Gurdjieff’s Early Talks 1914-31

Images 2

Book Studio, 2014

Esotericism- do we need this word? What does it mean? ‘Esoteric knowledge’ is generally believed to mean secret or hidden knowledge; a secret science. It would be a mistake to define words rigidly, as though, by defining them, we understood them. But it can be a help to have alternative formulations, each a reflection of a multifaceted crystal. ‘Secret knowledge’. ‘hidden knowledge’, ‘a knowledge coming from the source and calling us back to the source’………

Esotericism may be seen as a magnificent tree with its roots in heaven, emerging from the great Sun, though in its origin it is formless. It takes form as a tree, its major branches reaching down to us three-centred beings of the earth. We know some of those branches a little: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity….. and Gurdjieff’s teaching. Esotericism is fundamental; the different teachings are particular manifestations coloured by history and culture. There can be no such thing as ‘Christian esotericism’, because esotericism cannot be qualified. One can, though, speak of ‘esoteric Christianity’, as Gurdjieff did.

In 1949 few people had heard of Gurdjieff. When he died, did anyone foresee the flood of writing about him which would follow? It began with a stream…. but it was a stream of gold. In 1950 the wonderful English translation of Beelzebub was published (1). It was followed by many valuable books by his pupils, but later, when the stream turned into a flood, books appeared purporting to elucidate the teaching, which in fact were subjective interpretations and speculations about the ideas. The authors either had little experience of the oral transmission of the living teaching, or none at all, having merely read books. It was necessary to point out that ‘the word teaching should refer strictly to a direct relational experience which takes place in the presence of a teacher, in particular through oral transmission’ (2), and that it is a mistake to suppose that a teaching merely deals with ideas.

This misunderstanding was joined by another, which was to suppose that esotericism can be found in ideas, whereas it is in the capacity to understand through guided practical experience (2). Esotericism is not intentionally hidden; it is hidden by its very nature, since it can only be understood through a long inner preparation. The twig of a branch of a tree may be right in front of us, but we do not see it, or mistake it for something else.

Books about Gurdjieff’s ideas were later joined by others giving us ‘facts’ about his life, telling us, for example, what he said to a particular pupil but also that on such-and-such an afternoon, Messrs A, B, C and D had tea with him- as though that was on the same level. Therefore, having once greeted any new book with joy and anticipation, later on the news of a further publication would rather elicit a groan of ‘Oh no, not another book!’ But then, very occasionally there appeared a complete surprise, like the wonderful recollections of Tchekhovitch (3). The books claiming to describe Gurdjieff’s life left one wondering: can a biography be written about such a man? What he wrote about himself is so much more interesting! And in these days of ‘the right to freedom of information’, can we recognise that there are things which we may not have the right to know?

This question is relevant to the compilation of Early Talks, given by Gurdjieff from 1914 to 1931. There are over 100 items, of which less than 40 previously appeared in Views (4). Early Talks begins, not with an introduction, but with ‘A short essay of commendation’, which begins well…..We must be grateful that no artificial order has been imposed on the contents; mercifully, there are no chapters with subjective headings, but the talks are simply printed in chronological order.

Although one might want to see whether the material previously published in Views appears here in exactly the same form (a quick look suggests that there are no significant differences), I was drawn to those talks with which I was unfamiliar. The second one, which begins ‘So is the ordinary man…’, entitled Lecture (Pre-institute), and without a date (1914?), has a particular interest because we find early expositions of several themes which we know of from later. The first is the impossibility of imagining one’s own death; then an early version of the ‘Two Rivers’, referred to again in another talk (12th February 1924) before a fuller exposition in the text of that name in Views, and it’s majestic final version in Beelzebub. In the earliest version it also speaks of the need to die to one of the rivers, and the death of the ‘I’. All in five pages!

Several talks are about aspects of breathing, including a very clear statement of the danger of breathing exercises. In others one finds alternative formulations for ideas which we know well but expressed in a different form; for example, the need for the intensity of the lower centres to be increased, rather than the well-known ‘the lower centres are undeveloped’. Carriage, horse and driver describes that ancient analogy in a form we will recognise, but there is also a somewhat different and arresting description under the title The Equipage.

One may ask whether there was any need to reprint the material previously published in Views. To my own surprise, after living with this book for some time, I feel that there was. Here they are unadorned, not artificially grouped, in strict chronological order interspersed with the other talks which few of us will have seen before. There remains the question, should they all have been published? Some of these talks may be of real value to those who have tried for many years to follow the Way brought by Gurdjieff; they may fall on prepared ground. If not, there is the danger, ever present, that they are taken at the wrong level, by the ordinary part of the mind, and without realising it, one imagines that one understands.

  1. G.I. Gurdjieff, All and Everything, Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1950.

  2. Michel de Salzmann, A Footnote to the Gurdjieff Literature, in The Inner Journey, Views from the Gurdjieff Work, edited by Jacob Needleman, Morning Light Press, Idaho, 2008.

  3. Tcheslaw Tchekhovitch, A Master in Life, Dolmen Meadow Editions, Toronto, 2006.

  4. Views from the Real World, Dutton, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1976; reprinted with an index, Paul H. Crompton, London 2012.