July 25th, 2008

Books!

An excellent over-view ...

I'm jumping ahead a bit in my reviews to get to a book that I just finished, that was marvelous, especially in light of what I've been reading recently (which have been generating rather cranky reviews).

Kathleen Riordan Speeth was the child of two of G.I. Gurdjieff's students, and so has a rather rare perspective on The Work (imagine growing up with Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson as regular bedtime story material!). What is refreshing about her book, The Gurdjieff Work, is that it is about The Work itself, not about Gurdjieff the man (as he was her parents' teacher and was no doubt more of a "grandfatherly presence" when they crossed paths), and not about the author's reactions to the teachings and the people involved. No, this is a very straight-forward exposition of Gurdjieff's teachings and methods from somebody who grew up immersed in them.

Interestingly, there seems to have been a good deal of resistance to her publishing this ... in the Preface she notes that Michel de Salzmann (another 2nd generation Gurdjieff student, whose mother was the formidable Jeanne de Salzmann) claimed that "everything" was wrong with the book, and wanted Speeth to come to Paris so they could re-write it ... an "invitation" that she did not take up. In the later chapters, she suggests that there were, in the various splinter groups that Gurdjieff left behind, factions that wanted to keep all the material secret, factions that wanted not a single jot changed from the way he did things, and, of course, factions which put their own spin on the work. Obviously, those who wished to hold the material close and make it difficult to attain would find a concise over-view like this a great threat.

The book is very well thought out, with sections dealing with "Who Was Gurdjieff", offering a basic bio of the man, with certain insights I've not previously encountered; "The Philosophical Basis of Gurdjieff's System" which gives the clearest exposition of such things as "the ray of creation", "the law of the octave", and material on the true use of the Enneagram (that anybody thinking of working with the watered-down "popular" Enneagram "typing" should read before they waste their time!), etc.; "The Psychology of Ordinary Human Beings" which recaps much of Gurdjieff's views on consciousness, awareness, and developmental levels; "Human Possibilities" which continues to look at what people can be capable of and what their ultimate limitations are; "The Gurdjieff Work" taking a step-by-step walk through the teaching, with various levels, exercises, and reasons behind these; and, finally, "The Living Tradition" which attempts to cover a vast array of metaphysical groups that have various degrees of actual transmission from Gurdjieff (I was, for instance, unaware that Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesan was based on a Gurdjieffian community), and ones that have just borrowed his terms (like the aforementioned Enneagram schlock).

What is really amazing is that the author is able to condense all this information into a scant 120 pages ... but it is very much "condensed" rather than "lightly touched on", and by the time one gets through this, one has a sense of having been through a real "boot camp" on the Gurdjieff Work. As regular readers will no doubt recall, I have read quite a lot of this material over the years, but have never found an exposition of the Work as a whole as edifying as Speeth's The Gurdjieff Work.

Also, there are fascinating bits and pieces that I'd not picked up on previously (like the Wright story, above) such as a segment on how many of the various groups almost coalesced around Idries Shah (the Sufi teacher whose works I've also read a great deal of), who had been working with John Bennett after Aleister Crowley's death. One of the things that stood out for me was that the very first reference appearing in the notes is to one of Castaneda's books ... in some of the retrospective studies of the Castaneda's work it's been noted that much of what is in the "don Juan" teachings may well have been cribbed from Gurdjieff, and there are certainly concepts laid out in here which brought to mind some of the details of Castaneda's later books.

I would love to quote a ton of stuff out of this, but, as I've pointed out, it's quite condensed, and to try to pick and choose specifically "valuable" bits out of this treasure trove is simply too daunting. Needless to say, I highly recommend getting a copy of The Gurdjieff Work! This is, thankfully, still in print (in the 1989 second edition), so is likely to be available via your local bookseller. It is also available "like new" for about half of cover price (including shipping) via the Amazon new & used vendors ... so you should definitely consider putting this on your shopping list!


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