Gurdjieff International Review

The Tales Themselves

An Overview by Dr. Anna Challenger

“The secret must be kept from all non-people;
the mystery must be hidden from all idiots.”

Omar Khayyam
11th c. Sufi poet

In John Bennett’s Talks on Beelzebub’s Tales, he recalls one night spent in Gurdjieff’s Paris apartment shortly before the latter’s death. There was a typical gathering of students: among them English, Americans, French, Greeks—more than fifty people assembled in a small apartment to have dinner with Gurdjieff and to listen to him speak. Gurdjieff offered a toast which in its simplicity seemed forceful: “Everyone must have an aim. If you have not an aim, you are not a man. I will tell you a very simple aim, to die an honorable death. Everyone can take this aim without any philosophizing—not to perish like a dog.1 “As always,” Bennett recalls, “he suddenly turns the conversation to a joke and in a minute the room is shaken with laughter at some story about the peculiarities of the English. But the impression remains of the overwhelming seriousness of our human situation, of the choice which confronts us between life and death.”2 Beelzebub's Tales

What seems simple, not to perish like a dog, is for Gurdjieff the most difficult aim a person can have. And making us aware of the choice between life and death, or between kinds and qualities of death, is a main concern of Beelzebub’s Tales. In the Tales, however, the choice is presented in far more complex terms: we can either live our lives and die our deaths passively and mechanically, for the sole purpose of unconsciously supplying the Cosmos with required energies, whereby upon death we sacrifice our individuality; alternatively, we can live in such a way as to supply required Cosmic energies consciously, and of sufficient quantity and quality, so that death carries the potential of amounting to more than a payment of transformed energy, and we gain the possibility of becoming “immortal within the limits of the Solar System.”3 The choice between life and death as expressed in these terms is related to Gurdjieff’s Theory of Reciprocal Maintenance, which embodies his answer to the question, “What is the meaning and purpose of life on Earth, and in particular of human life?” Like all organic life on Earth, human beings are apparatuses for transforming energies which are required for some other purpose. However, as a more complicated type of transforming apparatus than plants or animals, human beings possess some choice regarding how to supply the energies required by their existence. They can transform energy consciously or unconsciously, in greater or lesser quantities, and of varying qualities, thereby influencing the purpose and outcome of their deaths. These are among the choices of which Gurdjieff wants to make us aware in his Tales. Manuel Rainoird aptly likens Gurdjieff in his work to a train guard who, out of sheer kind-heartedness, jostles and rouses the passengers before their train reaches some frontier, so that they will be ready and things will go smoothly.4 Beelzebub’s Tales does serve this purpose, but the setting is more dramatic than the analogy leads us to believe. In the Tales Gurdjieff is trying to rouse his readers from sleep so that they might get things in order before reaching their final destination: death. For Gurdjieff, preparing for an “honorable death” means acquiring all possible understanding about life and the role of human beings in it. To this end, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson is appropriately subtitled All and Everything. Here Gurdjieff presents us with all the fruits of his conscious labors, all the understanding about human existence which he acquired, through tremendous efforts, in the course of his lifetime. His hope is that we might share part of this understanding.

The Scenario

“Everything” unfolds through the story of Beelzebub, a wise old being from the planet Karatas, which belongs to a solar system distant from Earth’s. Due to circumstances connected with Beelzebub’s youth, however, he has spent the greatest part of his long existence in this part of the Universe, “in conditions not proper to his nature,”5 traveling between Mars and Earth in an attempt to cure Earth beings from the afflictions which result from their wrong perception of reality.

Many years ago, we are told, in Beelzebub’s splendid and fiery youth, he saw something in the functioning of the World which, to his then unformed reason and limited understanding, struck him as illogical. And because he had a strong and forceful nature, many other beings were persuaded by Beelzebub to rebel against HIS ENDLESSNESS to such a degree that the center of the Megalocosmos was nearly brought to a state of revolution. Then,

Having learned of this, HIS ENDLESSNESS, notwithstanding HIS all-lovingness and all-forgiveness, was constrained to banish Beelzebub with his comrades to one of the remote corners of the Universe, namely, to the solar system “Ors” … and to assign as the place of their existence one of the planets of that solar system, namely, Mars, with the privilege of existing on other planets also, though only of the same solar system.6

Among those banished to Mars were sympathizers with Beelzebub and others who served as their attendants. In this way Mars came to be populated by three-centered beings from the center of the Universe, and Beelzebub came to spend his life in a place foreign to him, taking in “perceptions unusual for his nature” and “experiences not proper to his essence,”7 all of which left a mark on Beelzebub and contributed to his exceptional nature.

During Beelzebub’s exile to Mars, he made several extended visits to the Earth. His first descent to this planet took him to Atlantis shortly before its disappearance, and the last involved a three-hundred year stay which brought Beelzebub into the twentieth century. Altogether he descended on six occasions to Earth, his visits spanning a period of several millennia, landing him in times and places as diverse as ancient Babylon and twentieth-century America, Afghanistan at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and Russia at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. Beelzebub built a large observatory during his exile on Mars, and this enabled him to observe events taking place on Earth during his absence from the planet. As a result of these circumstances, Beelzebub was exposed in some fashion to human beings and situations for hundreds of years, and his long interaction with the planet provided him with much food for thought concerning the Earth, its history, and the behavior and psyche of its people.

