Gurdjieff International Review

The Look of Nature, from Beelzebub’s View

David Appelbaum

In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous. –Aristotle


he theme of Great Nature plays a central role in Gurdjieff’s account of humankind and the cosmos in Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson.[1] She (if one is to use gender) is balancer supreme, equilibrating, harmonizing, and bringing reconciliation to whatever she touches. She is Harmonia, who in a late myth, married Cadmus, whence beginning a golden age of reason. Nature’s organic intelligence pertains chiefly to the specific materials at her disposal, her knowledge of formal and material causes of events, and her feel for the depth below the surface. This is the case, inclusive of the most inert element in the universe. Everything ‘lives’ in the order of intelligence; each substantial thing, regardless of magnitude, is an intelligent life, an intelligible object of her mind. One must assume that the greatness attributed to nature (in capital letters) refers to the distribution of intelligence as well as its persistence through epochs of conflict and discord.

Take rock, for instance, a paradigm of ‘dead mineral,’ a low cosmos. I’ve pondered the cliff face that rises a few hundred vertical feet, due west a long mile off. The rock, a special sedimentary sort, shows itself in a magnificent gleam of whiteness, a hard conglomerate formed during an early geological period. It once stood as a palisade that overlooked an inland sea. The planet changed (there were the ‘Transapalnian perturbations’), its atmosphere became drier and more stable, and the sea water, no longer trapped, found its way to the young Atlantic ocean. I find fossil rock with embedded trilobites, whenever I take on a gardening project. The water over which the rock once stood is gone, but the rock still keeps vigil, perpetually gazing east. It is a gaze of an intelligence whose measure takes me in, calling into question this ephemeral life and my presumptions about it. Can I begin to imagine what was in its view before humankind walked the planet?

Like all life, the cliffs have their seasons. The white gleam of summer, like the great White Whale, Moby Dick, disconcerts the mind by its pure intensity. The sun’s radiance becomes concentrated, like a thought one can’t dismiss. It distracts, and more. A mild panic can be felt from looking too long at the light, as if the whiteness had properties of a black hole and could suck the emotional ground (as well as the visual field) from under me—not only the emotional ground but also a sense of what to make of the experience. One is left queasy, shaken by a wordless interrogation, if it is that. Perhaps the impression has to do with scale and the true antiquity of the rock’s testamentary presence. By force of habit, I’ve learned to avert my eyes and avoid the dissolution unto nothingness, but the temptation to look (as if at a terrifying scene) is strong.

Then there is the mauve of winter. Why mauve? I suppose it is a reduction of the supreme blue of a cloudless sky. A thin layer of ice, worn by the cliffs, absorbs the glare, softens it, and moves it toward the center of the color spectrum. When the sun is low after dawn, it is an effulgence, an aura. Whatever the lighting effect, it casts a feeling of order and balance. Then the rock face functions like a great radio telescope, a vertical antenna that collects and concentrates messages from sidereal space. Perhaps if more sensitive, I would perceive variations in degree and intensity, but by and large the equilibrium conveyed is of vitality on a greater scale. It proposes a conception of the universe in the guise of life, as a metabolic entity, in a vision of panpsychism. The subtle lighting doesn’t long persist. But the communion of the solar and stellar worlds is compelling. It grants me peace of mind, confirming that the lawfulness of creation is intact, and even if comprehension is beyond me, maintenance and preservation continue their work. “All will be well, and all manner of things be well.”[2]

Spring and fall, with their foliage, return the cliffs to earth. They then serve as a backdrop to the fertile mantle of local nature. To produce life in abundance requires that trees—pitch pine and mountain ash—find impossible footholds mid-cliff. In the midst of a sheer drop to the boulders below, their gnarled and foreshortened trunks bear testimony to an unrelenting will to live. The power to adapt to given conditions expresses an intention to support the organic fold—subject to an extreme handicap. The equation must yield a surplus of life over death. Otherwise, reciprocal maintenance—Gurdjieff’s expression for the ecological nexus—would fail.

We know in ecology how a single minor imbalance in a larger equilibrium has the power to throw the entire system out of kilter. Consider now the ecosystem with a vertical as well as a horizontal dimension. That is, greater, more complex systems are dependent on a ‘contribution’ to their essential balance that derives from lesser, simpler systems. Or, as Gurdjieff might say, the Milky Way—our home galaxy—requires an equilibrating portion from the balance of vibrations deriving from our own planetary system; and it in turn emits vibrations upward to the collection of galaxies (the universe) for the purpose of harmoniously relating its components. The interweaving means that an aberration in an relatively minor ecology has the potential of putting the greater complex’s balance at risk. (Similarly, a small lapse in justice has the potential of putting a much more inclusive justice in jeopardy.) The lack can be magnified at higher levels even when it is, with respect to them, quantitatively insignificant. The delicacy of balance in the whole is greater than that of any part. This is one consequence of the ‘law’ of reciprocal maintenance.

