Gurdjieff International Review

Mr. Nyland’s Index to Beelzebub’s Tales

By Terry Winter Owens

After more than a half century since its conception, the very first Index to All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson is at last emerging from obscurity and making its well-deserved entrée into the literature relating to the Gurdjieff Work.

The loss of knowledge is a recurrent theme in Gurdjieff’s monumental opus. For example, the Boolmarshano, an important document containing objective knowledge, once a valued book on the continent of Atlantis, came to be half-buried in the sand. He recounts many other cases in which ancient knowledge, once transmitted from generation to generation, is now completely forgotten with scant trace of its former existence.

Mr. Nyland

In that context, it is significant that few people know about the first Index. Begun over 50 years ago, and published in mimeographed format, it was developed by Willem Nyland and his groups. For those who have had access to it, it has proven to be an invaluable help for studying Gurdjieff’s teaching.

Although other indexes have since been published and distributed, Mr. Nyland’s Index differs in its fundamental approach to Beelzebub. In its selection of words, phrases, cross-references and annotations, it is to be prized as an externalization of Willem A. Nyland’s deep understanding of, and insights into, Gurdjieff’s writings.

The original mimeographed publication of the 1963–1964 Index did not enjoy wide distribution because, astonishingly enough, there was practically no interest in it outside of the group that produced it. Perhaps that lack of interest could be attributed to the fact that Mr. Nyland, one of the original Trustees of the New York Gurdjieff Foundation, had separated himself from that organization in 1962. Furthermore, Ouspensky’s writing had eclipsed and almost totally obscured Gurdjieff’s writing—as in astronomy, a small celestial body, the moon, can obscure the sun, obliterating the light of that giant. Perhaps such obscuration might be a manifestation of Kundabuffer (reality seen upside-down), allowing people to favor Ouspensky’s reportorial material over authentic source material. The Bible being replaced by Cliffs Notes, so to speak.

Willem Nyland was one of the early and most dedicated of Gurdjieff’s American students, and one of the very few who zealously promoted Gurdjieff’s writings over those of Ouspensky, Bennett and Nicoll. While the latter authors did not write page-turners, the level of concentration and attention required to read their books was trivial in comparison to what was demanded by Beelzebub’s Tales. Each sentence in Beelzebub’s Tales, some a half page long, with many unfamiliar words, parenthetical digressions and baroque grammatical constructions, turned off a lot of people. Nonetheless, Mr. Nyland required that the people in his groups read the book at least three times as prescribed in the Introduction to Beelzebub. This was not universally required then as it is not universally required today.

It is said that Mr. Nyland left instructions that his own writings not be made available to the public during his lifetime or after his death, but there can be little question that both Mr. Nyland, and Gurdjieff himself, intended this Index for publication. When Beelzebub was being prepared for publication, Mr. Nyland spoke to Gurdjieff about his long-time intention to create an index and glossary for the book. Gurdjieff received this idea with excitement and enthusiasm and encouraged Mr. Nyland to follow through. Gurdjieff wanted Mr. Nyland’s proposed Index to be published simultaneously with Beelzebub itself, as a companion volume. Of course, this proved to be unrealistic in light of the amount of time and work that would ultimately prove necessary. Mr. Nyland started to make the Index by himself but he inevitably realized that it was not to be a one-man job. In those days Mr. Nyland conducted five groups a week in New York City, and there were frequent work weekends at Franklin Farms in New Jersey and also at Mr. Nyland’s country home in Brewster, New York. In addition, he had an active professional and family life and many responsibilities at the Gurdjieff Foundation.

Given the magnitude of the project, in 1956 he invited people from his groups to jump-start the Index, and it was then that I became connected with this immense, all-absorbing endeavor. The Index at that point was in an embryonic stage. It wasn’t until mid 1963 that the Index began to be printed and distributed, one letter of the alphabet at a time. Mr. Nyland specifically called this process “publication” and hoped that the Index would be widely read. He speculated that many subsequent runs would be needed to keep up with the demand. Sadly, that demand did not materialize.

Tools we now take for granted—computers and word-processing software with powerful search functions—were not yet available. The electric typewriter and the copy machine were just coming into use but they were expensive and not part of our limited tool chest. We made do with what now would be considered primitive tools—fountain pens, notebooks, manual typewriters, carbon paper, correction fluid and manually-typed stencils that were fed into a hand-cranked mimeograph machine that consumed copious amounts of ink and laid waste to countless reams of paper.

Creating the Index was as much a process as an aim to make a finished product. Mr. Nyland said that it would be desirable if the Index proved useful to the world but that goal was, nevertheless, quite incidental—the focus was on inner work. Mr. Nyland had a genius for harmonizing process and end product and, in this way, taught us invaluable lessons about effort in everyday life. Someone once asked Mr. Nyland if his elegant home in Brewster was an outward manifestation of the inner work of the Orage group, a so-called “conscious edifice.” For years, the Orage group had trekked up to Brewster from New York City every weekend to build it. Construction of the house was a group project led by Orage in the tradition of building projects at the Prieuré. In response to the question about the Brewster house, Mr. Nyland chuckled and said it was an upside-down question, alluding again to Kundabuffer. The significant architectural structure was inward—referring to what people built in themselves as they constructed the Brewster house.