When Beelzebub’s narrative begins, he is no longer in exile. Through the intervention of the holy Ashiata Shiemash, a messenger who had at one time been sent by HIS ENDLESSNESS to coordinate life on Earth with the general harmony of the World, Beelzebub has been pardoned for fulfilling needs connected with the Earth. Because of Ashiata Shiemash’s request, and “the modest and cognisant existence of Beelzebub himself,”8 Beelzebub has been given permission by HIS ENDLESSNESS to return to his place of origin, the planet Karatas at the center of the Universe.

In spite of his long absence from home, the influence and authority which Beelzebub possessed as a youth have even increased. As a result of his having lived in circumstances of unusual hardship and deprivation, “all those around him were clearly aware that, thanks to his prolonged existence in … unusual conditions, his knowledge and experience must have broadened and deepened.”9 Although Beelzebub is now aged and tired and has only recently returned to Karatas, at the opening of the Tales he is embarking on yet another interplanetary journey to attend a conference which concerns events of great Cosmic importance about which he might offer his wisdom and experience.

Traveling with Beelzebub on the spaceship “Karnak” are the ship’s crew, the attendants of Beelzebub (including his long-time servant Ahoon), and Beelzebub’s grandson Hassein, son of his favorite son Tooloof. Having only met Hassein for the first time upon his return to Karatas, Beelzebub found that his grandson was at the significant age when his reason needed to be guided and developed (about twelve or thirteen years of age by Earth calculation), and he decided to assume responsibility for Hassein’s education. The education commences with Hassein accompanying his grandfather to the conference on the planet Revozvradendr.

As Beelzebub begins his narration about his many years in exile, he is seated with Hassein and Ahoon on the upper deck of the Karnak where they are talking among themselves while gazing out at the “boundless space.” Beelzebub is starting to relate stories about the solar system to which he was exiled, when the ship’s Captain interrupts them with an urgent message: the ship will be unable to travel to its destination by the most direct route, for passing through that same space will be the large comet Sakoor, which emits harmful gases. The original travel plans must be altered, and the Captain recognizes two alternatives: the first is to make a long detour around the gases, and the second is to wait until the gases have dispersed. In either case a long delay will result. The Captain, out of respect, has consulted Beelzebub regarding what should be done.

In response to the Captain’s inquiry, Beelzebub recalls the wisdom of the Sufi sage Mullah Nassr Eddin, who for every possible occasion had “an apt and pithy saying.”10 Beelzebub muses about Mullah Nassr Eddin in the presence of the Captain,

“As all his sayings were full of the sense of truth for existence there, I also used them there as a guide, in order to have a comfortable existence among the beings of that planet.

“And in the given case, too, my dear Captain, I intend to profit by one of his wise sayings.

“In such a situation as has befallen us, he would probably say:

“‘You cannot jump over your knees and it is absurd to try to kiss your own elbow.’

“I now say the same to you, and I add: there is nothing to be done; when an event is impending which arises from forces immeasurably greater than our own, one must submit.”11

The decision is to wait somewhere until the gases have dispersed so as not to cause unnecessary wear and tear to the ship, and to pass the time of the delay in a way which is productive for all—by Beelzebub narrating to the others his experiences in the solar system Ors, in particular on the planet Earth. The accounts of Beelzebub’s experiences while in exile, related to Hassein and Ahoon during the time of the ship’s delay and during travel time to and from Revozvradendr, make up the bulk of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.

After this postponement, which provides opportunity for many stories, the ship reaches Revozvradendr where Beelzebub and the others remain for two months. The events of this time, however, are not disclosed to the reader. Not until the Karnak is returning to Karatas do the tales of Beelzebub resume. The return trip is then interrupted by a visit to ‘The Holy Planet Purgatory,’ the title and focus of Chapter 39, pages 744 to 810, which forms the culmination of Book Two. There, Beelzebub wishes to give his regards to members of his family, including his other son Tooilan, and to a teacher from his youth. The detour to Purgatory takes us to the heart of Gurdjieff’s book. Other than this visit to The Holy Planet Purgatory, the ship is in transit from the beginning to the end of the Tales, and it serves as the only setting for the dialogues between Beelzebub and Hassein.

As the Karnak nears the outer spaces of Beelzebub’s home planet, it is unexpectedly approached by a host of Cosmic beings, including several archangels, a multitude of angels, and some cherubim and seraphim. The entire procession enters the ship bearing branches of palm for Beelzebub and singing the “Hymn to HIS ENDLESSNESS.” The purpose for their visit is to restore to Beelzebub what he was deprived of at the time of his exile: his horns. This is accomplished by the most venerable archangel’s holding over Beelzebub’s head a sacred rod which gradually causes Beelzebub’s long-lost horns to grow.

