Gurdjieff tells us that his father was an ashokh, a traditional bard, a singer of tales, so it should not surprise us that the son, listening to such tales, would himself emerge as a storyteller. Those tales were rooted in illo tempore, time out of time, and are thereby timely for all time. We listen time and again, not quite consciously acknowledging that they tell us not only of the deeds of human beings long since dead, of beings who might or might not be, but of ourselves, our natures, human and divine, our flaws and glories, our doings and misdeeds, our very being as it is.
We read Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson because it was written: but it is, at heart, an oral epic, meant not just to be read silently to ourselves, but also aloud, and heard not just once, but again and again, its stories gradually penetrating our resistant yet somewhat porous awareness until we know them as children know the tales of the nursery, knowing them in our heart and feeling in our bones the reality of Beelzebub, Hassein, Ahoon, and, of course, our highly esteemed teacher, Mullah Nasr Eddin. We hear them and we realize: we are Beelzebub’s grandchildren; we are Hassein.
As with most oral epics, Beelzebub’s Tales makes repeated use of formulaic phrases: “And so, my boy,” “the abnormal conditions of ordinary being-existence established by them themselves,” and “our highly esteemed Mullah Nasr Eddin.” Occurring now and then throughout the book, these expressions serve to anchor the narrative with rhythmic expressions that become familiar with repetition, and are quintessential signs of oral narrative. Accustomed to reading silently to ourselves, perhaps we don’t see at first that they fall upon the ear differently from the way they appear to the eye.
Many oral narratives also make use of stories nested within an overarching frame, such as the doings of Beelzebub before, during, and after his visits to our planet. The doings themselves occasion further stories and in places, stories nested within those. The use of nested stories is time-honored, and can be seen in The Thousand and One Nights, the Persian Shah Nameh, or Book of Kings, and in its full glory in the 11th century Sanskrit epic The Ocean of Story, which includes whole books of nested stories. We see the same in the Homeric epics, and we may be surprised to learn that these all were oral narratives long before being written down. Nested stories, like flashbacks, not only acknowledge and relieve the difficulty of listening to—and telling—a single long tale, but also challenge the teller’s and listener’s powers of attention, calling for closer involvement with the narrative in order not to lose one’s place.
These features of oral narrative remind us that we do well to listen to Beelzebub’s Tales. Gurdjieff also explicitly dismisses what he calls “the bon ton literary language,” another clue that he intends instead to deploy the arts and skills of oral narrative. He advises us to read it “as if you were reading aloud to another person.” Taking him at his word, listening to and following the frame story and the stories within stories, we may suspect that he wishes to awaken a special attentive factor in our listening selves. Our suspicions may be confirmed as we encounter unfamiliar characters and settings, special words of his own invention, revisited episodes, themes, and subtexts, and long, intricate sentences. Listening gives the possibility of studying a different kind of attention from the one we’re used to when we read silently to ourselves, and can lead to “fathoming the gist” of Beelzebub’s Tales.
In our highly literate culture, we’re taught how to speak and read, but the art of listening is given short shrift. We’re unaccustomed to regarding listening as a skill, and we develop poor habits of attention. We’re easily distracted and drift off into daydreams, or we fixate on a word or idea—what Gurdjieff calls “identification.” We let an image, word, or idea become associated with some other mental construct, and go off on a tangent. We mishear, misinterpret what we think we hear, replace an idea with our own notions, and react emotionally to what was read, to the reader, or to the prevailing conditions. We become physically, emotionally, or intellectually fatigued, get bored, lose our attention altogether, fall asleep.
While reading silently to ourselves lets us reflect on what was written and even pause the narrative flow to get clear on some point or other, when we try to carry this practice over to listening, we stand to miss large portions of what is read. We can’t ask the reader to go back, so we have to accept that we didn’t follow. We don’t have time to develop our own lines of thought. When we listen, especially for an hour or more at a time, we begin to see our predicament more clearly. We become, in a somewhat different sense than intended, a captive audience. We can’t help but see our predicament. And all the time we’re confronting the state of our inattention, the tale goes on.
For those who don’t wish to see such things, listening to Beelzebub may be anathema. But a session of listening may become a laboratory in which we can uniquely study the attention. Scholarly or analytic approaches that address only one aspect of the mind (the one that delights in systems and paradigms) fall far short of such a study. And if we can’t hear what we’re listening to, perhaps this raises questions about our listening self in everyday life.
