Gurdjieff International Review

There’s a Definite Sound

Martin Benson Speaks

Carl Lehmann-Haupt

Originally published in Carl Lehmann-Haupt’s Martin Benson Speaks, New Paltz, NY: Codhill Press, 2011, these excerpts are reprinted here with the publisher’s kind permission.

Martin Benson spoke so often about Aeolian harps that one day, near the end of his life, we built him one. When the wind blew over the strings, it picked out the overtones of each note and made them sing, delicately or stridently, according to the wind. On the day he showed the harp to Mme. de Salzmann, there was a slight, occasional breeze circulating in the trees and it drew a few plangent chords from the harp before dying away. We all waited expectantly but nothing stirred. Madame, growing impatient, began to fan the harp with her coattails. It was a charming gesture that spoke to us all. Once you heard that music, you longed to hear it again.

Mr. Benson was innately musical and he perceived the world and its inhabitants in musical terms. He believed that we humans are capable of being attuned to one another, as the strings of an instrument are. When there is sufficient purity of intent in our work together, a significant sound may be heard. As he worked with us he was listening for that, and contributing to it as well with the intensity of his effort. “There won’t be any sense until you hear that sound,” he says on one of the recordings that were made just before he died. Then, sometimes, right in the middle of things, he would stop, and repeat once more the familiar verses from St. John: “The wind bloweth from whence it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof.” It was his need for a sound like that, one “born of the spirit,” that made him say on the tapes, “I want to hear the icehouse ring like an Aeolian harp.”

The icehouse was his atelier—Madame called it “the magician’s workshop.” When the Foundation bought a large property in Armonk, New York in the early Sixties, Benson laid claim to a ramshackle building that had once been an icehouse, shoring it up and piercing the walls with a slender tree trunk to steady the sagging structure. It was there with his small band of followers that he worked at some of the more extreme crafts: blacksmithing, wood bending, glass blowing, and casting bells. At the heart of all that activity was his obsession with sound: sound you can hear—like a bell ringing or a string set vibrating by the wind—and sound you can’t so much hear as intuit or sense.

When visitors from abroad would come looking for him down at the icehouse he would sometimes conduct a demonstration. One of his people would bring out a small brass bell they’d cast and Mr. Benson would tap it smartly on the rim. Then everyone would listen as the clear ping died out. When the sound was gone, the visitor would be invited to take the edge of the bell between thumb and forefinger. It never failed to astonish. The bell was still vibrating; you could touch the sound you could no longer hear. Then Benson might be moved to say the lines Keats wrote about the sweetness of unheard music.

Martin Benson died in December, 1971. At the reception after the funeral, Jack Moscrop was very excited. Jack was one of Mr. Benson’s icehouse people, and he thought he’d seen something important when he looked into the coffin. “He caught the moment of death,” he declared. He was all keyed up, and he said it again: “I saw it in his face; he caught the moment of death.” I wondered about that afterwards. Was it possible to witness one’s own death? Wouldn’t you have to be alive to do that? Did he mean that Mr. Benson was somehow still alive as he died? I thought of the vibrating bell. Did it mean that if we listened in the way Martin Benson taught we would be able to feel his force and vitality vibrating still, even after the sound of his voice had died out?

It was that force and vitality one noticed first. He was magnetic. Lincoln Kirstein, writing in his autobiography, describes meeting him when he visited the Prieuré in the summer of 1927: “a blond American, solid as a draft horse.”[1] When Benson invited Kirstein to work with him that day, Kirstein felt something light up. “A surge of well-being ... rushed up from somewhere to overwhelm me.”[2] A bit later he adds, “This blessing of limitless capacity I felt at Le Prieuré was not entirely identified with Martin Benson, although he magnetized and focused it.”[3] That was an important distinction: the force that emanated from Mr. Benson came both from and through him, a combination of his own natural exuberance and the force of the Teaching. “The reason you’re in this kind of work,” he once said, in answer to someone’s question, “is that this has more force than you do. Therefore you will be part of it in order to help you gain more force. Once you have accepted this work, you have taken a part of a force that actually does not belong to you. You have taken a part of God’s force. Because this is his job, if you want to know—to pull people together. You have taken a part of this force upon yourself. And forever and ever and ever you are both blessed and cursed.”[4]