All present observe the ceremony with much anticipation, for they understand that the degree of Objective Reason obtained by a being of Beelzebub’s nature is revealed by the number of forks which appear on his horns. In Beelzebub’s case, “First one fork appeared, then another, and then a third, and as each fork made its appearance a clearly perceptible thrill of joy and unconcealed satisfaction proceeded among all those present.”12 As yet a fourth fork appears, tension reaches its height and all assume the ceremony to be at an end, for inconceivable to any being present is the possibility that Beelzebub could have exceeded this already sacred level of Reason. But before those assembled have time to recover from their excitement over Beelzebub’s fourth horn,

There suddenly and unexpectedly appeared on the horns of Beelzebub quite independently a fifth fork of a special form known to them all.

Thereupon all without exception, even the venerable archangel himself, fell prostrate before Beelzebub, who had now risen to his feet and stood transfigured with a majestic appearance, owing to the truly majestic horns which had arisen on his head.13

The fifth fork signifies that Beelzebub has attained a level of Reason only four degrees removed from the Absolute Reason of HIS ENDLESSNESS, so that even the archangels are inferior in Reason to Beelzebub.

When all those present recover from this moving experience, the most venerable archangel gives a speech in honor of Beelzebub who, “although he first transgressed on account of his youth, yet afterwards was able by his conscious labors and intentional sufferings to become worthy with his essence to be one of the very rare Sacred individuals of the whole of our Great Universe.”14 Through his own efforts Beelzebub has achieved the highest level of Reason that “in general any being can attain.”15

At this point all the angels and cherubim leave the Karnak and disappear into space, and the others resume their places as the ship moves toward its final destination. Beelzebub, “now with a transfigured appearance corresponding to His merits and visible to all,”16 returns with Hassein and Ahoon to that part of the ship where their previous talks have taken place. As a result of the ceremony they have witnessed, Beelzebub’s grandson and servant both feel remorse for their own low levels of being, and “by their movements and the translucency of their inner psyche, it was evident that there had been a marked change in their attitude toward the person of Beelzebub…”17

In this state of humility Hassein is overcome with timidity in the presence of his grandfather. His humility also gives rise to feelings of deep love and compassion for the three-brained beings from Earth whom he has learned of through his grandfather’s stories. Assured by Beelzebub that the tales about Earth will continue after they have returned home, Hassein is given permission to ask one final question of Beelzebub before the landing of the ship. Encouraged by the opportunity, he addresses his grandfather boldly to ask how Beelzebub would reply if HIS ENDLESSNESS HIMSELF were to summon Beelzebub before HIM and say,


“You, as one of the anticipated, accelerated results of all My actualizations, manifest briefly the sum of your long-centuried impartial observations and studies of the psyche of the three-brained beings arising on the planet Earth and state in words whether it is possible by some means or other to save them and to direct them into the becoming path?”18

Beelzebub answers Hassein with a twofold response. First, he says, the question is itself proof that Hassein’s education is proceeding well and that Beelzebub’s stories have achieved in him sought-for results. Then, after meditating on the question, Beelzebub responds in a penetrating tone:

“The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be … [if] every one of those unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as of the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests.”19

Only with death kept always in the forefront on their minds would human beings be able to overcome the egoism that has destroyed their Essences, caused all their abnormalities, and made them harmful, not only to themselves, but to the whole of the Universe.

The Commentaries

For several reasons, including the unique difficulties presented by Gurdjieff’s writing style, little commentary has been written on Beelzebub’s Tales. John Bennett did extensive work on the Tales, giving lectures on them from the time of Gurdjieff’s death in 1949 until his own death in 1974. A few of these lectures were recorded and published in book form as Talks on Beelzebub’s Tales. The English critic Alfred Orage, a long-time student of Gurdjieff, played a leading role in editing the English language drafts of Beelzebub’s Tales between 1925 and 1931. Orage died in 1934 but C. S. Nott published almost a hundred pages of his notes on Orage’s numerous talks on Beelzebub’s Tales which, although not intended for publication offer valuable insights into Gurdjieff’s work.20

A beautifully written and inspiring essay by a Frenchman, Manuel Rainoird, entitled Belzebuth, un coup de maitre (“Beelzebub: A Master’s Stroke”), includes insightful commentary on the work.21 Finally, a book by Michel Waldberg, also a Frenchman, contains a serious and thoughtful chapter on Beelzebub’s Tales which includes valuable excerpts from the private notes of Charles Duits, another French writer. Duits felt indebted to Beelzebub’s Tales for the influence it had on his personal life and work, and he wished to repay this debt by recording his seasoned understanding of the Tales. Duits’ notes, however, remain unpublished.22 Aside from these works, commentary is fragmentary and often superficial.