In light of potential breakdowns, the plan of the cosmos has built-in incentives (at all levels) to work for balance; this is a second consequence of the ‘law’ of reciprocal maintenance. With regard to the place of humanity, there is a specific imperative. Gurdjieff writes, “in everything under the care of Mother Nature the possibility is foreseen for beings to acquire the kernel of their essence, that is to say, their own I.”[3] In order to forestall the cosmic cataclysm of broken symmetry, my perception contains data required for an ecological awareness, for what is needed in an ongoing energy exchange between me and my environment, near and distant. Mindful of a role in the preservation of life in the cosmoses, I am rendered both more sensitive and more responsive to being affected by that life. In acknowledging the feeling that I exist, I at the same time receive sensations of the force of life. Conscious impressions form the blood of an inner life (my ‘essence’). They need to enter, be digested, and be assimilated unto my being, in an act of its co-creation and maintenance.

“Truth is beauty and beauty, truth.”[4] If the arrangement of the natural world helps direct a movement toward consciousness, then beauty plays a lead role. Purgatory in Beelzebub’s Tales contains the most appealing flora and fauna for the beings assigned to life there. The moonlit scene of the cliff struck me in a similar way one winter night. An eerie glaze of light throbbed from the frozen veneer, as if it were a beacon marking an unknown trail into the mountain. Stunned, my mind stood still. A sense of a living presence came over me, mine or its—or both—it didn’t matter. It gave, in that moment, an irrefutable claim to an enigmatic presence whose part in a scene stretched from where I stood unto the Milky Way. Tranquil and blessed, I understood in some small way that I belonged, a point or particle that could not be replaced without loss to the whole. Thus, the truth of beauty: the simplicity of existence, the one with which I was endowed, is non-transferable within the order of things.

Nature’s beauty brings me to the place of remembrance. What arises is a unique memory, one pregnant with obligation. Bound by a sacred duty, I recognize the part played in upkeep and furtherance of the greater life. It reinforces the feeling that no one else can take my place. This is a riddle that riddles me. It implies that a single human consciousness makes a difference in the play of creation. Remembered as what I essentially am, I become, in that moment, as visible to myself as I am to the Creator, and see with the same ‘eyes’ as does he.

Appreciation of the material that nature provides the senses is paramount; she delivers the finer energies that ‘pay for’ what is given. In a dynamic balance, everything depends on exchange. In Gurdjieff’s model, a kind of perpetual motion is effected by a chain of sendings and receivings so that a region short of ‘fuel’ is fed by another region responsible for delivery of same. If sensory pleasure—agreement with the experience presented—helps, we would expect that more is better. The account of Purgatory confirms this. Purgatory is where beings who are aware of their sacred duty work consciously to produce what is required of them. Its plenitude of most beautiful specimens supports the residents’ efforts to invite experiences like mine, when natural beauty works its transforming effect and an affirmation of existence nourishes both the subject and the web of invisible life dependent on such contributions.

There are times when the cliff’s appeal goes over to another register, to something monstrous, a brooding emptiness that remains opaque and implacable to vision. There, the impression is of the sublime. It is overload to the sensitivity, when the effort to control input fails, and I am face to face with the unnamable. Terror then arises. At a lower level, it is the riddle that Pontius Pilate finds when he visits the empty crypt of the Hebrew holy of holies—the deity in absence. A tenacious willingness is needed to abide with one’s reaction. Its intensity discloses the void at the center of myself, the empty place where the Creator would dwell. To become aware of its reality is, like Moses and the burning bush, to stand in the divine presence, trembling in fear, sincere and open.

To be fair, most observation of the rock face is distracted. It remains an unacknowledged object, over there. Yet in this intermediate position, between awareness and complete distraction, another, more subtle aspect is apparent. In its supremely staid vigil, the cliffs watch. They see across miles as well as millennia, a lone human who is an infinitesimal speck of electrical circuitry nearly lost among background energies. A non-negligible something in a census that tallies into the billions of billions. A barely thereness on an unremarkable planet of an unremarkable sun in an ... But: not a nothing. It is then up to my perception to record the fact of being seen by this great monument of earth. That I am seen doesn’t altogether escape an engrained inadvertence. At some level, note is taken—which explains my fascination with the formation. At some level, there is an awareness that nature’s eye is on me. At some level, I am exercised by the intrusive, alien awareness, and rendered more aware. As if the rock served Great Nature in remembering my ecological role, of its demand in the task of transformation.

