Gurdjieff International Review

The Struggle to “Fathom the Gist” of Beelzebub’s Tales

Terry Winter Owens

For over 30 years, I have wanted to write a follow up to the essay on Gurdjieff’s All and Everything, that I wrote in the 1960’s expressly for the University Books Mystic Arts Book Club. Writing now from a different perspective, I want to specially focus on Gurdjieff’s “friendly advice” to the reader and some issues that arose from a consideration of that advice. In the preamble titled “Friendly Advice,” that Gurdjieff inserts before the table of contents to All and Everything, he states: The highest that a man can attain is to be able to do.

I find it necessary on the first page of this book, quite ready for publication, to give the following advice: ‘Read each of my written expositions thrice:

Only then will you be able to count upon forming your own impartial judgment, proper to yourself alone, on my writings. And only then can my hope be actualized that according to your understanding you will obtain the specific benefit for yourself which I anticipate, and which I wish for you with all my being.

Who among students of the Work would not wish for this benefit for themselves? Probably I will not gain anything beneficial or significant from still another overview of Beelzebub’s Tales. But something quite beneficial may be gained from the process of fathoming. What Gurdjieff intended by the verb fathoming is a question worthy of deep consideration and one which inevitably leads to other questions.

It is easy to imagine doctoral theses written on the many and varied themes in All and Everything. In fact in 1990 Anna Terry Challenger at Kent State published the first doctoral thesis on All and Everything, entitled “An Introduction to Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales” and there are sure to eventually be more theses investigating such subjects as the planets, the Archangels, the laws, the descents, the various modes of travel, the sayings of Mullah Nassr Eddin, the etymological roots of the Karatasian words and so on. What riches await these future scholars—riches that should also be plumbed by students of the Work—not simply as an academic or intellectual exercise, but rather as a way to be actively engaged in the process of discovery, as a way of fathoming and, at the same time, submitting our beliefs to the “merciless destruction” that was Gurdjieff’s aim in writing.

For almost a decade a team of committed students, all of whom had read Beelzebub at least three times, joined me in an ongoing effort to study Beelzebub’s Tales, hoping that it would nourish our inner Work. I suspected that Beelzebub’s Tales might be an encrypted road map to the Work, replete with descriptions of fundamental principles, exercises, tasks, and esoteric guidelines for the serious student, material that might not be otherwise available. Perhaps the road map is the treasure that Gurdjieff intended as a specific benefit.

Surely Gurdjieff would employ every viable means for the transmission of his system of ideas, particularly means that would be tamper-proof or less susceptible to distortion by others. The proliferation of nonsensical books on the Enneagram, filled with irrelevant claptrap, is an unhappy example of the degree of degeneration that can take place in only half a century. There are many complex issues regarding the transmission of esoteric ideas which deserve exploration but this is not the place to examine them.

It may not be unreasonable to assume that Gurdjieff intended his writings, particularly Beelzebub’s Tales, to be an objective means for the transmission of his ideas. Without presuming too much about what we can understand of Gurdjieff’s aims, we see that he states unequivocally on the very first page of All and Everything that his aim in writing this book was,

To destroy mercilessly, without any compromises whatsoever, in the mentation and feelings of the reader, the beliefs and views, by centuries rooted in him, about everything existing in the world.

It is also clear that Gurdjieff intended his book to activate specific functions in the reader.

I wish to bring to the knowledge of what is called your ‘pure waking consciousness’ the fact that in the writings following this chapter of warning I shall expound my thoughts intentionally in such sequence and with such ‘logical confrontation’ that the essence of certain real notions may of themselves automatically, so to say, go from this ‘waking consciousness’—which most people in their ignorance mistake for the real consciousness, but which I affirm and experimentally prove is the fictitious one—into what you call the subconscious, which ought to be in my opinion the real human consciousness, and there by themselves mechanically bring about that transformation which should in general proceed in the entirety of a man and give him, from his own conscious mentation, the results he ought to have. (pp. 24-25)

If there is any merit to Gurdjieff’s statements, Beelzebub’s Tales assume an importance far beyond what is generally recognized. Yet some Gurdjieff group leaders, as well as many group members, have not read All and Everything three times as Gurdjieff wished; others confess to only the barest acquaintance, having focused almost exclusively on the writings of Ouspensky and other Gurdjieff students. This upside-down reverence for secondary and tertiary sources is dismaying. It calls to mind the situation Gurdjieff describes in Chapter XII of Beelzebub’s Tales, where a certain writer is universally venerated and all his books are regarded “as full of indisputable truth.”

