BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Not the book I would have liked it to be ...

Sometimes a book might sound like a good idea, but isn't, and sometimes a book was never even intended for publication, but get published. Jeanne de Salzmann's The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff appears to be one of these sorts of books.

As regular readers of this space will not doubt recognize, I have plowed through quite a lot of the Gurdjieff and other “Fourth Way” material, and, being interested in this line of study, I'm always keeping an eye out for books I've not previously encountered in it. When I read of Madame de Salzmann's book, I was, understandably, quite enthusiastic about getting a copy, as she had been the student to whom Gurdjieff had passed along responsibility for the teachings, even “forbidding” her to die prior to reaching the age of 100 (she lived to 101). Her background had been in music, and became a dancer and then teacher with Dalcroze's school, where she met her husband, Alexandre de Salzmann, an artist and theatrical production designer. Both of the de Salzmanns became students of Gurdjieff, and she was instrumental in the presentation of the “movements” from the Work.

However, The Reality of Being is not so much a book about the Gurdjieff work (as I had hoped it would be), but a collection of Madame de Salzmann's journal entries on her practice of the Work. I had brought up the topic of the book one time when I was visiting the Chicago Gurdjieff center, and was told that it was materials that really hadn't been intended for publication, but that, with the passing of her son, the estate had moved down a generation, and a decision had been made to make use of these writings as a book, some 20 years after her death.

Needless to say, my first reaction to hearing “this material was never intended for publication”, was to be quite excited about the prospect of getting “inner teachings” or some other sort of long-secret scuttlebutt about the dynamics of the Gurdjieff group. However, this was not the case, instead, this is very personal, and quite specific, reflections of one person (albeit as closely connected to the source of the material as one could hope to find) on their experience with putting these teachings to use in her own life.

In an age where people keep their journals out in public where anybody with an internet connection can delve into their inner life, it's hard to reach a level of shame for this sort of voyeuristic engagement, but I frequently felt uncomfortable in the way one might having randomly encountered somebody's diary, and set to reading it.

Also, the writing is very reflective, it's not written to address an outer audience, but is constantly Madame de Salzmann's inner dialog being set to paper. As such, it has very little flow or structure to it, beyond the fact that there are 140 entries assembled according to “theme” into 12 non-chronological sections by “a small group of her family and followers”.

Now, I don't want to say that the book is useless, as there are some truly remarkable insights floating around in its pages, and I do suspect that a more “touchy-feely” reader would delight in immersion in the author's inner dialog, but what can you, practically, do with:
When I become aware of the movement of breathing in and redistributing this fine material in me, I realize that I can, by my attitude, allow it to take shape according to pathways and centers of gravity particular to it. I become sensitive to feeling this attitude, and in practicing this I see that a very close relation is created between my body and this fine material. I can feel this substance of “I” in the body. It is of another order. But for now it is without its own force, powerless, without material. I need to have a more lasting awareness of it as at totality. Later, crystallized, it will have power over my manifestations.
... I could have picked any paragraph, and it wouldn't be much more, or less, dense, cryptic (or, inner-experience specific), or amorphous that this … and that's the case for virtually all of its 300 pages.

I'm usually a reasonably fast reader, but this book took me over 3 months to plow through. Despite being fairly well versed on Gurdjieff's teachings, I was unable to get any traction here, because it was like climbing down a ladder into de Salzmann's head and being swept along with her thoughts, feelings, and efforts in trying to achieve these aims that were left to her.

Again, I'm sure there are a lot of people who the idea of immersion in the inner working of Jeanne de Salzmann's mind would be a wonderful experience, so “your mileage may vary”. I ended up with a modicum of bookmarks sticking up out of the top of my copy, so there were things in there which I found enticing enough to want to go back and see what I could extract from them … but there's no “teaching” here, just peeping into the inner workings of one of Gurdjieff's primary students.

The Reality of Being has been out a couple of years at this point, but is put out by Shambhala, so probably hasn't disappeared from the brick-and-mortar stores, and, of course, the on-line guys have it (and currently at about a third off of cover price). This was a real chore for me to get through, but I do feel that I got worthwhile insights from it, but it might be something you'd enjoy more.

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Tags: book review
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