The thought highlights one role assigned to nature, Great Nature, in the order of things. It functions as a ‘reminding factor.’ The cliffs bring into play the other of me, a nature not terrestrial but one delivered unto life on earth. Its life is of a watchfulness. It keeps an awareness on events that unfold a biography. Under surveillance, one is not the same as in the deep sleep of automatic pilot. A subliminal discomfort roils the waters of smooth sailing. One may not be able to knowingly respond, but some marginal quadrant of mind is on alert.

And if no response is forthcoming? In my situation, there is the call—of beauty, obligation, or a plain, ever-present massiveness. The day-to-day cycle has many opportunities, red sun of morning, stark noon light, deepening evening shadows. The play of forces on the screen produces various scenes. At times I am ready. ‘Readiness is all,’ Hamlet proclaims. Is it? Preparation doesn’t guarantee availability any more than study does a good exam grade. What if readiness, compounded a few trillion times, isn’t enough? What if the failure to respond occurs on a universal scale?

Here we encounter a difficult thought of Gurdjieff. He subscribes to a principle of adaptability to nature, one in radical form. Nature adapts itself not only on the level of terrestrial life—a kind of survival of the fittest—but also on the level of the greater complex of life, the ever-changing cosmic movement of consciousness. Consciousness is challenged, moment by moment, to overcome the fall into entropy. The struggle is true at all levels of materiality, up and down the chain of being. The need to maintain the upward passage of intelligence could be called the ‘survival of the light.’ It requires a continual flow of awareness from less conscious levels.

When the return is not passed along, when the survival of the light is thwarted, Great Nature is forced to make adjustments. Speaking of a past epoch, Gurdjieff says, “to regulate the quality of the vibrations which (humans) radiated and which were required chiefly for the preservation of the well-being of the former parts of that planet,” certain adaptations were required.[5] Life-span was reduced and population growth accelerated. As the fruit of wonder, awe, and adoration became scarcer, an awareness of sacred duty was lost; as a consequence, greater amounts of inferior qualities of vibrations were needed. Aggression, hostility, and war provided ample means—unto our current state of inventing weapons of mass destruction. Therein lies the gruesome threat of nature: comply with what is required of your being, or be extinguished. It took humankind a few millennia to be in a position where the threat is palpable. ‘Consciousness or death’ is a species-choice at the present time, as planetary forces tilt toward an irreversible destruction.

When I look at the rock in the morning, it is iridescent with sun. I imagine the light is like madder root, indelibly staining whatever it touches. Then I am swept up by the actuality of the presence. The promontory, one beholding the retreat of the Wisconsin glacier, the wooly mammoths, and saber-toothed tigers, has an eye for time. It already looked ancient when the first peoples appeared. To be seen by it is to be infused with the magnitude that the cliffs represent. It is part of the miraculous call that nature issues. In my feeling, utter insignificance blends with absolute irreplaceability. That is the annunciation and the mystery of the calcareous mass, this relic of a by-gone age. It leaves me embroiled with questions of existence. What am I here for? What do I owe for the gift of living? With what do I repay the debt?

At the same time, under the gaze of ancient Earth, a different feeling is aroused. It is calming, supportive. It is, I tell myself, the effect of ‘home rock.’ It tells me that this is the place where I live, on the planet, in this solar system, galaxy, deep space quadrant.... My ‘view’ is necessarily delimited by these coordinates. I am forever an earthling. Thus I am subject to the stabilizing influence of planetary intelligence and its broader, deeper comprehension of comic law. The influx is felt metabolically, through the organism. Sometimes, when I am quiet, it is there, a subtle organic sense of dwelling, enduring. In that small way, I recognize that while a part of the natural order of the planet, I simultaneously belong to what is outside that order—to what is free and uncreated. □

David Appelbaum has worked in the university and in publishing, and is an author who specializes in the work of writing. His most recent books include Notes on Water: An Aqueous Phenomenology (2017) Rhinebeck, NY: Monkfish Book Publishing.

[1] An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man, or Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. All and Everything, First Series. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1950, 1238p. A revised translation, New York: Viking Arkana, 1992, 1135p.

[2] Julian of Norwich, an English anchorite of the Middle Ages, wrote the earliest surviving book in the English language to be written by a woman, Revelations of Divine Love.

[3] Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, 1950 edition, p. 1231, 1992 edition, p. 1129.

[4] John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn.

[5] Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, 1950 edition, p. 106, 1992 edition, p. 101.


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Featured: Winter 2019/2020 Issue, Vol. XIV (1)
Revision: August 13, 2020