As we listen again and again, we come to know the stories, and ourselves, in spite of our inattention. The episodes sink in, deeper and deeper, and we begin to see that the stories are about us, about the very thing we experience when we struggle with inattention, an inattention that creates ever anew the abnormal conditions of being-existence from which we, and the world, suffer. We’re likely to experience moments in which we seem to be hearing something that should seem familiar as if for the first time, as if something were awakened just then that we hadn’t realized had been asleep. To listen to Beelzebub’s Tales read aloud is to participate in a deeper work of stripping away our preconceived notions about ourselves as human beings, to be reminded of the very conditions that make that work possible and necessary, a work toward self-cognizance, of coming-into-being.
Besides the art of listening, another art—of reading aloud—can greatly help the listening. Margaret Flinsch, who recorded the whole of the 1992 edition of Beelzebub’s Tales, has said more than once to fledgling readers what Gurdjieff once told her: read with art. But what art is that? Surely it’s not the art of the stage actor, of histrionic posturing and the grand gesture, not the art of polished elocution, of public rhetoric. What is needed?
As a reader who has been studying for several decades the art of reading aloud, I would say that several skills need developing. We need first of all to become familiar with how Gurdjieff’s invented words should be pronounced. The most recent edition of the Guide and Index is extremely helpful for this. Familiarity comes with practice, with trying to reproduce the sounds as closely as possible to those given on the CD that comes with the book. An important “subsidiary” skill is clear oral articulation in general, so that any expression, ordinary words as well as special ones, can be heard clearly. Working with others in such a study gives us a chance both to become familiar with the words, and to practice with a live and interested audience who can provide feedback. Without such familiarity, all the other skills are compromised.
Next in importance is the right overall tempo, one that allows listeners to follow easily and naturally. We all have our habitual ways of reading, which need to be questioned. We may read too quickly, forgetting that others, like ourselves, are unaccustomed to listening; or too slowly, as if overly mindful of that weakness. Some passages, such as dialogue or long technical explanations, may call for a momentary change of tempo, a pacing adapted in the course of reading to what is being read. We need also to render Gurdjieff’s long and intricate sentences in such a way that the logic of their flow of thought is clear and uncompromised by inattention. This suggests that a preparatory reading, preferably aloud, to ourselves alone or with other readers, can help us discover a sense of the proper phrasing.
Such skills are not easy to come by without a study that focuses not on deciphering what the book means, but what it says. At the same time, we need to remember throughout that we’re reading to others. We may be awkward at first, but in time the artificiality of our initial efforts can give way to a growing mastery of these four skills—pronunciation, tempo, pacing, and phrasing—and to a flow corresponding to the reading, one no longer artificial, but natural, relaxed without being casual. In this way, we may discover the unique voice that is Gurdjieff’s, whose unrelenting critique of human life is interwoven with a penetrating kindness, an ever-present sense of humor, and an abiding concern for the welfare of our inner being. We begin to read with art, and with every reading, something new is revealed—about oneself, about the teaching, about, ultimately, all and everything.
The challenges of listening and of reading aloud can show us very clearly the quality of our ordinary attention, calling for and activating another attention, one attuned to the life in and around us. The book, considered in the light of this inner teaching, begins to act on us through the body and feeling as well as the mind, something that analytic approaches cannot do. And while we confront our inattention, the tale goes on and we receive and perhaps even fathom organically the gist of Gurdjieff’s teaching according to our own understanding, so that with luck (and art) we may obtain, as he puts it, “the specific benefit for yourself which I anticipate, and which I wish for you with all my being.”
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Paul Jordan-Smith is a story-teller and scholar of folklore and mythology who has written extensively for Parabola and other publications.
|Copyright © 2012 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing|
Featured: Spring 2012 Issue, Vol. XI (1)
Featured: Summer 2012 Issue, Vol. XI (2)
Revision: June 1, 2012
 Gurdjieff, G. I., Meetings With Remarkable Men, New York: Dutton, 1963, p. 32.
 Gurdjieff, G. I., Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1950.
 Ibid., p. 6.
 Ibid., p. vi, “Friendly Advice.”
 G. I. Gurdjieff: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: As read by Margaret Flinsch, a set of 4 MP3 CDs, Canada: Dolmen Meadow Editions, 2008.
 Guide and Index to Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, 2nd edition, Toronto: Traditional Studies Press, 2003.
 Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, p. vi, “Friendly Advice.”