BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Interesting ...

Over the years, I've read a lot of the "Fourth Way" material, probably a couple of dozen books by or about Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and their various followers, but I'd never made any particular effort to systematically collect the genre, so I will occasionally (while browsing through Amazon) run across a volume that I'd not heard of previously. This was the case in my obtaining C.S. Nott's Teachings of Gurdjieff: A Pupil's Journal. I'm somewhat surprised that Nott hadn't made it onto my radar, as he does sound like a fascinating character, and a student that rose to the higher echelons of Gurdjieff's group.

Counter to what one might expect from its title, Teachings of Gurdjieff is less about the teachings (although much light is shed on the method) than about the environment around G.I. Gurdjieff and A.R. Orage. Frankly, I can't recall a book I've read that has given such a clear picture of what it was to be part of Gurdjieff's group, both working at the Prieuré at Fontainebleau and in the U.S. The first half of the book (split into two sections, one covering 1923-5 and one 1925-6) reads much like the extrapolation of "A Pupil's Journal", following Nott's progress with the work, and interactions with Gurdjieff and others. This is very well crafted, not having the feel of simply typing up his notes, but having a very real sense of being "in the moment" through key events famous in the history of Gurdjieff, yet told through the eyes of a young man struggling to learn what he had to teach. I am embarrassed to say that it took Nott's framing of it for me to "get" why Gurdjieff had called his school "The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man" (which has to do with harmonizing the mental, physical, and emotional natures within the student in order for successful development, rather than some kum-bay-yah "let's all just get along" pablum about "developing harmony" in Mankind that the name had always struck me as), despite the vast lot of reading I'd previously done of the subject ... I guess this helped to have at least that much of a breakthrough!

However, most of the rest of the book is taken up by "Orage's Commentary on 'Beelzebub'", which (while extremely valuable in and of itself) really presupposes that one is currently working through Gurdjieff's 1,200+ page opus Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson. Now, I'd read Beelzebub quite some time ago, and was at least familiar with the odd names and most of the general concepts, and I kept glazing over in this section, because much of it was (or at least read like) lecture notes that Nott had taken at presentations where Orage was trying to help people absorb that book. I'm sure that Beelzebub would be quite a challenge if read in its "native" Armenian, but most of the book was written or dictated in Armenian, translated to Russian, and then dragged into English by Orage (who had been a top editor of his time). The "3rd hand" phraseology makes reading it a challenge, as are words of Gurdjieff's coinage such as "Triamazikamno" or "Solioonensius" which seem to be intentional puzzles of discordant word roots intended to evoke certain realizations in the reader. One almost wishes that this had been split into two slimmer volumes, one of Nott's stories of studying with Gurdjieff, and one of Orage's commentary!

Oddly, following this there is another narrative section, covering 1928 when Nott returned to France, then a postscript briefly touching on some time-lines and interweaving threads of Gurdjieff's thought with those of other esoteric schools.

As frustrating as the format of this proved to be, I found it a very valuable read, as I was able to get a very good sense of the time and the work through Nott's descriptions, and, being at least familiar with Beelzebub, I was at least able to "follow along" through that section, but I really wonder how useful (or aggravating) this book would be to somebody coming in "cold" to the Gurdjieff material. It's sort of hard to recommend a book with the caveat "oh, don't bother with that center part", even though the rest of it would be a very interesting (and possibly enlightening) read for anyone!

If you do have an interest in taking a peek into that particular world, Nott's Teachings of Gurdjieff is quite and illuminating volume, and if you're in the midst of struggling through Beelzebub, I'm sure that Orage's commentary would be extremely useful, but for all others "your mileage may vary". This does seem to be presently out of print, but the new/used vendors have "very good" copies for under $2 (plus shipping, of course), so it can be had quite reasonably. Again, it's a very interesting work, but is probably not for everybody.

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Tags: book review

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