Both Bennett and Orage had the advantage of being able to converse with Gurdjieff about his writings and to verify their understanding of his work. Bennett spoke with Gurdjieff for the last time one week before Gurdjieff’s death, and their conversation addressed the topic of humankind’s lost ability to make independent judgments. Gurdjieff felt that suggestibility to the written and spoken word or, as he also put it, the “readiness to believe any old tale,”23 is one of the greatest tragedies of modern humanity. This type of inner slavery, he believed, makes obtaining Objective Reason impossible, and thereby destroys our possibility for a normal existence on Earth. In Beelzebub’s Tales this weakness is presented as a prime reason for the unhappy plight of humanity. Bennett uses these views of Gurdjieff about inner slavery to suggestibility to explain the writing style of Beelzebub’s Tales.

Bennett asserts that Gurdjieff’s writing style is directly connected with his fundamental concepts of human nature and destiny. If we are to serve the high purpose for which we were created, we must free ourselves from any form of inner slavery. Above all we must work toward attaining a capacity for independent judgment, strive to acquire Objective Reason, and not live according to the ways which are delegated as right and proper by others. And, as Bennett observes, “suggestibility cannot be cured by suggestion.”24 What he means is that a different kind of writing is needed to counteract our tendency to act as passive receptors and believe whatever we are told. The style of Beelzebub’s Tales makes passive response impossible. Without a determined decision on the part of the reader to make great efforts to understand these writings, without the reader’s constant and conscious participation in the act of reading, little if any sense can be gotten from the Tales.

Recognizing this aspect of Gurdjieff’s style, Bennett says, is the first secret to understanding his writing. As a defense against suggestibility, Gurdjieff piles obstacle upon obstacle to ensure that progress can only be made by the reader’s unwavering decision to overcome those obstacles. The point is, Bennett says, “When we have organized ideas put in front of us that our minds are able to accept, it is very hard to prevent this mind from being lazy. We say: ‘Now I understand’ and we do not feel the need to do any work.”25 Gurdjieff’s intention is obviously to have the opposite effect on the reader:

Gurdjieff’s methods are directly opposed to all our comfortable habits. He was concerned to bring people to understand for themselves and with this aim always before him, he never made anything easy or tried to convince anyone of anything. On the contrary, he made the approach to his ideas difficult, both intellectually and emotionally. However hard in itself a theme might be to understand, he would always make it harder by incompleteness of exposition, by introducing inner contradictions and even absurdities, and by breaking off [explanation] as soon as comprehension had begun to dawn…26

An important part of Gurdjieff’s method of exposition is the use of obstacles to insure the willful participation of the reader as a prerequisite for achieving understanding.

When confronted with a work like the Tales, Bennett emphasizes, the uncommitted and “suggestible” reader is either forced away or forced to commit himself or herself to great efforts to make any progress in understanding. “The issue before the man who begins reading Beelzebub’s Tales is not ‘Shall I accept or not what is written here?’ but ‘Shall I even read it and in doing so try to understand something?’”27 A conflict takes place in the reader, but it is not an intellectual conflict of whether to affirm or deny Gurdjieff’s perceptions and points of view. Nor is the struggle one of whether to accept what is written on the basis of faith. Gurdjieff’s writing prevents either of these responses. The casual reader, first confronted by the intimidating length of the work and then prevented from easily understanding it because of the difficult style and idiosyncratic terminology, is in no position to either agree or disagree, accept or reject what is written. The struggle which takes place in the reader of Beelzebub’s Tales is with his or her inner nature: whether to take the easier path of giving way to the law of inertia, justifying the decision on the basis of the length and extreme difficulty of the work, or whether to make the effort of will required by the task of trying to fathom such a writing, even at the risk of gaining little or no understanding in the end for the invested effort.

If the decision is made to go forward and work through the labyrinth which one writer describes as “a deliberate and rigorous obscurity … of confusing terms and tangential associations in interminable sentences”28 the reader is still forced to renew commitment repeatedly in the face of constant temptation to abandon the project. Gurdjieff’s insistent style demands constant affirmation from the reader, and each affirmation results in a victory of will over inertia. In this way Gurdjieff creates the possibility for the reader to strengthen will and create being. The ability of the work itself to act creatively on the reader is part of what led Bennett to evaluate Beelzebub’s Tales so highly as a piece of literature:

In its complexities and obscurities like an alchemical text, in its humor and robustness like a Rabelaisian chronicle, in its breadth like a monumental work of historical analysis, in its passion like a sermon and in its compassion like something almost sacramental—Beelzebub’s Tales surpasses all ordinary points of view. It belongs to a new kind of thought… It is an expression of Objective Reason.29

Moving from concerns of style to those of substance, the socialist Orage considers Gurdjieff’s conception of a normal human being. Human beings as we are, said Gurdjieff, can only be thought of as humans “in quotation marks”; at most we possess “a pleasing exterior and dubious interior.”30 But as Orage points out in his commentary,

In Beelzebub’s Tales, one of the implications is the conception of a normal human being. We cannot conceive of a normal human being by taking the average of individuals. This distinction between average and [normal] is very important. A normal man is defined in the book, but this needs to be pondered for a long time to be grasped.31

Certainly “normal man” for Gurdjieff is the antithesis of “average man,” who is unconscious, imbalanced, and mechanical—qualities which he considers completely abnormal. For Gurdjieff, normalcy is related to harmony. It implies a state of equilibrium brought about by the balance of intellectual, emotional, instinctive, and moving centers—a balance he finds lacking in most human beings.

