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 < > . Some recent reviews have appeared on own website (< > ) 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 < > .

This entry was posted in Commentaries. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.