G. I. Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff International Review

An Introduction to the

Writings of G. I. Gurdjieff

by J. Walter Driscoll

All and Everything is the inclusive title Gurdjieff gave to the three volumes of his major writings. Gurdjieff referred to these as the First, Second and Third Series.

1. Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson

On first readings this gargantuan and rigorous book is intimidating, even for readers accustomed to digesting complex text. It does not yield its treasures to premature or superficial analysis, and one should not be defeated by its seemingly impenetrable obscurity or misled by the fact that although it takes the form of a ground breaking science-fiction novel, Beelzebub’s Tales is really a vehicle for great philosophical, religious and psychological ideas and insights. The book’s barriers and complexities are never the result of mere literary posturing. It is labyrinthine for several reasons: because of the scope, depth and interelatedness of what Gurdjieff attempts, because of its mythic proportions and the epic elements that flesh out its structure, because the many profound and disturbing ideas it contains elude easy comprehension. The serious reader heeds Gurdjieff’s seemingly pompous but truly “friendly advice” that it is only with the third complete reading that one can actually begin to “try and fathom the gist.” What Gurdjieff attempts is nothing less than what his immodestly titled series of books proposes to present; that is, all and everything that really matters.

The main title of this first series, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man, is the center around which the book’s structure pivots. Traveling across the universe on the transspace ship Karnak with his grandson Hassein, Beelzebub undertakes to further the boy’s education. Hassein is a sensitive, intelligent and inquisitive twelve-year old. During their extended journey, Hassein questions Beelzebub extensively about the strange three-brained beings who inhabit a small planet of the remote solar system to which Beelzebub was banished as a result of his youthful rebelliousness. Hassein struggles to understand why the three-brained beings of that planet take “the ephemeral for the Real.” Since Beelzebub exists on a time-scale that spans thousands of Earth-years and was banished to Mars for aeons, his exile provides him with the opportunity to closely observe the inhabitants of our planet. Beelzebub tells his tales and uses these observations of Earth from his observatory on Mars and from six extended descents to Earth, seemingly to instruct Hassein but in fact to offer us impartial criticism of our life.

This plot structure provides Gurdjieff with an epic platform that is poised between a fifty page introductory chapter titled “The Arousing of Thought” and an equally long, final chapter “From the Author.” In these extended chapters, Gurdjieff speaks to the reader in his own voice. Near the end, Gurdjieff finally makes reference—and then, in characteristic fashion, only in passing—to our dwindled capacity to concentrate our “active attention” and our dependence on the flow of “automatic associations.” He indicates that the flow of “automatic associations” within us takes the place of what he calls “active being mentation” and that the attentive reading of his book can help us to develop this latent function.

Hyperbole reduces to understatement in relation to Beelzebub’s Tales. Unique in so many ways, this may be the only book written where the author carefully studied his audience’s reaction so thoroughly over more than two decades and redrafted the book with these observations in mind. Nothing in this book or in the reader’s response is accidental. Beelzebub’s Tales remains, as Gurdjieff surely intended, the first meeting ground for anyone interested in directly acquainting themselves with him and his ideas.

Beelzebub’s Tales was first published as All and Everything: Ten books in three series of which this is the First Series in New York by Harcourt Brace in 1950 with 1238 pages and in London by Routledge & Kegan Paul in 1950 with 1238 pages. Except for title variations—which consist of rearrangements of the phrases All and Everything, Beelzebub’s Tales and An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man—the ongoing correction of errata and the inclusion of two paragraphs omitted from the 1st edition, the text of the book has remained as first published by Gurdjieff in 1950. This text has since been reissued in hardcover and paperback editions by Dutton, Routledge & Kegan and most recently in 1999 by Penguin / Arkana in a paperback edition with cumulative correction of very minor errors in past printings. The exception is Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man. All and Everything / First Series. [Revised Edition] published in New York and London by Viking Arkana in 1992 with 1135 pages and issued without editorial preface or description of its purpose, method or sources. This revision is in more accessible contemporary English than its predecessor. It is based largely on the French translation of 1956 and incorporates new study of the original Russian manuscript; both of which are somewhat different in places than the English text.

2. Meetings With Remarkable Men

Revised from Orage’s unpublished editor’s manuscript and the original Russian manuscripts, Gurdjieff’s autobiography opens with a thirty page introduction in which he discusses literature as one of the chief means for developing the mind “that chief impeller to self-perfection” and laments the corruption of contemporary literature in relation to this purpose. He confides to the reader that he had become “adroit in the art of concealing serious thoughts in an enticing, easily grasped outer form.” The ten chapters that follow are, on the surface, devoted to describing Gurdjieff’s family, his school teachers, friends and the companions who shared his quest for knowledge and understanding. Underlying the outer form of Gurdjieff’s engaging personal narrative—few of the details of which can now be verified after more than a hundred years—is the story of his resolute search for a psychospiritual wisdom tradition that could lead to knowledge based on the development of being and to “the material required for a new creation.” The final unnumbered chapter is an addendum that contains the extended narrative called “The Material Question” in which Gurdjieff responds frankly to a question about how his extensive searches and the Institute he lead were financed. In responding, he describes the ingenuity, versatility and sustained initiative he had to exercise—as well as the considerable financial burden involved—in achieving his aims.

