Gurdjieff International Review

Gurdjieff’s Theory of Art

Dr. Anna Challenger

“We gave advice in its proper place,
Spending a lifetime in the task.
If it should not touch anyone’s ear of desire,
The messenger told his tale, it is enough.”

Muslih-uddin Sa’di
13th c. Sufi poet
The Rose Garden

Because literature for Gurdjieff, as for the Sufis, is inextricable from philosophy, it is appropriate in considering Beelzebub’s Tales to address some fundamental philosophical questions, the answers to which help put Gurdjieff’s writings into perspective. Among the issues to be addressed, one of primary importance is to define what constitutes literature for Gurdjieff, or what, according to his aesthetics, distinguishes literature from non-literature; art from non-art. Beelzebub's Tales

Unraveling this distinction involves comprehending some of Gurdjieff’s fundamental ideas about human beings and their place in the world. We have already proposed that Gurdjieff’s primary philosophical stance is that of Sufism, and his philosophy of art supports this contention.1 At the core of his aesthetics is the position that no form of artistic expression possesses value in itself; no art is appreciable for its intrinsic value alone. Because of his premises concerning the meaning and purpose of human existence, all “art” for Gurdjieff, and consequently all literature as an art-form, must be functional or didactic. The value of an art work resides in its potentiality to transform or metamorphose the art appreciator. Insofar as a work of literature, a piece of music, a painting, or any other potential art form aids humans in the process of their spiritual evolution, that object or activity earns the designation “art” for Gurdjieff and possesses what he refers to as “soul.”

Gurdjieff’s use of terminology to espouse his aesthetics and other branches of his philosophy frequently involves his supplying old terms with new meanings. Consequently, we are forced when approaching his writings to temporarily abandon old associations of key words used in his discussions. Such is the case with the terms “soul,” “objective” and “subjective,” “conscious” and “unconscious.” “Subjective art,” for example, in Gurdjieff’s terminology, refers to most of what is commonly interpreted as art. Most twentieth-century art in its various forms, according to his standards, would fall into this category. But subjective art is not authentic art for him; it is the result of mechanical, unconscious human activity, and most of humanity is unconscious according to Gurdjieff. For the same reason, he refers to subjective art as “soulless” in that it results from little or no consciousness on the part of the would-be artist. In his introduction to Meetings with Remarkable Men, he asserts that contemporary civilization is unique in history in its massive production of soulless, pseudo art.

On the other hand, “objective art” is authentic art in that it results from deliberate, pre-meditated efforts on the part of a conscious artist. In the act of creation, the true artist avoids or eliminates any input which is subjective or arbitrary, and the impression of such art on those who experience it is always definite. To the degree that objective art is the result of consciousness, it inherently possesses “soul.” As one example of soulful art, Gurdjieff cites the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci; as another he refers to the Taj Mahal. Both constitute objective works of art.

In a speech about art delivered to a group of students in Moscow in 1916, Gurdjieff broached an explanation of his aesthetic terminology and of his division of art into categories. The speech was delivered in Russian and translated into English by Ouspensky:

I do not call art all that you call art, which is simply mechanical reproduction, imitation of nature or of other people, or simply fantasy or an attempt to be original. Real art is something quite different.... In your art everything is subjective—the artist’s perception of this or that sensation, the forms in which he tries to express his sensation and the perception of these forms by other people.... In real art there is nothing accidental.... The artist knows and understands what he wants to convey, and his work cannot produce one impression on one man and one impression on another, presuming, or course, people on one level.2

Every aspect of the creation and impact of objective art is premeditated and definite.

Gurdjieff anticipates the unsympathetic response which his criteria for art predictably arouses, and the question of whether such deliberate and controlled creation is really creation at all. He also anticipates the argument regarding whether the elimination of the subjective element in art is, in fact, desirable. Isn’t it rather the case that the subjective contribution of the artist—his or her individuality, in other words—enhances an artwork with added dimension and significance?

