuralism,” whereas the “post-modernist” aesthetic has been one of “deconstruction.” In the first instance, the text points to the real world; in the second instance, the text points only to itself. Indeed, Jacques Derrida, a leading proponent of this approach, famously wrote, “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (There is no such thing as outside-of-the-text).

I would pursue this notion further, given more space and time, but for now I believe a better title for Professor Woodson’s book would be Oragean Post-modernism.

John Robert Colombo is an author and anthologist with a special interest in Canadiana and occult thought who lives in Toronto. The latest of his many publications is The Big Book of Canadian Jokes. In July 2013, he delivered an invited address at the three-day conference on science fiction sponsored by McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, which was held in honour of author Robert J. Sawyer. The text of the address may be found on JRC’s website < www. colombo.ca > .

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Four Hundred Years of Rob Sawyer

McMaster-conference---Colombo-Hartwell-Vonarburg-Sawyer

Three guest speakers — author/anthologist John Robert Colombo, Quebec novelist Elisabeth Vonarburg, and New York editor Robert G. Hartwell — pose with celebrated, Toronto-based author Robert J. Sawyer at the conference held in his honour and titled “Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre.” It was sponsored by McMaster University, Sept. 13-14, 2013. Reproduced here is the text of Colombo’s tribute to “Rob” Sawyer who donated his archives to McMaster’s Mills Memorial Library.

Invited Talk, Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre,
An International Conference Featuring Robert J. Sawyer,
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario,
September 13-15, 2013; delivered September 14, 2013

No doubt you are as pleased as I am to be participating in this conference. I am particularly pleased to be invited to deliver one of its opening addresses. On this occasion what I have to offer is not scholarship or analysis but some perceptions and appreciation. I hope you will keep these words in mind, if only because I will do the same … and I would not want you to be led astray, expecting forceful Final Words on our subject. Instead, expect some suggestive First Words!

The acquisition of Robert J. Sawyers literary papers reflects well on McMaster University, as does the sponsorship of this conference to celebrate at midpoint the career and accomplishment of this remarkable writer. His fonds reside in Mills Memorial Library, not far from where we are meeting, where they will resist the incursions and erosions of time, alongside papers by Bertrand Russell and J.R.R. Tolkien and other writers of note. (Let me add that they also reside alongside the papers of John Robert Colombo, which the library acquired in 1969. I am still awaiting the conference to mark that occasion!) Continue reading

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The Road to Mecca

John Robert Colombo offers some comments on Muhammad Asad’s “The Road to Mecca”

The books that I review are generally newly published, current titles. Yet it is often forgotten that books constitute news, and the novelty of interesting books and their newsworthy value that have an attraction for me (and probably for the readers of these reviews). It is also true, as publishers and editors like to remind us, that a “new book” is one that is “new to the reader” and not necessarily one that has been newly published. It may well be a book published decades or centuries in the past that is worth a passing glance, if not a close reading.

“The past is prologue,” the Bard wrote, and the paragraph that you have just read is a prologue to the fact that I going to write about a book that was originally published almost sixty years ago, a book that has attained the status of a classic, though it is a classic title that may well be all but unknown to the majority of the readers of this column. I am referring to “The Road to Mecca” which is the memoirs of a correspondent and diplomat named Muhammad Asad.

Its popularity over the years is attested by details that appear on its copyright page. Originally published by Simon & Schuster in New York in 1954, a company known for the eclectic nature of its “list,” the memoir went through four editions; the fourth edition appeared in 1981 and was reprinted in 1985 and 1993, and possibly subsequently. The edition that I own is the last one, as I bought it as a new book more than one dozen years ago. It bears the imprint of Dar Al-Andalus, Gibraltar.

“The Road to Mecca” is a handsome, sturdy, hard-cover edition, with end-sheets, stitched pages, a dozen black-and-white photographs, and with a dark green dust-jacket. The volume measures 6 inches by 9 inches and the pagination is xiv+375+ii, so it is quite long. The text includes a three-page glossary of Arabic and Persian Terms, an introductory chapter from the author himself, and twelve chapters (with such titles as “Beginning of the Road,” “Spirit and Flesh,” “Jihad,” “Persian Letter,” and “End of the Road”).

I am not offering the reader a review or a critique of Muhammad Asad’s book. That would take many words, many pages, and many screens. Whoever is interested in the contents of the volume should check the Wikipedia site for Muhammad Asad. Here and now I will allude to the book’s contents and offer some remarks about the author of these memoirs, with special reference to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Muhammad Asad was born Leopold Weiss (1900-1992) in Lemberg, Galicia – now Liviv, Ukraine – into a family noted for its long line of rabbis. He was trained to read Hebrew and Aramaic, and he spoke German, Arabic, Urdu, English, and no doubt other European languages. He eschewed formal education but he was adept at observation and expression and so was hired as a “stringer” for “Frankfurter Zeitung,” then as now one of Europe’s major newspapers and one with a chain of affiliate papers.