Without the equilibrium which a balance of centers provides, a person cannot be thought of as normal, for that person’s state is equivalent to being under the influence of a drug. Reminding a person of his or her normal condition if that person is under the influence of a strong emotion or is identified with a political ideal, for example, is impossible, as Orage reminds us. Both states are drunken states compared to the existence which is intended for three-centered beings. Even in such states of physical, emotional, or intellectual drunkenness, though, an average person may still have at times an intimation of a different kind of existence, a more coherent and connected way of being for which he or she longs. Gurdjieff calls this intimation of something better a state of “Organic Shame;” it is the condition of lower vibrations aspiring to share the experience of higher vibrations. Orage understands the state of Organic Shame as the beginning of normalcy.

Normal human beings try to understand the reason for existence so that they might fulfill their obligations in life. It is our objective inheritance, says Orage, that we should know why we are here and know it early enough in life to be able to act on the knowledge and carry out our cosmic function. Plants and animals, in their natural states, fulfill the purposes for which they exist. Only human beings behave unnaturally by living indifferently to their cosmic significance. Referring to Gurdjieff’s Theory of Reciprocal Maintenance, Orage writes,

Man exists for a purpose not his own. This includes all beings—animals, birds, insects and bacteria. Each species is designed for a certain cosmic use. The norm of man is the discharge of the design for which he was created—like a machine designed to do a bit of work.32

But we have become abnormal and fail to fulfil our design, and our unnatural living has become such a menace that Nature has to constantly struggle to adapt so that existence on Earth can continue.

Our present abnormal manner of living has its roots in a system of education which lacks essential understanding of the purpose of human existence. Because of the emphasis given by formal education, says Orage, cognisance of the cosmos has disappeared from the psyche of human beings. Just as we are aware of the flora and fauna of nature and of the civilization in which we exist, “so three-centered beings should be aware of the function of the cosmos—the sun in relation to the planets, the Earth to the moon… A normal three-centered being would understand cosmic phenomena and how he is affected by radiations, emanations and tensions.”33 Such an understanding of cosmic laws Gurdjieff calls “being-knowledge,” which he believes should be the possession of every normal human being. If systems of education were to emphasize a knowledge of cosmic phenomena, believes Gurdjieff, we would find ourselves developing naturally in the direction of Objective Reason.

According to Orage, Beelzebub himself is the most significant clue to what Gurdjieff considers a respectable human existence. Although not human, Beelzebub deviates so slightly in appearance from Earth beings that he was able to exist undetected on this planet for hundreds of years. And although of a remotely distant solar system, Beelzebub’s makeup is still that of a three-centered being; he therefore falls under the same laws and possesses the same limitations and possibilities as does every other three-centered being in the Universe. Orage is correct in emphasizing that Beelzebub’s different origin is a technicality, and that we are to take Beelzebub as Gurdjieff’s example of a worthy human being.

Beelzebub possesses all the basic attributes of normalcy that Orage finds highlighted in Beelzebub’s Tales. He is balanced and is informed about the workings of the Cosmos. He has suffered and has learned to interpret suffering constructively, to recognize it as a cosmic necessity. He lives consciously and works unselfishly to lighten the burdens of HIS UNIQUE BURDEN-BEARING ENDLESSNESS; and through his efforts he strives always to attain a greater degree of Objective Reason. Orage summarizes Beelzebub’s commendable “human” properties as follows:

Beelzebub represents the ideal normal man… He has the whole of human experience behind him. He has a critique of human nature. He is objective, impartial and unprejudiced. He is indignant, but capable of pity and benevolence. He has made use of his exile to lead a conscious existence, and has spared no effort to actualize his potentialities. He is what we might be. He is what we ought to be. In his talks he presents us with a method by which we may become what we ought to be.34

If human beings were to follow Beelzebub’s example, the implication is, then existence on Earth might approximate its intended state. “Our planet, the earth,” writes Orage, “is the shame of the solar system. It is the ugly duckling, the misshapen dwarf, the beast of the fairy tales… The idea is that, if men could become normal, this planet might redeem the solar system.”35

Returning again to stylistic matters, Manuel Rainoird comments on the narrative point of view of the Tales. Full of admiration for Beelzebub’s Tales and for the “literary mastery” of its author, Rainoird describes his general response to the work:

I feel the strong necessity, once having read Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson—if I say ‘read’ it is for want of a better word, for the work is much more than that suggests, like an infinitely testing trial, a substance both assimilable and unassimilable by every organ—to pronounce in the midst of my stunned astonishment the words ‘great’ and ‘new’. But as I also run my eye through the library of contemporary fiction, I realize that here there is no possible term of comparison, and that when it comes to ‘great’ and ‘new’ there is no book to approach it—what work of philosophy, science, legend or history? And yet it is our history which is in question, yours and mine, universal and personal.36