Mr. Nyland espoused a quite literal interpretation of the coating of higher being bodies. Thus, the emphasis of the work on the Index was directed to what would be created in each of us individually to the extent that we engaged in properly conducted inner work while we produced the Index. It was a manifest lesson to all of us who were privileged to be part of this project, showing us a direction for the fusion of inner effort and outer activities as well as the fusion of inner work and material productions. At the center of these fusion processes was the idea of the synthesis of “I” and “It”, a unified entity working in mutual cooperation.

In fact, work on the Index provided a superb means for inner work, asking us to be fully active in all three centers and to be aware of the manifestations of the centers while trying to sound an intentional do. All the while, we were becoming more and more intimately familiar with Gurdjieff’s great opus and open to the magic of its influence. The content of the book itself was an unflagging reminder to try to be present to oneself. Teamwork also called upon us to bear each other’s unpleasant manifestations.

Mr. Nyland exhorted his groups to take part in the work of the Index and said on many occasions that our interest in Beelzebub was a “thermometer” of our inner state and our seriousness about the Work. He said that anyone who was averse to reading Beelzebub was not in the proper frame of mind and heart for inner work. Many times he asked people to evaluate their degree of seriousness with regard to the book, and, if it was not strong, they were urged to voluntarily leave the group.

When I joined the Index team, Mr. Nyland asked me to select a letter of the alphabet, go through the book page by page, and list all occurrences of special words and phrases beginning with that letter. Although most letters were still available for indexing, I selected “O” because of my particular interest in Okidanokh. In 1956 I was an undergraduate student at City University of New York and the following year I was a graduate student in musicology at New York University. In both cases, it was an hour’s subway ride back and forth to school each day and rather than studying for my courses, I used this time (as well as countless hours at home) creating an index for the letter “O.” After “O” I indexed several other letters.

By 1959 the number of people working on the Index had grown to perhaps 10 or more. We met on Monday nights at the Manhattan apartment of one of the Index team members. Some people joined the team more to spend an evening in Mr. Nyland’s presence than to work on the Index. Mr. Nyland was almost always there, and generous in giving us opportunity for private questions and conversation and even, as he called it, “to cry on his shoulder.” Gallons of coffee were brewed in Chemex urns and consumed along with generous servings of chocolate layer cake for which Mr. Nyland had a special fondness.

During these years, people came and went, some staying with the project for a few weeks or a few months, some for a few years. Only a handful of us saw it through from beginning to end. In early 1962, Mr. Nyland appropriated Monday evenings to start an “open group” for people who were only casually interested in the Work. There were simply not enough evenings in the week to schedule the many work activities Mr. Nyland wanted to pursue. A few months later, it became obvious that the open group caused work on the Index to suffer a great decline. Mr. Nyland apologized to us publicly and said he deeply regretted having made the decision to schedule the open group on Monday. So traditional Monday night work on the Index was restored and, having run out of evenings, the “open group” was held on Wednesday at lunchtime. Then in the fall of that year, a number of the people who had been coming regularly to the Monday night Index group started to take Movements classes at the Gurdjieff Foundation.

Mr. Nyland was a great supporter of the Movements. He himself had studied the Movements and held them in highest regard, urging people to participate in this essential form of the Work. But the absence of these people greatly impacted the time it would take to complete the Index. Nevertheless, we continued with unabated enthusiasm to pursue the dual aim of inner work and creation of the Index.

For lack of any superior technology, the lists of words for each letter of the alphabet were transferred from handwritten notebooks to typescript using manual typewriters. Each list was proofread and the page references and cross references were double checked.

This was not to be a simple index. Instead, Mr. Nyland intended what could more appropriately be called a glossary or concordance. He wanted the index to feature the most essential, definitive paragraphs from Beelzebub. Gurdjieff’s style was to present fragments of information, partial definitions and layers of explanations at widely spaced intervals. Mr. Nyland believed that bringing together these related excerpts would help the serious student gain insight into the concepts and laws. In this way, one could parallel the task of Hassein, who was enjoined by Beelzebub to study the laws of World Creation and World Maintenance.

Those of us who had read the book three times—as prescribed by Gurdjieff in his introduction—were asked to select excerpts which we considered to be significant and definitive enough to be included in the Index—resisting the temptation to reproduce text for every Karatasian word or unusual use of a familiar English word or phrase. But it was Mr. Nyland who was the final arbiter on which words and which excerpts would be used and which ones would only be page referenced and/or cross-referenced. In this sense, the Index is a reflection of Mr. Nyland’s deep understanding of this difficult, allegorical material.