It is interesting to notice here that if at the present time you ask any being there about this writer, he would know him and of course speak of him as an extraordinary being. But if you were then to ask what he wrote, it would turn out that most of them, if of course they confessed the truth, had never read a single one of his books. All the same they would talk about him, discuss him, and of course splutteringly insist that he was a being with an ‘extraordinary mind’ and phenomenally well acquainted with the psyche of the beings dwelling on the planet Earth.

In Beelzebub’s Tales, Gurdjieff draws a distinction between knowledge and understanding. He maintains that the latter can only come about through a change in Being. Could it mean that the effort to fathom the meaning of his writings is to be deferred until one has achieved a corresponding level of Being? In his “Friendly Advice” to read his book at least three times, Gurdjieff parallels benefits and understanding.

Only then can my hope be actualized that according to your understanding you will obtain the specific benefit for yourself which I anticipate.

My conjecture is that change in Being and the acquisition of understanding are mutually interactive processes (like the Gurdjieffian idea of reciprocal feeding.) Studying Gurdjieff’s writing is a way of accelerating understanding and thereby initiating the growth of understanding and a corresponding change of Being—in a continuously ascending spiral.

As for the question of how Gurdjieff meant for us to go about fathoming, I wondered if fathoming takes place solely by reading and re-reading the book, whether silently or aloud, either by oneself or in groups. Some Gurdjieff group leaders forbid any conversation about or discussion of the book, as though talk could only issue from the most mechanical and unconscious part of oneself. In fairness to that injunction, I allow that perhaps I am incapable of understanding it and that, unbeknownst to me, it may have originated with Gurdjieff himself. Nevertheless, I am concerned about this idea. In the same way, I am troubled by notions that Work can only take place if one’s back is not slumped or if one’s legs are not crossed. What activities and functions, physical, mental and otherwise, can take place concurrently with trying to be awake or in an awakened state? Questions about body language and mental and emotional manifestations also come into sharp focus. These questions are relevant to Work as a whole, not only to studying Beelzebub Tales. Again, it is not practical to explore them here.

The injunction to never discuss the book seemed to conflict with the compelling tone of Gurdjieff’s “Friendly Advice,” and, in forming a study group, we saw ourselves in the position of overriding that admonition. Mindful of the risk of Hasnamussian behavior, we started to meet together to study the book. The first objective was to find an approach to such a study.

I proposed that not knowing what the long sentences and paragraphs were “saying,” was a barrier to knowing what they might mean, leaving aside actual understanding for the time being. For example, it is not always clear what the word “it” in the middle of a paragraph-long sentence refers to. Frequently, sentences have so many clauses and parenthetical ideas that it is difficult to discern the main idea or how the various threads are related. Since Gurdjieff intentionally constructed sentences this way, perhaps the intent was to activate certain functions of mind, feeling and Being, a possibility that we came to have more and more confidence in. But we speculated that such an activation would not preclude or be inhibited by a simultaneous attempt to parse the long sentences and untangle their grammatical and semantic content. We decided to try to paraphrase each and every sentence in the book and put it into simple English, changing word order if necessary, making long sentences into a number of shorter ones and so on. Yes, we felt that it bordered on the sacrilegious but hoped that our efforts to simultaneously engage in inner Work was compensatory.

It turned out to be an enormously time consuming and difficult task. Paraphrasing a single page could take hours. The study group, initially consisting of over 20 people, very quickly dwindled to less than ten but most of them remained faithful to the task for most of a decade. During the week, we worked individually on the same pages and, when we came together, we took turns reading our paraphrases aloud, listening to our voices, comparing notes, and questioning our own and each other’s accuracy. Sometimes a single sentence yielded six or seven different paraphrases, none of them any clearer or more coherent than the original. Many, many times, we found new significance in parenthetical clauses or in asides. More often than not, we came away from our meetings with fresh and inspiring material for practical tasks.