Rainoird continues his excited evaluation:

What do we know of the meaning of our life on Earth? If G. I. Gurdjieff works within a literary form so that this question may some day occur to us, he does so like no one else. All commentaries past, present and future are mere pools compared with this ocean. We are actually dealing here with the disconcerting question: ‘Who are we, where are we going?’, but strongly flavored according to an unfamiliar recipe, and with an accompaniment of cymbals and other sonorous and percussive instruments. In this recipe iced water and itching powder are also included.37

Rainoird makes interesting observations regarding the point of view from which the Tales are told. The remote distance from the Earth of Beelzebub’s home planet, Rainoird points out, is at the same time coupled with his similarity to Earth beings. Beelzebub is from a planet and solar system which lie at the center of our Universe and yet are unknown to Earth beings. His experiences include exposure to places and beings unthought of by human beings, yet, at the same time, he is quite like a human being. Beelzebub’s physical appearance allows him to pass undetected on this planet for many years, and his three-centered nature is identical to ours. He can therefore be thought of as representing human nature taken toward its evolutionary conclusion. Yet, concurrently, Beelzebub views human nature from a remotely distant perspective:

This vision from a very great distance … this overview on the scale of our Great Universe engulfs any reader and bathes him in an extraordinarily clear light, so that far from blurring the details … it has the effect of revealing them all the more.

And this distance has a two-fold effect, Rainoird postulates:

The greater the height to which Beelzebub goes, the more the confusion of our usual jumble of ideas is dispelled. What emerges is the opposite—we see in high relief what was previously screened and misunderstood. The high has illuminated the low. Infinite spaces have ceased to frighten us… [Instead,] they become living transmitting matter … of which Beelzebub is a more and more conscious emanation, through his merits and efforts.38

We can accept Beelzebub as “a kind of standard or model”39 because his makeup is so similar to ours; his identical three-fold nature gives him our same possibilities and limitations, thereby allowing us to take seriously his judgment and to listen attentively to his advice. Beelzebub gains our sympathy because his “sins” parallel ours; they had to do with his once having forgotten his place and function in the Universe. He has suffered, therefore, as we suffer, the unfortunate consequences of having forgotten who and what we are. Beelzebub, though, is distant from human beings in that he has far exceeded us in the process of retribution. While we remain ignorant of having even forgotten our place and function in the Universe, he has already more than rectified the wrong he did many centuries ago. He is therefore distant in an evolutionary as well as a cosmic sense. This twofold distance, combined with his likeness, is what makes Beelzebub as narrator so illuminating according to Rainoird. Beelzebub’s point of view is based on first-hand experience, yet expressed through an evolutionary and spatial distance so that, although what we recognize in his narrative is ourselves, we come to view ourselves as something familiar yet alien, understandable yet strange, observing ourselves from close up and from afar in one and the same glance. The overall effect of such narration, as Rainoird concludes, is a disconcerting illumination about ourselves as a species. Our manner of existence comes to be seen as one possible way of being among others. The benefit is that we are forced to rethink ourselves as three-centered beings, recognizing Beelzebub as an example of our evolutionary potentiality.

Similar comments on the disorienting effect of Beelzebub as narrator are made by Charles Duits in the excerpts from his unpublished manuscript contained in Waldberg’s book on Gurdjieff. Duits points out that Beelzebub’s long discourses about the planet Earth are all addressed to his grandson, a child for whom everything about the Earth is alien. Beelzebub is forced, therefore, to translate ordinary Earth terms into Hassein’s native language and to simplify his talk to a level understandable by one whose reason is in the early stages of development. This process of translating ordinary Earth terms into the language of Karatas accounts in part for the elaborate terminology of Beelzebub’s Tales, claims Duits, and contributes greatly to the disconcerting effect of the narrative. (“Telescope” for instance in Karatian is “teskooano,” “water” is “saliakooriapa,” “death” is “rascooarno,” etc.) Duits is correct that the distancing effect of the vocabulary is not the sole purpose behind Gurdjieff’s involved terminology; but whatever Gurdjieff’s objective, his use of “foreign” vocabulary contributes much toward forcing the reader to view every day life from a fresh perspective. As Duits writes,

[When] the reader quickly reaches the point of considering the earth words from the viewpoint of the inhabitants of Karatas… [that reader] has begun to consider mankind from the outside, and from much further outside than when he slipped into the skin of Montequieu’s Persians or Voltaire’s Ingenu. It is our whole language, and hence our whole world which loses its familiarity, and no longer just various manners, customs, laws and conventions. Like Montesquieu, and like Voltaire, Gurdjieff interposes a distance between the reader and mankind. But here the process is radicalized to the utmost. It is not our society which is made foreign, but the whole earth, its history and geography, the most common and ordinary things.40