Because we had no ready access to copy machines, the procedure for recommending passages to be quoted required that we literally cut the respective passages out of the book and paste them on ‘5 x 8 cards’ with a chapter and page reference noted in pencil along with our initials, so Mr. Nyland would know who made the recommendation. Towards this end, five copies of the book were purchased and a great deal of cutting and pasting took place. It may have looked like mutilation but it was in fact the most expedient way of accomplishing the job. Mr. Nyland himself did a great deal of cutting and pasting, probably more than all of us put together. But he also would unfailingly review our suggestions and either accept or reject them.

Later on, in early 1962 when construction of the huge Music Room in Brewster was sufficiently advanced, work on the Index was also conducted there on weekends. Some of the materials were brought back and forth by car from the apartment in Manhattan so that work on Monday nights could also continue. Although the music room was not completely finished, the large, airy space was more than adequate for work on the Index. Long boards resting on saw horses that could be assembled and disassembled served as work tables. At midday, the work of the Index had to be cleared away so that lunch could be served on these same tables.

A hand-cranked mimeograph machine was purchased and set up on one of these tables atop layers and layers of newspaper to absorb the inevitable ink spills. The mimeograph machine was in wide use then but is now probably only a curiosity suitable for the Smithsonian. It was a mechanical duplicator that produced copies by pressing ink onto paper through openings punched into stencils. The stencils were typed on mechanical typewriters. The impact of the typewriter key made an actual perforation in the stencil through which the ink was supposed to flow. Each stencil was proofread by someone other than the typist. If mistakes were found, the stencil would have to be repaired by applying a foul-smelling, waxy correction fluid to the incorrect letter or letters—or in some cases entire sentences. Then the stencil had to be fed back into the typewriter and the platen accurately aligned so that the re-typing would impact on precisely the right place. When the stencil was ready for duplication, it was placed onto the outside of the mimeograph machine’s circular drum. Ink was applied to the inside surface of the drum with a brush. It had to be just the right consistency, not too viscous, not too thin. Frequently, the copies were either smudged from too much ink flowing through the impact holes or too faint to read because the impact holes did not completely cut through. Sometimes, in the dry winter air, the paper was subject to static electricity and would misfeed. After a day’s run, the drum had to be scrupulously cleaned or the residual ink would harden into an impenetrable patina. The entire mimeograph process was, at best, a messy job, and much paper and ink went the way of all flesh. Since our limited budget would not accommodate a letter press, we accepted the mimeograph machine (even as we cursed it under our breath) and triumphantly made an initial run of 150 Indexes.

When the ink was dry, the pages were collated. The task of collation was not unlike a movements exercise or dance, with an internal and external rhythm. The pages were stacked in numeric order on the long tables and the collators walked from one page to the next assembling a set. Each collated letter was bound with a strip of paper and distributed to the people who had subscribed. Almost everyone in the various Nyland groups had subscribed, paying a token fee to offset the cost of the materials. This money barely covered a tenth of the eventual outlay. The balance was provided by some of us on the Index team.

The first letters off the so-called press in 1963 were K, L, O, W, R and Z —the sequence reflecting nothing more than the fact that we did not go in alphabetical order. All of the other letters had been completely indexed and the typing of the stencils was well underway so that by the end of 1964, all of the letters had been mimeographed, collated and distributed. It was up to each one of us to find an appropriate way to house these various letters, many of us laboriously punching three holes in each sheet and putting them in loose-leaf binders. The complete edition might easily occupy half a bookcase shelf.

At the end of 1963, Mr. Nyland proposed that the first six months of 1964 would be a good time to renew our dedication to studying Beelzebub and working on the Index. Towards the end of 1964, the remainder of the letters were distributed. Many copies of the Index were not purchased. There never was a second run with the mimeograph machine but later, in the 1980s, I had photocopies made for my own group. Mr. Nyland would have been heartened by this. Later on, in the 1990s, the entire Index was typed into a computer.

It is my personal hope that the imperative for Work will be transmitted by the study of Beelzebub’s Tales and that it will bring riches to readers of coming generations.

~ • ~

Terry Winter Owens was a long-time student of Mr. Nyland and a group leader in the New York Foundation for many years. She was also an internationally published composer and pianist. Terry passed away in July 2007 after a long illness.

She wrote this essay in November 2004 to serve as an introduction to the second edition of the index, An Index to Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: Compiled by Willem A. Nyland and His Groups, 2005, Land House Printing: Occidental, California, a two volume paperback, 512p. / 454p.

A third edition was recently published, Index and Study Guide for Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: Compiled by Willem A. Nyland and His Groups, 2010, Land House Printing: Occidental, California, a one volume hardback, 858p. An excerpt of this index is available. Copies of the Index are available from one of our resellers.

The photo of Mr. Nyland is copyright © 1983 Andrew Nevai.

Copyright © 2010 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Revision: September 23, 2022