As we read, we saw the need to consult dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases and other reference books. We also worked with the German and French translations, some of us having various degrees of fluency in those languages. We read related material from the writings of Plato, the alchemists—even Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Often, the Science section of The New York Times seemed to carry a news item parallel to our studies. As we worked, we kept in front of us the early pre-publication typescript of Beelzebub’s Tales and found Wim Nyland’s Index to All and Everything to be quite helpful. (Incidentally, Wim Nyland said that Gurdjieff saw and approved of an early version of this Index and asked that it be published along with Beelzebub’s Tales. Sadly, this did not come about. One member made a new index with close to a thousand pages, showing page numbers for both the 1973 and the earlier printing. It was a one-man monumental achievement and an expression of great love for the book, a feeling which we all shared.)

Concerns about translation often came up, particularly when comparing the French, German and English translations and these concerns were renewed when the reworked Viking Arkana translation was made available. We began paraphrasing with the Dutton printing and were still hard at work when in 1992, the Viking Arkana translation was issued. At that point, we began again from the beginning. While the Dutton copy literally fell apart from use (some of us went through two or three copies), our interest in Gurdjieff’s writing and the Work was growing.

Often we were confronted with the knotty question of the extent to which Beelzebub’s Tales are allegorical and symbolic. Most of us (but not all) could agree that certain ideas were not to be taken literally—i.e., the sun neither lights nor heats, the existence of Anulios as a physical entity and the dangers of women cutting their hair, to name only a few—but some, whether due to subjective inclinations or intuitive perception of truth, retained an unyielding attachment to the literal intent of certain passages. The cautious approach, i.e., the premise that it is all symbolic, metaphorical and allegorical was not unanimously acceptable to the group. And surely, if we are submitting our beliefs to merciless destruction, timidity is no refuge.

Nevertheless, we feel that the issue of symbolic vs. literal continues to need careful scrutiny. One can imagine various Gurdjieff sects forming in the 21st century, each adhering to some degree of literal vs. symbolic understanding of Beelzebub’s Tales—the 20% sect, the 50-50 sect. We may not have to wait for two hundred years to begin to witness this. Gurdjieff warns about the perils of understanding things literally when they are not intended that way—but to use Gurdjieff’s warning in regard to his own writings is difficult without more specific guidelines.

On the other hand, the study group kept in the forefront the idea that when Gurdjieff wrote about slugs breeding on the planet Ors, he was speaking directly to each one of us. We tried to examine his criticisms of man in a personal way.

The greatest and most fundamental gain from the study group, in my opinion, was that, to one degree or another, we asked questions, new and important questions that we had never entertained before. This greater ability to question added an unsuspected dimension to our Work and to our lives. That benefit persists although the study group no longer meets. However, some years later, joined by several other people, the study group briefly came together to take on the task of trying to discover what we actually believed in as opposed to what we thought we believed in, or what we believed we believed in. That is, we wanted to understand what beliefs actually fueled our attitudes, behaviors, our thoughts and feelings, not only in so-called ordinary life but also in matters regarding the Work. We probably could not have undertaken this difficult and, for some, uncomfortable exercise without the intense preparation of studying Beelzebub’s Tales.

In the end, my judgment is that some merciless destruction had occurred, also some fathoming of the gist of the meaning of Gurdjieff’s writings as well as the fulfillment of other aims. Our attempt to study the book was a most worthwhile process. In the course of our studies, and sometimes in the most unexpected and difficult passages we found what seemed to be important instructions and guidelines for our Work. Although people asked us to discuss our findings, we refrained, feeling that the process of unearthing them was more important than the content and fearing that we might mislead people by providing interpretation and explanation.

Beelzebub, after all, proposes that suggestibility is one of man’s greatest weaknesses, an idea which itself may or may not be true. But the danger presents itself that once having been told the “meaning” of a particular passage, we may never perceive anything deeper or more accurate nor form that “impartial judgment” which Gurdjieff wishes for us. Explanation may be a barrier rather than an entree. Perhaps one gets a greatly satisfying eureka from explanations—but what is the lasting benefit? Gurdjieff could have presented his ideas in a more easily accessible form. Instead, after re-writing Beelzebub’s Tales, Gurdjieff allegedly told his chief editor, A. R. Orage, “bury the bone deeper.” One may conclude that the struggle to unearth meaning is necessary to the process of understanding.

Copyright © 1998 Terry Winter Owens
This webpage © 1998 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
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Revision: June 1, 2012