Through his use of language Gurdjieff “exotocizes” us so that our lives and everyday activities display their underlying structure. “Life could be different,” Gurdjieff manages to say. “Things are not just ‘as they are.’”41

Waldberg, too, is interested in Gurdjieff’s disarming language and antagonistic style. In addition to his strong endorsement of Duits’ insights about Gurdjieff’s work, Waldberg’s analysis of Gurdjieff’s writing style emphasizes the connection of bewilderment to the phenomenon of awakening, “One of the unique virtues of Gurdjieff’s books,” says Waldberg, “is that they establish a distance between the real and all that is banal and ordinary, and show us that the banal and ordinary are actually deeply foreign to us.”42 Under the effect of Gurdjieff’s prose, the reader cannot help but be bewildered.

Yet “to bewilder, baffle and disorientate are the paramount actions of the master,”43 Waldberg reminds us, for disorientation is the beginning of awakening. Waldberg quotes Gurdjieff in conversation with Ouspensky: “Awakening begins,” said Gurdjieff, “when a man realizes that he is going nowhere and does not know where to go.”44 When we find ourselves in a state of bewilderment or disorientation, we tend to be more open to new ideas and possibilities. At such opportune moments some kind of action or intervention on the part of the master is needed so that we are not lulled back to sleep by everyday life. “How does the master go about creating a state of bewilderment in his student and then prolonging that bewilderment until illumination occurs?”, Waldberg asks. The answer in the case of Beelzebub’s Tales is “by means of paradoxes, contradictions, repetitions, exclamations, apparently indolent answers or even refusals to reply, and with many other unexpected means”45—all of which are used by Gurdjieff for the purpose of disabusing and then enlightening the readers about themselves and their existence.


In the above summaries of the main commentaries on Beelzebub’s Tales, we considered Bennett’s and Waldberg’s rationales for Gurdjieff’s ‘antagonistic’ style; Rainoird’s observations on the relevance of Beelzebub’s remote distance from Earth (coupled with his similarity as a three-brained being); Duits’ remarks regarding Hassein’s level of reason; and Orage’s allusions to the theme of ‘normal human being’ as embodied in the Tales. These men offered us a tremendous service by helping to break ground for our understanding of Beelzebub’s Tales and to suggest fruitful avenues we might explore. As valuable and acute as their insights are, however, they only begin to unlock the riddles and unearth the riches of this profound and utterly unique book that transcends literature and philosophy. The task of continuing our exploration of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson requires a major individual and collaborative effort on the part of dedicated readers, particularly those who are well-seasoned in Gurdjieff’s teaching.

We have yet to probe the complex literary and religious issue of Beelzebub (Iblis in Sufism; Arch-traitor in exoteric Christianity) as Gurdjieff’s choice of narrator. The significant question of Gurdjieff’s choice of narrative point of view has remained essentially unexplored. So many facets of this enigmatic work invite an extensive examination; Gurdjieff’s use of symbolic and figurative language; the significance of setting in the Tales; his style as a merging of Eastern and Western conceptions of art; the relevance of Hassein as receptor of Beelzebub’s teaching. And these are only a few of the major unexamined issues in these Tales.

How are we to comprehend the grave existential significance of his metaphor of the river of humanity which divides into two streams: that which flows back toward its source, emptying into the vast ocean; and that which gradually filters down through the rocks at the bottom of the stream, seeping into the underground? The first stream, as we know, represents the way of evolution; its individual drops of water, upon entering the ocean, retain the potential for evolving into higher forms or concentrations. Those drops which make up the second stream bear no individual significance, but collectively serve nature by means of an involutionary process. We are aware, as Gurdjieff has warned us, that a crossing over from the involutionary to the evolutionary stream demands of us a “constant unquenchable impulse of desire for this crossing.” It is in Beelzebub’s Tales that Gurdjieff has passed on to us the methods for escape and survival. Now unable to transfer to his followers his own “hanbledzoin” (personal magnetism created by being-efforts), Gurdjieff has left us with the character of Beelzebub to inspire us and to provide us with an exemplary lifestyle for a three-centered being. It is to Beelzebub we must look for guidance in our efforts to enter the evolutionary stream.

None of us, I expect, has been as fortunate in our upbringing as Hassein, who at the age of twelve, and with Beelzebub as his grandfather and personal mentor, is already deeply initiated into the workings of the fundamental laws of world-creation and world-maintenance, and is in the process of developing his being-mentation. No doubt, Hassein will reach adulthood having acquired his own “I” and with conscious labors and intentional suffering, will enter the first stream, evolving towards the acquisition of Objective Reason. Most of us, in character with Ahoon, are products of faulty educational systems which never taught us the meaning or significance of making conscious efforts or of undergoing voluntary suffering. As a result, we have stumbled through life under the law of accident, only occasionally, if ever, sensing the actual terror of our situation. But also like Ahoon, we may have lived for years in close proximity to the character of Beelzebub without having realized his full significance or the possible role he can play in our survival.