Gurdjieff’s response to these questions draws a resolute distinction between what most people accept as art and the criteria which he demands that it fulfill. His claim is that most people, rather than measuring art by the consciousness which it represents, measure it instead by its unconsciousness. People are in the habit of admiring the elusive or indefinite or mysterious quality which they take for granted as an essential component of an act of artistic creation, without which, they assume, we are dealing with craft, perhaps, or some other type of product which is inferior to art. In contrast, Gurdjieff measures artistic merit solely by the level of consciousness an artwork represents. Again he explains: “You say—an artist creates; I say this only in relation to objective art. In relation to subjective art I say that with him ‘it is created.’ You do not differentiate between these, but this is where the whole difference lies.”3 Subjective art involves no creative act on the agent’s part; instead, something “is created” in or through the agent who serves as a vehicle for “creative” activity: “This means that he is in the power of ideas, thoughts and moods which he himself does not understand and over which he has no control. They rule him and they express themselves in one form or another.”4 When these moods have taken some accidental form, they just as accidentally produce an affect on the art appreciator, depending again on personal moods, tastes, habits. In the making of subjective art everything about the creative process and its effect on the perceiver is accidental, whereas with objective art the artist is the sole responsible agent of creation: “He puts into the work whatever ideas and feelings he wants to transmit. And the action of this work upon men is definite”5 Each person responds to authentic art according to his or her level of understanding, but nothing is arbitrary about its creation or transmission. The true artist determines and controls the process of creation from start to finish, including thoughts, feelings, the projection of energies, all of which are generated from within.

In order for us to regard Gurdjieff’s aesthetics with a sympathetic stance, we need to consider his ideas about art within the context of his larger body of thought. In particular, two key points in his philosophy of art must be highlighted and linked to his larger world-view. One is that, despite the forcefulness with which Gurdjieff distinguishes conscious and unconscious art, he readily acknowledges that these antithetical categories exist largely on a theoretical level. The situation regarding individual works of art is more complex, in that tangible artworks almost inevitably embody both subjective and objective elements. Given this reality, each is relatively valuable artistically according to the level of understanding it represents.

This premise—that the worth of art is relative depending on the degree of consciousness it represents—presupposes that artists are of relative worth depending on their levels of understanding. The notion of relativity applies to art insofar as it applies foremost to artists and to human beings in general. Gurdjieff holds that people differ drastically from one another in respect to their levels of consciousness, and consequently they produce art which belongs to varied levels. Addressing a group of students in Moscow, he explains the distinction he recognizes among human beings:

At the moment it is not clear to you that people living on the earth belong to very different levels, although in appearance they look exactly the same. Just as there are different levels of men, so there are different levels of art. Only you do not realize at present that the difference between these levels is far greater than you might suppose....6

Gurdjieff’s perception that we vary according to levels of understanding may appear a common observation. Where he perhaps differs from others in this notion is in the degree to which he maintains that we differ. In one of his lectures, to illustrate his understanding of the difference which he perceives among human beings, Gurdjieff uses the analogy of the difference between the essence of a mineral and a plant, of a plant and an animal, and of an animal and a human. The essence of two people, he asserts, can vary in quality more than that of a mineral and an animal. The range which exists among humans, in other words, makes them equivalent at times to different species.

In Gurdjieff’s terminology “being” refers to the essence of a thing—to what something is “essentially.” He contends that in Western culture only a person’s knowledge is valued, while a person’s being is treated as inconsequential. Yet being or essence is at least as important as knowledge, and levels of knowledge and being must be compatible for comprehension to result. The relation of being to knowledge is important for the artist because the production of objective art depends on the understanding which results from their harmonious relation. He explains the relevance of this balance:

Especially in Western culture it is thought that a man may possess great knowledge—be an able scientist, make discoveries, advance science, and at the same time he may be, and has the right to be, a petty, egoistic, caviling, mean, envious, vain, naïve and absent-minded man.... And yet it is his being. And people think that his knowledge does not depend on his being. People of Western culture put great value on the level of a man’s knowledge but they do not value the level of a man’s being.... They do not understand that a man’s knowledge depends on the level of his being.7

The level of knowledge depends on that of being because a concept or idea can only be understood to the degree that a person’s essence is prepared for it. Two people with different qualities of essence will understand the same idea quite differently; the level on which they can know something is directly related to the level of their being.

When knowledge and being are not at compatible levels, understanding becomes distorted and efforts put forth to achieve a result are ineffectual or harmful in their consequences. Gurdjieff explains, for example, what can result from a predominance of knowledge:

If knowledge gets far ahead of being, it becomes theoretical and abstract and inapplicable to life, or actually harmful, because instead of serving life and helping people the better to struggle with the difficulties they meet, it begins to complicate man’s life, to bring new difficulties into it, new troubles and calamities which were not there before.8

If a disproportionate amount of knowledge does not result in harmful consequences, it at the very least becomes stagnant, for the person whose essence is inferior in knowledge, is unable to achieve constructive results with the knowledge he possesses: “If knowledge outweighs being, a man knows but has no power to do. It is useless knowledge. On the other hand, if being outweighs knowledge, a man has the power to do ... but [he] does not know what to do.”9 That person’s essence remains aimless. Either form of imbalance results in empty or distorted efforts. Positive consequences, or objective art in this case, can only result from a harmonious balance of knowledge and being.