Meetings with Remarkable Men was first published in New York by Dutton in 1963 with 303 pages and in London by Routledge & Kegan Paul in 1963 with 303 pages. The text has been reissued several times in paperback, most recently in London & New York by Penguin Arkana in 1985.

3. Life Is Real Only Then When “I Am”

A fragmentary work that contains Gurdjieff’s most interior ponderings in All and Everything. It consists of a prologue and introduction that take up almost half of the book; followed by five brief lectures. The final chapter titled “The Inner and Outer World of Man” breaks off in mid-sentence and is, according to John G. Bennett (one of Gurdjieff’s literary executors), the last thing Gurdjieff wrote. Drawing on autobiographical material from his decades of searching as well as from his work with groups in Europe and particularly in America with his student and friend, A. R. Orage, Gurdjieff hints at the practices, struggles and intense suffering that is necessary to realize a representation “of the world existing in reality.”

Life is Real Only Then, When “I Am” was first privately printed with a foreword by Jeanne de Salzmann and a prefatory note by Valentin Anastasieff in New York by Triangle Editions in 1975 with 170 pages. The 2nd edition, which includes ten additional pages from the French 1976 edition, was first privately published in New York by Triangle Editions in 1978 with 177 pages. It was reissued by Routledge & Kegan Paul in 1981, by Dutton in 1982, and most recently in paperback by Penguin Arkana in 1991.

Gurdjieff’s Writings: Supplementary

Views from the Real World: Early Talks in Moscow, Essentuki, Tiflis, Berlin, London, Paris, New York and Chicago As Recollected by His Pupils. Foreword by Jeanne de Salzmann. New York: Dutton, 1973, 284 pages; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973, 284 pages; Abridged with a new introduction, New York: Dutton, 1975, 276 pages; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976, 276 pages, London and New York: Arkana, 1984, 276 pages.

Notes on forty (thirty-nine in the paperback edition) talks Gurdjieff gave between 1914 and 1930. The introduction to the paperback edition indicates that “The Talks have been compared and regrouped with the help of Madame de Hartmann, who from 1917 in Essentuki was present at all these meetings and could thus guarantee their authenticity.” These notes provide a vital record of the fluid, ‘search-demanding,’ approach inherent in the oral tradition Gurdjieff emerged from and maintained. They supplement his writings and provide a glimpse of a teaching that is to be practiced and not merely grasped as information. Also contains the article “Glimpses of the Truth,” the account of a conversation with Gurdjieff, that Ouspensky first read in 1915 and quoted in his In Search of the Miraculous.

In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. By P. D. Ouspensky. New York: Harcourt Brace; 1949, 399 pages, index; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950, 399 pages, index; has been reissued in paperback numerous times.

This precise and vivid record of Gurdjieff’s talks in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Essentuki between 1915 and 1918 was undertaken by P. D. Ouspensky in 1925 with Gurdjieff’s approval. The oldest manuscript dates from 1925 but Ouspensky continued to work on it into the 1930s when it was read to his groups. By his decision, it remained unpublished at his death in 1947, perhaps because he refused to allow publication of any information about ‘the system’ during his lifetime. The virtually completed manuscript was brought to Gurdjieff’s attention by Mme Ouspensky and with his encouragement, published in the autumn of 1949. Although it covers parallel ground in places, it’s lecture and dialogue format affords striking contrast with Gurdjieff’s epic mythologizing in Beelzebub’s Tales.

Film Adaptation

Meetings with Remarkable Men: a film directed by Peter Brook [and Jeanne de Salzmann]. New York: Remar Productions, 1979, [1 hr. 50 min.]; VHS Video release with the variant subtitle: Gurdjieff’s Search for Hidden Knowledge. New York: Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition, 1997, a Parabola Video Release.

Filmed in close collaboration with Jeanne de Salzmann, the film encapsulates the story told in Gurdjieff’s autobiography of his youthful quest throughout the Middle East for contact with ancient wisdom traditions and a definite understanding of the purpose of human life. It ends with an arresting demonstration of Gurdjieff’s Movements, the only authentic demonstration that is publicly available.

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This synopsis is drawn from the author’s Gurdjieff: a Reading Guide which describes Gurdjieff’s writings and some eighty key books about him.
Copyright © 1999 J. Walter Driscoll
This webpage © 1999 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 1999 Issue, Vol. III (1)
Revision: October 1, 2000