Only at the conclusion of Beelzebub’s Tales, when Beelzebub receives the sacred and inevitable results of his supreme efforts towards maintaining cosmic harmony and his own self-perfection, does Ahoon feel in his master’s presence remorse of conscience for his own level of being. As Ahoon apologizes to Beelzebub for having allowed so many years of lost opportunity to elapse, Beelzebub looks upon Ahoon with “love mingled with grief and resignation to the inevitable.” The “inevitable” is that Ahoon alone can transform his remorse and chagrin into an unflagging desire to avoid filtering through the bottom of the stream of involution into nothingness. Like a buffoon, he has so frequently imitated the external gestures and mannerisms of Beelzebub and has failed to do the necessary work to develop his being as Beelzebub has developed his. Beelzebub’s grief and resignation to the inevitable result from his understanding that he is powerless to make any efforts for Ahoon. Beelzebub can only indicate the way for others by means of his own worthy example.

Let us not repeat Ahoon’s mistake—that is to say, let us not, like buffoons, imitate the external gestures of Beelzebub or Gurdjieff while failing to do the inner (and outer) work needed to develop our own being. The greatest tribute we can pay Gurdjieff is the effort to repay our debt to him for this book and his teaching, by engaging in our own life-long struggle to understand, share and apply his rich traditional and contemporary legacy and to not treat Beelzebub’s Tales like Holy Writ—final and fixed words, beyond the approach of sincere and sustained study.


  1. J. G. Bennett, Talks on Beelzebub’s Tales (Gloucestershire: Coombe Springs Press, 1977), p. 1. Reissued, Youk Beach, Maine: Weiser, 1988, vii.
  2. Ibid.
  3. G. I. Gurdjieff, as recorded by P. D. Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), p. 94
  4. Manuel Rainoird as quoted by Michel Waldberg in Gurdjieff: An Approach to His Ideas, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 28
  5. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, (New York: Harcourt, Brace 1950), p. 52
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., p. 51
  8. Ibid., p. 54
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., p. 57
  12. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, p. 1176
  13. Ibid., p. 1177
  14. Ibid., p. 1178
  15. Ibid., p. 1177
  16. Ibid., p. 1178
  17. Ibid., p. 1181
  18. Ibid., p. 1182
  19. Ibid., p. 1183
  20. Notes on “Orage’s Commentary on ‘Beelzebub’” are contained in C. S. Nott’s Teachings of Gurdjieff: A Pupil’s Journal (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1962), pp. 125–215
  21. Manuel Rainoird, Belzebuth, un coup de maitre (Paris: Monde Nouveau 104, Octobre, 1956).
  22. Michel Waldberg, Gurdjieff: An Approach to His Ideas
  23. Bennett, Talks on Beelzebub’s Tales, p. 11
  24. Ibid., p. 11
  25. Ibid., p. 8
  26. Ibid., p. 9
  27. Ibid., p. 11
  28. J. Walter Driscoll, GURDJIEFF: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland Publishers, 1985 ), p. viii
  29. Bennett, Talks on Beelzebub’s Tales, p. 4–5
  30. Gurdjieff, as quoted in C. S. Nott’s Teachings of Gurdjieff: A Pupil’s Journal, p. 168
  31. Alfred Orage, as quoted in Nott’s Teachings of Gurdjieff, p. 167
  32. Ibid., p. 194
  33. Ibid., p. 141
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid., p. 142
  36. Manuel Rainoird, as quoted by Michel Waldberg in Gurdjieff: An Approach to His Ideas, p. 26.
  37. Ibid., p. 27
  38. Ibid., p. 28
  39. Ibid., p. 29
  40. Ibid., pp. 22–23
  41. Ibid., p. 23
  42. Michel Waldberg, Gurdjieff: An Approach to His Ideas, p. 9
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid., p. 10
  45. Ibid., p. 11

~ • ~

Anna Challenger holds an M.A. in Philosophy and a Ph.D. in American and Comparative Literature from Kent State University. She currently teaches Literature and Advanced Writing courses at the American College of Thessaloniki in Greece, where she serves as Chairperson of the English Department.

Anna first became absorbed in the teachings of George Gurdjieff as a philosophy graduate student. In the midst of studying the traditional philosophers, she was introduced by a fellow philosophy student to the works of Gurdjieff. From that day forward, traditional philosophy took secondary place to the living philosophy of Gurdjieff, and for the next twenty years, Gurdjieff remained the central personal focus of Anna’s study. Her specific aim over the years has been to expose Gurdjieff’s teachings to the academic world, and to cultivate respect for his living philosophy and literature among academics. To this purpose, and against predictable opposition, she wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on An Introduction to Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub”: A Modern Sufi Teaching Tale.

This dissertation has been reworked over the years and will be published in book form by Rodopi Press (Atlanta, Georgia, and Amsterdam) in 1999 as Philosophy and Art in Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub: A Modern Odyssey. This essay is representative of chapters from this forthcoming book.

Copyright © 1990 Dr. Anna Challenger
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