For much of his life he was a bachelor and he was drawn to the Middle East so he specialized in political coverage of the events in that part of the world during the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, he was drawn by the Arab temperament and by the bedouins of the Maghreb, and he was attracted to Islam proper. In his memoirs he wrote, “Islam appears to me like a perfect work of architecture. All its parts are harmoniously conceived to complement and support each other; nothing is superfluous and nothing lacking; and the result is a structure of absolute balance and solid composure.”

Leopold had always had difficulties with his father and while in Arab lands he converted to Islam, taking the name by which he is now known. He spent much time with Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, and was something of his protege. In India he met Muhammad Iqbal, one of the intellectual founders of the state of Pakistan, and in later years he was designated one of Pakistan’s “first citizens.” In time this led to his appointment as that country’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

The Wikipedia entry on the stringer, traveller, correspondent, writer, diplomat, memoirist, etc., lists thirty-six of his publications in English, as well as other interesting information about him. But his current interest rests on his masterpiece “The Road to Mecca” and it is a masterful piece of writing. I found it difficult to skim the text of the book written by this Haji because it is composed with his conviction that the West with its values is the mortal and spiritual enemy of Islam with and values. Even back in 1954, the author was unaware of the irony that the Muslim countries were in such disarray, especially compared with the Christian countries of the West, but he does not hold Islam to account for this. Instead, he holds to account the followers of Islam who have failed to realize their potential as human beings, that is as a sensual, social, and spiritual people. To him the Muslims are the most rational of men, and so deep is his conviction and so vital is his sense of style that he argues this point with great conviction. The reader blinks, as if to question whether it could be true!

What I want to do is to focus on two observations that he makes, two ideas that he presents that were new to me, and discuss these to the exclusion of the rest of the text. Both ideas concern Iran. If Islam is the faith above all faiths that extols reason, what should a good Muslim make of Sufism? I have long wondered about the Sufis and their fables, parables, and poets. Some years ago I came to my own conclusion that “Sufism exists because Salafism exists” – it exists to serve as a counterpoison to the poison of fundamentalist literalism.

In other words, Sufism may act as a purgative, the way Zen dissolves the categories of Buddhism. The notion was noted by Czeslaw Milosz in “The Captive Mind” in 1953 when he introduced the term “kitman” to refer to the dissimulation permitted by Sufis in dealing with authoritarian people, public hypocrisy, a version of “the noble lie.”

That is not the view of Muhammud Asad who devotes only one paragraph to the subject in his memoirs but that paragraph is a perceptive one. His opinion is that Sufism is un-Islam and he identifies its tendencies with Persia or present-day Iran where the Sufis are part of the warp and woof of the Shiites. After observing the so-called whirling dervishes of Scutari, he felt “somehow bothered.” Here is what he wrote:

“The esoteric rites of this religious order – one of the many I had encountered in various Muslim countries – did not seem to fit into the picture of Islam that was slowly forming in my mind. I requested my Azhari friend to bring me some orientalist works on the subject; and, through them, my instinctive suspicion that esoterism of this kind had intruded into the Muslim orbit from non-Islamic sources was confirmed. The speculation of the _sufis_, as the Muslim mystics were called, betrayed Gnostic, Indian and occasionally even Christian influences which had brought in ascetic concepts and practices entirely alien to the message of the Arabian Prophet.”

He alludes to the mission of the Prophet. “In his message, _reason_ was stressed as the only real way to faith. While the validity of mystical experience was not necessarily precluded in this approach, Islam was primarily an intellectual and not an emotional proposition. Although, naturally enough, it produced a strong emotional attachment in its followers, Muhammad’s teaching did not accord to emotion as such any independent role in religious _perceptions_: for emotions, however profound, are far more liable to be swayed by subjective desires and fears than reason, with all its fallibility, could ever be.”

It is apparent that the years he spent close to Ibn Saud, in what became Saudi Arabia with its Sunni Islam, had left their mark on Muhammud Asad. So the Sufi, so honoured in the West, is an ambiguous figure, to say the least, in the Sunni Middle East. Rumi may be “the most read poet in the United States,” as one poll determined, but that does not measure his standing in Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

The chapter titled “Persian Letter” is the one that dismisses Iran, one of the countries that the author says he knew best. He refers to “Riza Shah Pahlavi, who ascended the Peacock Throne in 1925 … the king who has given up all pretence of humility and now seeks to emulate Kemal Ataturk in building a vainglorious Western facade onto his ancient Eastern land.” He paints a gloomy picture of the first Iran town he visited, the town of Kirmanshah:

“A strange, faded, opaque atmosphere lay about it, muffled, subdued – not to say shabby. No doubt, in every Eastern city poverty lies close to the surface, much more visible than in any European city – but to that I was already accustomed. It was not just poverty in an economic sense which thrust itself upon me, for Kirmanshah was said to be a prosperous town. It was rather a kind of depression that lay over the people, something that was directly connected with them and seemed to have hardly anything to do with economic circumstances.”