~ • ~

Martin Benson was a different kind of teacher and his approach to the Work differed from the more psychological one practiced by some of Gurdjieff’s other pupils. The strength of mind required to hold his own against the sophisticated, Oxford-educated British who had accompanied Ouspensky to the States during the Second World War can only be imagined. “This is not the Gurdjieff Work anymore,” he complained to Mme. de Salzmann. “We should change the name from the Gurdjieff Foundation to the British Ouspensky People in America Foundation.” He didn’t believe in psychological exercises. He didn’t think you could come to a state of attention by closing your eyes in a quiet place at an appointed time. “You all talk about attention,” he said, “but you haven’t got the power to come to a real attention, just by yourself.” He believed that one had to be put on the spot and shocked before one would be able to attend productively. “We’re not capable. We’re not weak, but we’re not capable until there’s a hell of a big shock—a big shock that’ll come and hit us and throw us right off balance, and within that could be the answer.”[5]

~ • ~

Listening to him was like riding a small raft over the rapids. His sentences veered and plunged, but you hung on. You knew you were getting the shocks of an authentic teaching, conveyed in an entirely idiosyncratic way and it didn’t matter if, like me, you were too young and inexperienced to assimilate it on the spot. You might not get the point, but you could hear the greatness and wonder in his voice. The Work he spoke of was no hand-me-down; he had made it his own and he always encouraged his listeners to do the same. You’ve got to “make your own expression,” he insisted, even as he did himself.

Talking in the way he did seemed natural, but by his own account it came hard and late; he only learned to speak freely about the Work late in his life. “For many, many years I was absolutely frozen,” he told us. “I could not talk at all to anybody about the Work.” Whenever he tried to organize his ideas in advance or write out his thoughts, he was so utterly unschooled that he couldn’t do it. And because he was essentially a storyteller, his talk was subject to the temptations of improvised narration—lurching mid-sentence digressions, solecisms, clumsy repetitions and wild leaps. Whatever he thought of he simply added to the mix. Giving his tongue free rein to ramble and veer allowed him to align himself with the shocking scale and power of his understanding. “Knowing isn’t my best force,” he said. “Not knowing, just not knowing (but knowing) is. Whatever I can draw upon, that is where I am. That is my position. The depth of my knowledge is there. It’s stored in a place in my being from where, if I’m honest with the situation, I’ll just talk and let it come out. I don’t care anymore what comes out. It’s not intellectually thought out, or correct.” When he at last found a way to speak, it was because he’d ceased to be concerned with the logical expression of what he was saying. When he turned his attention entirely to the sensation and feel of what he was talking about, his subject could shock him into articulate speech. “[My way] is different,” he would say, “and probably crazier than most people’s, because I’m working on the subject as I’m talking, through myself, and not through one possible center. I’m trying to say these things through my whole self. And that’s why some very good things can happen, and some God-awful things can happen.”[6]

~ • ~

In late November 1970, Mr. Benson took over his wifes groups when she fell ill. One evening her younger group came to the cottage in Mt. Kisco to meet with him, and he spoke to them as follows:

“We will have a short meeting on account of circumstances. I promised to be here, and I am here. I do not want to talk about psychological exercises. I do not wish to talk about psychological things. I will talk in a more tangential way, and a great deal of it you will have to figure out.”

“First I have to get the idea over that the Work consists of many ways; like a wheel with a hub that has many spokes. The center of that hub you would not think was moving by the motion of the outside. The center pinwheel only moves a little bit, but it does move. It is not static. It is the core. In all exercises you will come to this hub, and the spokes are the various ways to the center. There is more than one way to reach the center of your polarity, your very life, but this is our way. This spoke is our way. There are many spokes and the motion is very great on the outside and very small in the center of the wheel. The core of truth is there. You have to seek it later. I have a theory, that by virtue of being born you are pure, you have being—and as civilization creeps in on us it [our being] pours out of us. We say of children, ‘They are growing up,’ but they are losing their purity. I sensed this as a child, way back, about two or three years old. It is a good exercise to go back and remember some incident. Then you lose that. That is why we grow older. As they say, ‘We mature.’ Then we seek something-ness, that something we have lost. We can say that in this work we attempt to block this drainage, this seepage, throughout one’s whole existence, and this is one of the difficult operations of understanding. We attempt to retrieve what we have lost.”[7]