All the differences which strike us about people, then, can be explained according to their levels of understanding. As a result of this difference, people interpret the world and respond to it in very diverse ways: “Men seem to us to vary so much just because the actions of some of them are…deeply conscious, while the actions of others are so unconscious that they even seem to surpass the unconsciousness of stones...”10 The question is further complicated by the fact that both types of action can be seen in one person. Human beings, depending on the compatibility of their knowledge and essence, and their level of conscious awareness at any given moment, span a vast continuum ranging from unconscious to highly conscious.

These levels of understanding which exist among humans are reflected in all their activities. For example, as many levels of art, language, religion, and other human endeavors exist as there are levels of understanding. As an example, on one level, art may manifest as crude and imitative, on another as sentimental, on another as intellectual, constructed art, and so on. Or, on one level religion may exist as ceremony and sacrifice, on still another as faith and adoration, on another as based on philosophical or theological ideas, and on another it may involve conscious efforts to live according to the precepts of Christ or Buddha. All the manifestations of our lives can be divided into categories based on the degree of consciousness invested in every action.

Within Gurdjieff’s theory of levels of consciousness, movement from one level to another, higher level can only occur as a result of intentional efforts, or of “conscious labour” and “intentional suffering” in his terminology. The term he uses to refer to movement from lower to higher levels is “conscious evolution”—a form of evolution which has nothing to do with Darwin’s “natural” evolution. Conscious evolution requires intentional efforts to evolve, and the only alternative is degeneration:

Everything in the world, from solar systems to man, from man to atom, either rises or descends, either evolves or degenerates, either develops or decays. But nothing evolves mechanically. Only degeneration and destruction proceed mechanically. That which cannot evolve consciously—degenerates.11

When we fail to make conscious efforts to evolve, we are mechanically carried downward in a process of devolution or degeneration—the only movement which takes place without deliberate interference. Making conscious efforts means forcing ourselves to act against the forces of inertia which result mechanically from the opposing forces of nature. When we succumb to inertia, the laws of nature carry us downward in consciousness and understanding. Only through conscious efforts can we resist this process of degeneration: “If you make conscious efforts, Nature must pay…It is a law,”12 says Gurdjieff, describing the relationship of humans and nature. All intentional efforts to force movement in an upward direction and against the laws of nature, result in the evolution of human consciousness.

The concept of conscious evolution leads us to Gurdjieff’s second key premise about art—that it must be functional. The function of art and of the artist is to intervene and to assist in the process of conscious evolution. To aid us in our upward movement towards higher understanding and to help us struggle against the opposing forces of nature is the sacred purpose and obligation of art.

To achieve this end, objective art must be multi-dimensional, lending itself to diverse levels of interpretation so that a single work simultaneously satisfies the needs of people with different levels of understanding. In its attempt to achieve harmony in the art appreciator, objective art must address itself to all aspects of a human being simultaneously, not making disproportionate demands on the intellect, for example, without requiring equivalent efforts from the emotional and sensory powers. Such art has the power to aid conscious evolution in a number of ways. It may strive to educate us about our place and role in the universe, or provide objective knowledge about the laws of nature to which we are subject, educating us regarding which of those laws we might transcend or better use to our benefit. It may arouse in us a greater degree of spiritual awareness and sense of being-obligation, or shock us out of a state of sleep or stupor. It may attempt to break down fixed patterns of thought so that we experience more refined and extraordinary perceptions. Whatever form objective art assumes, its purpose is to help the upward flow of consciousness against the current of mechanical life.

It was Gurdjieff’s opinion that Eastern art has remained truer to this purpose than has Western art:

I studied Western art after studying the ancient art of the East. To tell you the truth, I found nothing in the West to compare with Eastern art. Western art has much that is external, sometimes a great deal of philosophy; but Eastern art is precise ... It is a form of script.13

This ancient art was not for liking or disliking but for understanding, and each person exposed to it understood according to his or her ability. But now this purpose of relating and preserving knowledge has been disassociated from art, and what falls under the rubric of art is a barely recognizable imitation of what art once was. According to Gurdjieff’s aesthetics, talent is irrelevant to art, which should be concerned only with knowledge and objective truth.