The inhabitants of this town are painted in even darker colours: “All these people had large, black eyes under thick, black brows that often met over the bridge of the nose, weighted by heavy lids like veils. Most of the men were slim (I hardly remember having seen a fat man in Iran); they never laughed aloud, and in their silent smiles lurked a faint irony which seemed to conceal more than it revealed. No mobility of features, no gesticulations, only quiet, measured movements: as if they wore masks.” The author has nothing to say about Kirmanshah’s women, though he was later to marry at least three time (serially not simultaneously). Indeed, hearsay has it that Iranian women are among the most glamorous in the world; it is only the men who seem in this book to be lacking in stature and grace.

Paragraph after paragraph follows: “And then I knew what had moved me so strongly when I first beheld the melancholy eyes of the Iranians: the sign of a tragic destiny in them.” The author is a man of perceptions but also a man of concepts, and his conception of the cause of this melancholy is rivetting: behind it is “a never-healed schism in the world of Islam: the division of the Muslim community into Sunnites, who form the bulk of the Muslim peoples and stand firm on the principle of an _elective_ succession to the Caliphate, and the Shiites, who maintain that the Prophet designated Ali, his son-in-law, as his rightful heir and successor.”

“It was not their assumption of power but rather Ali’s and his followers’ unwillingness to accept wholeheartedly the results of those popular elections that led to the subsequent struggles for power, to Ali’s death, and to the transformation – under the fifth Caliph, Mu’awiyya – of the original, republican form of the Islamic State into a hereditary kingship, and, ultimately, to Husayn’s death at Karbala.”

Ali, Hsan, Husayn … Companions of the Prophet, heroes in Persia/Iran. “I began to wonder: Was it the innate melancholy of the Iranians and their sense of the dramatic that had caused them to embrace the _Shia_ doctrine? – or was it the tragic quality of the latter’s origin that had led to the intense Iranian melancholy?” He continues, “By degrees, over a number of months, a startling answer took shape in my mind.”

There is neither time nor space to follow the author’s argument, but in capsule form it runs like this: The conquest of Persia by Muslims was a catastrophic blow to the psyche of the Persian or Iranian people. The way to recover was for the Iranians to reform and reclaim Islam.

“The transition was too sharp and painful to allow the Iranians to subordinate their deeply rooted national consciousness to the supranational concept of Islam. In spite of their speedy and apparently voluntary acceptance of the new religion, they subconsciously equated the victory of the Islamic idea with Iran’s national defeat; and the feeling of having been defeated and irrevocably torn out of the context of their ancient cultural heritage – a feeling desperately intense for all its vagueness – was destined to corrode their national self-confidence for centuries to come. Unlike so many other nations to whom the acceptance of Islam gave almost immediately a most positive impulse to further cultural development, the Iranians’ first – and, in a way, most durable – reaction to it was one of deep humiliation and repressed resentment.”

“They began to regard the faith brought to them by their Arabian conquerors as something that was exclusively their own. They did it by subtly transforming the rational, unmystical God-consciousness of the Arabs into its very opposite: mystical fanaticism and sombre emotion. A faith which to the Arab was presence and reality and a source of composure and freedom, evolved, in the Iranian mind, into a dark longing for the supernatural and symbolic.”

He adds, “To such a tendency, an espousal of the _Shia_ doctrine offered a most welcome channel: for there could be no doubt that the Shiite veneration, almost deification, of Ali and his descendants concealed the germ of the idea of God’s incarnation and continual reincarnation – an idea entirely alien to Islam but very close to the Iranian heart.”

“If Ali was the rightful heir and successor of the Prophet, the three Caliphs who preceded him must obviously have been usurpers – and among them had been Umar, that same Umar who had conquered Iran! The national hatred of the conqueror of the Sasanian Empire could now be rationalized in terms of religion – the religion that had become Iran’s own: Umar had ‘deprived’ Ali and his sons Hasan and Husayn of their divinely ordained right of succession to the Caliphate of Islam and, thus, had opposed the will of God; consequently, in obedience to the will of God, Ali’s party was to be supported. Out of a national antagonism, a religious doctrine was born.”

“This, then, was the reason for the strange intensity with which the House of Ali was venerated in Iran. Its cult represented a symbolic act of Iranian revenge on Arabian Islam (which stood so uncompromisingly against the deification of any human personality including that of Muhammad). True, the _Shia_ doctrine had not originated in Iran; there were Shiite groups in other Muslim lands as well: but nowhere else had it achieved so complete a hold over the people’s emotions and imagination. When the Iranians vent to their mourning over the deaths of Ali, Hasan and Husayn, they wept not merely over the destruction of the House of Ali but also over themselves and the loss of their ancient glory.”

The condemnation of Iran is one theme among a great many themes to characterize these memoirs, for most of its pages are dedicated to finding excellence in the people of the “orthodox” countries who keep the faith alive. But for some reason or other – a reason that has more to do with human nature than specifically with the historic Shia-Shite schism and the present-day chasm – when I think of Ali, I think of that haunting line from Rudyard Kipling’s verse called “Vampire.” Kipling’s line could refer to Ali, for it goes like this:

“So some of him lived but most of him died – (Even as you and I).”

Written 5 July 2013. Posted 13 Aug. 2013

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