~ • ~

“I see Mr. Gurdjieff sitting on the moon just watching, looking at the whole universe and this earth. And that’s where I put him: looking down on the whole fallacy of mankind, on this earth, and sending various emissaries from various planets to this earth. That’s the way I see the Old Man. I see him sitting on the moon and just watching, watching the whole thing. Because it’s a part of the earth. They go off to various places, and emissaries come to the earth. This is the conclusion I’ve come to regarding him.”[8]

~ • ~

“The one big thing for me about Mr. Gurdjieff was that I believed in him. I had absolute trust and faith in him, because in my search I was looking for someone I could trust, and I came upon it. And when I came upon it, I recognized it enough to believe in it. When he told me, ‘I’ll teach you how to do plumbing,’ I believed him. You know, I followed the principle. He told me, ‘You do the plumbing,’ he said. I said, ‘I know nothing about it.’ He said, ‘I’ll teach you.’ And when he was teaching me he said, ‘It’s like your body; think of your body that has supply (first force), drainage (second force) and ventilation (third force); those three things. Now you have to learn the mechanics.’ Isn’t that wonderful? That’s what I mean when I say I believed in him, so emphatically, no matter what.”[9]

~ • ~

“There is a photograph taken at our wedding, with Mr. Gurdjieff. I haven’t seen it for years. He stands in between us, hanging onto us and laughing like hell. It’s the only picture in the world where you see him laughing. My wife is in a long, long dress from that period, 1934. I want to find that, too.”

“Did I tell you the story of that wedding? We went up with Muriel Draper to find a little church in Stamford—it’s a little white church, Unitarian or Universalist—because Orage was married there...”

“And we decided that the Old Man would be there that week, and we invited about fifteen people—Lincoln Kirstein, who was in charge of the American Ballet, and Muriel of course, and Mrs. Breslow and her mother, Miss Bentley, and Mrs. Yandel who lives in Stamford. She was my great friend. She was a little, sharp woman with black eyes, and she came in and sat right in the front row. As we got ready and walked down the aisle—there was music, the minister was ready—we couldn’t find the Old Man. We didn’t know where he had gone. So we had to wait. And suddenly he just walked in, just came in. He was out looking around. When the minister asked what his relation to us was, he said, ‘I father both.’”[10]

~ • ~

“I had it out with Mme. de Salzmann last summer. I went down and we sat talking... She’s very much interested in what I’m doing with these tones and sounds and expression. And I said, ‘In everything—it doesn’t have to be movements, but in the movement of people you’re close to and working with and everything—if a whole group can make contact, instead of attempting to do the movements correctly and everybody is out of their existence, there’s a definite sound. If a whole group can make contact, there’s a definite sound.’”

“She said, ‘I know exactly what you mean. We started to do the movements for this film, and then I stopped after a week, and I said we’re not getting any place, we’re not doing anything, and I think we won’t do it anymore.’ And then they said, ‘Let’s have a meeting,’ and they sat up all night and talked it all over. The next day, they came in and they were electrified—they hadn’t slept. And I heard the sound. There was a definite sound. Then I knew that we could go ahead and make the film.’”

“I said, ‘Then you know what I’m attempting.’”

“And she said, ‘Oh, absolutely.’”[11]

~ • ~

Carl Lehmann-Haupt is an artist and writer. He is currently preparing a book, The Crazy Thing: Starting over at the beginning Somewhere near the End, for publication. He has been active in the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York for more than 50 years. He met Martin Benson in 1963.

Copyright © 2012 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2012 Issue, Vol. XI (1)
Revision: April 1, 2012


[1] Kirstein, Lincoln, Mosaic: Memoirs, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994, p. 128.

[2] Ibid., p. 139.

[3] Ibid., p. 139.

[4] Lehmann-Haupt, Carl, Martin Benson Speaks, New Paltz, NY: Codhill Press, 2011, pp. 7–10.

[5] Ibid., p. 12.

[6] Ibid., pp. 16–17.

[7] Ibid., pp. 136–137.

[8] Ibid., p. 175.

[9] Ibid., pp. 177–178.

[10] Ibid., pp. 178–179.

[11] Ibid., pp. 246–247.