Just as Eastern art more closely accords with objective art, so too was ancient art more substantial than most of what is produced by contemporary civilization. In his Introduction to Meetings with Remarkable Men, Gurdjieff addresses the issue of contemporary literature as representative of contemporary art in general, and he illustrates its difference from the literature of other epochs. His observations are credited, in part, to a speech delivered by a learned Persian on the subject of literature. In the guise of the Persian sage, Gurdjieff declares,

To sum up everything that has been said about the literature of our times, I cannot find better words to describe it than the expression ‘it has no soul.’ Contemporary civilization has destroyed the soul of literature, as of everything else to which it has turned its gracious attention.

I have all the more grounds for criticizing so mercilessly this result of modern civilization, since according to the most reliable historical data which have come down to us from remote antiquity we have definite information that the literature of former civilizations had indeed a great deal to assist the development of the mind of man; and the results of this development, transmitted from generation to generation, could still be felt even centuries later.14

To illustrate the different quality and substance that some ancient literature possessed, Gurdjieff relates an old Persian tale, “The Conversation of Two Sparrows.” In this allegory, an old sparrow converses with a young sparrow and laments the loss of substantial, nutritious food that was formerly available. Now the sparrows are hungry, for no real food is to be found. The food of which the sparrows speak is the sustenance, or being-food, that literature once provided, but which is quite scarce in modern literature and art:

Once upon a time, on a cornice of a high house, sat two sparrows, one old, the other young. They were discussing an event which had become the ‘burning question of the day’ among the sparrows, and which had resulted from the mullah’s housekeeper having just previously thrown out of a window, on to a place where the sparrows gathered to play, something looking like left-over porridge, but which turned out to be chopped cork; and several of the young and as yet inexperienced sparrows had sampled it, and almost burst. While talking about this, the old sparrow, suddenly ruffling himself up, began with a pained grimace to search under his wing for the fleas tormenting him, and which in general bred on underfed sparrows; and having caught one, he said with a deep sigh:

“Times have changed very much—there is no longer a living to be had for our fraternity. In the old days we use to sit, just as now, somewhere upon a roof, quietly dozing, when suddenly down in the street there would be heard a noise, a rattling and a rumbling, and soon after an odour would be diffused, at which everything inside us would begin to rejoice; because we felt fully certain that when we flew down and searched the places where all that had happened, we would find satisfaction for our essential needs.

“But nowadays there is plenty and to spare of noise and rattlings, and all sorts of rumblings, and again and again an odour is also diffused, but an odour which it is almost impossible to endure; and when sometimes, by force of old habit, we fly down during a moment’s lull to seek something substantial for ourselves, then search as we may with tense attention, we find nothing at all except some nauseous drops of burned oil.”15

The tale refers to the old horse-drawn vehicles and to present-day automobiles: even though automobiles produce all the more noise and rumblings and stink than did the horses of former times, they offer nothing at all when it comes to the feeding of sparrows.

The purpose of the analogy, of course, is to illustrate the difference between contemporary literature and the literature of former epochs, between contemporary art and some ancient, more objective art. Even though both ancient and modern art may have some motives and ideals in common, the outcome is somehow quite different:

In the present civilization, as in former civilizations, literature exists for the purpose of the perfecting of humanity in general, but in this field also—as in everything else contemporary—there is nothing substantial for our essential aim. It is all exterior; all only, as in the tale of the sparrow, noise, rattling, and a nauseous smell.16

Contemporary literature has somehow become misdirected, in Gurdjieff’s estimation. As in the tale, it is bypassing our essential needs and leaving us spiritually unfulfilled. Modern writers place unnecessary emphasis on “externals,” such as elements of style, because they lack understanding of art’s true significance—to contribute to the perfecting of humanity.

An example of literature of a different order is A Thousand and One Nights, the title of which in Arabic means Mother of Records (a work of literature which the Sufis claim is of Sufic origin and content). Gurdjieff describes the impact of such literature on an audience of listeners:

I myself have seen how hundreds of illiterate people will gather round one literate man to hear a reading of the sacred writings or the tales known as Thousand and One Nights. You will of course reply that the events described, particularly in these tales, are taken from their own life, and are therefore understandable and interesting to them. But that is not the point. These texts—and I speak particularly of the Thousand and One Nights—are works of literature in the full sense of the word. Anyone reading or hearing this book feels clearly that everything in it is fantasy, but fantasy corresponding to truth, even though composed of episodes which are quite improbable for the ordinary life of people. The interest of the reader or listener is awakened ... by the author’s fine understanding of the psyche of people of all walks of life round him...17

If literature is to be “literature in the full sense of the word,” or objective art as the above work is purported to be, then what is required is a high level of understanding on the part of the writer—understanding of the true significance and responsibility of literature, as well as of the psyche or essence of all types of people.

The situation regarding contemporary writers and artists is the opposite, however, because the majority of them lack either the correct motives or the understanding requisite for the production of objective art. Their aims are often egoistic, and the “divine impulse of conscience” has atrophied in them. In Beelzebub’s Tales, Gurdjieff expresses the opinion that of all contemporary Earth beings, artists are most vulnerable to the diseases of pride, self-love, vanity, and other comparable diseases. Contemporary artists, because they are for whatever reason idolized and exalted by the public, acquire false notions about themselves and their abilities which make them less capable than ever of producing art which contributes to the perfecting of the human race.

Gurdjieff’s contention that contemporary artists are incapable of fulfilling the spiritual needs of humanity has been taken seriously by some twentieth century artists and has led to a re-evaluation of their obligations as artists and of their personal potential to fulfill those obligations. Two famous writers who heeded Gurdjieff’s call for a new version of artist were the American writer and poet Jean Toomer and the New Zealand-born writer Katherine Mansfield. Both were strongly attracted to Gurdjieff’s ideas and spent time with him at the Institute in Fontainebleau. Toomer was involved with Gurdjieff and his work for over fifteen years, conducting his own study groups on the Gurdjieff ideas in New York’s Harlem and in Chicago. Toomer raised $15,000 toward the publication of Beelzebub’s Tales. Mansfield died at Gurdjieff’s Institute and is buried near him in a cemetery in Avon, near Fontainebleau.

Toomer and Mansfield were accepted literary artists before their encounters with Gurdjieff’s ideas, but through his influence they came to adopt different ways of thinking about art and about their roles as artists. Records of their personal struggles to become something “more” are preserved in Mansfield’s diary and in the letters written before her death at the Institute, as well as in Toomer’s diaries, in his letters, and in his later writings. Their reflections on literature and the task of the writer take Gurdjieff’s theoretical ideas on the subject to the most basic level of lived experience, and demonstrate that the intense struggle involved in creating greater art is commensurate with a struggle to create a different self.

Under Gurdjieff’s tutelage, Toomer saw differently his obligation as a writer and felt the incongruity of claiming to be an artist without having in his possession a consolidated self. He found that the objective art of which Gurdjieff spoke required flashes of objective consciousness, and that to achieve such flashes and to expand their duration, a great inner unity was needed, a high degree of self-mastery. Having arrived at this understanding, Toomer immersed himself in the study and practice of Gurdjieff’s ideas, offering as his explanation at the time: “One must become a man before he can become an artist.”18 He expressed what he came to recognize as a syndrome common to most of humanity: “The open conspiracy: ‘Let’s do outside things; inside things are too difficult.’”19 With Gurdjieff, Toomer took a radical turn towards “inside things” and strove to become a “man.”

It is to Toomer’s serious attempts to live up to his new vision of the artist that Gorham Munson pays homage in his essay “The Significance of Jean Toomer,” published in 1928 in Munson’s book Destinations. In this essay, Munson writes of the potential of the new sort of artist which Toomer represents, while praising Toomer for setting a precedent for all artists. Any artist who feels deeply the grave responsibility which his or her gifts entail, declares Munson, is forced to seek answers to the fundamental questions, such as “What is the function of human beings?” and “What is the world?.” “The significance of Jean Toomer lies in his strenuous attempts to answer these questions,”20 Munson writes. He presents Toomer as an artist to be emulated:

Shortly after writing Cane, he [Toomer] formed two convictions. One was that the modern world is a veritable chaos and the other was that in a disrupted age the first duty of the artist is to unify himself. Having achieved personal wholeness, then perhaps he would possess an attitude that would not be merely a reaction to the circumstances of modernity, merely a reflection of the life around him, but would be an attitude that could act upon modernity, dissolve away the remainder of an old slope of consciousness, and plant the seeds for a new slope.21

At Gurdjieff’s Institute in France, Toomer found what he considered the best method for his quest. He wrote from Fontainebleau, “I am. What I am and what I may become I am trying to find out.”22 With the help of Gurdjieff, Toomer returned to the most preliminary questions, convinced that a true artist could only be one who had come to understand at least the basics of the human condition. It was this deep authenticity on Toomer’s part that prompted Munson to declare him a symbol for all artists: “He is a dynamic symbol of what all artists of our time should be doing if they are to command our trust,” Munson wrote. “He has mastered his craft. Now he seeks a purpose that will convince him that his craft is nobly employed.”23 Toomer’s search for understanding was a search without an end, Munson acknowledged, but through the search itself he was bound to experience an inner fusion which could only lead to greater profundity-—and therefore to greater art.24

Katherine Mansfield’s association with the Gurdjieff Institute is interesting since she spent the last months of her life absorbing and recording the impressions created by Gurdjieff. Her letters and diary entries at the time testify to the different quality of life she sensed while surrounded by others with aims similar to hers. “If I were allowed one single cry to God,” she wrote, “that cry would be: I want to be REAL!”25 Here she found kindred spirits who were overwhelmed by the same desire—people who were “truly themselves,” she wrote, “and not playing a part behind a mask.”26 Her personal writings are rich with eloquent and moving descriptions of the life she observed around her at the Institute, and some who were there with her recorded her more memorable conversations. Ouspensky wrote of one conversation which he had with Mansfield shortly before her death. “We sat in the evening in one of the salons,” he recorded, “and she spoke in a feeble voice which seemed to come from the void.”27 She described her feelings about the environment Gurdjieff had created:

I know that this is true and that there is no other truth. You know that I have long since looked upon all of us without exception as people who have suffered shipwreck and have been cast upon an uninhabited island, but who do not yet know of it. But these people here know it. The others, there in life, still think that a steamer will come for them tomorrow and that everything will go on in the old way. These already know that there will be no more of the old way. I am so glad that I can be here.28

In a letter to her husband she uses the same shipwreck-castaway figure:

I’ll tell you what this life is more like than anything: it is like Gulliver’s Travels. One has, all the time, the feeling of having been in a wreck and by mercy of Providence got ashore—somewhere... Simply everything is different. Not only languages, but food, people, music, methods, hours—all. It’s a real new life...29

Her true education, she claimed, was just beginning at age thirty-four.

Although she continued to record her impressions in private correspondence while at the Institute, Mansfield wrote nothing for publication during this period. Her feelings about literature were shifting, and she found herself increasingly critical of her own writings, as of most literature. “I confess present-day literature simply nauseates me,” she wrote to a friend, “excepting always Hardy and the other few whose names I can’t remember. But the general trend of it seems to me quite without any value whatever.”30 Her own stories, she felt, contained something false and narrow, even “evil,” and they reminded her of birds bred in cages. “There is not one that I dare show to God,”31 she told Orage.

The changes taking place in Mansfield’s feelings about literature were not just the result of exposure to a different philosophy of literature represented by Gurdjieff’s thought, but were more the result of inner changes taking place in Mansfield. “I cannot express myself in writing just now,” she wrote of this interlude in her life; “the old mechanism isn’t mine any longer, and I can’t control the new.”32 The months with Gurdjieff were months of transformation and metamorphosis for her, and one result of her changing perceptions was that she came to expect something different from literature. In a conversation she described her shifting world-view:

I’m aware ... of a recent change of attitude in myself, and at once not only my old stories have come to look different to me, but life itself looks different. I could not write my old stories again, or any more like them: and not because I do not see the same detail as before, but because somehow or other the pattern is different. The old details now make another pattern...33

Had Mansfield lived to incorporate this “different pattern” into future stories, her approach to writing, she indicated before her death, would have been quite different.

The English editor and critic Alfred Orage, who was a close friend of Mansfield, was also present at the Institute during her three-month stay. He had published her first story in his magazine The New Age when Mansfield was twenty-one, and it was he who introduced her to Gurdjieff. During the months together at Fontainebleau they often conversed on the subject of literature, and their conversations were recorded and later published by Orage as “Talks With Katherine Mansfield.” Here Orage relates how he and Mansfield had often discussed the phenomenon of their disappearing interest in literature. “What has come over us?” she asked Orage. “Are we dead? Or was our love of literature an affectation, which has now dropped off like a mask?”34 Then shortly before her death she attempted to articulate for Orage what had come to her as a revelation: she had understood that a different approach to literature was possible. Among her deepest and last insights were these:

Suppose that I succeed in writing as well as Shakespeare. It would be lovely, but what then? There is something wanting in literary art even at its highest... The greatest literature is still only mere literature if it has not a purpose commensurate with its art. Presence or absence of purpose distinguishes literature from mere literature, and the elevation of the purpose distinguishes literature within literature. That is merely literary that has no other object than to please. Minor literature has a didactic object. But the greatest literature of all—the literature that scarcely exists—has not merely an aesthetic object, nor merely a didactic object, but, in addition, a creative object: that of subjecting its readers to a real and at the same time illuminating experience. Major literature, in short, is an initiation into truth.35

Speaking of her writing, she said that through it she had been nothing more than a camera, always recording and representing, but never creating: “And, like everything unconscious, the result has been evil.”36 She said that her new plan was to widen the scope of her camera, and then to employ it for the conscious purpose of representing life as it appears to a creative attitude.

This idea—of employing a creative attitude in writing—seemed to Mansfield the key to a new literature. The term “creative,” whatever else it may have meant for her, referred primarily to an active rather than a passive attitude on the part of the writer—an active attitude employed to evoke an active response in the reader. Orage asked her to explain what she meant by “creative attitude,” and she replied:

You must help me out, Orage, if I miss the words. But I mean something like this. Life can be made to appear anything by presenting only one aspect of it; and every attitude in us—every mood ... has only one aspect. Assuming that this aspect is more or less permanent in any given writer ... he is bound to present only the correspondent aspect of life, and, at the same time, to do no more than present it.37

She continues later in the conversation:

An artist communicates not his vision of the world, but the attitude that results in his vision; not his dream, but his dream-state; and as the attitude is passive, negative, or indifferent, so he reinforces in his readers the corresponding state of mind. Now, most writers are merely passive; in fact, they aim only at representing life, as they say, with the consequence that their readers for the most part become even more passive... What I am trying to say is that a new attitude to life on the part of writers would first see life different, and then make it different.38

Orage does not attempt to interpret Mansfield’s last insights; perhaps it’s not possible to decipher the vision that lies behind her words. He only says that she was full of ideas for stories based on a new creative principle, and that until her death at Fontainebleau she remained radiant with her new insight about literature.

Although the details of her vision may remain obscure, two points about her connection with Gurdjieff remain clear. One is that she went to the Institute with the realization that to write better, she must somehow become “more” or “better” herself—and Gurdjieff, she believed, could help her to do this. The second is that her final understanding of what constituted greater literature was catalyzed by the conditions and atmosphere created by Gurdjieff and based on his ideas. Furthermore, this understanding coincided with Gurdjieff’s views: the artist is under an obligation to achieve some degree of consciousness, and art should serve to help others do the same.

An obvious question which comes to mind is, “Is Beelzebub’s Tales, then, art?”, and concurrently, “Is George Gurdjieff, then, in the final analysis, an artist?” Many respectable critics, writers, and artists respond with a resounding “Yes.” Others could be cited who deny the status of “artist” to Gurdjieff. The question is approachable only if we evaluate Gurdjieff on his own terms. He was a man who possessed the objective consciousness he considered prerequisite for the artist. His laborious efforts spent writing and revising Beelzebub’s Tales were made with the aim of striking a chord in our being that might move us along the path of conscious evolution. Gurdjieff considered Beelzebub’s Tales an objective work of art—a legominism through which truths about human beings and the world could be preserved and passed on to future generations. Through this work, he said, he wished to declare war on the world as it is and to begin the germination of a new world through the creation of a new consciousness. Michel Waldberg, a French writer, considers Beelzebub “one of the most perfect expressions of an art form addressed not only to the mind, but to the heart and body too.”39 Frank Lloyd Wright thought of Gurdjieff as a great artist, and he set down as his final judgement of Gurdjieff that in him “we have for the first time a philosopher distinguished from all others, [but] Gurdjieff was not only an original philosopher; he was a great artist.” “I often hear his music,” wrote the architect; “It is from another world.”40 James Moore, author of Gurdjieff and Mansfield, responds to the question of Gurdjieff as artist with ambiguity insofar as the impact of Beelzebub’s Tales will not be known until some future time. He says of these writings that they resemble the Sphinx, whose “vision is directed far off, as if piercing the very depths of space.”41 What we lack as yet, concludes Moore, and what we need before evaluating Beelzebub’s Tales, is someone to make clear its meaning and to uncloud its obscurity. But where, he asks, “is the new Oedipus who will stand between these paws and travail to unlock this riddle?”42 Until such an interpreter appears, Moore concludes, we have no way of knowing whether and to what extent Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson is an objective work of art.

Having considered at length Gurdjieff’s theory of art, including his assertion that objective art has always a specific and determined impact on the participator, depending on that person’s level of understanding, we would have to conclude that Gurdjieff’s artistry, as embodied in Beelzebub’s Tales, demands extraordinary efforts on the part of the reader, in order to evoke the author’s hoped-for response. The question about Gurdjieff as artist, therefore, as that question was phrased above, is perhaps too linear and two-dimensional to apply to a work like the Tales, and the inapplicability of linear thinking to Gurdjieff and the Tales is perhaps a clue to Mansfield’s idea about “creative” literature. Beelzebub’s Tales is objective art to the degree that we, as readers, permit it to be in the act of our effortful and conscious participation in this work. To the extent that we bring consciousness to bear in our active engagement with this literary work, each of us becomes the Oedipus who stands between the Sphinx’s paws. There can be no other, external Oedipus to explain the riddles. Beelzebub’s “artistic” dimensionality varies according to each reader’s level of being and the compatibility of his or her essence and knowledge. The aim of a book is to instruct, observed the Sufi poet Rumi; yet it can also be used as a pillow.


1 This connection of Gurdjieff and Sufism is extensively examined in a previous chapter of Challenger’s forthcoming book, Philosophy and Art in Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub: A Modern Odyssey (to be published in 1999 by Rodopi Press, Atlanta and Amsterdam).
2 Peter D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous (New York: Random House, 1971), p. 26.
3 Ibid., p. 296.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid., p. 26.
7 Ibid., p. 65.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid. p. 66.
10 G. I. Gurdjieff, Views From the Real World (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1975), p. 69.
11 Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p. 70.
12 C. S. Nott, Teachings of Gurdjieff: The Journal of a Pupil (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1962), p. 223.
13 Gurdjieff, Views From the Real World, p. 183.
14 G. I. Gurdjieff, Meetings With Remarkable Men (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1969), p. 14.
15 Ibid., p. 15.
16 Ibid., p. 16.
17 Ibid., p. 17–18.
18 James Webb, The Harmonious Circle (New York: G. p. Putnam’s Sons, 1980), p. 275.
19 Ibid., p. 274.
20 Gorham Munson, “The Significance of Jean Toomer” in Destinations (New York: J. H. Sears & Co., 1928), p. 184.
21 Ibid.
22 Ibid., p. 185.
23 Ibid.
24 Two dissertations have addressed the changes in Toomer’s writings which resulted from his years with Gurdjieff. One is by Rudolph Paul Byrd, who received his Ph.D. from Yale University’s English department in 1985: “Jean Toomer: Portrait of an Artist, the Years With Gurdjieff”. The other is by Michael J. Krasny, who received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin in 1972: “Jean Toomer and the Quest for Consciousness”.
25 Katherine Mansfield, in a letter to her husband, Boxing Day, 1922, The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Vol. 2, ed. J. Middleton Murry (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929), p. 46.
26 Nott, Teachings of Gurdjieff: The Journal of a Pupil, p. 47.
27 Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p. 386.
28 Ibid.
29 Katherine Mansfield, in a letter to her husband, 23 October 1922, The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Vol. 2, p. 510.
30 Katherine Mansfield, 16 December 1922, ibid., Vol. 2, p. 514.
31 A. R. Orage, “Talks With Katherine Mansfield” in Selected Essays and Critical Writings, ed. Herbert Read and Denis Saurat (New York: Books for Libraries Press, Inc., 1935), p. 125.
32 Katherine Mansfield, letter dated 27 October, 1922, The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Vol. 2, p. 512.
33 Katherine Mansfield, as quoted by Orage in “Talks With Katherine Mansfield,” Selected Essays and Critical Writings, p. 130.
34 Ibid.
35 Ibid., p. 127.
36 Ibid., p. 129.
37 Ibid.
38 Ibid., p. 131.
39 Michel Waldberg, Gurdjieff, tr. Steve Cox (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 9.
40 Frank Lloyd Wright, as quoted by James Moore in Gurdjieff and Mansfield (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 208.
41 James Moore, Gurdjieff and Mansfield, p. 193.
42 Ibid.

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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. 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 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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